#EuropeanGP The VROOM Blog: Joyous Joan finally secures his first win

 In MotoGP, News

I think I can safely say that 2020 really is the MotoGP season that just keeps giving. We’ve had drama, we’ve had plenty of race winners, we’ve had brand new race winners and we still have two rounds to go.

After a weekend off, the paddock reconvened in Valencia for the first race of the final triple header of the season which will see two races at Valencia before a much anticipated final round at the Portimão circuit in the Algarve, Portugal.

Having missed the previous two rounds following a positive COVID-19 test, Valentino Rossi was hopeful of a return to action this weekend, but would have to produce two consecutive negative tests before being allowed to return to the paddock. Following a positive test on Tuesday, it was announced by Yamaha that should Rossi fail to return the required test results WorldSBK star Garrett Gerloff will get the opportunity to ride the M1. I have to say that at first I was a little surprised by the choice of rider – I mean him no disrespect but I’d have thought that when picking from the WorldSBK paddock first choices might have been Toprak Razgatlioğlu or Michael van der Mark. Then I remembered that Toprak is a Red Bull athlete and I can’t imagine that he would be allowed to ride the Monster Energy sponsored Yamaha! Van Der Mark is moving on to BMW next season, so I’d think that would rule him out too.

Gerloff however had proved himself to be talented across his rookie season on the world scene. He came across from the Moto America paddock having finished 3rd in the championship in 2019 and with two supersport championships under his belt. I really felt that Gerloff shone when the WorldSBK races took place at circuits where there was a level playing field so to speak. Both Barcelona and Estoril rounds this year provided ‘new’ tracks for the majority of the paddock and Gerloff scored 3 podiums over the course of those weekends.

MotoGP is a big difference to superbike racing and often we see riders struggle against those who have come through the GP route. Gerloff gave a solid account of himself on The Doctor’s bike, finishing both sessions on Friday in 16th and 19th – although he had been as high as 5th at one point – and less than 1.6 seconds off the pace.

Rossi returned two negative tests and was allowed to return to the paddock on Friday afternoon, marking the end of Gerloff’s weekend. I don’t think we’ve seen the last of him in this paddock though.

Iker Lecuona would be missing this weekend as his brother (who is also his assistant) has tested positive for COVID-19 and Andorran guidelines mean that Lecuona must self-isolate due to close contact with a positive case.

The provisional calendar for 2021 was released over the weekend, and takes a more familiar format than this season has – whether that remains the case though is a big question mark in the current climate! There are currently 19 circuits on the calendar with a 20th still to be decided – Portimão, Indonesia and Russia are on a ‘reserve’ list.

Should the calendar stay as it is we will see the usual opening race of the season in Qatar at the end of March, before rounds in Argentina and the Circuit of the Americas in April. Then we will see the return to Europe with Jerez, Le Mans and Mugello all scheduled for May, before June brings rounds at Catalunya, Sachsenring and Assen. Currently the only race in July is to take place in Finland, although that is subject to homologation. There is a round to be decided after Finland, and then August should see the Red Bull Ring followed by the British GP at Silverstone, with Aragon and Misano taking place in September. October will see the ‘fly-away’ races at Chang International Circuit, Phillip Island and Sepang before a return to Europe for the final round in Valencia on the 14th of November.

I think it’s fair to say that as far as drama goes this season, the majority of it has been at Ducati and Honda, but this weekend we saw Yamaha swing into the lead of the drama leagues and out of the lead of the constructors and teams’ championships. Yamaha have been penalised “due to an internal oversight” which saw them failing to “respect the protocol which requires them to obtain unanimous approval from MSMA for technical changes.”

In light of this breach of protocol, Yamaha were docked 50 World Championship Constructor points (double the points won whilst not respecting the protocol), while the Monster Energy and Petronas Yamaha teams have been docked 20 and 37 points respectively (the points earned whilst not respecting the protocol).

I’m not all that technically minded, but I listened to Lin Jarvis – Managing Director of Yamaha Motor Racing – explain the situation to Suzi Perry and from what I can gather they used valves from two different manufacturers, but with the same specification and apparently no mechanical advantage. The lack of mechanical advantage is presumably why the teams and the factory were penalised, but not the Yamaha riders which would have had a massive impact on the outcome of the 2020 championship.

There has been lots of talk about whether or not the riders should have been penalised too, and whether if one of them goes on to win the championship it will be tainted. Honestly I don’t enough about the technical ins and outs to comment on that, but if Race Direction have decided not to penalise the riders then I have to assume that they haven’t had any advantage…

Yamaha’s woes continued when Maverick Viñales’ team had to put a 6th engine into his bike this weekend, passing the limit of 5 for this season and earning an automatic penalty of a pit lane start for this race. It also transpired on Friday afternoon that a member of Viñales’ team had tested positive for COVID-19 (Yamaha do extra testing over the race weekends) and returned home. This meant that 4 other members of his team – including team boss Massimo Meregalli – have had to go into isolation at the team hotel. Maverick himself was deemed okay to continue following a negative test and confirmation that he hadn’t been in close contact of the positive case without wearing appropriate PPE.

It was clear that Valentino was back in the paddock over the weekend as Saturday saw a trifecta of announcements for VR46 Academy riders. Firstly, Niccolò Antonelli was confirmed with the Esponsorama Moto3 team for 2021, before it was finally confirmed that Luca Marini will step up to MotoGP with the Esponsorama team but with backing from his current Sky Racing Team. The Esponsorama team also confirmed that Bastianini will join them for 2021 – this was already widely expected as he had been confirmed to ride with Ducati, but hadn’t been officially confirmed in which team. Finally the Academy confirmed that current Moto3 Sky Racing Team VR46 rider Celestino Vietti would take Marini’s place in the Moto2 team.

These confirmations at the Esponsorama team also mean that Tito Rabat is now officially without a ride in the MotoGP series for 2021. It will be interesting to see where he goes next – paddock rumour apparently has him talking with Barni Ducati in WorldSBK, but they are confirmed to be talking to Loris Baz at the moment too and are currently a one rider team…

On track, it was Johann Zarco and Miguel Oliveira who progressed through from Q1 to Q2 which saw Pol Espargaro take pole position from Alex Rins and Takaaki Nakagami. Championship leader Joan Mir qualified in 5th with main rivals Quartararo and Morbidelli in 11th and 8th , and Maverick Viñales starting from pit lane following his penalty.

Talking of penalties, Aleix Espargaro was docked 3 grid places for getting in Morbidelli’s way during Q2 and Brad Binder will have to take a long lap penalty for irresponsible riding in the last Aragon race, where he crashed and took Miller with him.

I was really pleased before the race to hear Suzuki team boss Davide Brivio saying that his riders are free to race. He just asks that they respect each other on track and that in relation to team orders he said “we don’t like these things.” Good man.

On the subject of good men, Joan Mir has to be one of the best. On Saturday afternoon while talking about the ‘pressure’ of leading the Championship, he was quoted as saying:

“Pressure? Pressure is what is happening with the coronavirus or people who cannot pay the rent… I am competing for a MotoGP title and if it goes well, it will go very well, and if it ends badly then it will also go well for me. There are many people who are having a worse time.”

Much like Franky Morbidelli with his Spike Lee helmet at Misano, it’s nice to see some perspective and compassion from these guys – they know that at the end of the day they are in a very privileged position with a job that they love.

Other than the morning warm up, the race was the first time this weekend that the riders would be facing a dry track. As the lights went out, it was Pol who made the best start and had the holeshot into turn 1, closely followed by Alex Rins, Nakagami and Mir. Turn 8 of the first lap saw Aleix Espargaro and Fabio Quartararo crash, with championship contender Quartararo able to remount in last place behind Viñales who had started from pit lane. There was no contact between the two; they simply went down in the same corner.

By lap 2, Mir had made his way past Nakagami and into a podium position, and he was quickly all over the back of Pol Espargaro when Rins demoted the KTM rider to second. The end of lap 3 saw Lorenzo Savadori – riding in place of Bradley Smith – crash and remount. Bradley did make me laugh when he posted a photo of himself on Instagram with the caption “head scratcher” – I of course wouldn’t like to presume that this post was a dig at Aprilia who had suddenly replaced him for the final 3 rounds of the season, but at the same time that’s what I took it as!

Mir passed Pol for second on the fourth lap of the race, and Valentino Rossi had to retire from the race on lap 5. Pecco and Cal both ended their races in the gravel trap on lap 6. Maverick Viñales, who at one point had been 15 seconds behind Tito Rabat, had cut the gap to 5 seconds and was up to 15th place, as Miller moved through on Morbidelli for 7th place. Franky would lose another 2 places a few laps later as both Alex Marquez and Dovizioso passed him.

Maverick had cut the gap to Rabat to 0.4 seconds before Rabat retired from the race. Back at the front, Rins, Mir and Pol Espargaro had pulled a gap of 1.9 seconds over Nakagami, Oliveira, Zarco and Miller. On lap 17 Alex Rins made his first mistake of the race and his teammate took full advantage in passing him and taking the lead. Could Mir finally win a race this season?

As Mir continued a ridiculous run of consistent lap times out in front of his teammate, his closest rivals in the championship – Morbidelli, Viñales and Quartararo – were back in 10th, 14th and 15th respectively.

Brad Binder meanwhile was busy setting the fastest lap of the race on lap 23, and one lap later Dovizioso passed Alex Marquez with a slightly questionable move, and Alex crashed out of the second race in a row.

It was Joan Mir who won the battle of the Suzuki riders – and his first MotoGP race! He was followed across the line by teammate Alex Rins and Pol Espargaro. Takaaki Nakagami was 4th and first independent rider, earning himself a slot in parc ferme.

Brad Binder crossed the line in 7th position and is now 9 points ahead of Alex Marquez in the battle of the rookies – this one could go down to the wire!

There has been plenty of history made at Suzuki this season – first double podium since 2007, first time leading the championship since 2000 – and now Mir and Rins have provided Suzuki with their first 1-2 finish since 1982 when Randy Mamola and Virginio Ferrari were on the top two steps at Hockenheim.

Joan Mir is now 37 points clear of both Fabio Quartararo and Alex Rins, meaning that he can take the MotoGP Championship with a podium next weekend regardless of where anyone else finishes. Who’d have thought we would be looking at potentially arriving at the final round with the Champion already crowned? This season has been so tight that I really did think it would be a nail biting finish at Portimão – and it might still be, but with the consistency Mir has shown this season I wouldn’t bet against him getting the job done next weekend.

I’m sure I’ve said it before, but I’m a terrible race fan – I don’t have one particular favourite this season, but I do really like a lot of the riders in the paddock! That said though, I would like to see Mir take the Championship this year. He certainly deserves it. He may have had a rocky start to the season, but since Austria he has been one of the most consistent riders on the grid notching up 7 podiums including his first win since his Moto3 Championship winning season in 2017. Many have questioned whether Mir would be a worthy Champion should he win the Championship having not won a race all season, but it seems that these people have forgotten that it’s the points total that counts, not the number of race wins. They’ll all have piped down now that he’s won one though!

Just as I had sent this off to the boss man to be checked, there were two pieces of breaking news.

It has been confirmed that Marc Marquez will sit out the rest of the season. Following evaluation of his arm and talks with his team and his doctors, the decision has been made that the best option is to continue with the recovery process and return next year. Sounds like a solid plan to me – there is no point in risking all the progress he has made for the sake of two races. Stefan Bradl will ride alongside Alex Marquez for the final two rounds.

There has also been a decision made regarding Andrea Iannone’s doping ban. He had appealed against his 18 month ban from competition, while WADA (World Anti-Doping Agency) had appealed for a longer ban to be imposed. It seems WADA presented the stronger case – Andrea Iannone has now been given a 4 year ban from competition. I bet Aprilia’s phone is ringing off the hook today!

Next weekend sees another race in Valencia – will we see our 2020 MotoGP Champion crowned or will we have to wait until Portimão? Watch this space…

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