#ValenciaGP The VROOM Blog: Franky wins a spectacular battle as Joan wins the war

 In MotoGP, News

If we had been asked early in this season about who the Champion would be I don’t think there are too many of us who would’ve expected a Champion to be crowned before the final round of this outstanding MotoGP season, and I’m sure that even less of us would’ve predicted that the champion would be Suzuki’s Joan Mir. I don’t say that in a disrespectful way – after the first 3 rounds Mir had recorded two DNFs and a 5th place.

Before we get into talking about the Valencia GP and the crowning of Joan Mir as Champion, there was quite a lot of news from the paddock over the course of the weekend. With the paddock still coming to terms with the news that Andrea Iannone had been hit with an increased ban of 4 years for illegal use of anabolic steroids (which he still refutes), Andrea Dovizioso and Cal Crutchlow dropped some bombs of their own. Okay, that might be a little dramatic – both of their announcements had been rumoured, but they were still big news.

We’ll start with Dovizioso – he took to his Instagram account to announce that he will not be racing in MotoGP in 2021. His statement said that he had received offers from several teams to work as a test rider within the paddock and though grateful for the offers, he had declined them. He said that he has ‘an immense passion for racing’ and that he hopes to return to the paddock as soon as he finds a project ‘driven by the same passion and ambition’ that he has, and ‘within an organisation that shares my same objectives, values and working methods.’

Dovizioso said that he has ‘decided to not to make any commitments and to remain free from formal agreements for now.’ For now caught many people’s attention – could this mean that should a rider be unable to compete at some point next season that Dovi could jump back into action? Dovi was asked about this across the weekend and he did say that if he were asked he would be ready, but that didn’t mean that he would definitely say yes…

Cal Crutchlow will also not be on the grid next season. Yamaha have announced that Cal will take over from Jorge Lorenzo as test rider for 2021, and that he will have the opportunity for wildcard rides (if they are back next season – they were cancelled this year due to coronavirus protocols) and replacement rides should one of the Yamaha riders have to miss any races due to illness or injury.

Crutchlow has been in the MotoGP paddock for 10 years now, and he said he felt that the time was right to make a change – for himself, for his family, and for his body. Crutchlow and Yamaha go way back – he won the World Supersport Championship with them back in 2009 before stepping up to WorldSBK, scoring 10 podiums (including 3 wins) before making the jump up to MotoGP with the Monster Energy Yamaha Tech3 squad for 3 years.

Yamaha believe this along with his experience with MotoGP rivals Ducati (1 season) and Honda (6 seasons) make him an ideal rider to test and develop the current M1 Yamaha. Yamaha’s statement included a reference to Cal’s wealth of experience and his ‘honesty and no-nonsense approach’ which they stated would ‘surely benefit us as we strive to improve’.

Following on from the announcement that Cal would be replacing Jorge Lorenzo as test rider for next season, there was much talk on social media about the change. Lorenzo himself waded into the debate by sharing a tweet which said that Yamaha not using him as a five time world champion to their advantage is like striking gold but ignoring it to look for coal. Not only did Jorge share the tweet, he added his own comment stating ‘Correct. It’s like exchanging gold for bronze…’

Now I’m not Crutchlow’s biggest fan but even I feel this is harsh. Yes, Jorge is a 5 times World Champion, and yes his testing programme was largely disrupted by the pandemic this season, but he was way off the pace in the Portimão test and he doesn’t appear to be hugely committed or to have kept himself ‘race-fit’ – he wasn’t considered as a replacement when Rossi was out due to COVID-19. He may not be a multiple world champion, but you absolutely cannot fault Cal Crutchlow’s dedication to this sport. I reckon he will do well as a test rider for Yamaha – he is still fast when he is fully fit – and love him or hate him, race weekends won’t be the same without his special brand of honesty!

The news last week that Andrea Iannone’s ban had been increased meant confirmation that there is one remaining seat in the paddock for 2021. There has been much speculation about who might fill the seat should it become available – Bradley Smith had been on the bike this season but was replaced for the final 3 rounds by Savadori – and the speculation has hit fever pitch given the news that the seat is definitely available.
Aprilia CEO Massimo Rivola – who said in an interview with BT Sport that he didn’t understand how or why Iannone’s ban had been increased – wouldn’t commit to giving any names, but did say that riders from Moto2 and WorldSBK are being considered for the ride. He said that Dovi had been their number one choice and that they had spoken with Crutchlow, but that both riders had ruled themselves out. It speaks volumes to me that riders of Dovi and Cal’s level would rather sit out or take a test role than race that Aprilia.

Rivola when pressed did say that Bradley Smith remains in the frame for next season, but refused to name any other names. Several names from Moto2 have been mentioned over the weekend including Remy Gardner, Marco Bezzecchi, Aron Canet and Fabio Di Giannantonio. Personally, I wouldn’t touch the ride with a barge pole. It hasn’t done any of its recent former occupants – Sam Lowes and Scott Redding in particular – any good at all. The four Moto2 riders being mentioned are all set with solid Moto2 rides for next season – they’ll have the chance to run at the front of Moto2 instead of mid-pack or worse on an Aprilia in MotoGP.

One name that seems to be cropping up more and more is Chaz Davies. Chaz is currently without a ride having been replaced in WorldSBK by Michael Ruben Rinaldi and the MotoGP grid will be without a Brit next season following Cal’s departure. I’m not sure I’d like to see Chaz take the ride – I’m a big fan of his and I wouldn’t want to see him on what seems to be such an uncompetitive bike. If he does take the ride hopefully he’ll prove me wrong and go like the clappers!

This weekend would see a few riders reach GP start milestones – both Alex Rins and Danilo Petrucci have reached 150 GP starts while Moto2 rider Thomas Lüthi started his 300th GP. The 2005 125cc World Champion became only the fourth rider to reach such a milestone, behind only Valentino Rossi (413), Loris Capirossi (328) and Andrea Dovizioso (228).

With unexpected rainfall on Saturday morning, things were looking a little sketchy for some of the title contenders with Mir and Quartararo facing the prospect of Q1 if they couldn’t improve their times in FP3. As it turned out, Mir did improve enough to go straight through to Q2 along with Morbidelli, but Quartararo and Rins would have to go in Q1.

Q1 saw an awful crash for Alex Marquez who high sided from his Honda and landed heavily. Amazingly after a few moments he was able to get up and walk away before returning to the garage and going back out for the remainder of the session! He did later take a trip to hospital, but was declared fit to continue with the weekend. It was Brad Binder – who showed fantastic reactions not to hit either Alex Marquez or his bike – and Fabio Quartararo who progressed through to Q2, leaving Rins to start 14th on the grid.

Q2 saw – shockingly – Aleix Espargaro spending most of the session hooked on the back of faster riders, as Franky Morbidelli took pole position ahead of Jack Miller and Takaaki Nakagami. Quartararo and Mir qualified 11th and 12th respectively – which according to some was a disaster for Mir’s chances of taking the title this weekend! Come on, it’s not like he usually qualifies on the front row…

What it did mean though was that 3 of the four men who were still in with a chance of winning the championship would be starting from the 4th and 5th rows of the grid – anything could happen! While all of the focus this weekend had been on the top 3 in the championship – Mir, Rins and Quartararo – it was 4th place man Morbidelli who was quietly but consistently working away and putting in fast times in every session. This could turn out to be a very interesting race – would we see a 10th different winner this season? Could Joan Mir wrap up the championship or would it rumble on to the season finale?

The weather was thankfully dry when race time arrived on Sunday, and as the lights went out it was Miller who briefly took the holeshot before running wide and allowing Franky Morbidelli to take over the race lead as his teammate Quartararo flew wide and found himself last. As the first lap came to an end, it was Franky who was leading the way from Miller and Pol Espargaro with championship contenders Rins, Mir and Quartararo sitting in 7th, 10th and 18th.

By lap 6, Mir had closed down Aleix Espargaro and was looking eager to pass the Aprilia man as Johann Zarco crashed at turn 1, ending his race. Out front, Franky had pulled a lead of 0.8 seconds over Jack Miller and Pol Espargaro while Fabio who had made up some places, had dropped back down to 18th before his race – and his championship challenge – ended in the gravel following a crash on lap 9.
Despite a track limits warning, Takaaki Nakagami was making progress and was through on Miguel Oliveira for 4th, closely followed through by Alex Rins. Rins’ teammate Mir finally made it past Aleix Espargaro at the last corner on lap 11, and Aleix soon found himself being hounded by Dovizioso.

As Franky increased his lead to just over a second, Nakagami was closing in on Pol for that podium that has alluded him for so long, and on lap 19 he took his chance – he tried to pass Pol and the unthinkable happened. He crashed. Pol did a great job of avoiding Taka as he slid out of the race having got his Honda most of the way past the KTM.

The gap at the front was starting to come down, and pretty soon we saw Jack Miller back with Franky Morbidelli. As the final lap started, Mir was in 7th which was good enough for him to take the championship even if Franky went on to win the race. It was tense, and while I wanted to spend the final lap watching the tiny box of on board footage from the champion-elect I couldn’t take my eyes off the battle that had erupted between Franky and Jack for the win.

They swapped places back and forth and as they reached the final corner Franky had the edge, but would Jack go for a lunge to pass the Italian? He just wasn’t quite close enough – it was going to come down to the drag to line and surely that would favour Jack and his Ducati power. Somehow Franky held on and took the win from Jack by 0.093 seconds after a fantastic last lap battle. Pol Espargaro rounded out the podium – his 5th of the season, and Alex Rins finished a strong race in 4th having made up 10 places.

But all eyes were on the man in 7th. Joan Mir crossed the line in 7th place, just ahead of Dovi, to take the 2020 MotoGP Championship in only his second season (and 30th race) in the premier class. Joan Mir became the first Suzuki rider to secure the championship since Kenny Roberts Jr in 2000, and he does so in what is Suzuki’s 100th anniversary year becoming their 6th premier class World Champion alongside Barry Sheen, Marco Lucchinelli, Franco Uncini, Kevin Schwantz and Kenny Roberts Jr. Mir also becomes the first Moto3 World Champion to also take the MotoGP crown.

What has already been an incredible season for Suzuki can become even better in Portimão should the results go their way. They have already secured the rider and team championships but can take the ‘triple crown’ if they beat Ducati and Yamaha to the constructor’s championship.

I know that I have said it before, but Joan Mir is a class act. He proved it again in his first interview as World Champion; he was barely off his bike when he was asked about his feelings and how he would be celebrating the championship win. Modest as ever, Mir responded by saying that he didn’t have the words to describe how he felt at that moment, and that he would start to say thank you to everyone that has helped him but that he would never finish. He did manage to say that he was ‘super happy’ and that ‘the most important thing is to enjoy the season that we did’. He said he would celebrate, but that ‘we have to be responsible’ because ‘people are dying’.

I have to say I too was super happy with the results this weekend – Mir wrapped up the title and Franky won the race. Both of these guys have really shown themselves to be not only great racers, but fantastic human beings.

Talking of Franky – it was so great to see both Jack and Franky say how much they had enjoyed that last lap battle with Franky telling Simon Crafar in parc ferme that it had been ‘a very clean and sporting fight.’ Franky now sits second in the championship 4 points ahead of Alex Rins with Maverick Viñales a further 11 points back. Fabio Quartararo now sits 5th ahead of Andrea Dovizioso and Pol Espargaro. Everyone from Franky down to Pol in 7th are still within a mathematical chance of securing second in the championship next time out with 20 points covering them all.

Next time out of course is the season finale at Portimão and while I’m sad that the season is ending, I cannot wait to see the spectacle of MotoGP at the Algarve circuit. It’s like two of my favourite things coming together – MotoGP and the Algarve!

We will see the return of Mika Kallio for the final round of the season as he steps in for Iker Lecuona who will miss the action due to a positive COVID-19 test. While it’s really unlucky for Iker to miss out, I’m looking forward to seeing Mika Kallio back in action.

While the MotoGP champion is decided, we know that the battle for 2nd place will be a good one and we still have the matter of the Moto2 and Moto3 world champions to be decided too. In Moto3 – Albert Arenas heads to Portugal with an 8 point lead over Ai Ogura, with Tony Arbolino a further 3 points back.

In Moto2 it’s Enea Bastianini who leads Sam Lowes by 14 points following Sam’s heroic ride with a hideous looking hand injury in Valencia. Sky VR46 duo Luca Marini and Marco Bezzecchi are 18 and 23 points behind Bastianini so are both still in with a shot of the title too.

We are definitely in for some nail biting races in Portimão as the season comes to a close, and I for one am really looking forward to it!

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