Repsol Honda phenom Marc Marquez is, as per usual, the early favorite to make it seven world championships in eight tries in 2020. Sure, there are a lot of fast challengers – Yamaha NKT (new kid in town) Fabio Quartararo, Ducati #1 Andrea Dovizioso, Yamaha’s inconsistent Maverick Viñales topping that list – and Marquez is coming off right shoulder surgery. Sadly, the result is likely to be the same. If you’re planning to wager on anyone other than ReMarcAble Marc, best get yourself some odds.
The subtext to the season deserves some exploration. Several high-profile riders are approaching the end of the chain, career-wise. Names like Valentino Rossi, Cal Crutchlow, even Andrea Dovizioso. Jorge Lorenzo has already called it quits (though he’s hanging around as a Yamaha test rider). Likewise, as usual, there is a crop of dynamic young pretenders looking to get in on the big money. Guys like Fabio, the Suzuki duo of Alex Rins and Joan Mir, plus Ducati’s Jack Miller. Now that Marquez is a true legend, mid-career, he will be the target of all these fast movers, young and old. Heading into a contract year, typically a two-year-commitment (unless you’re #93 – more on that later), means plenty of musical chairs. Young guns on the way up versus grizzled vets with surgical scars on the way out. Twenty rounds of grueling travel and high-stakes riding. Hidden agendas. Palace intrigues. No real off-season – always testing, testing, testing.
All of which takes place in a breathtakingly expensive pursuit of second place. And less than that for the two manufacturers, KTM and Aprilia, who have yet to deliver the results envisioned by them and for them a number of years ago. Hope springs eternal for their riders, the Espargaro brothers, Pol (KTM) and Aleix (Aprilia) as both factories are looking to become the next Suzuki alongside Honda, Yamaha and Ducati. Top tier. They appear to have taken another step forward but don’t appear to be there yet.
Marquez wields a heavy-enough bat that he was able to get HRC to sign his little brother Alex, the reigning Moto2 world champion, for the #2 seat on the team. His contract for 2021-22 is already done. He has skills well beyond those of mortal riders, and he loves what he does. He has a powerful motorcycle built to his specifications that only he can ride, as young Alex is about to discover. The world, in 2020, is his oyster. You can cut the tension with a feather.
Management has insisted on a complete MotoGP season preview, despite the likelihood of another Marquez title. I have agreed but am limiting my comments and observations to things about which I’m relatively certain, which, as many of you know, are few and far between. Despite my suspension by FIM, and having been blackballed by Dorna, Motorcycle.com wishes that I continue to submit “racing news.” Beginning now, the deal is I submit articles when there’s real stuff going on. Maybe 15 or 20 columns tops per season. I’m happy, getting out of the October grind. Evans is happy for some relief on his ‘subcontractor’ budget. Now, if someone would just send me to Finland.
You, the reader, however, are stuck, because I still have a few things on my mind.
In an effort to illuminate the fact that MO is getting a great deal from me, I am dividing the 2020 preview into two parts: 1) Most of the Stuff, and 2) The Stuff I Left Out of Part One. This should give you, the reader, the greatest collection of news you can use from the world of MotoGP, even if the organization thereof is rather incoherent. ‘We’ here at MO are tired of the predictable old formats and are seeking ways to bill management without having to do actual research or check specific boxes. Our goal is to become the Jack Kerouac of motorcycle journalism. As an aside, have you ever seen a more schizophrenic use of the editorial “we?”
As of Valentine’s day, subsequent to the Sepang test, we had an idea what’s in store for each of the teams, the easiest way to compare prospects of riders and machines. In keeping with our Dharma Bums approach to 2020, they are presented in no particular order, mostly as an exercise to see if I can remember them all. My most vivid recollection of the recent off-season was how Karel Abraham, after years of loyal, if not productive, service, gets unceremoniously hoisted from his Avintia Ducati seat in favor of downtrodden journeyman Johann Zarco. This change damages the future of the Brno round, as Karel’s dad owns the track and much of the country, and may react poorly to his son, the attorney, getting publicly ejected from his chosen profession, etc. Anyway, here goes.
The good news about this new familial partnership is that dad Julià Márquez can now have both of his usual mental breakdowns simultaneously. And while everyone knows about Marc, young Alex, the unexpected Moto2 champion in 2019 despite several mediocre years there, rode his brother’s coattails to a MotoGP ride on the baddest premier class team in existence. He has been presented with a 2019 RC213V and told to go to work.
It could easily be a long year for Alex, on a steep, painful learning curve while big bro is taking home all the hardware. A long couple of years, now that you mention it. Perhaps it’s genetic, and young Alex takes to the Honda as a fish to water and finds himself some early top tens. It is easy to envision Marc in the role of mentor, as they truly seem to get along. It can’t be easy being Marc Marquez’s little brother, but give Alex credit for standing in there and letting the comparisons shower down while he learns his trade at the top of the world.
One recent bit of news is that Marc will not be 100% when the lights go out in Qatar, rehabbing from surgery on his right shoulder for three months instead of the prescribed six. Not sure why he waited until January to have the surgery. The single, solitary pinpoint of light at the end of the 2020 tunnel is if Marquez gets off to a slow start, not returning to full strength until, say, Jerez. That pinpoint of light would be in the form of an Alien rider, a Viñales or Quartararo, say, getting off to a quick start, winning two or three, and creating a gap to Marquez leaving Argentina. A 60 or 70 point gap. Then, we might have us a horse race.
Of course, none of that is going to happen. But it paints a pretty picture, Marquez finishing third for the year, still in all the podium pictures, but the dream having received a dent due to injury which must, one assumes, be expected in this sport. Having largely escaped serious injury since 2011 in Sepang, one could argue he is overdue. He’ll probably laugh off the shoulder and win the opener and win in Austin and head back home fully healed and ready to rumble again in 2020. #93.
The bad news, for the rest of the riders, is that Marquez’ new contract with HRC is a four year deal, twice as long as a “normal” contract. The somewhat contrived notation that Rossi, for instance, won titles with two different manufacturers, so there, gets flushed willingly by Marquez, who essentially has an entire division of a major international industrial conglomerate devoted to keeping him happy and on top. And no Andrew Luck nonsense for our boy Marc, who still keeps very little titanium in his person. For a guy who pushes the limits of adhesion for fun, he’s had surprisingly few bone-shearing crashes in his career. More hair-raising saves than wrecks.
Perhaps the most intriguing team in the 2020 championship, for a host of reasons. Yamaha has already committed to Viñales and Quartararo for 2021, while Rossi will see how he does in the first seven or eight rounds (which, conveniently, would be around the Mugello) before deciding on his future.
This may turn this season into the nine-time world champion Valentino Rossi’s farewell tour, blowing kisses to legions of yellow-clad screamers amidst clouds of fluorescent yellow smoke, fright wigs in place, wanting to be able to tell their kids and grandkids they saw the great Valentino Rossi during his final appearance at [insert track name here]. Rossi, on an improved Yamaha, settling for top-tens during what could be his last season, which should have probably been 2017.
Anyway, Rossi will be an absolute marketing machine in 2020 before taking over a MotoGP slot and going after more championships as an owner/operator. Some of the luster has come off his ranch, as a number of his fast young protégés have failed to launch in Moto2; for a while there it seemed like most of the young fast movers were all coming through Rossi’s academy. Rossi will not be a factor in the 2020 championship. He will, however, factor positively into the bottom line at Dorna, which will ride him hard this year. For me, the notion that he would accept a contract with a satellite team for 2021, even with Yamaha, is unfortunate, since doing so would make him just another top ten rider. Not good. Stop at the top.
Maverick Viñales, once considered championship material, now considered by most to be contender material, recently signed for 2021-22 with Yamaha, positioning himself as the unquestioned #1 rider on what was once the best bike in the business, pre-Marquez. The 2020 M1 has impressed management enough to sign Viñales to a new deal, confident he will be able to compete for a title on the latest iteration. Maverick Viñales will battle for second place this year – you heard it here first.
Early rumblings from Petrucci suggest the 2020 Desmosedici has surrendered the advantage it enjoyed as recently as last year on tracks with long straights, lowering expectations. He turned in a credible performance at the Sepang test while Dovizioso dawdled in the teens, just not really into it. Dovizioso, who entertained dreams of world championships as recently as three years ago, has probably reached the conclusion shared by many others that this is not going to happen. He will settle for the money, the notoriety, the top-five finishes, the celebrity. Not a bad way to earn a living. Capable of scoring a win here or there.
Danilo Petrucci is, to put it bluntly, too normal-sized to win a title in MotoGP. He regularly rides the wheels off his Ducati only to finish seventh, the victim of rear spin and tire wear. Seems like every team owner wants to get rid of him, and that Gigi was shopping his seat to Viñales this past winter. Dude came from nothing, riding an Ioda-Suter in 2013, to within fractions of a second of fame and glory, a story shared by other riders in The Marquez Era. Paging Dani Pedrosa. Now, his size still a factor, he contends, especially at friendly tracks, such as Mugello, where he recorded his first career premier class win last year. I find myself pulling for Danilo; not sure why. Local boy makes good, perhaps. They are going to take away his factory seat next year, pretty sure. Very Darwinian around here.
So, I figure Dovizioso fourth for the season, Petrucci eighth. Does that constitute a successful season for Ducati Corse? I think not. I think the racing division needs to ask itself some serious questions about the bike and the riders. They do not appear destined to factor in the championship to any great extent. And a hypothetical 2021 team of Jack Miller and Pecco Bagnaia would not be expected to threaten Marquez.
The 2020 Suzuki team, one of the few outfits without a satellite team, does have itself a young pair of badass riders. As has been the story ever since the factory returned to MotoGP in 2015, the Suzuki GSX-RR handles like a dream but still lacks sufficient top-end to compete for the full-season podium. These two guys are IMO prime candidates to switch teams heading into 2021, as they may both believe their careers are being stifled by the hardware. Doing so may be the answer to their dreams or the stuff of nightmares. Paging El Gato.
Rins, beginning his fourth premier class season, has shown steady progress, going from 16th to 5th to 4th last season, certainly capable of a top three finish as long as the creek don’t rise. Smooth and fast, he continues to make unforced errors in races that cramp his overall results. In between crashes, he is a consistent top four threat, and had his first two career wins last year.
Mir, a blur in Moto3, a fast learner in Moto2, enjoyed his rookie season enough to place 12th for the year with 92 points, three DNFs and two DNS. His second time around should be majorly improved; he was truly remarkable in Moto3 and has that same extra something that #93 has. Cat quickness. An internal gyroscope turning high RPMs. Rins, I believe, will enter the Alien ranks within three years. Just probably not on a Suzuki.
Without wishing to get ahead of ourselves, we need to keep one eye on the teams that will have open seats at the end of the 2020 season. Not the factory Honda or Yamaha teams. Petronas Yamaha will have at least one. Suzuki may have two, as could Ducati. KTM and Aprilia, almost certainly, depending upon how the year goes. Riders seeking greener pastures in 2021 will not likely find them on the top two teams.
Check back here on Motorcycle.com next week for Part 2 of Bruce’s 2020 MotoGP season preview.