After taking a look at the factory teams from Honda, Yamaha, Ducati and Suzuki in Part One, Bruce Allen continues his preview of the 2020 MotoGP season with a look at the Aprilia and KTM factory teams plus the satellite teams.
It’s spring, and the swallows of optimism return to the Capistrano of the MotoGP grid. The best thing about the preseason is that everybody’s undefeated; unbounded hope and ridiculous projections are the order of the day. This extends to the heretofore downtrodden factory Aprilia entry. To say the 2020 version of the RS-GP is an improvement over the 2019 version is to not say much. But to hear Aleix Esparagaro tell it, the new bike is a burner, one upon which he would be a consistent podium threat were the season to start today. Isn’t that adorable?
Allegations of PED use by #2 Andrea Iannone are still unsettled at this writing, but it looks like the Italian will be drawing some kind of suspension, as if things couldn’t possibly get worse for the team. Iannone has protested his innocence while the attorneys did everything possible to get his status confirmed before the Qatar test. Didn’t. I would love it if the bike were suddenly fast; good for all concerned. Either way, 2020 appears to be a pivotal year for Aprilia in MotoGP. We would like to see them stick around.
The odd couple. The grizzled, acerbic Brit we’ve known for so long alongside the calm Asian youngster coming off surgery that ended his season last year. Still recovering, still throwing it out there. Owned, lock stock and barrel, by HRC, who sees him as the Next Great Japanese Rider, one of which they’re in desperate need. Land of the Rising Sun and all that. No telling if Nakagami is that rider for the long haul, but he is for now, and can expect a slow start to the season. Last year, as a sophomore, he finished 13th, just behind Joan Mir, with two DNFs and the three DNS to end the season after his brutal off at Motegi, in front of the suits.
Cal Crutchlow, once again, must accept the fact that his bike was not designed around him, but around Marc Marquez, and that he’ll never be as fast as Marquez despite “being on the identical bike,” which is true but misleading. Beyond that fact, he did an ankle, like, two years ago and it’s still messed up, plus he’s getting old. His gait, when he gets as old as me, will resemble three-time Oscar winner Walter Brennan, Grandpa McCoy on The Real McCoys, a TV sitcom from back when men were men and women were glad of it, as my friend Joe observes.
Cal carries a lot of titanium and is old for his age. This should be his last year in MotoGP, unless he wishes to take a step backwards with a lesser team. As devoted to his family as he appears, I expect he will call it a career, one which might have been different if only blah blah blah. He had a couple of premier class wins in 2016 and a number of others since that slipped away. He will have trouble keeping it in the top ten in 2020 and will need to avoid the six retirements he endured last year.
So, Honda’s satellite team will have trouble putting either rider in the top ten for the season. 2021 appears to bear the promise of change in the ranks.
This is about one manufacturer and two teams. The highly directive Austrians running the show see no reason they should not become the top manufacturer in MotoGP and Moto3. The riders, writers and critics, however, see oodles of reasons they will not soon displace Honda from the top of the heap. This infuriates the Austrians, who, in turn, devote yet more budget to their project, raising expectations and putting enormous pressure on the riders.
So, as most of you know, the riders on the #1 Red Bull team will be veteran little brother Pol Espargaro and Brad Binder, recently called up from Moto2. One of the last of the KTM Mohicans before its exit from Moto2, the South African rider is accustomed to wrestling untamed bikes and watching Hondas flying by on the straights. The RC16 fits both descriptions. Binder, instead of Miguel Oliveira, got the #2 factory seat for a variety of reasons, most of which worked against Oliveira, who ends up on the #2 team again, this time “mentoring” another rookie call-up from Moto2, Iker Lecuona. The musical chairs at KTM are mostly a result of Johann Zarco quitting late in 2019, creating a hole in the program.
It would astonish me if any of the four KTM riders were to finish the 2020 season in the top five. The top ten would be less astonishing but still a major surprise. Pol claims a noticeable increase in grunt; I suspect that’s little more than the swallows returning to Capistrano. I have friends who read this stuff who are huge KTM buffs and get mad at me all the time for my negative outlook. To which I can be counted on to reply, “Scoreboard, baby.”
The secondary and tertiary Ducati teams, Pramac and Reale Avintia, head into 2020 with decidedly different prospects. Pramac, whose riders have put pressure on the factory riders for a few years, boasts Australian badboy Jack Miller and Italian high-potential sophomore Pecco Bagnaia, both of whom will be seated upon brand-new GP20 Desmos, both of whom have visions of sugarplums dancing in their heads. Miller seems destined to take over a factory seat in 2021, probably Petrucci’s, while Bagnaia undoubtedly has designs on Dovizioso’s ride in, say, 2023. Miller had a solid 2019, Bagnaia not so much, though on a year-old bike. Miller has a top five look to him while Bagnaia could be a top tenner if he can keep the shiny side up. As was the case last year, his positive pre-season testing results are once again raising expectations.
Reale Avintia Ducati, on the other hand, has a slightly sweetened deal with Ducati Corse but year-old bikes and two questionable riders. Johann Zarco, whose prospects as a Tech 3 Yamaha rider once seemed unlimited, came apart with KTM last year and now faces a rebuilding job on his reputation. A year-old Ducati may not be the best place to undertake such a task, but beggars can’t be choicey. Teammate Tito Rabat, a Moto2 world champion, is now a journeyman MotoGP rider with plenty of sponsor money hoping to score points, period. He, too, carries around a lot of titanium. Contract wise, his deal expires at the end of 2021, an off-year agreement that I’m sure someone somewhere understands.
By now, a number of readers will have suspected that in my rush to get this to the editors I left out the most exciting young team on the grid. All eyes will be on the two satellite Yamaha riders when the season opens in Qatar. Sophomore sensation Fabio Quartararo, who sounds French but is mostly Spanish, had a phenomenal rookie-of-the-year season in 2019 and comes back this year on a full spec M1, ready to rumble with Marquez and Co. Franco Morbidelli, his Italian teammate, has great expectations as well, as the older Yamahas have, in many cases, out-performed the current version. Quartararo got his ticket to the factory team punched a few weeks ago.
Both riders were fast in the Qatar test, as were Yamaha factory rider Maverick Viñales, and Alex Rins on the Suzuki. In this last test, the Hondas were lagging all three days until, they claim, they found the elusive setting they sought, and now, everything is A-OK for the season opener. Please compare the results in last year’s Qatar test with the final 2019 standings.
The message here, if any, is that we are not to get too excited over what takes place during the Qatar test or, for that matter, the Qatar round, as it is an outlier in too many ways to be predictive for the season (Ed: the Qatar round has been cancelled due to coronavirus concerns since Bruce drafted this piece. Naturally, this means the results of the Qatar test mean even less now that the circuit won’t factor into the 2020 championship).
At first glance it appears Yamaha and Suzuki are big fans of the new Michelin rubber, while the Honda and Ducati riders are singing the blues. Rookie Brad Binder was the top KTM rider during the last test, in P9. Aprilia, I’m hearing, is under pressure to cut ties with Andrea Iannone, facing a PED suspension, though there must be more to it than that. This appears to be a program in disarray, needing to decide if they are going to fish or cut bait, as it were. This getting hammered each week by what they probably view as inferior brands must be getting to some of the suits. Like standing under a cold shower tearing up thousand euro notes while getting screamed at. Living the dream.
Once again, during these long, predictable Marquez years, we find ourselves hoping that things won’t get settled until Valencia, but mostly believing it will be a bunch of really fast riders, Alien-class riders, chasing a fully-healed Marquez as the season makes the first big turn at Jerez. From there, it’s in God’s hands. If Marquez finishes 18 of this year’s 20 races, he will win the title. Assuming he does, the chasers will include Fabio Quartararo, Viñales, Franco Morbidelli, Andrea Dovizioso, Rins and Miller. Joan Mir, Danilo Petrucci, Valentino Rossi perhaps, for old time’s sakes and his protégé Bagnaia may make an occasional appearance. Much the same as last year. And the year before that. And, if memory serves, the year before that.
Seriously, I have told MO that I’m only going to post stuff when it’s important or I have a bee in my bonnet. At times, this column becomes like work, and I was never all that whooped up about work. Same thing with reality. As Groucho Marx, my comedic hero, once observed, “I’m not that big on reality, but it’s still the only place you can get a decent meal.”
Let’s go racing.