The last intense three weeks of this intense MotoGP season is upon us. On Thursday, the diminished paddock reassembles in Valencia for the last of the back-to-back races, with the Grand Prix of Europe this coming weekend, the Valencia Grand Prix a week later. Then, two weeks from today, the paddock will pack up and head down to Portimao, for the last race of the 2020 season. If all goes well, of course.
There is a slightly revised schedule for the two weekends at Valencia, practice starting an hour earlier in the mornings, 20 minutes later in the afternoons, to avoid the chilly conditions which can prevail at Valencia for FP1 and FP3. And while Sundays are the usual format at Valencia – Moto3 at 11am CET, Moto2 at 12:20, and MotoGP at 2pm – the final weekend at Portimao is a little different. To keep the MotoGP race in its usual 2pm Central European Time slot, the race will be held at 1pm local time in Portugal, which uses GMT. That means MotoGP will be racing before Moto2 in Portugal.
If MotoGP races in Portugal. As of Monday, November 2nd, the race is still definitely on, albeit without fans, rather than with fans as had originally been planned. Cases continue to rise in both Portugal and Spain, with both countries enforcing new restrictions on movement. The MotoGP paddock already had its plans changed at Aragon, when the authorities informed Dorna that the paddock had to be empty by midnight on Sunday, forcing a quicker departure from the circuit than anticipated.
What are the chances of the 2020 season being brought to an abrupt end? Greater than zero, as has been the case throughout this pandemic-affected year. But the threat to the last three races is diminished, now fans have been banned from Portimao. The teams have been told to stay at Valencia between the races, and not go home between Valencia and Portimao. Keeping the bubble intact until the end of season is Dorna’s best chance of making this last stretch of races go off without a hitch.
It leaves fans in the lurch once again, of course. There are those who have bought tickets, and will now have to wait for the refunds process to get underway. Refunds have been a painfully slow affair throughout the year, as coronavirus-stricken businesses such as ticket agencies and travel firms try to both pay their own costs and return the money to fans who bought tickets. Then there is the task of trying to get refunds out of airlines and hotels.
As we approach the end of 2020, we can start to look ahead to 2021. In an interview with Paolo Scalera of GPOne.com, Dorna CEO Carmelo Ezpeleta revealed that there will be a calendar for the 2021 season announced very soon, possibly this week or during the race weekend. “The dates will the normal ones,” he told GPOne.com. “The calendar will have 20 Grand Prix.” Ezpeleta also explained that there would be three reserve circuits, that would be ready to host a race should it be impossible to hold a race. The calendar will likely be announced once F1 has announced its schedule for next year.
Though Ezpeleta doesn’t mention when the calendar would start or how it might play out, there are a few credible rumors doing the rounds of the paddock. The 2021 calendar is expected to kick off in Qatar, as usual, at the end of March. But there will be a couple of changes: firstly, the Sepang test will almost certainly be dropped, early February being too soon in the year to be sure of being able to travel. Instead, there will be one test in Qatar, then back-to-back weekends at the Losail International Circuit.
From there, the series is likely to head back to Europe, for races at Portimao and Jerez. That would put the Jerez race roughly back in its normal slot, the first weekend of May. This is as far as rumor stretches, but given Ezpeleta saying that the dates would be “the normal ones,” it is easy to extrapolate a calendar very similar to the original European leg of the 2020 calendar from there. That would entail going to Le Mans in mid-May, then Mugello, Barcelona, the Sachsenring, Assen, Finland, Brno, Austria, Silverstone, Misano, and Aragon.
Scheduling around Covid-19
Keeping the series in Europe for the first part of 2021 would greatly simplify logistics in case travel restrictions are still in place due to the coronavirus, while holding open the possibility of flyaways at the end of the season. The Australian Grand Prix Corporation announced that Phillip Island is scheduled to be held on October 24th next year, but like everything related to this calendar, it is all provisional.
That is also where the three reserve circuits come in. Should it not be possible to race at certain circuits, Dorna will have others ready to replace them. Holding back-to-back races like this year is also an option. Above all, much will rest on the control of the Covid-19 pandemic, and the availability and adoption of a possible vaccine. Until there are one or more effective vaccines in widespread use, the virus will continue to be in charge.
If the 2021 MotoGP calendar is still up in the air, the line up for next season is pretty much all but set. The only unconfirmed seats are the second seat at Aprilia and whether Tito Rabat will hold on to his seat in Avintia, or be replaced by Luca Marini.
With so little to speculate about contracted riders, attention has turned to the question of test riders. The key to the 2021 test rider market is currently Andrea Dovizioso, who has decided to leave Ducati at the end of the year. It is no secret that he has attracted a lot of attention from various factories as a possible test rider.
There had been rumors of interest from KTM, where he would have partnered with KTM as a formidable dream test team. There was also interest from Aprilia, both as a test rider and as a contracted rider, but given Dovizioso’s desire to still compete for a championship, Aprilia does not look like a viable option in the short term.
That leaves two choices: Yamaha and Honda. According to Motorsport.com’s Oriol Puigdemont, they key to Dovizioso’s decision will be his desire to be able to compete in MX races, which the Italian uses to keep his racing senses sharp (and because he loves riding a motocross bike more than he enjoys racing in MotoGP). Puigdemont reports that Yamaha is currently more open to allowing Dovizioso to race motocross bikes than Honda is. The objection from HRC is that the risk of injury is high from racing an MX bike.
Return of the Marc?
However, the option of riding for Honda is very attractive. Dovizioso would have a chance to race as a wildcard in 2021, and would be available to replace riders should they be injured. The uncertainty surrounding Marc Márquez’ return from injury means that there is a realistic chance that Dovizioso could be replacing the (still) reigning world champion for the start of the 2021 season.
There are still a lot of question marks over Márquez’ return to racing. It is now clear that the Spaniard will not be racing again in 2020. His humerus, the bone in his upper arm, is recovering from injury far more slowly than expected, a relatively common complication with very complex fractures such as Márquez suffered, and as evidenced by the fact that the plated bone fractured again after the first surgery. There have been credible reports of Márquez requiring a third operation to fix the bone again, but still no confirmation of this from Honda.
The plan and expectation is that Marc Márquez will be fully fit and ready to race in March 2021. But given the very slow progress he has made with his broken right arm – an injury he suffered back in mid-July, now three and a half months ago – there is reason to believe those expectations may still be optimistic.
Dovizioso vs Lorenzo, Yamaha vs Aprilia
Andrea Dovizioso’s ultimate aim is to return to racing full time in 2022. Given the contract situation at Yamaha and Honda, Yamaha would offer him a better chance of that happening. Valentino Rossi has a one-year deal to race for the Petronas SRT team for the 2021 season, with an option to extend. Everyone else in both Honda and Yamaha have two-year contracts, or more, in the case of Marc Márquez.
Jorge Lorenzo’s fate depends on what Andrea Dovizioso decides to do. If the Italian decides to take the Yamaha test rider role, there may not be a place for Lorenzo. But as he confessed to Spanish sports daily AS.com, he has a second option with Aprilia, who have decided to part ways with current test rider Bradley Smith. Lorenzo has also spoken with Yamaha boss Lin Jarvis, he told AS.com, and Jarvis said that he was currently waiting to hear the test plan from Japan for next year.
This is what might make a role as test rider at Yamaha less attractive for either Lorenzo or Dovizioso. In 2020, Yamaha decided to scrap its test team in Europe and focus on testing in Japan, as travel restrictions imposed because of Covid-19 made it impossible for Yamaha to get engineers and equipment to Europe very easily. That meant that Lorenzo did not get to test the Yamaha M1 between the Sepang test in February and the Portimao test in October.
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