After its summer break, the MotoGP World Championship made an explosive, quite literally, return at the weekend with some frantic action around the Red Bull Ring in Austria. There were plenty of talking points including a new winner, a significant retirement and the return of two former stars.
End of an era
The sport was dealt a significant, albeit not unexpected, blow when MotoGP legend Valentino Rossi announced his retirement from racing on the eve of the GP.
The last few seasons have seen the now 42-year old gradually slip down the pecking order and although he’s lapping the circuits faster than ever before, the riders at the top are going considerably faster still and the end has now, sadly, arrived.
The Italian superstar has been part of the World Championship paddock since 1996 and in those 26 years, he’s won nine World titles – seven in the premier class – 115 GP races and stood on the podium a record total of 235 times, the last figure 76 more times than any other rider!
The impact Rossi has had on the sport, both internal and, particularly external, cannot be underestimated. He inspired many of today’s current crop of riders, some of whom weren’t even born when he first won his world title and brought a whole new group of fans into the sport, thousands flocking to the circuits to see him no matter what the country.
He took the sport to a whole new level and a whole new audience and even if someone has no interest in two-wheel sport, you can guarantee they will have heard of Rossi, just like the UK population still to this day know of Barry Sheene.
Sportsman of Rossi’s ilk only occur once in a generation and just as the likes of Pele, Maradona and Messi took football to new heights, so too did Rossi in motorcycling. His records may be beaten but his impact on the sport may not and he leaves a huge gap in the sport.
Jorge, take a bow
MotoGP rookie Jorge Martin made the paddock sit up and take note when he took pole position on the Pramac Ducati in the second round of the season at Qatar, a performance he backed up in the race, leading for much of the way before eventually finishing an excellent third.
The Spaniard, Moto 3 World Champion in 2018, found the going tougher after that though with spills and injuries putting him out of the action. He used the summer break to recuperate and, back to full fitness, was fast from the word go in Austria.
Another pole position followed, and he duly claimed his maiden MotoGP win in a race, in truth, he never looked like losing. Taking a deserved bow after he’d crossed the line, it was also the first win for the Pramac team, stalwarts of the MotoGP grid for almost two decades, whilst Martin’s rise through the Red Bull Academy – Rookies, Moto 3 and Moto 2 – showed just how valuable and successful the process is.
One of the most popular riders in the paddock, only time will tell if Martin is the real deal in the premier class but judging by his Austrian performance, the signs are more than promising. And with the series returning to the Red Bull Ring this weekend, a second win is more than a possibility.
Mir makes his move
Throughout last year, several critics didn’t give Joan Mir the credit he deserved, the Spaniard winning the World MotoGP title despite only taking one victory in the 14-race season. ‘He only won because Marc Marquez wasn’t there’ they said.
Of course, that wasn’t true. Mir won the title on merit; he scored more points than anyone else and, ultimately, was better than anyone else throughout the 2020 season. He prospered whilst others faltered and is again proving this season he should be talked about as being one of the best MotoGP riders on the current grid.
He hasn’t added to his tally of wins yet but in Austria, he took his fourth podium of the season to move into third in the Championship table and with four top-four finishes in the last five races, he’s back in the consistent rhythm that took him to the title last year.
With the Suzuki finally having a starting/holeshot device like its rivals, Mir is now on a more level playing field and although he’s currently 51 points behind the pace-setting Fabio Quartararo, everything’s pointing in the right direction for the Majorcan for a charge in the second half of the season.
Quartararo has always struggled, comparatively speaking, at the Red Bull Ring and it was the same again at the weekend although his deficit was far less this time around.
Indeed, the key to winning championships is always to maximise your points haul at your weaker tracks and on an off day. Just look at Jonathan Rea in World Superbikes. If he can’t win, more often than not he’s in second and third whereas his rivals will be down in fifth and sixth.
That’s how it panned out for the Frenchman in Austria. Knowing he didn’t have the package to challenge for the win, he focused on getting the best out of what he had beneath him and limit his losses to his championship rivals. And with only one of them, Mir, finishing ahead of him, it was most definitely a case of ‘job done’.
The season is more than halfway through now and his championship lead over countryman Johann Zarco, sixth in Austria, is a more than healthy 40 points. And although eight races, with 200 points available, remain, he’s putting together the kind of season required to come out on top.
Another rider who impressed at the Red Bull Ring was KTM’s Brad Binder, the South African the highest placed rider at the Austrian manufacturer’s home circuit in fourth.
What made the result impressive was the fact that Binder was pretty much nowhere in the practice and qualifying sessions – 18th in FP1, 16th in FP2, 15th in FP3 and FP4 and 16th in qualifying. Indeed, he’s only qualified in the top ten twice in the ten rounds to take place so far – on two occasions he’s been as far back as 21st!
Despite of this, Binder has finished in the top eight in six of the races and sits in a solid eighth overall; if ever a rider could be described as a Sunday man, it’s Binder and one can only wonder what he might achieve if he could qualify higher up the grid. Such is the depth of the field, it’s an advantage you can ill-afford to give away.
At present, it’s his Achilles heel and is preventing him from adding to the solitary MotoGP success he has far, victory coming at Brno in the Czech Republic which was the very first premier class win for both himself and KTM. Get qualifying right and he’ll be a regular frnt runner.
Old guard return
It was somewhat ironic that at the meeting where Rossi announced his retirement, two of his long-time sparring partners were back on the grid – Dani Pedrosa and Cal Crutchlow.
Both riders have recently retired, Pedrosa at the end of the 2018 season and Crutchlow at the end of last year, the duo both subsequently taking up test roles, Pedrosa with KTM and Crutchlow with Yamaha.
Pedrosa has played an integral part in KTM’s surge through the ranks, the miles and miles done as development rider helping the Austrian’s finally become MotoGP winners. He initially stated he wouldn’t be making any wildcard appearances but that all changed at the weekend when he took a good tenth despite being involved in the spill in the original start which resulted in both his KTM and Lorenzo Savadori’s Aprilia bursting into flames.
Crutchlow found the going tougher, no great surprise given he hadn’t sat on a MotoGP bike since April. Yamaha don’t appear to utilise their test riders as much as their rivals but although the Brit was at the bottom of the timesheets all weekend, being only 1.5s adrift of pole position was no mean feat.
The weekend saw him team-mate to Rossi for the first time in his career, their combined ages of 68 being greater than the combined ages of the three podium finishers, Martin, Mir and Quartararo!
Crutchlow will be in action for the next rounds, continuing to deputise for the injured Franco Morbidelli, with one of the those being the British GP at Silverstone where he’s sure to get a rousing reaction.
Having started watching motorcycle races all over the world form childhood, Phil Wain has been a freelance motorcycle journalist for 15 years and is features writer for a number of publications including BikeSport News, Classic Racer and Road Racing Ireland, as well as being a regular contributor to MCN and MCN Sport. He is PR officer for a number of teams and riders at both the British Superbike Championship and International road races, including PBM Ducati, RAF Regular & Reserve Kawasaki, Dafabet Devitt Racing, John McGuinness, Lee Johnston and KMR Kawasaki. He is also heavily involved with the Isle of Man TT Races, writing official press releases and race reports as well as providing ITV4 with statistical information