Joan Mir won a wide-open, constantly evolving, multi-team and multi-rider fight to become 2020 MotoGP world champion.
But would Marc Marquez have left all of those title fighters in his wake had he contested the season?
Was this a championship squabbled over by mere pretenders? Or was the quality of the 2020 pack so strong – or perhaps Honda so compromised this year – that Marquez would’ve been deposed regardless?
Our MotoGP writers Simon Patterson and Valentin Khorounzhiy have very different opinions on this matter…
No – Simon Patterson
If there’s one thing that became apparent pretty much from the day that the 2020 MotoGP season got underway, it’s that it wasn’t going to be just another year.
With a more compressed than ever calendar, the introduction of back-to-back races at the same circuit and all the added stresses of going racing during a pandemic, we were never going to get a repeat performance of previous seasons.
That was highlighted at round one of the championship, when despite Marquez dominating the championship since 2013, people were already talking about how the new-look series could well swing things in the favour of someone like Fabio Quartararo and not just see another year of Repsol Honda domination.
Obviously we’ve got limited data to go by thanks to Marquez only managing to complete half a race at Jerez before injuring himself so significantly that it forced him to sit out the rest of the championship.
But the reigning champion had already started the year off not looking like his usual dominant self, qualifying third and only just taking the lead of the Spanish Grand Prix when he first made an error that ran him off the track, and then crashed out trying to close down race winner Quartararo.
It’s perhaps a sign of the pressure that Marquez felt he was under from the beginning of the year that he believed he wasn’t able to risk settling for safe points behind the Petronas Yamaha rider, instead pushing when he didn’t really have to on used tyres and falling from the race.
Then there’s the evidence we see from the other Honda riders on the grid. Cal Crutchlow had the worst season of his MotoGP career, continually injured by a hard-to-ride RC213V. Stefan Bradl, Marquez’s replacement, also had a tough year, forced to miss races thanks to nerve injuries he put down to the physicality of the bike.
And despite impressive results late in the year for Marquez’s team-mate and brother Alex, it’s worth noting that his best result of the year (second at Le Mans) came in wet conditions when the Repsol Honda’s power levels had been turned down to a more manageable level to cope with the rain.
In fact, the only Honda rider who really impressed in 2020 was Taka Nakagami, and it’s perhaps no surprise that he’s also the only Honda rider who started the year not on this year’s machinery but on last year’s spec of bike.
Part of the problem faced by Honda’s riders didn’t just come from the bike though. The new Michelin rear tyre that plagued Ducati so badly by leaving its riders unable to slide the back of the bike on corner entry also worked against the similarly V4-engined Honda riders, and in a series that’s closer than ever, any small weakness is easily exploited.
There’s also a sense that with Suzuki rider Mir putting together a supremely consistent season, lifting the crown with a race still to go, he still had something left in the bag. He was never really pushed that hard once he got his campaign properly underway at the Red Bull Ring, and the same hypothetical that says Marquez could have beaten Mir easily also allows us to suggest that Mir could have upped his pace should it have been needed.
Consistency has been Marquez’s weapon in recent seasons, but it’s something that barely anyone managed to achieve in 2020.
Could he have won multiple times? Sure. Could he have maintained last year’s record of having a worst-placed finish of second? It’s hard to see how, given just how upside down the year was.
Yes – Valentin Khorounzhiy
The question when it comes to the hypothetical scenario of Marc Marquez staying fit throughout the 2020 season isn’t whether he would’ve won the title, but what margin he would’ve won it by. 20 points? 50 points? Triple digits? None of those answers would’ve been off the table given how erratic the form of each of his main rivals has been.
Of the nine tracks that made up the ‘20 campaign, Marquez won at seven of them the year before. The only exceptions are Red Bull Ring, where he was beaten by two tenths after coming off second-best in a last-corner duel, and Portimao, which had not hosted a MotoGP race in 2019 or before then.
But 2020 isn’t 2019, you’ll rightly point out. How can we tell whether Marquez would have fallen prey to the same brutal inconsistency that defined the season for each of the main title protagonists? How can we know whether his performances would’ve been impacted by the new Michelin rear tyre that shuffled the MotoGP deck, or by the compressed schedule, or by whether he would’ve tested positive for COVID-19 like Valentino Rossi or Iker Lecuona?
The answer to the latter two of those scenarios we’ll never know, but as for the issue of the Michelin rear, Marquez’s return to fitness should provide an answer. Yet, until that happens, it’s not unreasonable to glance at his record from the past few seasons and put forward the theory that it won’t have mattered one bit.
What defined Marc Marquez these past few seasons more than anything – more than the crazy lean angles, the last-corner lunges, the ‘saved’ crashes – is adaptability. It is something that none of his rivals can boast – he was always, always on the pace.
Wet track? On the pace. Drying track? On the pace (and usually quicker by an offensive margin than anyone but fellow low-grip ‘freak’ Jack Miller). Smooth asphalt? On the pace. Lots of grip? On the pace.
As explained by test rider Bradl, the Honda RC213V has a narrow working window – but that was true in 2019 as well, for everyone but Marquez. So why should it have been different in 2020? The other factory-spec Hondas, those of Bradl, Alex Marquez and Crutchlow, performed admirably at various points this year but were overall inconsistent – but remove Marquez from the equation from the last couple of Honda seasons and you’ll see the same picture.
Was it the threat of a sterner challenge that forced him into those two fateful mistakes in the 2020 Jerez opener (running off track from the lead, and crashing while in second) and then the other fateful mistake of trying to return to competition for the second part of the double-header? Potentially, but he wasn’t to have known that the Yamaha and its riders, which seemed to pose the biggest threat, were going to spend the rest of 2020 unloading both barrels of their proverbial shotgun right into their feet.
But we do know that. We’ve seen it. And even if Yamaha had managed to keep its Jerez form through the rest of the campaign, well, the Jerez opener still carries a special context. In that race, Marquez dropped to 16th place after going off on the fifth lap. By lap 22, he was into second place.
And then he crashed, and that’s very much on him, and it is why Joan Mir is a worthy 2020 champion – not that there’s much point in gauging the worthiness of a champion, as far as the history books are concerned.
You can only beat what’s in front of you, and Mir did, and he’ll give Marquez plenty of headaches yet in the future. But the 2020 title was Marquez’s for the taking – signed, sealed and halfway through delivery when the shipping address suddenly changed.