It’s been said many times that the 2020 MotoGP world championship is the series that no one wants to win, as title contender after title contender has made basic mistakes, been injured, suffered mechanical problems or otherwise been ruled out of contention in the manic opening nine rounds of the shortened and compressed season.
And it looked like the same thing was going to happen again in Sunday’s French Grand Prix at Le Mans, as championship leader and pole position starter Fabio Quartararo plunged back through the field, falling as low as 11th before recovering somewhat to eventually finish in ninth.
However, it’s indicative of just how crazy the season has been that he didn’t just manage to tentatively guard his championship lead but actually managed to extend the points gap to challengers Maverick Vinales and Joan Mir, who came home behind him in 10th and 11th.
And that’s not because this is a title that no one wants to win, according to Quartararo afterwards – but rather because all three of them knew that this title battle was so close that none of them could afford to make a mistake in the treacherous conditions.
Quartararo came into the race eight points clear of Mir and 18 up on Vinales, and leaves it with those gaps inched up to 10 and 19, with Andrea Dovizioso now one ahead of Vinales after his fourth place.
Having looked like it was going to start in cool but dry conditions as forecast, the race was thrown into disarray just moments before the lights went out when rain swept into the French track.
“Both of us had a bad race and both of us aren’t in the position we expected us to be in” :: Joan Mir
That prompted a delayed start and a frantic switch to wet tyres, and it ended up becoming MotoGP’s first wet race since the final round of the 2018 championship at Valencia.
With many of MotoGP’s hot young talents – Quartararo and Mir included – recent additions to the grid and lacking in wet race experience, it meant that it was a case of better safe than sorry for some prime contenders when the flag finally dropped.
“The fight for ninth position was like the fight for the win,” said Quartararo.
“Everyone was giving their 100% and even if people are saying that no one wants to win the championship, I can tell you everyone wants to win it.
“I would prefer to finish at the front but today was quite good.”
Despite regularly being adamant that he tries his best not to think about the championship during races, Quartararo did concede today that it crossed his mind while he was locked in battle with his title rival Mir in the closing stages.
“He overtook me in Turn 8, I overtook him back again, and it was positive for the championship to be in front of him,” Quartararo said of Mir.
“It was the only moment in the race where I thought about the championship – I knew I had to finish in front of him.
“That’s it, really – I was happy to overtake him back and to finish ninth.
“When I crossed the line I was happy to be in front of Joan and Maverick, then I saw a red guy had won the race and I thought ’woah it’s Dovi and he’s getting really close.’
“Then I saw Alex [Marquez] was second and Pol [Espargaro] was third and I was happier, because for our first wet race we did OK.
“We can really say that 2020 is a strange year, and I’m happy to still be leading the championship.”
Quartararo wasn’t the only title fighter content with a slightly lacklustre performance, with Mir also content to limit the damage by finishing close behind the Frenchman at his home race.
Never looking strong and giving himself a big challenge with a terrible qualifying performance, Mir admitted that the reality was that coming home two places behind Quartararo in his first ever wet MotoGP race wasn’t too bad.
“Both of us had a bad race and both of us aren’t in the position we expected us to be in,” he said.
“But it was OK, because in the dry conditions he had something more than the others and the chance of victory, but I wasn’t going to fight for the victory.
“I tried to start on my own, without electronics. During the weekend this went really well” :: Maverick Vinales
“I would have been able to improve on 11th and fight for the top five, but if he had won the race and I was fifth I would have lost more points, so to make one bad race is allowed.
“What we can’t do is repeat this performance in Aragon – we have to get our feelings back and return to the podium.”
The pressure on the top two title fighters to achieve solid results at Le Mans makes third-place contender Vinales’ decisions even more bizarre.
He elected to set aside Yamaha’s launch control system and instead manage the bike by feel off the line, and things went from bad to worse when the lights went out.
“I tried something different on the start, but it didn‘t work,” he explained.
“I tried to start on my own, without electronics. During the weekend this went really well, I started very fast.
“But then during today’s race, with all the noise coming from the other bikes on the grid, I couldn’t hear my bike and wasn’t able to be precise.
“So, for the next race we will go back to electronics and try to improve starting that way.
“I hope the bad luck is finished, because in the first corners I got involved in Vale [Rossi]‘s accident.
“To avoid the crash I had to go straight, and I was last.
“It was a shame the race wasn‘t one lap longer, because I was catching up with Fabio one second per lap.
“But it is like this and we need to feel positive, because somehow we saved a little bit of the race because we only lose one point in the championship to the leader.”