As exciting the 2020 MotoGP season has been, there’s also a healthy argument to make that it’s probably been infused with a more than average amount of existential dread for its participants after Marc Marquez’s injury threw the title race wide open.
Assuming Marquez picks up where he left off when he returns to full fitness, his absence gives 2020 a unique ‘now or never’ pressure for the riders he’s spent most of the last decade denying championships.
Current points leader Fabio Quartararo described 2020 as the championship “everyone wants to win” and while that’s hardly unusual for a world title, a more apt description might be “the championship nobody wants to lose”.
Every MotoGP rider will have seen Marc Marquez’s near-perfect 2019 campaign, as complete a season of grand prix racing as you’re likely to find in its history across all classes.
Likewise, each of them will have seen Marquez make an error in the Jerez opener, drop down to 18th and then carve his way through the field to third place.
Sure, he then crashed and ruined his chances of defending the title – but had the injury proven less significant and allowed him a successful return as soon as the second race, that performance surely means he still would’ve been favourite for the title, by a country mile.
“For nothing we have lost this championship” :: Pol Espargaro
Motorcycle riders always need a healthy capacity for self-belief and optimism, but if they expect Marquez to return to his previous self in 2021 – not a safe assumption by any means, but not exactly implausible either – then a lot of them may view 2020 as the chance.
In that case, the consolation for long-time frontrunners Andrea Dovizioso and Maverick Vinales – if both fail to win it this year – is that deep down they should know they haven’t been quick enough often enough, barring a huge late-season turnaround.
If Quartararo and/or Joan Mir don’t come through with the title, both will at least know they’re still young enough and on an obvious upward trajectory.
But what about Pramac Ducati’s Jack Miller and KTM’s Pol Espargaro? They are two riders with their 2021 factory team futures secured, and they won’t have featured among the pre-season favourites for the title – and yet, at 40 and 42 points respectively off Quartararo with five races to go, both have seen enough points fall by the wayside to mean campaigns that have been quite strong on paper could leave quite a sour taste in the end.
Espargaro, clearly, is all too aware that he could’ve been in a much better position in this championship fight, and he can’t hide that for him it’s taken some of the shine off the KTM project’s breakout year.
“It feels very good,” he told MotoGP.com of the RC16’s performance in 2020, before adding: “But on the other hand we had this fight for victory in the Czech Republic, the first Austria race we could win if not for the red flag, the second Austria race fighting for the win – we finished third.
“It’s these kind of moments where for nothing we have lost this championship. It’s like that.
“We would be in an amazing better position now in the championship, maybe fighting for the world title at the end of this year.
“But, you know, there are a lot of ups and downs, as we have seen. Why not now, till at the end of this year, [shouldn’t] these ups and downs continue to the other guys?
“If we stay constant, let’s see. But I don’t want to think about that.”
Espargaro’s results in 2020 have not matched his status as the RC16’s benchmark rider. He towered head and shoulders above the rest of the KTM contingent in 2019, and though it’s clear Miguel Oliveira and Brad Binder have closed the gap considerably, he should still be further ahead of both than four and 11 points respectively. He should’ve also already been a race winner on the RC16 – which Binder and Oliveira are.
It’s hard to see Espargaro’s third place in the second Red Bull Ring as points lost – that race really belonged to Mir and, to a lesser extent, Takaaki Nakagami. But the other cases are very clear.
Had he not had the collision with Johann Zarco in Brno, he would’ve almost certainly been at least 20 points better off. If not for the red flag in the first Austria race, in which he ultimately retired after coming together with Oliveira, he would’ve added another 25.
He also hit the deck at Barcelona while overtaking Danilo Petrucci for seventh – the KTMs emphatically did not look fantastic there, but you can still count that as another six to nine points dropped.
It adds up to over 50. In MotoGP, that’s a lot.
“But wait,” I hear you say. “You can do that kind of thought exercise with most riders in 2020. Espargaro wasn’t blameless in the Barcelona crash or in the collisions with Zarco and Oliveira – and if everyone was mistake-free in this MotoGP title race, an extra 50 points wouldn’t be enough for him!”
It is a fair point, but not every MotoGP rider is as mistake-prone as every other, and on the basis of 2019 you would’ve certainly put Espargaro down as extremely reliable.
He was metronomic in racking up points on a much weaker RC16 package, missing out on only two occasions – Austria, when the engine cut out, and Aragon, when he never made the race due to a practice injury.
Forty-two points and seven places are not impossible to make up over the rest of 2020, but it’ll be a tall order, and it certainly didn’t have to be this much of an uphill struggle.
By no means has Espargaro had a poor season, but it was definitely not the year to start misfiring regularly, and that’s kind of what happened.
Of course, with a 2021 Honda move lined up, this needn’t be Espargaro’s final crack at the title, and the fact the Honda RC213V and the KTM RC16 are of a similar mould bodes well.
But even if the Honda package proves fantastic, the identity of his team-mate will make it difficult for Espargaro to be the one to take full profit.
Like Espargaro, Miller has put up his best-ever points tally in the first nine races of a MotoGP season – and like Espargaro he should clearly have more on the board.
Miller threw his hat into the title contention ring as early as the second weekend, and though he then crashed in that weekend’s race, the rest of the campaign showed that he had a point.
No other rider in Ducati’s stable has gelled this consistently well with the GP20 – Miller has pretty clearly had the works duo covered, and while Pramac team-mate Francesco Bagnaia has eclipsed him on occasion, Bagnaia also missed several races due to injury and was noticeably off-colour at Le Mans.
The fact Miller has qualified within the top five in all but two races, and routinely makes phenomenal starts with a bike that is famously difficult to overtake after that, should’ve been an obvious recipe for a title push.
And while Miller has never been known for consistency in MotoGP, and his three non-scores are thus no big shock, only the Jerez crash was of his making – at Misano he had a Quartararo tear-off lodged in his bike’s air filter eliminate him from contention, while Le Mans… yeah, about that.
“Two no-scores from the last two times I’ve been on the front row, neither of them anything to do with me… yeah, it sucks” :: Jack Miller
He was running only seventh at Misano, so that would’ve been easier to stomach. Le Mans, though, looked a massive opportunity to get right into the thick of the title fight – a place in the lead group, a drying track, Alex Rins’ crash, the pace fall-off of the two works Ducatis.
Maybe Miller’s pace won’t have held up too well either, but he was otherworldly in mixed conditions in Friday practice – and generally tends to prosper on a damp surface as a rule – so will likely see it as 25 points that have gone begging.
“An issue with the engine sprung up in the warm-up,” Miller explained afterwards. “We swapped the bikes for the race, I was on the dry [set-up] bike but the rain came so I had to get back on the other bike.
“With the short schedule we had [with the MotoGP race run ahead of Moto2] there was no chance to try and fix the thing. We just sort of had to cross our fingers.”
Miller’s screams of anguish as he disembarked his faltering GP20 in pitlane were no surprise – by then he’d probably fully comprehended not only that his best chance yet at a first win with Ducati had gone, but that a prime opportunity in the championship had vanished with it.
“It was a day to score big points too,” Miller wrote after the race on his website.
“The only one of those ahead of me in the championship was Dovi – Fabio was struggling, so was Mir, Maverick too.
“Luckily I didn’t drop too many points to Fabio and I only lost one place in the championship so with five races left I’m still close enough to maybe do something with these races being so unpredictable… but we can’t afford another one like this the rest of the way.
“Two no-scores from the last two times I’ve been on the front row, neither of them anything to do with me… yeah, it sucks.”
Miller is younger than his six seasons in MotoGP may suggest, and he’ll get his first campaign in a factory team next year at Ducati, so like Espargaro he could well be a title contender for years to come – but he also may have reason to suspect that, even outside of Marquez returning, the likes of Quartararo, Mir and even his team-mate Bagnaia will only get stronger as they log more races – and so any future opportunity will be harder.
You could make similar cases for the likes of Suzuki’s Rins and Petronas Yamaha’s Franco Morbidelli, although the caveat there is that they’ve been second-best to their team-mates.
Rins will be wondering what could’ve been if not for his injury in the very first race weekend that has coloured so much of his season, and still continues to bother him.
Asked about it by The Race on Sunday, he admitted Le Mans may have been one of his stronger races exactly because he didn’t have to stress his shoulder as much in the wet-weather conditions – and it is clear the congested calendar has done a number on him. Even still, without the crashes from very promising positions at the Red Bull Ring, Misano and now Le Mans, he would have been right up there.
For Morbidelli, he has drawn much closer to Quartararo now than in 2019 and would’ve probably backed himself to make something happen in the title race if not for the big chunks of points lost in that violent crash with Zarco in Austria and, more crucially, an engine failure that robbed him of a podium at Jerez.
Both could still feasibly mount a comeback, as could Espargaro and Miller – it’s been that kind of season.
But in the end, while one rider will make their dream come true, there’ll be at least half a dozen who will end the season with a heartbreak and a lingering ‘what if’.
And chances are that for at least some of them this will be as close as they ever get to MotoGP title glory.