Disruption, delay and restrictions felt across the world throughout 2020, caused by the Covid-19 pandemic, put a severe dent in the action as the MotoGP championship attempted to roar into life at Qatar last March.
Four months of delays later and the season finally began in full-force, albeit on a revised and condensed calendar, with the racing confined in it’s majority, to Southern Europe.
As 2021 begins, the ramifications of the pandemic are still being felt, the pre-season testing schedule has been reduced to one solo circuit, Doha.
With the premier class in action on two separate occasions during the opening two weeks of March, the junior classes joining them for three days on track a week before the opening race, with the entire paddock expected to remain in Qatar to limit travel and potential complications.
On track logistics, however, are far from the only aspect feeling the effects of the ongoing chaos. Dorna announced a development freeze, agreed by ITRA, MSMA and the FIM, in early April 2020, which remains in place until the end of 2021. Good news, in theory, for the likes of Joan Mir and Franky Morbidelli but what does that mean for the other manufactures, namely Ducati and the factory-spec Yamaha’s, who looked at times to be struggling to maintain their consistency and reliability?
With numerous questions flying around regarding what can and can’t be touched during the winter recess, where each manufacturer needs to find those all-important gains and how they intend to work around the issues while staying within the rules, who better to catch up with than ex-GP racer, British Supersport Champ and BT-Sport’s resident tech guru, the ‘all-knowing’ Michael Laverty.
So what does he expect to see from each manufacturer in terms of development and performance across the coming season?
“Looking at the technical regulations and development freeze from 2020 through to the end of 2021, it’s mainly a cost-saving exercise, obviously due to the whole pandemic and Covid-19 situation. The response from IRTA was to try and save the teams and factories money, and engine and aerodynamic development are typically the most expensive.
"There was typically one aerodynamic upgrade per season, and that was homologated this year in March 2020, before round one, so every team had one option and that will be the same for the next season. So the bikes will look the same from the outside, there will be no new area bodies, no new wings or anything hanging from any of the bikes.
"The engines in all the factory teams will remain the same apart from Aprilia - they are the sole team with concessions remaining, KTM lost their concessions after their successful 2020 season - so Aprilia will be able to upgrade their engine over the winter which is good because they are the one manufacturer that is lagging behind ever so slightly.
"As for Honda, Yamaha, Ducati, Suzuki and KTM, they will all be frozen with the identical engines they they’ve run this past season but that doesn’t mean that there will strictly be the same outcome because although engine and aero are frozen there are still many things that the teams will work with, so looking at each individual manufacturer, I’ll start with the Champions, Suzuki.
“The area that they need to improve is on their one-lap pace. To try and extract a little more performance out of a new tyre over a one/two lap run, so they can qualify on the first or second row of the grid but to do that requires probably a redistribution of weight or a slightly different direction - may come from suspension or chassis but most likely putting a little bit more load into the tyres - but whenever you start to move things about, adjust the balance of the bike, then you effect the race-distance performance and that’s what Suzuki don’t want to lose. They really got that dialled this year!
“They can manage the soft tyres well over race distance, so their goal will be to improve the performance over qualifying but not effect their race distance. Their engine last year was pretty much on par, it wasn’t as fast as the V4’s, it was a little bit faster than the other inline-4 on the gird, which is the.Yamaha, so the Suzuki engine is pretty good.
“They are in a good place, if they can fix their qualifying woe and find a little bit of a step, I think they’ll continue as strong as they were. I’m interested to see how Alex Rins performs, obviously with his less-experienced teammate winning the championship and Alex having the injury through the year, he definitely had more left in the tank and I think Alex will be a contender this year if he stays injury free.”
After Marc Marquez’ injury at the eventual season-opener’s double-header, in Jerez in late-July, initial expectations had the championship battle firmly in the hands of two men, Fabio Quartararo and Andrea Dovizioso. The latter, however, failed to mount the expected challenge, thanks in part to the Ducati’s problematic relationship with Michelin’s new rear tyre, so does Laverty believe the Italian Marque will be hit harder than most by the halt to development?
“Ducati always invents something! Every year they are always at the forefront with some new technology and that won’t be outlawed, even with the development freeze. Last season we saw the ride-height device come to the fore so if Gigi [Dall’Igna] manages to come up with something new like that, he will be able to bring it to the table, as long as it’s inside the letter of the law and how the rulebook’s written.
“No doubt Ducati could be working on something, as they have a new bike in the works but they won’t be able to bring that to the grid in 2021. We won’t see that new machine now until ’22 but they can continue to work with chassis, with exhaust, with airbox, with things that are inside the laws. There’s still plenty to work with, where they need to, to extract potential from the Ducati and fix the issues they had with the new rear Michelin tyre providing extra grip and causing all sorts of issues in the braking area, in turning, a little bit more understeer.
“They can do a little bit with weight distribution, a bit with chassis, a bit with suspension, a bit with electronics, just try and find a better compromise. I can see Ducati taking a step up, they’ve got a new roster this year, a lot of youth across the board and I think they could possibly be the biggest improvers.
“They were hoping for Michelin’s new front tyre to be brought for the ’21 season but it looks like that will be held off until 2022. That could have been an easy fix for Ducati but they will have to continue working. When you’re developing chassis, obviously because you’re working with the same engine, you can’t adjust that too much, you’re still stuck with the same engine-mounting points, more-or-less, but you can play with the materials, with the flex, and reposition some weight in different areas. So it could be a bike that looks very similar from the outside but could be quite different for the rider’s feeling.”
The second, expected challenger, Quartararo, also failed to capitalise on Marquez’ absence, despite a promising start to the season with his double win in Spain. Engine-reliability issues and controversy over an ‘illegal’ valve hung over the Yamaha camp across the summer, with the young Frenchman eventually concluding the year a disappointing eighth place in the championship after scoring just one further podium - his victory in Barcelona - to add to his Jerez haul. Maverick Vińales matched the trio of podiums, although only one was a victory, with Valentino Rossi scoring a solitary third, while Franco Morbidelli held the Japanese firms’ hopes firmly alight with five trips to the rostrum, three to the top step, and all on year-old machinery.
“Yamaha is an interesting one, obviously the three factory bikes on the grid this year struggled in terms of consistency, it was Franky Morbidelli on the 2019 machine who ended up being the best Yamaha on the grid. He will remain with that 2019 engine configuration and chassis into next season. As I mentioned before about the dimensions, the 2020-spec engine, if he wanted that he’d have to have the new chassis, because they had adjusted the air-intake so they had repositioned some engine mounts. It would be difficult for Franky to step up onto that without getting the whole package, and I don’t think that would have been possible with the current freeze, for him to change onto the 2020 package, but he was so strong on the older machine and older engine configuration from the year before, that he seems quite happy that he won’t have any changes on his side of the garage.
"The three 2020 ‘factory’ bikes - Valentino, Fabio, and Maverick - there will be some work going on to see what they can fix. They were fast - they won, I think, five races with the new model machine - but they were more inconsistent and Fabio couldn’t get that same feeling track-to-track and the biggest change they had was because of that new air-intake. They’d redesigned that to try and gain more horsepower to the engine but then they had to reposition some parts on the bike so it was mainly a weight distribution change that was the biggest transformation from the ’19 to the ’20 Yamaha.
“Obviously Franky didn’t have that change and he had the most consistent package so Yamaha know the numbers they need to achieve but they need to do that with the 2020 bike, rebalance their weight distribution, possibly a little bit more chassis development and same again, they will be looking for horsepower, so whether they can do that with exhaust? We saw them bring a big trumpet exhaust to one of the tests - Misano I think - and that didn’t come back on any of the bikes in race-trim but they will try and develop that a little bit further.
"We know they had the valve issue but they got to the bottom of that, so the reliability they had last year - with Franky doing the majority of the season on two engines - was fantastic so they know they’ve got a little bit of room to play, they could abuse their engines a little, it’s not essentially over-rev them but make them work in that higher rev range, so they could get away with that. Giving the engines a bit of a harder time because they know they have five to play with throughout the season, given the reliability they had once they got to the bottom of the value problem.”
And what of Honda? With Marquez the star of the show since he first stepped aboard a Repsol machine back in 2013, his season-long absence was hard-felt by HMC, a situation further deteriorated by Cal Crutchlow’s injury woes - thanks to a fractured left wrist, arm-pump surgery complications and a snapped shoulder ligament - leaving LCR’s Takaaki Nakagami and rookie Alex Marquez to hold the fort alongside test-rider Stefan Bradl.
“Honda is an interesting one, obviously the development they made during the season when Taka and Alex really found some form, that was all rear-linkage and rear-shock, it seemed to make a big step for them in terms of grip and turning. I think Honda’s power plant, their engine, has always been strong, the V4 makes some good power. They did have issues in 2019 with engine-braking character from the inertia of the engine but it seemed like that was less of an complaint last year, more just trying to tame the bike a bit, make it more user friendly, so just a bit of refinement with their package.
“If Marc comes back fully-fit at the start of the season then we know he can ride around the problems of the Honda pretty well but it did seem that the Honda was an easier bike to ride at the end of the last season, so with Pol [Espargaro] jumping on alongside Marc in the Repsol garage, it’s an interning dynamic. They will find a way to fine-tune that package even further and gain even more performance but I’m interested to see how Pol adapts from the KTM to the Honda.”
Speaking of the Austrian outfit, KTM were the standout in terms of unexpected podiums visits in 2020, with eight overall. A debut victory for Brad Binder at Brno kicked off a spectacular run of form for the four-year-old project with Miguel Oliveira claiming a further two ‘home’ wins - one for the manufacturer in Styria, and the second as he christened his native Portimao’s debut on the GP calendar in dramatic style - while Pol Espargaro joined the celebrations with five third-place-finishes ahead of his move to Repsol Honda.
“KTM have lost their concessions now so they’re running the same engines as they had in the 2020 season but it was a very strong engine. We know they like to develop their chassis, they’ve brought something like 20 chassis throughout a single season! Working with the steel tubes it gives them a little easier access to cut and shut that frame, essentially, and play about with the flex but it seems like they’ve got their numbers figured out now.
“They’ve got a good, balanced package, that worked for all their riders, really, for Brad Binder winning a race, for Miguel Oliveira winning two, Pol didn’t quite get that race win but strong and consistent on the podium in the second half of the 2020 season, and Iker Lecuona’s coming on all the time so I think they will continue where they were. They seem to be the V4 that figured out the 2020 Michelin rear tyre better that Honda and Ducati, straight off the bat but obviously Honda did find some improvements throughout the year and Ducati looked to be making that progress. As for a V4 configuration, KTM really, with the work they’ve done with the new chassis, and their aero upgrades and the engine, they just looked to take a good step in every single area in 2020 and that really paid off in terms of consistency and speed. Similar to the other manufacturers, they will continue to work with components that aren’t frozen - with linkages, with frame, with exhausts, with airbox - they can’t touch that bodywork, can’t open that engine and change any parts but they can still develop and still work on their whole complete package.”
KTM’s success last season leaves only one manufacturer on the grid still holding concessions. Despite a strong showing in pre-season testing, Aprilia struggled to translate that to the race weekends, and with the ongoing issue of Andrea Iannone’s competition ban for substance misuse casting a shadow over proceedings due to the subsequent delay in its appeal hearing, the Noale factory failed to make many waves throughout 2020.
“Aprilia are the ones that can redesign that engine. They seemed to have good horsepower at the start of 2020 and then a few reliability issues and I think they did wind that back a little to increase the reliability but they seemed confident at the end of the season that they could improve.
“It’s more the acceleration, they do seem to have pretty good top speed but they don’t get the power to the ground as well as the other manufacturers so it seems a combination of balance, electronics, in terms of the power-delivery strategy and anti-wheelie, and getting the power to the ground without it wanting to wheelie or spin, so it’s a tricky balance to find that. You need the right weight distribution, you need the right amount of load into the tyres, the right centre of gravity to stop the bike wanting to wheelie. It is a fine balance and one that Aprilia haven’t quite struck on yet but it would be nice if they could make that step and we have six manufactures capable of fighting for the podium.
“At the moment we have five, which is a fantastic achievement from the current rulebook under IRTA and Dorna but if Aprilia could join the party as well with Aleix Espargaro and, well, it could be Bradley or Savadori alongside next year, we don’t quite know yet, but it would be nice to see them take that step forward and then we will possibly see a 24 bike grid in 2022 - whether that’s another two Aprilia’s or another two Suzuki’s on the grid remains to be seen.”