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David Emmett

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The MotoGP schedule is already packed, the riders coming off a free weekend after completing one triple-header before embarking on the next, at Le Mans and Aragon twice.

But about half the MotoGP grid has an appointment on the Algarve before they start a weekend of racing at Le Mans.

On Wednesday and Thursday, thirteen full-time riders and seven test riders will take to the track at Portimao for a combined MotoGP test and track familiarization session.

The test serves several purposes: for the manufacturers to gather information about the track, and find a base setup and gearing to serve as a starting point for when MotoGP returns for the final round of the 2020 season; for Michelin, to get an idea of the kinds of tires needed at the circuit; and for the riders to assess the circuit in terms of safety and to understand the layout.

As Pecco Bagnaia let slip at Barcelona on Sunday night, Ducati today announced their rider line up for the 2021 season, in both the factory team and the Pramac squad.

As expected, there were no surprises: Pecco Bagnaia gets a promotion to the factory team alongside Jack Miller, while Johann Zarco is promoted to the Pramac team, where he will be partnered with current Moto2 rider Jorge Martin.

Bagnaia had been expected to get the nod over Zarco after a string of strong performances since his return from injury.

What did we learn from qualifying for the Grand Prix of Catalonia on Saturday? We learned that qualifying is extremely deceptive.

The front of the grid is a mixture of riders who are genuinely fast on race pace, and riders who are only quick over a single lap.

But what we also learned is that the track at Montmelo, outside Barcelona, is so hard on tires that qualifying is only a very small part of the story. It is uncertain whether where you qualify will have any bearing on the outcome of the race.

The problem at Barcelona is that the track is punishing on tires. You do not get to the end of the race with tire to spare. Indeed, you may not make it to the end of the race at all.

“It’s only Friday.” Something you tend to hear from riders on, well, Fridays, when you ask them who they think is looking strong.

Friday is the day that people are getting up to speed, evaluating different setup directions, making a preliminary assessment of tires, and putting in a banker lap when time and conditions allow.

Drawing conclusions from either session of practice on Friday is fraught with difficulty. Doubly so for Friday at the Circuit de Catalunya in Montmelo, near Barcelona.

The 2020 MotoGP season motors relentlessly on, as we visit Montmelo for the last race of the current triple header. The seventh race in eleven weeks, Round 8 marks the numerical mid-point of the season.

Sort of: it is race 7 of 14 for the MotoGP class, but race 8 of 15 for Moto2 and Moto3, who raced at Qatar.

And as winter approaches in the northern hemisphere and Covid-19 cases start to rise again in Europe, the chances of us making it all the way to Portimao in late November and completing the remaining 6 races after Barcelona are significantly less than 100%.

The relentless round of races is brutal for everyone except fans and riders, most preferring racing every weekend to sitting at home. Especially in a season as up and down as 2020, where the direction of the championship seems to change every week.

It was an almost perfect lap. Pecco Bagnaia had sat at the top of the timesheets for a good chunk of Q2 after beating Maverick Viñales’ best time up to that point by three tenths of a second.

As the final minutes of qualifying ticked down, his rivals closed in, Viñales snatching back top spot with five minutes left to go.

But Bagnaia wasn’t done yet. He had been fastest in FP3, then set a withering pace in FP4, and came into qualifying brimming with confidence.

Just how close is MotoGP at Misano? The gap between Brad Binder in first and Taka Nakagami in second is just 0.002s, two thousandths of a second.

The top five are all within 0.071, just over seven hundredths of a second. The top ten are within half a second, and there are eighteen (18) riders within a second. It seems fair to say it is insanely close.

Or it would be if that were an accurate reflection of the actual state of the MotoGP grid. But the combined standings at the end of the first day of practice at the second MotoGP round at Misano in two weeks is rather deceptive.

Precisely because it is the first day of practice for the second race on consecutive weekends at the same track.

We are in the toughest stretch of the punishing 2020 MotoGP schedule, ahead of the second race of the first of three triple headers – 9 races in 11 weeks, in three sets of three.

It is a brutal start to this stretch, with last Sunday’s race followed by a test on Tuesday, then practice starting again on Friday. Over the course of 10 days, the MotoGP riders will have been riding for 7 of them.

What will the second race at Misano look like, after the MotoGP riders have already have 4 days of riding at the track? 

MotoGP is set to make its debut at the Autodromo Internacional do Algarve in Portimao in November, as the last race of the 2020 season, and as a brand new track on the calendar, the teams, factories, and riders have no data on the circuit.

To help them prepare for the race, Dorna has organized a test at the circuit ahead of the race.

The timing of the test is a little unfortunate. The test is due to take place on October 7th and 8th, directly before the French Grand Prix at Le Mans.

It should come as no surprise that in a paradoxical 2020 MotoGP season in a year full of paradoxes, a new surface at Misano should have simultaneously both improved the track and made it much worse.

Yet the paradox is relatively easy to understand: the tarmac chosen for the new surface has a lot more grip, but it is also softer when it gets hot, deforming more and producing more and bigger bumps. The additional grip is great, but you can’t always benefit when your wheels are being kicked up into the air.

“There’s more grip than last year but the track is similar to motocross!” Fabio Quartararo told us. “A lot of bumps. Positive that there is more grip but we need to adapt because honestly the first exit in FP1 was really difficult to manage the bumps.”

One of the things making the bumps so difficult to manage is where they are. “It’s bad,” said Jack Miller, “especially in the fastest sector, it’s really quite bad. That back section, the bike just starts shaking and bouncing, and one lap you can get through there semi OK, and the next lap you’re just bouncing around and you can’t really get back on the track.”

“Down to the back straight, before the first fast kink, on the dead straight piece it’s bumpy, the bike is going like that,” Miller said, waving his hands about to indicate just how much the bike moves. That was tricky as you approach the fastest part of the track. “You’re trying to get the bike settled as much as you can to tip it in. It doesn’t feel great.”