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Write the outcome of the 2020 MotoGP™ season off at your peril. August may have arrived, but these are still very early days with 12 rounds and 300 points up for grabs. What a fantastic start by the superb 21-year-old Frenchman Fabio Quartararo but I promise you he knows the big challenges have yet to come. History backs him up.
Back in 1979, the new 500cc World Champion Kenny Roberts lay in a hospital bed as his great rival Barry Sheene won the opening round of the Championship at a sweltering San Carlos in Venezuela. Kenny had broken his back when he crashed in pre-season testing for Yamaha in Japan. His chances of retaining the title he had won after a captivating battle with the then World Champion Sheene had surely disappeared before the first wheels had turned in anger. Six weeks later the tough little American was not only back in action but winning. He won the second round by over six seconds from Virginio Ferrari at the Salzburgring in Austria to set up a successful defence of his title although it went down to the very last round. Third place at Le Mans in France at the 12th and final round in the race won by Sheene completed the season that had started in a hospital bed.
Thirteen years later in 1992 his great protégé Wayne Rainey had written off his chances of retaining his 500cc crown as the riders arrived in Assen for the eighth round of the Championship. Rainey could not even be there. The America Yamaha rider had crashed in practice at the previous round in Germany and his injuries forced him to retire from the race at Hockenheim. Mick Doohan won his fifth race of the season to open up what seemed an impregnable 65-point advantage over Rainey with just six rounds remaining.
That Friday afternoon of qualifying at Assen I will never forget. It was total carnage. Doohan crashed and broke his right leg. I was Media Manager for the Rothmans Honda team and listened as Mick and the team decided an operation at the local hospital rather than flying to London or the States would be the quickest solution. Mick even suggested he might be back for the next round in Hungary in just 15 days’ time. He was joined in the hospital by Kevin Schwantz who had broken his forearm and dislocated his hip after a collision with the Cagiva of Eddie Lawson. Schwantz, riding the Suzuki was second in the Championship, 53 points behind Doohan.
Then it all went so terribly wrong. Mick did not return to the track for seven long painful weeks. Gangrene had set in and to save having his leg amputated both legs had to be sewn together to try and restore the blood supply. All Mick could do was lie there praying he would not lose his leg and watch Rainey drip feed that precious 65-point Championship lead at the next three Grands Prix.
Mick finally returned for the penultimate round at Interlagos in Brazil. He was a shadow of the rider who had so dominated proceedings before Assen. Gaunt and grey after seven weeks of hell. His legs were spindly remnants of what they used to be, and his right calf was still encased in a light cast, but nothing was going to stop him defending that precious 22-point lead he still held over Rainey. I have never seen anybody give so much with absolutely no reward. After 28 laps, 121.044 kms of excruciating pain the Australian finished with no points in 12th place in the race won by Rainey, but he was back and ready for the final showdown at Kyalami in South Africa just two weeks later. He was hanging onto the Championship lead by two precious points.
Rainey clinched the title by four points after finishing third behind John Kocinski and Wayne Gardner. Doohan’s sixth place was a superhuman effort but not enough for the title he had looked an absolute dead cert to win. We all knew it was only a matter of time and two years later Mick won the first of his five successive World 500 titles.
Quartararo arrives at the magnificent Brno circuit for the third round on Sunday with a ten-point advantage over Maverick Viñales. There are three Grands Prix in just two weeks with 75 precious points at stake. All eyes will focus on World Champion Marc Marquez who looks likely to return after those first two rounds. Of course, the World Champion can pull back those 50 points while typically one rider has slipped under radar. Just two weeks before the season started Andrea Dovizioso had a broken collarbone re-plated. While others focused on his contract talks with Ducati the Italian got on with his job with third and sixth places in Jerez. Last year Dovi was second at Brno and won the year before. It’s straight on to the Red Bull Ring in Austria for two Grands Prix. Ducati have won there for the last four years with Dovi successful twice, including last year.
Remember this is MotoGP™ – never say never.
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