The 1999 125cc championship was a hard-fought affair. Masao Azuma dominated the first half of the season, claiming five of the first eight races, and taking a commanding lead. Marco Melandri seized control of the second half, copying Azuma’s feat of five wins from eight races. Roberto Locatelli took a couple of victories, as did Gianluigi Scalvini.
None of them ended up taking the title, however. It was Emilio Alzamora who lifted the 1990 125 crown, despite not owning a single race that season. He came close a handful of times, but never managed to walking the top step of the rostrum.
How did Alzamora pull it off? By finishing on the podium in ten races and only failing to score once. In the races he didn’t finish in the champange, Alzamora was in the top six on every occasion bar one. Habitual winners Azuma and Melandri had three and four zeroes to their names respectively, and Azuma compounded that by regularly dropping points. Alzamora won the title through sheer consistency.
The 2020 MotoGP championship bears more than a passing resemblance to the 125cc title chase back in 1999. There is a voracious victor: Fabio Quartararo has taken three wins from the first eight races. Maverick Viñales has one and a couple of seconds, in Jerez behind Quartararo. Andrea Dovizioso has a victory and a podium, and a host of points-scoring finishes. But there have also been six winners from eight so far, and thirteen different riders have been on the podium. It has been hard to discern a pattern.
As in 1999, there is one rider who has a strong claim to the title without having won a single race. Suzuki Ecstar’s Joan Mir is currently second in the standings, 8 points behind leader Fabio Quartararo. Perhaps not coincidentally, also the order the two finished on Sunday in Barcelona as well.
Thinking about it, the Barcelona race was a pretty good metaphor for the different ways the two riders have ended up where they are in the championship. Quartararo got a strong start and quickly made his way forward to the front, fading late but with enough in hand to retain the lead. Mir got off to a slower start, took longer to get up to speed, but once he did, started rapidly hunting down the Frenchman in the final laps.
So it has been in the championship as well. Quartararo leapt out to an early lead, winning the first two races at Jerez. Mir crashed out of the first race, finished fifth in the second, then got taken out by Iker Lecuona at Brno. Three races into the 2020 championship, Quartararo led with 59 points, while Joan Mir was a lowly fourteenth on 11 points.
Since then, Mir has been a veritable steamroller. At the Red Bull Ring, he scored his first podium in the first race, then finishing fourth in the second, though he was robbed of an almost certain victory when the race was red flagged. Since then, he hasn’t been off the rostrum. After scoring just 11 points in the first three races, he has racked up 89 points in the last five.
He has vastly outscored his rivals. In the last five races, he banked 34 points more than Jack Miller, the next highest. Over the last four he outperforms second-placed Franco Morbidelli by 23 points. In fact, take away the first GP of the season, and Joan Mir would be leading the championship by 17 points.
Going by the numbers, Mir has to be the favourite for the title. He is the only rider to be able to finish inside the top five every race he finishes. He is showing the kind of consistency which earned Emilio Alzamora a championship.
Can Mir go one better and actually win a GP? Austria 2 suggested he could, before the race had to be restarted. Mir’s problem is that the Suzuki GSX-RR has been designed to get the most out of its tyres over full race distance, meaning that Mir and teammate Alex Rins always have something extra at the end of the race.
All motorcycle design is a compromise, however. The Suzuki spares its tyres by not placing too much load through the tyre at an particular point. That advantage comes at a price: you can’t load the tyres to extract maximum performance from them when chasing a fast lap. The Suzukis qualify poorly, especially when grip is high, and that leaves Mir and Rins with work to do. Fortunately, being gentle on rubber makes that work of cutting through the field a good deal easier. Put this together and you get a bike which qualifies badly but races well, making podiums easy but victories very hard to come by.
Does Joan Mir regard himself as the favourite for the title? “It’s too early to say now,” he said on Sunday. “Of course we are the most constant riders on the grid and for sure on the classification we are really close. I think there’s a lot of championship in front of us, a lot of points to give and a lot of riders that are really, really strong.” Joan Mir has a point. But it is hard not to draw the conclusion that Mir is the strongest of them all.
By David Emmett @motomatters