Joan in a million
Speak to anyone that has worked closely with Joan Mir, the new MotoGP world champion, and it soon becomes clear his natural talent quickly leaves an impression. “I was convinced from the first time I saw him on one of my bikes: immediately,” says Christian Lundberg, team principle of Leopard Racing and the figure that brought him into the world championship. “Immediately!”
Pete Benson, Mir’s crew chief during his single season in Moto2, was the same. “In Moto3, you stay on the side of the tyre. (But) The Moto2 tyres don’t have a lot of edge grip. So, you have to pick the bike up, get them off the edge. That’s something that people generally struggle with when they come from Moto3. He didn’t. He got onto it really quickly.”
A spitting, breathing MotoGP machine is the acid test, however. But it was no different when Mir first exited on Suzuki’s GSX-RR at the end of 2018. “We did a private test at Motegi before year one,” says Mir’s current crew chief Frankie Carchedi. “It’s always difficult to compare or analyse anything because he was the only one there. But at turn eleven, the downhill, hard braking, he was braking later than we were doing in qualifying the year before. We thought, ‘We’ve either got someone very special or the track conditions have changed a lot!’”
Very special, indeed. No one wins the Holy Grail of two-wheel racing in their second season without tonnes of natural ability. It can be forgotten the 23-year old is still in his fifth year in this paddock. Valentino Rossi, for example, won that first 500cc title in his sixth. Marc Marquez’s first MotoGP championship came in his rookie year. But it also his sixth on the world stage.
But more than Mir’s natural speed, it was his self-belief and presence of mind that stood out in 2020. His cool thinking was at odds with the late season meltdown of early leader Fabio Quartararo. He was simply faster than the likes of Andrea Dovizioso, more consistent than Franco Morbidelli and Pol Espargaro. There was the odd slip. Yet none as jarring or costly as the one which befell Alex Rins in July. Or Marc Marquez. And it pains me to write it but Maverick Viñales can only dream of the conviction Mir has in his own abilities.
Yes, Sunday was a lowkey means of securing a landmark achievement. But no matter how you view it, Mir is the deserving winner of the 2020 title. Others have won more or qualified better but in this craziest of years Mir pieced together a campaign of relentless consistency and composure when others failed to string three weekends together. At 23 years and 75 days, he became the seventh youngest rider in history to win it. Suzuki’s first champion in 20 years. And should he fail to win the season finale, Mir will have done it with the lowest win haul in history.
In July six of MotoGP’s leading men didn’t even think he’d make the championship’s top five. They weren’t alone. But from the start, Mir had a quiet belief that he could translate an impeccable preseason of testing into regular results. “We can do a great job,” he told me during the first lockdown. “Maybe there will be some difficult situations for the experienced riders, some mistakes and we can take profit from this.” Crew chief Carchedi says the confirmation in early May that his rider would stay with Suzuki into 2021 and ’22 aided this belief before race one. “To say we never thought about (the title) would be a complete lie. He believed in himself. When he got the extra two years, he changed in the sense that, he knew he had those extra years.”
Even in the tough moments of the early season, there was belief. Mir crashed out of race one and, thanks to a poor start, was taken out of race three. Leaving Brno in August, he was 14th overall with just eleven points to his name, 48 less than Quartararo. But he saw the positives. “I remember him doing the warm-up behind Brad (Binder), twelve laps,” recalls Carchedi. “He actually came in and went, ‘Brad’s fast! The first three or four laps, he went away. But I could stay with him.’ After the race he thought it was great Brad won. From a psychological point of view, he knew he had that speed as well. He never doubts himself, that’s for sure.”
This kind of belief was familiar to Lundberg during Mir’s title year in Moto3. “He wasn’t afraid of the races,” he remembers. “Maybe he started 16th on the grid but he would tell me, ‘Don’t worry. The bike is OK so tomorrow I will do a good race.’ He was really, really confident in himself.”
By Barcelona, a run of three straight podiums gave the rider total conviction this could be his year. “In Styria it was the first race that I was really competitive, fighting for the victory,” Mir said. “But in Misano and Barcelona I said, ‘I’m not only fast in Styria. I’m able to maintain this feeling with the bike.’”
Aside from the merits of his rivals, like much of the paddock Mir also had to contend with the paranoia that comes in a time of a global pandemic. This was a doubly nerve-wracking Autumn as he and his team went to great lengths to avoid contact with the outside world. The team didn’t go home after Aragon, preferring to remain in a hotel in Spain in anticipation of the final push. “Even his girlfriend Alejandra stopped working over a month ago so she wasn’t in contact with anyone,” Carchedi says.
That’s a lot to take on board. But Mir rarely gave the impression he was anything other than calm. At the European Grand Prix, when asked the key to maintaining serenity, he quipped, “Chamomile!” But in truth, he’s a well-balanced, normal guy with a solid group around him. He and Carchedi clicked from the off. At the track he’s flanked by long-time friend Tomas Comas and personal manager Paco Sanchez. And a late entry into the sport – Mir first started riding at ten years old – has given him a perspective on life that doesn’t constantly fixate on going in circles.
“He’s one of the most normal people,” says Benson. “He’s like Frankie (Morbidelli, Benson’s previous rider in Marc VDS) – very easy to get along with. He has a broad knowledge of life and also a good balance in life. As much as he wants to win races, he also has another side to him, where he has good fun and enjoys himself. He’s just an everyday kind of guy with a special talent.”
And the scary thing for the rest is Mir’s just getting started. If he’s been this good in year two, can you imagine his speed in year three? His rapid rise to the pinnacle of the sport indicates this was no flash in the pan.
By Neil Morrison @NeilMorrison87
Photos by Monster Energy