Some Final Notes from the MotoGP Test at Sepang

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It was 7:30 in the evening, and we were standing on the porch of the Petronas Yamaha SRT hospitality chalet, talking to Fabio Quartararo about how his day had gone when the rain came.

It was a brief, intense shower filling the air with the sweet scent that comes when rain falls after a period of intense heat. It seemed a somehow fitting end to one of the most intriguing MotoGP tests in years.

The weather had played a major role in the test, though this time, for all the right reasons. Normally, test days at Sepang are disrupted in the late afternoon by a heavy rainfall, leaving teams trying to cram as much work as possible into the mornings, and hoping that the track dries out in the afternoon.

Every shower brings dust and dirt to the track, washing away some of the rubber laid down on the track, slowing the track down.

But not this time. There was a brief thunderstorm on Monday night, but that was the last rain to fall at the circuit until Friday night. Three full days of a dry track, the pace increasing as more and more rubber got laid down. It should hardly be surprising that Jorge Lorenzo’s fastest ever lap of the circuit, set last year, should be broken.

But that it should be broken by nearly six tenths of a second, and by six riders, is a sign both of just how good the track conditions were, and just how competitive the field is currently in MotoGP.

How that competitiveness came about is a matter for another day, when I have time to take a much deeper dive into the many revolutions and evolutions currently underway in the paddock. But for now, a few short notes and instant reactions to the three days of testing at Sepang.

Honda – The Great Absentee

Marc Márquez topped the timesheets on the first day of the Sepang test, arguably more to prove to himself that he could be quick than as a real measure of his speed on the Honda RC213V. On Thursday and Friday, Márquez was much further down the order, finishing some nine tenths behind the fastest rider on each day.

With Jorge Lorenzo absent, recovering from a broken scaphoid, the only other full-time rider on a factory-spec RC213V was Cal Crutchlow. But Crutchlow was not at full fitness either: though riding was easier than he had expected, the stiffness in his right ankle meant that he was slow on the rear brake (for relative values of ‘slow’; no longer superhumanly quick and subtle would be a more accurate characterization).

Under normal circumstances, the three injured Honda riders would have been a much more prominent presence on the timesheets, pushing hard for a time, running race simulations, testing new parts.

But Marc Márquez was focusing on acceleration and top speed, lacking the strength (and the willingness to risk losing the front while braking) to take corner entry to the absolute limit.

And Cal Crutchlow’s ankle didn’t allow him to push for a race simulation: having a couple of crashes during the test served as warning enough not to push his luck too far.

That left only Stefan Bradl on the 2019 bike – Takaaki Nakagami is riding a 2018 Honda RC213V – to test the prototype bike HRC brought to Sepang. Bradl is an exceptional test rider, fast enough to be competitive, intelligent enough to provide excellent and precise feedback, but if he was as fast as Márquez, Lorenzo, or Crutchlow, he would still be in MotoGP.

This is a roundabout way of saying that the results of the Honda can be largely disregarded. For HRC, this was genuinely a test, working on parts and focusing on the long term, rather than the battle of egos shootout punctuated by some test work which tests usually end up as.

Take into account all the limitations which Honda faced at Sepang, and the competition should be deeply worried. Despite his dodgy shoulder, Márquez managed fast and consistent laps. Crutchlow was the same on the LCR Honda. Bradl was very close to the front on the prototype bike.

Above all, there were very few complaints from the riders. There was still work to do, but the engine was fast – very fast, if rumors are to be believed – and the bike a little easier to manage than in previous years.

Honda may have been invisible at Sepang, but that was because they were operating under the radar. If Márquez is fit enough at Qatar, if Lorenzo continues to adapt as quickly as he did before the winter break, and if Crutchlow continues the momentum he picked up in the second half of 2018 before he shattered his ankle, Honda are going to very hard to beat.

Yamaha – A New Mood

There were days last season, during Yamaha’s Year In The Wilderness, when the small group of journalists who work together to cover all of the media debriefs would draw straws for who would go to the Yamaha hospitality to listen to Maverick Viñales, or ‘Mardy Mav’, as we would sometimes jokingly brand him. Viñales radiated despair and frustration in equal measure, and gave sullen answers to the media’s questions.

That was different at Sepang. A change of crew chief – Ramon Forcada may be technically brilliant, but his fiery temperament can make him difficult to work with if characters clash – and a vastly improved Yamaha M1 have transformed Viñales’ mood. With momentum going his way – Viñales is just as difficult to work with as Forcada – the Spaniard is very upbeat.

His race pace was outstanding on both Thursday and Friday, and he was fast on both the used medium and on the new soft tire, both with grip and lacking grip.

As I chatted to Ducati Corse boss Gigi Dall’Igna after interviewing him about their use of the Megaride tire performance simulation software, it was Maverick Viñales whose name Dall’Igna brought up when asked about pace.

Valentino Rossi didn’t feature quite so far up the timesheets, but the Italian was almost as positive as his teammate. Sure, he had problems – acceleration is a particular issue for the M1 – but the problem with tire consumption on used tires was largely addressed, and new ideas are on the way.

That new atmosphere, the feeling that the engineers in Japan are on the same page as the riders in the Monster Energy Yamaha team, has restored the faith of the riders, and made them believe that solutions will come.

Was this a result of the changes in the team structure? Not really, a Yamaha team member said, pointing out that the parts responsible for the big step forward in performance had come from parts – the new engine, software updates, chassis parts – which had been under development for a long time before the changes had even been decided on.

Yamaha had started to turn this ship around some time ago. The changes made at the beginning of the year have only accelerated this. #BeastModeOn may well be a hashtag embodying a glib marketing slogan. But that doesn’t mean that everyone inside Yamaha doesn’t actually believe it.

Ducati – Fast, Slow, Exotic

Lovers of weird tech porn were treated to a veritable cornucopia of visible updates (by MotoGP standards) from Ducati at Sepang.

A new triple-decker aerodynamic package; the return of the torque arm; a trick carbon tank cover, slotted and vented for extra cooling (and designed using CFD to ensure that the turbulence around the rider’s helmet did not impede that too much); and the wingnut lever on the top yoke, which may or may not be a holeshot device, or a cable for disabling the mass damper in the ‘salad box’ in the bike’s tail, or, maybe even the lever which operates a latch which dispenses the dressing for the salad in the salad box.

So much to see, and speculate about.

Whatever the updates did, the Ducati is at least fast. Maverick Viñales couldn’t help but be impressed at his own time when he broke Jorge Lorenzo’s fastest lap at Sepang on Friday morning. He was less impressed – or perhaps more impressed – when four Ducatis went even faster, with Danilo Petrucci at the head of them.

The order of the Ducati riders was perhaps as exciting as the speed at which the lap record fell. Danilo Petrucci remains the most underrated rider in the paddock – “because he comes from Superbike!” exclaimed Cal Crutchlow when asked – and is truly a rags-to-riches story.

From Superstock to Moto2 to CRT to factory Ducati rider, making incredible sacrifices to work his way to the top. Petrucci can rightly be called a self-made man, unlike so many others who would bestow that title upon themselves.

Second fastest at Sepang? The rookie Pecco Bagnaia. Rookies are supposed to work their way up to speed, taking their time to learn how to ride a MotoGP bike. Bagnaia is a quick learner, intelligent, willing to listen and take advice.

A fast lap proves Bagnaia’s potential, but the real test will come during the races. The challenge of managing tires, maximizing their performance over every phase of the race, is a far tougher task. It may take the Italian a little longer to master, but his speed at Sepang suggests that this will come.

With Jack Miller and Andrea Dovizioso rounding out the top four, the GP19 is clearly quick, but Dovizioso was, as always, conscious that this was just a snapshot.

“It doesn’t show the reality of the final result but I am happy,” Dovizioso said. They had improved the bike, but a look at race pace shows the Ducatis are a tenth or two behind Maverick Viñales and Alex Rins.

Suzuki – You’ve Come a Long Way Baby

Suzuki is the test case for Dorna’s new MotoGP rules. They came back when it was clear that a spec ECU was on the way, which meant one less component to develop and master, reducing costs.

They grew competitive, won a race, chose the wrong engine for the 2017 season, and won concessions for 2018. They used those concessions wisely, and scored nine podiums that year. And if the rain hadn’t caused a red flag in the race at Valencia, they might even have had a win.

The Sepang test suggests that Suzuki won’t have much longer to wait. The bike benefited from the new engine debuted before the winter break, and a new fairing which improved both the anti-wheelie effect and top speed.

Alex Rins had an outstanding test, his name being mentioned by most of the top riders, sometimes in a mixture of surprise and awe. “Alex Rins!” Andrea Dovizioso said, his voice rising in sync with his eyebrows.

Check the race pace on Rins and you will see he is second only to Viñales. He was obviously fast on Thursday, and quietly formidable on Friday. He is exuding an air of confidence, taking on the role of senior rider and growing easily into it.

Rins is leading this project, and he wears that responsibility lightly. If I had to pick who will finish third in the championship in 2019 (behind Marc Márquez and either Maverick Viñales or Jorge Lorenzo), it would be Alex Rins.

KTM – The Journey Continues

The Austrian factory buried their riders under a veritable deluge of parts at Sepang, so much so that it felt like they were having difficult from telling the wood from the trees.

But here, too, there were signs of real progress being made. Pol Espargaro felt that the bike was getting better in almost every area, its weaknesses being reduced, though much work still remains to be done.

More than that, though, there were signs that KTM’s rider signings could pay dividends later this year. Johann Zarco kept a cool head and worked on what he needed to work on, rather than what a factory might want him to test.

His diligence paid off: Zarco was faster than Pol Espargaro on Thursday, then repeated the feat on Friday. It is still very early in the process, but it is starting to look like KTM have the top rider they had hoped to sign for the 2019 season.

More positive is the fact that the RC16 appears to work with both the wild, hard-riding style of Pol Espargaro, and the smooth, inch-precise style of Johann Zarco. That is a sign that the base of the bike is solid, and they are moving towards the stage where development becomes refinement rather than revolution.

Pol Espargaro estimated that they had cut their race pace by approximately half a second a lap. Where they are still struggling is in pushing for a single fast lap. When your bike is competitive in the race, you can’t afford to qualify on the sixth row.

If Zarco’s speed was good, Miguel Oliveira’s pace was even more promising. The rookie in the Tech3 satellite team finished within a couple of tenths of the vastly more experienced Pol Espargaro, putting three of the four KTMs all in close proximity. Another fast learner, Oliveira is another rider to keep a close eye, the Sepang test tells us.

Aprilia – Magical Mystery Tour

It was a strange week for Aprilia, a week of ups and downs. Aleix Espargaro was immensely enthusiastic about the 2019 RS-GP, believing that they were finally heading in the right direction after the misadventure of 2018.

This was the direction they should have taken with the 2018 bike, building on the solid 2017 machine, instead of heading off into the weeds and losing a year.

Espargaro had both good speed and solid pace. He felt comfortable on the brakes, and the only thing that was missing was some power, he said. Aprilia had put themselves back in the game after a tough year.

They should have had two riders at the sharp end in Sepang, but Andrea Iannone appears to have found a way to sabotage his career once again. He missed the shakedown test on Sunday, part of the day on Wednesday and Thursday, and all of the final day on Friday.

Officially, he was suffering the aftereffects of antibiotics used to treat a tooth infection, but most observers were skeptical of that explanation, to say the least.

The unsubstantiated rumor doing the rounds was that Iannone’s problems stemmed from another bout of plastic surgery. Compare pictures of him from now, or from late 2018, to those taken while he was at Ducati in 2015, and he looks like a distant relative. For such a change to be natural seems vanishingly improbable.

And surgery comes with risks. The danger of infection is always present – one of the reasons Marc Márquez stopped riding so early every day was fear of inflammation of his healing shoulder – and the reconfigured bones in the face – modified nose, cheekbones, and jawlines are common – can play havoc with a helmet, the pads pushing bones weakened by surgery into positions they are not supposed to be.

Whether this is the case for Iannone or not is unknown. But Andrea Iannone has more raw talent than almost any other rider on the MotoGP grid. He has won a MotoGP race (no mean feat), and racked up poles and podiums.

But, he so often seems to find ways to get in the way of his own talent, of messing up chances he is given. Team bosses have a lot of patience with exceptionally gifted riders. But at some point, their patience can dry up.