Sepang MotoGP Test Preview: Making Sense of All the Changes

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It is dangerous to draw too many lessons from the results of the Sepang test.

In the ten years between 2011 and 2020, the rider who set the fastest time at Sepang has only gone on to win the MotoGP title twice: Casey Stoner in 2011, and Marc Marquez in 2014.

That stat is complicated by the fact that between 2011 and 2015, there used to be two Sepang tests – I’ve taken the fastest time from both tests in those years.

Casey Stoner was fastest in 2012 as well, but ended up losing to Jorge Lorenzo that year, after smashing his foot at Indianapolis.

Dani Pedrosa was quickest in 2013, but was overshadowed by his rookie teammate Marc Marquez who took the crown on the first attempt.

After his dominant year in 2014, Marc Marquez was quickest at both tests in 2015, but notoriously ended up finishing behind the two Yamahas of Jorge Lorenzo and Valentino Rossi.

Yamahas were quickest in 2016 and 2017, Jorge Lorenzo and Maverick Viñales taking the honors at the test, but both lost out to Marc Marquez.

Lorenzo was quickest in 2018 again, and Danilo Petrucci topped the 2019 test, but both Ducati men lost their way for various reasons during the season, Marc Marquez having a battle on his hands with Andrea Dovizioso.

The Desmosedici was good, but Marquez was better. And in 2020, before the pandemic struck in earnest, Fabio Quartararo was fastest at Sepang, but would have to wait another year to be crowned champion, Joan Mir holding off Quartararo’s erstwhile and current teammate Franco Morbidelli for the title.

So being fastest at the Sepang test is nice. But it doesn’t necessarily mean all that much. Sure, it’s good for your pride, and for intimidating your rivals. But it would be unwise to start preemptively spending your championship bonus.

Lessons To Be Learned

That is very much why everyone goes testing, of course. There are no prizes handed out at the end, but the reward of grinding out, in this case, two days in the intense tropical heat are the lessons learned about the strengths and weaknesses of the bike you are going to start the new season with.

Where you are going to struggle, how to mitigate that. Where your strengths lie, and how to exploit that. Prioritizing areas where upgrades are desperately needed, and working out what you can cope with until the engineers back in the factory bring you new parts.

It is also, of course, a chance to be surprised and concerned about what your rivals have been doing. You might be secretly (or not so secretly) proud of having done something very clever with your bike.

But at the test, you get a chance to see what everyone else has done, and be upset that they (in most cases, Ducati) have come up with something you hadn’t thought about. Then you have a couple of weeks before the start of the season to worry about it.

This year, the teams have only two days at Sepang instead of the usual three, a result of the addition of Mandalika to the calendar.

As a new circuit on the calendar, riders and teams get to test at the Indonesian ahead of MotoGP’s first visit, to set gearing and learn the layout of the track, but also for Michelin to figure out what tires will work at the circuit.

Too Many Variables

That makes the two days at Sepang all the more important. As a known quantity, it should provide a better baseline to assess changes.

Even so, it has been two years since MotoGP last visited the Malaysian track, and a lot has changed, including the mass adoption of ride-height devices, which radically change the dynamics of the bike.

The shakedown test will have been used to understand how the latest generation of bikes work at Sepang, taking some of the testing load off the shoulders of the factory riders.

Ride-height devices and aerodynamics will be one of the main focuses for all of the factories at Sepang, simply because they have become such an important part of motorcycle performance.

The introduction of spec electronics sparked the exploration of new avenues of managing acceleration out of corners, to reduce wheelie and find extra acceleration and drive.

Once those particular cats were let out of the bag, they have taken on lives of their own, manufacturers gaining data and understanding of vehicle dynamics, and how to go faster without electronic aids.

All six manufacturers will be working on both those areas. Some, like Suzuki and to a lesser extent Honda, have a lot of catching up to do.

Others, like Ducati and to a lesser extent Aprilia, already have sophisticated systems which automatically deploy the ride-height device on corner exit using the way the weight balance of the bike shifts.

What we believe happens is that the rider decides on corner entry that they will want to use the device on corner exit, and so presses a lever.

That charges a canister that is then triggered by a movement of the bike – presumably the rise of the forks as the brakes are released, or perhaps the squatting of the rear as it touches down after braking – which engages the ride-height device and lowers the rear of the bike at a precise rate on corner exit.

Ducati, as the factory that forced the ride-height device onto all the other factories – it is said to be worth two or three tenths a lap, too big of an advantage to be sniffed at – are the factory who have come closest to perfecting the system.

Which makes you wonder if they believe there is much more advantage to be squeezed from the system, or if they have already moved on to the next big idea which nobody has thought of before.

What might that be? If I had thought of it, I would have sold it to Gigi Dall’Igna already…

Sepang is an important track to test ride-height devices at, as it has a number of slow corners followed by hard acceleration, and with two massive straights.

The reprofiled last corner has taken a chunk off the top speed on the front straight, but the bikes are still going fast there. Fast enough to get a feel of how big a factor top speeds are.

Because of the more flowing nature of Sepang, terminal velocity alone is not enough to be fast here – Hondas, Yamahas, and Ducatis have all led the tests here – but the track does have a way of showing up speed differentials.

Waving or Drowning?

The task, for Suzuki and Yamaha especially, is to try to close the gap with Ducati. This may be hard: at the Jerez test in November, the riders were already praising Ducati’s new engine.

It accelerated better, more usably, and Gigi Dall’Igna recently told Sky Italia that he was pleased with the power gains made with the new engine.

That doesn’t necessarily mean peak horsepower, of course. The “power gains” made could be anywhere.

The Ducati is almost certainly the most powerful bike on the grid already, and any power a bike produces has to make its way to the asphalt without the tire being shredded, or more likely, the tire spinning pointlessly.

But a few more horsepower further down the rev range might help acceleration, and the quicker you get out of the corner, the faster you can go at the end of the straight.

Already during the shakedown test, Michele Pirro has been using the long lower exhaust which was tried at Jerez. That suggests that they are looking for acceleration rather than outright hp numbers.

More acceleration married to a sophisticated ride-height device would produce a bike which gets out of corners very well, and can carry that speed a long way down the straight.

Suzuki has already tested an engine at Jerez that had more power, and both Joan Mir and Alex Rins were happy with the gains made. But Mir was also keen to make sure that the Suzuki could get the power to the ground.

That means work on electronics, on aerodynamics, and on the ride-height device. Suzuki went through two generations of the device in a relatively short time at the end of 2021, so the next evolution should make another step forward.

Yamaha also tried a new engine at Jerez, but it left Fabio Quartararo rather disappointed. He had been hoping for a sizable dollop of extra power from Yamaha, but that had not been forthcoming.

Quartararo had won the 2021 MotoGP title by making use of the braking of the Yamaha, and carrying corner speed through the fast turns. But it meant taking risks to make up for ground lost on sheer top speed, and giving up more speed to Ducati could tip the balance toward the Bologna factory.

Quartararo’s strength, using the stability of the Yamaha M1 in braking to catch and pass his rivals, is a sign of where the current frontier of MotoGP lies. It is getting harder to find more time on corner exit – hence the focus on ride-height devices – yet there is still room for improvement on corner entry.

That made the difference in 2021, and with Yamaha, Suzuki, KTM, and Aprilia all working hard on this area, it remains a key factor for 2022.

Spotting improvements in corner entry is hard, though. Revised frames help, but the changes can be subtle, if not entirely invisible, as sometimes it is a change in frame wall thickness of specific sections.

The Suzuki, for example, has a section of welds near the top of the frame, which suggests parts of three different thicknesses welded together to achieve a specific stiffness.

Suzuki have also used carbon fiber inserts and patches to modify stiffness during testing, in pursuit of a particular feel.

So while everyone is working on corner entry and braking, it may be difficult to see. No doubt all of the factories will have different frames, though the purpose of the changes may be hard to identify.

Corner entry was a particular concern for KTM, especially when Michelin changed the front tire allocation to bring more asymmetric fronts to some, which were less stiff on one side of the tire.

That meant the KTM couldn’t load the front as they had done previously, making braking and turn in more difficult. Though they managed to improve the situation significantly by the end of the year, they will need a bigger step in 2022.

For Aprilia, much of the focus was on the engine, Aleix Espargaro another rider disappointed in the power gains made at Jerez.

He was hoping for a new engine at Sepang, and judging by the pace of both Maverick Viñales and Aleix Espargaro during the shakedown tests, the signs are relatively positive.

Of course, the Aprilia riders were only measuring themselves against test riders and rookies, so that muddles the picture a little. The real proof will come at the weekend.

Which brings us to Honda. HRC are continuing to work on the completely revised bike first seen at Misano last year, as discussed in detail here. That will be the starting point for everything Honda are working on, the changes, already tested by Stefan Bradl at Jerez and at the shakedown test, likely to be minimal.

The main change for the Honda is a shift in weight balance, more weight on the rear to try to find some grip on corner entry. That means sacrificing some of the insane strength of the RC213V on the brakes.

But Honda, like KTM, were suffering with the asymmetric front tire, and so could not exploit the strength they had, while sacrificing drive in the corners.

The 2022 bike needs to have more rear grip, more rear drive, while avoiding the tendency to run wide as a result of giving up some front grip.

Return of the King?

This will be a particular challenge for Marc Marquez. The Repsol Honda rider won his six MotoGP titles as a result of being able to rely on the front to get the bike stopped and turned, in combination with top speed.

If he is to make it a 70% record at the end of his tenth season, then he will have to learn to cope with a bike that feels different.

But adaptability has always been one of Marquez’ strengths. Throughout his career, he has always been able to ride around problems, getting the most out of what the bike can do, instead of held up by what the bike can’t do.

I saw Marquez briefly at the Sepang circuit on Thursday, and he looked focused, hungry, and very fit. If his eyes and his shoulder are as good as he says they are, then Marquez will be a factor whatever bike Honda bring.

All that is speculation, however. On Saturday, the talking stops, and the timesheets will tell the story. Not the whole story, by any means. But the challenge the factories face will be much, much clearer.

Photo: MotoGP