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Once upon a time, a post-race test would see almost a full complement of riders taking part. But in the past couple of years that has changed, as spec software has meant fewer things to do.

The spec software, the engine freeze, the aerodynamics freeze: there is less to test, and so more factories are opting out of the one-day post-race tests.

So it was at Jerez on Monday that the factory Ducati riders, the Ecstar Suzuki team, and the Gresini Aprilia squad all decided to skip the test at Jerez in favor of some private testing at Mugello later in the week.

Behind closed doors, they can work a little more freely, away from the prying eyes of the press, and especially of a contingent of photographers.

There are other reasons to be wary of a post-race test. The track is in as good a condition as it is going to get on the Monday after a race. It has been swept clean by a weekend of racing, and the last class to smear its rubber all over the track is MotoGP.

So the bikes are treated to a clean, well rubbered in circuit, allowing lap times to drop. The average improvement between the race and the test was nearly 1.3 seconds a lap.

About half the 16 permanent riders who took to the track on Monday improved their times from qualifying. It is fair to say that Monday tests can be deceptive.

Racing produces drama. When you put 24 riders on an equal number of 270hp MotoGP machines, you can never be certain of the outcome.

The tired and obvious story lines you had written in your head before the race have a tendency to go up in smoke once the flag drops. Racing produces a new reality, often surprising, rarely predictable.

But that doesn’t stop us from drawing up a picture after practice of how the race is going to play out. At a tight track like Jerez, passing is difficult, and so the rider who can get the holeshot can try to open a gap and run away at the front.

After qualifying, it was clear that the three factory-backed Hondas were strongest, the Repsols of Marc Márquez and Dani Pedrosa, together with the LCR Honda of Cal Crutchlow were all a cut above the rest.

It would be an all-RC213V podium, with the other manufacturers left to fight over the scraps. The Ducatis would do battle with the Suzukis, and the Yamahas would find some pace at last, and get in among it at the front. It didn’t pan out that way, of course.

“To get one tenth here is so difficult,” Cal Crutchlow said after qualifying at Jerez. The timesheets bore witness in black and white to the wisdom of the LCR Honda rider’s words.

In FP3, there was less than four tenths between fourth place and thirteenth place. In FP4, there was less than half a second between second and ninth places. And in Q2, just 0.117 seconds separates second place from seventh place. The field is tight because the track is tight. And twisty.

Whether that makes for a close and exciting race is yet to be seen, however.

There hasn’t really been a close race for victory since 2010, when Jorge Lorenzo was so elated after beating Dani Pedrosa and Valentino Rossi in a tight battle that he jumped into the artificial pond used to store water for firefighting, and nearly drowned when his leathers became waterlogged.

Times are often very tight at Jerez, but if you lose a tenth to the rider in front of you, it becomes almost impossible to get it back.

So qualifying well is crucial. And qualifying well is a question of strategy.

Choosing the right time to go out, choosing the right front tire to manage the stresses of a qualifying lap, choosing the right number of stops, getting a perfect lap in when the tire is at its best, all of this has to come together just right if you are to have any hope of a front row start.

That different riders were employing different strategies was evident from the start of Q2.

On paper, things are close at Jerez. At the end of the first day, the top eight riders are all within half a second of each other. The first fourteen are within a second.

You would normally see the kind of tightly bunched times on a Moto2 result sheet, not MotoGP, as former Moto3 and Moto2 crew chief, and now Eurosport commentator Peter Bom put it. It has all the makings of a very tight race.

Or it does if you judge it only by the headline times. Dig a little deeper and a different picture appears.

Scrap the riders who put in a new soft tire and chased a fast lap, and focus only on race pace on used tires, and it Sunday’s Spanish Grand Prix at Jerez looks like being fought out between the Hondas Repsol and LCR, Ecstar Suzuki rider Andrea Iannone, and just maybe, Johann Zarco on the Monster Tech3 Yamaha.

Sure, a bunch of people did some 1’38s and low 1’39s, but Marc Márquez, Dani Pedrosa, and Cal Crutchlow were banging out that kind of pace consistently, on tires which have more than half race distance on them.

Is it going to be a Honda whitewash? “It is still too early to say,” Cal Crutchlow told reporters, trying to dampen expectations after finishing the day as fastest.

“A lot of the other bikes take one day and overnight they are there. If they are sliding a lot then they try to fix it for day two. If we’re sliding then that’s our natural bike and we don’t make the same improvement overnight. I don’t think we’ll suddenly have another second but other people might find another half a second.”

It has been a strange and fascinating first three races of the 2018 MotoGP season, but as the paddock returns to Europe, we get the first chance to see how the series will look under conditions more usually understood as normal.

The three flyaways which kick the season off all have their own peculiarities which tend to skew the results.

Qatar happens at night, on a dusty track. Argentina and Austin are races on circuits which don’t see enough action, which the teams have only visited a few times, making the track difficult to judge. And Marc Márquez always wins at Austin anyway.

That all changes at Jerez. The next six tracks – Jerez, Le Mans, Mugello, Barcelona, Assen, Sachsenring – have been on the calendar for a decade or more.

The riders have lapped the circuits thousands of times at races and in testing, and the teams and factories have enough data from the tracks to fill a small country’s worth of data centers. This is familiar ground, and so everything changes.

“Coming here and it’s like the season starts again, you can breathe again,” is how Pol Espargaro describes it. “I don’t say that we are bad in those countries, but this is home, it’s where I’ve been racing here for many many years.” Exactly how many years?

“My first race here was in the Catalan championship, when I was 13 years old, I’m 26? So 2005, 2006? Look how many years racing here!”

“But the jet lag, the food, the timing when you eat, when you sleep, the people who come to the track, we have more fans here than in any other place in the world, and this makes you feel good. And also we have much more data here than at other tracks, so for us it’s much easier to face this GP.”

One of the biggest dominoes of the 2018 MotoGP Silly Season has just fallen into place. Today, KTM announced that they have signed Johann Zarco to a two-year contract for the 2019 and 2020 seasons. That Zarco would leave the Monster Yamaha Tech3 squad had been widely anticipated, the only question being which factory team he would end up in. The Frenchman was an extremely hot property, after displaying blistering speed on the satellite Yamaha M1 in 2017. Zarco had offers from Suzuki, Repsol Honda, and KTM, though only Honda and KTM were in the frame for the Frenchman. Zarco and his management were still unhappy with the way Suzuki had treated the Frenchman, after the Japanese factory failed to honor a pre-contract Zarco had signed ahead of the 2017 season, choosing Alex Rins instead.

With the MotoGP paddock back in Europe and heading to Jerez, the first round of contract announcements is upon us, with the second wave not far behind.

First domino to fall for the moment is Pol Espargaro, who will be staying at KTM for the 2019 and 2020 seasons. Ahead of his first home grand prix of 2018, KTM today officially announced that they will be retaining the services of the Spaniard for the next two years.

Espargaro’s signing had been broadly expected. The Spaniard has outperformed his teammate Bradley Smith, and with the Austrian factory’s MotoGP project moving from the development phase to the point where they need to start producing results, Espargaro has been favored over Smith.