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The second day of the final preseason test of 2020 showed pretty much the same pattern as the first day: Maverick Viñales didn’t finish the day on top of the timesheets, but the Monster Energy Yamaha rider clearly has the best pace, capable of running consistent low 1’54s, a tenth or two faster than anyone else.

Fabio Quartararo posted the fastest single lap on Sunday, and he and Alex Rins were the only riders getting anywhere near to Viñales’ pace.

As a benchmark, Quartararo posted 14 laps in the 1’54s, Viñales 13 laps, Rins 11 laps. Joan Mir was the only other consistent contender, with 6 laps in the 1’54s, and a solid race pace in the low 1’50s, high 1’54s. The Yamahas and Suzukis are looking very strong indeed at Qatar.

That was borne out by Maverick Viñales’ media debrief. Once, those were glum affairs, in which Viñales would sullenly respond with nearly monosyllabic answers. His mood has improved since last year, especially since his results became more competitive in the second half of the season.

This year, he is positively upbeat: he used the word ‘happy’ ten times in three-and-a-half minutes speaking to reporters. Two years ago, the only time Viñales used the word ‘happy’ was when he preceded it with the words ‘we can’t be’.

Danilo Petrucci certainly believes that Viñales is the man to beat. “Maverick has been really, really fast, also in Sepang,” the Ducati Factory rider told reporters.

“I think at the moment, he is the rider in the best shape, absolutely, both in the single lap and race pace. He can ride in high 1’54, and I think nobody is able to do that.”

If there is one thing that we learned from the Sepang test, it is that the field is even closer this year. In Malaysia, 18 riders finished within a second of one another. That pattern has continued at Qatar, Pol Espargaro in fourteenth just 0.987 second behind the fastest man, Alex Rins.

As comparison, the KTM rider was the last rider within a second of the fastest man after the first day of this test in 2019, but then, there were just eight riders ahead of him, rather than thirteen. And there was a gap of nearly four tenths of a second between the riders in second and third last year. Not so in 2020.

But if the single lap times were close, the race pace was a lot less so. Maverick Viñales towered over the rest in terms of consistent pace, with only the Suzukis of Alex Rins and Joan Mir getting anywhere near the pace of the Monster Energy Yamaha rider.

Viñales laid down a real benchmark, with ten of his 47 laps in the 1’54s, which is under the race lap record. That included a run of ten laps, seven of which were 1’54s, five of which were consecutive. That is a rather terrifying race pace for the Spaniard to lay down, just two weeks ahead of the first race.

Viñales has a reputation for being the winter testing champion, frequently topping the timesheets, yet never quite able to convert that into a consistent championship challenge once the season gets underway.

But there is reason to think things are a little different this time: not only is the Yamaha M1 a good bit faster than it was last year, but Viñales himself has a different attitude.

From the humid heat of Malaysia to the cool desert night air, MotoGP enters the final test before the season kicks off in two weeks. The Qatar MotoGP test is something of an oddity, and hard to quantify.

It comes too late to make any major changes to the bike, yet plays a crucial role in exposing vital weaknesses in the factories’ MotoGP machines. It is a place where you won’t see any major updates being rolled out, but it is also the test where factories are looking to catch each other out.

With just two weeks to go to the start of the season, it is too late for anyone to understand and copy any brilliant new ideas before the start of the season.

The main purpose of the Qatar test is to verify engine configurations. All six factories rolled out new engines, updated over the winter break, at Sepang, but the Malaysian circuit is deceptive.

Hot tropical air, a big, wide track with very few tight, low-gear corners means that it is hard to tell whether additional power has pushed the engine over the fine line between aggressive and uncontrollable.

The Grand Prix Commission has approved the long lap penalty trialed by the MotoGP riders during the Qatar test last weekend.

From the first race in Qatar, riders who exceed track limits, or are deemed to have unfairly gained time, will be punished with being forced to take a trip through a lane placed on the outside of a slow corner, handing them a penalty in the order of approximately three seconds.

The penalty is to be used instead of forcing the rider to drop a position, although both penalties will remain available for the FIM Stewards Panel to impose as they see fit. 

The good news is that the next time the MotoGP assembles inside a racing circuit, nobody will be able to use “it’s only testing” as an excuse. From now on, everything counts.

The bad news is that strong winds and low temperatures made the last day of testing a treacherous affair, disrupting testing plans, and causing a spate of crashes. (Which, in turn, disrupted testing plans even further.)

The really good news is that it looks like we are in for another immensely competitive season, with fifteen riders ending the test within a single second, and the list of realistic candidates for the title weighing in at around seven: the Honda, Ducati, and Yamaha factory riders, plus Alex Rins at Suzuki. Winning will be tough, but finishing on the podium if you can’t win will be the key to taking the title.

But first, there was one last day of testing to do. The wind proved to be a real problem, testing plans being reshuffled because riding was difficult, especially in the late afternoon and early evening, when the wind was at its strongest. The wind blew sand onto the track, which didn’t help grip, and the cool temperatures made that even worse.

The track temperature dropped below 20°C around 8pm, the time the race is scheduled to start in just under two weeks, and rider after rider went down. Among the fallers: Bradley Smith, Johann Zarco, Alex Rins, Cal Crutchlow, Takaaki Nakagami, Marc Márquez, Miguel Oliveira, Tito Rabat, Jorge Lorenzo, Pecco Bagnaia. And that is probably not a complete list.

The phony war is finally over. The last MotoGP test has finished, with riders completing their final day of testing at Qatar. The next time the MotoGP grid assembles, it will be for something of real value: race wins, and world championship points.

Did the last day of the test offer any clear indications as to what might happen in two weeks’ time? Plenty, though they were as confusing as all of testing has been this year.

Johann Zarco managed to be both blisteringly fast and worryingly slow simultaneously. Danilo Petrucci managed to do exactly the same, though in a diametrically opposite manner.

Valentino Rossi managed to impress both in terms of race pace and a single fast lap, but he was still worried whether his pace would last race distance.

Maverick Viñales was terrible for the first six hours of the test, then brilliant in the last forty minutes, after basically wasting a day and a half.

Underneath the surface drama, the two biggest winners of the preseason just got on with their work. Their headline times were great but not breathtaking, but the race pace of Andrea Dovizioso and Marc Márquez was impressive.

Episode 68 of the Paddock Pass Podcast covers that last two test of the MotoGP preseason, as Neil Morrison hosts on the mics with a special journalist guest, Spain’s Manuel Pecino (you should be following him, if you aren’t already).

A long-time journalist the GP paddock, Manuel brings a unique perspective to the show, and is able to communicate what is beyond the headlines and stories that come out of MotoGP.

As such, we think you will find his perspective on the riders – namely Jorge Lorenzo, Marc Marquez, and Valentino Rossi – especially interesting, as the three are highly intertwined in their careers.

Recording from Qatar, the pair talk about the events from Buriram and Losail MotoGP tests, and thus provide us our last glimpse into how the 2018 season is going to stack up.

As we get closer to the start of the 2018 season, keep your eyes out for a preview show, with our full assemble cast of hosts.

As always, be sure to follow the Paddock Pass Podcast on FacebookTwitter and subscribe to the show on iTunes and SoundCloud – we even have an RSS feed for you. If you like the show, we would really appreciate you giving it a review on iTunes. Thanks for listening!

There is a peculiar type of athlete mathematics. It involves a failure to grasp the concept of percentages, leading to elite athletes promising to give “110%”, or sometimes even “1000%”.

Logic dictates that an athlete putting 100% of their effort and reserves into an activity would lead them to collapse and die of exhaustion as they crossed the line.

That would deny them the joy of victory, but more importantly, it would drastically curtail an athlete’s career to just a single event, making it a rather fruitless avenue to pursue.

Of course, what they actually mean when they talk of giving 110% is of course making the maximum effort to achieve a goal.

Some, commendably, refrain from mathematic hyperbole, sticking to the 100% maxim. Marc Márquez belongs to this group, speaking of giving 100% during practice and races.

A case can be made that Marc Márquez is the rider who most closely approaches 100% while riding. The list of legendary saves the Repsol Honda rider has chalked up at tests and races seems to grow every time he gets on the bike.

Of course, he gets plenty of chances to practice: Márquez had 27 crashes in 2017, second only to Sam Lowes. Respected motorcycle guru Kevin Cameron believes that Márquez’s saves are not saves, but actually the result of a technique he studies.

With every monster save Márquez manages, that gets harder to argue with.

The Qatar MotoGP test may be the moment of truth for the factories and riders, but the most important things we learned from the first day of the test were unrelated to the action on track, or perhaps even the 2018 season.

The biggest news of the day came when Valentino Rossi spoke to the press, telling Italian media that he is close to signing on with the Movistar Yamaha team for another two years, meaning he will race in 2019 and 2020.

Rossi’s revelation came in response to a question about whether the Sky VR46 team would be taking over the satellite Yamahas to be vacated by Tech3 from 2019.

“Firstly, I didn’t expect Poncharal to leave Yamaha,” Rossi said. “So we considered possibly having a team in MotoGP. It would have been great opportunity, but we won’t do it. For the next two years we won’t do it, also because it’s very likely I’ll be racing. I see it as a possibility for the future, once I’ve stopped but not in 2019 or 2020.”

Those are a remarkably information-dense couple of sentences. Firstly, Rossi acknowledges that he is close to signing a contract extension with Yamaha for two more seasons.

This is hardly news – he was half expected to sign a new deal at the Sepang test, but it looks likely that any new deal will be done before the season starts.

Secondly, he admits that the Sky VR46 Racing Team is interested in having a team in MotoGP. Again, this is hardly earth-shattering news.

The last test of the preseason is something of a moment of truth for the MotoGP factories. From the tropical heat of Malaysia and Thailand, the paddock heads to the Arabian peninsula, and cool desert evenings of the Losail International Circuit in Qatar.

Air temperatures start in the mid 20s°C rather than the mid 30s°C, and drop into the high teens heading into the evening. That temperature difference means that air density is a couple of percent higher at Qatar. That in turn means more oxygen going into the engine, and better combustion efficiency.

Translating all that from vague engineering platitudes into real-world racing, colder air means more power all the way through the rev range. Engines run better, pick up more aggressively, and pull harder flat out in the cool Qatari evenings than in Sepang’s punishing tropical heat.

An engine that seemed docile in Sepang suddenly feels aggressive at Losail. An engine which was just about manageable in Thailand is a barely controllable beast in Qatar.

And with just two weeks to go before the start of the 2018 MotoGP season, it’s too late to fix the problem. Riders are left wrestling a wild bull for the rest of the year.

Episode 47 of the Paddock Pass Podcast is our last episode from the MotoGP pre-season, and it sees David Emmett and Neil Morrison covering the recent Qatar MotoGP test.

Unsurprisingly, a hot topic of that conversation was about Ducati’s aerodynamic unveil – what is lovingly being called the “hammerhead” fairing for the Ducati Desmosedici GP17. The guys also talked about Honda’s pre-season testing strategy, as HRC searches for its 2017 engine setup.

The MotoGP conversation ends with a long discussion about the progress and state of all the top MotoGP riders, before the attention is turned on the Moto2 and Moto3 championships.

Of course with the pre-season now over, David and Neil can’t resist picking their riders for who will win the 2017 season, and whether they will be placing any bets for yours truly, by proxy.

As always, be sure to follow the Paddock Pass Podcast on FacebookTwitter and subscribe to the show on iTunes and SoundCloud – we even have an RSS feed for you. If you like the show, we would really appreciate you giving it a review on iTunes. Thanks for listening!