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Sepang Test

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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.

For fans of technological innovation, the first day of the Sepang MotoGP test had been something of a disappointment.

There were very few clearly visible upgrades to the bikes on display on Wednesday, teams using the first day to get themselves accustomed, and focus on checking the engine choices made back at the November tests.

There were one or two things going on, but they weren’t obviously visible to casual fans.

Thursday was a much better day for MotoGP tech nerds. New parts started to appear, as factories started working their way through the list of parts they have prepared for the 2019 season. Suzuki debuted a new fairing, with a more Yamaha-like aero package, with wider wing surfaces and a slimmer side section.

Alex Rins was positive about the new fairing. “It gave me more support on the front, less wheelie, which is important for the speed. We are faster on the straight because of the fairing – it’s more aerodynamic. The front wheel is more on the floor.”

That was borne out by his lap times, the Spaniard finishing with the second fastest time of the day, and the second highest number of laps in 1’59, including a run of four in a row. This was pace, rather than just a single quick lap.

The first day of the Sepang MotoGP test is always met with some trepidation. For the factories, have they responded to the feedback from before the winter break correctly, and developed the bikes in the right direction?

For the riders, has their winter training program been enough to prepare them for riding a MotoGP bike, and will they hold up under the battering which nearly 300hp and carbon brakes will inflict upon them? And for injured riders, is their recovery going to plan, or are they ahead or behind on schedule?

With all these questions on their minds, the MotoGP paddock tends to ease in to the first day of the test. Especially if, as looks likely, the weather will hold and they will not lose much track time to the tropical rains which can fall in the afternoon.

The first day is used for verifying the data from the Valencia and Jerez tests, checking engine configurations once again, and getting the riders’ minds accustomed to the sensation of over 320 km/h again.

It is a day of gentle evolution, rather than radical revolution.

Though bikes have been circulating at the Sepang circuit already, the MotoGP season only really gets underway once the full field of full-time contracted riders takes to the Malaysian track on Wednesday.

After the long winter break, we finally get to see where everyone stands as the 2019 season approaches.

Well, almost everyone: injuries always play a smaller or larger role, as riders recover from surgery, or suffer new injuries while training for the coming season.

At its core, motorcycle racing is a war of diminishing returns, where manufacturers, teams, and riders dive ever deeper into the details in search of an advantage.

The latest battleground is in rider coaching, with riders and now teams using rider coaches / spotters / observers / analysts to help riders identify where they are strongest and weakest.

Spotters and rider coaches have been around for a while. Wilco Zeelenberg started working with Jorge Lorenzo at Yamaha in 2010, and now has a similar role for Maverick Viñales. Jonathan Rea has worked with Keith Amor in WorldSBK, Amor also filming Rea to help him perfect his technique.

More recently, Valentino Rossi started working with former 250cc world champion Luca Cadalora, and has employed a rider coach for the VR46 Riders Academy, the talent pool of young Italian racers Rossi has taken under his wing.

Current Red Bull KTM MotoGP rider Bradley Smith was also a relatively early adopter. The Englishman has worked with former 500cc legend Randy Mamola since his entry into MotoGP, and is fulsome in his praise of the idea.

“I had Randy and I see that as a massive help just in terms of having eyes outside of the track,” Smith said. The Red Bull KTM spoke about rider coaches, their role and benefits, to a small group of journalists at the Sepang test.

In many ways, the appointment of Alberto Puig as Repsol Honda team manager is both surprising, and a logical choice. Puig was both the obvious person to run the Repsol Honda team, as an experienced team manager with a long association with Honda.

But, also someone with a complicated history with the team’s existing riders, having previously managed Dani Pedrosa, and crossed swords with Marc Márquez’s manager Emilio Alzamora.

The Sepang test was the first time the Spaniard had a chance to talk to the racing press since his appointment. In a press conference with some of the assembled media who had turned up early, Puig addressed a broad range of topics.

He talked about the challenges he sees in the Repsol Honda team, and his new role as its manager. He gave his perspective on managing relationships with the riders.

But Puig also shared his vision on racing, and the key ingredients in racing success. He spoke about how he sees the rider contract situation developing.

And he also talked about Honda’s main focus at this particular MotoGP test, telling us that the main objective will be to choose an engine for the rest of the season.

Normally, when comparing times from a test, it makes the most sense to stick to a single year. But sometimes, there are good reasons to look back at past years, in search of a larger and more universal pattern.

Comparing the best laps of riders who were in the championship last year and this year proves to be a highly instructive exercise.

Doing that, there is one thing that immediately leaps out at you. The two riders who improved the most between the two seasons are the two who switched between a Honda and a Ducati.

Three days in the tropical heat of Sepang always generates so much information, and so much to think about, that it is impossible to encapsulate it all in just a few short hours immediately after the test.

It takes time to digest, analyze, and separate the wheat from the chaff. That will happen over the coming days.

Yet there are clear lines emerging from the murk of testing. Avenues worth investigating, trains of thought worth pursuing.

So here is the short version of what I think we have learned from three days of testing in Sepang. The long version – or more likely, versions – are still to come.

The second day of MotoGP testing at Sepang turned out to be Motor Monday. Four of MotoGP’s six manufacturers dedicated their day to gathering the data to make a decision on their 2018 engine.

All of them have the lessons of 2017 in mind, when the rule on sealed engines caught Suzuki out completely, and Honda to a lesser extent. Make the wrong choice in testing, and you have nineteen races to spend regretting it, much as Suzuki did last year.

The difficulty factories face is that the testing tracks early in the year are ideally suited to camouflage potential problems. Sepang is fast and wide, with relatively few very slow corners to test just how aggressive an engine might be. It is also almost as hot as the surface of Venus, which saps power and tames the engine.

Buriram replaces Phillip Island as a test track this year, but neither is conducive to teaching anything. Phillip Island is fast and flowing, and easy to go fast on. Buriram is stop and go in a heat even fiercer than Sepang, making a nonsense of engine assessment.

There’s the Qatar test, of course, but if you finally figure out what is wrong with your engine at Qatar, you have two weeks to fix it before the start of the season. That is not something that is ever going to happen, even in an ideal world.

So Monday was designated as engine day for the MotoGP teams, factory riders making a concerted effort to discern whether the engineers had found the correct direction for development.

It looks very much like that is the case for Ducati, Honda, Suzuki, and Yamaha. Ducati, Suzuki, and Yamaha confirmed that the new engine is better than their old ones, and have laid their worries to rest.

The first day of testing after the winter break is always tough, and often deceptive. Riders spend the day trying to get their heads around mind-warping speed, which simply can’t be replicated by time on an MX or Supermoto bike.

They have to deal with cramp in muscles they had forgotten existed, and which are only taxed by the very specific task of wrangling a 157kg MotoGP around Sepang’s serpentine tarmac at speeds of over 320 km/h.

They have to do all this in tropical heat, temperatures in the mid 30s °C and humidity of over 70% or more. The fresh-faced youngsters who spoke to us the day before are looking about 20 years older at their debriefs.

So sure, we have a timesheet, with names ranked in order of fastest lap. But that ranking should be regarded with a certain amount of caution.

The first day of the test is a day of acclimatizing to riding the fastest racing motorcycles in the world again, and preparing for what is to come before the season starts.

“The target today is just ride,” Andrea Iannone said on Sunday night. “Ride, recover the feeling and arrive ready for tomorrow to start the plan we have.”

Some recover that feeling faster than others, of course, and some aim to put in a fast lap and establish themselves, while others prefer to focus on getting back into a race rhythm, and working on all that entails.

But in the end, the results should be taken with a grain or two of salt, at the very least.