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.
And the winner is… Takaaki Nakagami! Or at least the LCR Honda rider’s name sit atop the timesheets at the end of the final day of the final MotoGP test of 2018. Which both counts for a lot, and counts for very little at the same time.
The fact that Nakagami was able to do the time is proof that the 2018 Honda RC213V is a much better bike than the 2017 version which the Japanese rider spent last season on – see also the immediate speed of Franco Morbidelli, now he is on the Petronas Yamaha rather than the Marc VDS Honda.
It was also proof that Nakagami – riding Cal Crutchlow’s bike at Jerez – is a much better rider than his results on the 2017 bike suggest. And puts into perspective that this was the bike which Marc Márquez won the 2017 MotoGP title on.
But it also doesn’t really mean very much. Testing is just testing, and the riders don’t necessarily have either the inclination or the tire allocation to go chasing a quick lap time the way they do on a race weekend.
Nobody wants to risk it all just to prove a point and get injured just before they go into the winter break. And with the top 15 within a second of one another, and the top 7 within a quarter of a second, the differences are pretty meaningless anyway.
That’s what the riders will tell you, anyway. And while that is absolutely true, there is also a touch of the Big Book of Rider Excuses about it. Motorcycle racers race because they can’t stand the thought of anyone beating them, being faster than them.
Even when it doesn’t really matter. Just ask anyone who has played cards with a racer.
The trouble with post-season testing is that it takes place after the season is over. That is a problem, because the season runs well into November, so any testing after that is nearer to December than it is to October. And wherever you go inside of Europe to test, you will never get a full day’s testing done, even with the best of weather.
So it came as no surprise that when the track opened at 9:30am on Wednesday morning for the first day of a two-day test, nothing happened.
Or that nothing continued to happen for another couple of hours, as we waited for track temperatures to break the 20°C barrier, and make it warm enough to generate useful feedback. It is a perennial issue with no easy answers. Finding a warm, affordable track is tough this time of year.
The good news was that once the track had warmed up, we had ideal conditions for testing. Dry, sunny, warm if you were standing in the sun, though not quite so much if you were in the shade.
Despite the fact that so much time was lost to the cold, the riders ended up with a lot of laps completed, and a lot of work done.
By the end of the day, almost everyone bar Andrea Iannone had done over 50 laps, with Alex Rins having racked up a grand total of 87 laps on the Suzuki GSX-RR.
Iannone at least had an excuse, a crash costing him most of his afternoon. The crash, it seems, was a result of the Italian’s struggles to get to grips with the front end of the Aprilia RS-GP. A struggle he lost on this occasion.
And so the season ends for WorldSBK. The weather finally behaved at Jerez, and the four WorldSBK teams and three WorldSSP teams got a full day of testing in at Jerez.
Or rather, nearly a full day of testing: the track opened at 10am, but the riders didn’t go out for about 45 minutes, as cold track temperatures made it a perilous undertaking in those early minutes.
But the sun soon did its work, heated the asphalt, and away they went.
Episode 87 of the Paddock Pass Podcast is out, and in it we see David Emmett and Steve English on the mics, as they cover the recent Valencia GP as well as the post-season Valencia test.
The start of the conversation covers obviously the weather, which played another large role in a MotoGP weekend. With the MotoGP race seeing another red flag stop because of rain, the show covers the challenges that Race Direction faces in making such calls, and whether they were correct in this instance.
The conversation then turns to the bikes on the grid, specifically comparing the Honda to the Ducati. There is also talk about the rise of the Suzuki, which might be the third best machine in the MotoGP paddock – something that worry those in Yamaha garages. With the KTM making progress, the competition is certainly getting more fierce.
Wrapping up talk about the race, our attention goes to the post-season test, which saw a number of riders making their maiden voyages on new motorcycles. The focus of the conversation though is about how important the two-day test is, in terms of getting things right for the 2019 season.
It’s been a difficult test at Valencia. The weather simply hasn’t played ball. Tuesday started wet, took a few hours to dry out, then rain started falling around 3pm, meaning the riders effectively had around two and a half usable hours on track.
Rain on Tuesday evening meant the track was wet on Wednesday morning, and in the chill of a November morning, it took a couple of hours before the track dried out enough for the riders to hit the track.
At least it stayed dry and sunny throughout the day, and the last couple of hours saw the best conditions of the test, times dropping until falling temperatures put paid to any thought of improvement. The teams may have lost time, but at least they had a solid four and a half hours of track time to work.
For half the factories, what they were focusing on was engines. Yamaha, Honda, and Suzuki all brought new engines to test, and in the case of Yamaha and Honda, two different specs.
Ducati was mainly working with a new chassis, aimed at making the bike turn better. Aprilia had a new engine and a new frame to try. And as usual, KTM had a mountain of parts and ideas to test.
If you want to see the law of unintended consequences in action, just take a look at MotoGP testing. The nature of testing has changed as manufacturers have suffered the consequences of not fully understanding the effects of the engine development freeze during the season.
Honda suffered, Suzuki suffered, and now Yamaha have suffered when they made the wrong choice of engine in preseason testing. They learned the hard way they had to get it right.
This has meant that the Valencia MotoGP test has become first and foremost about getting the engine in the right ballpark, giving the engineers enough data to work out the fine details over the winter. A tight track and cold air temperatures sees engines at their most aggressive, with plenty of horsepower on hand and very little room on track to actually use it.
The addition of Jerez as an official winter test – to be held at the end of next week – makes this even more explicitly an engine test. If the factories bring an engine that is manageable at both Valencia and Jerez, they are in good shape for next season.
As an aside, going to Sepang rather than Jerez to test in the past couple of seasons may be one of the factors that led Yamaha down a blind alley with their engine. Sepang is hot, wide, and fast, sapping power and allowing a MotoGP bike to stretch its legs.
It is the kind of track that can hide an overly aggressive engine, which then can rear its ugly head when the season is underway, the engine spec is frozen, and it’s too late to fix the problem.
The post-season test at Valencia is underway for the MotoGP Championship right now, giving us a hint at what to expect for the 2019 season.
The event is like a first date, with riders often getting their first laps on new machines, many of who are doing so with their new team as well.
This is also our chance to get to see some of the developments that teams have been working on for the next season, with the black fairings of test bikes hiding unknown technical secrets.
It is a busy schedule for the MotoGP teams since coming back from their all-too-brief summer break. After back-to-back weekends at Brno and Spielberg, five teams headed to Misano, for a private test this weekend.
For Ducati (the only team to issue a press release after the test, the test was mainly about preparing for their second home race at Misano in three weeks’ time. Misano is a huge race for Ducati, and a good result there is an absolute necessity.
If the times released by Ducati are accurate, then a good result is almost assured: Jorge Lorenzo lapped at just about the circuit pole record, while Andrea Dovizioso was six tenths slower than his teammate.