It's the last chance to get it right. On Wednesday, the wheels start turning for the final tests of the year, with Moto2 and Moto3 hitting the track at the official test in Jerez, while the MotoGP teams assemble at Qatar. At this stage of the preseason, the teams and factories should be running through their final tweaks ahead of the opening race in just under three weeks' time. There is not enough time to make any major changes of direction. If you haven't got it right for this test, you are in for a very long year indeed. Just ask Honda about 2015.
Aprilia's got a brand new bike
Of course, some people don't have the option of working on the final tenth of a percent. Aprilia brought their brand new MotoGP prototype to Qatar last week, to give it its first run out in the hands of factory riders Stefan Bradl and Alvaro Bautista. That test was blanketed in secrecy, prompting the most entertaining headline of the year so far: "Aprilia in Qatar: no photos and no information."
Since then, information has seeped out. The 2016 Aprilia RS-GP is brand new, is 9kg lighter than the RSV4-based 2015 bike it replaces (and not 10kg, as was reported at first), and is a genuine prototype. Stefan Bradl told Speedweek the bike was a big step forward, mostly in terms of maneuverability thanks to the lighter weight. The bike is more powerful than the 2015 machine, but that has not been the main focus. Aprilia are currently running the bike at reduced power to ensure reliability, but, Bradl told Speedweek, they hoped to increase the power on each day of the test, getting close to maximum power on the Friday.
The bike is to be presented officially on Wednesday, ahead of the start of the test. That will give the world's press its first look at the bike. A few hours later, media, fans, and most importantly, Aprilia's rivals will get their first look at the bike in action, running with official timing. Expectations for the bike should not be set too high, but it should at least outperform the 2015 bike it replaced. Bradl was just under three seconds off the pace of Jorge Lorenzo at Sepang. The 2016 Aprilia RS-GP must do better than that.
While Aprilia have a brand new bike to test, Suzuki have only a new seamless gearbox. At Phillip Island, only test rider Takuya Tsuda used the fully seamless gearbox, as Suzuki encountered minor problems with the system. Gearbox issues are potentially much more dangerous than engine problems, as a defective gearbox can lock a rear wheel with nothing a rider can do to unlock it. As a result, Suzuki is reluctant to hand it over to Maverick Viñales and Aleix Espargaro before it is fully tested. As a result, Tsuda will start the test as the only rider using the fully seamless gearbox, though Viñales and Espargaro will be hoping to get their hands on the box before the test ends on Friday.
All eyes at the test will be on Viñales, whatever gearbox he gets to use. The Spanish youngster made a devastating impression at Phillip Island, though that performance could be deceptive. The Australian track is always more a test of rider courage than bike performance, and it is a circuit Viñales loves. The Spaniard has arrived at Qatar as a rookie for the past two years, first in Moto2 in 2014, then in MotoGP in 2015, and so this is the first time he comes to the desert track with some experience of the bike he is riding. At Phillip Island, Viñales looked like he had the goods to qualify as another alien. He will have to consolidate that perception during this test at Qatar.
If Viñales looked like an alien at Phillip Island, Jorge Lorenzo was made to look very mortal indeed. It is not down to the track, or Lorenzo's ability, as the Movistar Yamaha rider has an outstanding record at the circuit. But Lorenzo struggled with the tires Michelin had brought to the track, finding it hard to get feedback from the front tire, preventing him from carrying the corner speed he wanted to. At Qatar, he will get to test another set of Michelins, under very different conditions once again.
The Lorenzo conundrum
Qatar is a track at which Lorenzo is strong, and so should be a good yardstick for the Spaniard. The demands on the tires are very different – Phillip Island is all corner speed, Qatar is much more of a mixture, with shorter corners mixed with much longer combinations of turns – and that may allow Lorenzo to get his mojo back. It will be interesting to see how the Spaniard handles conditions at the track, and will provide good insight into how we might expect the season to turn out.
His teammate will hope to carry on the momentum from Phillip Island into the desert nights in Qatar. Valentino Rossi was much more comfortable with the Michelin tires, and was putting in long runs on the Yamaha. Qatar is a strong track for Rossi – he has finished either first or second in all three editions since returning to Yamaha – and he should be aiming to build on his success here. Rossi's speed here will be an indication of what to expect for the rest of the season, and may provide the very first hint of how his future may turn out. If he is quick, he will take encouragement from that into the start of the season. If he is slower than others, with no obvious excuses, he may at last start entertaining the first thoughts of retirement.
Will Honda's engine work?
While the main concern of Yamaha is how they will cope with the tires, at Honda, the focus will be on electronics, and on the new engine. All five Honda riders – Marc Márquez and Dani Pedrosa in the factory Repsol Honda team, Cal Crutchlow at LCR, and Jack Miller and Tito Rabat at Marc VDS Racing – will have the latest spec of the Honda engine, the version which debuted at the Sepang test with Márquez and Pedrosa. That engine was deemed still too aggressive in Malaysia, but a big leap forward with the electronics made the Repsol Honda men much more positive. So positive, that Marc Márquez left the test as the fastest man over a long run, and just a fraction of a second behind Maverick Viñales' Suzuki GSX-RR.
Qatar will be the real trial by fire for Honda, however. It was at the Qatar test last year that HRC discovered just how much trouble they were in with their 2015 engine, a situation it took them until the end of June to fix. The cold night air and cold track temperatures in Qatar bring out the worst in a MotoGP engine, allowing it to make so much power that it just spins the rear tire. The 2016 engine has a little more bottom end, and the electronics upgrades at Phillip Island helped smooth power delivery. Phillip Island is deceptive, however: there are very few corners where riders are accelerating hard off the bottom in lower gears, which is where the Hondas have struggled for the past few years. If they have even a spot of grip in those slow corners, the RC213V could be transformed into a weapon again. If the bike still lacks grip, it will be another long year.
Ducati's new bike has to beat the old bike
What of Ducati? Well the good news is that Casey Stoner is to test at the track once again. The bad news is that he will not be riding during the test, but instead take over once the factory riders have packed up and gone home to prepare for the start of the season. On 5th and 6th March, Stoner will finally get his hands on the Desmosedici GP, as the GP16 is supposed to be know. A lot of the work he will be doing will be on looking for improvements, but one item on the agenda will be the winglets, and whether they actually work. The concerns expressed by some may yet be alleviated by the simple fact of Stoner finding they do not make any difference.
The factory Andreas, Dovizioso and Iannone, have a lot of work ahead of them. First and foremost, continuing the work of improving the GP16, and adapting it to the Michelin tires. Secondly, trying to find some performance improvements, as the two factory Ducatis have tended to traipse behind the satellite bikes. Worryingly, they are not just slower than the Ducati GP15s of Pramac men Scott Redding and Danilo Petrucci, but also of the GP14.2s of Avintia riders Hector Barbera and Loris Baz. At Phillip Island, Barbera set a really strong headline time, while Baz posted a brutally impressive long run.
Of course, the riders on the older bikes benefit from the advantage of having prior experience. The 2016 spec software is an improvement on the Open class software of last year, and Ducati have masses of data for the GP15, but more especially for the GP14.2. If anyone is working just on the final tweaks, it is surely the Avintia and Pramac squads. Danilo Petrucci will be forced to miss the Qatar test, his place will be taken by Michele Pirro.
While the big boys are playing in the sand pit of Losail, the Moto2 and Moto3 kids will be soaking up the Spanish sun in Jerez. After the washout of the last few private tests, the weather gods are looking kindly on the support classes, with sun set for all three days. The teams which line up in Jerez will be the best indication of what the 2016 Moto2 and Moto3 grids will actually look like, rather than the parade of hopefuls which were announced last year. At least Maria Herrera will be on the grid, after it looked like she might fall through the cracks for 2016.
Things to watch in Jerez: whether Jorge Navarro can consolidate his strong start in Moto3. Whether Joan Mir can continue to impress on his debut in Grand Prix racing. How Fabio Quartararo adapts to the KTM, after spending his first year on a Honda. Whether Niccolo Bulega's strong debut earlier this month will carry over to Jerez, with the full field. And of course, whether Brad Binder can finally make good on the talent he has shown.
In Moto2, Jerez will help establish a favorite. Alex Rins and Johann Zarco top the list of expected champions, with Sam Lowes snapping at their heels. Lowes is now on a Kalex, as are Rins and Zarco, and hoping that this will make the difference. Though the main battle will be between those three, there are a few more riders to keep an eye on. Franco Morbidelli joins Marc VDS Racing, and is expected to outshine the disappointing Alex Márquez. Lorenzo Baldassari was strong at Forward Racing during testing, and is expected to continue in that trend. And as it is Jerez, Takaaki Nakagami should feature at the front. The question mark for Nakagami will not come at Jerez, but at any other track on the circuit.
Three days of testing are about to commence, perhaps the three most important days of the preseason. After this, racing starts in earnest. Come Saturday morning, we will know much, much more.
Gathering the background information for long articles such as these is an expensive and time-consuming operation. If you enjoyed this article, please consider supporting MotoMatters.com. You can help by either taking out a subscription, buying the beautiful MotoMatters.com 2016 racing calendar, by making a donation, or by contributing via our GoFundMe page.