It has been the most exciting first day of testing for many years. It was reminiscent of the year Valentino Rossi switched to Ducati, and Casey Stoner went to Honda. But Tuesday was 2011 on steroids: Jorge Lorenzo to Ducati, Maverick Viñales to Yamaha, Andrea Iannone to Suzuki, KTM entering the class, and four fascinating rookies. Add in the GP14.2 being replaced by a bevy of GP15s and GP16s, significantly more competitive motorcycles, and you have a test so fascinating and intriguing that it is hard to know where to start.
So let's start with the timesheets. Maverick Viñales ends the day as fastest, on his first day on the Yamaha, pushing for a quick lap towards the end of the day. Valentino Rossi was second fastest, his quickest lap set on the 2016 bike he raced on Sunday early in the day. Jorge Lorenzo set the third quickest time on the Ducati, stepping up late in the day to come very close to topping the timesheets.
Marc Márquez was fourth quickest on the 2017 Repsol Honda, though he claimed he would have gone even faster on the 2016 bike. Andrea Dovizioso was fifth, the Ducati rider working with the GP17, while Cal Crutchlow ended the day as sixth on the LCR Honda. Andrea Iannone made a strong debut on the Suzuki, finishing as seventh, ahead of the Ducatis of Scott Redding and Hector Barbera. Dani Pedrosa rounded out the top ten.
The gap between first and tenth? Less than four tenths of a second. The top twelve were covered by less than three quarters of a second, and Michele Pirro on thirteenth was the first rider to end the test over a second behind Viñales. Of the eighteen riders who raced on Sunday, fifteen improved on their lap times from the race. Only the Espargaro brothers, Pol and Aleix, and Bradley Smith did not go quicker, and they had the excuse of moving to newer, less competitive machinery. This field is competitive. Almost ridiculously so.
There was also an interloper at the test. Pecco Bagnaia was one of the first riders to hit the track, enjoying to the hilt the chance to ride the Aspar Ducati. The Italian had been promised a go on the bike as a reward for winning two races in Moto3, and he seized the opportunity with both hands. It was clear that Bagnaia had come straight from the smallest class, the Italian taking the wide, sweeping lines of Moto3, preserving as much corner speed as possible, and not taking advantage of the phenomenal braking and acceleration of a MotoGP bike. Despite that, he looked good on the bike, comfortable and fast, enjoying ever minute.
What were the rest of the field doing all day? An overview of what each factory was testing on the first day of 2017.
All eyes were naturally on Jorge Lorenzo on Tuesday. How would the Spaniard fare once he left the safe confines of Yamaha? Comparisons with Valentino Rossi abounded. The Italian had made the same journey at the end of 2010, and had finished the test in fifteenth, just under 1.7 seconds off the fastest time of the man he was replacing at Ducati, Casey Stoner. Jorge Lorenzo ended the day as third, 0.172 seconds slower than the man who had replaced him at Yamaha, Maverick Viñales.
The parallels with Rossi were obvious, but ultimately unfounded. The cruelest comparison was made by Chicho Lorenzo, the father of the five-time world champion. When veteran commentator Dennis Noyes compared Lorenzo's time to Rossi's first outing on the bike, Noyes pointed out that the GP11 and the GP16 which Lorenzo was riding were not the same bike. "Obviously they are not the same bike," Chicho tweeted. "That [Stoner's] bike had won 25 GPs. This bike has only won 2."
It was harsh, but it was also unfair. The 2016 bike Lorenzo was riding is an infinitely better machine than the one Casey Stoner had ridden the year before, despite the Australian winning three GPs on it. When Stoner was winning on the Ducati, it was in spite of the bike, not because of it. Since Rossi's departure, Gigi Dall'Igna has completely turned Ducati Corse around, and the 2016 bike is a truly competitive machine. They needed a great rider capable of winning races and a title on it. With Lorenzo, it looks like they have one.
It would almost be fair to say that Lorenzo has Rossi to thank for having such a competitive bike. When Rossi failed on the Ducati, the Italian factory's new owners Audi could do nothing other than completely reshape Ducati Corse. The disaster of spending a fortune on Rossi to score the occasional podium forced Ducati to concede that new thinking and a new way of working was needed. Gigi Dall'Igna, poached from Aprilia, brought exactly that, and the organization he created built the bike that Jorge Lorenzo inherited.
Where was Lorenzo making up the time? On Sunday, Lorenzo had the third lowest top speed along the straight. On Tuesday, Lorenzo set the highest top speed, exploiting his ability to carry corner speed to the exit, and lift the bike up and power it out of the corner, accelerating harder than anyone else. That acceleration is what made Lorenzo so fast at Valencia.
Ducati were impressed with the way Lorenzo was working. His professionalism had made an impression, and his feedback was exactly in line with what they were expecting. "Every time that he asks for something and we do what he wants, his time goes down a bit," Ducati boss Davide Tardozzi told Neil Morrison.
Lorenzo spent all day on the Ducati GP16, leaving the development work to Andrea Dovizioso. The Italian had a GP17, and a new engine, and spent his day working on the new chassis and testing parts. For most of the day, that meant leaving the wings on, to allow the chassis and components to be tested in isolation. "It's more important to decide the different material we have, and to fix the bike for next year with that material, and to not spend a lot of time to reset the bike to try to have a good balance without the winglets, because the difference was quite big," Dovizioso said.
"A lot of riders thought the difference was not too big, but I think if you ask to every rider today, they think in a different way," he told us. Riders typically underplay any change a factory makes to the bike, never seeming overly enthusiastic. But occasional moments of candor, such as that by Dovizioso, can clarify the truth of the situation.
Dovizioso was positive about the new engine for the Ducati. The power delivery was much smoother at the bottom end, making it much more manageable. It was not so much on the first touch of the gas as on initial acceleration which was improved, Dovizioso said. This could be a pointer for how Ducati intend to solve the issue of not having winglets. A smoother engine should make acceleration much more controllable, and remove the necessity for aerodynamic help.
At Yamaha, it was Maverick Viñales who was the center of attention. Like Lorenzo, he was not allowed to speak to the press, and also like Lorenzo, it was Yamaha preventing him from talking to the media. That made little sense to us journalists: Viñales is still under contract to Suzuki, and as a consequence, it is within the purview of Suzuki to determine whether Viñales should speak or not.
Without explanation, we were left to talk to Movistar Yamaha team boss Maio Meregalli. Viñales spent the day on the 2016 Yamaha M1, obviously fast on the old bike. Meregalli and Viñales' crew chief Ramon Forcada had been impressed with the way the Spaniard worked. He felt every change in the bike, and could give clear instructions as to what worked and what didn't. He was precise and quick to sense changes, making the work of setting up the bike at a race weekend much quicker.
While Viñales got on with the work of adapting to the Yamaha, Valentino Rossi busied himself with testing the new 2017 Yamaha M1. The Italian had been disappointed with the new engine. It had more horsepower, Rossi said, but he had been expecting much more. He had also been testing the new chassis, but crashed it after only a few laps. That put Rossi's work back, and prevented him from doing any more laps while his team worked on repairing the crashed bike. Work resumes for the Italian on Wednesday.
Rossi was not the only rider to crash. Though there were very few crashes during the main part of the day, once riders started trying to push for a final fast lap, they started falling like flies. Unlike last year, it was not really Michelin who were to blame. On a rapidly cooling track, riders were starting to push harder than normal and take extra risks. They crashed mainly at right handers, in corners where the right side of the tire has had plenty of time to cool.
The Honda factory riders had a new engine, with a different firing interval. That much was clear from the sound of the bike, a much deeper, irregular drone. The riders were vague on the effect of the new engine, Dani Pedrosa skirting round the question and saying that he was unable to talk about it, while Marc Márquez evaded the question by saying they had other work to do.
The issue, Márquez said, was that the torque maps they were using were for the old, screamer engine. This meant they were not optimized for the new engine, and as a consequence, were not providing the performance boost they had expected from the engine. It felt a little easier to manage, but they had focused on other areas for Tuesday.
Those areas were bike geometry, in particular. They had tried out several different ideas about weight distribution and geometry, trying to improve the bike's lack of acceleration. The first aim was to improve mechanical grip, though from Wednesday, more work will happen with the electronics.
At Suzuki, there was not much to report, beyond the fact that Andrea Iannone was quick straight away. The Italian was clearly enjoying bullying the GSX-RR around the track, and was soon searching for the limit. He found it late in the day, falling heavily along with several others.
Andrea Iannone did speak to the press, but it as only a cursory appointment. He avoided comparisons between the Suzuki and the Ducati he had just left, and walked off halfway through one question.
Alex Rins, on the other hand, could speak to the press, but the rookie was less than impressive. Rins ended the day as twenty first, and was clearly trying to get his head around a MotoGP bike. He was learning how to get rid of bad habits picked up in Moto2, and use the acceleration of the Suzuki.
The Noale factory did not have much to test for their two new riders, nor for their test rider Eugene Laverty. But with two brand new riders, that is less important, the work of adapting to the new bike is much more important. Aleix Espargaro was very impressed with the bike, saying it turned better than he had expected, and saying he was particularly impressed by the electronics on the bike.
Sam Lowes had a less successful day. The Englishman was getting up to speed on the RS-GP, and reacquainting himself with the bike, but he crashed late in the day, getting badly banged up. He was taken to hospital for further examination, and though he was passed fit, he will evaluate his fitness on Wednesday, and may sit out the second day of the test, preferring to focus on the private test at Jerez which happens next week.
Aprilia are still running the 2016 RS-GP. The 2017 bike is not yet ready, and Espargaro and Lowes will have to wait until Sepang to get their hands on the new machine.
The former Monster Tech 3 riders had a lot of work on their plate, but they were happy to get stuck into it. Pol Espargaro did not speak to the media, another victim of Yamaha's policy of silence. He was said to have been happy, though he ran up against the same problems which test rider Mika Kallio had encountered during the race weekend. First and foremost, a lack of rear grip.
Having two experienced MotoGP riders on the bike made a big difference. Both Smith and Espargaro were working on engine braking, heavily modifying the setting used by Mika Kallio. Kallio used a more Moto2 style in braking, getting the bike stepping sideways. Using their experience, Smith and Espargaro tried to make it a more conventional MotoGP setting, helping greatly on corner entry.
Espargaro may have been gagged by Yamaha, Bradley Smith was free to speak to us. He had been impressed by the KTM, he said, and above all by the seriousness with which they were approaching the project. What took the most getting used to was having fifteen people standing around him waiting for his feedback, rather than the two or three which it had been at Tech 3.
Overall, Smith was impressed by the package, the steel trellis frame providing logical feedback and reacting very much as expected. The feel of the chassis was not much different to what he was used to, Smith emphasizing he could feel what both the front and rear tires were doing, giving him confidence in both the frame and in the WP suspension.
The biggest confusion for Smith was the engine. After years of riding Yamaha's so-called 'long bang' engine, the sound of the screamer was confusing him. He was having to concentrate to figure out what the engine was doing, he said, and match it to his expectations of power delivery. Electronics were the main focus for the moment, Smith said, especially working on power delivery and on making the tires last for race distance.
For the most part, the satellite teams were all focusing on just adapting to their bikes for next year, given that they will not change very much. The two rookies at Tech 3 did well, both Jonas Folger and Johann Zarco adapting quickly to the Yamaha M1, and quickly up to speed. They were concentrating on just riding and trying not to crash at the moment. Both riders needed time to adapt to the power, and were taking a steady, methodical approach to MotoGP.
At Marc VDS, there was good news. The Honda team had received the chassis which Cal Crutchlow had been using since at least Brno, and that had made a huge difference. The bike was much easier to ride, and especially to manage over distance. Tito Rabat moved a couple of tenths closer to the front, a promising start for the Spaniard.
Testing concludes on Wednesday, and once the raw excitement of the first day has rubbed off, it will be time to knuckle down to work. There is a lot to do before the end of the test, to provide the engineers they will use to develop the bike over the winter, before handing over their new creations to the riders at the Sepang test, the first official event of the 2017 season.
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