So 2016 is officially at an end, and the first test of 2017 is in the books. By the end of what is essentially a week of hard work, the entire paddock – riders, mechanics, journalists – are completely exhausted, and tired of it all. The frisson of the first test of 2017, with so many riders swapping teams and new bikes being debuted made it all much more interesting. But we are still all glad it's over.
First, there was the last day of testing to get out of the way. The last day of the test is perhaps the most dangerous. A mixture of tiredness and competitiveness means riders are pushing hard in sometimes tricky conditions. Alex Rins, Andrea Iannone, Marc Márquez, and Jack Miller all crashed on Wednesday. Rins and Iannone had crashes which were both serious and strange, losing the front in straight up and down braking. Iannone escaped with bruises and a badly banged up elbow. Rins was a good deal less lucky, suffering suspected fractures of the T8 and T12 vertebrae, though there was no spinal damage and Rins had full motion in his extremities.
After Iannone went down within a few minutes of Rins, the session was red flagged while the track was inspected to try to find the cause. At first, some kind of fluid on the track was suspected. Then, the finger of blame was pointed at the white line and kerb, which had gathered up a lot of rubber over the weekend, and had become greasy as a result. Officially, that was pinpointed as the cause, and a section of soft barrier was put in front of the fence at Turn 12 before the session was allowed to continue.
Whether the white line really was to blame is still open to question. Sam Lowes had crashed there the day before, and had not been on the white line when he went down. It was like a crash in the wet, he said, blaming himself for making a mistake in braking. Andrea Iannone blamed the temperature. He had been on an out lap when he went down, and the front had gone away from him as soon as he touched the brakes. Occam's Razor would suggest that a combination of unexpectedly cold conditions and cold tires caused the crashes. It is hard to argue with William of Ockham.
The delay caused by the red flag meant an extra half an hour was added on to the end of the day, but little use was made of it. The light was already getting weaker at 5pm, and half an hour later, dusk was starting to descend. Temperatures were plummeting, and a lot of riders had already called it a day. Satellite riders, especially, had little to do, and little appetite for unnecessary risk.
Maverick Viñales ended the day as fastest, the Spaniard spending both days riding the 2016 version of the Yamaha M1, and taking to it like a fish to water. Viñales was the only man to lap in the 1'29s, though he was nearly six tenths slower than Jorge Lorenzo's pole time from Saturday. But he was also consistently quick, posting 8 laps in the 1'30 bracket, and 25 in the 1'31s, from a total of 48 laps.
Marc Márquez finished second, spending most of his time on the new-for-2017 big bang engine. He remained vague on the differences between the two engines, saying only that it had a little more grip, but was still causing problems in acceleration. He had continued with experiments in set up, making radical geometry changes in pursuit of solutions for their problems with acceleration.
But Márquez was still quietly disappointed. Though HRC is doing its best to control information flowing out of Honda, Márquez made it clear that he believed there is still much work to do, and it is down to the Honda engineers to find a fix. "We must work much more," he said. "Honda needs to work much more this winter to give me something more in Malaysia."
Dani Pedrosa was even more secretive, refusing point blank to speak about how the new engine was. As gains become more marginal, MotoGP factories retreat first into platitudes, then into plain old obstruction. An interview with a MotoGP rider is becoming more and more like the classic BBC interview with the former leader of Malawi, Hastings Banda. Each question is likely to meet with the response, "I can't tell you that." It does not help the sport when the media is given little or no information to report on.
Viñales may have been faster overall, but Márquez' consistency was bruising. Of the 54 full laps Viñales completed, 30 were inside the 1'31 bracket, and 17 were inside the 1'30 bracket. To put that inside some kind of perspective, Márquez posted exactly the same number of laps in the 1'30s that Jorge Lorenzo posted of 1'31s. His total of 1'30s was just one less than Valentino Rossi's haul of 1'31s. Rossi managed just three laps in the 1'30, Lorenzo a solitary lap at that pace.
While the Honda riders were saying next to nothing, Valentino Rossi was being almost as vague. The new bike was acceptable, he said, but it still lacked the kind of acceleration he had been looking for. The Italian was withholding judgment until the private test at Sepang next week. Yamaha will need to bring a much improved engine to make Rossi happy.
Work continued at Ducati, with Andrea Dovizioso and Jorge Lorenzo focusing on the GP17 on Wednesday. Dovizioso praised the fact that the bike was a little more comfortable to manage, making riding at a fast pace less tiring. The GP17 was helped by a better engine, but there was still some room for improvement in mid corner speed, he said.
That was confirmed by Ducati Corse boss Gigi Dall'Igna. The Italian praised the work of both Dovizioso and new boy Jorge Lorenzo, and conceded that turning was still a problem for the GP17. It was improved, but there was still room for something more. The first touch of the throttle was also an issue, and something he had to work on over the break.
Dall'Igna had plenty of positive words for Lorenzo, but some which he phrased a little strangely. Lorenzo was a champion, Dall'Igna said, and so obviously his feedback was very clear. The team needed to work together for the remainder of the winter tests to improve their communication, he said.
The oddest thing Dall'Igna said was about the lap times Lorenzo had posted. Dall'Igna had been a little disappointed, he said, though he immediately explained that Lorenzo had been doing something other than working on set up to chase a quick lap. "I'm not really happy about the lap time he has," Dall'Igna told the press, "but I think that if the lap time was the target, we had to work in a different way."
Instead of optimizing set up for a single fast lap, Lorenzo spent some time doing back-to-back comparisons of the GP16 and GP17, and then testing parts for the GP17. The testing had helped clarify the direction of development of the bike. "I have a clear idea of what he needs, and I hope that I can give him something in the next test," Dall'Igna said.
Though official testing is now done for the year, that does not mean the bikes have been parked up in the garage. Ducati head down to Jerez for a private test next week, where they will be joined by Suzuki, KTM, and Aprilia, and probably Honda. Yamaha jet off to Sepang, for a private test there. It is all still go until the end of this month, and the official test ban comes into place until the end of January.
Then, MotoGP will observe a well-deserved break. The 2016 MotoGP season has been phenomenal. It is hard to see how the series could get better. It is likely to surprise us once again.
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