More factories racing means more factories testing. The usual one or two day shakedown test ahead of the first official MotoGP test of the year organized by IRTA has expanded this year to become much more than that. All six MotoGP factories are present with test riders – Aprilia, Ducati, Honda, KTM, Suzuki, Yamaha – as well as a couple of factories testing Superbike machines ahead of the 2017 season. The reason? The more factory teams there are, the cheaper the cost per factory to rent the circuit, and the more time they get preparing for next week's test.
They have needed that time too. The weather has refused to cooperate, heavy rains falling over all three days, and the track not drying out at all well. The track not drying was an issue during the race here back in October as well, and the causes are broadly similar. The track was resurfaced based on the last ten years of data from the circuit, and has been designed to cope with air temperatures of between 30° and 40°C, and track temperatures between 40°C and 60°C. However, temperatures in Malaysia have been unusually cool (nearer 25°C than 35°C), with track temperatures barely getting above 35°C. Combined with very high humidity of close to 100%, the expected evaporation is not happening. Further work may be needed to improve drainage from underneath the track surface for the track to dry out faster in these exceptional conditions.
That has made for a frustrating experience. Ducati Corse boss Gigi Dall'Igna told GPOne.com that there was little point testing at Sepang when conditions are like that. Riding around with rain tires on a damp track did not help develop the bike. "Maybe we have to test somewhere else," Dall'Igna said.
More than one kind of aero
Wet or not, bikes still went out. Casey Stoner did some riding in the dry on Thursday, though there was little point on Friday, conditions being so wet. But Michele Pirro was kept very busy, wet or dry, with Ducati experimenting with a whole range of ideas. One of the most obvious test parts were the wheel covers which Pirro had debuted at previous tests. The front wheel of the Desmosedici was completely closed, while the rear wheel had much broader spokes and a partial disk inside the rim.
Closed wheels are sometimes used in cycling time trials, in an attempt to make the bike more aerodynamic, which is the purpose they would serve here. The downside of the closed wheels is that they make the bike more sensitive to side winds, though that is much more of an issue with a 6kg racing bicycle than with a fully-faired 157kg MotoGP bike.
Ducati's testing program was much more highly visible than the other factories, Ducati continuing to use a range of light-based sensors to measure distance from the bike to the ground. The Desmosedici left the pits with lights shining from directly beneath the belly pan, the rear of the swing arm, and trailing behind the swing arm on a giant outrigger. Ducati's experiments seem aimed at seeing how well the rear keeps contact with the ground, and the behavior of the bike under acceleration and braking.
What's in the box?
One of the big mysteries of the test has been the box in the Ducati's tail. That box is on all of Ducati's test bikes, and though photos are hazy, it appears to be a carbon fiber enclosure containing electronics. Another reason to suspect electronics is the addition of a sticker on the right hand side, next to where the rerouted exhaust runs, which, as several people pointed out to me on Twitter, appears to be for measuring temperature. Electronics are temperature sensitive, and can stop working when temperatures get too high.
That may have been the reason that Casey Stoner twice came to a standstill out on track on Thursday. But it is also possible that Ducati were carrying out 'run dry' tests to measure fuel consumption, putting a fixed amount of fuel in the bike and seeing exactly how far the bike can get.
If the box at the rear does contain electronics, then they will have been moved there for a reason. ECUs and other electronics parts tend to be relatively light, so moving them to the tail – normally a point where you would not necessarily want a lot of weight – comes at a smaller penalty than for other parts. The benefit may be in that the space freed up by the electronics can now be filled with something heavier. You could speculate that moving one electronics box would allow the fuel cell to be moved slightly further forward for example, or something large and mechanical to be moved around.
Wings, engines, weather
Both Stoner and Pirro also tested with and without the wings, running back-to-back tests to check how the wings affected the bike. They were not alone, as Katsuyuki Nakasuga was also testing with and without wings on the Yamaha M1. Wings are likely to make an appearance on the bikes – the Ducatis, at least – next week, when the full MotoGP grid assembles.
While minds are focused on aerodynamics – Pandora's box is now well and truly opened on that area – it is easy to forget that motorcycles are far more dynamic than just a set of wings. Aprilia, for example, have been testing a brand new engine at Sepang, getting it ready for Aleix Espargaro and Sam Lowes. In a press release, Aprilia boss Romano Albesiano explained that the new engine produces more torque at the bottom end and mid-range, while keeping the same top end power. Last year, the RS-GP lost a lot of ground in acceleration, though it also had problems turning. This year's bike is lighter, and has been revisited in every area to improve stiffness and weight distribution.
The concern for all the MotoGP teams will be that the weather may turn out to be similar to this week. The forecast at the moment is that it should be a little drier, with Tuesday and Wednesday morning offer the best chance of some dry track time. But temperatures remain resolutely European, rather than tropical, meaning that any water on the track will be slow to disperse. The riders can only hope that with so many bikes out on track, the surface will dry a little quicker.
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