In a few hours time, the grandstands at the Sepang International Circuit will echo with the booming assault of MotoGP machines being pushed to their limits. The entire MotoGP grid has assembled for the first test of the preseason, meaning that the 2017 MotoGP season is about to get underway, at last.
That, at least, is the plan. The reality is that the grandstands may echo only to the sporadic rasp of a MotoGP bike being warmed up, and the occasional intrepid test rider being sent out to test conditions. The resurfaced Sepang continues to be plagued by drainage problems, water remaining on the track for a long time. In high humidity, relatively low track temperatures and without the burning tropical sun, the water left by unusually heavy rains is not evaporating. Parts of the track remain wet all day, making it impossible to push the bikes to the limit, and very risky to try.
Suzuki team boss Davide Brivio expressed the concerns shared by most teams. "You never know how many hours you can test, because the track remains wet for a long time. And if it rains a lot in the evening, maybe you have to wait a long time in the morning. So it's a little bit of a question mark now, how much you can test."
Sepang tests have always had problems with rain, but the issue has got a lot worse since the track was resurfaced. Instead of losing two or three hours of testing a day, they could lose five or six hours. Ideally, MotoGP would test somewhere warm, dry, and with a varied layout. But the number of tracks which fit those criteria in the first week of February are very few indeed. Alternatives are almost impossible to find.
Even if it weren't nigh on impossible, it's too late to start looking for an alternative now anyway. The garages are filled with MotoGP bikes and riders champing at the bit to get out there, and they will seize the first opportunity they get to go out and start riding again. Their need for speed has been kept in check all winter, and it must soon be unleashed.
It's riding, but not as we know it
Oddly enough, some riders have already thrown a leg over a MotoGP bike this winter. Two weeks ago, in a stunt organized by Red Bull, Marc Márquez rode a Honda RC213V shod with specially spiked tires up the ski slope in Kitzbühel. And today, Sunday, Andrea Dovizioso and Jorge Lorenzo spent much of the day in their leathers, including several laps on bikes fitted with cameras, as they were filmed for promotional material for Ducati to use.
Whether such outings violate the MotoGP test ban is not really an issue. Until MotoGP adds a circuit on an ice lake (an idea for extending the calendar into winter?), Márquez' experience riding up Kitzbühel will not be useful. Dovizioso and Lorenzo were on a MotoGP track, but the water on the surface meant they were not pushing, and the laps spent riding at 70 km/h behind a rental car with the rear trunk open and a cameraman hanging out of it will be of limited use for chassis development.
Worth the risk?
Both stunts were also a calculated risk ahead of the start of the season. The risk was manageable for the Ducati riders – despite the wet patches on the asphalt – as they were under no pressure to lap at any pace. That was a good deal trickier for Marc Márquez: riding a bucking and weaving 260+ hp bike up a ski slope is a seriously risky undertaking. One mistake could have had very nasty consequences.
A minor mistake did exactly that, Márquez' foot slipping off the footpeg and coming close enough to the rear wheel to be nicked by one of the vicious tire spikes. The spike sliced through his boot and drew blood, though the Spaniard was left relatively unhurt. He was lucky: fans of ice speedway know what can hap pen when things go horribly wrong. Which is why they put massive iron fenders around the wheels, to prevent incidents such as this.
Honda's big bang
Márquez' injury was sufficiently trivial that it will not affect him in the test. The Spaniard will be itching to get out, for Honda still have a lot of work to do. The new big-bang engine debuted at Valencia and was used again by Jack Miller at the Jerez test in November. First impressions were positive, but not overwhelmingly so: the Repsol Honda riders were due to head to Jerez for the private test in November, but abandoned that idea after Valencia. Clearly, it still needed some work.
Most of the focus will be on electronics. Changing the ignition interval changes the character of the engine and the way it responds, requiring a lot of work to sort out the mapping. That was the issue at Valencia, and that was the donkey work Jack Miller got saddled with at Jerez. Now, Márquez and Dani Pedrosa will be hoping that the main issues have been solved.
As reigning champion, Márquez starts the 2017 season as the early favorite for the title, and he will be expected to be quick at Sepang. But many eyes will be on the other side of the garage, where Dani Pedrosa has made some major changes to his entourage. Former MotoGP race winner Sete Gibernau will be joining Pedrosa in the garage, and functioning as rider coach. Pedrosa has also changed his trainer and his training regime, a step he also hopes will improve his chances.
Yamaha's young upstart
If Márquez starts the season as title favorite, Maverick Viñales is getting a lot of backing to push him very hard. The Spaniard was fastest at Valencia, though as it was his first outing on the Movistar Yamaha, he was given little to do other than to acclimatize himself to the bike, where others worked on testing new parts. At Yamaha's private test at Sepang in November, Viñales was quickest once again, and according to several people inside Yamaha, considerably so.
Wilco Zeelenberg – team manager for Viñales now that Jorge Lorenzo has departed for Ducati – told us to keep an eye on the Spanish youngster at Sepang. "He loves this track. He was fastest in the only dry session in October on the Suzuki. I think he will be fastest again in the test." Zeelenberg is undoubtedly biased, given his job. But that doesn't necessarily make him wrong.
Viñales will be shouldering more of the responsibility for development again, alongside Valentino Rossi. Rossi is focused once again, growing sharper every year, it seems, and still gunning for another title. He has finished second in the championship for three years in a row, and is looking to improve. The 2017 Yamaha M1 is changed, but looks very similar to last year's bike. Yamaha continues on its path of gradual evolution, a solid choice given that there was not much wrong with the 2016 bike.
Looking at the test bikes in pit lane today, the bike looks very similar to the machines used last year. The fairing looks a little slimmer, though that could be an optical illusion due to the lack of wings on the bike. The tail also appears to have grown a little fatter, engineers perhaps turning their attentions to aerodynamics at the tail of the bike, rather than the front. Yamaha test rider Katsuyuki Nakasuga rode bikes with and without wings at the private test last week. We will see whether Rossi and Viñales do the same.
Red bikes don't get wings
Ducati will definitely be testing with the wings. The Italian factory came to rely so heavily on their wings last year that they are still working very methodically to try to retain the acceleration advantages they had in 2016. Test riders Casey Stoner and Michele Pirro both rode the bikes with and without wings at last week's private test, and Andrea Dovizioso did the same at the Valencia test. They will continue with that work at Sepang. Casey Stoner is slated to ride on Monday and Wednesday, though clearly, that will depend on the weather.
Ducati have plenty to test. They have a new bike – most of which was only seen at the private test, rather than the team launch at Bologna – with a stronger engine and modified chassis. They are still working on aerodynamics, but they – like all the factory teams – are keeping that under wraps until Qatar. No need to tip their hands to their rivals until they are forced to.
Andrea Dovizioso looked revitalized at the launch, buoyed by his win at Sepang and his results in the flyaways. Winning breeds confidence, and he has some of that back. He will not be a pushover for Jorge Lorenzo, though he understands that Lorenzo's status as a triple MotoGP champion gives him the edge. But both men have mutual respect, and a bit of fierce rivalry will only be good for the team.
Sepang will be a big test for Jorge Lorenzo. The Spaniard was frustrated at not being allowed to take part in the private test at Jerez last November, and is keen to get back on the bike. At the launch, Lorenzo addressed concerns he may have difficulty adapting. He referred back to his time in 250s, where he rode both a Honda and an Aprilia. Those two bikes needed a very different riding style, and he adapted. He intended to do much the same.
He will also get back to work with crew chief Cristian Gabarrini. The Italian functioned well as crew chief to Casey Stoner, remaining calm when the Australian became excitable. He will be called on to play the same role for Lorenzo, and his experience and skill will stand him in good stead.
Balancing a team?
Suzuki have plenty of work to do at Sepang, both in terms of testing and of developing their young rider. Alex Rins crashed and fractured a vertebra at the test in Valencia, missing out on a lot of testing time. Rins is back fully fit – and looking slim and strong – and keen to get himself up to pace. Rins' focus is purely on improving his pace, learning to cope with the rigors of riding a MotoGP bike. At the launch of the ECSTAR Suzuki team on Sunday evening, Davide Brivio once again expressed confidence in his young rider, though acknowledged he was a project that needed help for him to show the talent he obviously has.
With Rins as a rookie, the development work falls on the shoulders of Andrea Iannone. It is a heavy responsibility, and the question is how well the Italian can bear it. Iannone played an important role in bringing on the Ducati while he was there, but there he was partnered with a more experienced teammate. Now, the development of the Suzuki GSX-RR is mainly on him.
His first task is to assess Suzuki's new engine, which has been major part of the upgrades to the 2017 bike. Suzuki's MotoGP technical director Ken Kawauchi told me at the bike launch that the engine has more power everywhere, but the biggest gains have been in mid range and top end power. Rideability and controllability have also been a focus, with small changes made to many parts. Suzuki had less to change on the 2017 bike – the difference between the 2017 and 2016 bikes was between 30% and 40%, Kawauchi estimated, whereas the difference from 2015 to 2016 was more like 50% - and so the changes have been more focused, and better directed. Suzuki starts from a much stronger base this year, and so expectations are higher.
The toughest field yet
Expectations are also higher for Aprilia, who also have a new engine in their new bike which produces more power. It is also lighter again, which should help the bike turn a little better, one of the major complaints in 2016. As at Suzuki, Aprilia sees an experienced rider paired with a rookie, Aleix Espargaro leading development and giving Sam Lowes a chance to develop. Lowes also crashed at the Valencia test, losing out on valuable track time.
Aprilia made solid progress through 2016, and seem close to breaking through to challenging Suzuki. But the incredible depth of the current MotoGP field is also causing a headache for both factory and satellite teams. The six full factory teams will be fielding twelve riders, but the podium only as three places. That will mean that in 2017, factories will be faced with uncomfortable (if not outright embarrassing, from time to time) results. Up against such an incredibly tough field, a good result needs to be carefully defined. Factory riders will cross the line in 9th, yet only a few seconds behind the leaders. The competition is going to be even tougher in 2017 than it was last year.
The factory which faces the greatest challenge in that respect in KTM. They face Yamaha and Honda, who have shared out the bulk of MotoGP titles in the past 15 years or so, and have four riders who are likely to go down as all-time greats. They Ducati, who are on the verge of turning the dominant duo into a triumphant triumvirate, and have a multi-race winner and another rider who will go down as an all-time great. Suzuki showed they are capable of winning last year, and will be aiming to be in the podium fight every weekend. And Aprilia hope to make the step to start challenging Suzuki.
Just to stay inside the top ten will be tough for KTM in their first year, but their main aim is not results, but merely the pace of development. What KTM aim to do in 2017 is test to see how quickly they can turn parts around and make improvements to the machine. They have a lot of advantages: as a European manufacturer, they are close enough to racetracks to make commuting back and forth to the factory very manageable. They have their own suspension manufacturer with direct communication with KTM's racing department, capable of turning round new parts very quickly.
They also have two riders who are determined to make a splash, at the point in their careers where they must do just that. Bradley Smith and Pol Espargaro are very different characters, but both have learned a lot in their time at the Monster Tech 3 Yamaha satellite team. Smith is cerebral and analytical, Espargaro is fiery and will push over the limit. They should provide the data which KTM needs.
KTM start the test with three different chassis, which test rider Mika Kallio put through their paces last week. They have a lot of work to do still on electronics, and in searching for mechanical grip from the rear. That was the lesson of Kallio's wildcard at Valencia, and it is where the focus will lay at Sepang. Part of that is electronics, but part of that is about physical parts of the bike.
The satellite teams are as interesting to keep an eye on as the factories. Cal Crutchlow won two races last year, and comes to Sepang close to signing a new deal, and with LCR Honda boss Lucio Cecchinello having spent a lot of time in Japan speaking to Honda bosses. He exuded the same calm confidence he showed last year, and will be hungry for more.
Jack Miller will be keen to prove himself in the final year of his three-year HRC deal. The Australian was held back by a lack of parts in the second half of last year, Honda choosing to pass him over for chassis and electronics upgrades once it became apparent that his then crew chief Gabarrini was off to join Lorenzo at Ducati. With a new crew chief – Ramon Aurín, formerly with Dani Pedrosa – and a much better package, Miller will need to prove himself.
Among the fleet of satellite Ducatis which fill the grid, there are plenty of riders to keep an eye on. Alvaro Bautista was incredibly quick at the Jerez test, and the Spanish veteran is extremely motivated to prove to the world that he should have been kept by Aprilia. Hector Barbera was also impressive last year, and he will want to continue in the same vein with Avintia. Both men are on GP16s, a bike which proved itself more than capable last year.
Scott Redding will also be on a GP16, losing out to teammate Danilo Petrucci in the battle for the third GP17. Both men have a point to prove in the Pramac Ducati team, widely regarded as the Ducati junior squad. The battle will once again be fierce between the teammates, and one key question will be how much of a role Petrucci will play as a test donkey for Ducati. The idea of having the third Ducati Desmosedici GP17 on track is to help develop the bike quicker and get a better idea of how to set things up at each particular track. The more data there is, the easier that task gets.
With the former Tech 3 team having defected to KTM, the French team has two rookies filling their seats. For the first time in many years, there will not be a British rider in Hervé Poncharal's decidedly Anglophile outfit. Instead, there is a fellow Frenchman, in double Moto2 champion Johann Zarco, and talented German Jonas Folger. Both riders tested at Sepang in November, and so should already have a good idea of the set up needed here. They will prove to be a good benchmark for the other rookies to measure themselves against.
First, though, the weather has to hold. Testing starts officially at 10am Malaysian time. Whether the bikes actually roll out then is a different question altogether. But the 2017 season will once again be underway. It's about time.
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 2017 racing calendar, by making a donation, or by contributing via our GoFundMe page.