What conclusions can we draw from the first MotoGP test of 2017 at Sepang? Well, it's the first test of 2017, and the factories still have the best part of two months to refine their bikes before the season starts in earnest in Qatar. Any conclusions we draw are at risk of crashing headlong into reality at the end of March. But with all that data from the test available, it is hard to resist the temptation to dive into it and read the tea leaves.
To make some sense of the timesheets from Sepang, I examined the lap times of the fastest thirteen riders at the end of Wednesday. The reason for selecting Wednesday was simple: as it was the last day of the test, the riders were all fully up to speed, and the teams were putting together the lessons they had learned on the first two days, selecting the most promising parts to develop going forward.
It was also the day when most of the riders did long runs, especially as conditions allowed it, the weather staying almost completely dry all day. That meant that the riders had a chance to do some long runs, though only Jorge Lorenzo actually ran full race distance in one go.
The reason for selecting the top thirteen riders, rather than doing it for the entire grid, was simple. The top thirteen riders included all of the favorites for the 2017 season (and eight of the top ten from 2016), bikes from five of the six manufacturers now in MotoGP, and two of the four rookies for 2017. It also includes Casey Stoner, Ducati test rider and still one of the fastest men on two wheels.
To draw any kind of meaningful conclusions, I first had to filter out the in laps and out laps, as well as any slow laps which rendered them useless. I used 2:02 as a cut off point. Any laps slower than that were deemed to be too slow for consideration. That is roughly representative of recent race pace at Sepang. (For comparison, Dani Pedrosa's winning race pace in 2015 features 16 sub 2:02 laps, his pace only dropping above that on the last three laps.)
Longer runs, no one-lap dashes
The lack of track time on the first two days of the test meant that few riders put in the classic one-lap dash for a quick time. Of the top five times set, only Valentino Rossi's and Andrea Dovizioso's were set on a one-lap dash. The best times of the two Repsol Honda riders were set on two-lap runs – often fast, but not quite as frenetic – while the fastest time of the day came in the middle of a five-lap run from Maverick Viñales. In that run, Viñales set three 1:59 laps, one 2:00.1, and a slower lap where he had to back off.
The day was dominated by longer runs. Riders typically went out for four, five, and six lap stints. Most included some kind of a longer run. Viñales kept it shortest with a six-lap run. Marc Márquez and Valentino Rossi went a little longer, with runs of eleven and nine laps respectively. Jorge Lorenzo was once again the toughest, running nearly a full race simulation of 19 laps towards the end of the day. Johann Zarco did something similar, though as a rookie, he wisely split it into two runs of ten laps, with a fifteen-minute break in the middle.
The long runs also meant the riders were putting in a lot of time on track. Marc Márquez took the crown, pounding out 85 laps in total in the searing tropical heat. Maverick Viñales and Cal Crutchlow were not far behind, with 72 and 71 laps respectively, while Jorge Lorenzo, Alvaro Bautista, Valentino Rossi, Dani Pedrosa and Alex Rins all put in 60 laps or more. The fact that Márquez, Pedrosa, and Crutchlow all put in so many laps is a sign of just how much they had to test, the LCR Honda rider also serving as a test rider for HRC.
The long runs the riders put in mean that we got a better look at what race pace might actually look like for them. To do so, I took the lap times of the top thirteen and sorted them from fastest to slowest. I then produced charts from those lap times, to make trends from the lap times visually clearer.
Some trends jump out at you from the data. The first is that there are two clear winners from the test: Maverick Viñales and Marc Márquez. Viñales has the best outright speed at the test, pumping out 10 laps in the 1:59s where others managed 3 or 4 at best. Viñales' pace is good too, with 18 laps under 2:00.5.
But in terms of race pace, Marc Márquez stands head and shoulders above the rest. The almost flat line in the above chart shows the long series of 31 laps of between 2:00.264 and 2:00.662 which Márquez managed throughout the day. Included in that series is Márquez' half-race simulation of 11 laps, ridden at a fearsome pace. The fastest of those laps was a 2:00.264. The slowest was a 2:00.490. He did 28 laps quicker than the slowest in that run.
That consistency is what impresses most of all. Just under half of Márquez' 85 laps on Wednesday were faster than 2:01. Over a third were faster than 2:00.5. Viñales was nearly as impressive, with over 41% of his laps under 2:01, and a quarter of them quicker than 2:00.5. For a full breakdown of average pace and percentage of fast laps, see the tables below.
The other thing that leaps out from that chart is just how strong the pace of Alvaro Bautista is. It is true that Bautista had nothing to work on other than race pace, the Pull&Bear Aspar rider having nothing more than race set up to test for his Ducati GP16. That does not diminish the incredible pace he is able to set. Bautista did a total of 64 laps on the last day of the test, and nearly 44% of them were under 2:01.
On paper, that makes Bautista third fastest after Márquez and Viñales, with better pace than both Valentino Rossi and Jorge Lorenzo. As Bautista also showed outstanding pace at the private test at Jerez, that promises much for the Spanish veteran. The threat for Bautista is that the bike he is on will remain largely unchanged, making it hard for him to find any extra speed. As the factory bikes develop, they are likely to leave him behind.
Rossi vs Lorenzo
It seems almost self-evident to compare Valentino Rossi to Jorge Lorenzo, the Spaniard having moved on to Ducati, while the Italian stayed with Yamaha. Yet it is dangerous to rush to conclusions when doing so. As the veteran rider remaining in the team, Rossi was clearly charged with a lot of testing work, the first to provide feedback on a new chassis and Yamaha's new ducted wings. Lorenzo, meanwhile, was focused more on getting his head around the Ducati GP17, and adapting his riding style to manage the bike.
Both men were slower than Viñales and Márquez, yet both had strong enough pace. Rossi clearly had the better pace of the two, his long run of 9 laps consisting of several high 2:00s and a couple of low 2:01s. 29% of his 62 laps were faster than 2:00, and given Rossi's unparalleled ability to find an extra couple of tenths come race day, his real pace is probably a little quicker. Whether it is a match for Márquez or not remains to be seen.
Lorenzo's pace was also solid rather than impressive on the last day of the test. He had made huge strides in adapting to the bike, his best lap just four tenths off Viñales. His race pace was a little slower than Rossi's, though he was exceptionally consistent in his race simulation. 15 of his 19 laps were either high 2:00s or low 2:01s, with most between 2:00.9 and 2:01.2. That would put Lorenzo in the race for the top five or so, but he will need to find another couple of tenths before he is truly competitive.
Casey Stoner, luxury test rider
Ducati's thoroughbred test rider Casey Stoner also put in the laps on Wednesday. As a test rider, though, his laps were limited to just 46 in total. Stoner's job was not to go for quick times, but it is clear he is still fast, nonetheless. In a series of short runs, he still managed to do nearly 20% of his laps under the 2:00.5 mark. Only Marc Márquez and Maverick Viñales could do better.
Another surprise from Wednesday came in the shape of Johann Zarco. The reigning Moto2 champion had struggled on Monday, then used the damp conditions of Tuesday morning to ride a set of wet tires to destruction, getting a feel for the limits of the Monster Tech 3 Yamaha. That hard work paid off on Wednesday, Zarco running two long 10-lap stints at a very strong pace.
It is his consistency which impresses most from Zarco. His pace in the second long run was comparable to Lorenzo's, with 7 of the 10 laps either 2:00.9s or 2:01.0s. His percentage of sub 2:01 laps was 22%, just behind Andrea Dovizioso and ahead of Dani Pedrosa. His pace puts him right behind the established top riders, not far off Pedrosa, Dovizioso, and Crutchlow. Zarco still has a lot to learn, but at Sepang, he established himself as the early favorite for Rookie of the Year.
What of the remaining riders? Suzuki's Andrea Iannone is impressive, matching the pace of Valentino Rossi, though again, Iannone did not have much testing work to do at Sepang. The GSX-RR is very quick, and there was nothing much wrong with the chassis. The biggest issue with the bike is the electronics, but Iannone's pace indicate they are making progress there too. Though he only did a total of 49 laps, 32% of those were below 2:01, and 16% sub 2:00.5s. Worth noting once again, of course, that Iannone did not push for a fast lap on the last day of the test, as he had the day before.
The pace of Cal Crutchlow and Dani Pedrosa suggest they were concentrating more on sorting out Honda's new engine configurations than working on race pace. Pedrosa, in particular, did a lot of shorter runs of 2 and 3 laps, rather than longer runs. Crutchlow did have one longish run of 9 laps, where he had similar pace to Rossi and Zarco, high 2:00s and low 2:01s.
Reflection of reality?
After just one test, there is much more to come before the season starts. Much will change before the bikes line up at Qatar, and by the final race in Valencia, it could have a completely different complexion. But from what we have seen so far, it looks like being Márquez vs Viñales for the 2017 season, with the promise of a few wildcards to help shake the racing up in between.
The tables below break down the fastest laps of the top thirteen riders into three different brackets: all laps faster than 2:02; all laps faster than 2:01; and all laps faster than 2:00.5. The three different tables are then sorted in two different ways: by average speed of those laps, and by the percentage of the total laps run during the test.
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