There's this thing called sandbagging in motorcycle racing. You've probably heard about it. It's where a rider doesn't show his hand completely ahead of the season, doesn't smile in public, hangs a tale of woe on the media, about how he is struggling with the bike, and how much work they have to do. Then, when the flag drops and the racing starts for real, the rider goes out and completely destroys the opposition.
The key to sandbagging is not to give too much away on the timesheets. Riders find all sorts of smart ways of doing this. Working on one sector at a time, perhaps. Pushing for the first half of the lap, then backing off for the second half. On the next run, they back off in the first half of the lap, and push for the second half. The bare lap time shows up as unimpressive, but put the two halves together and you have something very impressive indeed.
Marc Márquez appears to be trying to sandbag at Phillip Island, but he is not doing a very good job of it. He has the act down just fine: lots of criticism of the bike, a lot of concerns about which areas still need work, pointing out that Phillip Island tends to hide the weak point of the Honda RC213V. The point where he is falling down on is hiding it out on track.
Fast and furious
For the third test in a row, Márquez' race pace is simply fearsome. His headline time was just under two tenths quicker than second-place man Valentino Rossi, and he was one of four riders to break into the 1'29s. But analyze his race pace, and he is far outpacing the others.
There were plenty of riders to dip into the 1'30s on the first day of the test, but most of them only managed a handful of laps that fast, five or six the average. Valentino Rossi stood head and shoulders above the field, with a grand total of 11 laps in the 1'30s. But he was put into the shade by his Movistar Yamaha teammate Maverick Viñales, who cranked out 18 laps of 1'30.
Even Viñales' impressive performance pales in comparison with Marc Márquez, however. The Repsol Honda rider did a grand total of 27 laps in the 1'30s. That's full race distance. Add in three laps of 1'29, and that makes 30 laps faster than 1'31. If this is his attempt at sandbagging, he has some practice to do.
No fooling the old fox
Valentino Rossi was not fooled. Asked if he had expected this speed from Márquez, Rossi was frank. "Yeah, because Viñales was very strong in Valencia and in Sepang but if you check deeply the times, Marquez was the faster. He was the faster in Valencia, he was the faster in Malaysia, and was the faster today. So I think he is the man to beat, especially in the pace. He’s always very constant and he work very much for the race with the used tire. I think he is the reference."
Valentino Rossi knows a thing or two about sandbagging, and recognized the talk from Márquez for what it was. "For sure you try always to say a little bit less or more negative because you want to try and make the surprise in Qatar. Me, sincerely, I already know that he is the faster." The only way to beat Márquez was to keep working on race pace, Rossi said. "We have to work on the bike because first of all we still don’t understand it 100 percent to find the maximum potential. Also, for me, Marquez and Honda are superior in the pace with the used tire. He’s always able to make a very good pace, a very good lap time. We have to work from this point of view."
Honda's new engine: better, but different
What tale of gloom had Márquez been trying to palm off on reporters after the first day of testing? Mostly, expressing concerns about the new engine. "It's quite different and one of the things was we needed a lot of time to re-adjust all the electronics to this new configuration of engine. So we lost a lot of time this morning but it is somewhere that we need to pay attention to because on the race weekend we don’t have all this time. But of course everything is new and we need time."
"Still for me we are missing something in some areas, in the electronic side. They are not working together. I mean the electronics are on one side and the engine on another side. It is difficult to understand, but they need to fix. But in this circuit our weak point, that is acceleration, we don’t have. Already last year we were fast here and again this year, but still we must work because we are not comfortable in some areas."
"The engine is smooth. Power is normal, not very powerful. But with the electronic also the connection with the gas, the engine and rear wheel - still I don't feel comfortable. Maybe also it's because we were using one type of engine during many, many years and I was riding in one way, and now with this one you need to change a little bit the riding style. But yeah, still the connection with the gas and everything – we are working hard to try and understand better."
The sole concession to undeniable fact Márquez was willing to make was the fact that he was so obviously fast. "The strange thing is that the lap time is coming! But still I think we can improve – maybe not the lap time, but to be more comfortable."
Perhaps the biggest change was getting used to a completely different engine sound, after years of riding with the screamer, Márquez opined. "You need to understand how is this engine, because in the end the noise is different, then you feel that you are riding slow, but you need to be patient." The flat drone of the big bang engine is indeed different to the ferocious howl of the screamer. Like the young street rider who puts a loud exhaust on his bike and thinks he is going faster, Márquez is having to recalibrate his perceptions.
Cal Crutchlow was also working on the same engine, but focusing more on electronics. Where both Crutchlow and Márquez have been vague about the engine, Jack Miller was a little more forthcoming. The Marc VDS rider has the intermediate version of the big bang engine – the one tested by Márquez, Crutchlow, and Dani Pedrosa at Valencia, then by Miller at Jerez – rather than the new version tried in Sepang. But the difference between the old screamer engine and the big bang engine is significant.
A lighter new engine
"They’ve got another version that’s a bit lighter," Miller responded, when asked which spec of engine he was using. "But our one is very smooth. I enjoy riding it but I think they’re trying to work for something a bit more – maybe a bit more horsepower or something like that. Theirs is a little bit of a different spec so we’ll be getting that one in Qatar hopefully."
Miller agreed that the engine was a lot smoother at lower revs. "I notice it here really a lot. Especially in turn ten to eleven where you’ve got two shifts and the change of direction at the same time. It definitely feels a lot better there, you know? It’s just a smoother engine and seems a lot more user-friendly. It’s more calm for the rider and you can focus more on hitting the lines rather than battling to keep the bike in a straight ****ing position."
Miller was well-placed, sitting in the upper half of the timesheets for the best part of the day. The Australian is in outstanding physical shape, having dropped back to more or less what he weighed when he was back in Moto3. He is far more dedicated and serious about his training than he was in his first year in MotoGP, and this is making a big difference. "I’m really enjoying my training at the moment and just loving everything at the moment. It feels good. I’m really highly motivated for the season."
Making tires last
At Yamaha, Valentino Rossi and Maverick Viñales have a new frame to test, which Rossi was quite pleased with. "It’s good. I like," he said. "Tomorrow I will try another time because also the other frame is not so bad. Still not decided. There are some small differences."
The main focus for both him and Viñales was on tire wear, however, and managing the bike at the end of the race. That was clearly where Márquez was strongest, and where they both knew they have to improve. "I want to make more long the tire life and we will try tomorrow to improve that area. Today we tried many things and I think we did a good job," Viñales said.
The difference of riding at Phillip Island had slightly surprised Viñales, having to adapt his style more than he expected. "It's a really different bike here in Phillip Island," Viñales told reporters. "In other tracks we were quite similar, but here I feel really different and still we have to modify some things. But I think we have some really good potential, even struggling at some parts of the track, I set a good pace at the end. I'm looking all the time to the pace of the riders and Marc is quite strong, so we have to improve."
New track, new lessons for Lorenzo
Something similar happened to Jorge Lorenzo. At a different track, Lorenzo was once again confronted with having to adapt his style to suit the very different Ducati Desmosedici GP17. "The first run again was difficult, because after two weeks, I had forgotten a little bit what I learned in Sepang," Lorenzo said. "But I picked it up quite soon. Later, in the second, third runs I was quite close to the fastest ones, maybe half a second or six tenths."
Phillip Island was the third track Lorenzo had tested, and each time, he had found he needed to adapt. "I still have not arrived at my top level of performance for this bike at the moment. Because we need to improve the bike but firstly, I need to find my limit on this bike, where I still haven't arrived."
There wasn't a single area in particular where he needed to improve. "Everything. It's very clear I need to understand the way to stop the bike better still, even if I started much better than the Sepang test. But mainly everything. Also the throttle, the change of direction in fast corners, I need to understand how to take the most profit of it."
The windy conditions and high speed straight at Phillip Island – the riders were hitting over 340 km/h down the Gardner Straight – also raised the issue of aerodynamics. The now-banned winglets helped a lot with keeping the front end down, and bringing some stability. "It hasn't been easy with the wind, to be honest. The front was moving a lot and for sure this did not help us to be faster," Lorenzo said.
Heading into Turn 1 at 340 km/h was now a daunting prospect, the Spaniard said. "With the wings it would be much easier, because now in sixth gear, the front is moving and shaking quite a bit before braking. So we need to try to find a setting which can improve this feeling. It's not very comfortable before braking at 340 km/h, no? It would be better to feel a bit more stability on the front."
Yamaha had its new ducted vane fairing at Phillip Island, though Valentino Rossi spent more time using it than Maverick Viñales did. There were hints that more factories might debut their aerodynamics solutions at Phillip Island. Aprilia confirmed they have a new fairing at the test, which is likely to see the light of day on Thursday. Suzuki also hinted they may have an aerodynamic solution to test this week.
Ducati remained quiet on the subject, nor were Honda letting much slip. Cal Crutchlow was evasive when questioned. "I wouldn’t worry so much about them," he told reporters. "We’ve got our own stuff to sort out. As far as I’m aware Honda are always trying to improve the aerodynamics package. We definitely don’t have anything new here. I don’t know if we’ll have anything over the year. But I know they’re always evaluating it. "
No Stoner in Stoner Corner
The Phillip Island circuit was a good deal quieter than Sepang. The test riders which had padded the field were all absent, including Casey Stoner. That surprised many fans, who had expected that the Australian would attend his home circuit. But that is not Stoner's role: as a "luxury tester", a man who can take a bike to the very limits of its performance, he is used only sparingly. When Ducati have something worthwhile to test, they will run it past Stoner. At Phillip Island, Andrea Dovizioso and Jorge Lorenzo are both working on refining what they have. Little point in wasting Stoner's time on that.
The factory with the biggest hill to climb is surely KTM. Each new circuit the factory get to, they find they have a lot more to work on. "It was a little bit worrying if I had to say," Bradley Smith explained. "Because we did, say, 25 laps, it probably took us the best part of three hours. So I said we are already into FP3 here, boys, and that's the truth. So it was a dress rehearsal. Qatar day 1 will be another dress rehearsal for everyone, and we'll just continue to try to improve in that thing."
KTM are learning what they need to find a base setting quickly at each new circuit, Smith said. The problem was merely one of data. "Texas really scares me. Even from now, turning up there with 22 corners, you're making a gearbox, engine brake, traction control, everything for that place? It's tough enough at the best of times, so yeah."
Another KTM chassis
As for the bike, KTM had brought another chassis, based on the feedback of Smith and Pol Espargaro after the Sepang test. It was a step in the right direction, Espargaro said, as he was the only rider to have used it. "When I go into the corner, with the old one I had to make too much in the last 50% of lean angle," Espargaro explained. "I needed to use too much physical force, to put the bike down to the ground into the corners. And for two or three laps you can manage, but at the end of the race, it becomes really difficult, really tiring. KTM managed to bring a new chassis with this compromise between those two, and it's better in leaning, and especially after a few laps it's better, less physical."
The biggest problem, however, remains traction. Part of that is chassis, both riders said, but a lot of it was electronics. "Electronics thinks it is chassis and chassis thinks it is electronics!" Espargaro joked. "MotoGP is electronics now," Bradley Smith said. "It really is. From a chassis point of view, you can get quite close. Suspension, you kind of know whether to go softer or harder. You can get within that window. But that whole clutch-electronics set up? That's MotoGP now. These things are Playstations. Even with this standard ECU, we still rely so much on these type of things to make these bikes work. And when they are not working, even a little bit off, it's amazing to see the difference."
MotoMatters.com subscribers can read the full transcript of both KTM riders, full of fascinating detail on what KTM have done, how much they are doing, and the massive difference between the Tech 3 Yamaha Smith and Espargaro rode last year, and the KTM RC16 they rode this year, via this link. Those who are not already Site Supporters can take out a subscription via this link.
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.