On Friday at Phillip Island, shortly after a quarter to four in the afternoon, local time, a new chapter started in the annals of Grand Prix motorcycle racing. Maverick Viñales had just passed the halfway mark of what was supposed to be a full race simulation when Marc Márquez entered the track. The reigning champion latched onto the back of the Movistar Yamaha, following him around the track. After a couple of laps, Viñales lost his patience, and aborted his race simulation.
Viñales was not best pleased. "I don't know what to say, because sure I don’t want to gain nothing, because there is nothing. But it's not normal. You are doing your race simulation. Someone pulls out… you cannot stop. After five laps that he was behind, finally I needed to abort the race simulation. Anyway the track is 4 kilometers. Strange that he was there, where I was."
Márquez played the innocent. "Today there was one run that I go out and I saw that he passed. Then there was some gap, but I was able to recover this gap. Then I followed him two laps and it was interesting to see a different bike." The Repsol Honda rider then commented that he had also followed a Ducati and a Suzuki, to see where they were strong.
He gave the game away when asked whether he expected Maverick Viñales to be his main rival this year. "When you arrive in the first race you see because the race weekend is completely different to here," Márquez said. He spoke only in general terms: both Yamaha riders would be strong. Ducati may be struggling here, but they will be in the mix in Qatar. Dani Pedrosa will be stronger than most expect. Yes, Viñales was fast, but the Yamaha is such a stable bike, so what do you expect?
Birth of a rivalry
It was the culmination of a rivalry that has been brewing throughout the preseason. Several times during the tests, Márquez and Viñales have met out on track, dancing around each other for a couple of laps, before retreating to the pits and publicly dismissing the meeting as nothing worth worrying about. This time, though, it came just as Viñales was working on what he considers his main objective for 2017: improving his race pace, especially at the end of the race. Private irritation erupted into the public domain.
If it was meant to rattle Viñales, he wasn't letting on. "Then I put new tires again and I say 'now I push'. I push 100%," Viñales said. "I was doing a good rhythm, same as him. So I think… It's nice - this motivation, this fighting. It's so nice. I was thinking he would make a time attack at the end. Maybe he didn't need. Anyway, he's fast too. He has the speed. So it's nice to have - always need to improve, need to be fast."
The skirmish – both on track and through the media afterwards – established that the 2017 championship looks set to be fought out between two young Spaniards. The tables have been turned on Marc Márquez, as he is no longer the young challenger taking on the establishment. Instead, he is the king of the hill, and Maverick Viñales the upstart rebel assaulting his dominance.
Counting out the old man?
The searing focus on each other by Márquez and Viñales is apparent also from the comments on other riders. Viñales was almost dismissive of Valentino Rossi when asked about the Italian veteran's problems on Friday. "I didn’t focus so much to see what the other side of the box was doing," Viñales said. "We just focused on us, trying to make the best, bring the bike at 100% on the limit and try to do a good set-up for Qatar."
That does not mean that Viñales does not respect his teammate. At the Yamaha racing presentation in Milan last week, Lin Jarvis told me that the atmosphere in the team was good, as Viñales had always idolized Valentino Rossi, as many young racers do. Viñales may have grown up with Rossi as his idol, but that does not mean he sees him as a threat, however. So far, the Spanish youngster has only been concerned with his opposite number in the Repsol Honda garage.
Based on the timesheets over the three days of the test, and especially on the long runs on Friday, that would seem to be a reasonable conclusion. Comparing the race simulations of the fastest riders on Friday, Márquez and Viñales are the two strongest contenders, though Cal Crutchlow's race pace is not to be sneered at. Valentino Rossi did not have a good day, nor did he put in a long enough run to class as a race simulation.
More than the eye can see
He spent all Friday testing parts, and struggling with a front tire that he felt was too soft for his needs. "I suffer quite a lot with both tires, especially the front," he said. "For sure this temperature and these conditions are completely different to the Grand Prix. It was a bit too soft. But sincerely it was not my main problem. We tried to work a lot on the pace for the second half of the race because we suffered there last year."
Rossi was pleased with the new engine, and concluded that the new chassis Yamaha had brought was the one he would be using in the future. He spent a lot of time working on settings, running through a big program handed to him by Yamaha. "We work a lot. We try to improve the feeling with the bike, especially with the old tires. We take a lot of data and make a hard job. But at the end we don’t fix our problem so we have to try something else for Qatar."
But Rossi may not be showing all his cards. Reports from people inside the paddock suggested that Rossi had not really been feeling his best throughout the test. He had been holding something back, fellow Paddock Pass Podcaster Neil Morrison was told. It is possible that the travel is starting to wear on Rossi, and the busy PR program Yamaha put him through between the Sepang and Phillip Island tests took it out of him.
By the time the flag drops, his program will be different. Especially once MotoGP returns to Europe after the first three races, and Rossi gets back into his rhythm, he will surely be a factor. So far, the Yamaha M1 has made a big step forward – every part the engineers brought was an improvement, not something that happens every year. It is probably the best bike on the grid, and with Viñales and Rossi aboard, it will be tough to beat.
The Honda isn't in bad shape either. Much better than in previous years, at any rate, though the nature of the Phillip Island circuit hides its foibles. HRC had found a significant improvement with the electronics, and that had made a big difference, Márquez said. "We found a small way," the Repsol Honda rider told reporters. "Every day I was saying the same thing, that we were missing something on the electronics and the engine. But today, especially in the afternoon we improved quite a lot."
"In the morning we did quite a big change and we spent a lot of time trying big things. But then in the afternoon we concentrate more in our base. We worked on these problems and immediately in every exit the lap time was coming better and better and better because I was feeling better on the bike. It looks like they start to understand what I want with this engine. Still, it’s not what I want but it’s coming better and better. But you know, I’m always thinking that this circuit is a special one. The riding, the set up of the bike, it’s special. Now I want to check in Qatar how it works."
With fast flowing corners and little hard acceleration, there is little chance of verifying the RC213V's weak spot. But the fact that there were three Hondas in the top five on Friday, and the Repsol bikes ended in second and third suggests there is not much wrong with the base of the bike.
Ducati – halfway there...
After two days of struggle, there was also good news for Jorge Lorenzo. On Thursday, there had been signs of despair, but the Spaniard finally managed to find some pace with the Ducati Desmosedici GP17. Both Lorenzo and Andrea Dovizioso finished in seventh and eighth, Lorenzo a tenth behind his teammate. The Spaniard had gone out in the early part of the day and pushed to set a time, exploring the limits of the bike.
It had helped him understand where the performance envelope of the Ducati was to be found. "My goal was to improve the feeling and understand more the way to get a bit closer to the maximum with the bike we have," he said at the end of the day. He had aimed to run a string of laps in the 1'29s, and had succeeded in that. The Ducati was still weak in mid-corner, he explained, and adapting to that was not easy.
"Still it's very difficult for me, because they are completely different bikes," Lorenzo said. "They need the opposite way to ride, the opposite way to take the maximum from the bike. Ducati doesn't have corner speed for the moment, so you need to keep braking a lot of time, and you need to be aggressive with the throttle, on-off. It's a completely different way of riding. So little by little I am starting to understand this much better, especially today, but I still need more time and more kilometers to take the maximum with this bike. But for sure I want to improve the bike to turn better in the future. "
Flowing, not braking
The nature of Phillip Island had also worked against this. The track is fast and flowing, and it is hard to be more aggressive with the brakes and throttle at a track which in the past had so rewarded his smoothness. At other tracks, with tighter corners, the transition should be easier.
But Andrea Dovizioso was also concerned. The Italian was worried that he was unable to get the bike to turn as well as he liked, a problem with the long corners at Phillip Island. He was starting to become concerned, as the difference between the "Valencia" and "Sepang Salad Box" bikes was small, but not significant.
Corner entry was an area of concern, and with only the Qatar test to come, there was little time for improvement. Dovizioso and Lorenzo will have to hope that Ducati's new fairing, due to be rolled out at Qatar, will bring some relief in that area.
The field tightens
Lorenzo's improvement through the course of the test was solid, going nearly 1.3 seconds faster over the three days of the test. Progress was made by many riders over the three days of the test. That saw the field get a lot closer together in three days, the gap from first to last being cut from over three seconds on the first day to under two seconds covering 22 riders on the last day. Take out Karel Abraham's time, who went slower on Friday than he did on Thursday, and there is just 1.651 seconds between Maverick Viñales in first and Sam Lowes in twenty-second.
Given that Viñales improved his time by over 1.4 seconds from Wednesday to Friday, to end up with a lap time which has only been bettered by three riders in the past, the improvement, even at the back of the grid, is impressive. Sam Lowes took 2.1 seconds off his time round Phillip Island over the three days. Alex Rins was particularly quick, going 2.3 seconds faster and ending the test as sixth, and four tenths ahead of his more experience teammate. Bradley Smith was 2.7 seconds quicker on the final day than he had been on the KTM on Wednesday.
The times are illustrative of just how close the field is, once you look past the two men at the top. Take out Viñales and Márquez, and less than a second covers Dani Pedrosa in third and Scott Redding down in twentieth. Sam Lowes, last on the Aprilia, is less than 1.2 seconds off Pedrosa. Almost anywhere you look on the timesheets, three tenths of a second would give a gain of four or five places.
Strong rookies again
With the field so tight, it is hard to single out riders who are struggling, and riders who are close, but not quite there. Clearly, both Monster Tech 3 riders are in the zone, despite Johann Zarco only finishing in fourteenth on Friday. His race pace on his long run was close to that of Andrea Dovizioso on the Ducati, and both Andrea Iannone and Alex Rins on the Suzuki.
Jonas Folger took top honors in the Tech 3 team on Friday, ending the test in fourth and with good race pace, doing a long run at the end of the day after a crash, and dropping his laps into the low 1'29s before the checkered flag brought proceedings to a halt.
Alex Rins had a strong test, faster than his more experienced team mate on the last two days of the test. Andrea Iannone had been stuck doing the bulk of the test work, going through electronics settings and working with new parts to try to help with grip. That had meant that Iannone had not had a chance to go for a lap time with a new tire, something which others, including Valentino Rossi, had also missed out on.
The riders head home now, for a couple of weeks break before the next test at Qatar. The teams and factories have three weeks to study the data from the Sepang and Phillip Island tests, and concoct solutions to their problems in Qatar. When that test is done, the season will be nearly upon us. Once battle is joined in earnest, then there will be nowhere left to hide for the MotoGP field.
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