At Sepang, after losing so much time to the weather during the shakedown test ahead of the official test, Ducati boss Gigi Dall'Igna said that there was no point using Sepang as a test circuit, if the surface was not going to dry. "Maybe we have to test somewhere else," he said.
Now MotoGP is somewhere else. At Qatar, where the rain is never a concern (well, almost never), and the teams don't have to worry about the track not drying up. But arguably, the teams get even less track time at Qatar than they do at Sepang, even when it rains. The test starts at 4pm, with the fierce Arabian sun still beating down on the track. Sunset is two hours later, and it takes a while for the track to cool to the normal temperatures which will be found at the race.
Track temperatures are fine after dark, at least for a few hours. Around 10pm, an hour before the track closes, the dew starts to form. The time at which it starts tends to vary, depending on temperature and humidity, but it is very rarely before 11pm. Invisible damp patches on the track mean riders start to crash without warning. The sensible riders wait for the unlucky riders to crash, then take that as a signal to scurry back to their garages and call it a day.
That leaves four hours of usable track time, from a seven hour test. But that is reckoning without track conditions: sand and dust tends to blow in from the desert behind the track, leaving it dirty and with unreliable grip, especially off line. Run wide and try to correct a little too forcefully, and you crash.
In short, there are much worse places to test than Sepang, with Qatar delivering a lot less than you might expect on paper. It has a glorious layout, sure. But its location, the time of year MotoGP visits there, the decision to run at night rather than during the day, all these mount up to make it a pretty terrible place to be either racing or testing MotoGP bikes. If it wasn't for the vast amount of money which the Losail Circuit pays to be the first race on the calendar – enough to cover the transport costs for the overseas races throughout the year, paddock rumor has it – Qatar would be a place MotoGP would avoid.
The dew caught a lot of riders out on Friday. Marc Márquez was just one of them. He described it as "a classic [crash] at this track, at the end of the day when the conditions were not good". Invisible patches of damp track are the bane of Qatar, and this time, Márquez was the victim.
That explained his second crash, but his first crash was down to the new aerodynamic fairing Honda had brought to the test. HRC's aerodynamic solution was closer to Suzuki's than Yamaha's, and clearly based on their winglets from last year. Two bulges sit on the nose of the RC213V, containing vanes producing downforce. Márquez' crew had not factored the effect of the new fairing sufficiently, and it was causing the forks to bottom out. That is a sign that it is effective, at least.
MotoGP Technical Director was at the Jerez Moto2 test, rather than Qatar MotoGP test, and I spoke to him there about the winglets. We had a long discussion about bulges, what is permissible and what is not. The rule of thumb is that as long as the aerodynamic vanes are housed in a bulge which does not protrude unnaturally, and which forms a single exterior surface with the rest of the fairing, the package is acceptable.
But the thumb used in this rule of thumb belongs very firmly to Danny Aldridge, and he will make decisions based on his own interpretation of the rules. "I expect a lot of people will hate me this year," he joked, acknowledging the difficulty of judging such rules. However, relying on a single arbiter is still better than trying to legislate the imagination of engineers out of existence, as the bizarre and convoluted aerodynamic wings on Formula One cars will attest.
To my eye, Honda's aerodynamic package is pushing the limits of the rulebook. The ducts mounted on the side of the fairing look rather too much like conspicuous bulges. Then again, that might be an artifact of the color scheme: the aero package was clearly a plain black piece of carbon fiber tacked on to a painted fairing. That made it all the more visible, and made it seem much more intrusive than it might be. However, my opinion does not matter. Danny Aldridge has the final word here. We shall await his judgment at Qatar.
Strange days like these
To the riding: the timesheets provided an intriguing prospect. Andrea Dovizioso was fastest, not entirely unexpected given the historical strength of the Italian factory at Qatar. Maverick Viñales was second quickest; again, much as expected. Once again, the Movistar Yamaha rider appears to have the best pace, posting more 1'55 laps than any other rider.
That leaves Marc Márquez slightly out of the frame, but perhaps the Repsol Honda rider lost too much time to the crashes he had. At least he did not reinjure his shoulders during the falls. Márquez, however, was happy with the new engine. Or rather, he was content. He has some electronics work to do over the next few days, and he was optimistic they would make progress in improving acceleration, the bugbear of the Honda in recent years. It is at least better than previous years.
Cal Crutchlow ended the day in third, the LCR Honda rider concentrating on the latest version of the Honda engine, now supplied to all of the Honda riders on the grid. But the biggest surprise was in fourth place, seeing Karel Abraham way up the order on the Aspar Ducati GP15. The old bike still works well at Qatar, that much was clear.
One explanation, perhaps, is that Abraham has less to test. His teammate Alvaro Bautista had two versions of the GP16 to test, and so couldn't chase a fast time. Danilo Petrucci spent all his time working on the GP17, rather than working on set up. (Indeed, Petrucci's punishing test program suggests that winning the Pramac internal competition to secure the GP17 is a bit of a poisoned chalice, as Ducati Corse dump off a lot of development work on Petrucci.)
Ninety-nine problems, but the pitch ain't one
Jorge Lorenzo was back up to speed, able to do much better at a track he loves, and a track which suits the Ducati. He was pleased at how quickly he managed to adapt, though he still has plenty of work to do on braking later than he is doing now. That is a process which will take perhaps half a season to perfect, but the speed with which Lorenzo is able to adapt and react is a positive sign.
Valentino Rossi was less happy, struggling to get a good feeling with corner entry at Qatar. His pace was still very respectable, and you suspect he was holding something back. But his issues put him behind the astonishing Jonas Folger, the German picking up where he left off at Phillip Island. The Monster Tech 3 Yamaha rider has been impressive all preseason, and is starting to turn some heads. Team boss Hervé Poncharal felt vindicated when I spoke to him at Jerez. Many had questioned his sanity when he signed the German. That decision is starting to look like a stroke of genius, as Poncharal puts the right people around Folger.
So far, Ducati have yet to unveil their aerodynamic package. It is widely expected to debut at this test, but Ducati Corse have held off for the moment. All eyes on the Ducati garage for tomorrow morning.
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