As veteran MotoGP journalist Dennis Noyes pointed out on Twitter late on Saturday night, on Sunday, we will start to see some of the real truth of where everyone stands. Sunday is the last chance for the MotoGP field to do a full race simulation, putting together everything they have learned during winter testing. The last day of the test at Qatar will serve as a dress rehearsal for the race.
But Saturday gave us a quick peek at everyone's hands. The work now is more about refinement than revolution, and genuine speed is coming to the fore. The final timesheets from Saturday do not tell the whole story, but a general picture is starting to form. It is looking increasingly like the 2017 MotoGP championship is going to be fought out between Maverick Viñales and Marc Márquez. And while they focus on each other – which they are doing more and more – other riders, primarily Valentino Rossi, are waiting in the wings to strike.
Ducati show their hand
There was a little bit of revolution on display at Qatar on Saturday, however. Ducati finally rolled out their new aerodynamic solution. It is different yet again from the other four manufacturers who have shown off their winglet replacements. The top half of the fairing has been remodeled, to create a very slim nose section and a pair of large ducts, one either side. The shape and position of the ducts (see below) appear to create a very large aerodynamic surface, providing plenty of downforce.
"The new fairing, it was nice to feel the effect, because it was very difficult to create a good fairing, with a similar downforce like last year with the new rules," Andrea Dovizioso said after testing it. "Our engineers did a great job." The amount of downforce the new fairing generates is "not the same, but very close," according to the Italian. Dovizioso was the only rider to test the fairing on Saturday, with Jorge Lorenzo scheduled to test it on Sunday.
Without the new fairing, the Ducatis were already fast, Jorge Lorenzo posting a top speed of 351.8 km/h during the day, a new record at the track – though still shy of Andrea Iannone's outright record of 355 km/h at Mugello. Lorenzo was optimistic, as he continued to adapt to the Ducati. He may have been only eighth on the timesheets, but he was quick to point out that he, along with Marc Márquez, did not use a soft tire. The times he set were with the harder race tires, setting his fastest lap on a used tire.
This is the work which Lorenzo is focused on. Sorting out the set up of the bike, and getting it more to his liking. And working on braking, and especially corner entry. It was hard work, he said, "but it will pay off in the future". On Sunday, Lorenzo expects to use the soft tire, try a race run, and the new fairing. The soft tire could be an option for the race, he said, but only a race simulation will reveal whether the tire will last.
Yamaha reign supreme
It helps that Lorenzo really likes the Qatar circuit, and that the layout has historically suited the Ducati. Yet it was the Yamahas which took the top three spots, Maverick Viñales holding off his teammate Valentino Rossi, while the astonishing Jonas Folger put the Tech 3 satellite bike into third.
Viñales is cementing his position as title favorite, along with Marc Márquez, and his rhythm proved that once again. The Movistar Yamaha man did three laps in the 1'54s – including one lap inside the pole time set by Jorge Lorenzo at last year's race – but more significantly, he strung together a host of 1'55s. He posted 16 1'55s in all, 12 of which were between 1'55.2 and 1'55.7. Marc Márquez was the only rider to get anywhere near that level of consistency, posting 14 laps in the 1'55s, though most of those were 1'55.8s and 1'55.9s. Jonas Folger was the next best, doing 9 laps in the 1'55s, at around the same pace as Márquez.
By contrast, Valentino Rossi only managed two laps in the 1'55s, though he also posted three 1'54s, equaling the total of his teammate. Yet Rossi's times were deceptive. Firstly, he did far fewer testing laps than Viñales, 37 compared with Viñales' 49. But more importantly, he only had a breakthrough at the end of the test, when they tried a new set up.
"I don't remember a preseason with Yamaha which was this difficult," Rossi told the press. He had left Phillip Island with a major concern over the gap to his teammate. His crew had remained confident they could improve the situation, however, and a drastic setup change at the end of the day made a huge difference to corner entry. He immediately dropped his times, posting three 1'54s on one run.
The only downside to Rossi's day was a small crash, like so many riders on Saturday. But while most walked away unharmed, Rossi managed to hurt his hand, managing to put a hole in his fingers. It is not serious, but it will be an inconvenience for the test. Even damaged fingers could not dampen his relief at finding some pace, however.
Couldn't give a flying Folger
The surprise of the test is surely Jonas Folger, however. The Monster Tech 3 Yamaha rider is not just fast over a single lap, but is capable of running a decent pace. The German is surprised at his own pace, he told the German press. "If someone told me I would be here, I would have shaken my head," he said. He feels there is still room for improvement, however, with work to be done braking.
I spoke to Tech 3 team boss Hervé Poncharal at Jerez before the Qatar MotoGP test started. "Jonas is making me look like a genius," he said. Poncharal had been chasing the German for a very long time, only managing to sign him this year. The French team boss had spoken to Folger's Moto2 teams, and they had told him that creating the right conditions would be difficult. Poncharal was confident of success, however, and so far, the facts bear him out. "We have a good feeling inside the team with Jonas," Poncharal said. "That's the most important thing."
Et tu, Aprilia?
There were plenty of surprises behind the top three. Aleix Espargaro put the Aprilia RS-GP into fifth, behind Cal Crutchlow. Espargaro was not posting many fast laps, but the beginnings of real pace is there. More horsepower is still needed, but the Aprilia has closed the gap since last year. Aleix Espargaro's riding style helps, the Aprilia braking and entering the corner much more to his liking. Podiums no longer seem like a distant dream for the "other" Italian factory.
Things are not going quite so well for Suzuki, with Andrea Iannone only twelfth fastest, a second off the pace of Viñales. The Italian explained at length how different his riding style was to Viñales, who had ridden the GSX-RR last year. Viñales' style was to brake straight up into the corner, Iannone explained, then throw the bike onto its side. Iannone was trying to emulate that, but it was not easy.
It was unusual to get such a lengthy explanation from the Italian. Normally, Iannone is relatively brief when he speaks to the press, and tends not to give too much away. That is due in no small part to the fact that the Italian still struggles with speaking English, though he is not all that forthcoming in Italian either. The effort of explaining the riding style in such depth left him slightly exasperated, as he cut off a journalist who asked a follow-up question. "Many questions!" he said. "I talked too much about the situation."
Sunday is the day of truth. Or perhaps the day of an inkling of the truth. Expect race runs and final tweaks, as the riders and teams prepare for the season to kick off in earnest in two weeks' time. Testing is nearly over, but it has shown us that there is a lot to be excited about for the 2017 MotoGP season.
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