Testing is over. Sunday was the last chance for the MotoGP field to work on preparing for the 2017 season, to tweak, refine, experiment. The next time bikes take to the track, in two weeks time, there will be much more at stake than pride and a little bit of psychological advantage. There will no longer be anywhere to hide.
The last day of the test meant a busy schedule, though that is a relative thing at the Losail International circuit. For the best part of two hours, nothing stirred on track bar the bored chatter of riders, mechanics and photographers as they waited for the sun to go down, and the track to cool off enough to go testing. Once testing started, riders started grinding out the laps. Temperatures stayed high enough to stave off the dew, and it was possible to ride until the track closed at 11pm without the risk of crashing on an invisible patch of moisture.
Riders didn't need the excuse of moisture to crash, however. In five hours of usable track time, riders crashed fourteen times in total. Some seemed particularly prone, with Sam Lowes going down twice, and Marc Márquez managing to hit the deck three times in a single day. Márquez had a simple explanation for his crashes. "From the first to the last lap, I'm always on the limit," he said. "It try to be in 1'55s, but this is a risk." Márquez paid the price, though he put one crash down to testing a part which didn't work, though he did not specify what.
The crashes disrupted any chance Márquez may have had of trying a race simulation, and it prevented him from posting a fast time. That meant he ended the test as tenth fastest on Sunday, and eleventh over all three days. After showing incredible pace at the first two tests of this year, Márquez struggled. Yet he was still confident. His race rhythm was good, despite the evidence of the timesheets.
A favorite emerges
There is one small problem. "On rhythm, there is one rider who is faster than the others," Márquez said. That rider is Maverick Viñales, who ended the fourth and final preseason test on top of the timesheets, making it four out of four. If there were any question marks left over Viñales' competitiveness on the Movistar Yamaha, his performance, both in terms of outright speed and race pace, should have removed that completely.
That was evident from his media debrief. His speech was littered with positives: "We did a good job … I was feeling quite confident … We've been working really good … I'm quite happy … I feel good on the bike … " It was a litany of confident assertions, and one which should strike fear into the hearts of the opposition. Viñales left Suzuki for the Movistar Yamaha team with the aim of winning a MotoGP championship. He intends to get it first time out.
Viñales doesn't believe it will be easy. "It's going to be a difficult year, but we need to be strong and really intelligent." The main opposition will come from Marc Márquez, Viñales said. "He is always there at the front, in all the races, so he is the most constant. But also Valentino, it's incredible how Valentino manages the races." It was the one thing Viñales needed to learn from his teammate, he said.
Meet the sims
Viñales' race simulation was impressive. He went out for a total of 23 laps – one more than the official race distance – and ran consistently in the low to mid 1'55s. Crash.net helpfully charted the long runs of the fastest riders. On paper, Viñales was slightly slower than Andrea Dovizioso, but that was taking account of the three laps of 1'57 in the Spaniard's race run.
Those slower laps were to get past other riders without taking too much risk, he explained. The last thing you want to do is to crash stupidly and injure yourself before the start of the season. But the good thing was that he could immediately drop back to the low 1'55s after passing slower riders. That is good preparation for the season to come.
A quick look at the numbers backs up Viñales' claims to have good pace. The Spaniard did 44 laps under the two-minute mark, 31 of which were 1'55s or faster, which translates to 70%. Only Andrea Dovizioso had better pace, though on far fewer laps. The factory Ducati rider did only 28 laps faster than two minutes, but a whopping 86% of those were under 1'56.
Dark horse Ducati
Dovizioso was starting to dream of victory at Qatar. He has been second at the race for the past two years, finishing behind the Yamahas of Valentino Rossi and Jorge Lorenzo. He fears finishing second to a Yamaha once again this year, this time behind Viñales. "He's much faster than everybody else, and I think he could have been even faster," he told the Italian media. But Qatar is a track he likes, and at which the Ducati excels.
That has been good news for Jorge Lorenzo as well. The Spaniard has been competitive at Qatar, after struggling badly at Phillip Island. The confidence which came from the Desmosedici's speed also helped him adapt to the right way to ride the bike. Lorenzo cut his race simulation short, after realizing he had chosen the wrong front tire. He had used a soft front with a soft rear, and the front had not been up to the job.
This, too, is part of adapting to the bike. Throughout his Yamaha career, Lorenzo almost invariably chose the softer front tire. That worked well for him, as he could carry more corner speed for longer, without using up the tire under braking. The Ducati doesn't work like that, though. It requires the rider to brake later and longer, which stresses the tire harder. That means that a medium or hard tire will work better.
But Lorenzo is getting there, slowly. "The bike has its character, it's powerful and it's nervous. And it's difficult, it's demanding physically. But today I felt with some modifications, it's less demanding, so I'm adapting, and also the body is adapting to what the bike demands. So little by little it will be easier."
Plus ça change
Ironically, his former teammate is struggling to adapt to the new Yamaha, despite not having changed manufacturers. After a revelation on Saturday, changing track conditions on Sunday meant that the set up changes which worked the day before were of no use. "It looks like with the bike we have a good potential, because Viñales is very, very fast," Valentino Rossi said. "But I think that him and his team are able to understand in a shorter time the way to make this bike at the maximum and we are a bit in delay."
The difficulties he faced meant that Rossi did not even bother trying to do a race simulation. "I knew I wasn't quick enough, I couldn't ride well," he said. As it stands, he is hoping for a minor miracle before the race starts in two weeks time. The bike is very different to the 2016 M1, and he and his crew have not yet figured out how to get the most out of it.
That does not mean that they won't, of course. Rossi and his crew have a reputation for unlocking the secrets of track and bike at the last minute, and the adrenaline of race day always seems to give the Italian another couple of tenths he didn't have the day before.
With the title favorites garnering most of the attention, several riders slipped under the radar. Dani Pedrosa posted the third fastest time at the test, and improved his time by over 1.4 seconds over the course of the test. Though he did not post anything resembling a race simulation, he was capable of maintaining a pace in the low to mid 1'55s throughout his longer runs. Pedrosa is quicker than he looks, and reports from the Honda camp are that he is happy with the changes he has made with his team.
Those who do not learn from history
The Nicky Hayden Award for Stakhanovite Effort went to Cal Crutchlow on Sunday. The LCR Honda rider racked up a grand total of 70 laps, at least 10% more than any other rider. He also put in a race simulation of 16 laps, most of which were in the mid to high 1'55s. Dig into the numbers, and Crutchlow's pace is solid. 67% of his sub two-minute laps were 1'55s or faster.
Much of Crutchlow's hard labor is down to the role he has been given by HRC. Though nominally a satellite rider, in the pay of Lucio Cecchinello's LCR Honda outfit, Crutchlow has been roped into acting as a test mule for the Repsol Honda team. It is a role he plays willingly, working closely with Marc Márquez and Dani Pedrosa to ensure they do not make the same mistake as in previous years. They have suffered with overly aggressive engines which were not assessed fully. Crutchlow is doing his part to avoid that.
He was also given a new fairing to test, along with Marc Márquez. This one was not aimed at generating downforce, however, like the aerodynamic fairing Honda debuted at this test. It has a revised nose shape, with a larger air intake at the front. "The intention was to try to improve the top speed," Márquez explained. In the past, larger intakes have been used to improve the pressure in the airbox. Whether that is the case with this fairing remains to be seen.
Like a Bati out of hell
Crutchlow was not the only satellite rider to impress. Alvaro Bautista was remarkable both for his outright speed on the Aspar Ducati, but also for his race pace. The GP16 is clearly still a competitive package – a conclusion backed up by Scott Redding's strong time at the end of Sunday's test – but it still has some weaknesses. Bautista ended the test as fifth fastest, two tenths slower than Jorge Lorenzo on the factory GP17. In his race simulation, Bautista started strongly, banging out a couple of 1'54s, followed by a string of 1'55s.
But as the laps ticked off and the tires started to wear, Bautista's lap times rose quickly. By the end of his 20-lap run, Bautista was posting low 1'56s, his last lap a 1'56.4. This is a problem which raised its head last year, the Ducati GP16 using up the tire too much, especially on the edge. At the moment, Bautista looks like being a thorn in the side of the front runners in the early stages of the race, but he will have his hands full managing his tires in the second half of the race.
All that is still just speculation, of course. We can take the data from the tests and crunch the numbers six ways from Sunday, but the best that analysis can provide is a rough approximation. The truth will only come out on the race track, when riders line up against one another. Less than fourteen days to wait for the truth to come out.
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