Many (though not all) questions were answered at the Qatar MotoGP test. One of the most frustrating questions of the 2017 preseason has been answered at last, however. For weeks, MotoGP pundits have been puzzling over what could be in the 'salad box' slung under the tail of the Ducati Desmosedici GP17. Was it a device to counter chatter (or 'jounce', as it is more properly known)? Was it something to do with Ducati's patent on a variable exhaust nozzle for providing thrust?
At Qatar, Motorcycle News reporter Simon Patterson finally got a straight – though unofficial – answer from Ducati. The 'salad box' contains a bunch of electronics moved from the front of the GP17 to allow Ducati to use their new aerodynamic fairing. That fairing has a much narrower nose, to allow for the large ducts and airfoil surfaces which Ducati have used to replace their winglets. The reduced space in the nose forced Ducati to relocate the components which had previously been on a mount behind the front section of the fairing.
This revelation has allowed me to feel a brief sense of smugness. Since the 'salad box' first made an appearance, I had suspected that the contents of the box had more to do with relocating components from elsewhere, rather than any active function itself. "The question may not necessarily be what is in the box," I wrote before the Qatar test, "but what did putting whatever is in the box in there allow the Desmosedici GP17's designers to move around elsewhere." As it turns out what Ducati's engineers were chasing was some empty space.
The complexities of aerodynamics
An interview with Technical Director Danny Aldridge by Peter McLaren of Crash.net shed further light on Ducati's fairing, as well as on the aerodynamic appendages trialled by Honda. Aldridge revealed that Ducati had not submitted their fairing design to him for approval prior to running it at the Qatar test. That, Aldridge told Crash.net, was a risk. If a manufacturer turned up at Qatar with a new fairing Aldridge hadn't seen before, and Aldridge deemed it illegal, that manufacturer would be left empty handed. Given the relatively high cost of aerodynamics development that could be a costly mistake.
Aldridge also gave a very good explanation of how he assesses the legality of an aerodynamic package. "If you took a picture of the Ducati fairing, then got a black pen and covered all the ducts in, it doesn't look nearly as radical. That's one way I have to look at it." That is a useful basis for judging whether an aerodynamic part consists of a bulge or not, and whether it is legal.
The most interesting part of Aldridge's explanation involves Honda's aerodynamic package. It appears that HRC have been very clever when it comes to interpreting the aerodynamics regulations. Section 22.214.171.124.10d basically allows parts of the fairing which are detachable to be fitted and removed, while still being regarded as a single fairing for homologation purposes. So while Yamaha, Ducati, Suzuki, and Aprilia will have to homologate two fairings if they want one with and one without an aerodynamics package, HRC can homologate just one. By thinking about the rules cleverly, Honda have basically given themselves four different fairings per year, rather than just two. For a more complete explanation, go read Peter McLaren's excellent interview with Danny Aldridge.
Suzuki in Iannone's hands
With the departure of Maverick Viñales, all hope for Suzuki now rests on the shoulders of Andrea Iannone. The Italian has been fast, but has struggled to adapt to the way the bike needs to be ridden. Maverick Viñales used to brake as much as possible in a straight line, then drop the bike onto its ear at the last moment, Iannone explained. Iannone's style is more to trail brake deep into corners carrying a lot more lean angle, but when he does this, he also loses the front.
The problem is exacerbated with a new rear tire, which tends to push the front. On used tires, the problem is not as bad. But a last minute fix at the end of the test helped solve the issue, at least in part. It was too late for Iannone to go out and try for a headline time, but it gave him confidence heading into the race weekend in two weeks' time.
After a spectacular test at Phillip Island, Alex Rins came down to earth at Qatar. The Spanish rookie was no longer a front runner, but he was close to the pace of his teammate, promising much for the start of the season. After a false start at Valencia last year, continuing at Sepang, Rins has found his feet.
Progress for Aprilia
For Aprilia, things are better than the timesheets show, according to Aleix Espargaro. The Spaniard was fifth quickest on Saturday, but ended the test fifteenth overall. Espargaro put the overall time down to two crashes he had on the last night. The second one forced him to switch to an older version of the RS-GP engine, with a less powerful engine and an electronics setup which was not quite where it needed to be.
Still, Espargaro was confident. He felt he could be quick with bike on used tires, and the times he had set before the crash meant that the race pace was good. Teammate Sam Lowes had also crashed on the final day, but just before he did so, his team found a setup change which helped his confidence. Lowes ended the test well down the timesheets, just ahead of Tito Rabat on the Marc VDS Honda and the KTMs of Bradley Smith and Pol Espargaro, but he felt progress had been made with the bike.
MotoGP – tougher than you might think
KTM have already moved mountains in their first attempt in MotoGP, but they still find themselves with lots more work to do. Smith, Espargaro, and test rider Mika Kallio finished the test dead last. KTM had brought a new engine specification to the test, aimed at producing more bottom end power, making the power delivery more manageable. But the new engine had sacrificed top end for driveability, losing more than it gained.
As a result, according to Motorsport.com, KTM will not race that new engine. Instead, KTM's engineers will take the data from the test and produce yet another engine spec, likely to be introduced at Jerez. On the one hand, this is disappointing for Smith and Espargaro, but on the other, this will be the fourth different engine spec to come form KTM, a sign of just how seriously the Austrian factory is taking their MotoGP effort.
One of the biggest problems, according to the story on Motorsport.com, is trying to figure out the spec electronics. Matching power delivery to traction control and wheelie control is a vast puzzle, which is not easy to solve. This should come as no surprise, however, as even the mighty Honda took the best part of half a season to find a strong and workable base. KTM's MotoGP project is still very young, and will take the rest of the season before it takes on a clear direction.
Fast satellite Ducatis
Another problem for KTM – and indeed, for all of the MotoGP factories – is the incredible strength of the satellite teams. Alvaro Bautista showed once again just how good he could be aboard the Aspar Ducati, ending the test in fifth overall. He had excellent race pace too, though the Ducati bugbear of pace on worn tires raised its ugly head once again.
In his race simulation, Bautista started quickly, with a couple of 1'54 laps, followed by a handful of low 1'55s. But his pace rose quickly after that, rising to the low 1'56s. At the moment, it looks like Bautista could be a factor at the start of the race, but is likely to fade in the second half. That is the difference between a factory bike and a satellite bike: having the team of electronics engineers to figure how to optimize the electronics over the course of the race, and manage tire life in the second half.
There were more surprises among the Ducatis. Karel Abraham had a very good test on the second Aspar Ducati, though his bike is a GP15, two years behind the factory machines of Jorge Lorenzo and Andrea Dovizioso. Abraham was fourth fastest on the first night of the test, finishing in fourteenth overall, behind the factory Aprilia of Aleix Espargaro and the factory Suzuki of Andrea Iannone.
Scott Redding found some pace at the end of the test as well. The Englishman had struggled in previous tests, but a switch to different front forks made a big difference to the Pramac Ducati rider. Redding's race run was strong, running consistently in the high 1'55s and low 1'56s. A final dive at a single fast lap at the end of the test saw him end the day in sixth and the test in seventh overall. All this despite a slipping clutch on his first race run.
Cal Crutchlow: workhorse, and racehorse
As a man who already has two MotoGP victories under his belt, Cal Crutchlow is expected to be fast. The LCR Honda rider has been picking up a lot of the testing slack for Marc Márquez and Dani Pedrosa, charged with helping sort out the new Honda RC213V engine. That seems to be settled now, but a front end issue remains for all of the Honda riders, bar Pedrosa thanks to his weight. They stress the front tire too much under braking, and that is causing them to lose the front without warning at times.
Despite his concerns over the front end of the bike, Crutchlow was fast. He was ninth quickest over all three days, but he had a strong race simulation, packing in a lot of high 1'55s and maintaining a strong pace throughout. The Qatar circuit has not been kind to the Hondas in the past, but being competitive is reason for optimism.
The revelation of the preseason has been in the Monster Tech 3 Yamaha garage. Or rather, revelations, as both Jonas Folger and Johann Zarco have been impressive during testing. At Qatar, it was once again Folger's turn to shine, ending in third place on Saturday, and with both Folger and Zarco finishing the test in the top ten overall. Folger's race simulation was impressive, comprising of 10 laps in the 1'55s, including a handful in the mid 1'55s, and a bunch of low 1'56s. Zarco was a little slower, lapping consistently in the 1'56s. But the Frenchman was consistent and methodical once again. They look like causing real trouble inside the top ten.
But testing is testing, and racing is racing. In just over a week, the MotoGP riders will take to the track for real. There will be no more excuses, no hiding from reality. In ten days' time, racing gets real.
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