It has been a very busy track at Jerez, with a total of 27 bikes on track at some point or other on Wednesday, with a good mixture of MotoGP, WorldSBK, and the Honda Racing BSB team of Jason O'Halloran and Dan Linfoot. What the first day of testing showed is that the WorldSBK bikes are almost as fast as a MotoGP machine – or at least, a Kawasaki is, shod with qualifiers and ridden with sufficient attitude by Tom Sykes in this case – and that the new surface means the track is a good deal quicker than it was when the MotoGP race was held here back in May. Full times are here.
As it is a private test, there is very little official communication from the teams, despite the fact that a group of journalists – including myself – is here in the paddock. KTM and Suzuki have been forthcoming and helpful, Ducati are cagey, Aprilia don't have much to test, and Honda are secretive – and all of the work is currently falling on Cal Crutchlow's shoulders, as the Repsol Honda team are saving their test days for next year. Honda are not as secretive as Yamaha, however, who are holding their private test over in Sepang, under a virtual media blackout. All we know about that is that Valentino Rossi, Maverick Viñales, Johann Zarco, and Kohta Nozane will be on the bike, as Jonas Folger is still not fit enough to be riding.
There are some details which can be gleaned, even from the least communicative teams. Just how hard Honda are working is obvious from the LCR Honda garage, where the massed ranks of HRC's top engineers sit at desks following Cal Crutchlow's laps with great concentration. Crutchlow has three bikes in his garage: a 2017 bike, a 2018 prototype as tried at Valencia, and a different 2018 prototype using the same fairing (and air intake) as used by Marc Márquez in the second half of the 2017 season.
There is talk that Ducati have a new bike at Jerez, though the bikes both Andrea Dovizioso and Jorge Lorenzo went out on looked identical to the machines they tested in Valencia. They could be waiting until Thursday, but we will keep an eagle eye on pit lane for that.
At Suzuki, Andrea Iannone and Sylvain Guintoli spent the day on the bike, Alex Rins having the day off. Suzuki have a new engine, but Iannone said he was saving it to test for tomorrow. But the Japanese factory had made small steps forward with the bike, giving the Italian a much better feeling and allowing him to finish as fastest.
Of the rookies joining MotoGP, Taka Nakagami ended as fastest, nearly two tenths faster than reigning Moto2 champion Franco Morbidelli. Watching from track side, Nakagami looked a lot more comfortable on a MotoGP bike than Morbidelli did, picking the bike up on corner exit to get on to the fat part of the tire rather than trying to maintain corner speed and lean angle. That was even more evident from Alex Márquez on the Marc VDS bike, the younger brother getting a test on the bike in place of the injured Tom Luthi.
Former Moto2 world champion Tito Rabat impressed, putting the Avintia Ducati GP17 into seventh. After a dismal start to his MotoGP career, Rabat has made progress in the last few months. On Wednesday, he explained where that speed came from. The improvement came mainly from a significant electronics update which HRC had brought for the team at Aragon. "In the last races, from Alcañiz the Honda was not so bad. I will not say the Ducati is perfect. The Honda is also not so bad. They improved a lot the electronics but unfortunately it arrived too late."
Rabat felt much better on the GP17. "The character of the bike is good; the braking, braking stability, wheelie and acceleration system. Middle corner speed also. Of course, everything needs to improve. But the important thing now is that I am enjoying," he said. That allowed him to find the speed he had back in Moto2. "The very positive thing was I made my lap time alone. I go, exiting from pit lane, pushed and boom! No waiting for other people."
KTM were also happy to talk about what they were doing. There were no major updates to the bike, the work for Pol Espargaro and Bradley Smith mainly consisting of confirming work done at Valencia. Espargaro was working on a new swingarm and linkage, in search of more rear grip and better tire life at the end of the race. Smith tested the chassis used by Espargaro and test rider Mika Kallio at Valencia, and confirmed that it was the best option for the future.
Most of the work they are doing is working through engineering lists to check which direction to pursue. "The main target for us at the moment is just getting a direction for the guys to work in during the winter," Bradley Smith said. "Rather than coming here and throwing loads of new parts at it, it's just do everything nice and systematically so they have everything ticked off. They have ideas of some things that can change, different feelings with the bike, so we try it and decide: yes – no – yes – no etc. It's just basically engineering ideas: what does that touch, what does that not touch, and then they can make a full package for the end of January."
One reason KTM have nothing major to test at Jerez is because Mika Kallio will be trying more radical ideas at a separate test in December. "We have nothing massively radical planned. Mika's got a test planned here in December where he needs to test some new ideas, and based off of that test, our development program for Sepang will depend on that," Smith explained.
The novelty in the WorldSBK garages was Leon Camier making his debut on the Red Bull Honda. There are big changes coming at the Ten Kate team, in an attempt to make the Honda CBR1000RR more competitive. The team is due to switch from Cosworth to Magneti Marelli electronics, but they sent Camier out on the old Cosworth system to establish a baseline and be able to compare his comments with the comments of the team's previous riders. The second rider is as yet unnamed, but the short list is rumored to contain the American Jake Gagne, who rode the bike for the team in Qatar and Magny-Cours.
Though there was much praise for the improved grip levels at Jerez after resurfacing, there were also a few serious complaints. The WorldSBK grid had already mentioned the track breaking up in Turn 1 and Turn 8, and that was not getting any better. There were also several patches, especially in Turn 8, where gaps had been filled in with resin. That made for a mottled surface, and patches where it looked like the track was wet. That was confusing and terrifying, several riders complained.
Bradley Smith talked at some length about the new surface. "They have done a good job. The fact that it's already breaking up in a few places has me a little bit worried. Turn 1 is clearly not right, although it's not as bad as Turn 8," he said.
The patches at Turn 8 were a concern, he told us. "It's a resin. Basically, they filled the gaps in the tarmac with resin. The situation is that if it's wet or damp, how are you going to differentiate between what's the track and what's not. That's my only worry. As we go barreling into Turn 1 or Turn 8, they're like super fast corners, get to the middle of there and you don't know what's dry and what's not, you're just hoping that it's dry. The other thing is what worries me is how the grip is there in the wet, because it's resin and not tarmac, so does it have the same grip or does it not have the same grip? And it's on the racing line, so … "
The overhaul was well overdue, Smith said. "Generally the new surface is good, it's better. The track needed it, it was horrific, I think is the word. But in terms of grip levels and bumps and stuff like that, it's all in the right direction, just we need to keep an eye on Turn 1 and Turn 8 from a safety aspect. If it's happening in Turn 1 and Turn 8, you have to believe it's happening in other corners. That's something the circuit needs to keep an eye on, because I believe there's quite a lot of riding here. So there's going to be a lot going on in the next five, six months before the GP comes here, so we need to pay attention."
Though the track is very dark after being resurfaced, this was a price worth paying for more grip, he said. "It's always the same in the first year, then it starts to die down. So for some reason, a track, until it oxidizes is what we call it – though whether that's the right concept or not, I don't know – it's almost like you get an oxidization where the ground breaks up. Whenever that happens, then it's easy. When everything is brand new it stays super dark, then you can't actually see the patches. It's almost like it needs to get weatherbeaten, and then it's fine."
"At the end of the day you can't make it too light, because a light tarmac doesn't warm up anywhere near as much as the dark stuff out there. And you need a dark surface, because otherwise on a day like today, the maximum track temperature is like 16°C, and 16°C is just not good enough for us. So you need the dark to get the heat inside it, and for the sake of one year not being able to see the wet patches, I would much rather it was like that but then good for the next five or six."
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