The Sepang MotoGP test is always a key moment in the MotoGP season. It is the first time the riders get a look at all the hard work that has gone on over the winter. It is the first time the engineers get to see if the ideas they extracted from the data from the November tests have any value, or were just wasted effort. The Sepang MotoGP test is the place where the dreams of riders and engineers careen headlong towards the iron wall of reality. It is where they learn if they will destroy the wall, or the wall will destroy them.
This year, the Sepang test is even more important. With so many riders out of contract this year, the outcome of the test will heavily influence any decision about their future. The lucky ones will get to make a decision on their own future based on their results, and the result of the bike. The unlucky ones – the reader should regard "unlucky" as a synonym for "slow" here – will end up having decisions made about them, whether the fault lies with them or elsewhere.
Why are the first three of nine full days of testing, and still months away from the first actual race, so important? Silly Season grows ever more precocious, starting earlier and earlier, factories now regarding it as normal to make a decision before the season proper has even got underway.
So what do the MotoGP riders and factories have to achieve over the next three days? Here is our quick breakdown of their priorities and their targets:
Yamaha – Make the tire last
Yamaha's objectives for the Sepang test can be summed up by a single sentence uttered by Valentino Rossi at the Movistar Yamaha launch at Madrid last Wednesday. "We need to work on the electronics, and some small details to try to be fast and use the tires better," he said. That, in a nutshell, is what went wrong in 2017.
So Yamaha have a new engine with a more linear power delivery at Sepang. The aim is to stress the tire less overall, and keep the rear in better shape for the second half of the race. The new engine also has a bit more power, which should help cut their top speed deficit even further. More work on the spec Magneti Marelli electronics is also needed, to fine tune the system to extract the last ounce of performance from the rear Michelin tire.
The extra power might come in handy to help drive the new aerodynamics package through the air. The new package is a revised version of the extreme winglets debuted at Valencia last year, which generated so much outrage among Yamaha's rivals. But the changes made to the Yamaha winglets have brought it back more or less into line with the regulations, the upper section being less curved, the lower section more of a hoop like the Ducati Desmosedici. MotoGP Technical Director Danny Aldridge said he had seen the wings, and had very few concerns left which needed to be addressed. The bike is likely to be adorned with something closely resembling the package unveiled at Sepang.
Perhaps the best news of the November tests was that Valentino Rossi and Maverick Viñales were both back on the same line. At the launch, Rossi told reports, "I'm happy because me and Maverick both have the same idea [after the tests at Valencia and Sepang last year], and I think that we gave good information to Yamaha to make the development. "
Ducati – Turn, turn, turn
Ducati's priorities are simple: they need to make the bike turn better, with less effort, and hold the line through the middle of the corner with less effort. That would help Andrea Dovizioso by making the bike less tiring to ride. It would help Jorge Lorenzo by giving him the missing puzzle piece that prevented him from making a final breakthrough at the end of 2017.
To that end, Ducati have a new chassis at Sepang, which has been put through its paces for the past three days. The feedback from the test riders – including undisputed king of the test riders, Casey Stoner – is extremely positive. The new chassis – a sturdier section around the swingarm mount point, a revised engine mounting point on the rear cylinder head – had "no negatives" according to Motorsport.com, who spoke with Stoner. The whole was a step in the right direction, he said.
At the launch a couple of weeks ago, Ducati Corse boss Gigi Dall'Igna was not certain they would have the new chassis and aerodynamic parts ready for Sepang. The fact that Stoner and Michele Pirro have already put so many laps on the chassis suggests that they did. But the fact that there was no sign of any aerodynamics updates suggests that that part will have to wait for Buriram.
Honda – Choosing engines
It promises to be a busy week for the Repsol Honda men. Six bikes adorn the Repsol garage, three for Marc Márquez, three for Dani Pedrosa. Both riders have a 2017 bike – and by the look of it, a bog standard 2017 RC213V with the slash-cut lower exhaust and the scorpion-coiled top exhaust – and two 2018 machines.
The first order of business for the Repsol garage is deciding upon a motor, team boss Alberto Puig told us during his introduction to the media today at Sepang. "On the engine side it's important to fix what you will race," Puig explained." Because the engine must be frozen before the first Grand Prix and we need to give both riders the same specification. So at this moment this is our biggest concern and what we are working on specifically and with more determination."
Honda are already in pretty good shape when it comes to the engine. The new spec Márquez and Pedrosa tried at Valencia met with positive reviews. In the previous couple of seasons, Honda have brought new specs of engine which were more revolution than evolution, and that meant the electronics needed completely recalibrating each season. This year's motor is a good deal less radical than the past couple of seasons, putting the electronics pretty much in the right ballpark at the Valencia test. With a whole winter to work on them, the electronics should be very close to being right at Sepang.
There are still revolutions afoot in the Repsol Honda garage, this time in the field of aerodynamics. HRC, like Yamaha Racing, have taken inspiration, shall we say, from Ducati's bending of the new aero regulations to just below breaking point. The new aero package debuted by the Honda test riders featured a surface which comes off the nose and loops down towards the side panels. On this update, Danny Aldridge was also positive. Though he had not given it a thorough inspection, and official approval would not be given until Qatar, he saw little to object about in terms of the existing rules.
Suzuki – Learning from the mistakes of the past
Although you wouldn't say it to look at it, Suzuki have an all-new bike at Sepang. The chassis and engine are revised compared to last year's bike, albeit only mildly. The frame is an update of the chassis tested at Aragon, which both Alex Rins and Andrea Iannone were enthusiastic about. The engine is refined version of the motor tested after Aragon last year, and which proved to be the solution to Suzuki's self-imposed problems.
Suzuki's choice to switch both riders out at the end of the 2016 season came round to bite them in the behind last year. Alex Rins banged himself up badly as a fresh-faced rookie, while Andrea Iannone seemed to lose focus as he tried to get his head around the radically different riding style required for the GSX-RR. As a result, the two men settled on the wrong choice of engine for 2017, and only discovered it once the season was underway, and it was too late to fix it.
That was a mistake they do not want to repeat, and so much of Suzuki's focus has been there in the run-up to the Sepang test. Ironically, even if they did have a problem with the engine this year, they would be able to fix it, as a season without a single podium gave them their concessions back. But with a nineteen-race season, and a summer break of just three weeks, there would be no time to test a new engine even if it were available.
KTM's march towards world domination continues apace. They finished the Sepang test nearly two seconds off the pace last year, but by the time the Valencia race rolled around, they had cut it to just eight tenths. If the aim at the end of 2017 was top tens, they start 2018 with the objective of regularly battling in the top five.
What weapons do they bring to battle? Like Repsol Honda, KTM have brought a grand total of six machines for Bradley Smith and Pol Espargaro to the Sepang Test. "We have some different things. You will see clearly on the bike some different things on the bike these three days," Pol Espargaro said coyly. Those new parts do not extend to the major engine update to which Espargaro had alluded in the second half of last season, but they should be enough to bring the bike closer to the front yet again.
A year of experience will also help. Both Smith and Espargaro said that the combination of a year's worth of track data and a year of working with the Magneti Marelli electronics should help make their job easier. KTM specialists have spent the winter learning from Magneti Marelli engineers, knowledge which could prove crucial over race distance. That second half of the race, where tire wear is key, is what KTM has most to focus on, starting at Sepang.
Aprilia – Taking the next step
Aprilia may have less dramatic changes to make, but they are well into the hard work of refinement. The bike showed potential in 2017 – usually just before blowing a seal, unfortunately – but there is a lot for Romano Albesiano to work with, to provide Aleix Espargaro and Scott Redding with a bike they can be competitive on.
Work continues on bike balance, engine power – especially more power off the bottom – and acceleration. Aleix Espargaro said that this is the year where Aprilia need to put everything they have into it, to close the final gap with the leading riders. Sepang will give the first inkling of whether the Noale factory is on the right track or not.
What to watch for
Naturally, all eyes will be on the headline times, but the reality of the situation will be buried in the race runs. Tire wear and tire management have come to dominate MotoGP, as the role of electronics in managing tires has been severely diminished by the spec Marelli electronics. But as everyone has a long race simulation on their schedule, and will provide a better guide to the 2018 season.
Riders to keep an eye on
With teammate Maverick Viñales already signed on for 2018, Rossi has a decision to make about his future, whether he continues or retires. At the launch last week, Rossi sounded as if he was tending towards staying on, but it will depend to a large extent on whether he believes he can be competitive again in 2018, and 2019. If he leaves Sepang believing that he can be a contender, a signed contract is sure to follow shortly afterwards.
There could be a lot of pressure on Dani Pedrosa in 2018. His seat is far from secure after his contract ends, and Honda is believed to be looking at young talent to replace him. His role as best supporting teammate could be played out, especially with a changing of the guard in HRC management. He will have to compete with teammate Marc Márquez on a weekly basis to hold onto his job, and Sepang should give the first signs of how he will fare.
Ducati paid Jorge Lorenzo an awful lot of money last year, and it was only in the latter part of the season that Lorenzo gave any sign of giving value for money. His discovery of how to ride the bike coincided with Andrea Dovizioso's title challenge, causing a certain amount of embarrassment at Sepang, but especially at Valencia. If Ducati have found a solution to getting the GP18 to turn, Lorenzo will have to start winning more or less immediately. If Lorenzo can be right up with the front runners at Sepang, he will kick off the season on the right foot.
Petrucci has a contract with Ducati which guarantees him a seat in the factory team in 2019, but only if there is a vacancy. If there isn't, Petrucci will be forced to look elsewhere if he wants a factory ride, which he does. Petrucci is going all in on the 2018 season: an emaciated version of the jolly Italian faced the press at Sepang on Saturday, having dropped 4kg from what was a powerful frame, leaving him gaunt, but also very focused. He has to rule out his weight having been a factor in excessive tire wear, as well as learning to be much smoother and less aggressive with the throttle on the first touch. Danilo Petrucci is auditioning for a factory ride in 2018. This year HAS to go well for him.
Like Petrucci, Zarco is chasing a factory ride. Like Petrucci, it doesn't look like there is going to be room with his current manufacturer, at the Movistar Yamaha squad. So Zarco is focused on trying to win the championship, and prove that he deserves a factory ride. A championship for a satellite rider is usually an improbably objective, but Zarco's management of stress and commitment to focus is second to none. He has stayed away from the discussion about exactly what spec of chassis he will use in 2018, putting factors beyond his influence out of his mind. That promises much.
Pol Espargaro and Bradley Smith
Two of the juiciest factory seats are at KTM, but neither Espargaro nor Smith are particularly minded to make way for an outsider. The objectives of 2017 were to be judged by results at the end of the year. The objectives of 2018 are to be judged by the result of qualifying on Saturday and the race on Sunday.
This requires a fundamentally different mindset: Gone are the days of testing, now is the age of racing, and racer combat. The change in Bradley Smith was truly remarkable: I have rarely seen the Englishman more fiercely focused and clearly hyped about the new season than Smith. Whether Smith and Espargaro can hold onto their seats is still open. But if they don't, then it certainly won't be for want of trying.
Will the track play ball?
Saturday, the only day when there was no action on track, was completely dry here in Sepang, but damp patches on the front straight refused to disappear. More rain is forecast for the coming days, and if it falls too early, and the heat doesn't burn off most of the water, the test could be frustratingly short of useful data for some factories and some riders. It seems that a combination of changing climate – wetter, more humid, slightly less warm – and a surface that has patches which refuse to dry could make Sepang a less attractive place to test for the MotoGP teams. How long this situation can go on remains to be seen.
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