2018 Sepang MotoGP Test Preview: A Comprehensive Look At Who Is Doing What, And Who Will Succeed

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

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

Valentino Rossi

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.

Dani Pedrosa

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.

Jorge Lorenzo

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.

Danilo Petrucci

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.

Johann Zarco

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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Comments

Smith has shown a pattern of slower rise but to a solid height, so we can't assume he won't join Pol. But I think he will not best him nor keep his seat. Too many young KTM riders are coming to get it. And Pol has something a bit more. The KTM project is my favorite. Hooray for a radically new formula!

Pol also has a strong ally in his fierce rivalry with his brother Aleix. This is good for both KTM and Aprilia. And us - the yardstick and dynamic are prominent. Fun and interesting eh?

Oh Suzuki, you are ever teasing but disappointing. Glad you have concessions again, and expect that you will be making some strides and improvement. But your project has mid pack written all over it. Literally written on your fairing, title sponsor Ecstar. With the teeny redundant sponsor of Motul (so which oil is in the sump? How much is in the bank? Can this thrive?). Prioritize NOW, not later when you can afford it, a satellite team. Beat the other two Manu's to it. Get a team with something to offer you that you lack! One has amazing strengths in the Sponsor/financial game, doing it their own way (LCR). Others have strong programs in lower classes and a rider pipeline. So forth. In fact, they all seem to have a better sponsorship program and PR than you. Your launch just came and went like a fart. Hey, did you smell that Ecstar for a second there?

Yamaha - you can and should do just one thing right now in addition to the good work you are doing with your 2018 Factory bike. Get Zarco on one too with a factory contract. Herve deserves it. Zarco deserves it. YOU deserve it, with all the benefit of a third alien on your program. Honda does it regularly. Zero need to make tension with Rossi's sunset or miss the noon time blaze at hand. What the Illmore is wrong with you over there that you can't or won't see this?! Because polite Herve won't push? Because you became dependent on or complacent around having a Rossi amongst lesser riders over a dozen years ago? Marquez is here and not in your garage. Because it isn't how you think things should be in your orderly blueniverse? Draw up the contract. Change "2" to "3" on all your production spreadsheets. Learn French words of hyperbolic praise and appreciation. Watch the game change. Laugh at news of Doodoo Puig dissonance and rumors of Marquez taking his outfit to Suzuki. Watch the champagne spray with French anthems. Share some Nastro Azzurro with your Italian benefactors and SKY46 kid that comes for the next seat.

Petrucci will have a good year. He was strong in 2017! No red seat, he may go to Aprilia though. Go get em buddy!

I believe Jorge and the Ducati mid corner performances are coming. It is this positive read on Lorenzo that an be attributed to the low stars down below. Yep! I said it. I don't like the guy, but he is on the rise. And it is cool how the fate of the Ducati as a well rounded excellent machine and Jorge's legacy are intertwined synergistically - he becomes more by getting away from his 250 bias riding, the bike becomes more in getting some 250 nimble feel. Put half his hams into getting a phenomenal new Alien kid on a Pramac, keep me from having to see pictures of Jorge doing anything but riding a bike, and I will feel great about the whole thing. Btw, thank you SO much for bringing such a great bike to the circus, really enjoying it. And Dovisioso, thank you SO much for making it good old you and not the overpaid other guy that is the main rider. Viva 04!

Quick side note re Stoner and the Duc. He is so quick! Quickly! And it may not be the essential development feedback needed now, as he blasts the bike in such a unique sliding manner that it does not get at the mid corner issue at hand best for most riders. If Marquez or maybe Zarco were on the Ducati it could transfer. But not Dovi and certainly not Jorge. So his ride was a quick side note. That tantalizes us all. Damn you, beautiful Casey Stoner. Like a visit from my lost love, but thankfully now we have several other riders that can do the business. But not like that... (sigh).

Pedrosa has really amazed me in longevity and excellence. I believe, again, that his stay at HRC as a rider is done. He may go to Suzuki. Or he may just let us know he wishes to go straight into a well deserved position within the Honda organization that he likes. I would not be surprised if he did. He is as Honda as any rider I have ever seen, and has had plenty of seasons racing.

Lastly, Rossi may speak with promising positivity of his experience right up to and through his retirement announcement. I don't expect him to telegraph his move with discouragement or any direct indicators. In fact the opposite - he just mentioned that he has his awareness on 24 Hr Le Mans and Dakar. That and how he does in the first 4-6 races (no podiums? Bested by Maverick every time? Yamaha behind Honda and Ducati generally? Off to "better fun new things").

2 0 1 8 is H E R E

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You suggest that Stoner's testing input might be more useful if they had Zarco on the bike.  That seems like a strange thing to say, seeing as Casey is renowned for steering with the rear - having grown up riding on dirt, while Zarco doesn't even like training on the dirt as he feels it makes him too rough on the bike.  Zarco is so smooth with the bike that he was riding the 'tyre eater 2016 model' and running soft tyres during the race, while Maverick and Rossi were riding the new 'tyre saver' chassis and still having to run the mediums.  I can see a certain crossover between Stoner and Marquez, although the way they go about it is very different, but I don't see much crossover with Zarco.

Great point. Appreciate it.
And I see a Zarco that has more to him in range of riding style and strategies. He is riding the Yamaha and needing to do just that mentioned above. His throttle sensitivity reminds me of Stoner. Stoner could ride ANY bike apparently, and while we never saw him on a Yamaha we did see him on a 250. I see a Zarco that, yes, is on top of the very current necessity of doing with the right hand what the electronics just stopped doing for tires, especially 2016-2017 Yamaha.

He also can (and does when called for) aggressively and dynamically bring fore-aft carving at the scrub of the tire massaging the full length of the bike's cornering balance to get a new line. He displays (again, only occasionally, as is what is needed now) a blasting of the Yamaha that looks Honda-esque. In battles and passing, not in his normal racing line. No one is speedway riding right now.

And compellingly, Zarco does this adaptively and AGGRESSIVELY. He actively swapped more paint last season than Casey did in all his years of motorcycle racing minus when it happened to him passively and upset him. I compliment Stoner on his clean riding. But not his aversion to abrasion.

Zarco is a very conscious rider. And aggressive. And dynamic. Of all the top riders I see possibility of crossover. And amongst Zarco and Marquez btw, I see one utilizing instinctive talent and drive more, and another utilizing broader awareness and strategic reflection.

We have had plenty of these things in various riders. What I appreciate in Zarco is the measure and dynamic flexible but sharp balance. His right hand wields a crankshaft that can reach out a bike length in 16 directions, especially feathering elegantly yet forcefully fore and aft for traction with the whole canvas of the track getting paint...and will f*cking force your fairing aside without so much as a hint of diversion. Where is his weakness?

Factory contract now Yamaha, or regret it.