The second day of MotoGP testing at Sepang turned out to be Motor Monday. Four of MotoGP's six manufacturers dedicated their day to gathering the data to make a decision on their 2018 engine. All of them have the lessons of 2017 in mind, when the rule on sealed engines caught Suzuki out completely, and Honda to a lesser extent. Make the wrong choice in testing, and you have nineteen races to spend regretting it, much as Suzuki did last year.
The difficulty factories face is that the testing tracks early in the year are ideally suited to camouflage potential problems. Sepang is fast and wide, with relatively few very slow corners to test just how aggressive an engine might be. It is also almost as hot as the surface of Venus, which saps power and tames the engine. Buriram replaces Phillip Island as a test track this year, but neither is conducive to teaching anything. Phillip Island is fast and flowing, and easy to go fast on. Buriram is stop and go in a heat even fiercer than Sepang, making a nonsense of engine assessment.
There's the Qatar test, of course, but if you finally figure out what is wrong with your engine at Qatar, you have two weeks to fix it before the start of the season. That is not something that is ever going to happen, even in an ideal world.
So Monday was designated as engine day for the MotoGP teams, factory riders making a concerted effort to discern whether the engineers had found the correct direction for development. It looks very much like that is the case for Ducati, Honda, Suzuki, and Yamaha. Ducati, Suzuki, and Yamaha confirmed that the new engine is better than their old ones, and have laid their worries to rest.
Honda, having brought two engines to choose from, are still going backwards and forwards between the Valencia spec and the Sepang spec, though heavily favoring the Sepang spec. "It will be important to understand and to analyze well," Marc Márquez said. "This circuit sometimes you can make a big mistake, because always here if you have more power, more torque, you are faster and you feel better."
"So it's really important tomorrow to decide which engine is the best one. Looks like all Honda riders go to the new one but honestly still I have some doubt, because the new one still have some points that maybe in another circuit we can struggle," Márquez warned. Honda have another day to put the new engine through its paces before making a final decision.
Aprilia and KTM are the odd men out, though for very different reasons. Aprilia will also be getting a new engine to test with more power, but that is likely to come at Qatar, rather than Buriram. Aleix Espargaro was delighted with the new chassis – the bike holds its line when he releases the brakes now, exactly as he asked the engineers for it to do – now he just needs the power, and more especially the acceleration, to go with it.
Odd men out
KTM will not be bringing a new engine any time soon, Bradley Smith explained, because they are only just now starting to catch their breath from the hectic pace of development last year. They gambled a lot on new parts last year, and got lucky. "We threw the dice many times last year, and they kept on coming up sixes. We don't want to get caught out if our luck runs out on us." Instead, they are focusing on refining what they have, using the Sepang test to establish a baseline, to start a more normal evolutionary phase of development.
That the bike is in good shape was evident in the first part of the day. Pol Espargaro was seventh fastest until the last couple of hours of the test, before a massive crash at Turn 4 ended his test for the day. A badly swollen ankle saw him sent to a local hospital for X-rays, but he will be back on track on Tuesday.
It's avoidance, not evasion
Engines weren't the only order of the day, as Yamaha and Honda also took their aerodynamic packages out for their first run. If Ducati has been pushing the envelope with their aero fairing, Honda and Yamaha have taken that one step further. MotoGP Technical Director confirmed to us that both the Honda and Yamaha fairings complied with the letter of the law, with the emphasis on letter. But Yamaha have taken the letter of the law to corral a herd of wild horses to ride roughshod over the spirit of the law, trampling it beneath their feet. Then again, the spirit of the law is a phrase only ever used when the letter of the law has been so badly drafted as to be open to interpretation.
Yamaha's disregard of the spirit of the law will likely pay off for them. About the Honda aerodynamic fairing, Marc Márquez was rather ambiguous. "It looks like the main target of the new fairing is to try and stop the wheelie and have more downforce," he said. "Then you lose a little bit of the top speed. Of course, braking stability if you have wings is better but when you start to go in, it’s harder, the bike. Also in fast corners it’s a little bit harder but it’s what I said. With the new fairing we need find a good bike balance. For one lap, I can ride well, fast. But to be consistent I’m scared of overheating the front tire or something like this."
Valentino Rossi, on the other hand, had nothing but praise for Yamaha's letter-of-the-law aero package. "I tried the fairing with the aerodynamics and it's good," he said. "I like it. It's better. Especially what you feel when you try this type of fairing, you feel more front contact. So when you have to ride the bike not straight, and you feel more contact on the front, it's easier. Also less physical. So this is the way. And I don’t have any negative points."
Back to the future
The fact that the Movistar Yamahas finished first and second suggests that the 2018 Yamaha M1 is in good shape. Rossi praised the new chassis, designed using the 2016 frame as the basis. He has another variation to test of it on Tuesday, but he has the right feeling with the bike, and he can make the tires last.
Whether Marc Márquez would have spoiled the Movistar party is open to question. The Repsol Honda rider exited the pits with a fresh set of tires to push for a fast lap in the last ten minutes of the test session. But it was just in those last ten minutes that it started to spot with rain, and Márquez' ambition was punished with a slow speed crash, and the loss of any chance of hitting the top of the timesheets.
Now with added Jackass
A surprise visitor to the top five came in the shape of Jack Miller. The Australian has made a huge leap forward since making the switch to Pramac Ducati, underlining the suspicions that the Honda RC213V is a very difficult and very physical bike to ride. Miller confirmed that on Saturday, telling reporters that the Ducati was a lot less physical than the Honda. Then he back that up on track, ending the day in fifth.
Miller was pretty happy with that, and he was very impressed with the way the Ducati managed its tires. "We were on the same tires as yesterday throughout the whole day this morning," he said. "I got 27 laps on a soft rear so I'm pretty happy with that. Worked really well this morning considering we used it so much yesterday and then again today. And the front as well. We finished up with 33 laps on the front tire, pretty good."
What he really liked about the Ducati Desmosedici GP17 is that it allowed him to punch out laps at a constant pace. "It's the consistency. I'm able to really focus on my lines and I'm really able to get the same line nearly every lap. If you look at my rhythm and pace in general, not many laps are far off the others. We never really make any mistakes so far, like running wide or anything like that. It feels very in control."
The one thing that all three GP17 riders last year complained about was a lack of turning. Andrea Dovizioso, Jorge Lorenzo, and Danilo Petrucci all said that the bike was difficult to turn mid-corner, and that cost corner speed. Jack Miller was less fazed by the bike's behavior. "For sure, there are a couple of points around when it's not ideal for turning, but I feel the bike's got some variety about it and you're able to ride around that kind of problem," Miller said when we spoke to him shortly after lunchtime. "We've done some changes this morning in terms of set-up just to try and make it turn just a little bit better and I think we've gone in the right direction. We'll throw some tires at it this afternoon." Those tire stuck, taking him to fifth.
Despite that result, Miller wasn't getting ahead of himself. He was wary of making predictions of what might be possible for the rest of the year. "It's still too early," he said. "Halfway through the second day of testing but I feel pretty good on it. We'll have to wait and see how the bike goes [at other places]. This track is normally a pretty good track for the Ducati so have to wait and see how we get on in Thailand and Qatar test before we really have an idea."
There is still a lot of testing left to do before MotoGP lines up on the grid at Qatar. But Tuesday will provide a first glimpse of where the riders really stand. Most of them have some sort of race simulation scheduled for the final day of testing in Sepang, and that, more than anything, will tell us who is fast and who isn't.
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