Three days in the tropical heat of Sepang always generates so much information, and so much to think about, that it is impossible to encapsulate it all in just a few short hours immediately after the test. It takes time to digest, analyze, and separate the wheat from the chaff. That will happen over the coming days here on MotoMatters.com.
Yet there are clear lines emerging from the murk of testing. Avenues worth investigating, trains of thought worth pursuing. So here is the short version of what I think we have learned from three days of testing in Sepang. The long version – or more likely, versions – are still to come.
Honda – cautiously hopeful
After the Valencia test, Marc Márquez and Dani Pedrosa were happy about the new Honda RC213V motor. The electronics were roughly in the right place, and it sounded like the only work left was in refining it to turn it into a capable weapon. They were so happy they decided to skip the Jerez test, and left the donkey work to Cal Crutchlow.
On the basis of that, HRC went away and built a second engine, even more powerful than the Valencia unit, and it was that engine which Márquez, Pedrosa, and Crutchlow spent all Tuesday focusing on. All three were unanimous in preferring that engine.
There was optimism, but also a note of caution: "At the moment, it's still a little bit aggressive, that engine," Marc Márquez said. "And it's where I'm a little bit more worried, because normally where, the engine always has one step, two steps, three steps even less power. And it's where I'm trying to understand well, because now we go to Thailand, it will be more or less the same conditions, and then when we arrive in Qatar, there is no time to change. You try the engine, it's good or no good, but there's no time to change it for the race. It's there where we need to work with the electronics to try to find a good balance."
If HRC can control the engine with electronics, there is nothing to worry about. "You can take away too much torque with electronics, but you can't add power if an engine hasn't got any," Cal Crutchlow said sagely. But if the engine is too aggressive, Honda may find themselves in a similar hole to 2017. A hole, of course, that led to Marc Márquez becoming champion.
Yamaha – the new chassis: oasis or mirage?
On Sunday, the Movistar Yamaha riders were delighted with the 2018 frame, saying it gave them back the feeling which they had been missing in 2017. On Monday, Maverick Viñales finished fastest, Valentino Rossi second fastest. All was rosy in the Movistar garden.
Tuesday brought trouble. All of a sudden, neither Rossi nor Viñales could beat their previous day's times, Rossi finishing eighth and Viñales a lowly eighteenth. "We are a little bit worried," Rossi said. "We need to understand why, because in the Valencia Test after the last race happen exactly the same. On Tuesday me and also Maverick have a good feeling with the bike and tires. Our pace was 30.5 for example and our position was third and fourth. Next day, same bike, same tires, same temperature we lose 3-4 tenths and we don't understand why. Today happened a little bit the same, so we need to understand why."
On the other hand, Rossi's pace was good, he said, and the first two says had been positive for both Rossi and Viñales. The fear is that the Yamaha riders' results will depend on which version of the bike turns up on race day: Dr Jekyll, the sweet-handling M1 which is fast, or Mr Hyde, the intransigent Yamaha that won't submit to their commands.
Meanwhile, in the Tech 3 garage, Johann Zarco faces a similar dilemma. The 2017 chassis he tried on the previous two days gave better feedback, but lacked rear grip. So on Tuesday, he switched back to the 2016 chassis, and decided he will race that for the rest of the year. "So today I decided to use my bike from last year to have all the information and understand even more things about my feeling," the Frenchman said. "In the morning it was the perfect conditions to be really fast and a 1m 59.5 is quite good, but not good enough. At least I could have the grip I was missing the day before. I feel that now with one more year of experience I still have things to learn. I will, at the moment, at the next tests keep working on the bike I was using last year and find a way to ride it as Lorenzo was riding it two years ago. I think doing what he was doing will help me be faster."
Zarco's choice confirms that Yamaha's engineers took a wrong turning with the 2017 bike. The concerns of Rossi and Viñales over the 2018 bike suggest that they still haven't entirely found their way out of the swamp. There is going to be a lot of work to do at Yamaha.
Ducati – A bright future awaits
There is little to say about Ducati, other than Jorge Lorenzo shaved a few hundredths off the fastest ever lap around Sepang, taking over the unofficial lap record from Marc Márquez. The new chassis which Ducati brought to Sepang worked well, improving turning on corner entry and helping on exit, though the middle of the corner remains problematic. A new chassis is supposed to be coming to the next test at Buriram in Thailand, and if that makes a similar step to the Sepang chassis, the Ducatis are going to be hard to beat.
Both Jorge Lorenzo and Andrea Dovizioso were happy, the only fly in the ointment being a technical issue for both Dovizioso and Danilo Petrucci, which stopped them from using the GP18 in the afternoon. That is, of course, why you test: to avoid a repeat of something similar on a race weekend.
Suzuki – Rising star?
Alex Rins was faster than Andrea Iannone on two out of the three days at Sepang. He was also faster than everyone except one factory Honda, one satellite Honda, both factory Ducatis, and Jack Miller on the GP17. After a dismal season in 2017, Suzuki have a new engine – which is much better – a new chassis – which is much better – and a fully fit Alex Rins – which is immeasurably better. There is work still to do for Suzuki, but with a bit of luck, they will do well enough to have their concessions taken away.
Aprilia – playing catchup
Aleix Espargaro asked the Aprilia engineers for a bike that would hold the line and keep turning when he released the brakes in the corner. The Aprilia engineers delivered with the new chassis. Aleix Espargaro asked the Aprilia engineers for an engine that was powerful enough that he could get better drive out of corners and hold a slipstream. Aprilia engineers did not deliver, and may only deliver at the Qatar race. Or maybe later. And though Espargaro is delighted with the new chassis, he is frustrated by the lack of a new engine.
This is a story line which will play out over the course of the coming year. Aprilia have a bike and a rider with so much potential, but they don't really have the resources to deliver. They need Lady Luck to smile on them. We would like to believe that Lady Luck loves an Italian motorcycle factory.
KTM – Now the hard work begins
In 2017, KTM shocked the world with their progress. They started the season a couple of seconds a lap slower than the leaders. Then ended the season a few tenths slower than the leaders. Hopes have been raised that they can be in amongst the leaders by the end of 2018.
But at Sepang, KTM are confronting an uncomfortable, yet all too familiar reality. To go from 3 seconds down to 1 second down is relatively simple. To go from 1 second down to 0.5 seconds down is really hard. To go from 0.5 seconds to be on a par with their rivals, that is where the really hard work begins.
The good news? Mika Kallio managed to latch on to the tail of Marc Márquez during Tuesday. Once behind him, he immediately spotted what the KTM needs to be able to do to be capable of competing with the front runners. Naturally, he declined to share that insight with the media. So we are left guessing.
More tomorrow, and in the following days. The rollercoaster is approaching the top of the first climb, and the season is about to plunge headlong into a breathless thrill.
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