The Sepang MotoGP test proved to be most instructive, both for the fans, who got a first taste of what the 2018 season could look like, and for the factories, who put the first imaginings of this year's bikes – and especially engines – through their paces. We learned that Ducati have taken another step forward, that Honda is improved, that Yamaha have solved one problem but possibly created another, that Suzuki are showing promise, that Aprilia are still waiting on a new engine to match their new chassis, and that KTM are starting to realize that closing in on the top ten was much easier than getting into the top five will be.
From Sepang, MotoGP moves to Thailand, some 1300km almost due north. The Chang International Circuit – mostly referred to as Buriram among the MotoGP faithful, as the circuit is owned by (and named after) the main Thai rival to Official MotoGP Beer Supplier Singha – may prove a good deal less instructive than Sepang, for a couple of reasons. First of all, it offers more of the same, especially from a climate point of view. And secondly, it offers less, in terms of variety of corners and bike maneuverability.
The layout of the Buriram circuit is relatively simple. There are no real elevation changes, though the track has one or two crests and dips. The track consists of three straights strung together with tight corners, and then an ornery section of tightish corners taking the riders back to the final first-gear corner, and back onto the relatively short start and finish straight. It is, unsurprisingly, a Hermann Tilke track, and exactly what you would expect as a result.
That doesn't mean the track is completely without entertainment value. Turn 4 is fast left hander with a lot of run off behind it, giving riders the confidence to attack it. The long Turn 9 is relatively slow, but it leads onto a complex left-right section taken at speed which demands a lot of effort from the rider. The final corner is a favorite overtaking point, but it tends to bring out the worst in riders. The only pass available is one of the kamikaze variety, offering glory or the gravel trap. To see a lap of the Buriram circuit, watch this video on the WorldSBK website.
Bending to the will of Bibendum
Under normal circumstances, there wouldn't be a test at Buriram. With the calendar expanded to 19 races, the agreement with IRTA was that the number of preseason tests would be reduced from three to two. (Worth noting here that the factories were less keen on reducing the number of tests than the teams were, but that the teams will get their way from 2019). But as this is the first year that Buriram is on the calendar, the factories and teams have no data, so they are being given the chance to acquire some.
More importantly, of course, Michelin has no data. Teams can adapt quickly enough without data (and the consequences are hardly dire if they do not) but if Michelin don't get the tires right at a track like Buriram, things can go quickly amiss. That, after all, is the lesson of Phillip Island in 2013, where a newly resurfaced track left then spec tire supplier Bridgestone with their collective heads in their hands over heat blisters forming in their rear tires, which proved not to be hard enough to cope. It was also the lesson of Argentina in 2016, when high track temperatures and an abrasive surface caught Michelin off guard in their first year of MotoGP.
Determined not to get caught out again, MotoGP are heading to Thailand to test. Michelin will gather enough data to build tires which will last for the 25 or so laps the race will last. But will the teams learn anything? The oppressive tropical heat – temperatures are expected to hit the mid 30s °C and 50% humidity in the middle of the day – means that engines will be sapped of horsepower once again, as they were at Sepang. Anyone wondering if their new engine may be a little too aggressive – I'm looking at you, Honda – will leave Buriram not much wiser.
All about aero
The only differentiator between Sepang and Buriram is that the Thai track has several tight corners leading on to long straights. That should at least give an idea of how physically demanding it will be to keep the front wheel under control out of corners. But once MotoGP gets to Qatar, and the final test in the cool desert evenings, they could still find themselves in for a nasty surprise.
Where Buriram may well turn out to be useful is in evaluating aerodynamics packages. That hard acceleration combined with the fast sweeper at Turn 7, and the difficult combination of Turns 9, 10, and 11 where the bike has to be manhandled through multiple fast changes of direction may give some clarity about whether the latest iteration of aero devices (aka please-don't-call-them-winglets) are an improvement over previous generations.
Ducati have certainly decided that Buriram is a good place to test aerodynamics. According to Ducati Corse boss Gigi Dall'Igna, speaking at an event held for Ducati Thailand (a crucial market for all the manufacturers, hence why so many have flown their riders out early for promotional events in the country) Ducati will have three different aerodynamic packages to test in Buriram. Presumably, one of those will be the old package, to establish a baseline, plus two alternatives.
Dall'Igna also confirmed that Ducati will have a new chassis to test at Buriram, as he had told us would be the case at the Ducati launch back in January, and repeated at the Sepang test. There will also be more "chassis parts" to be tested, he said. The aim of all these parts is to help the bike to turn better, and hold a line in fast corners. Buriram has only one of those, but that should be enough for Andrea Dovizioso and Jorge Lorenzo to evaluate the difference.
Taming the tropics
On paper, Buriram should be ideally suited to the Ducati, with its long straights and slow corners. The Thai track has a strong flavor of the Red Bull Ring in Austria (ironic, then, that Red Bull gets its flavor from Thailand, where the drink originated), and we know how the Ducatis dominated there in the first year.
For Honda, the main objective will be to verify the choice of engine made at Sepang. There, Marc Márquez, Dani Pedrosa, and Cal Crutchlow all preferred the slightly more powerful engine of the two new units Honda had brought to test. Thailand is a chance to check this all again, but as previously noted, the weather won't help in assessing the engine character. Their best hope will be to try the bikes early in the morning and at the end of the day, when temperatures are fractionally cooler.
Yamaha face a difficult task in Thailand. The 2018 Yamaha M1 – based around the 2016 chassis, but with a more powerful engine – performed outstandingly on the first two days of the Sepang test, with Maverick Viñales and Valentino Rossi first and second on the timesheets on the second day of the test. But it all went to pieces on the third day, when they found themselves well down the order at the end of the day. The same situation had happened at the Valencia test, leaving both factory Yamaha men rather concerned.
Yamaha will have been working to understand what happened at Sepang, and how they found themselves with less grip on the final day of the test than on the two previous days. Yamaha seem happy enough with the new engine, and will mainly be focused on the chassis, and understanding how to manage grip. Valentino Rossi was happy with his race pace in Sepang, though he couldn't push for a quick lap. The Movistar team are likely to follow a very similar testing program at Buriram.
The long slog of progress
Aprilia will have more upgrades to test on the RS-GP, though the main focus will be the chassis. A new engine is coming for the bike, but it will probably only be ready at Qatar – and perhaps only at the race, rather than the test. That has left Aleix Espargaro frustrated on the one hand, as though the chassis now does all the things he asked Aprilia for, he really needs more horsepower and more acceleration to be able to tell whether it is competitive.
At Suzuki, the work continues. Andrea Iannone and Alex Rins will continue work on the new engine for the GSX-RR, the Japanese factory wary of a repeat of the problems of last year, where their two new riders both opted for the wrong engine, leaving them hamstrung for most of the season. They were confident after Sepang, Alex Rins ending the test in sixth, half a second behind an unleashed Jorge Lorenzo but ahead of Maverick Viñales and Marc Márquez. Suzuki will be hoping for more of the same in Thailand.
KTM are left without Pol Espargaro in Buriram. The Spaniard suffered a huge crash on the second day in Sepang, which caused him to miss the final day of that test. He thought he had come away relatively unscathed, but the crash appears to have exacerbated an old injury, leaving him with a herniated disc and a pinched nerve. He should be fit for Qatar, but that leaves development in the hands of Mika Kallio and Bradley Smith in Thailand. At Sepang, KTM were mainly establishing a baseline from which to proceed. Progress should start from Buriram.
Progress will be expected from the MotoGP rookies as well. Taka Nakagami left the test as fastest, but the LCR Honda rider was quick over a single lap, rather than race distance. Franco Morbidelli had a promising test, but still has lots of work to do. Tom Luthi made the most progress, though that was not surprising given that was his first time on a MotoGP bike. Buriram should be the first chance Luthi has to see where he stands against the others. Xavier Simeon, meanwhile, will once again measure himself against Karel Abraham, the other rider on a Ducati GP16. At Sepang, Simeon was pretty close to Abraham's pace, so at Buriram he must aim to beat it.
Thailand will see the debut of what will probably be the fifth rookie on the MotoGP grid for 2018. Hafizh Syahrin has been called up to replace the chronically ill Jonas Folger on the Tech 3 Yamaha. Though the press release spoke solely of the Buriram test, it is widely believed – not least among Sepang circuit staff, who are backing the Malaysian rider – that Syahrin will be the permanent rider for Tech 3 this year. Buriram is an audition for Syahrin, but he will have to fail very badly if he is not to get the ride.
There may be action off the track as well as on in Thailand. With Maverick Viñales already signed up, and Ducati having made clear that they want to sign Andrea Dovizioso and Jorge Lorenzo before the season begins, Buriram is likely to see a lot of high-level meetings taking place. Valentino Rossi is also expected to make a decision on his future sooner rather than later, with the only real question being whether he signs up for one or two more years after 2018.
There is a Yamaha presentation to be held in Buriram on the 15th February, to be streamed live via the Yamaha Factory Racing Facebook page starting at 5:30pm local time. Given that Viñales announced his contract at the launch of the Movistar Yamaha team, it is not beyond the bounds of credibility to suspect there could be an announcement about Rossi on the 15th.
There may be more announcements at the Thai test. According to Italian media, Carlo Pernat is losing patience with his client Andrea Iannone. According to the flamboyant Italian manager, Iannone is "married to the world of gossip" rather than focused on racing. The two are to have a meeting in Thailand to discuss their future. How that will affect Iannone's future at Suzuki is unclear.
Testing starts on Friday 16th February at 10am local time. The Buriram test will last for three days. At the end of it, we should have a fractionally clearer view of what the 2018 MotoGP season will look like.
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