The MotoGP riders have had their first laps of the Chang International Circuit in Buriram, Thailand, and the reviews are in. Simple to learn, but more fun than it looks on paper, is the short version. "The layout, I remembered it was more similar to Austria, so I was very worried," Valentino Rossi said, summing up the general feeling. "But when you ride maybe it is more similar to Argentina. It's good to ride, you have a good feeling, you enjoy. The track is not very difficult but anyway it's fun."
It was a change from what he had said at Sepang, when the Italian dismissed the Buriram circuit as "boring". "I rode the track in 2015 with a Yamaha 300 together with [Jorge] Lorenzo and [Pol] Espargaro," Rossi explained. "I remember that the track was similar to Austria. But in reality it's better, have good corners. Technically it's quite easy, but it's not boring."
On a side note, Rossi ended the day in eighth, less than four tenths behind the fastest man Cal Crutchlow. He finished three place and a tenth of a second ahead of his young teammate Maverick Viñales, the rider who was prematurely anointed world champion after preseason testing in 2017. Friday was Rossi's thirty-ninth birthday, and the start of his twenty-third season in Grand Prix racing, and nineteenth season in the premier class.
To still be racing at his age and after so many years is a remarkable enough achievement. To start the season as a legitimate championship contender – or perhaps, to still have the desire, the discipline, the ambition to do what it takes to start the season as a legitimate championship contender – is truly the mark of his greatness. When Valentino Rossi retires (not yet, he looks certain to sign on for two more years) he will be remembered for his titles. But to my mind, what marks him out above all other riders is the fact he is still competitive even now, when so many others have (understandably) given up on the hard physical and mental slog that racing at the very highest level demands.
Tight, close, tough
But back to the test. The fact that the track was relatively simple to learn meant the riders were up to speed quickly and pretty close. "It's so short," Pramac Ducati's Jack Miller opined. "It wouldn't surprise me if you see the top ten all within half a second. It's going to be so tight." He was not quite right: half a second covered the top eleven, not the top ten. The top twenty were covered by less than a second. The only riders more than a second behind quickest man Cal Crutchlow were Tom Luthi and Xavier Simeon, both rookies for 2018, KTM test rider Mika Kallio, and Hafizh Syahrin, the Malaysian rider on his first time out on a MotoGP machine.
Syahrin's first day on the Monster Tech 3 Yamaha vacated by Jonas Folger was more than respectable. Finishing just 2.3 seconds behind Crutchlow made this the best debut by a MotoGP rookie in the 2018 season, according to an insightful calculation on the website of the Spanish magazine Motociclismo. In percentage terms (compared to the fastest rider at each test), Syahrin was better than Taka Nakagami, Franco Morbidelli, Luthi and Simeon on their first outing on a MotoGP bike. There is more to come from the Malaysian.
The closeness of the field at Buriram may well be a factor of the relative simplicity of the track layout, but it is also indicative of exactly how competitive the current MotoGP field is. This closeness has placed an added burden on the MotoGP rookies. Best rookie finisher on Friday was Taka Nakagami on the LCR Honda, less than nine tenths off the fastest time of his teammate, and within a few hundredths of the two factory Aprilias of Aleix Espargaro and Scott Redding. Yet he finished in seventeenth place, a long way down the order. The better MotoGP gets, the harder it becomes to be a rookie in the class.
That old WorldSBK chestnut
The times set by the MotoGP bikes were also a refutation of the narrative which had arisen after the combined MotoGP and WorldSBK test in November at Jerez. There, Jonathan Rea finished the final day as fastest, beating a bunch of factory MotoGP bikes in the process. Why, people asked, were MotoGP manufacturers spending all that money when they were being beaten by a factory spending less than a fifth of what they were? Such claims were based on oversimplifying a complex set of conditions: track temperature, the character of the track, the use of qualifiers, and much more, including a truly astounding lap by Rea, who is clearly one of the very best riders in the world in any discipline.
Comparing lap times at Buriram reveals a very different picture. On their very first visit to the track, the MotoGP bikes lapped in 1:30.797, 2.6 seconds quicker than Rea's race lap record of 1:33.436 on the Kawasaki WorldSBK machine, and 2.1 seconds faster than Rea's pole record of 1:32.957, set last year, the third time WorldSBK has raced at Buriram. In fact, every single MotoGP bike beat Rea's race lap record, including Hafizh Syahrin on his very first time aboard a MotoGP bike.
Of course, this comparison says little about the relative level of the riders. But at a tight track like Jerez, where corner speed is paramount, and the ability to flick a bike from side to side, a WorldSBK machine can be a match for a MotoGP bike. At a track where acceleration and top speed count, where a MotoGP bike can be given free rein to stretch its legs, the MotoGP machine leaves a WorldSBK bike for dead. The same was once true of the 500cc V-twin two strokes, which could match and beat the four cylinders at some tracks, while being left to straggle at others. Horses for courses.
As impressive as Cal Crutchlow's time was, it is a little premature to be drawing definitive conclusions about what this means overall. Nobody was chasing a really fast time on the first day, and different riders were on different test programs, while others, such as Jorge Lorenzo, had more trouble getting up to speed on their first day.
Have HRC fixed the engine?
That doesn't mean there aren't indications there. Crutchlow himself was happy to have been quickest, and admitted it was a sign that the 2018 Honda RC213V was working well. "Obviously we’ve continued to ride well from Malaysia. I felt good there," he said. "HRC is doing a good job. I feel last year we were lacking something and now we have it. We’re still having similar problems with the bike and the way it handles, but we have something that is really helping us here."
"They’ve definitely improved the engine of our bike," Crutchlow explained. "The acceleration? I don’t know. We have to look at Malaysia and compare data a lot more. Those sort of corners like turn one and the last corner really don’t suit my style. So to be quite strong in sector one, maybe I’ve adapted my style a bit to help that as well – like being patient probably. We got the new Honda engine but we need to work on the rest of the bike. I don’t think we just gained with the engine. That’s not where we just gained, sure, because we’re gaining on the braking and in the corner speed. But we have some more power and it definitely helps. We still need to make the bike a little more rideable."
Marc Márquez was less inclined to beat about the bush about the Honda's new engine. At Sepang, HRC had brought three engines to test: a 2017 unit, a Valencia test engine, and a brand new spec for Sepang. That Sepang engine had been the one favored by all three HRC riders (including Crutchlow), and the first day at Buriram had merely underlined this had been the right choice. "It's more clear," Márquez said. "We concentrated more on the last version. At the moment, we are concentrated there, because after we analyzed the Sepang test, the Japanese staff believe in that direction, all three riders who tried that engine, we believe it also. And yes, we need to manage a few problems still, but we are concentrating on that direction, to be clear."
There were still concerns that the heat in Thailand could confuse the situation, Márquez said. "The layout [of the track] is different but the conditions are very similar, and it's difficult to understand the engine, especially, because when you feel the engine, OK, we are MotoGP, but no torque. We need more torque. But then when we arrive in Europe, shorter gearbox, shorter tracks, maybe it will be too much." With three Hondas in the top five, this was a promising start for the RC213V.
The aero is out of the bag
At Ducati, all eyes were on the aerodynamics. Both Jorge Lorenzo and Andrea Dovizioso tried two different new fairings. One was a much shorter version of the upper fairing, bearing an uncanny resemblance to the package debuted by Yamaha at Sepang (and based on Yamaha's aero package from Valencia).
The second was a modified version of the upper and lower fairings, with extra aerofoils on the upper surfaces and much longer side sections.
Both Dovizioso and Lorenzo were undecided on the new fairings, but Dovizioso explained that actually determining whether a fairing was better or not was complicated. "About the fairing, we are still working on that," the Italian said. "Because it's very strange work, to work with the winglets and the fairing. Because it's not like when you try a set up, from your style, you can prefer something one way or in another way. The fairing is something very difficult to take a decision on, and in one track, one fairing can be better, and in another track, another one can be better. So it's very very very very difficult, and tomorrow we will work on the details about that. Today we spent one-and-a-half hours, but we have to work with more time to make more laps in every spec to have more feedback, because it's very difficult to work with the fairing."
Fairing first, frame later
Ducati also have a new chassis to try, but neither Dovizioso nor Lorenzo took it out, preferring to focus first on learning the track, then on working with the new fairing. Dovizioso said he hoped to test in on Saturday, while Lorenzo was more likely to try it out on the final day of the test on Sunday.
It was clear that Dovizioso adapted to the Buriram circuit faster than his teammate, however. "I think it's quite good for our bike, quite good for my riding style. The lap times from today are not so important. It was clear that me and Marc, we understood easier and faster the track, but this is not too important, because we have three days, everybody has time to understand the track and make an improvement."
Lorenzo started out more slowly. "I decided to start out calmly," he said. "It's always easy to make a mistake, when you don't have a reference for the circuit, and have a crash. We took all day to understand, and step-by-step we found the limits of the circuit. But at the end of the day we were much closer than after the first laps of the day. It wasn't a very easy day, because we had a few small problems which prevented us from reaching a high level today, problems with the gearbox, with the electronics, which made that the day was not easy."
The surprise of the day was Alex Rins in second place. The Suzuki rider was second fastest, just twelve thousandths of a second slower than Crutchlow. The base of the GSX-RR looks to be very solid, and Rins is clearly improving. "From the beginning I understand very well the track and I enjoy a lot riding here," was how Rins explained his pace. "We didn’t try many things. We just kept focused on the set-up of the bike. I think that we’re doing a good test. Tomorrow we have a lot of things to try: a new fairing; new settings on the suspensions. I hope we can continue in this direction."
His speed was in part down to the bike. "I think this layout is really well suited to the Suzuki. As you can see, we did a really big step compared to last year. I think this year our bike will be competitive." In 2017, the Suzuki was getting slaughtered at tracks with fast straights. So far, the GSX-RR has been a lot better. After choosing the wrong engine at the start of 2017, Rins and Andrea Iannone appear to have made a much better choice at the Sepang test.
An electronic fix
There were more concerns at Yamaha, though Valentino Rossi was confident they could be fixed. "For me the bike is better to ride, compared to last year I feel better," Rossi explained. "The feeling is more similar to two years ago and this is very important because I suffer last year a lot. Maybe also more than Maverick with the 2017 chassis."
Where Yamaha was struggling was with acceleration, Rossi explained, something which put them at a disadvantage compared to their main rivals. "For me at this moment all the Ducatis are better in acceleration because they are more in front compared to us in the electronics. When we moved to the Magneti Marelli, for me we have some problem. So for us it's difficult to understand. Honda and Ducati understand something we don't. So I hope that we can recover as soon as possible because at this moment we suffer."
The solution, Rossi believed, lay in the electronics, but that was positive, as it was a relatively quick fix. "The good thing of the electronic is that it is not an engine or chassis or swingarm. You can fix with a number. So you can fix also in a short time. But I'm quite worried because if we don't fix now, I'm not optimistic to fix for the first races. So I don’t know what we have to do."
There was a clear difference with last year, however, when Rossi felt many of their problems lay in the chassis. "Two different things," he explained. "Both in the electronics, especially Ducati and Honda improve a lot during the season and in the second part were stronger. Another thing is the chassis. Now I brake and enter, the bike turns, I feel good. But we need more acceleration."
Seeking a safer pit entrance
Though the general impression of the Chang International Circuit was positive, there were a couple of concerns about the circuit, expressed by the riders in a special meeting of the Safety Commission convened at Buriram, to give them a chance to air their opinions of the track. For the most part, the track was very safe, the riders said, but the entrance to and exit from pit lane left a lot to be desired.
Pit lane entrance is via an access route leaving the track on the outside of the final corner, and exiting behind the runoff area of the turn. The danger is that if someone is entering the pits, they could get taken out by a rider crashing in the final corner.
"For me, the last corner, it would be better if we went directly to the pits, and we don't have to take this long way," Jorge Lorenzo explained. "Because for me there are two problems: the entry of the road, that you have to do it just in the racing line, and also in case you are entering the pits and somebody crashes, he can hit you directly."
The pit entrance used at Sepang could solve the problem, Lorenzo believed. "An entry like Sepang, the last corner where you enter the corner braking but you go outside the line and enter the pits directly, in my opinion would be the best solution. For the first corner, it's more difficult because finally you have to go out and there are not so many places. But I think for the last corner, we can have something better."
Overall, though, most riders were relatively happy. Buriram is a modern track, designed with safety in mind from the start, despite the few minor quibbles. I'm not too concerned about it," Jack Miller said. "It seems there's plenty of runoff everywhere. There's a couple of bumpy corners, but nothing too dramatic. The track's relatively simple, the only thing is that last corner, it looks like if someone gets a bit overambitious it could end up pretty hairy. But I think the rest of the track's pretty safe, it's all brand new and I think they looked at it before they built it and so I think it should be alright."
With eight months until the race in Thailand, the Chang International Circuit has plenty of time to come up with ideas to address the riders' concerns.
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