Have we emerged any the wiser after three days of testing at the Chang International Circuit in Buriram, Thailand by the MotoGP field? That is hard to say. The test was more for the benefit of Michelin than for the teams, and the French tire maker brought some 2000 tires for the 24 riders who took part in the test. The track itself was not particularly challenging or instructive in terms of understanding how well bike development was going. "This track is also not so easy or so difficult, it's intermediate," is how Monster Tech 3 Yamaha replacement Hafizh Syahrin summed it up.
Is it possible to draw conclusions about how the 2018 championship might play out on the basis of the Buriram test? "No, impossible," Ducati's Andrea Dovizioso said, before proceeding to do just that in some detail. "I can see Marc in a better shape than at the beginning of last year," Dovizioso said. "I can see Dani in a good shape, I can see Zarco with a little bit more experience, so a little bit better for the championship than last year."
It was harder to judge the Movistar Yamahas, Dovizioso said. "It's very difficult to understand the two factory Yamahas, because they will be fast in the race, on race weekends, for sure. But when you look at the riders and the teams from outside, it's impossible to know the details, so I don't know. I can see the Pramac riders are fast, they are happy with the bike, so I think they will be quite fast during the season."
Thai testing camouflage
Are Dovizioso's conclusions justified? Honestly, it's difficult to say. This test in particular is much more inconclusive and complicated than previous tests, precisely because it is a new track, with a large tire allocation, and different teams and riders all testing many different things at different points during the three days. The final timesheets are probably not precisely indicative, as it is hard to say who was chasing a time and who wasn't.
There are perhaps some nuggets of information to be found in a deeper examination of the full timesheets, though even then, the number of people obviously doing a race simulation is limited. But a preliminary look shows a few riders emerging as clearly stronger than the rest. On Sunday, Marc Márquez put in a total of 32 laps in the 1'30s, more than twice as many as Dani Pedrosa and Johann Zarco, who only did 15 each (though Pedrosa also did two 1'29s, and Zarco did three).
Seen as a total of the whole, 38% of Zarco's total laps were under 1'31, compared to 33% of Márquez', and 22% of Pedrosa's. Then again, Zarco didn't suffer the penalty of being a factory rider and having a huge number of new parts to assess: Zarco only did 47 laps on Sunday, while Pedrosa did 78, and Márquez a whopping 96, more than twice as many as the Frenchman.
I will be going into this in a bit more depth over the next couple of days, but by a very rough measurement, Marc Márquez, Johann Zarco, and Dani Pedrosa have outstanding pace, and look hard to be beat. Andrea Dovizioso is close, and a little behind him, Cal Crutchlow, Jack Miller, Alex Rins, and possibly Valentino Rossi all have roughly the same kind of pace.
The test at Qatar will be a very great deal more instructive, as factories settle on their final engine and aerodynamics choices ahead of the season opener. It will also be the first test to take place under much cooler conditions, given that the track will be mostly open during the evening. It is a track which everyone knows, and which both the factories and Michelin have stacks of data for. Any anomalies or wrinkles arising from Buriram should be ironed out in Qatar.
Anyway, as cautious as we must be when judging the results of this slightly peculiar (but immensely popular with the locals) test at Buriram, we can still take a brief look at what we know so far. Here's a run down of what each manufacturer was doing, and how they fared.
The Honda lane is open
Of the six days of preseason testing in 2018 so far, a Honda rider has been fastest on four of them. Dani Pedrosa on the first day at Sepang, then Cal Crutchlow on the first day in Buriram, Marc Márquez on the second day, and Pedrosa again on the final day, and fastest overall. With Márquez laying down a blistering pace, will this be 2014 all over again, when Márquez won the first ten races in a row, and basically had the championship more or less wrapped up by the summer break?
"At the moment, no," Márquez refuted the idea. "If you check the 2014 preseason I remember on the last in Malaysia I finish at one or two o’clock, packed up and go to the hotel because everything was fine." Testing so far had been much more of a slog. "This year we saw that we’re coming more and more competitive but it’s not easy. We did 97 laps yesterday and 96 today. Every time we work a lot."
Márquez did not chase a fast lap on Sunday, meaning he didn't beat his fastest time from Saturday. Instead, he focused on working with the new fairings, and getting the 2018 engine to work. He also switched to the carbon fiber swingarm which the Repsol Honda riders have been testing since the Valencia test in November. He feels comfortable with the bike, and that will leave many on the grid concerned. A happy Márquez is a fast Márquez.
There is still a lot of work left to be done, however. "Here and Malaysia it was working well, but I repeat the same: engine character is still something we need to improve," Márquez warned. "We can’t forget that we’re in a very warm circuit. OK, Qatar is warm but at night it’s quite cold. We will see there how is the character of the engine, because in some areas it’s too aggressive. Anyway we are working on that area. The good thing, and what makes me more happy, is the factory is working really quick. This year I feel like the atmosphere is different and this is something really positive."
Back in the fast lane
Where has the new bike improved compared to the 2017 Honda RC213V? "It’s better," Márquez said. "In the chassis area, it’s more or less the same. We didn’t gain a lot. In some areas it’s slightly better in corner entry. We found something there that is helping me stop the bike. And especially the engine is faster. This makes everything easier to go for the lap time." At Thailand, the top speed of the Honda was pretty much identical to the Ducatis.
Both the Repsol Honda riders are happy, though still cautious about the new engine, waiting to see how it will perform at a tighter track and in much cooler conditions. Even Cal Crutchlow is happy, his main complaint being the amount of testing work he has to do for HRC now he has a contract directly with Honda. Once the season starts, and the engine and aerodynamics are frozen, Honda's focus will switch to the chassis, which they can update throughout the year.
The Honda is improving for the satellite Honda riders as well. All three rookies are faring a little better than their predecessors on the bike. The 2017 machines were handed down to the Marc VDS squad and Taka Nakagami's LCR Honda Idemitsu team, and the pace which both Nakagami and Franco Morbidelli are producing is impressive. The 2017 bike is clearly easier to ride than the machine based on the 2016 bike which Jack Miller and Tito Rabat were riding last year.
Ducati – One up, one down
Andrea Dovizioso spent much of his time testing the new chassis Ducati had brought to Buriram, but messed up his attempt at setting a fast lap. Not that it mattered, according to the Italian. "Unfortunately I couldn't put every good sector in the same lap, but this is not important. To make 1'29.9 and 1'30.1 will not affect the season or the feeling I had."
What did matter was the improvement they had found with the new chassis. Though he trotted out the old cliché about it having "some negative points, and some positive points," Dovizioso found more improvement with it on Sunday than he had when he first tried it yesterday. "Like I said yesterday, most of the time when you try something, it's not easy to feel immediately the difference. You have to try day by day in a different track to really confirm and take a decision for this season. And today it happened, I think we understood a little bit more than yesterday, and I feel good."
Dovizioso found it difficult to describe exactly where the improvement was in the new chassis, explaining that it was the feedback and feeling through the handlebars which was better. "I feel better in the way I can use the handlebars," Dovizioso said. "I feel different, the way you use the handlebars feels different. And this I like. These are small things, but in the chassis, what you can find is something like that. Not something huge." Though his comments are hardly enlightening, it was clear from his tone of voice that he was genuinely struggling to put the change into words, rather than deflecting and dissembling, as riders do when they understand the issue and believe it is an improvement.
Dovizioso was not jumping to premature conclusions, however. "We have to wait for Qatar," he warned. "These two tracks I don't think are best tracks to take a decision, but these are the tracks we have now. And we have to use them in the best way." If he had the choice, then a test at Phillip Island would have been an option. But the riders don't get to choose.
Going back to go forward?
Dovizioso's teammate also spent the day testing chassis at Buriram, but unlike Dovizioso, Jorge Lorenzo was spending his time switching between the 2018 chassis and the GP17. Lorenzo is both confused and distraught in Thailand, at both the results and his feeling on the bike. At Sepang, he broke the unofficial lap record and was comfortably faster than the rest. In Thailand, he struggled to get into the top ten, and was nearly a second slower than fastest man Pedrosa.
"In Sepang I felt much better and on the last day I made the lap time," Lorenzo explained. "But during these three days I didn't feel very comfortable and today I didn't work to make the lap time, so we cannot look at the position because I made the lap time when I made a simulation. There was no point to go full time attack because there was no meaning."
The objective for Lorenzo was to try to understand where the differences lay with the old bike, but in the end, he believed the new bike had more upside. "Today the meaning was to reconfirm the old bike to the new bike and as I said at Sepang, the new bike has some points very positive but also some points very weak and the old bike the same. So it's difficult to make a mix for the Qatar race but today we saw that even if now the new bike is not much better than the old one it has more potential. We can do more evolution."
It would be important to take the lessons of this track to Qatar, Lorenzo said, especially to try to find some feeling with the front end, which had been completely missing in Thailand. "Let's just see what the engineers can do in some days, something from the old bike into the new one and also work on the setting of the new bike, especially to feel more the front tire that at this track I didn't feel anything."
Lorenzo warned against judging him based on his finishing position on Sunday, a lowly twenty-second place, 1.8 seconds behind Pedrosa. "We cannot take this as a conclusion because all the riders tried to make a quick lap time in the morning and I was going with old tires. When I put new tires I was going in a race simulation, race mode, so you don't ride as aggressive as to make one lap." Where does Lorenzo believe his potential lay at Buriram? "We are much better than this 22nd position. Probably we are not in the top three, but also we are not in the last three."
Overall, Ducati looks in good shape. Jack Miller finished the day and the test in sixth place overall, and has said all along that he has felt much more comfortable on the Ducati than he ever felt on the Honda. It was easier to make the lap time, and above all, it was easier to maintain the pace. Tito Rabat's ninth place on Sunday backed up that point as well.
Danilo Petrucci finished well behind his Pramac Ducati teammate, but was happy nonetheless. He had not pushed for a quick time at the end of the test, having learned his lesson at Phillip Island a couple of years ago. "In fact, two years ago in Australia, we didn't find a solution in the last hour, and we were pushing a little bit more and I destroyed my hand, so I don't want to repeat that situation," Petrucci said, "I want to arrive in Qatar with full confidence, because we know that in Qatar, we can be very fast, so at the moment, we are I think fighting for the top six, top seven positions."
His race pace was good, however. "For sure my race pace, especially with the Austria tire is good. I think almost like Dovi. And I did my best lap time with 35 laps on the front," he told reporters. The problem Petrucci saw was that much could change between now and the race, some eight months away. "The problem is that we come here in October with a different tire, different temperature, and most of all I think a different setup of the bike, because this will be one of the last races of the season, so you have one almost full season to develop the bike and see what's going on, what's better or not."
Yamaha – The Lost Boys
How was the test for Yamaha? That depends on which team you are in. If you are the factory Movistar Yamaha squad, then you are taking Maverick Viñales' belt and laces away for his own protection. This was the worst test he has ever had with the Yamaha, Viñales said. "By a long way it's the worst. Even Malaysia, for me that was the worst one I've been in in Yamaha, and then today it's even worse."
It wasn't merely a question of taking a wrong turning with setup, Viñales warned. "Honestly I don't know, because we tried everything, and nothing works," the Spaniard said. "We have to continue working, as I said. It's difficult right now, it's a difficult point right now, because some other Yamahas are working quite well, and we are struggling as a factory team, so I don't know. I don't know what to say, it's difficult."
Where were the problems? "All areas. We are missing a little bit in all areas." Could he try to go back to the chassis currently being used by Johann Zarco? "I don't know. I'm using that chassis. And there is no solution. We have different engine, different electronics, so I don't know. Honestly I don't know. Maybe it's better to ask Yamaha. I tried many many things in these two tests that I don't know now."
His optimism yesterday had been a mirage caused by using a new tire, Viñales explained. He also clarified that though he wanted to continue to develop the bike following his own instinct, there wasn't a problem of conflicting messaging from the two sides of the Movistar garage. "I don't think the problem is in the garage, it's something more. Because we tried everything on the bike, everything. Setups that last year we were never going to try, because it was impossible for them to work. So honestly, Yamaha has to work, has to realize we have a problem, and have to put the work."
This wasn't a rider problem, Viñales insisted. "As a rider, physically I'm 100%, I'm concentrated, when the bike is there, I can do a good lap, good rhythm, I just give my best every time I go on the track." What was it he wanted from the bike? "My request is to have the bike I rode the first time I rode the Yamaha. To have this feeling. I just jumped on the Yamaha, and it was a totally different feeling to right now."
Valentino Rossi wasn't quite as despondent as his teammate, but he clearly had some concerns, above all about the consistency of feeling he was getting from the bike. "For me, for example, yesterday was worse than today. So it is not always the last day, can be also the second! You make one day, everything is good. You arrive the next day, you have another feeling. But after you know you have to wait until the third day because maybe it's better!"
It's not just day to day that things change, they can also change drastically between circuits. "Also track by track the feeling changes a lot," Rossi said. "I was sincerely more happy after Malaysia because I feel better. My pace was better. Here we are struggling more. I think, from what I understand, the only manufacturer that was competitive in both tracks was Honda, especially with Marquez but also Dani and Crutchlow."
Where that change comes from is the tires, Rossi believes, and the way they change during the day. "For me we speak a lot about the chassis, we speak a lot about the electronics and everything. But depends very much from the tire. Because sometimes you change tire and change all the feeling. This is very similar to last year and like this is also very difficult to develop the bike, because sometimes you have a problem and then after two hours are disappeared. And after the next day… so difficult."
"We always suffer with the rear tire and we are correlated to the rear tire," Rossi explained. "For me the problem is that is we are able to go softer, you can go faster. But unfortunately I have a problem of I lose a part of the tire, chunking, because the temperature of the tire is too high. And after you have to go with the tire that is a bit more a hard. When the tire is a bit more hard, you can arrive at the end of the race but you go more slow! So everything is that because we work a lot but everything is correlated to the rear grip."
Adapting from Bridgestone to Michelin
Listening to the factory Yamaha riders, it seems as if the Yamaha has become extremely sensitive to changes in conditions, and to the rear Michelin tire. In previous seasons – especially when Bridgestone was the spec tire supplier, and when Jorge Lorenzo was at Yamaha – the M1 was fast in almost every condition, and at every track, though it did better when there was grip at a track. Since the switch to Michelins, Yamaha has struggled much more.
Why should that be so? Since Valentino Rossi switched to the Bridgestones for the 2008 season, Yamaha have developed their bike for the specific characteristics of the Japanese rubber. That meant exploiting the seemingly infinite grip from the front tire, while working around the lack of grip from the rear.
When Rossi left Yamaha at the end of 2010, and development of the M1 was placed firmly in the hands of Jorge Lorenzo, this tendency was taken to even greater extremes. Lorenzo, after all, is a rider who relies entirely on his feeling with the front tire to seek out corner speed, maintaining lean angles that, as Cal Crutchlow so graphically put it when he was still at Tech 3, other riders only attain shortly before they hit the floor.
The Michelins don't work like that. Though greatly improved, the front Michelin doesn't inspire the same kind of blind faith which the Bridgestone did, while the rear is much, much better than the Japanese rear ever was. Rebalancing Yamaha's concept of how a motorcycle should behave around different tires is taking much longer than expected, and is proving more difficult than Rossi, Viñales, or any of the Japanese engineers ever anticipated.
Ride it like you stole it from Lorenzo
It can be done, of course, as Johann Zarco is so ably demonstrating. The Frenchman has understood the lessons imparted by the Nicolas Goyon, the crew chief on the other side of the Monster Tech 3 Yamaha garage: the Yamaha needs to be ridden like Lorenzo rode it if you want to get the most out of it.
"Yes, I'm still convinced of that, because Lorenzo was so fast," Zarco said. "Even with the Ducati in Malaysia, he did the lap record. That means the Ducati is good, but it means also the rider is good. On the Yamaha, he was many times at this level. Maybe at the moment he didn't find this here in Thailand, but it's the way to go fast, and I think he's the one to have perfection, so I'm trying to understand this."
Zarco was wary of wanting to offer advice to the Movistar Yamaha team, however. "I don't know," he said. "Each one has his own way to go. And me, my second year in MotoGP, I'm just keeping the smile. I enjoy, and that's the main thing."
There is one advantage which Zarco has over the factory riders. Though he has received slightly better treatment than previous Tech 3 riders – he has a more powerful engine and more revs to play with, for example, but he is still several hundred short of the factory team – his options are relatively limited. He has only a few parts to test, and his main focus can be on his riding, and extracting the best out of the package which he has.
Doing that requires a particular mentality, a willingness to put aside your desire for newer and better parts and just focus on what you have. This, I believe, is where Zarco excels. His modesty, his ability to shut out any distraction and just get on with the job in hand is proving to be a huge advantage. But the fact that he is doing just two thirds as many laps as the factory riders also makes it less tiring and less stressful. It also means he has less raw information to process, and so can focus more closely on the details. And the devil, as the saying has it, is in the detail.
Suzuki – Giant steps forward, especially for Rins
The team's dismal year in 2017 is serving to be an enormous motivation for Suzuki. All the signs are that Suzuki will be back on the podium this year, the new engine package putting the GSX-RR back up at the front.
The new bike has been particularly good for Alex Rins, the Spaniard making huge progress in preseason testing. Rins was strong in Malaysia, and outstanding at Buriram, the track suiting the nature of the bike. Rins was impressed with the new fairing Suzuki brought to Thailand, which helped a lot with wheelie. That, in turn, allows the Suzuki engineers to dial up the power on corner exit, and gain more acceleration.
Iannone was less happy than Rins, though his concerns were mostly over pace over a single lap. Race pace for the Italian was strong, but he had been unable to push for a quick lap to set a time. It is, to an extent, the opposite problem to Yamaha, who are capable of pushing with a fresh tire, but lose out drastically in race pace.
Qatar will prove instructive for Suzuki, as they should get a better idea of how strong the new bike truly is. It will also be the last chance to finalize the new aerodynamics package before the design freeze sets in.
Aprilia – waiting for horsepower
The story of Aprilia is simple, and best viewed from the perspective of Aleix Espargaro. The new RS-GP chassis is a big improvement, doing all the things which the Spaniard had asked for. It is lighter, handles better, and turns better.
But all of that is meaningless without horsepower. The most Espargaro could coax out of the Aprilia was 325 km/h. All the other bikes were besting 330 km/h. A new engine is needed, but it may not be ready until the race at Qatar. And if Aprilia Corse hits any unexpected snags, it could be even later than that.
KTM – the last part is the hard part
KTM is missing the intensity of Pol Espargaro, that much was clear from the timesheets. But the Austrian factory is also facing a stark reality: it is much easier to cut the gap to the leaders from three seconds to a single second than it is to go from one second to four tenths. Every tenth closer becomes exponentially more difficult to find, buried away ever deeper in the details.
Yet Bradley Smith was optimistic. The feeling he wanted from the bike was back, after it had gone AWOL in Malaysia. Chassis and aerodynamic updates had marked progress, but what was needed now was progress on the suspension front. Especially on the front suspension: WP were working on front forks to try to eliminate chatter and allow the bike to enter the corner better, and allow Smith to brake as late as possible.
The objective of KTM for 2017 is to turn occasional top tens into occasional top fives. As things stand, they are nowhere near that target yet. But they still have a long year ahead of them to achieve that goal.
Nakagami best of the new boys
The rookies fared a little better than they had at Sepang, though Tom Luthi, who got his first ride on a MotoGP bike at Sepang, was still struggling to adapt to riding the bike like a MotoGP bike rather than a Moto2 machine. It was something which Hafizh Syahrin was having problems with too. "I think it's not easy to adapt for MotoGP riding style, but I try to learn, and try to change my style," the Malaysian said. Because from Moto2 to MotoGP is different, you need to pick up the bike quickly, you need to open the gas early."
One rider stands head and shoulders above the rest so far, however, and that is Taka Nakagami. The Japanese rider ended the final day in eighth, and the Buriram test as tenth overall. Franco Morbidelli, his closest rival, was thirteenth. A single lap is one thing, of course, but the real challenge is learning to manage a race. At Qatar, both the test and the race, is where we will get a better look at how the MotoGP rookies really stack up.
In ten days time, the teams will convene again for the final day at Qatar. There, in cooler conditions and a very different track, the factories will get one last chance to assess their engines and fine tune their aerodynamics before the start of the season. If the Buriram test was difficult to interpret, the Qatar test should be very different. It is too early and too difficult to draw conclusions after Thailand. It won't be after Qatar.
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