The Qatar MotoGP test may be the moment of truth for the factories and riders, but the most important things we learned from the first day of the test were unrelated to the action on track, or perhaps even the 2018 season. The biggest news of the day came when Valentino Rossi spoke to the press, telling Italian media that he is close to signing on with the Movistar Yamaha team for another two years, meaning he will race in 2019 and 2020.
Rossi's revelation came in response to a question about whether the Sky VR46 team would be taking over the satellite Yamahas to be vacated by Tech3 from 2019. "Firstly, I didn't expect Poncharal to leave Yamaha," Rossi said. "So we considered possibly having a team in MotoGP. It would have been great opportunity, but we won't do it. For the next two years we won't do it, also because it's very likely I'll be racing. I see it as a possibility for the future, once I've stopped but not in 2019 or 2020."
Those are a remarkably information-dense couple of sentences. Firstly, Rossi acknowledges that he is close to signing a contract extension with Yamaha for two more seasons. This is hardly news – he was half expected to sign a new deal at the Sepang test, but it looks likely that any new deal will be done before the season starts. Secondly, he admits that the Sky VR46 Racing Team is interested in having a team in MotoGP. Again, this is hardly earth-shattering news.
But his statement also makes very clear that it is his intention to remain in the Movistar Yamaha team until he retires. A theory popular among fans was that the Sky VR46 team would get the satellite Yamahas with full factory support, Rossi would take one of the seats there, and make room for Johann Zarco in the factory squad. At a stroke, Rossi killed off this option. It was never particularly realistic: the Tech3 squad was always very much a satellite team, clearly behind the factory team. Yamaha never felt the need to expand their support to levels which Honda have with Cal Crutchlow at LCR, or Ducati with the Pramac squad.
So who does get the satellite Yamahas? That is still a mystery, and something of a poisoned chalice. Rossi's announcement also makes it plain that whichever team does take the bikes will be looking for new machinery in 2021, if Rossi retires at the end of 2020. After that, the bikes go to Sky VR46. The three obvious candidates for the Yamahas are the Angel Nieto Team, Avintia, and Marc VDS. Marc VDS are rumored to be closer to Suzuki than Yamaha, a move which would make more sense for them, as they are in MotoGP for the long term.
Yet Marc VDS were also set up in part to provide a path to MotoGP for young talent, from pre-Moto3 through the CEV, Moto3 and Moto2. They are partnering with Monlau, an organization tied closely to Emilio Alzamora, and therefore Honda. So far, all there is are rumors. It seems like there is a lot of talking going on, but not much more.
As far as other rider contract talks are concerned, Alex Rins told the Spanish broadcaster Movistar that he hopes to extend his deal with Suzuki sometime in the near future, admitting that talks were ongoing. Andrea Dovizioso was less clear about a new contract. "When we start to speak about that, I will tell you something, because still we didn't speak," the Italian said. Would he be speaking to Ducati before the season started? "To know in advance what the Ducati guys are doing is very very difficult," Dovizioso joked.
Taking one for the team
Marc Márquez has already extended his contract with the Repsol Honda team, signing on for the 2019 and 2020 seasons. In Sepang and Thailand, he had publicly flirted with the possibility of manufacturers other than Honda. At Qatar, Márquez explained his decision to sign up with Honda once again, saying that he had never seriously considered another option. He had followed his heart, Márquez said. "Honda gave me the opportunity in 2013 when I was 20 years old to be in MotoGP, so this was the main priority."
The strong start to the preseason had helped persuade Márquez to sign on early, he admitted. "Of course, we already spoke a few months ago with Honda, but I was waiting a little bit to see how we start the preseason, how we start everything," he said, adding "especially the team." With Honda changing the management structure completely in 2017 and 2018, that had been important to Márquez. It had worked out well, he said. "We feel good, everything is fine, so in the end, if I follow myself, as I said, Honda will always be the main priority, and it was the only option."
Márquez refused to be drawn on how deeply Honda had been forced to dig into its coffers to retain his services. "Of course, this is confidential, but yes, both sides, we were happy, I'm happy in every part. Of course, we can say that on the team, bike but also on the professional part..." he laughed. If HRC have any sense, Márquez will be laughing all the way to the bank.
The big question, of course, was whether HRC had got the engine right this year, after a couple of seasons of bringing an engine which turned out to be too aggressive once MotoGP arrived at Qatar for the test. There had been some concern, Márquez admitted. "Today we concentrated a little bit more on the engine, because it was the way to ride, to understand. I started during the daytime and it was not so bad, but then when the night arrived, and the temperature dropped, it becomes more and more aggressive. And of course, then we started to work well, and we found something that already helps me. Still not 100%, but in the right direction."
Despite the positive feedback on the engine, the Hondas were some way off the top of the timesheet. Cal Crutchlow was the quickest Honda rider in ninth, just ahead of Márquez and Dani Pedrosa. But the gaps were not large: all three were roughly half a second slower than fastest man Maverick Viñales, and a tenth of a second behind Jorge Lorenzo in fifth.
It was clear from the timesheets that the Honda riders were not chasing fast times, but working methodically on the bike instead. "Today was a little bit tricky," Márquez explained. "On the first day, you have to understand the track, how to improve, check the set up, and of course the tire allocation."
Tires were crucial, especially the choice of front tire, Márquez said. Both Márquez and Crutchlow have a very strong preference for the hardest front option, as it is the only tire stiff enough to manage their braking style. That meant preserving enough hard fronts for all three days of the test, which in turn meant limiting the number of laps on Thursday. "I am always riding with the hard front option, and we don't have very many tires, if we want to test well tomorrow and on the last day," Márquez told reporters. "So today just we found the way, found the rhythm, and tomorrow we will start to work more deeply on the details with the tires that I hope that I like, because today I didn't try them."
The strange case of Yamaha's wildly varying fortunes
It was the Yamahas which were quick at Qatar, but that was to be expected. Since 2010, a Yamaha rider has won six of the eight races held. That helped bring some confidence back to both Valentino Rossi and Maverick Viñales, after a couple of tough tests at Sepang and Buriram. Both men were particularly focused on race pace: Rossi and Viñales both spent extended runs on the bike at 7pm, the time the race is scheduled for two weeks from now. The good news was that both Rossi and Viñales were consistent, and relatively quick. In those runs, the Movistar pair were running low 1'56s.
Viñales had found a part of the solution in engine braking, he told reporters. "Especially in Thailand we had a lot of problems on the braking area with the rear sliding a lot," the Movistar Yamaha rider explained. "Here we tried a different setup, in the beginning I didn't feel so good, I felt the same problems as in Thailand, but after changing the setup I started to feel better and better every exit."
That improvement had carried through to the long run he had done. "In the last exit I tried to do many laps in a row and tried to concentrate on my riding style and looks quite good. The bike was very constant and I could ride good, but still there are many areas to improve, especially the corner speed and the turning. So we need to keep focus and keep working."
They will continue to work on engine braking on Friday, Viñales said, along with a few new parts. He would also continue with making a decision on which chassis to use: Viñales has been going back and forth between the new 2018 chassis (based on the 2016 frame), and the 2017 chassis he liked at the start of last year.
Valentino Rossi put his speed mainly down to the track being a better fit with the Yamaha. "The M1 works well here and we also have good tire grip," Rossi said. That was not all good news, though "The bike is exactly the same as what we used two weeks ago in Thailand, where we had more problems. This means that this year we'll again be dealing with differences in performance from one track to the next."
The problem, Rossi explained, was, "the marriage between the bike, the tires and the type of asphalt". That made it impossible to say where the Yamaha would be strong, and where it would struggle. It also meant that the riders could expect to struggle from day to day, as the track surface changes and temperatures differ. Rossi's biggest point of focus was the electronics, and getting them ready to manage tire life. But bike balance and other setup issues would also have to be addressed.
Perhaps the surprise of the first day was Andrea Iannone. The Italian rebounded strongly from a couple of poor tests in Malaysia and Thailand. At Sepang, Iannone had finished in thirteenth overall. At Buriram, he had been fifteenth after all three days. The Suzuki riders finished third fastest after the first day, just five hundredths of a second behind Maverick Viñales.
The difference, said Iannone, was all to do with the front end of the bike. "The feeling with the bike is really good, especially with the front," he said. "From the first test this year, I struggled a lot with the front feeling in Sepang and Thailand. Now, today I have already a good feeling and it's possible to push really hard and the bike is turning very well, and at the end, I'm very happy." There were still problems left to fix, most notably the change of direction under braking, but Suzuki has ideas to address that too.
Overall, though, it is hard to draw conclusions from the first day of testing at Qatar. Too many riders and teams were running very different strategies, with some chasing a quick lap, while others were focused solely on developing one particular aspect of the bike or another. The track, too, was not as the riders had been expected. "The condition of the track was really clean today, but the grip at the end, it wasn't special," Andrea Dovizioso told reporters. "We have to see if it is just the conditions, or... you know, in Qatar, every day is different. Strange."
The strangeness continues on Friday.
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