The phony war is finally over. The last MotoGP test has finished, with riders completing their final day of testing at Qatar. The next time the MotoGP grid assembles, it will be for something of real value: race wins, and world championship points.
Did the last day of the test offer any clear indications as to what might happen in two weeks' time? Plenty, though they were as confusing as all of testing has been this year. Johann Zarco managed to be both blisteringly fast and worryingly slow simultaneously. Danilo Petrucci managed to do exactly the same, though in a diametrically opposite manner. Valentino Rossi managed to impress both in terms of race pace and a single fast lap, but he was still worried whether his pace would last race distance. Maverick Viñales was terrible for the first six hours of the test, then brilliant in the last forty minutes, after basically wasting a day and a half.
Underneath the surface drama, the two biggest winners of the preseason just got on with their work. Their headline times were great but not breathtaking, but the race pace of Andrea Dovizioso and Marc Márquez was impressive. They reinforced their status as the title favorites going into the first race of the season through sheer consistency. While others raced up and down the timesheets like hyperactive kittens from day to day and hour to hour, Márquez and Dovizioso were always there or thereabouts, just getting on with business.
There were others, too. Cal Crutchlow has been repaying HRC's faith, especially with a phenomenal long run on Saturday. Alex Rins has shown every sign of growing into the rider we thought he could be. Rins' Suzuki teammate Andrea Iannone (absent due to illness on Saturday) may have been quicker, but Rins has shown the kind of consistency that puts him in the top five just about everywhere he goes.
The World Testing Championships
Of course, testing is still just testing, and doesn't necessarily end up being an accurate reflection of how the season to come plays out. Just ask 2017 World Preseason Testing Champion Maverick Viñales how that worked out. That's why they line up on Sunday, in the immortal words of the much-missed Nicky Hayden, "you never know what's gonna happen."
Yet a general pattern is still discernible, and it is most particularly one of real change. Once upon a time in MotoGP, there were four Aliens (though occasionally one would go missing, through illness, injury, or poor career choices) who would carve up all the wins among themselves, and be the only contenders for the championship. Those days are gone.
Now, there is only one of those Aliens, Marc Márquez, who starts the season with a target on his back. But Márquez' path to the championship leads over a rough and rocky road, strewn with significant obstacles. The biggest hurdle to overcome will be Andrea Dovizioso, who looks faster and better than he did last year. Then there's Valentino Rossi, still competitive after all these years. Maverick Viñales, if he can keep calm and curb his nervous enthusiasm. Johann Zarco, who is clearly ready to make the next step, whatever machinery he is on. Dani Pedrosa, still fast enough to win as long as he can get heat into the tires.
How about Cal Crutchlow, clearly quick enough to win and with the bike and support to do just that. Jorge Lorenzo, who at some circuits is unstoppable, but at others eminently stoppable. Alex Rins, ready to take the next step on a Suzuki that looks genuinely competitive. Danilo Petrucci, in hot pursuit of a seat in the factory team, and doing everything it takes to obtain it. Andrea Iannone, who would be among the favorites if his determination matched his unbelievable talent. Jack Miller, too, could prove to be the troublemaker which his public (and even private) persona suggests that he is.
Fast, but slow
Johann Zarco finished the test as fastest overall, posting a truly astonishing lap that saw him just miss out on cracking into the 1'53s. His best time of 1'54.029 is a tenth slower than Jorge Lorenzo outright pole record, set in 2008, the last of the single-lap qualifying tire holdouts. Zarco was a quarter of a second quicker than anyone else on the grid, Valentino Rossi the nearest to the Frenchman's time. It wasn't just a single lap: Zarco posted a 1'54.306 in the same three-lap run, which would have put him third, between Rossi and Andrea Dovizioso.
Yet when Zarco tried a long run, his pace was positively sluggish. He could barely managed to crack into the low 1'56s, a second or so off the pace of the riders who had fast race simulations. "When I tried to find the race pace, I was a bit slow. When you go for the race, you have a very aggressive mind, ready to fight. And when I went out for my last laps for my long run, I was a bit tired, and I was thinking, first of all, do six laps, and after, when I did already six laps, I was happy, and said, now I continue... I did 17 laps in a row, but probably a bit tired after this intense days here," Zarco said. That's possible, but Zarco had a lot of runs in the 1'56s on Friday as well. We will only really know the Frenchman's pace when he returns to Qatar in two weeks time.
Up and down
Valentino Rossi was fast both on race pace and in a single fast lap. That came as a pleasant surprise, in a preseason where the performance of the Movistar Yamahas has been extremely inconsistent. "There have been too many ups and downs this winter," Rossi commented. "This means that from one track to another, the difference between the bikes will change a lot, and we have to avoid that we suffer too much at our worst tracks."
He was happy to have finished second – "In Malaysia, I was fast but I was only seventh," he said – but there was still cause for concern. Tire wear over race distance was a worry, for both the front and the rear. "Yamaha has to work hard, especially on the electronics," Rossi opined, a continuing problem for the Japanese factory. "We will have to see what happens in the second part of the race. We will see if we are at the same level as the fastest riders or not."
Rossi's pace was second only to that of Cal Crutchlow. The LCR Honda rider did a long run of twelve laps, but ten of those were low 1'55s, and one was a high 1'54. He was happy with that run, but like Marc Márquez, was struggling with the front tire. Crutchlow brakes late and hard, placing a lot of stress on the front tire. The hard front is best under braking, but won't turn in the middle of the corner. The other will turn, but is too soft under braking. Still, given the pace which Crutchlow set, this does not seem like an insurmountable problem.
Crutchlow at least had some understanding of the issues he faced. Maverick Viñales is mostly perplexed, confused about why the bike won't do what he wants sometimes, but will at others. "Before the last 40 minutes, I was riding at 50%," the Spaniard said. "I couldn't push more. Every time I pushed, I was going out of the track." The Movistar Yamaha team finally solved his problems at the end of the session by throwing away everything they had tried since Thursday, and going back to the bike of the first day.
"Finally we finished with the same bike that I started with on the first day, and I could go 1'54.4," Viñales told reporters. "And I think if I had that bike yesterday, today is another lap time, really another lap time. Because I could focus more and improve the front. I did the lap time without trusting the front, because I got such a bad feeling the two exits before that it was impossible to push at my best."
Viñales exasperation perhaps reveals the solution to his problems, if only he could tame his own obsessive hyper-competitiveness. "It's quite strange for me," he said. "Now it looks like we lost one day, one-and-a-half days to try other things. We have to pay a lot of attention to the things we changed. Because nothing changed on the bike, it's just the same bike as the first day. The second day we tried other things and we lost the way. So my feeling was that I could not push. Even now I feel like I can push more, I still can't give my best. So what I want for the race is to give my best, give my 100%, then I can do good things."
Viñales could possibly benefit from taking a page out of Johann Zarco's book, or that of Andrea Dovizioso. First, try to extract the maximum from what you have. After that, you can start to think about throwing parts, setup, and geometry at the bike in pursuit of improvement. But Viñales is driven to do something, anything to try to go faster, and that doesn't seem to work.
Viñales' dilemma is no doubt made worse by the way conditions seem to change at every track. "It's so strange this year," Marc Márquez told reporters. "Because you say same circuits, same day, different hours, when we go out at 3, 4, 5pm, it looks like one rider is very strong. Then when the temperature drops, the Yamaha becomes a little bit stronger. I mean, it's SO difficult to understand," he said.
The solution, according to the Repsol Honda rider, is keeping a calm head, and seeing the bigger picture. "If we concentrate on our garage, I'm happy because I go out with sunshine, and I'm there. I go out in the night, I'm there. So it's what I said yesterday, be consistent in the top five – I don't say top three, I say top five, because it will be difficult in some races – that will be the key."
Márquez had spent Saturday sacrificing a fast lap for race pace. "We worked a lot on the pace, on the rhythm, because that was my weak point yesterday," he said. "I tried to work there, I tried to be consistent. Maybe we lost the aggressiveness for the time attack, but we gained on the rhythm, that's the most important, because this is a circuit where I normally struggle. And I was able to be in the 1'55 low, 1'55 middle which is a good rhythm already."
Asked to pinpoint a positive and a negative from preseason testing, Márquez pointed to the engine, and to the problem of acceleration. "The engine is maybe the most positive thing, because we improved something better on the top speed," he said. "Maybe weak point still – and it was one of the targets – we need to improve the wheelie. If we have wheelie, it means we have a lack of acceleration, so we are losing there. So still there we can work. But during the season we can improve this. I mean, the engine, you can't touch it. But the wheelie I think is related more to the geometry, the chassis area."
The Márquez Method (may include gravel rash)
Learning to ride the Honda was a challenging task, rookie Franco Morbidelli had found. He was happy with the progress he had made, but it had not been easy. Asked what he had found most difficult, the Italian joked, "Braking, mid-corner, and exit. And maybe the straight!" The Marc VDS riders have the bikes bequeathed to them by the Repsol Honda team, and are using the 2017-spec RC213V. Fortunately, the bikes came with Marc Márquez' and Dani Pedrosa's data from last year as well. "That data is a blessing for me," Morbidelli proclaimed. "Learning from those riders is like reading the Bible of motorcycle racing."
Just like in the Bible, some of the lessons held within the data were very harsh indeed, involving forced trips through the gravel trap. "Usually I don't like to crash," Morbidelli explained. "I wasn't a crasher in Moto2, I had very few crashes. But I understood that with this bike, if you want to understand the limit, you have to crash. You have to push and try to reach the limit, and it's really easy to crash when you find the limit. But Marc is teaching us, and he taught us that crashing is the way. We don't have to be greedy on that way, but if you want to learn quickly, you have to push a lot, and some crashes are normal."
Andrea Dovizioso takes a very different approach. The Factory Ducati rider is not a crasher at all: in 2017, only Valentino Rossi had fewer falls. But that approach is paying off in the 2018 preseason. He ended Saturday happy with progress, and in good shape to begin the season in two weeks time.
Dovizioso warned against complacency, though, saying that things only seem to be perfect for him. "It seems to be," he emphasized. "It's impossible to have everything perfect on the bike. I'm really happy for sure, maybe it's the best test I've ever done. I'm really happy, but I know very well the characteristic of my bike, my riding style in Qatar. So I know very well the positive things and the reason we are fast, and the reason we weren't fast in some tracks."
He was aware of why he was fast, but also that there are still plenty of reasons to be cautious ahead. "Like always, I have my feet on the ground, and after this important result in three days, we didn't fix the limit we had on the bike last year. We are in a better situation then we had last year, so I'm really happy about that, I'm really happy about the new parts they brought to the test, the way they worked during the winter, but the season is a different story."
Wet track at night, rider's delight?
The test finished an hour earlier than the the first two days, to allow the circuit to be covered in water and used for a wet test under the floodlights. After the threat of rain a couple of times in Qatar, including last year, Dorna decided there should be a test with a wet track at night. The last night of the test was designated as that night.
Overall, impressions were good. There was no overwhelming consensus one way or another, but most felt it would be possible to race in the wet. The visibility was pretty good, most riders said, with only a few corners where it posed a challenge. The real problem, and an unexpected one perhaps, was the amount of sand and dirt on the track, which meant that the spray from riders in front made it quite hard to see. Riders had been sent out in groups specifically to test for this, and it proved to be useful precisely because of the issue of dirt which it raised.
The problem is, of course, was this a realistic test? Driving tank trucks over the surface and dumping water everywhere is a very different process to it actually raining, with rain more likely to wash the dirt off the track. Nor will they know what the spray situation is if it rains. But again, the riders won't really know until they actually have to ride in the rain. And even if it does rain, the surface is likely to dry very quickly in the dry desert.
The rain test means the riders are prepared in almost every way for whatever the opening race of the 2018 season will bring. Rain or shine – that would be moonshine, rather than sunshine – they are prepared to race. With testing finished, there is nothing more they can do. Engines have been chosen, favored fairings selected, ready for homologation at the first race of the year. From now on, we are in race mode.
What can the fans expect from the 2018 MotoGP season? On the basis of testing so far, you would have to say to expect the unexpected. Marc Márquez may be an obvious favorite, but no one expects things to be easy for him. There are three or four riders who can beat him to the title, and another four or five who could cause a nuisance by taking podiums and even the occasional victory.
The only prediction I feel comfortable making about 2018 is that at the end of the year, we will look back to one race or another where the rider who finishes second in the championship crossed the line in tenth, or fourteenth, and pinpoint that as the place where the championship was lost. To be frank, that sounds like a very appealing prospect indeed.
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