The Monday test at Barcelona felt like a proper test. Normally, such tests descend into a simple shoot out in the last fifteen minutes, frail egos demanding to finish fastest, especially when only pride is at stake. But perhaps the Barcelona race had taken a little too much out of the protagonists, or the hot and humid conditions were simply not conducive to spend even more energy risking everything for pointless pride, or perhaps the riders realize that the season is now so tightly packed with no summer break that they cannot risk injury when it doesn't count. Whatever the reason, at the test, people concentrated on testing.
Not that the riders or teams were particularly forthcoming about what exactly they were testing. Some were more open than others: Suzuki said they were testing a new swingarm, and engine update, and retesting the new chassis they have been using since Mugello. Danilo Petrucci tested a new exhaust, a new gearbox, and a new swingarm, which he promptly broke by taking it for a tumble through the gravel.
Show and tell
Some had nowhere they could hide: KTM debuted a new aerodynamic package taken straight out of the HRC playbook, which had in turned been "inspired" by Yamaha. Repsol Honda debuted a new bike in carbon fiber fairings, not the 2019 bike, they insisted, but rather a potential update for this season. But Honda were so intensely secretive that I would not be surprised if they had merely slapped a black fairing on it to distract from parts they were testing on the Repsol bike, as much as I detest conspiracy theories.
And some had nothing really to test, and so nothing really to hide. The Movistar Yamahas had nothing of note to try at Barcelona, and spent their time fiddling at the edges in the hope of refining their performance. That could be because they have much greater updates coming at the Brno test, or because Yamaha are taking a step back to consider what they need. We will have to wait a couple of months for Brno to see what happens there.
There were also electronic updates, which always get debuted at a test. "I think if you spoke to everyone in the paddock, they will have had some update on their electronics today," Cal Crutchlow opined. "Because this is really the time to be able to try it, because in a race weekend it's too difficult to understand in a 45 minutes session. I think it's too difficult to know quite a lot of the time, your tire life, then you have to change a tire because the end of FP2 is a qualifying session, end of FP3 is a qualifying session, it's really difficult to know whether the updates really work or whether they don't work. So now is the sort of day to check that."
The timesheets bear out some of the story of who was testing what. There is a clear difference between someone like Marc Márquez, who did 15 runs in total, most of them between three and five laps, obviously testing parts and setup, and Johann Zarco, who did just 8 runs, two of which were nearly race distance (one before lunch, one after lunch). Or take Tito Rabat, who did a few setup runs, then a race simulation, then spent the best part of an hour practice starts out of pit lane.
The talkative type
Danilo Petrucci was the most forthcoming about what he had tested, his test cut short by a crash in which he banged up his feet. "The Clinica Mobile suggested I have a CAT scan for the tendon," Petrucci said. "But it's OK, nothing serious. I hope. And then it was a bit of a shame, because I was trying a new swingarm. Still we have to compare it with the old one, but this morning was so useful, because I tried one set of new exhausts, a new gearbox, new chassis, but some old things that Ducati factory still had, but we have to decide whether to continue with that or not. But I found some interesting things, and we will see if I receive this stuff for me."
It was unfortunate, because this was the first time Petrucci had been asked to test new parts for Ducati. Crashing with the swingarm was slightly embarrassing. "The most important thing, I crashed with this..." he said. The new gearbox and exhaust were intended to make the bike smoother, he explained. "The gearbox and the exhaust especially make the exit of the corner very, very smooth, and it's a thing which me and Lorenzo have been asking for, for more than one year, because in the middle of the corner we need the engine more smooth."
The gearbox helped in the transition from off throttle to opening the gas, Petrucci explained. "On the moment of torque, when you release the brake and take the throttle, it's more smooth," the Pramac Ducati rider said. "We call this gain recover, when the torque becomes positive, because when you brake, the torque is negative, then you take the throttle and the torque starts to be positive, and in that point it's more smooth, which means that the bike moves less in the middle of the corner, and slides less."
Petrucci wasn't able to draw conclusions about the swingarm, as he really needed more time on it before he crashed. "When you try a different part of the bike, the setup is the same, because for the comparison, you cannot move it. If not the test is not accurate. Because if you try a new swingarm and then you start to move the setup of the bike, maybe you arrive at the same lap time but it's not true, you have to mount that swingarm with the same tires and the same setup, and try if it's better or not." First, you have to test with the same setup, to see if the new swingarm helps. Then you have to get to work trying to optimize the setup for the new swingarm, and see how much of an improvement it will give you. It is a time-consuming business.
Petrucci was not certain if and when he would be able to use these new parts in a race, however, as they were limited by the sheer practicality of producing the parts. "The problem is that Ducati has to produce things for three bikes," the Italian explained. "And for three bikes, you have to produce a gearbox, which means you have two new gearboxes, and one spare. Three gearboxes each rider, three or four exhausts each rider. So it's a lot of things, and they are in trouble with time, and there are many races and many riders and many things to do. So we'll see. They are working so hard, and I don't know at the moment if I will receive them."
Vow of silence
If Danilo Petrucci was informative, the Honda riders – with the possible exception of Dani Pedrosa, for very different reasons – were the absolute opposite. When asked if he had liked the all-black new bike he had tested, Marc Márquez remained studiously evasive. "I felt good with all bikes. I feel some positives and some negatives, but I cannot say a lot."
We tried to push Márquez for more details, but knowing HRC's love of secrecy, the Spaniard tried to be as vague as possible. "I mean, we just tried to improve a little bit on the brakes, tried to get a little bit more confidence," he said of the new bike. "It was slightly better there, some negatives, and then we just tried also a different thing inside of the bike – I cannot say a lot. If I want, I can just say bull****, but I don't want to, so I don't say a lot." That, at least, was honest.
Despite that, he did give away a little of what Honda have been trying to achieve, both with the new bike and with the existing bike. "On braking we improve. It's something I already said two or three races ago. We want to work to get more contact in the front, try to understand more, try to get more feeling. Because not only me, all the Hondas, when we push a little bit more, we are crashing with the front tire, we are always using the hard tire. Try to understand the feedback, but when you get more feedback, you are losing in other points. It's a compromise. "
Honda had spent the preseason working on getting the engine right – and a 27-point lead in the championship suggests they have done just that – and had now switched their focus to the chassis. "We are focused on that area," Márquez explained. "I already said, in the preseason we were focused on the engine area, and then during the season we can improve the chassis area." Would we see any of the updates at the next few races? "In Assen, we will have Repsol bikes, so you will not know if it's the new one or the other one!" Márquez joked.
The chassis is due an update, Cal Crutchlow revealed. The chassis they are currently using is the one debuted in 2016, which helped fix Marc Márquez' woes. The chassis which Crutchlow had helped develop. "It's exactly the same, the LCR Honda rider said. "I think all the riders are using the same as me, or what we chose in 2016 and continue to work with. It's just we've had no updates since then."
Crutchlow reiterated Márquez' point that the first focus had been the engine, and the electronics, and the chassis was pretty much good enough for the moment. "It's not like we prefer something else or don't prefer something else, the concentration was always on the engine and the electronics," he said. "Maybe we'll have a chassis later in the year, at testing, I don't know. I have no idea, no plan for the chassis, but I know that it's an area where I think we can improve, also the other riders think we can improve there as well. So I expect that to maybe be the next step, but when I have no idea. We'll continue what we have because it's obviously good enough to be competitive."
Crutchlow's issue had been more one of turning the bike, rather than braking, though, in contrast to Márquez' focus on improving braking. The concept of the bike needed to be addressed to fix that, however. "I think it's more the overall package of the bike," Crutchlow said. "The Honda has been the same for quite a few years now in that area, in the chassis and the chassis design of the bike."
The trouble is, that when riders are winning on the package, it was hard to convince engineers of the problems with the bike, especially when the bike is in reasonable shape. "As I said, it obviously works," Crutchlow pointed out. "Marc won the last couple of titles. We're consistently fast, Dani's been consistently fast over the years with this package. It works in one area, it doesn't work very well in the other, so we're trying to improve in the other area. I'm not saying that's what we need, because I don't know, until we try something else, we don't know if it's better. You don't know until you try. We'll see what Honda will do from now on, and which way they will point the development and direction."
Turning was something which Dani Pedrosa had been working on. He had learned a few things from racing against Cal Crutchlow and Maverick Viñales on Sunday, and had spent Monday trying to address those issues with his mechanics. "Basically, we played with the geometry," the Repsol Honda rider said. "The mechanics worked up and down here, and it was a tough job. A little bit difficult to understand today, because the track temperature was going up, so at one point it was difficult to understand where we were going. At the end I think we could understand a few things. So have a little bit different geometry than in the race, which is what we were looking for after yesterday's result, now we should try to focus more on this way."
It had been mid corner and corner exit where Pedrosa had focused his efforts, he explained. "I searched not very much on the grip, but on the cornering. Trying to be better in the middle of the turn, better on the exit of the turn. I think we found a little help in one or two points, not sure completely of course, as I said the track temperature rose in the middle of the day, and then the lap times were a bit strange, then back to good at the end of the day. So a little bit feet on the ground for the result today, but I think we could go one step better."
The change had allowed him to work with the softer tire compared to the race, which would offer more grip if he can make it last. "Today we mainly used the rear soft as yesterday in the GP we used a harder spec, so that's why we changed the bike to be able to stay more and longer time using the soft like everybody else happened to use," he said. He had been forced to give up something in braking, but he hoped the sacrifice would be worthwhile. "Of course at the end you always have to win and lose. But as I say, you have to change the dynamics in the corner and in the bike, and also you have to slowly adapt your riding to that. That's why. At this moment, I think positive, but calm."
All quiet on the Iwata front
With all this work going on at Honda, it was slightly disconcerting to see that Yamaha had little or nothing for Maverick Viñales or Valentino Rossi to test. They had a spacer for the tank to alter the seating position, but neither Rossi nor Viñales were particularly enamored of the new position. "It was just one piece here [between the legs] on the tank, so I sit a little bit more on the back," Viñales said. "I feel like I could ride a little bit better but finally it was not so much like this because it upsets so much the front and I had a lot of movement."
Forcing Viñales to sit further back had not been an improvement "I had just the seat a little bit more back because when I was riding with Johann, his riding style is a little bit different so I tried to be a little more like his style. Finally it upset the bike. It’s two completely different bikes. Just trying to find a good setting for the front, to make it work and finally we did it. I hope in Assen we can prove that."
He had been especially focused on the opening laps of the race. A revised sighting and warm up lap procedure had helped with warming the tires, but at the test he had worked on understanding how to push in the first few laps, with a full tank and new tires. "Not always new tires but always full tank, even if it was used. I had to get used to the full tank to see how the bike it brakes. Anyway, happy because we did different set-ups and finally the front tire works a little bit better and I could push, especially at the end, when I found a good setup for the bike."
"Sincerely we don’t have nothing big or special, but have two or three small ideas, small things that I hope can help us in acceleration," Valentino Rossi replied, when asked what he had to test. "But unfortunately I was like yesterday, and unfortunately looking at the data and everything we are not able to improve to go faster. It's a shame. But is like this. It's not easy. It's a long work. So it's normal like this."
But Rossi was far from impressed with the rate of progress. "We have some small things here but now the next test in Brno, on the Monday after the race, so we hope there to find something else. And from now to Brno we race with the same bike." That did not leave him hopeful of being able to break Yamaha's losing streak with their current bike. "What do you think?!" he exclaimed, half joking, when asked if he could win a race on the bike he has. "But we try. We try for sure!" he added.
Such little progress must be rather worrying for Rossi and Viñales, as they have not managed to be competitive for almost a year now. Barcelona was the 18th race since their last victory, Valentino Rossi's win at Assen. They need something to help make them competitive again, but when they will get it remains to be seen. The charitable interpretation of Yamaha's apparent lack of action is that they are working on something major, a radical update which should help fix their issues. Rossi and Viñales will have to hope that this is the case, and that Yamaha can bring that to Brno for them to test.
The alternative interpretation is that Yamaha has lost its way, and cannot find a development direction to follow which would help them. It may be that they are just a small update away from getting back on the right track again. But they need to find something soon.
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