The trouble with post-season testing is that it takes place after the season is over. That is a problem, because the season runs well into November, so any testing after that is nearer to December than it is to October. And wherever you go inside of Europe to test, you will never get a full day's testing done, even with the best of weather.
So it came as no surprise that when the track opened at 9:30am on Wednesday morning for the first day of a two-day test, nothing happened. Or that nothing continued to happen for another couple of hours, as we waited for track temperatures to break the 20°C barrier, and make it warm enough to generate useful feedback. It is a perennial issue with no easy answers. Finding a warm, affordable track is tough this time of year.
The good news was that once the track had warmed up, we had ideal conditions for testing. Dry, sunny, warm if you were standing in the sun, though not quite so much if you were in the shade. Despite the fact that so much time was lost to the cold, the riders ended up with a lot of laps completed, and a lot of work done.
By the end of the day, almost everyone bar Andrea Iannone had done over 50 laps, with Alex Rins having racked up a grand total of 87 laps on the Suzuki GSX-RR. Iannone at least had an excuse, a crash costing him most of his afternoon. The crash, it seems, was a result of the Italian's struggles to get to grips with the front end of the Aprilia RS-GP. A struggle he lost on this occasion.
Fast on one lap, fast on lots of laps
The day ended up with the factory Ducatis on top of the timesheets, a remarkable turnaround at a circuit which was once the bogey track for the Italian factory. Danilo Petrucci was the only rider to get down into the 1'37s, teammate Andrea Dovizioso a couple of tenths behind. Dovizioso could possibly have gone faster, if he hadn't crashed out while pushing for a fast lap. "I was pushing, I wanted to improve the lap time," he told us afterwards. "We changed the setup, we did a big step in one way, we wanted to understand. I tried with a used tire, and the feeling was good on the front, also if the lap time wasn't so good, and I wanted to push with the new tire, to really put the bike on the limit, and this is what happened."
Yamahas and Hondas alternated from third to seventh place, Takaaki Nakagami latching on to Danilo Petrucci on his fastest lap to nab third on the LCR Honda, ahead of Maverick Viñales on the factory Yamaha, Marc Márquez on the Repsol Honda, Franco Morbidelli on the Petronas SRT Yamaha, and Jorge Lorenzo on the second Repsol Honda.
Whether the fast lap times are an accurate reflection of actual pace is difficult to say, but then again, the teams are testing so much stuff at this test that making comparisons is complicated. From the analysis timesheets containing all laps each rider did, it seemed like the Ducatis were pretty strong, both Petrucci and Dovizioso racking up a lot of 1'38s and low 1'39s. Marc Márquez appeared to have a similar pace, though the Spaniard only did short runs on the Honda to spare his shoulder ahead of surgery next week. Maverick Viñales looked quicker than the front three, and Jack Miller had a convincing run of low 1'39s.
Two paths, choose one
Viñales' pace is likely to cause some confusion for Yamaha – as if they needed any more – as the Spaniard was convinced that he was strong over a single lap, but also capable of being consistent. Both Viñales and teammate Valentino Rossi have made their choice with respect to the engine, preferring the first spec tested at Valencia, which had improved engine braking. He was happy with the consistency he was capable of with the new bike.
The feeling after five laps – the critical period after which tire performance begins to drop – was good, Viñales said. "We kept the tires until nearly 30 laps, so it’s a good feeling because still I can keep really good lap times until the end of the life of the tire," he explained. "I think we can still improve a lot with the electronics, with the base of the setup. Now the engine works a bit different so the bike permits me to enter faster. I need to change a little bit the bike. Before I just needed to stop the bike, pick it up and go. Now I can be riding more naturally and maybe I can improve a lot the bike."
The problem for Yamaha is that Valentino Rossi felt the opposite. He agreed with Viñales on the choice of engine, the spec selected being the better of the two. The problem according to Rossi was that the consistency needed was nowhere to be had from the Yamaha. "The problem is that for me we didn’t make a big step," Rossi said. "When I ride the bike the problems are more or less the same and especially now. I have to check more deeply because I don’t see the pace."
"In the overall classification I'm very much at the back, because I had a problem when I had the new tire," Rossi said. "So in the end I didn’t make a time attack. But apart from that, if you concentrate on the pace, that is the most important I think, for me we are not that fast. So I mean the top guys going faster, compared to us. For me, if you see the test here, like in Valencia with the new tire we are fast. Maverick is very, very fast. Also Franco is fast. But after some laps all the Ducatis and also Suzukis have a better pace."
So Yamaha find themselves at a crossroads. Maverick Viñales believes he has the pace to be consistent, while Valentino Rossi believes the problems are the same as they always were. What are Yamaha to do? In the past, this has caused them problems, as they tried to follow two directions at once.
This time, though, Viñales is confident they will listen to him. "I’m not worried because I think my comments are very clear," the Spaniard said. "We can see my comments in the data. Then it’s Yamaha that need to decide which engine. Finally they have the power to decide that. We need to give good answers, clear comments. I’m pushing and making good lap times. But I’m happy the engine is working a little bit better on the entry of the corner. That’s where I was missing last year."
For Rossi, he isn't even sure the problem is actually in the engine. "For me the problem is this: With the new tire, the bike is very good and Maverick is very fast. Also Franco, who doesn't have a lot of experience, he is always good. But if you check deeply, after four or five laps, for some reason we suffer more. This is the problem. To fix it, I don't know. Like I said, we don’t have just the engine, we have also some other areas that are so important and that you can work and modify also during the season. So we hope that we can improve."
Rossi was also clear that they are in trouble. "For me, Yamaha have to be clear that this is not enough. So for me, if we race tomorrow we are fifth, sixth, seventh. Maybe fourth if one rider crashed in front of us. But we don’t fight for the victory."
Franco Morbidelli has the same problems as Valentino Rossi, but Morbidelli is still on a 2018 Yamaha M1, the Petronas SRT team only getting their new bikes once they get to Sepang, fittingly. "We struggle on the used tire, that is no secret," the Italian said. His objective at Jerez was to continue the work of adapting to the Yamaha from the Honda, something he was managing with some success. They had made big steps, he told reporters, something which both his pace and his fastest lap would appear to substantiate.
Potential is there
At Honda, Marc Márquez shared his time between a 2019 prototype tested at Valencia, with a new engine and new chassis, and the 2018 bike, to check for improvements. He made his fastest lap on the old bike, but believed that the new bike has more potential. Watching the exit of the final corner, Márquez appeared to be working less to keep the front wheel down, everything a fraction easier.
"I feel the difference is in the engine," Márquez said. "The chassis is very similar but the biggest difference is in the engine. That is where we have some new evolution and have time to work and understand because when you get a new engine you have to adapt the electronics which adapts the character of the engine. We are working on this engine."
The new chassis had allowed Márquez to run a softer front tire than usual at Valencia, something which would be a massive step forward for the Repsol Honda rider. The RC213V usually needs the hardest front available, but this has caused major problems when the temperature drops, or when the hardest available front isn't hard enough. Márquez hadn't been able to run a softer front at Jerez, but he had far fewer problems with the tires than previously. Given that so many of the Honda crashes have been as a result of not being able to use the front tire properly, this may be a hugely important improvement.
Parts speak louder than words
Jorge Lorenzo was not allowed to speak to the media. Lorenzo is forbidden from making comparisons between the Ducati and the Honda while he is still under contract to Ducati, and the terms of the agreement between the two factories are so intricate that it is safer just to prevent Lorenzo from speaking to the media, despite the fact that technically, he has not been banned from speaking to the press.
But he didn't necessarily need to speak to the media for us to be able to draw some conclusions. At one point during the day, Lorenzo was fastest of all, his process of adapting to the Honda going more rapidly than it had done at Ducati. He finished the day a quarter of a second off his teammate, a respectable distance on just his third day on the bike. He was helped, perhaps, by the new tank unit affixed to his Honda RC213V, a design similar to the one he used on the Ducati, to help him brace himself under braking. Honda had perhaps learned the lesson from Ducati, understanding that giving Lorenzo support from the tank in braking could make a significant difference.
The tank unit was not the only visible difference with the Honda. HRC appear to be working with the swingarm in search of the right stiffness, Stefan Bradl earlier testing a swingarm with detachable carbon fiber covers, presumably to alter stiffness. If controlling the rear of the bike under acceleration is an issue, then the swingarm can surely help.
The biggest visual difference between the 2018 and 2019 bikes is the new aero package, which Márquez also trialed at Valencia. The new package looks a lot more like the Ducati package than the old one, which bore more resemblance to the package used by the Yamaha.
Ready for 2019
Ducati would appear to be the team to beat, based on both the timesheets from Wednesday, and from the feedback from both Ducati riders. Ducati are continuing work on the two chassis they tried at Valencia, but at Jerez, Dovizioso was having more of a problem trying to figure out which was best. The bike had turned much better at Valencia, but the benefit wasn't as obvious at Jerez.
The hard part in making a decision was the fact that they were well into the process of working on the finer details, Dovizioso said. "Always when you are working on small details like this, it's not easy to understand and to feel exactly what happened. So fortunately, the bike worked well, the speed was really good today, but we didn't improve the bike. So this is a confirmation that our base is good, but we want to go home with a clear idea."
That means riding on Thursday, which Dovizioso wasn't entirely sure would be possible. He had had a relatively minor crash at Turn 5 while pushing for a fast lap, but the consequences had been much greater once he reached the gravel and started tumbling. "I hit a lot of parts of my body," he said. "Fortunately it doesn't look like anything is broken." The base of his thumb was swollen, but X-rays had been inconclusive. He will see if he is to ride when he wakes up on Thursday morning.
The positive thing for Dovizioso is that the pace on used tires was very convincing. "Really good!" was how he enthusiastically described it. "Because me and Danilo, we did 1'39.1,38.9 he did with 15 laps on the tire. So I think our pace was really good. But the asphalt will be different next year, and we will not race with this temperature, for sure..."
For Petrucci, he saw an opportunity he was grabbing with both hands. He had done an awful lot of work, he told us, testing parts alongside Dovizioso, part and parcel of being in a factory team. But he was also reaping the benefits of his situation, as he was able to make steps forward which had been impossible before. "The good things are that we are quite fast, even on used tires," Petrucci explained. "And this is a point that I need because I've always been fast on the single lap but then after a few laps I start to struggle. I mean I always struggle with the rear tire temperature. I got always a bit of slide. Things that since Valencia I have no more and I'm quite fast even on used tire and I'm happy."
Part of this was down to working on changing his riding style, he said. "I'm focusing really hard on picking up the bike more quickly and stay calm with the throttle, but for sure the bike helps a little bit. But I'm working really hard."
He was working harder off track as well as on track. "A lot of media to talk to!" the Italian joked. "Anyway I have to care about saying the right things, because if not Tardozzi and Gigi are ready with the machine gun to shoot me! So I have to talk a little bit less."
He also had far more to do over the winter, Petrucci said. "I have a more intense program about the future. In December I have already a full list to start the preparation. I feel that things are getting bigger, but I'm happy. It's a chance that you get once in a lifetime. I'm 28 years ago so I have to jump on this train and I don’t know how many chances I will have in the future. So I have to play this chance really well."
In the Pramac team, Jack Miller was getting on with the process of understanding the Ducati Desmosedici GP19. He and the team were playing with the setup, changing things to understand the reaction. But Miller was still loving the fact that the bike still turned much more easily than the bike he jumped off at the end of last year.
For Pecco Bagnaia, he was learning how the Ducati reacted at a different track. Jerez was a far more physical track than Valencia, with fast corners and harder braking, and this made it tougher to ride. But it also meant he was learning more about the bike. The team had at least found a way to help the bike turn better in the middle of the corner, and Bagnaia continues to make progress.
At Suzuki, Alex Rins is doing the bulk of the work in his new role as lead rider. Rins denied that the role was any different to previous years, believing that he was doing just as much testing and developing as he had in the past. That may be true, as rookie teammate Joan Mir is also due to start testing 2019 components at this test.
Rins was working on fine-tuning the new engine which Suzuki have brought to both the Valencia and Jerez tests. The engine has more power, but it was a little more aggressive than the unit Suzuki had raced with in 2018. Suzuki had found improvements which helped tame the engine a little, without costing too much power. That had been a solid step, Rins said.
He also has a new chassis to test, aimed at improving turning. The new frame is better in slower corners, but loses out on faster corners, Rins said. It was still too early to make a final decision on either engine or chassis, Rins explained, but progress was clearly being made.
Young 'uns bounce better
Joan Mir had a tough early part of his day at Jerez, the Spaniard suffering a fast crash at Turn 7. "The asphalt is harder in MotoGP," he joked, before pointing out that he had gone faster once he went back out again than he had done before his crash. "The good thing is that then, when I rode the bike again in the afternoon, the first lap I improved my lap time. So this is important, to not think so much about the crash, and luckily I'm fine, I only have the elbow is swollen, and I have a bit of pain when I'm riding the bike."
Mir was focusing on figuring out how to ride in MotoGP, but was making steady progress. His team had moved on to playing with electronics, to allow Mir to understand the possibilities of the Magneti Marelli system. They had changed engine braking and other parts of the electronics, and Mir felt he was moving forward and getting a better understanding of MotoGP.
Things are tougher over at KTM. Johann Zarco continues to work on adapting his style to the KTM after getting off the easy-to-ride Yamaha M1. Zarco pointed to the example of Jorge Lorenzo, and his switch to Ducati. "We must remember that when Lorenzo went on the Ducati it took him a long time to adapt," the Frenchman said. "But we saw him and it was like he was on the Yamaha, there was no big difference. Working on the bike to give feeling to the rider is the main key."
While Zarco is adapting, the work is piling up for Pol Espargaro. The Spaniard had even more work than usual, as he had missed several races through injury this year, leaving him with things he had wanted to test but not had a chance. KTM have new electronics and a new engine, and Espargaro was hard at work with that.
Running fast, but where to?
All the new parts the Austrian factory keep bringing were also sometimes a negative, Espargaro explained. "The problem with this bike is that it is never the same one!" he joked "This is also good because we are improving and changing things. It is difficult to get adapted to something that is continually changing. Yeah, once I feel adapted and fast then we try a new engine, chassis, electronics or swing arm and you need to adapt [again]. It is a ‘live’ bike! This also helps me to improve and work more on my riding style to not stop improving and thinking. It makes me a better rider."
At some point, a factory has to decided that enough is enough, and that more gains are to be found from refining what you have, rather than chasing improvements from new parts, which then need further refining. So far, KTM has not been standing still for long enough to try to figure out what the maximum limit is of all the parts they have. It leaves you wondering just how far they could take things if they did. But before they are willing to do that, they first have to believe the bike is good enough to compete. Their heavy focus on new development suggests they do not believe they are anywhere near that point.
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