Though bikes have been circulating at the Sepang circuit already, the MotoGP season only really gets underway once the full field of full-time contracted riders takes to the Malaysian track on Wednesday. After the long winter break, we finally get to see where everyone stands as the 2019 season approaches.
Well, almost everyone: injuries always play a smaller or larger role, as riders recover from surgery, or suffer new injuries while training for the coming season. Injuries have hit Honda hard so far this year, with Jorge Lorenzo absent after breaking his left scaphoid just three weeks before the test, Marc Márquez still recovering from major surgery to fix a shoulder with a tendency to dislocate, and Cal Crutchlow coming back from a massive crash at Phillip Island which shattered his ankle.
The Sepang test will be a little different this year, as a result of the tweaking of the testing rules. With two official tests in November, at Valencia and Jerez, rather than the official Valencia test and a private test elsewhere, all of the factories have followed the same preparation in late 2018. What's more, with them all having ridden at Valencia and Jerez, they have a clearer idea of how their engines will react on tighter circuits in colder conditions, where more horsepower is more difficult to contain. November has become engine preparation month, with Sepang now being used as a verification.
There is still plenty left to work on, however. The Sepang International Circuit has a little bit of everything: high-speed straights, fast, sweeping corners, hard braking, slow and tight turns, quick changes of direction. Though the tropical heat of Sepang may steal horsepower from the engine, the track challenges chassis, aerodynamics, suspension, throttle response, and so much more. Three days never seems enough time to get everything done, especially if track time is lost to the afternoon rains which can strike in the tropics.
What can we expect from the test from the various factories? Here's a run down of what each of them are likely to be up to.
Honda – Will injuries slow them down?
Honda's 2019 season is not off to the best of starts before a wheel has even turned. Marc Márquez is recovering from shoulder surgery, and though his rehab is going well, he is still lacking strength and stability in his left shoulder. That is going to be an issue during braking especially, and he won't be able to ride as naturally as he would like.
That will detract from testing. The aim of testing is to try to understand what the bike is doing as well as possible, so that you can tell the engineers what is working and what isn't. If Márquez is having to think about his riding more than normal, that mental attention can't be used to focus on the bike. It will be a distraction, however small, and make analyzing the various parts and set up choices Honda have brought that much more time consuming.
Making things worse, Márquez won't have his teammate to help. Jorge Lorenzo's broken scaphoid leaves him at home in Switzerland, focusing on his fitness for the Qatar test which starts on 23rd February. Lorenzo had adapted relatively quickly to the Repsol Honda, and his input would have been invaluable at a circuit where he is strong. Lorenzo's workload will be taken over by HRC test rider Stefan Bradl, but while Bradl is quick, he is not a three-time MotoGP champion. If he was, he wouldn't be a test rider.
Normally, the Repsol Honda riders share the testing load with LCR Honda's Cal Crutchlow. As his contract is with HRC, he gets access to the latest parts, but that means more work for him testing. But Crutchlow shattered his ankle in a massive crash at Phillip Island, suffering a pilon fracture requiring his talus bone to be reconstructed.
Though he is cycling as intensely as ever – Crutchlow trains with 2011 world champion and Tour de France green jersey winner Mark Cavendish – he still has pain in his ankle. Putting a boot on may be a problem, but in theory, he should be able to ride a MotoGP bike. But he won't know until he gets on the RC213V at Sepang on Wednesday.
All these injured riders are a complication for HRC. At Valencia and Jerez, Honda verified an engine spec which everyone who tried it was happy with, and had started work on a new chassis, aimed at making the bike less dependent on braking. They had worked on getting the medium front tire to work, instead of being forced to use the hard all the time, which should reduce the amount of risk needed to be taken on corner entry. Less risk means fewer crashes, and fewer crashes should mean better results.
But this focus on improving corner exit and corner entry places high demands on riders, and with the Honda already a very physical bike to ride, it will be tough on Márquez and Crutchlow to maintain the required intensity over the three days of the Sepang test, especially in the tropical heat of Malaysia.
Will Takaaki Nakagami get the call to help with testing? Although his contract is with HRC, he is not getting the same support as Crutchlow. On the other hand, he was fastest at the Jerez test, so there is no doubt of him being fast. Nakagami's speed at Jerez is a sign that the 2018 spec Honda RC213V is already a pretty good platform. With a slightly better engine, tested at the end of last year, and some work on the chassis, the 2019 bike may be good enough to endure the loss of testing by the factory-backed riders.
Ducati – more radical innovation on the way?
At the end of 2013, Gigi Dall'Igna was brought in to Ducati Corse to turn around the fortunes of their ailing MotoGP program. There is no doubt he has achieved all that and much more: Ducati went from struggling to get anywhere near a podium while racing against only two other factories to regularly winning races and getting within a few points of beating the seemingly invincible Marc Márquez to the 2017 MotoGP championship, and finishing second again in 2018.
Ducati's success has come from not shying away from radical ideas. They applied to enter in the Open Class during MotoGP's transition period, to get more freedom to work on engine and electronics. They adopted a very deep support program for their satellite teams, using them as part of the factory project by sharing data, giving them parts to test, sending engineers to work with them. And of course they created a whole new MotoGP aesthetic by introducing wings, forcing Dorna and the FIM to clamp down, leaving us with the current generation of so-called "aerodynamic packages", which are just winglets redesigned to fit within the relatively lax FIM rules.
So it was hardly surprising to see Ducati bring some radical ideas to the Jerez MotoGP tests. A torque arm which attached the rear brake caliper to the bottom of the shock mount, aimed at helping the Ducati Desmosedici GP19 turn. An aerodynamically shaped rear tail unit, aimed at helping the rear turn. It makes you wonder just what they will bring to the Sepang test.
At the shakedown, the bikes on display seemed disappointingly traditional. As far as those present could see, there were no radical ideas, no torque arms or aerodynamic updates on display. Then again, the only reason we in the media seize on items such as the torque bar is because they are so prominently visible. Behind the fairings, Ducati (or any of the other manufacturers) could be experimenting with all sorts of radical ideas. But because we cannot easily see them, they are much harder to discern.
What we do know is that we won't see anything particularly different in terms of aerodynamics. At the Ducati launch in January, Gigi Dall'Igna said that the final form of Ducati's aerodynamic package would not be tested until the Qatar test at the end of February. This makes sense for a number of reasons. Firstly, the mixture of corners at Qatar is perhaps a better fit for testing aerodynamics. Secondly, the colder air temperatures at Qatar (especially in the evenings) mean the aero packages work a little better due to greater air density, so the effects of changes can be felt slightly better. But most importantly, it gives rival factories the least amount of time to copy their designs.
What will Ducati be testing? More updates on their chassis, for sure. Turning mid corner is the one area where the Ducati is still weakest, despite the issue being improved in the past couple of years, and especially between the GP17 and GP18. But any improvements Ducati can make there will have immediate benefits in terms of competitiveness.
Andrea Dovizioso will be doing a lot of the work, as the one figure of continuity in the factory Mission Winnow Ducati garage. The big lesson for Dovizioso in 2018 was that he can't afford to give away too many points at the start of the season. Being as ready as possible at the start of the season can be the difference between contending for a championship and playing catch up all year, so Dovizioso will be working out the base package as much as possible.
Danilo Petrucci, on the other hand, will still have a small amount of adapting to his role as a factory Ducati rider. The benefits of Ducati's approach to satellite teams means that the Italian is already used to working with factory engineers inside the Pramac squad, but the pressure (not least from the media) of being a factory rider cannot be underestimated. He also has a major life change to deal with, being in the process of moving to live near Andrea Dovizioso's home town of Forli, in order to train and prepare together more, something which includes using Dovizioso's training, diet, and mental coaches. No more going to bed late, as was his natural rhythm. Instead, Petrucci awakes at 6:30am to put ice cubes on selected spots on his body to stimulate the burning of brown fat, followed by a program of training, carefully selected nutrition, and rest.
Contributing to the pressure on Petrucci is the arrival of Pecco Bagnaia at the Pramac Ducati squad, and the elevation of Jack Miller to the lead rider in that team, complete with GP19 to ride for this season. This means that Miller will have a major role in Ducati's testing program at Sepang. Miller got a taste of this at Valencia and Jerez, sharing the work of evaluating new parts on the GP19, and this is likely to be stepped up in Malaysia. Miller's job at Sepang is not just to test new parts and provide feedback, but also to prove that he has the maturity to understand what a role as a factory rider entails, and the analytical ability to give the feedback the factory engineers need. If he gets that right, he is in line to take the second seat in the factory Ducati squad alongside Andrea Dovizioso next year.
If Miller doesn't, then that job could go to his teammate Francesco (or Pecco, as everyone refers to him) Bagnaia. The Italian rookie was quick at both Valencia and Jerez, and impressed those who watched him ride. His ability to adapt to the very different style needed by a MotoGP bike, and the speed at which he did that, was remarkable. Bagnaia is hotly tipped to win rookie of the year – at this point in time, it is expected to be between Bagnaia and Suzuki's Joan Mir – and if he is immediately competitive, that could earn him the second seat in the factory team. Expect Bagnaia to be fast, as he also has the advantage of not having to worry about testing new parts. His job is solely to learn how to ride the bike fast, and manage the tires over race distance.
Not having any parts to test will also mean the Avintia squad of Tito Rabat and Karel Abraham can focus solely on riding. Rabat is now back to full fitness after his horrific injury at Silverstone, where he shattered his femur, and Rabat has spent the winter in southern Spain hammering around racetracks with a selection of other GP riders. The GP18 which Abraham and Rabat will be riding this year is a significant improvement over the GP17 which Rabat had last year (and vastly better than the Abraham's GP16), so they have a chance to be significantly more competitive.
Yamaha – the pressure is on
It is hard to overstate just how much pressure Yamaha – the factory, and the factory team, rather than its riders – is under. A mediocre 2018 followed a 2017 season which could be described as only moderately successful. Yamaha went over a year without victory, and that streak of 25 races weighed infinitely heavy on Yamaha's shoulders. In the end, it caused heads to roll at Yamaha, with MotoGP project leader Kouji Tsuya being moved aside, and two new faces being brought in. Hiroshi Itou will take on a role as General Manager of Yamaha's Motorsports Development Division, and Takahiro Sumi becomes MotoGP group leader, having been promoted from his position as chassis designer.
As the de facto engineer leading the MotoGP project, Sumi is charged with fixing Yamaha's problems – chiefly, the inability of the bike to maintain the performance of the rear tire over full race distance. All the MotoGP bikes suffer with tire degradation, but the Yamaha M1 suffers much earlier than its main rivals.
Maverick Viñales' victory at Phillip Island last year pointed the way to alleviating the problem, Yamaha having radically altered the weight distribution of the bike at Viñales' request. Starting from Thailand, where Viñales finally got his way, both bikes were quicker, and this is the direction which Yamaha is to follow. New engines tested at Valencia and Jerez took the worst edges off the too aggressive nature of the 2018 M1 thanks to heavier crankshafts, and both Valentino Rossi and Maverick Viñales came to a grudging consensus over which of the two engines are best.
At Sepang, Yamaha will have only one spec of engine internals, but will be working with peripheral parts – air box, throttle bodies, exhausts, etc – to optimize the current configuration. But the real work for Rossi and Viñales will be finding the right bike set up and chassis configuration to make the tire last. Unfortunately for the riders, that means both of them putting in an awful lot of laps on used tires in the tropical heat to test whether the changes are working. There are no shortcuts in MotoGP.
Viñales has the added task of adjusting to his new crew chief, Esteban Garcia. Viñales feels he needs more support from a crew chief, and Sepang will be the first real test of them working together so intensely.
Though Yamaha has seen many changes internally, the biggest change is surely the departure of the Tech3 team to KTM, and the installation of the brand new Petronas SRT team as Yamaha's new satellite operation. With Wilco Zeelenberg, who previously managed both Jorge Lorenzo's and Maverick Viñales' side of the factory garage, at its head, the MotoGP team has already gotten off to a strong start. Franco Morbidelli was quick immediately on the Yamaha M1, while Fabio Quartararo took his time adapting to the new class.
There will be significant pressure on Morbidelli. The Italian will be on virtually identical equipment to the factory riders, and so could get roped in to some development work as well. Morbidelli was already impressive on the Honda last year, and with a different structure around him, a much better bike in the shape of the Yamaha M1, and Viñales' former crew chief Ramon Forcada at his side, he should be up at the front at the Sepang test. For Quartararo, on lesser equipment – it is believed that the Frenchman will be on a 2019 bike with substantially fewer revs – his task is to continue his adaptation, drop his Moto2 habits and learn to master a MotoGP machine.
Suzuki – making the next step
Suzuki enter the 2019 Sepang MotoGP test with some confidence. The 2018 bike was strong, especially once they received their upgraded engine at Assen. Alex Rins racked up five podiums, (now former) teammate Andrea Iannone secured a further four. Suzuki are close, and only need a small step to get them close to winning their first race.
With rookie Joan Mir replacing Andrea Iannone, much of the development burden falls on Alex Rins. Rins grew in confidence throughout the second part of 2018, and at the Jerez test, told reporters that he was relishing the challenge. Suzuki have a strong chassis and a strong enough engine, so Rins' work will be focused on details. A little more stability in braking is needed, along with a bit more power and acceleration.
Joan Mir will be faced with the same challenge as the other MotoGP rookies: adapting his style to a MotoGP machine. But the Spanish youngster had already made impressive progress at the Valencia and Jerez tests, finishing just a few tenths off his teammate. Mir is widely praised for his intelligence and willingness to learn, and this should prove key in making the setup steps needed.
Aprilia – Back to the future
The task for Aprilia in 2019 is simple: forget that 2018 ever existed. At the shakedown tests in the days preceding the official test, Aprilia had brought two different versions of the RS-GP: the 2017 bike, and a 2019 prototype. The 2018 bike turned out to be an evolutionary dead end, which proved incapable of correctly loading the front tire.
For 2019, Aprilia are working on an engine with much better power delivery – the bike still feels like a two stroke, some riders say in private – and getting better feel both on corner entry and on corner exit. The arrival of Massimo Rivola should take some of the organizational strain off the shoulders of Aprilia Corse boss Romano Albesiano, allowing him to focus more fully on the technical development of the bike.
Like Suzuki, Aprilia have one new and one old rider, putting a lot of the development work in the hands of Aleix Espargaro. But unlike Suzuki, Aprilia have Andrea Iannone joining them, a rider who brings experience with two other manufacturers. Iannone has already given invaluable feedback, according to Romano Albesiano, and helped give direction to development. And Espargaro has already taken advantage of Aprilia's status as a concessions team, getting in an extra day of testing at Sepang during the shakedown test.
An infection prevented Andrea Iannone from testing on Sunday, but the Italian already proved to be quick in Jerez and Valencia. He still has some adapting to do to accustom himself to the RS-GP, and this test will be a crucial step on that path.
The bulk of Aprilia's test work has fallen on Bradley Smith, the Englishman putting in a lot of laps over the past three days. That will continue during the test.
KTM – trying to move mountains
At the start of the third year of their grand MotoGP project, KTM face an enormous amount of pressure. The RC16 is still very much a work in progress, struggling to be competitive, despite a lucky podium in Valencia in the rain. They have to justify their enormous investment, and make significant steps forward.
It has not been for a want of trying. Indeed, a case could be made for the problem being them trying too hard. Every test, and many races, KTM have brought a mountain of parts to test. That was no different at the shakedown test last week, and it will be no different at the test at Sepang. There is a lingering impression that KTM's issue is that they can't see the woods for the trees.
They will at least have some help in sorting the wheat from the chaff, to steal a phrase from the sponsor of a rival factory. The arrival of the Tech3 satellite squad means two more riders on the grid to give feedback and generate data, and with the idea being that Tech3 will get pretty much identical bikes to the factory riders, it makes evaluating new parts and actually getting through the mountain of work needed a little easier.
That work starts at Sepang, and it starts in two very different directions in the factory team. Pol Espargaro will continue the work he has done in trying to improve the bike, mainly by trying to go as fast as possible, giving in to his natural inclination. Johann Zarco is still getting over the culture shock of the switch from the buttery smooth Yamaha to the wild and brutal KTM. To that end, he spent time lapping during the shakedown test, concentrating on understanding the bike.
There is a similar split in the Tech3 garage, with Hafizh Syahrin feeling the pressure of a second year in MotoGP by pushing as hard as he could during the shakedown test. On the other side of the garage, Miguel Oliveira took a much more measured approach, spending time on old tires, doing longer runs and focusing on race pace. By the end of the shakedown test, Oliveira was rapidly closing on Johann Zarco's time, and was not far off the times of Pol Espargaro.
Mika Kallio is present as the sole test rider, Dani Pedrosa having fractured his collarbone during the winter, and still recovering from that injury. Kallio will be bearing the brunt of the pure testing work for KTM, leaving the riders to focus on preparing for the season. Between them, they still have an awful lot of work to do before they are truly competitive.
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