The first day of the Sepang MotoGP test is always met with some trepidation. For the factories, have they responded to the feedback from before the winter break correctly, and developed the bikes in the right direction? For the riders, has their winter training program been enough to prepare them for riding a MotoGP bike, and will they hold up under the battering which nearly 300hp and carbon brakes will inflict upon them? And for injured riders, is their recovery going to plan, or are they ahead or behind on schedule?
With all these questions on their minds, the MotoGP paddock tends to ease in to the first day of the test. Especially if, as looks likely, the weather will hold and they will not lose much track time to the tropical rains which can fall in the afternoon. The first day is used for verifying the data from the Valencia and Jerez tests, checking engine configurations once again, and getting the riders' minds accustomed to the sensation of over 320 km/h again. It is a day of gentle evolution, rather than radical revolution.
Visible and invisible
As a consequence, a stroll down pit lane on Wednesday morning did not reveal a great deal of technical novelty. The Ducati GP19s looked very similar to the GP18s, with the exception of the newer aero package from the second half of the year. The teardrop fork upper covers were back to assist with cooling in the heat – and with clear skies, the sun is brutal, and air temperatures are high.
But there is no sign of the rear brake torque arm, no sign of the aerodynamic seat package. That may come on Thursday, Pramac Ducati's Jack Miller hinted. "We’ve got some decent stuff to test, in terms of aerodynamics and stuff like that," he said. "There’ll be some cool things coming up." He had tested the tank support used by Jorge Lorenzo, which helped him in the change of direction, but didn't really make much difference to him in braking.
At Honda, Yamaha, and Suzuki, the changes are even less obvious. Honda have the most visible difference, a few visual clues betraying the presence of the new straight-through air intake and air box. If you gaze directly into the air intake – its maw, if you will – you can see that the old bike has a deflector at the front which channels the air to the left and right of the chassis, and through to the air box from there. On the new bike, that deflector is barely visible, much further back in the intake.
If you can't station yourself directly in front of a Honda RC213V, and kneel down to gaze inside the air intake – like staring down the barrel of a gun, not necessarily the safest place in the world – there is an easier visual clue. To make room for the larger air box, some cables and electronics have been relocated to the side of the frame, hidden behind two carbon covers at the front near the steering head.
Subtle and not-so-subtle
Telling the difference between the new and old Yamahas and Suzukis is nigh on impossible from the outside. The biggest change for both is a new engine, which the riders at least say is an improvement. There are chassis updates too, but these tend to be very hard to spot without resorting to closely studying photos of the new and old bikes taken from the same angle.
For those who like their changes to be boldly visual, the KTM garage is the place to be. Pol Espargaro and Mika Kallio had a very different-looking RC16 to try. The new bike had new exhausts – slash cut rather than stumpy and blunt – and a new tank, seat, and tail unit. All five KTMs had a new aero package, resembling the Yamaha winglets but attached to KTM's upper fairing wedge.
The Aprilia also had subtle changes, though the difference between the 2018 RS-GP and the 2019 RS-GP is much bigger than the difference between the 2019 bike and the 2017 bike. Aprilia boss Romano Albesiano has basically gone back to the drawing board and started again from the 2017 bike, after a disastrous year in 2018.
The big question
It was the riders who were facing probably the biggest test. And especially those coming back from major surgery. Marc Márquez had an operation to prevent recurring shoulder dislocation, and Cal Crutchlow had to have his ankle reconstructed after a crash in Australia, both huge operations which took a lot out of them physically. How would their injuries hold up? Would they be able to ride?
They both had the same reaction after the first couple of laps. "In the beginning, in the first two laps, I said, I cannot ride," Marc Márquez told us. "I felt horrendous during the first laps of the day," Cal Crutchlow said. "I did my first lap and I thought I was doing a 2'01, but I did a 2'08."
But little by little they got better, as they accustomed themselves to riding a MotoGP bike again. Neither did particularly long runs, but Cal Crutchlow racked up a respectable 51 laps in total, whereas Márquez called it a day early in the afternoon, after just 29 laps. Both riders are working their way slowly back into it.
Though in Márquez' case, 'slowly' is a relative term. He did a 2'00.615 on his first run out of the pits, a fast time in anyone's books. And he was constantly at the front all day, ending the day as fastest, and one of only four riders who got into the 1'59s.
Learning to adapt
Things had gone both better and worse than he expected. Like all riders, he had hoped to have been pretty much at full fitness by the time he got on the bike. But the cold, hard reality is that he is still struggling with strength and stability into left handers, and is still a long way from full fitness. He had to change his riding style in the change of directions between Turns 5 and 6, and 12 and 13, and in braking for Turns 9 and 12.
Ask Márquez, and he will express disappointment that he isn't better. Ask anyone around him, and they will tell you that he is way ahead of schedule for such a serious operation, and that he won't be anywhere near full fitness for several months to come.
Márquez could perhaps have been fitter if he had had surgery earlier, skipping the rest of the season once he wrapped up the title at Motegi. But it was not something he ever considered, he said. "Of course, if you have two months more, then I would be 100%, but then I would miss the last races. Of course there was nothing to win, but I like to race." You can take the boy out of racing, but you can't take racing out of the boy, as they say.
The high cost of Valencia
The decision to keep racing after Motegi was the right decision at the time, Márquez explained, because at that point, his shoulder was still manageable. But the damage done by the two dislocations during the final weekend at Valencia had made it a totally different proposition. The shoulder had become so bad that it was being held in almost entirely by willpower. As he slipped out of consciousness on the operating table under the anesthetic, his shoulder popped out of its own accord.
"The problem was like we were on time, but the thing is that when I dislocated the shoulder in Valencia, the damage was much bigger than we expected," Márquez said. "Then we analyzed everything with the doctors, and they said, we will do one kind of surgery, but then when they opened the shoulder, they saw that there were many tendons destroyed. So then they did two different surgeries in one. So I was four hours in the operating theater. The plan was, the operation would be more or less one hour, one and a half hours. In the end, it was four hours inside the operating theater. So for that reason, it was taking more time than we expected three or four months ago."
Bearing the strain
The toughest part had been psychological, the constant strain of trying to recover, and not knowing how good his shoulder would be. But it was not as bad as the eye injury he sustained in 2011, which could potentially have been career-ending.
"The eye injury was harder, because you had the doubt whether I could be back on the bike or not. If I would be able to ride ever again in my life or not," Márquez said. For the shoulder injury, it was the constant work needed to rehab his shoulder which he found wearing. "But yeah, this one was harder to be there all day, every day. There were no holidays for me this winter."
Only riding a MotoGP bike brought relief. "Honestly speaking, only today riding the bike is like having two weeks holidays. I have another spirit, it's like another kind of adrenaline in my body, and this is important."
Márquez' return was made easier in no small part by the new Honda engine, an update of the unit tested at the end of last year. There was a rumor floating around the paddock that Márquez had joked to another rider that riding had been less taxing because when he needed to go faster, he could just open the gas and go. That would be ominous if it were true.
Márquez was publicly pleased with the engine, his words lending weight to the gossip. "They tried to bring here another step for the engine," he said. "Of course, when you say another step for the engine, it is try to bring more torque and try to have like more control on the gas, engine brake also working good."
Getting the engine right at Sepang was the main priority, Márquez said, because the engine freeze meant that the Qatar test would be too late to test and fix anything. "It's like last year, the main focus now in the preseason is the engine, because in Qatar we close the engines and we will go with that engine during all the season. So now we concentrate more on that area but we also have a few things on the chassis, on a different path, that we need to try."
Engines were at the top of the priority list for Yamaha as well. Yamaha have brought an updated version of the engine chosen by Valentino Rossi and Maverick Viñales at the Valencia and Jerez tests, and both riders were very happy with the choice which had been made.
"I'm happy with the choice," Rossi said. "Between the two are not a lot of difference. But the engine is not so bad." The new engine was a slight improvement in engine braking, a priority for Viñales, and this had been the right direction to follow according to Rossi. "We work a lot on the engine brake, especially because Maverick always push under this point of view and is right. We have something better and also some different things compared to Jerez."
Tire consumption on used tires had been a problem for the past couple of years, and it seems that Yamaha are now getting back on the right path as far as that was concerned. "The first day is quite positive because I have good feeling with the bike from the beginning and also looks like also with the used tire, that is our weak point, we are not so bad," Rossi said. The improvement had come from every aspect of the bike. "Is all together engine, electronics and also chassis side of the bike. We have to work and we try to work also with the used tires and if you look at the lap times, with the other guys, we are not so bad."
One step at a time
Maverick Viñales was also positive, despite having problems with braking. "I tried to use the used tire, but it works one way or another depending on how you manage it," the Spaniard explained. "If I stop a lot, then the tire degradation is very fast. But if I keep running on the track, like if I do 7 laps, then another 7 laps, the tire degradation is quite good, it's not bad. We are working quite hard on that area. Today I made quite a long run. There still remains the question that after Moto2 when the grip is low, then the bike is difficult to control."
He had focused on working with the medium rear tire, in pursuit of more grip at the end of race distance. "The good thing is that I was doing the lap times with the medium, which I couldn't use during the race," Viñales explained. "So that's a positive thing. But anyway, tomorrow when I try the soft, I will know how the bike works finally with good grip. But the good thing is that with the medium, I could be quite fast and that's very important, because normally when we don't have grip, that's when the bike becomes very difficult. Today I could ride all the track quite well. Just these small details that I can't brake every lap at the same point, I have to modify a lot because of the engine braking."
Viñales will spend Thursday working on chassis setup in pursuit of a better feeling under braking, before moving on to try new parts. "We tried the upgrades on the engine today, so tomorrow it's quite clear what we have. So tomorrow we are going to try different areas on the setup, to try to be better on the braking area, because at the moment, I don't like it. I can't make three laps with the same line. So I don't like it a lot, I have to play a lot with the bike, and it's not good, I can't be constant. So tomorrow we are going to try to solve that with the setup. And then I think we have some new things on the chassis, maybe a little bit more stiffness, I really don't know, because I haven't had the meeting yet. But I think it looks like we have to push the rear tire more, to gain rear grip."
Change arrives Thursday
Suzuki were also confirming their new engine, and the fact that Alex Rins ended the day as second fastest, just ahead of Maverick Viñales, suggests there is not much wrong with it. It accelerates better, which was badly needed, though there are still one or two more things to fix. "I think the weakest point was the top speed. Top speed, braking area... The bike is working well in the braking area, but I want to feel more comfortable."
Suzuki have parts which might be able to help in that respect, Rins revealed. "From Suzuki, they bring a lot of new parts, we didn't try everything today. For tomorrow we will try a new fairing, and I don't know if this week or in Qatar, we will try a new exhaust. So I'm quite happy because they worked hard this winter."
Thursday should see a spate of new parts appear in the pits, now that the riders and teams are all settled back into the groove. The real testing starts now.
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