For fans of technological innovation, the first day of the Sepang MotoGP test had been something of a disappointment. There were very few clearly visible upgrades to the bikes on display on Wednesday, teams using the first day to get themselves accustomed, and focus on checking the engine choices made back at the November tests. There were one or two things going on, but they weren't obviously visible to casual fans.
Thursday was a much better day for MotoGP tech nerds. New parts started to appear, as factories started working their way through the list of parts they have prepared for the 2019 season. Suzuki debuted a new fairing, with a more Yamaha-like aero package, with wider wing surfaces and a slimmer side section.
Alex Rins was positive about the new fairing. "It gave me more support on the front, less wheelie, which is important for the speed. We are faster on the straight because of the fairing – it’s more aerodynamic. The front wheel is more on the floor." That was borne out by his lap times, the Spaniard finishing with the second fastest time of the day, and the second highest number of laps in 1'59, including a run of four in a row. This was pace, rather than just a single quick lap.
Hitting the holeshot
All eyes were on Ducati, however, as a mystery lever appeared on the top of the Desmosedici GP19's (and only the GP19) top triple clamp:
It is, as the caption says, a holeshot device, something which has been used for years in Supercross (where getting a good start is vital for a good result, and riders can win a cash prize for getting the holeshot, being the first rider into the first turn), and, according to a Honda Superbike crew chief, in BSB over ten years ago. It worked in BSB: of the 26 races, the Honda got the holeshot in 25 of them.
How does it work? On a motocross bike, holeshot devices keep the forks compressed until the rider hits the brakes. Ducati's lever has a cable coming out of it, parallel to the top triple clamp plate. That cable disappears into the bike behind the headstock. That suggests that the lever is operating the rear shock, either extending it, or manually adding preload, or adjusting damping. Presumably, when the bikes brake for the first corner, the shock fully extends and disengages the lock, restoring the normal operation of the shock.
The benefit of the device is that it helps reduce the bike's tendency to wheelie, getting better drive off the line. Better drive equals a better start.
Old ideas reinvented
Does it work? It worked in BSB, and it works in MX, so there is no reason it shouldn't work in MotoGP. There are whispers that the device has been on the bikes since late last year, which would explain Danilo Petrucci's sudden burst of fast starts in the latter half of 2018, but these are unconfirmed.
Of course, it could also be sleight of hand by Gigi Dall'Igna. The good thing about adding visible parts to a MotoGP bike is it makes the opposition try to figure out what it does. Any time spent by engineers trying to figure out something on the bikes of their rivals is time not spent upgrading performance on their own machines. So adding a visible part forces the competition to use their resources on that part, rather than their own bike. So it helps, even if it doesn't actually do anything.
Whatever the actual function of the holeshot Dall'Igna, Thursday's times make it clear he has his work cut out. Maverick Viñales came within a whisker of breaking Jorge Lorenzo's record around Sepang. (Strictly speaking, it is not a lap record, but "the fastest ever two-wheeled lap around Sepang". Lap records can only be set on race weekends.)
Maverick the Machine
But the fact that he came up 0.067 short of Lorenzo was not the most impressive thing about the Monster Energy Yamaha rider's day. Even more impressive was his simulation of half race distance on used tires. In a ten-lap run, Viñales posted seven 1'59s, more than anyone else did all day. Alex Rins and Tito Rabat did five 1'59s, Rins doing four in a row. The rest – Jack Miller, Andrea Dovizioso, Valentino Rossi – could manage only two 1'59s, a handful of other riders only managing a single fast lap. The 1'58 Viñales did at the end of was just the icing on the cake.
Signs are positive that Yamaha has made a big step forward in solving its problem of maintaining pace on used tires. Viñales had been pleased with the progress made on Wednesday, and had worked on Thursday on improving his feeling on braking, and on acceleration. He had spent a lot of the day working with a full fuel tank, a problem he had suffered with all throughout 2018. They worked on some electronics to help with acceleration, and Viñales was left feeling much more optimistic.
Catching up or getting ahead?
He retained a sense of caution, though. He still needed to put all of the things they had tested together, as well as keep an eye on Yamaha's rivals. "I feel much better on the bike than last year already in the first test, but it is nothing yet," Viñales said. "We start now but also the opponents can improve a lot so we have to keep our feet on the ground and improve every day. Tomorrow is important to improve with the full tank and see what we can do to solve the problems and then to keep the pace at the end of the race. Let’s see tomorrow what I can do with a full tank. I am trying now with a full tank but not really over 20 laps in a row. Let’s see what I can do tomorrow with 20 laps in a row and it can be more clear."
Valentino Rossi also felt there had been improvement with used tires, but to test that, he really needed to do a long run, and a long run in Sepang's punishing heat was a lot to ask for a rider who is going to be 40 in a few days' time. "I used the used tire a lot, but I didn’t make a long run because, ****, it’s hot!" he joked. "We always stop, restart, and we always use the tire and this is something with which we suffer a lot last year. It looks like we improved a little bit. But I think we still have to continue to work in that area. To be sure you have to do a race, 20 laps, or at least 15. But I need 20 degrees less! But anyway was also quite positive. We continued to work like this, with the old tire, rear grip."
Follow your body
After topping the timesheets yesterday, Marc Márquez was only eighth fastest, though within a few hundredths of the second fastest man Alex Rins. Márquez was still finding his physical limits riding a MotoGP bike again for the first time after surgery, and though he proved he was fast on Wednesday, he discovered just how far he still has to go in his recovery on Thursday.
Things had been fine on his first run, he said, but the effort required to ride a MotoGP bike at full speed had robbed him of strength in his left shoulder. "Today I started not so bad," he said "In the beginning I felt OK, I felt better than yesterday. But then immediately, especially in the second and third run, I started to feel my energy going down in the shoulder, and I started to feel less power and more pain. So then we decided to stop earlier than we planned, and then we just tried a few things, a few important things for Honda. And this was basically what we concentrated more on today, and we will see tomorrow how many laps I can do. But now it's time to follow my body, and my body said today, 'stop', and we stopped."
This physical limitation meant he focused mainly on big changes, trying to understand those. "We are trying big things now. We tried the engine, we tried a few different things. Then we tried a completely different character of the bike. We are not going into the details at the moment, we are not going for a spring here or there, we are just going for very big things, if it's working or not working, and get some information. Tomorrow we will try to continue in this way, but the most important thing is to work on the engine, because it's the thing that from Qatar until the end, we cannot touch."
Márquez foresaw a tight field in 2019. "Honestly, it's always very difficult in the test to analyze. But I think that both Yamahas will be there, especially Dovizioso will be there." The Repsol Honda rider had been surprised by the speed of Alex Rins on the Suzuki GSX-RR. "Suzuki is not bad, Rins is not bad in the rhythm, but also Yamaha was very fast here in the rhythm in October. So until we have had three or four races, you don't know. But the names are always the same. It's a new season, but the names are always the same."
Alex Rins certainly looks like he will be one of those names this year. The Suzuki is better than last year, with a more powerful engine, and the pace set by Rins was impressive. The new fairing trialed by Suzuki had been effective, helping reduce wheelie and improving top speed, Rins said.
"I’m very happy because from the race bike to now, we improve," Rins said. "For sure, we improve – not one second, but for sure some tenths. That’s very important finally at the end. We tried a new fairing that gave me more support on the front, less wheelie, which is important for the speed. And also on the electronics. I’m quite happy to because for tomorrow we have a new chassis to try, and I hope to be a little more faster. But as you said, the rhythm with 20-25 laps on the tire was incredible."
Fixing KTM's problems, one part at a time
New parts are never a problem at KTM. Or rather, perhaps they are a problem, in that there are so many of them to test. "We tried every single part of the bike today. Every three laps I went out with a different part on the bike," Pol Espargaro said. With so many parts to be collected and so much data to be collected, it was hard not to get confused.
The good news for KTM is that Johann Zarco is quickly getting up to speed. He found his feet on his first run out of the pits, and that fast lap gave him confidence for the rest of the day. "It was like a wave this morning with the good lap time, and then I kept surfing on that wave for all of the day," Zarco put it poetically. He took that confidence to work on a base setup, with the idea that it would give him something to fall back if he was struggling on a race weekend.
"I really hope all these tests in Sepang and the IRTA test in Doha will be useful to adapt as quickly as possible on Friday every race weekend," Zarco said. "Because I feel that we need to control a lot of things, and I need time for that, we all need time. And it's maybe what can give me a break to do great race weekends. I know that we are going to have difficult moments, but I now feel good enough in my mind to be ready for that. But the target of this test is to go fast, but all these feelings, I explain and I say, try to find the best reference, so that if I have the problems, I have for example seven problems at the same time, and on Friday they can solve six of them. But already it's easier to say than to do."
Focusing on setup had allowed Zarco to go faster than his teammate, the first time he had managed that since his switch to KTM. It was a fact that did not go unnoticed by Pol Espargaro, and you get a sense that Zarco is going to be a catalyst for change inside the KTM garage. Espargaro's temperament is to always be pushing, wanting more. Zarco is a more methodical and thoughtful person, trying to understand first before making big decisions.
Espargaro will always want something new in his pursuit of speed, throwing new parts at it in the hope that will bring results. Zarco wants to understand what he has before moving on, extracting the most out of the package, and only then taking another step. The combination of these two temperaments, combined with the testing donkey work of Mika Kallio and Dani Pedrosa, could prove the ideal combination to help KTM make progress. Allow Pol Espargaro to act as a filter for new parts, and then Johann Zarco to extract the last drop of performance from them. There is still a lot of work to do, but they might finally start getting it done.
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