The Qatar MotoGP test is really only half a test. Taking place just two weeks before the first race of 2019 at this very same track, factories are caught between testing and reevaluating new parts and looking for the right setup for the race. And with the test running from 4pm local time until 10pm, the first two hours, the track is too warm, heated by the setting sun, and too cold and potentially damp in the final hour, as temperatures drop perilously close to the dew point. Of the six hours the track is open, only three actually approach the conditions during the race and qualifying.
That means it's imperative that the factories get most of their work done at Sepang, bringing parts to Qatar more to verify the findings at Sepang, rather than actually run through a major testing program. There is one major exception to this rule: aerodynamics. With just under two weeks to go to the race, Qatar is the place where aerodynamics have to be finalized. No factory can risk bringing brand new aero to the first race, when they have to homologate a fairing.
There was some new aero on display on the first day of the Qatar test. Aprilia unveiled their 2019 livery – good news, it looks like an Aprilia, and is consequently gorgeous – and also a new set of wings, looking for all the world like Ducati's most recent effort.
Even more intriguing was the new rear air scoop appearing underneath the swingarm of Jack Miller's Ducati GP19. Ducati Corse, under Gigi Dall'Igna, have led the way in both aerodynamic development and in tire management, and this appendage could hypothetically serve both causes. The scoop appears to consist of three wings attached to the rear swingarm (a location where it is least likely to fall foul of MotoGP's increasingly strict aero regulations, ironically).
— MCN Sport (@MCNSport) February 23, 2019
At speed, those wings do two things: they channel cool air on to the rear tire; and they exert a small amount of downforce on the rear swingarm. In the first case, they could be there to manage tire temperature, and as a consequence, tire degradation, something which has been the main focus for Ducati for many years now. In the latter case, they could be there to help keep the rear wheel down at speed, actively helping the suspension to keep the rear tire in contact with the ground.
Which of these theories is correct? Who knows. There may come a point at which Gigi Dall'Igna deigns to give us a hint as to its function, but I am not holding my breath. It is also possible that Dall'Igna is throwing wild ideas at the bike, on things he doesn't necessarily think he might use this year. Rival factories, spotting this appendage, will likely assign an engineer to try to work out what this new rear wing does. And while they are doing that, they won't be working on anything new, to help their own bike go faster. It's a win-win proposition for Ducati.
There were more conventional parts on display: at Aprilia, they had a new fuel tank cover, based on the design used by Jorge Lorenzo and aimed at allowing riders to support themselves better under braking. KTM had a new seat and tail unit, and the obligatory new aerodynamic fairing.
— Team SUZUKI ECSTAR (@suzukimotogp) February 23, 2019
Both Honda and Suzuki had new exhausts, but Suzuki's was the more obvious. The GSX-RR sported a work of art crafted by Akrapovic, featuring a double tailpipe. The idea, seen on the Moto2 bikes for the past couple of years, should help generate a little more torque and power. Alex Rins was certainly fast on it, but it deserves to be kept for the aesthetics alone.
The Suzuki Ecstar rider was not just fast over a single lap, finishing second behind Maverick Viñales on the Monster Energy Yamaha M1, he also had outstanding pace. As in Qatar, Viñales and Rins showed the best race pace, seemingly head and shoulders above the rest. They were lapping comfortably in the 1'55s and low 1'56s, where others were stuck in the 1'56s.
The fact that Valentino Rossi ended the day as fifth fastest, right in the middle of the pack vying for third, is a sign of just how well Yamaha is doing. Viñales has been happy since the Jerez test in November last year, and built on that at Sepang, but Rossi has remained cautious. There are now signs of a little more optimism from the Italian.
"I'm more optimistic, especially because we work well, and there's a good atmosphere in the team, and it looks like Yamaha is more concentrated and more motivated compared to the last two years," Rossi said. "Already in Sepang we tried something which improved the bike. Something improved, something didn't, but that's normal. For me, it's a long work. We need a bit of time. We need to work very hard, it's not just three months to recover the gap. But the impression is not so bad, and for me, we can be a bit stronger than last year."
The biggest thing is that Yamaha appear to have fixed a lot of their issues with tire wear. "We always suffered a bit with rear grip, and at this track that's very important," Rossi said. "But also the degradation of the tire, we suffered very much last year, especially the last five laps. And it looks like we made some small improvement, and that's already important."
There was no room for complacency, however. "We have to continue like this, and we have to work well during the season. Something arrived at the first test, but Yamaha has to continue through the season, because in the last two years, we started not so bad, but after during the season, the other factories overtook us, so we have to work hard all the season."
Getting a grip
For Maverick Viñales, the low grip of the Qatar track was a decided benefit. It meant they could work on tire degradation and finding grip in poor conditions, which had been difficult at Sepang, where the track had been almost perfect. "Today the grip was very low but actually it was really good that the grip was low," Viñales said. "In Malaysia the grip was great. I exited and the bike was perfect. Here the bike was sliding a lot and I could work a little bit more. It’s going to be good. Still we are facing down, trying to work hard. We still have a bit of gap to the competitors. We need to close it and we have two days. We need to work really hard."
Viñales had two chassis to test, which he had also tried at Sepang. The difference between the two was clearer in Qatar, thanks to the low-grip conditions. "In Sepang we had two different chassis – very similar, but here I can feel a bit more difference because there is no grip. We are testing these things because they need to be clear for the first race. Let’s see. Tomorrow and after tomorrow it’s important to define the bike, to see if we can do it."
Both Rossi and Viñales were satisfied with the engine, or at least with the effect it had on the tires. The one gripe Viñales had was the eternal complaint of the motorcycle racer: 'please sir, can I have some more power?'
"We need to improve the top speed," Viñales said. "At Sepang not so much but here we lose a lot. Already we have some ideas to improve it. But top speed and a little bit of acceleration, the electronics side, engine brake, and that’s the way to go. We are doing a good job. We are doing small steps but let’s see if we can do a big one."
Honda were also happy with their new engine, though they still have a lot of work to do. Their plight isn't helped by the fact that Jorge Lorenzo is back on track after an extended absence due to fracturing his scaphoid just before the Sepang test. Lorenzo wasn't at all comfortable, from his fit on the bike, the pain in his wrist, and from a lack of bike fitness.
"We are missing a lot at this moment," Lorenzo said. "First my physical condition, because of the wrist and because I've been four months without riding MotoGP. You lose everything, you lose all the rhythm, all the speed, you get tired, even if you are strong in the gym. From that point of view, MotoGP is completely another story."
He still wasn't entirely happy with his position on the bike, and the support the bike was giving him, this time in acceleration rather than braking. "I find that I still don't fit well on the bike," Lorenzo said. "In acceleration I need some more support to relax the arms, we spent most of the day with the rubber on the seat that slid and slid and slid, and we didn't understand why. So finally we found a solution there."
He was fit enough to lap, however, but he was two seconds a lap slower than Viñales. Lorenzo will focus on bike setup on Sunday, getting ready for the season opener, and hopefully making his life easier aboard the Honda RC213V.
For Marc Márquez, this was the second time back on the bike, after having returned from major shoulder surgery at Sepang. The good news for Márquez was that he was less troubled by his shoulder than he had expected.
And yet Márquez was cautious. "Here, the shoulder was much better," he said. "I feel much better on the bike. Of course I feel some pain in some areas, but now it's much better. I'm able to ride more or less how I want. Still in some changes of direction, I'm struggling. But now in testing we can say I'm coming on my normal riding style."
Being able to ride in his normal style had a downside as well, however. "I'm riding in a normal way, in my style. In Malaysia I was very smooth, but maybe I need to change style, because here in Qatar, maybe I was a little bit too aggressive, and it's quite slippery and then it was difficult to setup the bike in a good way."
Both Lorenzo and Márquez will spend the next couple of days working on setup, in part because they are a little behind in development. The engine chosen was the right one, being even more powerful than the one tested last year, as witnessed by the fact that Marc Márquez had the highest top speed. "It's very positive that the engine is very fast," Lorenzo said. "I think Marc today was the fastest one in terms of top speed, so that's a good signal. We are losing in some areas compared to the other engine, we still need to study. But it's good that we have a strong engine, now we need to be strong on the lap time."
The bike still needs work before it is ready for the first race, however. "In Malaysia, it was very good, we were riding in a very good way, the bike was easy to ride. And now we are struggling a little bit more, all the Hondas are struggling. We are missing some feeling, and now it's time to understand the setup of the bike to see how we can improve."
Getting ready already
That could put Ducati, and especially Andrea Dovizioso, in the driving seat for the championship. The factory Ducati riders didn't have much to test, Dovizioso said, and were mainly working on setup, though not yet chasing a really fast time. "The lap time was already quite fast, but in the end, like most of the time, the time at the end of the day is not important, and didn't show the reality of everybody," Dovizioso said.
"So we are not focused on that, we are focused on the race, what we have to try to be in the best situation for the race. We didn't test a lot of things, just a few things. There was a situation to already test a few parts, but nothing crazy. The speed is good, but the first day is not too important because of the condition of the track. The second and third day normally is better, and is a better day to understand and to analyze more."
Are Ducati in better shape than last year when compared to their rivals? That wasn't an easy question to answer, Dovizioso said. "It's very difficult to understand this, because I think last year we were in a really good condition for this race, and we are in a really good condition for this race now. But to analyze and understand how strong the competitors are is almost impossible. Because it looks like they are a bit better. Not everybody, but Suzuki, Yamaha, looks like a bit better. But it's difficult to know until you are in the race."
It wasn't just the factories who were testing at Qatar, however. Race Direction had laid out a penalty lane on the outside of Turn 6. The idea is to replace the penalty of being forced to drop a place with a consistent time penalty. Dropping a place can be a fraught process, as Jonas Folger found to his detriment during the Moto2 race at Misano in 2014, when he was penalized for cutting the track, but it took so long for him to drop back to the group scrapping behind him that he incurred another penalty, this time a ride through.
Valentino Rossi was cautiously positive about the change, as one of a few riders who had tried it. "It's a bit tricky, but it's possible," Rossi said. "They say that you lose three seconds. I think a little bit more, but it's not so bad. For me, it's more right compared to giving up one position, because sometimes if you give up one position, sometimes you lose half a second, but sometimes you lose five seconds. So this loop is always the same, so it's not so bad."
Whether this will remain is still uncertain. There are risks to having a slow lane on the outside of the corner: if a rider loses the front on the entry to the corner, they could potentially wipe out a rider riding through the penalty lane.
Overall, though, the reception was positive. "We spoke in the Safety Commission," Andrea Dovizioso explained. "I think it's a really good idea. It looks like nearly every rider thinks this is a good idea. And I think for them it could be much better to manage than when you have to drop a position. It's more clear what you have to do, what you lose. It's the same for everybody. You know before the weekend. I don't know if it's easy to create this situation at every track, but I think it's a good idea. Unfortunately I didn't test it, but I think the only problem can be the dirt. Outside the track is dirty, which means slippery. But anyway, when you have that penalty, it's because you made a mistake. So at the end, I think it's a good idea."
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