The Monday post-race MotoGP test in Barcelona felt unusually important, unusually busy, even unusually productive. It seemed like a lot of manufacturers had brought a lot of parts to test, more than just the usual electronics updates, setup tweaks, minor component updates. There were new frames, exhausts, fairings, and even a selection of tires for the riders to test.
Conditions were perfect: hot, sunny, dry, almost identical to conditions on Sunday, making the work of testing easier. A little too easy, perhaps: with a layer of Michelin rubber on the track, the grip was outstanding, far better than it was during the weekend. The nature of the surface at Barcelona is also such that it takes rubber easily. Which is not necessarily the blessing it may seem.
"This morning was very, very fast," Valentino Rossi said. "Until 12:30 you can make a very good lap time. In the afternoon it was hotter, for sure. But it looks like the track is better than yesterday, especially at the end."
The siren call of good grip
But it is easy to be lulled into a false sense of security by the better conditions. "Always on a Monday test, especially in the afternoon the grip was good, there was a lot of rubber, and everything works well," Marc Márquez said. "So we have to to understand this and pay attention to everything we try." A rider may test a part and come away happy with how it feels at the test, only to find it behaves very differently, and much worse when grip is lacking, or when the track is still covered in Dunlop rubber from the Moto2 race.
For a factory with concessions like KTM, they have a way of getting around the restrictions. KTM are staying on in Barcelona for a test on Wednesday. With the Moto2 teams testing on Tuesday, the KTM riders will take to a track in conditions which more closely resemble the race. The Moto2 bikes will have sucked up most of the Michelin rubber, and laid down a layer of Dunlop rubber of their own. The track which KTM will test on on Wednesday will feel a lot more like it does during the race on Sunday than it did during the Monday test. A smart strategy for a factory intent on catching up quickly.
So what were the various teams testing? For most of them, an intriguing mix of parts which could be used as soon as Assen, and others which are the first steps toward building a bike for next year.
Past, present, future
For Honda, the work for 2020 included testing parts from 2018. While Takaaki Nakagami tested Cal Crutchlow's 2019 Honda RC213V, Marc Márquez rode a hybrid 2019 bike with parts from Nakagami's fairing. "HRC did a mix of things to try to understand the direction for the future, and basically one of the parts that was the Nakagami fairing, so we put that one on. It was just to try a different mix of 2018 and 2019 and understand for the future."
One of the things Márquez is trying for the future is a partially carbon-covered frame. This is similar to the chassis used by Stefan Bradl both at Jerez and at Barcelona, but with the difference that the carbon fiber has been applied to only the upper part of the frame, rather than the entire frame. The idea behind using carbon-fiber tightly bonded to the frame is to modify stiffness quickly and at relatively low expense. The frame Márquez used is the same design as Bradl's prototype, with a long sunken section in the middle of the upper spar. It is different to the standard chassis being used by the Honda riders.
Márquez remained vague about the feedback from the chassis, skirting over the issue in his replies. He did not rule out using it, or something derived from it, before the end of the season. "We worked a little bit on 2020, looking to find the correct direction for the new bike but also for the second part of the season with the new chassis."
The risk of experimentation
But first, Márquez wants to be certain that the new chassis would be an improvement on the one he has used to win four of the first seven races on. It could be a risk to switch to an unproven chassis unless he was absolutely certain it was better than his current frame. "Now we need to have a meeting, but the chassis we still need to understand," Márquez said. "Because when you feel good, when you feel ready, when you are winning races, to make a big change you need to be patient. Maybe it's better to retry in another circuit at another test."
He did not rule it out completely, however. "But we will see in Assen. We will arrive there, and maybe we are in a good position and we can try. But we must be patient and try to understand well."
Comparing Márquez' feedback from the first time he tried the chassis at the Jerez test in May, he was much more positive after the Barcelona test. At Jerez, he had said he felt the chassis had some positives, but the test had mainly to get an idea of the direction of development. "We understand many things and it was just to give the first comments to HRC," Márquez had said back in May. In June, he sounded a lot more open to using the new chassis.
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