What conclusions can we draw from the first day of testing for the 2020 season? Not much, other than a lot of factories have brought a lot of new parts. And it really does feel like a lot of new parts, with new chassis for KTM, Yamaha, Honda, Ducati, new engines all round, and a host of other bits and pieces in preparation for the new season. New riders, too, with Brad Binder, Iker Lecuona, and Alex Márquez all moving up to MotoGP for 2020.
It is particularly tempting to jump to early conclusions about the rookies. There is a clear pecking order, an easy way of deciding who is adapting quickly, and who is taking their time. By that measure, Iker Lecuona is the man to beat, the Red Bull Tech3 KTM rider finishing just under 1.5 seconds off the leading gaggle of Yamahas at the test. Brad Binder, in the factory Red Bull KTM team, is just under 2.4 seconds behind quickest rider Fabio Quartararo, while the latest addition to the class, Alex Márquez, was last, 2.7 seconds slower than the Petronas Yamaha rider, and nearly 2.2 seconds slower than his brother Marc.
King of the rookies
Should we now proclaim Iker Lecuona the rookie of 2020? He may well turn out to be just that, but a look at the first day of last year's Valencia test may prove instructive. In November 2018, Pecco Bagnaia was the fastest rookie on the first day of testing, less than a second behind Maverick Viñales. Joan Mir was second on the Suzuki, 1.371 behind Viñales, while Fabio Quartararo ended in 23rd, 2.434 slower than the factory Yamaha rider, and Miguel Oliveira sat at the bottom of the MotoGP pile, with a gap of 3.7 seconds to Viñales.
By the time the 2019 season finished last Sunday, Fabio Quartararo headed the rookie pile, finish second in Valencia and fifth overall. Joan Mir was second best rookie, ending twelfth in the standings, 100 points behind Quartararo, while preseason favorite Pecco Bagnaia ended the year as fifteenth overall, two places ahead of Miguel Oliveira.
The lesson of all this is that it is way too early to say very much about the prospects of the rookies. Sure, it is not a good look for Alex Márquez to be at the bottom of the timesheets after the first day, but you shouldn't read too much into it. That Iker Lecuona is thirteenth is a solid showing, but not necessarily significant just yet. There is more to being competitive than ending the test near the top of the timesheets on your first time on the bike. We can't all be Marc Márquez.
Alex Márquez hadn't helped himself by ending his first run out of the pits with a crash, losing the front at Turn 10. Brother Marc diagnosed it as a typical rookie crash. "Already when I saw him, he started too early," the elder Márquez said of Alex. "He was maybe the third or fourth rider on the track and I said 'he doesn't know what these Michelins are like!' And a MotoGP bike on a very cold track. Because when you don’t have experience, you feel like you can go. Michelin is working very good because they bring very soft tIres but when it's very cold, it's very difficult. This morning was extremely cold and I already said, 'turn 4 and 10 will be dangerous' and he lost the front there."
"It’s not the best way to start for sure," Alex said on Tuesday night. "I said 'Wah, it cannot be possible' but in the end it’s a rookie mistake, it can happen. Alberto said to me 'you crashed, don’t worry, we are here for that' and the most important thing now is to learn, to find the limits of the bike and to keep growing as a rider. Compared to Moto2, here there are a lot of things to learn and I will try my best from the first day to Qatar to learn everything before the first race."
He had been riding well within his comfort zone, Alex Márquez told us. "In these lap times everything is comfortable. I need to find more the limit, find more my way, and then for sure the problems will come but at this moment I’m enjoying on the bike and that’s it."
That was the secret for all three of the rookies, to work on themselves rather than the bike. Iker Lecuona explained the changes he need to make coming from Moto2. "For sure it is a different world," the Red Bull Tech3 rider said. "I need to change my style a lot. I keep the braking and the position on the bike but finally the pick-up and the power is different so I need to change a lot of things."
Brad Binder was positively radiant after the first day of the test, in awe at the opportunity to ride a MotoGP machine. "Today was super cool," the South African said. "I had a fantastic day and it was so much fun. In the beginning I was almost a little bit worried because it was insane, but then with the more laps you do the more comfortable I felt and it started to click. I have an insanely long way to go."
For Binder, the biggest challenge was relying on the electronics to manage acceleration. "The hardest thing for me was the wheelie," the factory KTM rookie said. "When you come out of a corner you pick up the angle and I kept rolling the throttle all the time and then opening it. I’d make it harder for myself. It was really hard for me to trust the electronics and know it will be fine, I still have a long way to go but I got a taste of it."
Steel beam trellis?
On the other side of the garage, Pol Espargaro was testing a new chassis, a rather different design to previous iterations. The lower part of the steel trellis had grown a cover, becoming part steel beam frame, the top remaining entirely made of tubes. The objective had been to gain stiffness but lose weight, to make the bike easier to throw from side to side.
Espargaro was enthusiastic about the improvement, but defensive about the DNA of the KTM. "It feels not normal for me," he said. "Normal is tubular and I like it but yeah it’s a hybrid. I think it is 80% tubular still. We have done the form on the side so that it looks a bit different but not as much as it looks. We still have the KTM DNA with the tubular chassis which I think puts us in a good way but we are still trying to understand things."
The frame was still steel, Espargaro insisted. "The material is the same but super lighter. Dani [Pedrosa] tried this one in some other tracks and he felt some improvement but also some negative points and the new one is made based on these comments; trying to improve on stopping areas and trying to make it a bit more rigid which is important when you go down such a big step in weight. I’m interested to see what is next."
"I think it is the line we need to work with," the factory KTM rider said. "The chassis feels very good but I think the room to play with it is much better. It is much, much lighter and we are gaining a lot. There are only benefits. We will go to the new one tomorrow which I think will bring something."
Engines and frames for Yamaha
At Yamaha, the work was being divided between the various riders. Franco Morbidelli was given the task of testing the carbon swingarm again, a component he felt had more benefits than disadvantages.
The factory Monster Energy Yamaha riders were very busy. Both Maverick Viñales and Valentino Rossi had the latest version of the 2020 Yamaha chassis to assess, as well as a new engine. The new engine also came with a new fairing and a new air intake.
The intake is taller and narrower, a break from the shape which has barely been altered in over a decade. The different shape looks designed to fill the airbox better, a necessity for a more powerful motor. The difference was small, but better, both Maverick Viñales and Valentino Rossi said.
"For me it works good," Viñales said. "The bike was working fantastic today so we will see tomorrow." Valentino Rossi played down the changes, though he too was optimistic overall. "The first impression is quite positive because we improve a little bit," Rossi said. "But the way is long because the difference is quite a lot, especially in the top speed. But I like the way that Yamaha work because there is less confusion than in the past, the program is more clear. This is still a prototype so maybe next year we can have also another step, something more. But the feeling with the new bike is positive."
Both riders were happy with the new chassis, but Rossi said it was not their main point of concern at the moment. "First of all, for me, the electronics and engine are the area where we have to improve," he said. "Especially the engine. But looks like now Yamaha is agree. But also in the chassis they try for better agility or when you brake, a little bit faster to the entry. More precise. The new chassis is good. I like it."
Honda hampered by crashes
Honda's testing plans were upended due to crashes, Marc Márquez completely destroying the prototype 2020 machine he was riding in a strange highside at Turn 13, an unusual place to crash. "It was a very strange crash," said a befuddled Marc Márquez. "I mean, I was going out of the box, slow, but when I shifted up the gear just I flew. It was with the prototype bike, still with a few things to understand. It was not any mechanical problem. But sometimes when you try new things you don’t expect that kind of reaction and it was a very strange crash."
Honda have a new engine and a new chassis to test, and have divided up the work between Marc Márquez, LCR Honda rider Cal Crutchlow, and test rider Stefan Bradl. Márquez had focused on the engine and electronics, for the most part, while Bradl had spent the early part of the day setting up the electronics for the two contracted riders to use.
All that work is extremely time-consuming, the electronics taking time to dial in just to create a baseline, before they could even start to work. "I think the bike is a step forward, but we haven't even touched the bike, we haven't changed one setting on the bike," Crutchlow explained. "It's all been electronics and parts that we've tested."
Setting up the electronics was the most work, the LCR Honda rider said. "The electronics is the hardest and longest thing, because what works on your bike over the weekend, you can't just transfer that and it's going to work immediately. It takes a long long time to do it. That's why Stefan was first out on track this morning, to do a couple of runs on the bike so we had some kind of information before we went out. But all the engines are also their own engines, so they all have to be set up for that engine. We all have the same spec engine, but they take their own time to set up, and some of these changes can take 30 minutes. They take a long time to figure these things out."
The feeling had been good overall, Crutchlow told us. "I felt quite positive on the front of the bike, which maybe is where we've been struggling a little bit more this year. And maybe we'll start to put some settings into the bike maybe tomorrow and over the Jerez test, and then we'll maybe understand, because at the moment, the bike is maybe a little bit softer than what I would have raced over the weekend, because we're not pushing like in a race weekend. We're trying to evaluate things."
Smoother and more agile for Ducati
The work was divided up at Ducati as well. Unfortunately for the Italian factory, Danilo Petrucci was suffering with a shoulder injury he had exacerbated with a couple of crashes at Phillip Island and Valencia, injuring his ligaments. That left most of the test work to Jack Miller and Andrea Dovizioso, ably assisted by test rider Michele Pirro.
Miller's focus was on a partial update of the Desmosedici's engine and electronics, aimed at making it smoother. "I think it’s not really the complete engine but more or less a step of the 2020 engine and very happy with how that worked," the Pramac Ducati rider said. "Pretty satisfied with everything that we’ve put on the bike today there have been no real negatives."
A less aggressive engine delivery was aimed at improving tire life, Miller said. "Just trying to be smoother in general I think, especially with the way the Michelins are, we need to be smooth on this tire and I feel we are able to gain some extra grip there. Understanding how to get the maximum power out of the tire at what lean angle and trying to be as smooth as possible on the rear tyre to try and benefit us in races, where we struggled this year."
The aim was to help save the tire to give the rider a bit more speed in later laps, Miller explained. "Faster at the end of the race but also I think even on the qualifying laps, the biggest thing to take the most advantage out of the bike is try to be as smooth as possible on that tire so that’s where we’re working, trying to gain edge grip. Our problem is always turning, so trying to get a little bit more of that happening as well. Like I said, I haven’t tried the chassis but the parts that I have tried today have been a big improvement."
Andrea Dovizioso, on the other hand, had been tasked with testing a new chassis. Though the Italian tried to play it down, it was clear that the new frame was already discernibly better. "I'm happy," the factory Ducati rider said. "The right word is I think 'interesting'. I won't say something more, because also for us not everything is clear."
Testing at Valencia, with very few long fast corners, made it hard to feel the precise difference the new chassis made, Dovizioso explained. "Also because Valencia is not the best track to understand that, and it will be important to try in a different track. Jerez will be a good track for that, I think, if we find good conditions there. It was nice to feel the difference of the chassis, looks like we are a bit better in the middle of the corner, but how much, it's not clear. So, happy about that."
Why the crashes?
Dovizioso had been intrigued by the crashes on the first day of the test. The weather was generally better than during the race weekend, yet Alex and Marc Márquez, Fabio Quartararo, Bradley Smith, and Stefan Bradl had all found a way to crash. "A bit strange," Dovizioso said. "I was a bit surprised, because the condition today was much better than any of the days during the race weekend, and the temperature wasn't low. I mean, it was low, but it was warmer than the weekend. So I don't think it was the temperature of the weekend."
The crash had perhaps come from overconfidence, born of improved track conditions. "I think those type of corners, if you lean the bike and you don't put pressure on the tire, you lose the front," Dovizioso explained. "If you put the weight on the tyre with less angle, you can really put the weight. But if you see the crashes, everybody was with too much angle and not enough weight on the tire, and the Michelins don't like that."
One more day of testing at Valencia remains, before the paddock packs up and heads down to Jerez. The positive news is that the weather for both Wednesday and Jerez looks stable and dry. The factories have a lot of testing still to do, and need all the time they can get.
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