One of the most keenly watched figures at the Sepang MotoGP test is the top speed of the Yamahas. That was the reason that Yamaha couldn't compete at a number of circuits. Maverick Viñales and Fabio Quartararo found themselves coming up short against Marc Marquez in a number of races, Marquez using the speed of the Honda to drive past the Yamahas, or stay with them, at crucial points, negating the superior handling of the Yamaha.
So all eyes in Sepang are on the top speed figures of the Yamaha. Have they improved enough to be competitive?
But how important is top speed really? Even Gigi Dall'Igna, MotoGP's unofficial king of horsepower, is aware of the limits power can bring. It is an advantage, but only as an added extra. "It’s important to have the power in the pocket," Dall'Igna said at the launch of Ducati's 2020 MotoGP project. "When you have it in the pocket you can make the decision if you want to use it or not. If you don’t have the horsepower in the pocket then you cannot use that."
Horsepower is very much an added extra, however. Speed in terms of lap times were what counted, and extra horsepower was only useful if you could already do the lap times. "I think to manage the race where you have the speed, for sure it’s important to have some horsepower more than your competitors. For sure. But if you don’t have the speed it’s not so important to have this horsepower. So the priority is to have the speed first of all. After that, if you don’t have the horsepower then you have to fight a lot more to win the race."
The second day of the Sepang test illustrates this principle, that top speed might count, but not for that much. As of 1pm on Saturday, Jack Miller topped the timesheets on the Pramac Ducati, ahead of Joan Mir on the Suzuki. Jack Miller also topped the speed charts - hardly a surprise: with Sepang's long straights, four of the five highest speeds have been set by riders on Ducatis.
Miller is head and shoulders above the rest, though. His speed measured through the speed traps was a remarkable 338.5 km/h. That is 6 km/h quicker that Andrea Dovizioso recorded during qualifying. Compared to Joan Mir, second on the lap time charts, Miller's advantage is over 11 km/h.
How much does that give you in lap time? Miller's fastest lap at 1pm was 1'58.641. Mir's best lap on the Suzuki GSX-RR was 1'58.731. The difference between those two lap times is just 0.09 seconds. How much of that top speed advantage translates into lap time? Not much, really, as the table below shows:
Jack Miller's top speed is 3.45% faster than Joan Mir's. But the Pramac Ducati rider is lapping just 0.08% faster than the Suzuki.
That difference should not really be a surprise. After all, Sepang has two of the longest straights on the calendar, but it also has 14 corners. A big gain in the straight is quickly lost to a bike which is a little bit faster through each corner. The big horsepower bikes have only two chances to open a gap; the bike which can brake deep, carry corner speed, and get good drive on exit has fourteen opportunities to squeeze out an advantage.
So should Yamaha fans be worried if the 2020 M1 is still down on top speed compared to the Hondas and the Ducatis? Not necessarily. If the gap is huge, then there might be reason for concern. But if Yamaha can restrict its deficit to a few km/h, then they are in with a fighting chance. After all, it was a Yamaha which started from pole in the 2019 race, and another Yamaha won the race by over three seconds, with yet another Yamaha crossing the line in fourth.
Each manufacturer in MotoGP follows a different line, a different concept. They focus on different areas, believing that is where they can gain the most advantage. Each choice involves compromise, sacrificing one area in pursuit of gains in another. Want more top speed? Then you will need a more stable bike, which will then be more difficult to turn. Want a more agile bike? You need smoother power delivery, and something which turns a little better, and that means giving up outright top speed.
The art of racing motorcycle design is the art of compromise, in making the right choices which will allow you to win. It is impossible to build a bike which is better than the rest in every area, so all that is left is to ensure you gain more in your strong areas than you lose where you are weakest. You have to pick your poison.