From the humid heat of Malaysia to the cool desert night air, MotoGP enters the final test before the season kicks off in two weeks. The Qatar MotoGP test is something of an oddity, and hard to quantify. It comes too late to make any major changes to the bike, yet plays a crucial role in exposing vital weaknesses in the factories' MotoGP machines. It is a place where you won't see any major updates being rolled out, but it is also the test where factories are looking to catch each other out. With just two weeks to go to the start of the season, it is too late for anyone to understand and copy any brilliant new ideas before the start of the season.
The main purpose of the Qatar test is to verify engine configurations. All six factories rolled out new engines, updated over the winter break, at Sepang, but the Malaysian circuit is deceptive. Hot tropical air, a big, wide track with very few tight, low-gear corners means that it is hard to tell whether additional power has pushed the engine over the fine line between aggressive and uncontrollable.
Getting it right
At Qatar, when the air temperature drops to the high teens Celsius in the evening, the cooler, thicker air gives the new engines a bit more pep, and all of a sudden, that nice hard acceleration transforms into an unmanageable desire to wheelie, or spin the rear tire up suddenly, or just become too much of a handful to manage for an entire race. The Qatar test is the place where you find out if your engine is working.
Unfortunately, it is also too late to be able to fix it if it is too aggressive. With two weeks to go before the start of the season, there is not enough time to test another engine before having to make a decision and homologate an engine design for the season. Qatar is where you find out whether you are going to be in for a long year or not.
That is one reason why manufacturers are moving toward external flywheels, or at least the manufacturers who are using a V4, which is narrow enough to make room for them. If your engine is a little bit too aggressive, at least you can mitigate the worst of the effects by playing with the weight of the flywheel, and its reaction mass.
More is better?
So Qatar will be a crucial test for Honda and Ducati especially, who have dug deep to find yet more horsepower as usual. Ducati are a little smarter about how they approach the problem: the Italian factory has been testing the new engine design since the Valencia and Jerez tests, but there it was a lower power version of the motor, serving as a proof of concept of the design. That allowed them to work on power delivery and throttle response. Once Ducati were sure that was working, they could start dialing in the extra power.
It will be a crucial test for Ducati in other areas as well. This is the test where they roll out their latest aerodynamics innovations, the last chance to test them before homologating their aero package for the start of the season, and too late for the other factories to copy and test it sufficiently to risk handing it to their riders before the first race in Qatar. We know that Gigi Dall'Igna will have something up his sleeve, having read the rules looking for the loopholes to exploit. We just don't know which particular joker it will turn out to be.
Qatar will also be a big test for the new Michelin tires. The new rear, with a different construction, was a big hit at Sepang, where the corner-speed bikes – the Yamaha, the Suzuki, and to a lesser extent the Aprilia – all benefited. But how will those tires react on the more abrasive Qatar circuit? How will the dust and sand which blows onto the track affect them? Will the edge grip reduce, giving the point-and-shoot bikes an advantage again? Or will the Yamahas and Suzukis maintain their edge?
Night and day
This year, there is an added complication for the test. The race start time has been pushed back earlier again, the MotoGP race and qualifying now set to start at 6pm local time, just after the sun sets. The reasoning is simple: this early in the year, cool evenings can bring dew to the track, and that can create treacherous conditions. The best time for a night race to happen is just after the sun has set, when the track temperature has dropped, but the ambient temperature is still warm enough to fend off any moisture.
But that creates a dilemma, both for the race and for the test. With conditions changing relatively quickly, the amount of usable time for testing and setup is restricted. Track temperatures are much higher when the sun is up, making the lessons learned there less applicable to race time. But the track temperature also drops quite quickly once the sun sets, meaning there is only really a usable window of perhaps two hours for testing to take place.
The track is open during the Qatar MotoGP test from 1pm local time until 8pm. That gives the riders and teams two hours of excellent testing time in the dark, and five hours of trying to figure out how to be productive during the day. The riders will get plenty of track time during the day, but the first hour or so will not see much action.
With the exception, perhaps, of Maverick Viñales and the other Yamaha riders. The weakness of the Yamaha has always been when the track is greasy, and the grip drops. 1pm in the desert, and track temperatures going through the roof, could be a very good time to work on that. That is certainly what Viñales did at Sepang, when he went out at 3pm, race time, when track conditions were at their worst.
Time for tweaks
What will each manufacturer be testing? More or less the same they were trying at Sepang, only refined with the lessons learned in Malaysia. Honda is focusing on getting their engine right. Yamaha are continuing to work in the 2020 Factory-spec M1, with the new engine and chassis. Suzuki are smoothing out the final wrinkles in their more powerful GSX-RR. KTM keep working on, well, everything: the new engine from Sepang, the revised chassis from Sepang, the new aero they tried at Sepang.
Ducati? They have to make sure the engine works, and continue working on the updated chassis which they have been developing since Valencia last year. And they will have something else to surprise us, though what that is, we do not know. How could it be a surprise if we did?
The most interesting factory at Qatar will be Aprilia, who launched their 2020 project at the Losail International Circuit on Friday. (Complete with Andrea Iannone, who remains a member of the team until the options to appeal his suspension for failing a drugs test run out. It will likely be another couple of weeks before the CDI, the International Disciplinary Court, makes its ruling, and from there, Iannone can still appeal to the CAS, the Court of Arbitration for Sport).
At Sepang, the Noale factory debuted a brand new bike, with a 90° V4 engine and a new chassis. That was a success right off the bat, Aleix Espargaro eventually lapping just shy of the blistering pace set by Maverick Viñales. At Sepang, Aprilia only had two of the new engines and bikes, meaning the riders had to hold back a little, in case they broke them. At Qatar, there should be more parts available, and so Aleix Espargaro and test rider Bradley Smith should be able to push the bike a little harder. Which means we should find out just how fragile the bike still is, and whether it has any issues with reliability.
Finally, Qatar is also a chance to see how well the winter surgery patients are recovering. Marc Márquez, Miguel Oliveira, and Takaaki Nakagami all had shoulder surgery over the winter, and all three of them were mildly disappointed with the slow progress they were making. (That is slow in motorcycle racer terms, of course. In human terms, they are still on a lightning path to fitness again.)
At Sepang, Marc Márquez was restricting the number of laps he was doing. With an extra week of recovery, and two weeks to go to the first race, he will have to be doing more work in Qatar. This is the time to try longer runs, to see how his shoulder holds up. By Monday night, we should have a better idea of where Márquez stands fitness-wise.
Whether we will have a better idea of the relative strengths of the MotoGP machines remains to be seen. We may learn a few things, but the reality of where each rider and each factory stands will only be revealed when the lights go out for the first few races. The phony war of testing is nearly over.
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