The second day of the final preseason test of 2020 showed pretty much the same pattern as the first day: Maverick Viñales didn't finish the day on top of the timesheets, but the Monster Energy Yamaha rider clearly has the best pace, capable of running consistent low 1'54s, a tenth or two faster than anyone else. Fabio Quartararo posted the fastest single lap on Sunday, and he and Alex Rins were the only riders getting anywhere near to Viñales' pace.
As a benchmark, Quartararo posted 14 laps in the 1'54s, Viñales 13 laps, Rins 11 laps. Joan Mir was the only other consistent contender, with 6 laps in the 1'54s, and a solid race pace in the low 1'50s, high 1'54s. The Yamahas and Suzukis are looking very strong indeed at Qatar.
That was borne out by Maverick Viñales' media debrief. Once, those were glum affairs, in which Viñales would sullenly respond with nearly monosyllabic answers. His mood has improved since last year, especially since his results became more competitive in the second half of the season. This year, he is positively upbeat: he used the word 'happy' ten times in three-and-a-half minutes speaking to reporters. Two years ago, the only time Viñales used the word 'happy' was when he preceded it with the words 'we can't be'.
Danilo Petrucci certainly believes that Viñales is the man to beat. "Maverick has been really, really fast, also in Sepang," the Ducati Factory rider told reporters. "I think at the moment, he is the rider in the best shape, absolutely, both in the single lap and race pace. He can ride in high 1'54, and I think nobody is able to do that."
Viñales was even relatively happy with the top speed of the Yamaha. "Not so bad, not so bad," the Spaniard responded when asked about this. "Today I'm quite happy, I was behind Jack who is the fastest, and it was better, better than last year, so actually very happy about how Yamaha work."
That is impressive, given that Jack Miller described his Pramac Ducati as a 'rocketship'. The Factory-Spec M1 is still down on speed compared to the Ducati, but it looks like it is capable of holding the slipstream now. If a Ducati enters the last corner behind one of the Yamahas, then the M1 is likely to be a sitting duck. But given the pace of Viñales and Quartararo, and even Valentino Rossi, the new Yamaha is capable of latching onto the tail of a passing Ducati.
That would allow the Yamahas to be close enough at the end of the straight to make an attack at the start of the lap, rather than the middle. That, in turn, gives them a fighting chance of exiting the last corner with enough of an advantage that not even the might of Ducati horsepower can hunt them down. And if a Yamaha or a Suzuki can lead into Turn 1, then the Ducatis are in trouble.
Squatters take over
There is more to Ducati's top speed than horsepower alone. On Sunday, the Pramac Ducati riders finally spoke publicly about the rear squatting device which Ducati have been using on the GP20. And on the GP19, in fact, as Jack Miller explained. "All I'm going to say is I've had it on since Thailand last year," the Australian said. "It's proven it works."
Its introduction did not quite go as smoothly as Ducati might have hoped. Adding two more levers on the handlebar, left Miller a little confused as he rolled up before the start of the race. The pre-start procedure had been expanded even further: come to a halt; press the lever on the right-hand handlebar to put the bike into neutral; select launch control with the buttons; wind on the holeshot device with the butterfly lever on the top of the triple clamp (which is still there); pull in the clutch; put the bike into first gear; and wait for the start.
Somewhere along the way, Miller got confused, and pushed the wrong button, his engine stalling on the grid. It had been difficult to remember exactly what to do. "Remember what happened in Thailand?" the Australian reminded reporters. "Not simple. Not simple at all, especially when they change it on a race weekend. I had about 19,000 things to do, and it was all in the spur of the moment, I thought ****, what was it again?"
Better, once you're used to it
Having used it consistently since then, Miller was much more confident with the system. "I've got it down pat now," he said. "I mean, we've got it set up pretty well. But it's rather easy to use, the only place we don't use it is Phillip Island. It makes no sense to use it there. But it's good, a good thing."
Miller's Pramac Ducati teammate Pecco Bagnaia has also been testing the system at Qatar, and found it easy to get used to. "It's very easy," the Italian youngster explained, but that wasn't where the difficulty lies. "The problem is that you are using a MotoGP bike, and that you have a very short time from one corner to the next corner, and you arrive at 300 km/h. I started using this button here and not in Malaysia, because it's something you have to understand."
It did take time to get used to it, and that creates a delay, Bagnaia explained. But the advantages outweigh the disadvantages. "It's something that we had to understand, because you lose time when you are using this button, when you activate it. But it's something that gives you something extra. I think for Jack now it's completely automatic, because he started using this in some races last year. And for me, I have to learn for it be more automatic."
Less wheelie, more forward motion
Where does this system help? "Accelerating. Less wheelie. Like the launch control, but out of a corner," Jack Miller explained. Pecco Bagnaia confirmed that. "It's easier to open the throttle and wheelie less. But it's something to be more comfortable in the exit." Was it really an advantage? "I think yes, because we are using this," Bagnaia said. "So it's better for sure, and our bikes are the fastest."
The system has a number of advantages. Firstly, with the rear lowered, there is more load on the rear tire, and so traction control will cut in less quickly, and that means more drive, more power on the ground. Secondly, it helps prevent wheelies, and that is another aspect which means the electronics don't kick in. Any time the electronic rider aids interfere, it means cutting power one way or another, and that means less power to drive the bike forward.
Preventing the electronics interfering was one of the reasons Gigi Dall'Igna started investigating the aerodynamic winglets in the first place. By fitting winglets, Ducati could reduce wheelie while using more power. The downside of the winglets came at the other end of the straight: the downforce required to keep the front end down produced extra drag, and drag robbed the bikes of top speed. And as drag increases as the square of velocity, the more effective the winglets at reducing wheelie, the more top speed they cost at the end of the straight.
Here is where the squatting system can help. Squatting the rear of the bike helps reduce wheelie out of the corners, without reducing the power available. Less wheelie due to bike geometry means less wing is needed from the aerodynamics package to help cut wheelie, as that problem is already being tackled from a different angle. Less wing on the aero package means lower overall drag. And as drag increases as the square of velocity, less drag translates into big gains in speed at the end of the straight.
It is common to decry the increasingly strict technical regulations as restricting innovation. And in a way, they do: factories are not free to explore any technological avenue which takes their fancy. But that can lead to a kind of laziness: engineers start working on the area which offers the quickest and easiest gains, and end up just throwing more and more resources at it in pursuit of marginal improvements.
On the other hand, having restrictions placed upon them stimulates the creativity of engineers: they read the rules carefully to see what is explicitly forbidden, and start to explore areas they might otherwise not have bothered to pursue. Those can turn out to be more interesting and have an even more profound impact than the quick and easy areas they might otherwise choose.
Anyone familiar with Isaac Asimov's Foundation series will be familiar with the idea of restricting resources to stimulate creative solutions to problems. In an attempt to reduce the influence of electronics in MotoGP, Dorna have accidentally opened up the area of aerodynamics to motorcycle designers. And as active suspension is banned, motorcycle designers are being forced to examine the basics of motorcycle geometry in pursuit of performance.
Of course, it will not be long before everyone else catches up with Ducati. Aprilia soon had their own version of Ducati's holeshot device, and Yamaha have been very public in testing their version. Suzuki are yet to test their system, though it is said it is ready, and Honda have started work on a system for the RC213V. And as Marc Márquez hinted, that system could morph from a device only used at the start to something that could be used throughout the race. They were testing it too, he told reports, but using it just for the starts. "At the moment," he added.
Better at everything
There can be no doubt that the Ducati is fast. Jack Miller said he was happy with just about everything with the Ducati GP20. "Yeah, chassis, engine, everything," Miller told reporters. "I mean my thing is a ballistic missile. I don't know if you've seen, but I've topped every day since we hopped on it, and I'm definitely not the lightest guy out there. The bike's working really well."
Even Ducati's weak point, the turning of the bike, was improved, according to Miller. "It's definitely better this year. A big improvement. That was one of the items which we had to test at Sepang which really made the bike a lot lighter in the change of direction. I think that's one of the key things which has improved a lot on this year's bike."
Factory Ducati rider Andrea Dovizioso was less enthusiastic. He had tried new parts on Sunday which had improved the performance of the bike, but the underlying weakness remained. "The feeling is good, but the improvement is not clear, if there is an improvement," the Italian said. "So no negative points, and this is always important when you try a new piece, but still the middle of the corners is the point."
What big step?
Jack Miller was also dismissive of the idea that the other factories had made a big step in top speed. "Did they do a big step? I don't think so," he said. "Honda for sure aren't as close as last year. Last year, there was always Cal and Marc close to me, I was top Ducati more or less everywhere on the speed trap. But I think it's simply to do with my helmet and suit combination, Dainese and AGV are one of the best aerodynamic packages you can get. But this year, they seem to be about 8 km/h slower than me on average, so I think we've definitely done a big step in the engine. The other guys, maybe Yamaha have stepped a bit closer to Honda, but definitely haven't come close to us yet."
The one factory which had improved was Aprilia, Miller said. "The only one who I have seen have really improved quite a lot on the power is Aprilia. Aprilia seem to have done a big step on the power, because they have quite a big wing on the front of the bike, which takes a lot power away, but they are still getting quite good top speed."
Honda in trouble
Miller's assessment of the Honda seems correct, and worrying for the Honda riders. It has been a bad test all round for HRC, the 2020-spec Honda RC213V still fraught with problems, as countenanced by the fact that all three riders have crashed on the bike. Marc Márquez destroyed one of his bikes in a crash at Turn 9, while Cal Crutchlow suffered a heavy fall at Turn 2 and injured his forearms, which became swollen and meant he lost feeling in his hands. He was forced to stop riding for the day, and hope that treatment will help him be fit enough to ride on the final day.
Marc Márquez tried to put a brave face on it, but was clearly concerned that the problems of the RC213V are not limited just to the Losail International Circuit, which has always been something of a difficult track for the Honda. "Of course I'm worried, because I would like to be very fast on every lap at every race track. But in this race track, we are worried, because we have some kind of problems that we are trying to analyze where it comes from, because all Honda riders, especially with the new bike, we are struggling a lot in the same point. We see that for example Crutchlow is a fast rider here, but he's struggling a lot and he crashed. We are pushing, but we are just trying to analyze, because we know where the problem is, but we can't fix it at the moment."
Cal Crutchlow had highlighted the problem on Saturday. Honda were having the same issues asat Sepang, he said. "The pushing in corner entry. The difference here is there are a lot faster corners. That really reiterates our problem we have at the moment with our bike. Malaysia is a lot more hard braking stop and go circuit where you can get away with it more. Whereas here you can’t. But maybe that’s the wake up call we needed to understand we need to improve even more."
"Essentially I don’t have a good feeling," Crutchlow explained. "I was prevented from going faster. But at the moment the way you have to ride the bike to stay on is quite amateur. You have to ride really slow. It’s like you can’t force the bike, whether you are going to stay on or not. It’s quite strange. But the pushing into the corner and the pushing out of the corner is a big problem for me."
Stronger, but more difficult
That was not to say that the bike is worse than the 2019 version. "HRC has worked hard on the bike," Crutchlow said. "I do feel honestly stronger in acceleration but weaker in some areas. We need to improve that. That’s what makes you go around the track faster. We also had this problem here last year. But now the same problem seems more. It makes it difficult. But me and Marc finished second and third in the race here last year."
The concern for the Repsol Honda team is the fact that Marc Márquez is still lacking strength in his shoulder, and this is limiting his riding. Normally, he would be able to ride around the issues the bike is having, but at the moment, that is simply not physically possible. "Of course, when I'm 100% fit physically, I can avoid those problems and I can fix them," Márquez said on Saturday. "But if I'm not 100% physically, I can't avoid them, and I am riding at the same level as the other Honda riders."
The last day of the test at Qatar will give a much clearer idea of where everyone stands. Much of the testing work is done, with multiple riders doing long runs on Sunday to evaluate tire life and performance over twenty-odd laps. With the race in two weeks, almost everyone is planning on Monday to try the bike they expect to race here on March 8th. There will be race simulations, and time attacks, and a good deal less testing of new parts. On the last day of the test, we just might get our first glimpse of the future.
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