It has been a long winter. Longer than normal. Under normal circumstances, MotoGP bikes would have been on track in Sepang a month ago. But as we have learned the very hard way, these are anything but normal circumstances. The Covid-19 pandemic has demanded the very utmost of human endurance and organizational ingenuity to try to have even the slightest semblance of normality.
But on Friday it starts, at last. The first official MotoGP test of the year kicks off with the shakedown test for the test riders, and an extra day of riding for the three true MotoGP rookies, Luca Marini, Enea Bastianini, and Jorge Martin. The entire MotoGP grid will join for two days of action on Saturday and Sunday, and the prelude to the 2021 MotoGP season will be well and truly underway.
Entire MotoGP grid? Not quite. Marc Márquez will not be present at the test, the Repsol Honda rider still in the midst of the rehabilitation process from the broken right arm he suffered 8 months ago at Jerez. He will not participate in either of the MotoGP tests. And it seems extremely unlikely he will participate in the first two races in Qatar either. But he will race this year, and his return will probably be sooner rather than later.
Plus ça change
So what can we expect from the next three days? In contrast to previous years, there will be a lot of new parts on display. Ironically, precisely because engine development is frozen this year. That means that if the manufacturers want to find more performance from their bikes, they can't extract it from the engine, by refining combustion chamber shapes, valve sizes, shapes, and angles, lightening parts, reducing friction.
Instead, they have to do it by changing exhaust shapes and sizes, changing airbox sizes and shapes, altering the way that air is taken into the airbox, increasing cooling by altering airflow. All of these changes will be more or less visible from the outside. There are fewer places for the factory engineers to hide their innovation, though some changes may only be obvious to the trained eye, or the extremely observant.
So what can the factories change? Everything bar the engine, though they are only allowed a single aerodynamic update in 2021. They can race with their 2020 package, or they can use a new or modified design for the 2021 season. In practice, that means that pretty much every factory will start the season with their new aerodynamic package, and keep the 2020 package as a fallback option, a last resort in case the new version doesn't work as expected. That can happen, of course: just ask Honda about the aero package they tried and dropped at the Qatar test last year.
The fact that the factories can update their aero packages for 2021 doesn't necessarily mean we will get to see them at the first test. The wary, or perhaps the paranoid, will not want to show their latest aerodynamic package for fear of their rivals copying it. That may not be such a factor this year: with just two days between the first and second (and final) Qatar tests, there is little time for rival factories to fully analyze and produce copied designs.
Though the gap between the two Qatar tests is very brief, the two tests are still likely to serve very different purposes. All six MotoGP manufacturers will be bringing a large pile of parts to Qatar to test ahead of the season. They have little choice: these six days – five for contracted riders, and an extra for the test riders – are all the testing they have.
That means greater rewards for a well-structured test program. The focus of the first test will be sorting through the parts to find the combinations that work best, the purest form of testing. There will be more experimentation, lots of short runs to assess the feel of a part or combination of parts, before moving onto the next part. It will likely be too early for race simulations, though some riders might venture a time attack or two.
The second test, from next Wednesday to Friday, will be focused more on the coming race weekend. Riders will go through the final test packages assembled on the basis of data collected over the next three days, and make their choices for the start of the season. They will try those packages out on long runs, and work on setup for the season opener at Qatar.
In short, the first Qatar test will be used to prepare for the season. The second Qatar test will be used to prepare for the first two races. The first Qatar test won't tell the outside observer much about where the factories stand. The second Qatar test might tell the outside observer where the factories stand going into the first double header, the two Qatar races on March 28th and April 4th.
The double header might add some confusion here. The two races at Qatar mean the teams basically have an extra weekend of data to use at the second race. If anyone runs out of time at the second Qatar test, that need not necessarily be a disaster.
So what should you look out for at the first Qatar test? Here's a very quick rundown for each manufacturer.
Suzuki – try not to mess it up
Suzuki face perhaps the most difficult task of all the factories: trying to find some improvement from the GSX-RR without losing the strengths the bike already has. The Suzuki is already a fearsome MotoGP machine: Joan Mir won the championship on the GSX-RR last year, and his teammate Alex Rins finished third. All the more remarkable, then, that Suzuki finished third in the manufacturers' standings.
The one weakness of the Suzuki is its qualifying. Suzuki have managed the delicate balancing act of extracting maximum performance from the Michelin tires – especially the softer compounds – for the entire duration of the race. Where other factories are running out of tire in the final third of the race, the Suzukis are still fresh as a daisy, and capable of lapping just as fast at the end as at the beginning.
That strength comes at a cost. Naturally so, motorcycle design is the art of the compromise, and the compromise Suzuki has made is to sacrifice the ability to extract the maximum performance from the tire over a single lap. Too many times last year, the results of Mir and Rins suffered as they had to fight their way forward through the field from a weak qualifying position.
This is the weakness that Suzuki must fix. It is also a weakness that is easily identified. We will know soon enough if the Suzuki is better in qualifying: if Mir and Rins consistently appear at the top of the timesheets throughout the test, as riders go for a fast single lap, then that is a sign of improvement.
Yamaha – back to the future
Yamaha had the opposite problem to the Suzuki: a Yamaha rider started from pole at 9 of the 14 races in 2020. Then again, they weren't that bad in the race either: a rider on an M1 won 7 times out of 14, with Franco Morbidelli and Fabio Quartararo sharing 6 victories between them, Maverick Viñales scoring a single win.
But it was Franco Morbidelli on the 2019-spec Yamaha who finished second in the championship, 26 points ahead of the next Yamaha. A lot of that was down to Morbidelli's determination and maturity, in getting the most out of the bike that he had. But a considerable part of it was also down to the fact that the 2020-spec Yamaha M1 was fatally flawed: when there was grip, the bike would turn. When there was not, it wouldn't.
For 2021, Yamaha have built a hybrid. The 2021 chassis is a 2019 frame which fits the 2020 engine. In addition to some tweaks on the electronics and exhaust, in pursuit of a little more power, the bike should turn and handle much better than it did last year.
How will we know if it's better? Qatar is a hard track to tell: in 2020, the top three riders after the three days of the Qatar test were Maverick Viñales, Franco Morbidelli, and Fabio Quartararo.
At the launch, team boss Maio Meregalli told us he expected the riders to know almost immediately if their problems from last year were fixed. So the answer may not show up on the timesheets, but we will be left with the words of the riders. We will just have to trust what they tell us.
Ducati – all change
Ducati's rider line up has been radically revamped for 2021, the factory team gone, replaced by last year's Pramac line up, while all three MotoGP rookies will be riding Desmosedicis, Jorge Martin in the Pramac team alongside Johann Zarco, Luca Marini and Enea Bastianini in the Esponsorama/Avintia/VR46 setup.
Ducati Corse boss Gigi Dall'Igna will no doubt have some aerodynamic trickery up his sleeve, though whether he will show his hand at the first test is still uncertain. The Ducati still doesn't turn the way it should, but that won't be fixed this year. To do that, they need to change the engine mount position to alter the chassis and create more flexibility. That will have to wait until the engine homologation freeze ends in 2022.
The biggest problem Ducati faced in 2020 was adapting to the 2020-spec Michelin rear. If the pandemic hadn't happened, that problem would have sorted itself out once the official MotoGP tire supplier had brought its new, more supportive front tire which would prevent the rear from overpowering the front quite so much. But that, too, will have to wait for 2022.
However, Ducati do have an entire year's worth of data to work with. At the launch, Gigi Dall'Igna said he believed that they had found a solution to last year's braking woes, with the rear tire, the fact that the riders couldn't slide the rear on braking and corner entry to help the bike turn. If they have, then the Ducati should be more competitive.
But we won't know that at Qatar. Ducati suffered their problems only at certain tracks where the bikes did a lot of braking on the edge of the tire. The nature of the Qatar track is such that it isn't really a problem there. We may have to wait until MotoGP hits Jerez to learn about where Ducati stands. That is a track which truly highlights the weakness of the bike.
KTM – approaching greatness
2020 was a breakthrough year for KTM. The Austrian factory won 3 races with Miguel Oliveira and Brad Binder, the 2021 factory line up. Pol Espargaro added 5 more third places to that tally, costing KTM their right to concessions, a loss they were happy to celebrate.
KTM's remaining weakness in 2020 was consistency, the fact that at some tracks they were invincible, at others they struggled. Being more consistent from track to track is the highest priority, and a prerequisite for being championship contenders.
Will we know if they have succeeded after the Qatar test? Possibly. Last year, Brad Binder was the best-placed KTM rider after the Qatar test, a quietly remarkable situation given the fact he was a rookie. But he was only ninth fastest overall: his vastly more experienced teammate Pol Espargaro was down in fifteenth. Perhaps, if the KTMs are a little closer to the front after the Qatar test, we can say that their mission has succeeded.
Honda – on the rebound
Honda's 2020 season was entirely conditioned by the fact that Marc Márquez managed to rule himself out of the year through a series of mistakes and bad judgment calls. That meant Honda went winless for the first time in Grand Prix racing since they ditched the ill-fated NR500 for a two-stroke NS500.
Yet Márquez' absence forced Honda to rethink. The combination of Stefan Bradl's monster efforts in testing and racing – something which the other manufacturers looked at rather askance – and a need to make a more usable RC213V meant that by the end of 2020, the bike looked a lot better than it had at the start of the year. New parts and more experience had made for a better bike.
2021 could be an interesting year for HRC. Honda have already debuted a bike with new parts, a new chassis, and more at the private Jerez test in February. The aim, Honda engineers said, was to make the bike more rideable. That will surely make it more competitive.
The measure, perhaps, will be how Pol Espargaro fares. The RC213V naturally suits the Spaniard's riding style, rewarding being pushed, but the razor sharp edges of the bike meant that it would also bite without warning. Now, with those edges slightly softened, the transition from the KTM to the Honda should be a little easier. If Espargaro is quickly up to speed, then we will know that the bike is better. And we could be in for a very interesting year.
Aprilia – the Great Leap Forward, again
Finally, what are we to make of Aprilia? At the launch, Technical Director Romano Albesiano listed the parts which had been updated. He could have saved some time by listing the parts which had been unchanged, which apparently boils down to the air in the tires and the gasoline in the tank. Everything else is different.
The bike has a new frame, new carbon fiber swingarm, a revised engine (Aprilia is the only factory left with concessions) which features a cylinder head based on "a more modern concept" according to Albesiano, a new subframe, and a new aero package. Albesiano is optimistic: the step between the 2020 to 2021 bike should be as big as between the 2019 RS-GP and the 2020 bike.
The advantage Aprilia has is that they are the only factory able to update their engine. KTM's concessions lapsed last year, meaning they were allowed to develop their engine for the start of this year, but it will be frozen once they get to Qatar. Aprilia can keep working and tweaking in pursuit of more power.
Aprilia's biggest stumbling block is the fact that they have to rely almost entirely on Aleix Espargaro for progress. They have decided in their wisdom to replace Bradley Smith with Lorenzo Savadori, and unproven and inexperienced Italian, and Smith is looking for a bike to race on, rather than a testing role. But neither Smith nor Savadori have Espargaro's speed.
Will we know more about the success of the RS-GP at Qatar? If the bike doesn't blow up the way it did in Sepang last year, that will be a step forward. And if Aleix Espargaro is well inside the top ten, instead of down in thirteenth, that will be a good omen too. There is, as Romano Albesiano insists, room for optimism. But that optimism should be tempered with a very large dose of caution.
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