The layout of the Losail International Circuit is fantastic. It has flowing corners, a fast straight, hard braking and fast changes of direction. It suits many different types of bike, which is why so many manufacturers have been competitive their over the years, sharing wins and podiums. And why the racing has been fantastic there, as a rule.
Its location, however, is less ideal. Leaving aside the political objections to its attitude toward labor relations, the track sits at the edge of a desert peninsula. When the wind blows, it dumps huge quantities of sand on the track. And as Qatar is relatively flat, when the wind blows, it blows pretty hard.
That was the case on Friday, and by the look of things, it is going to be the case for the rest of the weekend. Gusts of up to 40 km/h made riding hard, and with just a few riders out on track on the first day of testing, the shakedown test for test riders and rookies, conditions were very, very far from ideal.
Luxury test rider
Despite that, Stefan Bradl managed a best time of 1'55.614, just seven tenths off Jorge Lorenzo's race lap record, and a sign that the Honda test rider is already up to speed. That is unsurprising: Bradl has already been turning laps at Jerez on the RC213V. But it also demonstrates that the German has been picking up speed generally, his year racing paying off in terms of outright speed.
That, incidentally, is a source of friction for other teams and factories. Testing is limited for teams without concessions, contracted riders being restricted to official tests. But Stefan Bradl spent almost the entirety of 2020 as a full-time replacement for Marc Márquez, while simultaneously grinding out the miles as a test rider. The spirit of the rules proved an entirely abstract concept once again.
Second fastest rider of the day was Cal Crutchlow, though the timesheets don't exactly say that explicitly. In his first day as official Yamaha test rider, Crutchlow was sharing test duties with Japanese riders Kohta Nozane and Katsuyuki Nakasuga, rotating bikes between them as it is easier to change riders than it is to change parts between bikes. That is how Crutchlow ended up as both second and third fastest rider of the day.
That's why they call it a shakedown
With windy conditions, a dusty track, a lack of independent journalists and photographers at the circuit, and limited video coverage, it was hard to tell who was testing what, making Yamaha's situation far from unique. And as it was the first day of the shakedown test, there was also a lot of practical testing: after his first run, Ducati test rider Michele Pirro did seven exits consisting of an out lap and an in lap, riding the bikes of Jack Miller, Pecco Bagnaia, and Johann Zarco.
That is also part of Pirro's job, and the point of a shakedown: to iron out any potential problems on the first day so that the contracted riders don't lose any time to stupid problems or technical issues, and can just focus on riding.
That happened to rookie Luca Marini, for example, on his first run on the Sky VR46 Ducati. "The first day was a little bit tricky, because we had some different problems on both bikes, and so I lost so much time at the beginning," the Italian told us. "Also the first laps the power was not at 100% because of a problem."
That had caused consternation in the Esponsorama garage, as Ducati engineers expressed surprise that Marini had not been impressed by the most powerful racing motorcycle on earth. "When I come back in the garage everybody asked me how the feeling was, and it was normal, so everybody was shocked about my reaction!" Marini joked. "But then we fixed every problem and at the end I could do some good laps and feel all the power and it was great."
Pushing the envelope
Ducati test rider Michele Pirro did also find time to do some proper testing. In addition to the usual Kistler laser sensors for very precisely measuring the movement of the swingarm and bike with respect to the track, and light-based track velocity sensors, both of which have been used with some regularity before (but look much more impressive in the dark), Ducati were also debuting new aero.
The most intriguing device appeared to be a small scoop on the lower front section of the fairing, looking a good deal like a ram air duct, directing air down to the bottom half of the fairing. In addition, the inside of the fairing appeared to be double-walled, creating an additional duct on the side of the fairing.
We shall have to wait for better pictures to appear to get a clearer idea of the purpose of the aero packages. But it is clear that Ducati is all in on aerodynamics, and heading down the F1 path. The cat is not only out of the bag, it has been given the run of the house, and indeed the entire neighborhood.
The Beast is back
Back to the rookies and their first time out on a MotoGP bike. Enea Bastianini was the fastest of the MotoGP debutants, the Avintia Esponsorama racing rider taking to the Ducati Desmosedici GP19 like a duck to water. The Italian ended the day faster than test rider Michele Pirro, 2.4 seconds behind Stefan Bradl. But he was also three tenths quicker than teammate Luca Marini, and eight tenths faster than Jorge Martin on the Pramac GP20.
All three rookies were impressed by the power of the Ducati, though they had been expecting it. But having ridden Panigale V4S road bikes around Jerez just a couple of weeks ago, they were still taken aback at the difference. On his first three laps, Bastianini had been shifting up at 15,000 rpm, forgetting he had another 3000 revs to play with. Until he realized, he hadn't even felt that he was missing any power.
What surprised the rookies was not the power, however. They had been prepared for that. What had surprised them was the way the seamless gearbox felt like an automatic transmission. "It's amazing how you can change gears and you don't even realize that you're changing gears," Jorge Martin told us. "It's crazy on the straight, you don't even feel the sound, it's like it's always in the same gear, and always more power and more power. Even when I put sixth gear I feel a push in the ass. It was amazing."
The brakes, too, were something of a shock. "The first thing that most impressed me was the carbon disc and the brakes," Luca Marini said. "The braking area is very different compared to what I'm used always in my life, because with the carbon disc, the feeling in the lever is so much different, and also the way I have to use them is different."
Jorge Martin had been similarly impressed. "The brakes were so good, because when you arrive at 339 km/h, which I think I did, and you are going through the braking and it's crazy and you can stop quite good. This was crazy also."
Get up and start over
Martin had also had a crash on the first day of the test, getting thrown from the bike through Turn 3, the fast right hander after the tight left of Turn 2. "The crash was a pity, because actually it was on the last lap of our plan," Martin explained. "I just had to finish that lap and then go into the box. But yeah, exiting corner 3 I touched a big bump and then the bike started shaking a lot and I couldn't keep it under me and I crashed. It was a really fast crash and aggressive crash but I am fine, so this is good enough. But the bike not so much."
Though he was OK, he felt bad for his team and the Ducati engineers who had to patch up his trashed bike. "I felt quite bad when I crashed, for Ducati and for all the team because they already work a lot to prepare everything, and now they have to work a bit more," Martin said. The team were less concerned, however. "They are quite relaxed, they said, OK, it's a normal thing, it can happen, if you are slow it doesn't happen."
Sizing things up
Ducati's rookies run the gamut of body sizes in MotoGP. Jorge Martin and Enea Bastianini are on the normal side of short for a racer, clocking in at 1.68m. Luca Marini, however, is even taller than his half-brother Valentino Rossi, a towering (for a racer) 1.84m, over six feet tall in archaic terms. And they must all fit on the same bike.
Both Bastianini and Marini complained of the bike not fitting correctly, and needing some more tweaks on Saturday. "We have to work a little bit on my position on the bike," Marini said. "I'm not feeling so comfortable. So with the handlebar, with seat, with the tank, we have to work a little bit on these details, because I'm not in my natural position on the bike in the middle of the corner especially."
Here, the peculiar nature of Qatar helped. "Tomorrow I would like to focus a little bit more on this," Marini said. "Especially in the first part when the track is dirty, hot with the sun, you cannot put some very good laps and be useful for the race." The race is run an hour after sundown, but the first four hours of the test take place under the searing Qatari sun. Conditions are very, very different between the two times.
Marini will be experimenting with a different tank – the standard one, after starting off with the tank used by Jorge Lorenzo when he was at Ducati – and a different seat unit, which will raise him up a bit. "The angle that I have in the knee, it's not enough," Marini said. "I don't have enough space from the seat to the footpegs. The distance is too short."
Marini and the rest of the riders will get their chance tomorrow, Saturday. Then, the entire grid bar Marc Márquez (still recovering at home from his injured humerus) will take to the track. We may learn a little more on Saturday.
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