This is not a normal era, thanks to the Covid-19 pandemic, and the pandemic touches things in unexpected ways. Sure, we knew that MotoGP testing had been restructured because of Covid-19, the Sepang test being dropped and an extra test in Qatar being added in its place.
But like all things in life, it is not quite as simple as it looks at first glance. Because the two Qatar tests are scheduled so closely together, the teams are not treating them as two separate tests. As far as the teams, and especially the factories, are concerned, there is not a two-day test and a three-day test. Instead, there is one five-day test with a two-day break in the middle.
Viewing the next week as a single test means drawing up a totally different testing plan. Instead of cramming a race simulation run into the first two-day test, then another in the second three-day test, the teams are working methodically towards arriving at a race setup ready for next Thursday or Friday, when they can do a proper long run in readiness for the first race of the 2021 MotoGP season on March 28th.
The long test
All that means that the first day of testing was, not exactly relaxed, but a little more focused and methodical. There was no rushing to complete a program; instead the riders had time to get back up to speed after three months off a MotoGP bike, and the teams spent their time working out a base setup to use as a benchmark for measuring progress.
Throw in excessively strong winds for most of the first day, and a track that was still covered in dust, and there was little to be learned for outside observers on Saturday. We can only draw the most general of conclusions about the day's work. We certainly didn't get a glimpse of who might end up with the 2021 MotoGP crown when the season wraps up in November.
Nor did the riders themselves. At 5.38km Qatar is the third-longest circuit on the calendar, behind only Silverstone and Sepang. It is also one of the widest, with an average width of 12m. Even with nearly 29 riders using the track, it is rare to actually come across another bike as anything other than a dot in the distance.
Into the void
"I saw nobody," said a surprised Aleix Espargaro . "It's curious because today was very beautiful, to see the track and the TV. We were close to 30 riders in MotoGP. I think this never happened ever. Really it has been very nice but I was all the day alone. I did also two longer simulations and also I was alone. So hopefully in the next days I can take some draft and understand the other bikes."
The scale of the track had also put paid to Valentino Rossi's plans to help his brother Luca Marini, making his debut in MotoGP. "Unfortunately I haven't seen Luca on the track and he hasn't seen me," the Italian veteran said. "Here in MotoGP, it's always very difficult to organize a run together but for sure before the end of the test we will do some laps together."
For a lot of riders, their main objective was just to get the feeling back with a MotoGP bike. Though most had spent time on a production sportsbike at tracks somewhere, even the rocketships which are modern liter bikes are a different world to MotoGP. Getting used to the power, to arriving at the end of the straight at well over 330 km/h – or in the case of Jack Miller's Ducati GP21, 350.6 km/h – before hammering on the brakes for Turn 1.
Up to speed
"I struggled a lot to get used to the M1 again," Fabio Quartararo said, the Frenchman making his debut in the factory Monster Energy Yamaha team. "Honestly I think more than half a day, because to switch from the R1 to the M1 I was totally lost."
"To be honest we didn't test that much today in terms of items," Jack Miller, another recent factory promotee, this time at Ducati, explained. "It was more about getting back the feeling of riding a MotoGP bike. The first few laps, especially with this wind, felt very strange after being off the bike for quite some time. In general everything was pretty good but I don't know if it's because I had been riding the Panigale for the last few weeks but everything felt strange! The handlebar position, the seating position and everything felt strange for a few laps."
The wind had been a massive factor. "I think that the wind had a lot to do with that because you're wobbling around a little to try and not get in anyone's way," Miller said. It was only once the wind died down towards the end of the day that things became a little easier. And by then, everyone was pretty much up to speed anyway.
It was no surprise, then, that the two fastest riders were two who have already done some testing this year. Aleix Espargaro put the 2021 Aprilia RS-GP into top spot, with a time well under the race lap record. Honda test rider and Marc Márquez substitute Stefan Bradl finished second, less than two hundredths of a second outside the record. Both Espargaro and Bradl have spent time testing in Jerez earlier in the month, and so already have MotoGP miles under their belts.
Reigning world champion Joan Mir was pleased to have been fastest of the riders who hadn't already been on track this year. Riding a MotoGP bike is not something you can prepare for, he said. "You can train a lot but the MotoGP, it's something that we cannot practice at home, with the race bike. What is really important is to have in your mind, to put in your mind everything together to ride the MotoGP bike. It’s something that is not easy. That’s why I’m happy today because straight away I was able to be fast, looks like I was on the MotoGP bike yesterday. So it’s not bad. In front of us, we have people that were able to test this year, and today is our first day."
Mir's third fastest time is notable also because the one weakness of the Suzuki in 2020 was the bike's single-lap pace. Qualifying was the GSX-RR's Achilles' heel, and the one point which the factory acknowledged they most urgently needed to work on. So to be third quickest on the first day was a positive sign.
"It was not a bad lap time, honestly," Mir said. "I feel quite good. It’s only the first day, and to do 1'54 the first day here in Qatar with a tire that is not that soft, that normally we didn't have here in the past, a tire with a little bit less grip than the normal one, even with this tire we were able to do good lap times. But we are working on that. We are working on some specs on the bike to make the bike work better with new tires."
This time it's different?
Aleix Espargaro may already have some track time under his belt, but that wasn't the sole reason for the speed of the Aprilia RS-GP. The Noale factory genuinely appears to have made a step forward again with the Aprilia MotoGP machine. And having concessions meant they could also get through more testing work.
"The bike sincerely does not look like a revolution, but to ride it, it is quite different. Especially regarding the stability we make a big step forward," Aleix Espargaro said. "It is now more stable, also on the aerodynamic side they did a big big job and it is really different in acceleration. I feel like we made one improvement and the bike has a lot more downforce so I feel it more physically than last season's bike."
The stability meant he could get out of the corner faster, Espargaro said. "The bike is more stable so it has allowed me to accelerate much better which is more than welcome. We still have to understand the bike and see the strong points and the weak points."
Despite improved acceleration, the Aprilia is still a long way behind the Ducatis in terms of top speed. That was not a cause for panic, according to Espargaro. "Sometimes it is not just the engine, it is a bit more complicated than that," the Spaniard said. "With the new MotoGP era from four or five years ago and with all the aerodynamics it is more difficult."
"I have to say that I am accelerating better than ever, but clearly the top speed we have to improve," Espargaro continued. "Our top speed is lower than last year and we are losing 15 km/h compared to the Ducatis. So there is room to improve there. But as I mentioned, the aerodynamics allow you to turn better or not, to accelerate more or less, and to make more top speed. Now we have to find the balance and today I tried two different aerodynamic packages that we still need to understand."
Ducati's aero fever dreams
Aerodynamic packages caught the attention in the Ducati garage as well. Both Jack Miller and Pecco Bagnaia went out with the Bologna factory's latest innovation, a sort of scoop attached to bottom of the fairing, angling air toward the lower part of the fairing. As pictures can speak a thousand words, here are some photos from Cormac Ryan Meenan. (MotoMatters.com subscribers can click on the photos to get hi-res versions which make it easier to zoom in.)
Note the scoops on the lower fairing
A better view of the front of the scoops, and the angle of the vanes inside. Note also the spot of light in front of the rear wheel from the height sensor
From the side, the shape and angle of the scoop, and the modified side vent is clear. The Kistler optical sensor measures height from the ground, angle, tire deflection, and speed
Here is the standard fairing from the bike launch for comparison
What might the purpose of these new aero scoops be on the Desmosedici fairing? It is hard to speculate without seeing the precise exit angle of the ducts. But it looks like the objective is to channel air to the bottom of the fairing, and angle it downward. It could be managing the flow of air onto the scoop below the swingarm, which Ducati use to force the rear wheel into the ground and create more grip. Or it could be used to improve the behavior of the bike while heeled hard over, at near full lean angle.
Whatever the purpose, both factory Ducati riders were coy about what the scoops did. "It's a little too early to say anything about the aero, because the conditions weren't the most ideal to test aero," Miller said, hedging his comments. "We had 30 km/h winds so it's hard to say much about the aero. There weren't any noticeable negatives though but we need to make sure it's what we're looking for."
Pecco Bagnaia was a little more forthcoming, though not by much. "I liked it," the factory Ducati rider told Italian media. "It has positives and negatives. There are more positives, and I think that it will be useful at tracks like these." Unfortunately for Bagnaia, he broke the fairing in a crash, bringing his testing of the new aero to an end.
The new parts are all entirely legal, though once again, Ducati, under the canny leadership of Gigi Dall'Igna, has found a way to observe the letter of the law while violating the spirit in every conceivable way. No doubt the Grand Prix Commission will try to ban the addition of such scoops in the future, but any move to do so will further poison the atmosphere inside the MSMA, and create an added layer of complexity in the rule book.
Neither of these things is particularly desirable, but the focus on aerodynamics development is now an inevitable and inherent part of MotoGP. The aerodynamics cat is not just out of the bag, it is out of the building and across the fields and off to destroy the bag industry, to prevent ever being put back in again.
While Ducati's aerodynamics may have been the most visually arresting, the debut of Pol Espargaro on the Repsol Honda had captured the imagination of the fans. Would Espargaro be able to tame the fearsome RC213V, or would he crumple like three-time MotoGP champion Jorge Lorenzo, who was the last factory rider to switch to the Honda team?
Pol Espargaro's massive smile at his media debrief betrayed the Spaniard's optimism that this was a battle he would win. Though he finished in a lowly seventeenth position on the timesheets, his deficit to his Aprilia-borne brother Aleix was just 1.2 seconds. And he was within a few tenths of Fabio Quartararo and Valentino Rossi on factory-spec Yamaha M1s, factory Ducati rider Pecco Bagnaia, and his former factory KTM teammate Brad Binder. This was not a bad start.
"Good," was how he characterized his first day on the Repsol Honda. "I mean a lot of work. As you can imagine especially feeling the limits of the bike. It's pretty difficult with this grid of young guys, super strong guys, you need to push straight away and you need to be fast otherwise you are very very far away. So as a first day it was okay."
He hadn't been pushing for a fast lap time, Espargaro said. "We were just checking the bike – the brakes, position on the bike. Not going through the electronics or big things like chassis or something like that, just trying to learn as much as possible." He had spent so much time on the bike – a total of 68 laps, second only to Fabio Quartararo – he had worked his way through his entire allocation of Michelin tires. "We ran out of tires because we started very early and so we couldn't put one at the end. But very happy overall and looking forward to tomorrow. I think tonight we will work a lot and it's going to be a better day tomorrow."
Back to the future
The other big change was at Yamaha, where Valentino Rossi and Fabio Quartararo swapped places, moving between the factory and satellite squads. More important, however, was the debut of the new chassis, closer to the design of the 2019 spec used by Franco Morbidelli last year to finish second in the MotoGP championship.
Again, riders were coy, not willing to give too much away. "Well, we tested the new chassis of our bike, but like I said, it was half a day to get back to ride properly with the bike," Quartararo said. The Frenchman put his lack of feedback down to being so rusty after being off the bike so long. "I can't really say if it's better or not. So we will have one more day to test really properly tomorrow, and I can feel a little bit more details."
Valentino Rossi was equally reticent. "I did some laps with the new chassis, and the first touch is not so bad," the Petronas Yamaha rider said. "But I did just 6 or 7 laps, because we concentrated on the standard bike today. So maybe we will have the idea more clear in the next days. The first touch was not so bad. But also we have some other stuff and some interesting things, so we hope to improve the feeling. We will have five days, so you try to divide the work, because it's a long way and it's a bit too early to say."
How did Rossi feel about being in a satellite team after such a long time in factory squads? "This morning I was very excited because it's the start of a new adventure," the Italian veteran said. "New colors, new team, and everything, and this gives me a lot of motivation, a lot of strength to work." But as a rider on a factory-spec bike with factory support, not that much had changed, said Rossi. "It was strange at the beginning, the first exit. But at the end, the bike is always my M1, also if she change the dress, the rest is the same."
Mother knows best
Valentino Rossi also revealed that he was getting advice on riding from back home. His brother, Luca Marini, had told the media that their mother Stefania kept an eagle eye on everything that went on on track.
"She's very technical in every advice," Marini said. "She texted me something about – I don't remember sincerely, but she sent me a message for sure about something like braking, or entry of the corner. She's checking also the live timing and also the sectors, she is telling me the sectors where I am losing more. It's nice. She has a very big passion for this sport."
Valentino Rossi confirmed what his brother had told us. "My mother is always very technical and always has interesting things to say," the Italian told the media. "You can say she always has really another point of view! But we always enjoy, because with Luca and my mother, we always make technical questions to her, and it's very funny to hear what she thinks."
Stefania's advice may be funny, but it was also searingly accurate, Rossi acknowledged. "Yeah, yeah! She's also right, she has a great experience because you imagine that she started to follow motorcycle races with Graziano 40 years ago, and after that Valentino, and after that Luca, so she has more experience than me!"
Rossi's teammate Franco Morbidelli was fastest Yamaha again, just as he had been last year. The Petronas Yamaha SRT rider had gotten through a lot of work, and found his bike improved, even though it was "merely" an updated 2019-spec Yamaha M1. "Many, many small details, and this is the Yamaha style," Morbidelli replied when questioned about the changes to the bike. "To change many small thing that finally can improve the package. I cannot go into detail as I don’t know them yet, but Ramon showed me a paper with all the things that have changed on the bike and there were a lot."
"They are small of course because the bike looks the same and actually feels quite the same," Morbidelli said. But the most pleasing change was that they had found some more top speed. "We have seen that there are some improvements. Today on the straights I was not last as last year. I was able to be more or less halfway in the speed chart today, so I’m really happy about that and thankful to Yamaha."
Morbidelli's enigmatic and idiosyncratic approach to life and racing were symbolized by the fact that his new helmet design featured a colorful array of flowers, an unusual sight in a field that is usually reserved for dour machismo.
The idea had come from Italian designer Aldo Druid, Morbidelli said. "We wanted to change something with the design this year with Aldo. He had the idea of putting some flowers on the helmet, because he told me if you are not going to do it then who else is going to do it?"
The contrast with the usual array of hackneyed symbols amused Morbidelli. "I mean, in such an aggressive world to bring something like flowers it is not usual and normal. They don’t communicate aggressivity or anger or something aggressive like a devil could be or something more racing or aggressive. So I said yes I want to put some flowers on my helmet. Because of my behavior and who I am, we decided to put some flowers and I think they came out really nice."
The chosen design was a floral tribute to his two homes of Brazil and Italy, Morbidelli explained. "I wanted to maintain the two flags, as I am really linked to the two flags, but I think it came out pretty well because the flags remain, but there are some Brazilian tropical flowers on the Brazilian side and some Italian and European flowers on the left side. I think it’s quite a good and colorful design. I hope you all like it."
Franco Morbidelli remains a unique individual, a racer who follows his own path. So far, that path has led him to a surprising amount of success. The next few days will give us a hint of how much more is to come.
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