WorldSBK came back with a bang in the opening round of the 2017 season. With five different leaders and four manufacturers in the scrap for the podium the Phillip Island crowd was treated to a superb season opener that eventually saw Jonathan Rea come out on top.
Dani Pedrosa and Marc Márquez are to head to Jerez for a private, two-day test on 24th and 25th of February, or Friday and Saturday of this week. The Repsol Honda team announced the test on Twitter, confirming earlier news stories which had broken after the official MotoGP test at Phillip Island last week.
This two-day test is a sign that Márquez and Pedrosa are getting close to making a decision on which version of the engine they will be racing in 2017. They need one final test comparing the various possibilities before heading to Qatar.
The fact that they are now heading to Jerez is emblematic of just how important this choice is. This Jerez test replaces HRC's original plan, which was to retest the big bang engine rolled out at Valencia, verifying results from its original roll out at Valencia, then refine it for Sepang. But Repsol Honda called off that test at the request of the riders, giving the engine to Jack Miller to test in November of last year.
That change of plans was an indication that all was not well with the new engine. Both Márquez and Pedrosa were downbeat about the new engine at Valencia, Márquez emphasizing just how much work Honda still had to do with the new motor. "We must work much more," he said. "Honda needs to work much more this winter to give me something more in Malaysia."
Team launches are always a little combative. They are, after all, the places where factory bosses, team managers, and riders stake out their intentions for the coming season. They loudly proclaim that they are in it to win it, that their goal is to be champions sooner rather than later, and that they are plainly superior to their competition, both in talent and in engineering prowess and ingenuity. Team launches are a place for hyperbole.
Even by normal standards, though, the words spoken at KTM's team launch were more than ordinarily abrasive. In an interview with Austrian broadcaster Servus TV, KTM CEO Stefan Pierer took plenty of potshots at his rivals. He boasted of KTM passing BMW in terms of sales, adding that beating them in racing would be hard, "because they don't race any more". He spoke of competing against the Japanese manufacturers. "We love racing, and we love beating the Japanese manufacturers."
But Pierer reserved his sharpest ire for Honda. Speaking of the surprise decision to compete in Moto2, he joked that the spec Moto2 engine was supplied by "our most hated rival Honda". He also noted that KTM's entry into MotoGP brought balance to the MSMA, the manufacturers' group which has a vote in the Grand Prix Commission, MotoGP's rule making body. With three European manufacturers against three Japanese manufacturers, they were in a position to prevent Honda from bulldozing through proposals.
Jonathan Rea is seeking history in 2017 but it's a clean sheet of paper as the champion strives for a third title
For the last two years Jonathan Rea has been as consistent as the tides and wrapped up the WorldSBK crown with almost a complete season of podium finishes. Since joining Kawasaki in 2015 the 30 year old has notched up 23 wins and 46 podium finishes from 52 races. To put his number of victories into perspective Rea's two year reign would place him in the top ten for career wins.
Last year Rea became only the fourth rider to successfully defend a WorldSBK crown and this year the Northern Irishman could write his name in the history book as the only rider to ever win three titles in a row.
On Friday at Phillip Island, shortly after a quarter to four in the afternoon, local time, a new chapter started in the annals of Grand Prix motorcycle racing. Maverick Viñales had just passed the halfway mark of what was supposed to be a full race simulation when Marc Márquez entered the track. The reigning champion latched onto the back of the Movistar Yamaha, following him around the track. After a couple of laps, Viñales lost his patience, and aborted his race simulation.
Viñales was not best pleased. "I don't know what to say, because sure I don’t want to gain nothing, because there is nothing. But it's not normal. You are doing your race simulation. Someone pulls out… you cannot stop. After five laps that he was behind, finally I needed to abort the race simulation. Anyway the track is 4 kilometers. Strange that he was there, where I was."
Márquez played the innocent. "Today there was one run that I go out and I saw that he passed. Then there was some gap, but I was able to recover this gap. Then I followed him two laps and it was interesting to see a different bike." The Repsol Honda rider then commented that he had also followed a Ducati and a Suzuki, to see where they were strong.
Scouring through the timesheets after the second day of the MotoGP test at Phillip Island, and reading through everything the riders have said, a picture emerges, not just of what happened on Thursday, but also how history has affected them. Seeing Marc Márquez' workload, his approach, the things he is working on, and it is hard not to think back to his past three seasons in MotoGP. The lessons learned in each of those seasons color everything he is working at Phillip Island, and give us a glimpse of his objective for 2017.
On Thursday, Márquez put in 107 laps around Phillip Island. That is 20% more than most of his rivals, and nearly double the amount which some of them rode. Asked if he was playing games in suggesting the 2017 Honda RC213V was not ready, Márquez was curt. "I don’t play games, because if I'm ready I would not make 107 laps! Because my hands are destroyed."
Why put in so many laps? A look at the past three seasons offers an insight. In 2014, Márquez destroyed the field in the first part of the season, winning ten races in a row, and a total of thirteen. For a man with a thirst for victory matched perhaps only by Valentino Rossi, this was an ecstatic period. It also lured him into a false sense of security, the bike suffering as a result. This was not helped by Honda's insistence on building a bike as powerful as possible, with no view of making it easy to use.
There's this thing called sandbagging in motorcycle racing. You've probably heard about it. It's where a rider doesn't show his hand completely ahead of the season, doesn't smile in public, hangs a tale of woe on the media, about how he is struggling with the bike, and how much work they have to do. Then, when the flag drops and the racing starts for real, the rider goes out and completely destroys the opposition.
The key to sandbagging is not to give too much away on the timesheets. Riders find all sorts of smart ways of doing this. Working on one sector at a time, perhaps. Pushing for the first half of the lap, then backing off for the second half. On the next run, they back off in the first half of the lap, and push for the second half. The bare lap time shows up as unimpressive, but put the two halves together and you have something very impressive indeed.
Marc Márquez appears to be trying to sandbag at Phillip Island, but he is not doing a very good job of it. He has the act down just fine: lots of criticism of the bike, a lot of concerns about which areas still need work, pointing out that Phillip Island tends to hide the weak point of the Honda RC213V. The point where he is falling down on is hiding it out on track.
MotoGP is heading down under. After the initial excitement of the first test of 2017 at Sepang, the atmosphere at Phillip Island is a little more subdued. The novelty of bikes back on track has worn off a little, and now it's back to the grindstone, the hard work of running through lots of parts and changes and verifying the results found at Sepang.
Phillip Island is a strange place to go testing. It is a truly unique place, like no other. It is a test of rider more than bike, of courage more than technology. The track has a lot of fast flowing corners, very little hard braking, very little hard acceleration. What you learn from testing at Phillip Island is how stable the bike is in very fast corners, how well it wants to change direction at high speed, and how good you are at making your tires last.
That last reason is the real benefit to testing at Phillip Island. It is above all a chance for Michelin to put their tires through some serious punishment, and one of the main reasons for testing there. The series went from having two tests at Sepang in February to a test in Malaysia and then Australia in 2015, in response to the disastrous race in 2013, when Bridgestone's tires turned out not to be up to handling the new asphalt. Michelin wanted to be prepared, so tested there in 2015, gathering data to build tires that worked.
What conclusions can we draw from the first MotoGP test of 2017 at Sepang? Well, it's the first test of 2017, and the factories still have the best part of two months to refine their bikes before the season starts in earnest in Qatar. Any conclusions we draw are at risk of crashing headlong into reality at the end of March. But with all that data from the test available, it is hard to resist the temptation to dive into it and read the tea leaves.
To make some sense of the timesheets from Sepang, I examined the lap times of the fastest thirteen riders at the end of Wednesday. The reason for selecting Wednesday was simple: as it was the last day of the test, the riders were all fully up to speed, and the teams were putting together the lessons they had learned on the first two days, selecting the most promising parts to develop going forward.
It was also the day when most of the riders did long runs, especially as conditions allowed it, the weather staying almost completely dry all day. That meant that the riders had a chance to do some long runs, though only Jorge Lorenzo actually ran full race distance in one go.
The reason for selecting the top thirteen riders, rather than doing it for the entire grid, was simple. The top thirteen riders included all of the favorites for the 2017 season (and eight of the top ten from 2016), bikes from five of the six manufacturers now in MotoGP, and two of the four rookies for 2017. It also includes Casey Stoner, Ducati test rider and still one of the fastest men on two wheels.
While Maverick Viñales and Marc Márquez emerged from the Sepang tests as clear favorites, with Valentino Rossi, Dani Pedrosa, and Andrea Dovizioso close behind, Andrea Iannone established himself as a genuine dark horse. The Italian was fastest on Tuesday, and left the test as second quickest behind Viñales.
Iannone has inherited a bike that is already well developed, and Suzuki brought engine upgrades to Sepang which got them even closer to the front. It was telling that Iannone did not spend much time testing parts, but rather focusing on race set up and working on extracting maximum performance from a used tire.
Tires were a bit of a problem for Iannone on the last day of the test. He crashed three times, including once as he was attempting a long run, the front washing out at Turn 1. The issue proved to be a vibration in low speed corners. "I have a small vibration in the slow corners," Iannone said. "In the fast corner the bike is perfect. There is no vibration, no chattering. But in the slow corner, especially in turns four, nine, 14 and the last corner, we have a small vibration at maximum lean angle." That vibration got worse as the tires became more worn.