Aleix Espargaro will not be racing at Sepang. The Spaniard broke a bone in his left hand when he crashed out of the MotoGP race in Phillip Island, and is to fly back to Barcelona for surgery. Aprilia will not replace Espargaro, his absence coming at too short notice to find a replacement rider in time.
Michael van der Mark is to get his MotoGP chance after all. After missing out at Aragon, when he was called up to replace Valentino Rossi, but Rossi raced to a stunning 5th place, Van der Mark has been drafted in to replace Jonas Folger in the Monster Tech 3 Yamaha team. Van der Mark will take Folger's place at the Sepang MotoGP race next weekend.
The provisional calendar for the 2018 MotoGP season has been released, and as expected, there are few surprises. The schedule has been expanded to 19 races with the inclusion of the Chang International Circuit in Thailand, which has a contract to host a race through 2020.
The addition of Thailand hasn't altered the schedule much. The 2018 schedule is almost identical to this year's calendar, with just a few minor variations. The season kicks off a week early in Qatar, and to accommodate that earlier start, the time of the race is to be changed to 7pm local time. Starting earlier will mean that MotoGP avoids the evening dew that can render the track so treacherous.
Two men have emerged from the 2017 preseason as favorites. In many ways, Marc Márquez and Maverick Viñales are alike. Both are young, handsome Spaniards with an aura about them. Both grew up racing, and were immediately fast on every new bike they swung a leg over. Both have a keen intelligence, especially about racing, and what matters.
But above all, both Márquez and Viñales are driven by their ambition. They enter each championship with the fixed intention of winning. They have talent to spare, but more than that, they both have a deep understanding of what it takes to win a world championship, and are prepared to put in the work, to make the sacrifices needed to achieve their goal. They are single minded, obsessed with winning.
They are two very different characters. Márquez is cheerful, gregarious, outgoing. Whenever you see him, he is always laughing or smiling, joking with the people around him. He loves company, and spends almost every waking minute of each race weekend in the garage with his crew. When he joined the Repsol Honda team, he was allowed to take most of his Moto2 team, and crew chief Santi Hernandez worked under the tutelage of Cristian Gabarrini. At the end of his first year, Márquez demanded that HRC brought the last two members of his former Moto2 team into the Repsol Honda garage, and Gabarrini was moved on to other duties, despite being regarded as perhaps the best crew chief in the business.
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."
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.
Last year Ducati’s Gigi Dall’Igna maddened many with his wings, now he may have solved an age-old problem with Formula 1-inspired jounce-dampers
This year’s brand-new MotoGP bikes are currently on their way from Malaysia to Australia for the second preseason tests, which take place next week at Phillip Island.
If you are a motor sport fan of a James Bond bent it’s tempting to imagine an industrial-espionage agent dodging through airport security to stow away aboard Dorna’s cargo plane, where he prises open Ducati’s flight boxes to disassemble that little black box at the back of Jorge Lorenzo’s GP17.
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.
Identifying tires has always been something of a dark art. Ever since MotoGP went to a single tire supplier, identifying which tire a particular rider is on and when has become ever more important. Fast laps mean a lot less when a rider sets them on soft rubber.
So far, identification has been done visually, by colored stripes painted on the sidewall of the tire. That worked fine when Bridgestone was still tire supplier as the colors they used - red, white, plain, and green - based on their corporate colors were easy to spot, and applied in a big thick stripe. It got more difficult with Michelin, as their corporate colors - blue, white, and yellow - are more difficult to spot from the side of the track. Journalists and fans were mostly reliant on the eagle eye of Dylan Gray, pitlane reporter for MotoGP.com, to spot who was going out on what and when.
Identification is to become a lot easier in 2017, with the introduction of an automatic identification system. At the Sepang test, Michelin boss Nicolas Goubert explained how the system will work. As part of their job as official tire supplier, Micheiin already maintain a list of which tires have been allocated to each rider. Since last season, each wheel rim is also fitted with a tire pressure monitoring system (TPMS), which communicates electronically with the ECU to log tire pressures, and ensure that they are never too low.
What did we learn from the Sepang MotoGP test? More than we thought we would on Sunday night. The forecast was grim: plenty of sporadic rain and a track that wouldn't dry quickly promised three wasted days. But by the time the teams packed up on Wednesday night, after nearly a full day of testing, Sepang had turned out to be both productive and instructive.
After three days of testing it is clear just how close the field is this season. The top ten riders are separated by just four tenths of a second. Sixteen riders are within a second, from Maverick Viñales in first to Hector Barbera in sixteenth. The top four riders are on four different manufacturers, less than two tenths apart, and there is a good mix of manufacturers throughout the top of the timesheets.
The two exceptions are Aprilia and KTM, but there is hope for them too. Aprilia have made huge strides last year - Aleix Espargaro is thirteenth, 0.740 behind Viñales, and two whole seconds closer to the front than Stefan Bradl and Alvaro Bautista were at the same test last year – and now basically just lack horsepower. KTM are in their first season in MotoGP, but are already closer at Sepang than Suzuki were at their first Sepang test in 2015. The level in MotoGP is now unbelievably high, and unbelievably close.