Aleix Espargaro

What Does The Delayed Start To The 2020 MotoGP Season Mean To The Factories?

On Sunday, at 6pm, the desert night will erupt in a cacophony of sound, as Grand Prix motorcycle racing gets underway for the start of the 2020 season. But it won't be the vicious bellow of MotoGP machines which will shatter the desert silence; instead, the more modest howl (118 dB compared to 130 dB of the MotoGP bikes) of the Triumph triple-engined Moto2 machines will scream away from the lights and around the floodlit track.

It wasn't meant to be that way, of course. The Moto2 machines were supposed to race an hour and forty minutes earlier, their original start time planned for 4:20pm local time. Now, it will be the Moto3 riders starting their race at that time, and not the 3pm slot originally scheduled. The MotoGP machines will be sitting in packing crates, waiting to be shipped to the next race.

As I write this, it is not entirely clear where that will be. It might be Austin, Texas, unless the US authorities impose further restrictions. It might be Termas De Rio Honda, in Argentina, unless the Argentinian government changes its mind about allowing entry from Italy, or Japan, or anywhere else. It might even be Jerez, if international air travel is subject to sudden and extreme restrictions.

Evolution

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Qatar MotoGP Test Subscriber Notes: Assessing All Six Factories After Qatar

So testing is done and dusted – at Qatar, quite literally, once the wind picks up – and the pile of parts each factory brought has been sifted through, approved, or discarded. The factories are as ready as they are ever going to be for the first race in Qatar, at which point the real work starts. Testing will only tell you so much; it is only in the race that the last, most crucial bits of data are revealed: how bikes behave in the slipstream; how aggressive racing lines treat tires in comparison to fast qualifying and testing lines; whether all those fancy new holeshot devices will help anyone to get into the Turn 1 ahead of the pack. Only during the race do factories and riders find out whether the strategy they have chosen to pursue will actually work.

Fabio Quartararo at the 2020 Qatar MotoGP Test

So after three days of the Qatar test, what have we learned? In these notes:

Honda, from catastrophe to optimism courtesy of old bodywork

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Qatar MotoGP Test Saturday Round Up: A Fast Yamaha, Ducati's Holeshot Squatter, And Aprilia Aggro

If there is one thing that we learned from the Sepang test, it is that the field is even closer this year. In Malaysia, 18 riders finished within a second of one another. That pattern has continued at Qatar, Pol Espargaro in fourteenth just 0.987 second behind the fastest man, Alex Rins. As comparison, the KTM rider was the last rider within a second of the fastest man after the first day of this test in 2019, but then, there were just eight riders ahead of him, rather than thirteen. And there was a gap of nearly four tenths of a second between the riders in second and third last year. Not so in 2020.

But if the single lap times were close, the race pace was a lot less so. Maverick Viñales towered over the rest in terms of consistent pace, with only the Suzukis of Alex Rins and Joan Mir getting anywhere near the pace of the Monster Energy Yamaha rider. Viñales laid down a real benchmark, with ten of his 47 laps in the 1'54s, which is under the race lap record. That included a run of ten laps, seven of which were 1'54s, five of which were consecutive. That is a rather terrifying race pace for the Spaniard to lay down, just two weeks ahead of the first race.

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Romano Albesiano On Why Aprilia Changed The Engine Angle, Satellite Teams, And Measuring Success

The 2019 MotoGP season was a long, hard road for Aprilia. The hiring of Massimo Rivola as CEO of Aprilia meant that the development of the RS-GP came to a standstill while he first straightened out Aprilia's organization, and allowing Romano Albesiano to concentrate on building a brand new machine, with a 90° V4 engine, from the ground up.

The 2020 prototype of the Aprilia RS-GP, at the Sepang MotoGP test

It was a major gamble. Aprilia was throwing away four years of development in MotoGP, and starting almost from scratch again. The Noale factory had a lot of new data to go on, but they had to make the right choices in so many areas that it would be easy to find themselves chasing down a blind alley.

The gamble seems to have paid off handsomely. Aleix Espargaro and Aprilia test rider Bradley Smith were wildly enthusiastic about the new RS-GP. "I didn't really expect that with a bike as new as this, that I would be as competitive as I am," Espargaro said. "Even with 20 laps on the tires, I can do 1'59s, it's unbelievable how fast I was. I think that with this RS-GP, the bike is a lot more close to the podium."

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MotoGP Silly Season Grinds To A Halt: What Next For Ducati?

It had promised to be a spectacular Silly Season in MotoGP this year. With all 22 rider contracts up for renewal at the end of this season, several long months of hard bargaining was expected, resulting in a major shakeup of the grid. Few seats were expected to be left untouched.

Andrea Dovizioso on the Ducati Desmosedici GP20 at the Sepang MotoGP test

Yamaha dealt the first body blow to any major grid shakeup, moving quickly to extend Maverick Viñales' contract through 2022, then moving rookie sensation Fabio Quartararo to race alongside him in the Monster Energy Yamaha team. Valentino Rossi was promised full factory support from Yamaha in a satellite team if he decided to continue racing after 2020 instead of retiring.

Yamaha's hand had been forced by Ducati. The Italian factory had made an aggressive play for both Viñales and Quartararo, and Yamaha had brought the decision on their future plans forward to early January. Yamaha decided to go with youth over experience, and Ducati was left empty-handed.

Next stop Hamamatsu

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Sepang MotoGP Test Subscriber Notes: The Tightest Field Ever, New Tires, Suzuki Smells, Yamaha's Revival, And More

What can you learn from the Sepang MotoGP test? A lot, and not a lot. The balance of power on the MotoGP grid already seems to have shifted, for all sorts of reasons. The construction used on the 2020 rear Michelin tire is having a major impact on the performance of the bikes, with more grip available in all conditions, and more durability. But because the tire has changed, it will take at least the first part of the season for the factories and riders to figure out how to get the most out of the tire. That means we are likely in for a fair few surprises throughout the year. This could be like 2016 again, some inside Michelin believe.

That doesn't mean that we can share the championship spoils out among the bikes which are ahead at the Sepang test already. The test raised more questions than it answered. It's not so much that factories and riders were sandbagging, more that so much is new this year that most factories are closer to the beginning of their development project than the end. Add in the complication of Marc Márquez coming off his second shoulder surgery in two seasons – and Miguel Oliveira and Taka Nakagami in the same boat – and there are more unknowns than knowns. The balance is likely to shift several times though the 2020 season. Which is good for fans, though it tends to annoy the manufacturers.

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Factories Prepare For 2020 MotoGP Season At The Sepang Shakedown Test Starting Sunday

In just a few hours from now, MotoGP bikes will roll out onto the track for the start of the 2020 season. They will do so almost completely out of the public eye (prompting the philosophical question of if an RC213V is fired up at a circuit, and no one is around to hear it, does it make a sound?) as three days of the MotoGP shakedown test gets underway at Sepang.

The shakedown test is a private test, meaning it is closed to the media and public. There is no live timing publicly available from the test, and lap times will be both difficult to come by and probably unreliable, as teams and factories release the times they want to make public (if any), rather than a neutral timing system recording every lap.

Yet this shakedown test is extremely important, for a number of reasons. It is the first test for the brand-new Aprilia RS-GP, designed from the ground up, with a new 90° V4 engine. It sees Jorge Lorenzo make his testing debut for Yamaha, back with the Japanese factory after three years away. And it is a chance for the MotoGP rookies to get a little more track time under their belts.

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Doing It Right: How Aprilia's Organizational Changes Give Hope For The Future

Since they returned to the MotoGP paddock officially, and not under the guise of the ART, the RSV4-based bike which raced first under the Claiming Rule Team banner, and then in the Open Class, Aprilia have struggled. Their MotoGP program got off to a bad start, the loss of Gigi Dall'Igna to Ducati forcing them to reschedule their plans.

Romano Albesiano, who took over as head of Aprilia Racing, found it hard to combine his role as lead engineer with the organizational duties of managing the racing department. Albesiano came from a development and engineering background, and seemed to lack interest in the practicalities of a running a race team. Those took time away from developing the RS-GP, and so the project floundered.

To solve this situation, Aprilia brought in Massimo Rivola. With his experience running F1 teams and Ferrari's Driver Academy, Rivola was given the organizational side to manage, leaving Albesiano free to lead the engineering side of the project. With a clearer division of responsibilities – and the people doing what they are good at and interested in – some semblance of structure was restored to Aprilia's MotoGP program, and with that came the first green shoots of progress.

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2020 Week 1 News Round Up: Valentino Rossi's Decision, Jorge Lorenzo's Future, And What Next For Aprilia

The world of MotoGP and WorldSBK has been relatively quiet for the last two weeks, as factories close and teams and riders take time off to celebrate their various holidays. Very little has happened, with people off around the world, and only now returning to prepare for the 2020 season.

Rossi speaks

The winter break did offer an opportunity for Italian sports daily Gazzetta dello Sport to interview Valentino Rossi. Fortunately for English speakers, the interview was translated and posted on the website of esteemed US publication Cycle World, meaning race fans could read the whole thing for themselves, and not have to rely on translations of interpretations of summaries posted on many websites.

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