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.
So after three days of the Qatar test, what have we learned? In these notes:
Honda, from catastrophe to optimism courtesy of old bodywork
The second day of the final preseason test of 2020 showed pretty much the same pattern as the first day: Maverick Viñales didn't finish the day on top of the timesheets, but the Monster Energy Yamaha rider clearly has the best pace, capable of running consistent low 1'54s, a tenth or two faster than anyone else. Fabio Quartararo posted the fastest single lap on Sunday, and he and Alex Rins were the only riders getting anywhere near to Viñales' pace.
As a benchmark, Quartararo posted 14 laps in the 1'54s, Viñales 13 laps, Rins 11 laps. Joan Mir was the only other consistent contender, with 6 laps in the 1'54s, and a solid race pace in the low 1'50s, high 1'54s. The Yamahas and Suzukis are looking very strong indeed at Qatar.
That was borne out by Maverick Viñales' media debrief. Once, those were glum affairs, in which Viñales would sullenly respond with nearly monosyllabic answers. His mood has improved since last year, especially since his results became more competitive in the second half of the season. This year, he is positively upbeat: he used the word 'happy' ten times in three-and-a-half minutes speaking to reporters. Two years ago, the only time Viñales used the word 'happy' was when he preceded it with the words 'we can't be'.
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.
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
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.
It is becoming a familiar pattern. Whenever MotoGP bikes gather for a timed session, Fabio Quartararo usually finds a way to get his name to the top of the list. Usually by using the cunning strategy of riding his motorcycle that little bit faster than anyone else. It happened with increasing frequency during the 2019 season. It happened again on the first day of the Sepang test in 2020. And it was no different on the second day.
It didn't look that way at the start of Quartararo's first day on the Factory Spec Yamaha M1. (As I explained to MotoMatters.com subscribers on Thursday, there are now two different specifications of Yamaha M1 – the Factory Spec ridden by Quartararo, Maverick Viñales, and Valentino Rossi; and the A Spec, ridden by Franco Morbidelli.) For most of the day, Quartararo's name was some way down the timesheets. But at the end of the day, as track temperatures dropped back into the zone where grip makes a reappearance, Quartararo banged out a lap faster than the rest, leapfrogging past Jack Miller to finish the day as fastest.
The day before the MotoGP test starts at Sepang is not usually so hectic. There have sometimes been launches, but as often as not, it has been a matter of catching up with people you have not seen for a long time, and talking to the few riders scheduled for press debriefs. It is a good way of easing yourself back into the MotoGP season.
Not so this year. Three launches in one day, two of them with the biggest news stories of the off season. The Suzuki launch was interesting; the 2020 livery for the Suzuki Ecstar team is rather fetching in silver and blue, and a homage to the first Grand Prix bike Suzuki ever raced, 60 years ago this year. For more on Suzuki's history, see this outstanding thread on Twitter by Mat Oxley, and if you don't already have his book Stealing Speed, a history of how Suzuki acquired two-stroke technology from the East German MZ factory, you need to buy yourself a copy now.
In part two of our exclusive interview with Tetsuhiro Kuwata, HRC general manager of Race Operations Management Division, and Shinya Wakabayashi, general manager of Technology Development Division, address the aerodynamic innovations introduced by Ducati at the Qatar MotoGP race in 2019, and the possible effects that can have. They also talked about the challenges of balancing the performance of Marc Márquez with trying to help Jorge Lorenzo to succeed. The HRC bosses also discussed the input Lorenzo had on the development process, and how it was affected by his decision to retire. That leads on to a discussion of what to expect for 2020, for Alex Márquez, alongside brother Marc in the Repsol Honda squad, and for Cal Crutchlow and Takaaki Nakagami in the LCR Honda team.
Q: At the season opener in Qatar, Ducati introduced a swingarm attachment, the so-called “spoon” or swingarm spoiler, and it caused controversy among the manufacturers. Anyway, the fact is that they are very smart in finding loopholes in the regulations. Does HRC read the rule book meticulously like them in order to find something which hasn't been specifically prohibited?
Kuwata: Maybe you can take an approach to check if your good idea infringes on the regulations. And you can also take another approach from the opposite direction, but it makes no sense if you don’t have any objective with that loophole. If you have ten ideas and read the rule book carefully to check how many of them are legal, it will be a persuasive approach. I am guessing maybe Ducati is taking this type of approach. Probably, loopholes don’t come first, but I don’t know.
Q: Does the attachment have an aerodynamic effect?
Kuwata: I guess so, that’s why everyone uses it.
The 2019 season was a good one for Honda. Marc Márquez won twelve times and finished second six times out of nineteen races. He clinched his sixth title in the premier class and eighth overall in his world championship career. Honda also won the team and manufacturers title, which saw them celebrate their third successive triple crown.
The Honda RC213V is an invincible weapon, helping to achieve such an overwhelming victory. During the technical debrief for the 2019 spec RC213V for the Japanese media that HRC held at the end of December, they said they have made a “normal improvement” with the engine. However, in terms of chassis, HRC faced quite a “big challenge” for modification of the air intake system. The airflow that comes from the front air duct used to be split into the left and right side to take it into the airbox. Now the air intake literally goes straight from the front of the bike through the headstock and into the airbox.
In this exclusive interview with Tetsuhiro Kuwata, HRC general manager of Race Operations Management Division, and Shinya Wakabayashi, general manager of Technology Development Division, we started asking firstly about their “normal improvement” and “big challenge”, then moved on to the review of the 2019 season and the prospect for the forthcoming 2020 season.
Q: You made a “normal improvement” with the engine while trying a “big challenge” with chassis side. Does this mean you modified chassis stiffness quite a lot from 2018 to 2019?
After the carpet bombshelling done by Yamaha's press department over the past couple of days, it's time to answer your questions. In yesterday's piece looking at Yamaha's choice of Fabio Quartararo over Valentino Rossi, I promised to answer questions for MotoMatters.com subscribers. So below, here are the answers to some of the questions you asked.
Questions answered include:
- Franco Morbidelli and Pecco Bagnaia
- Valentino Rossi – one-man team, two-man VR46 team, or Petronas Yamaha?
- What happens to Andrea Dovizioso?
- The likelihood of rider retirements
- Suzuki, Gresini, Aprilia, and a Suzuki satellite team
- The chances of Yamaha building a V4
- Will Repsol leave Honda?