Press releases from the factories and teams after the first MotoGP test of 2019 at Sepang:
The MotoGP riders are just two weeks into their shiny new contracts, but already, there is talk of what happens next. In Italy, there is a discussion of who gets the factory Ducati seat alongside Andrea Dovizioso in 2020. In Spain, they are looking ahead to 2021, and the option of KTM offering Marc Márquez a contract.
To start with Márquez first. The Repsol Honda rider is still in the midst of rehabilitation after his shoulder surgery in December. That is proceeding reasonably well, as Márquez' post on Instagram, showing him participating in the Fita973, a 13km cross country run organized by the Márquez brothers in Catalonia, demonstrates.
With the attention of the world turned to the Dakar rally, Spanish sports daily Marca, which also runs a radio program, called Marc Coma, former five-time Dakar winner and now head of KTM Spain, to talk about the rally currently going on in Peru. During the interview, Coma said that he wouldn't rule out an approach to Marc Márquez. "Marc was part of the KTM family in the past," Coma said. "KTM's MotoGP project is evolving in the right direction. When the bike is ready to win, why not have Márquez with us?"
And the winner is... Takaaki Nakagami! Or at least the LCR Honda rider's name sit atop the timesheets at the end of the final day of the final MotoGP test of 2018. Which both counts for a lot, and counts for very little at the same time. The fact that Nakagami was able to do the time is proof that the 2018 Honda RC213V is a much better bike than the 2017 version which the Japanese rider spent last season on – see also the immediate speed of Franco Morbidelli, now he is on the Petronas Yamaha rather than the Marc VDS Honda. It was also proof that Nakagami – riding Cal Crutchlow's bike at Jerez – is a much better rider than his results on the 2017 bike suggest. And puts into perspective that this was the bike which Marc Márquez won the 2017 MotoGP title on.
But it also doesn't really mean very much. Testing is just testing, and the riders don't necessarily have either the inclination or the tire allocation to go chasing a quick lap time the way they do on a race weekend. Nobody wants to risk it all just to prove a point and get injured just before they go into the winter break. And with the top 15 within a second of one another, and the top 7 within a quarter of a second, the differences are pretty meaningless anyway.
It's been a difficult test at Valencia. The weather simply hasn't played ball. Tuesday started wet, took a few hours to dry out, then rain started falling around 3pm, meaning the riders effectively had around two and a half usable hours on track. Rain on Tuesday evening meant the track was wet on Wednesday morning, and in the chill of a November morning, it took a couple of hours before the track dried out enough for the riders to hit the track.
At least it stayed dry and sunny throughout the day, and the last couple of hours saw the best conditions of the test, times dropping until falling temperatures put paid to any thought of improvement. The teams may have lost time, but at least they had a solid four and a half hours of track time to work.
For half the factories, what they were focusing on was engines. Yamaha, Honda, and Suzuki all brought new engines to test, and in the case of Yamaha and Honda, two different specs. Ducati was mainly working with a new chassis, aimed at making the bike turn better. Aprilia had a new engine and a new frame to try. And as usual, KTM had a mountain of parts and ideas to test.
With the announcement that Takaaki Nakagami has signed for an extra year with the Idemitsu LCR Honda squad, the 2019 MotoGP grid is almost finalized. Nakagami's signing brings the total of confirmed riders up to 21 of the total of 22 entries.
The only rider left to be confirmed officially is Tito Rabat. The Spaniard's serious leg injury, sustained at Silverstone, has caused a delay, with his contract extension expected to have already come earlier. There is no doubt that Rabat will get the final seat, though it will probably have to wait until he is fit enough to return again.
Below is the official line up for 2019:
The summer break – if an extra weekend off can be counted as an actual break – marks the end of the first half of the 2018 MotoGP season, but it also marks a significant point in the MotoGP Silly Season. With Marc van der Straten telling the riders and crew of the Marc VDS MotoGP team that the team will not be competing in MotoGP in 2019 and beyond, the final shape of the 2019 MotoGP grid is almost clear.
There was no official announcement to mark the withdrawal of the Marc VDS squad, it was indirectly confirmed when the team sent out a press release (shown below) announcing that they had extended their deal with Alex Márquez for the Spaniard, younger brother of Marc, to remain in Moto2 for another season. Emilio Alzamora, who manages both Márquez brothers, had been pushing for Van der Straten to keep at least one grid slot in MotoGP for Alex Márquez, a move which had the strong backing of his brother Marc. Alex Márquez remaining in Moto2 is tacit confirmation that there is no seat in MotoGP for the Spaniard.
The withdrawal of the Marc VDS team, and the transfer of the Angel Nieto Team's grid slots to the Petronas SIC Yamaha team (whose existence was confirmed officially in a press release between the Dutch and German rounds of MotoGP) means that the MotoGP grid will be smaller in 2019. There will be 22 riders lining up at Qatar, rather than the 24 who started at Losail this season. The loss of two riders from the grid will not overly trouble Dorna: with uncertainty over who will broadcast MotoGP in Spain next year, saving around €6 million in team subsidies will create some negotiating room for the series organizer.
Looking back, it is always easy to identify the pivotal moments in a championship. Last year, it was the Barcelona test, when Honda brought a new chassis which gave Marc Márquez the confidence he had been lacking. In 2015, it was arguably Motegi, where Valentino Rossi stayed ahead of Jorge Lorenzo, but the effort it took in the difficult conditions left him drained at the start of a long and exhausting set of flyaways. In 2012 it was Misano, where a tire warmer got stuck to Dani Pedrosa's brake disc, forcing him to start from the back of the grid, and leaving him in a position to get tangled up with Hector Barbera, and crash out of the race.
In the midst of a racing season, however, such pivotal points are much harder to identify. Or rather, all too easy to misidentify. After Estoril 2006, everyone thought that Nicky Hayden's championship challenge was over. Valentino Rossi's heartbreaking engine blow up at Mugello looked like it would put paid to his shot at the 2016 title, but he still kept the fight alive for a long time. Anything can happen during the course of a season, so when we look back at a season we can easily overlook the drama of a single race that seemed important at the time. 2015 is a case in point: there were so many twists and turns that it is hard to pinpoint a single turning point, so fans and followers tend to pick their own.
Looking at it now, just five races into a nineteen-race season, it is easy to believe that the races at Jerez and Le Mans will be the turning points we look back at when the bikes are packed up for the final time after Valencia. The three-rider crash at Dry Sack two weeks ago, in which Andrea Dovizioso, Jorge Lorenzo, and Dani Pedrosa managed to all take each other out without any obvious culprit being to blame, had a huge impact on the championship. And Sunday's drama-packed race at Le Mans will surely be spoken of in the same terms. Not just because of who didn't finish the race. But also because where some riders finished is going to have a profound impact on their futures.
There is a lot to love about the Grand Prix of the Americas in Austin. As an event, it is fantastic: the facilities at the track are great, the city of Austin is a wonderful place to visit, with a lively party atmosphere downtown, and a million other things to do. The landscape the track sits on is great for spectators, and the surrounding countryside is charming.
It is a race the riders love, and they have grown to love the track. "I like this track very much, it's very good," Valentino Rossi says of the Circuit of the Americas. "It's good to ride because it's very difficult, you have emotional corners, so it's good." The bumps around the track have made it much tougher to ride, but the layout is still a favorite among many of the MotoGP paddock. It is highly technical and has a bit of everything: hard braking, hard acceleration, fast corners, slow corners, flowing combinations of corners which reward precision.
As great at the track is, it still produces rather lackluster races. The average margin of victory over all six editions has been 3.458 seconds, and that is discounting the time lost to the inevitable easing off to celebrate in the certain knowledge that victory is in the bag. The gap has never been under 1.5 seconds, and there has never been a closely fought battle for victory, or even the podium spots, in the history of racing at the track. The result of the MotoGP race in Austin is usually set in stone before the halfway mark.
Even the normally mental Moto3 races are decided by seconds rather than hundredths. Only two of the six Moto3 races run so far were won by a margin of less than a second. In Moto2, the winning margin has only once been under two seconds. That was in 2015, when Sam Lowes beat Johann Zarco by 1.999 seconds. The result in Moto2 has never been close.
It has been an eventful couple of weeks for Yamaha. Apart from the expected hectic period of preseason testing, Yamaha agreed a new two-year deal with Valentino Rossi. There was also the surprise announcement by Jonas Folger that he wouldn't be racing in 2018, and working with Hervé Poncharal to find a replacement for the Tech3 team. More significantly, they also had to deal with the surprise announcement that Tech3 will be leaving Yamaha at the end of this season, and swapping to become a satellite for KTM from 2019 onwards.
So journalists had plenty of questions for Lin Jarvis, the head of Yamaha Motor Racing, and Qatar was the first opportunity to ask him. In a session with the media on Thursday night, Jarvis answered questions on all these subjects and more, offering an insight into the way Yamaha are thinking. The departure of Tech3 could see Yamaha rethink the way they have been working in the past.
Obviously, the re-signing of Valentino Rossi was a big topic of conversation. What was the main reason for keeping Rossi, Jarvis was asked. "There are so many reasons, it’s difficult to give one," the Yamaha boss replied. "Because of everything he brings to Yamaha, and the sport, and the team, because of who he is. That’s the motivation. But I would also like to add that he is still highly competitive and absolutely a top rider capable of winning."