If Valencia is an important test, the Jerez test is even more significant. At Valencia, the riders are tired, and the teams know that they cannot burden them too much. The Valencia circuit is also not well suited to test duties, too tight and contorted to give the new bikes a proper workout.
At Jerez, after a few days off to relax and absorb the lessons of Valencia, the teams and riders are back on the track again. The test program for most factories looks to be bigger and more comprehensive than at Valencia.
Maverick Viñales finished the day as fastest, quick and comfortable on the new 2020 prototype of the Yamaha M1. That Viñales had a clear advantage over the rest of the field is plain, but the gaps on the timesheet do not represent the real relative strengths between the riders. A mixture of drizzle and red flags caused by crashes meant that anyone going out on fresh soft rubber was likely to have their attempt at chasing a time stymied by conditions, or forced back into the pits due to a red flag. The teams got plenty of work done, but events conspired to prevent the usual battle of egos which ends each day at the test.
Yamaha: Frame and engine
The point of the post-season test at Valencia is to give the new parts the racing departments have cooked up based on the data collected during the year their first run out. The hope is that the new parts – engines, chassis, electronic packages, etc – will provide improvements, make the bikes faster, and help drop the lap times even further.
There was plenty of good news for the MotoGP factories from the two days of testing at Valencia. Their work has been successful, judging by the initial results at the test. The new engines which have been brought are all quicker, the chassis which have been tested are all an improvement.
The bad news is that all of this applies to just about every manufacturer in MotoGP. Yamaha, Honda, Ducati, Suzuki, KTM, even Aprilia, they have all made steps forward. The trouble is, that if everyone makes a step forward, they all end up still left in the same place.
So who comes out of the Valencia test ahead? It is still way too early to tell. At Valencia, the factories bring their new concepts, in a fairly raw format. Engines need adapting to electronics, chassis need adapting to engines, the setups the factories start the test with are based on data from last year's bikes, and still need tweaking to refine.
What conclusions can we draw from the first day of testing for the 2020 season? Not much, other than a lot of factories have brought a lot of new parts. And it really does feel like a lot of new parts, with new chassis for KTM, Yamaha, Honda, Ducati, new engines all round, and a host of other bits and pieces in preparation for the new season. New riders, too, with Brad Binder, Iker Lecuona, and Alex Márquez all moving up to MotoGP for 2020.
It is particularly tempting to jump to early conclusions about the rookies. There is a clear pecking order, an easy way of deciding who is adapting quickly, and who is taking their time. By that measure, Iker Lecuona is the man to beat, the Red Bull Tech3 KTM rider finishing just under 1.5 seconds off the leading gaggle of Yamahas at the test. Brad Binder, in the factory Red Bull KTM team, is just under 2.4 seconds behind quickest rider Fabio Quartararo, while the latest addition to the class, Alex Márquez, was last, 2.7 seconds slower than the Petronas Yamaha rider, and nearly 2.2 seconds slower than his brother Marc.
King of the rookies
The current field of MotoGP riders may only be less than a season into the first year of their contracts, but the opening salvos of the 2021 season are already being fired. That is a direct consequence of almost the entire grid being on two-year deals, which run through the 2020 season. Every seat on the grid will currently be up for grabs in 2021. And because of that, teams, factories and riders are already starting to explore their options for the next season but one.
This is not something teams are particularly happy about. Team managers will grumble both on and off the record that it is a big gamble choosing riders basically on the basis of their performance two seasons before they are due to ride for you. Fear of missing out on a top rider forces their hand, however, and so teams are already making preliminary approaches about 2021.
The extreme and unusual situation of every single seat being up for grabs means that Moto2 riders are also delaying their plans. Most have only signed 1-year deals for 2020, knowing that so many options are opening up in 2021. Remy Gardner even turned down a chance to move up to MotoGP with KTM for 2020, preferring to wait for 2021 and hope for many more options then.
The elements prevailed in the end. The weather gods threw rain and wind at the Phillip Island circuit on Friday, and after showing their power to pose real peril to the riders, the riders and Dorna surrendered to a power greater than them. The very strong gusting wind was just too dangerous to make riding at the Australian circuit safe.
Miguel Oliveira's crash was the last straw. The Red Bull KTM Tech3 rider was caught out by the changing wind in the early part of FP4, got pushed wide on the entry to the terrifyingly fast first corner, and took a massive tumble through the gravel. It looked like a huge crash, and Oliveira was very lucky to come away with no broken bones, though he had heavy bruising on his arm and hand.
"I was slipstreaming Zarco and at that point I was a little bit more close to the left side of the track," Oliveira said. "And from the morning to the afternoon the wind just completely changed the way and was really sideways going onto the straight. I rolled off to let Johann pass and when I braked, I braked completely sideways and the wind just pushed me out of the track."
KTM have finally found a solution to their rider line up problem for 2020. Today, the Austrian factory announced that they will be taking Brad Binder directly into the factory Red Bull KTM team, to race alongside Pol Espargaro, while they have signed Iker Lecuona to race in the Red Bull KTM Tech3 satellite squad opposite Miguel Oliveira.
This is something of a shake up to KTM's original plans, caused by the early departure of Johann Zarco. The Frenchman's decision to leave the Austrian factory at the end of 2019 (accelerated to after Misano by KTM's decision to drop him from Aragon onward) left them with a puzzle to solve.
With almost everyone with MotoGP experience tied up for 2020, and most Moto2 riders holding on for 2021, when the entire MotoGP grid is out of contract, finding a replacement for Zarco was almost impossible. They had already signed Brad Binder to the Tech3 satellite team, and had few options to choose from.
The first race of the flyaway triple header is arguably the most important. It is, after all, the home Grand Prix for half of the manufacturers on the grid. It is the one race where the top echelons of Honda, Suzuki, and Yamaha management gather, the people behind the companies which put 10 of the 22 MotoGP bikes on the grid. If, for some sick and twisted reason, you wanted to destroy the Japanese motorcycle industry by removing its senior management, then the Motegi MotoGP race would be your second-best chance of success. Only the Suzuka 8 Hour race is a bigger deal for the Japanese manufacturers, and a more important race in Japan.
Motegi matters most to Honda. The Japanese motorcycling giant owns the circuit (as it does Suzuka) and it houses the Honda Collection Hall, a magnificent display of motorcycling history. As it is Honda's 60th anniversary in Grand Prix racing, this year's race is even more important. Before the previous Grand Prix in Thailand, HRC President Yoshishige Nomura told Marc Márquez to wrap up the rider's title in Buriram, so he could arrive in Motegi as champion, a goal Márquez dutifully fulfilled. The target at Motegi will be to clinch the manufacturers crown, which he can do by simply finishing ahead of the first Ducati.