Maverick Viñales has topped the first day of the final MotoGP test at Qatar, ending Thursday just a tenth of a second off the race lap record set in 2016. The Movistar Yamaha rider spent a lot of time on track, racking up a grand total of 64 laps to lead the field. Andrea Dovizioso ended the day in second on the Factory Ducati, just five hundredths of a second behind Viñales, and three thousandths of a second quicker than his former teammate Andrea Iannone, Iannone now riding the Suzuki Ecstar GSX-RR.
The Movistar Yamahas are getting up to speed in Qatar, with Maverick Viñales currently leading the pack at 7:30pm, and 90 minutes of the test left. With the race due to start at 7pm, this is a key part of the test.
Five hours into the first day of the Qatar MotoGP test it is Jorge Lorenzo leading the way, though the factory Ducati rider's advantage is minimal indeed. Suzuki's Andrea Iannone is tied with Movistar Yamaha rider Maverick Viñales for second fastest, both men six hundredths of a second slower than Lorenzo. The Repsol Honda riders follow in fourth and fifth, Marc Marquez ahead of Dani Pedrosa, though there is just a hundredth of a second between the two of them.
Testing will continue for three more hours, the test finishing at 9pm local time.
Times at 6pm local time:
The Qatar MotoGP test got off to a slow start at the Losail International Circuit, with riders letting the first (and hottest) hour of the day go by without taking to the track. It is not a time they will be on track during the race weekend, so they chose to skip it.
The last test of the preseason is something of a moment of truth for the MotoGP factories. From the tropical heat of Malaysia and Thailand, the paddock heads to the Arabian peninsula, and cool desert evenings of the Losail International Circuit in Qatar. Air temperatures start in the mid 20s°C rather than the mid 30s°C, and drop into the high teens heading into the evening. That temperature difference means that air density is a couple of percent higher at Qatar. That in turn means more oxygen going into the engine, and better combustion efficiency.
Translating all that from vague engineering platitudes into real-world racing, colder air means more power all the way through the rev range. Engines run better, pick up more aggressively, and pull harder flat out in the cool Qatari evenings than in Sepang's punishing tropical heat. An engine that seemed docile in Sepang suddenly feels aggressive at Losail. An engine which was just about manageable in Thailand is a barely controllable beast in Qatar. And with just two weeks to go before the start of the 2018 MotoGP season, it's too late to fix the problem. Riders are left wrestling a wild bull for the rest of the year.
That, in a nutshell, is the story of Honda's past couple of seasons. Engines which seemed OK at Sepang suddenly turned out to be much tougher to handle at Qatar, and as a consequence, the tighter European tracks, racing on days when air temperatures struggled to get out of the teens. It was the story of Suzuki last year, who woefully misjudged their engine at the beginning of the season, a decision made more difficult by have two new riders on the bike.
Will it happen again? The Qatar test should at least provide a pointer or two to just where each of the factories stand with their engines. Though riders may try to be noncommittal about their engines, not wanting to tip their hands ahead of the upcoming seasons, there may perhaps be clues in their words, or perhaps the consistency of the different riders on the same bike. Testing isn't racing, of course, and the proof of the pudding only comes on Sundays in MotoGP. But we might get a hint.
Honda had a poor preseason in 2015, 2016 and 2017, but this time it looks like Marquez, Pedrosa and Crutchlow are in seriously good shape
During the last few seasons Honda has struggled through preseason testing and launched into the new season with distinctly unimpressive results at the season-opening race. And yet last year and the year before Marc Márquez turned things around to win the championship.
So far, this year is very different: Honda was the dominant force at the first two tests, showing super-fast race pace and taking two of the top three positions at Sepang and three of the top four positions at Chang in Thailand.
The life of a motorcycle racer is not always a glamorous one. On Saturday, Suzuki ECSTAR rider Alex Rins got up at 3:15am, drove the two-and-a-half hours from his home to Barcelona airport to catch a 7am flight, then slept for a couple of hours on the plane to Amsterdam. From there, he was driven to Utrecht, to make an appearance at the Motorbeurs Utrecht, the traditional opening of the motorcycle season in The Netherlands.
In Utrecht, Rins was interviewed on the Suzuki stand, signed autographs, and posed for photos with fans. After a quick lunch, he did the fan meet-and-greet experience again, before heading back to Schiphol airport and a 5pm flight back to Barcelona, to arrive back home an hour or so before midnight. In Utrecht, in between meeting the fans and appearing on the Suzuki stand, he found time for a couple of interviews.
Though he does not relish days like this, he remained cheerful throughout, meeting the day's events with a quiet and relaxed calm, and without complaint. "It's work," he shrugged when asked about such a long day, a day on which he could have been training to prepare for the upcoming season. There was never a hint of irritation or frustration, he smiled, waved, and greeted fans and familiar faces with a friendly and professional demeanor.
A winning record
It is perhaps that calmness that explains his success in motorcycle racing. An open and positive approach, coupled with a keen intelligence, are the hallmark of all great racers. Rins has yet to win a Grand Prix championship – he was runner up in Moto3 in 2013, and in Moto2 in 2016 – but he has achieved that other mark of being exceptional: podiums and victories in (almost) every year he has been in Grand Prix.
Marc Marquez has become the third rider to sign a new contract for the coming season. Today, HRC announced that the reigning world champion will be staying with the Repsol Honda team for two more years, for the 2019 and 2020 seasons.
The news doses not come as a surprise, despite recent comments by Marquez that he was open to listening to offers from other factories. Marquez is very happy with Honda, and at this point in his career, his main ambition is to keep winning races and championships. He has proven that he is capable of doing that with Honda.
If you thought the 2019 MotoGP Silly Season was already in high gear, a bombshell announcement has just put it into overdrive. Today, the Monster Tech3 Yamaha team announced that from 2019, they will be parting ways. Tech3 will no longer be a satellite Yamaha team.
The split brings to an end an association of nearly 20 years with Yamaha. They first started in 1999 with Shinya Nakano and Olivier Jacque in 250cc, before switching to the premier class with the same pair in 2001. Tech3 have been a loyal partner for many years, giving up one seat to a factory-backed rider on a number of occasions, as occurred with Ben Spies, Colin Edwards, and Pol Espargaro.
However, there had been a few signs of tension over the past few months. Although Hervé Poncharal remained ever the gentleman when talking about Yamaha, toeing the company line, there were occasional hints of frustration in his response to questions, though never anything explicit. With Tech3 having been given a better offer from a different manufacturer - as the press release states - that made it easier to end the association with Yamaha.
That huge piece of news opens up a whole range of questions. Who will be supplying Tech3 with MotoGP bikes next year? Will Yamaha have a satellite team in 2019? And does this open the door to the VR46 team to make their entry into MotoGP?
Pecco Bagnaia is to move up to MotoGP with the Pramac Ducati team in 2019 and 2020. The news was announced on Twitter by the SkyVR46 team, and confirmed by Bagnaia himself on his Twitter feed.
The move is not a surprise. Bagnaia had been widely tipped to move to MotoGP with Ducati, with Paolo Ciabatti admitting at the launch back in January that the Italian factory had an interest in the 21 year old.