Press releases from the factories and teams after the first MotoGP test of 2019 at Sepang:
It was 7:30 in the evening, and we were standing on the porch of the Petronas Yamaha SRT hospitality chalet, talking to Fabio Quartararo about how his day had gone when the rain came. It was a brief, intense shower filling the air with the sweet scent that comes when rain falls after a period of intense heat. It seemed a somehow fitting end to one of the most intriguing MotoGP tests in years.
The weather had played a major role in the test, though this time, for all the right reasons. Normally, test days at Sepang are disrupted in the late afternoon by a heavy rainfall, leaving teams trying to cram as much work as possible into the mornings, and hoping that the track dries out in the afternoon. Every shower brings dust and dirt to the track, washing away some of the rubber laid down on the track, slowing the track down.
But not this time. There was a brief thunderstorm on Monday night, but that was the last rain to fall at the circuit until Friday night. Three full days of a dry track, the pace increasing as more and more rubber got laid down. It should hardly be surprising that Jorge Lorenzo's fastest ever lap of the circuit, set last year, should be broken. But that it should be broken by nearly six tenths of a second, and by six riders, is a sign both of just how good the track conditions were, and just how competitive the field is currently in MotoGP.
For fans of technological innovation, the first day of the Sepang MotoGP test had been something of a disappointment. There were very few clearly visible upgrades to the bikes on display on Wednesday, teams using the first day to get themselves accustomed, and focus on checking the engine choices made back at the November tests. There were one or two things going on, but they weren't obviously visible to casual fans.
Thursday was a much better day for MotoGP tech nerds. New parts started to appear, as factories started working their way through the list of parts they have prepared for the 2019 season. Suzuki debuted a new fairing, with a more Yamaha-like aero package, with wider wing surfaces and a slimmer side section.
Alex Rins was positive about the new fairing. "It gave me more support on the front, less wheelie, which is important for the speed. We are faster on the straight because of the fairing – it’s more aerodynamic. The front wheel is more on the floor." That was borne out by his lap times, the Spaniard finishing with the second fastest time of the day, and the second highest number of laps in 1'59, including a run of four in a row. This was pace, rather than just a single quick lap.
Hitting the holeshot
All eyes were on Ducati, however, as a mystery lever appeared on the top of the Desmosedici GP19's (and only the GP19) top triple clamp:
Though bikes have been circulating at the Sepang circuit already, the MotoGP season only really gets underway once the full field of full-time contracted riders takes to the Malaysian track on Wednesday. After the long winter break, we finally get to see where everyone stands as the 2019 season approaches.
Well, almost everyone: injuries always play a smaller or larger role, as riders recover from surgery, or suffer new injuries while training for the coming season. Injuries have hit Honda hard so far this year, with Jorge Lorenzo absent after breaking his left scaphoid just three weeks before the test, Marc Márquez still recovering from major surgery to fix a shoulder with a tendency to dislocate, and Cal Crutchlow coming back from a massive crash at Phillip Island which shattered his ankle.
The Sepang test will be a little different this year, as a result of the tweaking of the testing rules. With two official tests in November, at Valencia and Jerez, rather than the official Valencia test and a private test elsewhere, all of the factories have followed the same preparation in late 2018. What's more, with them all having ridden at Valencia and Jerez, they have a clearer idea of how their engines will react on tighter circuits in colder conditions, where more horsepower is more difficult to contain. November has become engine preparation month, with Sepang now being used as a verification.
After a day of prevarication, Yamaha (with the blessing of the other factories) finally cracked down on the media presence at Sepang, locking the gates to pit lane as well as the side of the track. Anyone who wasn't a member of a team wasn't getting in, and the factories could work in peace. All except Honda, who had packed up on Saturday, giving Stefan Bradl an extra day's rest ahead of the official test starting on Wednesday.
Aleix Espargaro joined the action, riding the Aprilia RS-GP alongside test rider Bradley Smith, though Andrea Iannone sat out the day with what was reported to be a minor health issue with his teeth. Jonas Folger also took to the track for Yamaha, but as he and Yamaha's other test rider, Katsuyuki Nakasuga, swapped between the two test bikes, it was hard to tell who was setting which times. Both riders looked pretty fast, and Nakasuga was doing so with the benefit of an extra day's experience. Jonas Folger had a crash in the middle of the day, causing a red flag, though Folger continued testing after the flag appeared.
The second day of the MotoGP shakedown test at Sepang was a busier affair than the first, with a Yamaha and the factory and satellite KTM riders joining the testers who had seen action on Friday. Hot, dry weather made life relatively easy, the riders able to get a lot of laps in with no interruptions for rain.
The honors for most laps during the day were shared by Johann Zarco, Bradley Smith, and Pol Espargaro. Zarco topped the endurance charts with a grand total of 67 laps on the Red Bull KTM, Aprilia test rider Smith racked up 62 laps spread between four different bikes, while Pol Espargaro bagged the fastest time in the process of lapping Sepang 60 times. To put that into perspective, it is three times race distance, in temperatures of over 30°C, and track temperatures rising to over 50°C in the middle of the day.
All six factories took to the track on Saturday, with Katsuyuki Nakasuga finally turning laps on the Yamaha M1. Stefan Bradl was there for Honda, as was Bradley Smith for Aprilia, Michele Pirro for Ducati, and Sylvain Guintoli and Takuya Tsuda for Suzuki. KTM had the biggest contingent, with factory riders Pol Espargaro and Johann Zarco, and Tech3 riders Miguel Oliveira and Hafizh Syahrin joining test rider Mika Kallio on track.
The first day of the shakedown test at Sepang is over, and it was very much a shakedown as it is meant to be. The MotoGP bikes shared the track with the factory Superbike machines being readied for the Suzuka 8 Hour race in July, but all of the factory test riders bar Yamaha got some laps done in preparation for the official test which starts on Wednesday.
It was Ducati's Michele Pirro and Aprilia's Bradley Smith who were busiest, both riders paving the way for their factory riders. The urgency is highest for Smith, as Aleix Espargaro and Andrea Iannone are set to take the track on Sunday, the last day of the shakedown test.
Mika Kallio was paving the way for KTM, the Finnish rider forced to switch numbers from 36 to 66, Suzuki's Joan Mir having taken precedence for #36 as a full-time contracted rider. Kallio had a lot of work to do, ensuring that the bikes were ready for all four KTM riders at the test. In the end, he rode seven different bikes on Friday, including test bikes and the factory Red Bull and satellite Tech3 machines, he told Crash.net's Peter McLaren.
Stefan Bradl was turning laps for Honda, while Sylvain Guintoli was busy for Suzuki. Bradl was mostly running short exits, according to Italian website GPOne.com.
With two WorldSBK tests under our belts, we are now just days away from the 2019 MotoGP preseason starting. The entire MotoGP field, minus the injured Jorge Lorenzo, will take to the Sepang circuit on 6th February for three days of testing.
But before that, from 1st to 3rd of February – that's Friday through Sunday – the MotoGP factories will be present at Sepang for the first shakedown test of the year. Test riders from all six factories will take to the track, and will be joined by the riders for the factories with concessions, who are allowed unlimited testing.
The original point of the shakedown test was to allow factories to ensure that all of the parts they have brought for their contracted riders (e.g. full-time entries in MotoGP) to test are actually working, and do some preliminary preparation ahead of the official test. After all, the full-time riders cannot afford to waste a day while engineers and mechanics try to figure out why something which worked at the factory has ceased to work at the race track, for example.