What did we learn from the Sepang MotoGP test? More than we thought we would on Sunday night. The forecast was grim: plenty of sporadic rain and a track that wouldn't dry quickly promised three wasted days. But by the time the teams packed up on Wednesday night, after nearly a full day of testing, Sepang had turned out to be both productive and instructive.
After three days of testing it is clear just how close the field is this season. The top ten riders are separated by just four tenths of a second. Sixteen riders are within a second, from Maverick Viñales in first to Hector Barbera in sixteenth. The top four riders are on four different manufacturers, less than two tenths apart, and there is a good mix of manufacturers throughout the top of the timesheets.
The two exceptions are Aprilia and KTM, but there is hope for them too. Aprilia have made huge strides last year - Aleix Espargaro is thirteenth, 0.740 behind Viñales, and two whole seconds closer to the front than Stefan Bradl and Alvaro Bautista were at the same test last year – and now basically just lack horsepower. KTM are in their first season in MotoGP, but are already closer at Sepang than Suzuki were at their first Sepang test in 2015. The level in MotoGP is now unbelievably high, and unbelievably close.
Showdown for the young guns
That does not mean there are no real favorites, though. A quick scan of the full lap times offers some interesting insights. In terms of race pace, there are two riders who are head and shoulders above the rest. While there were a lot of riders with fast times, Maverick Viñales and Marc Márquez were consistently lapping faster than anyone else was capable of matching.
A few numbers. There were ten riders who lapped in the 1'59s. Valentino Rossi, Jorge Lorenzo, Andrea Dovizioso, and Johann Zarco did it for 1 lap. Casey Stoner did it for 2 laps. Dani Pedrosa, Alvaro Bautista, and Marc Márquez did it for 3 laps. Cal Crutchlow managed 4 laps in the 1'59s. But Maverick Viñales hammered out a total of 10 laps faster than two minutes.
Expand the times to include laps in the 2'00 mark and the dominance of Márquez and Viñales is clear. Viñales had 20 laps in the 2'00 to go with his 10 in 1'59. Márquez' pace was positively searing: he may have had only three 1'59s, but he cranked out a massive quantity of 39 laps in the 2'00 bracket, twice as many as most of his competitors. And they were fast laps too: 26 were sub 2'00.5, and 35 were sub 2'00.7. He did 14 laps of 2'00.4. That is a positively Lorenzo-like consistency.
Marc vs Maverick
I will take a deeper dive into the numbers in the next day or two, but the message is clear. After Sepang, it is Maverick vs Marc, with the defending champion having the upper hand for now. The same thing happens to every great champion, of course: a young upstart comes through the ranks to challenge his ascendancy. It looks like Márquez' usurper came quicker than he might have hoped.
The two had spent a few laps sizing each other up during the day. Viñales was quick to downplay the significance of the encounter. When asked what he had learned from seeing Márquez on the track, he answered, "nothing. We were just passing and enjoying. We weren’t learning so much, we were not riding really fast." He was being more than a little economical with the truth. Riders never pass up a chance to see where their rivals are strong and weak. Especially when the other rider is the main obstacle between themselves and a title.
Viñales looked utterly at ease on the Yamaha, cool and comfortable as braked deep into Turn 1, then hopped from one side of the bike to the other through Turn 2, before smoothly controlling the power slide through Sepang's magnificent Turn 3. The traction there was one of the things which had surprised Viñales most. "It’s really, really constant, so you can work a lot on the entry of the corner, the corner speed. Honestly it makes it easy to make the lap time all the time on the same pace," he said.
Yamaha make a step
Viñales' comfort levels were a sign of how improved the Yamaha is. Through the same section, Rossi looked better than he did last year. Rossi and Viñales both tried a new chassis, which they both felt were positive. Unfortunately for the media and fans, Yamaha appear to have imposed a blanket ban on their riders speaking in anything other than the broadest generalities. Questions about what the new chassis did better, or how the new enclosed wing ducts worked were met with a refusal. When I asked Rossi where the chassis felt better, he laughed and said "in general!" Rossi's wit allows him to duck questions like that with ease.
Viñales still left a few question marks hanging over the new chassis. "I like it but still there are some things that we need to improve," he told us. Viñales had not done a race simulation on Wednesday, and felt he needed to do a full run on the chassis to make a final decision.
Ducted vanes, or the loophole
Though the riders were forbidden from commenting on them, Yamaha were at least happy for the media to look at their new aerodynamic appendages. The "ducted vanes", as I am told they are called by respected F1 technical writer Craig Scarborough, were fitted to bikes used for most of the day by both Movistar Yamaha riders, the bikes parked openly in the garage.
Yamaha had been secretive about them on their first run out in case they had not worked as expected. The fear was that other factories might have copied the design and solved the issues, giving them an advantage. The fact that Yamaha were putting them on display suggests that the design was a success, and they can get on with the job of refining them to make them even better.
The design is fairly simple. A solid bridge of material, open front and rear, containing two vanes or wings with a slight upward curve at the rear tip. It is elegant (well, compared to wings) and effective, and removes any safety concerns which may have existed about the wings. "This is how they should have been in the first place," a Yamaha mechanic said.
Allowing something to stick out perpendicular to the fairing was inherently unsafe, and this was better. There are already plenty of parts on a MotoGP bike which can and do cause serious injuries, such as non-folding footpegs, or even worse, the vicious C supports fitted to the rear swing arms of Moto3 bikes for use with the paddock stands. Adding winglets had been unnecessary, when there were safer options.
While Yamaha were testing their new ducted vanes, Honda were working on their new engine. HRC had brought two specs of their big bang engine to Sepang, though Honda were being just as secretive about the details. Japanese journalist Akira Nishimura had asked HRC technical director Shinichi Kokubu about the engines, and all Kokubu-san would say is to correct Nishimura's assertion that the engine was a 'big bang' engine, preferring to call it a "big-bang style" engine.
What should we infer from that? Probably that the RC213V has changed the firing interval to bring the ignition points for each cylinder closer together, but that the two banks of cylinders are not firing together. HRC may be offsetting the two big ends, or they may be firing one set of cylinders together, and the other set 360° apart. The difference between the 'old' engine (tested at Valencia and Jerez) and the 'new' engine (introduced at Sepang) will be in these details. There was no obvious audible difference between the engines when I heard them go by, no matter who was riding the bikes.
Neither Marc Márquez nor Dani Pedrosa had come to a conclusion about which engine they preferred. Nor were they particularly forthcoming about it, Pedrosa saying merely that they had collected the necessary data and that it was now down to HRC to examine it in more detail, and draw the appropriate conclusions.
Márquez did give a little more detail. Reading between the lines of his statements on Wednesday, it appears that the two engines differ in the amount of power they have, and how they deliver it. One has more bottom end, which helps with acceleration, but lacks top end, so it loses on the straights. The other has less bottom end, making it harder to manage out of corners, but is more powerful. "Now we need to decide which way we follow: work with one and try to get more power or try to manage the new one," Márquez said.
Márquez' statements are reminiscent of 2015 and 2016, when the Honda riders also found themselves fighting an aggressive engine. That aggressive engine cost Marc Márquez the 2015 title, as he threw away several races by crashing out trying to keep up. In 2016, Márquez took a more balanced approach, accepting that he would have to lose the occasional battle if he was to win the war at the end of the year.
So naturally, we wanted to know if this was history repeating itself. Had HRC once again managed to build an engine which was horrible to ride and difficult to manage? "Last year we were much more far from the top guys and were struggling much more. Last year, here at this moment, I didn't understand nothing. Now we understand," Márquez said.
He was still cautious, however. In 2015, he had been caught out by the Sepang test. A big, wide circuit in very high temperatures disguised the issues with power delivery. That lesson had made him wary. "We know where are the problems. But also I want to wait for another circuit. Because here in Malaysia is a special circuit, special conditions, really warm. I had the experience in 2015 where I was really fast here and then struggling a lot at the other circuits."
Flying salad box
What of Ducati? Both Jorge Lorenzo and Andrea Dovizioso used the new 2017 bike – with the black "salad box" under the tail – and compared it favorably to the Valencia 2017 prototype they had been focusing on for the first two days of the test. But it was still at an early stage of development, the two Ducati men said, and was more of a development for later on.
Jorge Lorenzo left the test confident, and much relieved. The first day of the test had been "a big shock", the bike behaving so differently than he remembered from the Valencia test. "In Valencia, there were less hairpins and less braking, and with my normal riding I was quite competitive," Lorenzo said. At Sepang, he had been forced to adapt much more than he had anticipated riding on a track which exposed a different side to the bike's character.
It reminded him of when he was much younger. "The worst thing was that I was not used to it. I was used to always being competitive and always fast with my riding," he said. "And I remembered when I was 17 and too far from the top, and I needed to change so much my riding. But that's what happen when you change the bike and you change to a complex bike like the Ducati."
Adapt or die
He had already started to make some changes to his riding style. "We already changed so many things," he explained. "I needed to ride the bike a little more aggressively, more on-off with the throttle and also in braking. Also the bike needs to improve in some areas that Gigi and the engineers know. But also we have a lot of strong points that we can take profit from in the future."
Standing track side on Wednesday morning, some of those changes were clear to see. At Turn 1, Lorenzo was clearly experimenting with braking, releasing the brakes much later than he used to, using different lines, and sometimes overshooting slightly. But fundamentally, Lorenzo still looked the same on the Ducati: comfortable and smooth, just as he did on the Yamaha. In the flick from right to left between the hairpin at Turn 1 and the tight left of Turn 2, it was hard to see him move, so smooth were his transitions. This was a rider in his element.
That explained his confidence at the end of the day. "Finally, a big improvement in just two days. I think we are still very far from our limit, but this is a good thing, because we are far from our limit but we are already fast. That means that when we get there we will be very very fast."
He had been helped in no small part thanks to the input of Ducati test rider Michele Pirro, who will be working with Lorenzo as a track analyst. Pirro had gone through the same experience, and could help guide Lorenzo. "He knows exactly what to do to adapt yourself very quickly, because he stayed here four or five years, and at the beginning, he felt more or less the same as me, because he also prefers to have corner speed. So he gave me advice, and finally, using his advice works on the track."
It brakes again
The bike itself is improved as well. The one point which all Ducati riders had complained of was getting the bike to turn in the middle of the corner. That had already been partially addressed, Andrea Dovizioso said. "I think the turning is better because we don’t have the winglets but still I think it’s not good like some other bikes. That’s why I believe this is one of the points I’m convinced we have to improve." Ducati is due to roll out an aerodynamics package at Qatar, at which point we will see whether it adversely affects the turning of the GP17.
One area which had seen clear improvement was stability under braking, and the ability to brake deeper into the corner. This had been the strong point of the GP13 and GP14, and the one place where Dovizioso had been able to exploit his strength on the brakes. Ducati had sacrificed a lot of that when they built the GP15, opting to cure the bike's chronic understeer instead.
Since then, Ducati Corse has been trying to regain some of the braking performance they had given up. They had been successful with the GP17, Dovizioso told us. "I can brake well but especially be aggressive on entry." He saw that this gave him some advantages compared to other bikes. "We are really competitive when compared to our competitor. I saw some riders during these three days and it was nice to ride with them."
Thumb brakes back in fashion
One detail which popped up in pit lane was that one of Jorge Lorenzo's bike was fitted with a thumb-operated rear brake, just like Andrea Dovizioso's. A quick glance down pit lane saw more bikes similarly equipped. The thumb brake is basically a small lever mounted under the left clip on, and operated by the rider's thumb.
Dovizioso explained that the reason riders use them is that it allows them to put the ball of their foot on their right footpeg before entering the corner. They can then apply the rear brake using their thumb, to help the bike turn in mid corner. Lorenzo had not actually been using the thumb brake, we were told.
The GP17 was not the only Ducati Desmosedici which was quick at Sepang. Alvaro Bautista was rapid too. The Pull&Bear Aspar Ducati man described the GP16 he is riding (basically, one of the bikes rolled out of the factory garage and into Aspar at Valencia) as the best MotoGP bike he has ridden. "It’s a very complete bike. The engine is very strong, it’s very smooth and also the handling for me is very nice," he said.
Corner exit was the only place he was struggling – coincidentally, the one point where the winglets helped – but the bike suited his style. It is a machine which needs to be ridden and steered using the rear wheel, perhaps a reason the Ducati has adapted so well to the Michelins, which have outstanding rear grip and control.
Bautista spent a lot of time working on used tires, and racked up 25 laps in the 2'00. His pace was not as good as Márquez' or Viñales', however, as 20 of Bautista's 2'00 laps were over 2'00.5 and 15 between 2'00.7 and 2'01.0. That is still an impressive pace for a year-old bike, however. Bautista is clearly motivated, and happy to be back with a team he knows well.
The Spanish veteran also has a much easier job than the factory riders. Bautista has only bike set up to worry about and work on. "In the past I did different work developing a bike," he explained. "Now I have the bike base already done so I don’t need to test a new frame, a new swing arm, a new engine, new electronics, new software. I can just concentrate on myself and try to get the maximum performance of the bike."
Tomorrow, in part 2, we will take a look Suzuki, KTM, and Aprilia, discuss the MotoGP rookies, and cast a quick glance at the new tires Michelin brought to the test.
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