The first day of 2018 raised more questions than answers. Two days after not featuring at all in the race, the Movistar Yamaha riders finished first and fourth. A satellite Ducati – Jack Miller, on his first outing on the bike – was quicker than the factory riders. The only constants were Marc Márquez and Johann Zarco, who finished in exactly the same positions as they did on Sunday.
Confusion reigns at Yamaha, as they search for the cure to the problems which plagued them all through 2017. There were four bikes in Maverick Viñales' garage, three in Valentino Rossi's garage, and two different ones in Johann Zarco's pit box. They were testing all sorts of combinations of machinery: a 2016 bike with 2017 engine, and a full 2017 bike for Maverick Viñales; a 2016 bike with 2017 engine, a full 2017 bike, and a 2017 bike with a 2018 engine for Valentino Rossi; and a 2016 bike and a full 2017 bike for Johann Zarco.
The results? Pretty much identical, no matter what bike the riders were on. Viñales and Rossi were fastest on the 2016 bike, Zarco was fastest on the 2017 bike, and Rossi managed to throw the 2018-engined bike up the road after just two laps. The crash looked huge, but Rossi came away relatively unscathed.
The problem was entering a fast right corner with a new cold tire. "Turn ten," Rossi explained. "Maybe a cold tire. I was already with two and a half laps so I push. I lost the front. I don’t know if I was a little bit off the line or it was cold." Rossi may have been okay, but the bike was completely totaled.
Both Viñales and Rossi were happy on both the 2017 and 2016 chassis, but were fastest on the old frame. "The day was not so bad because we have a bit more time to work on the 2016 chassis and I feel good," Rossi said. "I feel strong. The day was positive because I have a good pace and also with the new tires I can make a good lap time. I am in the P4, not so far from the top. Also the feeling with the bike is quite positive. We were able to find the right balance. But the problem is – like we know – we have some problem with the rear tire degradation. So the ’16 is not enough. We need to work. But I confirm that I’m able to go faster with the old bike."
Viñales agreed enthusiastically with Rossi's assessment. "I felt much better every lap, I felt like I'm back as always, pushing the bike," Viñales said. "Already since the morning the first laps, I felt great, making this 1'31 low, and during all the day, I didn't leave the 1'31 low. Even with 29 laps on the tire, I continue to make this 1'31 low. So it looks like from nothing, all the feeling came again."
With feeling came enjoyment again. "Let's say I enjoyed it a lot today, because on a disastrous weekend, I was enjoying a lot riding, and I felt strong again," Viñales added. "It's something good. We tried some things, some positive, some negative, but anyway the lap time was there all the time. So I think we did a good job, always riding with the race setup, and especially the fuel tank completely full. We worked really well on that area, and I felt good. Finally I did the time attack and I felt great, I felt I could even go a bit faster, so I feel good on the bike again."
This was a complete reversal of fortunes for Viñales. "On the weekend, I was honestly sometimes crying every time I got off the bike, because I didn't understand what was going on if I didn't go as fast as usual, if I lost the feeling. But already this morning when I went on the bike, I felt good again and the smiling came again and that's something really important." The strange thing was that Viñales had been so much faster on exactly the same bike. "They didn't even clean it!" Viñales joked. "They said, we want it exactly the same, without cleaning..."
While Rossi and Viñales went quickest with the 2016 bike, Zarco was faster on the 2017 bike he had been given by Yamaha. Zarco was unclear precisely which spec it was, but only because he never wants to know that level of detail. "I just know that it was a different bike," he said. "But really, I don't try to know which bike it is, which bike they were using, because it's going to be too much information, and then my work will become complicated."
Zarco was clear about the benefits of the new (to him) bike. "For me, I got better feeling on the brakes. The bike was more stable, and this helped me to prepare the corner better. Also to relax myself on the bike. So when I got this better control on the brakes, then I enjoy much more on the bike. Just when we put the new tire at the end, 1'30.3 is quite good, but then I expected with another new tire to be faster, but I was not able to go into 1'29."
Being relaxed allowed him to conserve energy, and maintain his pace. "I'm not surprised to not feel negative things and I'm just happy that what I felt helps me to play even more on the bike," Zarco said. "I was able to be fast with the old bike, but sometimes spending energy, I think today I spent maybe 30% less energy, and that's so important to prepare a race."
2017 ain't that bad
Despite having a different view of the 2017 bike to the factory riders, Zarco pointed out that at times, both Rossi and Viñales had been able to be fast. "The factory riders got a problem at the end of the year, and then maybe were not able to solve the problem. That's why they have negative comments, but they had very good performance all season, so we cannot say the bike was bad. When we remember Valentino at Aragon, I think he did a great race, and he was with the injured leg, so if the bike was really bad and with the injury, he could not be in the front for almost all the race."
The one thing Zarco had not done was put full race distance on the tires. He only had a maximum of 20 laps on his rear tires, and so was not sure how they would fare over a race. "We did not do laps on tires with more than 20 laps, so this is going to be my target tomorrow, so push tires until 20 laps, then work for the last third of the race. Sometimes we have not a good feeling when we change tires, but we must remember that for Sunday, the race in the last ten laps was still very important. So maybe I will have some negative points from 20 to 30 laps, but this we will see tomorrow."
Zarco was entertainingly dismissive of suggestions that his speed was a problem for the factory Yamaha team. "I never heard that having a fast riders in your brand is a problem," he told us. "So it can only be good information and good things." Valentino Rossi was a little more sarcastic when asked about Zarco being fast on the 2017 bike. "I'm happy for him," he smiled in response to the Italian media.
The inconsistent feedback from their riders is a problem for Yamaha, but there could be another factor causing confusion. Despite the dust blown all over the track by Monday's strong winds, the track has a lot more grip now. With the Dunlop Moto2 rubber erased by Sunday's 30-lap race, and with dry and sunny conditions – a little cold, but otherwise perfect – the track is bursting with grip.
Yamaha's bugbear throughout the season has been the question of grip. At tracks with loads of grip - the newly resurfaced Le Mans, Aragon, Phillip Island – the bike is incredibly fast. At tracks without grip (or in the wet), the M1 struggles: Jerez and Barcelona were prime examples. If Yamaha continue their testing program at Valencia, and the grip levels hold, they could find themselves heading down another blind alley. They can only hope that mixed conditions at Sepang throw a spanner in the works, and give them some time on a track with low grip.
In all the confusion over chassis, the fact that Yamaha debuted a new aerodynamic package – very similar to the ones used by Ducati and Aprilia – with Maverick Viñales. Viñales' comments were positive, saying it helped in some corners. At any other test, this would be big news. But Yamaha have bigger fish to fry.
A new Honda
There were very few 2018 machines on display on Tuesday, but Honda had the first version of their bike for next year, which included a revised engine and exhaust system. The reaction was generally positive, though HRC's policy of Omerta means we learned little from their riders. Márquez was cautious. "We have an engine, we have a chassis, we have exhaust. Many different configurations and yeah, it was just the first laps. In the beginning they adjust all the things. Already I start to feel some small positive and small negative points. Anyway I want to wait, even with the engineers, until tomorrow and work more on that bike and see how which is the real level of the bike."
Cal Crutchlow was a little more forthcoming, but even he did not reveal too much. "They are trying to make the bike easier to ride, but keep our positives, which is corner entry… Gain grip, gain acceleration, gain speed," he explained. "I think they've done a good job because essentially what they have brought is a different engine, different chassis, basically a completely new bike. The strange thing is it feels similar, but with small changes. Some areas are worse, but I think there's a lot more positives than negatives that's for sure. It's only the first day on track, so we can be happy enough."
When he was asked what made the biggest difference, Crutchlow clammed up again. "I can't tell you," he smild. "But we haven’t done too much setting wise because we only got our hands on it yesterday and we've set it up very much like our normal race bike. Just as a reference, and then we'll go from there."
Ducati were similarly uninformative, despite having a slightly revised frame at their disposal. The real revelation is to come at the Sepang test for Ducati, but for the moment, they are only testing small evolutions. Jorge Lorenzo tested the new carbon forks, but he did not feel they helped him enough. He preferred to stay with his original forks.
Testing finishes on Wednesday. We will know far more by the end of the day then, as the teams will have had an evening to work through the data and optimize what they have. They will be hoping that Wednesday brings less confusion than today.
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