Normally, when comparing times from a test, it makes the most sense to stick to a single year. But sometimes, there are good reasons to look back at past years, in search of a larger and more universal pattern. Comparing the best laps of riders who were in the championship last year and this year proves to be a highly instructive exercise.
Doing that, there is one thing that immediately leaps out at you. The two riders who improved the most between the two seasons are the two who switched between a Honda and a Ducati. Honda riders will freely tell you that the RC213V is very physical to ride, and the fate of rookies who have come into the championship on a Honda has not been great. Tito Rabat came to MotoGP as Moto2 champion, but struggled to make an impression on the Honda. On a Ducati, he finished the test ahead of factory riders Aleix Espargaro and Andrea Iannone, and just seven tenths behind Lorenzo on the Ducati.
Jack Miller's improvement is not quite as impressive as Rabat's but he too took over a second off his time from last year. The Pramac Ducati GP17 really suits him, which is reflected in his results. At Sepang in 2017, Miller finished seventeenth overall. This year, he left as fifth fastest.
The two KTMs are also among the most improved, but that is to be expected given that the RC16 was an entirely new project in 2017. More interesting is the fact that the most improved riders also include two men on a GP18. Jorge Lorenzo made huge steps forward, but that was to be expected, given the difficulty he had at first in adapting to the Ducati. But Danilo Petrucci also made a big step forward, going nearly eight tenths faster this year than he went last year.
Petrucci's 2018 time was set on a GP17, which is also a testament to his attitude this year. The Italian has lost a lot of weight - he told us 4kg, but other journalists say he told them as much as 8kg - but he has also been working on his riding style, to try to be smoother with the throttle and not slide the tires so much. That probably gained him a couple of tenths as well.
At the other end of the table, the names of Marc Marquez and Maverick Viñales are worth noting. Marquez never really went all out for a quick time this year, finishing seventh on all three days. But Viñales is in a more difficult place: the 2018 Yamaha is much better in terms of race pace, but neither Rossi nor Viñales managed to set a quick lap time on the final day, when most riders were chasing a fast lap.
Worthy of note are the contrasting fortunes of Alex Rins and Andrea Iannone. Rins improved his best time from last year by over seven tenths, while Iannone was over a tenth slower than last year. It is hard to draw conclusions about the Suzuki GSX-RR from those numbers: Rins was a rookie in 2017, and so should be expected to have made a big step forward. Iannone, on the other hand, was exceptionally quick in 2017, but failed to impress at the test this year.
This anomaly could also be explained by the fact that Suzuki focused on testing the engine in Sepang, rather than chasing a time. The Japanese factory learned their lessons last year, when their new riders chose an engine which turned out to be wrong for the bike, and hampered their campaign. Both Rins and Iannone are convinced that the 2018 bike is better, so we may have to wait until Qatar to find out the reality of the situation.
Alvaro Bautista lost the most time between the two tests, despite going from a bike that is supposed to be a clear improvement. One explanation for that could be due to his weight: Bautista is one of the lightest riders on the grid, and was complaining that he was struggling with rear grip on the Ducati GP17. If Bautista can't get heat into the rear tire in Sepang, it could be a difficult year, though the Spaniard was confident his team would solve the problem with setup. He will only really be able to tell how bad the problem is once the paddock arrives in Qatar. The next test is in Buriram in Thailand, where the tropical heat will warm the tires. In Qatar, a colder track awaits.
Best laps 2017 vs 2018:
|53||Tito Rabat||Honda RC213V||2:02.190||Ducati GP17||1:59.547||-2.643|
|43||Jack Miller||Honda RC213V||2:00.439||Ducati GP17||1:59.346||-1.093|
|44||Pol Espargaro||KTM RC16||2:01.338||KTM RC16||2:00.262||-1.076|
|99||Jorge Lorenzo||Ducati GP17||1:59.766||Ducati GP18||1:58.830||-0.936|
|38||Bradley Smith||KTM RC16||2:01.338||KTM RC16||2:00.520||-0.818|
|9||Danilo Petrucci||Ducati GP17||2:00.310||Ducati GP18||1:59.528||-0.782|
|42||Alex Rins||Suzuki GSX-RR||2:00.057||Suzuki GSX-RR||1:59.348||-0.709|
|35||Cal Crutchlow||Honda RC213V||1:59.728||Honda RC213V||1:59.052||-0.676|
|26||Dani Pedrosa||Honda RC213V||1:59.578||Honda RC213V||1:59.009||-0.569|
|4||Andrea Dovizioso||Ducati GP17||1:59.553||Ducati GP18||1:59.169||-0.384|
|5||Johann Zarco||Yamaha M1||1:59.772||Yamaha M1||1:59.511||-0.261|
|46||Valentino Rossi||Yamaha M1||1:59.589||Yamaha M1||1:59.390||-0.199|
|41||Aleix Espargaro||Aprilia RS-GP||2:00.108||Aprilia RS-GP||1:59.925||-0.183|
|93||Marc Marquez||Honda RC213V||1:59.506||Honda RC213V||1:59.382||-0.124|
|25||Maverick Viñales||Yamaha M1||1:59.368||Yamaha M1||1:59.355||-0.013|
|17||Karel Abraham||Ducati GP15||2:00.445||Ducati GP16||2:00.574||+0.129|
|29||Andrea Iannone||Suzuki GSX-RR||1:59.452||Suzuki GSX-RR||1:59.615||+0.163|
|45||Scott Redding||Ducati GP16||2:00.645||Aprilia RS-GP||2:00.812||+0.167|
|19||Alvaro Bautista||Ducati GP16||1:59.628||Ducati GP17||2:00.205||+0.577|