2019 Sepang MotoGP Test Friday Notes: Quick Takes On All Six Factories At The Test

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.

How that competitiveness came about is a matter for another day, when I have time to take a much deeper dive into the many revolutions and evolutions currently underway in the paddock. But for now, a few short notes and instant reactions to the three days of testing at Sepang.

Honda – the great absentee

Marc Márquez topped the timesheets on the first day of the Sepang test, arguably more to prove to himself that he could be quick than as a real measure of his speed on the Honda RC213V. On Thursday and Friday, Márquez was much further down the order, finishing some nine tenths behind the fastest rider on each day.

With Jorge Lorenzo absent, recovering from a broken scaphoid, the only other full-time rider on a factory-spec RC213V was Cal Crutchlow. But Crutchlow was not at full fitness either: though riding was easier than he had expected, the stiffness in his right ankle meant that he was slow on the rear brake (for relative values of 'slow'; no longer superhumanly quick and subtle would be a more accurate characterization).

Under normal circumstances, the three injured Honda riders would have been a much more prominent presence on the timesheets, pushing hard for a time, running race simulations, testing new parts. But Marc Márquez was focusing on acceleration and top speed, lacking the strength (and the willingness to risk losing the front while braking) to take corner entry to the absolute limit. And Cal Crutchlow's ankle didn't allow him to push for a race simulation: having a couple of crashes during the test served as warning enough not to push his luck too far.

That left only Stefan Bradl on the 2019 bike – Takaaki Nakagami is riding a 2018 Honda RC213V - to test the prototype bike HRC brought to Sepang. Bradl is an exceptional test rider, fast enough to be competitive, intelligent enough to provide excellent and precise feedback, but if he was as fast as Márquez, Lorenzo, or Crutchlow, he would still be in MotoGP.

This is a roundabout way of saying that the results of the Honda can be largely disregarded. For HRC, this was genuinely a test, working on parts and focusing on the long term, rather than the battle of egos shootout punctuated by some test work which tests usually end up as.

Take into account all the limitations which Honda faced at Sepang, and the competition should be deeply worried. Despite his dodgy shoulder, Márquez managed fast and consistent laps. Crutchlow was the same on the LCR Honda. Bradl was very close to the front on the prototype bike. Above all, there were very few complaints from the riders. There was still work to do, but the engine was fast – very fast, if rumors are to be believed – and the bike a little easier to manage than in previous years.

Honda may have been invisible at Sepang, but that was because they were operating under the radar. If Márquez is fit enough at Qatar, if Lorenzo continues to adapt as quickly as he did before the winter break, and if Crutchlow continues the momentum he picked up in the second half of 2018 before he shattered his ankle, Honda are going to very hard to beat.

Yamaha – a new mood

There were days last season, during Yamaha's Year In The Wilderness, when the small group of journalists who work together to cover all of the media debriefs would draw straws for who would go to the Yamaha hospitality to listen to Maverick Viñales, or 'Mardy Mav', as we would sometimes jokingly brand him. Viñales radiated despair and frustration in equal measure, and gave sullen answers to the media's questions.

That was different at Sepang. A change of crew chief – Ramon Forcada may be technically brilliant, but his fiery temperament can make him difficult to work with if characters clash – and a vastly improved Yamaha M1 have transformed Viñales' mood. With momentum going his way – Viñales is just as difficult to work with as Forcada – the Spaniard is very upbeat.

His race pace was outstanding on both Thursday and Friday, and he was fast on both the used medium and on the new soft tire, both with grip and lacking grip. As I chatted to Ducati Corse boss Gigi Dall'Igna after interviewing him about their use of the Megaride tire performance simulation software, it was Maverick Viñales whose name Dall'Igna brought up when asked about pace.

Valentino Rossi didn't feature quite so far up the timesheets, but the Italian was almost as positive as his teammate. Sure, he had problems – acceleration is a particular issue for the M1 – but the problem with tire consumption on used tires was largely addressed, and new ideas are on the way. That new atmosphere, the feeling that the engineers in Japan are on the same page as the riders in the Monster Energy Yamaha team, has restored the faith of the riders, and made them believe that solutions will come.

Was this a result of the changes in the team structure? Not really, a Yamaha team member said, pointing out that the parts responsible for the big step forward in performance had come from parts – the new engine, software updates, chassis parts – which had been under development for a long time before the changes had even been decided on.

Yamaha had started to turn this ship around some time ago. The changes made at the beginning of the year have only accelerated this. #BeastModeOn may well be a hashtag embodying a glib marketing slogan. But that doesn't mean that everyone inside Yamaha doesn't actually believe it.

Ducati – fast, slow, exotic

Lovers of weird tech porn were treated to a veritable cornucopia of visible updates (by MotoGP standards) from Ducati at Sepang. A new triple-decker aerodynamic package; the return of the torque arm; a trick carbon tank cover, slotted and vented for extra cooling (and designed using CFD to ensure that the turbulence around the rider's helmet did not impede that too much); and the wingnut lever on the top yoke, which may or may not be a holeshot device, or a cable for disabling the mass damper in the 'salad box' in the bike's tail, or, maybe even the lever which operates a latch which dispenses the dressing for the salad in the salad box. So much to see, and speculate about.

Whatever the updates did, the Ducati is at least fast. Maverick Viñales couldn't help but be impressed at his own time when he broke Jorge Lorenzo's fastest lap at Sepang on Friday morning. He was less impressed – or perhaps more impressed – when four Ducatis went even faster, with Danilo Petrucci at the head of them.

The order of the Ducati riders was perhaps as exciting as the speed at which the lap record fell. Danilo Petrucci remains the most underrated rider in the paddock – "because he comes from Superbike!" exclaimed Cal Crutchlow when asked – and is truly a rags-to-riches story. From Superstock to Moto2 to CRT to factory Ducati rider, making incredible sacrifices to work his way to the top. Petrucci can rightly be called a self-made man, unlike so many others who would bestow that title upon themselves.

Second fastest at Sepang? The rookie Pecco Bagnaia. Rookies are supposed to work their way up to speed, taking their time to learn how to ride a MotoGP bike. Bagnaia is a quick learner, intelligent, willing to listen and take advice. A fast lap proves Bagnaia's potential, but the real test will come during the races. The challenge of managing tires, maximizing their performance over every phase of the race, is a far tougher task. It may take the Italian a little longer to master, but his speed at Sepang suggests that this will come.

With Jack Miller and Andrea Dovizioso rounding out the top four, the GP19 is clearly quick, but Dovizioso was, as always, conscious that this was just a snapshot. "It doesn’t show the reality of the final result but I am happy," Dovizioso said. They had improved the bike, but a look at race pace shows the Ducatis are a tenth or two behind Maverick Viñales and Alex Rins.

Suzuki – you've come a long way baby

Suzuki is the test case for Dorna's new MotoGP rules. They came back when it was clear that a spec ECU was on the way, which meant one less component to develop and master, reducing costs. They grew competitive, won a race, chose the wrong engine for the 2017 season, and won concessions for 2018. They used those concessions wisely, and scored nine podiums that year. And if the rain hadn't caused a red flag in the race at Valencia, they might even have had a win.

The Sepang test suggests that Suzuki won't have much longer to wait. The bike benefited from the new engine debuted before the winter break, and a new fairing which improved both the anti-wheelie effect and top speed. Alex Rins had an outstanding test, his name being mentioned by most of the top riders, sometimes in a mixture of surprise and awe. "Alex Rins!" Andrea Dovizioso said, his voice rising in sync with his eyebrows.

Check the race pace on Rins and you will see he is second only to Viñales. He was obviously fast on Thursday, and quietly formidable on Friday. He is exuding an air of confidence, taking on the role of senior rider and growing easily into it. Rins is leading this project, and he wears that responsibility lightly. If I had to pick who will finish third in the championship in 2019 (behind Marc Márquez and either Maverick Viñales or Jorge Lorenzo), it would be Alex Rins.

KTM – the journey continues

The Austrian factory buried their riders under a veritable deluge of parts at Sepang, so much so that it felt like they were having difficult from telling the wood from the trees. But here, too, there were signs of real progress being made. Pol Espargaro felt that the bike was getting better in almost every area, its weaknesses being reduced, though much work still remains to be done.

More than that, though, there were signs that KTM's rider signings could pay dividends later this year. Johann Zarco kept a cool head and worked on what he needed to work on, rather than what a factory might want him to test. His diligence paid off: Zarco was faster than Pol Espargaro on Thursday, then repeated the feat on Friday. It is still very early in the process, but it is starting to look like KTM have the top rider they had hoped to sign for the 2019 season.

More positive is the fact that the RC16 appears to work with both the wild, hard-riding style of Pol Espargaro, and the smooth, inch-precise style of Johann Zarco. That is a sign that the base of the bike is solid, and they are moving towards the stage where development becomes refinement rather than revolution. Pol Espargaro estimated that they had cut their race pace by approximately half a second a lap. Where they are still struggling is in pushing for a single fast lap. When your bike is competitive in the race, you can't afford to qualify on the sixth row.

If Zarco's speed was good, Miguel Oliveira's pace was even more promising. The rookie in the Tech3 satellite team finished within a couple of tenths of the vastly more experienced Pol Espargaro, putting three of the four KTMs all in close proximity. Another fast learner, Oliveira is another rider to keep a close eye, the Sepang test tells us.

Aprilia – magical mystery tour

It was a strange week for Aprilia, a week of ups and downs. Aleix Espargaro was immensely enthusiastic about the 2019 RS-GP, believing that they were finally heading in the right direction after the misadventure of 2018. This was the direction they should have taken with the 2018 bike, building on the solid 2017 machine, instead of heading off into the weeds and losing a year.

Espargaro had both good speed and solid pace. He felt comfortable on the brakes, and the only thing that was missing was some power, he said. Aprilia had put themselves back in the game after a tough year.

They should have had two riders at the sharp end in Sepang, but Andrea Iannone appears to have found a way to sabotage his career once again. He missed the shakedown test on Sunday, part of the day on Wednesday and Thursday, and all of the final day on Friday. Officially, he was suffering the aftereffects of antibiotics used to treat a tooth infection, but most observers were skeptical of that explanation, to say the least.

The unsubstantiated rumor doing the rounds was that Iannone's problems stemmed from another bout of plastic surgery. Compare pictures of him from now, or from late 2018, to those taken while he was at Ducati in 2015, and he looks like a distant relative. For such a change to be natural seems vanishingly improbable.

And surgery comes with risks. The danger of infection is always present – one of the reasons Marc Márquez stopped riding so early every day was fear of inflammation of his healing shoulder – and the reconfigured bones in the face – modified nose, cheekbones, and jawlines are common – can play havoc with a helmet, the pads pushing bones weakened by surgery into positions they are not supposed to be.

Whether this is the case for Iannone or not is unknown. But Andrea Iannone has more raw talent than almost any other rider on the MotoGP grid. He has won a MotoGP race (no mean feat), and racked up poles and podiums. But he so often seems to find ways to get in the way of his own talent, of messing up chances he is given. Team bosses have a lot of patience with exceptionally gifted riders. But at some point, their patience can dry up.


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Total votes: 27
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Comments

David, I believe you have predicted above that Dovi will finish no higher than 4th in the 2019 championship (Rins comment)! Can't wait to read your analysis.

Total votes: 19

I am hoping that the potential displayed carries through the season (and it should by any measure). I know he won’t win the title just yet but he will be a challenger over the next few years and if Suzuki stick at it for the long haul they may have just found their next champion. 

I’m also hoping that the KTM gang can find a way to be up there too. Same best wishes for Aprilia (please rebrand your bikes to be Moto Guzzi and you will ignite a passion like no other). I’ve got a ton of respect for the top riders but there’s a couple that are just about to start on the downhill slope and it would be fantastic to have six genuine factory contenders to ensure that there is no easing of the pressure. We live in great times!!

Now on a more serious note: About a year ago I made an offer to Herve Poncharal to act as a fill in rider after Folger left the nest. Sadly he didn’t respond ...... my feelings aren’t hurt ..... much .....

With Jorge out for a while, Danny recovering from stem cell surgery, Cal and MM still recovering, Iannonne carrying goodness knows what infections, I’d like once again to offer my services to any of the factories in need of a token test rider. I’m actually pretty quick on my Honda Cub. My guarantee is that I will be thorough in testing the bottom end speed of the bikes ...... usually first gear but if insurance is no issue I will change up to second gear. Think about it .... no issues with excessive tyre wear, I will be giving your hard fought for sponsorship exposure (the You Tube videos would go viral). My aerodynamic bicycle helmet (you know the weird Olympic ones) will cast doubt into the mind of the other factories ala Gigi Dalligna mind games. Just putting it out there you know .....

Total votes: 40

to the world stage in the guise of Iannone.  Pity.

Great write up David, thankyou.

As for the rest of the test, one word - WOW.  It is doing my head in thinking about how many of the combinations may end up being competitive, I just hope the riders and teams are also enjoying this as much as the fans are.

That the Honda is a goodun seems to fit especially as they only had to modify not redesign.  I'm less convinced about Yamaha, especially as it's MV saying it's great, he says that every time he goes fast and then he says it's terrible whenever he goes slow but there is nothing in between and seemingly no analysis by himself as to what is actually wrong.  Having said that it seems the bike is a LOT better than last year.  Ducati, hmmm.. I would like this to be Dovi's year but he might just spend the year fighting other ducati's first.  My concern for Suzuki is the same as always - less resources than the competition, still if Rins gets on a roll he might just find he stays up there.  Really pleased Zarco is showing his class, can only help but improve the bike.

again, WOW

Total votes: 45

This season surely can’t live up to its potential, can it? Not only do we have all six factories (relatively) happy with their progress, we’ve also got incredibly fast rookies, Tito Rabat-again- and the previously described ‘Go-Ianno’. Though I personally feel Maniac is closer to the spirit of Luccinelli then Gobert.

Many circuits had record attendance last year and already, many on-sale venues’ grandstands are sold out -believe me, I know... Unless MM clears off again, which at least appears less likely this season, it’s gonna be a barn-burner (an American phrase I gather). 

And changing the Aprilia name to Moto Guzzi is a comment of pure genius, though Piaggio groups’ brand strategy is better served with the former: but the latter, what a history!

So where are some of you lovely folk headed to witness this feast of speed in 2019?

 

Total votes: 15

Pecco Bagnaia! Not possible. Not going to say "just testing" on this pace upon MotoGP arrival. Deeply impressed. This kid has been pegged to challenge the front with very good reason. Single standout for me.

Ducati lineup and team strategy next. More rather unique Ducati approaches, including Dovi and Petrucci choosing/encouraged to train like Espargaro brothers. FIVE very strong riders. The holeshot device (raise and stiffen rear?) is REALLY interesting. If it works it will spread fast. Manufacturers cup?

The Yamaha and Maverick look good. The Yamaha project continues along good lines of progress. Morbidelli and Quartararo are doing the business. Rossi, a Sunday and race pace guy, will be there. Hard work very underway.

The chemistry in Maverick's garage, and the whole organization really, seems much better. Little need to demonize either Vinales or Forcada. (Nor to over attribute causality of poor Yamaha performance to such things as differing bike preference amongst VR46 and MV25-12). Forcada, a seasoned and strong figure, pushed Maverick towards fewer incremental changes. Maverick pushed for lots of changes to find a different base set up. Vinales looked like he needed some settling down as he grabbed at the possible. Forcada attempted to build from their base, and support a rider in adapting to a new bike and program. Their interpersonal chemistry may have been somewhat poor, but this is a pinch point of great convergent energies. Forcada a capacitor, to which Maverick amped up. Both werere responding to the context of a bike and project mired in backwaters.

The Michelin tires and championship electronics have been something every factory and rider have had to respond to. Yamaha brass have been very slow, incremental and cautious. Their cow is no longer sacred. Reinvention is underway. Impedance removed. This has been the progression of things. Little of it is personal. Again, same for what I see as an overstated (and sensational) consideration of the incongruent wants of their two (now 3) riders. Yes, an insider will share that there was a struggle amongst Valentino and Maverick to guide development. And we see a new MV12 crewchief. These pieces are tempting to stick in to a desired formulaic answer for "why is the Yamaha bad?" But the complex bigger dynamic and inter-relation of factors both gross and particulated? Less satisying, but much more accurate. Sorry popular press! (Even here at Motomatters?) Near the close of 2018 Maverick drastically changed his tone to a gracious one. Why? The changes were underway at Yamaha. And now 25 is 12. He is reinventing himself too. With white accents, the good guy.

Let's make mention of Morbidelli again. This is a very good adaptation to the new bike. And a good thing he is arriving on it now rather than a year ago eh? The bike that Quartararo is on will remain a bit of an unknown parts bin special. It isn't a 2018. The 2018 Yamaha was scrapped. As was the 2017, Herve and Zarco campaigned a hybrid Mr Potato Head bike for 2018. With much success that deserves appreciation! I bought a jersey in remembrance.

The pace of the 2019 crop deserves note. As does the tight spread of times. Only two of our racers are not on pace, Abraham and Syahrin. Some test riders are off too, but several have been making solid contributions.

Kallio for instance was running in everyone's race bikes. It is a bit difficult to represent the speed of a rider in testing when they are doing development donkey work. Some riders and sorting bikes for certain targeted areas of growth. Some others are on a time attack chasing a Q lap. But before you shrug it ALL off as "just testing," may as well notice what there is to see eh?

A.Espargaro, Morbidelli and Nakagami were all sniffing at 1:58's. Battered Crutchlow was there. Bagnaia already ran a 58.302!?! Holy shite!

Rins and the Suzuki deserve praise. So does the KTM project,. Zarco, P.Espargaro, AND Oliveira are there. More than the 17th position indicates, the improvement is impressive. A 59 flat is amazing pace here, and 6 tenths off is good work.

Marquez shot one over the bow with his first day pace at this point in recovery. So did Cal. This Honda may be strong. Ominous paddock talk about the power on tap, but a bit early to say much given humidity etc.

Ducati? Looking great. I see Dovisioso challenging the front. The bike is on an upward trend. He is working very hard. Other riders will be struggling with the other 3 Ducatis just like he is, but less in that they are ALL team players looking to make Bologna happy and get the 2nd factory seat. Watch for a collaborative team, and contrast this with Honda. But Marquez thrives with challemge, including a competitive team mate.
Yep.
WOW!

P.S.
FACIAL COSMETIC SURGERY FOR IANNONE KEEPING HIM FROM RIDING?! The sort of thing that one might hope to dream up for hyperbole of outlandish humor. But would pass on as too far from believable. Contrast with a very injured and vulnerable Cal putting in unbelievable laps. With Petrucci moving his home, bathing in ice, changing his lifestyle, working with team mates etc and topping the sheets. Cosmetic surgery?! This isn't real is it? He will have the success that he is cultivating. The talent is there. Yearn to be holding Carrasco's umbrella Andrea? Then you will get to. I have to say, there is something enjoyable about having you in the circus. But you have REALLY disappointed. You are going to realize this a bit late friend, but for a LONG time. And unlike Michael Jackson, you never had your "Thriller" season. Just a funny looking nose. Call the psychologist whenever. It can help.

Total votes: 40

Honestly, every time I come back to read a new article of David I can't wait to read all the comments below it. Everybody is doing an amazing job to keep this running so perfectly. David is making his dream job come true but at a personal cost that he only knows abou it and the people that write the comments add the much needed pepper that complement the whole experience. The only thing I would add is automatic renewal to my subscription. 

Total votes: 14

To paraphrase:
It's easier to teach a fast rider how to make tyres last than it is to make a slower rider to go faster.

I look forward to another budding Zarco!

Total votes: 11

Moto Guzzi, yea! As a Guzzi fanatic/racer for the last 40 years, I'd love to see them back on the grid. Sadly, Piaggio has designated Aprilia the sport brand, and Guzzi the touring/cruiser brand. Iannone with a jaw infection, more likely a bad tooth than plastic surgery, but who knows. I said it a few days ago, Marquez will have to learn to ride smooth, and will be faster as a result of his injury recovery. I'll take it a step further, once Lorenzo gets on the Honda and Marquez gets to see JL's data, this will accelerate the process. Mark my words, if you thought domination by MM was bad, it will be worse by mid-season. Dovi, Dovi, Dovi... How many times have you had A-Number One kit, and always the bridesmaid. Now Ducati is assembling a team of points takers (for the opposition) to help you along. Interesting strategy. Will Petrucci pull over for Dovi rather than take his first win? It would be sad to see. 

Total votes: 16

Has anyone else seen his Facebook page? He's posted photos on it dressed like he's a fashion model now! It seems his priorities are changing suddenly. He may not have a ride by the end of this season if he's off doing this instead of training.

Total votes: 0