The Qatar MotoGP test is turning out to be more intriguing than we dared hope. The track in the desert is a very different beast to the tropical Sepang, and throws up different challenges. That produces different winners and different losers. And that leaves us, the neutral observers, with much to chew on.
Some of the names at the top of the timesheets are the same: Alex Rins and Maverick Viñales have been fast all preseason, and the second day at Qatar was no exception. But seeing Fabio Quartararo in third is quite a surprise; at Sepang, the Petronas SRT Yamaha rider was way down in sixteenth, 1.2 seconds off the pace at the front.
Quartararo's secret? "Today has been the first time that when I put the new tire in, I disconnected my brain to say, OK, now it's time to make a time attack," he joked. So disconnected was his brain that he didn't even realize just how fast he was going. "The first lap time I made was a 1'55.0, and I didn't realize it was a 1'55.0. I thought it was a 1'56.0, and I said, 'I need to be faster!' The next lap, I made a 1'54, so the lap before was a 1'55!" He was happy that it was three quick laps in a row, proving that it wasn't just luck.
It is interesting to compare the fortunes of Quartararo and Pecco Bagnaia. At Sepang, Bagnaia was the rookie making all the waves, while Quartararo languished down the field. At Qatar, the roles are reversed, with Quartararo third, and Bagnaia down in fifteenth, over a second back.
With Aleix Espargaro ending the day as sixth quickest on the Aprilia RS-GP, and his brother Pol setting the tenth fastest time on the KTM RC16, we had all six MotoGP manufacturers inside the top ten. It is still only testing, but that in itself is a sign of just how healthy the championship is.
Alex Rins being quickest is proof of just how quick the Suzuki GSX-RR is, coming as it does off Rins' performance in Sepang. Rins has been quick, and consistently so, at both tracks. "I think if the race was tomorrow, we would be happy to start quickly!" Rins said. "Because as you can see, we are doing a very good job. In Sepang, and in Qatar during these two days, I think we are happy. The team and me. We confirmed all the things that we tried in Sepang, and also new parts, like the new exhaust Suzuki brought here to Qatar. I think we are in the good direction."
Suzuki's improvement has not come from radical change, Rins explained. A series of small steps and updates had honed and refined it into a bike which looks capable of winning races. "We did a small step, but a positive step. We didn't change the bike a lot, it is still similar to last year, but the small changes we made, they are important." The biggest improvement had been in braking, something Rins had been asking for since late last year.
Two doors to choose from
Maverick Viñales' second fastest time neatly illustrates the dilemma Yamaha find themselves in. Viñales is quick, and more importantly, he's happy. The bike still needs work, but it is heading in the right direction. "The consistency was much better," Viñales said. "I could ride quite well, when I put good new tires on, I felt great on the bike. I tried to keep my rhythm a little bit more, but finally I got some issues with the bike, and I went to the box. But anyway, I think we did a really good improvement from yesterday. So we need to keep focused on the right way, and we will try tomorrow to improve the acceleration, which I think we were losing some tenths there. And it's very important, especially for overtaking in the race, to not be passed by maybe some riders who you can get stuck behind in the race."
The bike was better on corner entry, and they had found more grip. The bike was the best bike he had ridden since he had arrived in Yamaha, Viñales said, though Yamaha wasn't the only factory to have made progress. "The only problem is the level is much higher! For sure the bike is now working quite well, I think it's the best bike we've had in two years, but the competitors made really good steps forward, so we need to keep working. Especially on acceleration."
While Viñales is happy and fast, Valentino Rossi is exactly the opposite. The Italian veteran ended the second day at Qatar in nineteenth, 1.2 seconds behind Alex Rins, and 1.15 seconds slower than his teammate. He was worried. "I hope with all my heart Maverick is right and I am wrong, because I think at the moment, we are not strong enough to fight for the victory," Rossi said.
They had worked a lot, but not found a solution. They had changed the setting, the weight distribution, the electronics, but the problems remained the same, Rossi said. "The bike slides a lot, and also at this track we suffer a lot in the straight, much more than at Sepang. The fact is that 10 km/h less than Honda and Ducati is a lot, it's logical to be worried."
How to explain the difference? Who knows. The situation in the Petronas SRT Yamaha team is the same, with Franco Morbidelli six tenths of a second slower than his teammate, and nine tenths off the pace of Viñales. The Yamaha appears to have made a big step forward, but it still appears to be highly sensitive. A bike which works at one track may not work at another, and competitiveness may vary between riders. There is still much work to be done.
Swings and roundabouts
The situation for Honda looks equally confusing. The 2019 bike is much more powerful, but the changes made have come at the price of confidence in the front end. "The front is not what it has been and what we're used to in all areas, going in, and in the middle of the corner," Cal Crutchlow said. "It's going to be a work on progress throughout the season.
Jorge Lorenzo echoed some of those sentiments, feeling he lacked confidence in the front end of the bike. But Lorenzo has bigger problems at the moment, still working on finding the perfect position on the bike. Honda were experimenting with different shapes and thicknesses of seat pads, to support him in acceleration through Sunday.
It helped a little. He improved his time by 1.3 seconds from Saturday, though that still left him in eighteenth. At least his gap to the front was not as bad, cut from 2 seconds to just 1.1 seconds.
The layout of the Qatar doesn't help the Hondas. Both Cal Crutchlow and Marc Márquez told reporters that they felt that Qatar was always a problem for the RC213V. Márquez, who has won repeatedly at just about every track, has only won once at Qatar, in 2014, the year he blew the opposition away.
At least he had felt better during the test, Márquez said. He was able to ride the way he wanted, his shoulder hindering him less. This meant he could work on the setting of the bike better, and actually ride hard enough to provide useful feedback data. Márquez finished the day in fifth, just behind Danilo Petrucci and ahead of Andrea Dovizioso, a solid result for the Spaniard, and a promising sigh he could be competitive.
The Ducatis, meanwhile, were concentrating on setup, their testing work mostly done. That, in itself, should give Dovizioso and Petrucci some confidence, as they are already competitive, and their bike will not change much before the racing starts.
Bits and pieces
There were a few technical updates to be seen at the test. Ducati and Honda brought the aero fairings they had tested at Sepang to Qatar, and work continued on those. Aprilia had a wider fairing, in search of improved aerodynamics, the fairing looking a little like Ducati's recent attempts. The smaller salad box (what Mat Oxley refers to as the 'Bento box') appeared on the Honda RC213V again, though we still don't know if it houses a mass damper as Ducati's is alleged to do. Given the location – offset to one side of the bike – this seems unlikely.
Yamaha also had a revised tail section, but unlike the Honda and Ducati, theirs was much slimmer and pointier. Ducati, meanwhile, debuted a strange aero contraption hanging over the lower half of the front wheel. It is legal, but what the point of it is, is a mystery. The Spanish sports daily has a gallery of various tech updates for you to ponder over.
And so we approach the final day of the test. The last day of the test is the day when there is nowhere left to hide. If you want to do a race run, this is your last opportunity, and given that nobody has attempted a full race run, that means just about the entire MotoGP grid. Then there's the bragging rights for the fastest lap, which both matters not a jot, and is the most important part of testing. Naturally, how you describe it depends on whether you were fastest or not. It may only be testing, but there is no quenching the competitive spirit which drives racers to do the truly remarkable things they do.
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