It is becoming a familiar pattern. Whenever MotoGP bikes gather for a timed session, Fabio Quartararo usually finds a way to get his name to the top of the list. Usually by using the cunning strategy of riding his motorcycle that little bit faster than anyone else. It happened with increasing frequency during the 2019 season. It happened again on the first day of the Sepang test in 2020. And it was no different on the second day.
It didn't look that way at the start of Quartararo's first day on the Factory Spec Yamaha M1. (As I explained to MotoMatters.com subscribers on Thursday, there are now two different specifications of Yamaha M1 – the Factory Spec ridden by Quartararo, Maverick Viñales, and Valentino Rossi; and the A Spec, ridden by Franco Morbidelli.) For most of the day, Quartararo's name was some way down the timesheets. But at the end of the day, as track temperatures dropped back into the zone where grip makes a reappearance, Quartararo banged out a lap faster than the rest, leapfrogging past Jack Miller to finish the day as fastest.
Jack Miller being second fastest on the Ducati should come as no surprise – the Australian is comfortable with the GP20, and can see the potential in the machine. But it is more of a surprise to see a test rider in third on the timesheets. Dani Pedrosa once again demonstrated his enormous value to KTM by showing exactly what the RC16 is capable of. Pedrosa's time of 1'58.662 is his fastest ever lap around the Sepang track, better than anything he ever managed on a Honda.
Competitive at last?
But it wasn't just over a single lap: friend of MotoMatters and fellow Paddock Pass Podcaster Neil Morrison compiled a list of who had been most consistently in the 1'59 bracket: Pedrosa had 10 laps in the 1'59s, more than KTM factory rider Pol Espargaro, and the Ducatis of Jack Miller, Andrea Dovizioso, and Danilo Petrucci, and the same number as Valentino Rossi and Miguel Oliveira.
Oliveira's performance also underlined just how good the KTM is. Oliveira is still recovering from shoulder surgery, and not yet back to full strength, so he only managed to do 42 laps, fewer than Miller, Dovizioso, Petrucci, Rossi, and Pedrosa. Yet he was consistently in the 1'59s all day.
It is also worth noting just how strong both the Suzukis and the Yamahas are now. All four Yamahas finished in the top ten, from Quartararo in first to Rossi in tenth, and the Suzukis finished fourth and seventh. There were also two KTMs, with Pol Espargaro joining Pedrosa in the top ten, the lone Ducati of Miller, and Marc Márquez as the best Honda. As a reminder, the 2019 Sepang MotoGP test finished with four Ducatis and two Hondas in the top ten.
Quicker bikes, better tires
To what can we attribute this apparent changing of the guard? There are two different factors at play here. First, development at Yamaha and Suzuki has been strong in the second half of 2019, and the beginning of 2020. The Yamaha M1 was already a good bike, but it lacked top speed. Yamaha appear to have addressed that, both in the Factory Spec bikes used by Rossi, Viñales, and Quartararo, and in the A Spec bike used by Franco Morbidelli.
"The top speed improved quite a lot from yesterday to today, nearly 5 km/h, which is always really good," an upbeat Maverick Viñales told journalists. "We were at the level of some other manufacturers, which is always very important. Tomorrow I will try to go with another rider, to see the potential of the bike, especially in the straight, to see if after the slipstream we can be faster or not."
Some that top speed comes from the bike, Valentino Rossi said. "For me the bike has a better potential than last year," the Italian veteran said. "But we need to work because also the other manufacturers made steps and like I said before Suzuki, Ducati, Honda they are very very strong. So we need to continue to work hard but looks like we are in a good direction."
Grip is drive
But some of the improvement also comes from the 2020 Michelins. The rear has more grip, and that is allowing the Yamahas to get better drive out of corners and onto the straight. The speed deficit has been reduced, giving the Yamaha riders the chance to fight on equal terms. The top speed gap has come both because the engine has more top end, but just as much because the bikes are carrying more speed through the corner, getting better drive on the exit, and then having a little bit more top end to help the bike gather speed down the straight.
The rear Michelin has also helped the Suzuki. Last year, Alex Rins and Joan Mir struggled to put in a fast lap, and suffered in qualifying as a consequence. At the 2019 Sepang test, the Suzukis both finished outside the top ten. A stronger engine and a host of small upgrades around the bike have given the GSX-RR real speed over a single lap, the grippy rear Michelin contributing to more drive.
That has the Ducati riders worried. "Sincerely, the classification is maybe our weakest point at the moment because we didn't understand how to use the soft tire," Danilo Petrucci said. "We have been better with the medium. For sure we tried, in the middle of the day, to use one soft tire but we were not fast! For this reason I'm a little bit worried."
"Everybody is really focused on the tire because it’s different," Andrea Dovizioso said. "I still don’t feel as good as I want. The grip is there but the tire and the way it works is a bit strange compared to the previous one. About the pace I’m quite fast but I’m not comfortable."
Corner speed is king again?
Dovizioso was not surprised that the different feeling from the rear meant that the Suzukis and Yamahas were quicker. "I think, from what I feel from the tire, I think it can help a bit more the bike which you can make a bit more speed in the middle of the corners," the Italian said. "I Still think there is a lot of work to do for everybody so I don’t know how much margin there is from us and from the competitors. But I’m not that surprised because in the way they have to ride, maybe it works a bit better. But only the race can show."
Both Dovizioso and Marc Márquez had had crashes, which other riders blamed on the grippy Michelin rear pushing the front, a little like it did at the start of the Michelin era. "Trying to get this balance right with this rear tire, it sort of tends to push the front a little bit," is how Jack Miller described it. "I don't know if you saw Márquez' crash at turn 3, it's never been a scary point to any of us because we've got the power to spin the tire to take the load off the front, but with this tire it's kind of hard to get it to brake out there, it's got a lot of grip there, so it tends to push the front quite a bit. Like I said, it't about getting the balance right."
But the riders themselves denied the new tire had anything to do with it. For Márquez, it was because he was out on the dirty part of the track, and for Dovizioso, it was because he was trying a slightly different setup, and he wasn't sure in how far the setup was to blame or he had made a mistake himself.
Marc Márquez' crash had not been too severe, fortunately. "It looked big but it was a slow crash," the Repsol Honda rider said. "I was off line and not pushing." It had not affected his shoulder. "The shoulder is coming better. I start the day with a lot of energy and I can ride the bike. Then I feel and push but after two runs I start to drop. That’s normal. The important thing is it isn’t worse than yesterday. Today I achieved our target. We did 47 laps."
Not as fast as they look?
Márquez also tried to downplay the speed of the Yamahas and Suzukis. "At the moment it looks like the Yamaha riders – Quartararo and Viñales – and the Suzuki riders – both Mir and Rins – are the strongest ones," the reigning champion said. "Minimum at this circuit. But at the race weekend here three months ago they were very, very fast on one lap. So we will see. Now it’s one riding style, you can set it up in one way. But at the race weekend it’s completely different."
Maverick Viñales wasn't concerned about the race weekend, however. He had ridden in the middle of the day, when the track was hottest, and still been able to maintain his rhythm. "The important thing is that I made the best rhythm when it was nearly 2pm, which is always really hot," Viñales said. "That's important. From morning to afternoon, the bike is very similar, and also the grip."
The increased competitiveness of the Ducati in 2019, and the Yamaha at the end of last season, had reinforced Marc Márquez' conviction that they key to winning was to focus on top speed. The 2020 engine had more horsepower, but was just an evolution of last year's motor. "The main character is very similar from last year," Márquez explained. "It looks like we maybe have a bit more top speed, more acceleration. But at the moment we’re working a lot on the entry of the corner because last year we were struggling with a kind of pushing. We are working there. Still the feeling is similar but step by step we are improving."
That improvement meant he didn't fear the extra speed of the Yamahas and Suzuki. "I don’t know how much they improved this winter," Márquez said. "Suzuki and Yamaha, the type of the engine is not new. Riding alone and especially for lap they are incredibly fast. But then race distance we need to ride more like a ‘V’: go in, stop and pick up. So this for the race distance is not bad at all, and the pace. We will see in the first races. Last year at some circuits they were riding incredibly fast. But in some circuits the character of the Honda engine was stronger. It depends on the character or the layout of the track."
Another tough year?
The fact that Márquez is focused on getting more horsepower will not be welcome news to the other Honda riders – or rather, to the other Honda rider on the same bike who knows better, who has some experience in MotoGP. Cal Crutchlow wanted to be able to get more front feeling, and allow him to carry more speed through the corners.
"At the moment we are still not making the corner that we need to in order to be competitive," Crutchlow told journalists. "We can’t flow through the corner, we make the corner way too much like a V which was always the Honda style but at the moment with the Michelin tires we cannot do that. You have to make more corner speed and at the moment this bike doesn’t allow us to do that. We need to improve that turning and that front-end feeling to be able to do that."
The LCR Honda rider was still missing the feeling he had with his 2018 bike. "As we know the engine last year was better than 2018. The engine this year I think is better again and I think they have done a good job in regards to the engine but the chassis and the feeling with the engine and the chassis I felt best with the 2018 bike still. Now we have a different engine and a different chassis and a couple of different chassis that we’ve been trying. I feel that if I could get that 2018 feeling back with the front of the bike it would be a lot easier and we would be a lot faster. If we had the engine we have now with the 2018 feeling then I think we would be able to be more competitive week in, week out."
Crutchlow acknowledged that Marc Márquez had finished eighteen races in either first or second position, and that Crutchlow himself had had decent results on the 2019 bike. But the lack of turning was making the bike difficult to ride.
There is one more day for the factories to get the data they need to make the (almost) final adjustments to the major elements of their 2020 MotoGP bikes, before they head to Qatar and the final test of the preseason. But if the forecast is to be believed, it will likely be only half a day, as rain is due to set in around 2pm, and continue through the evening. There is always too much work to do in MotoGP, and too little time
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