Qatar MotoGP Test Saturday Round Up: A Fast Yamaha, Ducati's Holeshot Squatter, And Aprilia Aggro

If there is one thing that we learned from the Sepang test, it is that the field is even closer this year. In Malaysia, 18 riders finished within a second of one another. That pattern has continued at Qatar, Pol Espargaro in fourteenth just 0.987 second behind the fastest man, Alex Rins. As comparison, the KTM rider was the last rider within a second of the fastest man after the first day of this test in 2019, but then, there were just eight riders ahead of him, rather than thirteen. And there was a gap of nearly four tenths of a second between the riders in second and third last year. Not so in 2020.

But if the single lap times were close, the race pace was a lot less so. Maverick Viñales towered over the rest in terms of consistent pace, with only the Suzukis of Alex Rins and Joan Mir getting anywhere near the pace of the Monster Energy Yamaha rider. Viñales laid down a real benchmark, with ten of his 47 laps in the 1'54s, which is under the race lap record. That included a run of ten laps, seven of which were 1'54s, five of which were consecutive. That is a rather terrifying race pace for the Spaniard to lay down, just two weeks ahead of the first race.

Viñales has a reputation for being the winter testing champion, frequently topping the timesheets, yet never quite able to convert that into a consistent championship challenge once the season gets underway. But there is reason to think things are a little different this time: not only is the Yamaha M1 a good bit faster than it was last year, but Viñales himself has a different attitude.

Different mindset

How different? He wasn't fastest overall on Saturday, unlike in previous years. He was calmer, more focused, more concerned with preparing for the race than anything else. "I'm much more calm, and without pressure," the Spaniard said. "In previous years, like in Malaysia, I was very angry, but this year I feel OK. I think we got the job done, which was the most important thing, try the bikes and clarify everything. And today, we also clarified many things, especially for the race."

Knowing that the Yamaha was more competitive than in 2019 wasn't the reason for his calmness, Viñales explained. "I should have been calm in those other years as well," he said. "It doesn't matter how it goes. It's important to be calm and to be clever. Because sometimes when you get nervous, you are not clever. So we need to be calm and clever, that's the most important."

The competition

Viñales finished behind the two Suzukis, which is also a sign of the progress Suzuki have made for their weakest point, a single fast lap. "I'm quite happy for this also, because in the last minutes, I was able to do the best lap time with low humidity and low temperature," Alex Rins said of his time attack at the end of the day. "So let's see in qualifying!"

Joan Mir hadn't been able to put together a mistake-free lap, but he was happier with this race pace. He was much further ahead than he had been expecting, he told reporters. "I'm surprised," Mir said. "I expected to feel good here, but not like this. Really consistent, all the laps really good, we are one of the top two or three strongest in the lap pace. So I'm happy about that. I think that we have to continue working, I think we have to work a little bit on the fast lap, because we have to adjust the bike a little bit more, I didn't make a perfect lap. But anyway, I wasn't really trying, and at the end it's only the first day. A lot of people still have margin to improve, and we also have margin. And we have to continue working to be stronger in these three days."

It is only day one, of course, and there is still much work to do. A lot can change over the course of a test, but so far, Viñales seems to be in a commanding position. And perhaps of more concern, in a very good place mentally: comfortable with the bike, and happy and comfortable inside his team. He approaches testing very differently: now, the only thing that counts is the race, and finding a way to get the maximum possible out of the bike. That looks to be the right attitude to start a season.

Viñales may not have been testing very much – he spent all day working on race setups, comparing the setups tested at Sepang with the way the bike responded at Qatar, a very different track – but there was still plenty being tested up and down pit lane.

Holeshots are the new black

Holeshot devices seem to be the flavor of the month in MotoGP right now, with Yamaha and Suzuki following the lead of Ducati and Aprilia. Yamaha's device has now appeared on Fabio Quartararo's bike, after Valentino Rossi and Maverick Viñales tried it out in Sepang. The device took some getting used to, Quartararo said. "It feels really strange because it was not usual, to turn something to go down. It's not a natural position, but its funny and I hope it works, because at the end, I made only 2 starts and I was feeling really good."

The Suzuki riders were a little more reticent about discussing their device, telling reporters they hadn't tried it yet. "At the moment I don't have it, but I have to ask," Joan Mir.

If the Suzuki riders were a little shy about their holeshot device, the Ducati riders were in full denial mode about the new evolution of the holeshot device which they have been using to lower the rear while riding. "I don't remember, I don't know," Danilo Petrucci laughed when asked about it. "I cannot say anything." The Ducati riders have clearly been given strict instructions not to talk about it at all.

A clearer view

What is it and what does it do? Journalist Simon Patterson, now working for online motorsports publication The Race, posted the best view of the new buttons operating the system, which squats the rear on corner exit to allow better acceleration. It is clear from Simon's photos that the buttons operate some kind of cable, which heads toward the rear of the bike to lower it.

The device has been hiding in plain sight for some time. Technical photographer Thomas Morsellino captured it for us last year, though it wasn't then clear what it was. The button system appeared on a Ducati at the Valencia test last year, and it appears to have been used since at least Sepang 2019.

The levers operating Ducati's squatting device, spotted at the Valencia MotoGP test in November 2019

Pushbutton magic

The button system is very similar to a mountain bike gear shift system, with small levers operating a cable and moving the rear up and down. But what precisely is being operated on? Clearly, the same mechanism being used by Ducati for the holeshot device at the start of the race. Attached to the lower suspension linkage is a small canister, looking a lot like a small hydraulic piston. That appears to be the active part of the holeshot device, with a cable operating on this canister / piston, which changes the position of the bike.

So the squatting system is really just an extension of Ducati's existing holeshot device. But by giving the rider a lever to operate it while riding, they can lower the back of the bike as they stand it up and start the hard part of acceleration. The mechanism should disengage automatically once the rider applies the brakes, but the fact that there are now two buttons on the left handlebar suggests that it can be both engaged and disengaged. That would come in handy as the bike gets up to speed along the front straight, but it would also mean it could be operated at places like Silverstone, where the run to the corner is too short and braking too gentle for the release mechanism to operate automatically.

Will it help? Ducati wouldn't have spent so much money on developing the system if they didn't think it would work. It is not going to take half a second off their lap times, but Ducati's strength is their drive out of corners. If this helps acceleration, then it will give them more of an advantage coming onto the straights, which in turn means they will get up to speed earlier, and give themselves a chance of pulling away, even from a more powerful Honda.

What are they hiding?

Is it legal? The rules specifically ban electronically operated suspension systems. But this is operated manually, by cables multiplied by hydraulic force. Completely legal, and incredibly clever. And a typical Ducati touch of trickery by reading the rules to see what the rulemakers had wanted to ban, and find the loophole which they hadn't thought practical.

Given that this is Ducati, however, led by the wily Gigi Dall'Igna, it makes you even more suspicious. If this is what everyone is talking about when it comes to Ducati, then it makes you wonder what Dall'Igna is up to elsewhere on the bike, while everyone is focused on the squatting device. It would be a typical sleight of hand for Ducati to secretly be concentrating on something we haven't even noticed, as we have been too busy looking for the buttons which operated the squatting device.

New bike, new track

Over at the other Italian factory, things are not going quite as well as they did in Sepang. The 2020 RS-GP performed exceptionally well in Malaysia, but the bike didn't fare quite as well once the temperatures dropped. "I would say that the first part of the day was similar to Malaysia," Aleix Espargaro told reporters. "I was competitive, I felt good. But then when the sun goes down and the temperature decreases, I struggle more than I expected."

That was not really a surprise, give just how new the bike is, Espargaro said. "I want to think that it's quite normal, because it's the first time I have ridden the RS-GP '20 in cold temperatures. In Malaysia we were close to 50° track temperature, in the first part of today, we were close to 50°. So when you ride at 20° you have to change the bike, you have to understand something. So let's say that it's the first day, and it's normal."

But the performance of the Aprilia was overshadowed by comments made by the factory riders. Yesterday, at the launch of the Aprilia Gresini team, Andrea Iannone made some comments taking credit for the development of the bike, claiming it had been built based on his feedback.

Happy families

Those statements did not sit well with Aleix Espargaro, who has been on the bike for a very long time. "Super disrespectful!" was how the Spaniard saw Iannone's remarks. "I had many teammates in Aprilia, I never had any problems with anybody in Aprilia, I feel I am good friends with all my teammates, also with Andrea. But with what he said yesterday, for me, that's the end of our good relationship."

Espargaro objected to Iannone taking credit for not just his hard work, but the hard work of the team around Espargaro. "What he said is a big disrespect for my engineers, my mechanics, for Bradley, for me, because it's not true," Espargaro said. "He knows perfectly well it's not true, what he said. I've been in Aprilia for four years, asking for these changes, pushing the engineers, and finally this arrived. But what he said is not true, and he was using my setting all season, and in 90% of the sessions he was behind me. So it's not fair what he said, for all the people around me, for all the people in Aprilia. But we know how Andrea is. I will continue living my life, my style of life, he can continue doing his, and the future will decide."

Aprilia are in an awkward spot with Andrea Iannone. The Italian is still suspended after testing positive for the banned substance drostanolone at Sepang last year, and his appeal to the FIM International Disciplinary Court (CDI) is awaiting judgment. That is not likely to come before the start of the season, meaning Aprilia could start the season without Iannone.

Even if the CDI finds against Iannone, he still has recourse to the Court of Arbitration for Sport (the CAS), the highest international court for sporting affairs. An appeal there could take a few months, and if Iannone won there, he could return at some point during the season. If he doesn't win at either the CDI or the CAS, then he would be banned for a long time.

To travel with hope

Iannone's situation puts Aprilia test rider Bradley Smith in a difficult position. In principle, Smith is in line to take over the place of Iannone, if the Italian can't ride. But Smith can't afford to get his hopes up too much of a permanent seat, as until the appeals processed is completed, Iannone is still formally Aprilia's second rider.

"It's difficult, right?" Bradley Smith told reporters at Qatar. "Because I think it would be a dream come true to be back racing full-time. Those type of emotions are something you need to keep in check as well cause there absolutely no reason to think that it is going to happen and then be heartbroken and disappointed."

Smith was relatively happy with his combination of testing and racing in MotoE in 2019. "I think I am in a job that I enjoy," he said. "Last year with the wild cards, with the test riding with the MotoE, it was something I really enjoyed. So it would be a fantastic promotion, but it's not all or nothing, and I think that's a nice place to be. I'm certainly not putting my hopes on it because we do believe that things are looking more positive than negative for Andrea from what I hear from everybody. Patience is clearly key at the moment, and as a team, the main objective is to have him back as a full-time rider. So I am still a test rider until I am a full-time rider and that's my mental process at the minute."


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Comments

This coverage of the test can be so good when that on motogp.com is so pedestrian.

This coverage is widely informative and covers many different angles. I particulary enjoyed the 'calm and clever' comments from the reportage of Mr Vinales. One of the best business coaching sessions I ever attended had the central them of 'stress makes you stupid...' and in my experience that is very much true. If the Yamaha improvements are real - then MM might at least have a proper contest this year.

And 'No...' there is, in my opinion, just no reasonable explanation I can imagine for Mr Iannone here - I just feel really sad that he must not realise the offence and impact his words and actions so often have. Life is hard enough without one acting against one's own interests. Sigh. Please, Mr Iannone, just stop talking, be Mr Happy, and if you have another chance, be bloody fast, again.

I think it's worth also thinking about the Ducati holeshot straightline device like that in F1 as the drag reduction system (DRS). Surely in a straightline as the rear squats the angle of the winglets are less of a degree to the incoming air so creating less drag than they usually would, and a check of the speed trap would suggest that could be the case with Jack doing over 218mph on the first day of testing.

That seems unlikely to me. Since the main idea behind the wings is to help keep the front down during acceleration, it would be counterproductive to then squat the rear to make them less effective, I'd say. Squatting the rear is for lowering the centre of gravity and thus reducing wheelie tendency. And at the end of the straight, the wings help to be able to apply more initial brake pressure because of more front tyre grip. Somewhere in the later part of the straight but before braking, it would be advantageous to slightly reduce the angle of attack of the wings, but that seems like too small a gain speedwise.

As far as I have understood, the squatting happens just after the corner, in the early acceleration phase. I would guess that it is engaged once the bike is almost straight, because otherwise it would ruin the geometry and make the bike run wide on exit. Hopefully we will get some good footage on this!

Primary goal w the tail tucker is geometry, but it also makes it more aerodynamic for sure. What Duc is also up to is no secret - another final hour aero update, geometry/mechanical and electronics changes to adapt best to the new rear tire. And most importantly this better handling chassis. The other open secret is that they are on break from what they see as essential, securing a rider that will take it to Marc for the championship right now. So there is a "wait and see" on that second tier of potentials to show their goods, while they fill the Red wheelbarrow full of tobacco cash. I love Dovi, enjoy Miller, expect good things for Zarco, believe Bagnaia has brilliance in the bag, AND still maintain a keen eye on this next rider as well. Mir? Binder? A surprise?

Notables - Bagnaia and the 2020 bike, are they finally awakening? Re Aprilia riders, respect due to Smith yet the last 5 riders or so are not on the pace. Smith is off the pace of the rear pack which is off the pace. Yes, we don't know specifically what his test work plan is. But we also see his pace. The goalposts have moved, and that is basically reliability testing and break-in pace. Iannone is of course done, and poor Aprilia are stuck with one rider on the pace now. 2021 they will have an exciting 2nd rider.

I believe Ducati engineers are trying to reduce the pumping action of the rear suspension exiting corners which results in spin, grip, spin, grip of the rear wheel during hard acceleration. Some footage of Miller at motogp.com illustrates the device in action.

As I could see in that vid, the squat effectively looks like if you had the rebound adjuster fully closed and the shock started to "pack" down.  Normally this would encourage wheelie on bumps, but since the squat device is a separate cannister, the shock still operates in isolation.

You could see as Miller came out of the corner, the device would have already been activated, he gets some spin, the rear pumps a few times but doesnt come back up.  As described elsewhere, the lever on the handle bar most likely only operates a one way valve in the hydraulic cannister to allow it to compress (think of the hydraulic fluid in a shock absorber moving from one side of the chamber to the other) but not return. How that disengages.... my guess would be most likely a spring or lever, tensioned to require full extension of the shock. That way the rider doesnt have to concern themselves with another lever push right when he should be thinking of braking. 

Great concept, though must be hard for the rider to remember to do.  Maybe just for the long straights.... 

Aprilia just issued a press release about Savadori being signed as new MotoGP test rider. While I do wonder if he will ever be fast enough to lap anywhere near MotoGP lap times, Aprilia obviously needs assistance and replacement for Bradley Smith, who will at least ride the first couple of races. Or do they know Iannone will probably not return..? Maybe it was just an easy decision, because Savadori is also going to take part in the CIV Italian superbike championship on the RSV4 1100, and we should not read too much in it.

Iannone knows he is toast. Right now he is jockeying for a "development" test rider role. Any team boss that falls for that schitck deserves what he gets.

Wait a minute. Could the Aprilia agro say more about the smallness of the older Espargaro than the ambition of the Iannone. 

If we all look the the team launch again carefully it is clear that the reporter feed those words into Iannones´s mouth.In fact his particular reporter being very good on that , no wonder Iannone having english vocabulary of the five years old pick them up without  hesitation.  

...is clear if you read about rear suspension RISING under acceleration (e.g. covered very well in Twist of the Wrist). Prevent that, you keep everything lower = less moment arm to wheelie around.

I welcome further clarification/correction as this is very off the cuff, but seems to make sense with my recollection (without going downstairs to dig out the book.)

I don't quite understand why Aleix is making such a big deal of Iannone's remarks, and do it so publicly. Does it really matter if Iannone thinks that it is for a big part thanks to him that the new bike is so much better? It would probably be better if Aleix would just shrug his shoulders and smile about it, and simply enjoy the prospect of a much better season.

And while it's known that Iannone is a difficult character to work with (the signals coming from Suzuki, especially in the first year, were not very positieve either), this reaction seems a bit exaggerated. I watched the team presentation video and as I interpreted it, Iannone was just saying that he was happy about the arrival of the new bike and that it was also developed with his feedback in mind. Seemed like he was just trying to make clear he felt as a real part of the project, that he was happy about Aprilia's efforts and was looking forward to ride the bike. But maybe I need to watch it again, or maybe he has said a lot more off camera. Even then, I don't see the point of going public with this irritation, as much as I like and respect Aleix.

Maybe Motoshrink can give some insight on this... ;-)

I don't have insight on this one Pvalve. Aleix is very demonstrative, and always has been. He was GIDDY laughing and nearly dancing while they warmed up the new bike for him at Sepang.

Iannone has said and done quite a few disrespectful things indirectly re A.Espargaro. When asked about Aleix's double engine failure on a race weekend he shrugged. When doddling around rear pack having a horrible sesson, self involved Iannone said:
"I’m not satisfied because I lose a lot of speed and acceleration, especially compared to my teammate since the beginning of the year. I did my best, went overboard and endured a lot of pain in silence

– I expect an effort by Aprilia, not so much in terms of parts but in making the bikes equally fast, which isn’t happening at this time. Aleix did well, but I got a podium here last year, and to evolve it takes two identical bikes in terms of performance. I don’t know why [the bikes aren’t equal]."

Self involved arse, that Iannone. And he was GIFTED. Damn shame. Aleix has been PUSHING his consistent effort and deserves a medal. Iannone deserves a brief relationship with a young model that devours his hams and leaves for a football player.

Hey, care to pick 2020 championship finishers?
1) Marquez
2) Quartararo
3) Vinales
4) Mir Rins Dovi?
5)......

We should have a wee free tipping pool.
Cheers!

Thanks for the response, Mshrink. Anyway, I just hope this nonsense doesn't spoil the atmosphere in the team. Competition with teammates is good, feuds usually not so much. And I see that in jarno's post above he sort of observed the same thing I did. Not sure if Iannone did much wrong in this particular case. But who knows what has been said in private...

I feel it's way too early to pick the 2020 championship finishers; Viñales seems the most logical pick for the title right now, but we all know he's been Wintertest Champion before. In combination with his form in the second half of 2019 and his own comments on his new approach, he does however does seem like a real contender for the title this year.

I expect Marquez on the other hand to have a tougher year. Apart from the problems with the 2020 Honda, all those crashes of past seasons seem to begin to take a toll. And if that nerve damage does not heal or get fixed, he may fall of that difficult Honda a bit more during races, trying to make that thing go faster than it really wants to. The competition seems to have become stronger also, so he may be pushed quite a bit more that last year.

I expect great things from Mir, and even have hope that Rossi may be really in the mix as well if the Yamaha just works that bit better for him than last year. After all, he still set the fastest lap at Sepang at the end of 2019. I believe he still is fast enough if he feels he has a real shot. Who is of course definately fast enough is Quartararo, but it will be interesting to see if he can deliver again now that it is expected from him. In Moto3 the pressure to be the big new challenger got to him, it seems. Older now, of course. We'll see. And Rins? He'll be pushed by Mir. Could go both ways, maybe it'll make Rins even faster.

All in all, with a struggling Marquez, this season can get really interesting. Okay then, wild guess: 1. Viñales, 2. Rins, 3.Rossi, 4. Marquez, 5. Mir, 6. Quartararo. Hoping for a miracle 10th title for Rossi, though. That would be epic at 41.