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.
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."
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 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.
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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