Qatar MotoGP Test Subscriber Notes: Assessing All Six Factories After Qatar

So testing is done and dusted – at Qatar, quite literally, once the wind picks up – and the pile of parts each factory brought has been sifted through, approved, or discarded. The factories are as ready as they are ever going to be for the first race in Qatar, at which point the real work starts. Testing will only tell you so much; it is only in the race that the last, most crucial bits of data are revealed: how bikes behave in the slipstream; how aggressive racing lines treat tires in comparison to fast qualifying and testing lines; whether all those fancy new holeshot devices will help anyone to get into the Turn 1 ahead of the pack. Only during the race do factories and riders find out whether the strategy they have chosen to pursue will actually work.

Fabio Quartararo at the 2020 Qatar MotoGP Test

So after three days of the Qatar test, what have we learned? In these notes:

Honda, from catastrophe to optimism courtesy of old bodywork

  • How Honda made a better bike that is still worse
  • Yamaha's fearsome race pace
  • A race pace comparison
  • What if they can't enter Turn 1 in the lead?
  • Is it the bike, or is it Valentino Rossi?
  • What is enough top speed?
  • Suzuki's growing teammate rivalry
  • Ducati teammates working on tire life
  • Reality bites at Aprilia
  • Brad Binder's brilliant lap
  • Is the KTM finally competitive?

We start off with Honda. The last day of the test was something of a roller coaster for HRC. By the middle of the last day, the internet was awash with HONDA IN CRISIS! headlines. A few hours later, once the dust had settled and the test was over, the tone was very different. Honda appear to have found something. So what happened?

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I've been watching Rossi since his 250/500 days and I have to say, I think father time has caught up. Can he sitll ride well? Yes, however I honestlly feel some of the issues he is having, a few years back he would have been able to adapt and ride around; not so much anymore.

Yeah. It's hard to say what it is, but the results don't lie. Rossi's podium and win stats have been on a gradual decline (aside for the 2015 season) since the first time he broke his leg in 2010. Twelve, fifteen, eighteen years ago he was a grinning cheshire cat amongst a field of mice, toying with and dominating the competitors in such a way that he regularly racked up 9 or 11 wins per season. I thought he had found something this winter until the last test day's press release when he stated he is suffering from the same tire consumption problems. The last couple of chances at a win in recent seasons, he crashed out of the lead or battle thereof. All those thumps during his career must have taken a toll. There is no way around it - the body belongs to time and we all lose a step come mid-life. For all the times during the aughts I had wished for somebody, anybody, to beat Rossi, I was kinda hoping to hear the announcers say "That's why you should never count out the Doctor" just one last time before he hangs up his leathers. Well, we'll see what happens this season.

I'm curious what Rossi's corner speeds and lean angles are compared to Fab and Mav. His riding style has evolved over the years but his body position is nowhere near where 'the fast guys' are. Only occasionally does he touch his right elbow. I wonder if that means his apex corner speed and ability to pick up the bike are suboptimal on a bike that loves corner speed, which then means he could be using the rear tire in a different way on the way out. 

It's not just tire consumption but it must also be affecting his straight line speed relative to Mav because he's way slower on the same bike. I don't think it is weight with this level of horsepower...look at Jack. Which then makes you wonder what Jack is doing differently to have such higher top speeds than his teammates but apparently slower pace. 
 

🤔
 

I can't compare my racing career to Rossi's, but I did race until I was 50. I can tell you, I became much less mobile on the bike, hanging off less, forcing the chassis to higher lean to maintain cornering, and I would wear out tires faster because of it. HMMV

I think Jack commented a few days ago that it was his Dainese & AGV combination, with its better aero, that made him faster than others which I think was really interesting. 

What's Aussie for 'taking the piss'?

From the starting point of this Deluxe Coverage - it seems to me that there are two types of rider and bike combinations (maybe there is a Maquez exception clause here....). It seems like the Ducati and Honda have to be learned. Miller and Bagnaia are both at different stages of figuring it out and it seems to me Dovi and Petrux have gone through the same learning experience. Given even a supremely talented rider like JL took over a year to come to terms with it, the Ducati is not an easy study. Nakagami seems like he is on a similar path with the Honda, with the capability of MM making the marking all the harder. The evidence, being Zarco, Folger, Quatararo and Morbidelli, Rins and Mir seems to suggest that newer riders and rookie can go fast on either the Yamaha or the Suzuki.

It has been great to watch the established superstars battle it out, but I reckon that this year that the 'sophomore' riders like Morbidelli, Miller, Mir and Bagnaia are going to have a real impact. We might still see qualifying led by the MM, FQ and MV, but this next group are all going to be hanging around the podium this year. I am also looking forward to see Brad Binder exhibit a complete lack of respect for the usual rookie expectations - he is fast and ruthless.

Do we think this squatting mechanism is completely mechanical? I know it is not allowed to be electronical/electromechanical, but could Ducati be using a mechanical switch to release engine vacuum or oil pressure into some sort of mechanism, and thereby trigger the change in ride height? I am not sure how a significant change in height could be instigated by the quite small buttons shown in the pics I have seen.

Absolutely. Could be vacuum assisted, could be oil pressure, could be they have a hollow frame section that they use as a pressurized air tank. No way someone cranks the suspension by their own force hitting a tiny button multiple times with everything else going on.

It (the rear of the bike) collapses under its own weight once the lockout is released. Once collapsed the rider engages the lockout again, meaning it will lock in the higher position once it passes the locking point (which is does as soon as the rider engages the brakes before the next turn).

The Shapeshifter from bicycle maker Canyon shows the functionality quite well.

Can't wait for the season to start, as a South African I'm super-enthused by what Brad Binder is doing on the KTM, it's just testing and it was the one really fast lap but knowing him and his steely determination, walking away from this test as the fastest KTM and in the top ten is going to fire him up.  If he can carry on adapting to the faster, heavier and more complex bikes we may see some thing really special from him.

As regards MM93, I think he's clearly had his issues in the tests but with the benefit of another 10 days of physio, training and mental preperation we're going to see him at the sharp end, he's a ruthless competitor with an insatiable appetite for not just winnning but humiliating and demoralising his competitiors.  The Yamahas, specifically FQ20 & MV12 and the Suzukis are looking very good, the Ducatis will be there as well - I think we're in for a cracker of a season

Regarding Brad Binder, if he managed one terrific lap, there will be more to come. He found something in his technique that was different from everybody else on that bike. It probably shows in the data so now they all know and it should produce another step forward. I am pretty excited for Binder's prospects vs. the rest of the KTM riders. 

So its still a case of the Honda being the third best bike, and MM still taking the championship? This years battles are going to be insane!

Crutchlow P18 and AMarquez P21 - a case could be made that the 2020 Honda may be the bike that is the most difficult to be competitive on. At least up until the last hour of the Qatar test. If a guy had to dream up a prediction of the Qatar motogp race results, one could say that the riders/teams with the best form in the latter part of 2019 would be in with the fight for the podium/win. That would be Marquez, Viñales, Quartararo, Rins, Miller and Dovizioso. The second group would be Morbidelli, Mir, Petrucci and Nakagami. Rossi and Crutchlow would bring up the rear. Dark horses would be the Espargaros, and Binder (downright badass fighter when the lights go out). Zarco may struggle with the "system" of the physical and unnatural riding style of the Ducati (at least for the first few races plus Assen and the Sach). For the win I'm going to go out on a limb and say it'll be raw talent stuffed at the last corner and pipped at the line by experience, savviness and brute acceleration for the third year in a row. Rins comes third. Viñales' nightmare starts on a Dunlop rubber laden track from last year repeats itself and he and Miller trip each other up. Quartararo's exuberance plus the added pressure of "results expectation" gets the better of him (makes mistakes).

(fantasy subject to change at any moment) 

" Quartararo's exuberance plus the added pressure of "results expectation" gets the better of him (makes mistakes)."

Assumes facts not in evidence...Fabio showed enormous mental reserves last year when his shift linkage broke, when MM pipped him and every other time (that I recall atm) he should have had a 'rookie moment'. Watching him go from totally upset to calm in a very short time was most impressive. I think waiting for him to wilt under pressure could be a futile pursuit. Otherwise mostly agree with your assessment.

Marc is closer to Vinales this year than he was last, and he's in worse shape.  Crutchlow is not, and has never been a top shelf rider, only ever scoring fastest lap 4 times in his 9 seasons in Motogp, none of which were in recent years.  His stats show he is a regular 7-9th in the championship despite being on the same bike as the guy who keeps blasting everybody else into the bushes.

Nakagami, like Crutchlow, is a trier but has a good race if he finishes inside the top 10.  

Nothing aginst either of these guys but using them as a benchmark to judge the bike does the bike/Honda a disservice.

Plus, Crutchlow has tallied up 45 retirements in 9 seasons - he's quite the crasher in races. Was Marquez' best time on the 2020 bike or the '19?

I can't find the article but they said getting Marquez on their bike was a catch-22. If he jumped on the KTM and won people would give him the credit. If he jumped on and lost they would say the KTM sucks. So it's almost not even worth recruiting him.

This is where HRC is now. A very strong case can be made that Marc has won in spite of the package HRC has given him rather than in conjunction with it. The struggles, injuries and declines of all the other Honda riders does not speak well of the bike or factory. But it seems this is how Honda operates. Use their outsized budget and long history to recruit aliens capable of winning on anything, rather than developing a bike that is agreeable. Personally I don't buy that a bike has to be difficult to ride to be competitive- Yamaha has demonstrated that pretty clearly, and might possibly take full advantage of that this season- just as they did in 2015.

Alberto and other Honda bods, do they actually have any test riders? Reading David's account of the 'discovery' that the 2020 aero doesn't work yet the 2019 one does-on the last day of testing-beggars belief. For the last two or three iterations of the RCV, it seems to be getting progressively worse. Does Honda's deep-pocket ability to procure the best (Doohan, Stoner, Marquez) send the bike(s) down a development blind alley due to these aliens not minding if everybody else struggles to ride it? Marquez wanting a faster bike and damn the consequences last year compared with Doohan going back to the screamer engine when realising the long bang version was too (other) rider friendly. Are Honda still all about the bike, not the rider when it is so obviously the rider and has been for a year or two. MM93 is the only (amazing) rider that hasn't been battered into submission, and I'm not sure also he won't succumb to the accumulation of injuries before his contract runs out. I hope I'm wrong but this season looks to be his most challenging in many ways and it's going to be a fascinating watch..

Great article David, thanks. And fantastic 2020 Circus on tap, thank goodness.

The Honda situation and Crutchlow's commentary could both be described in much more negative terms. Cal is not mincing his words. He tried to make the bike go full pointy pace, and it did not go okay. In THAT way, AGAIN. Lorenzo is looking wiser. Cal-ifornia isn't just dreaming, he is done here now. The Marc is being left unsafely vulnerable. I am sincerely concerned for Marc and Cal's wellbeing this season.

Rossi impresses. He has been quite adaptive. The % difference between the front few riders and VR46 is very small. He finds something Sunday, as with crafty moves in battle. At a couple of tracks he still may go out with a bang. Betting he will podium. Wishing for a win. How he has been adapting to his mantle passing to Marc and now 2 Yamaha riders the last couple of seasons has my respect. Same for Yamaha. No one's fears are coming to fruition.

This moment is primarily about the Yamaha and two of its riders. They don't have QUITE enough engine, but have everything else such that it is "all there" again. Stats? Rate of change of their trap speed vs Marc's crash/error rate. Paint and positions will be swapped. The Yamaha has a tough time with a Honda in its line, yes. But repeat the incident enough and one of the two bikes goes off into the marbles. If the Shell livery doesn't wrap around a revolutionized chassis, it better indicate crustacean-like crash protection. The Skittle bag will be empty at some corners on the calendar. 4th best bike now.

The relationship between the Suzuki riders could be described more moderatey than antipathy. Just rivalry, and within a context of a family atmosphere at a table with relatively limited hams to carve up. How ever does wee Suzuki bring such a GREAT machine?! Even with the championship electronics and spec tire, it is a miracle. Beautiful bike. Optimized program. Just passed every Honda but #93 and caught Ducati.

Binder and the KTM project are very promising indeed. While the Aprilia garage may be largely latent until late in the season, KTM is on the gas now. The 2 bike Espargaro Cup Battle remains. It is closing the gap to the next pack. Pol did not have the "happy ending" he desired. Binder already penetrated a key technique barrier, "I put in a new set of tires and bam! It came." It is going to be Binder and sooner than we thought. I may be premature, and made this blunder re Bagnaia, but...

I have no idea what the Ducati at Qatar is about to show. The curiousity about a "next step" rider remains. Blue collar efforts and professor's plan are still there, Dovi is not done. But Ducati are bringing a well paid fresh face to their 2021 roster this Summer. Only Jack has a secure seat. I would like to see two fresh faces on full fat Ducs. Refreshed Zarco or Bagnaia could be one. Suzuki wants to keep both riders, but Ducati wants Mir more. Betcha it is him. In the mean time, the Red NASA bike will do quite well with both Miller and Dovi battling for some podiums in that 2nd bunch behind Marc and Fab Q.

Is there anyone on this planet qualified to be the HRC test rider that releases product into the hands of Marc Marquez? Imagine the impossible task Honda has of procuring one such talent. Maybe the tester(s) has/have been saying the same thing for years (the bike has problems), but Marquez has been winning championships so everyone at HRC just shruggs and hugs one another. The guy has been pulling rabbits outta hats for so long that it's business as usual. You know Marquez is doing something special when Takeo Yokoyama laughs up at Puig and Puig smiles (smiles!) back.

Development is a continuous process of leaving the known and venturing into the unknown. Ideas about how to improve come from creative insight. Then there's the thought process concerned with manufacturing. Finally there's the application and seeing the results of all the hard work. This is the work of an engineer. Plenty of times the ideas manifest into less than desireable results in the material world.

The way that the factories are fighting over a tenth of a second per lap improvement, and the closeness of the times amongst the entire grid, gives rise to the unthinkable possibility of plateauing performances. The improvements are harder to come by which gives the factories at the bottom of the timesheets more time to chip away at their perceived greater gap to the front. This equates to ever closer racing. The fact that Honda probably has the biggest budget and possibly the most difficult bike with which to extract a competitive lap time opens up the consciousness to these kind of thoughts. It harkens back to Hondas F1 days fifteen years ago when they were spending the better part of half a billion dollars on the entire budget and not winning races. They obviously did not have a Marquez type (possible GOAT) at the wheel.

There are still eight circuits with pole lap records and five circuits with race lap records from the Bridgestone era. It has been said that Michelin wants to put those records to rest. For sure, track conditions and weather may be playing a role in this scenario. But the bigger question is: Will the new rear construction accomplish the task? Only five of the records are held by inline 4s (Lorenzo 4, Rossi 1). Honda holds all of the V4 records (Marquez 7, Pedrosa 1). If all the Bridgestone records don't fall this year, then maybe next year's new Michelin front will help. Regardless of what happens, it seems that the racing can only get closer.

Fantastic write-up David. Very pumped for the season to start!

Just wondering if there will be a separate post hi-res versions of these pictures?

I am still getting comments at work when a co-worker sees my desktop background with the amazing photos from PI.