2018 Qatar MotoGP Test Thursday Round Up: Another Chapter In Silly Season, And Yamaha's (Un)surprising Speed

The Qatar MotoGP test may be the moment of truth for the factories and riders, but the most important things we learned from the first day of the test were unrelated to the action on track, or perhaps even the 2018 season. The biggest news of the day came when Valentino Rossi spoke to the press, telling Italian media that he is close to signing on with the Movistar Yamaha team for another two years, meaning he will race in 2019 and 2020.

Rossi's revelation came in response to a question about whether the Sky VR46 team would be taking over the satellite Yamahas to be vacated by Tech3 from 2019. "Firstly, I didn't expect Poncharal to leave Yamaha," Rossi said. "So we considered possibly having a team in MotoGP. It would have been great opportunity, but we won't do it. For the next two years we won't do it, also because it's very likely I'll be racing. I see it as a possibility for the future, once I've stopped but not in 2019 or 2020."

Those are a remarkably information-dense couple of sentences. Firstly, Rossi acknowledges that he is close to signing a contract extension with Yamaha for two more seasons. This is hardly news – he was half expected to sign a new deal at the Sepang test, but it looks likely that any new deal will be done before the season starts. Secondly, he admits that the Sky VR46 Racing Team is interested in having a team in MotoGP. Again, this is hardly earth-shattering news.

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2018 Qatar MotoGP Test Preview: One Last Chance To Get It Right

The last test of the preseason is something of a moment of truth for the MotoGP factories. From the tropical heat of Malaysia and Thailand, the paddock heads to the Arabian peninsula, and cool desert evenings of the Losail International Circuit in Qatar. Air temperatures start in the mid 20s°C rather than the mid 30s°C, and drop into the high teens heading into the evening. That temperature difference means that air density is a couple of percent higher at Qatar. That in turn means more oxygen going into the engine, and better combustion efficiency.

Translating all that from vague engineering platitudes into real-world racing, colder air means more power all the way through the rev range. Engines run better, pick up more aggressively, and pull harder flat out in the cool Qatari evenings than in Sepang's punishing tropical heat. An engine that seemed docile in Sepang suddenly feels aggressive at Losail. An engine which was just about manageable in Thailand is a barely controllable beast in Qatar. And with just two weeks to go before the start of the 2018 MotoGP season, it's too late to fix the problem. Riders are left wrestling a wild bull for the rest of the year.

That, in a nutshell, is the story of Honda's past couple of seasons. Engines which seemed OK at Sepang suddenly turned out to be much tougher to handle at Qatar, and as a consequence, the tighter European tracks, racing on days when air temperatures struggled to get out of the teens. It was the story of Suzuki last year, who woefully misjudged their engine at the beginning of the season, a decision made more difficult by have two new riders on the bike.

Will it happen again? The Qatar test should at least provide a pointer or two to just where each of the factories stand with their engines. Though riders may try to be noncommittal about their engines, not wanting to tip their hands ahead of the upcoming seasons, there may perhaps be clues in their words, or perhaps the consistency of the different riders on the same bike. Testing isn't racing, of course, and the proof of the pudding only comes on Sundays in MotoGP. But we might get a hint.

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2018 Phillip Island WorldSBK: What we saw in Australia - A recap of Phillip Island

The opening round of the 2018 WorldSBK season is in the books and certainly provided us with plenty of excitement and plenty to talk about.

New schedule:

The 2018 season will see three free practice sessions on Fridays, and from the outset we saw the benefit of this schedule. In the past, if a rider crashed or had a technical problem on Friday it severely hampered their weekend. Any time lost was magnified because you could easily lose 60 minutes of track time. The new schedule sees three 40 minute session, to ensure the riders have the same amount track time. A crash on his out lap in FP2 saw Alex Lowes miss the entire session and while the loss of track time hampered the Englishman, getting out in FP3 allowed him to set a time good enough for entry into Superpole 2. The schedule will also allow riders to use Friday afternoon for a race simulation, whereas in the past this was harder to achieve.

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2018 Buriram MotoGP Test Sunday Round Up: A Comprehensive Look At Factory Fortunes

Have we emerged any the wiser after three days of testing at the Chang International Circuit in Buriram, Thailand by the MotoGP field? That is hard to say. The test was more for the benefit of Michelin than for the teams, and the French tire maker brought some 2000 tires for the 24 riders who took part in the test. The track itself was not particularly challenging or instructive in terms of understanding how well bike development was going. "This track is also not so easy or so difficult, it's intermediate," is how Monster Tech 3 Yamaha replacement Hafizh Syahrin summed it up.

Is it possible to draw conclusions about how the 2018 championship might play out on the basis of the Buriram test? "No, impossible," Ducati's Andrea Dovizioso said, before proceeding to do just that in some detail. "I can see Marc in a better shape than at the beginning of last year," Dovizioso said. "I can see Dani in a good shape, I can see Zarco with a little bit more experience, so a little bit better for the championship than last year."

It was harder to judge the Movistar Yamahas, Dovizioso said. "It's very difficult to understand the two factory Yamahas, because they will be fast in the race, on race weekends, for sure. But when you look at the riders and the teams from outside, it's impossible to know the details, so I don't know. I can see the Pramac riders are fast, they are happy with the bike, so I think they will be quite fast during the season."

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2018 Buriram MotoGP Test Saturday Round Up: "Every Time, The Media Looks At The Lap Times And Makes A Mistake"

It is always easy to get carried away by testing. Seeing a particular rider at the top of the timesheets, it is tempting to start constructing a narrative which sees that rider dominate the season, while writing off the rest. That, of course, is nearly always a mistake. And in the case of the second day at Buriram, Thailand, it is definitely a mistake.

That doesn't mean Marc Márquez won't be fast for the rest of the year, as well as Saturday in Thailand. He has won the MotoGP title in four of his five seasons in the class, so topping the timesheets was not, as one journo joked, because Michelin gave him special tires for his birthday. Márquez had been fast, and consistently so, through both the Sepang and Buriram tests so far. But the order behind Márquez probably doesn't reflect the true relative strength of the field.

The reason? Tires, of course. On Saturday, Michelin brought a new rear tire for the riders to test, after the rears used on Friday had shown some signs of degradation. The original allocation of rear tires were the same as used at Brno, Argentina, Sachsenring, and Sepang. The new tire was the rear used at the Red Bull Ring in Austria. That is relatively unsurprising, given that the place everyone compared Buriram to the first time they saw it was Austria. The different compounds in the Austria rear were better placed to withstand the stresses of Buriram, especially along the three successive straights in the tropical heat.

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2018 Buriram MotoGP Test Friday Round Up: A Pleasant Surprise, A Close Field, And Yamaha's Electronics Challenges

The MotoGP riders have had their first laps of the Chang International Circuit in Buriram, Thailand, and the reviews are in. Simple to learn, but more fun than it looks on paper, is the short version. "The layout, I remembered it was more similar to Austria, so I was very worried," Valentino Rossi said, summing up the general feeling. "But when you ride maybe it is more similar to Argentina. It's good to ride, you have a good feeling, you enjoy. The track is not very difficult but anyway it's fun."

It was a change from what he had said at Sepang, when the Italian dismissed the Buriram circuit as "boring". "I rode the track in 2015 with a Yamaha 300 together with [Jorge] Lorenzo and [Pol] Espargaro," Rossi explained. "I remember that the track was similar to Austria. But in reality it's better, have good corners. Technically it's quite easy, but it's not boring."

On a side note, Rossi ended the day in eighth, less than four tenths behind the fastest man Cal Crutchlow. He finished three place and a tenth of a second ahead of his young teammate Maverick Viñales, the rider who was prematurely anointed world champion after preseason testing in 2017. Friday was Rossi's thirty-ninth birthday, and the start of his twenty-third season in Grand Prix racing, and nineteenth season in the premier class.

To still be racing at his age and after so many years is a remarkable enough achievement. To start the season as a legitimate championship contender – or perhaps, to still have the desire, the discipline, the ambition to do what it takes to start the season as a legitimate championship contender – is truly the mark of his greatness. When Valentino Rossi retires (not yet, he looks certain to sign on for two more years) he will be remembered for his titles. But to my mind, what marks him out above all other riders is the fact he is still competitive even now, when so many others have (understandably) given up on the hard physical and mental slog that racing at the very highest level demands.

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2018 Buriram MotoGP Test Thursday Notes: Argentina Or Austria, Ducati Or Yamaha, And Preparing For The Heat

Now that the riders have seen the Chang International Circuit in Buriram, (though so far, only on foot, bicycle, or scooter) they can at last express an opinion on it. The consensus so far is entirely unsurprising. "It's quite similar to Austria, the layout, but it's very flat," Danilo Petrucci summed up the feeling of most. Petrucci did not mourn the lack of elevation, however. "I don't know if this is maybe a good point for me, because in Austria I always struggle a bit, even though I have a Ducati."

Johann Zarco agreed with Petrucci. "I was watching many videos of the World Superbikes, and the first feeling is that it looks like the Austrian Grand Prix at Spielberg, but flat." But the Monster Tech 3 Yamaha rider was broadly positive. "Finally I did many laps with the scooter, and I also ran on the track. I like it. I think it's going to be easy to learn, but easy to learn means that all riders will be so close, and the gap between maybe the first ten or fifteen positions will be very small. So that can make the game complicated."

When a track has fewer secrets to unlock, Zarco explained, it meant that everyone got the knack of the track quickly, leaving little to differentiate between them. No Casey Stoner at Phillip Island, no Marc Márquez at Austin. "I think it's easy to learn, you quickly know which line to use. I think Texas is more complicated to learn, with 20 corners. But easy means that many riders are able to be fast, but there is only one winner. That's the difficult point," Zarco said, before pausing and joking, "Well, in Superbike they have two winners, but in MotoGP, we have one!"

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The Pata Yamaha WorldSBK Team: Great Expectations?

Year three of Yamaha's return to WorldSBK will see the team expected to produce race wins, but are they ready to deliver?

For Alex Lowes and the Yamaha WorldSBK squad the goal is clear in 2018; to win races. Since joining the Crescent team in 2014 Lowes has been able to grow into a front running WorldSBK rider, but hasn't quite made the step to winning races. The package underneath him has rarely been one capable of delivering victories, but the progress of Yamaha last year offers hope that finally the illusive first win is possible.

“The second half of 2017 was quite good and we were able to challenge for the podium in most races,” said Lowes. “We're still a little bit behind Kawasaki and Ducati and I'm not really starting the year with any expectations other than to get the best we can at every round. The chassis is working really well but we need to keep working on the electronics of the bike. The plan is that we'll go to Phillip Island with an older electronic specification and then try to change the electronics for Thailand where we'll have some extra technical support and staff from Japan.

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2018 Buriram MotoGP Test Preview: Burning Rubber For Bibendum

The Sepang MotoGP test proved to be most instructive, both for the fans, who got a first taste of what the 2018 season could look like, and for the factories, who put the first imaginings of this year's bikes – and especially engines – through their paces. We learned that Ducati have taken another step forward, that Honda is improved, that Yamaha have solved one problem but possibly created another, that Suzuki are showing promise, that Aprilia are still waiting on a new engine to match their new chassis, and that KTM are starting to realize that closing in on the top ten was much easier than getting into the top five will be.

From Sepang, MotoGP moves to Thailand, some 1300km almost due north. The Chang International Circuit – mostly referred to as Buriram among the MotoGP faithful, as the circuit is owned by (and named after) the main Thai rival to Official MotoGP Beer Supplier Singha – may prove a good deal less instructive than Sepang, for a couple of reasons. First of all, it offers more of the same, especially from a climate point of view. And secondly, it offers less, in terms of variety of corners and bike maneuverability.

The layout of the Buriram circuit is relatively simple. There are no real elevation changes, though the track has one or two crests and dips. The track consists of three straights strung together with tight corners, and then an ornery section of tightish corners taking the riders back to the final first-gear corner, and back onto the relatively short start and finish straight. It is, unsurprisingly, a Hermann Tilke track, and exactly what you would expect as a result.

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Bradley Smith On What MotoGP Riders Learn From Rider Coaches, TV Footage, And Getting A Tow

At its core, motorcycle racing is a war of diminishing returns, where manufacturers, teams, and riders dive ever deeper into the details in search of an advantage. The latest battleground is in rider coaching, with riders and now teams using rider coaches / spotters / observers / analysts to help riders identify where they are strongest and weakest.

Spotters and rider coaches have been around for a while. Wilco Zeelenberg started working with Jorge Lorenzo at Yamaha in 2010, and now has a similar role for Maverick Viñales. Jonathan Rea has worked with Keith Amor in WorldSBK, Amor also filming Rea to help him perfect his technique. More recently, Valentino Rossi started working with former 250cc world champion Luca Cadalora, and has employed a rider coach for the VR46 Riders Academy, the talent pool of young Italian racers Rossi has taken under his wing.

Current Red Bull KTM MotoGP rider Bradley Smith was also a relatively early adopter. The Englishman has worked with former 500cc legend Randy Mamola since his entry into MotoGP, and is fulsome in his praise of the idea. "I had Randy and I see that as a massive help just in terms of having eyes outside of the track," Smith said. The Red Bull KTM spoke about rider coaches, their role and benefits, to a small group of journalists at the Sepang test.

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