Notes from the second WorldSBK race in Thailand:
Testing is over. Sunday was the last chance for the MotoGP field to work on preparing for the 2017 season, to tweak, refine, experiment. The next time bikes take to the track, in two weeks time, there will be much more at stake than pride and a little bit of psychological advantage. There will no longer be anywhere to hide.
The last day of the test meant a busy schedule, though that is a relative thing at the Losail International circuit. For the best part of two hours, nothing stirred on track bar the bored chatter of riders, mechanics and photographers as they waited for the sun to go down, and the track to cool off enough to go testing. Once testing started, riders started grinding out the laps. Temperatures stayed high enough to stave off the dew, and it was possible to ride until the track closed at 11pm without the risk of crashing on an invisible patch of moisture.
Riders didn't need the excuse of moisture to crash, however. In five hours of usable track time, riders crashed fourteen times in total. Some seemed particularly prone, with Sam Lowes going down twice, and Marc Márquez managing to hit the deck three times in a single day. Márquez had a simple explanation for his crashes. "From the first to the last lap, I'm always on the limit," he said. "It try to be in 1'55s, but this is a risk." Márquez paid the price, though he put one crash down to testing a part which didn't work, though he did not specify what.
As veteran MotoGP journalist Dennis Noyes pointed out on Twitter late on Saturday night, on Sunday, we will start to see some of the real truth of where everyone stands. Sunday is the last chance for the MotoGP field to do a full race simulation, putting together everything they have learned during winter testing. The last day of the test at Qatar will serve as a dress rehearsal for the race.
But Saturday gave us a quick peek at everyone's hands. The work now is more about refinement than revolution, and genuine speed is coming to the fore. The final timesheets from Saturday do not tell the whole story, but a general picture is starting to form. It is looking increasingly like the 2017 MotoGP championship is going to be fought out between Maverick Viñales and Marc Márquez. And while they focus on each other – which they are doing more and more – other riders, primarily Valentino Rossi, are waiting in the wings to strike.
Ducati show their hand
There was a little bit of revolution on display at Qatar on Saturday, however. Ducati finally rolled out their new aerodynamic solution. It is different yet again from the other four manufacturers who have shown off their winglet replacements. The top half of the fairing has been remodeled, to create a very slim nose section and a pair of large ducts, one either side. The shape and position of the ducts (see below) appear to create a very large aerodynamic surface, providing plenty of downforce.
Jonathan Rea claimed a dominant victory at the Chang International Circuit, the reigning world champion setting a searing pace en route to his third victory in a row. When he arrived in Parc Ferme after Race 1 the Northern Irishman's emotions were clear for all to see as he celebrated his 41st WorldSBK victory.
“I felt really good and quite calm, my guys gave me a really good bike again and that was my plan,” said Rea. “We had a really good pace but Chaz also had a very fast pace, as did Marco, so I had to ride away into T1 to make the holeshot, I wanted to get my head down in T1 and I did it. I managed to get a good gap and then built up a rhythm, I was just doing my job and it was enough to win, so I’m really happy. Last year there was a big fight between me, Tom and Chaz but the bike’s improved a lot since last year, so I’m really happy with that.
At Sepang, after losing so much time to the weather during the shakedown test ahead of the official test, Ducati boss Gigi Dall'Igna said that there was no point using Sepang as a test circuit, if the surface was not going to dry. "Maybe we have to test somewhere else," he said.
Now MotoGP is somewhere else. At Qatar, where the rain is never a concern (well, almost never), and the teams don't have to worry about the track not drying up. But arguably, the teams get even less track time at Qatar than they do at Sepang, even when it rains. The test starts at 4pm, with the fierce Arabian sun still beating down on the track. Sunset is two hours later, and it takes a while for the track to cool to the normal temperatures which will be found at the race.
Track temperatures are fine after dark, at least for a few hours. Around 10pm, an hour before the track closes, the dew starts to form. The time at which it starts tends to vary, depending on temperature and humidity, but it is very rarely before 11pm. Invisible damp patches on the track mean riders start to crash without warning. The sensible riders wait for the unlucky riders to crash, then take that as a signal to scurry back to their garages and call it a day.
The testing season is nearly done. The MotoGP grid assembles in Qatar for three final days of testing, in preparation for the season ahead. Much has already been done, but there is still a lot of work to get through. Every factory, every team, every rider has things they want to try, in the hope of improving their chances in 2017. In most cases, those are just minor details, the nuances and finesses which will give hundredths of a second, not tenths.
But not always. There are always a couple of last-minute gambles to take, big ticket items which need one last decision. At Qatar this year, it is Honda's turn to make a big decision, on which spec of engine to use for the season. They tested one spec at Valencia, then another one at Sepang and Phillip Island, and at a one-day private test at Jerez.
It looks like they have made their decision, to go with the revised big bang engine tested for the first time at Sepang. But the cool air and hard acceleration of Qatar will be the deciding factor. To double check, they will be bringing an extra engine to give to Jack Miller, the Marc VDS Honda rider, who has so far only used the Valencia engine. If the Repsol riders, LCR's Cal Crutchlow, and Jack Miller all agree, then HRC will pull the trigger on their latest engine, and race with it in 2017.
As the start of the MotoGP season draws near, this is a big week for motorcycle racing. On Wednesday, the Moto2 and Moto3 teams meet for the first official test of the season at Jerez, lasting until Friday. Early Friday morning, European time, the second round of the WorldSBK championship kicks off at the Chang International Circuit in Thailand. Then on Friday afternoon, the MotoGP teams start the final test of preseason at the Losail circuit in Qatar.
But the first place to see action is Jerez. After several private tests scattered around Spanish tracks, it is the first chance to see the entire Moto2 and Moto3 grid on track together. Or most of the grid: injury leaves at least one rider sidelined, Stefano Manzi being out with a knee injury. The three-day test is split into sessions, with the Moto2 and Moto3 classes each going out separately.
It is terribly fashionable in some circles to regard Dorna as a blight on the face of motorcycle racing. Their alleged crimes are both heinous and manifold. They have dumbed down the sport by exerting an ever tighter grip over the technical regulations. They killed off the two strokes in favor of four strokes. They have aggressively pursued copyright and trademark claims, at the cost of broadening the appeal of the sport. They have been relentless in their pursuit of financial gain over the spirit of the sport. They have meddled in the sport to favor one rider, or one nationality over the rest.
Most of these complaints are either baseless, or an expression of anger at how the sport has changed over the years. Some points are valid: the death of the 250cc two strokes, however understandable from a financial point of view, was a tragedy, as a 250cc two stroke was perhaps the most perfect expression of a racing motorcycle. In the past, as I found myself on occasion, Dorna were slow to embrace change online, and wasted energy chasing down Youtube clips of MotoGP, rather than controlling them by providing them to fans in an easy-to-share way. (Fortunately for the fans, they have learned and bettered their ways in this regard.)
Yet it is hard to argue with results. This season, six factories – three Japanese, three European – will line up on the MotoGP grid. 23 riders from seven different countries will take the start, with a grand total of 31 world championship titles between them. The bikes they will ride are extremely close in performance, with technical differences limited. For the past two years, riders from three different countries have won the three Grand Prix titles. The MotoGP series has emerged from global financial crisis in rude health, despite some major challenges along the way.
Can we just have every race at Phillip Island? That's certainly what a lot of fans will be thinking after a thrilling opening weekend of WorldSBK action. The tension that has simmered between Jonathan Rea and Chaz Davies over the winter came to the fore over the weekend and once again it these two riders fighting it out for wins.
Jonathan Rea had a fight on his hands for both wins in Australia but the reigning WorldSBK champion did enough to continue his domination of Phillip Island. In claiming his fifth win in the last three years at the Australian circuit the Northern Irishman also became just the fourth rider in history to win 40 WorldSBK races.
The second race of the WorldSBK season saw history made with the introduction of the much-touted revised grid that saw the podium men from Race 1 start from the third row.
This meant that Jonathan Rea, Chaz Davies and Tom Sykes had to fight through the field during the 22 lap affair. It proved little challenge for Rea and Davies to hit the front but ultimately Sykes lost too much time making progress and abused his tires trying to bridge the gap to the leading group.