Press releases from the factories and teams after the first MotoGP test of 2019 at Sepang:
The following is an interview which leading Japanese MotoGP journalist and friend of MotoMatters.com Akira Nishimura conducted with the heads of Suzuki's MotoGP program, Shinichi Sahara, Ken Kawauchi, and Daijiro Mashita. Nishimura conducted the interviews in Japanese, and translated them into impeccable English. I then edited them in English for style. Any inaccuracies or errors are therefore mine. - David Emmett
Team SUZUKI ECSTAR started the 2018 season as a Concession team. Thanks to Andrea Iannone and Alex Rins’ hard efforts, Suzuki managed to score three successive podiums from Round 2 to Round 4. At Aragon, Round 14 of the championship, they finally accumulated 6 concession points in total, which lost them their concession status and restored them to the normal MotoGP rules for 2019 alongside their competitors. At the end of December, we visited their headquarters Hamamatsu to interview Suzuki’s MotoGP Project Leader Shinichi Sahara, Technical Manager Ken Kawauchi, and their engine design team leader Daijiro Mashita. They gave us a lot of interesting answers and honestly revealed their resolutions for the forthcoming 2019 season.
Q: You started the 2018 season in good shape, taking three successive podiums in Argentina, COTA, and Jerez. Were these results just as you expected?
Kawauchi: Even though we had good results in these races, I had to say we weren't confident we could achieve it, to be honest. In fact, we were fortunate to take third place at Jerez, but it was a result of the crash by other riders. So, we recognized we had to improve ourselves to be more competitive.
Q: Concession teams can update their engines during the season. Did you update your engine and other parts from the beginning of the year?
Suzuki and Yamaha have struggled to keep up with Ducati and Honda in recent years, so what are their chances for 2019?
Inline-four MotoGP bikes have won two of the last 30 MotoGP races. That’s why some outsiders predict the end of the line for them.
But if you’ve been paying attention you will know that Ducati’s V4 and Honda’s V4 dominate MotoGP for reasons other than engine configuration. Both layouts have their good and bad points; end of story.
Honda RC213V steering damper
David Emmett: Honda have switched the location of their steering damper to above the tank. It's a conventional damper (the rules say electronic control of the steering damper is not allowed), but it has been relocated because of the change to the air intake, which now goes straight through the steering head.
Joan Mir’s Suzuki GSX-RR
David Emmett: This is the 2018 version of the chassis. The later version doesn't have the carbon sections glued to the upper part of the frame. Suzuki staff said that working with the carbon sections had allowed them to work on varying stiffness, and they weren't needed any longer.
You would think that after writing about what I got wrong in my predictions last year, I would not be so foolish as to try to make predictions again for the 2019 season. As it turns out, I am that foolish, so here is a list of things I expect to happen in the coming year.
2019 certainly looks very promising for world championship motorcycle racing, in just about every class in both MotoGP and WorldSBK. A range of changes mean the racing should be closer and more competitive. Cutting the MotoGP grid from 24 to 22 bikes, and having the Petronas Yamaha team replace the underfunded Aspar squad, means there are more competitive bikes on the grid.
Ducati will field only GP19s and GP18s, and the GP18 is a much better machine than the GP17. Honda will field three 2019 RC213Vs, and a 2018 bike for Takaaki Nakagami, and the fact that Nakagami was fastest at the Jerez MotoGP test last November suggests that it, too, is good enough to run at the front. Yamaha, likewise, will field three factory-spec bikes, with only rookie Fabio Quartararo on a 2018-spec machine. Suzuki made big steps forward in 2018, and have a more powerful bike for 2019.
It's not just in MotoGP either. In Moto2, the new Triumph engine will change the way riders have to ride the bike, and the introduction of electronics – very limited, but still with more than the old Honda ECU kit had to offer – will give teams more options. Ducati's introduction of the Panigale V4R will make the WorldSBK series a good deal more competitive. And the cream of last year's Moto3 crop moving up to Moto2, to make way for an influx of young talent, will make both classes fascinating and exciting to watch.
So what can we expect from 2019? Here are a few concrete predictions:
1. Meet the new boss, same as the old boss
The start of the year is traditionally a chance to look ahead, and make predictions for what is to come. But as an old Danish proverb, sometimes ascribed to the brilliant Danish physicist Niels Bohr, says, it is difficult to make predictions, especially about the future. To demonstrate just how hard, we will kick off the year taking a look back at predictions I made last year, and what I got wrong.
I started last year with an article in which I made three predictions for the 2018 season:
1. Marc Márquez wins more on his way to title number seven
He's going to win a lot of races in 2018 – my best guess would be eight or nine of the nineteen – and the way you win championships is by winning races.
This one, I got right. Marc Márquez did indeed go on to win the 2018 MotoGP championship by a comfortable margin, wrapping up the title at Motegi, in front of Honda's biggest bosses. And – more by luck than judgment – my guess for how many races Márquez would win was right on the money, the Repsol Honda rider racking up a total of 9 victories last year.
And the winner is... Takaaki Nakagami! Or at least the LCR Honda rider's name sit atop the timesheets at the end of the final day of the final MotoGP test of 2018. Which both counts for a lot, and counts for very little at the same time. The fact that Nakagami was able to do the time is proof that the 2018 Honda RC213V is a much better bike than the 2017 version which the Japanese rider spent last season on – see also the immediate speed of Franco Morbidelli, now he is on the Petronas Yamaha rather than the Marc VDS Honda. It was also proof that Nakagami – riding Cal Crutchlow's bike at Jerez – is a much better rider than his results on the 2017 bike suggest. And puts into perspective that this was the bike which Marc Márquez won the 2017 MotoGP title on.
But it also doesn't really mean very much. Testing is just testing, and the riders don't necessarily have either the inclination or the tire allocation to go chasing a quick lap time the way they do on a race weekend. Nobody wants to risk it all just to prove a point and get injured just before they go into the winter break. And with the top 15 within a second of one another, and the top 7 within a quarter of a second, the differences are pretty meaningless anyway.
It's been a difficult test at Valencia. The weather simply hasn't played ball. Tuesday started wet, took a few hours to dry out, then rain started falling around 3pm, meaning the riders effectively had around two and a half usable hours on track. Rain on Tuesday evening meant the track was wet on Wednesday morning, and in the chill of a November morning, it took a couple of hours before the track dried out enough for the riders to hit the track.
At least it stayed dry and sunny throughout the day, and the last couple of hours saw the best conditions of the test, times dropping until falling temperatures put paid to any thought of improvement. The teams may have lost time, but at least they had a solid four and a half hours of track time to work.
For half the factories, what they were focusing on was engines. Yamaha, Honda, and Suzuki all brought new engines to test, and in the case of Yamaha and Honda, two different specs. Ducati was mainly working with a new chassis, aimed at making the bike turn better. Aprilia had a new engine and a new frame to try. And as usual, KTM had a mountain of parts and ideas to test.