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.
History repeating, deceptively
There is a certain irony to Honda testing engines at Qatar. In 2015, it was at Qatar that Marc Márquez realized that the new engine HRC had brought was no good. And last year, HRC were once again going back and forth between two engines, a 2015 and 2016 spec. The latest Dorna documentary on Marc Márquez' championship year, screened last week in Spain, and due to be shown in the UK on BT Sport next week, reveals that Honda was seriously considering ditching its 2016 engine at Qatar last year, and going back to the 2015 unit. Only the results of the last day convinced Marc Márquez and Dani Pedrosa to stick with it.
One intriguing detail of that outstanding documentary – compulsory viewing, whether you are a Márquez fan or not – is that Honda fit small front winglets to their fairing at the same time as they were testing engines. The aim was to distract, like a conjurer flourishing colored handkerchiefs in one hand while he slips a coin into the other, and it was a brilliant success. The media spent all their time asking about the winglets, instead of thinking about what else the Honda riders might have been testing.
This, incidentally, is still my pet theory about the 'salad box' on the back of the Ducati. While there have been all sorts of theories as to what it is, some wild, some plausible, and plenty somewhere in between, it is such a distraction that it could easily be cover for something else. The question may not necessarily be what is in the box, but what did putting whatever is in the box in there allow the Desmosedici GP17's designers to move around elsewhere. We will have to wait until some poor rider is generous enough to sling the bike into the gravel with enough force that the salad box is ripped open, then hope that they do so in front of a camera. Or even better, a row of photographers packing 600mm lenses.
Ducati get their wings back?
While Honda are testing engines, Ducati will be rolling out their new aerodynamic package, according to a report on Motorsport.com. Originally, Ducati had been expected to wait until the race, to prevent any other factories from copying their ideas. But with the start of the season drawing closer, testing the new fairing now seems like a good idea. Especially given the fact that they will have to homologate at least one fairing at Qatar.
The other factories will have less major work to do. Suzuki's GSX-RR is in very good shape, with only minor updates to test. Yamaha will be mainly confirming the excellent basis they have, and seeking to refine that as much as possible ahead of the season. At Aprilia, Sam Lowes gets a 2017 bike for the first time, while Aleix Espargaro will be hoping that Aprilia Corse have managed to unleash a few extra ponies.
The most intriguing factory is perhaps KTM. The Austrian manufacturer has thrown all of its effort into MotoGP, and has managed to roll out new parts at an astonishing rate. After having two new chassis to test at Sepang, KTM brought another new chassis to Phillip Island for Bradley Smith and Pol Espargaro, and it is not unthinkable that another new version of the frame could appear at Qatar. In addition to the chassis, KTM have brought new swing arms, and boxes and boxes of various other parts, including linkages, suspension, and much more. They have brought so many bits and pieces that the sheer quantity is starting to overwhelm the riders.
At the last two tests, both Smith and Espargaro have dropped hints that KTM could bring a new engine at some point in the future. The RC16 is now the only bike left on the grid using a regular "screamer" firing interval, and KTM lead engineer Sebastian Risse admitted at the presentation last year that they had given various ignition configurations thought. It seems unlikely that KTM would bring a big bang style engine to Qatar, but with KTM, very little is impossible. As a new factory, KTM is still able to change its engine design, so a different engine could make an appearance at some point during the year.
The big question at Qatar will be whether Maverick Viñales can continue his dominance at preseason testing. It is a track the young Spaniard goes well at, and given the way Jorge Lorenzo obliterated the opposition in recent years, it is clear that the track suits the Yamaha. The 2017 iteration of the bike has more acceleration and more top speed, and so should be even stronger. Knocking Viñales off the top spot could well prove to be exceptionally tough.
That objective will only serve to spur Marc Márquez into action. The rivalry which is brewing between the two Spaniards promises to be especially fierce, given their long history of racing against each other. Keen observer of the sport Manuel Pecino took a long look at the history between the two in a recent article, which underlined just how badly the two men want to beat each other. No quarter will be asked, nor none given at Qatar. Top spot on the timesheets will be a small but powerful victory heading into the new season.
We might also finally get to see something of Valentino Rossi's speed. The Italian was tasked with a lot of work at Sepang and Phillip Island, and never really had a chance to pursue a hot lap. He was also hit hard by the travel, Yamaha extracting the maximum marketing value from their most valuable sales asset by trotting him and his teammate out across Southeast Asia, a crucial market for the factory.
At Qatar, Rossi returns more rested, and with less work to do. He should have a chance to do a proper race run, and to go for a fast time at some point. When he does, we will have a better idea of what to expect.
High hopes of a new track
Jorge Lorenzo has high hopes of the Losail circuit. Qatar is one of the tracks where the Spaniard has always excelled, and where Ducati has traditionally been strong. Lorenzo will be hoping for a confidence boost from a fast time, if he can get on with the Desmosedici. He has been adapting to the Ducati, but it has not been easy. The combination of a track he loves and one which suits the bike should make things considerably easier.
For the rookies, Qatar will be indicative of their progress. Alex Rins and Jonas Folger were outstanding at Phillip Island, Johann Zarco was exceptional at Sepang, and as I said, Sam Lowes will finally have the 2017 bike, which is a big step forward. They will be trying to hang onto the gains they made at the previous tests, while others start making big steps forward.
At Aspar, all eyes will be on Alvaro Bautista. The Spanish veteran has been remarkably quick all preseason, but given that he is stuck on a GP16, he has already spent all his time working on set up. As the factories move into consolidation mode, it will be interesting to see what happens to the gap between the Aspar Ducati rider and the top four or five. At previous tests, Bautista has been pretty much on a par with them. This test could see the gap start to open again. If it doesn't, then Bautista could be a real factor in 2017.
The riders have three more days to make a difference. From Friday to Sunday, from 4pm, a couple of hours before sunset, until 11pm local time, the Losail Circuit will resound to the noise of 1000cc four-cylinder four strokes. The end of testing is nigh. Things are about to get deadly serious.
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