Tue, 2021-04-06 22:36

Man of the moment: Fabio Quartararo shone under the lights at Qatar

The other man of the moment. Pole and a maiden podium for Jorge Martin. 11 days in the desert proved fertile ground for the rookie

Worth noting that Pecco Bagnaia is sticking with the 2020 aero for his Ducati. The lower scoops are missing

KTM's steel chassis is less trellis, more steel beam. Note also the rear cylinder bank visible between the fairing and the frame

High clutch is part of the stacked gearbox which keeps the Yamaha M1 engine so incredibly compact. Note also the carbon fiber swingarm

Ironically, Covid-19 has improved communication in the garage. No more shouting to be heard over MotoGP engines; instead, everyone listens in on headsets

Still the most elegant and shapely bike on the grid: the Suzuki GSX-RR with stunning Akrapovic double-barreled exhaust

Attention to detail: speed sensor mount at the bottom of the axle, and split pin wired to the axle clamp so it doesn't get lost

Yamaha has put a lot of work into aerodynamics this year. Teardrop fork uppers mimic those on the Ducati, and work has been done on the mudguard and fairing profile

The brake disc covers are much larger, and now an integral part of the aero package. Also visible is the carbon fiber swingarm, which Valentino Rossi has been experimenting with. So far, to no avail

The KTM has been using a carbon fiber swingarm since early 2019

Suzuki's aero package remains relatively simple. But then again, their bike just works

Luca Marini looks to the future

Naca ducts and serrated trailing edges - the kind of aero detail that matters more and more

Invincible at Qatar 1, only fifth at Qatar 2. But fifth on a bad day is how you win championships

The battle for tenth. But only 6 seconds behind the leaders. That's how close the Doha MotoGP race was

The front wing on the Aprilia RS-GP is bigger and creates more drag, but the benefit from added acceleration far outweighs the top speed penalty

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Sun, 2021-04-04 01:10

"I'm so glad to hear that a lot of the riders are confused! Because I am too, I really am." Franco Morbidelli, like just about everyone in the MotoGP paddock in Qatar, has spent so long trying to get his head around the Losail International Circuit and the tricks it can play, with grip, with wind, with track temperatures, and so much more, that he is utterly lost. "I don't know what's going on. Something is going on, and I hope that whatever is going on, it will go away as soon as possible, because it is tricky to work like this."

"Consistency has been difficult this weekend because the track is different every time we exit the pits," Jack Miller agreed. "There's only one more day left here in Qatar and I'll try and make it a good one and get out of here in one piece." After nearly a month in the Gulf state, on and off, and ten days riding around the same track, everyone is very, very over being in Qatar.

First there's the weird schedule, which means the riders hit the track in the late afternoon and finish in the middle of the evening. By the time they are done, it is well past midnight before they can hit the sack. Then there's the track. The grip is too inconsistent, the conditions are too changeable, the window for race conditions is too narrow. If engineering is about changing one variable at a time, Qatar is like twisting every knob at random and hoping for the best. An idle hope in almost every case.

But not always. Sometimes all the dials end up in just the right place and something magic happens. So it was on Saturday night, when Jorge Martin put together as near perfect a lap on a Ducati as you could wish for. The Pramac Ducati rider pushed and hustled his Desmosedici GP21 around the Losail International Circuit with the kind of intensity needed to really make it fly, despite the multifarious appendages aimed precisely at preventing that.

Martin knew just how good a lap it had been, the Spaniard punching the tank and the air as crossed the line. So ecstatic was the Pramac rider that he missed his braking point for the first corner, and had to run though the gravel to get on track. Fortunately, the checkered flag had already fallen, or Race Direction may have wanted a quiet word. Instead, Martin was off to parc ferme and the press conference to celebrate a convincing pole, 0.157 faster than his Pramac teammate Johann Zarco, and 0.161 seconds faster than last week's winner Maverick Viñales.

With this pole, Martin takes his place among illustrious company. He becomes only the third rider to score a pole position in just his second race, as noted by Spanish statistics whiz Nacho González. The other two riders to achieve that feat? Casey Stoner and Marc Márquez. Only one rider has gone one better. In 2008, at this very same circuit, Jorge Lorenzo took pole in his first MotoGP appearance. Stoner's maiden pole was also set at Qatar, so perhaps there is something about the circuit.

One lap is not 22 laps

Does this make Martin the favorite for victory on Sunday? The Spaniard was keen to keep things in perspective. "Today is just Saturday. Tomorrow is the difficult part," the Pramac Ducati rider told the press conference. But there was still a lot to learn. "Last race I learned a lot from all the riders. Try to manage the tires I think is the point where we have to work and be focused on. I think we did a great job. We’re improving in this aspect."

He was putting thoughts of victory to one side for the moment. "For sure, my target is not to win. My target is to try to be focused, try to keep the same pace the whole race, try to not make mistakes. Hopefully in the middle of the race I can have a good tire to battle for a top six. Would be super good."

Martin underlined that this was still his first year in the MotoGP class. "Tomorrow I think it’s time to be a rookie. I’m a rookie," he said. "I don’t have the pressure, not even the potential yet to win because my pace is still… In FP4 for sure we made a step, but still from these guys I’m maybe four tenths. It’s impossible to think for a win. Anything can happen in a race, but I need them to crash or maybe six or seven riders to win. It’s not what I want, for sure. I want to beat them when I’m ready."

Rookie goals

The Pramac Ducati rider was keeping his feel firmly on the ground. "Tomorrow is not the moment. Tomorrow is the time to be a rookie, try to make a good start because at the end it’s free time that I’m gaining. Try to manage the tire so at the end of the race I have a good tire. When they pass me, I think for sure they will pass me, I will try to follow them, try to learn. Maybe they make a line I make different and I can improve during the race. For sure I will improve my lines. I think this is the target now and I will try that."

The reigning champion had praise for Jorge Martin, but Joan Mir still managed to sneak a few barbs into his compliments. "Congratulations to him," the Suzuki Ecstar rider said. "I already knew Jorge was always really fast in pole positions. In Moto3, normally they took the pole and I won the races!" A point which Mir was keen to emphasize "I already knew that he was fast in 1 lap. He’s doing a great job." Mir was also careful to point out that it was the satellite riders who were on the front row, rather than the factory team. "The Ducati riders have to be really angry," Mir said of Martin's pole.

Is Martin's assessment of his own pace accurate? Looking at the pace in FP4 – the only usable data we have, given the horrendous conditions in FP3 and the relative lack of clear race pace times on Friday, a finish in the top six or seven looks eminently possible. There appears to be a group of four riders who are faster than the rest, according to analysis by Honda BSB crew chief Chris Pike and Moto2 commentator Neil Morrison: Fabio Quartararo appears to have a slight edge, just ahead of Maverick Viñales, Johann Zarco and Joan Mir.

Mir's pace is somewhat understated, the Suzuki rider having used a medium rear on his first run in FP4 to allow him to save an extra soft for qualifying and the race. The champion qualified in ninth on Saturday, a position ahead of where he started from last week. And he starts with a better feeling and more confidence. "I feel better with the front," Mir said. "It’s not the problem we are having now. It’s just improve to be strong in the qualifying. We need more, and we have to use the grip in a different way. I feel prepared for the race. I think we will do it great."

Mir's problem is still qualifying, however. And the problem was not just the bike. "I’m a lot more nervous and more stressed on Saturday than on Sunday," the Suzuki rider said. "It’s something that we have to fix. It’s not normal to be really far from our rivals in one lap. In the end if you see the pace, we are always really good and ride in a good way."

The problem is that other riders can make a much bigger step in speed than he could, Mir explained. "What is not normal is our rivals are able to improve 1.5 seconds. In Q2 I was with used tires and I made almost half a second faster. It’s something we have to work on." Qualifying and the Suzuki also need a different style. "Also, the natural style, it’s not helping me, my natural style. I’m normally really aggressive. And to make a lap time you have to be aggressive. At the end you have to be aggressive on the brakes. I have this. But with this bike you have to be really smooth and really relaxed. We have to work on it, yeah."

Repeat performance?

Maverick Viñales was the rider Mir had an eye on, the Suzuki rider said. Viñales had qualified on the front row, doing exactly what he needed to be competitive. That made him the man to beat, according to Joan Mir. "The reality is Maverick is really strong," the Suzuki rider told us. "But he’s always really strong. It’s important to see if he can manage the race as good as the last one. All the Ducatis, they are really fast and competitive. It’s really difficult to manage a race with them. It’s always not the bike you want to fight here in Qatar. But we will try to make our race, manage the best way with these guys and be close to the front."

Viñales had done well to grab a front row on his second run during Q2. The Monster Energy Yamaha rider's first run had been something of a disaster, managing only a 1'54.566, 1.3 seconds slower than the lap that would bag him third on the grid. He had stayed impressively calm on his return to the pits, showing signs of agitation but maintaining his focus.

That was down to the changes that had been made in his team during the off season, Viñales explained. He felt much more at home, and that made things easy. "I think it’s all about trust and loyalty has changed so much in the team," the Spaniard said. "Overall I know what I’m able to do. I don’t have any stress. I know that we can do great things on the track. So I understood very well that the first time attacks were not good."

Viñales had been able to express his unhappiness with the lap, without losing his focus for the second run. "I just wanted to inform the team about my feelings, about how I felt just in case they wanted to modify something for the second one. I was calm. I understand it very well. After that I just pushed at the maximum. I pushed on the correct way the bike and the lap time was there. It’s one more thing that we did good the second weekend in Qatar. That gave us the calmness if it happens again another time."

Perhaps the biggest obstacle to Viñales scoring back to back wins at Qatar (a déjà vu of 2020?) is his teammate, Fabio Quartararo. The Frenchman's pace on used tires in FP4 was phenomenal, and they have improved the electronics a little from last week, in the hope of avoiding the drop in tire performance he suffered last week.

"To be honest, the bike is exactly the same as last week on setting," Quartararo told us. "But we change the little bit the way of pushing in the corners. A little bit in electronics. I felt we make the step but also myself on the bike. The team helped me with the electronics." The changed had allowed him to be incredibly consistent with his pace, he said. "When I saw the lap times today I was really happy. 15 laps in row and lap 1 to 16 there was only one tenth difference on the last lap. I felt the potential was good. I’m quite happy about today. Unfortunately the qualifying was not the best. But I feel we have great potential for tomorrow."

But there is still a huge amount of uncertainty among the riders over how the race will play out. Pace on paper may mean nothing during the race, given how conditions are so apt to change. "Sincerely, it’s very difficult to predict tomorrow's race," Aleix Espargaro said. "The grip is very low. We saw the factory Ducati boys finish low in some sessions, but not fast like last week. But the Pramac are fast. The Suzukis are fast like last week. The track is very different compared to last week. It’s very slippery."

The Aprilia rider had a strong showing last week, and is even more comfortable for the second race at Qatar. "I felt a bit easier with the bike in the wind. I think we are better than last week for the race." The big question mark was the performance of the tires, Espargaro said. "Still I don’t understand. I need to talk with Michelin. We slide a lot more than last week."

The problem was, Espargaro explained, that he and his Aprilia team weren't sure whether he was sliding without damaging the tire. "I don’t understand if I am destroying the tire or if I’m just sliding and not destroying because there isn’t enough grip," the Spaniard said. "If I’m sliding and destroying the tire then we have a big problem because the spin level is a lot higher than last week. But it can mean there is no grip on the ground which means you can spin whatever you want but the consumption is not super high. This is what we need to understand tonight and let’s see with the engineers. But I think just Maverick and Fabio are the strongest but in qualifying we are similar to them. We are in the mix."

Aleix wasn't the only Espargaro brother to be confounded by the conditions, the tires, and the grip. Pol Espargaro was frustrated and befuddled by the fact that while his race pace looked strong, his one-lap pace was nowhere and seemingly impossible to improve. What made it worse was that on his first run, he had felt the tire was way too slow. And with his second rear tire, he felt a second or more faster.

Out of control

"Honestly speaking, it's difficult to say," the Repsol Honda rider said. "It's what makes me more angry, is to not control the situation, and this one, I tell you, I do not control. The first tire I put in qualifying was very bad, I could not make even one lap. I'm sure I couldn't make even a 1'55, or 1'55 middle. But then I stopped and put the second tire and I did a 1'54.4. But again, my reference changed, I went wide in the first corner, I lost two tenths in the first corner."

If he had gotten everything right, he felt he could have gotten through to Q2. "Doing a perfect lap, I think could be in Q2, but the problem was that I was not expecting how the bike was reacting with the second tire," Espargaro said. "What happened? We don't know. We don't know, and especially I don't know and this is super frustrating for me. So I'm sure tomorrow we are going to go for the race, we are going to put the race tire and we are going to be overtaking like last weekend, and we are going to be somewhere."

What Espargaro found most frustrating is why this was happening to the Repsol Hondas, but not to the Ducatis. "Why did this happen to us, and why do Ducatis improve more than 2 seconds in one lap?" He asked. "They did 1'52.7 last weekend, and they did the same rhythm in the race as me. This is what we don't understand, why they are so fast over one lap and we struggle so much."

There was a general sense of confusion about the grip. The Honda riders and the KTM riders couldn't push – in part because they need a harder front tire, the asymmetric medium proving unusable for them. Yet their race pace looks much more solid, so that is a cause for concern.

Miguel Oliveira was the best of the KTMs, but he had no obvious explanation for why he was quicker. "I just went a little bit faster," the factory KTM rider said. "There’s not really any secret. I think the job was quite similar between every rider. We tried to find different solutions in terms of setup and the four of us tried different things just to see if we gained something, especially out of front tire consumption."

After a long time in Qatar, riding around the same track, and having to deal with the difference between preheated and brand new tires, they were starting to lose their way, Oliveira explained. After nine days, we are tired of thinking," the Portuguese rider said. "It’s really frustrating, especially when we get to a weekend where we have such a tire difference between the same compounds. It becomes harder."

All this wasn't helped by the weird time schedule, Oliveira added. "As I’ve been saying before, the format itself of the weekend. We get to the first day, we have an afternoon session which is really hot. Then we have a night session which is a qualifying. So if you look at the team which is struggling a bit more and needs to try things, it’s quite difficult to do it."


Franco Morbidelli echoed that feeling. Despite having strong pace in FP4, he qualified down in tenth, behind the Suzukis. "Really difficult day and weekend so far," the Petronas Yamaha rider said. "But I wouldn't say difficult, I would say really hard to understand. The feeling is bad, and it remains averagely bad, no matter what we do. What changes is the speed, and sometimes I feel a bit better, sometimes I feel a bit faster, but this feeling can go away from one run to another. So nothing is certain, and nothing is clear. We don't know what to point, what I know is the feeling on the bike is not good, and it's difficult."

There wasn't a single culprit he could point to on the bike. "I don't know," Morbidelli said in exasperation. "I don't want to dare to point at the tires, I don't want to dare to point at the shock, I don't want to dare to point at the chassis, swingarm, whatever. I don't want to dare to point at anything at the moment. Because I'm not certain about anything at the moment. So it can be any of these things."

The only thing he was certain of was the fact that the rear of the bike didn't feel good. "I'm not having a good feedback from the rear end of the bike. So it might be whatever of these things, it might be tires, it might be swingarm, it might be the shock, it might be something related to the rear end of the bike. We've been going backwards and backwards so we've been changing many things on the bike and we've pretty much gone to the last tiers of items and nothing seems to help. So, difficult situation and difficult to point to what it is."

Which brings us to Valentino Rossi. The Italian veteran qualified in lowly 21st, his worst starting position on the grid at Qatar since he was put to the back of the grid for scrubbing his starting position at the very first race at the Losail International Circuit back in 2004. That was the race where he vowed that Sete Gibernau, who he accused of having informed Race Direction of his misdeeds, would never win a race again. He was right.

At Qatar, it is Rossi who is not looking like a rider with any victories in his future. The Petronas Yamaha rider struggled with grip during practice, and struggled with grip during qualifying. He had no confidence and no solutions. "Very difficult today because I was never strong," Rossi said. "We try to improve the feeling with the bike with the rear but I suffer very much. I have a lack of grip in acceleration."

His race pace was also not good enough, Rossi said. "Also after some laps anyway my pace, I suffer a lot, my pace is not good. Also in the quali with the new tire I never have the feeling to be fast enough." He had been better a week ago, when had been fast enough to get through to Q2, and had exploited a tow from Pecco Bagnaia to start fourth on the grid. "Last week I was good with the new tires but we try for sure to improve the life but unfortunately I was not fast enough. Will be difficult. We have to start behind. We have to understand, try something else and we will see."

Is the end of the Rossi era in sight? Honestly, it's Qatar, so who knows? There is so much about Qatar that confounds any sense of who might be genuinely competitive once MotoGP returns to more normal tracks and more normal conditions. Jerez, Le Mans, Mugello, Barcelona; these are the tracks that will tell Valentino Rossi whether he is still fast enough to compete. And will tell the rest of MotoGP who is genuinely competitive in 2021, and not just a one-off fluke at a fickle and capricious track.

Drawing conclusions from Qatar is a precarious affair. Better wait for Europe before that. Jack Miller is right. Only one more day left in Qatar, so better try to make it a good one and get out in one piece.

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Sat, 2021-04-03 00:34

Plus ça change... if you put the top four from FP2 of Qatar 1 from a week ago next to the top four of FP2 from today, what difference would you see? The same four names, with only the names of Johann Zarco and Fabio Quartararo swapped around, the Yamaha rider now fourth instead of third, as he was last week, the lone M1 amid an army of Ducatis.

Even the times are virtually identical: the time difference between Pecco Bagnaia's second place last week and this is just 0.036. The time difference between the third-place times is 0.038. And the difference between the fourth-place times was 0.003, a mere three thousandths of a second.

Only Jack Miller really improved his time. In fact, Miller set a blistering lap, improving his time from last week by nearly a quarter of a second. That was faster than he had been in qualifying last week, though he still would have started from fifth on the grid.

The factory Ducati rider was satisfied with his days work. As well he might be: he set his fast lap after having a huge moment in Turn 15 on his previous run, when he was thrown out of the seat and forced to come straight back in again. He was not phased, banging out his quickest lap on his first flying lap out of the pits.

Different conditions

"I went out and did what I needed to do," the Australian said. "The temperature - what we had this evening - was nearly double but I still went out and did three runs of four laps just working on mapping and stuff like that. We don’t change the settings too much, we wait until the evening to change a few things. The grip feels a bit different to what we had the last grand prix but I felt that my riding was more similar to what I was riding in the test in terms of brake pressure and things like that. I wasn’t able to use that last week."

The much higher temperatures, combined with a fresh coating of sand dumped by the strong winds at the beginning of the week made conditions much more difficult. The Yamaha riders, especially, complained about a lack of grip.

"I felt pretty bad on the track today," Fabio Quartararo told us, despite having finished the day with the fourth fastest time. "I felt there was no grip on the track, and we know that the Ducati is more stop and go but the strong point of our bike is to turn, having the grip, which today was really bad and the feeling was not great. Hopefully tomorrow we will have better conditions, and we can be a bit faster, because today I was not feeling so great." He was struggling to stop the bike and suffering with chatter, the Monster Energy Yamaha rider explained.

The very different conditions made a Qatar FP2 even more complicated than normal. The window to work on bike setup is always narrow at Qatar – the first 30 minutes of FP2 are useful for assessing tire life and looking for strategies to mitigate it – before attention turns to chasing a spot in Q2. Because if you don't make it in FP2, there is no chance of matching those times in the heat of the FP3 session during the day on Saturday, and so you have to pin all your hopes on getting out of Q1. That is hard, when there are 11 other riders all with same plan, and only 2 tickets up to Q2 available.

Rubber recycling

Just to make things interesting, the MotoGP riders were thrown another curveball. The tire allocation for the second race at Qatar included a number of tires from the first race, the unused remainder of the allocation from last week. These tires have not turned a wheel on the circuit itself. But they have been put into tire warmers and racked up, ready for use if necessary.

The process of heating them up, then letting them cool again, takes the very sharpest edge off the performance of the tires. So in addition to having to thread the needle in search of the best conditions for chasing a quick lap, the teams and riders also had to balance out their tire allocation to ensure they used the preheated tires at the right moment, and saved the fresh and unused tires for their flying laps.

That was not easy. "On the tire allocation we have some preheated tires, which the performance is lower and we need to use them as soon as possible," Repsol Honda's new signing Pol Espargaro explained. "When we put them the grip level is low and is lower than the ones that have not been heated from the week before. The point is when we put them, they are very different."

For a rider who has just switched bikes, that made things much more complicated than normal, Espargaro explained. "So when we put the proper tire to make the time attack, the bike changes a little and this makes me do a lot of mistakes. It is not an excuse because everyone has the same trouble, but for example in the past with the other bike I know where to push and I had everything super clear on the way of making things. And now I’m missing these sparks of the first lap knowing the limit of the front, the rear, how to open the throttle to make the traction and I’ve been out of the top ten by two tenths."

Learning multiple lessons

That made his life difficult, Espargaro explained. "So this is a problem for me. Also I’m not performing well in this place, never performed well in this place and this makes the job even harder. Today I have not been good enough in one lap, that’s it."

Everyone faced the same problem, of course. "We all have on the allocation two preheated tires, of each compound," Espargaro explained. "So it means we use today two soft tires on the time attack in FP2. One of them was preheated and one was not. So we still have one preheated that we don’t know when we are going to put it and we have all the others in a good performance."

"But I don’t want to let it be an excuse, because this is like that for everyone," the Repsol Honda rider told us. "Everyone has the same allocation but just the knowledge of the bike, it makes the others, even if they have one bad tire, they make the lap with the other one and make a good lap time. Or they put three tires on this session and have been better on the strategy."

Saving the softs

Some riders preferred to avoid the preheated soft rears altogether, opting instead for a new medium rear to get a feel for the bike. "I think we need to save the tires for the race," Fabio Quartararo explained. "And honestly, I felt really bad, because I saw Maverick that was really fast with these tires, but for me was a total disaster. I'm just using it to save the soft."

Quartararo's Monster Energy Yamaha teammate Maverick Viñales was no fan of the mediums either, though he was at least quick with the tire. "Actually I felt really good on the track," the Spaniard said. "Honestly in FP1 and then FP2 with the medium tire, I feel fantastic. We could ride quite fast, in 1'54 medium, 1'54 low, which is an amazing pace, so I didn't expect to go that fast with the medium."

But Viñales, like others, suffered when he tried to use the preheated tires to set a fast lap. "When I went to the time attack, there were two preheated tires," the factory Yamaha rider explained. "So I didn't have the grip I expected, we were sliding a lot. So actually I think our problems were that one, that maybe it was not on the maximum performance of the bike. But luckily we were able to go to Q2, because when I saw I didn't have the feeling, I spin a lot, I said, oof, it will be difficult to go into Q2. But at the end we made it, and fantastic, I'm really happy, because the feeling was not there, but on the other hand, with a normal medium tire, I get an amazing feeling on the bike, and this is positive because the soft is better than the medium, basically."

The biggest victim of the preheated tires was reigning champion Joan Mir, though the Spaniard was also a victim of a mistake of timing by his Suzuki Ecstar team. "On these days we have to use the preheated tires from the other Grand Prix," Mir explained. "And this is something, the tire doesn't perform in the same way as a brand new one. Everyone knows this, and we just wait for the good one for the last and that's it."

That was what he and his team had done, Mir explained, but they had called him into the pit to swap the preheated tire for a new, unused rear soft too late to get more than a single flying lap. And that meant he had come up short and was out of Q2.

"In FP2, when we put the tires that were not preheated, I only had one lap, I wasn't able to make the second one. We run out of time," Mir told us. "So we missed the strategy and we cannot miss it. We don't have the package to be easily in Q2, and if we miss something then we are out. We miss Q2 by less one tenth probably, and I'm sure that in the second lap I could improve my lap time but I ran out of time."

Tough times

Mir was not optimistic of reaching Q2, given he was still struggling to get a fast lap out of the Suzuki. "I don't know what I will be able to do with this package," the reigning champion said. "It will be hard to go through Q2, but if not we will have to take risks always in the first laps of the race. I'm struggling more than ever to make a lap time. The harder I try the worse it is. Everyone is improving a lot their bikes, I see a very high level of bikes, and we have to continue improving our bike. So I'm not happy about today."

His race pace was strong, though. Mir posted a 1'54.7 on a tire with ten laps on it, a sign that the race setup was working. There were others with a similar pace on old tires, including Pecco Bagnaia, Fabio Quartararo, Maverick Viñales, and Franco Morbidelli. On the sparse evidence of FP2, those riders seem to be in the best shape.

Franco Morbidelli's pace was good despite his weekend getting off to a horrible start. The Italian had not one, but two bikes start billowing smoke, forcing the flag marshals to show him the meatball flag, the black flag with an orange disc which means get off the track as quickly as possible, you have a technical problem.

The problem looked horrific, with white smoke billowing out of the rear of the bike. But Morbidelli insisted he was not concerned. "It was a good day for us. It didn’t start very well, we had a problem on two engines but luckily the problem was not so big so we will be able to use again those engines," the Petronas Yamaha rider insisted. "Anyway we decided to change one, because we couldn't afford to risk anything in FP2. So we decided to change one engine because FP2 is a really important practice, here in Qatar especially."

It was not like Jerez 2020, when engine problems for Morbidelli, along with Valentino Rossi and Maverick Viñales, were a portent of a valve failure which would dog them all season long. " I'm confident that it's not a major problem because my technician told me so," Morbidelli insisted. "It didn’t feel like a flashback of last year because last year the engine just shut down, while this year I stopped because I saw black and orange flags around the track with my number. I couldn't see or hear or feel any problem. So it is different compared to last year." There were no warning lights on his dash, he insisted.

Lucky break?

In a way, he had been lucky, Morbidelli said, that the issue had occurred in FP1 the least important session of the weekend. "FP1 is the best session that a problem can happen, you have time to react, you have time to solve it," the Petronas Yamaha rider said. "I would like also to thank every single guy in the crew that started working in order to change the engine as quickly as possible and also we needed to make other changes too. Huge thanks to my crew today, they really did an extra job and they did it spot on."

So what could Morbidelli's problem have been? And is he to be taken at his word, or does the problem signal problems ahead? If Morbidelli is spinning a yarn for reporters, he will get found out soon enough. Engine lists will be published after warm up on Sunday morning, ahead of the race. If Morbidelli really has abandoned two engines, it will be all too apparent then.

If, however, Morbidelli is telling the truth, what might have been the cause? The amount of white smoke billowing out of the back of his M1, together with the observation of's ace pit reporter Simon Crafar, that there were no spots of oil on the back wheel (a sign of an oil leak), but there were what looked like soot deposits on the grill of the exhaust, which keeps stones out of the exhaust and away from the valves in the case of a crash, suggest that oil had entered the engine and burned up.

How could this happen? The engine problem occurred at the end of the straight, after Morbidelli had run off onto the hard standing on Turn 1. If it were a problem caused by stress – a valve going, or a seal blowing, or oil blowing past the piston rings – it would have happened under full load, so well before Morbidelli started braking.

Taking a breather

A possible explanation is to be found in the system used to avoid oil leaks. The engine is filled with oil, and a breather pipe is fitted which exits into the airbox. The idea is that any excess oil in the engine is blown into the airbox, where it enters the engine is burned up. Normally, that would only be fumes, or the occasional drop.

But if, for example, the Petronas team had put too much oil into the engine, or not fitted a return valve correctly, or any of a hundred other small mistakes which are easily made. And if the oil had all been forced forward under hard braking, and forced up through the breather pipe and into the airbox, and eventually poured into the engine in relatively large quantities, that would have produced a great deal of smoke. And at the same time, the engine would have kept on running just fine, and no warning lights would have lit up the dash.

This explanation is certainly plausible, and covers all of the known facts. Whether it is the actual truth will become apparent soon enough. There is no hiding from Dorna's official engine usage lists.

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Tue, 2021-03-30 13:55

The fastest man in the world on his day. And Sunday was Maverick Viñales' day

Valentino Rossi, Carmelo Ezpeleta, and Jorge Viegas. The Dorna CEO and FIM President meet the boss of MotoGP

The champion had a decent race Sunday. Joan Mir started from tenth and almost ended up in second

Bad night for Danilo Petrucci. His race ended in the second corner

Ducati's shapeshifter is really obvious on corner exit. They have had to move the 'salad box' and fuel tank to accommodate the wheel.

The Aprilia really has made a step forward in 2021. The bike stayed in one piece, and Aleix Espargaro brought it home in seventh.

Keeping cool is vital in Qatar. Fabio Quartararo uses a cooling vest from Alpinestars before putting his leathers on

They weren't fast at Qatar, but the Tech3 KTMs looked fantastic under the lights. Iker Lecuona's helmet sets off the paint scheme perfectly. Now just get faster

Pecco Bagnaia came good for Ducati Lenovo squad, getting on the podium in his first race for the factory team

Franco Morbidelli's 2019 Yamaha M1. Morbidelli is still the only rider to use the carbon fiber swingarm

Like a lot of riders on Sunday night, Alex Rins was fast early and then used up his tires

Jorge Martin in a Suzuki sandwich. A lightning fast start, followed by dropping through the field like a stone

Jack Miller talks to Ducati Corse boss Gigi Dall'Igna. To the side, the Amazon crew filming Life at Speed, the series following the riders, hoping to emulate the success of Netflix' Drive to Survive

Miguel Oliveira expressed his irritation with Michelin for not bringing a usable front tire to Qatar

Old rider, new team, same problems

For a rider who isn't supposed to be able to battle, Maverick Viñales made some outstanding passes in the race

A front row start, but Fabio Quartararo ran out of rear tire in the race. But he came home fifth. That was a good result on a bad day

The Espargaro brothers turned out to be inseparable

What victory looks like

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Mon, 2021-03-29 02:46

The first race of the 2021 MotoGP season produced much food for thought. Too much to fit into one foreshortened evening, so here are a few initial thoughts for subscribers after a fascinating season opener at Qatar:

  • Does winning in Qatar mean anything?
  • The two ways of going fast
  • Top speeds in practice don't mean as much as you might hope
  • The transformation of Maverick Viñales
  • Winners and losers
  • Franco Morbidelli: When holeshot devices go bad
  • A tale of two rookies – Bastianini vs Martin
  • Cameron Beaubier passes his first test in Moto2

Does winning in Qatar count?

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Sun, 2021-03-28 01:48

Saturday was a day for smashing records in Qatar. First up was the top speed record, Johann Zarco hitting 362.4 km/h at the end of the front straight during FP4. Not just the top speed record for Qatar, but the highest speed ever record at a MotoGP track, the previous record 356.7 set by Andrea Dovizioso at Mugello. To put that in to context, it is 100.666 meters per second. Or put another way, it took Johann Zarco less than one second to cover the distance which takes Usain Bolt 9.6 seconds. It is a mind-bending, brain-warping speed.

It is not necessarily the highest speed ever reached on a MotoGP machine. Years ago, there were rumors of Dani Pedrosa hitting 365 km/h on data at Mugello. Nobody would comment about it on the record at the time, though engineers would tell you privately that it might be an overestimation. At the end of the straight at Mugello, the bikes are still accelerating and over the crest the rear can get light and start to spin. That cost Jorge Lorenzo and Valentino Rossi their engines in 2016.

Which raises the issue with these speeds. 362.4 km/h is not a problem at Qatar. There are no grandstands at the end of the straight, so if the circuit needs more run off at Turn 1, they simply push back the wall even further. At Mugello, however, there is the small matter of a large hillside at the end of the gravel trap. Moving that to make more run off would be a very expensive exercise indeed. And Mugello doesn't have a nigh-on inexhaustible fund of gas dollars and a strong motivation to invest in sportswashing the abysmal human rights record of an autocratic regime.

Too fast

Top speed has been an issue for the people who run MotoGP for as long as I have been in the paddock. In private and off-the-record discussions, the people involved in making the rules have expressed their concerns about rising top speeds, which inevitably leads to needing more and more run off. That threatens the future of some of the greatest motorcycling venues on the planet, such as Mugello, Phillip Island, and Barcelona, all of which have top speed records in the region of 350 km/h.

And none of which have the money to modify the layout to create extra run off, and do so again every decade or so when speed barriers are smashed once again. Despite the best efforts of track designers like Jarno Zaffelli, whose Dromo Studios uses sophisticated software to calculate how much run off is needed, and how to design gravel traps to such as much speed out of crashing machinery as possible and prevent them from hitting barriers.

It is an intractable problem. When officials got worried about the top speeds the first generation of 990cc MotoGP bikes were doing, they reduced engine capacity to 800cc. It took the smaller capacity bikes half a season to match the lap times and top speeds their bigger predecessors had achieved. Dorna found a "silver bullet", limiting the bikes to four cylinders and a maximum bore of 81mm, after the MSMA rejected the notion of a rev limit.

The thought was that physics would limit engine speeds to a maximum of around 16,500 rpm before pistons would start to separate themselves from connecting rods and drive themselves into cylinder heads. That massively underestimated the ingenuity of motorcycle engineers: I happened to once accidentally see the revs and gearing table for a satellite Ducati a few years ago. Even in 2017, the Ducati was revving to 18,000 rpm. And the engines are lasting for a couple of thousand of kilometers, and now hitting over 360 km/h.

A matter of opinion

The riders are divided on whether such speeds are a danger. "If we touched 360 km/h here it’s difficult to think about Mugello at 360," said Pecco Bagnaia. "I think it’s not more dangerous because we are seated on a very futuristic bike and everything is the best on our bikes."

Maverick Viñales, a more experienced MotoGP hand than third-year man Bagnaia, took a similar view. "I think now the result of safety, also with the Michelin tires, overall I think it’s quite safe," the factory Yamaha rider said. "As Pecco said, we will see in Mugello. If we are reaching now here in Qatar this top speed, in Mugello I don't know. It will be difficult to control the bike, but anyway I think everything is really safe. The track is very wide, and also as I mentioned the tires are working well. So it will be no problem."

The most experienced MotoGP hand of all viewed it another way. Valentino Rossi expressed concern over the rising speeds in his two decades in the premier class. "For me already after 330 km/h is very dangerous," Rossi said. "So 330 km/h or 360 km/h is already incredible number! I think that all the motorsport fans are very excited for these numbers, because it's impressive, but for sure this speed is dangerous."

There are no easy solutions. Even with the engines frozen for 2021, the manufacturers have found more speed thanks to aerodynamics. But as speeds continue to rise and run off becomes an issue at more and more tracks, at some point, it is an issue that will need to be addressed.

Getting a tow

Of course, the only reason Johann Zarco hit 362.4 km/h is firstly because he was in the slipstream of Enea Bastianini down the straight, and secondly because when he pulled out from behind the Esponsorama Ducati, he found himself going so fast that he missed his braking point and ran on into the gravel at Turn 1.

Both were necessary ingredients in reaching that speed, the Frenchman said. "Two things, the slipstream plus also braking late. You have to do the both things together." But they had an inkling that they could reach some phenomenal speeds. "We were thinking this 360 km/h was possible, but I didn't expect 362 km/h. So happy for it, because it's always a special moment."

The other reason for Zarco to be pleased with that top speed is he knows that it will make his life a good deal easier during the race on Sunday. " I see that even if I brake very early I have a good opportunity in the race that I never had before to see how I can control the speed in the straight to stay easily behind the other riders. That's the target," Zarco said. He can save his tires by sitting in the draft of slower riders, then at the end of the race, unleash the extra speed of the Ducati GP21 and leave them all for dead.

Energy saving scheme

It's not just tires he can save thanks to the extra speed, the Pramac Ducati rider explained. The additional speed meant he didn't have to push so hard to keep up with his rivals. "When I'm following someone during the race pace, or what I could see in FP4, I don't need to be at more than 100%, which was necessary last year just to follow, to give the best," Zarco explained. "So then I was getting tired and then using the tire too much to do all my best to stay. Now when I am pushing at this limit, it's to go pretty fast, but when you are a bit slower, then everything comes easier, and that is what I was looking for, and it seems like it is coming."

Zarco's top speed was not the only record to be broken. In the end, eight riders managed to beat Marc Márquez' outright lap record of 1'53.380 at the Losail circuit. Pecco Bagnaia was the first to slip under it, with a lap of 1'53.273 on just his second flying lap. By the end of the session, he would be joined by Fabio Quartararo, Maverick Viñales, Valentino Rossi, Jack Miller, Johann Zarco, Franco Morbidelli, and Aleix Espargaro, on Yamahas, Ducatis, and an Aprilia.

Bagnaia himself didn't just break Marc Márquez' lap record, he went on to shatter it entirely. The factory Ducati Lenovo Team rider put together a near-perfect lap on his final run to post a time of 1'52.772, smashing Márquez' record by six tenths of a second and becoming the first rider to lap the Losail International Circuit in under 1'53. Everyone believed that a 1'52 had been possible, but few expected that barrier to be breached quite so comprehensively.

Bagnaia's tutor also profited from the Ducati rider's incredible speed. Valentino Rossi found the tail of Bagnaia on his flying lap and followed him round to set his fastest ever time around the Qatar circuit, lapping under the time of his arch nemesis Marc Márquez.

Rossi acknowledged the help he had had from Bagnaia, but said it had not been prearranged. "With Pecco we don’t have a deal but we see in the track, the first time I was in front and after the second time he was in front and continued to push."

Bagnaia backed that up, telling the press conference that he was returning the favor after getting help from Rossi during the test. "I knew that he was there, but also in the first test he was in front of me. This was not planned. When I saw him behind me, I pushed at the same ,because I prefer to ride alone without anyone in front when I push at my 100% because I can make my lines and I can push more, I feel." It was something which we could see repeated, Bagnaia said. "For sure, we will speak because this strategy worked today. Maybe in the future we will do it again."

Giving a tow to Rossi hadn't impeded Bagnaia from taking pole, and the Petronas Yamaha rider was magnanimous in acknowledging the achievement of Bagnaia, a scion of the VR46 academy. "I have to say great congratulations for his first pole position, he ride very well and it's the perfect way to start his season."

Rossi may find himself with a strong starting position, but his race pace still leaves a lot to be desired. During FP4, the Italian was a second or so off the pace of the man at the other end of the second row. Johann Zarco, despite qualifying sixth, appears to have the best race pace for Sunday, running in the mid 1'54s on tires with a lot of laps on them.

Pace vs speed

Indeed, comparing the pace of riders from FP4 with their qualifying positions on the grid paints two very different pictures. Johann Zarco, Maverick Viñales, and Fabio Quartararo posted very fast times on used tires, and start from sixth, third, and second respectively. But Miguel Oliveira, Joan Mir, Alex Rins, and Franco Morbidelli were also quick, and Oliveira will be starting from fifteenth on the grid, the Suzukis from tenth and ninth respectively, and Morbidelli the worst Yamaha starting from seventh. Aleix Espargaro is also a factor, the Aprilia rider running high 1'54s on tires with about half race distance on them.

Testing used tires is always important, but at Qatar, it is absolutely crucial. There is a reason that Andrea Dovizioso has done so well at Losail in the past: the Italian was a master at slowing up a race and managing his tires, before taking advantage of having more tire left than his rivals.

Sunday's race will follow a similar pattern. The rider with the most tire left over at the end will have the best chance of victory. The problem comes in working out the best way to get through the 21 laps which precede the final lap. Do you make a bolt for it early on, try to open a gap, and then hang on in the second half of the race? Or do you sit behind the other riders, and hope they burn up their tires more trying to drop you than you are doing in trying to hang on to their tails?

"Here the race is very long so strategy you can think in two ways," Maverick Viñales told the qualifying press conference. "You can think to push the last ten laps or the first ones. Anyway, the last ten laps here have been always very critical for the tire."

Teammate Fabio Quartararo underlined the importance of a good start and a strong pace in the opening laps. "Now my goal is to make great the first laps, a great start. I think that we need to be aggressive from the beginning. I’ve been doing some overtakes in the test that I think we are quite good, so I think that the first five laps will be so important and then we will see."

Knowing where to overtake, and how it affects the tires, would be key to having tire left at the end of the race, Viñales reiterated. "We need to understand how to manage the grip during all the race and how to overtake without burning the tire. We want to try to be smart. It depends how the start goes. You want to choose one plan or the other."

For Alex Rins, starting from ninth, making a plan which might work is even trickier. The Suzuki is notoriously bad at qualifying, so the third row was no disaster, but neither was it what Rins had hoped for. "Not fantastic but not bad," was how Rins characterized it.

Rins' hope is that the closeness of the field will open up options for him at the start of the race. But with only FP4 as a real guide to race pace – the heat of the day makes FP3 a waste of rubber and gasoline in terms of race setup – it was hard to know where his rivals stand.

"I tried to make a bit of a plan with Manu, with my engineer, and it was difficult, because the pace is still not clear from the other guys," Rins said. "I think it will be very difficult to make all the race in 1'54 medium, 1'54 low. So for sure we need to make a strategy, because if we push a lot from the beginning, we will destroy the tires." And if that plan didn't work? "If this plan doesn't work, Plan B is going full gas!"

Teammate and reigning champion Joan Mir is in a slightly less optimistic mood, having struggled in braking for most of practice. "We are not fast enough," Mir said. "I was struggling a lot all weekend to stop the bike. I’m really on the limit on the brakes and going into the corners. First we have to fix that. And then if you look at the lap times of everybody, I think first I was not really consistent on my lap times, because I was making one sector good, one not, I was over-trying, I was too aggressive probably. That made everything much worse."

Jack of all trades

After dominating the tests, qualifying went much worse for Jack Miller. The factory Ducati rider will start the race from fifth, the middle of the second row. But he brushed off any suggestion that this was a disappointment. "I think the expectation was from you guys," the Australian said. "P5 is relatively fine for me. The Ducati is a rocket ship off the start line for sure I’ll be In the top two by turn 1. I’m not too stressed."

Miller was happy enough with how his day had gone. "Pretty happy with my performance. I was under the lap record. Just wasn’t able to put it together on the second tire." That was not an insurmountable problem, however. "The race is tomorrow. We’re in a fantastic position. For sure I want more, but I’m not disappointed. I would be if I was on the fourth row, but I'm on the second row, under the lap record. But I definitely felt I had more in the tank. It’s making me even more eager to start tomorrow’s race."

Miller wasn't worried by the incredible pace the Yamahas had shown, he said. "Look at the past years," he pointed out. "The Yamaha is always fantastic with pace, with lap times, with everything. We’ll see how much of improvement they’ve made. But look back at the past. Dovi was doing 1'56s sitting in the back of the pack for a fair bit of the race and worked his way to the front."

The Australian was also hoping the wind would be a factor. "We’ll see what the conditions are tomorrow. It will be windy. Hopefully there will be a head wind. We’ll see how much sand there is. The sand will create even more tire wear. We’ll have to manage them as best as we can. It’ll be like Phillip Island. You can’t push to the limit, otherwise you can’t finish the race."

Whatever the weather on Sunday, the race is almost certain to happen, given that the wind is not set to die down until the middle of the week. But a race that was already expected to be something of a strategic battle is likely to become even more of a game of cat and mouse. Picking a winner? There are too many confounding factors to expose a clear favorite. But if Johann Zarco ends up on the top step of the box and taking a debut win, that would be perhaps the least surprising result from a wide range of possibilities.

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Sat, 2021-03-27 01:20

The normal build up to a MotoGP weekend sees the teams and riders spend FP1 figuring out which tires they think will work, then FP2 working on setup and then chasing a preliminary spot in FP2, leaving themselves plenty of work for Saturday, especially in FP4.

But Qatar is not a normal weekend. For a start, MotoGP arrives here after a total of five days of testing (well, four days, strictly speaking, as the last day of the test was lost to strong winds and a sandy track). Setups have already been found, tires have already been chosen.

Qatar's peculiar time schedule simplifies tire choice even further: the hard tires are built to handle the heat of daytime practice, and are too hard for the cooler evenings when qualifying and the race happen. So the choice is merely between soft and medium, and that choice, too, was largely made during the test.

So the teams arrive with less work to do, and can get straight into perfecting their setup and chasing a spot in Q2. That turned FP2 on Friday into a more frenetic affair than usual, the dash made even madder by the fact that the track is a second or more slower during the day than it is in the evening. If you missed out on Q2 in FP2, the chances of making it through during FP3, held in the afternoon heat, are slim indeed.


"Yeah, It kind of was a Quali, "Jack Miller said, the factory Ducati rider having come out on top of the timesheets, getting within seven thousandths of a second of the outright lap record on the first day of practice. "We know in FP3 the times aren’t easy to do in the afternoon. I can’t really see too many people improving tomorrow arvo."

The very particular conditions of the afternoon – hot track in bright sunshine – needed some adapting to, moving more towards something you might use in the wet, rather on a normal afternoon. "Setup wise I tried to change bike a little bit for this afternoon, but I went back to the test bike for this evening. Grip levels were a little lower this afternoon. We went a little higher, a little softer, but as soon as the grip went back on the normal setting," the Australian said.

It was a good day for the Ducatis, the three experienced Ducati riders finishing in the top four. Even the three Ducati rookies impressed, Jorge Martin setting the thirteenth quickest time just eight tenths off Miller's phenomenal time, Enea Bastianini in fifteenth, five hundredths behind Martin, and Luca Marini in seventeenth, just over a second slower than Miller. The fact that sixteen riders ended the session within a second bears witness to just how close the class is.

The factory Ducati Lenovo Team riders finished first and second, Jack Miller leading Pecco Bagnaia by just a few hundredths. Fabio Quartararo bullied the Monster Energy Yamaha M1 to the third fastest time, while Johann Zarco sits in fourth, ahead of the Suzuki of Alex Rins, followed by three more Yamahas separated by an impressive Aprilia. Maverick Viñales and Franco Morbidelli lead Aleix Espargaro, with Valentino Ross rounding out the top ten.

Despite the fact the Yamahas were quick, they were still not quick enough. The Yamaha M1 has to start from the front row if it is to be competitive. It is the only way to keep the Ducatis behind them, Maverick Viñales explained. "Ducatis are starting so fast, and this year they are starting even more fast than before. So we know our only chance is to arrive first in the first corner and push like hell."

That was why he had used every pit lane exit to practice his starts, something he had also spent the afternoons doing during the test in Qatar. "The starts are getting better, so we are in a good way, but we are not yet where we want to be before the race," Viñales explained. "So I will continue practicing and I will continue spending time on that, because it's very important."

Top and tail

Both Viñales and teammate Fabio Quartararo bemoaned the fact that the Yamaha only has a holeshot device at one end of the of the bike, rather than at both ends like Aprilia, Ducati, Honda, and KTM. The Yamaha system lowers the rear of the bike, but not the front. "I'm really pushing, and I think all the Yamaha riders are pushing to make the front system for the start, because I feel like it's so easy to make a mistake with the Yamaha at the start, and it's so difficult to make it fast. And even when we do a perfect start, it's really slow compared to everyone," Quartararo told us.

It should be an easy fix, the Frenchman insisted. "It's a weak point that can be solved really fast, so I hope Yamaha can do something really fast to improve this, because I feel like it's something that is not so complicated. Everyone has it and I saw that the Suzukis are really really fast, and they don't have the down system in the rear. So I hope they will bring something as soon as possible."

Viñales agreed with his teammate. "For me it looks so easy, because right now, we didn't have any device that could make us start faster," the Spaniard said. "So I don't really know if we are going to improve it during the weekend, but we need to try. I'm working hard on that because many races, the second part of the race I'm riding like the top guys or sometimes faster. So we need to improve the start. This is the main point of this weekend, the start."

The Aprilia does have a holeshot device at both ends – a motocross-style system to lock down the front fork, and an extra piston in the rear suspension linkage to lower the rear – and Aleix Espargaro was clear this should help with the starts. "We had the holeshot system on the front fork, like motocross. The truth is that this worked very well," Espargaro said. From this season, we also have the rear link as well for the start, and we also have a new electronics package for the launch and start, which his better than last year. So everything is better in general."

The added advantage of a system that lowers the rear is that it can be used during the race to improve traction, but for Espargaro, that advantage was still more theoretical than practical. "We do have both systems, which is positive," the Spaniard told Lucio Lopez of Motoracenation. "We can also use the rear link on the track, but that's not easy. You can't think that you just push the button, the bike goes down, and you go faster. It's really difficult to figure where to push the button in the right place." The advantages of the system would need some working out, he said. "It's something that I haven't spent a lot of time on, it's work for the test team. We have it, but we only use it for the starts."

Luxury test rider

The test team of Aprilia could soon be expanded. Italian sports daily Gazzetta dello Sport reported that Aprilia are lining up a second test in May for Andrea Dovizioso at Mugello, to take place after he has made his debut on the bike at Jerez in April. And if Aprilia can find a sponsor to foot the bill, then Dovizioso could take over the seat of Lorenzo Savadori, and return to MotoGP full time alongside Aleix Espargaro.

Espargaro did his best to hide his enthusiasm, though not always successfully. "Which team in this paddock doesn't want Andrea Dovizioso as a second rider?" the Spaniard replied when asked about the prospect. "About the future let's go step-by-step. For Aprilia it's unbelievable to sign a rider like Dovi to test the bike. So let's give him some space. I'm very curious to see his reaction because he's been riding the Ducati for a long time and I think the Ducati and Aprilia are very different in many aspects, engine, chassis electronics. So let's give him some time to try the bike, enjoy riding after a lot of months and then the time to decide."

It is inconceivable that Aprilia won't be able to find the money to pay Andrea Dovizioso. After all, investing in the Italian is cheaper than trying to find performance purely through engineering. And Dovizioso's experience and keenly analytical mind can help accelerate the development process and shave months off the time needed to make the RS-GP truly competitive.

Why does Andrea Dovizioso want to get paid so much to take what is his only chance of a full-time ride in MotoGP? A big salary is a sign of commitment, not just to Dovizioso, but to the project itself. If Aprilia are willing to invest a lot of money in a top rider, there is not point in them skimping on development on the bike. Paying a rider big money is a sign they are serious, and committed to spending what it takes to make the bike a success.

Race concerns

If the Yamaha riders are concerned about the one-lap pace of the Ducatis, they should be even more worried by their race pace. The peculiarities of Qatar make teasing out the riders with genuine race pace even more difficult than usual, as the combination of a very long track (meaning fewer laps to judge by), and the irrelevance of FP1 means you have only a few laps in FP2 to try to understand who is genuinely fast.

Going by pace on what passes for used tires at Qatar – medium and soft rears used for a second run, with a little under half race distance on them – the factory Ducatis are looking very dangers, as is Alex Rins on the Suzuki. Jack Miller posted a 1'54.2 on used tires, as did Alex Rins. Miller's Ducati teammate Pecco Bagnaia was not far off with a 1'54.4 on old tires, following it up with a 1'54.6.

Miller did his best to play down his own chances, though. "As you see, times are incredibly close," the Australian said. "It’s FP2. I was top but Zarco was fourth and not even two tenths away from me. I’m a little scared of qualifying, where that’s going to lead us. There are many guys going fast."

Miller had his eye on Franco Morbidelli on the Petronas Yamaha, he told us. "Right off the bat Frankie was incredibly fast and strong. He did the fastest lap this afternoon on the third run and he didn’t change tires like a lot of them." Miller had intended to try to emulate the Italian, but a crash put paid to that idea. "My plan was to do the same, to be like Frankie. But I had to change tires but when I threw the bike at the gravel. I had no other choice."

Miller was clear about who was favorite for the weekend in his eyes. "Frankie at the moment in my books is the guy to beat. But we’ll see what happens." He had also been impressed by the performance of his teammate. "I was in the box when Pecco did his lap time. To watch it was impressive. When you see someone getting along with the bike like that it’s always nice to watch."

New boy

There is a big group of riders just a little off the pace, the most interesting of which is arguably Pol Espargaro. The Spaniard had also crashed on Friday, in both sessions. But he had also done a 1'54.5 on used medium tires, a pace which puts him right in the ballpark to be competitive.

He had been angry with the FP1 crash, but happier with the one in FP2, Pol Espargaro explained. It was a step forward in understanding where the limit was with the Honda RC213V, and yet another marker along the path of adapting to the bike, the Repsol Honda rider explained. "Every crash I have trying to get to the limit," he said. "This morning was a silly crash. The medium tire was not working for us. It was a stupid crash, and I was angry. This afternoon I was pushing too much. Now I know when the tire says no. I couldn’t save the crash, I wasn’t expecting it but this is part of this knowledge and I’ll take it for the future."

"I found the limit and that’s what I need," Pol Espargaro said. "I’ll know for next time. This is knowledge. Ok it’s wild. I’m a little out of control at the moment. To ride in 1'53 it means we are fast. Everyone is very fast. Just the first day with Honda here. Honda here is not wow. But even like that I could be fast. This is amazing. Why when I crashed I was happy."

Reigning world champion Joan Mir was less happy, despite having very strong pace. The Suzuki Ecstar rider had circulated in the 1'54.6s with a used soft rear, which would put him in the same ballpark as his teammate, and within shouting distance of a podium. Unlike his teammate, however, he had made his life difficult by not managing to get into the top ten at the end of FP2. That is likely to force him to take the tougher path through Q1.

Mir himself put his problems down to the lost final day of testing, which the weather had brought to an early end. "It was a difficult day because we probably missed that last day of testing and we have to adjust a bit more the bike to be more competitive," Mir told reporters. "We were strong, but again not probably enough, so I think the important thing is that we know what is more or less happening, we have to adjust a little bit more the electronics and to continue improving."

To get into Q2, Mir would have to do better than Pol Espargaro's 1'53.901. That is an improbable target, given that Espargaro's time was a second quicker than Franco Morbidelli's best time in FP1, set during the heat of the day. Finding a second in the difficult grip conditions of the daytime looks difficult, so Mir will have to hope he can fight his way through to Q2 from Q1.

There is one more complication the riders face this weekend. Strong winds are set to hit the track from Saturday night, blowing in hard from the northwest, creating a strong headwind along the front straight. If that wind also brings sand, it might make conditions very tricky on race day, making warm up all but impossible, and give Race Direction something to think about. On the plus side, with another race the weekend after this, there has never been a better time to delay a race. Nobody will need to rebook flights or extend their hotel rooms. They are here anyway.

Brad Binder is in favor, at least, the KTM rider having tried to ride on the blustery final day of the MotoGP test. "I was one of not many who rode the last day of the test and it was a disaster, so if it is the same then please let’s race Monday!" he said. "It will be a lot safer and better for everybody."

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Thu, 2021-03-25 00:09

The veteran crew chief knows better than anyone the work that went into Sam Lowes’ title challenge in 2020. The Frenchman speaks to on keeping his approach simple and giving his rider the freedom to work on himself.

Sam Lowes at the Qatar Moto2 test - Copyright Marc VDS/Mirco Lazzari

On the eve of the 2021 season, it’s fair to say Sam Lowes’ hopes for round one are quite different compared to a year ago. Recruited to Marc VDS’ slick operation after two tough seasons in Moto2, the Englishman’s 2020 got off to the worst possible start when he suffered a fracture-dislocation of his right shoulder in a testing spill. It meant the Lincolnshire rider was forced to sit out the first race of the year despite riding in Friday’s sessions.

The turnaround from there was impressive and surprising in equal measures. From joining the Marc VDS team, Lowes worked on himself off the track, visiting a sports psychologist and reworking his approach. He worked on himself on the track, too, smoothing out his riding style and adapting his braking method. The results spoke for themselves. But for a free practice spill at the penultimate race, it is no exaggeration to say the 30-year old would have been entering this year as a reigning champion.

Round two

Not to worry. A productive, if short, preseason sees Lowes start 2021 as one of – if not the – preseason favourite for Moto2. He topped the times on the final night of testing in Qatar and showed a searing rhythm to boot. Marco Bezzecchi, surely another contender in this year’s fight, claims Sam is the “super favourite.” And after the end of a turbulent 2020, who could argue with the fuzzy-haired Italian?

Behind this recent turnaround, crew chief Gilles Bigot has been an analytical and calming presence in the Marc VDS garage. The Frenchman has over 30 years of experience in the grand prix paddock, and tasted the ultimate success by winning the 500cc title with Alex Crivillé in 1999. In Lowes, he found an interesting challenge: a fast rider, who occasionally fell from moments of promise. Rarely bound to displays of emotion, Bigot insisted on keeping the approach simple, and suggested some ways in which his rider could work on himself to ensure consistency.

A strong working relationship was formed. On Bigot, Lowes recently told the Paddock Pass Podcast, “He’s different to me but that’s a positive thing. We bounce off each other. When something is not going good or not going in the right direction, he doesn’t panic or say anything negative. He just tries to work it back into a good way. It’s the same when things are going great. You don’t get much from him either. I think it took three race wins in a row to get a nice compliment off him last year! But I respect that and like it. It’s nice to work with someone that is like a flat line. He’s got so much experience and I love talking with him over dinner about everything he’s done and achieved in his life. It’s great for me. I really respect him. The bike is more or less workable every time I get on it. That’s gives me great confidence.” had the chance to sit down with Bigot to talk about Lowes’ time in the Marc VDS garage, and how the Englishman restored his confidence to become a leading name in Moto2 once again.

Q: What were your impressions of Sam before you started working with him?

Gilles Bigot: The thing I felt about Sam was sometimes we could see him crashing. Sometimes from the outside it looked like a bit of a silly crash when someone has a strong will and they cannot control what they were doing at that time. The last year I was watching him was in 2018 when I was with Tom Luthi. He was racing for the Swiss team (in Moto2). At that time Julien (Robert), who is our data guy, was working as his crew chief. That time it was the same thing. I was asking, ‘Why did he crash?’ It wasn’t like he was out of control, just that he was over-trying. That was my first view.

In Brno in 2019 when Mr. Van der Straten told me I was going to work with Sam I thought, OK, that is interesting. Already we have Julien who was working with him. We could start to talk about how Sam works and the way he reacts. Every rider has a different attitude when he’s riding or when he has a problem on the track. Before the end of the season, we started talking with Sam, planning ahead. It was very interesting. Sam is a very open guy and he is not shy to talk about himself, which is a good thing. Many times lots of riders try to hide, thinking they might look ridiculous or we might laugh at them. We said, ‘We know you have the speed; that’s not the problem. We just have to understand why sometimes you are not able to control yourself and why you crash.’ I knew already from the team in 2018. I asked him how it was with Gresini. When we were talking, he never said a bad word about the team. He said this is happening because of this.

I’m a bit of an old guy so I’m a bit more pragmatic. I don’t rush, making decisions. If a rider comes to me and says this is a problem, I’m not jumping up. We sit. We talk. And we try to figure out what it is. He said, ‘OK, I like this kind of attitude.’ I told him we’d try to find a method. But at the same time, he would have to work a bit on himself. It goes together. We can help. But in the end he’s the one who is riding the motorcycle. He had to control a bit his desire, or emotion. Most of the time those guys are riding by emotion.

Q: What did the early tests at the end of 2019 tell you about Sam?

GB: We did two tests in Valencia (at the end of 2019). The first day was quite good. The second day was not so bad, but I could see something was a bit different. I gave him some time to think. I kept talking with Julien. We are all human and different to express our emotions. The first day he was fast. On the second we had a few things to test. He would only do two or three laps and say, ‘This is not good.’ I think the first day was good so the expectation went up. That day I didn’t have the response or know how to control this. When you start working with a rider, you have to understand them.

I said, ‘I hope we have a friendly relationship.’ But I also said, ‘I won’t be your friend. Your friends are the ones you grow up with. I won’t call you every two days to ask if you are fine. This is not really my style. Also, I’m not going to talk about technical stuff with you, because I don’t think you need that.’ Of course you can share something from the technical side with the rider. But if the rider wants to know too much about the technical stuff, when he gets on track he’s thinking more about what he’s got on his bike, rather than challenging himself to ride better. We are the crew. He is the rider. But of course, we need his help to win your feedback to make the bike better. But don’t try to play the technician. He said, ‘That’s fine by me, I’m not very interested in this.’ He was honest from his side. So (now) he comes (to the box), I tell him we have this tyre and this tyre. That’s it – no need to talk for an hour.

I did a mistake in the past. In my first year as a crew chief I would say, ‘This race track is like this, maybe if we do this…’ If you try to anticipate before what will go on, you can find yourself in trouble. If you talk too much, you can give a false impression the rider is going to be fine. Then he goes on the track, struggles and thinks it’s not working. Instead of being in a state of mind: I’ll try to feel how it is and you push, push until you find the limit. If you go immediately and think I should be doing a 1'35 lap, but you start at 1'37… Ahh!

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Wed, 2021-03-24 02:29

The preseason is over. Preparations have been made, new parts tested, bikes, bodies, and brains readied, though not necessarily in that order. MotoGP is on the verge of starting another brand new season.

There was less to develop, test, and prepare this year, the aftermath of rules imposed during the first wave of the Covid-19 pandemic introducing freezes on engine development and limiting aerodynamic updates.

The four factories who did not have concessions in 2020 – Ducati, Honda, Suzuki, and Yamaha – will all be forced to use the engines they homologated for their riders last year for the 2021 season. KTM, who lost concessions thanks to a phenomenally successful season which included three victories, have been allowed to design a new engine for 2021, but must freeze it at the first race in Qatar.

Aprilia, the only remaining factory with full concessions, will be allowed to continue to develop their engine throughout 2021, and will have nine engines to last the season, instead of the seven the other factories have to try to make last the year.

In terms of aerodynamics, things are a little simpler: the riders can either use their 2020 aero package, or they can introduce one upgrade aero package at any time during the season (including at the first race). And of course, aerodynamics packages are applied per rider, rather than per manufacturer.

Need for speed

These two restrictions – a ban on engine development, and only allowing a single aero update for 2021 – has placed an added emphasis on aerodynamics. There are, after all, two ways of going faster: you either add more horsepower to overcome drag, or you reduce drag to make your horsepower go further.

(There is actually a third way as well, used by Aprilia: increasing downforce to reduce wheelie on corner exit. This allows you to accelerate harder and reach your top speed sooner, though you pay a penalty in increased drag.)

We saw a lot of this at both Qatar tests. Ducati are kings of aerodynamics, of course, Gigi Dall'Igna and his engineering team viewing it as one of several key tools to success in MotoGP. Ducati appear to be closest to having their aero package sorted – Jack Miller spent pretty much all of the test using the new aero, and found little to complain about and much to like.

What does the new aero do? The two ducts added to the bottom of each side of the fairing appear to be funneling air down to the bottom of the fairing, directing it into the air flowing along the bottom of the fairing. This might help smooth the air around the fairing as it heads toward the rear wheel, reducing the turbulence kicked up by the front wheel, cleaning up the airflow towards the rear wheel and the back of the bike.

Given that as a whole, motorcycles are a mess, in aerodynamic terms, reducing drag at the back of the bike translates into more speed. That Ducati have been successful here was demonstrated by Johann Zarco, who pushed the Pramac Ducati to a whopping 357.6 km/h. Both he and teammate Jorge Martin beat the previous official record of 352 km/h, set by Marc Márquez in 2019, on a regular basis. And they beat Jack Miller's best top speed of 355.2 km/h set in the test in 2020, again on a Pramac Ducati.

The Yamahas, too, found extra top speed. At the test last year, Maverick Viñales clocked a highest top speed of 346.1 km/h. This year, Fabio Quartararo beat that by just over a kilometer per hour, flying through the speed traps at 347.2 km/h. Yamaha are concentrating on the front of the bike, including a new front mudguard which covers more of the front forks and front wheel, along with more aerodynamic fork leg covers like the Ducati. At the launch, Maio Meregalli said Yamaha were also working on better heat management. A cooler running engine makes more power, albeit the gains are relatively small. It is also more reliable, an important factor after the lessons of last year.

At KTM and Honda, the test riders were carrying much of the load. Dani Pedrosa was spotted with Yamaha-style swooping winglets, rather than the more angular mustache-style the RC16 currently sports. The KTM riders also trialed a larger version of the mustache, in search of more downforce and more grip.

Stefan Bradl was doing the donkey work for Honda, though Takaaki Nakagami and Alex Márquez tried new parts as well. Apart from the chassis – the three riders were trying three different frame designs – they were also testing new, larger aero side ducts, more like the Ducati items than the elegant smaller side wings which adorn the Honda RC213V.

Leaving it too late

The one factory not playing with obviously different aerodynamics was Suzuki. But the Hamamatsu factory was more focused on 2022 than 2021, getting a head start on engine development for next year before this season has even begun. Frame and swingarm were also for next year, to match the revised performance of the engine.

That left the Suzuki riders frustrated on the last day of the test. Strong winds and a lot of sand made riding a waste of time. Alex Rins and Joan Mir had set the final day of the second Qatar test aside to prepare for the opening round this weekend, and had not spent much time working on the 2021 GSX-RR. So Suzuki head into the first race of the season with more unknowns than the other factories.

Arguably, that won't matter much. The 2020 Suzuki GSX-RR was a superb all-round machine which excelled at a range of race tracks. The bike was good enough to win two races, bag 12 podiums, and finish first and third in the championship. And if Alex Rins hadn't suffered a serious shoulder injury at the first round in Jerez, he could arguably have finished even further up the standings.

The bike's one weakness was qualifying, the ability to squeeze out extra performance from a new tire. That aspect is particularly difficult to distill from test times – at last year's Qatar test, Rins and Mir finished first and second on the first day, second and seventh on the second day, third and sixth on the third day, finishing fourth and sixth overall.

Nobody would have guessed they had an issue with qualifying from the 2020 Qatar test. So it seems that finishing seventh and eighth on the first day and sixth and seventh on the second day of the final Qatar test is just as difficult to interpret.


If aerodynamics was one area the factories were focused on, holeshot devices were another. But it might be more accurate to characterize these as vehicle dynamics devices, perhaps. Four of the six manufacturers – Aprilia, Ducati, Honda, and KTM – all had launch devices which lowered both front and rear suspension for the start of the race, leaving only Suzuki and Yamaha with a device which altered one end of the bike. Yamaha's device lowers the rear of the bike, while Suzuki might be regarded as having the biggest deficit in this regard, as the Suzuki device only locks down the front forks ready for the start.

Why is locking only the front down such a big disadvantage? Because the front holeshot device can only be used once. The rider compresses the forks (typically using the brakes coming up to their starting position, or actually on the grid), and the device holds the front end down until the brakes are applied and the spring holding the forks down releases as the forks compress further.

A holeshot device which acts on the rear suspension can be used after the start as well. We started to see Ducati lowering the rear suspension on corner exit throughout the race during the 2019 season. The benefit is simple: lowering the rear on corner exit helps lower the center of gravity, reducing wheelie and producing more drive. The faster you can exit the corner, the higher the top speed you can reach.

The construction is a little more complex on the rear than on the front. A simple catch system is not sufficient. Instead, a hydraulic or gas piston is needed to extend or compress the rear linkage. If you zoom in on the photo above, you can just see the piston fitted to the rear swingarm, under the D of chain sponsor DID.

If you compare the Ducati to this shot of Maverick Viñales on the 2021 Yamaha M1, you can see the difference in ride height the 'shapeshifter' on the Ducati makes. Miller's behind is much nearer the rear wheel of the Ducati than Viñales' is to the Yamaha's.

That creates its own set of problems. The lower the tail of the bike sits on corner exit, the less room there is for suspension travel – after all, the rear shock still has the same amount of travel, it's just that the swingarm is now at a different angle. That has required a change in design of the seat units and tails: Ducati's 'salad box' tail unit, housing a mass damper to help reduce chatter and damp out vibration, has been redesigned and is a slightly different shape. There is also less room for the fuel tank, which sits underneath the rider's seat close to the center of the bike. Changing the shape of that requires a general reconfiguring and squeezing of parts around to make room in front of and below the tank.

Though it is very hard to see in the photo of Jack Miller on the Ducati, it does not look like he is operating the 'shapeshifter' with his thumb, as was initially the case. There is a hint that this might be the case in the 2021 MotoGP regulations too.

In an expanded section on the use of suspension, originally stating only that electronic control of suspension was banned, there is now an explicit explanation of what precisely is allowed. Section now reads: Suspensions and Dampers

Electric/electronic controlled suspension, ride height and steering damper systems are not allowed. Adjustments to the suspension and steering damper systems may only be made by manual human inputs and mechanical/hydraulic adjusters, or passively determined by forces/displacements directly transmitted by mechanical/hydraulic connections (e.g. suspension position, load, acceleration, pitch... may be used as mechanical triggers of a passive adjustment).

For example, according to the above, ride height systems that operate on collapsible elements that collapse/extend under the load they are subjected to, and are locked/unlocked by the rider and/or by mechanically-triggered locks are allowed.

It is not beyond my meager brain to conceive of a system in which the rear of the bike squats automatically as the power is applied on corner exit, and held down until the brakes are applied at the end of the straight, or the downforce caused by the aerodynamics changes the pitch of the bike sufficiently to release the suspension again. If I can conceive of it, then I am sure the brilliant engineers in MotoGP have already made it work. (A very different result to if I tried to implement such a contraption.)

Vehicle dynamics – the way a bike rolls, pitches, leans, slides, wheelies – is the most interesting challenge for a motorcycle designer, precisely because the bike is moving in three different dimensions rather than just two, as is the case with cars. Employing and controlling those dynamics in search of ever greater performance is enormously valuable to manufacturers, and likely to make their way onto road bikes, though through the much simpler medium of electronic control.

An uncommon place

Beyond the ride height devices and aerodynamics, reading the tea leaves of the Qatar test is a complex and arduous task. Not only because the final day of the test was lost to conditions, which affected Suzuki above all, as discussed above. But also because Qatar is such a distinctive and unusual track.

First, there is the fact that track conditions are very different to most other circuits. The surface is abrasive, and often covered in sand. Track temperature at race time – the time when the teams focus most of their testing – is in the low 20s °C, 10 or more degrees below track temperatures at most European circuits.

And the track is only at that temperature for a relatively short time: in the hours of daylight, the track is much hotter, the temperature dropping rapidly as sunset approaches, before the golden hour of perfect grip. As the night encroaches, the dew point draws near, moisture sucking heat out of tires and, in the worst case scenario, starting to settle on the track rendering it treacherous.

Even setting aside the difficulties presented by the track conditions, there are other reasons why the Qatar test is such a poor yardstick for the remainder of the season. The track layout – a very high speed main straight with one hard braking zone, then a fast and flowing back section before eventually emerging onto the straight again – favors very specific types of motorcycles. If you can go fast down the straight and hang on through the turns, or exploit corner speed round the rear section and hang in the draft on the straight, then you can post a fast lap.

Crystal ball

That fact alone explains why the top of the timesheet is dominated by the Yamahas, the Ducatis, and Aleix Espargaro on the Aprilia. Espargaro has always been fast around the Losail International Circuit, so it is hard to tell whether his excellent pace at the test is down to the revised and evolved Aprilia RS-GP or the Spaniard's affinity with the circuit.

Likewise, is the Ducati really that much better? Or is the fact that the high-speed straight plays into the Ducati horsepower, and the problem the bike had in certain braking situations with the rear Michelin tire just not an issue around the Losail?

Yamaha, too, face these questions. Is the horsepower deficit as big an issue in 2021 as it was last year? Is the 2021 chassis a big enough step forward to be consistently fast at a range of circuits? Or does the fact that the layout suit the Yamaha disguise any problems the bike might actually have?

This is particularly applicable to the KTMs. On the face of it, KTM had a horrible test at Qatar, Miguel Oliveira the fastest of the Austrian bikes, 1.343 off Jack Miller's best time. But KTM have a horrible track record around Qatar, having always struggled at the circuit. At last year's test at Losail, the KTMs were consistently in the bottom half of the timesheets, though the time gaps were much smaller.

The Losail layout doesn't provide the raw material the KTM can exploit. Apart from Turn 1, there are very few corners the RC16 can use its stability to brake deep and late into corners and gain time there. The KTM has made big steps forward in turning, but it still isn't as nimble as the Suzuki or Yamaha. It is no slowcoach, but neither is it the kind of rocket the Ducati is.

KTM's problem is that Losail simply doesn't offer a place for the RC16 to do the things it does well. And it has a lot of points where what is needed are the things the KTM only does reasonably.

The likelihood is that Yamaha, Ducati, and Aleix Espargaro will come away from Qatar with a strong result, while KTM will appear to have underperformed. But the Losail International Circuit is not Jerez, is not Mugello, is not Assen or the Sachsenring, is not Misano or Aragon. The lessons of the Qatar test are, above all, deceptive.

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Fri, 2021-03-19 22:43

WP carbon fiber forks are the order of the day. Note the rotary steering damper attached to the left triple clamp beside the fork leg

Lorenzo Savadori is still mostly test rider. Note the huge front aero wing, and the front wheel cover aimed at reducing drag from turbulence from the front wheel

Aero was a major focus in Qatar. Fabio Quartararo tested a new front mudguard aimed at reducing drag

For comparison, the old, minimalist front mudguard just shields the front of the forks

Jack Miller spent most of his time on the 2021 aero, identifiable by the lower ducts, aimed at reducing drag. Also visible, just in front of the spoiler: the small piston activating the holeshot/shapeshifter device

Contrast the location of Suzuki's variable exhaust valve. Only visible when the fairling lowers are off, and much further forward compared to the Ducati, for example.

The shapeshifter and holeshot devices are forcing a redesign of the under seat tanks. Space has to be made for the rear wheel when the suspension is dropped

Secrecy prevails at tests. Sheets stuffed into empty spaces to prevent prying long lenses

Sylvain Guintoli's Suzuki GSX-RR is where the development happens. The fact that it is indistinguishable from the 2020 bikes tells you there isn't much room for improvement

From anniversary livery to test bike, with bits in between. Cal Crutchlow on one of the Yamaha test bikes. The fact that the tank cover and seat upper is in the special anniversary livery tells you those parts, at least, have not been changed

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