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Sat, 2021-03-27 01:20
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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.

Q0

"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
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The veteran crew chief knows better than anyone the work that went into Sam Lowes’ title challenge in 2020. The Frenchman speaks to Motomatters.com 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.”

Motomatters.com 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
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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.

Squatters

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 2.4.4.4 now reads:

2.4.4.4 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
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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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Wed, 2021-03-17 14:38
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It might be an exaggeration to call today's news that Andrea Dovizioso is to test the Aprilia RS-GP MotoGP bike at Jerez from April 12th to 14th a bombshell, but it certainly raised a few eyebrows. The Italian had previously turned down the offer of a full-time ride with the Noale factory for 2021, despite Aprilia extensively courting his services. So for Aprilia to offer a test ride is no surprise. For Dovizioso to accept is certainly interesting.

The press release announced by Aprilia states very clearly that this is not an audition for a permanent ride. "It will not be a ‘trial matrimony’ but an opportunity to turn some laps together without any binding commitment for the future," Aprilia Racing CEO Massimo Rivola is quoted as saying. But the fact that Dovizioso accepted the offer suggest that may change in the future.

The reasons for that are self-evident. When Dovizioso announced he would be taking a sabbatical for the 2021 season, he made it clear that he still wanted to race, but would only accept offers which give him a chance to challenge for the championship. At the end of 2020, the racing an Aprilia RS-GP in the factory Aprilia team did not look like being the opportunity he was looking for. What's more, the uncertainty surrounding the future of Marc Márquez meant that there was the potential for a seat in the factory Repsol Honda team, at least until Márquez returned.

Much has changed since October and November last year, however. It became clear quite quickly that HRC had no appetite for Andrea Dovizioso, given how strongly Stefan Bradl performed in the last few races, and, paddock rumor suggests, the Italian's financial and practical demands. Talks with KTM failed on similar issues, with KTM in the luxury position of having Dani Pedrosa as a test rider. Dovizioso turned down the offer of a test rider role at Yamaha, as the chances of anything more than a few wildcards and the possibility of replacing in injured rider seemed very slim indeed.

In the last few weeks, Dovizioso's chances have shrunk even further. Marc Márquez' recovery after injury has gone better than the six-time MotoGP champion might have dared to hope, and the Spaniard could be riding a MotoGP bike as early as Qatar. That would remove any last lingering hopes Dovizioso may have had of a replacement role with the Japanese factory.

And so, Aprilia is all that is left. But there are positive reasons for considering the Aprilia ride as well. While the RS-GP looked uncompetitive last year, hamstrung by reliability and engine issues, the Qatar tests suggest that the Noale factory has made a big step forward. The problems raised by changing engine configurations to a 90°V angle have largely been addressed, and Aprilia technical boss Romano Albesiano has had a chance to improve and update his design.

The improvements in the bike were also visible on the timesheets. Aleix Espargaro was not just quick over a single lap – the Spaniard finished the second test at Qatar as sixth fastest overall, hale a second behind fastest man Jack Miller – he was also fast in terms of race pace, his average lap time being consistently in the top three or four.

And Aprilia have a glaring problem. Lorenzo Savadori's promotion from test rider to full-time 2021 entry has not gone to plan, the Italian suffering badly with a shoulder injury during testing. Savadori was dead last among the full-time grid, and slower than Suzuki test rider Sylvain Guintoli and KTM's Dani Pedrosa. Bradley Smith, meanwhile, is still looking for a full-time ride as a racer and is still wary of taking on solely a testing role.

So both sides have something to gain from this temporary alliance. Aprilia get the benefit of feedback from one of the best development riders in MotoGP. Andrea Dovizioso gets the chance to assess where the Aprilia stands, how easy it is to work with Aprilia Racing staff, and how willing they are to listen to him. Aprilia also get a few races to see how Lorenzo Savadori gets on in MotoGP, and to reexamine their testing program.

Does this make Aprilia offering Dovizioso a full-time ride, and Dovizioso accepting it, inevitable? Not necessarily, but the odds are looking better for it every day. Aprilia is Dovizioso's only chance of riding this year, and his best chance of scoring a contract for 2022 and beyond. If he isn't riding, and racing, then the MotoGP teams will look to Moto2, and the pool of talent there ready to make the jump to MotoGP, with riders such as Marco Bezzecchi, Remy Gardner, Fabio Di Giannantonio, Augusto Fernandez, Aron Canet, Joe Roberts, and more.

The final hurdle such an alliance would face comes from the rulebook. With Lorenzo Savadori down as Aprilia's full-time entry, replacing him with Dovizioso is not an automatic option. Once the entry list is finalized, any changes to permanent riders must be approved by IRTA. Acceptance is not automatic, but rejection is very unlikely. Andrea Dovizioso is a bigger draw for the sport than Lorenzo Savadori, and so IRTA are likely to rubber stamp the decision.

The official press release from Aprilia appears below:


ANDREA DOVIZIOSO WILL TEST THE NEW APRILIA RS-GP

Aprilia Racing and Andrea Dovizioso will be together on the track in Jerez from 12 through 14 April.

Andrea will conduct a test on the 2021 RS-GP that will race in the World MotoGP Championship and which, ridden in its début tests by Aleix Espargaró and Lorenzo Savadori, provided good sensations straight away.

MASSIMO RIVOLA - AD APRILIA RACING

“It was a pleasure to invite Andrea. The days in Jerez will simply be a chance to get to know one another better, also on the track. It will not be a ‘trial matrimony’ but an opportunity to turn some laps together without any binding commitment for the future. We are well aware of all Andrea’s qualities and his contribution will be important, even for just one test.”

ANDREA DOVIZIOSO

“I was pleased by Aprilia’s interest and when we spoke about the possibility of doing this test, I gladly accepted the invitation to be able to ride a MotoGP bike again and to stay in form, giving the engineers my feedback. I wish to thank Aprilia Racing for this opportunity.”


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Wed, 2021-03-17 11:02
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After Marc Marquez rode a Honda RC213V-S road bike at the Circuit de Catalunya on Tuesday, the Repsol Honda Team issued the following press release and video:


Marc Marquez on track in Barcelona

Marc Marquez rides a Honda RC213V-S street bike at Barcelona

The Repsol Honda Team rider continued to evaluate his physical condition with a day riding the Barcelona-Catalunya Circuit on the Honda RC213V-S.

Just a few days after his medical team confirmed the progress made by Marc Marquez, the eight-time World Champion was back on track. First using a mini-bike close to his home in Cervera, Marquez has now completed a day of riding at the Montmelo circuit on the RC213V-S to understand his physical condition after eight months away from the track.

Mon, 2021-03-15 09:20
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Meet the new boss? Pol Espargaro took to the Repsol Honda like a duck to water


The most visually striking livery, but Danilo Petrucci struggled on the Tech3 KTM at Qatar. As did all the KTMs


Teamwork makes the dream work?


Aleix Espargaro was fast on the Aprilia, both over a single lap and in terms of race pace. Can he dare to dream this year?


The Yamaha 60th anniversary livery rocked by the test riders at Qatar was stunning


"We better get back, because they mostly come at night, mostly..."


Miguel Oliveira looks great on the factory KTM. But Qatar is not a KTM track


The 2021 Yamaha M1 is somewhere between the 2020 and the 2019 bikes. It remains to be seen if it's fast enough


Luca Marini was the slowest of the rookies, but he was only a second off his older brother by the end of the second test. He's a slow burner


Not Cal Crutchlow. The 60th anniversary livery got shared among all of the test riders


Sylvain Guintoli is the rock which Joan Mir's 2020 title was built upon


Stefan Bradl got quicker as the 2020 season went on. He was lightning fast at Qatar


Red flag situations are dealth with by committee, to ensure no traces of oil remain on the track


Second season, big expectations for Alex Marquez. That was reflected in the larger role he played in testing


Pecco Bagnaia showed at Qatar that he had made a big step forward in 2020.


Jack Miller takes Ducati's provisional 2021 aero out for a spin. It worked well.


New team, same old habits


Cal Crutchlow on a proper test bike - carbon fairings, and a hotchpotch of spare bits and parts


Jorge Martin has #89, because Miguel Oliveira had already taken #88. So Martin is Oliveira + 1


Also part of testing. Iker Lecuona picks himself up out of the gravel at Qatar


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Wed, 2021-03-10 00:35
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High mass discs and Brembo's latest calipers. Brakes at Losail get HOT, which makes for great photos into T1


Even the brake lever protectors are carbon fiber


No chassis number plate on the frame means this is a prototype 2021 Yamaha chassis. FQ1 on the shock tells you whose bike this is. Note also the pneumatic valve reservoir nipple just above the heel protector


And on the eighth day, God made the Suzuki GSX-RR's exhaust. And He saw that it was good


Ducati's new aero. Downforce? Cornering force? Reduced drag? Flow under the fairing?


Reduced drag would make sense. If engine development is frozen for 2021, the best way to go faster is to reduce drag...


Suzuki's holeshot device is based on the classic motocross system of locking down the front forks. Suzuki is one of only two factories still using a holeshot device at only one end of the bike


2021 prototype frame (note the hole in the frame just above the Monster logo). Yamaha still use a piston steering damper, not a rotary one. Note also the starter motor gear socket and the torque sensor on the output shaft


Ducati continue to work on their wheel covers. Note the small inlet scoop to cool the rear brake, an issue when you cover the entire wheel


Cal Crutchlow was testing a carbon fiber swingarm, similar to the unit used by Franco Morbidelli throughout 2020. This one fitted to a 2021 prototype chassis.


A lot going on on the left handlebar of the Yamaha M1. Levers top to bottom: Scooter brake, clutch, and thumb-operated holeshot device/shapeshifter


The Suzuki is sleek, everywhere. Everything fits beautifully


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Mon, 2021-03-08 22:38
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The real king of testing? Stefan Bradl is faster than he has ever been in MotoGP


Another brother hits MotoGP. This time, it's Stefania's other son Luca Marini


The magical hour, most beloved of photographers


The Tech3 KTM looks more factory than the Red Bull factory bike. Danilo Petrucci still needs time to adapt


There were so many technical innovations on the Ducati that it was almost strange to see one looking relatively standard


From permanent to test rider, from Honda to Yamaha. All change for Cal Crutchlow, but the intense glare remains


The reigning champion. Joan Mir kicks off his title defense with a winter testing helmet


Maverick Viñales was working on himself, rather than the bike. Given previous seasons, that seems like a smart move


Enea Bastianini is hotly tipped by knowledgeable paddock insiders. The fact he was fastest of the rookies suggests they could be on to something


Can you teach an old dog new tricks? Valentino Rossi is switching to the Petronas Yamaha team to find out


Franco Morbidelli's flowery helmet is a rejection of the normal macho posturing motorcycle racers feel compelled to use as symbols


Dani Pedrosa remains as fast and meticulous as ever as KTM tester


Fastest Yamaha rider? We will know come Valencia


Alex Rins starts the season without injury, and determined to beat his teammate this year


Miguel Oliveira ended 2020 as fastest, and starts 2021 as fastest KTM rider


Factory colors for Fabio Quartararo. He hopes it will make the difference


New team, new bike, same speed for Johann Zarco. He looked impressive at the first Qatar test


Takaaki Nakagami came a long way last year. He needs to take the next step this year


Brad Binder color-matches the sunset


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Mon, 2021-03-08 03:36
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Far from being a day of rest, on Sunday, the real work of testing began at the Losail International Circuit in Qatar. After a day to wrap their collective heads around the mind-bending speeds which riding a MotoGP bike involves, the riders got down to the work of sifting through the collection of parts the factories have brought in their quest for victory. And in racing, victory only comes through speed.

Questions were raised, and some were answered, though only partially in most cases. That doesn't matter as much as it might at a normal test, of course, because the riders and teams will only be heading back to their hotels for two days, to relax a little, to recover (for the riders), or to dive as deeply as possible into the data to try to learn as many lessons as possible ahead of the next test, which starts on Wednesday.

So what did we learn? A quick run through MotoGP's six manufacturers.

Yamaha

The big question for Yamaha was whether the 2021 chassis was the step forward that the riders had been hoping for. The 2021 chassis is not so much a step forward as half a step back a compromise between last year's frame and the 2019 chassis which Franco Morbidelli used to such good effect in 2020.

As you can see in the photos below, the 2021 chassis is very similar indeed to the 2019 frame.

The photo above is Fabio Quartararo's bike from Qatar; the 2020 engine in a chassis similar to the 2019 M1.

Compare the 2021 frame with Valentino Rossi's machine from the Sepang test in 2019. The two frames share the bracing tube between the two sections of the frame side beams.

That bracing tube is conspicuously missing from the 2020 frame, which used a reworked upper section of the frame beam. This is one of the test bikes from the Sepang test in February 2020.

Is the new frame as good as the 2019 example? Not if you are Valentino Rossi. "Today we continued to use both chassis, but my impression at the end of the two days is that it's very similar to last year's bike," the Italian veteran said. "No, not very similar to the 2019 chassis. It's something between. But when I ride I feel very, very similar to the 2020." That would explain why Rossi ended the day in twentieth spot, 1.7 seconds behind the fastest man Fabio Quartararo, and unable to improve his time from yesterday.

Quartararo was more cautiously optimistic, but he also hadn't found as much improvement as he had hoped. "It's not yet the same feeling as the 2019 chassis," the factory Yamaha rider told us. "I hope it will come, but we are working on it. I think it's really important, because the chassis of the 2019 bike was just unbelievable. And we are on the way. We want to take that direction, because it's clear that was the best compromise. So we are going in that way. Feeling wise it's not the same, but we still have three days to improve our feeling, and try to be as close as possible to the 2019 chassis."

Sunday had been a much better day than Saturday for Quartararo, however. "Today the feeling was much better. It's still difficult to evaluate because we don't stay with the same package as yesterday, we are still trying many things, also a swingarm. So it was not easy to say clear comments about the 2021 chassis. Swingarm we still need to see but the feeling was not the best today. But we need to try it better, and in all conditions. So for sure in three days we will try it again."

Quartararo had been fast, and that had left him optimistic, at least. "Of course the feedback is good, we make great lap time, great pace," the Frenchman said. But he also sounded a note of caution. "For sure the bike is great, but we need to see, because also last year with the 2020 bike, we were fast here. We need to evaluate these two days, it will be great to see the data with the team, and to see the direction."

Self improvement

Monster Energy Yamaha teammate Maverick Viñales had not spent much time working with the 2021 bike, preferring to work on himself. "Well, actually we didn't work yet with the new chassis," Viñales said. "We just had the old package and a few general things in the second bike. And I concentrated a lot on riding style, I concentrated a lot on hitting a good lap time, don't get too stressed on the bike, trying to get the flow. We worked with the electronics quite a lot."

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