What looked like a wasted day quickly turned around at Sepang. Tuesday started wet, the streets and circuit taking a while to dry after Monday evening's torrential rain. Sepang's weakness was once again exposed: the track took a long time to dry, wet patches remaining on the track for several hours. It was not until 1pm that a few riders started to venture out, and by 2pm, the track was full with riders trying to make up for valuable lost time.
Some riders made use of the conditions, as far from ideal as they were. Jorge Lorenzo put in ten laps in the wet, and Johann Zarco put in eight laps. The reason? To help build confidence, for Lorenzo in the wet, for Zarco, to try to figure out what a MotoGP bike is capable of.
Zarco rode a pair of wet tires to destruction, feeling how the soft, moving rubber exaggerated every movement of the bike. It served as a sort of magnifying glass for how a MotoGP bike behaves, amplifying the feedback and making it much clearer to fully understand, Zarco explained. By the end of the run, he had learned a lot, and made a massive step forward.
How much difference had it made? When the red lights came on for the end of the session, Zarco's name was still fifth on the timesheets, the Monster Tech 3 Yamaha rider less than a tenth behind Valentino Rossi, and half a second behind Maverick Viñales in second. The Frenchman had found a way of understanding where the limits lay, without pushing himself over the edge.
Trust the timesheets?
The timesheets made for interesting reading at the end of the day, both in terms of headline times, and in underlying pace. Three different manufacturers graced the top three places, the top nine consisting of a Suzuki, four Yamahas and four Ducatis. Marc Márquez was the first Honda rider in tenth place, over a second behind fastest man Andrea Iannone, and nearly seven tenths slower than Viñales.
Iannone was quickest by a considerable margin, well ahead of Viñales and the remarkable Alvaro Bautista on the Pull&Bear Aspar Ducati. Bautista has taken to the GP16 like a duck to water, showing strong pace on both days of the test. Rossi headed Zarco by a fraction in fourth and fifth respectively, then came an armada of Ducatis, captained by Hector Barbera. The Avintia GP16 man was quicker than both factory Ducatis, Andrea Dovizioso less than a tenth quicker than Jorge Lorenzo. The second Monster Tech 3 Yamaha rider, Jonas Folger, took ninth, with Márquez rounding out the top ten.
The headline times do not tell the full story, however. Iannone's time was a single fast lap, set pushing on a soft tire. Maverick Viñales did his best lap as part of a string of three laps in the 1'59s, the only rider other than Iannone to get under the two-minute mark. Iannone managed it only once, however, not three times in a row.
Viñales had by far the best overall pace. In addition to the three 1'59s on a new tire, he also did nine laps in the 2'00s. Only Alvaro Bautista did more two-minute laps, racking up ten of them, but Bautista did not get under two minutes on Tuesday. The two Tech 3 riders both managed six laps in the 2'00s, though Folger's laps were slower than Zarco's. Marc Márquez, meanwhile, may have been only tenth, but he also managed six laps in the 2'00s, at the same kind of pace as Valentino Rossi's four two-minute laps.
Obviously fast, and secretly fast
What conclusions can we draw so far, however preliminary they may be? Maverick Viñales is genuinely fast, and spent the day working on his race pace on worn tires. The parts Yamaha have brought for the M1 (apart from the fairing, but more about that later) are aimed at exactly that: conserving the tire in the second half of the race, to be able to maintain the pace for as long as possible. On Wednesday, weather permitting, Viñales will take the new frame and try to use it for a full race simulation.
If Viñales is fast, Marc Márquez is probably also quick, though he is hiding his speed a little while he works on the Honda's engine and electronics. Márquez was clear that this was his only focus at the test, and in reality, the only problem the bike really has. The chassis is fine, but the engine is still too aggressive, and lacks grip. Despite switching from a screamer to a big bang configuration, the rear tire still spins until it grips, and when it grips, it wants to loft the front wheel.
That was what Andrea Dovizioso had seen while following the Repsol Honda rider. "I don’t know if Marc have a really used tire so it’s difficult to know the real speed but he didn’t have a lot of grip and acceleration," the Ducati rider said. "He was very good in the braking," he added, always a strength of Márquez.
"The problems of the wheelie and the acceleration is still there," said Márquez. The problem was different, but still present, much to the frustration of all the Honda riders. When asked about the new engine which Honda have brought, Cal Crutchlow did his best to emulate former Malawian dictator Hastings Banda, repeatedly answering "I can't tell you that," to our questions. The timesheets told us all we needed to know, he hinted.
Yet Márquez was still optimistic, despite the issues which remain with Honda's new engine. They were working hard at sorting out engine maps and electronics to help control the bike, he said. That was mainly a matter of time on track, and time to work through the data to figure out what is going on. Though the complaints he is making are familiar – we heard them at Sepang in 2016, and a year before in Sepang in 2015 – Márquez believes there is a bright side to his current situation. Is the situation better or worse than Sepang last year? "At the same time last year here, yes, we are in a better way," Márquez replied.
The wings are back, in a fashion
If Honda's work is largely happening unseen, as engineers crunch numbers and enter matrices full of values to control the behavior of the bike, Yamaha tested a highly visible development at Sepang. Anyone who had applauded the banning of the wings as a blow for aestheticism found themselves cruelly deceived.
Images had been doing the rounds on the internet, of a double-walled fairing with a large section stuck on the upper half, including vanes inside it. When I first saw it, I wrote it off as a poor fake done using Photoshop, the Movistar upper clearly not fitting with the black carbon fiber test fairing.
But on Tuesday morning, Italian website GPOne.com published shots taken by Italian photographer Mirco Lazzari, of Yamaha test rider Kouta Nozane's M1 sporting the exact Movistar-liveried fairing pods on top of his CF test fairing. Confirmation soon came from pit lane, MCN's Simon Patterson quickest off the mark, and then Crash.net's Peter McLaren also capturing the new fairing, a copy of which he kindly provided to us.
The clearest demonstration of what has changed came in this side-by-side comparison photo from Malaysian photographer Hazrin Cric. The upper half of the fairing has had a sort of side pod attached to it, containing a series of vanes, to provide downforce to replace the now-banned winglets.
Legal and devious
Does this violate the winglet ban? I checked with MotoGP Technical Director Danny Aldridge, and he was categorical. "No," he told me. "The fairing is a single surface, with nothing sticking out." As long as the fairing is a single, unbroken plane from top to bottom, with no appendages sticking out from it, there were no problems. Yamaha had submitted the design to Aldridge before testing, and he had approved it.
It would be foolish to believe that Yamaha are the only factory to be working on such a design. There has been widespread speculation that factories would turn up with double-walled fairings with aerodynamic forces generated internally, rather than externally. Ducati have hinted at having some form of aerodynamic help to replace the winglets, and Aleix Espargaro told us yesterday that he had tested a "very strange fairing" in the wind tunnel for Aprilia. The rest will not be very far behind. Pandora's box has been opened, and the plague of aerodynamics is now blowing on the wind.
The truth will out, at some point
Does it work, though? Both Movistar Yamaha riders had been banned from talking to the media about it. When asked about testing the new fairing, Maverick Viñales was blunt: "I tested it but I can’t say anything," he told us.
Valentino Rossi was a little bit more forthcoming, but not much. "They tell me I cannot speak about the new fairing. But sincerely speaking, first of all, it is very beautiful! I like it," he said. "It don't make a lot of difference, but it is more beautiful. So we will continue to use and try also tomorrow."
Of note is Rossi's emphasis that the fairing did not make much difference. Both Rossi and Lorenzo said the same about the winglets Yamaha tested at Aragon in 2015, and started using in earnest last year. By the end of the season, they had rather changed their tune, saying that losing the winglets would have a big effect on the bike. A pinch or two of salt may be in order when it comes to official pronouncements from riders on the efficacy of aerodynamic appendages.
Lorenzo picks up speed
While all eyes were on Yamaha's new winglets, Ducati's new rider had made a serious step forward. Jorge Lorenzo had closed the gap to the leaders, and was just a few hundredths of a second behind his teammate Andrea Dovizioso. The improvement had come with time on the bike, and with getting to understand it better. He was more comfortable with the GP17, he said, and that had been a big help.
Improvement had come in large part due to adapting better to the way the Ducati brakes, he said. "Today I could brake later and better, to stop the bike in less meters, and this has been a huge improvement," Lorenzo said. There was still a lot of work to be done, of course, but at least he was over what he described as 'the shock' of struggling on the first day. "Still a long way to arriving to the limit with this bike on this track, but we are much closer, and the progression has been huge."
The teams have one more day to test on Wednesday, if the weather can hold. So far, all is well, with the roads outside my hotel, just a few kilometers from the circuit still dry, and no sign of rain on the horizon. The forecast is not looking good, with rain due to start at around 10am, just as the riders are due to take to the track. But on the other hand, every forecast I have seen this week has turned out to be completely wrong. So anything can happen tomorrow. And probably will.
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