The good news is that the next time the MotoGP assembles inside a racing circuit, nobody will be able to use "it's only testing" as an excuse. From now on, everything counts.
The bad news is that strong winds and low temperatures made the last day of testing a treacherous affair, disrupting testing plans, and causing a spate of crashes. (Which, in turn, disrupted testing plans even further.)
The really good news is that it looks like we are in for another immensely competitive season, with fifteen riders ending the test within a single second, and the list of realistic candidates for the title weighing in at around seven: the Honda, Ducati, and Yamaha factory riders, plus Alex Rins at Suzuki. Winning will be tough, but finishing on the podium if you can't win will be the key to taking the title.
But first, there was one last day of testing to do. The wind proved to be a real problem, testing plans being reshuffled because riding was difficult, especially in the late afternoon and early evening, when the wind was at its strongest. The wind blew sand onto the track, which didn't help grip, and the cool temperatures made that even worse. The track temperature dropped below 20°C around 8pm, the time the race is scheduled to start in just under two weeks, and rider after rider went down. Among the fallers: Bradley Smith, Johann Zarco, Alex Rins, Cal Crutchlow, Takaaki Nakagami, Marc Márquez, Miguel Oliveira, Tito Rabat, Jorge Lorenzo, Pecco Bagnaia. And that is probably not a complete list.
Despite the crashes, riders still got a lot of work done. Danilo Petrucci and Andrea Dovizioso did a race simulation together, the pair going faster when Petrucci led, Dovizioso struggling with a problematic front tire. Their pace was impressive, stringing low to mid 1'55s one after the other. That looks pretty much to be on the right kind of pace for the race, making the fact that they ended the final day in ninth and fifteenth place fairly irrelevant.
The Ducatis were among the only riders who tried a full race distance, but they weren't the only ones capable of putting up decent race pace. Marc Márquez' longest run was just 8 laps, but in that run, he kept the same kind of pace as the Ducatis. Maverick Viñales also did a run of 8 laps, though his pace was a tenth or two slower than that of Márquez.
Perhaps the biggest surprise, not just of Monday, but also of the entire test, was Fabio Quartararo. Not only did the Frenchman finish the day as second fastest after Maverick Viñales, but he also did a run of 15 laps, most of which were in the mid to high 1'55s, suggesting he could cause the favorites a few problems in two weeks' time. Even Valentino Rossi was pretty much on the right pace.
Highs and lows
With all four Yamahas finishing inside the top six on Monday (and inside the top seven over the three days combined), it looks like the Yamaha M1 is competitive. Yet anyone who listened to Valentino Rossi on Sunday would have been ready to abandon all hope. Monday saw a complete reversal of fortunes for the Italian, as the ideas they had discarded on Sunday saw pushed in a direction which worked.
"Yesterday, we worked hard and tried a lot of things, maybe too many," Rossi said. "But at the end, I lost the feeling, I didn't feel good with the bike, so I didn't have enough feeling to push. And yesterday was a very difficult day. But today, we made a step back, and we used more the stuff that I liked also in Malaysia, and I feel better with the bike, especially in the last hour and a half. I had a problem with the bike, so I had to stop for one hour. But after, in the last hour and a half I was good. My pace is not so bad. So the end of the test is positive. We can be quite strong."
The Yamaha's biggest problem, according to Valentino Rossi, is a lack of acceleration and top speed. But a lack of top speed is nothing new, he said. "Sincerely, we fight with top speed since 2004. And more or less, we are always in the same boat, so from yesterday to today, we can't do anything." The M1 was fast enough to manage, though. "I was behind the Ducati, and with the slipstream, we can stay," Rossi said.
At Jerez last year, Rossi had said the bike was only good enough for sixth or seventh, and even then, it would need a little help from others crashing out. The Italian was a good deal more upbeat at Qatar, thanks to the hard work done by Yamaha over the winter. "Last year, in the last two tests, we didn't have a lot of things, sincerely. But this year in Sepang, Yamaha worked during the winter, and we had something good. Also the test in Sepang, in the end, in the time attack, I was not very fast, but the pace was quite good. I think that we make an improvement, but my idea is that we still need something more, especially for the top guys, for the factory Hondas, and the factory Ducati. This is my idea. But we hope to work at the maximum next week, and try to fight."
It seems reasonable to ascribe at least some of the work done by Yamaha to the direction set out by Maverick Viñales. That is certainly what Viñales believes. "Now, I think, I take a little bit of weight in terms of development of the bike, and that's very important," he said.
This was a result of Viñales finally getting the changes he had been asking for at Buriram last October. Because this had worked, Yamaha had been much more inclined to listen to him. "After Thailand, we took our responsibility in the team a little bit, we worked together, we tried to understand the way to go faster. And I think we are on the good way, but we have to be patient. It's very difficult to find grip in just one day. So we need keep going and keep trying."
Viñales has been much more positive about the 2019 Yamaha than his teammate, not least because he has been a lot more competitive than Rossi all throughout testing, and is named as a favorite for the championship by just about every one of other main contenders. But Viñales still sees weakness in the M1. "First of all we have to improve the acceleration, and then we will be ready. I think the next race is going to be very important for us, to see if we can gain edge grip. Our bike has many positive things, good things, but also a lot of negative. So now we need to take a conclusion, and see if we can improve."
Robbing Peter to pay Paul
Yamaha isn't the only factory where the riders have their doubts about the 2019 bike. The compromises made at Honda to make the RC213V better on corner exit have come at the cost of front end feel, and that has undermined confidence. But the work done on the last day of the test had given Marc Márquez, at least, faith that progress was being made.
"Positive day, and really happy, because the first day here, we started really far behind, we were one second slower per lap," Márquez said. "Yesterday we were closer, and today we can say that we are in a very good level to fight for the podium. So this is the most important in a circuit where normally we struggle. I'm especially happy because yesterday, I did 58 laps, I was a little worried to see how the shoulder was today. The shoulder was OK, I did 53 laps again, and I feel ready to start the season in a very good way."
There are still areas of concern, however. "On top speed we improved, we saw. This is something important," Márquez emphasized. "But still we are missing a few things that we were struggling with last year. And still we are there working, on the exit of the corner, to try to find more pushing and better traction. That's where we are working for. And another thing is the front. We changed a little bit the chassis, but still it's difficult to understand. And we saw today, when the temperature dropped, all four Hondas crashed. So that means that we still need to work there, and try to understand why we cannot use the soft tires, and we need to use the hard ones."
What happens if he crashes?
The trouble with using the hard tires is that you have to take more risk, and Marc Márquez suffered the consequences by crashing at Turn 6. It was a sizable crash, but it ended up reassuring Márquez, rather than knocking his confidence.
"Today I tested the shoulder very well!" he joked. "I crashed in Turn 6, on the left, and I crashed when I was completely straight. I was using the hard front tire, because it's the tire I feel better with, but the temperature dropped a lot, and it was windy, and then it was not enough temperature, and I lost the front because of the temperature. But I tested the shoulder well, and it's OK. It's ready to fight!"
Márquez sounded extremely confident, despite the depth of competition he faces. Testing is testing, but race weekends are an entirely different kettle of fish, Márquez said. "In the preseason, everybody is fast. And in the first race, everybody will be fast, because everybody tested here. The real thing arrives when you go to Argentina, Austin, Jerez without testing. It's one thing when you have the whole day, and you don't have the pressure, and you can ride like you want, then it's easier to make the lap time. But then on a race weekend, everything is more difficult. So we will see. There's no need to push now. Both Ducatis look far behind, but they are very close. So they are very smart, so there's no meaning to push and to be first, because you start the season with zero points. "
Márquez' teammate made a big step forward on Monday, but only over a single lap. Jorge Lorenzo's single fast lap put him up to fifth place on Monday, but his race pace was significantly slower than the front runners, around the mid 1'56s, where Márquez and the Ducatis were circulating in the mid 1'55s. The good news for Lorenzo is that he is adapting to the Honda much faster than he did to the Ducati. The bad news is that he still has some work to do.
Marc Márquez praised the work which Lorenzo had done, but also issued a stark warning. "I saw he did a very good lap, in one fast lap he was strong," Márquez said, "But on the race pace, he's very far at the moment. But then we will see during the race weekend. But normally, this is a circuit where he rides very fast. It suits his riding style well, but we will see. I think he did a good job, and of course he needs time, but you know, you are in Honda HRC, and you have to be in the front."
Rins and repeat
Where the Yamaha and Honda riders have their doubts, Alex Rins is pretty clear about where he stands. His answer when asked about the strong and weak points of the Suzuki GSX-RR left nothing open to interpretation. "The positive point is I think we have a good base in every aspect, and we don't have negative points." High praise indeed for the Suzuki.
The improvements made over the winter put Suzuki in the right place ready for the season to start. "We are very prepared," Rins said. "We did a very good job with these tests. We tested everything which Suzuki brought for us. There were a lot of parts, a lot of very good parts. Not a lot of negative parts, so this is very good."
Plans for a long run had been scuppered by a crash early in the evening. "We had planned it, but with the crash in the second corner, the mechanics spent like an hour and a half to repair the bike." The crash had no ill effects on Rins' pace, he said. "The important thing is that after the crash, when I came back, I did 1'54.9, so this is a good thing."
Who is going to win the opening race? Valentino Rossi gave his assessment after the test was over. "For me, Maverick is in a great shape, he rides very well. Here and in Malaysia, he was always in front. And the other name is Rins, who is very fast, and who rides very well, and it looks like the Suzuki has improved. Also Mir is fast. And the two factory Ducatis, always Dovizioso is very strong here in Qatar, but also Petrucci was impressive in the test. And for sure Márquez. These are for me the guys who will be in the top."
In a week, the riders reconvene at the Losail International Circuit for the first race of the season. From that point on, it won't just be testing any longer. Everyone starts the season with zero points, as Marc Márquez rightly pointed out. But two weeks from now, that will all have changed.
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