What we learned from the Sepang test
MotoGP burst back into life at the Sepang International Circuit in Malaysia last week, as three days of intensive pre-season testing for the teams and riders heralded the beginning of final preparations ahead of the coming 2019 campaign.
Making any concrete assertions based on testing is generally a foolish endeavour; timesheets only reveal so much. Everyone is carrying out their own programmes, and misdirection is a key part of testing. But what became almost immediately obvious is the competitive nature of the 2019 field. A new unofficial lap record of 1:58.239s was set by Ducati's Danilo Petrucci, with six riders dipping underneath Jorge Lorenzo's previous unofficial record of 1:58.8s from last year.
The top of the combined testing timesheet was dominated by Ducatis. Petrucci led the Bologna charge, with Pramac rookie Francesco Bagnaia trailing ahead of team-mate Jack Miller and 2018 runner-up Andrea Dovizioso.
Face value laptimes don't tell the whole story for Ducati, however. This was a test it dominated last year, but come the race weekend it suffered one of its most difficult moments – something Dovizioso, who won wet 2016 and 2017 Sepang races, was all too aware of after the final day of day of running.
“The track was a bit better today, so we can make a real comparison, but overall we confirm what happened during the race weekend [in 2018] here in Malaysia - apart from the race - because in the race we found a strange condition which we couldn't find in these three days,” said Dovizioso.
Ducati conducted race runs on Thursday and Friday, the former with both Dovizioso and Petrucci running line astern for two 10-lap stints. The results were encouraging – even if the latter believed it not yet enough to win them the race if it were the scene of the first event - with both doing mid-high 2:00s laps in both stints. It was even more confidence-boosting for Petrucci, who it seems is now finding his weight to be less of a strain on tyre life on the GP19 than he has in recent years.
“It was very important, because we understood many things and I'm happy,” overall pacesetter Petrucci said. “Especially the second part [of the stint], I was in front and with used tyres and we finished with very good laptimes. Maybe not enough to win the race, I don't know for the podium, but for sure better than last year, and better than Wednesday because we struggled a lot during the middle part of the day when the temperature is really really hot.”
Dovizioso shrugged off the new chassis as not being much of a step forward, while he was reserved in his comments on the new three-tiered aerodynamic fairing introduced two weeks earlier than expected. Petrucci reduced his to a pile of carbon fibre shrapnel on his first lap when he crashed, and the one on Miller's GP19 suffered a similar fate. But it was not a new fairing which drew most interest.
A switch on the bike's tripleclamp was spotted on all three GP19s. It is unclear if this was its first appearance, and unsurprisingly no one within the team cared to comment on its purpose.
Several theories surfaced. The most plausible is that it activates a holeshot device. Common technology on dirt bikes, and used on the Honda of Jonathan Rea and Ryuichi Kiyonari in British Superbikes in 2006, a holeshot device is a clamp which looks the front suspension. It is used to keep the front of the bike down off the line, offering more grunt – hence its name. The device unlocks under braking at the first corner.
Ducati's device appears to be linked to the rear of the bike, rather than the front, and so likely locks the rear shock. The results are the same. Whether it is indeed this is unknown, and we probably won't ever get a straight answer: after all, it's been two years since Ducati unveiled its 'salad box', and it's function is still debated (many think it is some kind of mass damper). It's worth noting, according to former crew chief Chris Pike, Honda in BSB in 2006 made it to the first corner in the lead on 25 occasions from 26 races.
Aside from a new aero package appearing on the final day, Yamaha's main focus was once again its new engine. Only one version was brought to Sepang. Both Valentino Rossi and Maverick Vinales highlighted their preferred choice from the two tested in November, and the latest spec was slightly modified from that.
Once again, though, opinion was split on just how much the M1 has improved. Vinales, who was fastest on day two, felt the gains made with the engine's acceleration were the first real steps forward in this direction since he joined Yamaha two years ago.
“Here we only had one [new engine] so I focused a lot on trying to improve the acceleration side. We did this, so it's really important. In these two years, it's the first time we go steps ahead day-by-day, and that's the most important thing. Day-by-day the bike was working very similar, and not like last year when it was working good and bad. These three days were working really good.”
Indeed, Yamaha's form at the Sepang test last year was good to begin with, but faded as the days passed by. This year, it was consistent.
Rossi agreed that acceleration, and thus tyre consumption, had improved over last year's engine. But he was still not convinced the necessary big gains on Yamaha's rival had been made, and even went as far to say he was “worried” about not having the pace to be competitive if the race was to be held the day after testing.
“In the hot lap we suffer a little bit. About the pace, we are a bit closer. But I'm quite worried still, if we race tomorrow we suffer because we have something else to improve. So for the first test it's not bad, now the Qatar test is in 10 days. But I don't for Qatar we can have something new. But it's another track, it's another temperature, so will be interesting to understand.”
Rossi, who was 10th overall, didn't do a full race run like Vinales did, and his pace was a little shy of his team-mate's. Vinales' was very comparable to what the Ducati riders were doing, and has reignited a sense of fear which radiated from him during the dominant 2017 pre-season. Crucially for Vinales, it seems mystifying lack of early race pace which dogged him last year has now been eradicated.
It is worth bearing in mind Yamaha was very quick during the Sepang and Thailand races last year, in conditions wildly out of the norm for the majority of the season. For this reason, caution has been exercised.
Caution is one thing which should be taken when assessing Honda's Sepang test, too. Marc Marquez only completed 105 laps across the three days and was unable to put any real long runs together due to his physical condition. Sepang was the first time the 2018 world champion had been on a MotoGP bike since his shoulder operation, and after three days it's clear he will not be fully fit for the season-opener in Qatar.
However, Marquez set the pace on Wednesday, and his 1.1s deficit to Petrucci on Friday is not even remotely representative. The Spaniard prioritised the “important things” to test, but it seems the 2019 RC213V is already at an exceptionally good level.
This is backed up by Cal Crutchlow's pace. Back on his LCR bike for the first time since shattering his right ankle at Phillip Island last October, the now partly steel Crutchlow was one of the six to dip under the 1:58.8s barrier on Friday and feels there was more time in him still had it not been for a crash. Not only is his pace incredible given his physical condition, it's the fact he is not comfortable with the new bike yet which proves the new Honda is in good shape.
We got a glimpse of the Honda's strong foundations in November, when a still-injured Lorenzo – absent from the Sepang test after breaking his left scaphoid – was fourth quickest on just his fourth day on the Honda at Jerez.
Another team showing flashes of devastating speed with its new bike is Suzuki. Alex Rins was set to top Thursday's running before Vinales' banzai 1:58.8s, while his pace on worn tyres pretty much matched that of the likes of the Ducatis and Vinales.
Suzuki, like almost every manufacturer, had a new aero fairing to test, as well as a new chassis. The new engine was strong in November, and Suzuki brought the same one – albeit slightly revised - to Sepang. This makes sense, given it heads into a season without technical concessions, and it was a misstep in engine selection during testing in 2017 when it last ran without concessions which led to a difficult campaign.
Aprilia also appears to have found more speed in the winter. Aleix Espargaro says the new RS-GP feels more like the 2017 bike, which he took to two top six finishes that year, and managed to find more one-lap pace on the final day of running. Espargaro struggled for single lap pace in 2018, only managing to qualify inside the top 10 three times. The team played around with bike balance on low fuel and the electronics, and the end result was a 1:59.022s to go seventh on Friday. A strong race run on Thursday of high-2:00s/low-2:01s was cause for much encouragement.
New team-mate Andrea Iannone was not of much use, and sat out the final day. Placed on antibiotics for a dental infection, the Italian suffered in the oppressive Sepang heat.
Johann Zarco's KTM debut in November was a tricky affair, and although he made further steps forward with his feeling on the bike on Wednesday, he admitted he would be on the back foot in Qatar.
But, on Thursday, he made a gain of half a second to get to within 1.5s of the pacesetter – an improvement “better” than what he expected. To boot, he was happier with the cornering performance of the bike, even if he is still “fighting” it somewhat on the way into the turns. After following rival machinery, he also concluded the engine needed more punch at low revs and a bit more top end. Team-mate Pol Espargaro, 18th overall at the end of a long test – for which KTM freighted 17 tonnes of equipment – said all parts of the bike “were touched”, and feels the RC16 is “100 percent” getting better.
Of the rookies, Pramac's Bagnaia grabbed all the headlines. His 1:58.302s on the final day to beat two works GP19s and only just miss the other copped praise from mentor Rossi, who branded the laps as “impressive”. Now beginning to feel he is riding as he should, he has pegged race pace as the next area for improvement. Suzuki's Joan Mir did not disgrace himself in 15th overall, while SRT's Fabio Quartararo was just four tenths away from his more experienced eighth-placed team-mate Morbidelli in 16th. Of the Tech3 duo, debutant Miguel Oliveira has started to find his feet, proving this by outpacing Hafizh Syahrin by eight tenths with a 1:59.949s in 19th.