The moment the bikes fell silent at Valencia, at 5pm on Wednesday, officially marked the end of the beginning. The 2018 season is now well underway, the initial outlines of next year's bikes being revealed. There is still a long way to go to Qatar, but the first step has been taken, the first few hundred terabytes of data downloaded to laptops and uploaded to factory servers for analysis.
The new season began in much the same vein as the old season ended: with Marc Márquez fastest, and on a tear. The Repsol Honda rider was fastest on the second day of the test, and fastest overall, four tenths quicker than his teammate on Wednesday, and a tenth quicker than Maverick Viñales, who had topped the timesheets on Tuesday.
The timesheets had a familiar look to them. The top five overall consisted of the two Repsol Hondas and three Yamahas – the two Movistar factory bikes and Johann Zarco on the Tech 3 machine – followed by a couple of Ducatis, Jorge Lorenzo on the factory bike and Jack Miller on the Pramac machine. Whether the timesheets will stay like that when Qatar rolls around is another question entirely.
There is reason to believe that the Hondas will still be at the front in Qatar. Though Márquez set his fastest time on the 2017 bike, the 2018 bike both he and Dani Pedrosa used was relatively well sorted. Both riders referred to the new bike as the "prototype bike", and it is to form the basis of the 2018 Honda RC213V which will make its debut in Sepang. But it is different in every aspect: a new engine, new exhausts, new chassis. Only the fairing looked familiar, though it remained in gorgeous black carbon fiber, rather than the gaudy Repsol colors.
The bike is sufficiently different to the old machine that differences are visible to the naked eye. The exhaust looks different: the lower exhaust (from the front cylinder bank) is a little longer, and squared off instead of the slash style which debuted midway through 2017. The upper exhaust is shorter, no longer curling coquettishly into a loop, but hooked into a shorter exit much like the Ducati. The two pipes merge into one later too: on the old pipe, the two separate pipes from each rear cylinder join just before the exhaust enters the tail unit. The new pipe has the two pipes joining in the middle of the tail. Pipe length and the point at which the exhausts join are used to tune the pressure in exhausts, managing power delivery and outright horsepower.
The new engine had the most promise as far as Márquez was concerned. "Always when you get a new engine they try to give more power to you," the newly-crowned 2017 MotoGP champion told us. "And we gained, especially on the bottom, we gained a little bit more power. Also in the top, we gained there." The engine will help to make acceleration more manageable, always a problem with the Honda.
Some parts are better than others
Most encouraging for Márquez was the fact that the engine was already fairly well sorted, the electronics well within an operating base. "I'm happy because it's the first time that with such a new engine I feel inside the parameters, you know?" he tried to explain. "Normally every year I was starting here and we were talking one year ago here, saying the electronics are not there, we need to work on the electronics. But now it's inside the parameters in this circuit, but now we need to reconfirm in February."
He was less positive about the chassis, though that was not a cause for concern. "We need to work on the chassis area," he said. "The chassis that we had today, there were many many new parts, and now we need to understand which part was better, which part was worse. But we need to choose, the engine is good, the chassis? Doubts."
Yet the bike is sorted enough that the factory riders had decided to skip the private test at Jerez which most of the MotoGP teams will be attending next week. "We have some things to try, and of course it's important to reconfirm things in another circuit," Márquez explained. "But we get a lot of information here and we believe in that information, and we prefer to spend these days next year. Because at the moment, if we have something new maybe we will try, but anyway, Cal, LCR will go to Jerez and so they can get information there."
If Honda were making clear and obvious progress, Yamaha are still in the process of defining the direction they want to go. Three different riders had three different programs, each focusing on different areas. Johann Zarco spent the day with two 2017 Yamaha M1's. Maverick Viñales was switching between the 2016 and 2017 bikes. Valentino Rossi has 2016 bikes, but with a 2018 engine.
What conclusions can be drawn from the test? The 2018 engine is a positive development, according to Rossi, with more power both at the bottom and top end. That had achieved its stated objective: "To try to have more power without losing the character from the bottom, and smooth from the bottom," Rossi explained. "We try some different things. We have some positives, some negative. But are not so bad. For sure Valencia is not fantastic for test the engine because it was quite small. But you can understand and we continue to try also in Sepang in 10 days."
Getting the engine right is crucial, when the engine design will be frozen for the duration for the season. "It’s an important test because you don't have to make mistakes it’s better to have the same bike for understanding the way. I think at the end I decide what is my favorite. And now we will confirm in 10 days at Sepang if it is the same or something else."
Old vs New
Maverick Viñales had been running back-to-back tests with the 2016 and 2017 bikes. "With the 2017 I had better traction, better acceleration," Viñales said. "And with the 2016 I feel better with the front. It is what I was feeling all year. Finally let's see if we take the 2016 and work to make the acceleration good or we get the 2017 and try to make, especially the brake area and corner speed better. So we have to decide which way is the easiest to be fast."
The 2016 bike had better corner speed, Viñales explained. "With the 2016 I feel better. It is better for the corner speed. I feel more turning and easier for me. Let's see. It's always difficult just in one day to decide."
That was the opposite to what Johann Zarco had reported. But Viñales dismissed any such idea, saying it was hard to make comparisons. "Different riding style and you know riders have different feelings on the bike so difficult to compare."
Viñales also spent a lot of time testing the new aerodynamic package Yamaha brought to the test. The aero package looked an awful lot like the winglets that used to grace the bike in 2016, before they were banned. That aero package raised a lot of hackles in the paddock, with riders and team managers complaining that the forward-swept aero appendages were too dangerous, and resembled the winglets which were banned at the end of last year. "If this is allowed, then I don't understand why we can't have our old winglets," Ducati boss Paolo Ciabatti expressed his exasperation.
Yamaha were on the defensive. These were legal, they insisted. "Aprilia is doing the same!" Viñales insisteed. "And Ducati. Finally looks like a winglet but they take it out of the fairing. I don't think it's illegal." It certainly had some benefit, he felt. "It feels really good. Actually we improve and here in Valencia we know for sure the fairing is much better."
According to Technical Director Danny Aldridge, the legality of Yamaha's fairing is far from settled. There have been discussions back and forth over the fairing, but changes still need to be made, he told Crash.net's Peter McLaren.
The question of legality is not relevant during the test. Teams and factories can use whatever they want during testing, both private testing and official IRTA tests such as the one at Valencia. Of course, there is not much point in testing something which has no chance of ever being approved in any form, but Yamaha's fairing can probably be made legal with a certain amount of adjustment.
Of course, Yamaha's new fairing does make something of a mockery of the current aerodynamics rules, just as the Ducati, Aprilia, and Suzuki fairings did beforehand. But that is the danger of making rules. As soon as you ban one thing, engineers start plotting ways around whatever ban you have in place. The Pandora's box of aerodynamics has been opened, and cannot be closed again, I suggested to Paolo Ciabatti. "As far as we are concerned, Pandora's box never needed to be closed," the Ducati boss insisted.
Newer is better
Johann Zarco spent the day on two 2017 Yamaha M1s. The Frenchman was happy, using much less energy to ride the 2017 bike at speed than the 2016 machine. "At the end of the day, I could confirm again I’m spending less energy with that one," Zarco told us. "At the moment we are not super fast but spending less energy is such an important thing that we must keep when you are traveling around the world, to have facility [ease] on the bike. So I want to keep that and work on it."
The weak point of the bike is particularly tire wear in the second half of the race. It was what Zarco had focused on throughout the test, he said. "Today we tried to work with more used tires from half race until the end and see if we have better lap times," Zarco said. "This is always complicated to analyze; if we’re much faster or not in the race pace. But at least when I was changing from one bike to the other one the difference was not big. It was good to compare the things. Now, when we analyze these two days of testing the ’17 bike gives me more possibilities to enjoy on the bike, to be fast and having the same lap time than with the old bike I can say that we have the same lap time but we are not at the maximum of the bike."
Nothing new on the Western Front
In stark contrast with the intense work at Yamaha was the relative calm in Ducati. Both Andrea Dovizioso and Jorge Lorenzo only had a few minor parts to test, to get a general idea of the direction of the 2018 Ducati, they told us. "We try small things," Andrea Dovizioso told us. "Unfortunately, we didn't have the ‘18 bike here to really start for the season. So we just wanted to try different things to decide in which way it will be the ‘18 bike. But also we test in Jerez. Still we have to try a few things to make a decision."
Things had worked out a little more favorably for Jorge Lorenzo, the Spaniard explained. "Today we tried again the semi-new bike," Lorenzo said. "For the moment it doesn't work better than the current one. And many little things, the same things than yesterday to be really sure of the way the engineers must follow for the new bike. Apart from that, it has been an interesting day for my side, for my riding style, because I understood certain things that will help me to take more profit of the current bike until we will have a bike that turns better in the corners."
A completely new bike is expected at the Sepang test, but the preparation work continues. The main focus of a new bike is turning, and Jorge Lorenzo is willing to sacrifice top end in order to achieve it. "I already did with the new fairing. So I am one of the riders who believes that you make more of the time in the corners than in the straights. So I'm prepared for it, but it's also a compromise," Lorenzo said.
Jack Miller had been very happy to switch to Ducati from Honda, but the fate of Scott Redding was less positive. The Englishman had gone from the Pramac Ducati – the seat now vacated by Redding and filled by Miller – to the factory Aprilia in the Gresini team. It was a difference of night and day, and fraught with complications, Redding said.
Careful what you ask for
"I expected it a little bit easier than the Ducati," Redding said, "but it was, not more difficult, but the engine style and chassis style was quite a lot different. Like when I went from the Honda to the Ducati, they were sort of similar, in a way, but it was easier when I went to Ducati. Now it's like the characteristic of the engine is coming back. So that's one thing I feel we need to work on for the future, but in general, the feeling with the bike is good."
The way the bike needed to be attacked was both very strange and very unnatural, Redding said. "The bike struggles more with the front load, so you have to override it a lot yourself with the rear brake to do that," Redding said. "And that's something we want to work on to improve. I didn't try too much. At first I said, oh, the bike's really stiff, it's aggressive, so we changed some things, made it more agile, the engine more mellow. I came back today, we did this and that, and it's better. So it's just finding the way in the end."
It had given Redding an appreciation of the riding of Aleix Espargaro. "Aleix' riding style, honestly, he's riding it well to make it do what it does," Redding said. "The bike is not naturally doing things it should do, and you need to override it a lot on the brakes. I was doing that, but my level to his level is again another step. So it's just one of those things that you need time to adapt to it and do it."
Redding's hope was that he would go to the test next week at Jerez with an open mind and fresh ideas of how to ride the bike, unencumbered by his previous experience on the Ducati. "I'm pretty sure that having a break, going away, coming back in Jerez, like I went to Ducati, you start on a new track, you don't have those lines in your mind, you have a fresh page to start from. We'll see from there."
Illness thwarts testing
The work for Suzuki was brief, but it provided a solid basis going forward into 2018. Alex Rins and Andrea Iannone had both been struck down with a stomach bug, and been unable to test on Tuesday. There were not alone: some 12 members of the Suzuki team had had similar problems over the course of the weekend. A new chassis and new engine had made a difference, but neither rider had been able to put a lot of laps on the bike.
The teams pack up now, and head south. Some 19 MotoGP bikes are expected to head to Jerez for the private test there. The Repsol Honda team will be absent, as will both the Movistar Yamaha and Monster Tech 3 Yamaha teams. Yamaha will be testing in Sepang at the end of next week, and will be hoping for a mix of conditions. The Yamaha is excellent in grip, but rain would help sort out direction for several different problems. But the weather is one thing the teams can't control.
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