The last test of the preseason is something of a moment of truth for the MotoGP factories. From the tropical heat of Malaysia and Thailand, the paddock heads to the Arabian peninsula, and cool desert evenings of the Losail International Circuit in Qatar. Air temperatures start in the mid 20s°C rather than the mid 30s°C, and drop into the high teens heading into the evening. That temperature difference means that air density is a couple of percent higher at Qatar. That in turn means more oxygen going into the engine, and better combustion efficiency.
Translating all that from vague engineering platitudes into real-world racing, colder air means more power all the way through the rev range. Engines run better, pick up more aggressively, and pull harder flat out in the cool Qatari evenings than in Sepang's punishing tropical heat. An engine that seemed docile in Sepang suddenly feels aggressive at Losail. An engine which was just about manageable in Thailand is a barely controllable beast in Qatar. And with just two weeks to go before the start of the 2018 MotoGP season, it's too late to fix the problem. Riders are left wrestling a wild bull for the rest of the year.
That, in a nutshell, is the story of Honda's past couple of seasons. Engines which seemed OK at Sepang suddenly turned out to be much tougher to handle at Qatar, and as a consequence, the tighter European tracks, racing on days when air temperatures struggled to get out of the teens. It was the story of Suzuki last year, who woefully misjudged their engine at the beginning of the season, a decision made more difficult by having two new riders on the bike.
Will it happen again? The Qatar test should at least provide a pointer or two to just where each of the factories stand with their engines. Though riders may try to be noncommittal about their engines, not wanting to tip their hands ahead of the upcoming seasons, there may perhaps be clues in their words, or perhaps the consistency of the different riders on the same bike. Testing isn't racing, of course, and the proof of the pudding only comes on Sundays in MotoGP. But we might get a hint.
First, fix the engine
The engine issue is something which the manufacturers have had to learn the hard way since the introduction of an engine development freeze in 2014. It has – surprisingly, perhaps – taken until this season for the factories without concessions (Honda, Ducati, Yamaha) to figure out just how much this affected their development priorities in the preseason. So far, Honda have focused on testing their new engine, and getting the engine mappings right for the spec ECU. They even went so far as to bring two new engines over the winter, one at Valencia, then another at Sepang. They have spent hardly any time at all on the chassis, as they know they have all season to figure that out. First things first.
The other thing that needs figuring out first is the aerodynamic package for the first part of the season. The fairings, too, are frozen, though each rider is allowed one update to the aerodynamic package throughout the season. Consequently, the factories have spent time at both Sepang and Buriram trying to sort through a range of options before trialling what are likely to be their final versions at Qatar.
With two elements of MotoGP racing motorcycle design subject to in-season development freezes, it is hard to escape the conclusion that this is why the factories have cottoned on now. Minds have been concentrated by the hard deadline of the first race, forcing choices to be made.
Getting it right this time
At Honda, the three riders on an HRC contract – the Repsol Honda pairing of Marc Márquez and Dani Pedrosa, and LCR Honda's Cal Crutchlow – will be focusing their energies on the fine-tuning of the new Honda RC213V engine. At Sepang, Márquez and Pedrosa expressed a preference for the newest version of the motor developed over the winter. In Thailand, the HRC trio continued work on getting the engine mapped for the start of the season. At Qatar, they will see if their judgment was correct. The new engine is more powerful, and accelerates harder than last year's model, but is still a little easier to manage. Or so it seemed at Sepang; HRC will hope that still holds true at Qatar.
Meanwhile, Honda will also have to make decisions about aerodynamics. The factory rolled out a first update at Sepang, then a revised version in Buriram. Though Qatar does not have very many tight corners followed by hard acceleration, it should still provide a good measure of which package is better, as the sweeping corners and changes of direction at Losail should give an indication of whether benefits in front-end feel outweigh the extra effort required to change direction.
Ducati's ups and downs
Aerodynamics will also be the main focus for Ducati, as Jorge Lorenzo and Andrea Dovizioso test out the different packages they tried at Sepang and Buriram as well. But in addition to fairings, they have work do to on the chassis. A new chassis in Sepang was a success, making the bike easier to turn and helping on corner entry and corner exit. A second updated followed at Buriram, but there, only Andrea Dovizioso felt it was an improvement. Jorge Lorenzo went back and forth between the new and the old chassis, his miserable form in Thailand sowing doubt in his mind.
That, surely, will be at the forefront of Ducati's testing program. Lorenzo was fastest at Sepang, but in Thailand, he finished twenty second on the last day, and sixteenth overall. The Spaniard went from being nearly two tenths quicker than Dani Pedrosa in Malaysia to finishing nearly a second behind him in Thailand. Ducati badly needs to get that back on track before the season starts in two weeks, and figure out if the problem lies with the bike, or with the rider.
Yamaha development diverges
Yamaha face similar difficulties. Valentino Rossi and Maverick Viñales are capable of finishing on top of the timesheets on one day, then mid-pack the next. The problem at Yamaha at least appears to be a little clearer: there is a problem with the M1, though precisely where that problem lies is another question altogether. For Rossi, the issue is with the electronics and engine management. For Viñales, the key lies hidden somewhere in the chassis.
That has persuaded Yamaha to divide their efforts into two. Rossi will continue to use the 2018 chassis (in reality an updated version of the 2016 chassis), while Viñales may switch back to the 2017 frame. Rossi will work on electronics, while Viñales will try to figure out a way to get the bike to turn and enter the corner the way he wants to.
Yamaha's problems, it seems, are an extreme sensitivity to the interaction between tires, track conditions, and chassis. Once the most adaptable bike on the grid, capable of performing in most conditions, the M1 has become a hypersenstive beast, radically changing its behavior when conditions change. The transformation seems to be linked to both the switch to Michelin tires and the adoption of spec ECU software. Until Yamaha can figure that out, they will likely continue to struggle.
But what about Zarco?
Of course, there is one Yamaha rider who never seems to struggle, no matter what the conditions are. Johann Zarco finished just a tenth behind Valentino Rossi at Sepang, and four tenths faster than Maverick Viñales in Thailand. The Monster Tech3 Yamaha rider seems to have figured out the spec electronics with his wrist, rather than needing the engineers' laptops to sort it out. The key question going forward is how Yamaha treats Zarco now that Tech3 is parting ways with the Japanese factory. Does the support dry up? Or do Yamaha still view Zarco as a way of keeping their bike at the front, even when the Movistar riders are unable to?
Speaking of Tech3, an announcement about the future of the team is expected soon. It is widely expected that the French team will join up with KTM, but lips at both the team and the Austrian factory remained tightly sealed. Whether they can maintain that silence until the launch of the Red Bull KTM MotoGP team in Austria on 12th March, or are badgered into issuing either confirmation or a public denial at the Qatar test is an open question.
More of the same at Suzuki
At Suzuki, both Andrea Iannone and Alex Rins have expressed satisfaction with the new engine of the GSX-RR. It is a better all-round package, and Qatar should merely underline the fact that the pairing have made the right choice. Suzuki's bigger focus will be on deciding on aerodynamics. Alex Rins was very positive about the new package debuted in Thailand, though he crashed quite early on the new fairing and didn't get as much time on it as he might have wanted. Confirmation will be sought at Qatar.
Rins has impressed so far this preseason, finish sixth overall at Sepang, then fifth overall at Buriram. Both times he finished well ahead of his more experienced teammate, a sign of the progress Rins made in the latter part of last season. Rins is proving that the Suzuki GSX-RR is a competitive package. Qatar is the place where Andrea Iannone needs to put everything together and match the pace of his teammate.
For Aprilia, there is not much new to test, beyond aerodynamics, as with the rest of the factories. The final version of the RS-GP engine will only arrive at the first race, though Romano Albesiano told Neil Morrison that the Noale factory had been testing parts of the new engine in Thailand, and hoped to do more at the Qatar test. What Aprilia needs above all is more power, and especially more drive out of corners. The new chassis for this year is already much better. Now they need an engine to match.
Work at KTM is simple: they continue in their quest to close the gap to the leaders to just a few tenths. They are still a fair way behind: over 1.4 seconds at Sepang, over 1.1 seconds in Thailand, proof that there is much work left to do. At least the Austrian factory get Pol Espargaro back: a massive crash at Sepang aggravated an older injury, requiring surgery on a herniated disc. Though Espargaro will probably not be 100% fit at the Qatar test, he will at least get a chance to get back on the bike and up to speed. That is important for him, but also for KTM: Espargaro has consistently been the fastest rider on the RC16.
The Qatar test will be complicated by a couple of other factors as well. With the schedule changing for the race weekend, with the race time moving from 9pm to 7pm local time, practice will take place during the day, and the race and qualifying in early evening. The test, too, starts during the day, at 1pm local time, before finishing at 9pm in the evening. This will draw a huge sigh of relief from the riders: the test previously ran on until 11pm, but dew would start to form on the track sometime after 10pm. That made it treacherous indeed, with riders crashing without warning on a track which suddenly had no grip in some areas.
The new schedule poses some very different challenges for the riders, the teams, and Michelin. Riders start under the blazing desert sun, ride through sunset, then finish up in the cool of the evening. Engineers and crew chiefs have to make sure the bike feels consistent both on a hot track during the day time and cool track in the evening. And Michelin must ensure that its tires can withstand the rigors of the desert daytime, with track temperatures well into the 40s°C and the cool evenings, when temperatures are in the 20s°C.
A further challenge will be posed on the evening of the last day of the test. On the final evening, the track will be covered in water using water trucks, and the riders will all test under wet conditions. The idea is to test whether it is safe to race in the wet under the floodlights, after last year's race was delayed due to rain. The biggest question is neither the tires nor track conditions, but rather visibility under the floodlights. Can the riders see enough with the reflections from the floodlights on a wet track? Trying it out at the test is the best way to get a realistic sense of the problem.
Though the satellite riders will not have the same amount of testing to do as the factory riders, the Qatar test should still offer clues to a few of the more intriguing questions for the 2018 season. Jack Miller has been very impressive on the Pramac Ducati GP17, but can he carry that on in Qatar? Will Taka Nakagami continue to claim the provisional title of Rookie Revelation, or will Moto2 champion Franco Morbidelli start to make inroads on the early domination of the LCR Honda rider? And will Hafizh Syahrin, in his second test on the Monster Tech3 Yamaha, start to make an impression on the rest of the field?
Off the track, too, there could be plenty to interest MotoGP fans and followers. With rider contract announcements starting to come quickly, who will be next? Will Valentino Rossi announce a contract extension? Andrea Dovizioso or Jorge Lorenzo at Ducati? Whither Johann Zarco? Does Suzuki decide to tie up one or more of their riders early?
We will find out soon enough. Testing starts at 1pm local time. There should be much to talk about.
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