The day after the Spanish round of MotoGP, the riders were back on track, busting out lap after lap with a lot of work to be done. After 25 laps on Sunday in the punishing heat, almost the entire grid did another three race distances or more on the Monday. Everyone rode, with the exception of Andrea Iannone, who was still suffering with an extremely painful ankle after a crash on Saturday, and Stefan Bradl, who had handed his test bike over to Marc Márquez to turn some laps on.
Conditions were ideal, the track all rubbered in after Sunday's race and the track temperature in the mid-40s, perfect for Jerez. That was both a good thing and a bad thing: riders who wanting to work on something specific, such as corner entry or mid-corner speed, could take full advantage of the grip to understand the finer details of what they were working. Teams and riders who are chasing traction on corner exit, like the factory Yamaha riders, or confidence in low grip conditions, like Jorge Lorenzo were not helped at all. With plenty of grip, it was much harder to work on their problems.
Fabio Quartararo ended the day as fastest, destroying his own pole record by half a second. And it wasn't just a single lap: of the 73 laps the Petronas SRT Yamaha rider put in, 21 were under the 1'38 barrier, 7 of them faster than 1'37.5. As a satellite rider, the Frenchman did not have a whole bunch of things to test, though he did have some forks from Ohlins to try.
There was nothing big, Quartararo said. "It is on the small details, so I tried a new front fork which was really good and some settings, new geometry on the bike, but we found some really good and positive points for the next few races." The Frenchman was very happy with his pace, and felt extremely confident going into his home race.
Confidence and rivalry
Having seen the stress a home race can put on a rider, with the example of Johann Zarco last year, the Petronas team will be shielding him from too much attention at Le Mans. "Now I am feeling really good for it. We made a really good weekend with pole position, fighting for the top places in the race. Today we managed to get more than the fastest lap along with the pace we had on the hard tire so we are working really good. I think I am arriving with top confidence and of course home MotoGP will be really good and the fans will give extra motivation. We know that it is a little bit more stressful but we will manage to be calm at my home GP."
Teammate Franco Morbidelli was third fastest, the Petronas Yamaha clearly quick, the Italian also focusing mainly on setup to improve his feeling with the bike. Morbidelli has a higher spec Yamaha M1 than Quartararo, though the differences are mainly that the Frenchman has 500 RPM less than Morbidelli, and is using older aluminum forks, rather than the factory-spec full carbon fiber Ohlins which the Italian is using.
Intra-team rivalries are fierce, however, even among two such laid-back characters as Quartararo and Morbidelli. When Morbidelli was told by a journalist that Quartararo had a different set of forks to test, the Italian's hackles were raised. Suspicion swept across his face, until we explained that it was just an upgrade on Quartararo's older-spec forks, not an update to factory-spec kit.
Cal Crutchlow was second fastest, but as a satellite rider, he too had little to test other than setting. Crutchlow is trying to find the feeling he had with his 2018 bike, the price of Honda's additional horsepower being a slightly different bike balance, which has sapped confidence in the front.
The problem, it seems, is a lot to do with the much larger volume airbox which feeds more oxygen into the more powerful engine. That has necessitated relocating a lot of parts which previously lived under the tank. The steering damper sits behind the headstock, and a lot of electronics have been shifted out to sit behind the nose of the fairing, along with some hidden under the cover on the left side of the frame. Moving all these parts about changes the bike balance, and getting that feeling back is a complex process.
The new air intake system makes switching back to the old chassis impossible. So one way the LCR Honda team have tried to get back some of the old feeling is by creating a sort of hybrid bike, as Cal Crutchlow described it.
"I still don't get the same feeling as the 2018 chassis, and we need to work on that," Crutchlow said. "But it's not going to come through setting. Unfortunately, we're not on the 2018 chassis as such, we're on something that fits more the 2019 engine, and the feeling is just a little bit different. I don't have the confidence in the front that I had last year, or that Taka has got in his bike. And in the middle of a lot of the fast corners here, Taka is faster than all the Honda riders, and that's because of the chassis he's on."
"I didn't use my full race bike," Crutchlow said. "I didn't use it on Friday either. That can be another thing we have to look at and work on, because we think that one area of the bike is pushing the front even more, where today, I felt a little bit better than that. But overall, the pace was good. I feel fast, I went way under my pole position time, which was 1'36.7, I wanted to take my pole record back, but Quartararo was faster, and that's it. He's also 12 years younger than me! But he's done a great job all weekend, and it's good to see, it's good to see these other guys in the mix. But like we said last night and sat in our meeting, there's 12 guys that can be stood on the podium, and I finished eighth yesterday."
Newer is better
The factory Honda team is looking for more permanent solutions. Marc Márquez took the test bike Stefan Bradl drew so much attention on during the Jerez weekend, which features an aluminum chassis with carbon fiber covers on. Other factories have used this technique to modify the stiffness of parts of the chassis without designing and building a brand new frame, and it looks like HRC are following down this path.
Márquez was positive in his remarks about the frame, playing the usual testing game of trying to camouflage the truth to keep it hidden from journalists, and thereby also rival factories. Márquez' comments would have scored very high points in any MotoGP drinking game – "Some positives, some negatives", "you gain some things, you lose some other things", "racing is a compromise", "we understand some things for the future". All great racing truths, none of them conveying any actual information.
The timesheets were a little more helpful in that regard. "I tried Bradl’s bike because it's a different bike and I just tried to understand that concept. I did two runs. It was positive and I did the best lap time with that bike," Márquez said. Looking at the run where Márquez did his fastest lap, he went out and did four flying laps, a 1'37.657, a 1'37.260, a 1'37.880, and a 1'37.681. Four fast laps, at consistent pace, which suggests the bike has some benefits to offer.
Márquez' pace was very strong during the test. He may not have gotten into the 1'36s, but he did 25 out of 75 laps in the 1'37s. Overall, Márquez looked to have the strongest pace in the test at Jerez. Other than testing Stefan Bradl's prototype bike, the reigning world champion concentrated on corner entry, and especially the engine braking issue which is pushing the front at times.
They made some more progress there on Monday. "On my current bike I was working a lot on corner entry. In that area of the engine brake, that is where we had more problems during the first three races. Here we, I said already in the press conference, that we improved a lot. But still they were some weak points, so we worked there. We found something that was interesting and then just another concept things for the future."
The added grip at Monday's test did not help Jorge Lorenzo work on his weakest point, the feeling with the bike when grip is low. Lorenzo tried another new tank configuration, in search of support under braking. Whether it helped or not is open to question: the Spaniard crashed at Turn 6 – the hardest braking point at the circuit – a point where he was struggling to get the bike stopped and turned in all weekend, as well as in the test.
His test ended after another big crash at Turn 7 at the end of the day. Though he was not seriously injured, the crash took the wind out of his sails, and knocked his confidence. Left feeling very sore, he went back to his hotel before we got a chance to speak to him about his day.
Maverick Viñales ended the test as fifth fastest, though it was also with mixed emotions. The Monster Energy Yamaha team had a very full testing program, but they did not have any major updates to test. It was the hard and painstaking work of going through lots of little changes in search of turning lots of small improvements into much more speed.
"We tested many items but nothing incredible, so we have to keep working to try to find something," Viñales said after the test. "I did a lot of laps on race tires which is not bad. I rode quite good at race distance but anyway we need to keep improving." He also tried Yamaha's new swing arm spoiler, but said he felt no difference.
Some of the updates were hardware, and some were electronics, Valentino Rossi explained, and a lot of it was focused on trying to improve traction and acceleration on corner exit. "We try to improve the rear grip, try to improve the acceleration, we worked on the electronics," Rossi told us. "We don't find nothing fantastic but some small details that we will use in the next races."
The one thing Rossi did do was a longer test with Yamaha's latest aerodynamic package, the double winglets which Maverick Viñales has been using all season. These helped more in preventing wheelie, but that improvement came at the cost of top speed, Rossi said, though he intimated that the compromise was worth it.
"The wings are effective, especially for the wheelie, because during the race especially behind the other bikes I suffer a lot with wheelie," Rossi said. "So we tried the wings and they are not so bad, we can use in the next races. It’s difficult for the top speed, because already the top speed is not fantastic, but it can be an option."
Suzuki also tried an aerodynamic update, though for them, it was their version of the swing arm spoiler. The test of the spoiler was not a great success, however, as Alex Rins ran off into the gravel at Turn 8 and broke the spoiler. "We had a small problem because when we tried, I ran off at Turn 8 and I need to say sorry to the Suzuki guys because I broke it in the gravel!" Rins joked "Then I did two or three more laps with it broken, because I didn't know." The one thing he had learned from testing the spoiler was that it made the bike more unstable when it was broken. Rins is developing a sense of humor.
Suzuki also tested a new swing arm, and both Rins and Mir deemed it a success. "It's a little bit more stable," Rins said. "The swing arm is very similar, but in the acceleration area or in the long corners it is more stable."
Ducati had absolutely nothing new to test, Andrea Dovizioso said, but the test had still be extremely useful. "The setup, I mean during the winter test we had six days this year which is not a lot, and it is not easy to try everything you want, and after some races you can understand something more," Dovizioso said. "It is always important to have a relaxed time like today to test something just to have an idea. Not to improve the bike. You can have a clear idea about the changes you make and the effect it has so you can use in every situation and at every track. Today, most of what we did was that."
The positive point for Dovizioso was that they had not found any huge gains which they could have benefited from during the race. "This means we worked in the right way during the weekend," the Italian said.
Probably the busiest factory at the test were KTM, as usual. That they were testing something major was apparent by the fact that at one point, when Pol Espargaro came into the pits, he was surrounded by a huge crowd of orange shirts listening eagerly to his every word. On Monday night, Espargaro revealed that they had been testing different engine configurations.
"I am pretty happy because KTM have been working a lot during the winter and brought some things that we couldn’t test in Le Mans," Espargaro said. "A little bit in Le Mans and then here, it’s a problem of the first races of the year to start so far away but happy with the result. In some areas on the engine we have improved quite a lot and also in some areas of the chassis. Not unluckily, but we needed to test on the test because we had not so much time during the race weekend, which is normal. Happy with what we are going and the way we are taking."
The benefits were both in chassis and in the different engines, the Spaniard said. "I think it was a balance. We started with chassis and by the end of the day we switched a little bit to the engine, trying different configurations which I cannot explain to you not because I don’t want but because I don’t know how to explain it to you these configurations but all of them are working good and we are happy. But still with the new configurations of the engine we have more room to play with than we have more room to improve, which is good and keeps us a little bit more positive than before."
In search of balance
Some of the improvements were also aimed at helping Johann Zarco feel more comfortable with the bike, and especially to give him more confidence with the front end of the KTM. "I think what we wanted to and what the technicians wanted to give to me was that possibility to feel better in the fast corners and relax myself in the fast corners because I feel the bike can come easier and have easier control into the corner," Zarco explained. "We got something like that. Working on the front of the bike helped me to feel a little more freedom in the fast corner. From that we tried to make improvements with the rear. The front improved another time so we could work a bit more on the rear but there was nothing really we could find this afternoon."
Trying to find improvements at one end of the bike without losing out at the other end was hard, Zarco said. "I think if we have to use the bike at 100 percent, or if the top guys are 100 percent, which is the target, and then we split between front and rear I would say we are now over 50 percent with the front, and having 70 percent using correctly. Now the rear sometimes is acting as the good one but with the step we did with the front maybe we have lost something with the rear that we must find back. The rear wheel is more complicated to control so it’s less than 50 percent, I would say."
Most of the riders also tried a new medium tire for Michelin, using the same compound technology which has been introduced for the soft and the hard tires. The reception was overwhelmingly positive, the tire giving good grip and more consistency.
With the test done, the teams are now all packed up and headed to Le Mans. They get another chance to test after the race in Barcelona, some six weeks from now.
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