If Monday was a busy day for the riders at the test, Tuesday was the opposite. The weather meant everyone got out early, then mostly sat about not doing very much, hoping that it would either rain properly, so they could get some wet testing in, or dry up, so they could continue their testing program. But with no wind and overcast skies, it did neither. The track was damp and patchy.
A few riders ventured out, especially when the track was still fully wet. The rookies used the wet track to get used to the feel of the Michelin wet tires, and riding in the rain on a MotoGP bike. And the factories with new engines to test put in a few laps in the wet, to see how the engine responded on a wet track.
For the rookies, the difference between the MotoGP Michelin tires and the Moto2 Dunlops was difficult to comprehend. "The tires are amazing," Red Bull KTM Tech3 rider Iker Lecuona said. "It's possible to brake at the same point as in dry conditions. It's possible to use a lot of lean angle, to open the throttle, to brake late. So in general, it's much better compared to the Moto2 tire."
For Brad Binder in the factory team, the whole experience had been just a little bit mind-boggling. "MotoGP is way nicer," the South African told us. "Surprisingly enough. I suppose you’ve just got the traction control, it's like a buffer so it makes life a lot easier. You feel the conditions a lot more. And the tires are next level. It's incredible the amount of lean angle you use and just the grip is crazy. I think I'm nowhere near at the point where I can say that's maybe the limit!"
The factories with a new engine also put them through their paces on a wet track, though they were careful to minimize their risk. Alex Rins did 11 laps in the wet on the Suzuki GSX-RR, to test how the engine handled in the wet, while all four Yamaha riders took the new version of the Yamaha M1 engine out, the factory riders having a slightly newer version than the Petronas Yamaha riders. Valentino Rossi spent longest out in the wet, putting 17 laps in on a damp track.
Though the overall impression of the Yamaha engine in the wet was positive, the mixed conditions made it hard to tell. "I made five laps just to check if the engine was working well or if there were some problems," Fabio Quartararo told us. "We made five laps and then we saw that the track was not wet and not dry. It was not necessary to ride. We didn’t want to take any risk and do a stupid crash."
Neither the 2020 Honda nor the 2020 Ducati spun any laps in the wet. The Ducati is already a very strong bike in the wet, and the focus of the bike was on the chassis rather than the engine, so for Ducati, it made little sense to take any chances.
It might have been instructive for Marc Márquez to take the Honda RC213V 2020 prototypes out, but we learned earlier in the day that the Repsol Honda rider had suffered a dislocated right shoulder earlier in the season which required surgery, and so he did not feel like taking any chances on a damp track. The last thing he wanted was to make his shoulder worse, and he had already had a big crash on Monday, which had dislocated the shoulder again.
So looking back and summing up, where do the factories stand?
The two big items for Yamaha were the prototype of the 2020 engine, and the first prototype of the chassis. The engine received most of the focus, all four Yamaha riders demanding more power. They all believed it was a step forward, but the problem was that the other factories had made a step forward as well. "Yamaha is working really hard, but today we see again 10 km/h on the top speed compared to Ducati. So we have to work harder," was how Maverick Viñales summed up the general consensus. "The feeling is good. The lap time is there. But again we are on the same thing – if we don’t start first, we get in trouble!"
Yamaha team boss Maio Meregalli explained that Yamaha had been trying to achieve two things with the new engine: to make it smoother, and to get a bit more top power. This iteration had succeeded in the first aim, as well as partially in the second aim. Another step in the engine would come at Sepang, but it would not be significant, just a bit more top end, while trying to maintain the smoother engine character.
Overall, the feeling at Yamaha is positive. "For sure the starting point, the base of this new bike is working," Meregalli said. "But saying that, for sure we still have a lot of work to do for the first race. But when I look at the past, when we tried new items in the last two years, we never reached this point. I can see that it's promising."
The key at Sepang for Yamaha will be whether the updated engine will bring them a little closer to the Hondas and Ducatis in top speed. If the Yamaha can stay with the Honda and Ducati on a fast straight, their riders can attempt to attack on the brakes. Right now, they only have one strategy in the race. The aim is to have at least one more.
Suzuki were focused on their 2020 engine as well, the engine with which test rider Sylvain Guintoli had been disqualified from the first day of free practice at Motegi, after breaking the rules without realizing it. That engine is smoother too, as well has having a little more power. Alex Rins and Joan Mir also tested a new chassis, a little stiffer to cope better under braking, but that came at the cost of sacrificing a little bit of turning.
The million dollar question is whether these updates will turn into a bike with which it is easier to post a quick lap. Weather conditions prevented Rins and Mir from attempting too many flying laps, but the fact that both riders ended in the top five overall after both days suggests that this area is improved, at least.
Ducati had both a new chassis, and a new engine, with the factory riders getting the complete bike, while Jack Miller was left to test the new engine parts. The new engine is smoother and still very fast, rideability the goal for Ducati as well, as part of a program to help the bike turn.
Much of the work in that regard will be done by the new chassis, which Miller, Andrea Dovizioso, and Danilo Petrucci all report is an improvement. It is not the big step that the trio had been hoping for, but it is a clear move in the right direction.
At Sepang, there should be four riders ready to test the next iteration of the Ducati GP20. Pecco Bagnaia should be fit again, having missed both the Valencia and Jerez tests after fracturing his wrist during practice for the Valencia race. The impression you get from the Ducati riders is that Ducati have made a big move in the right direction, without sacrificing their strengths, particularly.
As usual, Honda find themselves in something of a predicament. Marc Márquez was given all of the work to do, as usual, though this time it was in part because HRC needed to make a testing plan around the reigning champion's injured shoulder. With Márquez likely to need the whole of the winter break for rehabilitating his shoulder, he will be limited once he gets to Sepang as well. All of this conditions how and when HRC works for 2020.
Márquez had three bikes at Jerez: a standard 2019 Honda RC213V, and two 2020 prototypes with slightly different chassis. The engine seems to be slightly better, though the engine is also different enough to require a lot of work to set the electronics up. That seems to be where Honda are having problems, with Stefan Bradl, Marc Márquez, and Cal Crutchlow all crashing on the new bikes at Valencia and Jerez.
Honda have also brought two new frames, which lack a rear engine mount, suggesting the factory is chasing a little bit of flexibility, especially on corner entry, to facilitate a better feeling from the front end. With limited running on the bike, it is hard to see just where they stand at the moment.
The 2020 engine is similar enough to the 2019 engine to still require the larger airbox. To improve the air intake, Honda appear to have adopted a headstock which is either very minimal or nonexistent between the upper and lower triple clamps. Stiffness is being sought from the material on the outside of the steering stem, rather than a central column.
This idea is not new. In 2010 and 2011, FTR's Mark Taylor tried to persuade the Moto2 teams to adopt a stemless headstock, which allowed air to flow directly into the airbox, improving top-end power because air pressure in the airbox was both higher and more stable. The Moto2 teams were too conservative to adopt it, but Honda may be just a little bit more willing to take a chance on a new idea.
KTM have been focusing on the new chassis, with the oval tube which more resembles a beam as part of the frame. That frame is a big step forward, especially in its second iteration. The bike is easier to turn, which makes a big difference at Jerez, Pol Espargaro finishing inside the top ten on both days.
Part of the problem for KTM is a lack of continuity, with Johann Zarco gone and two new rookies coming in for 2020. Miguel Oliveira is absent after shoulder surgery, and so all of the testing work is falling on the shoulders of Pol Espargaro. He is ably assisted by Dani Pedrosa, but when Pedrosa was taken ill on Monday with gastroenteritis, Pol Espargaro carries the responsibility for the whole project on his shoulders. What Espargaro needs is for Oliveira to come back relatively fit in Sepang, and for Iker Lecuona and Brad Binder to make a big step forward over the winter.
There was nothing new to test at Aprilia, as well all wait for the brand new RS-GP, on which Aprilia's hopes are resting. That bike is very different, Aleix Espargaro told us on Tuesday morning, during the world's earliest media debrief (held before the track had even opened). The engine will be very different, as will the chassis, though that will not be immediately obvious when the bike is fully clothed, Aleix said.
The bigger factor for Aprilia has been organizational. Massimo Rivola has brought in a raft of new changes to try to improve communication, to make working together better and more efficient. Together with a host of new engineers, Aprilia are tackling 2020 seriously.
"I'm optimistic, was Aleix' verdict. "Looks like we are on the way. Two or three engine guys have arrived, two aerodynamic guys have arrived, another frame guy has arrived. So more than six new people from very competitive places have joined the project, with new ideas. They will help a lot Romano and Romano's team will be a lot stronger. So no excuses."
What can we say about the progress of the rookies? Their positions are quite a long way down the timesheets, Alex Márquez 2 seconds behind Viñales, Lecuona and Binder roughly 2.8 seconds slower than Maverick Viñales. But take Viñales out of the equation, and thinks look much better. Alex is 1.4 seconds off, Lecuona and Binder are just 1.7 seconds behind the fastest rider on their bikes.
But there is still a long way to go. Sepang should be instructive, but we will have to wait until they get a race or two under their belts to get a real sense of where Alex Márquez, Iker Lecuona, and Brad Binder stand.
And so 2019 ends. It has been a long year. 2020 will be longer, but arguably, more exciting. I am already looking forward to it.
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