It was good to get racing underway again in 2022, given everything that has happened over the past couple of years, and what is going on right now in a corner of Europe. If racing is escapism, we had some of best stories of recent years, with plenty to talk about. So here are some initial thoughts after the opening round of the season, before taking a deeper dive later this week.
If it has felt like a long wait for the season to get underway again. And Saturday at Qatar showed us just what we have been missing. A surprising FP3, where eight riders managed to improve their lap times, despite the session taking place in the heat of the day, and the wind having picked up and bringing a dusting of sand to the track. Among those who improved were Enea Bastianini, who jumped up to fifth, threatening Pol Espargaro, Pecco Bagnaia, and Fabio Quartararo. Espargaro and Bagnaia bettered their times, Quartararo did not, setting up another thrilling contest to get out of Q1 and into Q2. If you were looking for drama, you got everything you could have hoped for, and more.
Testing is all well and good, but at last, we have real, actual data from a race track on a bona fide race weekend. All 24 bikes on the track at the same time, trying to figure out as much as possible in two short 45 minute sessions. No running separately, or trying to figure out how the conditions for the 8-lap run done at 11am compare to the 12-lap run at 2pm, or the 7-lap run at 5pm.
The first day at Qatar may have been genuine competition, but the picture was also confused by the schedule. With FP1 at 1:40pm, in the heat of the day, and FP2 shortly after sunset, at 6pm, conditions were completely different, the air temperature 7°C lower, and the track a whole 16°C cooler.
"Well, for sure now it is hard to see who has the better pace than the other because we don’t have the normal day schedule," Miguel Oliveira reflected after the first day."The hour is not that different but for the temperature and the wind it changes quite a lot."
From time to time, when I stray from talking about motorcycle racing to share something political on Twitter, I am told by some random Twitter user to "stick to bikes". What they mean, of course, is that I should not share political opinions or articles they do not agree with, but that's a different question.
Talking about politics is, of course, still "sticking to bikes". Circuits have to be built somewhere. That requires obtaining permission to start construction from some level of government. They have to be funded, with money often being either supplied or backed by some level of government. They need roads to access them: built by government.
The Yamaha M1 and the Suzuki GSX-RR have a lot in common. Both are inline four cylinder machines, and both rely more on corner speed and maneuverability than outright speed. And the riders of both machines have complained about a lack of speed at great length.
So great was Joan Mir's frustration with the Suzuki's lack of power in 2021 that he made a veiled threat to seek solace elsewhere. "A lot of people finish their contracts in 2022 and we are hoping to renew, or to take a different decision," the 2020 world champion said before the test at Sepang. "Honestly, the test will be important for me. It will be important to understand everything. As a Suzuki rider now, I feel great here, I feel like I am at home, but it's true that a change is something that in some moments can be good, also. But at the moment, I cannot speak more about it, because there is nothing decided. But let's see."
In 2021, the Yamaha M1 as the fastest motorcycle around a grand prix race track. The evidence for that is clear: 2021 MotoGP world champion Fabio Quartararo. Quartararo had five race victories, more than anyone else, and five race fastest laps. He also had five pole positions, one less than Pecco Bagnaia.
So the bike was good, despite the chaos elsewhere making it look otherwise. Quartararo was the only constant in 2021. Valentino Rossi never managed to get his head around the new construction rear Michelins, and despite his protestations, was never the same after he returned from his bout with Covid-19. Maverick Viñales won a race, got another podium and a pole, but also finished last, tried to sabotage his engine, and left Yamaha after Austria.
Franco Morbidelli snapped a knee ligament riding a flat track bike, missed much of the season, and was still not fully fit when he returned. And the Petronas team saw a veritable parade of characters taking Morbidelli's place, culminating with Andrea Dovizioso, who is still struggling to adapt to the Yamaha, and to the Michelin rear tire he has never liked.
Leaving the Sepang MotoGP test, all eyes were on Ducati. In part, perhaps, because they had brought yet another technical innovation which is set to upset rival manufacturers, and captured the imagination of fans and media. We were all talking about Ducati's front ride-height device.
That enthusiasm was supported by the fact that there were two Ducatis in the top three after Sepang, and three Ducatis in the top six. Take away the Aprilias (who had had the benefit of extra days riding and testing during the shakedown test), and there were three Ducatis in the top four. Things were looking ominous.
Heading into the Mandalika test, we were expecting that Ducati dominance to continue. Luca Marini setting the fastest time on the second day on the Mooney VR46 Desmosedici GP22 reinforced that idea. And yet by the end of the three-day test, the idea that 2022 would be the year of the Ducati was far less obvious than it had been a week prior.
After three days of testing for the Moto2 and Moto3 classes at Portimão, the 2022 preseason is officially over. It was pretty much over by about 4pm on Monday, with just 10 riders out in the Moto3 class, and even fewer in the Moto2 class. I went for a quick walk around the service road at 5:30pm, and was too late to see the last bike circulate.
That is in itself a sign of how successful this test was for the lightweight and intermediate classes. Three days of outstanding weather, with the wind the biggest issue on the first day, and no disruption for the rest of the test. The teams got pretty much all of the testing done that they needed to.
Unlike a MotoGP test, the amount of technical material to test is limited. In Moto3, engine development is still frozen for another couple of years, although both Honda and KTM had new exhausts obviously aimed at improving engine character. In Moto2, Triumph had brought a new gearbox, which is more race-focused, with a longer first gear and shorter fifth and sixth, making it more of a close-ratio box.
What did we learn from the Mandalika test? First of all, we learned that building a circuit is hard, and every aspect of it needs to be carefully monitored. Because using the wrong stones in the aggregate for the asphalt can mean you have to resurface the track just a few weeks before the race is due to be held.
Despite the state of the asphalt, once the track cleaned up – something the riders had to be bullied into to doing, even though it was for their own good – the riders put in a lot of laps, the reward for effort going to Takaaki Nakagami, who racked up a grand total of 91 laps on the final day, or over 390km. Spend 390km on a motorcycle at road legal(ish) speeds, and you'll know about it. Spend the same distance on a MotoGP bike, pushing at the effort and intensity levels required for testing to be useful, and you enter a very different level of pain and discomfort. As made plain by LCR Honda team boss Lucio Cecchinello's photo of Nakagami's blistered hands on Instagram.
You could tell testing was underway in earnest at Mandalika on Saturday by the fact that for most of the day, Brad Binder's name was stuck at the top of the timesheets. The time Binder set was already well under Pol Espargaro's best time from Friday, hitting a 1'31.814 on his third exit from the pits. But nobody followed suit until the final hour or so of the test, with Luca Marini eventually ending up fastest with a lap of 1'31.289. The teams and riders were too busy with the hard graft of testing, optimizing parts and refining setup, figuring out the best base with which to launch their assault on the 2022 MotoGP championship at Qatar in three weeks' time.
A day of riding had made a huge difference to the track surface, with a clean line with high grip appearing. Off line, the track was still filthy, and quite dangerous – Raul Fernandez took a very big tumble and was wandering round on Saturday afternoon with bruises on his face from the impact, and one of Marc Marquez' practice starts ended in a massive fishtail with a lot of sideways motion and not much forward momentum.