Records were smashed on Wednesday, and it didn't mean a thing, other than that MotoGP riders can be pretty quick on a motorbike. But that we already knew.
First, Fabio Quartararo took over a tenth off the outright circuit record set by Marc Márquez during FP2 at the 2019 MotoGP round, the Monster Energy Yamaha rider posting a 1'53.263 to Márquez' 1'53.380. Then, on his last lap of the day, Jack Miller powered his Ducati to a lap of 1'53.183, just shy of two tenths faster than Márquez' best lap.
Earlier in the day, Johann Zarco had broken Marc Márquez' top speed record, being clocked through the speed trap at the end of the straight at 352.9 km/h, 0.9 km/h better than the Repsol Honda during the 2019 race.
Does this mean that Jack Miller will beat Fabio Quartararo after the Frenchman starts from pole, by exploiting the speed of his Ducati GP21 down the front straight? I mean, it could happen. It's definitely one of the many possible ways the season opener plays out when MotoGP 2021 gets underway on March 28th. But what happened on Wednesday, 10th March is not a reliable indication of anything.
It's only testing
Why can't we read too much into it? It's the first day of a three-day test, where riders and factories are all working on different programs and schedules. Some riders put in a fresh tire for a time attack, others didn't bother. Some were focusing on long runs, some were testing aerodynamic packages, chassis, swingarms. Some were working on riding technique, or particular weaknesses or adaptations of their own.
Above all, conditions to go faster were absolutely ideal. The temperature was right, the wind which had whipped around the circuit over the weekend had all but disappeared, and there was three days worth of Michelin rubber on the track. That rubber was unsullied by the Dunlop-shod Moto2 machines which are the bane of so many MotoGP riders, who suddenly find the track feeling very different indeed on Sunday, racing after the Moto2 bikes have smeared their rubber all over the track surface.
Even Jack Miller, fresh from setting his record-breaking lap, kept it all in perspective. "I think that's the most I can do with the times today," the Ducati Lenovo Team rider told us." You can't ask for better conditions here in Qatar because there was no wind today, there hasn't been much wind since the last test here, so there's not been any sand blown onto the track. The track is clean, the temperature was good today and the humidity was around 60% which is really low for the night here. It was a perfect storm for setting fast times."
The conditions were no guide for the race, Miller explained. "The lap times in testing, especially in race pace, always look special. If I was to look at my race pace today I'd win the race by 15 seconds but there's a lot of factors that you don't get in tests which are there in the race. There's no Dunlop rubber down from the Moto2 race, the track conditions at the time, there's a lot less rubber laid down."
"I don't think we can take too much from the race pace at a test and we have to wait for the race weekend," the Australian told us. "It's been a long time since we've had a race, it's been a long time since we raced on the Dunlop rubber so we're just trying to focus on being ready for most situations. Here in Qatar it always seems most bikes work well here and the Grand Prix is always very close with lots of manufacturers involved so that would mean that it's only when we leave Qatar and go somewhere no one has tested that we'll get the real understanding of how everything will go."
Alex Márquez, who had not tried a time attack and had set his fastest lap in the middle of a long run of half race distance, was wryly cynical about the lap times set. "I thought today there was some BMW to be won. Everyone was pushing on the limit," the LCR Honda said, with more than a hint of sarcasm. "But there wasn’t. Today we all go to sleep with the same points in the championship, which is zero."
If you pore over the analysis PDFs containing every lap of every rider in an attempt to understand the kind of pace being set during the test (don't worry, you don't have to, because Jonathan Rea's ex-crew chief and all-round brainiac Chris Pike has already done that for you), then you can get a sense of who is strong and who isn't.
The Yamahas look good, Maverick Viñales and Fabio Quartararo showing very strong pace, with Franco Morbidelli not far behind. It's a more mixed bag behind the Yamaha top three, with only a few hundredths separating Pramac Ducati's Johann Zarco, Repsol Honda's Pol Espargaro, Gresini Aprilia's Aleix Espargaro, and Ducati Lenovo rider Jack Miller.
Programs may vary
Here too, the same caveats apply. We don't know who was testing what, who was concentrating on race pace, or concentrating on evaluating parts, electronics, setup, and focusing more on feel than on outright lap times. Red Bull KTM rider Miguel Oliveira hammered that home when I asked him if he was worried about the relatively poor pace of the KTM riders – Oliveira ended the day in twelfth, and best KTM – or if it was too early. He gave me a withering look, and replied "If it's Saturday night, then yes, I'll be worried. But not yet." I had been put in my place, even over through a remote screen via a zoom call thousands of kilometers away.
Oliveira has a point. There were plenty of new parts being tested up and down the pit lane. Ducati continued work on their 2021 aerodynamic package, which as met with the approval of the riders so far. Honda had three different fairings on various bikes, in an attempt to avoid the disaster of last year, when they brought one aero package and were forced to abandon it on the final day of the Qatar test. New frames were being tried by Yamaha, Suzuki, and others.
Suzuki had been left with a pile of work after the first test, Joan Mir explained. "To be honest with you, all of these days we were trying a lot of things that only one of ten probably works!" the reigning world champion said. "This is always difficult, to have a good package on the bike and to make laps and laps and to change small things and then to work on the performance. This is what we will do for the next two days, so probably we will build more speed and also regarding the lap times we will try to improve the fast lap times."
With better conditions, more laps under their belts, and more data to understand what was going on, the riders had a better idea of how some of those new parts were functioning. "Since I put the new fairing on I've barely taken it off," Jack Miller said of Ducati's new fairing with ducts on the lower half of the fairing. "At the start of today I did a run on my second bike with last year's fairing and then I stayed on the new fairing for the rest of the day. I'm happy with it and I think all the other guys are happy too so there must be something to it. It must be working."
.@stefanbradl ha portato in pista una nuova carena con la quale è caduto in curva 2 nel corso del suo run
Gli aggiornamenti ➡ https://t.co/4J7XMoTFwo#SkyMotori #MotoGP #SkyMotoGP pic.twitter.com/rblaiMxpVj
— Sky Sport MotoGP (@SkySportMotoGP) March 10, 2021
Honda are also experimenting with aerodynamics, comparing two different packages against the 2020 package. The new aero spent most of its time on Stefan Bradl's machine, the other Honda riders currently focusing on choosing a chassis. Supplies are already limited, as riders crash and damage fairings and other parts on the bike.
"You cannot crash with the new items because the last day of the test I had a crash on the new fairings and I destroyed everything," LCR Honda rider Takaaki Nakagami told us. "So I apologized to HRC. This time with the new chassis I cannot crash any more. Sometimes it's difficult to make the balance, sometimes push to find the limit but you cannot crash and destroy the new parts. A bit stress. Some areas I cannot push more than 90%. But this is testing and we need to develop the bike."
— Sky Sport MotoGP (@SkySportMotoGP) March 10, 2021
Yamaha also had a new fairing, a modification of their existing package aimed at producing more top speed. It worked: Valentino Rossi found himself in among the Hondas, KTMs, and Aprilias using the new fairing, while the other Yamaha riders languished at the bottom of the speed charts.
"Today I tried some different things for the aerodynamics, like the the new fairing, and it's beautiful," Rossi told us. "We improved a lot the top speed. This is positive, even if Ducati are still like 10 km/h faster, but also we improve a lot." Where the top speed reached by the other Yamahas stopped at 339.6 km/h, Rossi was over 4 km/h faster, at 343.9 km/h, and consistently over 340. That should be enough to stay in the slipstream of most every other bike on the grid, or at least not lose too much when following.
Fun with frames
Rossi was much more positive with the 2021 chassis now that the track condition had improved. "The new chassis is better, because we have better turning, because unfortunately with the 2020 chassis we lose some turning," the Petronas Yamaha SRT rider said. "This one is better from this point of view. It's not the same the 2019 chassis, but anyway it's more close and also has some other good points."
Rossi had also gotten a better feel for the tires, and the added grip he found had been a boost for his confidence. Along with the fact that the new parts Yamaha had brought appeared to be working, that gave Rossi hope. "It's all together," he said. "Especially when you try good stuff, the better stuff, is better also for the motivation. Because finding the right motivation and the right concentration in a long day in the test is not easy. And also physically I feel better after the first test."
Fabio Quartararo, the man who took Rossi's place in the factory Yamaha squad, was also more positive about the new frame. "Yes, the 2021 chassis feels good and for sure we can make another small step forward," the Frenchman said, before adding, "but I hope that Jack does not make one more step because he is already really fast." It was Miller's flying lap that had pushed Quartararo down to second at the end of the day. "But it looks like we can have a really great potential to fight for great results in the race."
Maverick Viñales also tested the new chassis, but he was still mostly focused on his own weaknesses. At the start of the session, Viñales was in and out of the pits, doing a practice start, doing an out lap, then coming back in to pit lane, and doing another practice start. He racked up a total of 15 practice starts in the first couple of hours of the test.
It was a smart and useful application of his time. With the test starting at 2pm, those first couple of hours are nothing like the conditions he will find during the race. Better to use them to work on his glaring weakness, in the hope of improving.
"We need to improve the starts," Viñales said bluntly. "So we used the first two hours of the day to make starts. We’ll see. Tomorrow we will try different set up to see if we can improve. We put one time, zero to 100 and we need to complete that before the test ends, so we have a big job to do."
That meant figuring out hardware as well as the wetware between Viñales' ears. "We are trying some different setups on the clutch, because by riding alone it’s difficult to improve because we’re at the maximum," the Spaniard said. "So now we’re going to make a different set up for the clutch. The guys are working very hard because they know this is the key for this season. We are trying to improve the starts. It’s very important for us. I think it’s the key to make good races: start first or second, max."
The lack of top speed forced them into that strategy, Viñales explained. "We can't change the engine. On the top speed we are at the back, as we know. But we need to be better on the start and on the first laps. Our race has to be first or second on the first laps and push like hell. This is our main objective, to make a really incredible time attack in quali, make a good start and go. We don’t have other opportunities. We have to push really hard on Saturday and then make a good start on Sunday."
The one rider who caught everyone's attention was Pol Espargaro. The newly hired Repsol Honda rider was adapting much more quickly to the RC213V than many of his rivals had expected. "For me he's been the real standout of this test," Jack Miller said. "He's had the most work of anyone because he's swapped manufacturers after being on the KTM for many years. With the KTM having a steel chassis it must mean that the characteristics are completely different to the Honda. I think he's adapted to it very well and put in some fantastic lap times and good pace."
That had been the biggest surprise, the Australian said. "It's been a good surprise because not everyone has adapted to the Honda but we all thought Pol has that aggressive riding style and if anyone could adapt to the Honda it would be him. He's riding well, he hasn't crashed so it's all looking good for him. He's, like me, still looking for a dry race victory so I think that we're both just as keen as each other."
Honda stablemate Takaaki Nakagami had been confident Espargaro could make the transition to the Honda very well. "I knew that Pol can adapt very soon with the Honda because his riding style is an aggressive style," the Japanese rider said. "It looks day by day that he is going faster. It's of course good to see, it means the Honda bike is pretty competitive."
Espargaro himself remained rather modest about his progress so far. He still didn't feel like the Honda was his bike at this point, he told us. "Not yet. It's true that the progression I feel at the moment is faster than I expect, and it's coming, I would not say easy, because to make these laps you have to put a lot of effort. But yeah, it's coming I would say more naturally than what I expected."
A new track every lap
Getting familiar with Honda came with added complications, Espargaro explained. "We can show we are fast in one lap, but still to be this far it means I have a lot to learn about the limits of the bike. Even if the lap time is fast, I think in the fast lap I left a couple of tenths, because every time I am faster."
The rate of progress meant having to relearn the track every time he figured out where he could gain time, precisely because he was going so much faster. "I'm not a little bit faster, I'm eight tenths faster than the last day. So it means that all the reference points change completely," Espargaro explained. Braking points from the previous day were suddenly pointless, as he was arriving at each corner that much faster. "So every time I go this fast in this lap time, I go wide somewhere, I don't open the throttle as I should, I get nervous during the lap, I make mistakes. It means a lot has to be improved,"
"The most important for me is the consistency is massively better than the one-lap pace," the Repsol Honda rider said. "So this I am very happy about, because it's something I was really looking for, to feel comfortable in the race pace, and this at the moment is coming better than one lap time."
Getting closer to being comfortable at race pace meant he could shift his focus away from just working on his riding and start to think how to get more from the bike. "Until today, I was testing myself, and today we started with working with a couple of things, just playing up and down with some electronics. It's the first day that at the middle of the day we were trying different stuff on the bike," Espargaro said.
That familiarity gave him confidence going into the first race, knowing that he had a better understanding of the bike and where its limits lay. "I'm very happy about that, because what I was most worried about is to not be ready in the first race knowing the front, going into the first race knowing that in whatever moment the front can close, and to not know the limit of the front."
He had started to reach that limit, Espargaro said. "I think today was the first day where I made some laps on the limit, and I think I felt the front limit on the stopping in the straight braking. Still on the edge I'm feeling I need more corner speed, because I'm still not hitting the limit. But going straight into the corner, I felt it sometimes closing which is very good, because this is the limit and I did not crash. So it looks like I'm more or less controlling this situation."
Pol Espargaro was the only Honda rider not to have crashed, both Alex Márquez and Takaaki Nakagami having stacked the bike in the previous test, and Stefan Bradl being forced to stop prematurely after a crash that left him feeling dizzy. But he knew that crash was coming, and the thought of that crash was stressful. Part of learning where the limit is was overstepping it, and waiting for the pain was tough mentally.
Grit your teeth and hope for the best
"It's stressful," Espargaro said. "It's so stressful, especially in the hot laps. In the race pace I feel much more relaxed and I don't get tired and all those things, because as you are controlling the situation, you are less nervous, less tight on the bike, and you just flow a little bit more. But on those hot laps, still I don't know if the rear is going to launch me, or the front is going to close, or what is really going to happen. This is where I'm trying to find the limits."
His best lap time had been done with that feeling of fear in the pit of his stomach, Espargaro said. "This lap time, today I did 1'53.8, which is so fast, I didn't expect to be as fast as I am now. And in that moment, in that hot lap, a lot of places, I feel on the limit, I don't know how the bike is going to react." He had been pleasantly surprised at how the RC213V had reacted. "But at the moment, the bike stays quite smooth, more than I expected, and I can control the situation. I don't know tomorrow if I can raise up the level, what's going to happen, but at the moment, the bike allows it."
Taking all this into account meant he took the praise heaped on him by Jack Miller with a pinch of salt. A test was a very different environment from a race, the relaxed atmosphere where nothing is at stake the polar opposite of the pressure cooker of a race weekend. "I don't feel ready to win yet. Because now we are at a test where everyone can push to the limit, and if you crash, nothing happens. You don't lose anything," Espargaro said.
Testing is not racing
The risk equation was totally different on a race weekend. "In the race, especially in the qualifying or even in the free practice, you cannot push much because you have a number of tires which you cannot waste easily. So you need to really be careful and pay so much attention, much more than now. Now it's like freedom, a playground, you can do whatever you want and it's no stress, no pressure. When you play without all this, everything is much easier. So I want to see myself after two more days of testing that I feel I really need."
Pol Espargaro, along with the rest of the grid, have two more days of testing in which to get through their program of work and prepare for that season opener in just over two weeks time. The first day of the test may be fairly meaningless, given how comparisons between riders are so hard to make. But by Friday, when everyone has done their race runs and their time attacks, we should have a much better idea of where everyone stands. Wednesday is not a day for conclusions. Friday, on the other hand …
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