Shall we declare Aprilia 2022 MotoGP champions, now that Aleix Espargaro and Maverick Viñales ended the first day of the Sepang MotoGP test in the top two positions? Obviously not. The Aprilias have already had extra time around Sepang, Maverick Viñales spending two days on track during the shakedown test, Aleix Espargaro one day extra. So they were already up to speed and used to riding a MotoGP bike again.
That doesn't mean that Aprilia's speed isn't real. The 2022 bike is a step forward, in part a result of Aprilia changing course after a disappointing Jerez test back in November. A new chassis improved the handling of the bike, the engine is more refined, and the whole is a lot narrower. "It felt like a Moto2 bike," Espargaro said after he had sat on it for the first time at the Aprilia factory. He had spent a long time in the garage after his team had rebuilt the bike after the shakedown test, where he had been alternating between the old and the new bike.
Making the bike narrower was quite an achievement, with a lot of parts to pack into a small area, but the effort had paid off, Espargaro said. "The difference is huge in last year’s bike in this area. From lap one it helps a lot to throw the bike into the corner. The strongest thing of the bike, the best thing is the turning," he told us.
Back to speed
There was another complicating factor in interpreting times. All of the factories have so much work to do that there wasn't much time to chase a single fast lap, especially on the first day of the test. Normally, the riders spend the first day getting their heads around the warp speed at which a MotoGP bike propels itself down the two long straights at Sepang, and the many fast corners around the track. But with just two days at a familiar track, before heading to the unknown territory of Mandalika, there is a lot of work that needs to be done to prepare for the 2022 season.
Some factories also have a lot of stuff to test. Ducati were cycling through different fairings, and matching electronics to the updated version of the new engine they tested last year. They were also working on the new front ride-height system I wrote about in much greater detail earlier today. Suzuki have a new engine, new chassis, new swingarm, and new aero. And of course Honda have a revised version of their brand new 2022 Honda RC213V, which is different pretty much from clipons to tailpipe.
KTM have taken a different tack. Their problem in 2021 was bringing too many parts all year round, and confusing the riders with too many choices. They have taken a very different approach for this year. "Last year we threw a load of different things at it throughout the year," Brad Binder said. "We didn’t find something that was really notably better. I think the guys came with a bit of a different approach for this test. We’re focusing on two or three key elements. And we’ll try to improve those."
Downforce vs speed
One of those elements is aerodynamics, KTM having two different aero packages at the test: a very aggressive and large front wing section, and a slatted louvre section, which looks to have less downforce. Factories are allowed to use two different aero packages during the year, and it makes sense to have a high downforce package for slow tracks, where you are trying to limit wheelie which is costing acceleration, and a low downforce package which gives a bit more wheelie but has less drag and allows for greater top speeds.
That was something Yamaha were working on too. They have a larger wing package for greater downforce as well. "I will not say it's better, I will not say it's worse, but it's a kind of aero that here is not the best track to use it," Fabio Quartararo told us. "Because the goal of this aero was to have less wheelie, but then we lose on top speed because the straights are really long. But for me this kind of aero, we should try it on a track like Jerez, that for me is one of the most important ones."
The cost of bigger aero was top speed, though the price was worth paying at some tracks. "It's a little bit less, but it's normal, because it's bigger, and at the end, we win a little bit in acceleration, but then we lose in top speed. It depends on the track for sure, but we can have two fairings during the year, so of course we can swap."
Back and forth between old and new
The factory Yamaha riders had two different chassis in their garages, a 2021 and a 2022 version. But they had spent most of the day on the 2021 frame, because they couldn't find the right setup for the 2022 version. That, again, was down to the fact that it was the first day testing again, and both Franco Morbidelli and Fabio Quartararo needed time to get up to speed again. Morbidelli, in particular needed to test his knee, after a long recovery process from surgery. The recovery had taken much longer than he had anticipated, but he was happy to be regaining his strength. He felt that he was able to ride the bike more normally again.
Have Yamaha brought more horsepower? "Straight away we have the same horsepower as Ducati!" Quartararo joked. So the answer is no. "Really similar engine," the reigning champion continued more seriously. "Tomorrow we will have a few things to try on the electronics, but to be honest the step is not massive I didn't feel a big difference."
The real news is all at Honda, of course. The new bike is less of a prototype, and more of a complete machine. All four riders spent most of their day on the new bike, with Marc Marquez first doing some laps on the 2021 machine to get back up to speed. His vision had not been a problem, and his right shoulder was holding up well, though being off the bike for so long meant he had not been able to train the muscles which only a MotoGP bike can reach.
The issue for Marc Marquez is that the new bike needs a completely different approach. The bike is aimed at improving rear grip, but that comes at the cost of sacrificing the front, and that was where Marquez had made the difference through his career. But the benefit of more rear grip was clear.
"Immediately I understood that the lap is easier to get with the new bike," Marquez said, after first trying the old bike. "But this creates another problem of course, like always. And one of the things that I must learn and I need to understand is that front feeling, that has changed a lot." He had paid the price for that, with a small tumble at Turn 15 when the front had gone from him. "At the moment, with this new bike, I need to sacrifice that point a bit. Today when I tried this, I lost the front."
But both Marquez and Pol Espargaro were pleased with how much potential the new bike had. Being ready from the first race was a necessity, Espargaro said, but the bike felt good enough that that was possible. The four Honda riders were working a little more closely, the information being shared more freely. That is necessary, because of the sheer amount of work there is to do.
Finally, Suzuki. The smallest Japanese factory had brought a lot of new parts, but despite that, they were in pretty good shape. The engine had more power, the new frame worked well – better in some areas, worse in others, as you might expect – but the basis of the bike was solid, both Joan Mir and Alex Rins said. "One chassis is good on stability in braking, the turning is not that good. The other is the opposite. We have to understand which one has more potential," Mir told us.
The biggest task for Suzuki was adjusting the electronics, sorting out the traction control to get the best out of the new engine and the new chassis. In addition to trying the new aerodynamic package, there is still a lot of work to do. But if this test is crucial for how Joan Mir sees his future, and whether he sees it at Suzuki, Suzuki have got off on the right foot.
Sunday looks like being another very busy day, with the teams and riders trying to get through the mountain of work before the start of the season. With the track in very good shape, and the weather looking favorable, records are likely to tumble. Michelin boss Piero Taramasso was confident of seeing a 1'57 on Sunday, well under the current record. I would not be surprised to see several.
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