So testing is done and dusted – at Qatar, quite literally, once the wind picks up – and the pile of parts each factory brought has been sifted through, approved, or discarded. The factories are as ready as they are ever going to be for the first race in Qatar, at which point the real work starts. Testing will only tell you so much; it is only in the race that the last, most crucial bits of data are revealed: how bikes behave in the slipstream; how aggressive racing lines treat tires in comparison to fast qualifying and testing lines; whether all those fancy new holeshot devices will help anyone to get into the Turn 1 ahead of the pack. Only during the race do factories and riders find out whether the strategy they have chosen to pursue will actually work.
So after three days of the Qatar test, what have we learned? In these notes:
Honda, from catastrophe to optimism courtesy of old bodywork
It had promised to be a spectacular Silly Season in MotoGP this year. With all 22 rider contracts up for renewal at the end of this season, several long months of hard bargaining was expected, resulting in a major shakeup of the grid. Few seats were expected to be left untouched.
Yamaha dealt the first body blow to any major grid shakeup, moving quickly to extend Maverick Viñales' contract through 2022, then moving rookie sensation Fabio Quartararo to race alongside him in the Monster Energy Yamaha team. Valentino Rossi was promised full factory support from Yamaha in a satellite team if he decided to continue racing after 2020 instead of retiring.
Yamaha's hand had been forced by Ducati. The Italian factory had made an aggressive play for both Viñales and Quartararo, and Yamaha had brought the decision on their future plans forward to early January. Yamaha decided to go with youth over experience, and Ducati was left empty-handed.
Next stop Hamamatsu
What can you learn from the Sepang MotoGP test? A lot, and not a lot. The balance of power on the MotoGP grid already seems to have shifted, for all sorts of reasons. The construction used on the 2020 rear Michelin tire is having a major impact on the performance of the bikes, with more grip available in all conditions, and more durability. But because the tire has changed, it will take at least the first part of the season for the factories and riders to figure out how to get the most out of the tire. That means we are likely in for a fair few surprises throughout the year. This could be like 2016 again, some inside Michelin believe.
That doesn't mean that we can share the championship spoils out among the bikes which are ahead at the Sepang test already. The test raised more questions than it answered. It's not so much that factories and riders were sandbagging, more that so much is new this year that most factories are closer to the beginning of their development project than the end. Add in the complication of Marc Márquez coming off his second shoulder surgery in two seasons – and Miguel Oliveira and Taka Nakagami in the same boat – and there are more unknowns than knowns. The balance is likely to shift several times though the 2020 season. Which is good for fans, though it tends to annoy the manufacturers.
In part two of our exclusive interview with Tetsuhiro Kuwata, HRC general manager of Race Operations Management Division, and Shinya Wakabayashi, general manager of Technology Development Division, address the aerodynamic innovations introduced by Ducati at the Qatar MotoGP race in 2019, and the possible effects that can have. They also talked about the challenges of balancing the performance of Marc Márquez with trying to help Jorge Lorenzo to succeed. The HRC bosses also discussed the input Lorenzo had on the development process, and how it was affected by his decision to retire. That leads on to a discussion of what to expect for 2020, for Alex Márquez, alongside brother Marc in the Repsol Honda squad, and for Cal Crutchlow and Takaaki Nakagami in the LCR Honda team.
Q: At the season opener in Qatar, Ducati introduced a swingarm attachment, the so-called “spoon” or swingarm spoiler, and it caused controversy among the manufacturers. Anyway, the fact is that they are very smart in finding loopholes in the regulations. Does HRC read the rule book meticulously like them in order to find something which hasn't been specifically prohibited?
Kuwata: Maybe you can take an approach to check if your good idea infringes on the regulations. And you can also take another approach from the opposite direction, but it makes no sense if you don’t have any objective with that loophole. If you have ten ideas and read the rule book carefully to check how many of them are legal, it will be a persuasive approach. I am guessing maybe Ducati is taking this type of approach. Probably, loopholes don’t come first, but I don’t know.
Q: Does the attachment have an aerodynamic effect?
Kuwata: I guess so, that’s why everyone uses it.
In just a few hours from now, MotoGP bikes will roll out onto the track for the start of the 2020 season. They will do so almost completely out of the public eye (prompting the philosophical question of if an RC213V is fired up at a circuit, and no one is around to hear it, does it make a sound?) as three days of the MotoGP shakedown test gets underway at Sepang.
The shakedown test is a private test, meaning it is closed to the media and public. There is no live timing publicly available from the test, and lap times will be both difficult to come by and probably unreliable, as teams and factories release the times they want to make public (if any), rather than a neutral timing system recording every lap.
Yet this shakedown test is extremely important, for a number of reasons. It is the first test for the brand-new Aprilia RS-GP, designed from the ground up, with a new 90° V4 engine. It sees Jorge Lorenzo make his testing debut for Yamaha, back with the Japanese factory after three years away. And it is a chance for the MotoGP rookies to get a little more track time under their belts.
What conclusions can we draw from the first day of testing for the 2020 season? Not much, other than a lot of factories have brought a lot of new parts. And it really does feel like a lot of new parts, with new chassis for KTM, Yamaha, Honda, Ducati, new engines all round, and a host of other bits and pieces in preparation for the new season. New riders, too, with Brad Binder, Iker Lecuona, and Alex Márquez all moving up to MotoGP for 2020.
It is particularly tempting to jump to early conclusions about the rookies. There is a clear pecking order, an easy way of deciding who is adapting quickly, and who is taking their time. By that measure, Iker Lecuona is the man to beat, the Red Bull Tech3 KTM rider finishing just under 1.5 seconds off the leading gaggle of Yamahas at the test. Brad Binder, in the factory Red Bull KTM team, is just under 2.4 seconds behind quickest rider Fabio Quartararo, while the latest addition to the class, Alex Márquez, was last, 2.7 seconds slower than the Petronas Yamaha rider, and nearly 2.2 seconds slower than his brother Marc.
King of the rookies
Repsol Honda have officially confirmed that Alex Marquez will partner his brother Marc at the Repsol Honda team for next year. It is the first time that a pair of brothers have raced in the same team in MotoGP. There have been other brothers riding in the same class at the same time - Aleix and Pol Espargaro the latest example of that, but never before have brothers raced in the same team in either 500cc or MotoGP.
Marc Marquez has made no secret over the years of his desire to share a team with his brother Alex, Alex being given a test ride on the Repsol Honda as a reward for winning the Moto3 title in 2014. Alex also filled in for the injured Tom Luthi at the test in Jerez in November 2017. There was a belief that Marc would try to bring Alex into the team in 2021, once Jorge Lorenzo's contract ended. But when news of Jorge Lorenzo's retirement broke, an opportunity opened up earlier.
The current field of MotoGP riders may only be less than a season into the first year of their contracts, but the opening salvos of the 2021 season are already being fired. That is a direct consequence of almost the entire grid being on two-year deals, which run through the 2020 season. Every seat on the grid will currently be up for grabs in 2021. And because of that, teams, factories and riders are already starting to explore their options for the next season but one.
This is not something teams are particularly happy about. Team managers will grumble both on and off the record that it is a big gamble choosing riders basically on the basis of their performance two seasons before they are due to ride for you. Fear of missing out on a top rider forces their hand, however, and so teams are already making preliminary approaches about 2021.
The extreme and unusual situation of every single seat being up for grabs means that Moto2 riders are also delaying their plans. Most have only signed 1-year deals for 2020, knowing that so many options are opening up in 2021. Remy Gardner even turned down a chance to move up to MotoGP with KTM for 2020, preferring to wait for 2021 and hope for many more options then.