Alex Rins

2017 Qatar MotoGP Test Preview: Last Chance Saloon

The testing season is nearly done. The MotoGP grid assembles in Qatar for three final days of testing, in preparation for the season ahead. Much has already been done, but there is still a lot of work to get through. Every factory, every team, every rider has things they want to try, in the hope of improving their chances in 2017. In most cases, those are just minor details, the nuances and finesses which will give hundredths of a second, not tenths.

But not always. There are always a couple of last-minute gambles to take, big ticket items which need one last decision. At Qatar this year, it is Honda's turn to make a big decision, on which spec of engine to use for the season. They tested one spec at Valencia, then another one at Sepang and Phillip Island, and at a one-day private test at Jerez.

It looks like they have made their decision, to go with the revised big bang engine tested for the first time at Sepang. But the cool air and hard acceleration of Qatar will be the deciding factor. To double check, they will be bringing an extra engine to give to Jack Miller, the Marc VDS Honda rider, who has so far only used the Valencia engine. If the Repsol riders, LCR's Cal Crutchlow, and Jack Miller all agree, then HRC will pull the trigger on their latest engine, and race with it in 2017.

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2017 Phillip Island MotoGP Test Friday Round Up: Two Rivals Arise

On Friday at Phillip Island, shortly after a quarter to four in the afternoon, local time, a new chapter started in the annals of Grand Prix motorcycle racing. Maverick Viñales had just passed the halfway mark of what was supposed to be a full race simulation when Marc Márquez entered the track. The reigning champion latched onto the back of the Movistar Yamaha, following him around the track. After a couple of laps, Viñales lost his patience, and aborted his race simulation.

Viñales was not best pleased. "I don't know what to say, because sure I don’t want to gain nothing, because there is nothing. But it's not normal. You are doing your race simulation. Someone pulls out… you cannot stop. After five laps that he was behind, finally I needed to abort the race simulation. Anyway the track is 4 kilometers. Strange that he was there, where I was."

Márquez played the innocent. "Today there was one run that I go out and I saw that he passed. Then there was some gap, but I was able to recover this gap. Then I followed him two laps and it was interesting to see a different bike." The Repsol Honda rider then commented that he had also followed a Ducati and a Suzuki, to see where they were strong.

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2017 Phillip Island Test Preview: Limited Lessons From A Fast Track

MotoGP is heading down under. After the initial excitement of the first test of 2017 at Sepang, the atmosphere at Phillip Island is a little more subdued. The novelty of bikes back on track has worn off a little, and now it's back to the grindstone, the hard work of running through lots of parts and changes and verifying the results found at Sepang.

Phillip Island is a strange place to go testing. It is a truly unique place, like no other. It is a test of rider more than bike, of courage more than technology. The track has a lot of fast flowing corners, very little hard braking, very little hard acceleration. What you learn from testing at Phillip Island is how stable the bike is in very fast corners, how well it wants to change direction at high speed, and how good you are at making your tires last.

That last reason is the real benefit to testing at Phillip Island. It is above all a chance for Michelin to put their tires through some serious punishment, and one of the main reasons for testing there. The series went from having two tests at Sepang in February to a test in Malaysia and then Australia in 2015, in response to the disastrous race in 2013, when Bridgestone's tires turned out not to be up to handling the new asphalt. Michelin wanted to be prepared, so tested there in 2015, gathering data to build tires that worked.

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Crunching The Numbers: What The Sepang MotoGP Test Tells Us About Race Pace

What conclusions can we draw from the first MotoGP test of 2017 at Sepang? Well, it's the first test of 2017, and the factories still have the best part of two months to refine their bikes before the season starts in earnest in Qatar. Any conclusions we draw are at risk of crashing headlong into reality at the end of March. But with all that data from the test available, it is hard to resist the temptation to dive into it and read the tea leaves.

To make some sense of the timesheets from Sepang, I examined the lap times of the fastest thirteen riders at the end of Wednesday. The reason for selecting Wednesday was simple: as it was the last day of the test, the riders were all fully up to speed, and the teams were putting together the lessons they had learned on the first two days, selecting the most promising parts to develop going forward.

It was also the day when most of the riders did long runs, especially as conditions allowed it, the weather staying almost completely dry all day. That meant that the riders had a chance to do some long runs, though only Jorge Lorenzo actually ran full race distance in one go.

The reason for selecting the top thirteen riders, rather than doing it for the entire grid, was simple. The top thirteen riders included all of the favorites for the 2017 season (and eight of the top ten from 2016), bikes from five of the six manufacturers now in MotoGP, and two of the four rookies for 2017. It also includes Casey Stoner, Ducati test rider and still one of the fastest men on two wheels.

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2017 Sepang MotoGP Test Round Up, Part 2: Suzuki, Rookies, Aprilia, KTM, And Tire Talk

While Maverick Viñales and Marc Márquez emerged from the Sepang tests as clear favorites, with Valentino Rossi, Dani Pedrosa, and Andrea Dovizioso close behind, Andrea Iannone established himself as a genuine dark horse. The Italian was fastest on Tuesday, and left the test as second quickest behind Viñales.

Iannone has inherited a bike that is already well developed, and Suzuki brought engine upgrades to Sepang which got them even closer to the front. It was telling that Iannone did not spend much time testing parts, but rather focusing on race set up and working on extracting maximum performance from a used tire.

Tires were a bit of a problem for Iannone on the last day of the test. He crashed three times, including once as he was attempting a long run, the front washing out at Turn 1. The issue proved to be a vibration in low speed corners. "I have a small vibration in the slow corners," Iannone said. "In the fast corner the bike is perfect. There is no vibration, no chattering. But in the slow corner, especially in turns four, nine, 14 and the last corner, we have a small vibration at maximum lean angle." That vibration got worse as the tires became more worn.

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2017 Sepang MotoGP Test Preview - Happy Days Are Here Again

In a few hours time, the grandstands at the Sepang International Circuit will echo with the booming assault of MotoGP machines being pushed to their limits. The entire MotoGP grid has assembled for the first test of the preseason, meaning that the 2017 MotoGP season is about to get underway, at last.

That, at least, is the plan. The reality is that the grandstands may echo only to the sporadic rasp of a MotoGP bike being warmed up, and the occasional intrepid test rider being sent out to test conditions. The resurfaced Sepang continues to be plagued by drainage problems, water remaining on the track for a long time. In high humidity, relatively low track temperatures and without the burning tropical sun, the water left by unusually heavy rains is not evaporating. Parts of the track remain wet all day, making it impossible to push the bikes to the limit, and very risky to try.

Suzuki team boss Davide Brivio expressed the concerns shared by most teams. "You never know how many hours you can test, because the track remains wet for a long time. And if it rains a lot in the evening, maybe you have to wait a long time in the morning. So it's a little bit of a question mark now, how much you can test."

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