Far from being a day of rest, on Sunday, the real work of testing began at the Losail International Circuit in Qatar. After a day to wrap their collective heads around the mind-bending speeds which riding a MotoGP bike involves, the riders got down to the work of sifting through the collection of parts the factories have brought in their quest for victory. And in racing, victory only comes through speed.
Questions were raised, and some were answered, though only partially in most cases. That doesn't matter as much as it might at a normal test, of course, because the riders and teams will only be heading back to their hotels for two days, to relax a little, to recover (for the riders), or to dive as deeply as possible into the data to try to learn as many lessons as possible ahead of the next test, which starts on Wednesday.
So what did we learn? A quick run through MotoGP's six manufacturers.
The big question for Yamaha was whether the 2021 chassis was the step forward that the riders had been hoping for. The 2021 chassis is not so much a step forward as half a step back a compromise between last year's frame and the 2019 chassis which Franco Morbidelli used to such good effect in 2020.
Nearly 41% of the MotoGP grid hit the track at the Circuit de Catalunya in Montmelo near Barcelona on Wednesday, as the riders gathered together for what would essentially become the world's fastest track day. Nine MotoGP riders were joined by a handful of stars from Moto2, Moto3, and the WorldSBK paddock to get some track time, all on production machines.
The MotoGP stars on track included the Espargaro brothers, Pol and Aleix, both LCR Honda riders Alex Marquez and Takaaki Nakagami, Ecstar Suzuki riders Joan Mir and Alex Rins, factory Yamaha rider Fabio Quartararo, and the Ducatis of Jack Miller and Johann Zarco. Bikes used included the Ducati Panigale V4S, Yamaha YZF-R1, Suzuki GSX-R1000, Aprilia RSV4, the Honda RC213V-S, and a Honda CBR1000RR-R Fireblade ridden by Repsol Honda rider Pol Espargaro. On track in other classes were Ana Carrasco, Remy Gardner, Raul Fernandez, Tito Rabat, Albert Arenas, and Jaume Masia.
In the last weeks of December, Japan's leading MotoGP journalist Akira Nishimura spoke to two of the key players in Honda's MotoGP project: Honda Racing Corporation General Manager Tetsuhiro Kuwata, and 2020 RC213V development leader Takehiro Koyasu. As a native Japanese speaker, Nishimura-san got more out of the HRC bosses than an English-speaking journalist would. The conversation covered Honda's MotoGP riders, an analysis of their thoroughly mediocre 2020 season, and their expectations for 2021.
In 2020, Honda had to endure a tough season, in contrast to previous years. Needless to say, one of the biggest reasons for that was the absence of Marc Marquez (Repsol Honda Team). His right humerus fracture at the opening round in Jerez sidelined the eight-time world champion for all the races of the 2020 season, a costly loss for HRC.
Meanwhile, Takaaki Nakagami (LCR Honda IEMITSU) made a significant improvement in both riding skills and race results. Also, MotoGP rookie Alex Marquez (Repsol Honda Team) did a fantastic job with two second-place finishes despite it being his debut year in the premier class. On the other hand, the Brit Cal Crutchlow (LCR Honda Castrol) decided to draw his racing career to a close at the end of the year. With these abundant topics for the review of the 2020 season and the preview for the forthcoming 2021 season, we interviewed Honda Racing Corporation General Manager Tetsuhiro Kuwata and 2020 RC213V development leader Takehiro Koyasu.
First of all, we asked them for a comprehensive review and the preview, then moved on to the detailed Q&A with them.
Kuwata: "It is quite simple. We lost entirely throughout the 2020 season. However, we also learned a lot from these defeats, and we believe these hardships will make us even stronger.
2020 was a transformative year for Takaaki Nakagami. His results in his first two seasons in MotoGP had been rather modest, to put it mildly. The LCR Honda rider had looked very much like the token Japanese representative in MotoGP he was suspected of being, a sop to appease Honda, who have long wanted to field a Japanese rider in the premier class.
That all changed in 2020. Nakagami went from being an also-ran to being a constant podium contender, scoring his first pole and front row starts, and matching or beating his best result on four occasions. He was very fast in practice, both over a single lap and in terms of race pace. His zenith came at Aragon 2, where he grabbed pole and led the race for the first few corners, before crashing out.
What brought about this change? After a mediocre first race in Jerez, Nakagami spent a lot of time studying the data of Marc Márquez, and tried to adapt the six-time MotoGP champion's riding style to his own. That proved to be a huge step forward for the LCR Honda rider, and Nakagami ended the season as a serious threat in every race.
After speaking to journalists throughout the year in English, his second language, Nakagami finally gave an interview in his native Japanese to esteemed Japanese journalist Akira Nishimura. In the interview, Nakagami opens up on how he changed his riding style to be more competitive, on how he learned to handle the Honda RC213V, and what HRC did to improve the performance of the bike, including introducing the holeshot device and a shapeshifter.
So here, with Nishimura-san's excellent translation into English, is Takaaki Nakagami in his own words.
Whenever a journalist gets a little too excited over a rider's lap times after FP2, and starts asking them what it means for the race, they inevitably get slapped down with an old racing aphorism. "It's only Friday," riders will say, whether they are at the top of the standings, at the bottom, or somewhere in the middle. Being fast is nice on a Friday, but there is still a long way to go until the riders line up on the grid on Sunday. An awful lot can, and usually does change in the meantime.
That old adage is exponentially true on a Friday at a brand new track where nobody has ridden before. Especially an extraordinary track like Portimao, which snakes all over the Algarve countryside like a roller-coaster hewn into the hills. The track is so different, and so difficult, that there is still a huge amount of work to do before anyone can start to draw conclusions. Add in the fact that Michelin has brought four fronts and four rears (with two different hard tires front and rear), and you have a huge and complex puzzle to solve before Sunday. Two 70-minute sessions on Friday helped, but were still nowhere near enough.
"Well, for sure I think we are not the fastest, but it's only Friday." A common enough refrain after FP2, with another day of practice and qualifying to go before the race on Sunday. But when it is championship leader Joan Mir saying it, on the weekend he could wrap up the title, is it a sign of trouble?
So far, Mir has been remarkably calm and composed under pressure. He has impressed even nine-time world champion and MotoGP legend Valentino Rossi. "Nobody bet on Mir at the beginning of the season, but already in the last races of last season he did a big improvement and also in the winter test he was strong," Rossi told us on Friday evening. "For me he's very mature, it's like he has more experience considering he is a very young rider and it's just the second year in MotoGP and also he did just one season in Moto2. So he's an unbelievable talent, I think. Nobody expected that he can win the championship this year. But I think that if he will win he deserves it 100% because he was the more constant, that this year is very important."
For most of the 2020 Grand Prix season, nobody has wanted to win a championship. Every time someone has taken a lead at one race, they have found ever more creative ways to throw it away at the next. Fabio Quartararo got off to a lightning start, winning the first two races of the season. Then he let his lead slip away, Andrea Dovizioso making inroads into the Petronas Yamaha rider's advantage.
Behind the leaders, Maverick Viñales made a strong charge, then faded away, then came back again with a win at Misano 2. Jack Miller started off strong, had a DNF, then a run of good results and another DNF and has been up and down (literally, in a couple of cases) ever since. Takaaki Nakagami closed in relentlessly by finishing inside the top ten every race, until he crashed out of the lead at Aragon 2.
It was hard to see who was in the driving seat of the championship. Quartararo took back the lead at Barcelona, but hasn't finished any better than eighth since then. Dovizioso has slowly slipped further out of reach, while Maverick Viñales has barely stayed in touch with the top of the championship. Franco Morbidelli has won two races to close the gap, but had some poor finishes and a DNF as well.
Throwing it away
What is the point of free practice? It is to prepare bike, rider, and team (not necessarily in that order) for Sunday's race. On a good weekend, you spend Friday testing your base setup and getting an idea of which tires to use. On Saturday, you refine the setup and check how your preferred tire lasts over something approaching race distance. In warm up on Sunday morning, you might try a final tweak in search of more tire life or a fraction more performance.
The goal of all this is simple: to arrive on the grid on Sunday afternoon with the best possible setup. To eliminate as many unknowns as possible, and provide the rider with the sharpest possible weapon with which to do battle. From that point on, it is up to the rider.
That's the theory. In practice, of course, it rarely runs quite that smoothly. There is always something cropping up that makes the whole process a good deal more complicated than anyone hoped, unexpected obstacles to be overcome along the way.