Qatar is a tough place to test. First, there's the timing. The track is open between 4pm and 11pm, giving a full seven hours of track time. In theory, that is. In practice, the first two hours are pretty much unusable, as track temperatures are much higher during daylight than after the sun sets. The final hour is a risky proposition, as the moisture in the air tends to settle at some point after 10pm, forming dew on the track. The dew is as good as invisible, yet it drastically reduces grip. Crashes start to happen without warning, and at high speed.
Then there's the sand. The first day of testing is usually more about cleaning the track than setting times, as the dust blows in from the desert to the west. It is better than it was: much of the construction in the area has now been completed, making the sand on the track just a smattering, rather than a full four-ply coating.
Effectively, there are four hours of usable track time, and a little less on the first day of the test. For the first two hours of the Qatar test, only the official test riders present at the track were actually circulating, putting laps on bikes and creating a clean line. The official MotoGP riders were left to act the vampire, only venturing out once the sun removed its deadly rays from Arabian skies.
Chief among the lost boys turned out to be Jorge Lorenzo once again. The Spaniard dominated at Sepang, was lost at Phillip Island, but was back at the front again in Qatar. The Movistar Yamaha ran long strings of 1'56 laps, dipped into the 1'55s almost at will, and ended the day over four tenths quicker than anyone else. Lorenzo felt much more comfortable with the Michelin tires than he had in Phillip Island, something he put down to the Losail track being more like Sepang.
He was still working on his riding style to adapt to the Michelins and spec electronics, but was comfortably faster than the rest, over sustained periods. New tires and new electronics meant that riding was much more physically demanding, Lorenzo said, and this could throw up surprises here and there. If the race were to be run tomorrow, Lorenzo told the press, it would look very different than it had over the past four or five years. The smoother a rider was, the better he would get on with the new regulations, the Spaniard opined.
The Fifth Alien?
Maverick Viñales looks like just such a rider. The Suzuki rider was quick at Phillip Island – fastest overall, in fact – bringing hope to a host of Suzuki fans around the world. The question was whether his quick time in Australia was just a result of the Spaniard liking the track, or of him being genuinely quick. Viñales gave his answer on the first day at Qatar, ending as second fastest, four tenths behind Lorenzo, and a hundredth or so ahead of Lorenzo's Movistar Yamaha teammate Valentino Rossi.
What made this even more impressive is that Viñales did not use the fully seamless gearbox currently being tested by Suzuki test rider Takuya Tsuda. Viñales and ECSTAR Suzuki teammate Aleix Espargaro are due to get that for the first time on Thursday, the seamless downshifts making corner entry even better. Viñales' stock in MotoGP is rising, and he is looking more and more like a podium candidate with every test.
Rossi fast and consistent
The teammates of the top two had contrasting outcomes. Valentino Rossi has another strong outing, ending up third behind Viñales, and again laying down a strong and consistently fast pace. Rossi told the press he was already in "race mode", working on the final details of bike set up, having chosen to ride the hybrid bike rather than the 2016 bike. With two identical machines in the garage, Rossi is working toward the season opener in two weeks time, rather than spending a lot of time testing parts.
Having two identical bikes in the garage was a big help at the start of the day, after Rossi crashed on his out lap. It was entirely his own fault, he told the press. He has fallen in Turn 10, using too much lean angle before the tires were warm, and paying the price. Fortunately, at just 70 km/h, the price was pretty low, both Rossi and his bike escaping almost entirely unharmed.
Tires and the dew point
Rossi's crash is indicative of one way the Michelins are different from the Bridgestones of previous years. The French rubber takes a little longer to warm up, meaning riders can't go flat out as soon as they exit the pits. That has been a strength of Jorge Lorenzo in the past, and seeing how he manages this on a race weekend will be key.
While Rossi was fast and consistent like his teammate Lorenzo, Aleix Espargaro could get nowhere near his teammate Viñales, the Spaniard ending the day in eleventh, 1.1 seconds behind Lorenzo and seven tenths behind his teammate. Espargaro had been working on fixing the problems he had found at Phillip Island, and was making progress when he crashed, briefly causing the session to be red-flagged. Track humidity caused the Spaniard to highside after putting a new tire on, a typical result of the dew forming on the ground. That cost Espargaro the rest of the test, more or less, and left him with a very sore back.
Factory Ducati back on top
For the first time this preseason, a factory Ducati rider finally led the satellite Ducatis. Andrea Iannone put in a quick lap towards the end of the test, to put himself ahead of Hector Barbera, Scott Redding and his teammate Andrea Dovizioso. Ducati are trying a new frame at Qatar, with a modified attachment for the rear shock, much more like the frame of the GP15. The feeling of the two chassis were very similar, both Dovizioso and Iannone said, Dovizioso having a slight preference for the original GP16 chassis. Iannone wanted to spend more time trying to understand the differences before making a final choice.
If four Ducatis in the top seven were good news, two Hondas in eighth and tenth were less encouraging, especially given that LCR Honda man Cal Crutchlow was the fastest RC213V. The Englishman now has the same engine as the factory riders, and Crutchlow was pleased with the progress so far. The limiting factor for both him and Repsol Honda's Marc Márquez is the performance of the front tire. The strength of the Honda has always been in braking and turning the bike on the front tire, but the Michelin does not reward this behavior. Where Yamahas, Suzukis and Ducatis can carry corner speed, the Honda has not been designed that way.
Deja vu for HRC?
Adding to Marc Márquez' woes were recurring problems with acceleration. RC213V still lacks rear grip, and mid corner to corner exit is where he is struggling. The problems are eerily reminiscent of the issues in 2015, when it became apparent at the Qatar test that the Honda would struggle out of corners. It took half a season to fix that problem, and both Márquez and Dani Pedrosa – a lowly thirteenth – said they needed to fix the chassis, to get the bike to turn, carry more corner speed, and generate more traction on exit. If they can't find a solution, it could be another long year.
A plague of strakes
One direction HRC seemed to be pursuing was in aerodynamics, with the Honda suddenly sprouting a pair of wings. Located in a similar spot to both the Yamaha and Ducati – at the bottom of the nose, on either side of the fairing – Honda's wings were much smaller, and angled much more steeply. Only Hiroshi Aoyama gave them an outing, though, affixed to the front of Márquez' RC213V. We shall only know whether Honda have been convinced if they appear in the hands of the factory men. That did not happen on Wednesday.
While the RC213V was sprouting winglets – in an act of further madness, they were also appearing on the Mahindra MGP03 Moto3 bike at Jerez – the 2016 Ducati Desmosedici GP was shedding its wings. The lower winglets have disappeared entirely from the factory machines at Qatar, with only the upper set still remaining on the bikes.
Are winglets – or strakes, or whatever you want to call them – here to stay? If Honda are trying them, then MotoGP could be on the verge of an explosion in costs. Aerodynamics is an area where more spending brings bigger rewards, as a factory can throw more and more resources at seeking marginal gains. More money buys more computer time, more programmers and more time spent on computational fluid dynamics modeling. As F1 has found to its cost, it is an arms race you cannot afford to ignore, making it basically a bottomless money pit. And as the richest factory by an order of magnitude, no one can afford to compete with Honda on spending.
Whether they will be banned remains to be seen. Sentiment among some of those involved in rule making is that it is good to see MotoGP generating real innovation, with R&D possibly making its way into the real world. But they fear the money pit aero may become, especially after Dorna have been so successful in reining in costs over the past few years. But as a designer involved in F1 once told me, factories will spend the budget they can get out of their boards, regardless of the technical regulations. Whenever rules are tweaked to prevent spending in one particular area, all the money that frees up is merely thrown at another problem. That is the basic dilemma facing any technology-based sport, and it is a deeply intractable one.
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