It's been a difficult test at Valencia. The weather simply hasn't played ball. Tuesday started wet, took a few hours to dry out, then rain started falling around 3pm, meaning the riders effectively had around two and a half usable hours on track. Rain on Tuesday evening meant the track was wet on Wednesday morning, and in the chill of a November morning, it took a couple of hours before the track dried out enough for the riders to hit the track.
At least it stayed dry and sunny throughout the day, and the last couple of hours saw the best conditions of the test, times dropping until falling temperatures put paid to any thought of improvement. The teams may have lost time, but at least they had a solid four and a half hours of track time to work.
For half the factories, what they were focusing on was engines. Yamaha, Honda, and Suzuki all brought new engines to test, and in the case of Yamaha and Honda, two different specs. Ducati was mainly working with a new chassis, aimed at making the bike turn better. Aprilia had a new engine and a new frame to try. And as usual, KTM had a mountain of parts and ideas to test.
After trying one different spec of engine on Tuesday, Maverick Viñales and Valentino Rossi got a chance to try the second engine spec on Wednesday. The feedback from both Yamaha riders was inconclusive, neither Viñales nor Rossi having a clear favorite. Indeed, both of Yamaha's riders had a great deal of difficulty distinguishing between the two.
"Today, the main issue is to try the second spec," Rossi said. "We have a slightly different engine to understand and we try back-to-back but sincerely not a big difference so I feel very similar. Yesterday was more difference, compared to last year, I mean in the race. But the engine of today is very similar to the engine of yesterday."
Maverick Viñales felt much the same way, though a crash had complicated his evaluation of the engines. "It's very difficult," The Spaniard said. "Just a few laps. After the crash I took a long time. I could not be let's say 100% sure which engine is better, so I think it's better to try in Jerez and try to be more precise. Here was difficult because the track changed quite a lot. Especially in the last few minutes it was very slippery. I'm just curious to see. We didn’t try anything on the setup and I felt there we can make a big step."
Viñales did have a slight preference for the engine tested on Tuesday. "I think there is a very small difference but makes a lot in one lap" he replied when asked about the differences between the two engines. "So we need to be sure which one we prefer. Most of the time I rode with the same one, where I felt better on engine brake, because I want to concentrate a lot on entry to the corner. Because I think when we lose grip that is where we lose. So it was important. Today I felt strong going into the corners."
With the Jerez test just a week away, that should give the factory Yamaha men another chance to evaluate the engine a little better, and work on the electronics to get the best out of both specs. That should give them a better idea of which direction to go before testing resumes again at Sepang.
Suzuki also had a new engine, though as this was Joan Mir's first full test on a MotoGP bike, it was left up to Alex Rins to evaluate it. It was much more powerful, Rins said, and significantly, more powerful throughout the rev range. "More power everywhere," is how Rins described it. "I think Suzuki did a very good job doing this engine, because for sure today was the first contact with the engine, but they did a very good job, because I felt more power, everywhere, exiting from the corner, on the straight. Now we need to adjust this power delivery, but for sure we are on the way."
If there is any risk to the new, more powerful engine, it is that the GSX-RR is a little too aggressive for the tires. "We need to adjust all this power to the tires, because now the power delivery was too much, and it was spinning a little bit," Rins said. "So if we can adjust this power to the traction, if we can gain a little bit of traction and everything, we will have a very competitive bike." The danger here is that the extra power makes the engine a little too aggressive, leaving Suzuki with the same problem which has plagued Yamaha all through 2018. Jerez will be crucial for this.
Honda was more interesting still. Marc Márquez is left to carry the brunt of the testing work, with Cal Crutchlow absent through injury and Jorge Lorenzo new to the bike. The lessons of previous years, where HRC started a year which was far too aggressive and made the bike very difficult to ride, means it is a burden which Márquez is happy to bear.
Márquez spent time alternating between two specs of machine, and two different specs of engine, though the newer bike had some chassis updates as well as a revised engine. Márquez had a clear preference for the newer spec machine, which was circulating without even his number on the front. That was better on both the engine and chassis fronts. Márquez had been able to ride all day using just the medium front, something which had previously been just about impossible with the previous RC213V.
"Looks like, step by step, today is the first day that I was able to ride with the medium front tire that was the P compound," Márquez said. "During all this season I was not able to ride with that compound. Even if it’s true that it was too soft for me, but to go to the hard was too much risk and then I didn’t want to take the risk today. But it’s positive because with the other chassis it was impossible to ride with this compound and today I was able to ride all the day with the medium compound."
Being able to use the medium front was a relief, as it eliminated the risk of crashing, something Márquez' team had expressly forbidden him from doing. "I think we worked in a good way because today straight away I felt really fast and really strong, but then I stayed there on the times because I was forbidden to crash for my physical condition, if not, the team kill me."
The new engine was a step forward everywhere, proving a bit more power and smoother delivery, Márquez said. "When you are talking about engine is torque, but with durability and also smoothness, all the things, it’s not only torque, and it’s there where we need to work because when you try a new engine, sometimes you feel more torque but then you need to adjust many things on the electronics."
Ducati continued their focus on the chassis, and getting the bike to turn better. They met with some success, as Andrea Dovizioso explained. "We are focused on turning, everybody knows," the Italian told reporters. "It looks like there was something interesting. It was clear, because we put some parts and removed, and we confirmed the feeling. But we need to confirm this at another track."
Weak front end
Aprilia face something of an uphill struggle, as they try to back out of the dead end which they chased themselves into. Aleix Espargaro had both a new chassis and a new engine, and felt there was still much room for improvement. "I tried a new frame and it was not super good, it didn’t really convince me but I will try again in Jerez," the Spaniard said. "We will keep working with different specification engine that I tried yesterday and it was slightly better so we will keep working on this one. But nothing else we know exactly what areas we have to improve on. I talked a little bit in the lunch break with Andrea and he had similar problems to me so this is positive."
Iannone's comments focused on the front end of the bike, something where Espargaro felt there was also room for improvement. The Italian had also had two crashes, but he put those down to not yet knowing the RS-GP well enough to understand where the limit was.
Johann Zarco is also struggling with the limit on the KTM RC16, the Frenchman clearly pinpointing where the weakest point of his new bike was. He had crashed twice as a result of this shortcoming, leaving him slightly frustrated.
"The main problem for me is still the entry of the corner," Zarco said. "We are not able to feel well the tire when I lean the bike, and when I'm braking. So we are working on it to get a better feeling, to try to get some direction and information to then maybe develop the bike in some way. I've been sad today to have two crashes, and really, this blocked me to be faster. I would say at the moment, the easy feeling to come into the corner."
The problem for Zarco was that the crashes came without warning, Zarco said. "No, and that's the thing. But in the position I was, I could not have a warning and catch it, so good thing that I just slide and it didn't touch my confidence. I said to the team I will continue to attack, because I think it's also the right way to push to the limit at the moment."
Brilliant rookie class
From the timesheets, things look pretty close, with five different manufacturers in the top ten, and all six inside the top thirteen, separated by less than nine tenths. Joan Mir was the last rider within a second of the fastest man Maverick Viñales, and Mir ended the two day test in fourteenth.
Though outright times are not necessarily a good guideline, there are a few preliminary conclusions we can draw from the test, both from looking at the times and from observing at track side. The Yamahas look competitive, especially seeing Franco Morbidelli quick on his first outing on the Petronas SRT Yamaha M1, finishing ahead of Valentino Rossi on the factory bike. The Ducati is really strong, and if the improvement in turning is confirmed at Jerez, it will cement its reputation as the best bike on the grid.
Ducati's strength also lies in its rider line up: Putting Jack Miller on the same bike as the factory riders has seen the Australian make a big step forward. But perhaps the most impressive debut at Valencia came from Miller's Pramac Ducati teammate, Pecco Bagnaia ending the test in eleventh, 0.648 behind Maverick Viñales. Ducati snapped Bagnaia up very early, before anyone else could get to him. The times he set on the GP18 would appear to justify their confidence in him.
Joan Mir was the other revelation of the test, the factory Suzuki rookie ending the test in fourteenth and under a second behind Viñales. What impressed most of all was the speed at which Mir was adapting to riding a MotoGP bike, his riding style visibly maturing almost every lap. If he continues at this pace, he could quickly compete with his teammate.
Alex Rins was also impressive in seventh spot on the Suzuki GSX-RR, having set his best time on the old engine. What impressed most of all was not so much his outright lap time, less than half a second behind Viñales. It was above all the relative ease with which Rins could post a string of laps in the low 1'31s. So far, the Suzuki Ecstar squad looks like being a real threat in 2019.
An uphill battle
If Mir and Bagnaia had it easy, fellow rookie Miguel Oliveira looked to have it much tougher. Making the step up to MotoGP is tough enough, but making it on a bike with less than perfect front-end feel is very difficult indeed. Oliveira will need some extra time to adapt, and KTM will need more time to improve.
There is real room for optimism, though. KTM now have four bikes on the grid, and two test riders with Mika Kallio and Dani Pedrosa. All that extra data is going to make the task of actually making better choices for development easier. But KTM will have to address their biggest weakness: throwing more and more new parts at a problem, before fully understanding what the strengths and weaknesses of the stuff they already have are. More data, more test riders, and a test rider as fast as Dani Pedrosa should make a huge difference. But that may take a while to filter through.
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