And the winner is... Takaaki Nakagami! Or at least the LCR Honda rider's name sit atop the timesheets at the end of the final day of the final MotoGP test of 2018. Which both counts for a lot, and counts for very little at the same time. The fact that Nakagami was able to do the time is proof that the 2018 Honda RC213V is a much better bike than the 2017 version which the Japanese rider spent last season on – see also the immediate speed of Franco Morbidelli, now he is on the Petronas Yamaha rather than the Marc VDS Honda. It was also proof that Nakagami – riding Cal Crutchlow's bike at Jerez – is a much better rider than his results on the 2017 bike suggest. And puts into perspective that this was the bike which Marc Márquez won the 2017 MotoGP title on.
But it also doesn't really mean very much. Testing is just testing, and the riders don't necessarily have either the inclination or the tire allocation to go chasing a quick lap time the way they do on a race weekend. Nobody wants to risk it all just to prove a point and get injured just before they go into the winter break. And with the top 15 within a second of one another, and the top 7 within a quarter of a second, the differences are pretty meaningless anyway.
That's what the riders will tell you, anyway. And while that is absolutely true, there is also a touch of the Big Book of Rider Excuses about it. Motorcycle racers race because they can't stand the thought of anyone beating them, being faster than them. Even when it doesn't really matter. Just ask anyone who has played cards with a racer.
"It's three years with Michelin, and I think everybody already understands that the lap time at the end of the test doesn't mean anything," Andrea Dovizioso told us on Thursday night. "Especially when the riders are very close. So this is not too important. There are a lot of ways to make a test. There are some riders who push 99%, some riders want to push 80%, and test the material. And we don't have a lot of tires to do the test, so you have to decide to use the tire to make the lap time, or to make a comparison of the material. So the final result is not important. Especially at this kind of test, Valencia and Jerez. And there are a lot of examples."
What rough conclusions can we draw? The Ducati is already a weapon, and has only gotten better, Ducatis featuring at or near the top of the timesheets all day. The 2019 Honda is better than the 2018 Honda, and the 2018 Honda wasn't all that bad. Marc Márquez was obviously and blatantly quick, Taka Nakagami was consistently fast. Jorge Lorenzo was also quick throughout, and looked entirely comfortable on the RC213V. In part as a result of the modified tank, similar to the one he used at Ducati. Honda have had a while to prepare it, Lorenzo having told HRC that he would need something similar some time ago.
The Suzuki looks strong, and Alex Rins is proving to be a solid development rider, as well as properly quick. Test rider Sylvain Guintoli deserves credit here too: the Frenchman is still quick enough to produce useful data, and his feedback has been invaluable in steering the GSX-RR in the right direction.
Like last year, but better
The Yamahas are looking solid, with Maverick Viñales and Franco Morbidelli quick over a single lap. The question is whether that will translate to full race pace, but more on that later. Valentino Rossi thinks not, Viñales thinks it can, and there is Yamaha's problem in a nutshell.
Both KTM and Aprilia need some work before they are competitive, but both factories are putting structures in place to speed up that process, with Aprilia's test team featuring Bradley Smith and Matteo Baiocco at work at Jerez. KTM's expanded test team won't hit the track until Sepang, when Dani Pedrosa will join the Austrian factory as a test rider, and second test rider Mika Kallio should be fit enough to return.
Above all, what has been impressive is the crop of rookies. Pecco Bagnaia is already up to speed, a tenth of a second off his Pramac Ducati teammate, despite being on a GP18 instead of a GP19. Joan Mir has looked impressive on the Suzuki, and been close to his teammate Alex Rins as well. Fabio Quartararo ended the test under two tenths behind Valentino Rossi, the Frenchman making rapid progress without the benefit of extra time on the bike which both Bagnaia and Mir have had.
Even Miguel Oliveira has made huge progress, improving his best time by over a second from Wednesday to Thursday, and now just a fraction behind his more experienced teammate Hafizh Syahrin. The problem for Oliveira is that he is on the KTM, and so has the added disadvantage of being on a bike which is still in need of development.
Some things you can't hide
Often, testing is an opaque process, with the changes being tested only visible to the most studious eyes. Or in the case of the electronics, barely visible at all, except ex-racers and track spotters who have spent years watching bikes circulate and know exactly what they are looking at, and what they are listening to.
Not Jerez, though, or at least, not for Ducati at Jerez. They brought a couple of highly visible updates, and used a highly visible sensor. The sensor they used is visible not because of its placement, but because it shines a bright light onto the asphalt below the bike. It is used to measure the precise location of the bike above the asphalt, creating a reference for how the swingarm is working, and how well the rear is sticking to the ground, especially during braking. It is a sensor they have used before, though in previous iterations – such as at Sepang in 2015 – it has been attached to the back of the swingarm, rather than the front.
Ducati appeared to be working quite a lot on braking. The Desmosedici GP19 appeared with a torque arm linking the bottom of the suspension linkage with the rear brake, creating a floating rear brake. That removes the braking forces from the swingarm, and depending on how it is connected to the linkage – the bike as in and out of the garage too quickly to get a proper look – should also help keep the rear of the bike more stable under braking.
That was certainly Jack Miller's impression when he was asked about it. "It seemed to be a little more stable grabbing the rear brake," the Pramac Ducati rider said. "For sure there were some positives and negatives to it, and like I said, I think we've got to back check it, and understand if it can work at every race, and if not, we need to develop it a little bit more."
Danilo Petrucci, now in the factory Ducati team, was a little more noncommittal, saying the gains he felt were minimal. "Yes, more or less, but there were very, very small differences," the Italian said. "I think Gigi didn’t like to change a lot of things. He always wants to try new parts to be sure if it works or not but it always changes very little not for evolution but you aim to go on the limit to feel the difference."
The noncommittal answer was a sign of how sensitive Ducati are to giving away any information about what they are testing. New to the factory team, Petrucci managed to give away that Andrea Dovizioso had tested the torque arm, something which Dovizioso himself had tried to suggest he had not done.
The spin zone
"It was one thing we tried and it was good, but for example Dovi hasn’t felt any difference," Petrucci had said. But when we asked Dovizioso, about the torque arm, he at first appeared not to understand what we were talking about. He then halfheartedly denied it, and beat about the bush trying to change the subject. "I don't think so," he told us when asked directly about the torque arm, before trying to change the subject. "Fortunately in this moment, Ducati is able to manage all the bikes on the track in a good way. And Ducati is able to test a lot of things with all the riders. This is the positive thing about the situation, I think. Because Ducati is smart enough to understand what the factory team has to try, and what some other teams and riders have to try. So in this situation we are able to test a lot of things."
It is strange that Ducati should be so sensitive about the torque arm, and wanting to use a floating rear brake. The setup is not new – floating rear brakes were a common sight in the 1960s, and you can barely find a 1990s MX bike without one. Ducati's focus has been on the rear tire ever since Michelin took over as the spec tire supplier, so for them to reexamine an old idea in an attempt to further cosset the rear rubber is exactly as you might expect.
Back to the future
The other visible change to the bike was what can only be described as an aerodynamic rear tail section. It was hardly a spoiler, more like the rear seat unit of a 2007 Suzuki GSX-R750, with flared edges at the outside of the tail unit.
It appears to have very real effects, however. Danilo Petrucci said it seemed to help with braking, though there were some downsides while the bike was leaned over. "I struggled a lot to understand it, because run after run the tire condition always changed," the Italian said. "We had to have two tests of the seat. We put the seat on, we removed it, then we put it on again and we removed it again. For the runs it was like one and a half hours of work to understand the situation.
The most different thing was influenced by the tire conditions. We haven’t understood so much what the difference are but at the end we decided to remove because we saw in some areas, especially in the fastest turn of the circuit, I struggled a little bit to stay on the apex. Maybe on braking it was a little bit better but it was very small differences. We’ll try again in Sepang where we will see how it is."
Repsol gives you wings
Marc Márquez had been testing visible updates yesterday, testing a new aerodynamic fairing which had been trialed at Valencia. On Thursday, he returned to his tried and tested 2018 fairing, with the Yamaha-like wings, rather than the Ducati-inspired affair.
Márquez did not attempt to hide where the inspiration for the new aero had come from. "Yesterday I tried it, and it was like a different aero, in another direction, like the red bikes, but it was different," Repsol Honda rider said. "Now we need to understand, because every bike works differently, but in the end today, I kept my standard 2018 aero. No big difference, not night and day."
Teammate Jorge Lorenzo was once again not allowed to speak to the media, but watching from track side, he looked very comfortable on the bike, though he was moving around far more than he had done on the Yamaha when I watched him at Jerez a couple of years ago. Reports from the Honda camp were that he was very happy, and his times were impressive enough.
Impressive enough to get Marc Márquez to display mild annoyance when asked about Lorenzo's quick time. "It's true that one thing is one lap, another thing is the rhythm," the Spaniard said. "One lap after two day's test, everybody looks very fast, the lap times look very tight. But then on the race pace is where I feel strong, and he is also working in a good way and this is important also for Honda, to have two or three fast riders, because also Nakagami was very, very fast today." Though Márquez' and Lorenzo's comments have been mutually respectful prior to Lorenzo climbing on the Honda, it is obvious that there is going to be a certain amount of niggle in that garage.
There is some of that and more in the Movistar (soon to be Monster) Yamaha box. Once again, Maverick Viñales declared he was more than happy with the new Yamaha engine, and he had not found any problems with his pace on worn tires. And once again, Valentino Rossi was cautious, though he was a little more optimistic than he had been on Wednesday.
"I think we were very competitive with used tires," Maverick Viñales said. "I could ride the bike very well during all the test. And this track for me is really difficult. I've never been fast with the MotoGP here, and this year I could keep really good lap times, I could push, so it's really important to be just one tenth away from the top here in this track, which is the most difficult for us."
He would not be able to understand it if Yamaha decided against using the engine he preferred, which gave him better engine braking, Viñales said. "We showed, we proved, and I think this is the bike to be competitive and the bike to win the title," he insisted. "I felt really good, Jerez is not my best track, I know. So being competitive on the lap times, normally I just lose two or three tenths when we had thirty laps on the tire, so that is really important, the most important. It was very important to be here and not in Malaysia, because in Malaysia, if you have an engine with top speed, you can do the lap time. But it's only one track, like Malaysia or Mugello, and at other tracks you have a lot of cornering, like here, so it's going to be very important the decision right now."
Rossi was more cautious, but decidedly more upbeat than he had been the day before. "I think from the engines that we try in these days it’s quite easy to make a decision," the Italian veteran said. "Today we worked and it was a little bit better. We improved especially the pace. But for me we have a lot of work to do if we want to try and be competitive especially with Ducati and Honda, but also with Suzuki. So I hope that Yamaha continue working and pushing to have something better in February."
They had made a positive step forward, Rossi said. "Yeah, it was a good day because we work more deeply and we improve. My pace was not so bad and the feeling with the bike was quite good. From the stuff we have that we have to decide we already decided and I think the situation is quite clear. But for me we still have to work. It looks like we improve a little bit but it’s not enough."
The problem, both Rossi and Viñales agreed, was on corner exit. The bike was not driving out of the corner the way it is supposed to. "We’re always struggling with grip in acceleration with the slide and spin," Rossi said. "We improve a little bit but for me it’s not enough. We need some more effort for next year."
For Viñales, the answer lies in finding more mechanical grip. "First of all, we have to find a little bit of mechanical grip, and then we have to adjust the electronics," the Spaniard said. "Because the electronics right now are quite good, I felt really good with how the traction control is working, about the wheelie we have, and the power delivery, but I still think we can improve mechanically, and we are going to make a good jump if we improve on the mechanical grip."
Taking the strain
While Yamaha will have to improve in 2019, Valentino Rossi will have to try to do that without the help of former 125 and 250cc champion Luca Cadalora. The 55-year-old Italian has decided that he doesn't want to be away from his home and his family for such a large part of the year, and told Rossi that he would not be continuing as rider coach in 2019.
"Cadalora unfortunately said to us bye bye, because after three seasons he decided to stay at home, because sincerely it’s a long, long season," Rossi said. "You stay away a lot of days. It’s a great shame because I feel very good with Luca. I think also him with me. But he made a family decision. So this is a personal decision. You cannot say… We try! We try a lot to keep him here but in the end he decided this. In the end remain a very good relationship that will for sure will continue."
Cadalora's decision is likely to be a harbinger of things to come, and a fitting note to end the 2018 season. 18 races and three preseason tests were already a lot. 19 races, three preseason tests and two post-season tests is even more. It basically means being away from home and family for six months or more during the year – more if you count private tests, training, PR events, and all sorts of other occasions where a coach like Cadalora is expected to appear. For mechanics, crew chiefs, PR officers, tire fitters, and other staff, the situation is the same. That is a long time to be away.
No place like home
MotoGP is hardly unique in this respect – anyone working in merchant shipping, aviation, the oil industry, long distance transport, and a whole range of other industries will know the pressures all too well. But it is no surprise that it is in these industries that there is a much higher incidence of divorce and estranged families than in the general population.
That is also true in MotoGP, and is only going to get worse if the series goes to 20 races. As more events are added to the calendar, it becomes increasingly in need of a revamp to separate up some of the races, start a little earlier, and break up the three back-to-back races at Motegi, Phillip Island, and Sepang. With the addition of Jerez as an official IRTA test in November the week after Valencia, and Valencia two weeks after the Asia-Pacific triple header, teams are away from home for nearly four weeks then home for a week, then gone again for three weeks. That takes its toll.
Or maybe I'm just tired after a long season of racing. Not tired of the racing – MotoGP is in the best shape imaginable, with close racing, popular stars, and multiple factories and riders capable of winning races. The addition of some superb young talent makes the 2019 season an even more mouthwatering prospect, as the Valencia and Jerez tests have demonstrated. There is an awful lot to look forward to next year.
But I will be glad to be home, and not have to pack my bags for a while. I will not miss racing at all. Well, not for a week or so, and then the countdown to Qatar 2019 will begin. This is truly a golden age of racing. It is hard not to be excited about a new season of MotoGP, even if you are tired and worn down at the end of the previous one.
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