The start of the 2020 MotoGP season is now just a matter of hours away. The entire MotoGP grid will soon be rolling out at Sepang for the start of the first MotoGP of the year. Notably, it is the entire grid: unlike previous years, nobody has fallen of a motocross bike, minibike, or even a mountain bike and hurt themselves.
There is plenty to get excited about. We will soon be able to get a sense of the work done by the various factories over the winter, who looks like hitting their goals, who has found something extra, who is lagging behind. We will see which of the rookies is off to a strong start, how last year's crop of rookies is progressing, which of the veterans has made a step, either forward or backward, and which of the crop of title candidates is looking sharpest.
Yet a note of caution is advised. By Sunday night, we will have a timesheet showing who was fastest over the three days, and we will have a complete list of every lap posted by each rider (helpfully published by Dorna on the official MotoGP website, unhelpfully, in a format which is not easily extracted for analysis).
Sepang vs the season
The danger is that we treat those results as gospel, as the definitive guide to the coming season. And that is something they definitely are not. The 2019 Sepang test demonstrates that assertion all too clearly. Danilo Petrucci finished the test as fastest, in a frankly breathtaking time, nearly six tenths quicker than the previous unofficial track record. Petrucci finished at the head of a group of four Ducatis at the top of the timesheets, of which Andrea Dovizioso was fastest.
Pecco Bagnaia was the fastest rookie by a wide margin, impressing with his speed, and ending in second. Franco Morbidelli was second fastest Yamaha, finishing eighth, Maverick Viñales ending in fifth. Alex Rins was the fastest Suzuki, way down in twelfth. Johann Zarco was faster than his (then) KTM factory teammate Pol Espargaro.
That, of course, is not how the 2019 MotoGP season played out. The Ducatis did not go on to dominate the year, Marc Márquez wrapping up his sixth MotoGP title beating Andrea Dovizioso by a wide margin. Pecco Bagnaia disappeared through the year, his star eclipsed by Fabio Quartararo who blazed like a sun in the MotoGP firmament, earning a seat in the factory Yamaha team for 2021. Alex Rins won two MotoGP races, the Suzuki arguably the best bike on the grid. As for Johann Zarco, well by Valencia, he was riding a Honda, having ousted from the team after Misano, and looked to be without a ride for 2020.
The lesson of the 2019 MotoGP Sepang test is that testing is just an indication of the lie of the land. Interpreting times is more akin to reading tea leaves than a guarantee for the future. Even the factory engineers, with all of the data from the test at their disposal, can only see what their own bike is doing, and have to make an educated guess as to where their rivals are. Nothing is set in stone.
There is plenty worth watching, though, and it is still possible to draw some conclusions. If the bikes from one factory are all close together, it suggests the base of the bike is good, if they are spread out, then perhaps that is more a sign that it is the rider making the difference. If the gaps are relatively small, then the racing should be tight. If there is a mix of machinery at the front, it is a sign of the depth of the field. Despite being under strict instructions to say as little as possible, the riders will drop hints about what they really think of the bike, their real feelings seeping through their false positivity, or feigned concern.
If there is one factory where getting a clear guide to where things stand will be difficult, it is Honda. Marc Márquez will start the 2020 season as clear favorite to take the championship again, and deservedly so considering his track record, winning the title six of his seven seasons in the premier class. But Márquez is coming off his second shoulder surgery in two years, this time the surgeons fixing his right shoulder, after doing his left at the end of 2018. If last year is anything to go by, the surgery won't slow him down once racing gets underway. But it will limit his role in testing.
Marc Márquez will do only short runs, and ride for a few hours a day. He will focus entirely on the areas where the Honda RC213V most needs improvement. There is a new engine to test, but the change is not as big as in 2019, so evaluation is a little easier. Marc Márquez will have work to do on the chassis, as HRC try to get back a bit of feel on corner entry, and to try to get the bike to turn without having to use insane degrees of lean angle. But he won't be chasing outright lap times, as much as that hurts him to have to accept.
Before we come to the second Repsol Honda rider, a note. There is an journalistic convention, that you don't call riders by their first names. The relationship between journalists is a professional one; they are not our friends. It is so by necessity: if journalists are to try to be as objective as possible, there has to be a certain distance. The arrival of Pol Espargaro into MotoGP, joining brother Aleix, already strained that convention, but it remained manageable as the two were in separate teams and their paths rarely crossed.
But the arrival of Alex Márquez into the Repsol Honda team has blown this convention out of the water. There are now two Márquezes in the factory Honda team, and it is impossible to refer to them by their last name and make it clear which Márquez we are referring to. Do we refer to the brothers as by their full names, always using Marc Márquez or Alex Márquez? Do we use just their first names, saying either Marc or Alex? And will that cause extra confusion, what with Alex Rins being on a Suzuki? Expect to see journalists and commentators struggle with this all year.
Alex Márquez appears to be struggling less at the moment. The Spaniard rode for two of the three days at the shakedown test, which took place from Sunday to Tuesday before the official test started, and was quietly impressive. He was ahead of HRC test rider Stefan Bradl on both days, and quicker than Ducati test rider Michele Pirro on the second day, ending the day in third behind the KTMs of Dani Pedrosa and Pol Espargaro. The task of the younger Márquez brother is just to knuckle down and get the hang of riding a MotoGP bike at race pace. So far, that process is going according to plan.
Picking up the slack
With Marc Márquez still recovering from surgery, and Alex Márquez still a rookie, much of the test work for Honda will fall on LCR Honda's Cal Crutchlow. Fortunately for the Englishman, he is fit and healthy – or as healthy as he is going to be while he still has a kilo or two of metalwork in the ankle he shattered in his massive Phillip Island crash in 2018. Crutchlow will have a full and busy schedule, checking the engine Honda tried at Valencia, and working on new frames. The hope is that Honda has built a bike which is a little easier to ride. The problem is, that that has been the hope for a very long time now.
Like Marc Márquez, Takaaki Nakagami is also returning from shoulder surgery. As a consequence, Nakagami will be working more on race fitness than on anything else. The LCR Honda rider will not be able to hope for an easier bike to ride, however: Nakagami is stuck with a 2019-spec Honda RC213V, and will have a fight on his hands. But that is the bike which Marc Márquez won the 2019 title on, so there are no excuses.
The Yamaha garage at Sepang is sure to draw a big crowd, for all sorts of different reasons, nearly all of them good. There is the return of Jorge Lorenzo as test rider, and Lorenzo is never shy of the limelight. There is the news that Fabio Quartararo is to take Valentino Rossi's place in the factory Monster Energy Yamaha team from 2021. That leaves speculation over what Rossi will do for 2021, and the question of whether he was pushed or whether he jumped. No doubt we will get a chance to ask about this at the press conferences organized for the launches of the Monster Energy and Petronas Yamaha teams respectively.
But this is likely to overshadow a much more interesting question: Yamaha look to be on the verge of a breakthrough, as the changes made to the organization over the past two years start to pay off. The bike made big steps forward in the second half of 2019, and Maverick Viñales was fastest at both the end of year test at Valencia and Jerez in November. Yamaha turned up to those tests with a truckload of new parts, including a new engine and new frames. Will Yamaha be able to build on the progress booked to take on, and perhaps even beat, the all-conquering Marc Márquez.
France to the rescue?
There is reason for optimism, and not just due to what Yamaha have done to the bike. Last year, Michelin tested a new rear tire with a different carcass, one which is better suited to the demands of the Yamaha M1. This year, that becomes the standard rear tire at a number of tracks. That tire has bit more grip and durability, both on corner entry and on corner exit. That is precisely the area where the Yamaha has a lot to gain.
In 2019, the Yamaha was clearly competitive at tracks where there was a lot of grip, but as soon as the grip went away, Yamaha riders would struggle. The plight of Maverick Viñales is illustrative of this: Viñales often struggled at the start of races, when the rubber laid down by the Moto2 bikes had removed the grip for MotoGP. But after a few laps, as 22 MotoGP bikes started cleaning up the Dunlop rubber and putting down a layer of dark Michelin lines, Viñales got back into the groove, and was able to chase down the front group. How quickly he could make that transition would often determine where he finished, whether he was battling for the win, or chasing a place in the top six.
If the new Michelin fixes that issue, that could be a huge boost for the Yamaha riders, and especially for Viñales. If Viñales ends the test at Sepang as fastest – and is well into the 1'57s – then it could be a good sign for 2020. The again, Viñales has been winter testing champion before, and still has no silverware to show for it.
Looking to the future
The most interesting dynamic will be seeing how the news of Yamaha choosing Fabio Quartararo over Valentino Rossi will affect their relative performances. Quartararo stunned the MotoGP world last year, vastly outperforming expectations and coming frustratingly close to a first MotoGP win. But he enters 2020 on a different foot, expected to challenge Marc Márquez for race wins, and perhaps even the championship. Quartararo will need to be quick straight out of the box at Sepang, to demonstrate that he can handle the pressure which will be on him this season.
Quartararo will have a full 2020-spec Yamaha M1 for the current season, but as the bike doesn't exist yet, it will be interesting to see what he is given to test, and what he has to ride at Sepang. The focus of the work will be in the Monster Energy Yamaha garage, but at Valencia and Jerez, Quartararo and Franco Morbidelli were also given a few parts to test. Whether the Petronas team take on more testing duties, much as Cal Crutchlow does in LCR Honda for HRC, will be a clue as to the development path being followed.
For Valentino Rossi, work should be continuing as normal, but with Yamaha having decided to move for 2021, it is clear he will no longer be leading development of the M1. His input will be as valuable as ever, but the choices made will be led by Maverick Viñales, and perhaps by Fabio Quartararo. Rossi also has a new crew chief for 2020 in David Muñoz, and will continue the work started last year of adapting to one another and building up the base of understanding which underlies all rider-crew chief relationships.
Turning vs top speed
In November, Ducati seemed to be focusing on turning, the eternal weakness of the Desmosedici, arguably going back all the way to its inception at the turn of the century. In November, Ducati brought a couple of chassis upgrades to help make the bike turn. Those worked well at Valencia, but less well at Jerez, and with Sepang having both long, fast corners and shorter tighter corners, we should get a clear idea of how much improvement has been made.
But Ducati also brought a new engine to Valencia. The new engine didn't have much more power, but the power delivery was a little smoother, the aim being to get the engine to help the bike turn. At the Ducati launch in January, Gigi Dall'Igna revealed that this was just the first iteration of the new engine: he first wanted to make sure the engine was smoother, before turning up the power.
Dall'Igna took it as a personal affront that Honda had matched the power output of the Desmosedici with the 2019 version of the RC213V. He will not allow that to happen again, and is bringing yet more horsepower to the MotoGP fight. Horsepower is not the be-all and end-all of motorcycle racing, but races are a little bit easier to win if you have more of it, rather than less. The problem is, of course, that on average, circuits have 14 corners but only one straight.
As I said before, the performance of the Ducati riders last year was indicative of how little you can read into testing times. Danilo Petrucci was fastest, and though he won his first MotoGP race at Mugello, even in the first part of the season, he was not as competitive as his teammate Andrea Dovizioso. But the final relative position of the GP20s will be a sign of how strong the Ducati might be this year. If there are the four GP20s up at the front again, then we can assume that Ducati is looking good.
Perhaps also worth keeping an eye on where the GP20s stand compared to Johann Zarco. The Frenchman will be in the Avintia Ducati box, but will have solid support from the Ducati factory. He will only have a GP19, however, and is yet to figure out how to learn the Desmosedici. If he gets to grips with it quickly, then the gap between the factory and Pramac riders and Zarco could be an indication of how strong the 2020 bike really is.
On and off track
There is a lot of pressure in the Ducati garage at the moment. Losing out on two of their rider targets for 2021, with both Viñales and Quartararo choosing to stay at Yamaha, has created a strange dynamic in the Ducati organization. There is pressure on Andrea Dovizioso and Danilo Petrucci to perform, if they want to keep their places. But the loss of the two Yamaha targets also strengthens the hand of Dovizioso. Dovizioso, after all, can point to the fact that he finished second in the championship for the past three seasons, the only rider to get anywhere near Marc Márquez. It may just be that Ducati needs him more than he needs them.
Jack Miller is the obvious candidate to move into the factory team next year, and there will be pressure on him to get this year off to a good start. Miller will be hoping for a bigger role in testing the GP20, to help shape the direction of the future, and as a sign of trust from Ducati.
Miller's Pramac Ducati teammate will be the hardest of all to judge. Pecco Bagnaia was second quickest here last year, but was thoroughly mediocre for most of the season. This year, he has a GP20 at his disposal, but Sepang and Qatar are two tracks he loves, and feels comfortable at. It will be difficult to pass judgment on Bagnaia, wherever he finishes.
The same, but better
As of a few hours before the Suzuki 2020 MotoGP launch, Alex Rins is still not signed, though Italian news sources suggest he has a new contract for 2021 and 2022 in his pocket. Whether that deal is announced at the Sepang test or not, it seems that Suzuki have pinned their future on Rins. Whether that means they risk losing Joan Mir – rumored to be another target for Ducati – is open to question.
For the Sepang test, Suzuki is on a path of evolution rather than revolution. They are happy enough with their chassis – the fact that Alex Rins was able to ride around the outside of just about any other rider on the grid is a sign that it's not a bad bike – and are mainly focused on the engine. Suzuki is working on gaining horsepower, but without sacrificing smoothness.
The real challenge for Suzuki is to try to make their bike more competitive over a fast lap. Both Alex Rins and Joan Mir struggled during qualifying, and one major target is to fix that issue. The GSX-RR was always gentle on its tires, but that may be a sign that the bike was not extracting the maximum potential of the tires over a single lap. Last year, both Suzukis were a long way down the timesheets at the Sepang test. If Rins and Mir can finish the test closer to the top, then that may be a sign that they have addressed their qualifying issues.
Orange crush, at last?
KTM and Aprilia have both had the advantage of having their riders already circulating during the shakedown test. The fact that test rider Dani Pedrosa was fastest on the first two days of the test, posting a high 1'59 and matching Pol Espargaro's qualifying time, was a promising sign. The fact that Pol Espargaro then took four tenths off that time on the last day of the shakedown was even better.
From the photos which appeared after the shakedown test, it is clear that KTM are sticking with the new chassis they tested at Valencia and Jerez, a variation on the tubular steel frame with a more oval lower frame tube. That will continue to be the focus for KTM, getting the bike to turn better while preserving grip.
Pol Espargaro will lead the development direction, but KTM may also ask Miguel Oliveira to help with testing. The Tech 3 rider is in his second season in MotoGP – though coming off shoulder surgery, a seemingly common modern problem, he may still be lacking strength – and is better placed to give input into the bike. Espargaro's teammate, Brad Binder, is a rookie, and like Iker Lecuona in the Tech 3 team, will need time to understand how to get the best out of a MotoGP bike.
Perhaps the most interesting factory of all at the Sepang test is Aprilia. The Italian factory has a completely new bike, built from the ground up, featuring a brand new 90° V4 engine, for more horsepower and better engine braking. The responses of the riders at the shakedown test were extremely positive, Bradley Smith saying that they had touched every part of the bike and made improvements, and not just the two or three big problem areas the RS-GP suffered with.
Aleix Espargaro was equally impressed after the shakedown test, reacting to the new bike with the word "WOW!!!". Social media posts generally bear little relation to real life, but the elder Espargaro brother tends to wear his heart on his sleeve. At the shakedown test, Aleix finished just behind brother Pol on the KTM, suggesting that the bike could be competitive. There is a lot of work still to do, and we will have to see if Aprilia have addressed their reliability bugbear, which thwarted good results for Espargaro on a number of occasions.
There is an additional issue to take into account here. At the shakedown test, Aprilia only had two of the 2020 bikes, making testing limited. It also meant that the riders were a little more careful than they might have been otherwise at some points on the track: with limited spares available, there was simply not the parts to fix a really big crash, or even a couple of smaller ones. The times the Aprilia riders set will be important, but there will also be a margin of caution to be reckoned with.
The elephant in the Aprilia room is of course Andrea Iannone. Iannone had his hearing in front of the International Disciplinary Court (CDI) on Tuesday, and the court is currently considering its decision. For the moment, Iannone remains suspended, but Aprilia is waiting for the CDI decision before making a decision on its future riders. Bradley Smith remains the strong favorite to replace Iannone, should his suspension be turned into a ban.
Just a bit of fun
By this time tomorrow, bikes will have taken to the track and posted the first laps. Three days later, we should have an idea of what the 2020 MotoGP season will look like. Anyone hoping to use the test to predict the outcome of the 2020 season is likely to be disappointed come November. We will only really understand the results in retrospect. But that won't stop us trying.
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