There was a palpable sense of excitement after the record-setting laps by Jack Miller and Fabio Quartararo yesterday. Would more records be broken on Thursday?
They wouldn't. Though both Maverick Viñales and Franco Morbidelli got under Marc Márquez' original lap record at the track (a record which still stands, incidentally, given that records are only set on race weekends and not at tests), they still ended up several hundredths short of Miller's blistering time from Wednesday. And with the wind expected to pick up on Friday the prospect of a lap of 1'52 is growing ever more distant. Conditions will not be as absolutely perfect as they were on Wednesday again any time soon.
One record was broken, however. After Johann Zarco fired down Losail's front straight 0.9 km/h faster than Marc Márquez' previous top speed record, 352.9 km/h to Márquez' 352.0 km/h, the Frenchman shattered the top speed record by nearly 5 km/h on Thursday, clocking a best speed of 357.6 km/h. For those of you who prefer their rods, chains, and ells, that is 222.2 mph. A speed for which Johann Zarco had to have all his ducks in a row.
He wasn't the only rider to go so fast down the straight. Jorge Martin clocked 354.0 km/h through the speed traps on the Pramac Ducati, while Jack Miller hit 351.7 km/h. Ducati Lenovo teammate Pecco Bagnaia sped through at 350.6 km/h, and most intriguingly, Fabio Quartararo on the notoriously slow Yamaha posted a top speed of 347.2 km/h, the same speed as Enea Bastianini on the Avintia Ducati, and right behind Pol Espargaro on the Repsol Honda.
Drag strip redux
Speeds were helped by a light tailwind down the straight, and with the winds set to pick up tomorrow, the magical 360 km/h could be breached. That barrier is said to have been passed only once before, data from Dani Pedrosa's Honda RC213V allegedly recording a speed of 365 km/h at Mugello, though Pedrosa and Honda denied that was the case, putting it down to wheelspin overstating the speed as the bike hit the crest at the end of the straight. But on Friday, someone could legitimately be timed through the speed trap at Qatar at over 360 km/h.
What makes those speeds even more phenomenal is that the current crop of MotoGP bikes are running relatively high downforce configurations of their aerodynamics packages. Those high downforce packages also produce more drag. However, it appears that the added drag is offset by the fact that the anti-wheelie effect of the fairings allow the bikes to get much better drive out of corners and onto the straight. That drive eventually results in added speed at the end of the straight. Which is very much why Ducati headed down this road in the first place.
There is more than one way to skin a cat (thus rendering it more aerodynamic) however. You can also gain speed by reducing drag. And with engine development frozen for 2021, as a result of the Covid-19 pandemic, that is exactly what Yamaha have done. On Thursday, they unveiled a new set of front wheel covers and front mudguard, which work together to reduce drag and increase speed.
— Sky Sport MotoGP (@SkySportMotoGP) March 11, 2021
Does it work? Judging by the speed charts it does, all three riders on 2021 Yamaha M1's – Maverick Viñales, Fabio Quartararo, and Valentino Rossi – being given the chance to test it. Rossi was very positive about the direction the new aero had taken. "It's very important because at the end the engine is frozen from last year, and we are very very worried because last year the difference in the speed was a lot," the Italian said.
He had put pressure on Yamaha bosses to address the top speed deficit. "I push on Yamaha and I think that they work in the right way, because it's not just the engine that makes the performance in the straight but also a lot of other things on a MotoGP bike," Rossi said. "One is the aerodynamics. And they work well. We improved. Our speed is not so bad. We take 10km/h from the Ducati but anyway the difference is less than last year. So it will be important on the fast tracks."
The Yamaha may still be slower than the Ducati, but the objective was never to beat the Ducatis in outright speed. For Yamaha, the goal has always been to have a bike that can sit in the slipstream of the faster bikes down long straights, and be close enough to exploit the braking and corner speed characteristics at the end of the straight. Then, round the more complex parts of the track, try to drop the bikes focused on speed using their agility.
The Yamaha's don't have to be fast. But they have to be fast enough. The aerodynamics package they now have may be exactly what they need to meet that criteria.
While Yamaha were working on making their bike more slippery, Honda were working in entirely the opposite direction. HRC test rider Stefan Bradl debuted a high-downforce aero package with huge wings and massive ducts on the side of the fairing. We did not get a chance to speak to Bradl about the fairing, however, as Honda do not allow their test riders to talk to the media except on certain specific occasions.
There were a number of other new parts being tested on Thursday, including new carbon fiber swingarms for both KTM and Aprilia. You can see a selection of photos of the new parts being tested on the website of the Italian broadcaster Sky Sports, where eagle-eyed pit lane reporter Antonio Boselli has a collection of snaps from the garages in Qatar.
Aprilia have been working on a carbon swingarm for a number of years, but finally they appear to be making progress. Aleix Espargaro explained that the Italian factory had encountered a host of problems along the way, exactly the sort of issues you would expect when exploring a new technology.
New materials mean new problems
The first problem was reproducibility, or the ability to make several copies of the swingarm and have them all be identical. "At the beginning of the project for the swinging arm, we were not able to make it exactly the same, one to the other one," Espargaro explained.
The second problem was that merely switching to carbon fiber didn't automatically mean the design was lighter. "Also at the beginning it looks like the carbon fiber swingarm should be immediately lighter, but it was not like this because when we tried at the beginning to find a good rigidity, we were not very good on the weight."
Finally, though, Aprilia appear to have solved all of these issues. "After such an important work they find the good way to do the swingarm and this year the stability of the bike, the rigidity is good and also the weight is better than the aluminum one. So I think we are on the good way," Aleix Espargaro said. But the development of the swingarm was just beginning, and there is much more to come in the future, he explained.
Season starter coming clearer
Espargaro was something of an intruder in the top ten. There were four Yamaha, two Suzukis, two Ducatis, the Aprilia of Aleix Espargaro, and the Honda of brother Pol rounding out the top ten. And the Repsol Honda was probably only in the top ten because Jack Miller had only chased a quick lap at the very end of the day, on a well-worn set of tires. "I went out again at the end with the fairings, just to see a few things, they asked me to do a few laps to check temperatures, and I saw Frankie," the Australian said. "I was on lap time tires from yesterday, had about 15 laps on the tires, and I sort of pushed for a lap, and that's when I did my best lap on the tires from yesterday." Fresh rubber would have put him much closer to the top of the timesheets.
What this emphasizes is how much the Qatar track favors specific bikes. "At the moment, it looks like it's a Yamaha – Ducati - Suzuki paddock," Franco Morbidelli said. That is apparent also from the statistical analysis posted on Twitter by WorldSBK crew chief Chris Pike. His analysis does show that both the speed of Aleix Espargaro is very real, more than just a single lap, and that brother Pol Espargaro is also very fast on the Repsol Honda.
Jack Miller's race simulation demonstrated just how quick the Ducati is around the Losail International Circuit. The Australian posted a full 22-lap race run starting from the pits on Thursday, running a consistent and fast pace until the final five laps, where his lap time started to tail off. If he had run those times in the MotoGP race, he would have ended up the clear winner, completing 22 laps in 42'34.436, 2.466 seconds faster than the time Andrea Dovizioso to win the race the last time it was held, back in 2019.
Ready to race
That race simulation had been their main focus for the day, Jack Miller told us. "That's all we were working on, was the race sim. We sort of went out on the medium this afternoon and just tested a few little things like the fairing and whatnot, just to finalize it and check all the temperatures. Then we had quite a bit of a break in between, just had to change a few things so the boys could swap the tire quicker, the rear tire, to basically get it ready for a race weekend. But that took quite a bit of time, probably about an hour."
"And then we put on the softs from yesterday that I did a lap time on yesterday, went out and did like five, six, maybe seven laps just to shake down the bike basically. Came in, put the full fuel tank in, put fresh tires in, two new softs, then went out and did the race sim. I think it was 21 laps, 21 or 22, I think I did full race distance," the Ducati Lenovo team rider told us.
Miller was pleased with how the race simulation had gone, he said. "It was relatively good, I had a big moment on lap 10, at Turn 4, completely lost the front, and then I sort of calmed it down a little bit after that. I was sitting in consistent 1'54s and then I sort of backed it off to 1'55 lows till the end of the run. But probably the last five laps the times started going off a cliff, the rear tire got pretty used. Fair bit of vibration in it and the right hand side was not too flash. So for sure that's something we need to work on."
Testing is not racing
The problem, Miller explained, is that a race simulation is not the same as an actual race, and that distorts how you use your tires. "When you do a race sim like that, you go out of the box, you instantly start pushing, and you're not too concerned. It's not a real race so you're not too concerned about tire consumption or anything like that. I was trying to be as smooth as possible, but at the end you sort of let it dance a fair bit through Turn 11. There's a few things we can probably work in that."
Miller's pace may have been good enough to win the 2019 race on paper, but he was taking his own best time with more than a pinch of salt. "The race pace was pretty quick, I mean, I was under the lap record for the first ten laps, but in saying that, the track's got tons of Michelin rubber down so I don't think it give us such a clear aspect on what the race pace is going to be." With only MotoGP bikes circulating, the track is covered in Michelin rubber. On a race weekend, the Moto2 bikes are laying Dunlop rubber on the track and completely changing the grip characteristics of the track. "It's always fantastic in the test, and then it's a complete different story on a race weekend," Miller warned.
The drop in lap times was not unexpected, Miller explained. "It's something that always happens here, it's a common thing." The difference lay in the approach to a simulation and to a race. "Generally in the past, you don't go guns blazing here in the first laps. As you've seen, Dovi generally sits back, waits, then comes towards the end the last couple of times he's won here. So with the race sim, you sort of go out and start pushing immediately and you're not really concerned about anyone else around you. So you're just riding to the stopwatch and that's it. I'm not too worried about that."
Fit and ready
His race simulation left him confident for the start of the season, especially after how well the entire foreshortened preseason had gone. "That time yesterday was nice to get, and today just doing that race sim, also physically, I feel like the bike is working really well, so I'm not getting puffed at all."
The run up to the press room from the TV compound had been more physically demanding than his race simulation, Miller said. "Qatar is a semi-easy track to ride, but at the end of the race sim and honestly, I'm sweating more racing Artur [Ducati's press officer] than I was at the end of the race sim, because I feel one with the bike, I feel really comfortable with it. So I'm not really having to override or force the thing in any areas of the track."
Not everything is perfect for Ducati, however. The third sector of the track, featuring the sweeping sections from Turn 7 through to Turn 13, had caused him the most problems. "Throughout the race sim we probably couldn't work on T3 as it's been our Achilles heel this whole test," the Australian said. The problems really boiled down to just two corners. "I think it's more just through those corners, 10 and 11, that I need to sort out and understand what I need to do differently. But as we know from the past, it's generally been a Ducati issue there. But to have the bike working as it does in sector 1, 2, and 4, I can't complain."
Grip flatters to deceive
It is precisely in that sector that the Yamahas hope to gain time on the Ducatis. Maverick Viñales, for example, was nearly four tenths of a second faster through that sector on average than Jack Miller. Through sectors 1 and 4, which contains Qatar's huge and high speed front straight, Miller was only a combined seven hundredths of a second quicker than Viñales on average.
The exceptional grip during the test explained a lot of the Yamaha's advantage through the sweeping sections, something the Yamaha riders were acutely aware of. "The grip is really high during these days, and we are trying to adapt to it," Franco Morbidelli said. "But there are moments of the day when the grip is not so awesome, and it's not as good as we would expect. So we try also to react fast to that, and we try to try new things to improve our feeling, when the grip is high and also when the grip is low."
He and his team were using the times of the day when grip was worse to explore ways of solving any issues which can arise as a result. "So we try to have clear ideas, not just trying to improve the setting, or trying to improve the speed, because I think we are almost already quite there. The speed is there, the problem is that it goes away from time to time because the conditions change, and we need to be ready to make it again as quick as possible, so we are trying different moves and different things to do on the setting that maintain our speed always," the Petronas Yamaha rider said.
Low grip at a high grip track
Maverick Viñales had been trying to work that same issue, but like Morbidelli, acknowledged that was hard when the track was in such good shape. "We are working very hard on that area. For sure you never know until there is no grip, so this is the difficult point. But we are working pretty hard, so we hope that when there is no grip, we could use the chassis, we could use the corner speed to avoid that problem."
"I think today we concentrated a lot on trying to ride without grip, which is always difficult because the track has an amazing grip," Viñales told us. "The grip level of the track is incredible, so it's very difficult to say that right now we are ready for a low-grip situation, because as you can see, all the lap times are super fast. But anyway, I feel good with the bike, which is the most important, and also I feel the last laps of the tire, it's always good. So we will see, for sure in the race it will be different. But we keep positive because we think the bike is ready, and this is the most important."
The other area Viñales had been concentrating on was his starts. Just like yesterday, the Monster Energy Yamaha rider had started the day off with a long sequence of practice starts and in laps. But practice alone would not solve his concerns, he said. Yamaha needed to help to optimize the performance of the clutch. "At the moment, we are trying to improve," Viñales said. "For sure it's something difficult, because we need to improve mechanically, not just the way of the start process. We also need to improve mechanically the clutch. So we are trying many things."
Horses for courses
The grip the track offered may have been good for Yamaha, but it was something of a disaster for KTM. The grip did not allow the KTM riders to exploit the natural traction of the RC16, and as a result, they were all some way off the pace.
"I think it comes down to the fact that Qatar is not the best suited to our bike," Brad Binder explained. "The style here is light on the brakes, let go and keep speed and flow. The one thing that our KTM is really good at it turning with the front brake in the hand and the bike stops like hell. Whereas here there are maybe not opportunities those to our advantage. The track is not ideal for us but we have some ideas to try and I’m confident we’ll up our game."
The RC16 was more suited to a track with tighter corners and a more stop-and-go nature, Binder explained. "The tighter corners you have to brake into are much better for us. Our difficult places right now are one where you have to let off and keep speed," the Red Bull KTM Factory Racing rider said. "We’re really struggling to turn in these points."
"It’s difficult because the more you try to get the entry done and get on the throttle as quick as possible it doesn’t suit our style. We tend to hang on the front brake which kills a lot of speed and makes it difficult to keep a big flow going," the South African told us. "We have some ideas for tomorrow. We’ve had this problem at some other circuits and we’ve always seemed to solve it. I’m confident we can sort it."
Qatar was not the ideal circuit to adapt to and understand the KTM, Tech3 rider Danilo Petrucci confirmed. "For sure in the last years I was always quite competitive here," the Italian said. "It's a track that I like and this is a good point, but for sure we are struggling in KTM. It's not an excuse but we arrive at the limit and we are stay at this, going around. Unfortunately we lost a bit of time, and we haven't work so much on the setup. I'm not really happy about this."
There was nothing wrong with the traction and the power delivery of the KTM, but they were simply unable to exploit it, Petrucci said. "For sure we have a really really good delivery of the power, but here is not such positive point because it's better to have maximum power, and we are missing a bit. Even if I wait a little bit more, it's even more difficult, I am one of the slowest on the straight. So we have to work a little bit more, a little bit on the setup to try to make more corner speed and exit from the corner with more speed. Yeah, because it's a track that prefers the power, and I think we have to work in a different way, trying to maximize the speed inside the corner."
"I don't know really well the bike, but for sure what I understand, you can really open the throttle inside the corner and make the acceleration very very good," Petrucci said. "The fact is that here there is traction, so we cannot really enjoy our positive points, it's not a track were you brake so hard, there are maybe two or three hard braking areas,but we are very good on braking, we are very good on acceleration because we have a lot of traction. But here we cannot really use these positive points that I understood on the bike, because it's just my 4th day on this bike, and I only ride this bike at this track."
The one thing which had pleased Petrucci was the fact that he had closed the gap to the other KTM riders. "As for lap time, all the KTMs are together," the Italian said. "For sure my gap to the first KTM is always going down, I started 1.5 seconds, then 1 second, half a second, now nearly two tenths. So I'm getting used to the bike, but for sure 1.5 second gap from the lead is too much. Because we saw in MotoGP that sometimes all riders are in a second, the first 10 in half a second. So tomorrow our plan is to mainly work on the setup to try to discover the bike."
Petrucci, along with everybody else, has one more day to prepare the 2021 season. From 9pm Doha time on Friday night, they will all have to be ready. Testing is nearly over.
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