Ducati dominated the top of the timesheets, but Honda kept its powder dry as the riders sweltered across three sizzling days at Sepang.
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First days back at “school” don’t get much tougher than last week’s first MotoGP pre-season test for 2019 in Malaysia, where the riders and teams sweltered at a baking Sepang circuit where the track temperatures topped out at nearly 60 degrees – no misprint – on all three eight-hour days.
While we got an early read on the off-season developments of the teams and manufacturers over the break since Valencia last November, the brutality of the conditions also gave us some instant feedback on who had spent the off-season training hard to whip themselves into shape, and which riders didn’t quite manage to get the gym/nightclub balance just right …
All 11 teams and 21 riders – Repsol Honda star recruit Jorge Lorenzo sat out as he continued to recover after fracturing his left wrist in a January training accident – took to the circuit across the three days, with a raft of new aerodynamic parts sprouting from almost every machine, and the usual pre-season games of secrecy (closed garage doors) and subterfuge by teams taking place to throw their rivals (and the media) off as everyone tries to work out where they stand in the pecking order.
With three different manufacturers (Honda, Yamaha and Ducati) topping the timesheets after the three days, the pre-season picture remained murky as the clouds gathered over Sepang on the final day of testing, the heavens finally opening after a long week an hour after action wrapped up on Friday evening.
Who’s fast? Who has problems to solve? Who can be optimistic? Who will wish there was more time available before the 2019 season roars into life in Qatar on March 10? Analysing what really happened at Sepang requires more nuance and context than simply scanning the timesheets, so here’s six things we learned from Malaysia that might give us a sign of what’s to follow.
1. It’s wide open, but …
Reigning world champion Marc Marquez sat atop the timesheets on day one, while fellow Spaniard Maverick Vinales had Yamaha flying highest on the second day. On the final day, Danilo Petrucci led a Ducati domination at the sharp end as the test wound down. What can we read from that mixed bag? A little, with a lot of asterisks.
A little over two months removed from left shoulder surgery, Marquez wasn’t his usual gravity-defying self in Malaysia, but still managed to lead the way on the first day. Trackside, it was evident that building strength and stability in his left shoulder remains a work in progress, and he was more cautious than usual in some of Sepang’s sweeping switchback sequences, not daring to risk a crash that would set him back. Of course, because he’s Marquez, he was plenty fast enough, but he wrapped up each day early after 30-odd laps, choosing to focus on recovery while his rivals were churning out 70-plus laps a day in the scorching heat. “Of course, I would have liked to ride more but we had to take it a bit easy,” he said. “I’m happy because I was riding easy, not in my riding style, but I was able to ride more.”
Vinales was in an upbeat mood after Yamaha, which won just one race last season, looked to have started 2019 closer to the front than the equivalent test last year. “I made some laps behind our rivals, so I could compare how our bike is working, and it’s not bad,” he said. “There are just some small details left and that’s the most important. Last year they were some steps ahead, and now we are closer.”
The final morning of the test started under the shade of some rare cloud cover, and with track conditions more suited to a qualifying simulation run than tyre preservation in the baking heat, an impromptu ‘happy hour’ exploded into life, and Ducati made quite an impression. Six riders went beneath Lorenzo’s circuit-best time of 1min 58.830secs set at the Malaysia test last year, and four of them – the first four – were Ducatis, Petrucci’s 1:58.239 standing as the best time of the test.
Alma Pramac Racing rookie Francesco Bagnaia was a head-turning second, just six-hundredths of a second adrift, while his teammate Jack Miller (+0.127secs) and Petrucci’s stablemate Andrea Dovizioso (+0.299) rounded out the quickest quartet. As much as Dovizioso tried to play down Ducati’s pace afterwards with the usual disclaimers about it only being testing and so on, it was quite the statement of intent for the manufacturer that has finished runner-up the last two seasons.
Another reason for Dovi’s discretion was that we never saw Honda’s true pace, what with Lorenzo not in Malaysia, Marquez not at full power, and Cal Crutchlow taking his own (literal) tentative steps back from injury after snapping his ankle horrifically in practice at last year’s Australian Grand Prix weekend. Takaaki Nakagami, Crutchlow’s teammate, finished the test inside the top 10, but the Japanese was riding a 2018-spec RC213V, not the new model to be raced by Marquez and co. in Qatar in four weeks’ time.
2. Yamaha are on the way back
Vinales was the fastest Yamaha (fifth overall), and while factory teammate Valentino Rossi was five places and half a second behind at the end of the three days, the two sides of the garage were largely in harmony about the team’s engine direction for 2019, and the ground it has gained over the northern hemisphere winter.
“It’s good, because it’s the first test and we improved some things, but we have a lot of work to do,” Rossi said, calling Vinales’ day two time (1:58.897) “unattainable”.
“The gap is quite big, so we need time. I’m happy about the atmosphere and especially about the ideas inside the garage; it looks like Yamaha are very much concentrated on improving, so this is important.”
Rossi, who turns 40 on February 16, shows no sign of slowing down nor tiring of the constant attention he faces as the star attraction in MotoGP 19 years after his debut in the premier class. The off-season training is harder, but he’s right up for it. That said, the Malaysian heat was a wake-up call. “I used the used tyre a lot, but I didn’t make a long run because, f**k, it’s hot!” he laughed after the second day, when he turned 51 laps (more than two-and-a-half race distances at Sepang) before retreating into the air-conditioning.
3. Jack’s ready to make a splash
Miller looked fit and ready to fire in Malaysia, getting around the hotel on the day before the test in a replica singlet of NBA sharpshooter Steph Curry, perhaps a signal that he intends to be equally on target this season. The Aussie left his family Christmas celebrations early in Townsville to head to California for a month of tough training, where he indulged in his new favourite off-track sporting pursuit, cycling.
“The guys I ride with … they’re all strong, so some days you can go out there and feel on top of everything, and then another day they’ll push to a new level and you feel completely s**t,” he said. “It humbles you. They challenge you to be better.”
Miller was sore at Sepang, courtesy of a thigh haematoma from a motocross spill while out riding with Aussie dirt-bike star Chad Reed, but was very quick, finishing third on the second and third days of the test, and third overall. Things came in threes for the 24-year-old; he had a spill on each of the three days, the last one in the final laps of a race simulation on the last afternoon, but was happy to escape unscathed, and to see the easy speed he’s been able to unlock from the GP19 machine so far.
“I’m 24 now, have done the hard yards, have the experience and all of that,” he said of the season to come. “I think it’s going to be a good year, and I’m really looking forward to it.”
4. KTM doesn’t lack for ambition
Seemingly the busiest factory outfit at Sepang was KTM, the third-year team throwing a vast array of parts to test at 2018 returnee Pol Espargaro, new recruit Johann Zarco, and the team’s test rider Mika Kallio across the three days. Returns on the stopwatch were modest – Zarco was the best-placed of the trio in 17th overall – but Sepang was more about the Frenchman getting accustomed to the brutal acceleration of the KTM compared to the buttery-smooth satellite year-old Yamaha he’s been riding for the past two seasons.
Where Espargaro’s nature is to take whatever he’s given and quickly try to find its limits, Zarco is a more analytical rider, one who wants to understand what he has beneath him before unleashing his searing speed. It’s a contrast of approaches in order to achieve the same goal, and the camaraderie in the team, and the open relationship between the teammates, makes this look like a combination that can work.
Zarco has a two-year deal with KTM and feels the team will be in contention for bigger things in 2020, but he’s not backing away from a surge up the grid this season.
“I think it would be good to be around the top 10 in every race; this can be a possible target,” he said.
5. Rins is ready for the top step
Testing times can mask a lot; Alex Rins’ position on the overall timesheets (12th, 0.941secs off Petrucci’s best time) doesn’t look all that impressive until you dig a little deeper. The budding Spanish star, who finished the final six races of 2018 inside the top six to end up fifth in the championship, sounds and looks (courtesy of his blown-out hairdo) like a new man this season, and his race pace on old tyres on the second day – where he described his rhythm on tyres that had done 20-25 laps as “incredible” – raised eyebrows up and down the pit lane.
The Spaniard has mastered the Lorenzo-like quality of being fast without looking all that quick; trackside, it never really appeared he was pushing that hard until you checked the stopwatch, where he was routinely churning out 1min 59sec laps for fun in his race simulation.
Suzuki was one of two factories (KTM being the other) not to have a rider inside the top 10 after three days, but don’t expect that to last for long – and from Qatar, Rins should be in any conversation about potential race-winners at every Grand Prix.
6. MotoGP riders are a different breed
OK, we know this already, but the toughness of the 21 riders in such difficult conditions across three days has to be applauded, even for the riders who arrived in Malaysia fully fit.
Watching Marquez scurry from the Honda garage to debriefs and back trying to avoid over-enthusiastic fans from patting him on his tender left shoulder showed you the discomfort he must be in, while Crutchlow’s mangled right ankle looked red-raw at the end of each day, his first laps since breaking it at the Island quite the ordeal. “I feel like I’ve been hit by a bus every morning I wake up,” he said, adding: “when I’m on the bike I’m alright, it’s when I get off …”.
Ducati’s Tito Rabat, coming back to action after breaking his leg at the British GP last August, could barely walk before he got on the bike each day … and still did 175 laps across three days in conditions that weren’t exactly akin to a Spanish winter’s day in February. Yes, a different breed indeed.