Testing is over – and with the countdown on to the Qatar season-opener, here’s five pointers about the year to come.
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We’ve reached the finish of the start – the end of pre-season testing for MotoGP before the 2018 season roars into life in Qatar on March 18. Over nine days of testing between Sepang in Malaysia, a first look at the Buriram circuit in Thailand and Losail in Qatar, riders and teams have fine-tuned machines, tried and tested (and discarded) new aerodynamic directions, and blown the cobwebs away from the post-season ahead of this year’s 19-race campaign.
So what do we know as the build-up starts to Qatar in less than a fortnight’s time? Do we trust the timesheets? Do we place more stock on history and pedigree than form and momentum? And will the real story only start to emerge after a handful of races on more traditional tracks back in Europe, given Losail counts as neither?
Here’s some of what we can deduce from testing – and a few pointers of what to look out for when the lights go out for real on the season proper.
Qatar won’t tell us everything
Qatar pays a lot (really, a LOT) of money to host MotoGP’s season-opener, held in a desert at night with very few people watching trackside. If you’re looking for atmosphere, this isn’t the race. And if you’re looking for a pointer of what’s to follow, Qatar probably isn’t the race either.
We saw some of that in pre-season testing, where a rider like Suzuki’s Andrea Iannone, nowhere in the preceding tests in Malaysia and Thailand, suddenly vaulted to the top three on the timesheets on the first two days at Losail before missing the final day with illness. Is there a world in which Iannone challenges for the podium in Qatar in two weeks’ time? Absolutely. Are there a majority who’ll guarantee he’ll finish ahead of fast-rising teammate Alex Rins in the standings over the course of the season? Not really.
The location, circuit layout, time of day and other peculiarities of the Losail track making drawing conclusions from one race difficult and unwise at the same time. It’s just one chapter in a 19-race story.
Yamaha found more questions than answers
If you’ve made any sense of Yamaha’s pre-season, you’re smarter than us – and possibly Yamaha, after the comments of their riders in Qatar. Consider this sequence of numbers: 14-1-18-11-4-12-1-7-5 – they’re the finishing positions of Maverick Vinales on the timesheets on the nine days of testing across three very different tracks, a steep rollercoaster that left the Spaniard perplexed.
On the final day of the Qatar test, with Vinales commenting that he was riding at “50 per cent” before the last hour because he had no confidence the bike would stay on the track, Yamaha elected to revert back the base setting of the bike he’d tried three days prior – and he immediately leapt into the top five.
“We finished with the same bike that I started with on the first day … (and) I did the lap time without trusting the front,” he told the assembled media afterwards.
“It’s quite strange for me,” he said. “Now it looks like we lost one day, one-and-a-half days to try other things. We have to pay a lot of attention to the things we changed. Because nothing changed on the bike, it’s just the same bike as the first day. The second day we tried other things and we lost the way. So my feeling was that I could not push. Even now I feel like I can push more, I still can’t give my best.”
Vinales’ teammate Valentino Rossi, who finished the Qatar test strongly, wasn’t getting carried away with his second-fastest time, either.
“There have been too many ups and downs this winter,” Rossi told the Italian press. “This means that from one track to another, the difference between the bikes will change a lot, and we have to avoid that we suffer too much at our worst tracks.”
Johann Zarco, the Tech3 Yamaha rider who narrowly missed shattering Jorge Lorenzo’s decade-old pole record with a 1min 54.029sec lap on the final day, is running Yamaha’s 2016 chassis this year, and his single-lap pace was a massive quarter of a second faster than anyone else. Which is all very well until you consider his race pace, given the Qatar GP is held over 22 laps, was nowhere near as strong. “When I tried to find the race pace, I was a bit slow,” he admitted.
Could we see a Yamaha or two on the podium for the season-opener? Yes. But it wouldn’t surprise anyone if Rossi, Vinales and Zarco didn’t make the top five in a fortnight’s time. Their guess is only slightly better than yours.
Jack is legit
Jack Miller has almost been counting the days down until the first race in Qatar from the moment he stepped onto a Ducati Desmosedici GP17 for the first time in Valencia last November, and comes into the 2018 campaign in great shape, his confidence sky-high and his expectations for the season needing to be recalibrated.
Remarkably, the first day in Qatar (when he was 12th overall) was the only day he didn’t feature inside the top 10 across nine days of testing, while his long-run pace came relatively easily, leaving him in no doubt that there’s more to come. He’s been right on the pace (and sometimes faster than) Alma Pramac Racing teammate Danilo Petrucci too, remembering that the Italian is on the updated Ducati GP18 that will be campaigned by Lorenzo and Andrea Dovizioso in the factory squad.
Miller’s best qualifying and race results at Losail came last year (started 16th, finished eighth) – and it’ll be a huge disappointment and something of a surprise if he’s not able to eclipse that in two weeks.
‘Dovi’ knows he can do it
There’s a big difference between thinking you can do something big and knowing you can, and that’s why Dovizioso’s pre-season makes for such interesting analysis. After his belated breakout season in 2017, when the 31-year-old won six races in one season where the previous nine years had yielded just two victories, there’s a sense of calm around the Italian these days, and he approaches his craft with a minimum of fuss – no headline times in testing (he never led a day across the nine), few crashes or runs wide into gravel traps or onto tarmac escape roads, and no big proclamations of what’s to follow. Consistent and methodical lap times while understanding why he’s fast (as opposed to just being fast) was the aim, and those boxes were ticked.
After day two in Qatar, ‘Dovi’ pulled back the curtain – ever so slightly – to reveal the inner confidence that will surely see him stay a title contender this year. “My best time I set in a mini long-run of 12 laps which I did this evening, and I have to admit that the times came quite easily …,” he said.
“We are in a better situation then we had last year, so I’m really happy about that.”
Marquez is favourite, but …
Miller gave the media a first-hand insight into Marquez’s brilliance at Qatar, after he followed the reigning world champion on track during the second day of running and watched the Repsol Honda rider push to – and beyond – the limits reserved for mere mortals.
“I watched him lose the front I think six times in the space of two laps,” Miller said, shaking his head.
“I thought ‘he’s down, he’s down’, and then he stood it up and kept going again! But I followed him the lap before through the fast three corners, and he lost the front each time.
“It was amazing to watch from behind, there was smoke and stuff coming off him …”
Marquez’s ability to manhandle a bike that isn’t quite where he wants it in conditions that aren’t quite the optimum means, yet again, the Spaniard will be the man to beat this year. We might not get a repeat of the nine race winners that made the 2016 season one of the more memorable in the sport’s history, but we could see an increase on the number of riders to make the podium this year, if testing is any guide.
It’ll be a tall order for anyone to unseat Marquez, but the number of contenders nipping at his heels looks set to rise – which can only be a good thing.