In the 1980s everything changed. Everything got serious when Honda arrived and Roberts set up his own Yamaha. By the early 1990s the top teams did at least 20 days of pre-season testing, crisscrossing the globe from Goiania in Brazil to Suzuka in Japan to Phillip Island in Australia and wherever was warm enough in Europe.
Honda even started using datalogging – a C90 tape recorder stuffed in a backpack worn by Freddie Spencer to log basic engine functions like rpm and water temperature.
By the early days of MotoGP the testing game was out of control, so teams association IRTA introduced restrictions.
In recent years pre-season was reduced to three sessions of three days each, almost twice this year’s programme, diminished by Covid and budget restraints.
If this is bad news for engineers – who love nothing more than having riders go round and round in circles gathering data – it’s good news for the riders, who would rather be racing, and for the fans, who can look forward to the Qatar season-opener on March 6 with little idea of who’s hot and who’s not.
The main thing to consider about last weekend’s year-opening Sepang test is its brevity, the two-day outing further shortened by a lunchtime downpour that thwarted plans for race simulations and time attacks during the second afternoon.
In other words, the ultimate lap times mean even less than they do normally. No one learns much in a day and a half, but this is what we did learn, factory by factory.
Aprilia: ‘The speed I can carry into corners is unbelievable’
Big smiles from the Noale crew, now MotoGP’s only factory with concessions, which means it can upgrade its engine through the season (which other factories can’t) and go testing with its full-time riders pretty much whenever it wants (which the others can’t).
The RS-GP is in its third season as a 90-degree four and looks better than ever, with more horsepower and better ergonomics.
“The bike is definitely better but we wait to see if it’s enough,” said Aleix Espargaró, starting his sixth season with the Piaggio-owned brand. “The bike isn’t a revolution – it’s a continuation of the 2021 machine but it’s narrower and it turns better. The speed I can carry into corners is unbelievable. You can carry as much speed as you want and you won’t go wide, but this speed creates chatter.”
The RS-GP is a wide-angle V4, just like the Ducati, Honda and KTM, but somehow it can carry more corner speed than the other V4s. Aprilia aren’t sure why, but it’s long been the company’s characteristic to build MotoGP bikes that scythe through corners. Of course, this can create issues in race situations, as Suzuki and Yamaha riders know so well.
“When you are fighting with a Ducati, Honda or KTM you cannot take a lot of corner speed because their bikes don’t turn like us, so you are forced to stop in the middle of the corner like them,” added Espargaró.
Ducati: ‘I’m sure we can start at the top’
Last year Ducati had the best bike, so during the winter its engineers worked to improve performance, without affecting its delicate balance, which allowed Pecco Bagnaia to win four of 2021’s last six races.
“Ducati’s DNA is to be very good in braking and entry,” said the 25-year-old. “Last year the level in this area was very high, so I was a bit scared about changing to the 2022 bike because during the last races of 2021 I was very comfortable. But the potential of the new bike is incredible – I’m sure we can start in Qatar at the top.”
“We are now working more on acceleration because when you use the same electronics with a different engine you have to adjust everything. Our biggest step on the second day was acceleration.”
This work should filter down to the Pramac squad’s GP22s.
“The potential of the new bike is better, but as soon as I touch the throttle I lose the rear and then I can’t stop it spinning, so I need to wait to open the throttle,” said Pramac’s Jorge Martin, rookie of 2021.
Therefore it was no great surprise that Enea Bastianini – who rode a GP19 last season – recorded the fastest lap of the tests on a GP21.
“The GP21 is very easy to ride and faster,” said the 24-year-old. “With the GP19 I had a lot of rear-end pumping and a lot of shaking on the straights. Also the GP19 was different in every practice session. This bike is more consistent.”
Interestingly, Ducati didn’t use swinglets at Sepang, suggesting the bike is running lower, possibly due to more extensive use of the shapeshifter.
Most of the company’s eight MotoGP riders (yes, eight!) ran different types of holeshot and shapeshifter devices. Factory riders Bagnaia and Jack Miller have a new holeshot system that requires just one control to lower the front and rear of the bike before the start.
Honda: ‘We risk less in entry and make the lap time on the exit’
Honda is the only factory with an all-new machine, so it has a huge amount of work to do in this truncated pre-season. And yet the 2022 RC213V – which is biased more to the rear to take full advantage of Michelin’s dominant rear tyre (introduced in 2020) – seems to be competitive already.
“The important thing is that when I push the lap time comes,” said Honda’s six-times MotoGP king Marc Márquez. “At the moment I just need more laps to understand what I need form the bike.
“This bike is very different. One of my strong points was fast corner entries. Now we miss a bit there but we risk less in entry and make the lap time on the exit, that’s the way to ride now. I need to adapt my style, ride more consistently and then I will be able to adapt the bike to myself to find the last tenths.”
Márquez, who hadn’t ridden a MotoGP bike since October, following an off-road accident, still lacks upper-body strength but hopes to be close to full strength for the first race.
“It’s clear we needed better rear contact and grip to make the bike safer, not faster, but when you make the bike safer you also make it faster because you get more confident,” he said.
The latest RC213V also features Honda’s most radical aero, with a big top wing and sidepods.
“With the aero we are trying to load the front a bit,” Espargaró adds. “Now that we have more [front] downforce the acceleration is beautiful.”
KTM: ‘When the tyre spins it’s difficult to get it to hook up again’
A day and a half at one racetrack are by no means conclusive, but KTM seemed to have more difficulties than many of its rivals at Sepang. And the main issue was the same problem that slowed the RC16 during much of 2021.
“Rear grip is the big thing we’re looking for, when I crack the throttle,” said Brad Binder. “At the moment when I crack the throttle the first thing that happens is I start to spin and when the tyre starts to spin it’s really difficult to get it to hook up again. We’ve been struggling with this since the second half of last year.”
Team-mate Miguel Oliveira thinks the problem is more software than hardware, which means a breakthrough is potentially, but by no means necessarily, possible.
KTM had three different sets of aero at Sepang: its 2021 kit, a post-2021 package with sidepods, and a pre-2022 set with two-step top wings and sidepods.
“Aero is important to go faster by really taking the maximum advantage of the power we have and to help the bike be more stable,” said Oliveira. “When you look for downforce you want to accelerate faster but now we’ve found you can also stop faster.”
However, aero is always a tricky compromise between downforce and drag.
“Our latest aero package helps in some areas and in others it makes things difficult,” adds Binder. “The new aero puts a lot more weight on the front of bike, so we need time to find a good set-up, because at the moment I’m really overloading the front in braking and entry.”
Suzuki: ‘We improved our top speed, which is really, really important’
Suzuki’s inline-four GSX-RR has always struggled to keep up with the V4s on the straights, so the factory’s engineers spent the winter focusing on increasing horsepower to give Joan Mir and Álex Rins a better chance to battle with faster bikes, especially the Ducati.
Mir, who last year had several bitter fights with Ducati rivals during his title-defence season, is confident Suzuki have made a crucial step forward with the GSX-RR engine, which underwent its biggest redesign in several years.
“We improved our top speed, so now we are in the middle, which is really, really important,” said Mir. “We know we have a fast race bike but fighting with the Ducatis with the engine we had it was so difficult to overtake. A little more power is a big help and we are closer, so I expect a lot better with this advantage.
“Also important is the engine character, which is the same, so I don’t feel the difference in power when I am riding alone, but I see it when I am following someone or when I see the data. Now the engine and electronics are working a lot better, so I was able to be quite fast and consistent on race pace.”
Sepang’s top-speed charts put Mir’s Suzuki fifth fastest at 205.7mph, just 2.6mph behind the fastest Ducati, but the former champ thinks this speed may have been achieved in a slipstream.
Yamaha: ‘To be honest I expected much more from this test’
Yamaha may be reigning world champion but the Iwata factory’s riders weren’t happy with their two days at Sepang.
“We didn’t improve as much as the others,” said world champ Fabio Quartararo. “Ducati were already super, super-fast at the end of 2021, but the three that have impressed me the most here are Aprilia, Honda and Suzuki. I don’t thing we make a step like that, by far. That doesn’t mean we won’t be competitive, it just means the others made big steps. To be honest I expected much more from this test.”
Quartararo and team-mate Franco Morbidelli continued testing an updated 2022 chassis but neither was that keen on the new unit.
“The new chassis feels more rigid, so it feels better with new tyres but with used tyres it’s trickier,” explained Morbidelli, whose left knee injury is almost fully fixed.
However, whichever chassis he uses, Quartararo is confident he can be fast.
“I can use my natural riding style and more corner speed, so I’m super-happy with my riding,” he said.
Yamaha’s only worry is top speed – once again the M1, with new aero, was the slowest bike at Sepang, more than 5mph behind the best Ducati.
If Ducati’s Desmosedici is favourite to win the 2022 MotoGP title, who or what might stop it? The last two MotoGP championships have been won by inline-fours – Suzuki’s GSX-RR…
At Sepang teams worked their way through all the usual items: minutely revised frames with Coke-can thin sections for twist-and-go turning ability, new aerodynamic wings and shapeshifter devices, MotoGP’s newest R&D focus, thanks (as usual) to Gigi Dall’Igna and his crew.
Shapeshifters originally arrived in MotoGP as holeshot devices, lowering bikes for race starts by compressing the front and rear to transform them into drag bikes, thereby reduce wheelies and thus increase acceleration in the rush towards Turn 1, where the systems deactivated when riders hit the brakes.
Then Dall’Igna had the bright idea of using the shapeshifters dynamically, to lower the rear of the bike exiting corners, via a rider pressing a switch on the left handlebar. This has a double benefit: it reduces wheelies, allowing the rider to use more throttle, sooner, and it changes geometry, reducing the angle of the wings to minimise drag on the straight.
The next step was automatic dynamic shapeshifters, so riders don’t need to waste mental and physical energy – they need everything they’ve got to make it to the chequered flag – applying the device as they accelerate out of corners. Aprilia, Ducati, Honda and KTM all seem to have these systems now.
Except these systems aren’t actually automatic – because automatic suspension adjustment is banned – but the rider can hit the button before the corner, but the device doesn’t activate until the front suspension extends on corner exit.
Now MotoGP is entering the next stage of shapeshifting. Ducati’s factory GP22s look like they’re squatting the front as well as the rear during corner exits, which lowers the entire motorcycle to allow riders to use even more throttle, without the front lifting and forcing them to roll off the gas.
MotoGP is more and more about using everything you’ve got to get your motorcycle inside that ever-shrinking sweet spot.