Yamaha tops first MotoGP preseason tests, but does it matter?

MotoGP

The remarkable Fabio Quartararo was fastest on all three days at Sepang, which may or may not make him 2020 MotoGP favourite

Fabio Quartararo in 2020 pre-season MotoGP testing at Sepang

Quartararo was the fastest rider every day at Sepang

Petronas SRT

The first skirmish of MotoGP’s 2020 phoney war is over. Yamaha came out on top, with Fabio Quartararo fastest on each of the three days of the opening pre-season tests at Sepang, where the fastest 19 riders were covered by just seven-tenths of a second.

The work that was done during those hot and sweaty days at Sepang – when riders rode a total of 12,683 miles – will help decide who wins and loses this year’s MotoGP world championship, but don’t take too much notice of the lap times.

When most riders were asked on Sunday evening to name the top performers of the tests they named third-quickest Álex Rins (Suzuki) and Maverick Viñales (Yamaha), who was only 16th in the final times. That’s why testing lap times can be so misleading.

No-one knows why but there seems to be a curse on whoever rides the fastest lap in Sepang

“On Sunday morning everyone was putting soft tyres for time attacks,” said Viñales. “I told my team – I want to do a time attack!! But they calmed me down and said, you are here to work! We did a great race simulation instead.”

Ultimate lap times in test sessions mean little because they depend on who fitted soft tyres, who flicked their engine mapping into qualifying mode and who was prepared to risk everything just to see their name in the headlines.

There’s one other reason not to take any notice of the Sepang times: no-one knows why but there seems to be a curse on whoever rides the fastest lap there. It’s a fact: whoever ‘wins’ Sepang loses the championship.

Last year Danilo Petrucci was fastest at Sepang, the year before it was Jorge Lorenzo, the year before that Viñales. In 2016 it was Lorenzo again and in 2015 it was Marc Márquez, the only year he’s failed to win the championship in the last half decade.

Don’t get too excited about the tests at Losail later this month either, or even by the results of the first GP in Qatar on March 8, because whoever has won the season-opening race over the past five years has gone on to lose to the world title. Andrea Dovizioso won Qatar in 2019 and 2018, Viñales in 2017, Lorenzo in 2016 and Valentino Rossi in 2015.

The reason is simple: both Sepang and Losail offer unusual track conditions, plus riders and teams are still getting up to speed, so the reality of who’s strong and who’s not will not be known until COTA, Argentina or Jerez.

There was one new piece of kit that everyone tried at Sepang: Michelin’s 2020 rear slick – the French company’s first in two years – which features a different construction that should increase grip and longevity. Pretty much everyone liked the tyre, so they all think it’s going to help them win the championship, but of course spec tyres don’t work like that.

Some riders say the tyre improves edge grip to get them through the corners quicker, others say the tyre increases drive grip to help them get on the throttle harder and sooner. In other words, it may help the V4s as much as the inline-fours.

“Maybe Yamaha and Suzuki will be able to use more corner speed and maybe Ducati and Honda will be able to accelerate earlier,” said KTM’s Pol Espargaró.

However, most riders agree that by increasing rear grip into and out of corners the new rear slick can cause front-grip problems. As a rider hammers into a corner, the rear tyre can overpower the front and then, when he opens the throttle harder than usual to use that extra rear grip, the balance of the motorcycle shifts backwards, taking load off the front tyre, which reduces grip. Several riders crashed at Sepang while using the grippiest compound rear, because it reduced front load so much that the front tyre lost grip and they crashed.

In reality, we won’t know who the tyre will help the most until well into the season, when the cleverer riders and engineers will unlock its deepest secrets.

At this stage of the year – after only three days at one racetrack of a total of 69 days at 20 tracks – there’s not much point going too deep into the performance of each of the six manufacturers, but here are some rough guidelines.

 

Aprilia: overnight sensation

Aleix Esparagaro in the pits on his Aprilia in 2020 Sepang MotoGp testing

Aleix Espargaro with the all-new RS-GP

Mat Oxley

Front view of Aleix Esparagro's Aprilia in 2020 pre-season MotoGP testing

Aprilia has hired a Ferrari Formula 1 aerodynamicist

Mat Oxley

Aprilia was the only factory to bring a completely new motorcycle to Sepang. And MotoGP’s smallest concern only just managed to get there, bringing two bikes, one for Aleix Espargaró and one for test riders Bradley Smith and Lorenzo Savadori.

The arrival of the 2020 RS-GP has finally divided the MotoGP grid into two opposing factions: the inline-fours versus the 90-degree V4s. Between 2015 and last year, Aprilia persevered with its 75-degree V4, a machine that should’ve allowed engineers to build a more compact, agile motorcycle, but the bike rarely handled well and was never fast enough.

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Engineers once insisted 90-degree V4s were too long for MotoGP, requiring a long wheelbase that makes bikes turn like trucks. But designing a more compact engine that sits in the chassis more like a V than an L has solved that problem. All Aprilia had to do (this is a gross over-simplification, of course) was copy the base design of Honda’s RC213V and Ducati’s Desmosedici, MotoGP’s dominant forces of the last few years.

Espargaro is delighted with the new RS-GP which has more horsepower and is more stable, more agile and turns better.

“It’s a revolution,” said the Spaniard who was tenth fastest, 0.345 seconds from the top and ran a race pace with top-five potential. “I sincerely believe I’m ready to fight for the podium.”

Although he struggled to get the maximum out of softer tyres at Sepang he rode a 1min 58.694sec, eight-tenths faster than his 2019 qualifying time and 1.9 seconds better than his best race lap at the track.

There were problems of course, inevitable for such a new motorcycle. The engine lacks low-rpm torque and the bike had some reliability problems on the final day. But considering the latest RS-GP had never done a lap before it arrived at Sepang this was an incredible achievement by Aprilia.

 

Ducati: Faster than everything, as usual

Side view of Andrea Dovizioso's Ducati in 2020 MotoGP Sepang testing

Ducati won’t show its 2020 aero until the first race

Mat Oxley

Some things never change in MotoGP. Ducati ruled the top speed on all three days at Sepang. On Saturday the five fastest bikes were all desmodromic GP20 and GP19 machines. Old racers like to say that top speed isn’t important because you only use it once a lap, but when the racing is so tight and you’re able to use that straight-line advantage to help you pass a rival then it’s a big deal.

Ducati’s young hope Jack Miller was the fastest of them all on his Pramac GP20, with a best of 210mph on Saturday. “I just barely pulled it up before the gravel that time,” joked the 25-year-old Aussie who was eighth fastest overall, 0.267 seconds down. “I think I tuck in quite well – I have a good aero shape.”

Miller was happy enough with Ducati’s winter work. The Desmosedici’s all-important mid-corner turning is a bit better (but only a bit), power delivery is smoother, which is good for the tyre, and he’s making steady progress adapting bike settings and riding technique to suit Michelin’s 2020 rear slick.

However, factory rider Andrea Dovizioso who finished MotoGP runner-up in 2017, 2018 and 2019, wasn’t exactly glowing with confidence in his ability to go one better this year. He has both good things and bad things to say about the new rear slick – he can’t use its extra edge grip and he doesn’t like its transition from edge grip to drive grip as he lifts the bike out of corners, but he can use more throttle once he’s on the drive area of the tyre.

On Saturday Dovizioso crashed when he opened the throttle exiting Turn Six, which unloaded the front tyre and put him on the ground. Miller says the tyre is less predictable when it starts to slide, although both hope that these issues will be fixed with electronics improvements.

Don’t be surprised that Ducati didn’t reveal its 2020 aerodynamics at Sepang. Its aero engineers never reveal their winter’s work until the first race, so that rivals have no chance to copy them.

 

Honda: Márquez fitness worries

Marc Marquez's Honda in 2020 Sepang pre-season MotoGP testing

Marc Márquez’s 2020 RC213V machine

Mat Oxley

Front view of Cal Crutchlow's Honda in 2020 MotoGP testing at Sepang

HRC's latest aero on Crutchlow's RC213V

Mat Oxley

Honda may have won the last four MotoGP riders’ and constructors’ championships but that doesn’t mean the factory goes into 2020 as favourite. The Sepang tests confirmed two important factors: HRC’s star rider Marc Márquez’s physical condition is worse than it was this time last year (when he was recovering from another shoulder op) and HRC is still struggling to fix the issues that made Márquez work harder than ever for his sixth MotoGP title.

Last year’s RC213V had turning problems because of a major chassis design necessitated by a completely V4 engine, designed to significantly increase horsepower to match the Dukes on the straights. The 2019 engine – like the similar 2020 version – was totally different to the 2018 unit. HRC then had to completely redesign the front of the frame for a new intake that fed air directly through the steering head, instead of the twin intakes that flowed around the frame. This inevitably altered frame stiffness, effecting turning efficiency.

HRC was still battling the same problem at Sepang. This work wasn’t made any easier by Márquez’s weak shoulder, which prevented the world champion from riding at 100 per cent. Much of the chassis R&D work was given to fellow HRC rider Cal Crutchlow, who found no great breakthroughs during the weekend, But the teak-tough Brit gritted his teeth on Sunday and rode the second best lap of the three days, just 0.082 seconds behind Quartararo.

Márquez and Crutchlow aren’t 100 per cent keen on the 2020 Michelin rear. Both men suggest the tyre’s extra grip exacerbates their front-end turning problems, by changing the bike’s balance entering corners. On the other hand, Crutchlow says the tyre gives him better drive grip exiting corners.

The good news is that HRC has squeezed yet more power and torque from the engine. Ultimately everything will come down to Marquez’s strength from the first race.

 

KTM: ‘It’s getting real now’

New frame and revised engine have boosted the RC16

New frame and revised engine have boosted the RC16

Mat Oxley

If Aleix Espargaró was the happiest rider in the Sepang paddock then his young brother Pol was next. Perhaps this is only to be expected, because the brothers ride for the only two MotoGP factories that have yet to win races, and when you’re fighting your way up from the bottom it’s easier to make big steps than when you’re trying to stay at the top.

The 2020 RC16 engine has more power and works better with the electronics, both in controlling positive torque in acceleration and negative torque in deceleration, an increasingly important factor in MotoGP.

KTM’s recent shift from its trademark steel trellis frame to a steel beam frame is important, because it proves that long main frame sections offer the best combination of longitudinal rigidity for braking stability and lateral flex for good grip and turning at high lean angles.

The latest frame tried by Espargaró at Sepang gave more stability through fast corners, so he didn’t have to reduce corner speed so much. This used to be a big drawback, because it lost him speed the middle of the corner so he had to open the throttle too hard on the exit, which made the bike unstable and burned the tyre.

Front detail of Pol Esparagaro's KTM in 2020 MotoGP Sepanf testing

KTM’s vortice-shredding upper fairing

Mat Oxley

KTM also did a lot of work on aerodynamics during the winter, with several different fairings at Sepang. Details include a jagged-edge upper fairing that breaks up vortexes created by the trailing edges to reduce turbulence for less drag and lift. This technology was apparently inspired by the fins of humpback whales that improve manoeuvrability.

Espargaró was much more optimistic when he left Sepang than when he arrived. “The bike’s getting better and better – it’s getting real now,” he said.

 

Suzuki: Fast and a bit smelly

Side view of the Suzuki at 2020 MotoGP Sepang testing

Brand-new frame for the GSX-RR

Mat Oxley

From the outset, Suzuki’s inline-four GSX-RR was a much better motorcycle than its V4 GSV-R predecessor. Since 2015 the GSX-RR has improved, inch by inch, because its conservative engineers don’t want to upset the bike’s excellent balance by making big changes.

However at Sepang, the GSX-RR looked more different that it has done for years. The blue and silver livery – celebrating the brand’s 60 years in GPs – was certainly different but most important was a completely new frame, Suzuki’s first since 2017.

The factory has used carbon-fibre-reinforced frames with great success since then, but the latest unit is all aluminium, with deep main beams that form huge web-shaped sections with the front engine hangers. This is not dissimilar to the design used by Yamaha in recent seasons.

The guess is that the web section is fabricated from ultra-thin aluminium, so the frame flexes nicely at high lean, while also providing massive longitudinal strength for braking. Good braking stability is vital for inline-fours, because they need to make up for the speed they lose to the V4s on the straight. The new GX-RR frame also turns better, which allows riders to move into the all-important acceleration phase sooner, again reducing the bike’s speed handicap.

Suzuki only had one of these frames at Sepang between Rins, third fastest, 0.019 seconds down, and Joan Mir, 11th, 0.382 seconds down, so it’s obviously a brand-new concept. The factory will be busy getting at least four frames ready for the season-opening Qatar GP on March 8.

Suzuki’s 2020 focus on the chassis follows its 2019 development focus on the engine, because the factory’s successful 2019 season lost its engine concessions, so engineers knew the 2020 engine had to be 100 per cent correct from the first race.

One final Suzuki point. Observers at Sepang noticed a strange smell emanating from the GSX-RRs. The smell is most likely the bike’s 2020 fuel, but could it be a special ceramic-based engine coating to improve thermal dissipation?

 

 

Yamaha: Viñales’ impressive race simulation

Side view of Valentino Rossi's Yamaha in 2020 Sepang MotoGP testing

Yamaha has never been one for design revolution

Mat Oxley

The front of Valentino Rossi's Yamaha in Moto GP 2020 pre-season Sepang testing

Add-on aero tweaks for Rossi’s M1

Mat Oxley

By the end of last season, it was obvious Yamaha was digging deeper into its pockets than it had done for many years. Presumably management had finally realised that it’s better to spend £150 million and be in the victory fight than to spend £100 million to make themselves look like idiots. They did exactly the same in 2003 when they came close to axing the entire MotoGP project but instead got serious and hired Valentino Rossi.

At Sepang, Yamaha had so many YZR-M1s that it wasn’t easy to keep up with who was riding what. Sometimes there were six or seven riders in the three Yamaha garages: Monster Yamaha, Petronas SRT Yamaha and the factory test team.

At least Yamaha got to top the test: Quartararo was fastest on all three days, whatever bike he rode – 2019, 2020 or something in between. Rossi was a morale-boosting fifth, 0.192 seconds down, and Vinales 16th, 0.544 seconds behind Quartararo. Test rider Jorge Lorenzo was 21st, 1.348 seconds down, but he didn’t ride the 2020 M1.

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Yamaha’s last three-and-a-half seasons were a disaster, largely because engineers couldn’t make the M1 to get the best out of the Michelin tyres, hence the new chassis, first seen at Valencia last November. This unit is designed primarily to give the tyres an easier time, because rear-tyre degradation was a huge hindrance to M1 riders. Although it has to be said that Quartararo had less trouble last year than Rossi and Viñales.

Rossi says that Michelin’s new rear slick helps the M1 with more edge grip and better endurance, but if the tyre does the same for the other bikes, Yamaha will gain nothing. On the other hand, he believes the 2020 bike is an overall step forward. Viñales’ super-impressive race simulation more than backed up his team-mate’s thoughts. But will the young Spaniard be able to reproduce his speed during high-pressure race weekends?

Straight-line speed is Yamaha’s other big problem – in recent years the M1 wasn’t even fast enough to slipstream other bikes. Rossi says the new engine definitely has more power but the other bikes have also improved, so drafting could still be a problem. Viñales, who is considerably smaller, said he enjoyed several battles with rivals at Sepang and was able to get good enough drafts to set up out-braking manoeuvres at the end of straights. So maybe there is hope.

Both factory riders tried a new holeshot device during the tests, but Rossi said it still needs more work.

MotoGP’s second and final 2020 preseason tests take place in Qatar from February 22 to 24.