The beginning of the 2018 testing schedule sees us arrive at Sepang. Malaysia was very eventful with many riders smiling from ear to ear whilst others question what to do in order to improve. As the engines turned on and the roar was heard, many teams waited and watched the rain hit the surface, steam rose and then eventually the circuit dried before they could jump on their bikes. The first few moments of the bikes on track gave fans around the world goose bumps and especially with Ducati, Yamaha and Suzuki launching their livery artworks for 2018 already. The one key question everyone is asking is whether Marc Marquez can maintain his fight for another title and allow the momentum of success to keep flowing! No doubt the Spanish Champion is a contender in 2018 with his ability to put the MotoGP bike in places that others thought was impossible. Marquez is a freak of nature as they say and is showcasing how riding a motorcycle in a competitive environment has dramatically changed. Who knows, maybe one day we will see shoulders touching the paint of the kerbs.
On day one, we witnessed a hunger like never before from many of the riders. These included Jorge Lorenzo, Andrea Dovizioso, Maverick Vinales, Valentino Rossi, Dani Pedrosa, Johann Zarco, Jack Miller and Danilo Petrucci. They all feel capable of winning races and achieving greatness within the premier class. I say never before because the ability to predict a race winner is becoming more challenging and this is an excellent quality to have in motorsport. Fans want to see variety and battles that are remembered for a lifetime like the days of Mick Doohan, Angel Nieto, Giacomo Agostini, Phil Read, Mike Hailwood, Casey Stoner and many more. Ducati have the potential to charge at Repsol Honda, Movistar Yamaha are aiming to recover and fix the problems that definitely shook up their season in 2017, Pramac Ducati are eager to win with Jack Miller now onboard, Maverick Vinales wants to win a World Championship because it is in his nature to do so and Johann Zarco is doing everything under the sun to take it away from each and every single one of them with his aggressive and passionate riding style. Pedrosa, Dovizioso and Lorenzo were fastest on day one overall. The tyres available to test were those made available to the teams during the 2017 race weekend – soft, medium and hard front and soft, medium and hard asymmetric rears. Michelin did bring with them though two new front compounds which they wanted to gain feedback on and a proper evaluation from the riders and a compound for the rear which has some small evolutionary adaptations to it. As we know, the tyres can determine if a rider feels comfortable and capable of charging for victory, podium positions and points. Every ounce of data is crucial to the tyres performance throughout 2018.
On the other hand, the aerodynamic systems of the bikes have been interesting to inspect. The Repsol Honda and Movistar Yamaha bikes have the most noticeable changes with new front aerodynamic packages. Marquez in particular worked with three different bikes and three different engines. He feels as though the new engine is better and is aware that he needs to crash less in 2018 even with some new fairing equipment. Regardless of the pressure around testing and expectation, teams have a defined schedule that they stick to in order to be prepared for the first round of the season. Ducati in particular completed their programs successfully and felt confident ahead of testing in Thailand. No doubt, Lorenzo is on cloud nine after smashing the lap record at Sepang to go the fastest ever at the circuit though the result is classified as an unofficial record because it is testing. Both the Italian stallion of Dovi and the Spanish machine Lorenzo are ready to go head to head with the rest of the field. In amongst this is the silly season of contracts. Valentino Rossi is up in the air about whether to stay or go. We know what fans would say “STAY”! Only time will tell if Rossi decides to continue on in the sport of MotoGP as a competitive rider aiming for a World Championship. Unfortunately, Jonas Folger withdrew from the entire 2018 season due to medical and health reasons so his spot is up for grabs and Herve Poncharal has a big challenge to choose a rider that will bring home the goods of points, podiums and bike development. We wish him all the best in making a vital decision relevant to his teams future. Vinales secured his contract and it appears Petrucci will be looking for a new ride in 2019. Time is of the essence for many of the riders to get their minds focused on the title and not the signature line.
Rider comments as testing concludes:
Jorge Lorenzo: “I leave Sepang very satisfied with the work that we have done over the last three days, not only because of the time that I set today, but also because I’m convinced that many aspects of the bike have improved since last year. Now I feel it’s better adapted to my riding style and I feel more at home when I’m riding it, but we still have to understand a few things to be able to get the best out of its potential. We are only at the start of the year but the sensations are already good and now it will be important to confirm them in the next test in Thailand.”
Andrea Dovizioso: “These were three very interesting days of testing and we go away from Sepang with really good feelings. This morning’s crash complicated today’s programme a bit, but in the end we went out again for another run with the Desmosedici GP17 and were able to compare some data that confirmed the improvements of the new bike, especially in mid-corner. To be honest I didn’t expect such a clear improvement in this first test, and now we have to confirm that we are on the right path at the next tracks we go to.”
Valentino Rossi: “It was hard work today, but also good work. First of all, we tried everything and we have pretty clear ideas, but today was the most difficult day. We suffered a little bit more because of a lack of grip and that made us lose a bit in positions, but compared to last year we've improved the pace, also on used tyres. We know it's hard work, we have to improve, but the test at the end was quite positive.”
Maverick Vinales: “Honestly, we worked quite well. Today it's been difficult. I don't know why we lost time, especially in the afternoon - in the morning it went quite well. Anyway, we worked hard, trying to improve, so now we have to check the data and see what we can improve on in Buriram, there we'll know more. I think the new fairing is really positive, because I felt an improvement in acceleration, so let's see. I think the circuit in Buriram has many points of acceleration, so we can test it even better there.”
Marc Marquez: “Today I feel very happy because we worked hard and quite well. We even did a long run of 15 laps around three o’clock, when the temperature on track was very high, and our pace was good. In the afternoon we kept trying different things and ultimately didn’t really make a time attack, but I felt very good on the bike. We need to check the new aerodynamics better, and on another circuit, as we want to make the right choice. On the other hand, I think we did a great job on the engine, even if we’re still not at 100 per cent with the setting. Generally speaking, I think Dani, Cal [Crutchlow], and I were working in slightly different ways, and we gathered a lot of information that will be useful for Honda to prepare a good base.”
Dani Pedrosa: “I think we had a positive final day, and a positive test in general here in Sepang. The team did a very good job, as we correctly planned the work schedule for each day. Today we put together all the best aspects from the previous two days and worked on our speed, improving our fast lap and our pace, and completing a long run of almost race distance on a good rhythm. We worked on the engine, aerodynamics, suspension, and tyres—both soft and hard specs. You could say we addressed more or less every area of the setup, and we got a good general feeling and collected a lot of data. We have to analyse everything more thoroughly, but the feeling was there. Now we look forward to confirming everything on other tracks.”
Jack Miller: “I'm really very satisfied with these first tests. The feeling with the bike is really good and I think we still have some margin to explore here and there. In Thailand we will start working on the details as well, but in the meantime the pace of the long run made today is really encouraging. I look forward to being back on the track in two weeks time”.
Johann Zarco: "I’m really happy, because in three days of testing we didn’t report any crash, which is important to be back with the best confidence possible. Today, I did some good laps. The conditions in the morning were ideal and we tried to use this opportunity to lower the lap time. 59.5 is not bad, although I wanted to be a little bit faster. Yet, I know that I also have to further improve myself. Later on, I did 13 laps in a row and physically I was feeling a lot better than one year ago, plus the pace was some tenths faster on every lap. I should be even quicker, but at least I was truly consistent and saved my energy well. The new aerodynamics package from Yamaha was great, it gives us more stability and therefore, it is less physically demanding. I will work with it during the year, depending on the track, but with it I think we can have a good front contact and stability almost everywhere.”
Cal Crutchlow: “It was a positive day today, we were really pleased with the way we worked over the three days and we had another good one today. We pushed for the lap time early in the day, maybe not at the right moment because the track condition was not great and I made a few mistakes on my lap, so overall we’re quite pleased with the outcome to be so fast in Malaysia which is not normally a great track for me.
Next up Thailand. A new event on the calendar, a place that will take some effort to get to and a testing calendar that will once again be humid and hot!