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.
“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 Marquez, 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.(source: motorsportmagazine.com)
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