MotoGP is heading down under. After the initial excitement of the first test of 2017 at Sepang, the atmosphere at Phillip Island is a little more subdued. The novelty of bikes back on track has worn off a little, and now it’s back to the grindstone, the hard work of running through lots of parts and changes and verifying the results found at Sepang.
Phillip Island is a strange place to go testing. It is a truly unique place, like no other. It is a test of rider more than bike, of courage more than technology. The track has a lot of fast flowing corners, very little hard braking, very little hard acceleration. What you learn from testing at Phillip Island is how stable the bike is in very fast corners, how well it wants to change direction at high speed, and how good you are at making your tires last.
That last reason is the real benefit to testing at Phillip Island. It is above all a chance for Michelin to put their tires through some serious punishment, and one of the main reasons for testing there. The series went from having two tests at Sepang in February to a test in Malaysia and then Australia in 2015, in response to the disastrous race in 2013, when Bridgestone’s tires turned out not to be up to handling the new asphalt. Michelin wanted to be prepared, so tested there in 2015, gathering data to build tires that worked.
No major changes
What can we expect to see at Phillip Island? In reality, the bike changes at the second test will be modest. Factory engineers have been poring over the data from the first test at Sepang, devising solutions to the problems they have encountered, but have not had enough time to actually build everything they need. Couple that to the fact that feedback on anything related to braking and acceleration is limited, and it makes little sense to debut anything big.
What that means is that most of the factories and teams will be continuing with the work started at Sepang. They will take what they had at Sepang, and try to refine it further, providing more data for the engineers back in the factories working for the final test of the preseason in Qatar.
Perhaps the most intriguing question in Phillip Island is whether Maverick Viñales can continue his domination of testing. The Movistar Yamaha rider has been fastest in four of the five days of official testing so far, and was quickest at both Valencia and Sepang. Phillip Island is a track which he loves, and at which he far exceeded expectations on the Suzuki. It is also a great track to be working on the one area he has spent the entire off season concentrating on: managing tire life, especially towards the end of a race. Viñales was quick during his long runs at Sepang, and he is likely to focus on that again in Australia.
Valentino Rossi will once again focus on refining the Yamaha M1. The Italian was pleasantly surprised by the progress which Yamaha engineers had made over the winter, seeing the bike as a big step forward. “Just about everything we brought to the Sepang test worked,” Yamaha boss Lin Jarvis told the Yamaha racing presentation in Milan last week. Phillip Island is a chance to confirm what they have found.
Aero or no?
Yamaha is likely to keep testing with their ducted fairings again at Phillip Island, though the benefits there are limited. The real benefit of the wings – and now the ducted vanes which replace them – was downforce under hard acceleration. With little acceleration at the Australian circuit, it is hard to test. It is a good place to test how they will hold up in strong winds, however, as a stiff breeze is an almost permanent fixture at the circuit.
Will other factories debut their aerodynamic upgrades? They are more likely to keep their powder dry until Qatar. That circuit features more acceleration points, making it a more useful circuit to test aerodynamics. It is also much closer to the start of the 2017 season, giving rivals a lot less time to copy ideas. There may be a factory or two which rolls something out, but most will ride just with ordinary fairings.
Narrowing down engines
The Phillip Island test will be useful to Honda, as they narrow down their selection of engine. At Sepang, Marc Márquez, Dani Pedrosa and Cal Crutchlow all expressed a slight preference for the new and revised version of the big bang engine HRC brought to Sepang, and Honda team principal Livio Suppo told Crash.net in an interview that they view that engine as the way forward. Phillip Island lacks the hard acceleration points where they would learn most about points the engine is meant to address.
We should also see just how seriously Marc Márquez takes the rivalry of Maverick Viñales. So far, Márquez has been the only rider to truly challenge Viñales, outpacing the Yamaha rider in Sepang. With three days of good weather projected, both men should have a chance to put in both long runs and try to post a quick time. Phillip Island would be an ideal place for the two to indulge in a spot of sparring.
All in the mind
Jorge Lorenzo will head to Phillip Island with a lot more confidence than he had after the first day at Sepang. That had come as a shock, as the Spaniard discovered that his first impressions of the Ducati Desmosedici at Valencia had deceived him. Lorenzo gained speed on the second and third days, and was looking more competitive by the end of the test.
Lorenzo will return to the job of understanding the Ducati, and adapting his riding style to the bike. Phillip Island is a help and a hindrance in that: Lorenzo’s biggest problem was changing his approach to braking, learning to squeeze the brakes later and deeper into the corner. There are only a few points at the Island where he can practice that. But he will have a chance to gain confidence by testing the limits of the Ducati in corners, and seeing how much the speed of the GP17 can help him. This is a track which Lorenzo loves (like so many other riders), and leaving here at or near the top of the timesheets will be a boost.
Ducati, meanwhile, will continue with the work of evaluating their new bike. The Italian factory have once again brought two different versions of the GP17 to Phillip Island, the Valencia version of the GP17, and the later version with the “salad box” carbon fiber unit under the tail. Lorenzo and Andrea Dovizioso will spend most of the test evaluating the differences between the two machines.
For Suzuki, the big question is how fast Andrea Iannone can be. The Italian was quick on the GSX-RR at Sepang, the bike having gained some top end and acceleration from an uprated engine. Suzuki’s main focus is on electronics improvements, and here the circuit may help. With the bikes spending a lot of time on the edge of the tire round the Island’s long, fast corners, the engineers get a chance to refine the electronics and help manage tire wear.
Benefit for some
The one factory which may well get a lot of benefit from the Phillip Island test is KTM. It is a track where the Austrian factory has never tested their RC16 MotoGP bike, and it also provides a chance to work on one of the weak points of the machine. At Sepang, Bradley Smith and Pol Espargaro had mainly been working on getting the bike to turn, testing three different chassis. There, they managed to narrow down their choice to a clear favorite.
At Phillip Island, they move on to the next area which needs improvement: drive out of corners. KTM had also brought swing arms to Sepang, but had not spent too much time on them, knowing that they would get a much better chance to assess them in Australia. Espargaro and Smith will be focusing on that, as well as working on electronics. There is still much to do.
Rookie ride out
Phillip Island should also give us an opportunity to assess where the rookies stand in 2017. Johann Zarco had emerged as the strongest of the four newcomers at Sepang, though his Monster Tech 3 Yamaha teammate Jonas Folger was similarly strong. The Yamaha is a solid bike and goes well around Phillip Island, so both Tech 3 riders should perform well.
The more interesting story is with the factory rookies. Alex Rins made big steps forward at Sepang, after a very tough start in Valencia. The Suzuki goes well around Phillip Island, its sweet-handling chassis perfectly suited to the fast circuit. Rins will be looking to gain confidence in the long fast sweepers in Australia.
Sam Lowes will also be working on confidence, a task made easier at a track where he goes well and where has less to figure out. He can focus on one thing at a time with the Aprilia RS-GP, and try to get up to speed with his teammate, Aleix Espargaro. Whether Aprilia have brought anything new to help with the bike’s weakness – a lack of horsepower and acceleration – remains to be seen. More likely, it will take some time for those parts to filter through.
Quick satellite riders
With so many factory riders, it is easy to lose sight of the satellite riders in MotoGP. Alvaro Bautista had an astonishingly good Sepang test, leaving the circuit with perhaps the third best pace of the riders there. Bautista will hope to maintain that pace at Phillip Island, but will face an uphill battle as the factories improve.
Cal Crutchlow will be roped into further test work for HRC, as Honda refines its 2017 engine. But as with the Repsol riders, he will have less to test at Phillip Island, and will have a chance to work on set up. The Englishman won the race at the Island last October, so there can be no doubting his speed.
The other Honda rider will also want to make an impression. Jack Miller is riding at home, and even though it is only testing, he will still want to put up a good show. He continues to work with his new crew chief Ramon Aurin after the departure of Cristian Gabarrini, and figuring out that relationship will be key. Miller is alone for the next three days, as Marc VDS teammate Tito Rabat has been forced to miss the test while he recovers from surgery on the knee he damaged in a crash at Sepang.
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