What We Learned at Sepang, Part 1: Trying to Read the Tea Leaves

With the bikes all crated up and shipped to Indonesia, and the entire paddock flown to Mandalika on the island of Lombok (bar those stuck in quarantine in Malaysia after testing positive for COVID-19), there is time to look back at the Sepang MotoGP test.

Because this year is so different to previous years in a number of ways, I am breaking it down into two parts.

First, some general points that apply to the test itself and across several or all manufacturers, and later in the week, a breakdown manufacturer by manufacturer.

The first and most obvious conclusion which can be drawn from the Sepang test is that it is hard to draw any clear and general conclusions from the Sepang test.

There are a number of reasons for that. Firstly, though the temptation is to look at the headline times, they are even more deceptive than ever.

That is in part because the simple classification, the best lap of each rider, ranked, makes for some juicy headlines. Enea Bastianini, a rider starting his second season, riding a bike from last year, slashes over a tenth of a second off the lap record.

The Aprilias, long MotoGP’s whipping boy, take a 1-2 on the first day, and end the session second and fifth overall, with everyone expressing their admiration for the speed of the RS-GP.

The defending MotoGP champion Fabio Quartararo down in seventh. The top eight nearly within two tenths of a second of each other (eighth-placed Marc Marquez is 0.201 behind Bastianini), thirteen riders with half a second, eighteen within a second.


Not the Whole Story

But those headline times tell only a fraction of the story. Everyone had planned a time attack on the final day of the test, with some picking out the cool of the morning, others waiting for the end of the day, once the temperatures were expected to drop.

The rain that came shortly before 2pm, then again a couple of hours later put paid to that. Though the track dried out significantly, the second heavy rain shower ended any hope of improving the times set in the morning.

That left riders like Franco Morbidelli with no sense of where he stood over a single fast lap. His best time was not representative, because he hadn’t been able to put a soft tire in and chase a time.

“It was in the program, but it was in the evening, late in the day, but then the rain came,” the Monster Energy Yamaha rider said.

Other riders had done a fast lap, but were still holding back for a proper fast time at the end of the day. Alex Rins, for example, had posted an impressive time, but felt he still had plenty left in the tank if he’d been given another shot.

“I felt quite good but sincerely and this is true, talking with the hand on the heart, I made my fastest lap with a soft tire that had done 3 laps. I think me and everybody was waiting with a new soft for the late afternoon, but the rain didn’t allow us to use it.”

As impressive as Bastianini’s time was, it was still well short of what was expected. When I asked Michelin’s Piero Taramasso if he thought a 1’57 was possible, and he said he expected a lot of them.

The fact that nobody even got down to a 1’58.0 suggests that the riders were still well shy of the real limit.


Clean and Rubbered In

Part of the reason the times were so quick was because the track was in excellent condition.

Sunday’s rain was the first since Wednesday night, and with 27 riders circulating, most putting in 60 laps or more on Saturday, there was plenty of rubber on the track.

That meant there was grip in abundance, making it easier for riders and teams to find grip from the track, rather than from the bike.

“It’s true that in the test there’s a lot of rubber, a lot of grip,” Marc Marquez said on Sunday. “Everybody is fast, you saw the lap times. There are twelve riders in three tenths, four tenths, more or less. This is something that never happens in the GP.”

The Repsol Honda rider pointed to the experience of previous tests. “In the test, last year for example, Montmelo test, everybody was fast. Misano test, everybody was really fast.” This was not indicative of conditions during a race.

“These conditions that we had today, with a lot of rubber on the track, fully black, you never have in the race. Because Moto3 is in front of you and they clean the track. So this is something that you need to setup the bike.”

Setting an attention-grabbing time in a test was nice, but that would not necessarily translate into a race. “Of course it’s nice to be fast and it’s nice to be constant, but you need to set up the bike also on a race weekend,” Marquez pointed out.

“Then we will see. For that reason I said before, first three or four races, then you understand who are the guys this year.”


Sorting the Bikes

Those three or four races are going to be important for the development of the bikes as well. The six MotoGP factories brought bikes at very different stages of development.

There those which are just expanding on an existing theme, those which are major upgrades, and those which are radical new beginnings. Those different levels of development require different levels of work, including on such basic matters as electronics.

You can do a lot of electronics setup work on a dyno, and the factories do just that.

They can use throttle trace and engine braking data from previous races to precisely simulate the loads an engine must endure, and put a new engine through its paces under those conditions to try to perfect engine mappings, traction control, and engine braking settings.

But, dyno rooms aren’t race tracks, no matter how sophisticated they are. Traction and engine response is sufficiently different on a race track that there is a lot of work to do.

And that work takes time. Modifying engine maps to address shortcomings discovered out on track is a time-consuming business, and can’t be cobbled together in half an hour between runs.

Engineers take the data from a day of testing and use it to work out what is needed to at least improve, if not fix, the weaknesses which showed up at the track.

They prepare maps to be tried the following day, and repeat that cycle every time the bikes are out on track, in a perpetual cycle of refinement.


Where the Times Came From

That was what happened for pretty much everyone from Saturday to Sunday. Engine characteristics were revised and refined, and made to behave a little better, and that brought about big improvements for the riders.

That was very much the case for Ducati, Pecco Bagnaia said. “We are working more on the acceleration, because when you put the same electronics on a different engine, for sure you have to adjust everything, and it’s not an easy thing, because we worked for two years with the bike with the same electronics, so we have time to improve that area. And already on the second day we did a great step.”

Ducati weren’t alone. Suzuki made a step with the electronics on Sunday, as did Honda, and Aprilia have had much longer to sort the electronics out on what is a major upgrade to the GP21. Yamaha still have work to do, despite the engine not being a massive change, while the KTM riders believe that software refinement can help them with a lack of grip.

Refining an electronics package is a long, iterative process. Big steps are made early on, progress slowing as the easy gains are quickly found, leaving only the difficult problems.

The teams and factories then have the rest of the season to figure out those smaller but still significant details.

But at the Sepang test, everyone is still some way off, rendering the results relatively hard to interpret. The timesheets at the end of the test are still some way off being representative for how the season will play out.


Location, Location, Location

Which brings us to another significant factor. The testing schedule means MotoGP factories had effectively a day and a half testing at Sepang, then head to Mandalika, an entirely unknown quantity in terms of what it demands from the bike and from the rider.

“We’ll lose pretty much half a day just getting to a good level before we can start playing with the bike properly,” Brad Binder said. And that is if it stays dry. This is the tropics, after all, and rain is always a possibility, though the track tends to dry out very quickly if it does.

Mandalika is the final test, a departure from previous years. And that, too, will have a major effect. Normally, the teams would go from Sepang to Qatar for the test, then come back a week or so later for the opening round of the season.

Having three days of extra testing to set up the bikes for the race tended to distort the results of that opening round.

“What I don’t like is to make the test in Qatar, a lot of testing, everyone super fast, and then you arrive at the race and it’s difficult,” Joan Mir said. Everyone spends time in the test working on the Qatar race, and perfecting the setup.

The Qatar race sets the tone, but the first races of the season are conditioned by the massive release of adrenaline as the season finally gets underway.

“Everyone wants to start always the first race,” Joan Mir reflected. “The first races, everyone is always super excited. And it’s important to manage well the situation. To give 100%, make no mistakes, and to score points, as always.”

So yes, take note of the results of the Sepang test, but keep a good stock of salt handy. You will need more than a pinch or two to not read too much into them.

Sure, the Sepang test is important, and it means a lot. But what will truly matter during the season are the things going on under the surface and behind the scenes, rather than a headline-grabbing lap time.

Photo: Aprilia Racing


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