Analysis: What We Learned From The Sepang MotoGP Test

 Oriol Puigdemont

The teams and riders of MotoGP were back on track in Malaysia last week for first test of the 2017 season, and several questions were answered ahead of the start of the season in Qatar next month. Here we analyse some of them.

Vinales confirms what many suspected

After an impressive first run in Valencia, where he topped the times in his first outing as a Yamaha rider, Maverick Vinales showed his potential as a title contender again at Sepang. The Spanish rider finished the Malaysian test setting the fastest time, a 1m59.368s - only three tenths shy of the lap record established by Dani Pedrosa in 2015 on Bridgestone tyres. "The laptime was good. I think I could have improved quite a bit, but in terms of pace we are among the best and I'm really happy," said Vinales on Wednesday.

"I was on the hard tyre and maybe I pushed too hard and went wide, but I was already improving and maybe with the softs I could have improved more." Not only was he fastest over a single lap, but on Wednesday Vinales ominously lapped the Sepang track under the 2m00s mark for longer than any other rider, nine laps. Even if there are still two more pre-season tests in the following weeks before the season commences in earnest, on early evidence, the Vinales/Yamaha package looks to be the quickest on the grid.

Headaches in more ways than one for Rossi

On the other side of the Yamaha garage, Valentino Rossi arrived for the first day of testing with a severe headache, one that affected him on both Monday and Tuesday. Set to turn 38 later this month, the Italian admitted he's not in the best shape at the moment from a physical point of view. He looked fatigued, and could not lap under two minutes for more than one single lap on Wednesday. Still, that one lap - a 1m59.589s - was enough to end the test sixth overall, even if Rossi did not appear to be feeling as comfortable on the bike as his new teammate.

"It's true that today I was fifth and that I'm sixth in the combined standings, but I'm only two tenths behind Vinales, who was first," said the seven-time premier class champion. "He was very strong, he did a very good time, but the first riders were all very fast, even in terms of race pace. We are there also, so the balance of these three days is positive." Even so, if Sepang is anything to by, 'The Doctor' will be in for an even more difficult time beating Vinales than many predicted last season.

Lorenzo gets over his "big shock"

On Monday, Jorge Lorenzo looked like he had just seen a ghost. After being competitive on his debut with the Ducati in Valencia, he was surprised to discover just how much more work he had to do on his riding style to be competitive. But, after ending up 17th fastest on that dismal first day, the Spaniard quickly began to learn some of the tricks of how to get the best out of the Desmosedici, especially under braking. This allowed him to gradually climb the leaderboards throughout the test, and he concluded his Malaysian trip just four tenths from Vinales' fastest lap in 10th overall.

“It was a big shock, the first day, and I said that maybe I needed more time than I expected," said Lorenzo. "But finally [it took] two days, big improvement. “I think we are still very far from our limit, but we are already fast – which means when we get it, we will be very fast, or at least this is what I expect.” The next pre-season test in Phillip Island, a very different track to Sepang, will be a key test in understanding the three-time MotoGP world champion's chances on his new machine.

Honda looks for answers

As per 2015, Honda seemed to be a bit lost finding the right set-up for the RC213V. The Japanese factory brought two new engine specifications to Malaysia, one of them already tested by Marquez and Pedrosa in Valencia. On the first two days, HRC struggled with electronic limitations, but on Wednesday both riders were able to complete their test programme (Marquez running for 85 laps and Pedrosa for 67). Honda must now choose a single course to take, whether to look for more performance in the first engine or try to tame its more powerful second option, as Marquez alluded to on Wednesday.

"I worked with two completely different bikes and we have done the back-to-back," he said. "It was useful to see many things. "With one bike we are almost at the limit, and with the other there's potential and room for improvement but it's matching [the speed of] the other one." The team's situation looks quite similar to last year's pre-season - not that that, in the end, prevented Marquez from taking a third title.

Iannone lives up to his reputation

Suzuki has put its trust in Andrea Iannone to be its lead rider for 2017 after the departure of Vinales, but that doesn't mean the Italian is likely to tame his wild style any time soon. 'The Maniac' was his usual unpredictable self at Sepang, setting the fastest lap on Tuesday and crashing twice the day after - although his effort the previous day was still enough for second overall. “Our tests went well, beyond expectations,” said Iannone. “We are learning a lot with every change we make. We started to change the set-up of the bike, and it responds well every time."

"Suzuki knows that the engineers must work on electronics and some [other] little components of our bike. Those can be a great improvement for us." From the outset, Iannone has looks very comfortable on the GSX-RR, a sweet-handling machine with a recently improved engine that seems capable of regularly threatening the top teams. Sepang served as the latest reminder of Iannone's undoubted speed, but it won't be until Qatar that we start to see whether he can step up to the mark as a number one rider in the way Suzuki is hoping.

Aprilia making strides

Aprilia made plenty of progress in closing the gap to the frontrunners in the second half of 2016, and the latest version of the RS-GP appeared to continue the trend in Malaysia. New recruit Aleix Espargaro ended up a relatively promising seven tenths slower than Vinales on the final day - although it was the longer runs that the Spaniard was particularly encouraged by. A heavily revised engine in particular has been a big boost to the Italian marque's fortunes, although Espargaro noted that power delivery remains an issue that needs addressing.

“We tested a new engine and it works a bit better," said the former Suzuki rider. "We have improved the speed, we have improved the acceleration. “I think we are not using all the power we have because of the problems with the power delivery, but we have improved in terms of speed.” Unlike Suzuki, Aprilia still has the privilege of unrestricted in-season engine development (or at least until it scores enough concession points), so the problems Espargaro are ones that can, on paper, be solved as the year goes on.

KTM finds its way

MotoGP's newest manufacturer was predictably some way off the pace in Sepang, both Pol Espargaro and Bradley Smith recording identical times of 2m01.338s, just under two seconds off the pace. For a track as long as Sepang, and with two long straights, this certainly wasn't too shabby, especially as Mika Kallio was 2.7s off the pace in qualifying at the much shorter Valencia last year. "There are things we need to improve, but there are other things I’ve seen compared to other riders and other manufacturers that we’re actually really strong at," said Smith.

"To only be 1.9 seconds off the fastest guy here, at Sepang - one of the longest tracks and our first test of 2017 - I think KTM’s done a great job.” Espargaro was equally as upbeat, describing it as "Christmas Day" when he saw the range of frames and fairings the Austrian manufacturer had at its disposal for the first test. The next two tests will be critical for KTM to establish its development direction for the start of the season, but it's fair to say MotoGP's new kid on the block has got 2017 off to a good start.

Zarco and Folger surprise everyone

Johann Zarco and Jonas Folger, both MotoGP rookies this season with the Yamaha Tech 3 squad, stood out as some of the biggest surprises in Sepang. Both riders proved they're feeling very comfortable on the M1, a winning machine for Lorenzo and Rossi from last season, with Zarco ending up only four tenths slower than Vinales on the last day.

Folger was a little further back, half a second slower than Zarco, but still the fifth fastest independent rider and within a second of Vinales. The quick adaptation of both Tech 3 riders bodes well for an exciting Rookie of the Year battle, along with Suzuki's Alex Rins and Aprilia's Sam Lowes.

Bautista gels with the Ducati

As was already proven last season, Ducati has a very good base that allows independent teams running older versions of the Desmosedici to get straight on the pace. Avintia rider Hector Barbera enjoyed an advantage last year, but it looks like he has a new rival this season, as ex-Aprilia man Alvaro Bautista fell in love with the Ducati at Sepang.

The Aspar rider described the GP16 as the "best bike he's ever ridden" in his MotoGP career, and proved as much by finishing the test seventh fastest, 0.260s off the pace and seventh overall. As Bautista pointed out however, the honeymoon period is unlikely to last for long as the factory teams hone their 2017 machines - so the early races will be key for the likes of Bautista, Barbera and Pramac rider Scott Redding to post some big results.

Stoner reminds MotoGP what it's been missing

After doing some development work on the new Ducati GP17 during private testing at Sepang, two-time champion Casey Stoner joined the field for the first day of official running - and duly went fastest. The Australian topped the timesheets on Monday with a best effort of 1m59.681s, which was good enough to be eighth fastest for the week, even if he missed out the honour of being the top Ducati by less than a tenth to Andrea Dovizioso.

Still, Stoner's display was a reminder than the 2007 and 2011 champion has lost none of his speed, and that he remains a potent weapon in Ducati's armoury as it chases its first MotoGP title in a decade. Small wonder, then, that Lorenzo spoke last year of wanting Ducati to convince Stoner to take up an expanded role in his second season back with the Italian factory. Instead, it's the team's other test rider Michele Pirro who will take up the role of being Lorenzo's track analyst in 2017, as Stoner couldn't be persuaded to travel to all 18 races.Whether Stoner makes any more appearances on the Desmosedici this year remains to be seen, but the prospect of the 31-year-old making a race comeback seems more distant than ever.

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Domain: Afterhours
Category: Motor Sports
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