The 2020 MotoGP World Championship season fired into life last weekend with the first three-day test of the new season taking place at Sepang in Malaysia and Fabio Quartararo picked up from where he left off in 2019 as he topped the timesheets in all three days of the test.
The young Frenchman proved to be Marc Marquez’ closest challenger in the second half of last season and many are expecting him to take the fight to the six-time MotoGP Champion from the word go. And the way he’s started the new season suggests that’s exactly what he’s going to go.
Of course, testing is exactly that – testing – and we shouldn’t always read too much into the times, Francesco Bagnaia being a prime example when he ran consistently in the top three this time last year only to struggle when the races got underway.
Quartararo is a different proposition though after a multitude of podiums last year and with the continuity of carrying on with the satellite Petronas Yamaha team for a second successive term, everything is in place for him to mount a title challenge. He already has a factory contract in his back pocket too, as he moves to the official Monster Yamaha team in 2021 replacing, no less, Valentino Rossi so he should have all the confidence he needs.
It was a steady start to proceedings for Marquez as he made his comeback from further surgery over the winter on his troublesome shoulder and the bulk of the testing programme was carried out by Cal Cructhlow and his LCR Honda team, the Brit ending the three days with the second fastest time overall despite the Brit’s comments that the front end feel was worse than what he had in 2019.
Marquez concentrated on putting in the laps and building himself back up, the Repsol Honda rider ending the three days in 13th overall and it’s fair to say we shouldn’t read too much into that position given his domination of the sport since his move to the premier class in 2013!
The Spaniard was only 0.423s off Quartararo’s time and such was the competitiveness of the times, less than eight tenths of a second covered the first 19 riders which certainly bodes well for the season ahead. Marquez, of course, will still be the man they all have to beat.
The Spanish pairing of Alex Rins and Maverick Vinales ended the test in vastly different positions, third and 16th respectively, but whilst Rins was able to put in a rapid time on a softer tyre, something which Vinales didn’t, both riders put in long runs with the general consensus being that their race pace was stronger than most.
Of course, the Spanish duo had strong seasons last year but lacked the consistency to mount a full title challenge, Vinales too often losing pace and position at the start of the race and Rins giving himself too much work to do after poor qualifying performances.
Both the Yamaha and Suzuki appear to be stronger packages this year, albeit that judgement coming after just one test, whilst Rins has always utilised the handling supremacy of the Suzuki, something he’ll continue to do in 2020.
Vinales, meanwhile, has already signed a new contract with Yamaha which will run to the end of 2022 which shows his commitment to the team after expressing reservations at various stages of last year. Both riders should be in contention for the race wins from the start.
Rossi on form
On the cusp of his 41st birthday, Valentino Rossi, the GOAT himself, was right in the mix at Sepang, posting the fifth fastest time across the three days, further indication that despite being ousted at the factory Yamaha team by Quartararo for 2021, he very much intends to be at the sharp end in the season ahead.
The offer of a factory Yamaha for 2021, at the Petronas Yamaha team, is already on the table for Rossi should he decide to continue beyond 2020 but only time will tell what that decision will be. For now, he’s concentrating on being competitive this year and having not tasted victory since Assen in 2017, he was pleased with the 2020 M1 Yamaha and just 0.192s off Quartararo’s time, he’s already proved he’s far from finished.
“For me the bike has a better potential than last year. But we need to work because also the other manufacturers made steps and Suzuki, Ducati, Honda are all very strong,” said Rossi. “It looks like we are on a good direction especially for the grip and the pace with the race tyre is positive but we still need to work on the top speed in the straight, because we always suffer.”
Rossi had an unexpected ally in the Yamaha garage with former team-mate and bitter rival Jorge Lorenzo already back in the MotoGP paddock, less than three months after announcing his retirement from racing at Valencia last November.
The three-time MotoGP World Champion spent nine years of his career at Yamaha and, just like Dani Pedrosa has done with KTM, Lorenzo has assumed the role of official test rider with his former team. He took part in the shakedown tests and also participated in the final day of official testing at Sepang, posting a time 1.3s adrift of Quartararo’s quickest time. That was immediately quicker than what he managed on the Repsol Honda last October.
The role of test rider has become more and more important with Pedrosa at KTM, Stefan Bradl at Honda, Sylvain Guintoli at Suzuki, Bradley Smith at Aprilia, Michele Pirro at Ducati and now Lorenzo at Yamaha all bringing their extensive levels of experience to their respective team and putting in the hard yards.
All of the manufacturers have benefitted – the KTM, in particular, continuing to move forward in the hands of Pedrosa and Pol Espargaro – and Yamaha are keen to bridge the gap to Honda having not won the MotoGP crown since Lorenzo took his third title in 2015. Rumours of some wild card appearances this season by Lorenzo have already surfaced so watch this space.
The manufacturer to make the biggest changes over the winter months is Aprilia who slipped to the bottom of the pecking order after a disappointing 2019. There’s no doubt Aleix Espargaro has the ingredients to run at the sharp end with the Spaniard being, arguably, one of the most underrated riders on the grid. But the Aprilia needed to be changed to allow him to do that and they appear to have made some big strides forward.
Perhaps the biggest change is that the bike now has a 90-degree V4 engine matching the likes of Ducati and Honda. The aerodynamics have also been redesigned, with a new front wing and new front wheel brake cover. Substantial work has also gone into the electronics and chassis with the Noale based company having expanded their racing department by acquiring new engineers from the likes of Ferrari, Suzuki, Ducati, Lamborghini and BMW.
Espargaro was 0.345s slower than the quickest time set whilst the second bike was ridden by test riders Bradley Smith and Lorenzo Savadori as investigations continue into the drugs test failed by Andrea Iannone late last year. The Italian remains suspended until further notice.
Work to do
Perhaps the team with the most work to do are Ducati who, despite having Danilo Petrucci and Jack Miller figure inside the top ten of the overall leaderboard, struggled with their pace over their longer, race runs.
Perennial title challenger Andrea Dovizioso, second overall in the championship for the last three seasons was 15th, one place ahead of Vinales, but whilst the Spaniard’s longer run was both quick and consistent, the Italian didn’t come close when it came to the number of laps in the 1m59s bracket. The same applied to Petrucci who only managed seven 1’59s compared to the double figures being recorded by others.
“For sure, in the laptime, I am not so fast. I am not too far from the lead but one year ago I remember we were four Ducatis,” said Petrucci. “There are a lot of riders able to ride more than 10 laps in 59s. And we’re struggling to keep this pace. Still some work to do, and for sure there are many riders faster, and I’m not happy about it, but at least we understand many things, and this is good.”
Having started watching motorcycle races all over the world form childhood, Phil Wain has been a freelance motorcycle journalist for 15 years and is features writer for a number of publications including BikeSport News and Classic Racer, having also been a regular contributor to MCN and MCN Sport. He is PR officer for a number of teams and riders at both the British Superbike Championship and International road races, including Smiths Racing, Quattro Plant Kawasaki, RAF Regular & Reserve Kawasaki, Dafabet Devitt Racing, John McGuinness, Lee Johnston and KMR Kawasaki. He is also heavily involved with the Isle of Man TT Races, writing official press releases and race reports as well as providing ITV4 with statistical information.