With the opening round of the World Superbike Championship less than two weeks away, it was the turn of the MotoGP riders to get back on track last week with a three-day test at Sepang, Malaysia and whilst testing may not always be a true guide as to how the season will unfold, it nonetheless threw up many talking points.
Ducati on top
The heat and humidity in Malaysia saw Ducati impress the greatest, as they so often do in hot conditions, and they ended the test with the four quickest times although perhaps few expected Danilo Petrucci to be the quickest.
After four years with the satellite Pramac team, Petrucci more than deserves his shot on a factory bike but with it only being a one-year deal, he needs to grab it with both hands to ensure he keeps the seat for 2020. That may seem a long way off but his season started in the perfect fashion with the fastest time across the three days.
Getting the better of team-mate Andrea Dovizioso over the course of 19 rounds may be a tall order, not just because of Dovi’s length of time on the bike but also because of the fact he’s finished Championship runner-up for the last two seasons, but Petrux will certainly be hoping 2019 is the year he claims his first Grand Prix win.
Dovizioso finished the test fourth quickest and sandwiched in between the factory red machines were the two Pramac bikes of Jack Miller and class rookie Francesco Bagnaia.
Miller has shown fleeting glimpses of his potential in his four previous seasons in the class but needs to find more consistency so third quickest was an encouraging start but the biggest surprise of the test was Bagnaia ending it second place overall, just 0.063s behind Petrucci.
On the one hand, we shouldn’t be surprised as the Italian comes into 2019 as the reigning Moto2 World Champion, a season that saw him claim no less than eight wins, and he earned rave reviews all year long from his fellow riders, team managers and the media.
The MotoGP is a whole different proposition altogether though but to be second quickest was quite stunning and has certainly made the rest of the field sit up and take note. As mentioned above, a riders’ performance in testing doesn’t always translate into results but Bagnaia could well be the one to watch as the season unfolds.
Marquez back;Lorenzo missing
2019 hasn’t be an ideal start for the Repsol Honda dream team of reigning Champion Marc Marquez and new recruit Jorge Lorenzo with Marquez having surgery on his troublesome shoulder and Lorenzo breaking his scaphoid in a dirt bike crash.
Having dislocated his shoulder on countless occasions during 2018, it was vital that Marquez went under the knife although the operation in December proved to be longer than anticipated. The four-hour operation meant he arrived at Sepang with just a handful of laps on an NSF100 under his belt and he was limited to just 29 laps on the first day of testing.
Amazingly, or maybe not, he was quickest on day one only to struggle on day two as the physical exertions began to limit him. By day three, he was getting more into his rhythm once more and the recovery of the joint improving so although 11th didn’t look the best on paper, he was less than a second slower than Petrucci whose lap was set on soft rubber.
Lorenzo, meanwhile, had an encouraging start to his Honda career with some strong lap times last November so will be devastated to have missed the test. Whilst he’s expected to be on the grid at the season opener at Qater on March 10, there will be serious questions marks over his physical condition and playing catch-up to his rivals when the season is up and running won’t be an easy task.
As well as Marquez returning to the track so too was the sole Brit in MotoGP this year, Cal Crutchlow. The Isle of Man-based rider was making his comeback after a practice crash at Phillip Island, Australia last October left him with an ankle broken in a staggering 17 places.
It meant he was having his first outing on the 2019 Honda RC213V and, still struggling to walk in the mornings, Crutchlow took it steady on day one. A crash on day two showed he was finding the limits once more and readily admitted he kept his ankle high in the air when he disappeared into the gravel in order not to damage it further.
As it turned out, both he and the ankle got stronger over the three days and sixth fastest overall was an excellent performance and one that maybe even he wouldn’t have envisaged. We can expect another strong season from Crutchlow as he enters his ninth MotoGP season.
Hope for Espargaro and Aprilia
With all eyes on the top of the leaderboard and also how the class rookies such as Bagnaia and Joan Mir would perform, one result worth commending is that of Aleix Espargaro who put the under-performing and ill-favoured Aprilia in an excellent seventh place overall.
The Spaniard is, arguably, one of the most under-rated riders on the MotoGP grid and has never truly been given a crack on one of the best bikes but he never complains and continues to impress with his attitude, aggression and results.
Only time will tell if the improvements to the bike over the winter months, and the addition of Bradley Smith as test rider, will revitalise the Noale manufacturer’s fortunes but one thing’s for sure is that Espargaro will keep giving it 110% and doing his utmost to get the best results possible.
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.