No sooner had the 2018 MotoGP World Championship ended at Valencia last month, then work begun on preparing for the 2019 season with all the main protagonists out on their new steads at both Valencia and Jerez, many on improved versions on their 2018 models, but others seeing their mounts for the very first time.
There was plenty of intrigue across the two tests, none more so than Jorge Lorenzo’s eagerly awaited debut on the Repsol Honda, but also with Danilo Petrucci moving into the factory Ducati team for the first time and newly crowned Moto2 World Champion Francesco Bagnaia taking over his ride at Pramac Ducati.
But whilst the tests threw up a number of surprises ahead of the winter break, none were bigger than the name that ended at the top of the timesheets in Jerez – Japanese rider Takaaki Nakagami.
Nakagami springs a surprise
Nakagami’s debut season in the class this year was steady but not spectacular as he ended 2018 in 20th overall with 33 points, almost a third of those coming in the final race of the year when he claimed sixth. In total, he scored points in 11 of the 18 races held but that was his only top ten finish of the season on the LCR Honda.
Riding as team-mate to Cal Crutchlow, Nakagami used a 2017 Honda RC213V for his maiden campaign but with the Brit out injured, he inherited his higher-spec 2018 version for the Valencian test and used it to devastating effect as he edged out World Champion Marc Marquez by a fraction of a second.
Nakagami will again use a year-old model in 2019 but if the test is anything to go by, he should be a lot more higher up the leaderboard next year, declaring the package beneath him to be a lot more user friendly.
“The power delivery has improved a lot, especially middle to top you can feel more power,” he said. “At the bottom end it feels a little more easy to ride, more sweet, and that’s why with the used tyre the lap time is much more consistent. The set-up is improving and I’m really happy about the package of the 2018 bike. I know Cal, Marc and Lorenzo will use 2019 bikes, but it’s not a big gap like 2017-2018. Maybe 2018-2019 is a much closer gap.”
Solid start for Lorenzo
With the Honda recognised as not being the easiest of MotoGP bikes to ride, let alone ride fast, Lorenzo caused a stir when he announced earlier this year that he’d be riding alongside Marquez at Repsol Honda in 2019. Subsequently, his first appearances on the RC213V at Valencia and Jerez were both eagerly anticipated and closely watched.
The three-time MotoGP Champion duly put in the hard graft and after 65 laps at Jerez, he ended the Jerez test in fourth overall which indicates he’ll be a force to be reckoned with come next season. Eagled eyed observations, including those of Cal Crutchlow, suggest he’s yet to find the metronomic consistency he had at Yamaha and, eventually albeit to a slightly lesser degree, at Ducati but it’s a fantastic starting point which will see him go into winter in a more than positive frame of mind.
Yamaha make progress?
2018 was very much a hit and miss year for Yamaha riders Valentino Rossi and Maverick Vinales and although they ended the season in third and fourth overall in the Championship standings, they did that more through consistently scoring points than scintillating performances. Indeed, they only claimed one win between them, Vinales winning in Australia, and they continue to remain divided in their hopes and thoughts for the year ahead.
The one area where they do agree, however, is the spec of engine to be used in 2019 with both stating that it is a step forward in the package they had in 2018 but whilst Vinales now believes he has a bike he can regularly challenge for race wins on, Rossi believes it is still only good enough for fourth place – at best. This viewpoint could be seen in the timesheets with Vinales in third, 0.121s behind Nakagami and only 0.096s behind Marquez, but Rossi a further half second back in ninth.
“I could ride the bike really well during the test and Jerez is a track where I have never been fast with the MotoGP bike,” said Vinales. “At a track that I think is the most difficult for us, it’s been really good and I think the bike can win the title. Traction is still our weak point, so I’m really happy to hit these lap times with less traction as it means that the bike is working well. We need to adjust the electronics and we’re going to make a good jump when we improve mechanically with the grip.”
Rossi, meanwhile, was a lot more circumspect with his assessment. “The way is quite clear for the engine choice but from what I feel it doesn’t make a lot of difference. With the new tyre, the bike is very good. Maverick is very fast but after four or five laps, for some reason we suffer more. We don’t make a big step and, for me, if we race tomorrow we are fifth, sixth, seventh. Maybe fourth if one crashed in front. But we don’t fight for the victory.”
The four class rookies – Bagnaia, Joan Mir, Fabio Quartararo and Miguel Oliveira – were out in force at both Valencia and Jerez and although the latter found the going tougher on the KTM, the others more than made an impression especially Bagnaia and Quartararo.
Bagnaia was expected to be the strongest of the quartet on the back of his Moto2 championship-winning season and he more than lived up to the billing ending up ninth quickest in Jerez and only slightly slower than regular GP winner Andrea Dovizioso. Indeed, he’s already stated that winning the rookie battle in 2019 is one of his main objectives.
However, the Italian will face stiff competition from Quartararo and Mir, the former impressing greatly on his way to 12th overall on the SIC Petronas Yamaha. The newly formed team were quick out of the blocks with Quartararo’s team-mate Franco Morbidelli sixth quickest, the Italian immediately more at home on the M1 Yamaha compared to the 2017 Honda he rode this year.
Frenchman Quartararo, a race winner in Moto2 this year on the relatively unfancied SpeedUp machine, was four-tenths slower than Bagnaia with 2017 Moto3 World Champion Mir two tenths and two places further back on the Suzuki. Oliveira, meanwhile, ended the test in 24th place on his satellite KTM, 2.6s slower than Nakagami.
Work remains for KTM and Aprilia
Aprilia’s problems were well documented during 2018 and the two tests did little to improve their optimism for the season ahead with new signing Andrea Iannone a lowly 18th on the timesheets at Jerez, some 1.8s adrift of the quickest time. The Italian was riding with an injured foot and with team-mate Aleix Espargaro confined to just 11 laps due to illness, the majority of testing duties fell to new test rider Bradley Smith, the Brit recording the 21st fastest time at Jerez.
Meanwhile, further down the pit lane at KTM, it was clear they have a busy winter ahead of them if they are to challenge for top six positions on a regular basis in 2019. Spaniard Pol Espargaro clocked the 15th fastest time with new signing Johann Zarco four places further back and the Frenchman now knows the task ahead of him with the regular podiums he scored at Yamaha these last two seasons a lot harder to come by.
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 Triumph, Quattro Plant Kawasaki, John McGuinness, Ryan Farquhar and Keith Amor. 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.