MotoGP Phillip Island Preseason Test, Day One

Lap times are almost irrelevant, but we are helplessly fascinated by them, anyway

Marc Marquez Phillip Island test action
Marc Marquez, Repsol Honda Team, Phillip Island Day One Test, 2017Courtesy of Repsol Honda

Marc Marquez finished the first day of MotoGP preseason testing at Phillip Island quickest at 1:29.497, and there were nine riders within the first second. Late in the day, Valentino Rossi put on a new tire and made himself second-quickest, only 0.186 seconds off Marquez. Jorge Lorenzo set the best-ever lap at the Australian track, a 1:27.899, in 2013.

MotoGP teams resumed their work of seeking settings for new equipment and, at the same time, found that Phillip Island's combination of high top speed (210-plus mph) and sea wind revealed how much last year's winglets had contributed to stability. There were several crashes. Aprilia's Sam Lowes said, "Then, I had a crash in Siberia on the way in. But on the data, there was nothing strange, just the position of the bike at the front was a lot higher and I was maybe 1.8 mph faster. So, it looks like I got a big bit of wind and went down."

In video, riders can be seen making large adjustments to lean angle as side winds hit. Lorenzo noted, “It’s not very comfortable before braking at 211 mph, no? It would be better to feel a bit more stability on the front.” At top speed, aero drag becomes a force trying to blow the bike over backward, so settings made last year will result in more “front-end float,” or even in hard topping of the front suspension. Several riders referred to having to make front-end adjustments during the day.

Jorge Lorenzo Phillip Island test action
Jorge Lorenzo, Ducati Team, Phillip Island Day One Test, 2017Courtesy of Ducati Team

Marquez ran a new version of the Big Bang-type engine debuting this year, saying, “The engine is smooth, not [excessively] powerful. But with the electronics—the connection with the gas, engine, and rear wheel—I still don’t feel comfortable. We are missing something. It feels like the electronics are on one side and the engine is on another side. They are not working together. It is difficult to understand, but they need to fix it.”

Last year, Marquez had found the Honda's engine somehow both too aggressive and lacking in acceleration and top speed. Later, he seemed to imply that something like undesirable interaction of engine, anti-wheelie, and anti-spin systems conspired to limit performance, for he would also say, "The power is there."

Cal Crutchlow Phillip Island test action
Cal Crutchlow, LCR Honda, Phillip Island Day One Test, 2017Courtesy of LCR Honda

Cal Crutchlow, who has taken on more Honda testing (he is a good talker and explainer, so I’m not surprised at this), seemed a bit distracted. “At the moment, I feel okay. If the race was today or tomorrow, I think we’d be in a good position (he was fifth quickest on Wednesday). Our bike in October—we knew what it was and what to do with it—but this one is up, down, left, right. And we haven’t really touched the setting of the bike. It’s just been the electronics and a few other things.”

The old rule is, the more things you change, the longer it takes to adapt to them. "It's definitely not easier to ride," Crutchlow added. "I can tell you that. It seems the other factories haven't changed so much from last year. They have a base with the electronics." Remember that Marquez is, like Freddie Spencer three decades ago, a superlative natural improviser. Given new equipment, he will find ways to get it around a track quickly, whether it's easy for him or not.

Remember that the two basic engine changes Honda made to its two-stroke NSR500 were: 1) 90-degree firing to 180 firing; and 2) firing two cylinders together, then 67 degrees later firing the other pair. The result in each case was that the rider could begin to open the throttle sooner in corners without losing traction. If this new engine acts in a similar way, all the settings developed for previous engines will be slightly off.

Valentino Rossi Phillip Island test action
Valentino Rossi, Movistar Yamaha, Phillip Island Day One Test, 2017Courtesy of Movistar Yamaha

Rossi said, "At the end, with the new tire, I was able to do a good lap and second position is positive for the first day. For sure, we still have a lot to do, especially on the long distance." He emphasized this same point at the previous test at Sepang, that Yamaha riders often have less tire left near the end of the race than the others.

To an outside observer (me, for instance) this problem arises in part because the Yamahas and their riders are corner-speed specialists. If you ask for maximum side grip all the way around the long sweepers where the Yamahas are strongest, you are going to use up that grip faster than the Honda men, whose style is to turn most rapidly in only a limited part of the corner—at full lean for a shorter time. Rossi has modified his style to incorporate this “two-stage turning” and has probably extended his tire durability by doing so. Can he, will he, do more in this difficult area of reinventing his style?

Andrea Iannone Phillip Island test action
Andrea Iannone, Team Suzuki Ecstar, Phillip Island Day One Test, 2017Courtesy of Team Suzuki

Third on Wednesday was the reliable hard trier Andrea Iannone, now on Suzuki. "This morning was very difficult for us," he said. "The team couldn't find the proper setting [for me] to feel confident. I struggled a lot." So many did, with the gusting wind being a major reason. "But then in the afternoon, we changed some settings and improved step by step. At the final stage, I was happy because the machine improved as well as the feeling of the bike, and the pace."

After being second much of the day, Maverick Vinales (now teamed with Rossi at Yamaha) was fourth. When the afternoon wind came up, further progress was difficult. “I think I can be happy in one area,” he said. “On the race pace and basic setup, we made a good step—I feel comfortable. We didn’t set a fast lap time at the end of the session; in the last 10 minutes, we went back in the box.”

Maverick Vinales Phillip Island test action
Maverick Vinales, Movistar Yamaha, Phillip Island Day One Test, 2017Courtesy of Movistar Yamaha

The Ducati men were sticking to their test agendas. Andrea Dovizioso, eighth on Day 1, said, "Today, we concentrated on doing some tests with the chassis because we had to define several aspects, and we used up the entire day for this work. The feeling is quite good, but here at Phillip Island, you feel the difference between lapping with the wings and without more than in Malaysia. We still have to improve the bike's balance and setup, and that's scheduled for tomorrow."

Here, Dovizioso explains to us that specific goals will be attended to in their proper order. His new teammate, Lorenzo (11th), made decent times in the top 10 in the morning then found conditions too difficult in the afternoon. “The problem was, when there were two hours before the finish, we put another new tire in the rear and it was not performing the same as the other one. I almost crashed in Turn 3. We decided to stop testing for the day because it was risky and we couldn’t improve like others did.

Andrea Dovizioso Phillip Island test action
Andrea Dovizioso, Ducati Team, Phillip Island Day One Test, 2017Courtesy of Ducati Team

“It is very clear that I need to understand the way to stop the bike better still, even if I started much better than the Sepang test. Also the throttle [on video, his engine can be heard to come in roughly on throttle up] and change of direction in fast corners. With the wings, it would be much easier, because now in sixth gear the front is moving and shaking quite a bit before braking. So, we need to try to find a setting that can improve this feeling.”

Dani Pedrosa, seventh on the second Repsol Honda, also showed the effects of wind and winglessness. “Today, we didn’t work much on the electronics. We concentrated more on the fork to get a good feeling on the bike.”

Dani Pedrosa Phillip Island test action
Dani Pedrosa, Repsol Honda Team, Phillip Island Day One Test, 2017Courtesy of Repsol Honda

And the newcomers, KTM and Aprilia? Since, by definition, they have the most testing between them and success, times were slow: Aleix Espargaro (Aprilia) 14th, 1.305 seconds from first; Pol Espargaro (KTM) 17th, 1.703 seconds; Bradley Smith (KTM) 22nd, 3.193 seconds; Sam Lowes (Aprilia) 21st, 2.810 seconds.

The bottom line is that these tests exist to grind through evaluation agendas, so that’s what teams and riders are doing. Lap times are almost irrelevant, but we are helplessly fascinated by them, anyway.

Phillip Island Day One Test Results sheet
Phillip Island Day One Test ResultsCourtesy of MotoGP