MotoGP Phillip Island Preseason Test, Day Three

Final day of testing shows Honda and Yamaha have the most speed and best pace yet both have distinct problem areas needing improvement

Marc Marquez Phillip Island test action
Marc Marquez, Repsol Honda Team, Phillip Island Test Day 3, 2017Courtesy of Repsol Honda

A look at the top five shows the extent to which the setups of the top teams have "gelled." There are two Yamahas and three Hondas. Maverick Vinales remain on top, but by a reduced margin of 0.294 seconds over Marc Marquez and Dani Pedrosa. New Moto2 arrival Jonas Folger was fourth on Tech3 Yamaha and newly consistent Cal Crutchlow fifth on an LCR Honda. When more than one rider can be fast on a given manufacturer's bike, that increases confidence in the basic package.

One second covers the top 12. We focus on single lap times, but the riders and engineers care much more about the results of long runs because they reveal who can be fast at the end. Here are the average lap times of the top five long runs:

Marc Marquez (Repsol Honda) – 1:29.125

Cal Crutchlow (LCR Honda) – 1:29.469

Maverick Vinales 2 (Movistar Yamaha) – 1:29.478

Maverick Vinales 1 (Movistar Yamaha) – 1:29.697

Andrea Iannone (ECSTAR Suzuki) – 1:30.079

Cal Crutchlow said a mouthful when he revealed that, although fast, the 2017 Honda is not easy to ride. “One thing is we—Marc, Dani, and me—can be fast and we don’t really know why because the bike actually feels really difficult to ride. Physically, it’s even worse than last time and nobody else can ride last year’s bike, anyway, because it’s so physical compared to what they’ve been on. Now, this one’s even worse, but the lap time is there.”

Cal Crutchlow Phillip Island test action
Cal Crutchlow, LCR Honda, Phillip Island Test Day 3, 2017Courtesy of LCR Honda

Performance and handling are not the same thing. During 1989, other riders were telling Eddie Lawson how easy to ride a certain new Honda chassis was. When he tried it, he, too, found it very easy to ride. But it wouldn’t do the lap time. When he got back on the original chassis, as much harder to ride as it was, he was immediately competitive.

Marquez spoke of the upcoming first race. "Both Yamaha riders, they will be there. And the Ducati riders: Here, they are struggling a little bit more but always some luck to them. Also, my teammate; [Dani] will be strong this year, too."

Dani Pedrosa Phillip Island test action
Dani Pedrosa, Repsol Honda Team, Phillip Island Test Day 3, 2017Courtesy of Repsol Honda

Pedrosa has again and again emerged from difficulties (on Wednesday, he was ill; on Thursday, he rode; and on Friday, he punched through to third quickest). This man is strong. The effort others put into media training (gotta get those hand gestures right!) Pedrosa puts into his riding.

He called the test “very positive, because regarding the fact that this is one of my worst tracks, I was riding quite well. We focused again on electronics and on the setup of the bike, and the only thing we missed was a long run, as we ran out of time.”

Valentino Rossi Phillip Island test action
Valentino Rossi, Movistar Yamaha, Phillip Island Test Day 3, 2017Courtesy of Movistar Yamaha

If you are bored by riders constantly referring to time devoted to electronics remember that corner-by-corner settings must be worked out in detail and multiple engine-mapping schemes evaluated. When asked how this could all be fitted into each race’s four practices, former Valentino Rossi crew chief Jeremy Burgess said, “It helps to have a very intelligent rider.”

Both Honda and Yamaha riders revealed there are problems yet to be solved. Marquez spoke of a basic mismatch between the Honda’s electronics and engine, as well as the Yamaha riders. Vinales said, “Today, we concentrated mainly on the race pace. I’m satisfied, but we’re still able to improve.”

Maverick Vinales Phillip Island test action
Maverick Vinales, Movistar Yamaha, Phillip Island Test Day 3, 2017Courtesy of Movistar Yamaha

A flurry of interest was raised when Marquez rode for a time behind Vinales, who said, “After five laps, I needed to abort the race simulation.” Of his observations during this time, Marquez said, “His bike was so stable in the fast corners—one and eight. Our bike is more nervous; every year, we have the same problem in these corners, but we are working to fix it. The Yamaha is a really stable bike but, of course, Vinales was fast.”

The Hondas have traditionally been fast on tracks like Circuit of The Americas, whose numerous smaller corners favor the stop/turn/squirt style of the Hondas and their riders. There, being “nervous” becomes an advantage as the Honda transitions very fast from braking to turning. But longer corners cannot be managed in that style, obliging the Hondas to demonstrate sustained corner speed, a situation in which nervousness becomes a disadvantage.

Andrea Iannone Phillip Island test action
Andrea Iannone, Team SUZUKI ECSTAR, Phillip Island Test Day 3, 2017Courtesy of Team SUZUKI ECSTAR

Of Marquez, Vinales said, “He’s very strong. His braking points are quite amazing. He’s really good there and, in that area, we have to improve.” No doubt, some improvement is possible, but the Yamaha’s stability, as Bradley Smith noted a year ago, comes from being “long and low.” When it comes to late, very hard braking, the faster weight transfer of the taller Honda won’t be easy to overcome.

Vinales’ teammate, Rossi, was not pleased to be 11th. “For sure, this test was more difficult for me than the one in Sepang, but the bike has good aspects, especially the engine.” About the new chassis, he said, “Yeah, for me, the second spec, the new one, is better.”

Alex Rins Phillip Island test action
Alex Rins, Team SUZUKI ECSTAR, Phillip Island Test Day 3, 2017Courtesy of Team SUZUKI ECSTAR

In his overview, Yamaha team principal Massimo Meregalli said, “The fast pace that Maverick was able to keep up during the long runs proves that we have improved rear tire life, which was one of our main objectives for this season.”

This appears to mean that the corner-speed riding style may remain viable. Often in the past, Marquez’s tactic of waiting until late in the race to pass the Yamaha, whose tires had become marginal, sometimes made it appear that corner speed was truly in its last days.

Jorge Lorenzo Phillip Island test action
Jorge Lorenzo, Ducati Team, Phillip Island Test Day 3, 2017Courtesy of Ducati Team

Meanwhile, corner speed’s main exponent, Jorge Lorenzo, now on a Ducati, found himself eighth on Day 3. He consoled himself with the thought of how much he has so far adapted to the Ducati, and the likelihood that better is to come.

“Everything can happen at Qatar,” he said. “In Sepang, it was easier than here. We had some difficulties here until we got the new tires that gave us more grip and solve half of the problems. With soft tires and, theoretically, Qatar being a good track for Ducati, we can be competitive. I don’t know if it will be enough to fight for the victory, because it’s still too soon, and the other rivals have made a big step forward, especially Vinales and Marquez.”

Andrea Dovizioso Phillip Island test action
Andrea Dovizioso, Ducati Team, Phillip Island Test Day 3, 2017Courtesy of Ducati Team

The Ducati’s problems remain corner speed, direction changing (which has historically never been easy for the brand), and un-smooth throttle-up. Teammate Andrea Dovizioso (seventh) finished his laconic review by saying, “I’m not completely satisfied because we still haven’t managed to totally improve several characteristics of the bike.”

Folger impressed the paddock by being so fast on this fast track with its daunting corners. “I was surprised by the lap time I made this morning,” he said. “What was good is that we were many times close to that lap so it’s not just one quick lap—we were also quite constant.”

Jonas Folger Phillip Island test action
Jonas Folger, Monster Yamaha Tech3, Phillip Island Test Day 3, 2017Courtesy of Monster Yamaha Tech3

Even more impressive is that after crashing in the cooling afternoon, Folger lost no time. “I was a bit worried,” he said. “I didn’t want to end the day like this, so we put new tires on the bike number two, and a full tank, and we went out again. “We said, ‘Okay, maybe we cannot make a race simulation, but at least I can try to do as many laps as possible.’ So I did 11 laps. On the last lap, I was doing a 1:29.3, and every lap I went faster.”

The teams have now taken the measure of their own shortcomings and will be intensely busy in the days ahead. Honda and Yamaha have shown speed and pace yet both have distinct problem areas needing improvement. Ducati and Suzuki make up the next group. We hope for surprises.

No one had much to say about downforce fairings on the final day of the test, so we must await possible further developments in that area for the Qatar test on March 10-12. The first Grand Prix is on March 26 at the Losail International Circuit in Qatar.

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