Last chance saloon: can anyone top Maverick Vinales in Qatar
After first contact at Sepang International Circuit and comparisons done at the very different Phillip Island, the final outing of the three Official Tests ahead of the 2017 season will soon be underway in Qatar, from 10th – 12th March. The same venue as will stage the first race of the year under the floodlights of the desert, Losail International Circuit gives teams a chance to test directly for the first round of the year – as well as affording the grid more track time as they dial in to the new season.
The superstar of the pre-season timesheets has so far proven Maverick Viñales (Movistar Yamaha MotoGP), who was fastest first time out in Valencia on his new Yamaha at the end of 2016 – and then repeated that feat at both Sepang and Phillip Island. The 2016 Silverstone winner is undefeated on one lap pace in testing, but MotoGP™ is not a one lap race. With decisions made on chassis and direction, Viñales is settled and ready for battle at Yamaha – with plenty track time remaining for those final adjustments.
Not as happy following the first two tests of 2017 is Viñales’ teammate, nine-time World Champion Valentino Rossi. Having an up-and-down test at Sepang as Yamaha debuted their “internal” winglets and new fairing, the ‘Doctor’ left Phillip Island outside the top ten and frustrated at having taken what he perceived to be a wrong turn in direction. Ever the competitor, Rossi will be keen to use all the data analysed from Malaysia and Australia to hit the ground running in Qatar.
Just behind Viñales, the other pretender to the pre-season crown is Repsol Honda Team’s Marc Marquez, who has been notably focused on long runs and track time rather than one lap pace. With the difficulties of 2016 seeming a world away, the Repsol Honda squad have chosen their engine specification and worked centuries of laps on the electronics. Three-time World Champion Dani Pedrosa was also close to his teammate in Phillip Island in P3 – despite not having ridden at the track in 2016 – and both LCR Honda rider Cal Crutchlow and EG0,0 Marc VDS’ Jack Miller have been key contributors to HRC’s testing program since Valencia. Both Marquez and ‘Baby Samurai’ Pedrosa have notably played their cards close to their chest – and had their impressive showings on the timesheets do the talking.
The Ducati Team have been taking two paths throughout testing – Andrea Dovizioso concentrating on development and newcomer Jorge Lorenzo focused instead on getting up to speed on how to ride the Desmosedici. Some interesting technical developments have been tested by the Borgo Panigale factory – especially at the rear of the bike, with the exhaust moved – and Dovizioso ended the Phillip Island test in P7. Lorenzo, meanwhile, made solid improvements as his understanding of his new bike improves – ending Phillip Island only hundredths off his new teammate and happy with both increased one lap pace and increased consistency; his typical calling-card in the premier class. Qatar gives the ‘Spartan’ his last track time before the sessions start to count towards qualification to Q2 and the fight begins in earnest.
Team Suzuki Ecstar have had a positive start to 2017 with new line up Andrea Iannone and Alex Rins. Iannone, although further down the timesheets in Phillip Island than Sepang, is satisfied in his new home – and Rins made a huge leap up the timesheets to get into the top ten in Australia and impress. Aprilia Racing Team Gresini are another with a new line up – including a rookie – and new recruit Aleix Espargaro is very positive following testing with the updated RS-GP, with Sam Lowes moving forward steadily as he gains more track time.
The fastest rookie of the Phillip Island test was Jonas Folger (Monster Yamaha Tech 3). Ending the three days in P4 overall, the German got ahead of fellow rookie and teammate Johann Zarco. Both Tech 3 new arrivals seem to have settled into premier class life impressively, largely trading laptimes until Folger’s last minute dash in Australia.
The Red Bull KTM Factory Racing squad were another that impressed on the final day in Australia. After a huge program to get through during the first two tests – including three chassis options – the Austrian factory then put it all together to get both riders Pol Espargaro and Bradley Smith down into the 1:29 bracket. And there’s still another test remaining before the battle begins in earnest.
Losail International Circuit awaits for the final frontier, before the lights go out for another incredible season of MotoGP™.