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What we learned from the Qatar MotoGP test

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What we learned from the Qatar MotoGP test
By:
Feb 26, 2020, 9:30 AM

It will take something special to dethrone Marc Marquez as MotoGP's supreme force but, as pre-season testing indicated, the conditions for this may very well be in place for 2020.

The second and final three-day pre-season test in Qatar has served to both wrap up MotoGP's winter testing and as extended practice for the opening round of the season, taking place at the same venue a couple of weeks later.

Though testing is never too reliable an indicator of the season to come, a closer look at the timing sheets and the rhetoric of the participants creates a tantalising prospect of MotoGP potentially getting its tightest and least predictable campaign in recent years in 2020.

Yamaha is a step ahead

Maverick Vinales, Yamaha Factory Racing

Maverick Vinales, Yamaha Factory Racing

Photo by: Gold and Goose / Motorsport Images

The impression left by the six days of collective testing in 2020 is such that any non-Yamaha winner in Losail in under two weeks' time would come as a surprise. Both Fabio Quartataro and Maverick Vinales targeted - and have duly demonstrated - consistency this winter, and Franco Morbidelli too has looked comfortable, despite riding an M1 that is not the latest spec.

But more doubts again surround Valentino Rossi. Not only was he quite far back from the fastest rider (Vinales) over one lap - ending up just 12th overall and half a second overall on combined times - but he also acknowledged on Monday that he was struggling to manage the drop-off of the rear tyre.

This, an issue "very similar to what happened last year", means the Italian is "not able to keep the pace" in the latter half of a race distance. There's a clear contrast between Vinales' readiness and Rossi's concern, and the gap will be tough to make up in the opening half of the championship - which, after all, will probably dictate what Il Dottore plans to do in 2021.

Light at the end of the tunnel for Honda

Marc Marquez, Repsol Honda Team, Alex Marquez, Repsol Honda Team

Marc Marquez, Repsol Honda Team, Alex Marquez, Repsol Honda Team

Photo by: Repsol Media

A well-known ace up MotoGP's dominant force Marc Marquez's sleeve is his ability to push the bike to the limit in any circumstances, and to stay on that edge, seemingly teetering close to disaster. And now Honda has found itself in similar territory in 2020, looking completely lost over the winter only to finally find its feet on the last day - nay, the last two hours - of testing.

Honda's situation had been complicated by Marquez's recovery from off-season surgery proving more difficult than expected, but this wasn't the main issue. That the Hondas were running a second a lap slower than the Yamahas and Suzukis in long runs was a bigger concern.

"We were missing the front feeling," Marquez explained. "The entry of the corner was not good, and then we didn’t have the speed of the turning. And then we tried to recover the grip on the exit, and we lost the grip."

But on Monday the reigning champion was palpably relieved after a series of tests with different-spec bikes. "I'm very happy because until today [Monday] I was going slowly and the worst thing is that the bike didn't give me any sensations. If we had had to race before this last day I would have finished ninth or 10th. Now I can see myself fighting."

The sky's the limit for Suzuki

Joan Mir, Team Suzuki MotoGP

Joan Mir, Team Suzuki MotoGP

Photo by: Gold and Goose / Motorsport Images

After a 2019 in which the GSX-RR proved capable of winning races, what else can Suzuki be targeting for 2020 other than a genuine lasting push for the title?

Rins' wins in Austin and Silverstone demonstrated his credentials, but teammate Joan Mir has now made a leap forward and should allow Suzuki to double its presence at the sharp end. Adding to that is the fact the GSX-RR, from a tremendously competitive base in 2019 already, now looks a considerably more polished and improved package.

The data is encouraging - over one lap (in Qatar, Rins was fourth and Mir sixth), which was the Achilles' heel of last year's bike, and over longer runs. "The new bike is smoother, more stable and has more top speed than the previous one," Rins summarised.

Ducati's hopes pinned on Dovizioso

Andrea Dovizioso, Ducati Team

Andrea Dovizioso, Ducati Team

Photo by: Gold and Goose / Motorsport Images

From what we've seen so far, Ducati will have no option but to bet the farm on Andrea Dovizioso and hope he keeps it in the mix. Yamaha's resurgence and Suzuki's progress is set to make the season a much more open affair - but if it's sacrilege to doubt Marquez's credentials, Dovizioso's too are long-proven, after he finished runner-up in each of the past three seasons.

It remains unclear whether in testing Dovizioso was keeping his cards close to his chest; he finished 10th-fastest, but had spent much of the final day shadowing Danilo Petrucci in a tandem race run. The good news is that the Losail weekend will serve as a good barometer, given Dovizioso is the winner of the past two Qatar GPs.

"It has been quite tough, because with the new tyres we struggle a little bit compared to last year," Dovizioso said. "But the competitors have become stronger and stronger. Yamaha and Suzuki are really, really strong in pace [and over one] fast lap. So it will be very tough in the race, but in the end after two tests we finished in a better condition."

KTM and Aprilia enter the stage

Aleix Espargaro, Aprilia Racing Team Gresini

Aleix Espargaro, Aprilia Racing Team Gresini

Photo by: Gold and Goose / Motorsport Images

If there was one undeniably good thing for MotoGP that could be drawn from the pre-season, it's that the gap between the front of the grid and the back is shrinking - with Aprilia and KTM making strides. While the former's factory in Noale has been rejuvenated by an all-new RS-GP, the Mattighofen-based KTM is making clear strides forward and finally showing off just what the renowned manufacturer is capable of.

The fact that Aprilia was the last team to debut its new bike, leaving it until February in Sepang, is a disadvantage that won't be easy to negate at this level, especially if it's being held back by issues related to a lack of mileage. "A really busy three days," Aprilia's Aleix Espargaro said after Qatar. "Unfortunately we were not able to do many, many laps due to small problems. But too many. So, again, as I said in Malaysia it’s quite normal that these small things happen because the bike just born one month ago."

Espargaro went on to describe it "the best Aprilia I've ever ridden". Another factor of disruption, though, is that Andrea Iannone's doping case remains unresolved and may not be in time for the start of the season proper.

KTM, meanwhile, remains dumbfounded by new works rider Brad Binder's "amazing" lap that left him ninth-fastest. But it's Pol Espargaro who currently remains the marque's main hope, and who remains very optimistic about his 2020 prospects: "Overall the [test] weekend has been very good. We feel ready for the weekend after next weekend, for the race, and that is the most important."

Pol Espargaro, Red Bull KTM Factory Racing

Pol Espargaro, Red Bull KTM Factory Racing

Photo by: Gold and Goose / Motorsport Images

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About this article

Series MotoGP
Author Oriol Puigdemont