Features 13 Feb 2018

Top 10: Thailand MotoGP test topics

What to watch for when the pre-season continues at Chang International Circuit.

Words: Matthew Clayton

The Chang International Circuit plays host to MotoGP machinery for the first time at the second pre-season test of 2018 this week, between 16-18 February. Here’s what we’re looking out for as the countdown to round one in Qatar continues.

Image: Supplied.

1. Take one in Thailand:
World Superbikes have been coming to the circuit in rural Thailand (Buriram is a four to five-hour drive from the capital, Bangkok) for the past three years and the track has all the hallmarks of a Hermann Tilke-penned layout – long straights, few high-speed turns of note and numerous slow corners featuring an ever-tightening radius. It’s flat, smooth, safe and there’s acres of tarmac run-off. It should suit the bikes with straight-line speed to burn.

2. Heating up:
Speaking of burning – and we thought Sepang was a tough place to start pre-season testing – initial indications are for ambient temperatures around 39 degrees for all three days of the test, which, when combined with the humidity, will make Malaysia seem as tame as Phillip Island in October. Keep an eye out for race simulations and how riders cope with the heat, with October’s GP set for a 6:00pm local start and held over 26 laps of the 4.6km layout.

3. Jack’s jump:
Jack Miller turned heads at Sepang, finishing fifth on the time-sheets on all three days as he bedded himself in with Alma Pramac Racing and got accustomed to riding a Ducati GP17 after three years of campaigning Hondas. He’s optimistic there’s more time to come, too. “Most of the time on the Honda I didn’t feel like I had much margin to play with and maybe be able to use to get that last little bit of lap time out,” he said after Sepang. “But on this bike I’m more controlling it, you could say. The better lap times are coming more easily to me in some ways. That’s good because I still don’t have a lot of experience on the Ducati yet. I don’t feel like I’m at or over the limit the whole time.” Miller is being matter-of-fact about his progress so far, but both rider and team, with experienced engineer Cristhian Pupulin pleasantly surprised by his progress, will be keen to confirm the Aussie’s Malaysian pace was real in Thailand.

4. Watch for Lorenzo:
Ducati’s high-priced signing of last year was a mere footnote in the title fight that featured his teammate Andrea Dovizioso unexpectedly emerging as Marc Marquez’s primary rival, but was back to his metronomic self in Malaysia, topping the times with lap after lap of the unerring consistency that has been his trademark. The Buriram circuit layout should mesh with Lorenzo’s smooth style and play into the hands of the Ducati red rockets, so a repeat this week wouldn’t be a surprise.

5. Yamaha matters:
It was a mixed bag for Yamaha in Sepang, with Maverick Vinales and Valentino Rossi finishing 1-2 on the time-sheets on the middle of the three days, but not featuring prominently thereafter as it worked through a lengthy to-do list with the 2018 YZR-M1. After last year’s chassis proved to be a delicate beast to master, time is running out to get the bike sorted for Qatar just over a month’s time. Progress is paramount in Thailand.

Image: Supplied.

6. The ‘other’ Yamaha rider:
With the odds of Rossi continuing in MotoGP beyond this year (and into his 40th year) and into 2019 shortening by the day, Johann Zarco’s move into a factory team might have to wait – and the maverick Frenchman has already shown that he’s not one to be patient after his superb debut MotoGP campaign last year. After Malaysia, it appears the two-time Moto2 champion will continue to campaign the 2016 Yamaha this season after reverting back to the old bike for the final day at Sepang and enjoying the extra (and familiar) grip it offers. It’s an unconventional approach, but one that doesn’t seem to be slowing him down.

7. The ‘other’ Tech3 rider:
Headline-grabbing as Zarco is, there’ll arguably be more eyes on the other side of the Monster Yamaha Tech3 garage in Thailand when Hafizh Syahrin jumps onto the bike vacated by Jonas Folger, health issues preventing the German from taking his place on the 2019 grid for a second season. Syahrin’s Moto2 ride has already been passed on to Malaysian compatriot Zulfahmi Khairuddin and a strong showing at Buriram will almost certainly confirm his seat at Herve Poncharal’s satellite Yamaha squad for the coming season.

8. Time for Honda:
How have we made it eight points into this preview without any more than a passing mention of the reigning world champions? Marquez and Dani Pedrosa toiled away in Malaysia without ever setting the time-sheets alight, but Marquez’s happiness after the test suggests there’s a lot more in reserve for the Repsol Honda squad before things get real in Qatar next month. Will they show it in Thailand? Unlikely. Will that matter? Same.

9. Best of the rest:
Ducati, Honda and Yamaha, in whatever order you choose, appear to have stolen a march in the manufacturers’ race after one pre-season test. What isn’t as clear is which of the chasing pack – Aprilia, KTM or Suzuki – is closest to joining that top-flight triumvirate. KTM’s progress was difficult to measure in Malaysia after Pol Espargaro’s enormous crash at turn four ruled him out of the final day, while at Suzuki, Andrea Iannone’s so-so test in Sepang was in stark contrast to the performance shown by teammate Alex Rins, who looks fit and is undoubtedly wiser for a year on MotoGP machinery, injury-interrupted as it was. Don’t be surprised at all if Rins comes on strongly this year.

10. Cal might melt:
After doing all of the donkey work for Honda in Malaysia, racking up 168 laps across three days on too many chassis configurations to count, Cal Crutchlow looked absolutely spent after Sepang. And given rural Thailand’s weather is about as far removed from the Isle of Man as could be imagined, we wish the LCR Honda rider luck!