Features 16 Feb 2023

Countdown: Sepang test talking points

Detailing key focal topics in the 2023 MotoGP pre-season.

The first official test of the 2023 MotoGP World Championship took place at Sepang over the weekend, where it was ultimately Luca Marini onboard the Mooney VR46 Racing team Ducati GP22 that emerged fastest. With a variety of hot topics to break down, our latest Countdown feature takes a closer look at some of the talking points from the latest Malaysian outing.

Image: Supplied.

5. Honda needs a major step to challenge for the title:
Honda has been a force to be reckoned with throughout many seasons of premier-class competition, but since Dani Pedrosa retired from the outfit at the end of 2018, Marc Marquez has often been the only rider able to contest towards the front onboard the RC213V. With the eight-time world champion sidelined frequently with major injuries across the 2020, 2021 and even throughout the 2022 season, Honda has regularly been notably absent from the front of the field – aside from the odd race or performance. While Marquez was often respected for being able to push the platform well past its capabilities, the general feeling is that the level of the machine relative to its competitors has continued to decline in recent seasons. An example of this is Alex Rins moving to Honda after winning the final race of last season at Valencia with the now-withdrawn Team Suzuki Ecstar. Despite Rins’ race-winning success at the Riccardo Tormo circuit, he finished the post-season test at the venue P20 that following week. The brand’s performance at the Sepang test didn’t indicate a massive step forward, with Marquez outright implying that it was not a platform currently capable of fighting up the front after testing various chassis and 2023 development bikes. Of other Honda riders in Malaysia, Joan Mir – freshly minted in Repsol colours – was 12th and just over a tenth from Marquez, while Rins finished P19 as Takaaki Nakagami was 21st on the timesheets.

4. Miller continues to adapt to RC16:
The adaptation of Australia‚Äôs Jack Miller onboard the RC16 continued at the Sepang MotoGP test, with the Red Bull KTM Factory Racing rider gaining a greater understanding of the bike and what he needs from it. Despite rain impacting day two and a crash at turn one on Sunday, the number 43 completed over 110 laps across the first official outing of the season and concluded the proceedings 18th fastest with a 1m58.901s, just over one second from pacesetter Marini and less than and two-tenths from top RC 16 rider Pol Espargaro. Speaking of Espargaro, the Spaniard’s excitement to jump back onboard the RC 16 with the newly rebranded GasGas Factory Racing Tech3 outfit was clear from initial laps at Valencia in the post-season last year, and he showed relatively solid form at the Sepang test. He notched a 1m58.797s for 13th while reportedly trying one bike with a new chassis Brad Binder (Red Bull KTM Factory Racing) tested at Valencia last year. Meanwhile, GasGas Factory Racing’s Augusto Fernandez is the only rookie in the class of 2023 and completed the Malaysian outing in P22.

Image: Supplied.

3. Top speed improvements of Yamaha:
A clear area that the Hamamatsu factory needed to improve for 2023 was top speed, and indications from the Sepang test suggest they have been able to do so and bridge the deficit in this dynamic to its rivals. Fabio Quartararo (Monster Energy Yamaha MotoGP) notched 335.4km/h during the outing at the Malaysian circuit, just 2.1km/h from the fastest speed of 337.5km/h recorded by reigning champion Francesco Bagnaia (Ducati Lenovo Team) and Maverick Vinales (Aprilia Racing). Compare this to the pre-season outing at Sepang the previous year, Quartararo’s top speed was 332.3km/h, while crucially the deficit to the fastest recorded was over 4km/h. Arguably, the top speed number does not tell the entire story, with numerous factors impacting the figure on a lap-by-lap basis, and as demonstrated in the past top speed alone doesn’t win races. While the early numbers from the Sepang test suggest Yamaha should be more competitive in this area, the outright lap time and pace of the latest platform has 2021 champion Quartararo concerned, finishing a lowly P17 at the conclusion of the three days, 1.068s from Marini, as teammate Franco Morbidelli was 20th. Pace over shorter distances holds extra importance this season, with the introduction of half-length sprint races to feature at every grand prix, boasting roughly half the points on offer compared to a full-length GP.

2. Aprilia looking set for another promising season:
2022 was a breakout season for Aprilia in the modern era of MotoGP, with Aleix Espargaro securing a historic victory for the Noale Factory in Argentina and also featuring a key contender for the title throughout the majority of the year. With nine podiums thanks to the efforts of Espargaro and Vinales, the question rises regarding if Aprilia can maintain or build on that form in 2023. Using the early form guide at Sepang as an indicator, the Italian brand appears to be the biggest threat to a Ducati domination, with Vinales and Espargaro completing the three days third and sixth respectively. Aprilia’s MotoGP efforts are boosted in 2023 with the addition of RNF Racing, which sees Miguel Oliveira and Raul Fernandez also RS-GP equipped. Fernandez showed vast improvement to a majority of his results from last year and finished the Malaysian outing P11, with Oliveira 15th. Having increased data available this year, Aprilia’s development throughout the season will be a topic to watch.

1. Ducati setting the benchmark:
With seven Ducatis inside the top 10 at the conclusion of the Sepang test, it’s fair to say that the Italian manufacturer set the benchmark in Malaysia. Ultimately it was Luca Marini (Mooney VR46 Racing Team) that was quickest onboard the GP22, notching a 1m57.889s to edge Bagnaia who sampled a variety of components and displayed early promise with the GP23. Ducati Lenovo Team newcomer Enea Bastianini was fourth, while Jorge Martin (Primia Pramac Racing), Fabio Di Giannantonio (Gresini Racing), day one pacesetter Marco Bezzecchi (Mooney VR Racing Team) and Alex Marquez (Gresini Racing MotoGP) also featured inside the top 10. By all accounts, Marquez is enjoying his time Desmosedici mounted, and switching from LCR Honda this year his best effort of a 1m58.385s at the recent test was just under half a second shy of Marini at the front, and over four tenths clear of his fastest time posted during the Malaysian test in 2022.