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We’re about to get out on track for the third and final preseason test of 2017, and there has been one name at the top so far: Maverick Viñales (Movistar Yamaha MotoGP). Impressively quick and settled in immediately, the Spaniard seems to have sent more than a warning shot about the season he’s about to put together. But that begs the question: what can we really expect after looking at the timesheets?
Let’s go back, first, to the beginning of the new 1000cc era - 2012. It was Jorge Lorenzo who took the title at the end of the year, for Yamaha, and the season boiled down to a fight between Lorenzo and Repsol Honda rival Dani Pedrosa for the crown. But it was Pedrosa’s then-teammate Casey Stoner who topped preseason testing, going fastest in both tests at Sepang and then doing it again in the crucial, final outing in Jerez. Reigning Champion at the time, the Australian left it late but came out on top – as Viñales has done at times this preseason. Lorenzo was fast and consistent, but he wasn’t top. This year, that role has been more been filled by Marc Marquez (Repsol Honda Team).
Director's Cut: Pedrosa-Lorenzo Last Lap Battle at Brno
So what happened to Stoner’s pace? Nothing. The 2007 and 2011 MotoGP™ World Champion was largely trading victories with Lorenzo until a crash at Indianapolis left him injured – one of the key things preseason testing can never take into account.
2013 was another example of this. With the timesheets showing impressive performances from 2012 title rivals Lorenzo and Pedrosa – as well as Valentino Rossi and Cal Crutchlow, who went quickest - the top four finished the final test within just over a tenth. The new kid on the block was Marc Marquez at Repsol Honda, and as a rookie the timesheets were impressive and well inside the top ten – but they didn’t seem to show Marquez as a title contender.
The Doctor: Back on top of the world
That changed as Marquez gained experience, took his first wins, and avoided injury to take a stunning rookie Championship. The preseason timesheets have no contingency for injury – first a broken collarbone for Lorenzo at Assen and then the same for Pedrosa at Sachsenring. Although Lorenzo tried to limit the damage with his memorable ride through the pain barrier only two days after the incident, the door was open.
‘Man of Steel’ triumphs against pain at Assen
Then came 2014. After going fastest in the first test, drama struck Marquez as he broke his leg during training and missed the subsequent test outings. Rossi and Pedrosa took over at the top in the second test – with exactly the same laptime around Sepang – and there were the first showings of a more difficult season on the way for Jorge Lorenzo, who was P7.
2014 played out behind Marquez, in many ways, as the preseason timesheets suggested – because the timesheets hadn’t included the number 93.
MotoGP™ 2014 – Marquez makes history again
It’s the two more recent seasons that show us the timesheets aren’t always as much of a crystal ball. In 2015, the title was an explosive battle between Rossi and Lorenzo – but the final preseason test at Losail had been topped by Andrea Dovizioso (Ducati Team), Marquez, and the second Ducati of Andrea Iannone. Lorenzo and Rossi were P4 and P5 and close together – their proximity to remain true throughout much of the season – but the long run pace of the Movistar Yamaha duo was overshadowed in some headlines by Ducati and reigning Champion Marquez.
2015 didn’t see injury have the affect it had in some previous seasons – but it did show the importance of consistency, and being able to avoid mistakes. Marquez, after a solid preseason in terms of outright laptime, crashed too many times and lost too many points – something he pointed out as a key catalyst for his change in mentality the following year. The Yamahas looked strong, but they didn’t look able to disappear into the distance as Lorenzo did in Mugello.
Lorenzo's Championship winning season
2016 was a whole different scenario. The first preseason test at Sepang saw reigning Champion Lorenzo put his Yamaha a staggering 1.263 seconds clear of Marquez. Phillip Island was a Viñales vs Marquez battle for supremacy, before Lorenzo struck back to top Qatar by half a second. Marquez certainly made a big leap forward by the end of testing and was fourth fastest in Qatar, but it was still Lorenzo who looked like it could be his to lose.
So how did Marc Marquez take his third premier class title in four years?
Regulation changes, unified electronics, and new rubber all contributed to the lottery that gave us nine winners and one of the most incredible seasons in history. The timesheets in testing could predict what was to unfold when the cards fell right for each on the grid, but the cards seldom fell right for everyone. Despite their preseason difficulties, Marquez took back the crown with a simple weapon – consistency. The timesheets in Qatar didn’t flatter Marquez’ pace, but pace wasn’t the key to the crown in 2016.
Marquez: "This is the most special title"
2017 sees a lot of changes bedded in, Michelin now a sophomore presence as sole tyre supplier, and a whole new set of dice to be rolled. So does that mean we know now know more about what the season has in store? History shows us that pre-season pace rarely disappears. But it also shows us that the timesheets in testing measure potential - and they can't predict results.
So the question for Viñales and Marquez in 2017 doesn't seem to be who goes fastest - it's who can convert their potential into points...
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