Qatar Test: the final countdown begins

It’s just over two weeks until the season starts and Losail hosts the second and final preseason test

Sepang certainly gave us a tantalising first glimpse of the season ahead, and now it’s time to up the ante even further as Losail International Circuit in Qatar welcomes MotoGP™ for the second and final preseason test of 2019. Final decisions on engines, aero fairings and more await – and there’s the chance to compare data from Malaysia, as well as set up for the VisitQatar Grand Prix. It’s three full days on track, but plenty to get done.

One of the biggest talking points ahead of the test and, undoubtedly after, is the return to action of Jorge Lorenzo (Repsol Honda Team). After breaking his scaphoid near the end of the winter break, the Spaniard was forced to sit out Sepang and lose valuable time on the Honda, but now he’ll be able to get another three days of familiarisation under his belt as he joins new teammate Marc Marquez on track. Marquez himself is also a talking point but this season not just for win rate – the reigning Champion put in a much lower lap load in Malaysia than he often has at testing in the past, and although he was pretty quick, he said his shoulder is still not 100% and he’s not riding in his usual style. How much further along will the seven-time World Champion be in his recovery by the Qatar Test and, after that, the race weekend?

Cal Crutchlow (LCR Honda Castrol) was actually the fastest Honda at Sepang. The Brit, despite also still being on a road to recovery after breaking his ankle at Phillip Island last season, impressed on his return and managed a solid 60+ laps on the final day. He’s another who will be expecting improvements in his condition for the Qatar Test. His teammate Takaaki Nakagami (LCR Honda Idemitsu) also had a positive Malaysia and, after topping the Jerez test at the end of last season, was a consistent presence in the top ten. Now on the bike that Marquez rode to the 2018 crown, the season is looking bright for the sophomore and he’ll be one to watch.

It wasn’t actually reigning Champions Honda who stole the headlines at Sepang, however – it was Borgo Panigale's Italian armada. Ducati machinery locked out the fastest four in Malaysia and Mission Winnow Ducati Team’s new arrival Danilo Petrucci was the man on top. Qatar will be another chance for him to evaluate an aero fairing he crashed on as well as everything else, but it will also be a chance for teammate Andrea Dovizioso to turn the tables. The 2018 Qatar GP winner was the fourth quickest and seemed happy, now we’ll see if Italian machinery can repeat the feat at Losail...

The two riders who split those two factory machines in Malaysia were Alma Pramac Racing’s Francesco Bagnaia and Jack Miller, in second and third respectively. ‘Pecco’ Bagnaia laid an early claim on the title of Rookie of the Year with his stunning lap, just 0.063 off Petrucci, but he says he needs to focus on longer runs now and be able to run with the pack for more laps. Miller was happy enough after Sepang despite a crash each day, and his pace was impressive too. Will the Australian show the same form at Losail? And can the likes of Tito Rabat (Reale Avintia Racing), coming back from a broken leg, keep his impressive pace from Malaysia at another venue?

And then there’s Yamaha. Monster Energy MotoGP’s Maverick Viñales and Valentino Rossi were both pretty positive in Sepang, but the former a little more so than the latter. Viñales praised better consistency in the data from the 2019 M1, as well as improvements in acceleration they’ve managed to find. Rossi said it was more mixed, but the mood was definitely an upturn – with the ‘Doctor’ citing specifically the good atmosphere and methodology for the Iwata marque. Team Director Massimo Meregalli also had a positive addition, stating both riders were choosing similar directions in development.

For new kids on the block Petronas Yamaha SRT, it was also a positive test. They’re on 2019 machinery and Franco Morbidelli has hit the ground running after his switch of manufacturer, with Fabio Quartararo also showing some good rookie pace. Will we see them take another step forward in Qatar after another three days of track time?

At Team Suzuki Ecstar, there also seems to be a lot of positivity. Alex Rins was a constant threat on the timesheets on the first two days in Malaysia and the Hamamatsu factory have been working hard to build on their stellar 2018. And rookie Joan Mir, after two more anonymous days at least in terms of laptime, moved up the timesheets a little on Day 3 – but is he showing his hand? Or will that only come when testing’s over and the race weekend begins?

For Aprilia there were some good positives from Malaysia too, at least from some of the garage. Aleix Espargaro was seventh overall and on a track with a very long main straight, and Romano Albesiano, now heading up the technical side, said another positive was the reliability the Noale factory had had throughout the test. For newcomer Andrea Iannone it was more difficult however, as an infection requiring antibiotics kept him out of action for much of it. The Italian will want to try and make up for lost time at Qatar. Test rider Bradley Smith is also down to wildcard at the first race of the season, so the track time beforehand is important for both development and set up for the Brit.

KTM, meanwhile, continue their mammoth project of testing and development. New arrival Johann Zarco (Red Bull KTM Factory Racing) made some solid steps in Sepang and got more on a par with Pol Espargaro, and Miguel Oliveira (Red Bull KTM Tech3) started to really impress. The Portuguese rookie wasn’t far off the two factory guys…

Three days, a new venue and lots left to test and learn ahead of the season…the Qatar Test will give us a lot more answers but undoubtedly another few exciting questions ahead of the first race weekend of the season. Are Repsol Honda ready despite their injuries? Can the rookies run with the pack? Will Suzuki and Yamaha prove key threats for the win this year? Tune in from the 23rd to 25th February for the Qatar Test to start finding some answers.

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