2023 Sepang test - We assess the fortunes of MotoGP’s five manufacturers after the year’s first MotoGP official test
Different year, but the same old story? The 2023 Sepang test certainly suggested as much, as Ducati picked up from where it left off in November. The winners of last year’s triple crown flexed its muscles in the blistering Malaysian heat, with Mooney VR46’s Luca Marini leading reigning World Champion Pecco Bagnaia (Lenovo Ducati) with a lap of 1m57.889s. More worryingly for its opponents, seven of the eight Ducati riders occupied the first nine places.
Meanwhile Yamaha and Honda, always playing catch up to their Italian adversaries through 2022, couldn’t match the speed of the Desmosedicis here. The 2021 world champ Fabio Quartararo (Monster Energy Yamaha) was a worrying 17th at the end of day three, while Marc Marquez (Repsol Honda) wore a face of resignation across all three days. Both will be pinning hopes on next month’s two-day outing at Portimao being the scene of an all-important last-minute turnaround.
A test from the heavens for Bologna bosses. Learning from its mistakes of 2022, Ducati engineers opted against radical changes to a bike that ended its 15-year wait for the MotoGP title. Factory riders Bagnaia and Enea Bastianini, as well as Pramac’s Jorge Martin and Johann Zarco, were relieved to find the GP23 is a small evolution on last year’s model.
Development work was split across the four men, with a new engine deemed a success from the off. Martin, who topped day two, said he’s already “ready to race.” Plus, he could make fast lap times when riding “smoothly. I don’t have to be aggressive to be fast.” The only area of mild concern? According to Bagnaia, it was “the handling, the ’23 bike is more aggressive and more nervous. This is something that we can focus on in Portimao.”
Otherwise, Ducati is miles ahead of where it found itself this time a year ago.
“From the first exit with the new bike, I felt great,” said the reigning champion, who feels the 2023 bike is already at the level of its predecessor, with more still to come. Even riders from Mooney VR46 and Gresini Ducati, riding year old GP22s, look capable of getting in on the act.
Having made major steps forward with radical changes to its RS-GP in each of the three previous years, Aprilia’s fine 2022 meant only small evolutions were needed this winter. Aleix Espargaro was almost bummed out by this on day one.
“I thought we’d have more to test,” he shrugged. But in reality, this showed the RS-GP is in need of only small tweaks. All aspects of performance were touched in a minor way.
“The ’23 bike is definitely better than the ’22,” said Espargaro, sixth fastest overall. “The cooling is much better. We have some more revs, the bike is a bit faster on the straight and it’s narrower, which makes it easier to change direction. With the new aero the bike turns better. In general, we made a very small step forward in all areas.”
Teammate Maverick Viñales was third fastest. And with another updated package and the full ’23 engine still to come at next month’s Portimao test, there’s no reason to fear the Noale factory’s brilliant 2022 was a flash in the pan.
Up until the final hour of the final day, things were looking rosy for Yamaha. Firstly, Quartararo had plenty to test, including two new engines, new aero packages, a new chassis and swingarm – a far cry from this time a year ago, when the YZR-M1 was unchanged. This was a new experience for the Frenchman, whose testing and development capabilities are still unproven.
Second, the bike’s huge deficiency last year – a lack of top speed – was addressed with the Frenchman was third-fastest through the speed traps on day two when riding alone. “We made a massive improvement,” he said at the close of day two.
But the final two hours of Sunday brought the Iwata factory down to earth. As both riders fitted new tyres and pushed for a headline lap time, Quartararo was dismayed a sizeable improvement wasn’t forthcoming.
“If I don’t see the lap time, I feel I’m riding in low 58s. But then I look at the last time and I’m low 59s. It’s not that I’m losing the front everywhere or I have no grip. I don’t know what is going on.” Even if pace on used tyres was strong, Yamaha have a month to remedy this worrying end.
The big unknown of the three days. If the timesheets were the only thing to be considered, it could be assumed KTM is in a world of trouble. Brad Binder was 14th, and new signing Jack Miller 18th. But neither rider was overly fazed, and pointed to the substantial testing work that was completed as a reason to be positive.
Both riders, plus satellite man Pol Espargaro, worked their way through testing two engines as well as two aero packages across the three days, plus myriad other parts. Fine tuning little details was still some way off.
“It was purely trying things to get as much information as possible,” said Binder. “We’re now getting it narrowed down to what our package will look like.” Finding speed on corner exit remains a priority.
On the other side of the garage, Miller admitted, “we hit a wall a bit” on day three. “I’m just suffering mid-corner, with corner speed and getting the thing off the corner.”
There was no dressing up how disastrous 2022 was for Honda. Marquez and new teammate Joan Mir were, therefore, entitled to expect big changes here. Both were disappointed.
HRC brought a new engine, which had a higher top speed than what it used in ’22. But the RC213V’s major deficits remain, with Marquez complaining he still feels far from comfortable when braking to enter the corner. And they remain miles off Ducati on corner exit.
“More than the front I’m looking for the connection with the gas on the exit of the corner,” Marquez said.
There were some puzzling aspects of Honda’s approach here. Like, why were Marquez and test rider Stefan Bradl riding at one point on Sunday without wings? Plus, an ‘experimental’ third bike featured some old components, like the swingarm. If HRC was looking backward for solutions, it suggested there may still be some confusion about how to get ahead.
Positives included new Technical Manager Ken Kawauchi, formerly of Suzuki, bringing a better organisation to affairs than before. Marquez also spoke of his physical condition being greatly improved compared to the previous five preseasons. But Honda appears as far from the top as they were in the autumn of last year. Big improvements are drastically required.
Report Neil Morrison Photography Gold&Goose