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Fast man Fabio tops the timesheets in Sepang

Yamaha claimed the honours at the first round of tests of the new year … but the name at the top had changed. So far, Fabio Quartararo has claimed the informal title of “Winter World Champion”, heading the time sheets on all three days, on both the 2019 and the 2020 version of the YZR M1.

Maverick Vinales, who usually claims the empty but still satisfying title, was down in 16th overall, but the factory Yamaha rider was only half a second down, and impressed observers and rivals with his pace over longer runs.

The first tests were as usual far from conclusive, with some teams testing major changes (for Aprilia a brand-new engine), three riders (including Marc Marquez) recovering from shoulder surgery, and all of them getting to grips with a new rear tyre from Michelin, which clearly needs some adjustments to overall set-up. But they were suggestive.

Yamaha have come out fighting, and although still relatively short of top speed, the improvement to the package combines with a positive spirit to the enterprise (and the surprise acquisition of Jorge Lorenzo as a tester) to promise a stronger challenge.

Honda’s prospects are less clear-cut, with not only Marquez but also satellite-team rider Taka Nakagami still recuperating from shoulder surgery; while Alex Marquez is very much finding his feet. It was left to Cal Crutchlow on the LCR team’s full factory bike to set second fastest time overall, but he still faced familiar worries about front-end feel.

Cal Crutchlow, Sepang MotoGP test, 8 Februaray 2020

Ducati were left with a big workload: a power-up engine reinforces their existing strong points, but the new Michelin appears to suit corner-speed bikes better than their exit-speed rocket.

Of the rest, Suzuki were quietly confident of an overall incremental improvement in every area; KTM riders had positive comments and fast lap times.

The biggest surprise came from Aprilia, whose all-new engine now replicates the 90-degree vee angle of the other V4s; and in spite of only having two of the new units, which have yet to receive any serious development, went well enough to put chief rider Aleix Espargaro in an unexpected tenth overall. Reliability, however, remains to be tested.

Quartararo (Petronas Yamaha) was fastest on every day, but said: “We still need to work. My goal has changed a little bit – not so much to be first in every practice but to work on the pace. Because we know that in one lap we are fast.” His time of 1m 58.349 was less than five-hundredths off his own circuit best lap, which gave him pole at last year’s race.

Cal Crutchlow (LCR Honda) was a slender 0.082 of a second down; Alex Rins (Ecstar Suzuki) just 0.019 slower again; while Pramac rider Pecco Bagnaia – in his second season – was a whisker down in fourth, the top Ducati. Times were ultra-close, the top 19 inside the same second.

Alex Rins, Sepang MotoGP test, 8 Februaray 2020

Valentino Rossi (Monster Yamaha) was fifth, and cautiously optimistic. Talking of Yamaha’s new-this-year launch control he said: “It is good, but we need some more work and data.” The same comment applied to the bike in general.

Factory Ducati rider Danilo Petrucci was sixth; with Pramac’s Jack Miller eighth, after a mix-up with his crew meant he made his time attack on a medium rather than a soft tyre. Miller had been top Ducati on the first two days, and pronounced himself “overall happy with the new bike”.

Pol Espargaro (Red Bull KTM) was seventh; and factory tester Dani Pedrosa just two places and five hundredths slower on the clearly improved V4: satellite-team rider Miguel Oliveira (also a shoulder surgery victim) was a strong 12th, and rookie Brad Binder 19th, less than a second down.

But these numbers might be deceptive, with the big beasts not yet showing their best. Repsol Honda’s Marc Marquez was only 13th and fell twice without exacerbating his weakened but recovering right shoulder. “The crash today was because I did not have the strength as usual. I am not riding like I want … just pushing a lot with my left hand.”

The other sleepers were Andrea Dovizioso (Ducati) and Maverick Vinales (Monster Yamaha) were 15th and 16th overall; while Avintia Ducati recruit Johann Zarco (on a 2019 bike) was an interesting 17th, narrowly ahead of second factory Honda rookie Alex Marquez.

The abbreviated test season preceding the longest-ever 20-race season is at Qatar in a fortnight, with the first race another fortnight later on March 8.

Fabio Quartararo, Sepang MotoGP test, 9 February 2020

Danilo Petrucci, Sepang MotoGP test, 9 February 2020

Alex Marquez, Sepang MotoGP test, 9 February 2020

Marc Marquez’s Honda, Sepang MotoGP test, 9 February 2020

Johann Zarco, Sepang MotoGP test, Feburay 2020

Aleix Espargaro, Sepang MotoGP test, Feburay 2020

Valentino Rossi, Sepang MotoGP test, 8 Februaray 2020

Words Michael Scott

Pics GnG