until Abu Dhabi Autonomous Racing League


'F***ing slow' - MotoGP testing's most unpleasant surprise so far

by Valentin Khorounzhiy
6 min read

until Abu Dhabi Autonomous Racing League

New year, new season. Testing. Day one. 64 laps.

"I'm still slow. I'm f***ing slow."

Second year MotoGP rider Augusto Fernandez is no stranger to overcoming low expectations and responding to adversity.

He arrived in Moto2 as an outsider to the grand prix paddock and soon turned himself into an eye-catching frontrunner. He spluttered after getting what should've been a dream Marc VDS opportunity (made possible by Jorge Lorenzo's retirement and Alex Marquez's resulting MotoGP promotion), but rebuilt himself to eventually become Moto2 champion with KTM and Ajo.

He came into MotoGP as a potential one-and-done but was a brilliant fourth on his fifth grand prix start. He looked a prime candidate to be shelved anyway when KTM/Gas Gas encountered their five-riders-into-four-seats problem, but held his own against the returning Pol Espargaro and reinforced his employer's faith.

Now, aged 26, it is time again for the affable Fernandez to pull another rabbit out of that same hat. He is in a contract year, employed by a manufacturer that is making its bikes as attractive as it's ever been, and now partnered by a rookie team-mate who - let's be frank here - by default carries the existential threat of ending Fernandez's MotoGP career.

The disaster test

It's just one test, but that threat is impossible not to think about after the three days of running at Sepang.

What is important to acknowledge is that Pedro Acosta - who Fernandez also had as a rookie team-mate in his title-winning Moto2 season - got three days extra at the Malaysian venue as per the rules. That only explains so much.

Day one of the test proper. "F***ing slow". Fernandez finally gets the new carbon chassis that the factory KTM team ran late last year but the Tech3 team has only inherited now - and yet Acosta is 1.3s quicker.

Day two. Still struggling. No rear grip, lots of rear movement, eventually contributing to a crash. That compromises the time attack - so Acosta is 1.2s quicker.

Day three. Just a little bit better. Maybe. Maybe not. Acosta is 1.4s quicker.

"It's been a very, very tough three days," Fernandez says at the conclusion. "I'm happier about today's work - even if we are still slow.

"We have to start from some point. Somewhere. We lost the first day - I would say the first part of the second day [too]. Then we kind of recovered the feelings.

"Today we were trying some time attacks at the beginning - but when you are not there, you cannot pretend to do 1m56s or 1m57s that everybody's lapping, on record [pace]. Because then a crash could come, and then it's even worse.

"We are far [off] on time attack. But let's reset, we need a reset, all the team."

All throughout, Fernandez's unflappable mask of composure and team spirit slips just a little bit. He is unhappy with the run plan for that first day, the "f***ing slow" day, and feels that the unspecified options that he had been trying in that initial phase have effectively knocked him off his stride. Ditto for day two - making wrong choices "all the time" is how he describes it.

"I lost a bit of confidence the first two days," he concludes. "It's hard to get it back in one day, and especially here in Sepang, you get this bad feeling and it's hard to go away from that. Especially testing, you do a lot of laps and... yeah, [you end up with] bad feelings, not confident."

The high target

Fernandez will be quicker than this come actual race weekend time, there is little doubt. And he will be respectable on Sundays, there is little doubt of that too given the evidence of 2023.

But just returning to that 2023 level won't cut it, especially on the evidence of Acosta's debut.

What will be a source of reassurance to Fernandez is that Pit Beirer, the motorsport boss of the Pierer Mobility Group that includes KTM and Gas Gas, has been consistent in his assertion that the first priority will be a stable roster of riders for 2025.

Beirer said this after the Tech3 Gas Gas launch in the lead-up to Sepang, and whatever he saw in Sepang didn't get him to change his tune in the KTM launch afterwards.

But there's wiggle room, and there's demands. And, in fact, when The Race asked Tech3 team manager Nico Goyon about the targets Fernandez would need to hit to ensure a longer-term stay, his answer was unusually precise.

"We had a good first year," Goyon said during that Gas Gas launch.

"We want to see improvements.

"I did a few statistics - and between the rookie year and the second year you can expect around 200% improvement. So, let's say, he scored 71 points last year, if he improves like the average rider, between year one and year two, it might be something around 200 points.

"[Scoring] 200 points won't be easy, you have a lot of fast riders, fast bikes that you need to keep behind you - but anyway this is the target.

"I think if he keeps following this statistic, on our side there won't be any reason not to keep him.

"Then, as you know, most of the riders will be on the market, a lot of people will want the riders, riders will want the best bikes - so on our side we can only try to get this bike, this Gas Gas bike, as quick as possible.

"This is going to be our job, and we will try to work as close as possible with the rider, and if we all work well and the rider is happy, I don't see any reason why he would need to, would want to leave this package."

The urgency

Again, a reminder that Goyon said all that before the Sepang test.

So whether he expects an improvement to 200% - like Enea Bastianini, who scored 2.15x the points of his rookie year in his second year - or of 200% - like Marco Bezzecchi, who managed a sprint-aided 2.96x improvement last year - feels kind of irrelevant at this moment.

Because Fernandez didn't look like a 200-point rider or a 150-point rider at Sepang.

It is just one test, yes. Some fellow riders also didn't look particularly strong in the particular conditions of a grip-boosted (by all that test mileage) Sepang, and it doesn't mean they will struggle. And a couple of riders more or less missed the test entirely.

But with Tech3 on the record as expecting a lot of Fernandez, and a Gas Gas-badged KTM RC16 that grows more attractive by the minute, he will only have so much time to overcome this very sluggish start.

The wider group is preaching line-up stability, and it seems genuine in its desire to shed its reputation for undue rider turnover. But there is only so much leeway that creates - and that leeway can never be enough if Fernandez's Sepang test headaches prove representative of the season start that awaits him.

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