until Abu Dhabi Autonomous Racing League


Nine things we learned from MotoGP’s Sepang test

by Valentin Khorounzhiy, Simon Patterson
10 min read

until Abu Dhabi Autonomous Racing League

Ducati and Aprilia locked out the entirety of the top nine in the three-day MotoGP pre-season test at Sepang.

And while it’s never as black-and-white as testing times suggest – with some riders clearly not bothered about getting one great effort on the board – it was abundantly clear that some manufacturers had a much better time of it at the Malaysian venue than others.

Here’s what we gleaned from three of the five days allocated for collective 2023 testing before the season kicks off.

Bagnaia and Ducati are in fantastic shape


“Pecco told us that there are some good points but still mainly one weak point compared to the ’22, that we must work on. By Portimao he wants it to be fixed. Enea is saying exactly the same comments. It’s something that doesn’t make him comfortable on his riding style.”

If you wanted to find some reason for pessimism in Ducati’s pre-season, you could pick the above quote by team manager Davide Tardozzi to MotoGP.com and wonder whether Ducati is again in a situation where its new developments aren’t proving their value over the ‘tried and true’ past spec of the bike.

But that really does not appear to be the case. And, sometime after Tardozzi’s interview, Pecco Bagnaia himself appeared before the series’ cameras, flashing a smile that was absurdly wide.

The reigning champion was already happy throughout the test, but on the final day, he crossed over into elation. The ‘one weak point’ Tardozzi referenced appeared to be “very nervous” power delivery on acceleration – and Bagnaia indicated this was addressed on Sunday, in the final hour, with a big electronics change.

“After lunch, we solved a lot of things about the new bike. About acceleration. I’m very very happy. With used tyres we did an incredible pace. With time attack, I’m very happy to have found a laptime in the [1m]57[s] – I never did it. It’s my best laptime here.”

For Bagnaia, the GP23 is now already at the same level as the GP22 that took him to the title – with more to find. For new team-mate Enea Bastianini, the test hasn’t been so easy, ‘the Beast’ struggling to enter corners as fast as he’d like and turn at his preferred lean angle.

But Bastianini, too, found something extra on the final day that left him more “relaxed”.

In other words, rivals beware.

The Ducati satellites will do some damage again


In the words of Pramac Ducati rider Johann Zarco, seeing seven Desmosedicis in the top nine must be “not very funny” for rival riders and teams.

Yes, not everyone got a time attack in – including, it should be noted, Zarco, the only Ducati rider outside of that top nine – but the signs are ominous.

Zarco’s team-mate Jorge Martin, despite blotting his copybook with a Saturday crash that left him with a painful hand “abrasion”, was thrilled about the GP23 at his disposal relative to the GP22 (different in spec to the engine that propelled Bagnaia to the title) he’d had his disappointing 2022 with. He’s already right in the mix, according to himself and Zarco, while the Frenchman is still catching up a bit, having emphasised that he’d spent some of the test doing work specifically for Ducati.

But beyond the Pramacs, there’s the year-old refined GP22s, and they were particularly on song in the VR46 riders’ hands here. Bagnaia cautioned that he expected them to fight for the top five on the regular – and though he’s obviously friends with both Luca Marini and Marco Bezzecchi, fellow apples from the Valentino Rossi tree, it is undeniable that both have been fast.

Marini’s now topped both the official off-season tests. His first podium is coming.

Gresini not missing Bastianini so much


When news first emerged that Gresini Ducati would lose 2022 sensation Enea Bastianini for this season, it undoubtedly left the newly-independent squad more than a little worried that it would be very difficult indeed to replicate his stunning collection of four wins last year.

And, with Alex Marquez joining sophomore Fabio Di Giannantonio in the team, it wasn’t exactly a lineup that inspired a lot of confidence in winning plenty this year. But, with a successful test under their belts, it seems like there might be at least some reason for optimism given the pace of both of them.

Di Giannantonio, now working with former Joan Mir world championship-winning crew chief Frankie Carchedi and believing he’s found the key to unlocking his potential, finished the test in seventh overall, one of his best-ever MotoGP showings.

And Marquez, finally free from the shackles of an aggressive Honda, was equally quick, just a few thousandths behind his team-mate – and, crucially, ahead of brother Marc. The duo are not exactly favourites to win four or five races, but expect a few podium trips for both, especially in Saturday’s new sprint races.

Honda’s in the same position and Marc’s poker-facing


Perhaps one of the most telling comments made by Marc Marquez over the course of the three days of testing came right at the very end, where he let slip an opinion that really hints at just how bad the Japanese factory’s situation is right now – and how big the challenge ahead of him in 2023 might be.

Working flat out throughout the test on a remarkable four different specifications of RC213V, offering different combinations of chassis, engine, swing arm and aerodynamics, he spent most of the test whittling down those options until only one bike remained, with that model the one that he’s hoping that Honda will be able to refine into something better over the course of the next month.

However, the crucial admission he made was that while he might have spent a lot of time working on multiple machines all weekend, the one that they eventually elected to take forward was the one most similar to the bike he tested in Valencia last November – essentially rendering a considerable amount of Honda’s winter work all in vain.

Sure, there’s still time for them to pull something out of the bag before the next and final test at Portimao ahead of the opening race – but time is now very scarce indeed, and if the three-month winter break didn’t elicit anything particularly positive, then it very much seems like there’s another tough year ahead for the factory.

Mir should be Marquez’s strongest team-mate in a while


Joan Mir’s had a really weird path to Honda. He wouldn’t have come if Suzuki had stayed in the series, the signing of the deal fitted into comfortably his worst MotoGP season, he didn’t get to bring his treasured crew chief Frankie Carchedi along and he then had a surprising off-season change of crew chief from Ramon Aurin to Giacomo Guidotti.

There’s been an undercurrent of fear over what a finicky RC213V might do to Mir’s career. And to be at all a success at Honda, he has to be by far Marquez’s best team-mate since pre-decline Dani Pedrosa.

But his chances of getting there look better at Sepang, where he seemed to gradually grow faster and more confident.

“For sure we are still a bit far – but every day we are closer,” he told MotoGP.com. “This is very important, that every day we feel better with the bike, that I’m riding more like Honda style – and this is what is happening. I’m riding in a completely different way now, and it’s a way that I enjoy.”

Though he finished the final day only 12th, a second off the pace and acknowledging that there was still a clear deficit to the likes of Aprilia and Ducati, especially over one lap, Mir did appear to grow cheerier over the course of the test.

This bike is indeed supposed to suit his natural style, arguably even more so than the Suzuki he won the world title on. So this might just be the start of something quite good.

Yamaha’s found some speed – but at what cost?


On one hand, Sepang was a resounding success for Yamaha, finally bringing a bike that excelled in the one area where they needed it to – going faster out of corners and in a straight line, something that’s been the bane of 2021 world champion Fabio Quartararo’s life for the past year in particular.

And, initially, it seemed like they’d been able to do that without making any compromises elsewhere, either, considering that the bike hadn’t seemed to lose out anywhere else, with strong race pace and tyre conservation leaving both Quartararo and an improving team-mate Franco Morbidelli positive after the first two days.

However, that good mood quickly took a dip on day three when the pair tried something else: going out on their new bike to attempt a time attack. Explaining afterwards that he felt like there was nothing amiss with it as he pushed at the limit, it was only afterwards that Quartararo realised the reality: he was more than a second down on his rivals, with no idea why.

What comes next for the team remains to be seen now. Qualifying is going to be desperately important in 2023, more so than ever before with double the number of race starts in the weekend as MotoGP adds sprint races to every round, and the fastest bike in the world will do nothing at all for the duo unless they’re starting on the first three rows…

Aprilia looks great but wants more


It is extremely telling that Aleix Espargaro didn’t sound all that overjoyed by what he found in the 2023-spec Aprilia RS-GP made available to him at Sepang.

Not because Aprilia had done a bad job – Espargaro and team-mate Maverick Vinales were a routine presence towards the front of the timesheets, and both felt the bike has improved in virtually all areas.

No, Espargaro’s reservations were simply about whether the step forward Aprilia’s made is enough to trouble the Ducati juggernaut. The rest of the rivals, he suggested, the Noale firm currently has covered.

Imagine hearing that just a few years back. And then also keep in mind that Aprilia is yet to bring what Espargaro has repeatedly referred to as its actual “racing engine” – that should come in the next test in Portimao.

Vinales, by the way, was conclusively delighted. “I just want to start racing.”

KTM’s potential remains something of an enigma


On paper, Sepang was far from a good outing for KTM’s two differently-liveried teams. It’s something of a snub to factory duo Brad Binder and new signing Jack Miller that satellite rider Pol Espargaro, returning to the fold after two years at Honda, was faster than them on what in theory is a satellite bike – but the bigger issue is probably that even then, he was a pretty distant 13th.

However, the reality is something different – something that’s quite a bit more nebulous than it seems. Spending the majority of testing doing exactly that, throwing new parts at the RC16 every single day and gathering a mountain of data for the engineers back in Austria, it’s fair to say that we’re far from seeing the bike that will line up on the grid for the first race in Portimao next month.

Whether KTM will be any more competitive or not then remains to be seen, but given just how little actual time working on anything approximating a race bike they spent, there’s got to be at least some hope that things are going to get better.

And, while KTM might still have work to do, Espargaro’s time attack – which left him feeling confident that KTM has made improvements even if he wasn’t pushing flat out – will bring at least some contentment to the team, given just how big a weakness qualifying has been for them in recent years.

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