New country, new culture, new challenge…but the same incredible riders ready to take on the track. It’s time for Chang International Circuit in Buriram to debut in MotoGP, with a three-day test giving the grid their first taste of the venue ahead of the first ever PTT Thailand Grand Prix in October.
So where is Buriram? About five hours from Bangkok, in the north east of the country. The 4.6km track, built in 2014, has so far only challenged WorldSBK to its five right-and seven left-handers. That means it’s a total reset from Sepang – where Jorge Lorenzo (Ducati Team) was fastest, putting in the quickest ever lap time around the track – and there’s a new whole new set of records to be established.
Ducati have begun 2018 very satisfied with their progress over the winter. Both Lorenzo and 2017 runner up teammate Andrea Dovizioso have good things to say about the GP18 and Team Manager Davide Tardozzi hinted at Sepang that there could be much more to see at Buriram, too. The Borgo Panigale factory were the pioneers of winglets and then aero-fairings in recent history – could there be another innovation ready to come out of hibernation at Sepang?
For Honda, they have their own aero-fairing to investigate further but spent the first test focused largely elsewhere and on the engine, with reigning Champion Marc Marquez (Repsol Honda Team) and teammate Dani Pedrosa joined by HRC test rider Cal Crutchlow (LCR Honda Castrol) on testing duty. There were a lot of positive reports at Sepang, and Pedrosa and Crutchlow made their presences routinely felt at the sharp end of the timesheets. Marquez ended Sepang a little lower down, but wasn’t concentrating on a time attack…
Yamaha, meanwhile, will be hoping to use the heat of Buriram and the possible lower grip levels to their advantage. After two very positive first days testing at Sepang for both Maverick Viñales and Valentino Rossi, Day 3 was a little more difficult for the Iwata marque. As well as refining their new bike and attempting to fully eradicate any trace of low grip woes, Yamaha also had an aero fairing on track at Sepang and there were positive reports – will we see the same again, or another iteration of the idea?
Team Suzuki Ecstar were also contributors to aero-watch – but more of the headlines were stolen by Alex Rins, who begins his second season fully fit and has shown some impressive pace. But it’s good reading for teammate Andrea Iannone, too – with the Hamamatsu factory looking like they’ve averted the mistakes of preseason last year and are ready to get back in the hunt nearer the front.
Red Bull KTM Factory Racing were another with aero innovations in the first test and showed an incredible step forward as they begin their sophomore season. Despite Pol Espargaro sitting out Day 3 after a hard crash, the 2013 Moto2™ Champion was more than a second quicker than in 2017, and teammate Bradley Smith eight tenths further forward. At Buriram, there’s no 2017 marker against which to measure their ever-impressive progress – but there’s also no advantage for anyone else. Sadly, however, Espargaro will sit out the test in Thailand due to injury.
In the Independent Team ranks, Monster Yamaha Tech 3 rider Johann Zarco remains locked into refining what he will run this season – and there will be a new face on the other side of the Tech 3 garage. Hafizh Syahrin will be testing at Buriram, with a view to taking on the seat vacated by Jonas Folger. The Malaysian rider, who has a number of podium finishes in Moto2, has been consistently fast in the intermediate class and now becomes the first from his nation to take on MotoGP. He’ll feel the pressure, but for the ‘Pescao’, the most important thing to show will be consistent progress.
There are other four rookies already having tested their new steeds – reigning Moto2™ Champion Franco Morbidelli and teammate Tom Lüthi at EG 0,0 Marc VDS, Takaaki Nakagami (LCR Honda Idemistu) and Xavier Simeon (Reale Avinta Racing). Nakagami had the upper hand at Sepang and the Japanese rider has so far been the benchmark – but his fellow debutants will be pushing hard to hit back.
Progress is also the buzzword for riders who have changed teams for 2018, too. Jack Miller (Alma Pramac Racing) has been a stunner so far as he takes to life on a Ducati and already seems on the pace with teammate Danilo Petrucci. Tito Rabat (Reale Avintia Racing) is another who seems happy in his new home. Aleix Espargaro (Aprilia Racing Team Gresini), meanwhile, remains making progress at Aprilia, with searching for more power the name of the game over winter.
Preparations for 2018 are now at full speed. So who will stake an early claim on Buriram? Find out from the 16th February for the first ever three days of MotoGP action in Thailand, from 9:30 to 17:30 local time (GMT +7). And on Friday and Saturday, the final fifteen minutes of the session are reserved for practice starts.