2011 MotoGP Sepang 1 Test Preview - The Wait Is Over

It's been a long winter. And the lack of action on the MotoGP front has made the anticipation of the fans even worse by the many questions left hanging after the last test the MotoGP bikes participated in, after the season finale at Valencia.

Back in November, thousands watched Valentino Rossi make his debut on the Ducati (and Casey Stoner make his debut on the Honda, though it was clear where the attention of the fans was focused), and the results were a huge surprise. That Jorge Lorenzo was fast at the test surprised nobody, nor the fact that Casey Stoner was fast out of the traps, though quite how fast the Australian was after just a few laps on the Repsol Honda for the first time did raise a few eyebrows.

The big surprise from the Valencia test was Valentino Rossi's times on the Ducati. The Italian ended the test with the 15th time, with only Moto2 returnee Toni Elias and MotoGP rookie Karel Abraham behind him. There was no doubt that Rossi's injured shoulder - hurt in a training accident early in the year - played a significant role; the Valencia test came at the end of a long season, and after a full weekend of racing, at a track Rossi dislikes intensely. But Rossi (speaking through Filippo Preziosi, as he was contractually unable to speak directly to the press) also complained of a lack of feel from the front end, and a general lack of confidence in the bike.

Since then, Ducati have gone away and modified almost every aspect of the 2011 Desmosedici. Some of this was anticipated - the revised aerodynamics and altered electronics package, for example - but the changes to the front subframe, the carbon fiber section that doubles as an airbox and substructure, connecting the front forks to the engine, a load-bearing part of Ducati's "frameless" Desmosedici MotoGP bike, to produce more feedback and feeling, were made at the specific request of Rossi, based on the feedback he provided at the test, and from meetings at the Ducati Corse department with Rossi's technical team, including veteran race engineer Jeremy Burgess.

Tuesday is the first opportunity we get to see what difference those changes have made. When the MotoGP riders take to the track again at Sepang for the first time since November, all eyes will be on the Ducati garage, and how Valentino Rossi and - to a lesser extent - his teammate Nicky Hayden will perform. Once again, expectations of Rossi are probably too high, as the Italian is still recovering from surgery to repair his injured shoulder, and the Italian is still complaining that his shoulder is weak and painful. But nobody's times will be watched more closely, or examined in greater detail, than Valentino Rossi's.

While the world watches Rossi, a better measure of the progress made will probably come from Nicky Hayden. The other man in the Marlboro Ducati garage is not hampered by injury (though Hayden, too, went under the knife to deal with a wrist problem), and Hayden stands to benefit greatly from the changes to the Ducati, as his improved results last year were undone in part by the front-end problems that all of the Ducatis seemed to suffer. If Rossi's continuing recovery from his shoulder injury makes his times difficult to interpret, Nicky Hayden's times should give a clear indication of progress at Ducati.

Surprises are not expected at Yamaha, at least not in terms of rider performance. Jorge Lorenzo's decision to brave the jinx that has hung over carrying the #1 plate since Mick Doohan retired merely confirms the Spaniard's confidence, and given how well-developed the Yamaha is and how flawlessly Lorenzo rode last season, there is no reason to expect Lorenzo to be anywhere other than at the top of the timesheets.

Expectations are running similarly high for Lorenzo's teammate, Ben Spies. The Texan had an outstanding rookie year, scoring a couple of podiums and running close to the front three several times. In his first year of MotoGP, Spies got within a couple of tenths of the pace of the so-called Aliens, and many believe that those final tenths can be found in the difference between the satellite spec Monster Tech 3 Yamaha and the factory machines. Now firmly ensconced in the factory squad, and with the media focus and pressure on his teammate and reigning world champion, Spies is expected to get on with his quiet progress, and threaten to turn the Fantastic Four into the Fabulous Five.

The only real surprise in the Yamaha camp is the livery: Yamaha's MotoGP team will be running in factory colors, as the team has yet to bag a title sponsor - despite housing the World Champion and running the #1 plate. Yamaha's Lin Jarvis has hinted that a deal has been close a number of times, but so far, the bikes remain firmly Yamaha blue-and-white.

The man most hotly tipped to keep the #1 jinx going is a man who knows all about it from personal experience. Casey Stoner has now joined the factory Repsol Honda squad, and was setting a blistering pace within minutes of leaving pit lane when he rode the RC212V for the first time at Valencia. Honda arrives at Sepang with work to do on stability under braking and on power delivery, the eternal complaint of all Honda's riders. All except Stoner, that is, who said the power delivery was much smoother than the Ducati, and was much easier to manage. With Stoner speaking openly of his ambition to emulate Mick Doohan - a rider he resembles in both style and personality - it will be a complete shock if Stoner does not end up as the fastest man over the next three days.

Stoner is now part of a three-man team with Dani Pedrosa and Andrea Dovizioso at Honda, and after his strongest season yet, Pedrosa starts the season with doubts hanging over his fitness once again. The Spaniard is still unsure of how the collarbone he broke at Motegi last October will hold up, despite being given the all clear by doctors after Valencia. Pedrosa will be hoping to be back at full strength by the time the season starts, but may suffer some weakness during his first full outing on a MotoGP bike this week.

The interesting question in the Repsol Honda garage will be the dynamics of how the three riders will work together. Both Stoner and Pedrosa have denied there will be any friction between the riders, and the body language between the two has always been positive. But behind the scenes, a power struggle continues between Pedrosa's mentor Alberto Puig and Livio Suppo, the man who brought Stoner to HRC. There could be internal arguments over who should lead development, but as long as both riders are booking results, HRC will hope to keep the situation in hand.

There is good reason to believe that the Japanese giant will clamp down hard on internal dissent. Honda were the prime movers behind the switch to 800cc, yet they have failed to win a single title since the drop in capacity they asked for was granted. The 2011 season is their final chance to grab an 800cc MotoGP title, and they will do whatever it takes to pull that off. Anyone rocking the boat is likely to find himself in a very bad place, and the rider who brings HRC their coveted MotoGP crown will be richly rewarded.

While Honda, Yamaha and (especially) Ducati field a healthy six, four and six bikes respectively, Suzuki is down to a measly single bike. Yet that could finally work out well for the Hamamatsu factory, as Suzuki's MotoGP effort has always been both underfunded and underdeveloped in equal measure. With just a single rider to support, more cash should be available to move the machine forward. The risk, of course, is that by having their eggs solely in Alvaro Bautista's basket, if anything happens to the Spaniard, they have no fallback position.

Bautista himself made good progress throughout 2010, finding his feet after the halfway mark of the season, after a mediocre start to his MotoGP career. The signs are good that Bautista could pull out a few surprises in 2011, if he gets the support he hopes for from Suzuki.

Sepang will be a key test for the factory, but results there could be deceptive. The GSV-R has always performed strongly in hot conditions, as natural track heat does the job of getting heat into the tires that the bike's chassis has always failed to. The bike has plenty of grip when it's hot, but as temperatures cool, the Suzuki goes backwards. If Suzuki can't fix this problem, then their participation in 2012 is very much in doubt.

Test results among the satellite riders are always much harder to assess. Funding for testing is always hardest to find, with teams running engines for as long as possible, and winding back performance to ensure they can make it through the tests without spending too much money. Yet there are still several stories that may play out under the radar, but which could prove key in 2011.

British fans will be watching the progress of Cal Crutchlow closely, as another British hopeful starts out on a MotoGP career. The omens are not good, as the footsteps Crutchlow follows in have so far led deep into the wilderness, rather than towards the podium. It has been well over twenty years since the UK had any real success in the premier class, despite racking up a string of World Superbike titles during the same period.

Yet there is also reason to be optimistic. The one thing that British riders entering MotoGP seemed to be missing was the kind of mental toughness that separates champions from competitors. That toughness is exactly what Crutchlow has in abundance, the bottomless desire to succeed and dominate, and a refusal to accept any other result. In his rookie year in MotoGP, and with the weight of British expectation behind him, he will need all of the toughness he can summon.

The pressure will also be on Toni Elias. The Spaniard returns to MotoGP fresh from his dominant year in Moto2, and with much riding on his performance. Within the MotoGP paddock, debate rages over just how good Moto2 is as preparation for the MotoGP class. Though the chassis is a full prototype, the restrictions in electronics adjustments and the lack of an adjustable gearbox mean that riders miss out on a vital part of bike setup that the MotoGP class requires.

Elias is to be the test case of whether a Moto2 rider can be competitive in the premier class. The Spaniard has an advantage, having already spent five seasons in MotoGP, two of them on board an RC212V like the one he is to ride at LCR. Yet his return to the class was inauspicious, ending the first test at Valencia at the bottom of the timesheets.

The fate of the man he replaces looks to be very different indeed. Randy de Puniet left the LCR Honda squad to move to the Pramac Ducati squad, and the Frenchman was fast right off the mark. De Puniet started off 2010 strongly, scoring outstanding results until he broke his leg at the Sachsenring. After that, he struggled, returning to racing too early to meet his contractual obligations. De Puniet feels he has a point to prove, and his wild and unruly style may well suit the Ducati. The Desmosedici needs its front tire to be worked to provide grip at the front, and the one thing that De Puniet is not afraid of is putting load into the front end, as his string of front-end crashes on the notorious Michelin tires proved. Once he switched to Bridgestones, he stopped crashing, and started finishing closer to the front.

Of course, whether any useful data comes out of the Sepang test depends entirely on the weather. The Malaysian track was chosen for testing because of its dependable climate, but that climate also includes the occasional tropical rain shower. The first day of the test on Tuesday looks like it could be plagued by rain, though conditions should improve for Wednesday and Thursday.

But even if the bikes sit in the garage, at least the fans know that the start of the season is near. Just over six weeks to go until battle commences in earnest. For now, though, we will have to make do with testing.

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Comments

...that the day would (almost) NEVER come...

This year has so much potential to be truly epic. With Rossi's health issues and challenges with adapting to the Ducati, Honda's resurgence, Jorge's brilliant racecraft, the (potential) uncertainty about what will happen at Yamaha following the departure of Furusawa, the maturing of Ben in his role as Moto GP rider (and corresponding improvement to his machinery), and the always-there presence of Dani near the top...I think that if I was an odds-maker in Las Vegas, I must say that the most logical favorite that could be named, with the info we currently have at our disposal...would have to be Jorge or Casey. Between those two, I have to think that, by the SLIMMEST of margins, Casey starts the season as the favorite. We shall soon(ish) see...

Lights! Camera! ACTION!

Bring it on!

I am really curious to see how Stoner will be doing. I don't think I have ever seen him look so confident on press photos. A good thing, but the expectations are getting higher by the minute. I hope he can deal.

Speaking of which: hope you can still handle the pressure, David. Your excellent writing and insights also make for humungus expectations but you pull it off every time ;)

. . . I agree with you! I've got a bet on Stoner to win it all! And the new post on Superbikeplanet . . . stating Mr. Pedrosa . . . meet your worst nightmare--your new teammate!

AND . . . why doesn't someone out there in TV land put it on OR make it a pay 4 view event! I'd pay to watch some Moto GP testing!

I am chomping at the bit to see what happens with testing etc (and wasting lots of time that I should be using to be more productive).

What time does testing get underway? I trust someone will be tweeting from there? Is Motogp.com going to have live timing going?

I understand Motogp doesn't really cover the testing - save with a few interviews. With all the attention this year, I would think someone would be - I would be happy with pay per view. Actually, I just read that Sepang is going to open the gates for free for the test! I wish I could afford the plane ticket.

Thanks again David - love the site and the posters. It's nice not to have so much rhetoric amongst the posters, but rather people that know really follow the sport, that can dis-agree without being so dis-agreeable.

Bring it on Please!!

I am very anxious to see RDP on a Duc. Especially an improved one. He has always been one of my favorite underdogs.

Feels like ages since Ive seen a bike make it round the track.

First off, 2011 season activity!!!!!!! YEA!!!!!!

Now on to regular programming......

How can you even mention Elias as being a test case for how well a Moto2 rider can adapt to the top class? As you point out, he had 5 seasons in Motogp, more than enough to familiarize him with the machinery and range of adjustments. His stint in Moto2 was more cherry-picking than anything and if he didn't win it would've been his last year in the GPs.

A real test case will be when a Moto2 rider who has not spent a season (or 5!) in the top class advances to it. That is if any are considered good enough for a team manager to take a risk on someone from the class. I predict that next year no Moto2 riders will move up, if any riders make the move it will be Rea from WSB.

Actually, with the new rules there will be more seats available so maybe the Moto2 champ will be promoted, but I think WSB will be the class of choice for teams to shop in.

Chris
moto2-usa.blogspot.com

Karel Abraham is a proper Moto 2 candidate to test your theory. Not by way of previous results but in so far as coming through Moto 2 on into the GPs without having previousley raced in the GPs. He is the only one in fact. I am interested to see his progress, though not many expect too much from him.

Also the article hit it on the head when noting Nicky Hayden will be the true litmus test when analyzing Ducatis progress. I love that he gets little attention and few expect him to fight at the front every weekend. Yes, he will be the big benefactor to all the changes Ducati has made so far and I expect him to be on pace and on podiums all year. Only guy outside of Stoner who has done anything with that bike.

To @thecosman's point, Karel being on a Duc may not do him any favors; especially if many of the factory bike changes don't filter down.

@phil.bast

I agree with you on Nicky. I admit to a little bias because I have been a fan of NH69 since before his MotoGP/Honda days and to this day do not like DP26 because of what happened between them in his championship year.

I wonder if anyone will ever really know how well (or not) NH69 can develop a bike. Everyone just assumes that all the changes to the bike are based on VR46's feedback after the single test. Yet, everyone expects Nicky to benefit and shine from the changes (if they are good changes). I would like to think that after ignoring CS27 and then hearing the same thing from NH69 for two full seasons ... and then again from VR46 after a single test ... that is what the changes are based on.

JL1
CS27
DP26
BS11
NH69
VR46

I too expect NH69 to be running with the aliens this year but only if the changes improve the bike without hurting it's strengths. Be nice to see a crowd up front again.

I am dying to watch some racing again, and as many have said this year should be good.

I don't expect to see Rossi near the top of the time sheets this week, but I do hope that whatever changes they made to the bike will help Nicky stay close to the front runners.

I do expect to see Stoner at the top after the test - I think the only one that will be able to challenge him this year is Lorenzo.

Ring, ring. It's the 2011 Season. Time to wake up and deal with reality.

Mr. Pedrosa, meet your new teammate. Time to really prove if all the Honda-love you've gotten over the past few yeas (at the detriment of many other riders - Mr. Hayden) was worth it.

Mr. Lorenzo, it's one thing to chase and beat an somewhat injured Rossi. Good job last year. Let's see how you fare without someone like Vale doing your set up work. No one really doubts your skills, but how does it feel to go onto a new season with the #1 plate and NOT be the favorite?

Mr. Ducati, time to see if your bike is actually rideable by anyone other than Casey. You've destroyed the careers of a few too many top-level riders over the past few years. Is Vale next? Or, do Hayden, Melandri, and Capirex get vindicated?

Mr. Spies, you've proven you deserve a seat at the table. It's time to prove you deserve the Champagne as well.

Mr. Stoner, time to prove to everyone that you belong in the record books next to some of the greats.

Bring it on.

I am so retarded, i keep refreshing all the sites to see who has more news about the testing lol. I can't wait!!!!!!!!!

Ring, Ring, Hibernation over - love your analogy. Great post.

"A real test case will be when a Moto2 rider who has not spent a season (or 5!) in the top class advances to it."

@thecosman

Poor Karel Abraham is always the forgotten rider. He is the test case for 2011. That said, I don't think it is a good test case per se. Seeing as he wasn't the Moto2 star, it will be interesting to see how he gets on. Toni Elias is back just to make sure Spain's $$ comes back some more too (OK, cheap shot. I apologize TE fans). Well, that and the fact that a lot of people like his riding style (win or lose). Personally, I think it has less to do with the class they come from than it does the personality they have (being driven to succeed is a must), innate ability to translate feel to words understood by engineers and the people they learn with and from.

Both David and I forgot about Karel being a real Moto2 graduate. He will be the true Moto2 upgrade test although being on a Ducati may skew the result as it seems to be a love it or leave it type of bike.

Chris
moto2-usa.blogspot.com

I hadn't forgotten about Abraham, but the argument will be made based on Elias' success. He was Moto2 champ, he is the yardstick against which Moto2 will be measured. Rightly or wrongly. 

If the point is to see how well Moto2 prepares riders for MotoGP how can using a very experienced MotoGP rider who happened to be demoted for 1 year qualify as an accurate yardstick?

Yes, Elias was the Moto2 champ but he's had 5 years to learn a MotoGP bike so he is not a rookie by any measure. With him being dead last at the Valencia test Moto2 definitely did not help develop his riding technique.

>>Rightly or wrongly

Wrongly. Definitely. Are paddock people really buying that?

Chris
moto2-usa.blogspot.com

I think if there is an experiment to be done it should have 250 virgins as the subjects. Maybe Marquez, Simon or Redding will be the first test subject if they make it.

I think the powers that be just can spot fast when they see it.

"Sepang will be a key test for the factory, but results there could be deceptive. The GSV-R has always performed strongly in hot conditions, as natural track heat does the job of getting heat into the tires that the bike's chassis has always failed to. The bike has plenty of grip when it's hot, but as temperatures cool, the Suzuki goes backwards."

Alvaro Bautista, Loris Capirossi, Chris Vermeulen - they have all been hot and ran up front for the Sepang tests in the past. So i do not put much into the times they run.

But you say that the deceptive culprit is the track temperature. Are none of the actual races run at tracks and under similar conditions?

In fact it's probably not the only factor but Bautista best qualification last year was at Sepang when he started from the 8th spot on the grid to achieve his best result of the year with a 5th place (on par with his result at Catalunya in June).
And these are 2 really hot tracks.

If my man Spies finishes in the top 3 at this test I think he will have a good chance to be in contention for the championship - baring too much bad luck.

It's finally starting. Go Spies!

Looks like Motogp.com will be showing the Testing. I will be glued to the monitor watching every second. This will be exactly what I am look for.

The Honda lineup. Pedrosa is still recovering, but Stoner should be pushing that bike to the outer limits. Cannot wait to see how he does and to see if Jorge Lorenzo will be able to match his pace.

I know Lorenzo has taken a bike that Rossi is responsible for making so good, but, he does have talent. A talent that may have messed Stoner up a little bit in the past. There was a time period when Lorenzo started doing like Stoner, hopping on the bike and setting extremely fast times immediately. Both of them trading times throughout practice sessions that took everyone else 30 minutes or so to get down to.

Those two are my top two to watch. Waiting to see what Spies does too. He is quiet, and has not said a brash word. But I personally feel the way that dude learns and improves systematically is dangerous. He may not win the title, but I bet he puts in some times in this test that raise some eyebrows.

Whatever happens, even these tests will be exciting to watch! It has been way too long!

At last, it's been a long wait and I expect a longer wait before we get a true indication of Ducatis place, as David said I think Nicky will give a better idea of Ducatis position, but it is not beyond Rossi and team to have his teammate play along. Whatever goes on I have watched the ducatis for the last few years and for my money they are fundamentally flawed and trying to change bits that shouldn't need changing(resorting to old forks???) is like rearranging the deck chairs on the titanic. New frame needed urgently and would be surprised if they haven't brought... Preziosi goes down a few notches if they haven't.

Jlo will of course be up their and I suspect Spies also. I expect Dani to have few problems with Casey accept at the tracks Casey enjoys and the season is usually over before we get to them..
DP was easily the top guy before his accident and will defo be a contender...