We'd been waiting for it for a long time - longer than we had initially hoped for, after the planned 1000cc test at Mugello morphed into an 800cc test, the Brno test taking its place - but finally, we got to see the 2012 MotoGP bikes out on track, in public and undisguised. Honda and Yamaha pitted their latest creations against one another in full view of the public, and the results were not quite as expected beforehand.
That a Honda RC213V - that's twenty-one three, not two thirteen, for the superstitious among you - should be fastest at the test was expected, Casey Stoner posting a time of 1'56.168 in the final hour before the test finished. Stoner had already had two days of testing on the 2012 bike, and the times being bandied about the paddock - about as reliable as any gossip from inside a small and deeply political community, i.e. not at all - was that Stoner had been two seconds faster than the 800s at the track earlier in the year, though the conditions for the 1000cc test were much more favorable.
What was not expected was just how fast the Yamaha was, the bike only having been ridden by test riders back in Japan, but without having had a MotoGP-quality rider put it through its paces. So for the 2012 M1 to end up less than a tenth behind the RC213V was heartening indeed, and an impressive piece of work by Yamaha. Both Ben Spies and Jorge Lorenzo were fulsome in their praise, clearly very pleasantly surprised at the state of the 2012 M1. Those who had been predicting a Honda whitewash of the new formula - and I include myself among their number - will be rather surprised, either pleasantly or unpleasantly, depending on your perspective. The new Honda is clearly fast - Stoner was over a second faster during the test than he was during the race - but the difference is not as vast as many had feared. The Honda lane is still open, but entry restrictions have not yet been enforced.
Lorenzo and Spies were both very happy after the test, happy with the work Yamaha had done, happy to be riding the 1000, and even happy with the new engine for the 800cc bike. The new 800 engine had more power everywhere, Spies said, though Lorenzo added that it was only a "little bit" more. He acknowledged that racers always want more, though, and was clearly grateful for what he had received. It may not be enough to blow the Hondas out of the water with, but it at least puts Lorenzo on a slightly more equal footing.
But as intriguing as the possibilities of Yamaha's new 800cc engine are, what you really want to know what the 1000s are like, right? Visually, they are remarkably similar to (and to the casual observer, virtually indistinguishable from) the existing 800cc machines. The bikes sound a little different - the Yamaha more so than the Honda - a little deeper and a little gruffer, but that difference is hard to hear in pit lane. At full chat along Brno's front straight the difference is clearer; where the 800s always sound strained, as if they are tearing themselves apart, the 1000s sound more forceful, accelerating with absolute ease. They are faster, but they sound as if they achieve that extra speed effortlessly.
How much faster? Casey Stoner, Jorge Lorenzo and Valentino Rossi thought that at some tracks such as Qatar and Mugello, the bikes could hit 350 km/h. Would this be more dangerous? Stoner was pretty forceful in his dismissal of his accusation, pointing out that the advent of the 800s had actually seen more crashes due to riders carrying more corner speed. The extra power of the 1000s meant that getting out of the corner is no longer a problem, so losing corner speed is not so heavily penalized. Ben Spies thought that the added torque gave a rider more options, and the longer braking zones (due to higher top speeds and slightly heavier bikes) would open up passing options that were not there previously. Valentino Rossi thought that the 1000s might open up a couple of spots at each track where it would be possible to overtake. But the electronics and the fuel limits are still in place, along with the astonishingly efficient Bridgestone tires. As long as those factors are still there, the racing won't change that much.
The bigger bikes will also move the goalposts for the riders, though only by a small amount. Ben Spies thought the new bigger bikes had meant the game had moved toward him a little, the extra power negating some of the disadvantage he had from being taller and heavier. Casey Stoner admitted he might have to change his style a little, with less focus on corner speed, taking advantage of the grunt out of corners. It's not quite a radical revolution, but the game has definitely shifted.
The relative importance of corner speed was demonstrated by the Suter BMW CRT machine. After a disastrous showing at Mugello - being over 6 seconds off the pace saw a number of teams who had been closing in on a deal with Suter suddenly develop very cold feet indeed - Kallio's time within four seconds of Stoner is a big boost to the project. Four seconds is still a major gap, and there is clearly a lot of still to be done. But to make up two seconds over the course of six weeks is a huge step, and shows that the potential is there to at least be competitive with the back of the satellite teams. Replacing Mika Kallio - who struggled on a MotoGP bike and is a way of being podium material in Moto2 - with a more competitive rider may take off up to a second of that time. Another second from chassis updates and better electronics would put the CRT teams in with a sniff of the points, which is the objective for most of them.
The real potential of the CRT teams will be seen during winter testing. BQR is likely to roll out its Kawasaki-powered FTR machine at Valencia, while FTR is also rumored to producing a chassis with an Aprilia RSV engine. The RSV engine has already proved its potential, and the electronics packages for the Aprilia are both more conventional and more successful than the Bosch system that BMW insist on developing inhouse. If the FTR chassis is slightly more flexible than the Suter - which is still suffering from very bad chatter, in part due to the incredibly stiff Bridgestone tires - then the CRT machines could at least look as if they belong in the class. They are unlikely to be battling for podium positions, but regular points and a sniff of the top 10 would be enough for many of the teams planning to enter.
The real grit of the test, however, the paydirt that will yield up nuggets of real information came in press conferences with HRC Vice President Shuhei Nakamoto and Ducati Corse Director General Filippo Preziosi. Both men spoke at length about their 1000cc bikes, and in the case of Preziosi, the direction the 800 is currently taking. The information from that will take a couple of days to digest, but there were a few things worthy of point out straight away.
Firstly at Ducati, Valentino Rossi's many fans who had been hoping for a turnaround in his fortunes will have been sorely disappointed with his times. But that is to miss the purpose of this test, and the goals that Preziosi and Ducati Corse set out to achieve. Valentino Rossi was not working in the hope of finding something that would allow him to win at Indy, Rossi and Preziosi said. Instead, Rossi was collecting very basic data on the parameters of the GP11.1, experimenting with radical weight distribution and geometry changes, along with new parts with extremely different stiffnesses, to try to understand the dynamics of the bike. The goal was to gather as much data as possible to allow the engineers at Ducati to produce the bike that can win a year down the line. This test was about setting the parameters for Ducati's future direction, rather than Rossi's immediate chances of winning a race.
Many believe that future direction includes an aluminium chassis, but Preziosi danced around that question as light-footedly as a prima ballerina. Yes, they were exploring options; yes they are open-minded; but also, no, they did not believe the full potential of the current concept had been reached. Calls from Italian journalists for the return of a steel trellis were dismissed, Preziosi pointing out that it was the steel trellis frame that had caused Marco Melandri so much grief, but no straight answer was forthcoming about an aluminium twin spar chassis, but this is not something that will go away any time soon. Preziosi also addressed the engine configuration, dismissing the theory (of which I believe I am the only proponent) that the engine limits options for weight distribution. The current configuration meant that the were right in the middle of their weight distribution options, and had not run into problems with the engine shape. They had not yet had front wheels touching cylinder heads in an attempt to get more weight over the front wheel, so this was unlikely to be the problem.
While Valentino Rossi worked for the future, Nicky Hayden worked for Indy, and he was immediately positive about the GP11.1. Hayden will be taking two 11.1s to Indy for what is truly his home GP (Owensboro, Kentucky is just a few hours' drive from Indianapolis). The GP11.1 is the future, also for Hayden.
More on what Nakamoto-san and Preziosi had to say over the coming few days. There was a lot to take in, and in the case of the Sphinx-like Shuhei Nakamoto, an awful lot to interpret, and there will be regular updates coming throughout the week. Stay tuned. It will be worth your while.