The timesheets at the end of day one at Sepang are telling. This is a track at which the teams spent six days testing back in February prior to the start of the year, much as they have done every year, and so they have enough data on the track to fill every iPod Steve Jobs ever sold. They should know how to set up a bike to go around this track, despite everyone complaining of a lack of grip, as is often the case in the hot October weather.
With that variable removed, the timesheet is a pretty good reflection of the state of MotoGP: Four factory Hondas sit at its head, the three Repsols followed by San Carlo's Marco Simoncelli; Hiroshi Aoyama on the satellite Honda follows, with the first Yamaha in 6th position, Monster Tech 3 Yamaha's Colin Edwards happy on the setting they found during the pre-season tests. Alvaro Bautista is 7th, the Suzuki thriving in the Malaysian heat as it always has done, and Randy de Puniet on a satellite Ducati is in 8th. That, in a nutshell, is a pretty good summary of the 2011 MotoGP season.
There are a couple of big gaps here, of course: Jorge Lorenzo is back at home in Barcelona, recovering from the surgery to repair the finger he damaged so badly at Phillip Island, and Ben Spies has separated muscles around his ribs, another reminder of Australia and sheer torture at one of the hardest braking circuits of the season. Under normal circumstances, Lorenzo would be in the midst of the Repsol Hondas, and Spies would be mixing it up with Dovizioso and Simoncelli. Casey Stoner was quick to point out that they - the Repsol Hondas - had no point to measure themselves against, with Lorenzo and Spies out of the equation.
So it's no surprise that there is nobody to challenge the Repsols, though the more usual state of affairs is for Casey Stoner to proceed Dani Pedrosa, instead of trailing the Spaniard by over eight tenths of a second. In interviews after the sessions, Stoner affected indifference, pointing out that Pedrosa had set his fastest lap on soft tires, while he and his crew were still working on race setup on the harder tire. Andrea Dovizioso made the same point, calling Pedrosa's fastest lap - there were actually three of them in a row in the 2'01s - "strange".
But hard tires or soft, Pedrosa looked fearsome around Sepang. Like all of the Aliens, Pedrosa is fast everywhere, but there are some tracks where all of the Fantastic Four seem to transcend themselves: Casey Stoner at Phillip Island, Valentino Rossi at Mugello, Jorge Lorenzo at Jerez. For Pedrosa, it is Sepang, and the Repsol Honda was flying around that track as if Hermann Tilke had designed the circuit with Pedrosa in mind. It was sublime, an aggressive yet delicate tango, Pedrosa seducing the bike to go around the track faster and faster. Sights like those remind even the most jaded observer of all that is great about motorcycle racing.
That Suzuki should be doing quite so well is not much of a surprise either: they have historically gone fast at the Malaysian circuit, the hot conditions compensating for the difficulty the GSV-R has traditionally had in getting heat into the tires and finding some grip. Alvaro Bautista is on a roll as well, the Spaniard putting in the best performances of his career over the past few races - if you are prepared to overlook the race crashes.
Despite the results, and despite the fact that John Hopkins has been added to the Rizla Suzuki squad as a wildcard at Sepang, there is still no word on Suzuki's plans for the future. This morning, the Crescent Suzuki team - the Rizla MotoGP squad's parent operation - announced they would be competing in the World Superbike series, and though no rider names were announced, it is widely expected that John Hopkins and Tommy Hill will take the start in 2012. There is still a deafening silence surrounding Suzuki's MotoGP plans, and with each passing hour, the outlook is growing successively worse. If Suzuki's plans do fall through, then LCR Honda is holding the seat for Alvaro Bautista, and unless Bautista hears from Suzuki before the end of Sunday night, he is odds-on favorite to take the plunge with Lucio Cecchinello. Given the pace the RC213V has shown in testing, that would not be such a bad idea.
Yesterday, I also mentioned that Scott Redding could be on the MotoGP grid next year, but it turns out that that deal is dead in the water as well. Ducati had offered the Desmosedici GP12 that would have gone to the Aspar team to Marc VDS Racing, Redding's current Moto2 team, but the conditions stipulated that Redding would have been placed inside the Pramac team as a second rider. Neither Redding nor the team had any interest in that deal, and so it too died a quiet death.
Things are not looking rosy at Ducati. Valentino Rossi is starting to express the first, tentative public criticism of the way that the GP12 is being developed. "I am no longer convinced that the road we have chosen is the right one," Rossi said to reporters at Sepang, as reported by GPOne.com. "We still haven't understood what the problem is."
At Phillip Island, Rossi had responded positively to suggestions from journalists that the problem may lie in the engine layout of the Desmosedici - an idea I discussed back in August. Rossi does not feel he has the right seating position on the bike, the tank position preventing him from positioning his body further forward and putting weight over the front wheel. Altering the tank is difficult, as the fuel has to go somewhere, and the 90 degree V used by the Ducati takes up a lot of physical space, leaving fewer options for relocating parts such as the fuel tank.
What is clear, Rossi told reporters, is that everything they have tried so far has not helped. Changing the front subframe, changing the material used to produce it from carbon fiber to aluminium, changing the rear swingarm mount, all this has made no difference to the lack of front-end feel, and Rossi is stuck down in 13th at the end of the first day of practice. He is the 5th fastest Ducati, with only Hector Barbera - still recovering from his injuries sustained at Motegi, and incapable of running more than four laps without a pain-killing injection - behind him. Even teammate Nicky Hayden is a lowly 11th, with Karel Abraham and Randy de Puniet ahead of him.
Valentino Rossi won here last year. With a shoulder that was still causing him problems. That was his last victory, with a winless season now a virtual certainty, the first of his career. There is reason to hope that things will be better next year - if not for the massive amount of work done by Ducati in the attempt to find a solution, then because of the different way the 1000s can be ridden, with much less emphasis on front-end grip - but it's been a long and very hard year on everyone at Ducati, not just on Valentino Rossi. His season is taking on shades of Marco Melandri's ill-fated season on the factory Ducati, but without the prospect of an early release from the contract.
In the Moto2 class, Marc Marquez showed the danger of remaining in Moto2, suffering a massive highside on his very first lap of the circuit. Turn 10 of the track was still soaking wet from the rain, and the marshals were not showing any flags to the riders to warn them of the danger, for which the circuit received a fine of 15,000 euros from Race Direction. Four men went down, and fortunately only Bradley Smith and Marc Marquez suffered any real injury. Smith fractured a collarbone, ruling himself out of the race on Sunday, while Marquez escaped with a bruised shoulder and a nasty knock to the head. The Spaniard was sent back to his hotel room with some painkillers to rest, in the hope he will be fit for Saturday and Sunday, and be able to continue his title chase. After losing 4 crucial points to Stefan Bradl at Phillip Island, when he was forced to start from the back of the grid and fight his way forward, Marquez was hoping to get off to a good start and pull back some points from the German, and take back the lead going into the final round at Valencia. That just got a lot more difficult.