If the first day of last year's Valencia test was one of the biggest media events of the century - at least in the MotoGP world - the first day of this year's test was a lot more interesting. Though the test was missing a number of big names - Jorge Lorenzo was ruled out with a finger injury, Nicky Hayden couldn't take part because he fractured his scaphoid in the crash on Sunday - this was a day that the future was on display.
The results sheet showed one thing all too clearly: the Hondas are on a different planet, Dani Pedrosa being a tenth faster than his teammate Casey Stoner, but the gap back to Ben Spies in 3rd is enormous. Spies was over a second slower than Pedrosa, and nine tenths off Stoner, and at the head of a group of eight riders separated by just over a second. When I asked one Honda insider about the Honda tests in Jerez at the start of the year, they used the word "insane" to describe the performance. At Valencia, we got a taste of what that meant.
The irony was that at the end of the day, I spoke to HRC Vice President Shuhei Nakamoto, and he spoke of his concern at the situation of Suzuki, and Honda's need to have competition, and someone to measure themselves against. On the evidence of the first day of testing, they won't be finding it in MotoGP. Casey Stoner complained of chatter from the new softer compound Bridgestone tires, and said he did not expect this to be Honda's 2012 bike, with more work needed on stability in corner entry and engine braking. Fastest man of the day - by a whole second over the first non-Honda, may I remind you - Dani Pedrosa said that he still hadn't figured out how to ride the new bike, had learned a lot and was still piecing everything together. If they are a second faster than the rest now, Zeus only knows how much quicker they will be once they get everything sorted out.
The news - if you can call it news, we've been reporting about the aluminium twin spar that Ducati have been building since August this year. The story was first uncovered by Thomas Baujard of Moto Journal, and reported here back in mid-August. Ducati staff are resolutely refusing to call it the GP12, Filippo Preziosi referring to it as "step zero" and a benchmark from which to develop the bike they intend to race next year. It is all too tempting to refer to this iteration as "the TAFKAP bike" just for ease of reference.
The good news is that the chassis is a big improvement. Hector Barbera said that to him, it felt like the front and the rear were connected once again. "It feels like my Aprilia 250," Barbera said, sporting his new Pramac Ducati leathers. He could now feel the front end going into the corners, something he had not been able to feel when riding the old version of the bike which used the engine as a stressed member of the chassis.
Valentino Rossi emphasized that the bike really was exactly the same as the previous version of the bike - as debuted at Aragon, with an aluminium front frame - but with the frame replaced by an aluminium perimeter chassis. Rossi said he still could not feel the front mid-corner, but the bigger engine made a big difference in feel. All of the work this week is aimed at the bike to be debuted in Sepang next year - or perhaps earlier, once the new testing rules are adopted - which will have a number of significant changes from the bike on display here. As Filippo Preziosi explained yesterday, the aim of this test is to get the data the designers need to build the bike they will race next year, hence Rossi not being too worried about the times they were setting.
Despite being 1.6 seconds off the pace - or perhaps more realistically, six tenths off the pace of Ben Spies - Rossi looked transformed on the bike. At the test last year, Rossi looked incredibly uncomfortable on the Desmosedici, helped no doubt by the shoulder injury he had been carrying all year. Today, Rossi looked like he had finally found the imposter that had been using his leathers all year, and kicked him out of the Ducati garage. Rossi once again looked comfortable, moving naturally around the bike the way he used to. The bike clearly needs more work, but it might at last be moving forward.
While the riders were out on track, MotoGP's silly season appears to have been drawing to a close. Though nothing is as yet confirmed, it appears that Alvaro Bautista has signed for Gresini Honda, leaving Randy de Puniet to take over at Suzuki. If there is a Suzuki MotoGP effort next year, something that Paul Denning and co are doing everything in their power to ensure. De Puniet rode the Suzuki today at Valencia, and immediately posted impressive times, going 4th fastest and just three tenths off the pace of Ben Spies, despite riding an 800 while Spies was on the 1000cc Yamaha.
De Puniet was not the only rider auditioning for a ride. Stefan Bradl was riding the 800cc RC212V Honda for the LCR team, ostensibly as a reward for winning the Moto2 title. In reality, the ride was a test, to see how the German would fair aboard a MotoGP bike. The answer was "pretty well", Bradl ending the day two seconds off Pedrosa, and ahead of Karel Abraham on the 1000cc Cardion AB Ducati. Bradl is due to test the bike again tomorrow, but it looks like Honda and Dorna will stump up the funds to pay for the German to enter MotoGP, despite his team being committed to Moto2 for 2012. Having a German in MotoGP is vital for Dorna, as is having a Moto2 champion who can erase the memory of Toni Elias' ill-fated year in MotoGP. Though all parties are denying it, a contract for Bradl with LCR is in reality just a formality.
The biggest news of all - though we may not realize it yet - was the appearance of so many CRT machines. They varied in quality from outstanding to cobbled together home-made jobs, and the times were a long way off those set by the Hondas. But given the fact that this was the first time that most of the bikes had even turned a wheel on the track, and that every one of them was being ridden by someone with no experience in MotoGP, no experience of the tires, and without much success at international level to their name. More on the CRT bikes tomorrow, but if anyone feared that these bikes would be jumped-up street bikes, they are gravely mistaken. The bikes on display - especially the FTR Kawasaki being run out of the BQR garage - were stunning pieces of engineering, and beautiful to look at. They also added a level of aural richness that has been missing from MotoGP over the last few years, the bikes using different engine configurations to the current crop of MotoGP machines. They will improve very rapidly over the next few months, and thought a CRT bike is unlikely ever to win a world title, that will be more down to the riders at the helm of the machines, rather than the machines themselves.
If you don't believe the CRT machines are something special, here's a couple of shots of the FTR Kawasaki. This is no hot-rodded street bike.