The 2011 MotoGP season is now officially over, and the first steps on the road to 2012 have been taken. Coming on top of a race weekend, two days of testing leave the MotoGP paddock exhausted, drained, and after an 18-race season, quite frankly sick of the sight of each other.
Fortunately for the MotoGP class, the weather perked up on Monday, producing two days of glorious weather for the riders to test in. While the track was still a little dirty on Tuesday, by Wednesday conditions were perfect, the track dry and warm, or at least as warm as it is going to get in early November. Everyone came away tired but content with the work they had gotten done, and no one complained they had not got round to testing everything they had on their list. With the old 800s making way for the 1000cc MotoGP bike, it was important that everyone had time on the track to test.
The big question, of course, is how much would change with the advent of the new era, and the answer, looking at the timesheets, was nothing at all. The two factory Repsol Honda led the way, topping the timesheet by a relatively comfortable margin, Dani Pedrosa leading Casey Stoner. Behind the factory Hondas - the only 1000cc Hondas being ridden by contracted riders on the grid - the Yamahas gathered, Ben Spies just over half a second off and closest to Pedrosa and Stoner, with Cal Crutchlow posting a very impressive time just two tenths behind Spies, and Dovizioso another seven tenths slower than his new Monster Tech 3 Yamaha teammate. The Ducatis followed the Yamahas, Valentino Rossi a fraction slower than Dovizioso, and Karel Abraham a tenth off Rossi's times.
The Hondas will be the bikes to beat, just as they were this year. Both Pedrosa and Stoner were happy after the test, though both complained of chatter which they put down to the new softer Bridgestone tires. The Honda men had tried to iron out the chatter with set up, but had reached the conclusion that new parts would be needed to solve the problem completely. Neither rider had been chasing time, Pedrosa saying that feeling with the bike was more important than a fast lap time, while Stoner told the press that chasing a set up had not been the highest priority, as every time they had had a decent set up at Valencia, that had failed completely to transfer to any other track on the calendar, and provided very little useful information.
Ben Spies was a little happier, and pleased with the amount of work that he and his team had got through, including testing some fairly radical set up changes just to see how the bike would respond. Yamaha had missed having Jorge Lorenzo to test, but the good weather and good progress meant that Spies had done all that the team had wanted in the two days. The Yamaha's biggest problem was not corner entry, like the Hondas and Ducatis, but rather corner exit. The Yamaha had always wanted to wheelie, even as an 800, something the 1000 had made even worse. Rear grip, drive out of the corners and a way of keeping the front wheel down were the things the Yamaha were missing.
Andrea Dovizioso confirmed Spies' results, and emerging from a meeting with what seemed like every Yamaha engineer in the paddock, Dovizioso said the Yamaha was almost the opposite of the Honda. Stability under braking was outstanding, corner entry was smooth, and the feel of the engine was outstanding. But keeping the front of the bike down once you opened the gas was a big problem, Dovizioso said, making short-shifting out of some of the tighter corners an absolute necessity.
Over at Ducati, Filippo Preziosi now has his baseline, Valentino Rossi confirming that the new version of the bike with the aluminium perimeter frame had almost exactly the same problems as the carbon fiber frame had. The different engine characteristics between the 800 and the 1000 meant that the larger bike was much easier to handle, the front end of the machine wanting to stick where it never would on the smaller bike.
But it was still far from perfect, as witnessed by the fact that Rossi is still over one-and-a-half seconds behind the Hondas. The problem was not in the material, Rossi said, though he was rather coy over exactly where the problem lay, only murmuring vagaries about the weight distribution. Questions about his seating position were also met with similarly vague responses, Rossi saying that they had tried a couple of things but that this was still something they had to fix. How they would go about fixing it was not something he wished to discuss, for whatever reason.
The real test, Rossi said, would come at Sepang, once they rolled out the bike that Ducati have designed based on the data gathered here over the past two days. Another new chassis - still an aluminium twin spar, the engine allocation rules dictating that this is de facto the only kind of chassis that will work in the class - should have a radically revised weight distribution, much closer to what Valentino Rossi needs to be competitive. If they are still 1.5 seconds off Pedrosa and Stoner at Sepang in January, then Ducati is in deep trouble indeed.
Suzuki was absent from the second day of the test, the team having packed up on Tuesday night and gone home. The factory has apparently been given a deadline of Friday to commit to MotoGP for 2012, but the prospects for Suzuki are not good. Alvaro Bautista finally announced that he had signed for the San Carlo Gresini Honda team, though he was keen to emphasize that he was not taking Marco Simoncelli's place. Bautista said he had decided to leave Suzuki at Sepang, and had started talks there with other teams.
The reason for leaving Suzuki was simple: Bautista wanted to ride a 1000, and Suzuki's plan is to race the 800cc bike until Brno in late August at the very earliest - if they race in MotoGP at all. He had already passed up the opportunity to take the place in the Monster Tech 3 Yamaha squad vacated by Colin Edwards while holding on for a response from Suzuki, but his patience had run out in Malaysia. The complications of Marco Simoncelli's fatal accident put Bautista's plans on hold, but they also meant that they gave him an additional option. He was not taking Simoncelli's place, Bautista said, but he would be racing in his spirit, and hoping to continue the results that the Italian had started to accrue for the San Carlo Gresini team.
The bike that Bautista had apparently been headed for before the tragic events of Sepang now looks almost certain to be filled by a German. Stefan Bradl had a very successful outing on the 800cc Honda RC212V, but more importantly than that, he had impressed the LCR Honda team. LCR crew chief Christophe Bourgignon praised Bradl's intelligence and the speed with which he learned, and team boss Lucio Cecchinello was equally impressed. The waiting now is for approval from Honda, which should come in the next few days.
There were a number of CRT bikes out on track, but this is a subject that deserves more attention than we have here. I will be writing a series of articles on CRT over the next few weeks, and discussing both the results and the progress posted by the bikes at Valencia, but for now, I must let the cup pass from me.
The season is officially over, and everyone involved in motorcycle racing can breath a huge sigh of relief. That will last until early next week, when the passion that drives us on is rekindled by the passing of time. A few days without motorcycle racing is a pleasure. But getting on for 5 months is far, far too much of a good thing. It's a good thing there's a round of the Spanish championship this weekend...