So the day that MotoGP fans have been waiting for throughout the long, dark, bikeless winter break has nearly arrived. In a few short hours time, the MotoGP bikes will be tearing up the track in Malaysia once again in preparation for the 2012 season. Indeed, all day Monday, a few MotoGP bikes - the cynics and naysayers would refute that the Aprilia CRT bike is a MotoGP bike, but they are wrong - have been howling round Valencia, but as that is a private test it has not impinged upon the consciousness of MotoGP fans as much as Sepang has. On Tuesday morning, the winter is officially, finally over.
A very great deal of the interest in the Sepang test has been focused on Ducati, a rather logical result of Valentino Rossi's dismal debut year with the iconic Italian brand. In the break between the Valencia test and tomorrow's test at Sepang, the Desmosedici GP12 has been redesigned from the ground up, Ducati Corse boss Filippo Preziosi claiming that the bike is 90% different, even though it would look strikingly similar to the bike labeled the "GP Zero" by the press at Valencia. To further stir the interest of the fans - as if they needed any stirring - Ducati then failed to display the bike at their traditional Wrooom! launch event in mid-January, leaving even more room for speculation and conjecture. Even a private test of the bike organized by Ducati Corse at Jerez went off without anyone managing to sneak any photos or information out to the ever-eager press.
But they cannot hide the bike any longer. The first picture of the redesigned GP12 was revealed - fittingly, given his role in pushing for the redesign - by Valentino Rossi himself on his Twitter page, and though the bike does indeed appear superficially similar, there are a number of key differences, some highly visible, others which can be inferred, despite being hidden behind fairings. For an overview, see the illustrations over on Italian site Motocorse.com, but to summarize, it's clear that much has changed. The shape of the chassis is clearly different, hinting that the engine itself has changed significantly. From the way the relationship between the swingarm pivot point, the top rear suspension mount and the upper spar of the twin spar chassis has changed, the engine is radically different.
The tank is another clue: the aluminium tank shown in the photo appears taller than the original GP12 tank, though the difference in color schemes between the painted red of last year's bike and the raw beaten aluminium of the GP12 can deceive the eye. The new tank sports two huge dents at the front, cutouts for the handlebars, suggesting that the space underneath the tank has been occupied by something that wasn't there last year. Given that the part generally labeled "tank" on a racing motorcycle usually does not contain any fuel - mostly, they are simply covers over the airbox, with the ECU located behind the airbox - any change in tank shape means that major changes have happened underneath the cover.
The real clue, however, is the pair of exhaust pipes peeping out below the swingarm mounting strut. On the GP Zero, those pipes were routed over the top of that strut, coming as they did from a relatively upright rear bank of cylinders. On the GP 12, they have been routed underneath the strut, suggesting that the rear bank of cylinders is at a much greater angle from the vertical than the former design. This fits in nicely with all of the rumors coming out of the Ducati factory - though very few and far between have they been - that the angle of the engine remains at 90°, but that the entire engine has been rotated backwards around the crankshaft, in much the same manner that the Panigale 1199 V-twin Superbike engine has been.
Putting two and two together - the exhaust routing, the higher, shorter tank, the altered chassis shape - it seems a safe bet to conclude that the engine has been rotated backwards, and probably by a significant amount. The trouble with speculative mathematics, of course, is that the result you get putting two and two together can end up being spectacularly wrong, if you don't know the precise values of two that you are working with.
Whether all of the work put in - and Ducati have crammed between two and three years of normal work into a period of just a few months - will pay off will only become apparent on Tuesday, when Nicky Hayden and Valentino Rossi put the bike through its paces for the first time. Lap times from Tuesday will not tell much of the story - the bike is brand new, and much work will be needed to ensure that everything is working correctly and to find a base setup - but the response of the riders to the bike should be telling. After the intense work put in all last year, and intensified over the winter, the word "Stakhanovite" springs to mind to describe the efforts of Ducati. Whether the rewards showered upon Comrade Aleksei Grigorevich Stakhanov will come also to Ducati remains to be seen.
Much will also depend on the tires. Ducati's biggest problem has been getting temperature into the tires, and almost all of the changes have been aimed at using the Bridgestone front better. To some extent, Bridgestone is meeting Ducati halfway, as the Japanese manufacturer is bringing their all-new 2012 tires to Sepang. The front uses a less stiff carcass than last year's tire, making it warm up much faster, and improving the feel, something that all of the riders complained about last year - though notably, Casey Stoner was cagey about wanting changes, fearing perhaps, like Mick Doohan before him, that he may lose the advantage he had over his competitors. In Doohan's case, it was being able to handle Honda's 500cc two-stroke screamer engine; in Stoner's, it is the ability to use the treacherous Bridgestone front better than anyone else. Bridgestone will be spending much time liaising with newly appointed Safety Officer Loris Capirossi, who has already been extremely outspoken about the tires.
While Ducati was generating most of the buzz, HRC held the official factory Repsol Honda team launch in Kuala Lumpur. Casey Stoner presented the #1 plate he will be using for 2012, and Stoner and teammate Dani Pedrosa faced answers from the press. The color scheme is virtually unchanged from 2011, with only the hardcore fans able to pick out the minor details. The chassis is changed slightly, revised in line with input from Stoner and Pedrosa at the Valencia test and tailored to their specific requests, and both men will be comparing the new bike to the Valencia bike to evaluate progress.
The engine of the RC213V - HRC Vice President Shuhei Nakamoto was typically cagey about capacity, saying only that it was "larger than 800cc, smaller than 1000cc" - is listed as producing "more than 230hp" in Honda's press information, but given that press handouts typically understate horsepower by around 10%, the bike almost certainly is capable of producing 250hp. All that power will add to top speeds, Nakamoto revealing that the RC213V was topping out some 10 km/h faster at Valencia than the 800cc, which was managing 310 km/h in the hands of Casey Stoner. Controlling wheelies will be the biggest problem with the new bikes, but apart from that, both Dani Pedrosa and Casey Stoner reiterated that they expected the bikes to be similar in riding style to the old 800s, with the added torque meaning the bike required less revs.
But HRC's budget was larger this year than it was last, Nakamoto revealed, a natural result of the change in regulations. Nakamoto was also careful to point out that even something like the increased minimum weight - introduced in December last year - meant increased costs, as the already designed bike had to be modified to comply with the rules. Nakamoto also responded to questions from journalists about their interest in an all-CRT championship, which he estimated to be zero. Given that an all-CRT championship is not on the cards - only the factories can afford the sky-high salaries of the top 6 or 7 elite riders, and the factories need MotoGP to showcase their brand and their technology - HRC should remain in MotoGP for a while.
Yamaha, meanwhile, were operating in the shadow of both their rivals, though the Japanese factory did announce a new oil sponsor, JX Nippon, confirmation of the news leaked earlier in the year. Yamaha, too, have brought revised bikes to Sepang, modified based on the input of Ben Spies and Jorge Lorenzo over the winter. For Lorenzo, it will be the first time he has ridden a MotoGP bike since October, when the Spaniard crashed out of practice for the Australian Grand Prix at Phillip Island, losing the tip of his finger in the process. His finger is now healed, and Lorenzo has been training on dirt bikes - a dangerous pastime, given the injuries to Andrea Dovizioso and Nicky Hayden over the winter - and he should be quickly up to speed again.
How the injured Hayden and Dovizioso hold up will also be a factor. Both men are in Sepang, and both are aiming to ride. Hayden's fractured shoulder blade has healed well, and Dovizioso has a plate in his broken collarbone, but how well their respective injuries cope with the stresses and strains of a MotoGP bike - especially a heavier, more powerful MotoGP bike, that will be arriving at braking points at much higher speeds, a particular problem at Sepang, with two long straights followed by two sharp corners - remains to be seen.
At least we don't have very long to wait any more. Covers will come off, engines warmed up, and bikes rolled into pit lane in just a few short hours. The 2012 season gets underway properly tomorrow.