The MotoGP bikes are finally back on track - though it took a little longer than expected, after an overnight rain shower left the track damp in the morning. Much had been expected of this test, and it has delivered already, after just a single day. In fact the test has been almost perfect, real bikes running on a circuit putting an end to the intrigue and subterfuge that play such a major role in every winter break, whilst raising enough new questions to pique the interest of anyone with a passion for motorcycle racing.
The overnight rain made conditions far from ideal, a fact reflected by the fact that in the main, there was little difference in times between the first day of the 2012 test and the first day of the same test last year, despite the bikes having grown in capacity by 200cc. The extra power was all too evident around the track: controlling wheelies while retaining drive out of corners is going to be key this year, and while the extra torque makes the bigger bikes easier to control, and reduces some of the electronics needed, the resources spent on taming a highly-strung 800cc engine have now been diverted to keeping the front wheel of the fire-breathing 1000s within a parsec or two of the tarmac.
On the evidence of Tuesday, Yamaha have done the best job over the winter. The new bike incorporates a host of minor changes made after the tests, and despite coming off a layoff of nearly four months, Jorge Lorenzo was quickly up to speed on the M1, ending the day at the top of the timesheets with a lead of over a third of a second. The real sign of the progress that Yamaha has made comes further back: three of the top four bikes were Yamahas, with Dani Pedrosa the sole Honda in 2nd spot. Ben Spies took 4th, behind an astounding performance from Cal Crutchlow, the Monster Tech 3 rider just half a second off the pace of Lorenzo, and nearly two seconds quicker than the test last year, and half a second faster than qualifying practice from last year's race, canceled after the second-lap tragedy which saw Marco Simoncelli killed. Even Andrea Dovizioso, still recovering from surgery on the collarbone he broke while training a few weeks ago, managed to set the 6th fastest time, a second behind Lorenzo's fastest lap.
If Yamaha have done an outstanding job, the work done at Ducati has been little short of miraculous - to the massive relief of Valentino Rossi's enormous army of fans around the world. The Phoenix, as the GP12 rushed together in record tempo over the winter has been dubbed by Rossi's mechanics, is a definite improvement, as anyone watching the footage of Rossi on track at Sepang can see. Where Rossi never really looked natural on the old bike, his body language on the GP12 was comfortable, confident, a return of the old Valentino Rossi. Where last year, it sometimes looked as if a total stranger had sneaked into Rossi's motorhome, stolen his leathers and helmet and then blagged his way onto the waiting GP11, at Sepang, it was clearly Rossi riding the bike once again.
The reason for Rossi's confidence is simple: last year's bike was pretty good at the rear, providing plenty of power and drive off the corner, but the front end was a disaster. Rossi's strong points, he told reporters repeatedly, were his braking ability and corner entry, and precisely that was the weakest area of the old machine. This bike solved those problems, Rossi told reporters at the end of the first day, allowing him to ride the bike the way he wanted, instead of struggling to adapt to a machine that remained fundamentally alien to his style.
"The bike is nicer to look at," Rossi told the Italian press, "but best of all, it is nice to ride." All of the main problems from last year were fixed; "I can brake and enter the corner the way I want to." The biggest change was that Rossi now felt much safer on the bike, he said; he had put in some 40 laps on the bike without making a single mistake: no running wide, no losing the front end. Rossi was comfortable and confident once again. The biggest improvement, however, was in the way the bike responded to setup changes. Rossi's crew had made a number of changes, and each time they did, they went a little bit faster. "This is something fundamental, very important," Rossi told the Italian press, but most of all it was something that they never managed all throughout 2011. "Never!" Rossi emphasized.
They were still a long way off - over seven tenths of a second - and there was lots of work to do. The bike is still very aggressive coming off the corner, and work was needed on the electronics, on the engine, on the chassis. "But braking, corner entry, is much better," Rossi kept reiterating. Capable of winning? Too early to say, but it was a very positive test, Rossi said. The improvement was also clear from the times: Rossi was one of the few riders to improve his times from the same test last year, posting a time nearly a whole second faster than in February 2011. More important was Rossi's rhythm, posting a long string of mid-2'02s, among the fastest consistent pace of all the riders at Sepang.
His teammate was less enthusiastic, but that was almost entirely down to his own physical condition. Though Nicky Hayden's broken shoulder blade was healing well, his shoulder was still weak and causing the American discomfort. Given how physically demanding it was just riding the bike, it was hard for Hayden to draw too many conclusions from the test. Only once he is fit again will he be able to get a real measure of the bike.
So what has changed on the GP12, compared to the bike Rossi tested at Valencia? As reported yesterday, the engine appears to have been rotated backward significantly, completely altering the weight distribution of the bike. The fuel tank now sits underneath the seat - where it is on both the Honda and the Yamaha - and the radiators at the front of the bike now no longer have a gap in them where the front cylinder bank used to protrude. The consensus of opinion at Sepang is that the engine is still 90°, but it has been repackaged completely, rotated, lifted and repositioned. Other detail visible on the frame is that it appears to have been made more flexible near the swingarm mount, with gaps clearly visible in the down strut of the twin spar. The chassis is still being produced by FTR - the stunning quality of the welding and finishing is testament to that - though the fame was designed by Ducati's engineering department. Whatever they've done, it has helped, as Valentino Rossi is all too keen to testify.
At Honda, progress is hard to measure, given that Dani Pedrosa spent the day getting back up to speed on the bike he rode at Valencia, and Casey Stoner missed testing altogether. The Australian suffered a recurrence of the old back injury which plagued him last year, Stoner's back freezing up just as he was doing some exercises to stretch and warm up. He was afraid he was stuck in the truck, he told MotoGP.com, as he was almost completely unable to move. He only just managed to reach his phone and call for help, and he was taken for physiotherapy to try to help solve the problem. Normally, Stoner's wife Adriana would have been able to get medical help, but she is back in Switzerland awaiting the birth of the couple's first child. After having had Adriana as his constant companion throughout his years in MotoGP, Stoner now has to travel to events on his own, and problems like this highlight the unexpected difficulties riders can face.
Stoner is hoping that with some physio, he should be able to get on the bike on Wednesday, and compare the bike built for him over the winter against the one he tested at Valencia. For Pedrosa, the real work of the test starts on Wednesday, when he concentrates on testing the new bike Honda built after Valencia. Even when just warming up, getting back into the swing of riding again, Pedrosa's time was good enough for 2nd, but where that puts him against the Yamahas is very hard to tell. Once he starts getting some laps on that new, improved bike, then we should have a real benchmark to measure the Yamaha and the Ducati against.
The biggest disappointment at the Sepang test has been the times set by the CRT machines. Colin Edwards had a pretty terrible day - the 2012 bike spent almost all day in pieces, as the NGM Forward team worked with Suter on problems with the electronics. The 2011 bike was not working with the new Bridgestones, Edwards complaining of chatter, especially from the rear tire. The result was that Edwards posted a time six-and-a-half seconds off the fastest lap set by Lorenzo. He had expected to be four seconds faster, but the combination of chatter, technical problems and the old bike left him far short of his objective.
The Texan will get another shot tomorrow, when the new bike should be fixed and ready to go. The new swingarm design - incorporating bracing underneath the swingarm, rather than on top, in line with the current thinking in racing - should ease some of the rear chatter, and get Edwards closer to the factory prototypes.
While Edwards' problems were down to technical issues, the times set by Ivan Silva and Jordi Torres were not. The Kawasaki engine powering the BQR bikes makes them very tall, and the long-stroke engine means that getting the kind of power that a MotoGP bike requires is extremely difficult. Torres ended the day over nine seconds off the pace, the kind of time that would put him well down the grid in Moto2, never mind MotoGP.
Contrast the fate of the CRT bikes at Sepang with the progress of the Aprilias at Valencia. Where the Suter and the FTR Kawasaki are bikes taking an engine as a starting point and having a specialist firm build a chassis around it, while other parties provide electronics and other components, the Aprilia is a complete package, a heavily revised version of the RSV4 Factory contested by Aprilia in the World Superbike championship. Having developed the package as a whole - only modifying the chassis and swingarm to handle the totally different behavior of the Bridgestone tires used in MotoGP - the bike is a more integrated whole and works as a unit. The development that Aprilia has already put into the bike to first get it ready for street production, and then to prepare it for World Superbikes is paying off in the ease with which the bike can be adapted to MotoGP.
But the biggest difference is in the electronics, underlining the importance that they play in MotoGP as a whole. The Aprilias are using the electronics package developed by the factory for use on their factory WSBK machines. The gap in electronics development between the two series is small, especially with the factory teams, and transferring that data from the WSBK team to the CRT squads in MotoGP is easy. The result is that the Aprilias are close to the pace of the satellite bikes at Valencia, while the CRT bikes at Sepang - the BMW with Bosch electronics still undergoing heavy development, and the Kawasaki with no data from world championship racing to go on - are miles behind the satellite machines.
If the gap between the factory prototypes and the CRT machines is to be reduced, then the electronics is the first place to start. Finding a compromise that is acceptable to the factories - that allows them to do the research and development that allows them to justify their racing budgets to the company board - is going to be key to the 2013 season. For now, the CRT bikes are in for a long year.