With the excitement of MotoGP bikes being back on track subsiding to more manageable levels, the riders and teams were back hard at work again on Wednesday. The track had improved sufficiently to see times start to drop to where they might reasonably be expected to be. At Mugello in July of last year, Ducati Corse boss Filippo Preziosi had told the press that the simulations Ducati had run comparing their 1000cc bike - now radically changed since then - to the 800 showed that the 1000s should be about half a second faster round Mugello than the 800s, and that prediction proved to be just about spot on at Sepang.
The name of the rider at the top of the timesheet should surprise no one, Casey Stoner returning from a back problem - though still clearly stiff and not back to full strength - to post a scorching lap time, clear of the two Yamahas of Ben Spies and Jorge Lorenzo. Stoner did only a relatively few laps on the RC213V, concentrating on getting the parts tested he had on his work list, rather than working on a setup for the 2012 season. He compared the two chassis he had been given - and asked for the best parts of both chassis again, unsurprisingly - and concentrated on the big stuff.
The one thing that Stoner needs to work on - along with Repsol teammate Dani Pedrosa - is chatter, the new rear Bridgestones causing the bike to chatter on corner entry. That problem emerged at Valencia last year, and continues at Sepang for both Honda men. Stoner's focus on Thursday will be working with the clutch to try to solve the issue, but as Pedrosa pointed out, it is not an easy problem to fix.
New tires, heavier bikes and more powerful engines are not just causing problems for bike setup, generating chatter where there was none before, they are also causing problems for the riders. With the minimum weight now up by 7kg from last year and power up by as much as 30 horsepower, the bikes are now a real, physical handful. Almost every rider who was asked complained of feeling tired, and rediscovering muscles that they had forgotten they ever had. All the cycling, running and gym work that the riders have done over the winter break cannot compensate completely for two months of not riding a MotoGP bike, and the riders are finding that out the hard way.
While Stoner was fastest, poking in single fast laps here and there, Ben Spies and Jorge Lorenzo were not far behind. The Yamaha is greatly improved over the 800, the extra capacity allowing Yamaha to find the acceleration that the old bike was missing, giving Lorenzo much more confidence on the bike. Last year, the Spaniard had complained that he was frankly incapable of matching the pace of the Hondas, and was getting slaughtered out of the corners. This year, the bike is much better, leaving Lorenzo better positioned for an assault on the title taken from him by Casey Stoner.
Though the acceleration of the Yamaha may be better, it is still not where the Honda is, however. Andrea Dovizioso, with experience of both the Yamaha and the Honda, said that he still felt the Yamaha could improve on corner exit, what was traditionally the strong point of the Honda. Corner entry was always where the Yamaha excelled, and if they can find a little more on corner exit, the M1 could be a genuinely killer package.
The times of satellite Tech 3 riders Cal Crutchlow and - despite the gap - Dovizioso also show the potential of the Yamaha. Crutchlow was strong again on Wednesday, setting the 5th fastest time, and while Dovizioso was down in 9th, he felt that once his collarbone is back up to strength again, he will be competitive. There were three right handers around the Sepang circuit where he was losing six tenths of a second in total; take that injury penalty off his current time, and that puts him right up there with Crutchlow.
At Ducati, the euphoria had dissipated, but the warm glow remained. Valentino Rossi was a little more realistic about his situation after his second day on the bike, saying that the new bike had solved half of the four or five major problems that the old machine had. He reiterated once again that the biggest problem was solved, however, the front end feel was vastly improved, the situation incomparable to the false dawns he had seen in 2011 with the various chassis changes. To illustrate his point, Rossi posted two photos on his Twitter feed, one from 2011 and one from 2012, taken at the same point, Turn 3. The 2012 photo shows him leaned over further, with the back stepped out further, and no longer perched stiffly atop the bike like a learner.
There is still plenty of work to do, affirmed both Rossi and his teammate Nicky Hayden. Not all could be solved with setup, and some would need more parts to be made. But Rossi laughed away a suggestion that another new frame might be needed, saying it was just a few small parts to help the bike. Rossi's objective had been to put in a lap of 2'01, and he had managed a total of three. The gap is still large to Stoner and the factory Yamahas, but at least he felt he had the situation under control.
While testing offers a glimpse of the near future in MotoGP, we were also given a vision of the series for the longer term. Dorna CEO Carmelo Ezpeleta met with the factories at Sepang, first with each one individually, later with all three together, combined in the MSMA. Speaking to MotoGP.com, he said that a number of proposals had been discussed, including a limit on the cost of a satellite bikes, a limit on the number of bikes each factory could field, and even a proposal to allow just one bike for each rider, as is the case in Moto2, Moto3, and this year, in World Superbikes.
Ezpeleta's main proposal was to bring the cost of leasing a satellite bike down to 1 million euros per season. To limit the costs to the factory, each factory would be allowed to field a two-rider factory team, and supply a further two riders with satellite bikes, leased at a cost of 1 million per year. That is the same amount that the current CRT bikes are costing the teams, and the price point that Ezpeleta has consistently pushed for the factories to provide. Such a proposal would leave the MotoGP grid looking much like the situation we have in 2012, where each of the three factories have two factory bikes and two satellite bikes on the grid. The difference, though, is that instead of costing an average of 3 million euros each, those satellite bikes would cost just 1 million.
The rest of the field would continue to be made up of CRT bikes, according to Dorna's proposals, with Ezpeleta insisting that he would take whatever measures necessary to balance performance between the CRT machines and the factory prototypes. That does not mean that a CRT bike is likely to beat a factory bike any time soon - as long as Casey Stoner, Jorge Lorenzo, Valentino Rossi, Dani Pedrosa, and - who knows? - Ben Spies are on the factory bikes, only the most freakish of circumstances will see anyone else on the top step of the podium. But a balance where a CRT machine would be competitive with a satellite bike is what Dorna is aiming at, and Ezpeleta had put forward a number of proposals aimed at achieving that.
The rev limit and spec ECU proposals have been gone over before, and Ezpeleta revealed - to the surprise of absolutely nobody - that the factories oppose such a restriction. Ezpeleta did reveal that the factories show more interest in having open electronics systems with limits on development. If a spec ECU is beyond the pale, a limit on the number of inputs, or the available parameters may be one option for controlling the spiraling cost of electronic development, while still allowing the factories to continue to do the research and development on throttle opening and power delivery that will help them persuade their boards to let them go racing.
Ezpeleta himself said that Dorna was entirely agnostic on the issue of a spec ECU: the only thing that matters to Dorna - and to the teams and the FIM - was to reduce the costs, keeping the series affordable and keeping bikes on the grid. A new meeting is scheduled for the Jerez tests in March, and in the meantime, the MSMA and Dorna will be examining each others proposals, and coming up with counter-proposals of their own.
If support were needed for Dorna's argument for the importance of cost-cutting, Suzuki's withdrawal at the end of 2011 provides evidence enough. When the factory announced their withdrawal, they stated their firm intention to make a return within two years. That statement was taken by those inside the paddock - and plenty of people on the outside, too - with a dose of salt sufficiently large to push normal blood pressure into four figures. But Suzuki test rider Nobu Aoki, currently at Sepang following the test, assured the press there that Suzuki was hard at work on their 1000cc MotoGP bike, and were working towards a return in 2014. With two years to go, that is still easy to say, but another factory on the grid - well, apart from Aprilia's black ops ART package - would be more than welcome.