The MotoGP bikes have been back in action for three days now - four, if you count Randy de Puniet and the other Aprilia ART (as Aprilia's CRT bike is called) riders' outing at Valencia - and fans and followers now have some real meat to chew over. The days of endless speculation based on nothing more than ill-informed gossip and rumor is over; the days of endless speculation based on slightly better-informed gossip, rumor and lap times are here.
So what preliminary conclusions can we draw from the test at Sepang? Has the Ducati really been fixed? Are the 1000s going to provide more exciting racing? Will the Honda be as dominant this year as it was last? Can Jorge Lorenzo take the fight to Casey Stoner? Do the times set by the CRT bikes mean that the project is a failure? Wouldn't it be nice if we could provide a simple yes-or-no answer to all of these questions?
The big question over the winter is what has happened at Ducati, and whether Filippo Preziosi and his band of laboring engineers could come up with a bike that Valentino Rossi could be competitive on. That question is incredibly hard to answer from the lap times: Rossi ended the test over 1.2 seconds behind Casey Stoner, and a good six tenths behind Jorge Lorenzo; in 2011, the Italian was just a second behind Stoner on the Honda, suggesting that Ducati may have gone backwards instead of forwards.
Yet put that suggestion to anyone at Ducati, and they would laugh in your face, and from the body language, riding style and atmosphere at the factory, there is some merit in their response. The Ducati's biggest problem - and it was a corker - was the fact that the front end simply refused to provide the level of grip that a rider who had come through the GP school of riding - minibikes, 125s, 250s - needed to go fast with. Before the spec tire was introduced, Bridgestone could build a special tire to overcome the Ducati's foibles, but the spec tire killed that approach stone dead.
The consensus of the people who have ridden the bike is that this problem has been resolved. Whether the Ducati GP12 provides the same level of front-end grip as the Yamaha is open to question, but at least they are now in the same ball park. Rossi has been insistent during all three days that he can now ride like he wants to, and use his strength in corner entry to take the lines he chooses. Throughout the test, his responses, his body language, suggested that he felt he was back in the game.
That alone does not make the Ducati competitive, however. The bike has gone from being a machine that is virtually impossible to ride unless you happen to have been born in Kurri Kurri some time in 1985, to a bike that is usable but still has its problems. The effect of rolling the engine back, lifting it up and locating the fuel tank under the seat has allowed Ducati to produce a bike that responds to set up changes in the same way as any other MotoGP might be expected to.
With the big problems solved, Ducati can now set about fixing such trifles as a lack of rear grip, excessively aggressive throttle response, and a host of other issues that are slowing the bike. But all of these are doable without having to redesign the bike, with just tweaks in swingarm design, electronics and suspension offering sufficient avenues for research for the next few months. With Nicky Hayden due to test new parts at Jerez in three weeks' time, parts which can then be brought back to Sepang, the second test in Malaysia should provide a clearer picture of just where Ducati stand.
Even with a greatly improved bike, there is still the small matter of that pesky Australian, Casey Stoner giving no sign of having slowed down. Stoner's first flying lap on Thursday morning was a 2'00.923 - faster than the time set by 6th-place-man Hector Barbera after a full day of riding - and his second lap was under the 2'00 barrier and the fastest ever lap of the Sepang circuit. It should be noted that it was also set while Stoner was still suffering with a stiff and painful back, after he tweaked a muscle on the first day of the test while warming up to put his leathers on.
That it's not all just the Honda was evident from the time set by Dani Pedrosa: the Spaniard was 3rd fastest overall at the test, but he was still behind the Yamaha of Jorge Lorenzo. The Yamaha has taken a much bigger step forward compared to last year, and where all through 2011, Lorenzo felt he had taken a knife to a gunfight, this year it looks like the 2010 World Champions is more appropriately armed. Though stopping Stoner is going to be a Herculean task, on the evidence of Sepang, Lorenzo stands more of a chance of taking it on in in 2012.
The Honda is not without its problems, however. The bike continues to be plagued by chatter, an issue which Stoner puts down the extra weight which has been added to the bikes. That added weight, and the extra power of the 1000, is turning into a real issue for Dani Pedrosa. The Spaniard struggled on occasion to control the 800s, and the bigger bikes are placing a further strain on his body. Pedrosa will be working on bulking up even further - he may be short of stature, but he has always been surprisingly muscular - to help to manage the RC213V.
The Yamaha, meanwhile, is clearly pretty competitive, with Cal Crutchlow on a satellite bike getting close to the factory bikes. While Lorenzo is happy ("really, really satisfied" were the exact words he used, saying that he will be going to sleep happy after the test), the bike still needs a little more grip, but the benefits of the outstanding front end of the bike make it possible to compete. Lorenzo's factory teammate Ben Spies has also been strong at Sepang, closing the gap to his teammate to just a couple of tenths.
The prospect of a confident Lorenzo on an improved Yamaha going up against the might of Casey Stoner on the Honda is an attractive one. Lorenzo was unfazed by Stoner's fast time - "Casey is fast even with a bicycle, no?" he told MotoGP.com, "He is fast with anything, it's normal," - pointing out that while Stoner made his fastest time in the morning, when conditions were ideal, Lorenzo had set his fastest lap at lunchtime, just as the heat was really starting to take its toll. The gap, Lorenzo implied, was not as big as it seemed, adding that he felt that the Honda and Yamaha were fairly equal in performance.
Most of the paddock is now aboard international flights, heading away from the tropical heat of Malaysia for the Siberian freeze which has gripped most of Europe. The engineers have plenty to get their teeth into, as do the fans. The next appointment with destiny is at Jerez on February 20th, when the CRT bikes will take to the track again. This time, they should have company from the Ducati of Nicky Hayden, giving them a real benchmark to measure themselves again. Randy de Puniet on the Aspar Aprilia will be the real measure of the CRT project. Until then, speculation, rumor and ill-informed gossip will have to suffice.