Where the first MotoGP test at Sepang at the end of January was an emotionally-charged affair - returning to the Malaysian circuit for the first time since the tragic death of Marco Simoncelli, and with massive anticipation of the brand new GP12, designed and built in record tempo over the winter break - the second test there seems almost humdrum in comparison. With just four weeks between the first and second tests for the MotoGP class, there has been no time for radical changes to the bikes that rolled out here in January, the focus instead being on the hard grind of crunching the numbers on the massive quantities of data that are gathered at every test, analyzing and testing the setup of the new machines, and finding out exactly how to go fastest with the bikes.
But if the glamor of the first test is missing, these will be a far more telling and a far more important three days than the first run out of the year in January. The easy improvements, achieved by grinding off the rough edges of the machine, have been found, and now the teams will focus on polishing, polishing and more polishing, looking for hundredths where previously they sought tenths of a second. The data from this test will form the basis for the bikes in race trim.
There are those that argue that the Honda RC213V is pretty much already there. Over the three days of Sepang 1, improvement for the Honda was limited, with Casey Stoner only improving his time by1.3 seconds during the test. The fact that he was fastest on both of the two days he rode - he missed the first day with a back problem - and fastest by a comfortable margin, with only three other riders within a second of his best time says there is not much wrong with the Honda, or with Stoner's form, given that he was not 100% recovered from the seized muscle in his back.
The Hondas do have one problem, however. With the introduction of the 2012 Bridgestone tires came improved grip and faster warm up, just as the riders had asked for. But along with the grip came a different problem, a large amount of chatter in the rear tire, the back wheel vibrating heavily, especially under braking for corner entry and into mid corner. The problem has affected the Hondas badly, but not just them: Yamaha riders Jorge Lorenzo and Ben Spies also complained of chatter at Sepang 1, as did Colin Edwards on the NGM Forward Racing Suter BMW, who said the chatter was costing him at least a second a lap.
The problem is severely vexing, as the cause is complicated to pinpoint and even more difficult to solve. There are many approaches which can by attempted - suspension settings, modifying the stiffness and flexibility of the chassis and swingarm, bike geometry, tire pressures, and even something as seemingly simple as chain length and tension - and hitting on exactly the right combination of factors to solve the problem is extraordinarily difficult. Both Yamaha and Honda brought modified chassis to the Sepang 1 test, but neither of those solved the problem. Honda's main focus, HRC boss Shuhei Nakamoto told the British publication MCN, was fixing the chatter ahead of the first race at Qatar.
Beyond the problem with chatter, the Honda is more or less ready to race, and right on target in terms of development. While not quite where the Honda is, Yamaha's M1 is much closer to their main rivals than they were in 2011. Jorge Lorenzo and Ben Spies had pronounced themselves happy with developments over the winter, complaining mainly of a certain amount of aggressiveness in the throttle response. Over in the Tech 3 satellite team, both Cal Crutchlow and Andrea Dovizioso were asking for more rear grip, to get out of the corners faster. Electronics will the main focus of the Yamaha team, working on anti-wheelie strategies, throttle response and drive, along with looking for solutions to the ubiquitous chatter caused by the 2012 Bridgestone tires.
For Ducati, this test will be vital, as the brand new bike gets just its second run out. The good news for the Italian factory was that the main goal of the redesign (rotating the engine backwards, so the front cylinder bank is more upright, and lifting the engine up) had been achieved; the front end now provides the feedback that Valentino Rossi requires to go fast, the crucial element that was missing all last year. The bike responds to adjustments in the way that Rossi, his veteran crew chief Jeremy Burgess and the rest of his pit crew expect. It is a good basis from which to start.
But there is still some way to go before the bike is ready to race. Rossi complained of a lack of grip at the rear, with the back of the bike suffering serious pumping on corner exit. Ironically, this is one of the issues the team solved with the introduction of the GP11.1 mid-way through 2011, but it is easier to ride around rear pumping than it is to sort out a lack of grip at the front.
Solutions could well be at hand. At the MotoGP CRT test in Jerez last week, Ducati test rider Franco Battaini spent most of the three days working on electronics strategies, performing numerous test starts and working on solutions for both corner entry and corner exit. Afterwards, Ducati pronounced the tests extremely fruitful, and will be bringing a new software package built using the data from that test to Sepang for Rossi and fellow factory Ducati rider Nicky Hayden to test.
The satellite Ducati riders also benefited from some extra testing last week, though in the case of Karel Abraham, that test proved to be a double-edged sword. Both Abraham and Hector Barbera got to spend more time on the satellite version of the Ducati Desmosedici - currently dubbed the GP Zero, based as it is on the aluminium twin spar chassis debuted at Valencia in November last year - after Nicky Hayden was forced to miss the test to have surgery on his shoulder. But Abraham also crashed heavily at Jerez, damaging his shoulder in the incident. Just how fit Abraham will be remains to be seen.
Abraham is joined in sick bay by Nicky Hayden, the American deciding to have surgery to repair some of the damage done to his shoulder in a training crash shortly after Christmas after suffering badly at the Sepang 1 test at the end of January. The surgery repaired some cartilage and should have solved his problem, but it may still be a little early for Hayden to be back to full fitness.
For Andrea Dovizioso, this second test should be easier, his collarbone now nearly back to full strength. The Italian had broken his collarbone whilst riding a motocross bike three weeks before the Sepang test, and although he had the bone plated as soon as possible, the Monster Tech 3 Yamaha rider complained of a lack of strength in his right shoulder, meaning he was losing several tenths a lap in the right-hand corners around the Sepang circuit. With a fit Dovizioso, and the satellite Yamahas very close in spec to the factory bikes - as Cal Crutchlow proved with some very impressive times last time out - the gap to the factory machines should be much reduced this test.