The justification for flying halfway around the world to go testing in Sepang is simple: While Europe is still dealing with the after-effects of winter, plagued by cold, wind and rain, the temperature at Sepang is reliably warm, and despite the usual tropical storms in the afternoon, the chance of having a dry track to test on is very good.
Of course, it doesn't always work out that way. Sometimes, the rain falls much earlier, and the intensity of tropical thunderstorms makes it unsafe to go out on the track until the storm has passed, and the amount of rain that falls leaves a lot of water on the track.
Such was the case on the first day of the second MotoGP test at Sepang. A tropical storm moved in shortly after lunchtime, and the heavy rain left wet patches on the track for most of the afternoon. All the air miles gathered by riders and team staff flying in from around the world were mostly in vain, as they sat in their garages waiting for the rain to pass.
Even without the rain, the track conditions were far from ideal: everyone commented on just how dirty the track was in the morning, after cars had raced here for several days just over a week ago. Grip levels had dropped a lot compared to the last test at the end of January, meaning that all of the riders were lapping slower than they had done at the first Sepang test. A dirty track, hot asphalt - the track temperature rose to well over 50°C in the tropical heat - and the afternoon rain shower meant that timing was everything: go out too early, as Valentino Rossi did, and you used up tires cleaning the track surface and posting slow times. Leave it too late, and you failed to capitalize on the sweet spot that appeared before the rain came, when the track had cleaned up sufficiently to start giving a little more grip.
Casey Stoner's timing was impeccable, and his times even more so. The Australian held off before hitting the track, but once he did, he was absolutely unstoppable. Unsurprisingly, he posted the fastest time of the day, a relatively modest 2'01.761, quarter of a second faster than his teammate Dani Pedrosa. But it was not just his fast lap that was impressive, even more intimidating was the consistency of his pace. Stoner posted just 12 full laps at pace on Tuesday, 6 of which were high 2'01s. Nobody else got under 2'02 on Tuesday. So Stoner had the 6 fastest laps of the day, but with two more low 2'02s, he had 8 of the 9 fastest laps posted by all riders on Tuesday at Sepang. In fact, 11 out of the 12 full laps he set were mid-2'02s, and the slowest of those 11 was the 16th fastest lap of the day, all laps for all riders; Dani Pedrosa had 3 laps which were faster, and Jorge Lorenzo had 2 laps which beat Stoner's 2nd slowest lap. Even his slowest full lap - a 2'03.335 - would have put him in 9th place for the day, just nine hundredths of a second behind Valentino Rossi's fastest lap of the day. In case you had any doubts, Casey Stoner is the man to beat for 2012.
Stoner's performance is perhaps a little distorted by its brevity. Once the rain came, the Australian called it a day, knowing that more rain is forecast for the rest of the test and there is plenty of time to ride in the wet over the next couple of days. The Repsol Honda rider had tested a couple of things, including new disk brakes to try to solve brake fade problems he had suffered at the previous test, and had worked mainly on traction, shortening the wheelbase in the search for more grip out of corners.
Stoner's main problems were shared by the rest of the field: chatter (brought on by the new, less stiff rear Bridgestone tire) and traction. Of the two, the former is the more difficult to solve, though having less grip because of the dirty track helped. But the latter is going to be key in 2012: where the key to making an 800cc machine go fast was to retain as much speed as possible, for the 1000s, with ample horsepower at every engine speed, transferring that power to the ground is going to be key. On the 1000cc bikes, the front wheel wants to spend all of its time pointing skywards, and the rear is constantly struggling to break traction, and the teams are spending much of their time working on a combination of weight distribution and electronics strategies in the quest to convert more of that excess horsepower into forward motion.
Potentially, this quest for grip could benefit the larger, heavier riders. There were always complaints that the lighter riders had an advantage on the 800s, benefiting from better acceleration - though Dani Pedrosa's crew chief Mike Leitner pointed out to me several times that the gains in acceleration were exaggerated, as Pedrosa's lighter weight made it more difficult to gain traction. With the 1000s, the increased horsepower reduces the difference in acceleration between the lighter and the heavier riders, and the heavier riders benefit from the added mechanical grip their extra weight provides. We could finally see an end to the pursuit of ever lower body weights by MotoGP riders, which for some has appeared to almost verge on the anorexic. There is a point at which thin becomes gaunt, and too many of the MotoGP men have crossed that line in recent years.
While the new Ducati had solved Valentino Rossi's biggest problem - a lack of feedback from the front end - traction is now where Rossi and his crew are focusing their attention. In their eagerness to work on the problem of more rear grip, Rossi and his crew encountered the worst of the track conditions, and the Italian's times suffered as a result. Hitting the track almost as soon as the session started, Rossi wasted his first good tire (the softer compound, the harder tire sliding too much, according to Monster Tech 3's Andrea Dovizioso) cleaning up the track and posting moderate times, the tire being well worn by the time the track started to improve. The rain put a halt to any plans to push for lap times with a fresh tire, though it did provide Rossi with an opportunity to test the new, radically revised Ducati in the wet. Overall, the impressions were good, though Rossi did not hide his frustrations at having basically lost a day to the weather and track conditions.
Wednesday should bring more for the Italian. The new electronics package - mainly improving traction, and tested at Jerez - will be the main area that Rossi and his crew are aiming to work on, along with the rear shock and one or two other items. Better surface conditions and (hopefully) less rain should allow Rossi to test the new updates more fully, and to start to lap at something closer to a realistic race pace.
Rossi's teammate Nicky Hayden let slip some of the things the team are doing in the pursuit of more traction. While almost everyone mentioned they had been working on their riding position - Andrea Dovizioso, Dani Pedrosa, Nicky Hayden - the American also mentioned that Ducati had brought a new fuel tank, and was experimenting with moving the weight around in the chase for more rear grip. The good news for Hayden was that he finally had enough strength in his shoulder to ride the Ducati at something approaching its potential, and to begin to understand the bike. The surgery which he had just three weeks ago to rebuild his labrum and repair the cartilage in his shoulder had been highly successful, though he was still not up to 100% just yet. But just being able to properly ride the bike was a step in the right direction.
Yamaha have brought new engines to the test; according to Jorge Lorenzo just a minor update, though rumors from Sepang suggest that the Yamaha now sports a new gearbox along similar lines to the seamless transmissions used by the Honda and Ducati. Conclusive audio proof is yet to be provided, but the source of the rumors is impeccable, and now that the capacity increase has solved Yamaha's biggest weakness with respect to the Honda - acceleration and drive out of the corner - the gains from smoother and faster gearshifts start to look more attractive.
Whether the new engines helped is a question that is still to be answered: like Valentino Rossi, Jorge Lorenzo believed that the conditions had prevented drawing any real conclusions. The overall feeling was good, but the main focus was the corner exit, along with improved throttle response. Having the bike respond smoothly to the throttle helps make the bike easier to ride, and this is where the Yamaha still had room for improvement, Lorenzo said. On Wednesday, the Spaniard would spend more time on the new engine, as well as a new chassis, and test to see where improvements had been made.
The increased minimum weights had left Yamaha in a quandary. Yamaha MotoGP boss Masahiko Nakajima told Japanese journalist Akira Nishimura that Yamaha were stuck with sticking 4kg weights to the bike for the rest of the season, as redesigning the bike to meet the heavier 157kg minimum weight for the ideal weight balance was too difficult, especially at this stage of development. With the minimum weight due to go up to 160kg for 2013, Yamaha are likely to wait until then.
One of the main worries after the previous Sepang test had been the gap from the prototype machines back to the CRTs. MotoGP veteran Colin Edwards had ended Sepang 1 over 5 seconds back from Casey Stoner, and behind Ducati's test rider Franco Battaini, while the Avintia BQR riders were all well outside the qualifying limit - 107% of the fastest time - that would see them fail to qualify for the race. On the first day of the Sepang test, Ivan Silva had cut his deficit by 2 seconds, though he remained over 6.3 seconds behind Stoner.
The good news for Edwards was that the revised chassis that Suter had brought had been a major step forward. The new frame had removed a good deal of the chatter the previous iteration of the bike had suffered, and the Texan could start to focus on improving the electronics to provide better throttle response for the BMW S1000RR engine. The key was the transition from off the throttle to on the throttle, and already the new electronics were promising. The direction they had selected was the right one, Edwards told MotoGP.com, and he was confident of closing the gap to the prototypes. So far, he had not pushed especially hard for a lap time, working more on being comfortable on the bike and verifying that the changes - this is the third chassis which Suter have provided, after the frame which the team used at Valencia and the one they brought to the first Sepang test - had worked.
While Edwards and his NGM Forward Racing team are closing in on the prototypes, the work which the BQR Avintia team face is still massive. Yonny Hernandez, joining the test for the first time since Valencia, now that his finance problems had been partially solved, ended the day 7 seconds off the pace of Stoner, but the Colombian had still been using the Kawasaki electronics kit used in Superstock racing. Tomorrow, work would commence with the MoTeC systems the team planned to use, and both Hernandez and Silva hope that the more advanced electronics will provide some serious gains. They have a long way still to go.
Testing recommences in just a few hours, and overnight rain has blown away towards the west. If the weather holds, we should know a lot more about the state of play by the end of the second day of testing at Sepang.