It never rains but it pours. That old proverb applies both literally and metaphorically to the MotoGP test at Sepang, with rain - a solid, heavy, tropical downpour - once again confining the riders to their garages at the Malaysian circuit, for the second day in a row, and severely limiting track time. A couple of good dry hours in the morning, and that was it. From then on, the only testing that went on was in the wet, and though useful, it is not what the MotoGP field came to Malaysia for.
For Honda, the poor weather came as a blessing in disguise. All four RC213Vs were sidelined on Wednesday, after Dani Pedrosa's Repsol Honda suffered a mysterious engine problem at the end of Tuesday. An engine warning light came on, and Pedrosa pulled in the clutch and rolled into the pits to have his bike checked over. The HRC technicians took the warning light very seriously, flying the engine back immediately to Honda's racing HQ in Japan for further examination. There, the engine was inspected to see whether the problem could create a safety issue if it happened again, and finally given the all clear.
Unfortunately for Honda, the permission to continue arrived at the same time as the rain. Though the bike had once again been pronounced safe, the weather conditions had other ideas, and testing was abandoned for the rest of the day. The sole HRC rider out on track was test rider Kousuke Akiyoshi, putting in some test laps in the wet at the end of the day. HRC manager Livio Suppo joked that they had been lucky to have lost just half a day, with the rest of the field being sidelined by the rain as well.
So what exactly was the problem that brought the Hondas to a halt? The chances of details being revealed by Honda are about the same as democracy breaking out in North Korea. What we do know is that "a red engine light" lit up on the dash, and that Dani Pedrosa had previously been given apparently strict instructions that should that warning lamp light up, he was to pull in the clutch and pull off the track as soon as possible. That in itself is enough to suggest that very bad things could have happened had Pedrosa continued. With memories of Nicky Hayden's RC212V letting go in a very big and very spectacular way at the Sachsenring - and worse still, of parts from that blow up ending up in the hands of people who were not in the pay of HRC - Honda is being extremely conservative, and given the fact that we are still in the middle of testing, there was no real need to take the risk. The Honda riders will return to the track tomorrow, and we shall see just how badly the loss of an extra day (or at least, a few dry hours) has affected their progress.
While the Hondas sat idly in the pits, the Yamahas, Ducatis and CRT machines took full advantage of the much-improved conditions in the morning. With the track cleaned up, grip improved significantly, and times dropped to a much more realistic level. The Yamahas swept the top spots, Ben Spies just edging ahead of his factory teammate Jorge Lorenzo, but the Tech 3 riders Andrea Dovizioso and Cal Crutchlow were not far behind. The improvements made were major: Andrea Dovizioso took 2.3 seconds off his best time from Tuesday, the biggest improvement of the day, but Hector Barbera, Ben Spies and Cal Crutchlow all took over a second and a half off their Tuesday times, a result of both a grippier track and getting the new parts dialed.
More than just the times, it was the progress being made that saw the Yamaha camp sporting Cheshire cat smiles. Uprated electronics provided more bottom end and improved throttle response, leaving Lorenzo to pronounce to MotoGP.com that this had been one of the best days of preseason testing he had ever had in his career. Finally, he felt he was within sight of the Hondas, not watching them disappear into the distance like last year.
Ben Spies was similarly pleased, having found the electronics to be an improvement, and got a lot of work done during the day. Even in the wet - conditions in which the Texan has not felt particularly comfortable on a MotoGP bike - he felt good on the bike, Spies said, and with the parts Yamaha had brought to the test working well, the Texan too was looking very confident. The best thing was that development was heading in the right direction, and the collaboration with Jorge Lorenzo was working well. Both he and Lorenzo were giving very similar feedback, Spies said, agreeing on both what was working well and what was not working. But what they really needed was to get to Jerez, to verify that what had worked well at Sepang would also work on another track. Given the wide range of corners at the Malaysian track - one of the reasons for testing here, along with the usually reliable weather - developments should carry over well.
There are still problems: Lorenzo said the biggest problem on the bike is traction - a continuing refrain among everyone riding a 1000cc bike - as the bike is shaking on corner exit. Andrea Dovizioso agrees, despite beating Cal Crutchlow for the first time since moving to Tech 3, and Crutchlow joined in the chorus. But the complaints about corner exit are fairly minor, with all of the Yamaha riders lauding the progress the factory has made, and relishing measuring themselves against the Hondas on Thursday.
That was the one major concern: with the RC213Vs all stuck in the pits, the only reference points the Yamaha men had were themselves. Yes, the bike was much better, and yes, times were slashed dramatically, but what the Hondas would have done is a mystery, to be solved only on Thursday.
The lack of a reference point hurt the Ducatis too, despite Nicky Hayden also bettering his time significantly. That improvement was a good sign, Hayden saying that this was the most competitive he had been all year. The gap to Spies was much reduced, Hayden sitting under half a second off the time of the Texan, but the rain had hampered their plans, and with his shoulder still not fully recovered after the recent surgery, Hayden and his team decided it was better not to risk injury by falling in the wet. So Hayden is left with work still to do on solving the chatter that still plagues all of the machines, and in searching for more - there's that word again - traction.
Valentino Rossi left the second day of the test frustrated, still eight tenths off Spies and with a lot of work still to do. The Italian did a lot of work testing a number of things separately, but the rain prevented him and his crew from putting all of the pieces together, to see if they offered some real improvement. Sitting in the garage waiting for the track to dry was "very boring" Rossi told MotoGP.com, and the Italian is itching to spend more time on the bike. Rossi's first priority on Thursday morning will be to put all that they have learned so far together, and check that the improvements they think they have work when combined.
Colin Edwards finds himself in a similar situation on the Suter BMW bike. The Texan was the only rider not to improve his lap time on Wednesday - Edwards was three tenths slower on day 2 than he was on Tuesday - but he too had found a lot of separate solutions that really need to be verified by putting them together to see if they would work. The bike is already much better than the version of the Suter he rode a month ago at Sepang, and the aim was to leave with some confidence for the next test at Jerez. If Edwards can cut the deficit to the first prototype to under a second, then at tracks where horsepower is not such a big deal - Sepang has two very long straights which start from slow corners - then he should be able to start to worry the satellite riders.
While the MotoGP teams all sit in Kuala Lumpur hoping for the rain to hold off, the outlook for Thursday is not entirely what they hoped for. Rain is forecast to fall once again on the last day of the test, though fortunately only in relatively small quantities, rather than the downpour that the track saw on Tuesday and Wednesday. On Thursday, the teams might finally get something approaching a full day of work done in Sepang.