At last a full day of testing: though Thursday started out overcast, the rain that threatened through the final day of the Sepang MotoGP test never really came in earnest, with only a few drops of rain keeping the riders off the track for an hour or so in the afternoon. After two days which were largely lost to the weather, worked was stepped up to an almost frantic pace to make up for lost time.
The name of the fastest rider of the day was as unsurprising as the direction the sun rose in the morning. Casey Stoner has established himself as the man to beat, realistically from the moment he left Ducati to join Honda. After yesterday's hiatus - forced on the Honda riders by HRC, after an engine warning light on Dani Pedrosa's RC213V saw the bikes confined to their garages as a precautionary measure - Stoner was back in charge, topping the timesheets comfortably once again.
And yet again, it was not just his fast time that impressed, but the apparent ease with which Stoner posted fast laps. Where others struggled to post a single lap in the 2'00 bracket, Stoner was either there or very close on almost every exit. Though the Australian did not attempt a race simulation, as some of the others did - reports from veteran journalist Dennis Noyes and experienced Spanish reporter Jose Maroto suggest that Honda had restricted riders to runs of 4 full laps or less in the aftermath of Pedrosa's engine problem, suggesting the problem could be heat- or lubrication-related - his pace was consistently better than anyone else's, Jorge Lorenzo the only man apparently capable of getting close.
Honda still has problems, Stoner asserted. The biggest problem is chatter, he told MotoGP.com, and despite all their efforts to counter it - shortening the wheelbase of the bike being their main prong of attack - the chatter was holding the Repsol Honda back a lot, Stoner said. When it is that bad, he cannot feel what the bike is doing, and that was badly affecting the bike.
Apart from that, there is little wrong with the machine, with Stoner pronouncing himself happy with how the bike responded. The balance of the bike was good, it was turning well, and most surprisingly, the Australian also said the traction of the bike was fine. Given that almost every other rider on every brand of machine was complaining that finding traction was one of their biggest problems, that is quite remarkable, pointing either to the genius of Stoner's crew chief Cristian Gabbarini and his team, or else to a Doohan-esque attempt at mind games, praising the bike in one area where Stoner knows the rest are struggling.
Though Dani Pedrosa was faster, Jorge Lorenzo looks like the only man capable of getting near to Stoner's pace. The factory Yamaha rider did a race simulation in the afternoon, running at a pace that was impressively metronomic. Dennis Noyes calculated that Lorenzo's race pace during that run was nearly a full second faster than the pace set by Valentino Rossi while winning the 2010 race. Lorenzo's consistency was positively fearsome: laps 7-9 of the 19-lap simulation were done in 2'01.811, 2'01.889 and 2'01.883; laps 12 and 13 in 2'02.092 and 2'02.062; and the last 5 laps were all within a tenth of a second. Lorenzo's team manager Wilco Zeelenberg refers to the 2010 World Champion as a robot, looking at his times it is easy to see why.
Lorenzo, too, has his problems, however, traction being one of the biggest. The new Yamaha M1 moves a lot at the rear under acceleration, and this makes getting strong drive out of the corners very difficult. This is likely also related to the new Bridgestone tires; the new softer, less stiff rears are showing a much greater rate of wear, and are starting to slide quite quickly in race conditions. Both Jorge Lorenzo and Andrea Dovizioso earmarked tire management as being a key factor in 2012; good news for fans as this means riders have more strategies available, and races could be interesting over the full length, as those who took off fast run out of tires and drop back, while those who saved their tires move forward in the latter stages.
It's not just Lorenzo who is happy, though: all of the Yamaha men are overjoyed at the work the factory has done. Andrea Dovizioso was positively effusive, saying how happy he was with the bike and with the progress both he and Yamaha have made, and the work of the team. Ending the day in 3rd, ahead of Lorenzo - though with a flying lap made at the very end of the day when conditions were best - was all that he could have asked for, though the Italian was also keen to point out that his race simulation pace was not the same as Lorenzo's.
Lorenzo's teammate Ben Spies described the test as "great", praising the amount of progress that had been made, especially with the electronics and the throttle response, something that Lorenzo was also happy about, and the amount that he and the team had learned over the course of the test. Spies sat out the final part of the session, after a small crash at Turn 7 saw him tweak his neck. Having completed most of the work he and the team had set themselves, Spies decided caution was the better part of valor. The Texan has three more areas that he hopes to test at Jerez, before getting on with the important work of finding a base setup for the season.
Cal Crutchlow, too, is happy with how things have gone so far, though a problem at the start of the day frustrated his attempts to post a fast time. Rear grip and traction remains a problem, though Crutchlow also said that he still also has stuff to learn, adapting his riding style to the new bike. The engine braking system is causing him a few problems, as it is more like a two stroke than a four stroke, Crutchlow said yesterday, and having raced four strokes all his life, that requires reconfiguring his reflexes.
Over in the Ducati camp, things are not quite so rosy. Indeed, after the optimism of the first Sepang test, the mood has turned rather grim, with Valentino Rossi describing the test as "quite negative." The good thing about the test was that the gap to the front had been reduced, Rossi said, but the worst thing was that the bike was starting to display understeer once again. That problem - part of a collection of problems, including front-end chatter and a lack of feedback - had been addressed by the complete redesign of the Ducati, which saw the Desmosedici's engine rolled back, to shorten the bike and lift the weight upwards. But as one commentator pointed out, it appears as if their attempts to find more traction and solve chatter at the rear by moving weight backwards merely caused the bike to understeer again, the bike not turning as Rossi would like.
The two days lost to the weather cut into Ducati's testing program, and the new parts that Rossi had been hoping for are unlikely to appear until the season is well underway. Finding himself in 10th, and over a second behind Casey Stoner, is not where Rossi had hoped to be with just one more test to go before the season commences. Ducati team boss Vito Guareschi was more positive, pointing out that Rossi's fastest time was set in the middle of the day, while the conditions were at their worst, and that his focus had been testing, not pushing for a fast lap. Guareschi told GPOne.com that Rossi could have been faster, but that his priorities lay elsewhere. The Italian's times were around those of factory teammate Nicky Hayden's who is still recovering from shoulder surgery. This, Guareschi argued, was signal enough that Rossi was not anywhere near the pace he was capable of running at.
Whether this optimism is false or not remains to be seen, but as thing stand, the marketing marriage made in heaven of Valentino Rossi and Ducati has yet to reach the stage of wedded bliss. Rossi's situation is made worse by the fact that Pramac's Hector Barbera sits ahead of him on the timesheets on the satellite Ducati, the machine he tested at Valencia at the end of 2011. The sole consolation there is that Barbera set his fast time in the way that the Spaniard usually does: by latching on to the coat tails of a faster rider, and towing his way to the upper regions of the timesheets. Still, the fact remains that when pushed, the GP0 is capable of decent times, while the factory Ducatis are much further off the pace.
There is much work still to be done in Borgo Panigale; the feat of creating a brand new bike after Valencia to bring to Sepang at the end of January was a positively Herculean effort. A month later, Ducati Corse must be fearing that the hero of antiquity they most resemble is not Hercules, but Sisyphus.