With the Moto2 and Moto3 trucks all departed from the paddock, the Jerez circuit is now the domain of the MotoGP teams for the final test ahead of the season opener at Qatar. Thursday, the eve of the test, saw a massive amount of pit lane activity, but mainly among the photographers as they chased up and down the track shooting the riders in their full season livery for publicity shoots and the official MotoGP.com website.
Jerez is the first time that all of the bikes, both the CRTs which have tested in Spain and the factory prototypes which have tested in Sepang, hit the track at the same time. The difference was immediately obvious, from a mosey up pit lane with a camera. At the CRT end of pit lane, garages were open, and mechanics were working on their bikes in full public display. I strolled past bare chassis with engines standing separately waiting to be fitted, bikes in various stages of undress, and stood taking photographs as mechanics worked on their bikes, undisturbed by my presence.
Meanwhile, when the factory bikes were rolled out to be warmed up and have their engines tested, the teams deployed a horde of extra mechanics to mill around in front of photographers and prevent them from taking shots of anything. The nearest a factory bike came to being displayed was the Honda RC213V losing its tail to display the sinuous top exhaust, and having the fairing bottom removed, both of which were to prevent the heat from the exhausts from damaging the fairing.
The whole charade reminded me of some exotic courtship dance in a society with strict dress codes, with just an ankle on display to whet appetites. The reason the CRT concept is popular with many of the mechanics in the paddock - privately, though, on the record they understandably prefer to toe the company line - is that they can once again get their hands dirty, and be involved in the nitty gritty of engineering, rather than only being allowed to clean and prepare the bike, leaving the real work to the factory employees.
For both Honda and Yamaha, the Jerez test is more about fine-tuning what they have and testing it at a new track than real development work. At the presentation of the Yamaha Factory Racing team, Ben Spies said that unlike last year, where they were just tweaking the setup, they had spent the Sepang tests trying an awful lot of new parts. Now, the priority was to verify what they had learned at Sepang and to see if the bike behaved much differently at a different track.
The real battle at Jerez will be between Jorge Lorenzo and Casey Stoner, and seeing how close the two riders are. While the Honda still struggles with chatter from the new rear Bridgestone tire, Yamaha have not had so much trouble, and more importantly, they have fixed a lot of their problems with wheelying. With power less of an issue with the 1000s - they produce far too much for a small difference to be significance - the balance of power has swung in favor of the better-handling Yamaha. Both Jorge Lorenzo and Ben Spies dismissed HRC boss' Shuhei Nakamoto's claim that the Yamaha is the best MotoGP bike at the moment, Spies quipping that "the grass is always greener on the other side."
The joys of fatherhood have, by all reports, done Casey Stoner a lot of good. The Australian arrives at Jerez feeling refreshed and ready to go testing, and is in the form of his life. Jerez has always been something of a nemesis for Casey Stoner - it is one of the very few tracks at which he has never won - and so he will want to leave here on top of the pile. But Lorenzo is fast, and has recovered well from his finger injury, picking up the pace at Sepang much more quickly than he expected. Lorenzo's team manager Wilco Zeelenberg also commented that he had been impressed at how quickly the Spaniard had adapted to the bigger 1000cc bikes, quickly learning to use the torque of the engine rather than relying on maintaining corner speed.
The real interest of the Jerez test is the pace of the Ducati. The loss of testing time at Sepang due to weather conditions had been frustrating for the Bologna factory, as they still had so much to try out. Various bits and pieces had been tried individually, but the bike had not been tested with all of the findings put together. That will be Ducati's priority, and at Jerez, we could start to see the new GP12's real potential.
For Valentino Rossi, his aim will be to radically close the gap to the Hondas and Yamahas. The gap was over a second at Sepang, and this has to be cut at least in half, and preferably down to just a few tenths. But with the bike still so very new - so much is different compared to the Honda and Yamaha, who have been testing versions of their bike since early 2011 - there is still much to learn and much to do.
Much of that gap will be sure to close, however. There were some rumors of Rossi sandbagging at Sepang, but a lack of rear grip is a genuine problem causing Rossi and teammate Nicky Hayden to lose time. Working on that problem - especially at some of Jerez' fast, flowing corners - will be their main problem, though the new swingarm which is probably needed to fix part of that is not yet ready. A new rear linkage was spotted doing the rounds, however, and this may mitigate the problem at least in part.
It all comes down to where Rossi ends the test. If the Italian is within half a second of Jorge Lorenzo and Casey Stoner, then the new parts and development expected in the early part of the year should see him able to compete for podiums, and eventually for victories in the latter half of the season. If the gap remains what it was at Sepang, then 2012 could be another very long, very hard season for the Italian.
Jerez is also the first chance we get to see the real pace of the CRT machines. The bikes which tested at Sepang were massively outgunned at the Malaysian track, unsurprisingly given the two long straights at the track. At a slower track like Jerez, the gaps should be much reduced, and with the amount of work going on on the bikes, improvement is certain.
The biggest question mark hangs over just how fast the Aprilia ART machines are. The bikes are heavier and less powerful than the factory prototypes, but with a rider of the caliber of Randy de Puniet, they should be able to trouble the satellite machines. The times so far set by De Puniet would put him smack in the middle of the 800cc pack, but we do not yet know just how much the 1000cc machines have moved the game on at Jerez. The key duel there will be the Frenchman and LCR Honda's Stefan Bradl and Cardion AB's Karel Abraham. They will be De Puniet's first targets.
For Colin Edwards, he will be chasing the Aprilias on his Suter BMW. The bike is massively improved over the past few months, but there is still plenty of room for improvement. Edwards will have De Puniet in his sights, but the question is whether the NGM Mobile bike is good enough to match the Aspar machines.
As for the Avintia bikes and the Gresini FTR Honda, they are still in the very early stages of development. The FTR Honda got its first run out just 24 hours after being assembled for the very first time, and much work will be needed before it gets anywhere near the pace of the Aprilias. Much the same is true of the Avintia FTR Kawasakis, with their work focusing on working with the electronics of the new machines.
Tomorrow, once the first times start to be set, we will have a better idea of where the MotoGP class stands. By the time the test ends on Sunday, there will be far fewer secrets. There are few places to hide at Jerez, and fewer reasons to try to hide.