With the first full test for the World Superbike class behind us, and the first test of the MotoGP grid about to get underway at Sepang at the end of this week, it is time to take a look at motorcycle racing's preseason, and evaluate where we stand so far. Just what is the state of play for both MotoGP and World Superbike in 2013?
The question is even more pertinent now that both series have been taken under the wing of Dorna, much to the consternation of World Superbike fans and, to some extent, the WSBK paddock as well. It was feared that Dorna would either kill off World Superbike entirely to strengthen the position of MotoGP, or impose such stringent technical regulations on the series as to dumb it down to Superstock spec.
Fortunately, neither of those options looks likely. World Superbikes will continue as a separate series, Dorna CEO Carmelo Ezpeleta was keen to explain when quizzed about the takeover at Ducati's Wrooom launch event early in January. The aim is to build a strong WSBK series to stand alongside MotoGP, preserving the unique identity of the two series - WSBK as a place to race production bikes, MotoGP as the series for racing prototypes.
But exactly how should the phrase "production bikes" be interpreted? As a hotted up version of the road-going model, as is the intention of Superstock, or as a genuine racing machine built using the production bike as a basis, which is much closer to what some regard as the ethos of WSBK? The answer, it appears, will lie somewhere in the middle, and the factories will have a major say in how this all turns out.
Carmelo Ezpeleta has skirted around the issue of exactly what kind of regulations he would like to see in World Superbikes, goading the argument in a particular direction with a few barbed comments. The aim, it is clear, is to cut costs to help make the series sustainable. How is it possible, he opined at the end of 2012, that a WSBK team could run through 39 engines in a season, when MotoGP is limited to just 6? Those numbers are hotly disputed, as World Superbike teams like to point out that they do not burn through 39 engines every year. Instead, engines are given a top-end refresh at the end of each race weekend, and stripped down for a complete rebuild every three or four race weekends, with bearings checked for wear and replaced where necessary. Teams have only three or four engines for each rider, which are rotated throughout the season.
And this is where the confusion comes from; both Carmelo Ezpeleta and WSBK aficionados are talking at cross purposes. Top end refreshes - checking valve clearances, adjusting where necessary, and checking valve stem guides, valve seating, etc - require the camshaft covers to be lifted, which on a MotoGP bike would require breaking the seals. Even though the actual work done on such an engine may be minimal - something which WSBK teams attest - in MotoGP terms, this would count as a new engine. Seen from the point of view of MotoGP regulations, WSBK teams burn through engines at an incredible rate. Seen from the realities of working in the WSBK paddock, the teams make the best of their engines with limited maintenance.
Ezpeleta has made it abundantly clear what he expects World Superbikes to cost. World Superbike teams should have to spend no more than 250,000 euros on a bike, complete with sufficient parts to cover a complete season, excluding the costs of crash damage. How to accomplish that is up to the factories, the Dorna boss told reporters, and the teams and factories would be holding regular meetings to discuss how to achieve this goal.
Can it be done? A good friend of mine with deep roots in the World Superbike paddock believes it can. The factories will find a way to build bikes to meet the cost requirements, while still retaining sufficient freedom of modification to balance the needs of the various homologated bikes. A Superstock-style regulation would make the series unattractive to some; BMW, Kawasaki and Ducati have dominated Superstock classes, while Honda have struggled and would almost certainly pull out. The end result is likely to be something much closer to World Endurance spec, where modifications of chassis, swingarm and suspension are permitted, but engine tuning is more tightly controlled. Electronics will remain free, as this is a prerequisite to retain the interest of the factories.
Of course, though this may help bring the cost of the bikes down to the required level of 250,000 euros a season, it won't necessarily mean the teams will spend any less. Whatever budget the teams can find, they will spend, and if they can't spend it on the bikes, they will spend it elsewhere. This may be good for the riders, the crew chiefs and the mechanics: if spending on the bikes is limited, then paying the riders more could be the only way to become more competitive, and winning crew chiefs may command higher salaries. It was ever thus in racing: costs are limited solely by the amount of money the teams can raise.
All that, of course, is food for the 2014 season. But we have a whole season of racing ahead of us before we get to that. January already saw the WSBK teams take to the track for a test at Jerez, giving a glimpse of where the teams stand. The test was split, Ducati spending three days at the circuit, before leaving the track to the rest of the WSBK teams.
That split test made it rather hard to judge the development progress of the brand new Ducati Panigale. Rain blighted all three days the Alstare team was at the circuit, conditions only improving on the afternoon of the final day. Carlos Checa left with a respectable time of 1'41.826 under his belt, though his teammate Ayrton Badovini struggled badly throughout the test, over a second and a half off the pace of Checa.
The BMW, Kawasaki, Suzuki, Aprilia and Honda teams had a little more luck. The first day of the test was still wet, but the riders all got in nearly a full day of testing on the second day. That Tom Sykes should end the test as fastest should hardly be a surprise, the Yorkshireman mounted a strong challenge at the end of 2012, and the Kawasaki has made a huge leap forward in the past year.
But there is more to winning championships than being fastest during the tests. Most telling of all, perhaps, was the fact that though the Kawasakis were quick - Sykes was quickest with a 1'40.5, teammate Loris Baz was 6th fastest with 1'41.3 - the times they set were self-reported, Kawasaki choosing not to run with the official transponders made available at the test. There is no reason to doubt the reported times, but electing not to fit a transponder does prevent the other teams from tracking closely just how consistent the Kawasakis were, and where they are gaining and losing time. Given that tire wear has been a major problem for Kawasaki in the past, it is not a stretch to suspect that this is where most of their effort was focused.
Marco Melandri was the fastest man according to the official timing. This was a boost for the Italian, Melandri able to test his injured shoulder for the first time since crashing heavily at Portimao last year. The shoulder had held up remarkably well, the BMW man said afterwards, and what counted now was building endurance. Putting together a few fast laps is one thing; maintaining that pace for both races of a WSBK round is a little different.
If the BMW is quick, the Aprilias are not too shabby either. Davide Giugliano set a pretty scorching pace on the satellite Althea bike at Jerez, fastest in the wet on the first day, and just a tenth off the time of Melandri on the BMW in the dry. Giugliano has taken to the RSV4 extremely well, and the Althea squad has made the switch with ease. Such ease that they ended ahead of the factory Aprilia riders, now without reigning World Champion Max Biaggi. In his place, Eugene Laverty takes over the reins at the Italian marque, and Laverty was within a quarter of a second of Melandri, and just over a tenth slower than Giugliano. Laverty is looking very strong already, and could well be a factor this season.
Both Suzuki and Honda struggled in WSBK last year, with bikes that badly need an update. Organizational changes look to pay dividends for both brands in 2013; at Suzuki, Yoshimura is taking a small step back, focusing on engine preparation back in Japan, while Crescent focus on running the team, and making the bike competitive on the track. With a 4th quickest time for Leon Camier, that approach looks to be paying off.
Honda has a lot more work to do, that much is clear from the Jerez test, but the payoff for the changes at the Ten Kate squad - now rebranded Pata Honda, with the arrival of the Italian snack manufacturer as title sponsor - could well be huge. Johnny Rea and Leon Haslam had a frustrating couple of days in Southern Spain, but the bike has undergone a massive revamp. A new swingarm has been fitted - with the currently in vogue underbracing replacing the OEM-pattern overbracing - and a switch to a new exhaust manufacturer as well. But the biggest switch is in the electronics, with Pata Honda now using a unit built and developed by HRC. Honda is taking a much bigger stake in the Ten Kate WSBK effort, which promises much for the future. The move is to pave the way for 2014, and the arrival of the Honda V4 superbike which will replace the CBR1000RR in WSBK. Road riders hoping to get their hands on one the V4 bikes should not hold their breath, however: the V4 will almost certainly be made in just sufficient quantities to homologate for WSBK, with a price rumored to be higher than that of a top-end Ducati Panigale.
While WSBK has actually seen some on-track action, MotoGP has had to make do with just launches, and the occasional smattering of news. (On a side note, having just an occasional smattering of news is a good thing; in recent years, the off season has been filled with news, most of it bad, some of it bizarre, little of it encouraging).
The MotoGP year started in traditional fashion, with Ducati kicking off the season halfway up an Italian alp. The Wrooom event - the combined launch of Ducati and Ferrari, funded by the vast but not-quite-bottomless pockets of the Italian branch of Phillip Morris, purveyor of carcinogens to the fashionable - saw a Ducati line up both very different and strangely familiar at the same time. Of the main players, only Nicky Hayden, Ducati CEO Gabriele Del Torchio, and team coordinator Vitto Guareschi were unchanged from last year. Bernhard Gobmeier, formerly of BMW's WSBK team, took the place of Filippo Preziosi as head of Ducati Corse, while Paolo Ciabatti was presented as MotoGP project manager. Both Ciabatti and fellow WSBK refugee Julian Thomas, now press manager for Ducati Corse, are returnees to Borgo Panigale. The two men worked for Ducati in World Superbikes, before leaving the brand to work for series organizer FG Sport (which then morphed into Infront Motor Sports, and has now been subsumed into Dorna, prompting the departure of Ciabatti and Thomas). Andrea Dovizioso joins Nicky Hayden as the other factory rider, a risky position given the recent history of Italian riders in the Ducati factory team.
There was much talk at Ducati's launch, though surprisingly little meaningful was said. It is clear that 2013 is a year of transition for Ducati; careful and methodical work is to be done on the bike, and a return to slow and diligent progress, rather than the rush to try as much as possible to solve the public relations disaster which was the Valentino Rossi / Ducati marriage. The presence of the Italian icon had put a lot of pressure on the factory, several Ducati people said, with parts being rushed into use untested, and not enough time being taken to evaluate parts fully. The greatest failing had been one of communication, Gobmeier told the media, and this was an area which he had already taken steps to address. Communication between the team and the engineers at Corse was now much more direct, with the aim of making feedback clearer.
Though the bike itself will change only slowly - this year was to be a year of 'evolution, not revolution' Gobmeier told the press - the approach Ducati is taking in 2013 is to be radically different. Several factors will be key to the success of the new approach: first and foremost, the hiring of Michele Pirro as test rider meant that the factory had a rider who could focus on testing, but be close enough to competitive pace to find the kind of problems which only surface once you get within a few tenths of a realistic race pace. While 'Iron Frenk' Franco Battaini will focus on reliability and basic testing, Pirro will concentrate on ensuring any new parts actually solved the problems which the Ducati still has: aggressive power delivery, understeer, and difficulty in getting the bike to turn, Nicky Hayden explained.
The more radical step was in bringing the Pramac satellite team a lot closer to Ducati Corse. Both Ben Spies and Andrea Iannone are Corse employees, rather than Pramac men, and both will provide a lot more feedback to the factory. Though the Factory Ducati team will be Bologna's main focus, there will not be the separation there was in previous years. Pramac is truly Ducati Junior, not Ducati satellite.
The two Pramac bikes have different sponsors, though. Iannone's machine has the backing of Energy TI Gas & Power, an Italian consumer energy supplier. Spies' bike is to backed by Ignite Asset Management, an intriguing development in terms of sponsorship, and in line with the backing of FIXI for the Crescent Suzuki WSBK team. Ignite barely has a website, and is a brand new organization aimed at 'high net worth individuals'. The aim of the sponsorship deal is to offer a place for Ignite to bring potential customers to the racetrack, and entice them into signing a deal to manage their millions, using the glamor, excitement and adrenaline of motorcycle racing to seduce them. Given that one of the "tricks" suggested in the more insalubrious type of pick-up manual is to take the (female) object of your affections and do something dangerous, to help get the blood flowing, this might just work.
If the Ducati launch is all glamor, Honda's launch is rather less so. The launch of the Repsol Honda team was a very Spanish affair, with Dani Pedrosa and Marc Marquez being presented at Repsol's headquarters in Madrid (for in-depth coverage of the launch, read Venancio Luis Nieto's intriguing report of the event, containing interviews with both Pedrosa and Marquez). The biggest organizational change at Repsol was the elevation of Livio Suppo to Team Principal, a logical move given that his presence is no longer required in a particular garage. Pedrosa has Alberto Puig to guide him, while Marquez has Emilio Alzamora at his side, and neither man has much interest in or affinity with Suppo.
At the launch, the answers which Pedrosa gave (or rather, did not give by skirting cleverly around the questions) showed that the diminutive Spaniard continues to develop into an enigma to be placed somewhere between the harsh but brutally honest declarations of Casey Stoner, and the lighter, yet still slightly restrained touch of Jorge Lorenzo. Pedrosa is cultivating the art of the sphinx-like response, and is becoming all the more entertaining for doing so. Pedrosa denied that the arrival of Marquez placed any pressure on him, nor would he be drawn on the effect which the return of Valentino Rossi may have on his Yamaha teammate Jorge Lorenzo.
But Pedrosa did offer a glimpse of something really important. He admitted, in response to some skillful prodding on the part of Luis Nieto, that his motivation had suffered in previous years, as he collected injury upon injury. But a full year without being hurt, and on a bike which got better and better as the season progressed, and Honda adapted to the modified tire construction and the extra weight added, had seen his confidence grow and his pleasure in racing grow. This had been apparent all through 2012: when Pedrosa walked, he seemed taller, more upright, more relaxed. With a better bike - Honda have had a year to get the RC213V right, and it is now pretty damn good - Pedrosa has to be the favorite for the title. That, though, is said before the riders have even turned a wheel on the track this season; much can change between now and November.
Catalyst for that change could be Marc Marquez. The young Spaniard comes into the series with the weight of expectation, and HRC boss Shuhei Nakamoto adding to that weight by telling the press that he expects Marquez to be on the podium at Qatar, and winning races not long afterwards. Nakamoto tempered his expectations a little in public, but in private, the wily Japanese boss will be as forceful as ever.
Not that it will have much effect on Marquez. The Spaniard reminds me of a young Valentino Rossi: he is impervious to the demands of others, and has the knack of learning the lessons of a mistake instantaneously, while at the same time casting off any negative feelings - shame, embarrassment, disappointment - just as quickly, arriving at the next corner with a clear conscience and an open mind. The only pressure he feels is that which he puts on himself, and he uses that only to make himself a better rider, learning quickly each time he puts a foot wrong.
But Marquez does make mistakes, and when he does, he has the uncanny ability of taking others down with him, or even worse, making them pay the price that is rightfully his. Marquez, along with Iannone, will shake up the established order in 2013, and given the occasionally rather staid and clinical state of the sport, that is badly needed. I am looking forward to the excitement which he brings, but I will view it with a little trepidation, afraid of the danger which accompanies that excitement. Someone could get hurt; the hope is that no one is hurt seriously.
While Honda and Ducati have already held their launch, the date of Yamaha's launch is still to be settled. A launch at one of the Sepang tests had initially been expected, as Yamaha has often used the occasion to present their new team. Not this year, however, or at least that is not the expectation. More likely, Yamaha will launch their new livery either at the final test in Jerez, or perhaps even as late as Qatar, just ahead of the first race.
What we do know about that livery is that Monster will feature prominently, though the energy drink brand will not be title sponsor, as some sources had suggested at the end of 2012. Given the crumbs so far scattered by Yamaha's marketing department, it seems that blue, a dark, navy blue, will feature heavily this year, with logos of the oil firm ENEOS and purveyer of caffeinated sugar water Monster prominently displayed.
It had been expected that the returning Valentino Rossi would bring a title sponsor with him - the truth is probably a little different, the story being that the department responsible for sponsorship inside Yamaha had asked for Rossi to be signed, to help them sell Yamaha to potential title sponsors - but that seems not to be the case. That may not be too much of an issue for Yamaha, however, with the combined contribution of Monster and ENEOS close to matching what a title sponsor would have paid.
Rossi's selling power has already been put to work, however, with the Italian flying out to Indonesia alongside reigning MotoGP World Champion Jorge Lorenzo to help launch a new logo for Yamaha's Indonesian subsidiary Semakin di Depan. The pair have been doing the rounds of the crucial Asian market for Yamaha, helping to promote the brand in a region where sales are in the millions.
While nobody doubts Rossi's effect on Yamaha's Asian scooter sales, at Sepang, in a few days' time, the fans will finally get a chance to see what impact Rossi can make on the track. His first test on the bike was rained off, the Italian only getting a few laps under his belt in difficult circumstances. The bike felt like home again, he said, and he should be quickly up to speed. The big question, of course, is whether that speed is enough to match the pace of Lorenzo and Pedrosa; while Rossi spent his time treading water at Ducati - he told reporters he had 'learned nothing' during his time at the Italian factory - the two Spaniards have grown, becoming faster, more precise, and making fewer and fewer mistakes. The goal posts have clearly moved; the question is whether Rossi can find them again.
The Yamaha men will have a little help, with the factory set to debut a new 'seamless' gearbox at Sepang, following in the footsteps of Honda and Ducati. The new gearbox should help the Yamaha M1 in the area where it is weakest: drive out of corners has never been the Yamaha's strongest point, with a little more stability during upshifts when the bike is heeled over, the M1 should get off the corner better, bringing the Hondas into range again.
The new gearbox may help Jorge Lorenzo and Valentino Rossi, it will be of little help to the Monster Tech 3 Yamaha squad of Cal Crutchlow and Bradley Smith. Though it would not make that much difference to Smith - the young Englishmen is about to embark on his rookie year in MotoGP, and has bigger things on his mind than seamless gear shifts, such as learning to cope with Bridgestone's fastidious tires - the lack could be tough on Crutchlow. After an outstanding year in 2012, where the former World Supersport champion looked like a constant podium threat, Crutchlow must fear that the gap between the factory bikes and his satellite machine will have grown over the winter. Catching the front runners will be hard in 2013. Beating them will be nigh on impossible.
All this, of course, is merely conjecture, based on what we know today. In a few days' time, the bikes take to the track once more, and we will have more than just conjecture to go on. The season is nearly here.