It would be one of the larger understatements of the decade to say that the first MotoGP test of the year at Sepang was eagerly anticipated. After the anti-climactic washout that was Valencia, many big questions of the 2013 season had been left hanging in the air over the winter. Given that motorcycle racing fans hate a vacuum even more than Nature does, they filled it, with speculation, conjecture, hyperbole and not a small amount of vitriol.
Would Valentino Rossi prove he still has it, or was his switch to Ducati merely the start of his downhill slide to retirement? Is Marc Marquez the real thing, or were his results in Moto2 deceptive, and down only to skullduggery on the part of his former team? Can Yamaha match the Hondas, or does the advantage which Dani Pedrosa had over the second half of the season mean it will be impossible for Jorge Lorenzo to defend his title? What of Ducati? Will Andrea Dovizioso succeed where Rossi failed, and will the Italian factory be able to claw back some of the ground they have been steadily losing to the Japanese factories since 2007?
After nearly 8 hours of track time - more than many expected, with rain forecast for the period during the test - we have answers to replace the speculation, and data to fill the gaping void created by the winter testing break. Were the answers found a surprise? That depends on your perspective. Did anyone seriously think Rossi wouldn't get closer on the Yamaha to the front runners than he did on the Ducati? No. But does the gap to Pedrosa - 0.427 seconds - mean he is fast enough to compete for the championship, or will it leave him running round in third all year? Was anyone surprised by Marquez running up front right from the off? Surely not. But who predicted he would get within a few hundredths of his teammate on just his second proper test? Did anyone seriously expect the Ducatis to have closed the gap to Honda and Yamaha? That would be crazy. But to be two seconds down?
If I had to rank the events in order of what had surprised me the most, I would have to say it is how competitive Marquez is. Previewing the test, I suggested that to be within a half a second of Pedrosa should be regarded as a good result, but to finish just 0.044 of a second behind his Repsol Honda teammate, on just his fifth day of testing on the bike - and only his third full day uninterrupted by the elements - is simply sensational. All the talk of hacked ECUs, illegal quickshifters and an unfair weight advantage is forgotten; it is crystal clear that what gave Marquez his competitive edge was sheer, unadulterated talent.
Sure, the Honda RC213V is probably the best bike on the grid at the moment - though the advantage it holds over the Yamaha is marginal at best - but look at Marquez against a comparable baseline: Stefan Bradl, the man who just held off Marquez to the 2011 Moto2 title, is now on a full factory-spec RC213V at LCR Honda, and has a full year of experience with the Bridgestone tires and the 1000cc MotoGP machines. Marquez is already nearly six tenths quicker than Bradl at Sepang, and still has plenty more to learn. Bradl himself is no slouch, best of the satellite riders, just ahead of Cal Crutchlow on the Tech 3 Yamaha, but Marquez' result is way beyond anything that might be reasonably expected of him. Valentino Rossi said of Marquez result that it "looks like he wants to win the championship in the first year." That no longer seems like a wildly optimistic statement that flatters to deceive.
What must worry the competition is how easily Marquez dismisses any such speculation. The Spaniard rejected all attempts to tease his hopes or expectations from him, ignoring questions about whether he was happy with his lap times, and focusing on his own agenda. "At the moment, the most important thing is just the feeling with the bike," he told MotoGP.com. "To get confidence, to try to arrive at lap times so I can test some settings and some parts." There is already a lot of hype surrounding Marquez, and that hype is set to grow, but Marquez has no interest in playing along. He has work to do - going as fast as humanly possible on a racing motorcycle - and he is not that interested in what other people hope, expect, or think.
This is probably the Spaniard's strong point. He is simply immune to everything around him, focused solely on going fast, and finding ways of going faster. Other riders simply don't exist, their lap times only relevant insofar as they could get in his way while he chases victory. Marquez' appearance and demeanor may be positively cherubic off the track, once he puts his helmet on, his inner psychopath takes over. Marquez has taken over Casey Stoner's bike and much of his crew, as well as his place in the Repsol Honda team. Stoner's dazzling talent means he cannot be replaced, but Marquez surely makes a worthy successor.
Over in the Yamaha garage, Valentino Rossi is beaming like a child who has woken up in a candy store. And it is not just Rossi: his entire crew is if anything just as elated as the Italian. Returning to Yamaha was just the doctor ordered, and Rossi finds himself rejuvenated, more motivated than ever. Even watching the footage of Rossi on the MotoGP.com website, it is clear his body language is totally transformed. The old Rossi - confident, aggressive, smooth, in total control of the Yamaha M1 - was back. As Marieta Borreda, a Spanish journalist working for Dorna put it poetically: "For some couples, the love between them never dies, no matter how much time has passed. You can see this with Rossi, as he dances with his Yamaha once again, and returns to the top four."
This was the Rossi the fans used to flock to the circuits to see, the Rossi that helped fill the stands with a sea of yellow caps and t-shirts. Yet the victories which used to come so easily for the Italian at Yamaha will be much more difficult to repeat now. Rossi is back in the top four - even leading the timesheets at one point - but where teammate Lorenzo is a few thousandths behind Pedrosa, and Marquez just a few hundredths, Rossi is over four tenths slower than the men he used to beat with relative ease. On the evidence of today, Rossi's powers have clearly not declined. But those of Lorenzo and Pedrosa have grown.
Though domination may be a thing of the past for Rossi, his enjoyment has returned. "This is my bike, the best bike for my style," Rossi said, describing his progress on the first day as "perfect." Every time he went out, he could improve his times. Every time he came back into the pits, his team could find a setting which made the bike feel even better. Having the M1 back gives Rossi the tool he felt he was missing, but it also allows Burgess and co to work their magic on the bike once again, and find the extra feeling and the extra time that was always missing at Ducati.
The M1 had not missed Rossi as much as Rossi had missed the M1, though. The bike was better than when he left it, Rossi told MotoGP.com, and that was not just because the bigger engine made more power than the 800cc version he rode back in 2010. The bike was easier to ride, the electronics were much better, the M1 was a better package all round, Rossi said, and this was down in no small part to the work done by Jorge Lorenzo and his team led by Ramon Forcada. "Yamaha, but also Lorenzo and his team made a good job in these two seasons," Rossi said.
Will the Yamaha be capable of beating the Honda, though? The first day of testing at Sepang suggest it could be rather more difficult than either Rossi or reigning World Champion Jorge Lorenzo may have hoped. Lorenzo may have ended just 0.008 seconds behind Pedrosa, but Pedrosa's comments at the end of the day suggested he had barely been trying. The main focus of Repsol Honda's lead rider was on testing engine durability, running a series of checks because of the reduced engine allocation for 2013 - each factory prototype now has just five engines to last the year, rather than the six they have had for the past two seasons. "At the moment, we have no setting done," Pedrosa said, his team working from a very standard base set up and not focusing on setting a fast lap. Chasing a set up was work for the next few days, a troubling thought for anyone hoping to compete with Pedrosa. If the Repsol Honda man is this fast while he is basically just running reliability tests, how fast is he going to be once the team start getting their teeth into a race set up?
But Lorenzo will not have to face the challenge posed by Pedrosa defenseless. As is often the case with Lorenzo, the timesheet does not tell the whole story: the Spaniard lagged a couple of tenths behind Pedrosa for much of the session, only closing in on his final flying lap, but the gap to Pedrosa belies Lorenzo's pace. Analyze the lap times set throughout the day by the two Spaniards, and you see that while Pedrosa put in a respectable total of five laps in the 2'01s, Lorenzo hammered out thirteen, and was able to string the 2'01s together seemingly at will. He may not necessarily always be capable of posting the fastest lap, but it is already clear that his race pace is looking very healthy.
While joy was unconfined at both Yamaha and Honda, the faces were very long indeed over at Ducati. Fastest man on a Desmosedici was Nicky Hayden, but the gap was worryingly large. Hayden ended the day over two seconds slower than Pedrosa, and nearly two tenths slower than his own time from the first test of 2012. Worse still, Hayden posted that time in 2012 after coming back from injury, having damaged his shoulder in an indoor flat-track crash, and lacking strength and confidence in his shoulder. The Kentuckian also ended behind the Honda and Yamaha test riders, an ignoble fate for a factory rider.
Ducati's problem is that they have basically stood still for the past six months, after Audi bought out the Italian company and sent in a team to find out just what they have purchased. The subsequent management shake up was thorough, and like most major reorganization operations, is taking some time before it bears fruit.
That means that Ducati arrives at Sepang with basically the same bike they raced at Valencia in November last year. Hayden continues to work on set up with the softer chassis he started to use at the end of last year, while new signing Andrea Dovizioso spent most of his day working on electronics, and, as he put it, "trying to understand the bike." History shows just how difficult a task that is; "working on electronics" is often a euphemism for messing about with fuel maps in an attempt to find a connection with the throttle, something which the Ducati is notoriously bad for. Yet Dovizioso declared he was prepared for what he found at Ducati. "I didn't expect a perfect bike," the Italian told MotoGP.com, "everyone knows the results of the bike."
While the timesheets may dismay the hard core of Ducati fans, it is too early to abandon hope altogether. This is a long term project, Dovizioso was keen to point out. The issues with the Desmosedici will not be solved overnight, but a lot of the work that will go towards sorting out the bike will be done at this test. The data collected here will be the first step on the path to the future, Dovizioso believes. The cynics - of which there are many, after Valentino Rossi's two miserable years aboard the bike - have heard this refrain many times before, but this time it has to be different. Phillip Morris are growing increasingly impatient with the Ducati project, and without the tobacco money, the extremely expensive task of competing in MotoGP will fall on Audi. If the management team brought in by Audi can't make the Desmosedici project competitive, then the question will be raised of how long they continue to pour money in.
That question is surprisingly current, as Ducati is considering joining Honda at the Austin test in mid-March, to help with further development of the bike. The problem is one of cost: new Ducati MotoGP project leader Paolo Ciabatti told GPOne.com that testing at Austin could cost between 300,000 and 350,000 euros, a price that would include shipping the bikes and the team out there for three days, before packing up and heading back to Jerez for the final test of the preseason. Yamaha are also considering heading to Austin for the test, but a decision is yet to be made.
But before thinking about Texas, there is plenty of work still left to do at Sepang. While the biggest surprises may have been sprung in Malaysia, there is still a lot more to learn.