It's nearly time. In a few short hours, the full MotoGP field will roll out onto the track for the first time this year, and the 2013 MotoGP season will officially get underway with preseason testing.
That, at least, is the hope. For testing to truly get underway, MotoGP needs the weather to cooperate, something it has been reluctant to do for the past couple of days during the two days of extra testing laid on for the CRT teams using the new Magneti Marelli ECU. Part of Sunday and just about all of Monday were lost to rain, and the forecast for the next three days is for more rain than usual in this part of the world. Fortunately, the mornings look like being dry, so the fans will at least get to see some action on track.
And there is plenty to look forward to. The biggest topic of conversation among fans, unsurprisingly, is Valentino Rossi's return to Yamaha. The Italian got off to a false start upon leaving the Ducati garage and heading a few doors down to Yamaha, when the weather at the Spanish track made conditions tricky and comparisons difficult. Yamaha then decided to up sticks and head to Aragon, in the hope of finding some dry track time. They were disappointed.
So Sepang should be the first real test of just how competitive Rossi still is once he is back on a bike which he understands and has a front end which provides him with the feedback he relies on to go fast. Rossi has seen his career come to a standstill for the past two years at Ducati, while the men he will have to beat this year have grown in stature and experience, and are now at the peak of their careers. The Italian will have to hit the ground running if he is to catch Jorge Lorenzo and Dani Pedrosa, and it will not be easy by any stretch of the imagination.
So far, the vibe coming out of the Yamaha garage - or rather, Rossi's side of the garage - is a sense of homecoming, as if Rossi, crew chief Jeremy Burgess, and his loyal band of mechanics had never been away. The bike is familiar, the changes between the 2013 1000cc M1 and the 2010 800cc bike being more in the details than radically different beasts. The working methods and procedures are all familiar, and Rossi knows the racing department well enough, despite the departure of Masao Furusawa.
Perhaps the biggest obstacle facing Rossi at Yamaha is the development path the M1 has taken since his departure. Jorge Lorenzo has taken a clear lead, honing the bike to suit his needs, and make it a weapon capable of winning the 2012 MotoGP title. Rossi's problem is that Lorenzo's style is different to his, more like Rossi's old rival Biaggi's. Smooth as buttermilk, never a wheel out of place. Lorenzo's team manager complained to me last year that people underestimated just how much effort Lorenzo put into going that fast; from his sweeping, imperious style, you would never have guessed it, only realizing just how fast he was going once you found yourself doing a double-take at the times on the timesheet.
Lorenzo likes a bike which does not move, and the machine has been adapted to suit his style. The 2012 World Champion brakes early, but lets off the brakes earlier too, carrying an inhuman amount of corner speed to sweep through corners at maximum velocity. Rossi, on the other hand, is one of the latest of the late brakers, not just waiting until he sees God until braking, as Kevin Schwantz once put it, but actually going through a formal introduction and exchange of preliminary pleasantries before applying the anchors. Burgess and co will soon have a set up Rossi can use, but the question is whether they can find the extra hundredths which Lorenzo has, now that the bike has been developed in his direction.
That Lorenzo will be fast from the outset goes without saying. Both Lorenzo and Rossi will have the latest version of the 2013 chassis to use, along with a revised version of the 2013 engine. What they will not have, however, is the new seamless gearbox, according to Matthew Birt of MCN. Aimed at improving drive off the corner, by allowing the rider to shift while the bike is still banked over without upsetting it, the seamless gearbox is an attempt to catch up with both Honda and Ducati, and regain some territory lost to Honda where the RC213V is strongest. But seamless gearboxes are complex, and difficult to develop. When Honda first used the gearbox at the end of 2010 and early 2011, engines would be removed from the bikes at the end of every day, and taken to a special HRC-only truck, where the gearboxes would be stripped and rebuilt, ensuring the delicate gear change kept working properly. Getting it wrong is disastrous: while a rider can sometimes catch an engine seize, quickly pulling in the clutch to stop the rear wheel from locking, nothing can be done about a locked-up gearbox. Gearbox failures are generally a one-way ticket to a very spectacular and very painful highside, with a trip to the infirmary thrown in for free.
When it comes, the seamless gearbox should be worth between one and two tenths a lap, a very valuable slice of time. And Yamaha are going to need it, if the performance of the Honda at the end of 2012 is anything to go by. Hondas won eight of the nine races during the second half of 2012, Dani Pedrosa taking six while Casey Stoner hoovered up two more. Pedrosa has grown in confidence, and the bike is better than ever. HRC have solved the issue of where to place the extra weight on the bike, and while chatter is still present on the RC213V, its significance has been decreasing since the middle of 2012, and new chassis parts should help to dial out much of the remaining problem.
So before a wheel has turned, you would have to say that Dani Pedrosa is the man to beat in 2013. Much will depend on how he spent the off-season, and how fit he was feeling, but at the team launch, he seemed like his old self from last year. Another year without injury will be Pedrosa's main aim, and honing the Honda for 2013 will provide a solid foundation for that goal.
But while Pedrosa has to be the title favorite, his teammate will be receiving a lot of attention this year. Marc Marquez was stunning in both 125s and Moto2, dominating the Moto2 category whichever way you look at it, regardless of accusations that his team were bending the rules. Marquez was solid on his MotoGP debut at Valencia, despite putting in just a paltry 28 laps. At Sepang, he was lapping under the race lap record, and faster than MotoGP regular Alvaro Bautista.
That being said, the times he has set have been in conditions which are far from perfect, making an accurate assessment of his performance difficult. Sepang should provide the first real opportunity to compare Marquez progress against the rest of the field, and offer a glimpse of exactly how competitive he is. For most rookies, matching the pace of the satellite bikes would be promising enough, but more is expected of Marquez. Matching Stefan Bradl, in his second year, and now riding a factory-spec RC213V, should be Marquez' first target. The Spaniard is likely to set his sights higher, however: getting within half a second of Pedrosa is not beyond the realms of possibility, and even closer is a genuine option.
Marquez could choose to take it easy, and focus on getting used to the bike. He could, but he would be breaking the habit of a lifetime, and trying to do something he has never done. Marquez has shown a distinct disinclination to go slow.
At Ducati, the predominant emotion is one of waiting. The bike to be used by all four men - Pramac satellite riders Ben Spies and Andrea Iannone, and factory duo Nicky Hayden and Andrea Dovizioso - is virtually unchanged from the bike they tried at Valencia, development having been put on hold during the changeover period while Audi took control of the company and rearranged the management of both Ducati and racing department Ducati Corse. The bike will still suffer understeer, and still be aggressive on the throttle, and still need plenty of work. With little new to test, the only real progress that will be made at Sepang will be on electronics, and getting the power delivery a little smoother.
That does not mean the Ducati boys will not have a lot to do. As the only returnee, Nicky Hayden will be given the bulk of the testing donkey work, while Dovizioso, Iannone and Spies focus on adapting to the bike. Of the new boys, only Iannone has had plenty of time on the bike, Spies having missed out entirely due to the shoulder injury he suffered at Sepang last year, and Dovizioso have been stymied in Jerez by a neck problem which prevented him from riding in the private test in November.
Iannone will be as wild and unpredictable as ever, Dovizioso will work as methodically and carefully as usual, but the most intriguing prospect is Ben Spies. The Texan did not meld with the 1000cc Yamaha M1, his style too radically different from Jorge Lorenzo's to make the bike work. The Ducati could be a better fit, despite the Desmosedici not being as polished and developed as the Yamaha. Spies' style has always been to ride more aggressively, and push the bike beneath him, a style which is more rewarding on the Ducati than on the Yamaha.
But Spies is not expecting too much from the first test at Sepang. It is the first test of his shoulder after surgery, and though the joint has healed extremely well, he is still lacking both aerobic fitness and above all, strength in his shoulder. In a long and wide-ranging interview with venerable US publication Cycle World, Spies put his shoulder strength at 70%, despite the injury being 100% healed.
What Spies, along with the rest of the field, fears most is losing time to rain. The forecast is not promising, the best hope of dry track time being in the mornings. Coming to a track in the tropics, where the chance of rain is ever present, may seem a high-risk strategy. It's a long way to fly from Europe, the US and Japan just to sit around watching the rain fall, but when you consider the options, there are very few serious alternatives. In Europe, the winter cold means that even in the warmest spots on the continent, such as southern Spain, the effective amount of track time is limited. The only track that is really viable is Jerez, and that is such a unique and tight track that the lessons learned there are not necessarily applicable elsewhere. The Antipodean summer means that Australia could be an option, but Phillip Island's location perched over the Bass Straight makes the weather unpredictable, even on the hottest summer day. And Australia really is a very long way to travel, just to lose time to the weather.
But perhaps the real reason the teams test at Sepang is because they find themselves in a vicious circle. The teams have so much data at Sepang because they have tested there so often, and so when they want to compare developments against last year's bike, what better place to come to than the place they tested last year? The teams are testing at Sepang because they tested here last year, and they tested there last year because they tested at Sepang the year before. Round and round they go, trapped in a vertiginous bout of circular reasoning. If only the weather would play ball, then it wouldn't matter.
We'll find out soon enough. Riders and teams are waking up, and heading out to the track as I write this. The season starts now.