After an absence of some three weeks or so, the MotoGP teams once again return to action at Sepang for the second official test of the preseason. The intervening period has seen a flurry of activity in the factories in Japan and Italy, and at CRT team headquarters around Europe. The data accrued on the first visit to the Malaysian circuit has been analyzed, assessed, and more modifications made and ideas worked out for the second Sepang test. So what can we expect to see in Malaysia for the next three days? And what are the key details to keep an eye on?
The results of the first visit to Sepang went much as expected: Dani Pedrosa continued on the upward path that saw the Repsol Honda rider dominate the second half of the MotoGP season in 2012. Jorge Lorenzo kept Pedrosa honest, the factory Yamaha man sticking close to Pedrosa on all but the last day of the first test. Valentino Rossi demonstrated that he is still competitive, though he conveniently left the question of whether that is going to be good enough for podiums, wins or championships up in the air. Marc Marquez lived up to expectations, though given just how high those expectations were, that is an impressive enough feat on its own. Cal Crutchlow confirmed that he is the best of the rest, though Stefan Bradl ran him close; Bradley Smith made the kind of transition to MotoGP that validated his team boss' faith in the young Briton; and the Ducatis proved just how deep a hole they find themselves in, by finishing the test two seconds or more off the pace.
The second visit to Sepang should be more instructive. Where the first test after the winter is used to get back up to speed again, and test out the initial ideas which engineers came up with over the break, the second test sees riders return to the track with more riding fitness, and the bikes arrive in a form more closely resembling the state in which they will race come the spring. Parts that worked at the previous test will make a return, this time with more data to get the maximum performance out of them. Set up will also be worked on and improved, based on more detailed analysis during the period away from the track. Though the first Sepang test is far more than just a warm up, the second test brings the bikes a lot closer to their race incarnations.
What that should mean is that at Sepang, we should get a better idea of the shape of the season to come. While Dani Pedrosa spent most of the first test sorting out weight balance, and finding the best place to put the three extra kilograms of weight which the MotoGP machines will carry this year (up to 160kg, from 157kg), they got pretty close to a solution last time out. Now, he and his team can start to work on race set up for his Honda RC213V, and confirming that the parts they tested last time out give the improvements they hoped for. His best time from the first test - 2:00.100 - should fall during the next three days, and though he probably won't be the only rider to get under it, the odds are that he will come away from Sepang 2 as the fastest man.
The focus for Marc Marquez is in making the transition from adapting himself to the bike - a process which was well underway at the first test, as witnessed by the amazing shots of Marquez' worn elbow sliders, his talent exceeding even the expectations of Alpinestars, a company familiar with fast motorcycle racers - to adapting the bike to suit him. This is a complex process; apart from the myriad possibilities of adjustment allowed by the chassis, there is the almost infinite complexity of the electronics to get to grip with. Fortunately for Marquez, he is in good hands; Casey Stoner's former crew chief Cristian Gabarrini is overseeing his crew, and providing input and assistance to help him find his way through the maze. For Marquez, Sepang 2 is about consolidation.
At Yamaha, there is plenty of work to do, but most of it revolves around chassis and engine upgrades. The long hoped-for seamless gearbox is yet to make an appearance, and it looks unlikely to be available any time soon. Indeed, the early rumors that this was Yamaha's next development for the M1 seem to have been rather misguided. Are they working on a seamless gearbox? Almost certainly. Will they have it ready for this year? That is the great imponderable.
What Yamaha do have is an improved chassis, and an engine with more power. What they need is something to fix the pumping that upsets the bike coming out of corners. The rear end wallows a little once the throttle is opened and the rider gets on the gas, which unsettles the bike and makes it hard to maintain drive out of corners, especially while the bike is still leaned over. A seamless gearbox is one way of reducing this, with smoother upshifts meaning the bike is less affected by gear changes. But swingarm and chassis modifications can help too, and this is what Jorge Lorenzo and Valentino Rossi will have to work with for the moment.
For Lorenzo, his main objective will be working on race set up, and closing the gap to Pedrosa. The reigning world champion was fast last time out, and so far seems completely unfazed by the return of his former and now current teammate Valentino Rossi. Rossi, in turn, will be working on the bike more, enjoying once again the fact that if he asks for a change, his crew chief Jeremy Burgess knows the bike so well that he can change the settings and predict exactly how the bike will behave, something that was almost never possible with the Ducati. His aim is to close the gap to Lorenzo, and then also to Pedrosa. If he remains constantly behind Lorenzo on the timesheets, then competing over a full season will be tough. At Sepang 1, Rossi proved there was life in the old dog yet. At Sepang 2, he should start to show whether he can be leader of the pack once again.
While Rossi and Lorenzo work on improving the Yamaha M1, Cal Crutchlow will be grinding out laps with only minor set up changes to tweak. The Monster Tech 3 Yamaha man showed last season that he can give MotoGP's aliens a run for their money when circumstances are right. But condemned to life in a Yamaha satellite team, where upgrades come only at the pace which Yamaha deems appropriate, Crutchlow is feeling frustrated. The bike is about as good as it is going to get, and the Tech 3 man feels his talents could be better served if Yamaha followed the path set out by Honda, and now also pursued by Ducati, with work going on in both factory and satellite teams, to try to raise the level of the bike using more data. Spending three days going round in circles with no real goal to chase is a physically demanding and mentally draining process.
No lack of work over at Ducati. A private test at Jerez had been a partial success, the test hampered by the weather. It was badly needed: the last test at Sepang had been a disaster, with all of the Ducati riders out of touch with the other factory prototypes, and even losing ground to the Aprilia-powered CRT machines of Aleix Espargaro and Randy de Puniet. New electronics were tried at Jerez, as well as new chassis parts, while test rider Franco Battaini had been rumored to be riding at Mugello with very different bodywork, which could signify more change on the way. Ducati know they need to do something, but change will only come gradually. The Italian factory can't afford to lose another two years.
Andrea Dovizioso will provide an interesting benchmark. In 2012, he swapped from Honda to Yamaha, and found 0.455 seconds between the first and second tests at Sepang. At Sepang 1 last year, he was 8th fastest, closing to 3rd in Sepang 2. In 2013, Dovizioso was 10th quickest after Sepang 1, over two seconds behind Pedrosa. The amount he can close that gap by will be a measure of how far off the bike still is.
The other rider in focus will be Ignite Pramac's Ben Spies. The Texan had to withdraw early from the first Sepang test, after he struggled with weakness in the shoulder he was operated on over the winter. The Ducati is a physical bike at the best of times, and trying to subdue it with a weak shoulder was not worth the risk, Spies had felt earlier this month. Now, he returns to Sepang having had more time to recover, and hoping to have built up some more strength. He will be hoping to ride more naturally, and if he can do so, then he has a better chance of understanding the Ducati, and finding a way to go fast on it.
Spies will have his work cut out trying to keep ahead of the Aprilias. At the first test, Aleix Espargaro put his Power Electronics Aspar CRT machine ahead of both Pramac Ducatis, a result that has energized the young Spaniard. That the Aprilia RSV4 is fast was made all too obvious this weekend, when Aprilias took five of the six podium places in the two World Superbike races at the season opener at Phillip Island. The modified version of that bike being used in MotoGP as a CRT machine is quick too, and closing the gap to the factory prototypes. Espargaro's first goal was the Ducatis, his next will be to chase the Hondas and Yamahas. Rookie Bradley Smith was six tenths ahead of Espargaro on the satellite Yamaha, Alvaro Bautista over a second on the Showa-shod Gresini Honda.
For the non-Aprilia-based CRT machines, they will be focusing on working with the spec Magneti Marelli electronics. The unit performed reasonably well on its debut outing, but it revealed that there was still an awful lot of work to do. The Marelli AGO unit is powerful, and the spec software is extremely flexible, but just having the hardware and software is nowhere near enough. What the teams using the spec ECU need is data, and more time on the bikes. They gathered a bunch of data the first time out, and both Magneti Marelli and team engineers have been hard at work studying it and trying to figure out how to get the best out of it at this test. Last time out, the riders used only very basic traction control settings, and started some very early experimentation with the anti-wheelie function. Over the next three days, the CRT machines should get a chance to ramp the TC up a little, and start to exploit the system. They still have a very long road ahead of them.
In three days' time, we should have a clearer picture of the 2013 MotoGP season, at all levels. The weather so far looks like playing along, and giving everyone a decent amount of time on track, though the usual afternoon showers are likely to disrupt testing at the end of each day. The riders, teams and engineers all have an awful lot of work to get done. In a few hours' time, they start.