Three days of testing at Jerez is over, and the real star of the show is obvious for all to see: The Weather. Of the 18 hours of track time that the MotoGP riders had at their disposal, only about 4 were in consistent conditions, and that was in the pouring rain on Saturday. An afternoon of dry track time - well, dryish, with groundwater seeping through the track from the hills at Jerez which have been lashed by unusually heavy rain all winter long - on Sunday and a bright start to Monday morning left the riders hopeful, but it was not to be.
It took 15 minutes for the first rain to arrive. The track opened at 10am. At 10:15am, the rain started to fall, leaving most of the teams twiddling their thumbs in the garages and hoping for some dry track time. Dani Pedrosa gave up on the day altogether; he had only really been testing odds and ends, new rear shock settings and one or two other bits and pieces anyway, and suffering with neck pain from a strain he suffered at Austin, he decided to call it quits and go home. He missed a few dry hours at the end of the day, but given the stiffness with which he was turning his head to answer the questions of journalists on Sunday evening, choosing to rest his neck was probably a wise move.
While Pedrosa was on his way home, Jorge Lorenzo was doing yet another of his punishing race simulations, pounding out 22 laps of the Jerez track at the kind of pace that secured 2nd place for him at last year's race over 27 laps, a very strong performance given the conditions on the track. Lorenzo finished in a (for him) lowly 4th spot, but his best time was set on the third lap of his race simulation. This is the approach that helped bring him the title in 2012, and the comparison with Pedrosa's physical woes is a valid one. Pedrosa strained a neck muscle whilst riding; Lorenzo has been training both on and off the track to ensure he does not suffer such injuries. Lorenzo is ready to race, and by that, I mean the full race distance.
While Lorenzo's race run may have slipped under the radar of a casual glance at the timesheets, Cal Crutchlow's fast lap certainly did not. The Monster Tech 3 Yamaha man leaves the Jerez test not just as fastest on Day 3, but fastest over all three days, a matter of pride amongst riders as they head to the first race of the season. While Crutchlow's fast lap made the headlines, the way he set that time did not. Like Lorenzo, the Englishman set his fastest lap in a long run of laps (though only half the length of Lorenzo's monster run), setting a pace which was close to that of the Spaniard.
Crutchlow has proved not just to be fast, but also to be consistent. The Englishman looks smoother on the bike, more in control, and is promising to be a real problem for the expected favorites, mixing it with the podium regulars despite his complaints of having inferior equipment. But then again, he is turning that deficit into a positive. Crutchlow is a street brawler, a man who relishes the role of underdog, who feeds off the sense of perceived injustice to get the best out of himself. "I'll show them," he seems to be saying to himself, and on the basis of the Jerez test, you would have to suspect that he will do just that.
The fast times were possible because the track dried out completely in the late afternoon at Jerez, but even then, it is hard to draw hard conclusions from the test. The track surface has remained greasy and unpredictable throughout the test, even in the dry, with grip changing constantly as water comes and goes at some parts of the track. The conditions probably meant that the signal-to-noise ratio was too great to separate the fine differences between the very top riders, but the test produced enough evidence to conclude which group will be running at the front, if not to predict who will lead and who will follow.
One of the things that has become apparent is that Valentino Rossi is once again a contender. After topping the timesheets on Sunday, he was 2nd to Cal Crutchlow on Monday, and leaves as 2nd fastest overall. That will help convince himself that he is capable of running at the front with Pedrosa and Lorenzo, though he told Italian journalists he felt he still had to prove himself, but he took this as a motivation. Being fast in testing is one thing, though, the race is something else altogether. Historically, on a Yamaha, Rossi has been better in the races than in qualifying so his initial goal - battling with the two title favorites and aiming to get on the podium - looks eminently achievable.
Rossi had not done a long run today, focusing instead on shorter runs and testing a new chassis. It was not a big improvement, as far as he could tell, offering greater stability, but making corner entry slightly worse, and he has ruled out using it in the first two races. Conditions were not ideal for testing a new chassis properly, however. To give it a full workout requires pushing the bike to the limit, and that can only really be done on a dry track with good grip. Today was not a day to be taking risks for the sake of a minor improvement.
Risk was something which Ben Spies chose to avoid. The Texan did not ride on the final day of the test, choosing not to risk reinjuring the shoulder he has just had surgery to fix. Surgery on cartilage tissue in shoulder joints is notorious for taking a long time to heal - six to eight months is common - and Spies expects his shoulder not to be 100% for another couple of months. Until then, Spies will struggle a little, lacking the strength to control the Ducati fully, holding up his attempts to learn to ride the Ducati.
Fortunately for Spies, progress is being made. Andrea Dovizioso has taken up where Valentino Rossi left off, complaining about understeer, but the revised weight distribution is clearly an improvement. Both Spies and Andrea Iannone had been testing an electronics package to improve the first touch of the throttle, trying to smooth power delivery when the throttle is first opened, but this is a package that has already been rejected by Nicky Hayden and Dovizioso. Hayden said that though the electronics helped smooth power delivery, it lost throttle connection, the feeling of a direct response between the ride-by-wire throttle and the response of the engine. He had had it turned off for a while, Hayden said on Sunday.
If Spies has struggled, his (semi) teammate Andrea Iannone has shone. The Italian ended 9th on Sunday, ahead of Hayden and 1.6 off the time of Rossi, and came 6th on Monday, the gap down to eight tenths. How much of Iannone's time is down to the conditions is hard to say, but on any given day, Iannone appears to be capable of being as fast on the Ducati as he was on his Speed Up Moto2 bike.
So the MotoGP teams are now packed up and the bikes and equipment is ready to ship off to Qatar. There, at least, they should be safe from rain. In theory, anyway, although Alex Cudlin, the Australian rider racing in the QMMF-run Asian series, reported that the second race of the meeting he raced in last weekend was the sudden victim of a downpour. There are those who still remember the chaos of rebooked flights and panic reorganization in 2009, when the race had to be rescheduled from Sunday to Monday due to rain in the desert night. They don't want to go through that again, but it is the weather gods who will have the final say.