It has been a fascinating first day of testing at Sepang. And like all fascinating days, it has been long, tiring, and utterly inspiring. There were surprises, disappointments, and rumors confirmed and denied. It was, in short, a good day at the office.
Marc Marquez was fastest – it goes almost without saying – the 2013 world champion picking up where he left off. He was quick from the off, and put in a final burst of speed at the end of the day to open the gap on the rest, finishing with half a second advantage. Braking stability was the watchword for the Repsol Honda team, especially rear grip on braking and corner entry, with both Marquez and Dani Pedrosa working on a slightly revised version of the 2014 RC213V which both men had tested at Valencia last year.
Their main focus – like those of everyone on their first day back on a MotoGP – was just to get used to the speed again. The switchover had been toughest for Cal Crutchlow, the Englishman claimed. He had ridden a motocross bike for exactly one day, he said, spending the rest of his winter training on his bicycle. The speed differential between a 20-speed racing bicycle and a 6-speed Ducati Desmosedici is nothing if not cavernous.
The happiest faces were at Yamaha, though in different garages and on unexpected faces. Valentino Rossi took the second fastest time, had led for a large part of the test, and looked a much happier rider all round. The rapport with new crew chief Silvano Galbusera was good, the atmosphere in the team was good, but above all, a few small changes which Yamaha had made to the YZR-M1 had proven to be significant. Braking stability was better, the revised seamless gearbox and changes to the clutch making the bike behave better on corner entry. Rossi once again exuded confidence, looking like a completely different rider to the one we saw in 2013.
It was not just the changes to the bike, though, Rossi explained. Having spent a year getting back up to speed on the Yamaha after his two years in the Ducati wilderness he now felt comfortable right from the start. Working with Galbusera was no better or worse than with Jeremy Burgess – only 'different', Rossi said – but the change had been a gamble that it would help him find new motivation. It appeared to have worked.
Does this answer the big question which had been posed at the end of last year? Was it Rossi, or was it the bike? It's a little early to say, but suffice to say that those who had written Rossi off may have spoken too soon. I myself was surprised, having thought Rossi's lack of speed was down to age, rather than the bike. Though age may still be a factor, the bike may well prove to be a larger part of the equation than I suspected.
Does fixing the braking issue Rossi had make the bike better suited to him than to Jorge Lorenzo, shifting the balance of power in the factory Yamaha team once again? Not really, though Lorenzo was struggling elsewhere. It is the fuel allowance which was causing Jorge Lorenzo problems, rather than changes to the chassis. To help the bike last race length with 20 instead of 21 liters of fuel, Yamaha's electronics engineers have been devising strategies for saving fuel. Those strategies, Lorenzo complained, had made the bike more nervous when he opened the throttle in the corners.
It was a bigger problem for Lorenzo than it was for Rossi, as Lorenzo carries more lean angle, and even the slightest disturbance or roughness in power delivery can upset the bike, making it harder for Lorenzo to control. Jorge Lorenzo's 'mantequilla' nickname was given for his buttery smooth style, and any hesitation in the throttle makes it almost impossible to keep up that smoothness. Yamaha will find a solution, but it may take them the first half of the season, as they play with strategies and analyze race data. That will give Jorge Lorenzo an uncomfortable few months.
At Ducati, there was a completely new bike to see, with both Cal Crutchlow and Andrea Dovizioso testing the new bike against the Desmosedici GP13. As with all new bikes, there were teething troubles, meaning that both men put in very few full laps on the GP14. It was better on corner entry, was the consensus, though the understeer remained. Dovizioso declared it a real step forward, though Crutchlow was yet to be convinced.
So, will Ducati go Open or stay Factory? It is too early to answer that question, everyone in a Ducati shirt affirmed. They have until 28th of February to make a decision, and they won't make an announcement before then. Dovizioso and Crutchlow will not even test the spec Open software, they told the press. Then again, Ducati's list of problems is long, and so the decision can even be made without testing the software with the factory riders, test rider Michele Pirro's input likely sufficient to make a choice.
If proof were needed that electronics were not the be-all and end-all, Aleix Espargaro was keen to make the case for the Open bikes. Aleix – though it is better to refer to riders by their last names, rather than their first names, the arrival of two brothers in the premier class makes it necessary to switch to the overly familiar use of first names – was thoroughly impressive, ending the day ahead of the two satellite Yamahas of Monster Tech 3 riders Bradley Smith and Aleix' brother Pol. Indeed, Aleix was quicker than most of the satellite riders for much of the day, truly putting the cat among the pigeons.
Was it electronics or was it Aleix? Hard to tell at such an early juncture, and the reality of the situation is that it was probably a bit of both. Clearly, the electronics have less of an influence on performance that many feared, despite the lack of sophistication – the spec electronics have just a single setting for wheelie control, to be used whatever the corner, Nicky Hayden explained, while his former factory Ducati had separate wheelie settings for every corner. But is also clear that Aleix remains an underestimated talent. Given that he was the youngest rider to win a Spanish championship, a record he held for a long time, Aleix looks to be a rider to watch this year. As will be the Tech 3 garage. Team boss Herve Poncharal will not be pleased to be forking out over twice what Giovanni Cuzari does for the Yamaha FTRs, and still find his riders being beaten by the youngster.
While the Yamaha FTR was surprisingly fast, the Honda RCV1000R was surprisingly slow. The Honda Open bike may make more financial sense, it is not going to be impressing sponsors any time soon. Nicky Hayden ended the day as fastest RCV1000R pilot, just sneaking ahead of his teammate Hiroshi Aoyama. But he was over three seconds off the pace of Marquez, and over two seconds slower than the satellite Hondas.
Both Gino Borsoi and Nicky Hayden said they were still uncertain how much performance could be gained just from electronics, and how much was an outright lack of power. Asked whether the bike reminded him at all of the four-stroke Honda MotoGP bikes he has ridden in the past, he pointed painfully at the 800cc RC212V. That bike was woefully underpowered, only gaining competitiveness towards the end of Hayden's tenure with Honda. Improving the electronics may find the bike a few tenths, but it will not pick up the couple of seconds required to make the bike competitive.
So it could turn out to be a long year at Honda. While their factory MotoGP team will continue to rip up the field, the RCV1000R looks like it really needs more horsepower. Honda's aim was to beat the Aprilia ARTs, but without them here, there is no comparison material. When you compare the Honda to Yamaha's offering, the Honda looks positively tepid. Asked if he felt Yamaha had violated the spirit of the rules, HRC Vice President Shuhei Nakamoto looked annoyed, and told the reporter asking the question to go ask Yamaha about it. Nakamoto's face made it clear he was not happy with the situation, a sentiment shared by the teams who signed up for the RCV1000R.
Of course, it is all only the first day of testing, and so jumping to conclusions on the meagre evidence of some 50-odd laps the riders put in is just a little bit premature. Much development will go on in the next few days, weeks and months before both riders and bikes start to reach their full potential. All the signs, hower, are that we are in for a very interesting season indeed. There are a lot of reasons to watch MotoGP, and the list just got quite a lot longer.