On Thursday, the riders opted almost unanimously to go out first thing in the morning. It was a wise choice, conditions proving ideal to see the fastest ever lap around the circuit set, beating Casey Stoner's time from 2011. The name of the rider that took Stoner's record from him? Marc Marquez, the man brought in by Honda to replace the departing Australian.
Marquez' time was impressive, but he was not the only man to get under the two minute mark. Valentino Rossi, Jorge Lorenzo, and the continually surprising Aleix Espargaro also cracked the barrier, though none were quite capable of getting under Stoner's old record. The first 30 minutes of testing had produced a scintillating start to the day, whetting the appetite of all in the paddock for more.
While Marquez' time is without doubt a fantastic lap, perhaps the most impressive time was set by Jorge Lorenzo. His fastest time, and the fastest time of the test up until that point, was set on his first flying lap of the day. It was, if you like, a simulation of the start of the race: firing off the line from pit lane exit, getting up to speed immediately, and then going on to set a lap record. Normal fare for Lorenzo, whose flying starts have become something of a trademark. What made it truly incredible was the fact that this was done on new tires, on his very first laps of the day. On race day, Lorenzo has the morning warm up to get up to speed, but not today. Fast straight out of the starting blocks, then following it up with another 1'59.9. If you ever needed proof of Lorenzo's metronomic ability, this was surely it.
While Lorenzo excels at starts, they were Marc Marquez' weakest point last season. Marquez spent a lot of time practicing his starts, firing out of pit lane at every opportunity. His other weak point was consistency, but that is something he appears to have conquered. Towards the end of the day, the Repsol Honda rider started a race simulation. He ran for 19 laps – one lap shy of full race distance – 16 of which were low two-minute laps, and one of which was a 1'59. To put that into perspective, he was on average over a second of a lap quicker than last year's race winner Dani Pedrosa, who took victory last October in convincing fashion.
It isn't just compared to last year that Marquez was fast. His average lap time during the run was 2'00.531, seven tenths faster than the man with the second-fastest race simulation, Stefan Bradl on the LCR Honda. Marquez was on average eight tenths quicker than Valentino Rossi's long run, and a second quicker than Andrea Dovizioso and Aleix Espargaro, the two men who were the surprise of the last day of testing.
Was Jorge Lorenzo capable of matching Marquez' pace? We will not know after this test. Lorenzo went out to start his race simulation, but abandoned it after just five laps. A vibration in the tire and deteriorating lap times forced him to give up. His pace in the first three laps had been around 2'00.8, the only man within shouting distance of Marquez. He was disappointed not to have run a race simulation, but felt confident of being close to Marquez when it counted.
It had been a tough day all round for Lorenzo, the Spaniard encountering a series of problems all day. Lorenzo's team boss Wilco Zeelenberg joked that it had been a very good test, as they had found a bunch of problems they wouldn't have to deal with at the next test in three weeks time.
For Lorenzo's teammate Valentino Rossi, things had gone much better. He had worked well with his new crew chief Silvano Galbusera, and the atmosphere in the team was good. He told reporters he had worked on changing his riding style on the winter, and that it had paid off. The idea was not to stress the edge of the tires, he said, and having a year of experience back on the Yamaha, he was no longer at the limit and able to concentrate on adapting his style.
That had gone well in terms of the time attack, but will it be just as successful in the race? Comparing his race simulation to Marc Marquez, he is eight tenths of a second slower. He did his race run in the heat of the day, though, not in the cooler late afternoon. Whether the temperature difference is worth eight tenths of a second is hard to say.
A surprising name at the front was that of Andrea Dovizioso on the Ducati. Both Dovizioso and Cal Crutchlow agreed that the changes made to the bike had made a much bigger difference than they at first anticipated. Crutchlow said it was easier to push the bike into the corners without risking the front end folding. In his stints on the GP13, Crutchlow had crashed the bike twice. Despite going faster on the GP14, he had not had a single crash. Dovizioso was quick to add that the bike still has understeer and is too aggressive on corner exit, but the series of mystery front-end crashes which plagued all Ducati riders since 2009 appears to be at an end.
Dovizioso's fast lap in the morning had been noteworthy in itself. His lap of 2'00.370 is the fastest a Ducati has ever been around the Sepang circuit, and he had set the lap on his own, he told reporters. More significant is his race run, though, his pace comparable just a couple of tenths of that of Rossi. Last year, the Ducatis were three quarters of a second off the pace of the Yamahas, so cutting it to just a couple of tenths is a sign of real progress.
The star of the show – and perhaps an influence on the future direction of Ducati in MotoGP – was Aleix Espargaro. The NGM Forward rider was consistently fast, both in outright terms and in his race pace, though he did not manage to do a full run. Espargaro had expected to run into problems in the last seven laps or so of a race, but his race run had lasted only ten laps. The elder Espargaro brother feared that the softer rear Bridgestone would start to have problems towards the end of the race, though several mechanics disagreed. We will have to wait until the second Sepang test to see, where Aleix will take another shot at a race simulation.
So where is the Open class Yamaha FTR making up for the loss of the custom software which the Factory Option entries can run? The softer rear tire helps, and is probably worth three or four tenths of a second. Having more fuel also helps, as the bike can be run richer to give a better throttle response at partial openings. But clearly, a lot of the difference is in Aleix Espargaro himself. When asked whether the performance of the Open class Yamaha had changed their judgment about the category, Honda team boss Livio Suppo, Ducati Corse chief Gigi Dall'Igna and Suzuki team manager Davide Brivio all pointed to the rider. A lot of the performance comes from the talent of Aleix Espargaro himself, they agreed.
In a press briefing with Shuhei Nakamoto, Livio Suppo was quick to leap to the defense of Honda's RCV1000R Open class racer by pointing to the position of the second Yamaha FTR. Only Espargaro's bike was quicker than their machine, he emphasized, with Colin Edwards ending the day behind Nicky Hayden on the Aspar RCV1000R. This test has dramatically raised the stock of Aleix Espargaro. With contracts all up for negotiation this summer, the young Spaniard's telephone is likely to be very busy indeed.
Espargaro certainly got everyone talking about the Open class machines. Their potential is clearly much higher than expected, helped no doubt by more fuel, and especially by the soft rear tire. This is an advantage they will keep for the rest of the season, as Bridgestone confirmed directly after the test that they would continue to supply a softer option for the Open entries.
The question is, of course, will the success of Aleix influence the decisions of other factories. Ducati Corse boss Gigi Dall'Igna would not be drawn, saying that he needed time to go through the results of the test and analyze the data before making a decision. Though he acknowledged that the rules made it hard to make the progress needed as a Factory Option entry, he insisted no decision had been made.
The problem, he said, was that the freeze on engine development for the Factory Option bikes meant that even minor changes such as relocating engine mounting points to modify frame flex were not possible. Without first looking at the data of the tests and the first three races, he believed he would not have sufficient data to understand what he needs to change on the Desmosedici. The trouble is, there is a deadline of 28th February by which time the decision must be communicated to IRTA. Dall'Igna did say that he may consider switching just one of the factory riders to the Open category, rather than both.
He faced questioning over the core problem of the Desmosedici. Here, too, he said he needed more time to study the data. He denied the issue was the engine, saying that it was far more complex. 'It is not one problem, it is maybe twenty, thirty problems,' Dall'Igna said. Fixing them would take time, and careful analysis.
He had already got to work on the organization, he said. Sweeping changes had been made, the most significant involving improving the communication between the race team and the engineers in the factory. He would like to put a system of rotating engineers in and out of the race team in place, he said, having them spend one weekend at the race track, then a week at the factory. More changes would be coming in that respect, as he got to know the people involved. Communication, the Italian emphasized, was absolutely key, and the first step in improving the bike. No staff had been fired, and only one new engineer hired, Dall'Igna confident that the staff already in Ducati Corse were up to the task of tackling the problems, once the organization problems had been dealt with.
Will Ducati go Open? From an outside perspective, it seems like a no-brainer, but there may be other factors at play which neutral observers are not aware of. If Dall'Igna gave any hint at all, it was when he inisted that 'we need to develop the bike, this is what will influence the decision.' A decision will be made ahead of the second Sepang test at the end of February. But not before then.
Suzuki, on the other hand, have no current intention to enter the Open class. For the moment, they are testing with the Magneti Marelli hardware, and their own software. The problem was, team boss Davide Brivio explained, that the job of porting the software to the new system was only about half done, with the complete package expected to be complete by the start of the second test. That left test riders Randy De Puniet and Nobu Aoki struggling with poor engine response, making it difficult to test properly. It had been a calculated risk, the Suzuki boss said, but one worth taking nonetheless.
Clearly, the Open class is a big deal, and there will be more to come at Sepang 2. The situation is evolving fast, and news is likely to keep emerging all the way to the beginning of the season. To help explain the precise differences between the two classes, we will be publishing an analysis of the new rules package in the next few days. Keep your eyes peeled.