If the first Sepang test threw up a few surprises, the first day of the second test turned into a bit a shocker. Anyone putting money on Alvaro Bautista, Aleix Espargaro and his brother Pol being the top 3 at the end of the first day would very, very rich indeed. Though all three had good reason to be further up front – Bautista has a new rear shock from Showa which is a big step forward, Aleix has been fast throughout, and Pol has the new seamless gearbox from Yamaha – their speed should not be seen as presaging a revolution in MotoGP. A dirty track, and several riders not chasing times gave the trio a chance to shine, which they seized with both hands.
Things did not look promising at the start of the day. The track was in poor condition, still dirty after a recent Ferrari test. The Kuala Lumpur region has had no rain for months now, which usually helps to clean the track in between tests. The situation was so bad that the circuit offered to spray the track clean with water, an offer which turned out not to be necessary. Having 23 bikes circulating helped sweep the track fairly well as the day progressed. By Thursday, the track should be in much better shape.
The unfavorable conditions meant that different riders followed different plans on Wednesday. Some went for a time attack at the end of the day, while others preferred to focus on set up and development, leaving chasing a fast time until the last two days of the track. That turned out exceptionally well for Alvaro Bautista, the Espargaro brothers and even Andrea Dovizioso, without worrying the championship contenders – sans Marc Marquez, the world champion missing as a result of the leg he broke in training – who were mostly working on their race pace.
Where did Bautista's burst of speed come from? The Go&Fun Gresini man had received a new rear shock from Showa, which was a major step forward. In combination with a different set up for the rear, Bautista found real improvements, promising much. Like all the Honda riders – with the exception of Dani Pedrosa, but more of that later – Bautista benefited from the new Bridgestone rear tire. The stiffer construction makes the tire better suited to the style of the Hondas, improving tire degradation and warm up, but losing edge grip. The RC213V's point-and-shoot style is a good match for the new tire.
Yamaha, on the other hand, finds itself on the raw end of the tire situation. With two manufacturers producing bikes which are so very different in philosophy, changes made to the spec tire tend to create winners and losers. Two years ago, it was Honda who lost out when the new softer front tire was introduced. This year, Yamaha is on the receiving end, as the stiffer rear construction has sacrificed edge grip, the holy grail for the M1.
Valentino Rossi summed the situation as pithily as usual. Teams and riders only find out exactly what the impact of a particular change Bridgestone has decided on after it has already been made, or, as Rossi put it, 'when you are already ****ed!' Both Rossi and Lorenzo spent the day working on solutions for the lack of edge grip, but it was Jorge Lorenzo who was hit hardest. Lorenzo is the king of corner speed, and needs the edge grip to be able to maintain the lean angle for longer. The Spaniard was also struggling with the new electronics Yamaha had brought, to assist with the clutchless downshifts. This changes the behavior of the bike under braking, and in combination with the new tire, leaves Lorenzo much slower than he wants to be. Where was the bike worse? Corner entry, mid-corner and corner exit, Lorenzo said. In other words, everywhere.
Lorenzo is hoping a switch back to the 2013 electronics will help cure some of the woes the bike is causing him. The question is, of course, how well the 2013 electronics are at handling the liter less fuel which the 2014 bikes have at their disposal. Things are not looking rosy for the 2012 champion at the moment.
Valentino Rossi is a little happier with the changes. The new clutchless downshifts offer the Italian advantages in braking, the one area he was always strongest. Yamaha's 2014 electronics package is working well for Rossi, and giving him confidence. The rear Bridgestone may be much worse for both Rossi and Lorenzo, and Rossi may struggle more with fuel consumption, the Italian is at least gaining confidence in braking. This was what had ailed him all last year, and improvements here are what he seeks most of all.
Over at Repsol Honda, Dani Pedrosa was none too pleased either, though for different reasons. The Spaniard was suffering with jet lag, making riding at MotoGP speeds a real challenge. But most of all, Pedrosa was struggling with a lack of grip, a problem he faces at every track where grip is low. Dirty tracks, such as Sepang this week and Qatar last year, make it impossible for Pedrosa to find rear grip, slowing him badly. It is his one real weakness, and a consequence of his extreme light weight.
If the factory Yamaha riders were unhappy, the Tech 3 men were far more cheerful. Both Bradley Smith and Pol Espargaro had been given the new seamless gearbox from Yamaha, and both were full of praise for the improvement. Pol seized the benefits with both hands, propelling the M1 to 3rd, just behind his brother Aleix on the Open Yamaha, and getting close to his best time of the previous three-day test at Sepang. While Pol was chasing lap times, Smith was working on set up, running consistent mid 2'01s, close to the pace of the veterans ahead of him, including Stefan Bradl and Valentino Rossi.
The big question over at Ducati was whether the Italian factory has decided to enter the Open class, or remain as Factory Option entries. With the official deadline on Friday – midnight European time, so a little after the test has completed – Ducati will have to make a decision in the next two days. All questions concerning their decision are being handily deflected by the riders – 'you'll have to ask someone else,' Andrea Dovizioso said – but test rider Michele Pirro was testing the spec software, while Dovizioso, Cal Crutchlow and Andrea Iannone continued the work on the Factory Option-spec bikes.
Dovizioso didn't do too badly, ending the day with the fourth quickest time. The Italian was one of the group of one-lap wonders posting quick times at the end of the session, so how representative his time was is open to question. What was undeniably positive was the improvements Ducati have found with the bikes. Tweaks to the electronics and chassis set up have given Dovizioso even more confidence in braking, solving one of the issues the Desmosedici suffered with. The biggest issue still remains, Dovizioso underlined, the chronic understeer still present. That issue will be with Ducati for a while, until Gigi Dall'Igna has understood more fully where the issue is coming from and how to fix it. Whether he believes he can fix the bike with or without engine modifications is the key to Ducati's decision to go Open or stay as a Factory Option entry.
The decision to go Open has already been made, of course, though Ducati continue to deny it. Italian media outlets disagree over when the announcement will be made, Motosprint saying it will be made public on Friday, GPOne convinced the announcement will come on 10th March, at Ducati's official launch at Audi's HQ in Ingolstadt.
The other Open bikes continued to make good progress at Sepang. First and foremost was Aleix Espargaro, as usual, the elder of the two brothers putting the Open Yamaha into second slot by the end of the day. There is still no sign of the FTR chassis in the Forward garage, further fueling rumors of financial issues between the Forward team and FTR, despite the official denials from both sides. If it is to make any sense using it, the FTR chassis would need to be tested before the season started, meaning that the Qatar test would be the only opportunity for Aleix and Colin Edwards to give it a try. We shall see what happens in two weeks' time.
There were happier faces in the Aspar garage, Nicky Hayden greatly reducing the gap to the front. Improvements under braking helped Hayden find half a second, but the American continued to emphasize the lack of power the Honda RCV1000R has. More work on the electronics is needed to help on corner entry, but overall the feeling was positive.
At Gresini, Scott Redding is having a much tougher time. His issues are not electronic, but in braking, the young Englishman struggling to get the bike stopped with the Nissin brakes. Redding has a test with Brembo brakes and Ohlins suspension written into his contract with Gresini, and is pushing for that test to take place sooner rather than later. Given the improvements found with Showa suspension on Bautista's machine, Redding may be satisfied with just a test of the Brembo brakes. That is his most pressing problem, so that is what needs to be tackled first.
Help with the electronics for the Open class could come from Ducati, once they announce their decision to switch. Ducati are free to contribute all their code to Magneti Marelli, who should be able to implement it fairly quickly, if they so choose. Dorna and IRTA would not be opposed to this, as the software would help all of the Open teams, though obviously Ducati would have an advantage, as they have more data on the way the current algorithms work. No collaboration or exchange of code has yet been confirmed by either Ducati or Magneti Marelli, but given the fact that the two factories are just a few miles apart in Bologna, it seems improbable the two would simply ignore each other.