MotoGP returns to the track at Sepang in just a few hours, and the second test at the Malaysian circuit offers just as much intrigue as the first did. Interest at Sepang 2 centers on notable absentees, Ducati's plans, and progress made so far. There is much to watch in Malaysia.
One thing we know for sure. Marc Marquez will not be the fastest man at the second Sepang test. The reigning world champion dominated the first test at the beginning of the month, but a training crash saw him fracture his right fibula. Even in adversity, Marquez' luck held, the injury being relatively quick to heal, the bone not being displaced. He will definitely be back in action at the first race of the year in Qatar, and he could possible attend the Bridgestone test at Phillip Island early next week, but he will be forced to miss Sepang 2.
With Marquez out, others will have a chance to shine, though the question of how any times set would hold up if the Repsol Honda man had been present will remain. Nobody had an answer to Marquez' pace at the first test – especially when you compare his race pace on long runs – and his rivals will have to drop well under the two-minute mark to make an impression.
Marquez' absence leaves the burden of testing in the Repsol Honda team to Dani Pedrosa. The Spaniard had a relatively anonymous first Sepang test, working quietly while never stamping his authority on the test. Work will continue on seeking more corner speed for the Honda RC213V, retesting the new chassis tried at the start of the month, and giving the latest rear Bridgestone tire another workout.
Over at Yamaha, Jorge Lorenzo and Valentino Rossi have their work cut out. Their main focus will once again be fuel consumption, the issue which remains Yamaha's Achilles heel. The key, especially for Lorenzo, is getting smooth power delivery at the first touch of the throttle. The exceptional lean angles which Lorenzo achieves mean that anything which can upset the bike has the potential to end in disaster. Lorenzo was fast at the first test, but he was struggling. He will be hoping Yamaha found some software solutions to help him out.
Rossi, too, struggles with fuel consumption, though in his case, the problem is more to do with his height and weight. Being taller means he sticks out more into the airflow, creating more drag and burning more fuel. But more important for Rossi will be confirming the big step forward that his team, under the guidance of new crew chief Silvano Galbusera, found in braking stability. Rossi reported being a lot more confident after the changes made ahead of Sepang 1, and he needs just a little bit more to be able to run comfortably with the three Spaniards dominating MotoGP. He, like the others, will also be putting in a few long runs to test the bike in race configuration, something only Marquez had a real shot at during the first test.
At Ducati, the question of their future will finally be answered. They have until midnight on 28th February to decide if they will officially switch to the Open category, though everyone – both inside and outside Ducati – is convinced that decision has already been made, despite official denials. The advantages – continuing engine development, virtually unlimited testing, more engines with which to make changes, differing engine specs inside the same team, a softer rear tire – are so large that it seems madness for them to remain as Factory Option entries. The freedom to develop their own software may be greatly cherished, software is the very least of their worries at the moment.
After the severely modified GP14 on display at the first test, the bike to be used at the second Sepang test will be largely unchanged from the first. New Ducati Corse boss Gigi Dall'Igna is still collecting data, and will only make a decision on what needs to be changed after the first three races of the season. Until then, Andrea Dovizioso and Cal Crutchlow will be acting as test mules, riding what they have been given, and trying to explore the limits of the new bike and find its weaknesses and strengths.
The GP14 is definitely an improvement over last year's bike. Andrea Dovizioso posted some impressive times, and more importantly, the pace he posted during his long runs was only a couple of tenths off the times of Valentino Rossi. A few more tweaks should bring him closer still.
The improvement came in a revised chassis, changing the weight distribution and improving front end feel. Though the bike is still troubled with understeer, the feeling on corner entry was significantly improved. The long years of Ducatis crashing for no reason – usually immediately after letting off the brakes – could finally be behind them.
While Dovizioso was soon up to speed, team mate Cal Crutchlow was taking it rather more gently. After being a constant podium threat during 2013, his first outings on the Ducati were something of a shock to the system. His head is focused on the future, though, working towards providing data, putting his ambition to one side for the short term, in the hope of a long-term pay off.
Though Ducati going Open will be a big deal, their announcement (in whatever form it comes) will still not capture the attention which Aleix Espargaro has done on the Yamaha FTR. At the first Sepang test, the Forward Racing rider captured the imagination of the fans, gave hope to the privateer teams, and annoyed HRC, all at the same time. Aleix was fast, ending the test as fourth fastest overall. His race pace was slower, but the raw speed of the Open Yamaha was impressive.
Paddock insiders were quick to point to the talent of the elder of the two Espargaro brothers. Rightly so; it was Aleix who was the youngest ever CEV champion, not brother Pol. But the performance of Aleix points to the viability of the new Open format, under the right conditions. More fuel and softer tires clearly compensate for the lack of complex software, just as Dorna hoped. The question mark that remains to be answered is how the tires will cope. The one thing which the Forward rider had not got around to at the first Sepang test is running the tires beyond half race distance. That is the point they were deteriorating last year, what the teams want to know is if the electronics and tires have improved enough to prevent such a large drop off.
While all eyes will be on Aleix Espargaro in the Open class, others will be equally busy. Nicky Hayden complained bitterly of a lack of horsepower from the production Honda RCV1000R at the first test, saying he was being destroyed out of corners on acceleration. Honda are unlikely to have a solution to Hayden's woes at this test, and Hayden and the Drive M7 Aspar team will hope to find a few improvements on their own. Long term, the RCV1000R needs more power, though. At Sepang 2, we may get a glance of HRC's attitude. Are they willing to really help? Or are they just happy to be supplying bikes at a relatively cheap price?
While a lot of attention is on the Open bikes, there is much of interest in the satellite teams as well. Pol Espargaro had an outstanding outing at the second Sepang test, finishing ahead of his teammate Bradley Smith on two out of the three days. Smith had a different testing program to Espargaro, but he was less than delighted to have finished behind his arch rival. The two men will face off once again at the second test, with Smith likely to be pushing harder this time around.
At Honda, Stefan Bradl will be looking to consolidate an excellent first test, ending in 5th, and second fastest Honda after Marquez. Bradl had a disappointing 2013, and knows he must impress HRC if he is to retain his seat at the end of this season. Testing has gone extremely well so far, but Bradl will need to continue his form if he is to keep in Honda's good graces.
At the Gresini team, Alvaro Bautista will continue work on the Showa suspension. The Japanese suspension firm has made good progress since last year, Bautista showing more speed and more consistency than in previous years. Bautista knows that he must make way for his teammate Scott Redding at the end fo 2014, the Englishman having been promised Gresini's satellite bike for next year. So Bautista finds himself auditioning for a ride next year. His hopes will be focused on Suzuki, the brand which he was forced to abandon when they left MotoGP at the end of 2011.
The other dark horse at the test could be Andrea Iannone. The Italian was remarkably quick on the Pramac Ducati, now fully recovered from the injury he sustained last year. Much was expected of Iannone when he came to MotoGP, but his first year was very much a disappointment. How much was down to injury, and how much down to Iannone himself should become a little more evident at Sepang.