A cleaner track made for better times at the second MotoGP test at Sepang on Thursday, but conditions remain far from ideal. The track was still greasy, and the added heat made the situation worse. That meant the track remained empty for large parts of the day, the riders waiting for temperatures to come down at the end of the day.
When the riders did go for their fast laps, the usual suspects raised their heads. Aleix Espargaro was quick, Alvaro Bautista was quick, but if anyone was in any doubt about where the real power lies on the MotoGP grid, Dani Pedrosa quickly disabused them of their misconceptions. The Repsol Honda man posted two scorching laps, faster than anyone else was capable of riding. At nearly three tenths of a second, the gap was convincing. When Dani Pedrosa decides to exert his authority, the world listens. Especially when his teammate is absent.
Pedrosa spent the day working on the front of the Repsol Honda, and deciding on which of the two chassis to use for the rest of the year. The quicker of the two options was also less forgiving under braking, meaning Pedrosa elected to pursue the slower of the two frames. Sacrificing a little bit of speed for more stability and less effort to ride seemed like a suitable trade off.
But the talk of the second day of the test was not Pedrosa's speed; that is taken as a given. The biggest talking point of day two was the lack of speed from Jorge Lorenzo. The factory Yamaha rider ended the day down in ninth spot, sandwiched between the two Tech 3 bikes of Pol Espargaro and Bradley Smith. He was over a second slower than Pedrosa, the biggest gap since the rain-hit race at Le Mans last May. Worse still, he was the fourth-fastest Yamaha, with the Open Yamaha of Aleix Espargaro and the factory bikes of his teammate Valentino Rossi and Tech 3's Pol Espargaro ahead of him. His problem is simple: he cannot get the new rear tire to work. Whatever they do to the bike, Lorenzo simply has no grip, and no confidence.
So frustrated was Lorenzo with the situation that he refused to talk to the press at the end of the day. He had nothing new to say, the situation was exactly the same as on Wednesday, a spokesperson told the assembled media. Instead, Lorenzo's team manager Wilco Zeelenberg spoke to the media, explaining that the problem was the rear tire, and not Lorenzo's riding style. Lorenzo has always been fast at Sepang, he was fast at the first test with the old tire, he was fast last year, he was fast the year before. But now they are forced to use the new construction tire, the Spaniard is struggling. His team have turned the bike upside down searching for a solution, but so far, none has been found.
What Lorenzo and his team are hoping is that the problem is specific to Sepang. If the situation remains the same at Phillip Island next week, then they will be in real trouble. In the mean time, crew chief Ramon Forcada and the rest of the team have a thousand and one options to work through, in pursuit of more rear grip.
Lorenzo isn't the only rider struggling with the new tire, all of the Yamaha men are unhappy. Valentino Rossi explained that the problem was down to the reduced edge grip, meaning that the bike tends to move around when leaned right over. This is a bigger problem for Lorenzo than for any of the other Yamaha riders, as Lorenzo's strength is in exploiting the edge grip of the tires. Take it away, and he finds himself in trouble. Rossi also has problems – understeer, and a lack of grip under acceleration, he told the press – but the gains he is making in braking are easing the problems with the rear tire.
To call the rear Bridgestone a 'new' tire is something of a misnomer. The tire which Lorenzo is struggling with at Sepang is the same tire he used to win the race at Mugello. The tire was used at Assen, the Sachsenring, Mugello, Indianapolis and Phillip Island last year, Bridgestone's chief motorsports coordinator Thomas Scholz told German-language website Speedweek.com. The tire was modified to prevent overheating, with a special layer added to the side which is more heavily stressed. Bridgestone has decided to use the same construction at all of the circuits, to allow the teams to gain more experience and gather more data with the tire. In theory, this should make setting up the chassis for the tire easier throughout the season, though on the evidence of Sepang, Lorenzo and his crew would dispute that assertion.
Lorenzo need not count on much sympathy outside the Yamaha camp, however. When asked about Lorenzo's difficulties with the tire, Dani Pedrosa gave him short shrift. Yes, the tire had less grip, Pedrosa admitted, but that was a question of working to find a set up that worked. Pedrosa also referred pointedly back to 2012, when Bridgestone introduced a new, softer front tire which had created massive chatter for the Hondas. 'We had to put up with this s**t all that year,' he added colorfully.
Bridgestone's Thomas Scholz held a similar view. 'First, [Lorenzo] needs to go faster than Pol Espargaro. When things don't go well for him, then everything is always complete s**t,' Scholz told Speedweek.com. Scholz also pointed to the problems with Honda two years ago, adding that Yamaha had pushed for the front tire when it became clear that Honda was struggling. 'You can't please everyone,' Scholz said.
The root of Yamaha's problems lies, just as it did for Honda two years ago, with the spec tire rule. With Bridgestone contracted to supply a single spec of tires to all of the teams equally (with minor variations for hard and soft tires, and an extra construction for the Open class bikes), the tire becomes the central parameter around which the bikes are designed. When the tire changes – always in response to requests from the riders and the teams, and usually in response to safety concerns – that means bikes need changing too, to adapt to the new circumstances. This is, of course, putting the cart before the horse. After all, modifying the design of a tire can be done relatively quickly and easily. Modifying a bike to cope with a different tire can take months, and many, many iterations of chassis, modifying stiffness in varying directions, as well as suspension and electronics set up.
A better solution would be to offer multiple designs of tire for the teams to choose from. That, however, costs money, which Bridgestone has no interest in investing. Being single tire supplier is an expensive business, as the Japanese tire company has to pay Dorna a substantial sum for the privilege. Some form of return to a tire war, albeit in cost-limited, open access form, would surely benefit all parties. The Australian Superbike series had the right idea, but whether that could be implemented in MotoGP is open to question.
Lorenzo's tire travails took a little bit of the limelight off Ducati a fact they were grateful for. The Italian factory took another step on the road to going Open on Thursday, sending both Andrea Dovizioso and Andrea Iannone out on the spec, Magneti Marelli software with extra fuel on board. Dovizioso was suitably reassured by the experience. Though he had not matched the time he had set in the morning with the Ducati software, the championship software had not been as bad as he had feared. The electronics were a little worse, the traction control less sophisticated, and the anti-wheelie – one setting for the entire circuit, not separate settings for each individual corner – not as good as Ducati's own. But the difference was small, offset to some extent by the extra fuel allowance for the bike. That, Dovizioso told the press, made the engine feel a little better, but once again, the differences were small.
Dovizioso will continue working on the Open configuration on Friday, trying to find improvement with the software. These developments make the impending switch to Open status inevitable for Ducati, though the ability to avoid the engine freeze is perhaps an even more compelling argument. Whether an announcement will be made on Friday remains to be seen. It is equally likely that Ducati will want to wait until their official launch in Germany on 10th March. Much will depend on whether the FIM will send out revised entry lists after 28th February, updating the status of the entries. Given the governing bodies notorious sloth in sending out press releases, Ducati might just get away with it.
Ducati's defection will leave Honda on their own. Yamaha will have what is in effect a near-factory bike using the championship software, in the shape of the Forward Yamaha. Ducati will be all Open, with all of their bikes using the championship software. Only Honda will be lagging behind, using the Open software on their RCV1000R, a bike which is several steps behind the factory RC213V. Will they hold out? Probably. Their rearguard action to retain the right to develop their own software will last as long as possible, and perhaps even until 2017. But though they may win the occasional battle, it is looking more and more likely that they will lose the war. What happens then is anybody's guess, but one thing we know for sure: Honda hate losing.