The big news on the final day of testing at Sepang was not what was happening on track, but rather what was happening off track. The announcement – trailed here and all around the media since early January – that Ducati would switch to the Open category was the talk of the paddock. And social media. And bike racing forums. And biking bars around the world, I expect. Even though we knew this was coming, it is only now becoming clear just how much of a game changer this decision is.
The announcement was timed curiously, made at the end of the day when the bosses of Yamaha and Honda had already left the circuit and were unavailable to the press. Likewise, the press room had largely emptied out. It appeared to have been made to minimize the impact, especially on the other manufacturers. Honda and Yamaha now have a couple of days to gather their PR might and put together a carefully worded position on the move by Ducati, which will both give the impression they are entirely disinterested in what Ducati have decided to do, while at the same time exuding a vague air of disapproval. Expect to see the verb 'to disappoint' in various conjugations.
On track, however, the situation was largely unchanged from the last couple of days of testing: interesting names at the top of the timesheet, belying the utter dominance of the Repsol Hondas, in the person of Dani Pedrosa. Valentino Rossi was the fastest man on the day, and leaves as the fastest rider of the test, pleased with the progress they have made. But dig deeper, examine the times set during the long race simulations, and Dani Pedrosa comes out streets ahead, half a second or more quicker than the competition. Pedrosa's average pace is faster than any other riders best lap on their long run.
The biggest problem remains the tires for the Yamahas, with both Valentino Rossi and Jorge Lorenzo complaining that the new construction favors the Hondas. The tires may work better at tracks like Phillip Island and Mugello, but at low grip circuits like Sepang, the heat-resistant layer never starts to provide benefits for the Yamahas, especially as the tires start to wear. Though Rossi only did a short run of 7 laps, he was well over 4 seconds short of Pedrosa's time over a similar distance. The Italian did say he had to cut his run short, after problems emerged with the front tire. How badly that slowed his race pace is hard to say. Jorge Lorenzo went further, doing 13 laps, but he was over 3 seconds slower than Pedrosa at the 7 lap mark, and 7.5 seconds slower over 13 laps.
Jorge Lorenzo was at least persuaded to talk to the press on Friday, and in truth, found some improvements to close the gap to the front. But those gains were still nowhere near what they needed, Lorenzo said. 'It's impossible for us to be competitive,' he told reporters. There were some positives to be taken from the test, Lorenzo said: they could finish the race with the 20 liters of fuel allocated, and the electronics package was improved. Just how real the improvements in fuel consumption are is open for debate: you can save a lot of fuel when you are half a second slower than your rivals.
Putting Pedrosa to one side for a moment, the battle for second (or rather third, once Marc Marquez returns to action) is turning out to be rather intriguing. Jorge Lorenzo is still the fastest of the rest on race pace, despite his complaints about a lack of grip, but he is only a little way ahead of Aleix Espargaro on the Forward Yamaha running under Open rules. Aleix, in turn, is a fraction quicker than Stefan Bradl on the LCR Honda, a fact that will delight the elder of the Espargaro brothers, annoy HRC, and further raise Aleix' earnings potential for the future. Bradl, in turn, was much faster in his race simulation yesterday, turning in a sequence of laps on Thursday which was five seconds faster than his time over the same distance on Friday.
Andrea Dovizioso was also quick on the Ducati Desmosedici GP14 running in Open spec, running a race simulation which was around the pace of Aleix Espargaro and Stefan Bradl. Dovizioso may have ended in third on the timesheets, setting the fastest lap ever around Sepang on a Ducati, but that was on the Factory spec bike. The Open spec was still good enough to have made a big step forward, though. The improvement comes mainly from braking and corner entry, Dovizioso saying that this was the best Ducati he had ridden so far. The advantage of the extra fuel was negligible, though the disadvantage of running the championship software was similarly small. Ducati are clearly heading in the right direction, and the switch to the Open class, and the extra development and testing that allows, should be the push they need to get them back at the front.
Further down the field, the Suzuki improved on the final day. Suzuki have now implemented most of their own software for the Magneti Marelli ECU, and they tested a new engine and frame. The bike is now some one and a half seconds off the pace of Pedrosa, a big step forward since the season started. As for the other Open bikes, they are a long way off the front. Colin Edwards is over 1.7 seconds behind Pedrosa, and 1.6 seconds off the pace of his teammate Aleix Espargaro. Nicky Hayden improved on the Honda once again, putting the RCV1000R into 15th and 1.9 seconds slower than Pedrosa. Hayden is slowly adapting his riding style to get the best out of the Honda production racer, finding more time on braking and corner entry. But the bike is still down on power, and until Honda step in and boost power outputs, Hayden looks doomed to haunt the lower regions of the points.
The teams now split up, and go their separate ways. The factory teams head to Phillip Island, to test tires for Bridgestone. Ducati's switch to the Open class does not change their plans to test in Australia. Meanwhile the satellite teams and Open teams travel to Qatar, where they will test at the Losail circuit ahead of the season opener at the track on the 23rd March. Racing season is so very nearly in full swing again.