There is something about the sound of a MotoGP bike that stirs the blood once again. After a long winter, in which to reflect on the many negatives of following motorcycle racing – hard work for little money, endless trips through faceless airports to faceless hotels, and long periods away from home – a few milliseconds of the sound of a MotoGP bike being warmed up is enough to make you forget all that, and melt away the misery of business travel on the cheap under the fierce heat of passion for the sport. There is nothing that excites like motorcycle racing.
It was an intriguing first day back, with highs and lows, strong performers and real disappointments. The finishing order is not completely indicative of the real strength of the field, but it offers some sound clues as to who stands where.
Marc Márquez topped the timesheets, but he had to put in a fast lap on a new tire at the end of the day to depose the Yamahas. For it was Valentino Rossi who led the way for much of the first day of testing, the Italian happy to be back on a bike. It wasn't just Rossi who was quick: Rossi, Jorge Lorenzo and Tech 3's Pol Espargaro were the fastest of the bunch, with Márquez and Dani Pedrosa only occasionally interjecting to spoil the Yamaha fun.
The 2015 Yamaha is a clear improvement over last year's bike, though most of the gain came from the new bike which the factory brought to the Valencia tests, Lorenzo told us. The Yamaha at Sepang is just a small step forward from the Valencia bike, but it was a real improvement. This was the tried and trusted Yamaha method, Valentino Rossi explained. "The way that Yamaha works is always with small steps and 99% of the time it's always better. Usually when Yamaha brings something it is better and this is always good for the rider because you can understand the bike in a better way," he said.
They key area they had been working on was tire performance at the end of the race. This, Rossi said, is where they had lost a lot of ground, giving time away to the Hondas in the last four or five laps. The 2015 bike is already better in that area, but there is still room for improvement.
What have Yamaha been working on? As usual, the factories are being unnecessarily coy about the different parts they have brought, with only small details visible. Where in Formula One changes are impossible to hide, with so much of a car's performance coming from its aerodynamics, in MotoGP, changes to chassis stiffness and electronics are they keys to success. Neither chassis wall thickness nor electronics strategies are visible with the naked eye.
What they do have is a new version of the slash cut exhaust, which sounds louder and sharper still. That, together with significant work on the electronics, has made the bike much easier to ride, and much smoother than it was last year. What they don't have is a fully seamless gearbox, but that was not that much of a problem. "They can't joke with the gearbox, because it is dangerous," he said. He was happy to wait until it was '100% ready'.
The speed of the factory Yamahas – and Pol Espargaro, and even Stefan Bradl – left both Rossi and Lorenzo in good cheer. Both men look different this year than they did when they started the 2014 season. Rossi has the air of a man ready to challenge for a championship again, his old cheerful self returning, success on track dispelling the occasional flashes of false cheer he used to disguise his mood during the dark years at Ducati.
As for Jorge Lorenzo, he too is different. He has trained harder than ever before, and is back down to the weight he was when he first entered MotoGP in 2008. He is happy with his trainer, and his training program has been conducted under the watchful eye of Yamaha, senior staff checking up on his progress every couple of weeks. Lorenzo looks slim, fit, and ready to compete. He is relaxed, joking easily with reporters, in stark contrast to 2014, when he arrived overweight and out of shape after surgery. That still leaves Alpinestars with plenty of work to do, but instead of letting his leathers out to encompass his increased bulk, as they did in 2014, now they are having to take his leathers in, and make them tighter again.
It will be an interesting dynamic in the Movistar Yamaha garage this season. Rossi and Lorenzo could end up as each other's biggest obstacle to success. The bike is good, possibly better than the Honda, the riders are hungry (in the case of Lorenzo, possibly quite literally so) and prepared. Rossi has once again spent the winter working on his riding style at the ranch. "I worked a lot on my riding and I think that this is the way to try and remain competitive," Rossi said. "Last year I made a big step but I have margins that I can improve. I will try to improve the braking and corner entry and this is what I'm trying to work on at the ranch." That meant working on understanding the front end. "For me, it's very important for controlling the front, and for controlling oversteer," Rossi explained.
At Honda, they are a little further back, though that does not mean that they will not catch up with the Yamahas. Dani Pedrosa and Marc Márquez both tested multiple bikes on Wednesday, Pedrosa using three bikes and Márquez four, including a 2014 bike for comparison, and variations of the 2015 bike from which to choose, including one based on the bike tested at Valencia, and a variation of that. The new bike had potential, both men agreed, but needed work. Pedrosa summed it up as follows: "Obviously, the 2014 is developed, the 2015 is still in the process, so I would say the '14 is more ready now, but the '15 has more potential, and we must shape a little bit the thing, and I think it can be good when we get the right setting."
Pedrosa was less committal than Márquez about which direction to take, however. "With the Valencia bike I liked the front confidence, but we lost a lot in the brake point. So I asked Honda to keep the same brake point as last year’s bike. They did a really good job because in the brake point I feel exactly the same and of course immediately we lose a little bit this front confidence, but it is still more than last year. That is good. We found the compromise."
The Honda RC213V is clearly fast, as Márquez' best time demonstrates, but the question is whether they can sustain it over the duration of the race. Right now, you would have to say that Yamaha holds the edge in this area. The Yamaha is ready to race, the Honda still needs some work.
An interesting insight into the behavior of the Honda was given by Alvaro Bautista, who stayed with Gresini when they switched from Honda to Aprilia. The Spaniard had an outstanding day, hovering inside the top ten all day, until the tires went on for a hot lap at the end of the session. The Aprilia was very different, despite having more power from the new engine with an 81mm bore and pneumatic valves. "I remember here with the Honda on the straight, I felt like the engine had too much power, especially on fourth, fifth, sixth gear," Bautista told us. "With the Honda, on the bottom was empty, then you have to open gas with the bike straight, otherwise you have a lot of power suddenly." That is very much in line with what Dani Pedrosa said about the Honda. "Honda always looks for a strong engine first, and then tries to make the bike turn. But the straight is important!" Pedrosa commented.
The easier engine character means that the Aprilia needs less electronic intervention, Bautista explained. The power delivery was much more linear, 'more like an electric engine," Bautista said. "I think also the engine character doesn't need as much electronics as the Honda." Power was still where the Aprilia was falling short, however. "We need more power, but it's the second time this engine goes to the track, so it's normal, no?" Bautista said.
Though Bautista tested a completely new bike, he was less happy with it, unable to find the right balance just yet. That too needs work, but more time on the track should help solve that problem. For the moment, Bautista was spending his time on the Valencia bike with the upgraded engine.
Bautista's performance is in stark contrast to his teammate's. Where Bautista is pushing the project forward, Marco Melandri is dragging his feet (instead of dragging his knee). Melandri is a pale shadow of his former self, his body language oozing reluctance at returning to MotoGP. Melandri is two seconds off his teammate, and over four seconds behind the fastest man Marc Márquez. The irony is that it is Melandri who is nominally the number 1 rider in the Aprilia garage. It is Melandri who Aprilia pay big bucks to, for choosing to stay with them, rather than defect to another manufacturer and challenge for the title again in World Superbikes. Bautista, on the other hand, is on a comparative pittance, and yet it is he who is putting in the hard yards and delivering the results. It all too often feels as if there is no justice for Bautista.
Over at the other Italian manufacturer, it is Andrea Dovizioso who is impressing. The Italian loves this track, and performs well on it, and was constantly running either just inside or just outside the top three all day. In the end, he finished less than a tenth of a second behind Jorge Lorenzo, and about the same ahead of Dani Pedrosa.
Ducati have brought a Desmosedici GP14.3 to Sepang, and despite protestations from Dovizioso that the only change was in the electronics, the bike set up looks a little different. The bike looks even more waspish around the middle, the seat and tank section slimmed even further to give the rider room to move about. Comparing the set ups being run by factory riders Dovizioso and Andrea Iannone, it is interesting to see that they now have a lot less of the front forks pushed through the top yokes than the older machines being used by Danilo Petrucci, Michele Pirro, and the Avintia riders Hector Barbera and Mike Di Meglio. Dovizioso and Iannone have a centimeter or two poking out of the triple crown. The rest have anything up to six or seven centimeters poking through. Dovizioso's speed leaves Ducati optimistic for the GP15, though as Dovizioso rightly pointed out, we will only know once it arrives at a track.
Over at Suzuki, they appear to have fixed their initial biggest problem. The Suzuki GSX-RR engines ran all day without complaint, Aleix Espargaro and Maverick Viñales racking up a total of 100 laps. Given the problems they had at Valencia last year, losing three engines to mechanical problems, the new engine appears to be utterly reliable.
With reliability covered, Suzuki now have to turn their attention to producing more horsepower. Espargaro and Viñales worked on improving the set up of the bike, now having time to work on the bike without it going bang all the time. They made good steps forward, but they ultimately need more horsepower. A new exhaust – shorter, more aerodynamic – had helped, but not enough to make a big difference. But the two Spanish youngsters pronounced themselves happy with the progress produced so far. The handling is still impeccable, allowing the rider to be more aggressive, but more power is still needed.
The first day of the first test of the year does not tell the whole story. The riders are spending their time getting used to riding at speed again. "Today is for me just like a day for adaptation,"Alvaro Bautista explained. "After two months without riding, it was necessary to again get the rhythm, get the feeling." By the end of the third day, we should have a much clearer idea of the riders' real pace. They will also have a better idea of exactly what direction they want to go in, with parts and set up having been largely decided. The first test at Sepang still has some secrets left to reveal.