If the purpose of testing in Sepang is to ensure that as little time as possible is lost to the weather, then the first day of the MotoGP test fell well short of its objectives. The Malaysian circuit sweltered under oppressive tropical heat all day, rendering most of the day of little use for testing. With track temperatures approaching 60°C in the early afternoon, the grip disappeared, and the heat made riding a MotoGP bike a punishing affair. Then, just as the riders returned to the track as the air began to cool, a tropical thunderstorm washed the track out, with lightning causing the session to be red-flagged for a while. It was not a day in which the teams could get an awful lot done.
That was a shame, as they had an awful lot to do. Ducati had brought the GP15 for its on-track debut, Yamaha had its fully seamless gearbox, Suzuki had unleashed a few more horses from its GSX-RR, and Aprilia had a stack of chassis and electronics solutions to test on track. With on a couple of hours of productive track time, much was left untested.
The biggest question mark at Sepang would be how the Ducati GP15 would work. Would the new bike built under the direction finally cure the understeer which has plagued all previous iterations of the Desmosedici? Andrea Dovizioso had that question answered in the first two corners, he told reporters. When he went to turn the bike in, he found himself on the inside of the kerbs. All of the effort the previous bike required was gone. The GP15 turns, which was exactly what was required of it. "I'm really happy," Dovizioso said. "Now we can work in a normal way. When the bike turns like the competitor, I think you can adapt the bike to your riding style."
The word Dovizioso used to describe the bike was both surprising and revealing. It felt 'normal', he said. That very normality of having a bike that turned was something which was missing from the GP13 and GP14, and from the bikes which came before. The Desmosedici has probably always suffered from understeer, but once Bridgestone stopped making tires built especially around the Ducati, it was only the mercurial genius of Casey Stoner which allowed him to ride around the problem.
Having a 'normal' bike may be progress, but that does not mean that the GP15 was quick. It is a brand new bike, every component still needs testing, and Ducati have cut revs to ensure that the engines will last the duration of the test. Dovizoso's best lap time was a 2'01.6 on the GP15, three tenths slower than he set on the GP14.3. The newness of the bike, and to an extent the lack of understeer means that Ducati don't have a working base set up for the GP15, and are running into unforeseen problems. The balance of the bike was different, Dovizioso said, and the set up they had for the GP14.3 was of little use. The bike needed work in braking, and plenty of other areas. It was not quite starting from zero, Dovizioso said, but pretty close.
So can we pass judgment on the GP15 yet? So far, all we can say is that the main objective of the new bike has been achieved. Understeer has been eliminated, according to German publication Speedweek by having the engine spin backwards, as the Yamaha does. Whether the rest of the bike can perform remains to be seen. But for a shakedown of a completely new bike, the GP15 performed well. If you heard a loud gust of wind this morning, it was the sound of engineers in Borgo Panigale breathing a collective sigh of relief.
You might say the same thing about Yamaha's seamless gearbox. The Movistar Yamaha riders finally got to try the fully seamless box on Monday, and were generally pleased with the improvement. There was a clear improvement in braking, the bike staying more stable. It was now possible to slide the bike a little, Valentino Rossi said, something which was impossible with the previous iteration of the gearbox, the bike becoming far too nervous.
But here, too, the full potential of the gearbox has yet to be unlocked. Being freed of needing the clutch for downshifts, and with smoother braking on corner entry, the set up from last year is no longer ideal. The hard work put in by Ramon Forcada for Jorge Lorenzo and Silvano Galbusera for Valentino Rossi will have to start all over again, to find the perfect balance once again. Like a figure in an MC Escher picture, once MotoGP engineers reach their destination, they get to start all over again.
There was progress too for Suzuki, both Aleix Espargaro and Maverick Viñales posting quick lap times. There were very few riders who got close to their times from the first test, but both Viñales and Espargaro were among those who did best. Despite the very short time since the previous test, Suzuki found a little more horsepower, and that, combined with a new fairing that provides a little more aerodynamic protection, made the GSX-RR a little more competitive. It was, Aleix Espargaro said, a clear step forward, but there is still much to do.
At Honda, there was much less to test, with both Marc Márquez and Dani Pedrosa aiming to work on set up. That went pretty smoothly for Pedrosa, the Repsol Honda man saying his work now was to provide more precise detail to work towards a base set up with which to start the year. That involves doing longer runs and race simulations, though the weather did not help in that area.
Things went a lot less swimmingly for Marc Márquez. The reigning champion struggled with a strange brake issue all day. Braking power would be perfect in one corner, terrible in another, with no rhyme or reason as to a cause. It made riding positively dangerous, and Márquez spent most of his day trying to figure out a solution, together with Brembo. Even switching bikes, and switching to a brand new braking system didn't solve the problem. It left Márquez and his crew rather stumped. While they were trying to figure out their braking issues, they were unable to test the various chassis set ups they had come to Sepang hoping to work on. Work will continue tomorrow.
The Aprilia garage was once again a hive of activity, but once again, the riders did not like the new chassis. Alvaro Bautista complained that the new RS-GP chassis would not turn in, even in the revised version he was testing. Marco Melandri, meanwhile, continues to struggle with the feel of the Bridgestones, having problems finding confidence in the tires. Aprilia brought a version of the bike much closer to the old Superbike, in an attempt to help him build confidence, and the fact that the gap to the front was much reduced was a positive sign. New electronics also helped both riders, power delivery being a little smoother than at the previous test. But there are still mountains of work ahead for the Noale factory, and progress will only be steady.
Among the satellite and Open class riders, progress was clearest for the Honda riders. Both Scott Redding and Cal Crutchlow made steps forward with the bike, Redding happiest with the RC213V. The Marc VDS rider had had a very tough Sepang 1, but immediately felt a lot more comfortable at the second test. The bike felt his bike, Redding said, and he was starting to dig deeper into the electronics of the bike. He is slowly feeling his way forward with the bike, and should be a lot closer to the front by the end of this test.
The biggest improvement was with the Open class Hondas, with both Eugene Laverty and Nicky Hayden much closer to the factory riders from the start. Honda had helped with some input, advising on chassis, suspension and electronics, and that had made an improvement. At the first Sepang test, the HRC engineers had been too busy with the factory riders, but now that the Repsol men were working on set up, they had time to sort out the Open class bikes. In the Cardion AB garage, Karel Abraham was working on suspension, having taken over the role as Showa development team from Gresini. He had made good progress, as the Honda rider closest to matching his lap time from the first test.
The heavy rain which fell at the end of the day chased everyone off track for a while, and even caused the session to be red-flagged for a brief period, once lightning struck. But it also provided the riders with some useful time on wet tires, especially among the rookies. Valentino Rossi was one rider who spent a lot of time out in the wet, the Italian having not felt comfortable with his wet set up last season. For Maverick Viñales and Jack Miller, they had time to get used to Bridgestone's wet tires, which are legendary for their grip. Just adapting to what the tires are capable of takes some getting used to, so the time was not lost.
Tomorrow, the work continues, under conditions comparable to Monday. Extreme heat and the threat of rain will limit track time, forcing the teams to compress their testing programs into a limited period. Even so, we should know a little more about MotoGP in 2015 by the end of the day.