There are some worried faces in the MotoGP paddock after the second day of the Qatar test. That the Ducati GP15s are fast should come as no surprise, after all, they were fastest on the first day as well. The trouble is that everyone assumed that the speed of Andrea Dovizioso and Andrea Iannone was down to the fact that they can use the soft tire, which is not available to Honda and Yamaha. Despite the protestations of the two Ducati riders, who had said they spent all day on the medium tire, the same tire which the Hondas and Yamahas had used, Valentino Rossi, among others, had cast aspersions on their claims, suggesting that their fastest laps had been set on the soft tire.
They weren't. Ducati's official press release stated explicitly that the two Andreas had not gone anywhere near the soft tire so far, concentrating on improving the GP15 on the medium tire, the tire they will race. Ducati's press officer confirmed this explicitly to the Bikesportnews website. And just to check, I trawled through all the photos I could find of the factory Ducati team: through the official Ducati press website, through the official MotoGP.com website, and through a couple of other media sites. Not a single photo did I find of a tire with a white stripe, the sign of the soft tire. They really did use the medium tire.
What this means? It means that the times set by Andrea Iannone yesterday, and by Andrea Dovizioso today – a time under Casey Stoner's race lap record, set here back in 2008 – are a true illustration of what the GP15 is actually capable of, and not an artifact of having an artificial advantage. Gigi Dall'Igna and the team of engineers at Ducati have actually solved the problem. The Ducati Desmosedici GP15 is a competitive motorcycle. Both Valentino Rossi and Marc Márquez conceded that they now believed the GP15 is capable of winning.
That is perhaps a little premature. Neither Dovizioso nor Iannone were putting in particularly long runs, concentrating instead on set up, and working to solve the problems the Ducati still has. Most notably in braking: braking stability on corner entry, and maintaining braking as the bike is turned into the corner.
The fact that Ducati is working on braking stability made the appearance of winglets on the GP15 even more confusing. Ducati had announced that they would be bringing a highly visible upgrade, and Andrea Dovizioso spent part of the evening riding the bike with the winglets, the kind of technical development it is hard to hide. What was the purpose of the winglets? The last time Ducati brought winglets back in 2010, the official explanation was to help reduce wheelies at high speed. That argument was rendered less credible by the winglets making their debut at Laguna Seca, a track with only one fast straight. The shape of the 2010 winglets suggested an alternative explanation, the tips flowing air past the fairing exhaust slits. Perhaps the purpose was to help extract hot air from behind Ducati's body panels, an issue for which the Desmosedici was notorious.
These winglets are different, however. Below is a tweet from Ducati showing the winglets, followed by a photo taken by Scott Jones of the original winglets in 2010. The 2015 version looks much more single purpose: providing downforce close to the front of the bike, with no ulterior use. Does this help braking stability? Well, the aim of the winglets is to help keep the front end down at high speed, helping to restrict 5th and 6th gear wheelies. If you can prevent the front end from being light when entering the braking zone, then that would smooth the first touch of braking out, and settle the bike throughout the entire braking phase. Theoretically, of course.
A single fast lap is fine, but can Ducati maintain that pace over full race distance? It's too early to say. Neither the factory Ducati men, nor anyone else did a race simulation on Sunday, opting instead for a series of short runs, allowing them to work on their bikes. We will only see whether the Ducati can manage their tires over race distance – their biggest challenge in 2013 and 2014 – on Monday, when they are schedule to do a race simulation.
The Movistar Yamaha riders came closest to running a race simulation, both Jorge Lorenzo and Valentino Rossi posting runs of eight full laps before returning to the pits. Their pace was positive, running in the high 1'55s and low 1'56s, yet neither Rossi nor Lorenzo were particularly happy. Rossi had had a 'difficult day', he said, the team struggling to find the right set up, only managing towards the end of the evening. For Lorenzo, the Spaniard is struggling with grip, especially the feeling at the front, Lorenzo not happy with the feeling from the new front tire Bridgestone has brought. Lorenzo's smooth, high corner speed style makes him especially sensitive to tire changes, and he and his crew have yet to find a solution to dealing with the slightly different feel of the new front.
Marc Márquez looks like the only rider who has the speed to match the Ducatis. The reigning champion put in more laps than most, and had the most laps in the 1'55s. But he also did not do a race simulation, instead doing short runs followed by time in the garage. A bike geometry change has given the Spaniard more confidence in the front end, leaving Márquez optimistic for the start of the season.
What was perhaps most remarkable on the second day was just how close the entire field was. Though the top three – Dovizioso, Márquez, Iannone – were a cut above the rest, the field from 4th spot onwards was incredibly tight. Jorge Lorenzo may have been nearly six tenths slower than Andrea Dovizioso, only 0.310 separated Lorenzo in 4th from Maverick Viñales in 14th. Even 19th-place man Michele Pirro was within a second of Jorge Lorenzo, just over a second and a half off the pace of Dovizioso.
Times on Sunday appeared to establish what you might call the normal order of things. Behind the top six – two factory Ducatis, two factory Hondas, two factory Yamahas – three satellite bikes followed closely, Cal Crutchlow on the LCR Honda leading the two Monster Tech 3 Yamahas of Bradley Smith and Pol Espargaro. Espargaro was particularly relieved, after struggling with no feel at all from the front of his Yamaha on Saturday, a change of set up and a switch to a different front tire restored his confidence in the front, and though he was only 9th, he took comfort from the fact he was just 0.158 slower than Lorenzo.
The last day of the test will be the moment of truth, with most riders planning a race simulation on Monday. If everyone runs a race simulation, or at least the best part of one, then we can start to compare. What will be even more intriguing is seeing what happens when the factory Ducatis put on their soft tire. If the soft rubber gives the advantage which many credit it with, then Jorge Lorenzo's pole record, set on soft qualifying rubber in 2008 could be under threat. The 2015 Qatar test has been anything but disappointing so far, and there is much more to come.