Who has the best bike? Is it Honda? Or have they been passed by Yamaha? Did the first MotoGP test of the year at Sepang answer that question? After Monday, we thought the answer was yes. After Friday, it's clear that it's not clear. There is still a long way to go to the start of the season, and the only thing we can be sure of is the fact that this is going to be a fantastic year in MotoGP. When it's hard to point to who has an advantage, it means the racing is going to be tight.
So how did the balance of power swing from Yamaha to Honda? Yamaha turned up at Sepang with a bike that was ready to go. They had plenty of parts to test, but following the Yamaha philosophy, all of those parts offer just a small, but positive change. The bike was fast, and got a little bit faster. That meant that Yamaha were quick on the first day, and got a little quicker day by day.
The first day of the first Sepang MotoGP test is always a revealing of secrets. It's not that the factories tell the media everything they are doing, but with everyone on the track, there is nowhere left to hide. The timesheets tell the tale.
The story of the second day is always a little more complex. Initial impressions from the first day are absorbed, the data examined and analyzed, and engineers and mechanics come up with new ideas. That means that riders are working on different ideas and in different directions, some changes work, others don't. Times become much more difficult to assess.
So what did we learn today? A lot. Not so much from the lap times – Jorge Lorenzo is fastest, and looking as good as ever, Andrea Dovizioso is incredibly quick, especially on a new soft tire, and the Hondas have chosen a direction to follow – but more about the underlying state of play. It was a fascinating day, despite the fact that the standing barely changed much after noon.
I went out and stood at track side for an hour, intending to walk all around the circuit using the service road. That proved to be optimistic – despite the fact that it is cooler here than it was last year, the heat quickly becomes brutal. I made it half way round, and given a visceral sense of how punishing riding a MotoGP bike at speed must be. It is really, really tough.
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 MotoGP season kicks off tomorrow. On Wednesday, the riders take to the track once again at Sepang to continue the development on the bikes they will be racing this year, and to test out the new updates the engineers have been working on during the winter break.
And yet the two most important and interesting developments won't even be at the first Sepang test. Ducati's much-anticipated Desmosedici GP15 is not quite ready for prime time, and so will not make its public debut until 19th February at the launch in Bologna, and not make its first laps in public until the second Sepang test at the end of this month. Yamaha's fully seamless gearbox – allowing both clutchless upshifts and downshifts – will also wait until Sepang 2 before Valentino Rossi and Jorge Lorenzo get their hands on the bike.
The official reasons given for the delay are that the GP15 and Yamaha's gearbox are almost ready, but not quite, still needing a few last checks by the engineers before they are ready to be handed over to the factory riders. Those of a cynical – or perhaps even paranoid – bent may be tempted to speculate that the delays are more to do with the media than the engineering. The first Sepang test this week is well-attended by journalists and photographers alike, the MotoGP press just as eager as the riders and the fans for the winter to be over.
The second Sepang test sees only a very few journalists attend, with few publications willing to spend the money to cover the expenses for what is often just more of the same. Perhaps the factories have cottoned on to this, and are taking advantage of the opportunity to test important new parts with a little less media attention. Or perhaps it really is just a case of not being quite ready in time.
Despite the absence of the really big news, there will still be plenty to see. So who will be testing what, and what are the key factors to keep an eye on?
Analyzing Yamaha's MotoGP Launch - A Motivated Rossi, A Lean & Mean Lorenzo, And A Fully Seamless Gearbox
2014 did not go to plan for Yamaha. After the first four races of last year, Valentino Rossi and Jorge Lorenzo trailed the Repsol Hondas by 76 points in the team championship, and Yamaha was 33 points behind Honda in the manufacturers standings. Marc Márquez was in the middle of an unbeaten run, Dani Pedrosa backing him up strongly. There were a lot of good reasons for Yamaha's troubled start. Yamaha was struggling to get a smooth throttle response from a liter less fuel, the new Bridgestone tires were less suited to the YZR-M1's need for high corner speeds, and Jorge Lorenzo arrived at the start of the season out of shape, after neglecting his training after surgery during the winter.
2015 looks like being the polar opposite. At the launch of their 2015 campaign, the Movistar Yamaha team looked forward with some optimism. Building on the progress made in the second half of 2014, the bike is much more competitive, Valentino Rossi arrives motivated by his strong season, and Jorge Lorenzo is lean and fit, having spent all off-season preparing. They are ready for big things.
With 2014 out of the way, one of the big sponsorship issues could also be addressed. When Movistar signed up alongside Monster, that caused a confusing clash on the fairing of the 2014 bike, with two large fluorescent green M logos on the bike. A redesign has given Movistar a little more prominence on the fairing, the logo now much larger, the text moved elsewhere on the bike. Key to the sponsorship is not just the visibility, however, it is also the ability to showcase technology. Movistar demonstrated an excellent 360° smartphone app at Aragon last year, which is the start of much more to come.
What is the difference between winning in Moto3 and finishing at the back? The glib answer is "about 50 seconds", but there must be an explanation for that gap. It is a question which many have pondered, and to which there are few easy answers. Clearly, there is a difference in equipment, level of ability, and the ability of the team to get the set up right. But is there anything we can identify directly?
The one factor which we might be able to see in the lap times is the effect of hard work. Motorcycle racing is (paradoxically) a physically demanding sport, and physical fitness is one factor which a rider has in their own hands. Training, and dedication to training, could be a factor which makes a difference. It may not be the difference between first and last, but it could well be the difference between finishing in the points and finishing at the very tail end of the field.
If fitness is a significant factor, then it should be visible in the lap times. As the race goes on, the less fit riders should get slower, while the fitter riders manage to maintain the same pace. That should be most clearly visible between the riders who finish at the front, and the riders who finish at the back. (For a fuller explanation of this hypothesis, see below.)
This is not an idea I came up with on my own. Motorcycle racers are obsessed with fitness and hard work, though some work harder than others. In various conversations with riders and team staff, especially in Moto2 and Moto3, the issue of fitness was one which cropped up surprisingly often. Managers and engineers would frequently criticize riders who they felt were not doing enough to work on their fitness. Clearly, they believe it is a factor.
In the fifth part of our season review of 2014, we turn to the Espargaro brothers. Both Pol and Aleix had excellent seasons, impressing many with their speed. If you would like to read the four previous parts of our season review, they are here: Marc Marquez, Valentino Rossi, Jorge Lorenzo, and Dani Pedrosa and Andrea Dovizioso.
6th - 136 points - Pol Espargaro
Being a MotoGP rookie got a lot tougher after 2013. Marc Márquez raised the bar to an almost unattainable level by winning his second ever MotoGP race, the title in his debut season, and smash a metric cartload of records. Anyone entering the class after Márquez inevitably ends up standing in his shadow.
Which is a shame, as it means that Pol Espargaro's rookie season has not received the acclaim it deserves. The 2013 Moto2 champion started off the season on the back foot, breaking his collarbone at the final test, just a couple of weeks before the first race at Qatar. He crashed again during that opening race, but quickly found his feet. He came up just short of his first podium at Le Mans, nudged back to fourth place by Alvaro Bautista.
It would be his best result of the season, but the Monster Tech 3 Yamaha rider was to be consistently found in and around the top six. Espargaro would go on to bag a couple of fifth places and six sixth spots. That is where he would end the year, sixth in the championship behind the factory Hondas and Yamahas, and the factory Ducati of Andrea Dovizioso. Ignoring the exception that is Marc Márquez, it was the best start to a season by a rookie since Ben Spies joined the premier class in 2010. The Texan did secure two podiums that year, and fairly comprehensively outscored Pol Espargaro in comparison.
After looking at the top three finishers in MotoGP, our review of 2014 turns to the riders who didn't make it onto the podium. After Marc Marquez, Valentino Rossi and Jorge Lorenzo, we turn our attention to the men who finished behind them. Today, we review the seasons of Dani Pedrosa and Andrea Dovizioso.
4th - 246 points - Dani Pedrosa
Dani Pedrosa is easily the best rider never to win a MotoGP title, and if anything, 2014 merely reinforced that reputation. By almost anyone's standards, ten podiums, including a victory, and a total of 246 points – his fourth best since joining the premier class – is an outstanding year. But for a rider with aspirations of becoming world champion, it is simply not good enough.
Looked at another way, this was the worst season Pedrosa has had in MotoGP. The Repsol Honda rider has always managed to score multiple victories each year, even during his debut in 2006. This year, he never really looked a threat, except at Brno. Throughout the year, Pedrosa was consistently behind the front runners, never capable of making a push to dominate.
What was Pedrosa's biggest problem in 2014? Quite simply, the team's approach to fixing the shortcomings of the preceding season. In 2013, Pedrosa had found himself coming up short in the second half of races, getting overhauled by either Marc Márquez or Jorge Lorenzo. Over the winter, his crew, under chief mechanic Mike Leitner, had worked on a strategy to counter this situation, adjusting the balance of the bike to make it faster during the second half of the race.
The third part of our review of the 2014 season, in which we take a look at the top 10 finishers in MotoGP, sees us turn to Jorge Lorenzo, the man who took the final spot on the 2014 MotoGP podium:
3rd - 263 points - Jorge Lorenzo
If Marc Márquez' season was one of two halves, then Jorge Lorenzo's 2014 was doubly so. The 2010 and 2012 world champion ended the first half of the season in fifth place overall, 128 points down on the leader Marc Márquez. By season's end, Lorenzo was third, having outscored Márquez by 29 points. If Lorenzo hadn't gambled on a tire change at the last race at Valencia, the difference would have been even greater: in the eight races before Valencia, Lorenzo had outscored Márquez by 54 points in total.
It all went wrong for Jorge Lorenzo during the winter. The Movistar Yamaha rider was under the surgeon's knife three times during the winter break to fix some minor problems and remove old metalwork, most notably from the collarbone he broke in 2013. That made putting together a training schedule more difficult than usual, and Lorenzo's fitness, usually his strong point, took a nosedive.
He arrived at the Sepang tests so badly out of shape that he did not fit into his leathers. Not only did he have to contend with being four or five kilograms overweight, he also had to deal with new tires from Bridgestone and a Yamaha M1 which was struggling with a liter less fuel. The tires – identical to 2013, but now using the heat-resistant layer which had previously only been used at a couple of rounds – lacked the same feel on the edge of the tire, making it more difficult for Lorenzo to maintain his high corner speed style. This was made worse by the nervous throttle response of the Yamaha with less fuel, making it even harder to control the bike. Lorenzo's style requires a massive amount of energy at the best of times. With two factors making it even worse, there was no way an out-of-shape Lorenzo was going to be competitive for any longer than a single lap.
For the next part of our review of the 2014 season, we continue our count down of the top 10 finishers in MotoGP. After yesterday's look at Marc Marquez, today we turn our attention to the runner up in the 2014 MotoGP championship, Valentino Rossi:
2nd - 295 points - Valentino Rossi
Six races. That was the deadline Valentino Rossi had given himself. After the first six races, he would make a decision on whether he was still fast enough, or it was time to hang up his leathers. The goal was to be fighting for podiums and wins. If he could not do that, he felt he did not want to be racing. The fact that the sixth race of the season was at Mugello was ominous. If you had to choose a place for Valentino Rossi to announce his retirement, that would be it.
The season started off well, with a second place at Qatar, but with Marc Márquez just back from a broken leg, Jorge Lorenzo crashing out, and Dani Pedrosa struggling for grip, that didn't quite feel like a true measure of his ability. Texas was a disaster, with severe tire wear, then at Argentina, Rossi came home in fourth, just as he had done so often last year. His string of fourth places in 2013 were what had prompted Rossi's doubts about carrying on, so many journalists and fans feared his mind was made up.