The prospect of a new MotoGP season always leaves fans giddy with anticipation. Their appetites keenly whetted by winter testing, and speculation over the times set at those tests, they boldly predict that this season is going to be the best MotoGP season ever. Though the racing is often good, all too often, it never quite lives up to the preseason hype.
There is every reason to believe that this year, it will be different. The bikes, the riders, the teams, the motivation, it all points to 2015 being an exceptionally exciting season in MotoGP. At the last day of winter testing at Qatar just over a week ago, less than a second covered the top fourteen riders, and two seconds covered all but four of the MotoGP field. A similar pattern emerged at Sepang: with the exception of the occasional hot lap by Marc Márquez, there were ten or more riders within a second of each other. Things haven't been this close for a while.
The Fantastic Four
It has been a very long time – Estoril in 2006, to be precise – since a satellite rider has won a race in MotoGP. That is unlikely to change in 2015. The reasons for this are manifold, but perhaps the most important is the emergence of a group of exceptionally talented riders pushing each other on to greater heights. The arrival of Dani Pedrosa, Casey Stoner and Jorge Lorenzo posed a real threat to Valentino Rossi, and forced him to up his game to stay with them, and to beat them. When Stoner retired at the end of 2012, Marc Márquez took his place, keeping the squad of so-called Aliens at full strength.
This group – call them the Aliens, the Fantastic Four, the Factory Four, whatever moniker takes your fancy – will be hard to beat again in 2015. Márquez, Rossi, Lorenzo and Pedrosa have the best bikes on the grid, in the best teams, with the best crew chiefs. They are the most talented, and the most dedicated. They train hardest, and have the best support in terms of physical training and mental preparation. They all know that victory is won by the narrowest of margins, and attention to detail must be complete. These four are indeed fearsome, and favorites to boot.
Press releases from the series organizer and the MotoGP teams previewing this weekend's season opener at Qatar:
Press releases from the MotoGP teams after the final lost day of testing at Qatar:
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.
Press releases from the MotoGP teams after the second day of testing at Qatar:
Did they or didn't they? That was the question after Ducati dominated the first day of the test at Sepang. Andrea Iannone and Andrea Dovizioso spent all day swapping places at the top of the timesheets, Iannone coming out on top at the end. It was an impressive showing, but MotoGP watchers and Ducati's rivals were quick to pass judgment: of course the Ducatis were fast, after all, they were allowed to use the soft rear tire, a concession for the Open class teams and factories who have yet to win three races in the dry. That tire is worth six or seven tenths a lap, said Valentino Rossi.
Only they didn't use the soft tire. At least, that is what Andrea Dovizioso told reporters. He spent all day working on race set up, first on the GP14.3 to set a baseline, and then on the GP15 to work on braking set up and electronics. There was no point using a super soft tire, and he had ridden all day on the harder of the two options, which is the soft tire used by the factory Honda and Yamaha riders. Valentino Rossi was skeptical. "They said they didn't use the soft? I have some doubts," Rossi told Italian reporters. He may be partially right: only Dovizioso denied outright using the softer tire, Andrea Iannone skirted round the question, speaking only of being fast on both new and used tires.
Super soft or no, the fact remains that the Ducatis are quick. The GP15 is clearly competitive, something which Rossi, Jorge Lorenzo and Marc Márquez were all keen to emphasize. On the same tire, the Ducatis were as quick as the Yamahas and Hondas, Rossi said. That, in itself, is cause for concern. At least for the factory Honda and Yamaha men.
Press releases from the teams after the first day of testing at Qatar:
Who starts the 2015 MotoGP season as favorite for the championship? The final test at Qatar will give us a much clearer picture of where the factories and riders stand than the last two tests in Sepang. That is in part due to the fact that the factories have had time between the Sepang tests and now to work on further refining their bikes ready for the start of 2015.
But the Qatar test is also a little more representative for the rest of the season than Sepang is. The Malaysian circuit may have a good mix of fast and slow corners, but the tropical heat makes it tough on riders, tough on tires, and the track can lose a lot of grip as the temperatures rise. Qatar may not have the fast corners which Sepang does, but much lower track temps make the circuit a lot less greasy than Sepang.
It helps if if the track is clean, though. Sat on the edge of a desert peninsula, dust and sand all too often blows across the circuit, playing havoc with grip levels. Reports from the recent Kawasaki H2 launch at the circuit suggest the track is not too dusty, and having hordes of journalists circulating on a bike with a nice fat rear tire should have swept most of the dust from the circuit.
The other danger is the chance of dew forming on the track, a problem as the night draws on. The problem is that the dew on the track is impossible to see, meaning riders find themselves tumbling through the gravel wondering what just happened. Testing at least offers some way of avoiding the track once the dew settles, but the trick is not to get caught out in the first place.
2015 MotoGP Sepang 2 Day 3 Round Up: Marquez vs Lorenzo, Honda vs Yamaha, And Why The Open Honda Is Still Slow
Take a glance at the timesheet after the final day and it is easy to draw some simple conclusions from of second Sepang MotoGP test. Marc Márquez reigns supreme, with Jorge Lorenzo is the only rider to get anywhere near to him. Cal Crutchlow has improved, but at the moment is only fast over a single lap. The Ducati Desmosedici GP15 is fast, but only in the hands of Andrea Iannone. Valentino Rossi and Dani Pedrosa have their work cut out if they are to match their teammates. Bradley Smith has surpassed his teammate, Pol Espargaro. Suzuki is close, but not quite close enough, while Aprilia are hopelessly lost.
As attractive as those conclusions are, the underlying truth is a lot more complex. Testing is exactly that, testing, and everyone is on different programs, trying different things at different times of the day. Or as Dani Pedrosa succinctly put it, when asked if he was trying out a new strategy for qualifying during the test, "we were just trying. That's why we are here." Marc Márquez was undeniably faster than the rest of the field, and his race simulation was undeniably faster than anyone else's. But just comparing the times does not provide the whole picture.
Márquez' race simulation was fearsome to behold. 19 laps at an average of 2:00.760, just one shy of full race distance. 16 laps of 2:00, just three of 2:01. While it is impossible to know how fast his out lap was – the analysis timesheets available only show the full lap times, and no partials, and Márquez embarked on his race simulation after spending 15 minutes in the pits – that pace would have seen him beat his own race time from last year by some 25 seconds. That is seriously fast.
Press releases at the end of the second test at Sepang:
2015 MotoGP Sepang 2 Day 2 Round Up - Marquez vs Lorenzo, Thumb Brakes & Seamless Gearboxes, Ducati's Tires, And Melandri's Fall
After the excitement and confusion of the first day of testing at Sepang, some semblance of normality returned on Tuesday. Cooler temperatures and more stable weather meant that riders had much more time to do work on track, the heat and humidity not quite as oppressive as they had been the previous day. The excitement over new bikes and gearboxes had also subsided, and the hard grind continued.
If Tuesday is representative of the normal state of play in MotoGP, then it seems like there are already two favorites for the title emerging from the pack, though margins are slim indeed. Marc Márquez and Jorge Lorenzo were the only two riders to crack the two minute barrier, posting fast times early on in the day, then getting back to work on 2015. Nobody else got near, with the exception of Andrea Iannone, who piled in a quick lap at the end of the day to fall just short of two minutes, the Ducati GP15 quickly proving its worth.
Marc Márquez was perhaps the most relieved rider. After losing a day due to untraceable braking issues, things were back to normal as soon as he hit the track on Tuesday. Márquez was cagey about the cause of the brake issue, joking that he did not want to reveal the secret to his rivals, in case they too suffered the issue. The Repsol Honda rider spent the day focusing on electronics and engine management, working hard to make up for lost time. That left him still with work to do on Wednesday, when the team will turn their attention to the chassis he is supposed to be testing. So far, Márquez has been sticking with the chassis he used at the last Sepang test, but Honda also have a chassis with 'something for the rear'. Whether that is in the frame, swing arm, shock mount, or linkage is not clear.
Press releases from the MotoGP teams after the second day of testing at Sepang:
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."
Press releases from the MotoGP teams after the first day of testing at Sepang:
The engineers have had two weeks to pore over the data from the first MotoGP test at Sepang, identify problems, analyze strengths, and find more ways to go faster. Their analyses have been translated into designs, into new parts, into yet more software, ready to put their theories into practice. On Monday morning, at 10am Malaysian time, the MotoGP riders get to try out all of the new parts and ideas thought up by their factories and teams in search of a few more fractions of a second.
The eyes of the world will not be on what the engineers did between Sepang 1 and Sepang 2, however. Attention will be focused on Yamaha and Ducati, who will be testing hardware which has been a long time coming. Yamaha is bringing its fully seamless gearbox to the Sepang 2 test, and Ducati will roll out its Desmosedici GP15 for the first time. Both could make a significant impact.
In the short term, Yamaha's seamless gearbox is likely to be the most important development. It has not been officially confirmed that Yamaha will be bringing the full seamless gearbox (seamless in both upshifts and downshifts). Officially, people wearing Yamaha shirts will tell you that nothing has been decided yet, but well-informed gossip says that the seamless gearbox will be there, for both Valentino Rossi and Jorge Lorenzo. Yamaha's test riders have been using it for several months now, Colin Edwards having tested it extensively at the end of last year.