It has been a busy week for racing, with the World Superbike season opener at Phillip Island followed by the MotoGP test at Sepang, including the extra day of testing on Michelins. There has been a lot of news, but between MotoMatters.com's star WSBK reporter Jared Earle and I, we got most of it covered, with an extra bonus of photos from top Australian shooter Andrew Gosling.
But there have been one or two things we may have missed, so here's our weekly round up of racing news.
Scratching the itch: Young Gun vs Old Master
There were a lot of happy faces at the Australian round of World Superbikes. Troy Bayliss, three-time World Superbike champion and arguably, WSBK's last superstar, made a return to the series, replacing the injured Davide Giugliano on the Aruba.it Ducati Panigale. The replacement was at very short notice, Giugliano having crashed during the test which preceded the opening round and fractured a couple of vertebrae.
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.
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.
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?
When the rules limiting the number of engines each MotoGP rider is allowed to use were first introduced, their usage was followed hawkishly. After pressure from veteran US journalist Dennis Noyes and myself, and with the assistance of Dorna's incredibly efficient media officer, IRTA and Dorna were persuaded to publish the engine usage charts. These were pored over constantly, searching for clues as to who might be in trouble, who may have to start from pit lane, and who would manage until the end of the season.
How the world has changed since then. Since 2010, the first full year of its application, engine allocations have been cut from six engines a season to just five, but despite that, the manufacturers are getting better and better at building incredible reliability into high horsepower engines. All eight Factory Option Honda and Yamaha riders completed around 9,000 km in 2014, using just 5 engines in the process. In the case of Bradley Smith, he raced for 9416 kilometers using just four engines, an average of 2354 km per engine.
The introduction of the engine reliability rules may have pushed the costs up at first, as factories rushed to modify their engines to suit the new regulations, it has worked well since then to help cut costs. No longer are engines crated up after every race to be flown back to Japan, there to be stripped, measured, tested and rebuilt, then flown back to Europe again ready for the next MotoGP round. Perhaps more importantly, the factories have made real technological progress in the field, Shuhei Nakamoto, Kouichi Tsuji and ex-Ducati Corse boss Filippo Preziosi frequently praising the rule for the advances they have made. It is exactly the kind of technology which will find its way into road going motorcycles, allowing more power to be extracted while retaining reliability. There is good reason to believe that the latest generation of big horsepower road bikes have been made possible thanks to advances in materials and lubrication technology which have made it possible to produce that power without sacrificing reliability.