After the burst of activity leading up to last week, things have once again calmed down in the world of international motorcycle racing. Neither MotoGP nor World Superbikes are testing – though BSB are preparing for their season by testing in Spain – and as a consequence, news is thin on the ground. But not completely absent, so here is our weekly round up of what is happening in MotoGP and WSBK. And in this case, further abroad.
Casey Stoner to make a sort of return?
The fact that Casey Stoner spent a few days lapping at Sepang at the request of HRC came as no surprise. Stoner is, after all, a fully paid-up Honda test rider, and has been put to work to help develop the Honda RC213V for this year and next. When HRC issued a press release casually mentioning that Stoner had put in a few laps on the Suzuka 8 Hour CBR1000RR endurance bike, that raised an eyebrow.
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.
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.
This is the first in a series of weekly round ups of motorcycle racing news from around the world. Every Wednesday, we will bring a brief summary of stories that did not warrant a full article of their own. So here are some stories you may have missed, for the week preceding 11th February 2015.
Ducati Desmosedici GP15 to be presented on line
It is becoming something of a tradition among the MotoGP factories: launching their MotoGP teams online. Two weeks ago, the Movistar Yamaha launched their 2015 livery in Madrid. On Monday 16th February, Ducati will be officially presenting their bikes and riders to the fans and media live on the Ducati website.
The Ducati launch is a little more significant than Yamaha's presentation, however. While the Movistar Yamaha presentation was mostly about showing off the new color scheme the factory team is to use in 2015, Ducati will be presenting the Desmosedici GP15 online. The first bike to come from the pen of Gigi Dall'Igna, this is the machine which Ducati hope will finally allow them to be fully competitive with the factory Hondas and Yamahas. The bike is expected to feature a new, more compact engine, though still a 90°V4 using desmodromic valves, fitted in a smaller chassis.
The presentation starts at 11am CET on the Ducati website. Andrea Dovizioso and Andrea Iannone will get their first ride of the bike on 23rd February, when the second Sepang test gets underway.
Should Melandri stay or should he go?
Given that Aprilia's return to MotoGP was both earlier than anticipated, and embarked upon at a very late stage, their initial times at the Sepang test could be regarded as acceptable. The new engine – with an 81mm bore and pneumatic valves – proved to be reasonably reliable, and though still down on power, at least closer to the fastest bikes. The new chassis was much less of a success, both Alvaro Bautista and Marco Melandri preferring to stay with the 2014 bike, rather than switch to the new RS-GP, as it has been dubbed.
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.
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?
Marco Melandri is to complete Aprilia's MotoGP line up for 2015. The Italian had been widely expected to switch back to MotoGP from World Superbikes, but confirmation came only on Monday at the Valencia test. Melandri will line up alongside Alvaro Bautista in the Gresini Aprilia team for next year.
The signing of Marco Melandri was not a surprise. The Italian still had another year to run on his contract to race in World Superbikes with Aprilia, but with the factory's decision to withdraw their factory team from WSBK, his options were less clear. Aprilia were keen for Melandri to move to MotoGP with the factory, but Melandri appeared to be reluctant to make the jump. After his options ran out in World Superbikes, he was left with nowhere else to go.
Below is the press release issued by Aprilia on Melandri's signing:
MARCO MELANDRI TO RACE WITH APRILIA IN MOTOGP
THE RIDER FROM RAVENNA WILL RACE UNDER THE ITALIAN TEAM'S COLOURS IN 2015
ROMANO ALBESIANO: "AN ITALIAN DUO TO TAKE ON APRILIA'S NEW CHALLENGE"
MARCO MELANDRI: "A VERY AMBITIOUS GOAL, BUT WE'RE READY"
In a few hours time, we will know who will be the 2014 World Superbike champion. Tom Sykes leads Sylvain Guintoli by 12 points going into the final two races at Qatar. With 50 points up for grabs, the title race is still completely open, and in a series as close as World Superbikes has been this year, anything could happen.
What both Sykes and Guintoli need are help from their teammates. Guintoli most of all: if the Frenchman is to be champion, he will need someone, such as his Aprilia teammate Marco Melandri, to get in between him and the Kawasaki of Sykes. Sykes, on the other hand, can wrap up the title by winning both races, or at least finishing ahead of Guintoli. If he can't finish ahead of the Frenchman, then he will hope that his teammate Loris Baz can assist.
As loyal teammates, surely Melandri and Baz will be happy to help? That was only partially the case at the last round in Magny-Cours. In race one, Melandri theatrically waved Guintoli past and into the lead, making it patently obvious that victory was Melandri's to dispense as he saw fit, and he was prepared to allow his teammate to win this time. Further back, Baz did the same same for Sykes, though without making quite as much of a song and dance about it as Melandri did.
Race two was a different affair. Once again, Melandri led, and could grant victory to Guintoli if he wanted to. He chose not to, taking the win – despite his pit board making the feelings of his team very clear indeed, for the second race in a row – and taking 5 precious points from Guintoli. If Melandri had obeyed team orders and moved over, then Guintoli would have trailed Sykes by 7 points instead of 12. That would put Guintoli's destiny in his own hands: win both races, and it would not matter what Sykes did. Now, Guintoli needs help, he needs someone between him and the Englishman. Will his teammate come to his rescue this time? Will the Aprilia WSBK team issue team orders again, commanding Melandri to serve the cause of Guintoli's championship challenge?
It is to be a weekend of announcements, most of them already widely expected. The most widely trailed move has now been confirmed officially: from 2015, Aprilia is to return to MotoGP with the Gresini Racing team.
Aprilia and Gresini have reached agreement for the next four seasons, with Gresini running the Italian factory's team through 2018. The partnership benefits both sides: by entering via Gresini, Aprilia will save €3.4 million in their first year in the class, an important saving which will allow them to spend more resources on development. The partnership was important to Gresini, as having lost their sponsorship from Go&Fun, the future of the team's places in MotoGP was under severe threat. Aprilia's funding will now keep them in the premier class.
No riders have been announced, but it is widely anticipated that Marco Melandri wil return from World Superbikes to race the Aprilia, where he will partner with current Gresini rider Alvaro Bautista. Gresini may also be looking to retain Scott Redding, but Redding is keen to ride the Honda RC213V stipulated in his contract. With the 2015 Aprilia being an uprated version of the ART machine currently being ridden by Danilo Petrucci, that bike is unlikely to be competitive. For 2016, Aprilia will be bringing an all-new machine, only loosely based on the current ART.