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.
Kawasaki's Tom Sykes leaves the two-day official World Superbike test with his authority firmly stamped on the WSBK field. The Yorkshireman was nearly a quarter of a second faster than Aprilia's Sylvain Guintoli, and nearly four tenths quicker than his teammate Loris Baz. Marco Melandri was six tenths off the pace of Sykes, with the Ducatis of Davide Giugliano and Chaz Davies setting the fifth and sixth best times.
Neither Sykes nor Baz had much to work on besides further perfecting set up of the Kawasaki ZX-10R. The development work was handed to EVO rider David Salom, who spent time developing the 2015 version of the bike Kawasaki will race next year. Despite the rule changes coming next season, the Kawasaki is still more closer to a Superbike than an EVO bike, Kawasaki manager Guim Roda told German website Speedweek.
MotoMatters.com is delighted to feature the work of iconic MotoGP writer Mat Oxley. Oxley is a former racer, TT winner and highly respected author of biographies of world champions Mick Doohan and Valentino Rossi, and currently writes for Motor Sport Magazine, where he is MotoGP correspondent. We are featuring sections from Oxley's blogs, which are posted in full on the Motor Sport Magazine website.
Homage to Catalunya
In September Scotland will decide whether it wants to split from Great Britain, after three centuries together. Two months later the Catalan people will vote in a referendum to decide whether Catalunya will split from Spain, also after 300 years together, following the conquest of the region by the Bourbon kings.
This is a huge political issue, much bigger than anything to do with motorcycling, but if Catalunya does gain the independence it craves it will become the greatest bike racing nation on earth, even greater than Spain.
Press releases from the series organizer and the World Superbike and World Supersport teams after the first day of practice at Imola:
Press releases from some of the World Superbike teams after the latest test at Jerez:
Press releases issued by some of the World Superbike and World Supersport teams present at the Portimao test held over the past few days:
Press releases from some of the World Superbike teams after the test at Jerez:
With the uncertainty surrounding the World Superbike series easing up, the outlines of the 2014 season are starting to become clear. The test after the final round of the 2013 season at Jerez turned into an audition for some of the riders, with riders still searching for a team for next season.
In the days since that test, news has been emerging of rider signings and team plans for 2014. While both the Pata Honda and factory Kawasaki line ups were known, the future of the Aprilia and Ducati teams was still uncertain, with doubts over whether one or both of the Italian factories might pull out of World Superbikes. Ducati confrmed their intention to continue in 2014 earlier this week, while today, Aprilia have also stated their intention to keep racing next year. Aprilia have also confirmed the signing of Marco Melandri, something which had long been expected. Melandri will line up alongside Sylvain Guintoli for the 2014 season.
With all of the prototype seats occupied for 2014 - barring a contractual bust up between Ducati and Ben Spies, which is only an expensive theoretical possibility at the moment - battle has commenced for the rest of the MotoGP seats regarded as being most competitive. While the factory bikes - the bikes in the factory and satellite teams being raced as MSMA entries - are all taken, the privateer machines - using Dorna spec ECU software and extra fuel - are still mostly up for grabs.
The three most highly sought after machines are the 2013 Yamaha M1s to be leased by the NGM Forward squad, Honda's production racer (a modified RC213V with a standard gearbox and metal spring instead of pneumatic valves) and the Aprilia ART bikes, which are an increasingly heavily modified version of Aprilia's RSV4 superbike. Of the three, only the ART machine is a known quantity, with Aleix Espargaro and Randy de Puniet having raced the bikes with some success in 2012 and 2013, joined by Yonny Hernandez and Karel Abraham this year. Teams and riders will have to guess about the performance of the Yamahas and Hondas, though given the basis of the two machines, it is a safe bet they will be relatively competitive.
The most popular machine among riders is the Yamaha M1, naturally enough. The bike is a near complete 2013 machine, with a few parts excluded, such as the fuel tank, and will utilize the spec ECU software from Dorna, being developed by the current CRT teams. Given just how good the 2013 M1 is - Jorge Lorenzo and Valentino Rossi have won races on it, Cal Crutchlow has scored regular podiums - it is expected to be the best privateer machine on the grid next season, and anyone hoping to advance in the series is angling for a ride on it.
And so Giovanni Cuzari, the team boss of Forward, is a very popular man with the riders. He has had talks with almost everyone who is anyone, including current Pata Honda World Superbike rider Johnny Rea, Aspar's Aleix Espargaro, now rideless Nicky Hayden, current BMW World Superbike man Marco Melandri, IODA Came's Danilo Petrucci, as well as current Forward riders Colin Edwards and Claudio Corti, and Forward's Moto2 rider Alex De Angelis.