What a difference a day makes. On Sunday, the desert was calm, temperate, really quite pleasant overall, at least until the temperatures started to drop and the dew came. Monday was a different proposition altogether; Twitter was ablaze with reports of a sandstorm blowing over the Losail circuit.
As we drove to the circuit ourselves, it turned out that "sandstorm" was a bit of an exaggeration. But not by too much: winds were very strong, with plenty of gusts, and the air was laden with dust. We didn't expect to see too much action tonight, but when the horn sounded for the start of the five-hour session, bikes started to trickle out onto the track, despite the wind.
The wind would be a key player, and expose the weakness of a champion. In his daily media debrief, Jorge Lorenzo fulminated against his bike, complaining that they couldn't get a setup for the bike, they'd gone backwards, and that if they had had to race tonight, he would have been running 1'57.2s and watching the Hondas disappear doing 1'56.0s. "Even my grandmother would have been faster than me on a bike with a good setup," Lorenzo quipped.
Speaking to Lorenzo's team manager, Wilco Zeelenberg, added some nuance to Lorenzo's bleak assessment. Lorenzo's strength, and much of his speed, came from his smoothness and his ability to carry very high corner speed. When the winds are like they were tonight - powerful, blustery and unpredictable - carrying high corner speed is much harder to do: being precise is almost impossible when being buffeted by 50mph gusts of wind.
The difference was apparent in the timesheets. Early in the evening, when the buffeting was worst, Lorenzo's times were fast but inconsistent. As the winds dropped slightly, and more importantly, evened out, the gusting stopping, Lorenzo's times took on their usual, regular appearance. Lorenzo was cranking out laps like clockwork, admittedly slower than he might have wished for, but at least he was consistent once more.
High winds are Lorenzo's weakness, but that is no bad weakness to have. Through the 18 races that MotoGP goes to over the course of the year, the only race that is reliably blustery is Phillip Island; the rest are a little more sheltered and usually easier to handle. If the winds drop over the weekend, Lorenzo will be just fine; unfortunately for the 2010 World Champion, the weather is expected to be much as it was this evening: relatively cold, and with fairly strong winds.
Where Lorenzo was seething, factory Yamaha teammate Ben Spies was happy, and pleased with what they have achieved. Coming from a World Superbike may have helped the Texan, giving him an edge in muscling around a bike struggling with the wind. The question of the hour has been whether Spies will be elevated to Alien status this season, now that he has a year's experience and a factory machine at his disposal. The results of testing suggest he may have been awarded his provisional Alien license, and granted permission to operate a MotoGP bike at the very front of the pack. That status remains provisional though, and Spies may have to exercise that permission under the watchful eye of one or more fully-qualified Aliens, at least for the first third of the season.
The winners on Monday - and the winners of the test - were clearly Honda, with Casey Stoner and Dani Pedrosa lapping half a second quicker than the rest of the pack. Both men got into the 1'55s, their nearest pursuer Ben Spies in 3rd, with a lap of 1'56.294. They were, as Valentino Rossi so tellingly put it, "from another planet" and beyond the reach of anyone just at the moment.
Here too, appearances are deceptive, though. Both Pedrosa and Stoner cranked out a whole series of 1'56s, but the Spaniard only made a single foray into the 1'55s. Casey Stoner, on the other hand, put in a full 7 laps of 1'55s, in addition to his 1'56s. If Pedrosa and Stoner are from another planet, as Rossi says, then Pedrosa's planet still lies on the very far edges of the solar system. Planet Stoner, on the other hand, seems to be on the other side of the galaxy altogether.
You can tell all you need to know about Casey Stoner from his demeanor. While at Ducati, Stoner often looked frustrated and uptight, and if prompted in the correct way, could be set off to produce a string of quote-worthy lines on a whole range of subjects. To his credit, none of those subjects were ever his satisfaction with Ducati, though his signing with HRC at just the 2nd race of the season should tell you all you need to on that score. At Honda, Stoner looks different, exuding an almost serene calm, an excitement about what is to come, almost free from care.
At Ducati, meanwhile, the mood is different, and considerably blacker. Nicky Hayden put on a superb performance tonight, going round and round in circles and not really saying very much. Hayden, ever the loyal company man, would not lay the blame on anything in particular, saying merely that they needed to fix the front end, and that he was hopeful that they would find a solution soon.
The sooner the better. That front end problem was demonstrated by the fact that every Ducati rider suffered at least one crash over the course of the two-day test. All of them were related to the front end one way or another, though the riders were happy to accept at least part of the blame. Rossi's crash on Monday was due to hitting a white line, he said, while Hayden admitted to just pushing hard for a fast time on the last lap of practice, and pushing the front just a little bit too far in his eagerness for a time.
A solution is still nowhere in sight, however. Rossi reverted to the setup used by Casey Stoner at last year's race, the setup which Stoner secured pole with, set the fastest lap with, and was leading the race with. Right up until he lost the front and crashed out, that is, losing the front to a lack of grip. Stoner himself pointed out that he and his crew did not get their front end issues ironed out until after the race at Aragon, two-thirds of the way into the season. Though Stoner had a couple of crashes after that, he put those down to himself, not down to the bike.
One thing hampering development was the state of Rossi's shoulder. It was still slightly painful and week, Rossi estimating it to be at about 70% of what it ought to be. But the biggest problem, Rossi explained was just plain physical endurance. He could ride hard for a while, but the harder he rode, the quicker his shoulder would give up the ghost, and that would be the end of the day.
The problem for Rossi is that the Ducati has to be ridden with a more physical style, "more like a 500". The bike won't turn without being muscled about, and with a weakened and painful shoulder, that's too much to ask. Rossi acknowledged that he had to change his riding style, but he also added that the bike still had plenty of problems. They still don't have a setup which works, and race day is getting nearer.
Rossi may take some small comfort from the fact that race weekend has an entirely different complexion to testing. The test consisted of two five-hour days, with riders free to do as many laps as they could. The four-day schedule sees four sessions of 45 minute practice, but the really good news for the Italian is that the MotoGP class takes to the track just once on Thursday and Saturday, and twice on Friday and Sunday, with plenty of time to recuperate in between sessions. It won't be Welkom all over again, but there is a credible chance that Rossi will get a sniff of the podium on Sunday. If he doesn't suffer a front-end crash, as so many Ducatis have done during testing, that is.
Venturing out to trackside to see the bikes with my own eyes - and hear them with my own ears - I was struck by a few things. Here's what I noticed at the two days of the test:
- The relative volumes of the bikes have changed since the end of 2010. The Yamaha has become a tad louder, perhaps reflecting Valentino Rossi's penchant for a quieter bike. Rossi certainly hasn't received one from Ducati, though, the Italian machines still being by far the loudest of the bikes. The bellowing boom of the Desmosedici can be heard all the way from the other side of the track. But the biggest surprise is the Honda: the RC212V sounds significantly quieter than 2010, very much the quietest of the bunch. Horsepower, quite clearly, is not directly proportional to decibels.
- The bikes look smoother once again, the MotoGP machines looking very tight on the way into corners, and tipping in completely under control. Huge advances have clearly been made in electronics over the past few years, almost all of which have been in the area of engine braking and the slipper clutches, allowing riders to enter the corner with the wheels almost perfectly inline. Traction Control - cutting power on corner exit - is still a significant factor, but corner entry is where the voodoo magic is, where tenths are still to be gained.
- The Hondas are clearly the fastest bikes on the grid, but the hopping or chatter the bikes suffer is clear for all to see. The bike is stable on the brakes and going into the corners, but as the riders transition to full lean, the rear of the machine starts to wallow like an old 70s roadbike, reminding me for all the world of the old Suzuki GT380 I once owned. I could set wallowing off at the rear end by hitting a bump at speed while leaned over, and it felt much like the condition the Hondas seemed to be suffering. But, as Casey Stoner pointed out, if the Hondas are this quick with that problem, then there is nothing much to worry about.
Testing is done. On Sunday we race. The season starts for real on Thursday. At last.