Marc Marquez was heaped with praise in the media after his first laps on the Repsol Honda at Valencia on Wednesday. So much praise that some MotoGP fans grew sceptical, questioning whether ending the test over a second behind his new teammate and fastest man Dani Pedrosa was the great result that was being touted by the press. After all, Marquez had finished just 7th, behind all of the prototype riders from last year, and that was without the presence of Jorge Lorenzo and Valentino Rossi on the factory Yamahas.
So who is right? Are the media right to be excited about the times Marquez posted on Wednesday, or are they still blinded by his performance on Sunday, winning the Moto2 race from the back of the grid? Are the fans correct to point to his position, behind the satellite bikes despite being on a factory Honda? One answer may lie in the times.
Perhaps the best way of measuring Marquez' debut is by comparing his times with those set by others on their first test in MotoGP. Comparing the times directly should be pointless, as conditions varied significantly between the tests in recent years. A more appropriate way of comparing times is to compare the difference beween the fastest time posted by each rookie, and the fastest time set at the test that year. The fastest time set at each test then acts as a benchmark, with each rookie measured against that, instead of directly between years. In theory, the better a rider, the closer they will be to the fast guys from the very start. The table below makes that comparison for the highest-profile rookies who entered the class since 2009.
That comparison clearly vindicates Marquez. Though the young Spaniard is over a second off the time of Pedrosa, that is four tenths closer to the front than any other rider making their debut in MotoGP. Cal Crutchlow was the next fastest man on his debut, getting within a second and a half of Jorge Lorenzo in his first test in MotoGP. Compare Marquez to Marco Simoncelli, a rider closing in on MotoGP success before his tragic death at Sepang, and Marquez comes out even more favorably: where Marquez was over a second off the pace, Simoncelli was nearly two seconds slower than fastest man Casey Stoner in November 2009. Compare Marquez against Stefan Bradl, the man he lost the 2011 Moto2 championship to, and the Spaniard is even better, Bradl ending the 2011 Valencia test 2.3 seconds slower than Dani Pedrosa's fastest time that year. Crutchlow and Simoncelli both went on to podium in their second year in MotoGP, and Bradl came pretty close in his first year in the class.
Yet there are even more factors that speak out in Marquez' favor. Marquez is not just fastest in relative terms, he is fastest in absolute terms as well. And this is not just down to the 1000cc bikes being faster than the old 800s, especially now they have an extra year of development on them: if you order the times set by the fastest rider each year, then Pedrosa's 2012 lap is actually the slowest of the lot, over half a second slower than his time from 2011, four tenths off the pace of Casey Stoner in 2009, and three tenths slower than Jorge Lorenzo's fastest lap from 2010. That is down to the conditions: in previous years, the test has taken place on a dry track, though with often cold and windy conditions. By the time the track closed on Wednesday afternoon in 2012, the Valencia circuit was almost completely dry, with still just a few damp patches in the first corner.
It is true that Marquez is the only rider to have a factory bike - with the exception of Alvaro Bautista, who went straight into the factory Suzuki team and ended the test just under a second slower than his erstwhile teammate Loris Capirossi - and the Honda is clearly an outstanding bike. Just how much faster the factory RC213V is than the satellite bikes ridden by the other rookies on their debut is a bone of contention: at the first test for each rider, most of the work being done is familiarizing the rookie with the machine and the tires, helping them adapt their riding style to the bike and tires and get their heads around a far more complicated MotoGP machine. Little time is spent chasing an ideal set up, and looking for the final few tenths which a factory bike might offer, that only comes once the season gets underway.
But the real measure of how impressive Marquez' time was comes when you take into account just how quickly Marquez got up to speed. The Spaniard went out late on Wednesday afternoon, the second day of testing, having missed all of the first day and the morning of the second due to the weather. He completed 28 full laps, his 28th and final being the lap that brought him back to the pits, in four exits. By any measure, Marquez' debut was severely curtailed by the weather.
That was not the case for riders in previous years. Simoncelli, for example, had two full days of testing spread over three days, completing a total of 165 laps. Crutchlow had 133 laps spread out over two full days, while Bradl had a 'mere' 123 laps in two days. Even Andrea Iannone has had more laps, a full test at Mugello earlier in the year, and 96 laps in different conditions at Valencia. Though it is impossible to say how fast Marquez would have been had he also had two full days of testing, the margin by which he improved his time on each exit suggests there was much more still to come: 1:35.846, 1:35.201, 1:34.522, 1:33.403.
The enthusiasm with which the press reported on Marquez' MotoGP debut was not just hype, meant to boost the profile of another Spanish rider who has been carefully groomed for success, with the backing of Spanish oil giant Repsol. Watching Marquez learn his way around a MotoGP bike in just a few laps was impressive enough, but when you stack his numbers up against any entrant into the class, it is clear that it is a very special talent we are watching.
Rookie times at end of first MotoGP test:
|Year||Rider||Bike||Time||Best time||Fastest rider||Diff.||Previous|
|2012||Marc Marquez1||Honda||1:33.403||1:32.322||Dani Pedrosa||1.081|
|2010||Cal Crutchlow||Yamaha||1:33.483||1:32.012||Jorge Lorenzo||1.471||0.390|
|2012||Andrea Iannone2||Ducati||1:33.833||1:32.322||Dani Pedrosa||1.511||0.430|
|2010||Karel Abraham||Ducati||1:33.793||1:32.012||Jorge Lorenzo||1.781||0.700|
|2009||Hector Barbera||Ducati||1:33.787||1:31.900||Casey Stoner||1.887||0.806|
|2009||Marco Simoncelli||Honda||1:33.856||1:31.900||Casey Stoner||1.956||0.875|
|2012||Bradley Smith3||Yamaha||1:34.538||1:32.322||Dani Pedrosa||2.216||1.135|
|2009||Alvaro Bautista||Suzuki||1:34.163||1:31.900||Casey Stoner||2.263||1.182|
|2011||Stefan Bradl||Honda||1:34.142||1:31.807||Dani Pedrosa||2.335||1.254|
|2009||Hiroshi Aoyama||Honda||1:34.821||1:31.900||Casey Stoner||2.921||1.840|
Year: The year of the rider's first test
Rider, Bike: The name of the rider and the manufacturer of the bike they were riding
Time: The fastest time they set throughout the test
Best time: The fastest time set by any rider at that test
Fastest rider: The name of the rider setting the fastest time at that test
Diff: The difference between the fastest lap set by the rookie, and the fastest time sat at that test
Previous: The difference of differences, i.e. how much slower each rookie was than the fastest rider at the test the rookie made their debut
Times were compared for the tests for the years 2009, 2010, 2011 and 2012, as those were the data which were most readily available.