Pity poor Jorge Lorenzo. Once again he comes to a test and tops the timesheets, and everyone is talking about someone else. This time, though, he will probably not mind, as he was not really out for glory at the test, just to work on settings before heading to the next test at Aragon on Wednesday. If it isn't rained off that is.
Lorenzo chose to skip the morning session, preferring to rest after an impressive win on Sunday, but once underway he was quickly up to speed hitting the top three after just a couple of laps, and ending the day on top. The Factory Yamaha man had been working on set up, but had also tested a new fuel tank. The new tank does not change the weight balance from the current version used by the factory riders, but it does have a slightly different shape to fit under the seat more comfortably and allow Lorenzo to position himself better on the bike.
On the other side of the garage, Valentino Rossi was once again pursuing weight distribution changes to improve his feel with the bike, especially to help him in braking. A more radical change was planned for the afternoon, but a fast crash at Turn 3 left the bike damaged, meaning that plan had to be abandoned. Rossi returned to the track at the end of the day to test the new rear tire Bridgestone had brought, and was positive about the feel of the tire. The new construction hard rear tire was a clear improvement, Rossi said, and it was good for the hard rear to once again be an option. So far this year, the only tire that has worked at most tracks has been the softer option, leaving the riders with a de facto rear allocation of just seven rears for a weekend.
In the Tech 3 garage, the focus was on riding with a full tank. Both Cal Crutchlow and Bradley Smith had spent their time on track riding with a full tank, and both had found improvements for the start of the race. The first seven to eight laps, when the fuel is in the top section of the tank, is where they struggle most, and this is where the Tech 3 men had focused their efforts. Smith's test was cut short as he had to leave the track early to prepare for surgery. The English rookie was scheduled for surgery in the evening, to have a skin graft on the finger he injured at Mugello, as well as a screw fitted in his cracked scaphoid.
Cal Crutchlow also spent some time on the newest version of the 2013 chassis, the frame which had been tested and rejected by Valentino Rossi and Jorge Lorenzo, though Lorenzo raced the frame at Qatar. Crutchlow's comments on the frame were the same as the factory riders, he told reporters. The chassis was better in braking stability, but less good everywhere else. Once back on his chassis - the one used by Lorenzo from Aragon onwards in 2012 - he was much more comfortable, Crutchlow said.
At Ducati, there were few, if any, signs of progress. Both Nicky Hayden and Andrea Dovizioso had tried the new lab bike chassis, but neither were particularly impressed. Dovizioso felt it gave a small improvement on corner entry, but it also created more pumping on corner exit. It gave no improvement in lap time, so there was not much point in using it. Hayden said he actually felt less comfortable on the new frame, finding some set up improvements on his standard GP13 that helped him a lot. Both men were clear: if Ducati is to make real progress, bigger changes are needed, and changes which address the fundamental problems of the bike: understeer, pumping on corner exit, and a general lack of feel.
But all eyes were fixed on Suzuki, and how the bike would do on its first public outing. Given that Randy de Puniet managed to get the new XRH1 (as the Suzuki prototype is currently called) within eight tenths of the time of Lorenzo. Even more impressive was the fact that De Puniet was capable of running those times consistently. His fastest lap was set during a string of three consecutive 1'42s, and prior to that run, he had been setting 1'43s and another 1'42. "I like the position, I feel very comfortable on the bike. It is easy to do many laps and be consistent. The base of the bike is already at a high level, so we just need to improve," the Frenchman said afterwards.
The biggest problem for the Frenchman was that he had no problems, and so very little to actually improve. The bike was reliable, and made good power - I watched as De Puniet followed Lorenzo along the main straight, visibly maintaining pace with the Yamaha M1. By the time they returned to cross the main straight, the gap was appreciably bigger, though, and this is clearly where Suzuki have to work. "I like the feeling from the front but we need to work on it to get the corner speed," De Puniet said.
What is the bike like? Well it looks and sounds an awful lot like a Yamaha M1. The sound is very similar - a flat, booming drone - though the pitch appears a little higher, and the bike is a little quieter. The engine layout looks similar, with the gearbox configuration almost a carbon copy. The clutch, located on the input shaft, is up high, just as it is on the Yamaha, to allow for a longer swingarm.
Peeking through the fairing side vent, you can just see the camshaft cover, which hints at a very forward sloping engine. This is also similar to the Yamaha, though if I had to guess - and it is no more than that - it appears to be a little further from the vertical than the Yamaha.
The chassis seems rather frail by modern MotoGP standards, though that may merely be an illusion. The chassis beams on the Yamaha and Honda are taller, but Suzuki may have found a different way to manage stiffness.
The big question is, of course, if De Puniet was so fast on the bike, why are Suzuki waiting until 2015 to make a return to the series? The challenge is twofold, and was explained by Suzuki's MotoGP project leader, Satoru Terada. First, there are the electronics, with Suzuki so far using the Mitsubishi system from the previous V4 GSVR 800. From 2014, all MotoGP bikes, whether factory or non-factory, will have to use the Magneti Marelli standard ECU. MSMA entries will be free to develop their own software, in exchange for being limited to 20 liters of fuel. Suzuki, who wish to come in as an MSMA entry, and will therefore have 20 liters of fuel and 5 engines, have not yet started on porting their software to the Magneti Marelli system, and were not due to start until the autumn, Terada explained.
The bigger challenge could prove to be the fuel consumption, however. Just 20 liters of fuel to last for a 120 kilometer race is very little indeed, with Yamaha already struggling at some tracks with the current 21 liters. "This is very hard for us," Terada told reporters. "Especially fuel consumption is very hard for us, so we have to develop the fuel consumption." So difficult will it be to maintain performance while consuming so little fuel that Suzuki require another year of development to before they believe they can hit their target.
The difficulties faced by Suzuki point to the madness of the rules imposed by the MSMA on the series. Remaining competitive at this level with just 20 liters of fuel is a Herculean task, and one which requires vast amounts of time and effort to achieve. The fuel rules demanded by the current MotoGP factories are effectively functioning as a barrier to entry to any new manufacturers interested in the class, and preventing new factories from coming in. As a way of limiting competition in MotoGP, fuel limits are an excellent tool. It is much easier to win championships when your rivals simply cannot afford to compete, but this also debases the nature of competition. It effectively allows factories to buy MotoGP titles, by pricing everyone else out of the sport.
Give bikes more fuel, and it is still possible to compete, however, as Aleix Espargaro's stunning time on his Aprilia ART machine demonstrated at the test. Espargaro spent the day testing frames, and found a new frame good enough to get him within two thirds of a second of Jorge Lorenzo, on a bike which has a good 30 horsepower less than the factory Yamaha. That time wasn't even set on the full-power Aprilia RSV4 engine. Espargaro has two of the high-power spec Aprilia engines, which he is saving for use in the race. Instead, he used the lower power engine to set what is a deeply respectable time.
If the ART is so down on power, where is the lap time coming from? Quite simply from handling, the bike gets through corners well and is very easy to ride. The bike is especially good in braking, Espargaro explained. It's weakest point - apart from horsepower, naturally - is in corner exit.
That a small workshop can produce a sound chassis was proved by the PBM team and Michael Laverty. Laverty said that the chassis had come on in leaps and bounds, and he had found some further improvements during the test. He had recently suffered a spate of front end crashes, with the front wheel letting go while leaned over if the bike encountered bumps. Laverty was delighted to have found a solution in the set up of the bike which prevented the front from folding in those conditions. It hadn't prevented a crash in the morning, but by the afternoon, Laverty was ahead of one ART machine, and under a tenth behind another. Solid progress for a bike which only got its first run out on track in Malaysia, less than five months ago.
The test complete, the factory Yamaha team and Suzuki head to Aragon, where they will join the Honda teams for a test. At least that is the plan: judging by the weather forecast for Aragon, they will head to the circuit to spend two days sitting in the garage watching the rain fall. Honda may come to regret their decision to skip the Barcelona test.