In three weeks' time, the 2013 season gets underway for all three Grand Prix classes, and motorcycle racing's winter will finally be over. Before that, there is a week of testing at Jerez, where first the Moto2 and Moto3 classes get their final run out on the track from Monday through Thursday, before MotoGP takes to the track on Saturday, Sunday and Monday.
Testing at Jerez may be affordable for GP's junior classes, but it does not come without risk. Moto2 and Moto3 tested at both Valencia and Jerez in February, and while conditions were sunny and dry, if a little cool at Valencia, the test at Jerez was very mixed indeed, with rain disrupting two of the three days of testing. This test looks just as likely to be disrupted by rain: while good weather is forecast for Monday, Wednesday and Thursday, Tuesday looks like being a total washout.
So the three days of testing at Austin are over, and what did we learn? That Marc Marquez is something special? We knew that, though we didn't perhaps realize just how special. That Yamaha really need to find more acceleration? This, too, was known, but becoming clearer every time the M1 goes up against the Honda RC213V on track. That Valentino Rossi's return does not equate to an automatic 8th MotoGP title? We suspected as much.
The first thing that became obvious is that the Austin circuit itself is pretty decent. Valentino Rossi described it as "a typical Tilke track, with corners that remind you of Shanghai and Turkey." Unsurprising, given that Herman Tilke, who also designed Shanghai, Istanbul and many other race tracks around the world, was responsible for designing the track. The input from Kevin Schwantz was helpful, though, making the track more like Istanbul than Shanghai. The circuit has a couple of highly technical sections, where you go in blind and need to have memorized which way the track goes. It is wide, giving opportunities for overtaking and braking, and has a couple of the fast, fast sweepers which motorcycle racers love.
Flights have been buzzing in and out of Austin for the better part of a week now. Mid-March is the city’s Golden Week when the confluence of spring break and South-by-Southwest (or SXSW, or just “South By”) means thousands of party-starved students from the University of Texas vacate to South Padre Island, freeing up space for thousands of aspiring musicians, filmmakers and digital mavens to crowd sponsored parties while pitching each other on their latest projects.
Amidst this year’s annual festival of creativity, a new type of visitor has filtered in to town. Their attire is adorned with sponsors unfamiliar to your typical angel-headed hipster. Their first order of business is not to find good wi-fi. They are not hawking free tacos or Nike Fuelbands to garner attention. They do not sport ironic moustaches.
Theirs is a different festival, held at a new venue southeast of town. In just over a month’s time, the fastest men will launch the fastest motorcycles headlong into the Circuit of the Americas’ intimidating layout, vying for crucial points early in the 2013 MotoGP season. Five of these riders will have a critical advantage after sampling the track and their machines over three days of private testing.
When the news that Dorna would be taking over World Superbikes broke, there was a wave of outrage among fans, expressing the fear that the Spanish company would set about destroying the series they had grown to love. So far, Dorna have been careful not to get involved in debates about the technical regulations which seem to be so close to fans' hearts, their only criteria so far appearing to be a demand that bikes should cost 250,000 euros for an entire season. Yet they have already make one move which has a serious negative impact on the series: they are clamping down on video footage from inside the paddock.
There was some consternation - and there is still some confusion - about the situation at the first round of WSBK at Phillip Island at the end of February. Where previously, teams and journalists had been free to shoot various videos inside the paddock, there were mixed signals coming from Dorna management, with some people told there was an outright and immediate ban, with threats of serious consequences should it be ignored, while others were saying that they had heard nothing on the subject. That Dorna is determined to reduce the amount of free material on Youtube became immediately clear after the race weekend was over: in previous years, brief, two-minute race summaries would appear on the official World Superbike Youtube channel after every weekend. After the first race of 2013, only the post-race interviews were posted on the site. It is a long-standing Dorna policy to try to strictly control what ends up on Youtube and what doesn't. It is their most serious mistake, and one which could end up badly damaging the sport unless it is changed very soon.
This is a battle that has been going on inside Dorna, and many other major companies involved in motorcycle racing. It is about a fundamental change in the media landscape, a shift away from centralized control towards a diffuse and distributed form of media broadcasting, communication strategy and promotion. It is a shift that is permanent, affects the way in which sports are promoted and monetized, and radically alters the balance of power throughout all levels of the sport. The old hierarchies are dead, and trying to maintain them will merely end up crippling motorcycle racing.
After an absence of some three weeks or so, the MotoGP teams once again return to action at Sepang for the second official test of the preseason. The intervening period has seen a flurry of activity in the factories in Japan and Italy, and at CRT team headquarters around Europe. The data accrued on the first visit to the Malaysian circuit has been analyzed, assessed, and more modifications made and ideas worked out for the second Sepang test. So what can we expect to see in Malaysia for the next three days? And what are the key details to keep an eye on?
The results of the first visit to Sepang went much as expected: Dani Pedrosa continued on the upward path that saw the Repsol Honda rider dominate the second half of the MotoGP season in 2012. Jorge Lorenzo kept Pedrosa honest, the factory Yamaha man sticking close to Pedrosa on all but the last day of the first test. Valentino Rossi demonstrated that he is still competitive, though he conveniently left the question of whether that is going to be good enough for podiums, wins or championships up in the air. Marc Marquez lived up to expectations, though given just how high those expectations were, that is an impressive enough feat on its own. Cal Crutchlow confirmed that he is the best of the rest, though Stefan Bradl ran him close; Bradley Smith made the kind of transition to MotoGP that validated his team boss' faith in the young Briton; and the Ducatis proved just how deep a hole they find themselves in, by finishing the test two seconds or more off the pace.
Just over 18 months ago, I wrote a long analysis of what I believed at the time was the main problem with Ducati's Desmosedici MotoGP machine. In that analysis, I attributed most of the problems with the Desmosedici to the chosen angle of the V, the angle between the front and rear cylinder banks. By sticking with the 90°V, I argued, Ducati were creating problems with packaging and mass centralization, which made it almost impossible to get the balance of the Desmosedici right. The engine was taking up too much space, and limiting their ability to adjust the weight balance by moving the engine around.
Though there was a certain logic to my analysis, it appears that the engine angle was not the problem. Yesterday, in their biweekly print edition, the Spanish magazine Solo Moto published an article by Neil Spalding, who had finally obtained photographic evidence that the Honda RC213V uses a 90°V, the same engine angle employed by the Ducati Desmosedici. Given the clear success of the Honda RC213V, there can no longer be any doubt that using a 90°V is no mpediment to building a competitive MotoGP machine.
The photographic proof comes as confirmation of rumors which had been doing the rounds in the MotoGP paddock throughout the second half of the 2012 season. Several people suggested that the Honda may use a 90° angle, including Ducati team manager Vitto Guareschi, speaking to GPOne.com back in November. I had personally been lucky enough to catch a glimpse of a naked RC213V engine at one rain-soaked race track in September, but while the glimpse through the window may have been good enough to form the impression of an engine that looked like it may have been a 90°V, it was a very long way from being anything resembling conclusive, and nowhere near enough to base a news story on.
Analyzing the Valencia Moto3 Preseason Test: The Threat of a Spanish Fairy Tale, The New Engine Manufacturer, And Real Hopes for a Shy Girl
A new Moto3 season is about to start and, even if it is obviously too soon to talk about favourite contenders for the final crown, watching the fastest riders on the track and examining lap times can give an idea of how 2013 may play out in the smallest class. After three days of testing at the Ricardo Tormo racetrack -with nicer weather everyday- it is clear that KTM is a step ahead again. But lap times are not everything and these test sessions brought some other interesting facts. Preseason is always a time for hopes, wishes and nice words, as you can conclude from the quotes of riders and teams. Spanish riders have finished as the three fastest on lap times, but we cannot forget, as many of the Spanish sports newspapers do –fortunately not the motorcycle magazines-, Valencia is a home track for them, and things may turn out quite differently at a track outside of Spain. As experience has proved in the past, the start of a season may be quite different to its end.
As many expected, Maverick Viñales looks like being the strongest rider for the upcoming season. The Spaniard was the fastest rider in almost every session and his compatriots Alex Rins and Luis Salom followed him in the final standings. However, does this mean the season will be doomed to be a Spanish fairytale? Of course, it won't be necessarily that way. There are some other quick riders, such as German Jonas Folger, new Aussie hero Jack Miller, last season's biggest Italian surprise Romano Fenati or Great Britain's youngest hope John McPhee. If we talk about technical surprises, the newborn Mahindra-Suter project has showed a great potential on its first serious outing.
Joy, determination and despair. If you had to choose three words to describe the first test of the 2013 MotoGP season, these are the words you would choose. Joy: for Valentino Rossi and his crew at finally having a bike that Rossi can ride and his team understand how to work with; for HRC, at seeing both their hopes and their expectations of Marc Marquez' ability confirmed; for Bradley Smith and Michael Laverty, at making such rapid progress on their early days in the class.
Determination: for Dani Pedrosa and Jorge Lorenzo, both working hard at preparing for their assault at a title which either could win. For Marc Marquez, focused on learning everything he can to add the consistency he needs to his raw speed, if he is to match Pedrosa and Lorenzo.
Despair: for the factory Ducati riders. Sepang showed the bike is uncompetitive, and with few avenues left to explore with the machine in its present state, despair at knowing they have many months of hard, dispiriting work ahead of them before they can even start to turn the situation around.
So what are we to make of the times posted after the second day of testing at Sepang? The order in which the four 2013 aliens finished was roughly as expected: Dani Pedrosa just edging Jorge Lorenzo, with Marc Marquez and Valentino Rossi close behind. But did this tell the whole story? Were the times down to a single fast lap by one rider, while the others were grinding out race simulations? Or is the order in which the top four finished an accurate reflection of what we can expect for the 2013 season? Is this just a testing anomaly, or is this a preview of the 2013 Championship standings at the end of the year?
Predicting the championship is a little premature on the basis of just a single day's testing, but there is still sufficient data to start trying to interpret what it all means. Thanks to the fact that the full timesheets of every lap are now available on the MotoGP.com website, we can start to dig into the numbers, and see what patterns emerge.
Just as a reminder, here is how the top four finished:
It would be one of the larger understatements of the decade to say that the first MotoGP test of the year at Sepang was eagerly anticipated. After the anti-climactic washout that was Valencia, many big questions of the 2013 season had been left hanging in the air over the winter. Given that motorcycle racing fans hate a vacuum even more than Nature does, they filled it, with speculation, conjecture, hyperbole and not a small amount of vitriol.
Would Valentino Rossi prove he still has it, or was his switch to Ducati merely the start of his downhill slide to retirement? Is Marc Marquez the real thing, or were his results in Moto2 deceptive, and down only to skullduggery on the part of his former team? Can Yamaha match the Hondas, or does the advantage which Dani Pedrosa had over the second half of the season mean it will be impossible for Jorge Lorenzo to defend his title? What of Ducati? Will Andrea Dovizioso succeed where Rossi failed, and will the Italian factory be able to claw back some of the ground they have been steadily losing to the Japanese factories since 2007?
After nearly 8 hours of track time - more than many expected, with rain forecast for the period during the test - we have answers to replace the speculation, and data to fill the gaping void created by the winter testing break. Were the answers found a surprise? That depends on your perspective. Did anyone seriously think Rossi wouldn't get closer on the Yamaha to the front runners than he did on the Ducati? No. But does the gap to Pedrosa - 0.427 seconds - mean he is fast enough to compete for the championship, or will it leave him running round in third all year? Was anyone surprised by Marquez running up front right from the off? Surely not. But who predicted he would get within a few hundredths of his teammate on just his second proper test? Did anyone seriously expect the Ducatis to have closed the gap to Honda and Yamaha? That would be crazy. But to be two seconds down?