HRC's on-again-off-again testing of their pneumatic valve engine is about to shift up a gear. After electing not to test the air valve engine for the RC212V at Estoril, the new powerplant could make an appearance at Shanghai in China. The Spanish weekly magazine Solomoto interviewed both Dani Pedrosa and team manager Kazuhika Yamano after the Estoril Grand Prix in Portugal, and Italian site GPOne.com is carrying a summary and translation into Italian of those interviews.
By far the most interesting fact to come out of that interview is that HRC will be shipping the new pneumatic valve engines to China, and allowing the riders to choose whether they want to run the bikes or not. The current plan is that both Dani Pedrosa and Nicky Hayden will be able to try the pneumatic engine during Friday free practice, and if they think it is good enough, use it in the race on Sunday. With Shanghai having two straights, one long one and one absolutely enormous one, the extra top end and acceleration could be a big help for the Hondas. For although the conventional spring engine is by no means slow, there is very little that the engineers can eke out of it.
There are, of course, several dangers to the "test on Friday, decide on Sunday" strategy, as the season opener at Qatar so aptly demonstrated. Although the FIM regulations allow teams to run as many bikes as they wish, as long as they all pass technical inspection before practice starts, in reality, teams don't like to deal with more than 2 bikes, for reasons of space, and because of the sheer amount of work which three or more bikes bring with them. Not to mention the problem of having enough time to find a decent setup on each type of machine. And so the most likely scenario is that both Nicky Hayden and Dani Pedrosa will have one bike with the new pneumatic valve engine fitted, and one with the current evolution of the spring valve engine with the new chassis which Repsol ran at both Jerez and Estoril, and Pedrosa used to win the Spanish Grand Prix at Jerez.
The problem with that strategy comes on Friday night, when the riders choose which bike they want to run for qualifying and the race. The most likely scenario, based on the events of Qatar, is that Dani Pedrosa will elect to use either one type of bike or the other, and take the two machines of the same spec, leaving Nicky Hayden with the remaining two machines. So if Pedrosa likes the air valve engine, and believes it is sufficiently reliable, then he will take both of the bikes fitted with the pneumatic valves, leaving Nicky Hayden with the conventional steel spring valve bikes, or vice versa, depending on Pedrosa's preference. This would leave Hayden holding the short straw very publicly once again, possibly precipitating a move to Ducati - who are rumored to be chasing Hayden very hard - sooner rather than later.
Although the simple solution would seem to be to just swap the air valve engine out and replace it with the spring valve lump, it isn't that easy. Honda tried to do this at Qatar, but the bike just didn't work. The pneumatic valves mean that the cylinder head is constructed differently, altering both the stiffness and the center of gravity of the engine. Using the frame tailored to the spring valve engine left the bike not feeling as it should, and for Jerez, HRC brought a new chassis, based on the frame for the pneumatic engine, but with revised stiffness. In reality, the only solution would be to supply both riders with 4 bikes, two of each type. But as stated before, that would make things so complex for both riders and teams that it is probably not a practical solution.
Reliability, or the perception of it, is likely to be the decisive factor. Both Pedrosa and Hayden are keenly aware of Valentino Rossi's experience at Misano, when Yamaha decided to field a new, relatively untested engine in an attempt to keep up with the rampant Ducati. Rossi was forced to retire after 5 laps, his engine having suffered a terminal failure. With Pedrosa standing joint top of the championship table, and Hayden keen to make amends for a disastrous title defense, neither man is likely to risk a smoky blow up on race day.