The second and final test at Sepang is over, and if you needed to get a feel for the mood among the teams, all you need to do is read the press releases. The tone of the Repsol Honda press release is positively jubilant, and with good reason. As predicted - even by members of remote tribes in the depths of the Amazon forest who have never even heard of MotoGP - Casey Stoner and Dani Pedrosa smashed the 2'00 barrier for the first time on two wheels. Even more impressive was when: Stoner on just his second flying lap, Pedrosa managing it on the third. Both men followed up with an impressive race simulation, with a handful of 2'00s and a truckload of 2'01s, fast enough to have blitzed last year's race by a giant margin. The Hondas, as you have now heard ad nauseam, are fast.
Compare and contrast with Ducati. When the title of the press release is merely "Last Day Of Testing For Ducati Marlboro In Malaysia," then you know they're in trouble. Fastest of the Ducatis was once again Hector Barbera, the Mapfre Aspar rider ending the day in 10th, nearly 1.7 seconds off the time of Casey Stoner. Valentino Rossi, returning to testing after missing yesterday due to a fever, could manage just the 11th fastest time, 1.8 seconds behind Stoner, and with an identical time to his teammate Nicky Hayden.
Rossi was almost despondent in tone, speaking of his disappointment at being so far behind, and of his dismay at not being able to ride the Desmosedici in the way that he wanted. The problem is mid-corner, getting the bike to turn. The Ducati just does not go in the direction that he wants it to, and Rossi said he was losing time having to drop speed to get the bike to turn.
The amount of work that is going on is apparent from what is NOT being changed. Gone is the new fairing with the winglets, replaced by an older, more traditional, slimmer version. It was felt that the winglets were making the bike harder to turn, and anything getting in the way of turning is being ditched. Most of the new parts which Ducati have worked so hard to produce over the winter - the revised subframe, the 42mm Ohlins - have sat idle in the corner of Rossi's garage, as the seven-time MotoGP champ has chased a setup, working on his seating position and the balance of the bike.
None of that has helped. Rossi still cannot use the hard front tire, the one preferred by the fastest riders during the race, as he is still not getting enough feedback out of it. Ducati still has a lot of work to do.
Rossi's problems raise an interesting question, one that has so far been rather lost in the clamor surrounding the Italian's times. The difficulty Rossi has is mid-corner, at the point where he is just coming off the brakes and trying to get the bike to turn. It was exactly this point where Casey Stoner suffered his string of unexplained front-end washouts in 2010, which suggests there may be an underlying fundamental problem.
The finger of blame is being pointed - by the fans at least - at the carbon fiber chassis the Ducati uses. Though getting a CF frame to work is tricky, there are more ways in which the Ducati differs from the Japanese MotoGP bikes, and other candidates for causing the trouble. The length of Ducati's 90 degree V4 (which Ducati calls an L4) is one, as the engine's length severely limits the options for its location, and consequently the possibilities to influence the center of gravity. But also the shortness of the subframe, with short struts allowing less precise control over the degree of flex in the chassis, though this was one reason for choosing carbon fiber in the first place.
The minor kerfuffle raised over Honda's alleged use of DCT was also cleared up on Thursday, with the head of HRC Shuhei Nakamoto conceding that they did have something new in their gearbox, but that it was most emphatically not Honda's Dual Clutch Technology, neither was it illegal. It did help change gears quicker though, Nakamoto pleading ignorance over the precise details of the change.
While the clutch issue has been settled for the moment, the question of the chassis is still not entirely fixed. Casey Stoner had been caught between two versions of the 2011 chassis - one stiffer than the other - but has now decided which of the pair he prefers. Dani Pedrosa, meanwhile, told the press he had been testing a revised 2011 chassis and a 2010 chassis, but he was yet to make up his mind on which he preferred. Whether the chassis that Pedrosa and Stoner are talking about are all the same, or whether Honda has brought at least three, and possibly more, chassis for the Repsol Honda team to test is unclear. Whatever they brought to Sepang, they all worked.
At Yamaha, work is proceeding apace, the only complaint being a lack of power, and punch off the corners. Jorge Lorenzo is the more worried of the pair, voicing his concerns that the Hondas were probably half a second a lap quicker than the competition at Sepang. Lorenzo's team manager Wilco Zeelenberg was much less concerned, pointing to the fact that at other tracks, the Yamaha will be more than capable of matching the Honda's pace.
The performance of Ben Spies gives plenty of credence to that claim. Spies was quietly brilliant, fast, smooth and close to the Hondas, or as close as might reasonably be expected when Pedrosa and Stoner are in such blistering form. Spies expressed the opinion that should they have to race tomorrow, he felt he would be able to contend for the win. Spies confidence was echoed by Colin Edwards, the Texan veteran expressing his joy with the bike. The fact that Edwards ended the day ahead of Jorge Lorenzo will have contributed to his pleasure: if he can match the pace of the factory bikes, then he knows he is in with a chance of success in 2011.
The teams now leave Malaysia behind, and head off to Qatar for the final test, before the season opener on March 20th. If Ducati are to be competitive at Losail, they will need to find some solutions in the two weeks between now and the test there in two weeks time. Test rider Franco Battaini is at Jerez, with MotoGP director Filippo Preziosi, working on a bunch of solutions to their problems. Whether Ducati succeed or fail, it will not be for want of trying.