On a dry track, Sterilgarda Ducati's Shane Byrne continued to do what he's been doing all weekend: dominate the proceedings. But though the veteran Brit ended the day on top of the timesheets, and half a second faster than Troy Bayliss' race lap record, he didn't have it all his own way. It was Suzuki's Max Neukirchner who topped the timesheets for a large chunk of the session, before Xerox Ducati's Noriyuki Haga deposed the young German.
With the weather playing along, the afternoon session for the Supersport machinery turned out some impressive times. Kenan Sofuoglu's race lap record from November was bettered by no less than 10 riders, with the Spanish Kawasaki rider Joan Lascorz once again topping the timesheets. Britain's Cal Crutchlow continued his run of second fastest times, by finishing just 5/100ths behind Lascorz, but ahead of the man who won here back in November last year, Ten Kate Honda's Kenan Sofuoglu.
The track is starting to dry out at Portimao, and the World Supersport bikes are starting to fly. Reigning World Supersport Champion Andrew Pitt heads the timesheet in the first session, ahead of his Ten Kate Honda team mate and 2007 champion Kenan Sofuoglu. British rookie Cal Crutchlow is third fastest on the Yamaha, ahead of yesterday's fastest man Joan Lascorz on the Kawasaki. But there's nothing in it: less than 1/10th of a second separates the top four men, and Pitt is just 1/100ths of a second slower than the lap record Kenan Sofuoglu set here in November.
Another day, another drenched start to the World Superbike tests at Portimao, and another morning of riders sitting in their garages waiting for the weather to clear. Only fourteen riders braved the morning rain, and as the track started to dry out towards the end of the session, it was Troy Corser who set the fastest time ahead of Ruben Xaus, the factory BMWs finally making a strong impression on the timesheets. Talented Czech Jakub Smrz set the third fastest time, ahead of Shinya Nakano on the Aprilia. Testing continues this afternoon.
Shane 'Shakey' Byrne topped the timesheets once again during the second session of testing at the Portimao circuit. The British rider was fastest in both the wet and the dry conditions on the first day of official testing in 2009, putting his satellite Sterilgarda Ducati ahead of the factory machine of Michel Fabrizio. After sitting out the wet morning session, newcomer Ben Spies hit the track to set the third fastest time, some 4/10ths slower than Byrne.
The weather is improving in Portugal, and times are dropping considerably. In the second session of Supersport testing, it was Joan Lascorz who started off quickest, edging Cal Crutchlow by 1/10th of a second, with former WSS champion Kenan Sofuoglu setting the third fastest time. Dutchman Barry Veneman's fourth quickest times means that four different brands set the four fastest times for this session, a promising start to the 2009 season. Testing continues tomorrow.
Since the official announcement that Kawasaki has decided to pull out of MotoGP, a number of people - most notably, Dorna CEO Carmelo Ezpeleta - have been working furiously on finding a way of keeping the bikes on the grid. The phone lines between Kawasaki's Akashi base, Dorna's Barcelona headquarters, the Kawasaki MotoGP team's base in Heerlen in the Netherlands, and Jorge Martinez in Spain have been positively humming.
Rain continues along the Algarve coast, and as in the Supersport field, a number of riders have elected to stay dry and relatively warm in the Portimao circuit's capacious and comfortable garages. Of the brave souls who have ventured out, reigning British Superbike champion Shane Byrne is fastest, ahead of Ulsterman Johnny Rea, confirming every prejudice about the British weather. Michel Fabrizio is third fastest, on the factory Ducati.
Testing continues this afternoon.
The first results are starting to come through from the first test of the season, and it was the World Supersport riders who had the dubious privilege of kicking off the year in sodden conditions. British rookie Cal Crutchlow is fastest of the bunch so far, but it's clear the conditions are wreaking havoc on the times.
Honda's withdrawal from Formula 1 earlier this year unleashed a wave of bad news - and a tsunami of speculation - about the fates of the teams in all forms of motorcycle racing. Despite all the speculation, the only real casualty - so far - has been Kawasaki. But after the Honda announcement of it's F1 exit, there were even stories that the Japanese motoring giant could pull out of MotoGP. The world awaited breathlessly as Honda CEO Takeo Fukui's press conference came and went, and gave a sigh of relief when no mention was made of MotoGP. Motorcyle racing was safe.
Or so it seemed. Yesterday, a Honda spokeswoman announced that they would be cutting back on their motorcycle racing program, including withdrawing their factory team from the prestigious Suzuka 8 Hour race. This news is in itself remarkable, as this event is the high point of the Japanese motorcycle racing season, and a race at which the rivalry between the Japanese factories reaches its zenith. Winning the Suzuka 8 Hours is an absolute necessity, to all of the Japanese Big Four.
So important is the race that the factories always draft in their major stars from around the world to participate, often as a "reward" for outstanding performance. The riders don't always see racing at Suzuka as a reward - the race takes place in July, in the middle of the summer break for the world championship series, right after the busiest period of the year - but they take it as an honor to be invited. Most of the big names have raced their over the years, and the 2008 race was won by Carlos Checa and Ryuichi Kiyonari.
Honda's withdrawal does not mean that there will be no Hondas on the grid. Only the factory team won't race this year, but the Honda spokeswoman told the press that they would still help the remaining teams on Hondas: "We are continuing to supply machines to other teams," she told the press.
If 2008 went into the history books as a rain-hit motorcycle racing season, 2009 looks like starting off in much the same vein. The full World Superbike paddock is gathering at Portugal's magnificent Portimao circuit, ready for a three-day test, but so far, it looks like they could be disappointed. A number of Formula 1 teams have been testing there for the past few days, and not much testing has been done, as torrential rain, mist and even hail dogged the sessions.
The weather forecast for the next three days only looks a little better. Rain is predicted for Friday and Sunday, with Saturday likely to be the only day with weather good enough to produce meaningful results.
Which is a terrible shame. For all seven factory teams are present in Portugal, and the first chance to see where the complex combinations of new and old riders aboard new and old bikes all stand relative to one another. But there is one minor upside to the dismal weather: conditions during the final round of the 2008 World Superbike championship at Portimao were similarly difficult, and so there is a good chance that the times from qualifying there may prove a decent guide to just how fast the new teams all are.
Both World Superbike and World Supersport classes are due to be testing this weekend, but as well as testing, the riders will also be trying out the new "knock out qualifying" superpole format. At the end of each day, the fastest 20 riders will try out the new qualifying format, to allow the InFront Motor Sports group - the renamed FGSport organization - to test how that format will be run.
But whatever the weather, the Portimao test marks a bright day in the life of motorcycle racing fans around the world. Racing motorcycles are about to take to the track in anger once again, and that means that competitive racing is not far behind.
Here's an interesting question: If you had to guess which country had the most MotoGP fans, which one would you choose? The first countries that spring to mind in association with motorcycle racing are always Spain and Italy, and as Italy is the bigger country, and what's more, MotoGP is more popular than even soccer, a sport which drives the Italians into a frenzy, then the answer must be Italy, right?
Wrong. Though the Italians and Spanish are clearly MotoGP-mad, they're not the biggest fans. According to Google Trends, which maps searches and news items from Google searches from around the world, the country with the most MotoGP maniacs is Indonesia.
In its advantage, the population of the Southeast Asian republic is around 240 million, as opposed to 40 million in Spain and 60 million in Italy, but as these statistics are based on searches on Google, what is important is not population, but internet penetration. According to the Internet World Stats website, Indonesia has 25 million internet users, the same number as Spain, while Italy has some 33 million internet users. And according to the Google Trends statistics, Indonesians search for "motogp" approximately 3 times as often as Italians, and search for "moto gp" some 40% more often than Italians.
Italy finished second in the MotoGP search stakes, ahead of their eternal rivals Spain, while Hungary was the country with the fourth largest number of MotoGP-related searches - possibly a reflection of the growing popularity of the sport there and the success of former 125 champion Gabor Talmasci.
Since the global financial crisis struck home in MotoGP, and indeed all forms of motor racing, the dominant theme of all and any news about MotoGP has been about the need for the series to cut costs. There has been no shortage of ideas from team owners, journalists and Dorna CEO Carmelo Ezpeleta, all of which have included various proposals for rule changes, some more radical than the next.
The one group we hadn't heard from is perhaps the most important group, the engineers and bike designers. Fortunately, Motorcycle News' Matthew Birt had the bright idea of talking to Filippo Preziosi, the technical genius behind the Ducati Desmosedici bike which carried Casey Stoner to a championship in 2007 and 2nd place in 2008.
Preziosi's responses make absolutely clear the problems faced by anyone attempting to use the rulebook to cut costs: "Every modification to the rules pushed us to spend more money," he told MCN. He points out that every change to the rules forced the engineers to find ways to exploit the new rules as efficiently as possible, and try and get the most out of the new situation. All that R&D costs large amounts of money, and drastically pushes up costs.
The same holds true for any attempt to limit electronics, according to Preziosi. More money would be spent examining how to take advantage of a new rules package, and costs would go up. What's more, the Italian engineering genius points out, the rules would be almost impossible to police.
The Kawasaki story isn't the only drama that is playing itself out in MotoGP at the moment. Though the factory Ducati team is able to raise extra money almost at will, the Pramac team has been suffering since the withdrawal of its title sponsor, the Italian telecoms company Alice.
Things were thought to be so bad that speculation mounted that Pramac would only be able to field a single bike for Mika Kallio. It was rumored that Niccolo Canepa would take the other bike to Sete Gibernau's Grupo Francisco Hernando team, as the Spanish property magnate has spoken openly of his willingness to pour money into the MotoGP team.
Now, the well-connected Ducati fan site DucatiCorseFriends.com is carrying a statement that this is not the case. Members of the Pramac team told DCF that Canepa would be staying with Pramac.
This does not necessarily mean that both Kallio and Canepa would be wearing the same colors. Team manager Paolo Campinoti has suggested on several occasions that the two riders could bear the logos of different sponsors. And there has been a good deal of speculation that Grupo Francisco Hernando could be one of the sponsors interested in appearing on a Pramac Ducati. The deal would allow GFH to get greater coverage for the African dictatorship where it is building the vacation resort the sponsorship is aimed at promoting, at a much reduced investment.
The Kawasaski saga rumbles on, and it seems to be drawing closer to a conclusion. And sadly for MotoGP and Kawasaki fans, it's looking more and more like the conclusion will be both literal and figurative.
Today, Michael Bartholemy is in Japan for talks with Kawasaki bosses about the level of support they can provide should the Belgian decide to try and run the Kawasaki ZX-RR Ninja MotoGP machines inside a private team structure. Previously, Kawasaki told Dorna CEO Carmelo Ezpeleta that they only had enough parts to see out 25% of the season, and would not be able to handle engine development or maintenance. But Bartholemy has stated that he has found a French company which could handle at least some of that work, though no specific companies have been mentioned. If he can persuade Kawasaki to hand over the entire MotoGP operation to this French company, then there is a possibility that the team could be saved.
But it is also clear that this is the final hope for seeing Kawasakis - or whatever they might end up being called - on the grid. Originally, Jorge Martinez, boss of the Aspar team, was linked with taking over the Kawasaki bikes. This would have been a viable option, as Martinez has proven time and time again that he is capable of raising sponsorship to cover the costs. His price, however, is that he runs a Spanish rider, as his sponsorship is almost invariably aimed at the Spanish domestic market.