Testing the 2012 MotoGP bikes, when the series ups its capacity limit to 1000cc once again, has raised more questions than it has answered for the media and fans trying to follow the series. The first public test at Brno saw some promising results, with the Hondas and Yamahas fairly evenly matched, and the 1000cc bikes between 0.5 to 1 second faster than the 800s. But Brno has been the only public test, the others all being held behind closed doors - though journalists were present at the Misano test, that one being declared a private test only at the last minute when Honda and Ducati pulled out, leaving the track to Yamaha.
The times from the private tests have been much harder to track down, and though rumors have emerged from all sorts of sources, both verification or official confirmation have been absent. Journalists have been left to cast out their nets among their sources and try to make sense of the numbers being returned. It basically boils down to sifting through the times, and hazarding a guess as to which might be reliable and which are completely off base.
The biggest source of controversy - probably because these are the most significant numbers for the 2012 season - have been the times from Honda's 1000cc test with Casey Stoner back in May of this year at Jerez, and Ducati's recent test of the brand new aluminium twin spar chassis which Valentino Rossi put through its paces at Jerez just over a week ago. Initial reports suggested that Rossi had been running 1'39s, closely matching Stoner's pace. But that assumes that Stoner was also running 1'39s at Jerez during the test, and paddock rumor has it that Stoner was running a good deal faster than that during his test earlier in May. Two seconds, was the figure most commonly quoted, and rumored to be accurate.
That is quite a discrepancy, which required further investigation. How could a gap of two seconds be considered to be close to Stoner's time? Were the Ducati sources lying when they said that Rossi had done a 1'39? Were the Honda sources lying when they said that Stoner had done a 1'37? Did Ducati know exactly how fast Honda had gone in the test, or were they just basing themselves on the rumors we are all dealing with?
It's hard to make sense of any of these questions, but it is worth recalling that a private test is not as hermetically sealed an environment as the teams might wish. Along with the team the rider, there are the circuit staff (medical staff and corner workers have to be present, though in much smaller numbers), security staff, often an IRTA observer, staff from Dorna producing the video snippets that appear on the MotoGP.com websites, and photographers, either from Dorna or from the agency that provides photos to the team. Keeping a secret among a small group of closely related individuals is hard enough, but when there are upwards of 50 people wandering around the circuit in various places - almost all of whom have a close interest in motorcycle racing - news is almost certain to leak out.
The smart teams allow such news to leak out, usually by leaking it themselves, spun in a particular direction to suit their own ends. Sometimes those times will be accurate, sometimes they'll be either higher or lower than the times actually recorded, depending on what the teams hope to achieve. And so we find ourselves here, speculating on who has the most accurate information, and what it all means.
It's been a frustrating situation for all concerned, and my own investigations have shed only a little clarity on the real times. Two reliable sources say that Rossi was close to Stoner's times: Dennis Noyes - a paddock veteran with deep connections both inside the Jerez circuit and at Ducati - stated on Twitter that his sources had Rossi and Stoner on similar times, and more importantly, Rossi had left the circuit "smiling like a Cheshire cat." Another source with a line into Ducati claimed that Rossi's times at Jerez had been just 0.2 seconds slower than Stoner's set on the Honda back in May. This second source puts Rossi's times on the Ducati well below a 1'39, much closer to a 1'38.0 or possibly even a high 1'37. Whether that is close to Stoner's times or not, that kind of pace on a brand new chassis being given its first outing by a rider is outstanding, and promises much for the future. Noyes' reports of Rossi grinning like a Cheshire cat could well be highly reliable, not so much because of the times set, but perhaps because of the improved front-end feel, the one thing he has complained about all year. The point of the aluminium twin spar is to give him confidence and feedback from the front tire; that is what has been holding him - and every other Ducati rider - back in 2011.
So if a time of 1'38.0 for Valentino Rossi on the aluminium twin spar chassis Ducati is realistic, how about Honda? Where the Ducati team seems to be as watertight as a rusty sieve when it comes to keeping information secret, HRC runs a much tighter ship. Yet even here, there are trickles of information, if you know where to find them. When I asked one source how close to 1'37.1 Stoner had been lapping, I was told that it was not far off, but was left with the impression that this was on the conservative side. The phrase "you should have seen the ideal time," was used, alluding to the theoretical time arrived at by combining the fastest time from each sector of the track. It is almost certain that Stoner's pace was at least in the low 1'37s, and possibly even in the high 1'36s. That would put the new Ducati still well behind the Honda, but with the Ducati having the most room for improvement, the new chassis likely to undergo a number of changes before the season kicks of at Qatar.
An improvement of over a second at a track like Jerez seems remarkable, but that does not mean it is not possible. Where the 2012 Yamaha machines looked fast but easy to control at the public test at Brno, at Misano, they were transformed into much more firebreathing machines. With no official timing, and no bikes to compare against, the 2012 Yamaha M1 wanted to wheelie its way all along Misano's front straight. It seems probable that Yamaha turned the wick up a little at Misano, close to the actual potential of the bike, having backed it off a little at Brno so as not to show their cards. There can be no doubt that Honda and Ducati may also have done the same thing at Jerez, and that Stoner lapped a good deal quicker than he had done on the 800.
In the end, though, we will only get close to the truth at Valencia, the first time all of the 2012 bikes take to the track at the same time. From Valencia onwards, sandbagging offers little advantage, and the bikes will start to run in something approaching their final form. Until then, we can only wait, and speculate.