Rather perversely, a lot of the talk at the World Superbike test at Jerez has not been about World Superbikes at all. Which is a shame, as the 2015 World Superbike championship promises to be particularly fascinating, with testing times very close indeed.
Instead, there was a real kerfuffle about the slowest bike on the track, the one being ridden by Kenny Noyes and Dominique Aegerter. The cause of the fuss? The fact that it was a Kawasaki, a further development of the Open class bike raced by the Avintia Racing team in MotoGP last year, has generated a mountain of speculation that Team Green is preparing a comeback to MotoGP, bringing all four major Japanese factories back into the premier class.
The truth was a good deal more prosaic. As Gilles Bigot, the crew chief working on the project, told Spanish website Motocuatro, this was a private project of engine tuner Akira, who has been involved in engine preparation for Kawasaki's previous MotoGP effort and their World Superbike engines. The company were also behind the development of the Open class bikes used by the Avintia MotoGP team in 2014, and the engines for the FTR bikes which preceded them in 2013. Not wanting to allow two years' work to go to waste, Akira is continuing to develop the bike, looking to learn where there is room for development.
Is this just a front for an official MotoGP project to hide behind? As far as I have been able to discern, absolutely not. There is lots of evidence that Kawasaki are not involved in this project, for those who wish to see it. The biggest giveaway? The fact that there were no Japanese technicians at all in the garage, the crew consisting of Bigot and the engineers from the Swiss tuning company.
Then there were the tires. Domi Aegerter was running round on Michelins, but not the tires currently under development for the French company's return to MotoGP in 2016, but tires used in the Spanish CEV Moto2 championship. As a result, Kenny Noyes (who briefly rode the bike, before going on to test the spec tire due to be introduced in the CEV Superbike class) and Domi Aegerter were some five seconds off the pace. Speaking to the German website Speedweek, Aegerter described the performance of the tires as "bad, really bad." If Kawasaki were behind the project, there is no doubt that either they or Dorna (who would love another factory in MotoGP) would have arranged access to either Michelin test tires or Bridgestone MotoGP tires. For private tests organized by people without a MotoGP entry, however, the answer is no. Even when FTR first started testing the CRT bike they built for Gresini, they were forced to use Pirellis, as Bridgestone MotoGP tires were not made available.
The parts being used were a real hotchpotch. The engine was more or less the same version of the Kawasaki-based powerplant campaigned by Avintia in 2014, including pneumatic valves. Two different chassis were being used, according to the eagle-eyed Manziana over at Motocorse: one was a lightly modified version of the one used last year, the other closer to a Superbike chassis. The bodywork was a mixture, as MCN reporter Simon Patterson told me. There was a pile of bodywork in the garage, with the bike appearing in different colors almost every time it went out. This could be in part because Akira was working on the ergonomics of the bike, which includes in part the aerodynamics, but it could also just be a way of testing on the cheap. Why waste money getting lots of new bodywork made, with the risk of it being damaged, when you have lots of old spares lying around?
The other area which the team was working on was electronics. They were using a Magneti Marelli ECU, and though Aegerter said he was out without either anti-wheelie or traction control, there is still a lot to be learned from such tests. Engine mapping worked out on the dyno never works the same when a bike is on the track, with wind, gradient, air pressure and humidity variations all conspiring to make engine response less predictable than back in the workshop.
Akira hope to continue testing later this year, Bigot told Motocuatro. Why do so if nobody is paying, now that Avintia have switched to Ducatis. Because, as Bigot put it, "they want to keep developing this bike to see how far they can go with it." Is there a chance that the bike could appear on the grid in 2016? Bigot only repeated that the idea was first to see how far they could go with the bike. However, he did reiterate that his was not a Kawasaki project, but one run by Akira, the confusion stemming from the fact that Akira been so closely involved with the Japanese factory in the past.
Will we really see Kawasaki return to MotoGP? There are good reasons to suspect that we will not, at least not in the next couple of years. The last time Kawasaki were involved in MotoGP, they found themselves hemorrhaging money, with little to show for it. Five podium finishes, no wins, yet spending €60+ million a year. When they decided to leave at the end of 2008, when the global financial crisis struck, Dorna may have let them off relatively lightly, but it still cost Kawasaki more than they wanted. Kawasaki's years in MotoGP were, above all, a costly failure.
Contrast that with their efforts in World Superbikes. Once they switched their focus to WSBK after leaving MotoGP, their results quickly started to improve. In 2012, Tom Sykes missed out on the title by just half a point, then won the title the next year, missing out again in 2014, losing the championship in the final race of the season. For 2015, Kawasaki have two of the top title contenders on their books, with Sykes and new teammate Jonathan Rea. Instead of spending €60 million, they are spending less than €5 million, and probably considerably less than that. If racing is about marketing, then winning races in World Superbikes makes a better sales pitch than scratching around in tenth in MotoGP.
The new rule changes for MotoGP from 2016 are aimed at reducing costs, but even spec electronics will not make that much of a dent in what winning a championship will cost a factory. As Livio Suppo said at a press conference in Valencia in November, the cost is not related to the rules, but to the interest in the championship. As long as MotoGP continues to dominate world championship motorcycle racing, the costs will remain high.
So why were Domi Aegerter and Kenny Noyes running round on a Kawasaki-powered MotoGP bike at Jerez? Because if there is one thing which motivates everyone inside motorcycle racing more than money, more than success it is passion. People get involved in racing because they want to compete, because they aim for success, because they hope to make money. But they do it most of all because they love the sport. It remains the world's best possible drug.