The first day of the final test ahead of the MotoGP season, and normal service has been resumed. The factory boys - well, the factory Hondas and Yamahas - are top of the pile, and fairly comfortably ahead of the rest. In bright, sunny, but very windy conditions, it looked like Jorge Lorenzo and Dani Pedrosa would battle it out for top honors, rather as they did at last year's race, but just as everyone in the press room - your humble author included - was trotting out the old "Jerez is Stoner's bogey track" chestnut, the Australian turned up the wick and took half a second off his best time, propelling him to the top of the timesheets, and well under race lap record pace.
Behind the Repsol Honda of Stoner, Lorenzo put over a tenth between himself and Pedrosa, while Ben Spies ended the day four tenths off Pedrosa, and eight tenths back from Stoner. Cal Crutchlow continues to impress on the Monster Tech 3 Yamaha, ending as top satellite bike and within a second of Stoner's pace. Crutchlow was at pains to point out that his bike is a step behind the factory Yamahas of Spies and Lorenzo, something that was painfully clear at track side. The Factory Yamahas hustled through the fast corners with nary a hint of interference, while Crutchlow's M1 sounded like an asthmatic smoker having a coughing fit. The electronics on the factory Yamahas are a big step forward, as witnessed by the front wheel almost hugging the ground as the bikes powered out of the slower corners. Despite this, both Lorenzo and Spies said that the bike's tendency to wheelie was a problem at Jerez - more so than at Sepang - though watching from the track, their definition of a wheelie appears to be hoisting the front wheel a whole 2 centimeters over the track.
Nicky Hayden was the first Ducati, happy to be so, but even happier to be able to ride more or less to his full potential, the shoulder injury he suffered over the winter, and had surgery to fix. He had gotten through a decent testing program on the brand new bike, for the first time since riding the original prototype back last summer. This is a very different bike, and though he had one or two problems, mainly a lack of rear grip, he was pretty satisfied with the results. The gap to the front riders was still large, he said, but he felt there was more improvement to come.
The feeling on the other side of the garage was much worse. Once again, and despite the completely new bike, Valentino Rossi is still having problems with corner entry. Standing down at Dry Sack, the corner at the end of the straight, Rossi was visibly struggling with rear grip on corner exit, a result of not being able to enter the corner the way he wanted to. "It's because of the corner entry. When I open the gas, I'm already a little bit wide from the problem in the entry, and I have to keep the bike leaned over too much, and for this reason, and this is why the bike is moving, I think." Rossi believes his position on the bike is at the root of the problem; though it is improved from 2011, he still feels he is sitting too far back and cannot get enough weight onto the front. That is probably still a result of the engine being a 90° V; there is a lot of empty space between the cylinders, and the cylinder heads are forcing the designers' hands when it comes to the location of the tank, the fuel tank, the airbox and other items.
The good news for Rossi - if you can call it that - is that the Italian and his crew found one possible solution towards the end of the day, an avenue they will explore tomorrow. The bad news is that despite the improvements, Rossi is still 1.774 down on Stoner, an eternity at a track like Jerez. When asked whether the feeling was more like Sepang 1 or Sepang 2 - Rossi was very optimistic after the first Sepang test, but much more pessimistic after the second - Rossi barely hesitated. "Sepang 2" he answered. Though we still have two more days of testing to go, things are not looking good for the nine-time World Champion, and he and his team appear to be struggling to find solutions. Rossi is famous for being able to ride around problems, and providing an unparalleled level of feedback, allowing engineers to fix problems quickly. Rossi's crew chief Jerry Burgess has a display cabinet full of world championship trophies won by transforming that feedback into data that the engineers can use to identify weak points in a design and create new parts to solve the problems. The Rossi/Burgess magic is starting to lose some of its luster.
What is even more surprising is that Rossi is less than a tenth of a second faster than Randy de Puniet on the first of the CRT bikes. Watching the Aprilia ART out on track, it is clear that the electronics are not quite as sophisticated as the Yamahas, Hondas and Ducatis, as the bike wants to lift the front wheel more and is much more squirrely coming out of corners. But De Puniet is determined to get the most out of the bike, and ended the day in 11th, ahead of the satellite Ducatis of Hector Barbera and Karel Abraham. De Puniet is going to show up a few satellite riders this year, and with more development to come from the machine, the top 6 is not all that far away.
The biggest contrast between the CRT bikes and the factory prototypes was probably the noise levels. Though the CRT machines add some welcome variety to MotoGP's soundscape, they are also noticeably quieter than the factory bikes. Where the Honda's rasp sounds like it could saw you in half, and the booming Yamaha or Ducati wants to disintegrate your innards, the Aprilias, Hondas, Kawasakis and BMWs just sound like really, really loud motorcycles. Not quite as visceral, but at least adding more notes to MotoGP's tune.
Given how new some of the CRT bikes are, their times are positively impressive. Danilo Petrucci's IODA-framed Aprilia has not seen much track action, yet the former Superstock champion is ahead of Mattia Pasini on the Speed Master Aprilia ART. The fact that IODA has most of the former Aprilia engineering team in the squad surely helps.
But most impressive of all was the FTR Honda fielded by San Carlo Gresini. The mood in the team after the first shakedown at Imola was very downbeat, with much talk of problems with the bike scraping its fairing. But at Jerez, with the Pirellis used at Imola ditched for the spec MotoGP Bridgestones, Pirro took the Gresini bike to within a couple of tenths of Colin Edwards, on the BMW-powered Suter, that has had almost a year of development on it. Watching Pirro out on track, the Italian looked scrappy and was making a lot of mistakes, but as the team have started to work on setup, they have made major progress.
The fast times by the Aprilia is causing plenty of muttering in the paddock. On Thursday, Lin Jarvis commented that Aprilia were arguably a de facto fourth factory in the championship, and on Friday, Casey Stoner echoed a general feeling at Honda that the Aprilias are factory prototypes, and not the specialist product of small engineering workshops that the Grand Prix Commission had in mind when the rules were drawn up. The trouble is that the bike that a team is running is irrelevant to their CRT status, it is the team itself which is judged. The current manufacturers could try to get, for example, the Aspar team reclassified as a factory prototype team, but the problem is they need a majority in the Grand Prix Commission. Of the remaining parties in the GPC, Dorna is not disposed to have CRTs reclassified, nor particularly is the FIM. IRTA represents the teams themselves, and so is unlikely to side with the factories. The MSMA has been caught in its own trap.
On a side note, the Aprilia ART is actually the bike that FIM president Vito Ippolito has been pushing for all along. Throughout the long debate that has gone on about the state of MotoGP, Ippolito has long pointed to the Yamaha TZ and Suzuki RG series as lessons we could learn from the past. The Aprilia ART is the ideal production racer, just as the Yamaha TZ and Suzuki RG were before it.
It was not just bikes and parts that were being tested at Jerez, however. Bridgestone had brought two new front tires to be tested at Jerez, developments of the tires tried at Sepang beforehand. The vast majority of riders - in fact, all but one - preferred the tire designated with the code 21 over the other on offer, designated 24. They all praised its greater stability under braking, and preferred its characteristics. All except one Casey Stoner, however: Stoner complained that it was the 21 which was worse under braking, and that it offered less stability than the 24, his opinion diametrically opposed to that of the rest of the paddock. Jorge Lorenzo's team manager Wilco Zeelenberg explained the difference to me, but the two tires are very similar. The 24 is a development of the 21, he explained, with a slightly different construction in the center of the tire. Lorenzo said in his press debrief that he hoped that Bridgestone would follow the wishes of the majority, rather than what Stoner wanted, which is the most logical and likely course of action.
Stoner's preference for the tires nobody else liked has shades of his hero Mick Doohan. Doohan always wanted what the others could not ride, confident in his ability to deal with problems that others couldn't. Likewise, Casey Stoner appears to prefer the more difficult tire option; he consistently favors the hard tire over the soft, and managed to get heat into the hard front tire where others - including his arch rival Valentino Rossi - struggled. Whenever Bridgestone offered to bring a slightly softer compound, to allay the fears of the riders having problems with the uberstiff spec tires, it has been Stoner complaining that it was unnecessary, and that the tires were just fine as they were. Stoner appears to be able to use a much stiffer, much harder tire than anyone else in the paddock, and is determined to cling on to his advantage. The problem is that the huge number of crashes last year have sent Bridgestone in the opposite direction, making a tire that is easier to warm up and ride, to help the majority of the riders. Stoner seems capable of going fast on either hard or soft tires - he did a short race simulation on the softs in the morning, and managed the tires pretty well - and so does not really need the advantage. But racers like to play with a stacked deck, and Stoner is no exception.
Rain is expected to fall on Saturday afternoon, which could curtail action at the circuit, but the morning should see plenty of action. After that, there is one more full day of testing before the bikes are packed up and shipped off to Qatar. From then, there will be no more hiding.
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