So the final test of the year is upon us, and at last we know what the bike Valentino Rossi - oh, and by the way, reigning MotoGP World Champion and arguably the best motorcycle racer in the world (now that Casey Stoner has retired, and before Marc Marquez gets up to speed) Jorge Lorenzo - will be riding. That it was a big deal was obvious to anyone on Twitter, with a lot of buzz surrounding when the unveiling was, and what the bike would look like.
The crowd of photographers and journalists stood outside in the rain outside the Yamaha garage merely underlined the excitement. The media invitation to the Yamaha 2013 MotoGP launch promised snacks and an aperitif in their large and pleasant hospitality unit ahead of the bike unveiling in the garages. The hospitality unit was almost deserted, the media preferring the rain, and standing waiting to see a bike which everyone who had watched the Yamaha garages being built up the day before had a rough idea of what it would look like. Ducati may have the most prestigious and upmarket launch, but Yamaha certainly know how to generate excitement.
The reception after the unveiling was, well, rather mixed. The bike looks good, certainly, but a few paddock wits were suggesting that Yamaha had merely taken Rossi's 2005 Gauloises Yamaha leathers and unstitched the tobacco sponsors for the new rider gear. Among the fans there was mild disappointment, but heavily tempered by the fact that they would soon be seeing Rossi back closer to the front, a location he has been absent from for the past two disastrous years at Ducati.
The huddled masses yearning to be admitted to the Yamaha garage were not the only activity in pit lane. At one end, a garage was in use as a temporary photo studio, as this year's bikes and riders were being snapped for the MotoGP.com website. Further along, Dani Pedrosa was being filmed by Spanish TV for their preseason special, Repsol and Mediaset minders ushering away anyone who strayed too near. Once the Yamaha garage was opened, Spanish TV was left to work in peace, with MotoGP photographers vying to get the MotoGP money shot. Having achieved their goal - which seemed to take longer than you might expect, and involved an awful lot of flash photography - they departed, and the media pack descended on Yamaha's hospitality for the presentation.
Yamaha were well prepared. The big question was addressed: the last time Valentino Rossi and Jorge Lorenzo shared a garage, there was fireworks, and Yamaha staff were willing to admit that this was a possibility now. Things had changed now, however. Jorge Lorenzo is two years older, and more mature, and more confident, having secured his second world title. Valentino Rossi returns from a misadventure, delighted to be back at his spiritual home - the Italian was continuously at pains to express his pleasure at being back with Yamaha - and understanding that he returns to a team where his teammate is world champion. The last time they were together, Yamaha boss Lin Jarvis explained, it was like they were at a crossroads, and crossroads are places where accidents happen. Now, they are both on the same road, and traveling in the same direction.
Does that mean it will be all sweetness and light? Not necessarily on track, but Rossi was at pains to point out that in the garage, the goal was to work together to improve the bike. Any nonsense about data sharing, access to parts or anything else will simply not happen in 2013. "Our target is to fight on the track," Rossi said, whilst acknowledging that to beat their rivals, he and Lorenzo had to work together to hold off the Honda Hordes.
That does not mean that the two men have suddenly become best friends, however. "I will not say our relationship is fantastic," Lorenzo said. "We can talk about the bike, but we can talk about other things...." the Spaniard added, to which Rossi interjected off microphone a suggestion that such subjects might also include, shall we say, an appreciation of the female form.
There is plenty to talk about on the bike. Though the 2013 Yamaha is a strong bike - Rossi praised the electronics strategies in particular, and both men said the acceleration was much better - it still lags behind the Honda in one crucial aspect: the seamless gearbox. Or rather, the lack thereof. Yamaha's MotoGP group leader Kouichi Tsuji - the former leader, Masahiko Nakajima, has been moved aside as he has reached the age of 55, a common practice in Japanese companies - confirmed that Yamaha were working on such a gearbox, but that there was still no date for its introduction.
Team manager Wilco Zeelenberg later explained that building such a gearbox was a major challenge, and did not come without associated risk. "Honda spent two-and-a-half years getting their gearbox right," Zeelenberg commented, "we haven't spent that long on it yet." There was much at stake if Yamaha got it wrong. A seamless gearbox consists of a lot of complicated technology crammed into a very small space. It needs to be completely reliable before it can be raced, as otherwise, the gains offered could be lost in what would otherwise be a simple mechanical failure. Gaining a couple of tenths a lap would be positive, but throwing away a championship through gearbox failure was simply not something Yamaha is prepared to do. The seamless gearbox will come. We just don't yet know exactly when.
It is, of course, mildly ridiculous that all three major manufacturers have spent so much money developing a technology that will never find any application on the road, when there is a much simpler fix available. The ban on double clutches - once an expensive technology, now commonplace on production motorcycles - forced engineers to become creative, and their creativity ended up costing Honda - and especially, Honda's satellite teams - very large sums of money. The 650,000 euro seamless gearbox could have been avoided if Dorna, IRTA or the FIM had simply suggested that they allow the use of double clutches, at a cost of a few percent of the price of a seamless box. Sometimes, it feels like the Grand Prix Commission's focus on cost-cutting is merely reducing spending on the black and white areas of the rulebook, and opening it up in the many, many grey areas which come with a thick rulebook.
One thing is for sure: Yamaha's riders are going to have their hands full holding off the Hondas. Valentino Rossi tipped Jorge Lorenzo and Dani Pedrosa for the title, but the big surprise had been the performance of Marc Marquez. Having watched him in Moto2, neither Yamaha rider was surprised at the Spaniard's performance at the first MotoGP test at Sepang. Marquez had started to change his style to make it better suited to MotoGP last year, while he was still fighting for the Moto2 title. What neither Rossi nor Lorenzo had expected was for Marquez to be fastest at the private Austin test. That was both impressive and rather worrying, both men admitted. Lorenzo had followed Marquez at Austin and been impressed. Marquez was not riding at 100%, Lorenzo said, but he was easily fastest through some of the tightest and most technical sections. Marquez is a true prodigy, achieving above and beyond what might be expected of mere mortals.
Whether we get to see at Jerez just what Marquez is made if is yet to be seen. Rain is set to fall very heavily on Saturday - so heavily, that it is doubtful that anyone will even turn a wheel in Spain - and conditions for Sunday and Monday are only marginally better. That will leave a lot of riders frustrated, especially among the CRT category. The CRT teams using the spec Magneti Marelli need as much set up time as they can get, given that they still need to define the basic parameters of their maps. To be able to do that accurately, you need access to the sort of (expensive) engine dyno which most teams simply do not possess. Magneti Marelli had offered to map engines for free, but while they were ready to work on engine mapping for the CRT teams, the CRT teams did not have engines ready to test. As a result, the racetrack has become the testbed, and dry weather would be much more important in trying to find the right set up. That, however, does not look to be on the cards. Rain continues to dog MotoGP, and given the outstanding weather of just two days ago, there is no real explanation for the rain which keeps blighting premier class racing. God, it would appear, has still not forgiven the MSMA for dropping the two-stroke engine, perhaps....