Who has the best bike? Is it Honda? Or have they been passed by Yamaha? Did the first MotoGP test of the year at Sepang answer that question? After Monday, we thought the answer was yes. After Friday, it's clear that it's not clear. There is still a long way to go to the start of the season, and the only thing we can be sure of is the fact that this is going to be a fantastic year in MotoGP. When it's hard to point to who has an advantage, it means the racing is going to be tight.
So how did the balance of power swing from Yamaha to Honda? Yamaha turned up at Sepang with a bike that was ready to go. They had plenty of parts to test, but following the Yamaha philosophy, all of those parts offer just a small, but positive change. The bike was fast, and got a little bit faster. That meant that Yamaha were quick on the first day, and got a little quicker day by day.
Honda, on the other hand, turned up with four different bikes for Marc Márquez, and three for Dani Pedrosa, and the two Repsol Honda riders spent the first day of the test running back-to-back comparisons. They had pretty much narrowed down their choice by the end of Wednesday, confirming their impressions on Thursday, then getting on with the job of improving the bike through Thursday and Friday. By the end of the test, the 2015 Honda RC213V had proven itself a formidable weapon. The bike was not without problems, but there was plenty of potential. "We are the same, if not better, than in 2014," Márquez said. "With the 2015 bike, we still we have some points that we can improve. The most important is that we have options to improve this feeling."
So does the Honda now have the definitive advantage? Marc Márquez' record lap time – the first man ever to lap the circuit in a 1'58 – certainly seems to suggest so. As does Dani Pedrosa's second fastest time, coming up just shy of a 1'58 after he made a mistake on his fast lap. Even more impressive was Pedrosa's race simulation: 10 laps of 2'00, 9 laps of 2'01, his simulation 12.5 seconds faster than Marc Márquez' race winning time in October last year, despite a 2'14 last lap, as opposed to Márquez' 2'08 first lap in the race.
Comparisons to last October are not strictly fair, however. The condition of the circuit was fantastic, the riders agreed. With no rain during the three-day test, even in the evenings, and 28 MotoGP bikes circulating, the track was clean and well rubbered. Temperatures were cooler than October too, with track temperatures some 15°C lower. It all made it very easy to go fast. But even then, they still had to do it. Rossi summed up the situation. "Today have a very good condition for everybody. But going 1'58.8, to say it is a surprise? From Márquez is not true!"
So far, it looks like the Honda is ahead, but that is only at this test. "It looks like the advantage they have in one lap, they have also in the first part of the race," Rossi said. "So if the race is today, I think that the Honda can win. But we are not very far." What this neglects to include is what happens at Sepang 2. There, Honda will get on with the work of refining the 2015 RC213V, which needs work to make it easier on corner exit, and to reduce the spinning of the rear tire. "We lose a little bit mid-exit corner with gas," Márquez said, characterizing the engine as very aggressive. "If we improve the character of the engine will help a lot."
But Yamaha have something bigger coming at the next test at Sepang. The fully seamless gearbox – seamless both in upshifts and in downshifts – is due to make its debut in just over two weeks' time. Barring unforeseen problems, Valentino Rossi and Jorge Lorenzo will get to use the gearbox for the first time, which should help them in what remains their biggest weakness: braking for corners. "We improve, especially in braking," Rossi said. "Looking at the data I can brake deeper, but not enough, still." The new gearbox should help fix that. If that offers a big step forward, then all of a sudden, Honda and Yamaha are on a par once again. The advantage might even go to Yamaha.
The long runs today were also slightly deceptive. While Dani Pedrosa's run was deeply impressive, he was out at the right time to do it. So were both Rossi and Lorenzo, but Rossi was also testing parts during his long run, and had to slow down a couple of times to change mapping and engine braking settings, which Yamaha had wanted to try over the distance of a race simulation. Márquez' race simulation was significantly slower, but while Pedrosa, Rossi and Lorenzo were all out shortly after midday, Márquez ran his race simulation around 3pm, in the middle of the tropical afternoon heat. At that time of day, the track gets greasy and there is no grip from the surface.
For Ducati, the test generated a lot of excitement. The GP14.3 which the Italian factory brought to the track for the two Andreas, Dovizioso and Iannone, was the closest thing to the GP15 we have seen so far. A new chassis allowing the riders to use the kind of geometry they would run during the race, and a modified engine was much smoother. The bike still had understeer – asked what problem he wanted the GP15 to solve, Dovizioso did not hesitate: "the turning!" – but it already allowed the factory to start testing things for the debut of the bike at the next Sepang test. The times set were hopeful: both riders got into the 1'59s on their fast lap, with Iannone posting a lap of 1'59.388, the third best time overall, ahead of the two factory Yamahas.
While it was disappointing that the Desmosedici GP15 was not present at Sepang for the first test, the approach taken by Ducati was a showcase for Gigi Dall'Igna's organizational talents. The GP14.3 was a small enough change for it to be ready in time for Sepang 1, but different enough for the basic geometry of the GP15 to be tested. For the Sepang 2 test, the plan is for Dovizioso and Iannone to work on the bike, testing the new chassis, engine and looking for a base set up, while Danilo Petrucci works on the electronics package which Ducati are bringing for the GP15. The advantage of electronics is that they work across different machines, so the data gathered by Petrucci on his GP14.1 (basically, the bike ridden by Cal Crutchlow in the second half of the 2014 season) is directly applicable to the GP15.
The results of this test left the Factory Ducati riders in an optimistic mood. For Andrea Iannone, the GP15 could not come soon enough. How keen was he to see the GP15? "Very, but I am already happy with what we have done in 2014 and the first part of 2015," he told reporters. Andrea Dovizioso was a little more circumspect. "I am optimistic, but it would be stupid to say any more at this moment." The reality of the bike will be shown once it hits the track.
For Suzuki, the test was overwhelmingly positive, yet it also mercilessly exposed their weakness. What do you want from the next development of the bike, Aleix Espargaro was asked. "More power!" was his emphatic answer. Rookie teammate Maverick Viñales concurred. Both praised the handling of the bike once again, saying the bike turned very well, but it was down on power. Unofficial top speeds put the Hondas at 325 km/h through the traps, versus 315 km/h for the Suzukis. That is not an insurmountable difference – at the race last October, Marc Márquez' average top speed was 324 km/h, while Pol Espargaro's was 316km/h – but it is not something Suzuki can find in an afternoon.
Suzuki's original plan was to have a more powerful engine at Sepang. But the engine reliability issues which emerged at the race and test in Valencia meant they had more pressing problems. Suzuki's engineers had spent six weeks chasing down the problem and solving it – their engines at Sepang were nigh on bulletproof – which was time they could not spend extracting more power. When asked about the cause of the problem, Suzuki team manager Davide Brivio remained vague. All he would say is that it was not a single component, but an interplay of several factors. This was why the problem had not emerged during dyno testing. "We did many kilometers on the dyno," Brivio told a small group of reporters. The issue had only started to emerge during testing last October, coming to a head at Valencia. When Suzuki will have more power, Brivio could not say.
Given the performance of Maverick Viñales, that extra power cannot come soon enough. The Spanish rookie had an exceptional test, making progress, adapting his riding style, and gaining speed all the time. Viñales cut the deficit to the fastest riders by 0.9 seconds between the first and the last day, and improved his own time by 2.2 seconds. Only Loris Baz did better, though Baz came from much further behind. Viñales ended the test as 12th overall, just half a second behind his more experienced teammate Espargaro. Viñales was the revelation of the first test at Sepang. Andrea Iannone may have also made big steps forward, but this is only Viñales third test on the bike.
The story at Aprilia was a lot less rosy. The newcomers managed to blow up a large section of their new pneumatic valve engines, the motor clearly still having some teething problems. What was worse was the fact that the 2015 chassis which Aprilia had brought was left sitting idle in the pits. Neither rider liked it, preferring to stick with the 2014 chassis which had emerged from the ART project. What's more, though Alvaro Bautista was posting respectable times, their star rider Marco Melandri was dead last, behind factory, Open class, rookies and test riders alike. The deficit of 4.7 seconds to Márquez was pretty poor. But the fact that he was also 1.7 seconds behind his teammate was even worse.
Why is Melandri faring so poorly? The Italian did not want to come to MotoGP, but he was left with no choice when Aprilia withdrew their factory team from the World Superbike championship to focus on MotoGP. Still under contract to Aprilia, leaving would have been difficult, especially given the late stage at which Aprilia announced their plans. Melandri gives the impression he does not want to be in MotoGP. His times at Sepang leave you wondering how long he will be.
While the Repsol Hondas lead the timesheets, the satellite and Open Hondas languish much further down the standings. Cal Crutchlow is the best of them, but the Englishman is a lowly 11th. Crutchlow, like Scott Redding, is struggling with the aggressive nature of the Honda engine. The bike is excellent on corner entry, both Crutchlow and Redding assert, but the very aggressive engine means the bike just spins on corner exit. This is something which the factory riders struggle with too, but extra years of experience and the resources of a factory team allow them to deal with it better, and neutralize it.
The new Open Honda may not have any issues with horsepower, but it is hard to say whether the bike is an improvement. Nicky Hayden may have a stronger wrist, but he struggled with chatter, and with finding electronics set ups which could tame the engine. That the bike is difficult to ride is clear from the timesheets. This time last year, on a woefully underpowered Honda RCV1000R, Hayden was just under 2 seconds off the pace of the leaders. On the far more powerful Honda RC213V-RS, Hayden is 2.6 seconds slower than the leaders. The bike may be much more powerful – they are not losing any ground to the factory bikes any more – but horsepower does not equal speed.
Scott Redding is struggling with another problem, one shared by Danilo Petrucci, though the Italian is on the Pramac Ducati. Both riders spent previous years riding underpowered bikes, and adopting a different riding style. The RCV1000R was much easier to ride, Redding told us, as you could open the gas and use the rear to help turn the bike. Do that on the RC213V and the rear just spins, using tire but not providing any drive.
Petrucci explained that he had a similar problem. He has been on underpowered CRT machines before now, and has learned to brake early and carry as much corner speed as possible, to ensure a good exit. Now that he is on the Ducati, he needs to brake later, turn the bike, then stand the bike up before getting on the gas. That goes against everything he has learned, so he finds himself opening the throttle too early and the rear wheel just spinning. He has to learn to be patient, to wait a moment before opening the throttle, so that he has a chance to start standing the bike up and getting it onto the fatter part of the tire.
It is, ironically, something I hear over and over again, from riders on Hondas, Ducatis, Yamahas, on factory bikes and Open class machines. The harder you try, the slower you go. The more you relax, the calmer you remain, the better the bike responds, and the faster the lap time. It appears that the ideal temperament for a Grand Prix rider is no longer that of the wild man, who throws his heart into riding, but of the Buddhist monk, observing calmly and acting with careful deliberation. Perhaps, underneath their leathers, Márquez and Pedrosa are wearing Repsol orange robes ...