Take a glance at the timesheet after the final day and it is easy to draw some simple conclusions from of second Sepang MotoGP test. Marc Márquez reigns supreme, with Jorge Lorenzo is the only rider to get anywhere near to him. Cal Crutchlow has improved, but at the moment is only fast over a single lap. The Ducati Desmosedici GP15 is fast, but only in the hands of Andrea Iannone. Valentino Rossi and Dani Pedrosa have their work cut out if they are to match their teammates. Bradley Smith has surpassed his teammate, Pol Espargaro. Suzuki is close, but not quite close enough, while Aprilia are hopelessly lost.
As attractive as those conclusions are, the underlying truth is a lot more complex. Testing is exactly that, testing, and everyone is on different programs, trying different things at different times of the day. Or as Dani Pedrosa succinctly put it, when asked if he was trying out a new strategy for qualifying during the test, "we were just trying. That's why we are here." Marc Márquez was undeniably faster than the rest of the field, and his race simulation was undeniably faster than anyone else's. But just comparing the times does not provide the whole picture.
Márquez' race simulation was fearsome to behold. 19 laps at an average of 2:00.760, just one shy of full race distance. 16 laps of 2:00, just three of 2:01. While it is impossible to know how fast his out lap was – the analysis timesheets available only show the full lap times, and no partials, and Márquez embarked on his race simulation after spending 15 minutes in the pits – that pace would have seen him beat his own race time from last year by some 25 seconds. That is seriously fast.
On the face of it, Jorge Lorenzo's race simulation looks positively disappointing by contrast. The Movistar Yamaha man rode just 11 full laps, six of which were 2:01s, the remaining five all 2:02s. That is just about the pace Lorenzo managed in the race last year, when he finished third, 3.5 seconds behind Márquez. But there is good reason to look past the time differential between Lorenzo and Márquez, and look at the conditions. Márquez started on his race simulation shortly after 5pm, when air and track temperatures were starting to drop. Ambient temperatures were around 30°C, while the track was at 51°C. Lorenzo, on the other hand, had the "brilliant idea," as he put it, of running his simulation at 3:30pm, in the middle of the sweltering tropical afternoon. At 2pm, Bridgestone measured track temperatures of 60°C, and air temps of 35°C; by 3:30pm, the temperatures had barely dropped off at all. Conditions are always tough at Sepang, but they were immeasurably tougher for Lorenzo during his race simulation.
Why do that? Surely, if you want to know if you can beat Marc Márquez, the best thing to do is to run your race simulation at the same time as him, and see where you stand? That rather misses the point of testing: yes, you want to measure yourself against your opponents, but most of all, you want to improve on your weak points, and be faster overall. The weakness of the Yamaha is in hot, slippery conditions, and so targeting a run in the middle of the afternoon heat was a conscious and clever choice. "All of the little problems the bike were magnified by three," Lorenzo told the Spanish press. If you want to fix your problems, then anything you can do to see them more clearly is the smart thing to do. What's more, the race in October starts at 4pm, closer to the time Lorenzo did his race simulation than when Márquez did his.
Lorenzo and Márquez are also at different stages in the development of their bikes. After the Sepang test, Márquez basically said the bike was fine as it was. He had decided on which chassis to use – the one he had selected after the first Sepang test, not the modified version which HRC had brought to this test – and now, the focus was on set up and riding style. "We just need to adapt our riding style, our bike to another circuit and see what is the level," he said. Lorenzo, on the other hand, said the bike needs more work. Though the fully seamless gearbox is an improvement over the old one, it still has one or two problems. What those problems are, Lorenzo refused to say, but there is still margin to improve.
Advantage Honda? Perhaps, but the advantage is not as large as timesheets seem to suggest. Honda are just about ready to race, but Yamaha still have some potential to unlock. Márquez' natural talent shines undiminished, while Lorenzo's work ethic and ability remain his strongest weapon. Much more will become clear at the next test at Qatar. That track suits the Yamaha better, and the dusty surface can cause problems for the Honda, robbing it of drive. Cooler temperatures are better for Yamaha, though again, only within a certain range. Once conditions get too cold, the Yamaha loses the edge grip it needs, and the Honda's ability to stand up and drive out of corners comes into its own. The ideal temperature range for the Yamaha is a little narrower: too hot or too cold, and the YZR-M1 loses out, needing grip to maintain corner speed. Get it just right, however, and the M1 is a weapon capable of matching the Honda RC213V. Expanding the 'Goldilocks zone' will be high on the list of priorities for the Yamaha engineers.
From Valentino Rossi's perspective, Honda still holds an advantage, especially in the hands of Marc Márquez. Rossi pointed to Márquez' time and his race simulation for proof. "I think Honda and Márquez are the favorites to win the championship," he said. The new gearbox was an improvement, and Rossi was happy with the work done to understand its potential. They had spent a lot of time working with used tires, as this was where he had suffered during the race. His attempt at a fast lap had been thwarted, the Movistar Yamaha rider constantly running into traffic in the first hour of the day. He believed he could have been in the top three, but discounted the importance of posting a single fast lap. "It's just for fun!" he remarked.
Rossi underlined that it was hard to get a true measure of where everyone stands. Relative strengths varied from track to track, he said, and the way of working was very different between test and race weekend. At a test, the work was very "start-stop", he said. On a race weekend, with more limited time, there is much more of a focus, with no time to experiment. Every session was spent working towards a goal, and following a plan. At a test, the teams and riders can try lots of different things.
Clear choices have been made at Ducati, with Andrea Iannone expressing a clear preference for the Ducati GP15, and Andrea Dovizioso following suit a little more cautiously. Clearly the bike has more potential than the GP14.3, Dovizioso said, but some problems remain. The middle of the corner, and the last part of braking were not 100%, but the fact that the new bike turns into corners and holds a line was a huge improvement. Ducati Corse boss Gigi Dall'Igna was also pleased, though he too noted the problems they had encountered, especially in braking. Dall'Igna said that 80% of the comments given by the riders fit with the results of the simulations run beforehand. The other 20% were different, and required analysis to understand and fix.
Iannone was immediately comfortable with the bike, and very quick. Dovizioso was still struggling with the balance of the bike, his team working on set up and weight distribution. That had prevented Dovizioso from trying a race simulation, or putting in a real attempt at a very fast lap. His team had wanted to try something radical, but did not have enough time to do so at this test. But Dovizioso was hopeful that it would be possible at the Qatar test, and would bring the improvement they are seeking.
With neither Valentino Rossi nor Dani Pedrosa managing to put in a fast lap during the morning, Cal Crutchlow found himself in the top three. But Crutchlow certainly did not just inherit the position by default. The LCR Honda man's fast lap was just two tenths behind Jorge Lorenzo, and was his best ever lap around the Sepang circuit. He also set the time despite suffering braking problems similar to those Marc Márquez had on Monday. The brake pressure was inconsistent, Crutchlow said, braking normally at some corners, the lever coming back to the bars in others.
His race simulation suffered from the same problem. Crutchlow managed a couple of 2:00s, but the braking inconsistency meant his lap times varied wildly. When the problem wasn't present, he was fast, when it came back, he lost time. On average, he was losing four tenths a lap with brake problems, and had a couple of laps where he had to slow right down waiting for the braking to return. He would not be drawn on a possible cause for the braking issue, though he would say that he did not believe it was related to the temperature of the braking fluid.
Crutchlow wasn't the only surprise on the timesheets. Hector Barbera was also impressive on the Open class Ducati, setting the eighth best time of the day. Like Crutchlow, Barbera has made a massive step forward since the first Sepang test, as he gets accustomed to riding a bike with more power and the ability to brake. The Spaniard was 0.939 seconds faster than he was here last time, compared to Crutchlow's 0.878 second improvement. Barbera had to break off his race simulation, after his Camelbak sprung a leak. The water was causing his visor to steam up, and by the time he went out for a second attempt, the afternoon heat had become oppressive.
The strong showing by Hector Barbera shows the potential of the Open class bikes, just as Aleix Espargaro did on the Forward Yamaha in 2014. But that potential must frustrate Nicky Hayden, and the other Open class Honda riders, as they find themselves in a similar position to last year. In 2014, Honda's attempt at a production racer had been humiliated by the Forward Yamahas. The RCV1000R was everything which Dorna had asked of the manufacturers: affordable (or relatively so), available for purchase rather than lease, and easy to ride for young riders. Unfortunately, it was also rather slow, despite the claims made for it by HRC. Led by Nicky Hayden, the Open class RCV1000R riders suffered through the Sepang tests, ending a long way from the top.
Hayden had been frustrated in 2014. The bike lacked power, and Hayden ended the second Sepang test in 15th, 1.925 seconds off the fastest rider, Valentino Rossi. In 2015, Hayden has a much more powerful bike, the Honda RC213V-RS: basically, the Honda which made its debut here this time last year in the hands of the factory riders, but with a conventional gearbox and the spec Magneti Marelli electronics. The bike is certainly a lot quicker, Hayden lapping 1.1 seconds faster in 2015 than he did last year. Yet he finds himself having slipped down the timesheets, his improved time only good for 17th overall. Hayden has closed the gap to the front, but only by 0.227 seconds, the gap still 1.698 seconds from Marc Márquez.
Clearly, horsepower is not everything, as the teams who lease the Honda RC213V-RS have found to their cost. It is not the outright speed which is slowing the Open class Hondas, but rather the overall package. Hayden pointed to the electronics as an area where the bike needed work, and given the sophistication of the factory Honda's electronics, it is conceivable that the Open class bike is a lot more difficult to set up with the spec electronics. The role which HRC's software plays in engine braking, especially, will have a major role in performance.
More than just electronics, the difference between the Open class RC213V-RS and the factory RC213V highlights the difference in resources between the factory teams and the Open class teams. Factory teams have hordes of factory engineers in their garages, and in the race trucks behind the garages, and direct access to the people who designed and built the bikes. They have access to all of the data from every lap by every rider, as well as all of the data from the simulations. Above all, they have a lot of warm bodies and sharp brains at their disposal, and can throw a bunch of engineers at a puzzle.
The Open class teams have no such luxury. Though HRC engineers will pay them a visit and offer advice wherever they can, the Open class teams come very low on their list of priorities. That leaves the donkey work to be done by the four or five people in the garage: a crew chief, a data engineer, and a couple of mechanics. They may have plenty of data from previous years, but that data may not have been collected on the same bike. They must hope that one of their number has a few bright ideas to try to shortcut their way to a good set up, otherwise they are left with few resources and fewer people to try to find the ideal balance for the bike. This is the real division between the haves and have nots in the MotoGP paddock, and without extremely stringent and impossible to police budget caps, it is a division which will continue to exist.