For the third year running, MotoGP is down to just 17 bikes on the grid. And for the second time in three years, a manufacturer is showing an alarming lack of commitment to the series, Suzuki fielding just one rider for the 2011 season. Sponsors are pulling out and teams are constantly complaining about a lack of money. Something has to be done.
Throughout 2009, MotoGP's rule-making body, the Grand Prix Commission, debated ways of changing the class to make the series cheaper, thereby increasing the number of bikes on the grid. The solution, announced in December 2009, was the return to 1000cc machines under specific restrictions aimed at capping costs: a maximum of four cylinders, and an 81mm maximum bore.
But that in itself was not enough. Throughout the entire process, it was also broadly hinted that the requirement that engines must be prototypes would be dropped for privateer teams, with these so-called Claiming Rule Teams being allowed to run heavily modified production engines in a prototype chassis. To ensure the teams would not be forced to spend on electronics what they saved on engines, the CRT machines would also be allowed an extra 3 liters of fuel above the allowance for the factory machines (for our detailed explanation of exactly what the CRT rules entail, see The 2012 MotoGP Revolution Part 1.)
Throughout the first season of Moto2, there was much smugness among the diehard curmudgeons who had bemoaned the loss of the two-stroke 250s at the fact that the 600cc four strokes were considerably slower than the old 250s were. The old guard treated the Moto2 machines with disdain, regarding them as little more than jumped-up sportsbikes, bearing little relation to true Grand Prix Machinery.
There was some merit in their argument: The 250cc two-cylinder two strokes were jewels of engineering, beautifully constructed, lightweight, powerful and precise as a surgeon's scalpel. The Moto2 bikes were bigger, bulkier, and in part thanks to the rudimentary electronics and slipper clutch, much more out of shape into and out of corners. If 250 races were like a fight to the death by olympic fencing champions, Moto2 races were like a barroom brawl after the bar had been drunk dry.
The Moto2 and 125cc riders got a break on Saturday, the weather gods deciding to, if not exactly smile, then at least hold off on the punishment for the second day of the IRTA test at Jerez. The paddock awoke to clear skies, but the cool temperatures and strong wind was hardly conducive to posting fast times, the track still damp and treacherous in patches until well into the afternoon.
The point of selecting Jerez as the location for the official Moto2 and 125cc test is to escape the worst of Europe's winter, but the trouble is that sometimes, you can run, but you can't hide. That was very much the case on the first day of the three-day test, with cold temperatures and heavy rain making riding a very tricky affair, and one which a number of riders chose to sit out altogether, most notably last year's championship runner up Julian Simon.
But between - or more accurately, before - the showers, the vast majority of riders took the opportunity to give their Moto2 machines a shakedown run, using the official Moto2 engines supplied by Geo Tech for the first time, the engines which the teams will be using for this test, and the following three races. Despite the fact that everyone is now on equal equipment - at least in the engine stakes - the conditions meant we were still denied a realistic look at the comparitive strengths of the field.
The results of testing for the Moto2 class so far have been fascinating, but they have also been fatally flawed. At the public tests at Valencia and Estoril, and at private tests at tracks such as Valencia and Barcelona, there have been two variables that have made interpreting the times more akin to the dark art of Kremlinology than to a straight comparison: Engines and tires, two of the most significant factors on performance of a racing motorcycle.
While the MotoGP riders get to bask in the tropical heat of Sepang, the 125 and Moto2 riders are left to test in the more temperate climes of Valencia. While Eastern Spain at this time of year can be an uncertain proposition, the weather gods were favorably inclined for this test, leaving MotoGP's support classes to practice under excellent conditions. Good conditions meant the teams all got plenty of work done, and after posting around 150 laps each, there was lots to talk about.
While the testing season for the MotoGP riders got underway at the beginning of February, the Moto2 riders were forced to wait an extra week or so. First to take to the track were the Pons Kalex team of Aleix Espargaro and Axel Pons, the Caixa Catalunya Repsol squad of Marc Marquez, the Technomag CIP team of Kenan Sofuoglu and Dominique Aegerter, and Andrea Iannone's Speed Master team.
The weather at Jerez turned miserable on the final day of the Moto2 test there, bringing the action to a premature end at the Andalucian circuit. Only the few riders brave enough to venture out early managed a few dry laps, the rain arriving shortly after noon.
The shortness of available track time did not hamper reigning 125cc World Champion Marc Marquez. The young Spaniard managed just six laps before the rain came on Friday, but he still managed to improve his time, getting down to 1'45.2, just half a second off the official lap record set by Toni Elias back in May, in much more favorable conditions. Both Julian Simon and Xavi Fores also got a quick run out, Simon managing a 1'44.8 in just 10 laps, while former Spanish CEV Moto2 rider Fores set a 1'45.9.
The sun came out, albeit a rather weak, wintery sun, for the second day of testing at Jerez for the Moto2 class, and all of the riders present finally got a chance to go out and put in some laps, rather than just the handful who braved the damp conditions on Wednesday. Fastest time of the day - and an unofficial lap record, beating the lap record set during the race in May by nine tenths of a second - was set by Julian Simon, the Mapfre Aspar rider setting out his stall for the 2011 Moto2 World Championship. Simon finished the day ahead of his fellow Spaniard Aleix Espargaro, the former MotoGP rider fast in just his second test on the Pons Kalex Moto2 machine.