It's been a long winter. And the lack of action on the MotoGP front has made the anticipation of the fans even worse by the many questions left hanging after the last test the MotoGP bikes participated in, after the season finale at Valencia.
Back in November, thousands watched Valentino Rossi make his debut on the Ducati (and Casey Stoner make his debut on the Honda, though it was clear where the attention of the fans was focused), and the results were a huge surprise. That Jorge Lorenzo was fast at the test surprised nobody, nor the fact that Casey Stoner was fast out of the traps, though quite how fast the Australian was after just a few laps on the Repsol Honda for the first time did raise a few eyebrows.
The big surprise from the Valencia test was Valentino Rossi's times on the Ducati. The Italian ended the test with the 15th time, with only Moto2 returnee Toni Elias and MotoGP rookie Karel Abraham behind him. There was no doubt that Rossi's injured shoulder - hurt in a training accident early in the year - played a significant role; the Valencia test came at the end of a long season, and after a full weekend of racing, at a track Rossi dislikes intensely. But Rossi (speaking through Filippo Preziosi, as he was contractually unable to speak directly to the press) also complained of a lack of feel from the front end, and a general lack of confidence in the bike.
Since then, Ducati have gone away and modified almost every aspect of the 2011 Desmosedici. Some of this was anticipated - the revised aerodynamics and altered electronics package, for example - but the changes to the front subframe, the carbon fiber section that doubles as an airbox and substructure, connecting the front forks to the engine, a load-bearing part of Ducati's "frameless" Desmosedici MotoGP bike, to produce more feedback and feeling, were made at the specific request of Rossi, based on the feedback he provided at the test, and from meetings at the Ducati Corse department with Rossi's technical team, including veteran race engineer Jeremy Burgess.
Tuesday is the first opportunity we get to see what difference those changes have made. When the MotoGP riders take to the track again at Sepang for the first time since November, all eyes will be on the Ducati garage, and how Valentino Rossi and - to a lesser extent - his teammate Nicky Hayden will perform. Once again, expectations of Rossi are probably too high, as the Italian is still recovering from surgery to repair his injured shoulder, and the Italian is still complaining that his shoulder is weak and painful. But nobody's times will be watched more closely, or examined in greater detail, than Valentino Rossi's.
While the world watches Rossi, a better measure of the progress made will probably come from Nicky Hayden. The other man in the Marlboro Ducati garage is not hampered by injury (though Hayden, too, went under the knife to deal with a wrist problem), and Hayden stands to benefit greatly from the changes to the Ducati, as his improved results last year were undone in part by the front-end problems that all of the Ducatis seemed to suffer. If Rossi's continuing recovery from his shoulder injury makes his times difficult to interpret, Nicky Hayden's times should give a clear indication of progress at Ducati.
Surprises are not expected at Yamaha, at least not in terms of rider performance. Jorge Lorenzo's decision to brave the jinx that has hung over carrying the #1 plate since Mick Doohan retired merely confirms the Spaniard's confidence, and given how well-developed the Yamaha is and how flawlessly Lorenzo rode last season, there is no reason to expect Lorenzo to be anywhere other than at the top of the timesheets.
Expectations are running similarly high for Lorenzo's teammate, Ben Spies. The Texan had an outstanding rookie year, scoring a couple of podiums and running close to the front three several times. In his first year of MotoGP, Spies got within a couple of tenths of the pace of the so-called Aliens, and many believe that those final tenths can be found in the difference between the satellite spec Monster Tech 3 Yamaha and the factory machines. Now firmly ensconced in the factory squad, and with the media focus and pressure on his teammate and reigning world champion, Spies is expected to get on with his quiet progress, and threaten to turn the Fantastic Four into the Fabulous Five.
The only real surprise in the Yamaha camp is the livery: Yamaha's MotoGP team will be running in factory colors, as the team has yet to bag a title sponsor - despite housing the World Champion and running the #1 plate. Yamaha's Lin Jarvis has hinted that a deal has been close a number of times, but so far, the bikes remain firmly Yamaha blue-and-white.
The man most hotly tipped to keep the #1 jinx going is a man who knows all about it from personal experience. Casey Stoner has now joined the factory Repsol Honda squad, and was setting a blistering pace within minutes of leaving pit lane when he rode the RC212V for the first time at Valencia. Honda arrives at Sepang with work to do on stability under braking and on power delivery, the eternal complaint of all Honda's riders. All except Stoner, that is, who said the power delivery was much smoother than the Ducati, and was much easier to manage. With Stoner speaking openly of his ambition to emulate Mick Doohan - a rider he resembles in both style and personality - it will be a complete shock if Stoner does not end up as the fastest man over the next three days.
Stoner is now part of a three-man team with Dani Pedrosa and Andrea Dovizioso at Honda, and after his strongest season yet, Pedrosa starts the season with doubts hanging over his fitness once again. The Spaniard is still unsure of how the collarbone he broke at Motegi last October will hold up, despite being given the all clear by doctors after Valencia. Pedrosa will be hoping to be back at full strength by the time the season starts, but may suffer some weakness during his first full outing on a MotoGP bike this week.
The interesting question in the Repsol Honda garage will be the dynamics of how the three riders will work together. Both Stoner and Pedrosa have denied there will be any friction between the riders, and the body language between the two has always been positive. But behind the scenes, a power struggle continues between Pedrosa's mentor Alberto Puig and Livio Suppo, the man who brought Stoner to HRC. There could be internal arguments over who should lead development, but as long as both riders are booking results, HRC will hope to keep the situation in hand.
There is good reason to believe that the Japanese giant will clamp down hard on internal dissent. Honda were the prime movers behind the switch to 800cc, yet they have failed to win a single title since the drop in capacity they asked for was granted. The 2011 season is their final chance to grab an 800cc MotoGP title, and they will do whatever it takes to pull that off. Anyone rocking the boat is likely to find himself in a very bad place, and the rider who brings HRC their coveted MotoGP crown will be richly rewarded.
While Honda, Yamaha and (especially) Ducati field a healthy six, four and six bikes respectively, Suzuki is down to a measly single bike. Yet that could finally work out well for the Hamamatsu factory, as Suzuki's MotoGP effort has always been both underfunded and underdeveloped in equal measure. With just a single rider to support, more cash should be available to move the machine forward. The risk, of course, is that by having their eggs solely in Alvaro Bautista's basket, if anything happens to the Spaniard, they have no fallback position.
Bautista himself made good progress throughout 2010, finding his feet after the halfway mark of the season, after a mediocre start to his MotoGP career. The signs are good that Bautista could pull out a few surprises in 2011, if he gets the support he hopes for from Suzuki.
Sepang will be a key test for the factory, but results there could be deceptive. The GSV-R has always performed strongly in hot conditions, as natural track heat does the job of getting heat into the tires that the bike's chassis has always failed to. The bike has plenty of grip when it's hot, but as temperatures cool, the Suzuki goes backwards. If Suzuki can't fix this problem, then their participation in 2012 is very much in doubt.
Test results among the satellite riders are always much harder to assess. Funding for testing is always hardest to find, with teams running engines for as long as possible, and winding back performance to ensure they can make it through the tests without spending too much money. Yet there are still several stories that may play out under the radar, but which could prove key in 2011.
British fans will be watching the progress of Cal Crutchlow closely, as another British hopeful starts out on a MotoGP career. The omens are not good, as the footsteps Crutchlow follows in have so far led deep into the wilderness, rather than towards the podium. It has been well over twenty years since the UK had any real success in the premier class, despite racking up a string of World Superbike titles during the same period.
Yet there is also reason to be optimistic. The one thing that British riders entering MotoGP seemed to be missing was the kind of mental toughness that separates champions from competitors. That toughness is exactly what Crutchlow has in abundance, the bottomless desire to succeed and dominate, and a refusal to accept any other result. In his rookie year in MotoGP, and with the weight of British expectation behind him, he will need all of the toughness he can summon.
The pressure will also be on Toni Elias. The Spaniard returns to MotoGP fresh from his dominant year in Moto2, and with much riding on his performance. Within the MotoGP paddock, debate rages over just how good Moto2 is as preparation for the MotoGP class. Though the chassis is a full prototype, the restrictions in electronics adjustments and the lack of an adjustable gearbox mean that riders miss out on a vital part of bike setup that the MotoGP class requires.
Elias is to be the test case of whether a Moto2 rider can be competitive in the premier class. The Spaniard has an advantage, having already spent five seasons in MotoGP, two of them on board an RC212V like the one he is to ride at LCR. Yet his return to the class was inauspicious, ending the first test at Valencia at the bottom of the timesheets.
The fate of the man he replaces looks to be very different indeed. Randy de Puniet left the LCR Honda squad to move to the Pramac Ducati squad, and the Frenchman was fast right off the mark. De Puniet started off 2010 strongly, scoring outstanding results until he broke his leg at the Sachsenring. After that, he struggled, returning to racing too early to meet his contractual obligations. De Puniet feels he has a point to prove, and his wild and unruly style may well suit the Ducati. The Desmosedici needs its front tire to be worked to provide grip at the front, and the one thing that De Puniet is not afraid of is putting load into the front end, as his string of front-end crashes on the notorious Michelin tires proved. Once he switched to Bridgestones, he stopped crashing, and started finishing closer to the front.
Of course, whether any useful data comes out of the Sepang test depends entirely on the weather. The Malaysian track was chosen for testing because of its dependable climate, but that climate also includes the occasional tropical rain shower. The first day of the test on Tuesday looks like it could be plagued by rain, though conditions should improve for Wednesday and Thursday.
But even if the bikes sit in the garage, at least the fans know that the start of the season is near. Just over six weeks to go until battle commences in earnest. For now, though, we will have to make do with testing.
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