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.
The biggest story of the test is obviously Marc Marquez. The cool-headed youngster demonstrated his ability in the 125cc class all last year, where he won the title with almost deceptive ease. Marquez learned from his mistakes and got better every race, and the Spaniard is ploughing that same furrow on his entry into the Moto2 class. Starting modestly, Marquez posted the 5th fastest time on Thursday, but by the end of Saturday, Marquez had stripped a second and a half off his times, and was lapping half a second under the lap record.
Marquez' transition to the Moto2 class has been completely seamless, and the Spaniard, who turns 18 later this week, bears a worrying resemblance to Dani Pedrosa. Backed by Spanish petroleum giant Repsol, a protege of a former champion (in Marquez' case, Emilio Alzamora; in Pedrosa's case, Alberto Puig), and blisteringly fast on anything they climb aboard. If the band of four Aliens in MotoGP are worried by the progress of Ben Spies, they will be terrified at the prospect of Marquez moving up to the class, probably in 2013, almost certainly with at least one Moto2 title under his belt. If ever there was a rider worthy of the tag "the real deal," Marc Marquez is it.
Marquez will face stiff competition from British youngster Scott Redding, who was also fast at Valencia, though the progression of his times illustrates nicely the difference between Redding and Marquez. Where Marquez builds neatly and smoothly, Redding improves in great lumps on one day, and not at all on another.
Redding joined a gaggle of last year's contenders near the top of the timesheets, Julian Simon showed why he finished as runner up to Toni Elias by being consistently fast, and Yuki Takahashi, Thomas Luthi, Stefan Bradl and Andrea Iannone all posted fast times over the three days. Perhaps the least impressive of last year's bunch was Iannone, the Italian starting the first day fastest, but not making much progress after that. Iannone was mercurial in 2010, often terrifyingly fast, but also worryingly inconsistent. It will be an interesting year in the Speed Master garage this season.
The timesheets from Valencia also show just how harsh the class was on manufacturers. Where 13 different manufacturers lined up in 2010, just 7 rolled out at Valencia. The winner so far has been Suter, with the fastest three riders all on the Swiss chassis, and half of the top ten on Suters. The Moriwaki and Kalex are close, but still some way off, while FTR, showing off a new fairing with a "gaping maw" style air intake, had their first rider a second behind Marquez.
But comparing times at the tests without the official Geo Technology Moto2 engines is a complicated and risky business. Without an official Moto2 CBR600 lump to put in their bikes, teams are putting whatever they happen to have available in the chassis. So the engines at the test are in wildly different states of tune: some are very close to Supersport spec, while others are bog standard Honda CBR600RR units with the minimum of HRC parts, barely bringing them up to superstock spec. There could be as much as 20 horsepower between the slowest and the fastest engines at Valencia, but the trouble is, the teams have little interest in talking about what they decided to use in their bikes. Moto2 may be a series based on engine parity, Moto2 testing is anything but.
There was another complicating factor at Valencia, and it is one that colored MotoGP testing as well. There were an inordinate number of Moto2 riders recovering from shoulder surgery and shoulder problems at Valencia, with riders such as Mattia Pasini, Kenny Noyes and Mika Kallio all taking to the track with shoulder issues. Pasini had already tested his shoulder at Misano, testing along with Valentino Rossi prior to the nine-time world champion's departure for the first MotoGP test at Sepang, while Noyes had tested a CBR600 at Aragon, but riding a glorified track day does not approach the intensity of a full race test, and Noyes, for example, described himself as "shattered" at the end of the test.
In the 125cc class, Nico Terol took on the mantle of heir apparent for the championship, finishing fastest on all three days - though he was forced to share the honors with Sandro Cortese on Thursday. The surprise at Valencia was Maverick Vinales, though keen observers of the Spanish CEV championship will be all too familiar with the 15-year-old, who is already the reigning Spanish 125 champion. Vinales, along with Miguel Oliveira, the Portuguese rider Vinales beat to the 2010 CEV crown, matched the pace of Terol throughout the test, and Vinales looks like being yet another of the growing group of fast young Spanish riders dominating all three classes of the MotoGP series. Oliveira, though Portuguese, was schooled in the Spanish championship, and judging by his testing results, has learned well and should be competitive.
There was to be little rest for the riders, though. Once finished at Valencia, a large contingent headed west across the Iberian peninsula for the next test at Estoril, which starts on Tuesday. The group will see a few key changes, with several riders electing to stay home, while Kenan Sofuoglu, who skipped the Valencia test to attend his father's deathbed, will be joining the group, and hoping to put the tragic events of last week behind him.
Below are a selection of shots from the Moto2 test, courtesy of Honda Racing: