Two-and-a-half weeks after they departed, the MotoGP riders are back in Malaysia, and it's almost as if they had never been away. The Hondas and - to a lesser extent - the Yamahas are dominating, with the Ducatis further back, and Valentino Rossi still a second off the fastest man, who, once again, is Casey Stoner on the Repsol Honda.
Despite the resemblances to the first Sepang tests, there are some subtle differences, however. Casey Stoner is clearly fast, but just how fast only becomes clear when you look at the Australian's lap chart. While a group of riders, including Dani Pedrosa, Jorge Lorenzo, Ben Spies and Andrea Dovizioso had managed a handful of laps in the 2'01 bracket, Stoner set fully 17 laps in 2'01, two of those within a tenth of cracking into the 2'00s. And he was on that pace all day, in the cooler morning and evening, as well as the heat of the day.
The Honda is clearly the bike to beat, as the timesheets will attest, and the bike is only getting better. Both Stoner and Pedrosa spent the first day of the test swapping between the 2010 and 2011 chassis, and neither man feels able to make a choice between the two just yet. A request by the Australian to combine parts from the two to get the best of both was met with a curt "No" from HRC, but given the shape the RC212V is in, that is hardly surprising.
Honda have apparently solved one of the biggest problems they had in Malaysia last time, with Andrea Dovizioso effusive in his praise for the new clutch settings, which had eliminated the chatter on corner entry the bike had previously been suffering with. One Italian media outlet was convinced that this was down to HRC having fitted a Dual Clutch Transmission, taking that as the only rational explanation for the speed of the Hondas. The small matter of DCT being both illegal under the rules (see section 2.4.2 of the MotoGP regulations PDF file) and incredibly easy to identify during a technical inspection was overlooked by Sportmediaset's correspondent. The Italian TV company's reporter later explained himself to GPOne.com, saying that he had meant merely that Honda had applied technology learned from DCT to their MotoGP bikes, while still staying within the rules. Given that all three Repsol Honda riders had mentioned the work done on the clutch when speaking to the press at both this and the previous tests, there may be some merit in the idea, though perhaps not as much as the original story had suggested.
If the Hondas are fast, the Yamahas are right there with them, with Jorge Lorenzo, Ben Spies and Colin Edwards all up front. Biggest surprise of the day in the Yamaha camp was Colin Edwards in 4th, just over a tenth quicker than his old teammate Ben Spies, who has now been promoted from the Monster Tech 3 Yamaha team to the factory Yamaha squad. But Edwards, like Hiroshi Aoyama, only picked up a few tenths at the end of the day, when a whole gaggle of riders improved their times on soft tires. The sole slow Yamaha rider was Cal Crutchlow, but while the young Briton's shoulder is improved, Crutchlow is struggling with a minor case of food poisoning he picked up on the flight to Malaysia. Added to the punishing heat and humidity of Sepang, food poisoning is robbing Crutchlow of the strength it takes to ride a MotoGP bike.
The good news for Lorenzo and Spies is that Yamaha, too, has found a few tweaks, with Lorenzo praising the extra rear traction that Yamaha's engineers have found. The new chassis also allows Lorenzo to carry a little more speed into the corners, and keep it through the turn as well. Spies, meanwhile, has been experimenting with some tweaks to his riding style, ironing out the last of his Superbike habits and integrating the things he has learned from following the fast guys around last year. He continues to be on pace to be one of those fast guys for 2011.
Meanwhile, all eyes are on the Ducati garage, and Valentino Rossi's continued progress and adaptation to the Desmosedici GP11. Most of all, the focus has been on the recovery of Rossi's shoulder, and with 53 laps under his belt, it seems like his shoulder is getting rapidly better. His problem, Rossi said, was still in right handers, the Italian still lacking sufficient strength to ride as he would like to. His recovery may be measured by his own estimation of what his shoulder is costing him in terms of lap times: After the first day of the Sepang 1 test, three weeks ago, he said it was probably costing him a second a lap, an amount that had been cut to five or six tenths by the final day of the test. Today, Rossi estimated his shoulder was costing him maybe three tenths of a second, and the Italian was optimistic he could be close to some semblance of fitness by the time Qatar rolls around, though still not at 100%.
Those three tenths due to Rossi's shoulder still leave a sizable gap to the competition, however. Though Rossi did not use a soft tire like so many of his rivals did, the time he set on a hard race tire was still six or seven tenths behind the race times of Stoner and Pedrosa. Minus Rossi's shoulder, Ducati still has to find another three or four tenths to be capable of fighting for wins, and though the new "flexi" package - a mixture of a modified front subframe and the 42mm Ohlins forks - is starting to work increasingly well. So well, in fact, that Rossi and his crew have stopped trying to soften up the bike, to try to get it to turn better, and have now switched focus to getting the best out of the existing package, a setup which Rossi referred to as a "Ducati setting, because it is more like a standard setting," he told Crash.net.
The worry for Rossi, and perhaps more so for themselves, is that the other Ducati riders remain stubbornly cemented to the bottom of the timesheets, with only the test riders, the sickly Cal Crutchlow and the struggling Toni Elias behind them. Hector Barbera was the second fastest Ducati, setting the 11th time over 1.6 seconds behind Stoner, while Nicky Hayden was just 12th fastest. The American was pleased that the chatter which had plagued the Ducati at the previous Sepang test had mostly disappeared, though his complaints of a lack of rear traction suggest that the solution to the chatter problem may have come at a price. There is still plenty to do for Ducati, but the gap has been brought back to something which may turn out to be manageable proportions.
The good news for Ducati and Rossi fans is that Ducati is clearly making progress. The bad news is that Honda and Yamaha are doing the same, but faster. Two more days remain of testing in Sepang before the teams pack up and head to Qatar for the final test, and then the season opener. Those two days are going to be extremely valuable.