Joy, determination and despair. If you had to choose three words to describe the first test of the 2013 MotoGP season, these are the words you would choose. Joy: for Valentino Rossi and his crew at finally having a bike that Rossi can ride and his team understand how to work with; for HRC, at seeing both their hopes and their expectations of Marc Marquez' ability confirmed; for Bradley Smith and Michael Laverty, at making such rapid progress on their early days in the class.
Determination: for Dani Pedrosa and Jorge Lorenzo, both working hard at preparing for their assault at a title which either could win. For Marc Marquez, focused on learning everything he can to add the consistency he needs to his raw speed, if he is to match Pedrosa and Lorenzo.
Despair: for the factory Ducati riders. Sepang showed the bike is uncompetitive, and with few avenues left to explore with the machine in its present state, despair at knowing they have many months of hard, dispiriting work ahead of them before they can even start to turn the situation around.
The test confirmed several things that we already knew: Pedrosa and Lorenzo are favorites for the title, and both are just as fast and focused as ever. Valentino Rossi has lost nothing of his speed, immediately getting to within spitting distance of the pace of the two Spaniards. Marc Marquez is as good as everyone expected, though it would be fairer to say Marquez did more than match expectations. He is not just as good as everyone expected, he is as good as everyone hoped. Maybe, just maybe, even better than they hoped.
Pedrosa finished the final day of testing at Sepang on top of the timesheets, well clear of Jorge Lorenzo. The Repsol Honda man lapped under Casey Stoner's outright pole record, but he shrugged that fact off as irrelevant. He is not here to chase lap times, he said, he is here to test the RC213V, and turn in into the best possible weapon with which to launch his 2013 title challenge.
He did that. Pedrosa got through all of the work which HRC had scheduled for him shortly after midday, and decided to call it a day early. The stresses of riding a MotoGP bike at a high-speed circuit like Sepang for three days after a layoff of nearly two months are such that everyone is complaining of stiffness and sore muscles at the end of each day. In those circumstances, a mistake is easily made, and as Pedrosa knows, mistakes can be horrifically costly.
That meant that Pedrosa did not do a race simulation, unlike Jorge Lorenzo. Both Lorenzo and factory Yamaha teammate Valentino Rossi got a lot of parts tested, including chassis and engine upgrades for the 2013 season, but Lorenzo tacked on a race simulation towards the end of the day. The Spaniard got in 13 laps before the first spots or rain appeared and cause him to break off the run. It was impressive indeed: Lorenzo followed up a string of 8 laps in the low 2:01s with a sequence of 5 in the 2:00s. That is the kind of punishing pace which brought him the 2012 title, and he has clearly lost none of his touch.
With Lorenzo's pace beyond question - new old (or is that old new) teammate Valentino Rossi told Spanish magazine Solomoto that he felt that Lorenzo was "perfect" now: "he never makes mistakes, and has a very high level of concentration" - the problem which both Yamaha men face is that the M1 is starting to lag fractionally behind the Honda RC213V. The Yamaha factory riders tried both chassis and engine parts aimed at reducing the pumping at the rear of the bike which is causing them to lose time in acceleration. The two of them have stepped up the pressure on Yamaha to produce a seamless gearbox to match that of the Hondas, but so far, Yamaha has been cagey on a schedule for its introduction. It would definitely help, but Lorenzo is clearly not that far behind Pedrosa.
Nor is Rossi. The huge question mark which hung over the Italian after his time at Ducati has been answered, at least in part. Rossi ended the day four tenths slower than Pedrosa, but the sheer joy and pleasure he radiated all throughout the test showed in everything he did; in his riding, in his responses to the media, in his body language in the garage. Even his crew are the same, the joy bubbling over onto social media platforms like Twitter, where some of his crew are present. Happy as sandboys, the energy in the garage can be felt halfway across the planet.
The gap to Pedrosa belies how strong Rossi's pace is. He is still slower than both Pedrosa and Lorenzo, but look at the full timesheets, and you see Rossi consistently running mid- to low 2:01s, which should be enough to hang with Rossi and Pedrosa if they were to go racing tomorrow. Matching them may be promising, beating them will likely be another, though. Rossi may have regained his old pace, but Lorenzo and Pedrosa have moved the game on since the Italian was last on a Yamaha. The old dog will have to learn a few more tricks.
Rossi's time on Thursday meant he ended the test ahead of Marc Marquez, no doubt much to his relief. Marquez has made a sensational debut, impressing both friend and foe alike. Fast on the first day, the Spaniard spent Wednesday and Thursday working on his consistency, work which paid off in the race simulation he did towards the end of the day. Putting in nearly full race distance, Marquez ran consistently in the mid 2:01s, lower in the first half of his run, a little higher in the second half, his lap times constantly within a tenth or so of each other.
Marquez also passed another key milestone. The Spaniard had his first crash, losing the front of his Repsol Honda on the final corner and sliding off into the gravel, the bike tumbling end over end. Marquez walked away unscathed, both physically and mentally, and got back on to post an even faster time on his next trip out of the pits. He knew a crash would happen, he said after the fact, and that at least now, he had found where the limit was. "I know what NOT to do when the bike moves like that under braking," Marquez told MotoGP.com.
He had spent a lot of his time at this test trying to understand the electronics, and this had impressed his boss Shuhei Nakamoto. Speaking to the press about the progress being made on Honda's production racer (see separate story) Nakamoto explained that Marquez had been riding with the electronics turned down as much as possible, "like Stoner". "He wants to understand the bike," Nakamoto said. Marquez was already sliding the bike, and Stoner's former crew chief was already making comparisons between the two. The Spaniard has a similarly sensitive touch on the throttle, able to control the rear spin with his right hand, rather than needing electronics.
While most of the media focus was on the factory men, Cal Crutchlow was quietly sneaking up on the front four. The Monster Tech 3 Yamaha man got within a tenth of Marquez, and two tenths of Rossi, and was generally running the kind of pace needed to stay close to the front runners. Crutchlow was, as usual, keen to point out that he is riding a satellite bike, a machine which is inferior in spec to the factory bikes. He does not have very many ways of putting pressure on Yamaha to provide him with a better spec of machine, but his performance speaks volumes.
What Crutchlow would like is what Stefan Bradl has: a factory spec machine, with the support to make it fast enough to have a chance to stick with the front runners. Though Yamaha is extremely supportive of the Tech 3 team, they do not operate in the same way as Honda, and so despite finishing well ahead of the German, Crutchlow will likely hope in vain for some help from Yamaha.
Operating in the shadow of the big four may have been a bit of a disadvantage for Crutchlow, it certainly helped his Tech 3 teammate Bradley Smith. The Oxfordshire youngster had faced criticism from some quarters at being given the Tech 3 ride, but the past three days have proven Hervé Poncharal's decision to put Smith on the M1 to have been the right one. Smith has made huge leaps forward day by day, learning new lines, but above all, getting comfortable on the bike. The gap of just under two seconds to Pedrosa may look large, but in reality, he is exactly on target for a rookie coming into the series - or rather, a rookie who does not have the extraterrestrial ability of a Marquez. Comparing Smith's first test at Sepang with that of Stefan Bradl's debut in 2012 shows Smith to be matching or bettering the German's first outing on the LCR Honda MotoGP bike. Smith has proved he belongs in MotoGP.
Another man who has proved he belongs in MotoGP is Michael Laverty. The Irishman - the question of the Laverty brothers' nationalities is a vexed one, with its roots in the 12th Century invasion by the same French kings who conquered England and Wales, and far too complex for a piece on motorcycle racing - is riding Yonny Hernandez' spare Aprilia ART machine, and has positively astounded insiders with the speed at which he adapted to the bike. Many had their doubts about Laverty. He had so much to learn: the track, the Aprilia, carbon brakes, the Bridgestone tires. He came from the wrong background, riding a Superbike in the BSB championship, on user-friendly Pirelli tires, around tight and twisty circuits. He is too old to learn: Laverty will be 33 years of age this summer, an age at which most MotoGP riders are considered to be entering the autumn of their careers. Laverty confounded expectations, finishing as second fastest CRT machine, and less than a second off the Ducati Desmosedici satellite bike of Andrea Iannone. An impressive debut indeed.
As impressive as Laverty's day was, getting close to a Ducati is less of an achievement as it once was. The Bologna factory is in a very deep hole indeed: Nicky Hayden and Andrea Dovizioso are 9th and 10th, behind all of the Hondas and Yamahas, and over two seconds behind Pedrosa. That is not a distance that is bridgeable with a new swingarm and a few set up tweaks, especially not when the bike is essentially unchanged since the second half of last season. Ducati was already in trouble before the slow and difficult process of being taken over by Audi got underway midway through 2012. Development on the bike ground to a halt, as the old guard were shuffled about and new management installed.
After the test at Sepang, both factory Ducati riders were frank about what needs to be changed. In a word, everything. "We need to consider radical changes, not just small steps" Nicky Hayden said on Thursday. Andrea Dovizioso agreed: "Unfortunately, we need to try something big, and in MotoGP there is not a lot of time." The current bike will not do, both Hayden and Dovizioso made a point of saying that they had run through just about every possible set up permutation without result. Almost every avenue of investigation had been pursued, and something new had to be tried. A new bike, designed from the ground up, was what was needed, not new parts thrown at the existing machine.
This, however, will take time, meaning even longer to wait for Dovizioso and Hayden. Data is being collected and analyzed, but building something completely new is not something that can be done in just a few months. Having the support of Audi will help, but the scale of the challenge should not be underestimated.
Could the Japanese factories be willing to lend a hand? In the late '80s and early '90s, when Cagiva were struggling, Yamaha stepped in to help, providing advice that helped make the bike competitive. During his press conference about Honda's production racer, Shuhei Nakamoto was asked about Ducati's situation, and the precedent set by Cagiva. Would Honda be willing to step in and help a struggling Italian factory, just as Japanese factories had in the past? "But Ducati is not an Italian factory!" Nakamoto joked. Having Audi behind them can also work against Ducati...
The teams are now heading home, and the engineers back to their factories, to analyze the data collected and tweak the designs of their bikes in preparation for when they return here in three weeks' time. The first test at Sepang is really just a warm up, where everyone is more focused on evaluation than on working on set up and pushing for a fast time. At the second Sepang test, the factories will return with bikes that are much closer to their final incarnation ready for the season start. Riders return with the confidence of one test under their belt, and having spent some time training the muscles which had hurt so much after their first outing on the bikes. And the teams return with track data analyzed, and some set up options ready to test. Sepang 2 is a much better measure of how the season will play out. But before then, there is work to do.