After the excitement and confusion of the first day of testing at Sepang, some semblance of normality returned on Tuesday. Cooler temperatures and more stable weather meant that riders had much more time to do work on track, the heat and humidity not quite as oppressive as they had been the previous day. The excitement over new bikes and gearboxes had also subsided, and the hard grind continued.
If Tuesday is representative of the normal state of play in MotoGP, then it seems like there are already two favorites for the title emerging from the pack, though margins are slim indeed. Marc Márquez and Jorge Lorenzo were the only two riders to crack the two minute barrier, posting fast times early on in the day, then getting back to work on 2015. Nobody else got near, with the exception of Andrea Iannone, who piled in a quick lap at the end of the day to fall just short of two minutes, the Ducati GP15 quickly proving its worth.
Marc Márquez was perhaps the most relieved rider. After losing a day due to untraceable braking issues, things were back to normal as soon as he hit the track on Tuesday. Márquez was cagey about the cause of the brake issue, joking that he did not want to reveal the secret to his rivals, in case they too suffered the issue. The Repsol Honda rider spent the day focusing on electronics and engine management, working hard to make up for lost time. That left him still with work to do on Wednesday, when the team will turn their attention to the chassis he is supposed to be testing. So far, Márquez has been sticking with the chassis he used at the last Sepang test, but Honda also have a chassis with 'something for the rear'. Whether that is in the frame, swing arm, shock mount, or linkage is not clear.
Right behind Márquez is Jorge Lorenzo, the Movistar Yamaha man motivated and sharp as a razor. Lorenzo had been slow on Monday, suffering with jet lag and a lack of sleep. A decent night's rest on Monday night saw the color return to his cheeks and the speed to his wrist, Lorenzo pounding out a strong rhythm as his team worked to improve the new seamless gearbox. The gearbox, which allows clutchless shifts both down and up, has downsides and as well as upsides. The bike may be better in braking, but in the wet on Monday, Lorenzo had found some negatives. The gearbox was more aggressive on downshifts, which was noticeable in the rain, but Lorenzo acknowledged the potential of the new gearbox. They had not yet found a set up to extract all of its potential, a goal they will continue to work on Wednesday. At the end of the day, Lorenzo switched back to the old gearbox, to try it again, and possibly to spare the mileage on the gearbox. The Honda seamless is extremely labor-intensive, requiring it to be stripped down and rebuilt at the end of each day. There is no reason to suspect that the same is not true for Yamaha's seamless box.
The fully seamless gearbox also offers another advantage: as the clutch is not longer used except for starts and in pit lane, the rider's left hand has much less to do. Last year, Honda experimented with thumb brakes for Márquez and Dani Pedrosa, to take some of the load from the rider's right foot. As riding positions are becoming more extreme during cornering, and lean angles are getting steeper, the riders feet have less room to move to operate the brake, and are often further from the brake pedal than before. On Tuesday, Jorge Lorenzo experimented with a similar, but slightly more radical set up, the rear brake operated by a single finger of the left hand. Lorenzo told reporters he has lacked some strength in his ankles since his massive highside at Shanghai back in 2008, and applying the brake while leaned over was sometimes difficult. Like the Honda riders before him, Lorenzo rejected the idea, saying he did not like the feeling.
Surely, though, this is the future, once riders accept the idea. The thumb brake is not ideal – Mick Doohan was very successful with it, but with a leg with almost no motion, he had little choice – as the thumb lacks the fine control of the other four fingers. With the clutch now no longer needed, there is no reason for the clutch lever to take pride of place on the left handlebar. The clutch lever could easily be replaced by a rear brake lever, the clutch relegated to a smaller, separate lever on the left, and out of the way. That would leave the riders to concentrate on braking and accelerating, and leaving the foot free to move around.
Of course, that would leave the handlebars of a MotoGP bike looking more like that of a scooter than racing motorcycle: throttle, brake lever on either side, and a few buttons. It is ironic that thanks to rules which explicitly force mechanically operated gear shifts and ban double clutches, MotoGP engineers have recreated the scooter's automatic gearbox. The only difference is that the MotoGP solution is both infinitely more expensive, and has no practical application on the road. The purists who believe that MotoGP should be a prototype-only class must be delighted.
If Marc Márquez and Jorge Lorenzo are a cut above the rest, which of the two was fastest? On the number of laps under 2'01, the prize must go to Lorenzo, the Yamaha man posting 18 to Márquez' 17. But the average pace of those fast laps was slightly faster for the Repsol Honda rider: Márquez' 17 laps averaged 2'00.616, Lorenzo's 18 laps were 2:00.704.
The Ducatis, too, were quick, both Andreas taking third and fourth places on the timesheets. Dovizioso was fast early on, while Iannone put in a quick last lap to pass his teammate and close in on Márquez and Lorenzo. The GP15 is clearly a better bike than the GP14.3 was, both Andreas acknowledging as much. But there was still work to be done. The bike now turns, and it holds a line, but it now lacks some stability, both in braking, corner entry and in the middle of the corner. Especially the transition from braking to corner entry was lacking, Andrea Dovizioso said, the last part of corner entry. "We need time to improve," he said. Not an earth-shattering conclusion, but a statement, both parts of which are true. Yes, Ducati needs time. But yes, they will actually improve.
The step which Ducati has made has raised some questions about how long the privileges they enjoy as a factory with no recent successes will last. If the factory scores three thirds, two seconds or a win in the dry, then they will see their fuel allowance cut, from 24 to 22 liters. That is unlikely to make much difference, except perhaps at Motegi, where fuel consumption is at a premium. For most races, the Ducati has been using between 21 and 22 liters anyway. Should they score three wins, however, then they lose the extra soft tire, and are forced to use the same tire allocation as Honda and Yamaha.
Three wins looks tough to achieve, with Márquez and Lorenzo already looking strong, Valentino Rossi and Dani Pedrosa very close behind, Pol Espargaro waiting in the wings on the Tech 3 Yamaha, and Cal Crutchlow making steady progress on the Honda RC213V. If we are to gaze into the mists of our crystal ball, it would be fair to expect that the Ducatis will quickly bag a couple more podiums. Taking three wins from the top four seems unlikely, without some fairly strange circumstances intervening.
That could end up making the situation all the more painful, however. Unable to score wins, Ducati would keep the soft rear tire. The soft rear tire makes the Ducati a missile during qualifying, meaning the bike dominates pole, perhaps putting Dovizioso and Iannone on the front row every race, perhaps even joined by Suzuki. That is not a situation which Honda or Yamaha will happily tolerate. It remains to be seen how long the MSMA puts up with it before they move to change the rules. And whether Ducati will allow them.
It was certainly enough to worry Valentino Rossi. The GP14.3 was already fast, Rossi told reporters, and if the GP15 was even faster, it could pose a serious problem. "In one lap they have the advantage of the softer tire, but already with the old bike they are very fast," he said. "Iannone last time here did a 1'59.3." Ducati were now ready to do battle with Honda and Yamaha, was Rossi's opinion. The two Japanese factories still held an advantage during the race, however. They were better in the second half of the race, where Ducati have suffered. That would still leave Márquez, Lorenzo, Rossi and Pedrosa to battle their way past the two Andreas. It should make for some interesting races.
While Márquez and Lorenzo dominated, in a reversal of Monday, Dani Pedrosa and Valentino Rossi ended the day much further down the standings. Both men pronounced themselves happy, having been working on set up and generally making steady progress. In parallel programs, Pedrosa and Rossi spent their day working on suspension and geometry, working towards an optimum base set up for the start of the year. Rossi worked on creating more grip, while Pedrosa focused on tire life, and making the tire perform better at the end of the race. More work was set for Wednesday, Pedrosa switching from the chassis to engine mappings, Rossi attempting a race run.
Up and down pit lane, the story was much the same. Work continued on finding a better base set up, and closing the gap to the fastest riders. For most, the story was the same, yet there are a few riders worth highlighting, for reasons either good or ill. There have been men who have made great steps forward, while for others, they have stood still, or gone backwards.
The huge improvement of the Ducati has highlighted the fate of Cal Crutchlow. The Englishman left a factory Ducati ride to take a seat at the LCR Honda team. After struggling badly at the first Sepang test, many suggested that his decision had been the wrong one. At the second Sepang test, Crutchlow has turned the situation around. Slowly building confidence, the LCR Honda man has cut the gap to under half a second to the front, and has bettered his time from the first test. Crutchlow is still struggling with corner entry, but progress is being made.
Yet Crutchlow finds two Ducatis ahead of him, despite having closed the gap to Márquez. Will he be able to finish ahead of the GP15 once the season gets underway? That will depend on how well the GP15 performs in the race. If the new Ducati uses tires as fast as the old one did, Crutchlow should have no problem getting ahead of his old teammate and the man who replaced him. If Ducati solve that problem, then that is a different matter altogether.
Does Crutchlow regret his decision, now that the Ducati is ahead of him on the timesheets? Even at the first Sepang test, when he was struggling badly, there was no sign of remorse. There are more reasons than just equipment for riders to switch teams. Crutchlow believes that his best chance of success lies on a Honda.
Scott Redding, like Cal Crutchlow, is making good progress, having now cut the gap to less than a second. Redding still has an awful long way to go, though, with twelve bikes ahead of him. Being thirteenth is not where he had expected to be.
In the Tech 3 garage, the situations from the first test are reversed. At Sepang 1, it was Pol Espargaro who had grabbed the headlines, being much faster than his teammate Bradley Smith. The ankle Smith had injured riding motocross had hampered him during the first test, and the Englishman is clearly much healthier in this second test. It is the turn of Smith to lead his teammate, the Englishman ending the day in seventh, while his teammate is down in tenth. Smith worked through a race simulation, and has grown in confidence throughout the test, while Espargaro seems to have the opposite problem.
Another reversal of fortune comes in the Forward Yamaha garage. Stefan Bradl had impressed friend and foe during the first Sepang test, ending well inside the top ten. With temperatures much higher, and grip much lower, Bradl is struggling for grip. Without the feel on the edge of the tire, Bradl is finding it hard to carry corner speed. Add that to a lack of braking stability, and Bradl finds himself outside the top fifteen. If Bradl's problems sound familiar, it is because the bike he is riding is basically the one Jorge Lorenzo was riding at the first test here last year, but with a softer tire and the Open class software. The potential is there for the bike, but it clearly does not work in all conditions.
But if there is one story that has dumbfounded and saddened observers, it is the tale of Marco Melandri. The Italian has looked lost ever since his return to MotoGP, but his plight just gets worse by the day. Melandri never wanted to return to MotoGP, but the last-minute switch by Aprilia left him with no choice. Halfway through a two-year contract with the Noale factory, Melandri's options were to move with them to MotoGP, or break his contract and try to find another employer. At the time, Aprilia intended to pull out entirely from World Superbikes, a decision they later reversed, providing what is basically factory support for the Red Devils teams. By that time, Melandri's fate was sealed, Red Devils already close to deals with Leon Haslam and Jordi Torres.
So Melandri finds himself in the MotoGP paddock, on a bike which is still a very long way behind the competition, while he waits for Romano Albesiano to bring an all-new prototype in 2016. That the bike is far from competitive is clear from the times of his teammate, Alvaro Bautista, who is in 23rd spot, two and a half seconds behind the leader Marc Márquez. But it is far more than just the bike: Melandri is a further two seconds behind Bautista, nearly four and a half seconds slower than Márquez. He is slower on the Aprilia RS-GP than he was round Sepang on his RSV4 World Superbike machine.
The problem is simple to explain, but all the more difficult to solve. Melandri simply has no confidence in the feel of the Bridgestones, and cannot get comfortable on the Aprilia. Aprilia have gone to extraordinary lengths to accommodate him, including bringing a bike which is very close to the RSV4 he rode in World Superbikes last year. Yet nothing seems to help. Melandri lingers in the slough of despond, no relief at hand.
As a mark of just how low Melandri has sunk, he posted on Twitter: "No words.. I can't ride, feeling disappointed for the guys.."
How to resolve this situation? For Aprilia, there is not much they can do. Melandri needs to find himself, to find some confidence in the bike and find some confidence in the tires, to understand how the tires work, and how to use them. That is easier said than done, but the first step is to alter his mindset from chasing a championship, which is what he was doing in World Superbikes, to development mode, which is what Aprilia needs above all. Melandri is a former MotoGP race winner, a contender in WSBK, and a man once tipped as the successor to Valentino Rossi. There can be little doubt he is fast. Except, perhaps, in his own mind. A change there could bring about a change in his fortunes.
It will be interesting to see how he responds to the Michelin test on Thursday. If he is more comfortable there, it could help change his attitude. Unfortunately for those of us who follow the sport, we are unlikely to find out how he got on with the tires. The result of the delicate contract situation, where Bridgestone holds the exclusive right to promote their tire brand in MotoGP, and pay Dorna a handsome sum for the privilege, means the Japanese firm is not keen to see Michelin get any publicity. A blanket ban has been imposed on riders speaking to the media after the tire test on Thursday, and all tire markings must be removed. There is no wrath like a marketing department scorned...