That a Honda topped the timesheets at the end of the three-day test at Sepang should surprise exactly nobody. Hondas have dominated the timesheets throughout the Sepang test. That a satellite Honda should be fastest would perhaps be a little more surprising, were it not for the fact that Marco Simoncelli's RC212V is a full-fat factory machine with HRC backing.
But it was not all machine: Simoncelli has been impressive throughout the test, and has obviously matured after his rookie MotoGP year. The Italian told the press that he was feeling much calmer this year than last, and much of that is down to the fact that he isn't looking at a 2 second deficit to the leaders. HRC's decision to field four factory bikes is clearly paying off, as a different rider finished top on all three days.
All is not entirely sweetness and light in the Honda garage, though. It goes without saying that the bike is fast, and pretty good with it. But both Dani Pedrosa and Andrea Dovizioso complained the bike was still moving around too much, though braking stability is greatly improved. Pedrosa is still switching back and forth between the 2010 and the 2011 bike, and is yet to be convinced that the 2011 bike is better. All three Repsol Honda riders will be testing the two chassis back-to-back at the next Sepang test, which starts in 19 days' time.
Happiest of the Hondas was probably Casey Stoner, though. The Australian now has a Cheshire-cat-like grin plastered over his face in almost every interview, and is looking ever more comfortable on the RC212V. Stoner improved his time the least over the course of the three days, but explained that he had not really been chasing times. The first two days had been spent working mainly on his riding position and getting the slipper clutch working to his satisfaction, and Thursday was the first day that "felt like a proper test," he said. It was only on the last day of testing that he could spend time comparing chassis, and trying out new parts, rather than trying to get the bike to his liking.
If Casey Stoner booked the smallest progression, the Ducatis booked the largest, and by a significant margin. Nicky Hayden, Valentino Rossi, Loris Capirossi, Hector Barbera and Karel Abraham all slashed over 1.5 seconds off their times over the course of the three days. Even the exception, Randy de Puniet, went nearly a second faster, but as De Puniet was one of the faster riders early in the test, he had less room for improvement. At the end of the test, Valentino Rossi had cut his deficit to the fastest man from 1.8 seconds to just over a single second.
But that does not mean Ducati's early problems are all solved. The first Ducati rider to appear on the combined times from all three days is Nicky Hayden, and the Kentucky Kid is down in 8th, some three quarters of a second off the pace of Simoncelli. Both Marlboro Ducati riders complained about chatter from the GP11, and had spent the entire test trying to iron it out. The problem that Hayden and Rossi faced was that this was an issue that Ducati had had at Sepang back in October last year, and Hayden was uncertain whether it was related just to Sepang, or was a problem with the bike itself. Chatter hadn't been a problem at any other tracks, just Sepang, so it could be a resonance problem specific to the braking ripples at the Malaysian track.
The good news from Valentino Rossi's point of view was how his shoulder held up. Rossi had come to Malaysia expecting to be able to post maybe 20 or 30 laps each day before his shoulder gave up on him, but Rossi managed 30 on Tuesday, 42 on Wednesday and a whole 52 on Thursday, far more than he had expected. He had a lot more mobility than he expected, though strength was still lacking, and had over-exerted his left arm to compensate for his bad right shoulder. By the end of the test, he said, he was "riding the bike like an old lady." Still, he was no longer losing a second a lap due to his shoulder. "More like five tenths, six tenths of a second."
Rossi also admitted that his first contact with the bike at Valencia had been a shock. "The test at Valencia was psychologically difficult," Rossi told the Italian press. "After seven years on the Yamaha, changing everything around like that the next day, I really wasn't used to it." Things were different now, however. "I'm more of a Ducatista now!"
For the bike really was very different. "It's much more like riding a 500," Rossi said of the Desmosedici GP11. The Italian said that on the Yamaha, he had been used to carrying corner speed to round the corner as smoothly as possible, but the Ducati was much more nervous, and needed a more physical style to ride it fast. He was adapting his style, but it was taking time.
While all eyes were on the Hondas, Rossi was quick to point out that the real threat could be the Yamahas. Though the Hondas were fastest, it was the Yamahas which had posted the most consistent times, Rossi insisted. And both Jorge Lorenzo and Ben Spies came away happy from the test, having covered a lot of ground, evaluating chassis and engine improvements. Lorenzo was his usual implacable self, never far off the pace, but it was Spies who impressed perhaps the most. The Texan was never out of the top 5, and despite writing off his M1 on Tuesday - and losing a lot of time comparing the two different chassis he had to test - was neither fazed nor slowed.
The final day of testing went less swimmingly for Suzuki. Alvaro Bautista arrived at the track, took to the circuit and threw up in his helmet on the out lap. Bautista had been stricken by some kind of stomach virus, and immediately retired back to his hotel room to recover, a sensible decision given the sweltering conditions in Malaysia. His place was taken by Suzuki's test rider, Nobu Aoki, but though Aoki's testing skills are unquestioned, his times were not much to write home about.
Bautista was not the only rider to run out of luck on the last day of the test. HRC test rider Kousuki Akiyoshi, who had been very impressive on the first two days of testing, crashed early on day 3, suffering a fractured arm. Casey Stoner was luckier, crashing in the same place fairly heavily, but walking away relatively unhurt.
Hector Barbera's bad luck started before he had even left the hotel car park: the rental car Barbera was to share with team manager Gino Borsoi and two journalists refused to start, leaving the group to chase down some jumper cables before they could make it from the hotel to the circuit and get the day underway. Barbera took it all in his stride, however, and ended the day as the first satellite Ducati, just under two tenths of a second off the pace of Valentino Rossi.
The riders now all return home, with the exception of Jorge Lorenzo and Ben Spies, who have a couple of PR engagements before they can head home, but the break will be a relatively short one. The MotoGP paddock reassembles in Sepang on the 22nd, for the second three-day test at the Malaysian circuit. In the meantime, there's plenty of work for the engineers to do, this time with some real data from the race track.
You can find the results of the three days of testing here:
As well as page containing the combined times for all three days, and a chart listing the amount the riders improved their times over the course of the three days.