With the MotoGP season opener now just a week away, the final test before the season starts feels more like a couple of extra days of practice rather than a genuine test, especially with the Qatar race being spread over four days instead of the usual three. A point made repeatedly by the riders themselves, none of whom really had anything positive to say about the new four-day format. They all understood why it was being done, but it was a problem they felt could be fixed by holding the race later in the year, when the humidity which suddenly rolls into the circuit at about 10:30pm every night in March and early April would be less of a problem.
So with most of the big decisions already made - HRC has its chassis, the "standard 2011" version, the new version introduced at Valencia last year and the slightly stiffer of the two options Honda had been preparing for this season - teams are starting to work on minor tweaks, adjustments to setup rather than major revisions of new parts. Casey Stoner has two identical bikes with just seating positions and height differences, Dani Pedrosa has been working solely on mapping and electronics, and Jorge Lorenzo had a new swingarm to test.
Despite the relative lack of novelty on the technical front, there was still plenty to learn from the test. That a Honda topped the timesheets at the end of the day should come as absolutely no surprise, that the two fastest men were on Repsol Hondas even less. Even the fact that a San Carlo Gresini satellite bike (well, factory-spec satellite bike) ended 3rd is not that much of a surprise, were it not for the fact that that Gresini was being ridden by Hiroshi Aoyama.
It wasn't just one fast lap either. Aoyama put in a string of mid 1'56s in the middle of the test, though he spent most of the test in the 1'57s. Whether Aoyama could run 1'56s for the full duration of a race is uncertain, and the Gresini team left the paddock before the press got to grill their riders.
Casey Stoner, on the other hand, ran 1'56s just about all day long. You don't need to ask the Australian how he feels about his switch to Honda, you can see it in his body language and in everything he says and does. Stoner is relaxed, focused, and very, very fast.
The one problem that Stoner has is the one that has dogged the Hondas throughout, chattering in middle of the corner. Watching from the track, you could see the Hondas enter the corner smoothly, but as the bike was tipped over to maximum lean, the rear would start to pump in an unsettling, if controllable way. The problem had been improved, all the Honda riders said, but it had still not gone away. They can afford to wait, though: "If we're this fast with this problem," Stoner explained, "we've got nothing to worry about."
Honda's secret is in the gearbox, and standing by the side of the track, the difference between the different bikes is astonishingly audible. The Ducatis come by sounding as if they need to be kicked between gears like a motocross bike; the Yamahas shift gear with a loud boom as the quickshifter cuts the power and the escaping unburnt gas self-ignites; but the Hondas pick up with the gear changes barely audible. The bike sounds silky smooth, something which both Andrea Dovizioso and Casey Stoner acknowledged was a big advantage. The bike, they said, would not get unsettled when you shift gears while still heeled over. Both Stoner and Dovizioso confirmed that Honda's magic is in the gearbox, not in the clutch. Those commentators pointing at Instantaneous Gear Shift technology appear to be heading in the right direction.
Over in the Ducati garage, they have plenty to worry about, with the factory Marlboro Ducatis of Valentino Rossi and Nicky Hayden ending in 8th and 9th, over three quarters of a second off the pace of Pedrosa. The original "flexi" package has been set aside for now, left to Ducati's test team to work on until its been developed further. Instead, Valentino Rossi has gone back to the setup used by Casey Stoner for the race in 2010, as they work to figure out a base setup, and a starting point for their adjustments.
Turning the bike remains the big problem, the machine requiring much more physical effort to force it round the corners. It is a particularly intractable problem, to which the extremely hard work of the Ducati team is providing only small steps forward, instead of the giant leap they need to catch the Hondas.
And yet looking at the full list of times, the situation may not be quite as bleak as it seems. Rossi spent a lot of time lapping in the low 1'57s, still 6 tenths of Stoner's race pace, but not as far down the timesheets as it seemed. A repeat of Welkom in 2004 - when Rossi went out and won on his first race aboard the Yamaha - is extremely unlikely, but a podium is not beyond the realms of the possible. It is not an outcome worth betting the house on, but a discrete flutter with an upstairs window may turn out to be profitable.
Rossi's shoulder continues to trouble him, though, the Italian complaining of pain after a long day of testing. He continues to receive treatment on the shoulder, but shoulders are complex things, and recovery from injury can be a time-consuming business.
Over in the Yamaha camp, there were much happier faces than in Sepang. The more flowing nature of the Qatari circuit means that the Yamahas aren't losing out to the phenomenal drive the Hondas have off the corners. Both Jorge Lorenzo and Ben Spies kept the Hondas within sight at Qatar, though both men continued to emphasize that they would really like some more horsepower.
Ben Spies was the fastest of the factory Yamahas, just over a tenth quicker than teammate Lorenzo. That was pretty impressive, but a closer examination of the full timesheets suggests that it is Lorenzo who is the quicker of the pair. Lorenzo was knocking off very low 1'57s and high 1'56s, while Spies was a fraction off Lorenzo's pace. Both men, notably, were not that much faster than the pace being set by Valentino Rossi, suggesting that the race on Sunday could be more interesting than you might otherwise surmise.
Suzuki, smallest of the manufacturers, have lost some of the grip that the heat of Sepang provided them, and have slipped further down the field. Bautista continues to improve on the GSV-R, but the bike clearly needs a lot more money poured into it than Suzuki is prepared to invest. It's probably going to be a tough year for Suzuki.
Testing continues tomorrow, by which time we should be able to see the shape of the early season in MotoGP. It is still looking like being one of the most interesting seasons for years.