On a normal day, the fastest rider at the end of a day of testing is paraded proudly in front of the press, and given his chance to explain what a good job the team and manufacturer was doing, how they were not really pushing for a lap time, and feign a certain modesty while privately gloating at how they crushed their rivals.
But this was not a normal day. The fastest man in Sepang on Monday slipped out of the circuit in virtual anonymity. After all, he is merely a test rider, and test riders don't usually talk to the media. We journalists, snobs that we are, don't waste our precious time on test riders.
In this case, however, it was not the media not wanting to talk to the test rider, it was the test rider not wanting to speak to the media. One of the reasons Casey Stoner retired from racing was because he was sick of the media circus, of spending his life living out of a suitcase and answering stupid and prying questions from idiots like me. But he still loves challenging himself on a MotoGP bike, and trying to see just how fast he can go. And Ducati are happy to pay him handsomely for the privilege. After Monday, who can blame them?
The Flying Fisherman
Was it Stoner's job to try to be fastest on the first day of the Sepang MotoGP test? Not really, but that's how circumstances turned out. Stoner's first job of the day was to take the updated 2017 Ducati bikes of Jorge Lorenzo and Andrea Dovizioso out for a shakedown, before handing them over to the factory riders, who did the same thing. Then, he turned his attention to developing the updated 2017 machine – the bike with the mysterious black box in the tail section – running a strong pace all day, and topping the timesheets when he put a soft tire on towards the end.
That Stoner's speed had gotten under the skin of his (former) rivals was evident in the replies they made to questions about it. "He’s very fast, yes. It’s very good that he don’t race!" Rossi quipped. Others made similar comments, joking that they were glad that he was retired. There were also subtle pointers to possible explanations for why Stoner was faster than them. "For sure, he made the lap time with the softer tire, not like our tire," Andrea Dovizioso told us, "but the speed he has is amazing."
Did Stoner have an advantage over the rest because he had tested at Sepang last week? The Australian did spend time on the bike, but he did not run a lot of laps, not wanting to risk a crash in the difficult conditions. Crash.net's Peter McLaren, who was the only journalist to be at the private test for all three days, estimated that Stoner had put in perhaps 20 or 30 laps over two days. Most of the MotoGP field had matched that by the time they took a break for lunch on Monday. But they had all ridden a full season in 2016. Stoner had not thrown his leg over a bike since the middle of last year.
A better bike, a bigger mystery
If evidence were needed that Casey Stoner were worth whatever Ducati are paying him, it is the fact that Andrea Dovizioso ended the day as second fastest, the only other rider to lap Sepang in under two minutes on Monday. The Valencia version of the GP17 was clearly a very good bike, in part due to the input of Stoner through testing last year, though in much, much larger part to Ducati's unsung hero, Michele Pirro, the test rider who does all of the donkey work in developing the Desmosedici.
Both Dovizioso and Jorge Lorenzo spent the day on the Valencia GP17, while Stoner turned laps on the updated "black box bike". The purpose of the black box remains a mystery, no matter how hard we pester them for information. The look of bemusement on their faces when asked about it may perhaps be giving something away. I had a chance to get a decent look at it on Monday, and it is clearly a shaped box made of carbon fiber which contains something relatively light.
The difference between the Valencia GP17 and the updated GP17, one Ducati staffer let slip, was only minor, the box on the tail section, and a little bit of reorganization elsewhere on the bike. That, indeed, may well have been the point of the box. Relocating a relatively light and trivial piece of hardware may have allowed Ducati to move something heavier around under the fairing, positively affecting the weight distribution and the balance of the bike.
No doubt we will have to wait for the bikes to be handed down to the satellite teams in future seasons before we learn the truth, and they work on them openly. Or until Dovizioso or Lorenzo take a particularly unfortunate tumble through the gravel, which ends up ripping off the fairings and exposing what lies beneath.
Easier than expected
Andrea Dovizioso ended the day a happy man, despite not being quickest. He had been positively surprised by the fact that they had been fast so quickly and so easily. His main task was working on finding the right balance of the bike now that the winglets have been banned.
That had worked better than expected, and though the bike still wheelied and was unstable at the end of the straight, it had also added a couple of km/h in top speed. The winglets may have helped provide punch out of corners, by keeping the front wheel down during acceleration without the intervention of the electronics. But they had also increased drag at high speed, limiting top speed somewhat.
Learning to brake again
Jorge Lorenzo ended the first day of testing a good deal less content with his situation. The Spaniard had been elated by his first ride on the Ducati, finding that he could ride it much better than he expected. His disappointment was all the greater when at Sepang, he found his riding style needed to change much more than Valencia had suggested. Valencia, it appeared, had been an anomaly.
Lorenzo was "surprised because I expected more or less the same as Valencia," he told us. He had expected to be a little way off the pace, not a couple of seconds. The problem, he explained, was the way he was having to brake. On the Yamaha, Lorenzo had started braking early, then released the brake shortly after turning in, and then carrying as much corner speed as he could through the middle of the corner.
That method did not work on the Ducati. "If you try to brake and release the brake before entering the corner, like on the Yamaha - carrying corner speed, without braking - the bike doesn't turn," Lorenzo said. Instead, he was having to learn to brake later, and hold the brake all the way to the apex, the way that Dovizioso rides. That was the only way to get the bike to turn properly.
But Lorenzo had not despaired, and was buoyed by the fact that he had made solid progress in the second half of the day. "What gives me confidence is that we made a huge improvement during the day. Also, to see three or four Ducatis in the top demonstrates that the bike has the potential to go very quick," he said.
Casey Stoner was not the only surprising name at the top of the timesheets. Maverick Viñales had been expected to be quick, the Movistar Yamaha rider having been fast at the private test in November, and riding at a track that he loved. "Last year I’d have been disappointed that I’m third," Viñales said. "But today I said, ‘Maverick, we did a great job’ and it’s only the first day." Viñales had been focused on race pace, spending his time on used tires and trying to be as consistent as possible. He was working with his crew to improve that, trying to figure out how the bike will respond on lap 20, rather than lap 2. That, after all, is where races are lost and won.
Andrea Iannone was also not much of a surprise. The Italian had been quick on his Suzuki debut at Valencia, and was almost bland in his media pronouncements. In summary: the bike works, so he can go fast. That is encouraging for Suzuki, who have hired him to battle for podiums, and hopefully wins. The only possible downside is that a lack of criticisms can mean not enough input into development. In MotoGP, standing still means going backwards, and being happy with the bike can easily lead to complacency.
Alvaro Bautista, on the other hand, was a real surprise at the front. The Pull&Bear Aspar Ducati rider had started out quick, leading the opening part of the day, quickly adapting to the Ducati GP16. The speed of Bautista, along with a surprising Jonas Folger, highlighted the advantage this year's satellite teams have over those of last year. The 2016 bikes now parked in satellite garages were designed to work with the Michelin tires, whereas the bikes used by the Tech 3 team last year, for example, were the 2015 Yamaha M1s, which were fantastic machines, but worked best when paired with the Bridgestone tires.
Folger's pace had been impressive, but it was something he had carried over from his test here in Sepang last November. The Monster Tech 3 Yamaha rider still had work to do on his riding, most especially on changing his braking style. Getting used to the power of the carbon brakes and the support from the Michelin tires required a change in approach. On the MotoGP bike, Folger has to learn to brake later, and brake much deeper into the corner. The Tech 3 team was helping ease him into this, starting off with a braking set up which was a little more like a Moto2 bike, and moving the set up towards a more typical MotoGP style.
Honda testing engines
At Honda, the teams were busy testing different engine configurations. The two Repsol Honda riders, along with Cal Crutchlow at LCR, were sorting through two different engine specs which HRC had brought to the test. Both specs were based on the big bang engine which Honda had tested at Aragon and Valencia. One was the base Valencia engine, the other a variation of that, to try to cure the ills which have plagued the Honda for several years. The new engine has more bottom end, but managing the power is still difficult. The problem, Márquez, Pedrosa, and Crutchlow explained, is that there was still a lot of work to do on sorting out the electronics for the big bang configuration motor.
Márquez emphasized the importance of making the right choice, however. The engine they choose here will be the one they develop for the start of the season, and the one they will be stuck with all year. They have had that problem before, and it is not a situation Márquez is keen to repeat.
Cal Crutchlow highlighted the problem with returning to testing after two months off the bike. He was surprised at how quickly he was fast again, but the problem was one of consistency. " It’s funny how you have two months off the bike and you completely forget how to ride. Then again in two runs you’re already up to speed and able to give feedback for this," Crutchlow said. "You also look at the data and think, ‘This isn’t really how I ride.’ You see ten laps of your normal style and ten laps of a style of somebody who isn’t riding very well." Finding that consistency is a matter of spending time on the bike.
The sun helps Rossi out
Everyone was happy to have spent so much time on the bike, after the weather had threatened to cut much of the test short. But conditions were perfect in the morning (or as perfect as blazing tropical heat will allow), and the rain held off until shortly after four. Nobody expected to get six hours testing today, and yet most did.
The good weather was a blessing in disguise for Valentino Rossi. He had woken up with a horrific headache, which required him to stay in his hotel room, with the curtains drawn to block out as much light as possible. The pain receded a little, but Rossi had been incapacitated for over an hour, and had lost an hour and a half of testing in the morning.
Rossi was content with the results of the day, however. "Yesterday we saw the bike," he told us. "[Yamaha] made a good job. The bike is very good under all the small particulars. It’s a lot better than the first prototype." The engine was a lot better, with stronger acceleration and a bit more top speed, and that was something Rossi had been particularly concerned about. But Yamaha's electronics engineers had also made a big step, helping to improve the engine response.
Progress at Aprilia and KTM
At Aprilia, Aleix Espargaro was pleased with the chassis of the Aprilia, saying that it was an improvement over last year, but retaining the character of the bike he liked a lot. The chassis was stable, allowing him to control the bike well. That made it a little more difficult to turn, but still easier to control. The electronics of the bike were good too, but the real problem with the RS-GP was the lack of power. "We need pure power. A lot more," he said. "The top speed is not bad because of our aerodynamics, but in every acceleration from a slow corner we lose a lot."
The lack of acceleration had meant that Espargaro had not missed the winglets. Wheelie was not a problem with a lack of power. But Aprilia have clearly been working on aerodynamics, still. The top half of the Aprilia fairing is very sharply angled, more so than most of the other bikes, and perhaps helping with a little bit of downforce. But the Italian factory also has more to come in that area. "Anyway we are working in the wind tunnel in Perugia on a very strange fairing and I think we will have in Australia to try," he said. "It simulates almost 55-60% of the winglets, which is always positive when we receive a better engine!"
On the other side of the Aprilia garage, Sam Lowes was focused purely on riding. He is still busy adapting to a MotoGP bike, and though it did not show on the timesheet, he felt he had made good steps forward. He was starting to feel comfortable on the bike, he said.
At KTM, they were taking one step at a time. The Austrian factory had brought three chassis to Sepang, and both Pol Espargaro and Bradley Smith had tried two of them. The three different chassis consisted of the frame used at Valencia, a chassis with a big change aimed at helping the bike turn, and a chassis that sat in the middle of the two. Both Pol Espargaro and Bradley Smith had tested the old chassis against the radical change, and both were very pleased with the results. The new chassis helped with turning the bike, one of the issues they had suffered with at Valencia.
The 'intermediate' chassis was due to be tested on Tuesday, to verify that the development direction had been the right one. Once that has been tested, they will have swing arms to test, aimed at improving the rear grip issues the bike had at Valencia. They will want the weather to hold for that. Smith and Espargaro both praised the work of KTM's engineers very highly, especially happy with the progress made on the electronics. They have a lot of work still to do, but are confident in KTM's ability to do it.
Gathering the background information for long articles such as these is an expensive and time-consuming operation. If you enjoyed this article, please consider supporting MotoMatters.com. You can help by either taking out a subscription, buying the beautiful MotoMatters.com 2017 racing calendar, by making a donation, or by contributing via our GoFundMe page.