Did they or didn't they? That was the question after Ducati dominated the first day of the test at Sepang. Andrea Iannone and Andrea Dovizioso spent all day swapping places at the top of the timesheets, Iannone coming out on top at the end. It was an impressive showing, but MotoGP watchers and Ducati's rivals were quick to pass judgment: of course the Ducatis were fast, after all, they were allowed to use the soft rear tire, a concession for the Open class teams and factories who have yet to win three races in the dry. That tire is worth six or seven tenths a lap, said Valentino Rossi.
Only they didn't use the soft tire. At least, that is what Andrea Dovizioso told reporters. He spent all day working on race set up, first on the GP14.3 to set a baseline, and then on the GP15 to work on braking set up and electronics. There was no point using a super soft tire, and he had ridden all day on the harder of the two options, which is the soft tire used by the factory Honda and Yamaha riders. Valentino Rossi was skeptical. "They said they didn't use the soft? I have some doubts," Rossi told Italian reporters. He may be partially right: only Dovizioso denied outright using the softer tire, Andrea Iannone skirted round the question, speaking only of being fast on both new and used tires.
Super soft or no, the fact remains that the Ducatis are quick. The GP15 is clearly competitive, something which Rossi, Jorge Lorenzo and Marc Márquez were all keen to emphasize. On the same tire, the Ducatis were as quick as the Yamahas and Hondas, Rossi said. That, in itself, is cause for concern. At least for the factory Honda and Yamaha men.
No doubt that the GP15's speed will kick off a discussion about the concessions granted to the Ducatis again. At the moment, the rules state that any manufacturer who has not had a dry win is allowed to use 24 liters of fuel and the softer of the tire allocations (e.g. soft and medium, instead of medium and hard, or supersoft and soft, instead of soft and medium). If a manufacturer racks up three thirds, two seconds, or a win, all in the dry, then first they lose two liters of fuel, their allowance cut from 24 to 22 liters. That, however, will hardly affect Ducati, the Italian factory already using 22 liters at most circuits around the world. To lose the softer tire, they must notch up three wins in the dry.
Given the depth of talent in MotoGP at the moment, winning three races will be tough. However, with the soft tire giving an advantage in qualifying, it is far from inconceivable that Ducati will dominate the front row. If Ducati take too many pole positions, then no doubt that Honda and Yamaha will start to kick up a fuss. The problem is, the soft tire allowance falls under the technical regulations, and as such are decided by the MSMA, the manufacturers' association. To change the rules requires unanimity among all five MSMA members, which includes Ducati. Persuading Ducati to give up the soft tire will require Honda and Yamaha either to present a very convincing case, or more likely, offer some serious concessions for 2016 and beyond. Next year, Ducati want to be able to use nine engines during the year, where Honda and Yamaha only want six. That looks like a bargaining position right there.
The soft tire certainly would have helped on the dusty Qatar track. Kawasaki may have launched their H2 here last week, but apparently, they did not being enough journalists to clean the track up properly. Everyone complained the track was still dusty, making doing any actual testing very difficult. As the only factory test rider present, Michele Pirro was sent out first, to clean the track. He was swiftly joined by Andrea Dovizioso, the Italian giving the GP14.3 a run out to establish a baseline. The rest of the field waited until the sun disappeared, and track temperatures dropped, approaching conditions to be expected on race day.
Once the sun dipped under the horizon, the track got busy. Riders and teams know that they only have a few hours, between sunset and roughly 10pm, in which they can test. Before the sun sets, the track temperatures are too high. After 10pm, the combination of falling temperatures and high humidity causes dew to start forming on the track. That dew is impossible to see under the floodlights, making it all the more treacherous. In between, the riders lapped, cleaning up the track. If the wind does not blow in a fresh scattering of dust to coat the track, the teams should be able to do some actual work on Sunday. This time tomorrow, we should have a better idea.
The tricky conditions may have caused a spate of crashes, but it is hard to pin the cause down. Maverick Viñales went down twice on Saturday, causing him to miss out on the last couple of hours as his mechanics worked to fix his bike. Viñales took the blame for the crashes, saying he misjudged braking. Valentino Rossi crashed very early, though neither the conditions nor the rider were to blame. Rossi blew a fork seal on his third lap of the day, coating his tire in fork oil. He crashed between Turns 7 and 8, at around 180 km/h, just as he had hooked third gear. Rossi slid a long way, but walked away unhurt. Despite a rough start, he still got plenty of work done, insofar as the conditions allowed.
Both Rossi and Lorenzo had a strong pace, looking at the timesheets. The two Yamaha riders were lapping consistently in the 1'55.9s and 1'56.0s, better than anyone else on the track. Márquez was close to that pace, but Dani Pedrosa was a little slower, as was the rest of the field. Qatar is a Yamaha track, and the Movistar Yamaha team lived up to that reputation, though it is not immediately obvious from the headline times.
At Honda, they spent their time working on a new clutch set up, with factory, satellite and even Open class riders all doing a lot of test starts. Marc Márquez told reporters they had also worked on brake set ups, perhaps a consequence of the braking problems suffered both by Márquez and by Cal Crutchlow at Sepang.
Among the most impressive performances of the day were the times set by Suzuki. Both Aleix Espargaro and Maverick Viñales were quick, Espargaro posting a very impressive fourth fastest time by the end of the day. Unlike Ducati, there was no doubt the Suzukis set their best times on the softer tire. Even then, their pace on race tires was strong, Espargaro matching the pace of the Tech 3 riders. So far, Suzuki have only really worked on optimizing traction control. They have new parts to test on Sunday, now that the track is clean.
The results of the Sepang tests had left British fans worried, with Cal Crutchlow, Scott Redding and Bradley Smith all well off the pace. Things improved at Sepang 2, and at Qatar, all three British riders got into the top 10. Crutchlow appears to have gotten the hang of the Honda RC213V, after struggling in the first tests. In a tweet in response to a remark that he was "up to speed", he replied "No I'm not … yet." Crutchlow is clearly more comfortable than ever on the Honda, and more is yet to come.
Bradley Smith's improvement is in part due to the recovery of his knee injury, but also because he too is more comfortable on the Monster Tech 3 Yamaha. Most heartening of all for British fans must be the progress being made by Scott Redding. Much had been expected of the Gloucestershire native, but he has struggled since switching from the Open class Honda RCV1000R to the factory option Honda RC213V. At Qatar, he made a big step forward, and ended the day in 10th, 0.847 behind Andrea Iannone. The RC213V is proving to be a very difficult bike to ride, but Redding, like Crutchlow, is getting there.
The Open class Honda is not that much easier, attested by the times set by Karel Abraham, Nicky Hayden, Jack Miller and Eugene Laverty. Abraham was quickest of the bunch on Saturday, Qatar being a track where the Showa suspension appears to work well. Hayden was nearly half a second slower, and less than two tenths quicker than rookie Jack Miller. Miller has upped his game after the first couple of tests, working hard to improve his fitness, an area where he struggled at first. To be just a couple of tenths behind Hayden is a decent result indeed.
Not everyone had a good day at the office in Qatar, however. Stefan Bradl arrived in Qatar suffering with severe gastric problems, and those prevented him from putting in a full day's testing on Saturday. Pol Espargaro, meanwhile, had nothing physically wrong, but was suffering from a lack of feeling at the front. That may be down to the front tire he used on Saturday, something which he and the team will aim to rectify on Sunday. After an excellent outing at the first Sepang test, things have not really gone to plan for Pol Espargaro. There is still plenty more testing to do, however.