Conditions improved a little for the second day of testing at Valencia, with warmer temperatures seeing times drop. The Moto2 riders were an average of a second faster than Tuesday, the Moto3 riders even faster, a second-and-a-half quicker than yesterday.
Improvement was pretty even across the field, in both classes. In the Moto3 class, the chasing hordes closed the gap on Niccolo Antonelli, though the young Italian continued to top the timesheets. He has Jack Miller breathing down his neck, however, the Australian ending the day just eight thousandths of a second behind the Italian.
With an Italian leading, an Australian in 2nd and young Brit Danny Kent in 3rd, the top of the Moto3 class has a decidedly international feel. The contrast with last year, where Spaniards took all but 5 of the 51 available podium positions, is huge. There is only one Spaniard - Isaac Viñales - in the top 5 at Valencia, and a total of 3 in the top 10. Italians feature heavily - the investment made by the Italian Federation over the past few years is very slowly starting to pay off - but there is also a Brit, an Australian and a Portuguese rider. The increased variety looks promising for 2014.
After a private test at Almeria last week, the full Moto2 and Moto3 fields assembled at Valencia for the first full official test of the year for the Grand Prix support classes. Conditions were far from ideal: though it remained dry all day, it was cold, with asphalt temperatures barely cracking 10°C at midday. The cold track caught an awful lot of riders out, with many people crashing, though nobody suffered any serious harm. Mostly, it was just riders' pride and their bikes which ended up dented.
In the Moto2 class, Mika Kallio ended the day as fastest, somehow fitting that the icy Finn should top the timesheets in the freezing conditions. The Marc VDS Racing rider ended the day just ahead of Aspar's Jordi Torres, and Interwetten's Tom Luthi. Spaniards Nico Terol and Tito Rabat took 4th and 5th respectively. So far, the names at the top of the timesheets are familiar ones, having been fast in Moto2 last year.
One of the great privileges which holding a MotoGP media pass allows is to stand behind the armco and watch and listen to the bikes as they go past. At the Sepang test, I made full use of that opportunity, and wandered over to Turn 3 – the glorious, fast right hander, where the riders get sideways driving through the turn and onto the short straight to Turn 4 – to enjoy the spectacle of the best riders of the world showing off their skills.
There is more to be learned from watching at track side than just how spectacular MotoGP bikes are through fast corners, though. The careful observer can pick up clues to what both the riders and factories are doing. With electronics such a key part of MotoGP nowadays, the track is one of the few places where updates are visible. Updated vehicle dynamics algorithms may be invisible from pit lane (or nearly so, with the occasional addition of sensors or torque gauges the only visible clue), bike behavior on the track will sometimes betray them.
At the end of 2013, Marc Marquez and Dani Pedrosa had asked for more stability under braking, and some more corner speed. Listening to the bikes at Sepang gave a possible clue as to how they had achieved that. The differences in engine note between the various bikes were instructive of the varying levels of electronics, engine braking strategies, and gearbox function.
That Honda have been working on braking and corner entry was audible at Sepang. Though the RC213V always sounded smooth under braking, braking for Turn 4 the improvement was noticeable. As they braked and downshifted for the corner, the Hondas of Marquez and Pedrosa sounded more like a big scooter with a constantly variable transmission than a racing four stroke with six separate gears. Engine revs decreased smoothly, downshifts barely perceptible. There was no popping or crackle of extra fuel burning off, just a smooth, booming descending tone.
2014 MotoGP Sepang 1 Day 3 Round Up: Marquez' Consistency, Lorenzo's Speed, And Ducati's Open Dilemma
On Thursday, the riders opted almost unanimously to go out first thing in the morning. It was a wise choice, conditions proving ideal to see the fastest ever lap around the circuit set, beating Casey Stoner's time from 2011. The name of the rider that took Stoner's record from him? Marc Marquez, the man brought in by Honda to replace the departing Australian.
Marquez' time was impressive, but he was not the only man to get under the two minute mark. Valentino Rossi, Jorge Lorenzo, and the continually surprising Aleix Espargaro also cracked the barrier, though none were quite capable of getting under Stoner's old record. The first 30 minutes of testing had produced a scintillating start to the day, whetting the appetite of all in the paddock for more.
While Marquez' time is without doubt a fantastic lap, perhaps the most impressive time was set by Jorge Lorenzo. His fastest time, and the fastest time of the test up until that point, was set on his first flying lap of the day. It was, if you like, a simulation of the start of the race: firing off the line from pit lane exit, getting up to speed immediately, and then going on to set a lap record. Normal fare for Lorenzo, whose flying starts have become something of a trademark. What made it truly incredible was the fact that this was done on new tires, on his very first laps of the day. On race day, Lorenzo has the morning warm up to get up to speed, but not today. Fast straight out of the starting blocks, then following it up with another 1'59.9. If you ever needed proof of Lorenzo's metronomic ability, this was surely it.
Motorcycle racing championships are like a pendulum, flowing back and forth between one rider and another, between one manufacturer and another. One year, Yamaha is on top, the next, it's Honda. One year, Yamaha manages to exploit the rules best, the next year it's Honda.
On the evidence of the first two days of testing – scant evidence indeed, but all we have to go on at the moment – conditions appear to favor Honda. With a liter less fuel to play with, and the new tires being introduced by Bridgestone, it looks like the tide is flowing Honda's way, while Yamaha is set to suffer. For the Factory Option entries at least; in the Open category, the tide is flowing very firmly in the other direction, with Aleix Espargaro and the NGM Forward Yamaha blowing Honda's production racer out of the water.
That the fuel reduction would favor the Honda was expected, but the advantage might be bigger than Yamaha would like to admit. After a tough first day of testing, Jorge Lorenzo spent all of Wednesday trying to recover his confidence in the bike, as his crew searched for a set up that would smooth power delivery and give him the precise throttle control his high-lean-angle – and high risk – strategy demands. They were successful, at least in renewing Lorenzo's confidence in the bike, he told the press.
It has been a fascinating first day of testing at Sepang. And like all fascinating days, it has been long, tiring, and utterly inspiring. There were surprises, disappointments, and rumors confirmed and denied. It was, in short, a good day at the office.
Marc Marquez was fastest – it goes almost without saying – the 2013 world champion picking up where he left off. He was quick from the off, and put in a final burst of speed at the end of the day to open the gap on the rest, finishing with half a second advantage. Braking stability was the watchword for the Repsol Honda team, especially rear grip on braking and corner entry, with both Marquez and Dani Pedrosa working on a slightly revised version of the 2014 RC213V which both men had tested at Valencia last year.
Their main focus – like those of everyone on their first day back on a MotoGP – was just to get used to the speed again. The switchover had been toughest for Cal Crutchlow, the Englishman claimed. He had ridden a motocross bike for exactly one day, he said, spending the rest of his winter training on his bicycle. The speed differential between a 20-speed racing bicycle and a 6-speed Ducati Desmosedici is nothing if not cavernous.
The test ban is over, and the MotoGP season is about to get underway. Bikes are already circulating, as the test riders put the first versions of the 2014 models through a shakedown to ensure that everything is in place, and working the way the engineers intended. In a few hours, we get the first glimpse of what the 2014 season could hold.
The rule changes for 2014, though at first glance relatively small, could have a major impact. For the front runners, the fuel allowance is dropped from 21 to 20 liters, a change requested by the manufacturers to give them the engineering challenge they demand to justify their involvement. All of the Factory Option (the designation for the bikes which have been referred to as factory prototypes for the last two seasons) entries must now use the spec Magneti Marelli ECU, but they retain the ability to develop their own software for the computer which sits at the heart of every modern vehicle. That reduced fuel allowance will place a premium on fuel conservation, meaning the manufacturer who can reduce friction, thermal efficiency and combustion efficiency will hold the upper hand.
It's not just the factory bikes that have a new designation. The CRT category has disappeared, replaced by the Open class. The change is not as big as the renaming would appear. Like the CRT bikes, they have 12 engines instead of 5 to last the season, and 24 liters of fuel to last each race. And like the Factory Option bikes, they must also use the spec Magneti Marelli ECU. The difference, with both the Factory Option bike and last year's CRT machines, is that now they must use the Dorna-controlled software, written by Magneti Marelli to Dorna specifications. The switch to control software means that the claiming rule, which defined the CRT class, has been dropped. Anyone can enter anything in the class, from modified Superbike (as long as, like Aprilia's ART machine, it uses a prototype chassis) to full-fat factory engine, as long as they use the spec software.
The 2014 MotoGP season marks a key point in the evolution of Grand Prix racing. Next season, all entries in the MotoGP class must use the Magneti Marelli standard ECU and datalogger as part of their hardware package. For the first time in history, electronics have been limited in motorcycle racing's premier class.
It is a small victory for Dorna and the teams, however. Only the hardware has been regulated. All entries must use the standard ECU, but the choice of which software that ECU runs is up to the teams themselves. If a team decides to run Dorna's standard software, they get extra fuel to play with, and more engines to last a season. If a factory decides they would rather write their own software, they are also free to do so, but must make do with only 20 liters to last a race, and just five engines to last a season.
The difference between the two - entries under the Open class, using Dorna software, and as Factory option entries using custom software - is bigger than it seems. Open class entries are stuck with the engine management strategies (including launch control, traction control, wheelie control, and much more) as devised and implemented by the Magneti Marelli engineers, under instruction by Dorna. Factory option entries will have vastly more sophisticated strategies at their disposal, and manufacturers will be free to develop more as and when they see fit.
It's been a busy time for motorcycle racing in the south of Spain. With the winter test ban about to commence, and now in force for both MotoGP and World Superbikes, the teams are heading south to get some development work done while they still can. For the World Superbike and MotoGP Open class teams, their destination is Jerez, while Moto2 and Moto3 are at Almeria, in Spain's southeastern corner.
At Jerez, Suzuki has just wrapped up a test, and Yakhnich Motorsport are taking the MV Agusta F4RR out for its first spin. The Jerez test was Eugene Laverty's first opportunity to ride the GSX-R1000, after the Irishman had signed for the Crescent Suzuki team, who have swapped title sponsors from Fixi to Voltcom. The move is a step down from the full factory Aprilia team for Laverty, but it is a long-term investment for the Irishman. Speaking to German language website Speedweek.com, Laverty explained that he believed that it was easier to move development on a project forward with a smaller group of people than inside a large organization.
2013 Valencia Post-Race Test Day 3 Round Up: Ducati's Hope, Espargaro's Improvement, And Hayden's Honda
The rain that threatened didn't come, to both the relief and the despair of everyone at the MotoGP test in Valencia. After 18 races, three flyaways and two days of testing, there were plenty of folk who had been secretly doing rain dances so they could pack up and go home early. As much as we all love MotoGP - and given the number of people who have to work second jobs to be able to afford to be there, love is the only explanation - the season is long and tiring, and testing is necessary, but a real grind to both do and watch. There were a lot of jealous looks at the empty space where the Factory Yamaha trucks had stood, the team having upped sticks and left at the end of Tuesday.
There were plenty of people who were happy to ride, though, and people who had things to test. Pol Espargaro was delighted to be back on the bike, and continued his impressive debut on the Tech 3 bike. Aleix Espargaro continued work on the NGM Forward Yamaha FTR, while Hiroshi Aoyama and Nicky Hayden continued to ride the production Honda. At Ducati, a mildly despondent Andrea Dovizioso continued to turn laps, while new signing Cal Crutchlow learned about the grind that riding for Ducati can be, testing lots of things that don't appear to make much difference to the bike. Crutchlow remained positive, pointing to the fact that even though the experiments had failed to produce a blistering lap time, the fact that his feedback was the same as Dovizioso's and the other Ducati riders, it would prove useful in the search for improvement.