Every year, about now, there is one phrase which you will hear over and over again. With MotoGP testing behind us, and the start of the season imminent, every race fan chants the same mantra: "This could be the best MotoGP season ever!" Reality tends to intervene rather quickly, and the races never seem to pan out the way race fans had been hoping. Intriguing? Yes. Entertaining? Often. Thrilling? Not nearly as often as hoped.
And yet there is a genuine chance that this year could be different. Events inside MotoGP have been converging to a point which promises to see a return to the thrills of a previous era in MotoGP, one in which epic battles were fought out on the old 990cc machines. Though the days of tire-smoking action are long gone - killed off forever by the insistence of the factories that electronics must continue to play a major role in premier class racing - the battles could be back.
The ingredients which will spice up MotoGP? Two men, well matched in talent and in equipment - though both would dispute the latter claim, saying the other bike holds the upper hand. A grand old champion, returning to a bike he understands and knows he can ride and keen to prove he has not lost his edge. A fast young upstart, a fearless - some would say reckless - challenger, brimming with self-belief, overflowing with talent, and spoiling to make his mark. A talented underdog, a bull terrier desperate to get his teeth into the front runners, and bristling with resentment at the lack of factory support he believes he deserves. A stricken factory, fallen from its former glory, and determined to make amends, starting on the long road to recovering what it believes is its rightful place at the front. And a gaggle of young riders - some younger than others - determined to claim their place in the spotlights, and preferably on the podium.
Marc Marquez entered MotoGP surrounded by hype and with high expectations. After a wet test at Valencia, where he showed he was fast, but not quite how fast, the Spaniard went to Sepang, where he posted very good times in a private test. At the full Sepang MotoGP tests, Marquez was genuinely impressive, never finishing outside the top 4.
At Austin, Marquez stunned observers. The young Spaniard, still only a rookie in the MotoGP class, with only a few days on a MotoGP bike under his belt, dominated at the Austin test, topping the timesheets on all three days of the private test. It was not as if he didn't have any competition at the circuit: both the factory Yamaha and Honda teams were at the Austin test, and Marquez beat Dani Pedrosa, Jorge Lorenzo and Valentino Rossi to set the fastest time.
So it was something of a surprise when Marquez failed to duplicate his impressive pace in Malaysia and Texas when MotoGP rolled up at Jerez for the final test of the season. Though Marquez was 3rd fastest in the wet, once conditions improved - though they were never perfect - the Repsol Honda rookie got left behind a little, finishing the second day in 7th spot, nearly 1.2 seconds behind fastest man Valentino Rossi, and 5th spot on day three, 0.6 behind Cal Crutchlow. Marquez left the three day test as 6th overall, six tenths behind the fastest man of the test Cal Crutchlow, and over a tenth behind Stefan Bradl, his main rival during the 2011 Moto2 season.
Three days of testing at Jerez is over, and the real star of the show is obvious for all to see: The Weather. Of the 18 hours of track time that the MotoGP riders had at their disposal, only about 4 were in consistent conditions, and that was in the pouring rain on Saturday. An afternoon of dry track time - well, dryish, with groundwater seeping through the track from the hills at Jerez which have been lashed by unusually heavy rain all winter long - on Sunday and a bright start to Monday morning left the riders hopeful, but it was not to be.
It took 15 minutes for the first rain to arrive. The track opened at 10am. At 10:15am, the rain started to fall, leaving most of the teams twiddling their thumbs in the garages and hoping for some dry track time. Dani Pedrosa gave up on the day altogether; he had only really been testing odds and ends, new rear shock settings and one or two other bits and pieces anyway, and suffering with neck pain from a strain he suffered at Austin, he decided to call it quits and go home. He missed a few dry hours at the end of the day, but given the stiffness with which he was turning his head to answer the questions of journalists on Sunday evening, choosing to rest his neck was probably a wise move.
While Pedrosa was on his way home, Jorge Lorenzo was doing yet another of his punishing race simulations, pounding out 22 laps of the Jerez track at the kind of pace that secured 2nd place for him at last year's race over 27 laps, a very strong performance given the conditions on the track. Lorenzo finished in a (for him) lowly 4th spot, but his best time was set on the third lap of his race simulation. This is the approach that helped bring him the title in 2012, and the comparison with Pedrosa's physical woes is a valid one. Pedrosa strained a neck muscle whilst riding; Lorenzo has been training both on and off the track to ensure he does not suffer such injuries. Lorenzo is ready to race, and by that, I mean the full race distance.
Valentino Rossi being fastest in a dry MotoGP session brought joy to the hearts of his millions of fans, but also relief to the writers of motorcycle racing headlines. For the past two years, with the exception of a damp and freezing session at Silverstone, the media - especially in Italy - have spent many hours puzzling over how to shoehorn Rossi's name into a news item without it appearing overly clumsy. With little success: "Pedrosa grabs pole, Rossi to start from ninth" sounds, well, as awkward as it does dispiriting.
On Sunday, there was no need for tricky sentence construction. Valentino Rossi grabbed the headlines the way he would want to, on merit. Under a warm sun, and a dry track - well, relatively, but more of that later - Rossi just flat out beat his teammate, and the factory Hondas, and all the other 24 MotoGP machines that took to the track for the second day of the test at Jerez. Beating his teammate, even if it was by just fifteen thousandths of a second, was crucial. That hadn't happened in any of the previous tests, and the gap between himself and Jorge Lorenzo stayed pretty constant: at least three tenths of a second.
It rained today in Jerez. Boy did it rain. The heavens were open for much of the day, with the intensity of the rain varying between a light drizzle and an absolute deluge, sending people scurrying for cover when the skies darkened too much. A few brave souls ventured out to put in laps, but they did not last very long in the conditions. Until around 3pm, that is, when the rain let up, at least for an hour or so, and everyone took to the track. For two hours, testing was at full tilt, before the rain returned to chase most of the MotoGP men back into the pits.
Though having that much rain is hardly what the riders ordered, it still has its advantages. "It's good to be able to test on a fully wet track," Wilco Zeelenberg said after testing. "Normally, it's that half-wet, half-dry stuff, which is hopeless." Real work could be done on a wet set up, and lessons learned for 2013.
One of those lessons proved to be that the rain tires Bridgestone brought to Jerez are not as hardy as they may need to be. "The performance drops a lot after six, seven laps," Valentino Rossi told the press, explaining that the center of the tire wears very quickly. He was not the only one to complain: all of the factory riders, along with Cal Crutchlow, complained of the same thing. They had all destroyed two sets of rain tires in just a couple of hours, and with just four sets of rain tires to last the three days, they would not be able to manage if it rains on all three days.
So the final test of the year is upon us, and at last we know what the bike Valentino Rossi - oh, and by the way, reigning MotoGP World Champion and arguably the best motorcycle racer in the world (now that Casey Stoner has retired, and before Marc Marquez gets up to speed) Jorge Lorenzo - will be riding. That it was a big deal was obvious to anyone on Twitter, with a lot of buzz surrounding when the unveiling was, and what the bike would look like.
The crowd of photographers and journalists stood outside in the rain outside the Yamaha garage merely underlined the excitement. The media invitation to the Yamaha 2013 MotoGP launch promised snacks and an aperitif in their large and pleasant hospitality unit ahead of the bike unveiling in the garages. The hospitality unit was almost deserted, the media preferring the rain, and standing waiting to see a bike which everyone who had watched the Yamaha garages being built up the day before had a rough idea of what it would look like. Ducati may have the most prestigious and upmarket launch, but Yamaha certainly know how to generate excitement.
In three weeks' time, the 2013 season gets underway for all three Grand Prix classes, and motorcycle racing's winter will finally be over. Before that, there is a week of testing at Jerez, where first the Moto2 and Moto3 classes get their final run out on the track from Monday through Thursday, before MotoGP takes to the track on Saturday, Sunday and Monday.
Testing at Jerez may be affordable for GP's junior classes, but it does not come without risk. Moto2 and Moto3 tested at both Valencia and Jerez in February, and while conditions were sunny and dry, if a little cool at Valencia, the test at Jerez was very mixed indeed, with rain disrupting two of the three days of testing. This test looks just as likely to be disrupted by rain: while good weather is forecast for Monday, Wednesday and Thursday, Tuesday looks like being a total washout.
So the three days of testing at Austin are over, and what did we learn? That Marc Marquez is something special? We knew that, though we didn't perhaps realize just how special. That Yamaha really need to find more acceleration? This, too, was known, but becoming clearer every time the M1 goes up against the Honda RC213V on track. That Valentino Rossi's return does not equate to an automatic 8th MotoGP title? We suspected as much.
The first thing that became obvious is that the Austin circuit itself is pretty decent. Valentino Rossi described it as "a typical Tilke track, with corners that remind you of Shanghai and Turkey." Unsurprising, given that Herman Tilke, who also designed Shanghai, Istanbul and many other race tracks around the world, was responsible for designing the track. The input from Kevin Schwantz was helpful, though, making the track more like Istanbul than Shanghai. The circuit has a couple of highly technical sections, where you go in blind and need to have memorized which way the track goes. It is wide, giving opportunities for overtaking and braking, and has a couple of the fast, fast sweepers which motorcycle racers love.
Flights have been buzzing in and out of Austin for the better part of a week now. Mid-March is the city’s Golden Week when the confluence of spring break and South-by-Southwest (or SXSW, or just “South By”) means thousands of party-starved students from the University of Texas vacate to South Padre Island, freeing up space for thousands of aspiring musicians, filmmakers and digital mavens to crowd sponsored parties while pitching each other on their latest projects.
Amidst this year’s annual festival of creativity, a new type of visitor has filtered in to town. Their attire is adorned with sponsors unfamiliar to your typical angel-headed hipster. Their first order of business is not to find good wi-fi. They are not hawking free tacos or Nike Fuelbands to garner attention. They do not sport ironic moustaches.
Theirs is a different festival, held at a new venue southeast of town. In just over a month’s time, the fastest men will launch the fastest motorcycles headlong into the Circuit of the Americas’ intimidating layout, vying for crucial points early in the 2013 MotoGP season. Five of these riders will have a critical advantage after sampling the track and their machines over three days of private testing.
After an absence of some three weeks or so, the MotoGP teams once again return to action at Sepang for the second official test of the preseason. The intervening period has seen a flurry of activity in the factories in Japan and Italy, and at CRT team headquarters around Europe. The data accrued on the first visit to the Malaysian circuit has been analyzed, assessed, and more modifications made and ideas worked out for the second Sepang test. So what can we expect to see in Malaysia for the next three days? And what are the key details to keep an eye on?
The results of the first visit to Sepang went much as expected: Dani Pedrosa continued on the upward path that saw the Repsol Honda rider dominate the second half of the MotoGP season in 2012. Jorge Lorenzo kept Pedrosa honest, the factory Yamaha man sticking close to Pedrosa on all but the last day of the first test. Valentino Rossi demonstrated that he is still competitive, though he conveniently left the question of whether that is going to be good enough for podiums, wins or championships up in the air. Marc Marquez lived up to expectations, though given just how high those expectations were, that is an impressive enough feat on its own. Cal Crutchlow confirmed that he is the best of the rest, though Stefan Bradl ran him close; Bradley Smith made the kind of transition to MotoGP that validated his team boss' faith in the young Briton; and the Ducatis proved just how deep a hole they find themselves in, by finishing the test two seconds or more off the pace.