With the Moto2 and Moto3 trucks all departed from the paddock, the Jerez circuit is now the domain of the MotoGP teams for the final test ahead of the season opener at Qatar. Thursday, the eve of the test, saw a massive amount of pit lane activity, but mainly among the photographers as they chased up and down the track shooting the riders in their full season livery for publicity shoots and the official MotoGP.com website.
Jerez is the first time that all of the bikes, both the CRTs which have tested in Spain and the factory prototypes which have tested in Sepang, hit the track at the same time. The difference was immediately obvious, from a mosey up pit lane with a camera. At the CRT end of pit lane, garages were open, and mechanics were working on their bikes in full public display. I strolled past bare chassis with engines standing separately waiting to be fitted, bikes in various stages of undress, and stood taking photographs as mechanics worked on their bikes, undisturbed by my presence.
The 2012 preseason is over for Moto2 and Moto3, as the support classes pack up their things after three days of testing at Jerez and get ready to ship out to Qatar. The teams leave the final test of the season with a much better idea of where they stand, as the playing field had been leveled in Moto2 by the use of the official Geo Tech engines, and in Moto3 by the arrival of the Geo Tech kits for the Honda engine, giving the NSF250R a much needed power boost with respect to the KTMs.
In Moto2, a clear group of contenders has established itself, consisting mainly of the men who have been fast just about all preseason. Claudio Corti was fastest, but the Italian was never outside the top 3, gaining a place every day of the test. Thomas Luthi was his constant companion, the Interwetten Paddock rider finishing ahead of the Italian on every day except the last, when Corti just sneaked ahead by four thousandths of a second. Luthi, Corti, Pons rider Pol Espargaro, and rather surprisingly, Marc VDS Racing's Mika Kallio were consistently at the top of the timesheets, and more importantly looked fast every time they were on the bike.
The introduction of the Claiming Rule Team regulations into MotoGP has divided fans and followers into two distinct camps. The anti camp have decried the CRT machines as thinly disguised World Superbike machines, claiming that allowing the use of production machinery into MotoGP is a betrayal of the spirit of Grand Prix racing. The pro camp, on the other hand, argue that the CRT machines are MotoGP's salvation, and a return to Grand Prix racing's roots - the Manx Norton was, after all, a development of the Norton International, and the very first 500cc two stroke machines to be raced were based on roadgoing engines from Suzuki and Kawasaki.
Much of the debate has of course centered on the ability of the CRT machines to be competitive, or whether they will be so slow as to form a danger to the factory riders, being lapped several times a race. While the CRT machines had barely turned a wheel on track, those questions were impossible to answer, but now that the CRT machines have had a few outings in public, it is possible to start drawing some preliminary conclusions.
The weight increase in the MotoGP class introduced for 2012 - from 153kg, as originally agreed when the 2012 regulations were drawn up back in August 2010, to 157kg - has had many repercussions. The addition of 4kg to the 1000cc MotoGP machines has been blamed for causing the chatter that Honda's RC213V suffers from, and for complicating the pursuit of the ideal weight distribution for both Honda and Yamaha, which the two Japanese factories had spent most of 2011 perfecting ahead of the 2012 MotoGP season.
The decision was taken in a Grand Prix Commission meeting held on December 14th of 2011 in Madrid, and though it drew little comment at the time, once the MotoGP paddock reassembled at Sepang for the first test of the year, some intriguing details started to appear. Crash.net's Peter McLaren has an excellent reconstruction of the decision process, from which it is clear that the path to adoption the proposal faced was far more complex than usual. It also reveals some of the underlying tensions in both the Grand Prix Commission and the MSMA which will go on to play a major role in the rule-making process for 2013 and beyond.
At last a full day of testing: though Thursday started out overcast, the rain that threatened through the final day of the Sepang MotoGP test never really came in earnest, with only a few drops of rain keeping the riders off the track for an hour or so in the afternoon. After two days which were largely lost to the weather, worked was stepped up to an almost frantic pace to make up for lost time.
The name of the fastest rider of the day was as unsurprising as the direction the sun rose in the morning. Casey Stoner has established himself as the man to beat, realistically from the moment he left Ducati to join Honda. After yesterday's hiatus - forced on the Honda riders by HRC, after an engine warning light on Dani Pedrosa's RC213V saw the bikes confined to their garages as a precautionary measure - Stoner was back in charge, topping the timesheets comfortably once again.
With the three days of testing at the MotoGP class' second visit to Sepang now over, some preliminary conclusions can be drawn on the progress or otherwise that the teams have been making over the course of the two tests. Below are two comparison tables: the first one compares the improvement shown by the riders over the three days of the Sepang 2 test, while the second table compares the best times from the Sepang 1 and Sepang 2 tests, and the difference between the two.
One of the patterns which emerges from both tables is that the factory teams appear to make the least progress. Casey Stoner only improved his time from day 1 by just under 1.3 seconds, less than half the improvement made by Andrea Dovizioso, and a second or more less than almost all of the satellite riders, while the factory riders have improved the least. Something similar is apparent when comparing progress between the two tests, with the factory riders mainly going slower in the second test than they did at the first test a month ago.
2012 Sepang 2 MotoGP Test Day 2 Round Up: The Mystery Of The Disappearing Hondas, And Some Happy Yamahas
It never rains but it pours. That old proverb applies both literally and metaphorically to the MotoGP test at Sepang, with rain - a solid, heavy, tropical downpour - once again confining the riders to their garages at the Malaysian circuit, for the second day in a row, and severely limiting track time. A couple of good dry hours in the morning, and that was it. From then on, the only testing that went on was in the wet, and though useful, it is not what the MotoGP field came to Malaysia for.
For Honda, the poor weather came as a blessing in disguise. All four RC213Vs were sidelined on Wednesday, after Dani Pedrosa's Repsol Honda suffered a mysterious engine problem at the end of Tuesday. An engine warning light came on, and Pedrosa pulled in the clutch and rolled into the pits to have his bike checked over. The HRC technicians took the warning light very seriously, flying the engine back immediately to Honda's racing HQ in Japan for further examination. There, the engine was inspected to see whether the problem could create a safety issue if it happened again, and finally given the all clear.
The justification for flying halfway around the world to go testing in Sepang is simple: While Europe is still dealing with the after-effects of winter, plagued by cold, wind and rain, the temperature at Sepang is reliably warm, and despite the usual tropical storms in the afternoon, the chance of having a dry track to test on is very good.
Of course, it doesn't always work out that way. Sometimes, the rain falls much earlier, and the intensity of tropical thunderstorms makes it unsafe to go out on the track until the storm has passed, and the amount of rain that falls leaves a lot of water on the track.
Such was the case on the first day of the second MotoGP test at Sepang. A tropical storm moved in shortly after lunchtime, and the heavy rain left wet patches on the track for most of the afternoon. All the air miles gathered by riders and team staff flying in from around the world were mostly in vain, as they sat in their garages waiting for the rain to pass.
Where the first MotoGP test at Sepang at the end of January was an emotionally-charged affair - returning to the Malaysian circuit for the first time since the tragic death of Marco Simoncelli, and with massive anticipation of the brand new GP12, designed and built in record tempo over the winter break - the second test there seems almost humdrum in comparison. With just four weeks between the first and second tests for the MotoGP class, there has been no time for radical changes to the bikes that rolled out here in January, the focus instead being on the hard grind of crunching the numbers on the massive quantities of data that are gathered at every test, analyzing and testing the setup of the new machines, and finding out exactly how to go fastest with the bikes.
But if the glamor of the first test is missing, these will be a far more telling and a far more important three days than the first run out of the year in January. The easy improvements, achieved by grinding off the rough edges of the machine, have been found, and now the teams will focus on polishing, polishing and more polishing, looking for hundredths where previously they sought tenths of a second. The data from this test will form the basis for the bikes in race trim.
If the opening round of the 2012 World Superbike Championship taught us anything, it's that this looks to be a two-horse race. Assuming no major wrenches are thrown in the works. Aprilia's Max Biaggi and Althea Ducati's Carlos Checa had the pace of everyone else in the field covered. Handily. And each of the early championship-protagonists cruised to victory without having to worry about the other after a couple of off-track excursions.