MotoGP’s Sepang Test: Joy, Determination, & Despair

02/08/2013 @ 11:54 am, by David Emmett21 COMMENTS

Marc-Marquez-Repsol-Honda-HRC-MotoGP-Sepang-Test

Joy, determination and despair. If you had to choose three words to describe the first test of the 2013 MotoGP season, these are the words you would choose. Joy: for Valentino Rossi and his crew at finally having a bike that Rossi can ride and his team understand how to work with; for HRC, at seeing both their hopes and their expectations of Marc Marquez’ ability confirmed; for Bradley Smith and Michael Laverty, at making such rapid progress on their early days in the class.

Determination: for Dani Pedrosa and Jorge Lorenzo, both working hard at preparing for their assault at a title, which either could win. For Marc Marquez, focused on learning everything he can to add the consistency he needs to his raw speed, if he is to match Pedrosa and Lorenzo.

Despair: for the factory Ducati riders. Sepang showed the bike is uncompetitive, and with few avenues left to explore with the machine in its present state, despair at knowing they have many months of hard, dispiriting work ahead of them before they can even start to turn the situation around.

The test confirmed several things that we already knew: Pedrosa and Lorenzo are favorites for the title, and both are just as fast and focused as ever. Valentino Rossi has lost nothing of his speed, immediately getting to within spitting distance of the pace of the two Spaniards. Marc Marquez is as good as everyone expected, though it would be fairer to say Marquez did more than match expectations. He is not just as good as everyone expected, he is as good as everyone hoped. Maybe, just maybe, even better than they hoped.

Pedrosa finished the final day of testing at Sepang on top of the timesheets, well clear of Jorge Lorenzo. The Repsol Honda man lapped under Casey Stoner’s outright pole record, but he shrugged that fact off as irrelevant. He is not here to chase lap times, he said, he is here to test the RC213V, and turn in into the best possible weapon with which to launch his 2013 title challenge.

He did that. Pedrosa got through all of the work which HRC had scheduled for him shortly after midday, and decided to call it a day early. The stresses of riding a MotoGP bike at a high-speed circuit like Sepang for three days after a layoff of nearly two months are such that everyone is complaining of stiffness and sore muscles at the end of each day. In those circumstances, a mistake is easily made, and as Pedrosa knows, mistakes can be horrifically costly.

That meant that Pedrosa did not do a race simulation, unlike Jorge Lorenzo. Both Lorenzo and factory Yamaha teammate Valentino Rossi got a lot of parts tested, including chassis and engine upgrades for the 2013 season, but Lorenzo tacked on a race simulation towards the end of the day.

The Spaniard got in 13 laps before the first spots or rain appeared and cause him to break off the run. It was impressive indeed: Lorenzo followed up a string of 8 laps in the low 2:01s with a sequence of 5 in the 2:00s. That is the kind of punishing pace which brought him the 2012 title, and he has clearly lost none of his touch.

With Lorenzo’s pace beyond question – new old (or is that old new) teammate Valentino Rossi told Spanish magazine Solomoto that he felt that Lorenzo was “perfect” now: “he never makes mistakes, and has a very high level of concentration” – the problem which both Yamaha men face is that the M1 is starting to lag fractionally behind the Honda RC213V.

The Yamaha factory riders tried both chassis and engine parts aimed at reducing the pumping at the rear of the bike which is causing them to lose time in acceleration. The two of them have stepped up the pressure on Yamaha to produce a seamless gearbox to match that of the Hondas, but so far, Yamaha has been cagey on a schedule for its introduction. It would definitely help, but Lorenzo is clearly not that far behind Pedrosa.

Nor is Rossi. The huge question mark which hung over the Italian after his time at Ducati has been answered, at least in part. Rossi ended the day four tenths slower than Pedrosa, but the sheer joy and pleasure he radiated all throughout the test showed in everything he did; in his riding, in his responses to the media, in his body language in the garage. Even his crew are the same, the joy bubbling over onto social media platforms like Twitter, where some of his crew are present. Happy as sandboys, the energy in the garage can be felt halfway across the planet.

The gap to Pedrosa belies how strong Rossi’s pace is. He is still slower than both Pedrosa and Lorenzo, but look at the full timesheets, and you see Rossi consistently running mid to low 2:01s, which should be enough to hang with Rossi and Pedrosa if they were to go racing tomorrow. Matching them may be promising, beating them will likely be another thing, though. Rossi may have regained his old pace, but Lorenzo and Pedrosa have moved the game on since the Italian was last on a Yamaha. The old dog will have to learn a few more tricks.

Rossi’s time on Thursday meant he ended the test ahead of Marc Marquez, no doubt much to his relief. Marquez has made a sensational debut, impressing both friend and foe alike. Fast on the first day, the Spaniard spent Wednesday and Thursday working on his consistency, work which paid off in the race simulation he did towards the end of the day. Putting in nearly full race distance, Marquez ran consistently in the mid 2:01s, lower in the first half of his run, a little higher in the second half, his lap times constantly within a tenth or so of each other.

Marquez also passed another key milestone. The Spaniard had his first crash, losing the front of his Repsol Honda on the final corner and sliding off into the gravel, the bike tumbling end over end. Marquez walked away unscathed, both physically and mentally, and got back on to post an even faster time on his next trip out of the pits. He knew a crash would happen, he said after the fact, and that at least now, he had found where the limit was. “I know what NOT to do when the bike moves like that under braking,” Marquez told MotoGP.com.

He had spent a lot of his time at this test trying to understand the electronics, and this had impressed his boss Shuhei Nakamoto. Speaking to the press about the progress being made on Honda’s production racer (see separate story) Nakamoto explained that Marquez had been riding with the electronics turned down as much as possible, “like Stoner”.

“He wants to understand the bike,” Nakamoto said. Marquez was already sliding the bike, and Stoner’s former crew chief was already making comparisons between the two. The Spaniard has a similarly sensitive touch on the throttle, able to control the rear spin with his right hand, rather than needing electronics.

While most of the media focus was on the factory men, Cal Crutchlow was quietly sneaking up on the front four. The Monster Tech 3 Yamaha man got within a tenth of Marquez, and two tenths of Rossi, and was generally running the kind of pace needed to stay close to the front runners. Crutchlow was, as usual, keen to point out that he is riding a satellite bike, a machine which is inferior in spec to the factory bikes. He does not have very many ways of putting pressure on Yamaha to provide him with a better spec of machine, but his performance speaks volumes.

What Crutchlow would like is what Stefan Bradl has: a factory spec machine, with the support to make it fast enough to have a chance to stick with the front runners. Though Yamaha is extremely supportive of the Tech 3 team, they do not operate in the same way as Honda, and so despite finishing well ahead of the German, Crutchlow will likely hope in vain for some help from Yamaha.

Operating in the shadow of the big four may have been a bit of a disadvantage for Crutchlow, it certainly helped his Tech 3 teammate Bradley Smith. The Oxfordshire youngster had faced criticism from some quarters at being given the Tech 3 ride, but the past three days have proven Hervé Poncharal’s decision to put Smith on the M1 to have been the right one.

Smith has made huge leaps forward day by day, learning new lines, but above all, getting comfortable on the bike. The gap of just under two seconds to Pedrosa may look large, but in reality, he is exactly on target for a rookie coming into the series – or rather, a rookie who does not have the extraterrestrial ability of a Marquez. Comparing Smith’s first test at Sepang with that of Stefan Bradl’s debut in 2012 shows Smith to be matching or bettering the German’s first outing on the LCR Honda MotoGP bike. Smith has proved he belongs in MotoGP.

Another man who has proved he belongs in MotoGP is Michael Laverty. The Irishman – the question of the Laverty brothers’ nationalities is a vexed one, with its roots in the 12th Century invasion by the same French kings who conquered England and Wales, and far too complex for a piece on motorcycle racing – is riding Yonny Hernandez’ spare Aprilia ART machine, and has positively astounded insiders with the speed at which he adapted to the bike.

Many had their doubts about Laverty. He had so much to learn: the track, the Aprilia, carbon brakes, the Bridgestone tires. He came from the wrong background, riding a Superbike in the BSB championship, on user-friendly Pirelli tires, around tight and twisty circuits. He is too old to learn: Laverty will be 33 years of age this summer, an age at which most MotoGP riders are considered to be entering the autumn of their careers. Laverty confounded expectations, finishing as second fastest CRT machine, and less than a second off the Ducati Desmosedici satellite bike of Andrea Iannone. An impressive debut indeed.

As impressive as Laverty’s day was, getting close to a Ducati is less of an achievement as it once was. The Bologna factory is in a very deep hole indeed: Nicky Hayden and Andrea Dovizioso are 9th and 10th, behind all of the Hondas and Yamahas, and over two seconds behind Pedrosa.

That is not a distance that is bridgeable with a new swingarm and a few set up tweaks, especially not when the bike is essentially unchanged since the second half of last season. Ducati was already in trouble before the slow and difficult process of being taken over by Audi got underway midway through 2012. Development on the bike ground to a halt, as the old guard were shuffled about and new management installed.

After the test at Sepang, both factory Ducati riders were frank about what needs to be changed. In a word, everything. “We need to consider radical changes, not just small steps” Nicky Hayden said on ThursdayAndrea Dovizioso agreed: “Unfortunately, we need to try something big, and in MotoGP there is not a lot of time.”

The current bike will not do, both Hayden and Dovizioso made a point of saying that they had run through just about every possible set up permutation without result. Almost every avenue of investigation had been pursued, and something new had to be tried. A new bike, designed from the ground up, was what was needed, not new parts thrown at the existing machine.

This, however, will take time, meaning even longer to wait for Dovizioso and Hayden. Data is being collected and analyzed, but building something completely new is not something that can be done in just a few months. Having the support of Audi will help, but the scale of the challenge should not be underestimated.

Could the Japanese factories be willing to lend a hand? In the late ’80s and early ’90s, when Cagiva were struggling, Yamaha stepped in to help, providing advice that helped make the bike competitive. During his press conference about Honda’s production racer, Shuhei Nakamoto was asked about Ducati’s situation, and the precedent set by Cagiva. Would Honda be willing to step in and help a struggling Italian factory, just as Japanese factories had in the past? “But Ducati is not an Italian factory!” Nakamoto joked. Having Audi behind them can also work against Ducati…

The teams are now heading home, and the engineers back to their factories, to analyze the data collected and tweak the designs of their bikes in preparation for when they return here in three weeks’ time. The first test at Sepang is really just a warm up, where everyone is more focused on evaluation than on working on set up and pushing for a fast time.

At the second Sepang test, the factories will return with bikes that are much closer to their final incarnation ready for the season start. Riders return with the confidence of one test under their belt, and having spent some time training the muscles which had hurt so much after their first outing on the bikes. And the teams return with track data analyzed, and some set up options ready to test. Sepang 2 is a much better measure of how the season will play out. But before then, there is work to do.

Source: SoloMoto, GPone (x2); Photo: HRC

This article was originally published on MotoMatters, and is republished here on Asphalt & Rubber with permission by the author.

Comment:

  1. dave m says:

    Please fix the glaring typo’s all over this article haha. It even referred to Rossi instead of Jorge at one point…

  2. Afletra says:

    Dovi sure will (already?) regret his move to Ducati :D
    What I always says; “better to be at satellite team with competitive bike than chasing factory with (sorry) a stupid bike”
    I always love when I see Dovi on the tuning fork, and he doing great back there.
    But he prefer the second option, and now he’ll feel what Vale’s feel in the past two-hard years.
    And for Ben (my favorite rider too), hope he doing well, because move to Ducati is not what he really wanted…
    Marquez is clearly a future alien :)

    P.S: For Vale, wish he luck, I believe he’s still have his touch since he’s with the M1 now…

  3. Silas says:

    The only reason someone chooses to ride with Ducati is to measure themselves against Stoner. Many have tried, all have failed.

  4. AC says:

    Dovi went to Ducati because he’s smart. Yep, as crazy as that sounds, that’s why.

    “Ridiculous,” you say.

    The Desmo is a junk bike at this point. The four riders know it and so does Ducati Corse and their new owners at Audi. A new bike will be created and it’ll be built around Dovi and Hayden’s input. So Dovi toughs out a crappy first season, but in the next two seasons there is potential that he’ll be riding on a bike that was built to HIS riding style and his feedback.

    The riders have said as much in their various interviews. Ducati isn’t competing this season; they’re developing. So Dovi’s move to the worst factory might end up being one of the smartest in the paddock in a few years.

  5. Gutterslob says:

    At least Dovi will be making about 10x the money Crutchlow is this year.

    Best bit of this article was that “But Ducati is not an Italian factory!” joke by Nakamoto. Brilliant!!

  6. abahgiza says:

    judging at the picture above, i’m sure MM is cheating again. MM has seriously asking stoner’s riding ability into his.

  7. TexusTim says:

    I think the last couple years some riders wanted to prove they can do what stoner did on the duc.
    but this year I do not believe that is anyones motovation…I believe there attitude is two fold.
    1- it is the only factory ride left available and is the place to either end a the career or get back to a better factory ride by doing better than “rossi” on the bike not “stoner”…and for nicky he is just dedicated to them cuz unlike honda he trully found a home there and will end it with them for his and there legacy of his time with them…I’m so proud of him and the way he has represented the U.S. in his moto gp career…I hope he stays on with them and runs a team or somthing…a real class act right there..I cant see anything new for them this year unless there keeping it ultra secret…you have to think with the resourses the have over there and the knowledge that the current gp bike was not the way out someone must have already been on the cad working somthing out, I just think someone over there must have been taped and already working on a totaly new bike…but if the old logic about sticking with somthing because of there production bike and some ill found fact that a prototype must be simuular has set them up for chasing bad design by swapping parts for minor gains and sending them off on another chase…or the other is once a direction was taken they were to stubborn or proud to admit it wasnt working and just wasted way to much time and talented riders sticking with that type of mentality….you know it could be just as simple as this..”if stoner could do it why cant someone else? then all we have to do is tune it for him.”……personly I think alot of stoners problem with moto gp started right there and was glad to get off that bike..he basicaly won that championship by riding that bike on the limit of crashing in every race…he did it to win a championship somthing he was not willing to do two years in a row.

  8. smiler says:

    They went to Ducati because it is still a better bet than CRT & satellite bikes. There is no way Audi will let this fail. They don’t do fail. So I think that is where the riders are putting their confidence. Especially against BMW. That is the reason why Audi purchased Ducati.
    Rossi will get on the Podium, is certain, Merguez proved that by crashing. The next test will be interesting because Rossi know knows what he needs to do. And you do not have to be first to win the championship.
    Why would a rider go to a team to prove he is better than a rider now in V8 car racing? Especially as the bike they are now riding is not in the same levee of competition as when Stoner was on it?
    Ducati, steel trellis < 90degree V4, €50mn job done & a bigger machine shop, job done.
    Well done Lil Dani.

  9. David says:

    The only way Audi and their engineers will help the Ducati program is when MotoGp allows the bikes to have 4 wheels.

  10. DareN says:

    @David,
    It is not about Audi engineers – it is about resources. With Audi money you can hire more briliant minds,spend more time in wind tunnel or have countless computers run simulations.Also – Italian laid back attitude will give way to German efficiency. They have to and they will get better…

  11. Neil says:

    I will say it again, Nicky deserves better….I hope Audi finds the answer and quick….

  12. CTK says:

    This throwaway season will just make Ducati’s comeback that much more epic.

    What I am surprised by though is that all these teams wait until official testing time to do development. Are there rules against doing testing in the offseason? It seems logical to me for Ducati to take Audi’s money, rent out a track, and just go whole hog. I mean they have already showed they are willing to start from scratch… and given that their last experiment is a failure they def need to do that again. This will be a good season with Marquez and all but the real season I’m looking for is 2014, w/Duc’s hopeful new bike and Suzuki’s rumored return. We just have to see what the deal is with the new ECU rules and all that… truthfully I hope that levels the playing field with the CRTs a bit. I just can’t believe the difference in lap times is all chassis tuning

  13. TexusTim says:

    today is my birthday ! I’M 56 !! 4th year racing CMRA # 282..2011 8th place championship formula 40 HW 9th A superstock….smiller…lol at lil dani I weigh just a tad more…145lb I think he’s like 110lb Nicky is right were he wants to be I really believe that. of course it would be great to see him on top again but man he never complains and no one I mean no one is a harder worker than him in the moto gp paddock as far as riders go.

  14. zipidachimp says:

    when you find yourself in a hole………. close the team down for a year or two and return with a faster motor. the pain this year will be too harsh to endure. all risk, no reward!
    I’ve said it before, play in the sandbox that you can win in, WSB !

  15. pooch says:

    Anyone that thinks Ducati is on a comeback trail knows nothing about their MotoGP program to date. Nothing. Audi $ wont do anything. Sorry, but you’re deluded if you think so.

    Anyone that thinks Dovi made ‘a smart move’ by going to Ducati doesn’t realise that the Ducati was Dovi’s ONLY CHOICE for a full factory ride. There’s nothing smart about riding a Ducati.

  16. WetMan says:

    The only way for Ducati to win again in MotoGP is for Audi to buy Honda.

  17. D says:

    Ducati should buy Hondas production racers and paint “Ducati” on the sides of them.

  18. Keet says:

    “Pedrosa got through all of the work which HRC had scheduled for him shortly after midday, and decided to call it a day early”

    …and this is why Lorenzo has two titles and Pedrosa has none.

  19. Westward says:

    @ pooch

    You are equally clueless. Dovizioso is now making more money than he ever has in MotoGP, It was a smart move financially, and despite your ignorance on the matter the future potential to be a contender is on the up tick…

    I dont think anyone thought they would be contending for the title this year, so stating the obvious is a moot point…

    Between Audi and Ducati, one would think they could sort out their issues in the near future. Audi has over a billion invested in this venture, opposed to the cost of the average critics computer device and internet connection…

    @ CTK

    Ducati really needs to make their own chassis. They built their own leading up to the 2007 title and multiple pilots have won races with it in MotoGP including Bayless. Also they fair well in WSBK with their own designs and engineering. Not to mention they nearly won World Superstock last season with the Panigale…

  20. Westward says:

    @ TexusTim

    What about Colin Edwards and doesn’t have the benefit of a factory ride?

  21. Dawg says:

    Laverty is from Northern Ireland. It is a province of the United Kingdom in the North of the island of Ireland.