Tuesday afternoon at Valencia saw groups of people huddled together up and down the paddock discussing what to do. With the weather having made the first day of testing difficult, and much, much worse forecast for Wednesday – half an inch or more of rain was forecast to fall during the seven hours of the test on Wednesday – several teams contemplated the prospect of packing up and heading elsewhere in search of a dry track.
In the end only Yamaha decided to go, heading off to Aragon, one of their nominated test tracks. In their wake, a string of journalists followed, hoping to get more of an idea of just how fast Valentino Rossi still is after his misadventure with Ducati, by being able to compare his times with those of Jorge Lorenzo’s. It turned out to be a waste of time. The rain fell in Aragon, Valentino Rossi did a single lap – out, and then straight back into the pits – and Jorge Lorenzo posted nine laps in the wet before crashing, and walking away unhurt.
Meanwhile in Valencia, those left behind woke to clear skies and sunshine. The track was still soaking from the overnight rain, and occasional clouds dropped the odd light shower on the track, but slowly the surface started to improve, aided by the small group of riders circulating and helping to dry the track. It seemed to take forever, though, the asphalt staying wet for such a long time that some people, including journalists and a couple of teams, gave up and headed home, deciding that there would be no more action at the track.
They were wrong. The forecasted rain never fell, and the track slowly started drying out, allowing more and more riders to take to the track. Conditions were never ideal – the area in Turn 1 was particularly bad, with damp patches stubbornly refusing to dry up – but they were good enough for everyone still at the circuit to go out and post some serious laps.
That included this year’s rookies, the crowd of photographers outside the Repsol Honda garage finally getting the other shot they had been waiting for the past two days, adding Marc Marquez leaving the garage to the shots of Rossi’s first ride out on the Yamaha.
It was worth the wait. Marquez rolled out late, but built speed slowly, dropping a couple of tenths off his time every time he crossed the line. In his first run of six laps, he progressed from looking a little awkward and stiff, missing a shift coming out of the final corner on his second lap, to looking comfortable. At the end of the day – just twenty seven laps in total, on his first outing on the bike – Marquez looked like he had never ridden anything else, in total control of the machine.
The Spaniard ended the day as 7th fastest, just over a second behind the fastest man, his new teammate Dani Pedrosa. An impressive debut, but given the short period of time he had on the bike and the difficulty of the conditions, it is hard to place his results into any context. He did everything that was expected of him, and he built the speed that was needed, and above all, he had enjoyed himself.
When asked what his first reaction was to riding the Honda, Marquez replied “My first reaction was a smile!” After his difficult first run – he had got off the bike “destroyed” he said, stiff from being cramped on the bike – he soon loosened up, trying to alter his style to adapt to a MotoGP bike. The hardest part had been learning to brake deep into the corner while turning the bike, working the front tire to get temperature in to it.
The horsepower had been impressive, Marquez said, the bike wanting to wheelie everywhere, the Spaniard struggling to keep the front wheel on the ground. The biggest difference he had found with the Moto2 bike was getting drive out of the corners: he was having to stand the bike up a lot earlier, using less lean angle than he was used to, as the electronics cut in a lot earlier when the bike was banked over. Electronics, Marquez emphasized, were a bad thing: they cut power you could be using to your advantage, and made you go slower. Casey Stoner’s bike could not be in better hands.
Marquez’ new rivals were impressed by his debut, despite having only a few laps to judge him by. When asked what he thought of Marquez’ first laps on the Honda, Nicky Hayden joked that he felt Marquez had moved up too early. “He could have spent another year in Moto2. Maybe two,” the American quipped.
Cal Crutchlow reiterated his belief in Marquez’ extraordinary talent. “I think he’s probably the best rider in the world at the moment,” Crutchlow said. “I don’t think he’s going to challenge Lorenzo and Pedrosa for the title next year, but he’ll give them a hard time now and again. He’s special, no doubt about that.”
The debut of Marquez rather overshadowed Bradley Smith’s first laps on the Yamaha M1. After stalking around the pits in his leathers on Tuesday, desperate to ride, but his team preventing him, the Tech 3 team finally unleashed him on a set of wet tires on Wednesday. Smith also adapted well, though his times were not in the same league as Marquez’. The power was more linear than he had expected, 250 horsepower coming in much more smoothly than he had expected.
Even the Bridgestone tires had been easy to learn, Smith said, quipping that as he had not had that much feeling from the front end of his Moto2 bike, the lack of feedback from the Bridgestones did not represent a problem. Comparing Smith’s gap to the leader to the gap which Stefan Bradl had on his first ride of a MotoGP bike at Valencia in 2011, or Cal Crutchlow’s in 2010, and the difference is pretty similar. All three men were around 2.2 seconds off the fastest man, putting Smith roughly on course for a decent debut.
The other rookie making his debut was Andrea Iannone, the flamboyant Italian taking to the track in the Pramac Ducati junior team. Iannone was fast from the start, riding in mixed conditions, and ending half a second behind Marquez, and some nine tenths off the time of Nicky Hayden.
Iannone has the advantage of having previous experience on the Ducati, having tested earlier in the season at Mugello. The biggest hurdle he felt he faced was the electronics, and all the options which he had at his disposal. With some dry track time at Jerez, Iannone should be able to get a better idea of his potential for next season.
Iannone was slower than Michele Pirro, Pirro having been contracted as Ducati’s new test rider. He posted impressive times at the test, putting in a lot of laps in different conditions, getting up to speed quickly on the bike. Ducati Corse boss Filippo Preziosi pronounced himself pleased with Pirro’s times, adding that this was part of Ducati’s wider plan. They now had two test riders for two different objectives, Franco Battaini there for grinding out the miles and testing reliability, while Pirro was fast enough to stress components and do a preselection of parts to be handed over to the factory riders.
The hiring of Pirro was one of what Preziosi called one of the ‘details’ of Ducati’s new approach in 2013. Though he did not comment on recent reports of him being replaced, Preziosi did explain that restructuring was going on inside Ducati, to take advantage of the resources now available to them via their new owners Audi. But Preziosi has reportedly been taking part in meetings discussing both the 2012 season and the plans for the 2013 season, making it seem probable that he will not be replaced after all.
This would be positive, as there seem to be signs of progress from Ducati. Nicky Hayden tried a new chassis with a revised stiffness that helped the bike turn. Testing at Valencia had been good because the lack of bumps made it easier to eliminate one of the weakness of the bike, but if Ducati arrive at a bumpy track, there is no guarantee that improved turning will still be there, Hayden told reporters.
Andrea Dovizioso had been happy to end the test just a few tenths behind Nicky Hayden, he said at the end of the day. The bike had been good in the dry, and had impressed Dovizioso with its acceleration, and there was still room for improvement. Dovizioso was convinced that there was plenty more to come once he arrived at a dry track and could spend some time working on set up. There have been previous riders at Ducati who have thought the same thing, though, so only once Dovizioso has actually had a couple of days in the dry will he know for sure.
The fastest man in the test had not had much to do, Dani Pedrosa told reporters. Pedrosa had worked mainly on the three kilograms extra which the MotoGP bikes are to carry from next season. The four kilos extra which had been added for 2012 had caused Pedrosa a good deal of bother in the early part of the 2012 season, as his team looked for the best location to place the extra weight. So Pedrosa and his team had worked mainly on the next weight increase, especially important to get a head start on 2013.
Whether the work they put in had any value or not was uncertain, however. Pedrosa explained that one of the challenges the team faced was that Dorna changed the camera packages fitted to the bikes every year, affecting the weight balance of the bike as well. Cameras, battery packs and wiring saw weight distributed at various points on the bike, leaving Honda to take that into account when they added weight to bring the bike up from 157kg to 160kg for 2013. Until the final camera package was known, adding a balance package would be complicated.
But Pedrosa ends 2012 with a win and as the fastest man in the last group test of the year, before the factories head off to their nominated test tracks for further testing. Pedrosa himself was philosophical about going out on top, however. “It is always good to be in front,” Pedrosa said, “but the most important thing is to know what you need for next year.” On the evidence of the last half of 2012, and with the arrival of Marc Marquez, Honda may already have everything they need.
This article was originally published on MotoMatters, and is republished here on Asphalt & Rubber with permission by the author.