“It’s just nuts to be separated by one second over the 5 km around this place.” It is hard to argue with Eugene Laverty’s assessment of just how close the times are after free practice for MotoGP. Laverty is either really close to Marc Márquez, or a long way behind Marc Márquez, depending on how you measure it.
The Irishman had a solid day of practice to come up just over a second shy of Márquez’s best time on Friday evening. His problem is that as impressive as his time was, there are eighteen riders ahead of him.
It is, quite frankly, ridiculously close. “I don’t know when was the last time you saw down to 21st was inside 1.3 seconds,” Jack Miller said in awe. “It’s almost like we’re in Moto3 again.”
The closeness of the field was a frustration for everyone on the grid. Miller, Scott Redding, Nicky Hayden, even Valentino Rossi cannot believe how tough the field is. “This practice is unbelievable, because there are ten bikes in three tenths!”
That does not make it any easier to pick a winner, however. Marc Márquez is the least troubled of the riders on the grid, fast both in race trim and on a single lap.
When the flag drops, the speculation stops. Though usually, a rather more forthright word is used instead of speculation.
After the long winter of testing, of trying to assess who was trying what on which lap to try to compare lap times, MotoGP is underway for real. Everyone on track is looking for race pace, and a fast lap to ensure they get into Q2. It is a whole lot easier to comprehend, and infinitely more thrilling.
Conditions had not looked promising ahead of practice. Strong winds blew down the front straight in the late afternoon, raising fears that they would coat the circuit in dust and sand.
Then shortly before the action was due to kick off, a few drops of rain started falling, threatening to at least delay proceedings should it continue. But the wind dropped and the rain stopped, and the 2015 MotoGP season got underway as planned.
Fears about the track were unfounded, lap times quickly heading towards something resembling race pace.
The engineers have had two weeks to pore over the data from the first MotoGP test at Sepang, identify problems, analyze strengths, and find more ways to go faster. Their analyses have been translated into designs, into new parts, into yet more software, ready to put their theories into practice.
On Monday morning, at 10am Malaysian time, the MotoGP riders get to try out all of the new parts and ideas thought up by their factories and teams in search of a few more fractions of a second.
The eyes of the world will not be on what the engineers did between Sepang 1 and Sepang 2, however. Attention will be focused on Yamaha and Ducati, who will be testing hardware which has been a long time coming.
Yamaha is bringing its fully seamless gearbox to the Sepang 2 test, and Ducati will roll out its Desmosedici GP15 for the first time. Both could make a significant impact.
The Ducati Desmosedici GP15 is a machine that has been long in the making. It represents Gigi Dall’Igna’s next step forward for the wayward Ducati Corse MotoGP team, and it is the dubious honor of holding the hopes of Ducati fans around the world, who see the machine as the silver bullet that will return Ducati to the forefront of racing prowess. No pressure.
Since theDesmosedici GP15 was a no-show at Sepang, Ducati held a special unveiling ceremony in Bologna today, and also used the opportunity to unveil the 2015 team and its livery.
The most obvious change that can be seen on the GP15 is the re-routing of the exhaust, with the undertail pipes collecting on the right-hand side of the machine, rather than coming in from both sides and meeting in the middle.
Also, the 90 degree V4 engine has been rocked backwards, giving more room to the front tire, and thus a more compact stature inside the frame.
The bodywork is obviously different, and the Ducati Desmosedici GP15 is physically slimmer, with a much smaller tail section. The twin-spar aluminum chassis remains, though it is of a completely new design. Easy to see as well are the carbon fiber subframes fore and aft.
Can you spot any other changes in the high-resolution photos after the jump? Let us know in the comments.
Who has the best bike? Is it Honda? Or have they been passed by Yamaha? Did the first MotoGP test of the year at Sepang answer that question? After Monday, we thought the answer was yes.
After Friday, it’s clear that it’s not clear. There is still a long way to go to the start of the season, and the only thing we can be sure of is the fact that this is going to be a fantastic year in MotoGP. When it’s hard to point to who has an advantage, it means the racing is going to be tight.
So how did the balance of power swing from Yamaha to Honda? Yamaha turned up at Sepang with a bike that was ready to go. They had plenty of parts to test, but following the Yamaha philosophy, all of those parts offer just a small, but positive change.
The bike was fast, and got a little bit faster. That meant that Yamaha were quick on the first day, and got a little quicker day by day.
Honda, on the other hand, turned up with four different bikes for Marc Márquez, and three for Dani Pedrosa, and the two Repsol Honda riders spent the first day of the test running back-to-back comparisons.
They had pretty much narrowed down their choice by the end of Wednesday, confirming their impressions on Thursday, then getting on with the job of improving the bike through Thursday and Friday.
The 2015 MotoGP season kicks off tomorrow. On Wednesday, the riders take to the track once again at Sepang to continue the development on the bikes they will be racing this year, and to test out the new updates the engineers have been working on during the winter break.
And yet the two most important and interesting developments won’t even be at the first Sepang test.
Ducati’s much-anticipated Desmosedici GP15 is not quite ready for primetime, and so will not make its public debut until 19th February at the launch in Bologna, and not make its first laps in public until the second Sepang test at the end of this month.
Yamaha’s fully seamless gearbox – allowing both clutchless upshifts and downshifts – will also wait until Sepang 2 before Valentino Rossi and Jorge Lorenzo get their hands on the bike.
The official reasons given for the delay are that the GP15 and Yamaha’s gearbox are almost ready, but not quite, still needing a few last checks by the engineers before they are ready to be handed over to the factory riders.
Those of a cynical – or perhaps even paranoid – bent may be tempted to speculate that the delays are more to do with the media than the engineering. The first Sepang test this week is well-attended by journalists and photographers alike, the MotoGP press just as eager as the riders and the fans for the winter to be over.
The second Sepang test sees only a very few journalists attend, with few publications willing to spend the money to cover the expenses for what is often just more of the same.
Perhaps the factories have caught on to this, and are taking advantage of the opportunity to test important new parts with a little less media attention. Or perhaps it really is just a case of not being quite ready in time.
Despite the absence of the really big news, there will still be plenty to see. So who will be testing what, and what are the key factors to keep an eye on?
As the countdown to the new season gathers momentum I thought I’d have a look back at some of my favourite photographs from 2014.
The image above of Scott Redding was taken as he came in for a tire change during qualifying at Le Mans. Sometimes the riders will disappear to the back of the garage during qualifying.
If you’re lucky they will stay on the bike while the crew get to work. If they do, it provides a great opportunity for a portrait as was the case here.
It has been four-and-a-half years, or 87 races between Valentino Rossi’s 49th pole position and his 50th. The last time Rossi started a race from the first spot on the grid was at Le Mans in 2010, where he just pipped his teammate Jorge Lorenzo into second by 0.054 seconds.
At Valencia on Saturday, he was two tenths faster than Lorenzo, but this time, he had Andrea Iannone and Dani Pedrosa between him and his teammate.
There were plenty of parallels to the 2010 season visible at Valencia. Just as five seasons ago, Rossi is engaged in a struggle with Lorenzo for supremacy in the championship. Back in 2010, it was just the third race of the season, and a fierce battle was emerging as Jorge Lorenzo started to gain the upper hand in the team, and in the championship.
Now, the fight is over second in the championship, rather than first, but it has grown increasingly intense over the past few weeks. Signs of tension have been starting to emerge in the last couple of races, but they became a little more public after qualifying at Valencia.
The reason for the dispute is simple. On his second and final run in qualifying, Valentino Rossi made a slight mistake, and was forced to slow down to restart a final run at the pole. At that moment, Jorge Lorenzo flew past on his fast last lap, and Rossi slotted in just behind him, not so much benefiting from Lorenzo’s slipstream, but using Lorenzo as a target to aim for.