“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 prospect of a new MotoGP season always leaves fans giddy with anticipation. Their appetites keenly whetted by winter testing, and speculation over the times set at those tests, they boldly predict that this season is going to be the best MotoGP season ever. Though the racing is often good, all too often, it never quite lives up to the preseason hype.
There is every reason to believe that this year, it will be different. The bikes, the riders, the teams, the motivation, it all points to 2015 being an exceptionally exciting season in MotoGP.
At the last day of winter testing at Qatar just over a week ago, less than a second covered the top fourteen riders, and two seconds covered all but four of the MotoGP field.
A similar pattern emerged at Sepang: with the exception of the occasional hot lap by Marc Márquez, there were ten or more riders within a second of each other. Things haven’t been this close for a while.
It is hard to imagine, but in few days’ time, Valentino Rossi will be starting his 19th season on the world motorcycle racing stage. Over that tenure, The Doctor has encountered more than a few rivals: Loris Capirossi, Sete Gibernau, Max Biaggi, Dani Pedrosa, Casey Stoner, Jorge Lorenzo, and now Marc Marquez…just to name a few.
To help keep all those “friendly” feuds straight, Dainese sent us this interesting infographic that shows Rossi’s career in relationship to the top talent he faced at each stage of his career.
Now 36-years-old, an age where most riders have retired from MotoGP racing, Rossi is looking to add to his total race win tally, and even counts himself a contender for the 2015 MotoGP World Championship.
He’ll have tough competition for that spot, for sure, but The Doctor seems as potent as ever with his racecraft, and the Yamaha YZR-M1 is tipped to be the weapon of choice in 2015. Regardless of your fanboyism, we should have a good season on our hands.
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.
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 first day of the first Sepang MotoGP test is always a revealing of secrets. It’s not that the factories tell the media everything they are doing, but with everyone on the track, there is nowhere left to hide. The timesheets tell the tale.
The story of the second day is always a little more complex. Initial impressions from the first day are absorbed, the data examined and analyzed, and engineers and mechanics come up with new ideas.
That means that riders are working on different ideas and in different directions, some changes work, others don’t. Times become much more difficult to assess.
So what did we learn today? A lot. Not so much from the lap times – Jorge Lorenzo is fastest, and looking as good as ever, Andrea Dovizioso is incredibly quick, especially on a new soft tire, and the Hondas have chosen a direction to follow – but more about the underlying state of play.
It was a fascinating day, despite the fact that the standing barely changed much after noon.
There is something about the sound of a MotoGP bike that stirs the blood once again. After a long winter, in which one reflects on the many negatives of following motorcycle racing – hard work for little money, endless trips through faceless airports to faceless hotels, and long periods away from home.
A few milliseconds of the sound of a MotoGP bike being warmed up is enough to make you forget all that, and melt away the misery of business travel on the cheap under the fierce heat of passion for the sport. There is nothing that excites like motorcycle racing.
It was an intriguing first day back, with highs and lows, strong performers and real disappointments. The finishing order is not completely indicative of the real strength of the field, but it offers some sound clues as to who stands where.
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?