“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.
One of the more intriguing match-ups of the 2015 MotoGP season is the battle between the two newcomers from the support classes. Maverick Viñales and Jack Miller are both close friends and fierce rivals, sharing a motorhome off the track, doing battle on it.
Viñales has come to MotoGP early, after just a single year in Moto2, where he was very competitive within a short space of time. Miller has made an even bigger jump, skipping Moto2 altogether and heading straight to MotoGP from Moto3. It is a huge leap for the Australian, switching from a narrow, 55hp, 80kg razor of a bike to a 158kg, 250hp monster.
So how have they adapted? Though the two are only a few days apart in age, comparing their progress is fraught with difficulty. Viñales, riding the Suzuki GSX-RR for Suzuki, is on a factory prototype inside a factory team.
Miller, on the other hand, is riding an Open class Honda RC213V-RS with the LCR team. Viñales has a large team surrounding him, with sufficient backing to act on his input.
Take a glance at the timesheet after the final day and it is easy to draw some simple conclusions from of second Sepang MotoGP test. Marc Márquez reigns supreme, with Jorge Lorenzo is the only rider to get anywhere near to him.
Cal Crutchlow has improved, but at the moment is only fast over a single lap. The Ducati Desmosedici GP15 is fast, but only in the hands of Andrea Iannone. Valentino Rossi and Dani Pedrosa have their work cut out if they are to match their teammates.
Bradley Smith has surpassed his teammate, Pol Espargaro. Suzuki is close, but not quite close enough, while Aprilia is hopelessly lost.
As attractive as those conclusions are, the underlying truth is a lot more complex. Testing is exactly that, testing, and everyone is on different programs, trying different things at different times of the day.
Or as Dani Pedrosa succinctly put it, when asked if he was trying out a new strategy for qualifying during the test, “we were just trying. That’s why we are here.”
After the excitement and confusion of the first day of testing at Sepang, some semblance of normality returned on Tuesday.
Cooler temperatures and more stable weather meant that riders had much more time to do work on track, the heat and humidity not quite as oppressive as they had been the previous day. The excitement over new bikes and gearboxes had also subsided, and the hard grind continued.
If Tuesday is representative of the normal state of play in MotoGP, then it seems like there are already two favorites for the title emerging from the pack, though margins are slim indeed.
Marc Márquez and Jorge Lorenzo were the only two riders to crack the two minute barrier, posting fast times early-on in the day, then getting back to work on 2015.
Nobody else got near, with the exception of Andrea Iannone, who piled in a quick lap at the end of the day to fall just short of two minutes, the Ducati GP15 quickly proving its worth.
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?
With testing now over, Jack Miller has joined the ranks of riders undergoing surgery in the off season. Flying back from Sepang to Barcelona, Miller had an operation to remove four loose screws from his right collarbone, the aftermath of an old injury sustained at Indianapolis in 2013.
That injury was fixed with a plate, but preseason crashes on the KTM Moto3 bike caused a number of complications for the Australian.
With testing completely, Miller now has time to have the remaining screws removed from his shoulder, and allow it to heal. Miller will be unable to train for five days while the scar heals, but will be able to resume his training program after that.