Wednesday Summary at Valencia: Ducati’s Hope, Espargaro’s Improvement, & Hayden’s Honda

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The rain that threatened didn’t come, to both the relief and the despair of everyone at the MotoGP test in Valencia. After 18 races, three flyaways, and two days of testing, there were plenty of folk who had been secretly doing rain dances so they could pack up and go home early.

As much as we all love MotoGP – and given the number of people who have to work second jobs to be able to afford to be there, love is the only explanation – the season is long and tiring, and testing is necessary, but a real grind to both do and watch.

There were a lot of jealous looks at the empty space where the Factory Yamaha trucks had stood, the team having upped sticks and left at the end of Tuesday.

There were plenty of people who were happy to ride, though, and people who had things to test. Pol Espargaro was delighted to be back on the bike, and continued his impressive debut on the Tech 3 bike. Aleix Espargaro continued work on the NGM Forward Yamaha FTR, while Hiroshi Aoyama and Nicky Hayden continued to ride the production Honda.

At Ducati, a mildly despondent Andrea Dovizioso continued to turn laps, while new signing Cal Crutchlow learned about the grind that riding for Ducati can be, testing lots of things that don’t appear to make much difference to the bike.

Crutchlow remained positive, pointing to the fact that even though the experiments had failed to produce a blistering lap time, the fact that his feedback was the same as Dovizioso’s and the other Ducati riders, it would prove useful in the search for improvement.

Ducati’s hope – or more precisely, the hope of Ducati’s riders – is now firmly pinned on new Ducati Corse boss Gigi Dall’Igna. Though Dall’Igna has only just started, and will realistically not be able to make a major difference for another six months or so, the first impressions of him were good, for both Dovizioso and Crutchlow.

Dall’Igna listens rather than speaks, and when he speaks, what he says is worth hearing. “I like this, I think it is the right way,” Dovizioso commented. The Italian had not had anything to test, Crutchlow had spend all day playing with set up.

Where yesterday, they had found something to improve the bike at the end of the test, on Wednesday, they found something which made it radically worse. Given that the bike is seemingly impervious to setup changes, with only a tiny window where setup seems to have any effect at all, even finding something which ruins it is useful data. Dall’Igna has his work cut out for him.

While the factory Yamaha team had gone home, the Tech 3 team were still hard at work. Pol Espargaro has been very impressive since Monday, getting up to speed quickly and ending just one and a quarter seconds off the time of Marquez. His progress has been marked, dropping his lap time by 1.6 seconds from the first day to the last.

He was still learning to adapt his style from Moto2, feathering the clutch and waiting for the rear chatter to start from the spec-clutch fitted to Moto2 bikes. That doesn’t happen on the MotoGP machines, the bikes having much more sophisticated engine braking strategies and different tires, catching Pol out a little.

The biggest thing, though, was the amount of lean angle he was carrying, dragging knees and elbows, and wearing through his suits. Espargaro told the press he needs to work on picking up the bike sooner, and using the power to help get it upright and driving out of the corner.

The arrival of Pol Espargaro has given Bradley Smith extra motivation. There is a fierce rivalry between the two, which is driving Smith on to find more speed where he can. When Espargaro’s lap times started getting uncomfortably close, Smith turned up the wick, eventually posting a very impressive time just three-tenths off the time of fastest man Marc Marquez.

One lap was good, Smith said, but the job now was to turn one fast lap into five fast laps, then ten fast laps, until eventually he could be fast for an entire race. Now having the 2013 factory package, Smith felt he could ride much better than before. The package had no negatives for him, he said, promising much next year.

He is still a way off Marc Marquez, however. The newly crowned world champion ended the test the way he ended the championship: on top. Both he and Dani Pedrosa had spent the last day of the test concentrating on the latest version of the 2014 prototype, instantly recognizable by the massive air intake on the front of the bike.

Gone are the slim eyebrow shapes, replaced with the whale shark mouth on the front, gulping air and forcing back into the fuel-starved 2014 RC213V engine. It was those fuel strategies that the two Honda men had been working on, testing how the bike felt with a liter less fuel in race trim. Was the bike down on power? “The idea is not to lose power, but to save fuel somewhere else,” Dani Pedrosa said.

That means Yamaha is in trouble, as Valentino Rossi has already complained that the M1 feels like a two-stroke jetted to run too lean, weak on power. Yamaha has a couple of months to search for better strategies before testing resumes at Sepang, time they will clearly need.

Both the Forward Yamahas and the Honda RCV1000R production racers will also need some time to work on the electronics. The bikes have not exactly been a magic bullet for making riders competitive, but they are clearly still in need of a lot of work. The biggest problem right now is finding the right setup with the spec Dorna software, something which is merely a matter of time.

But even once the electronics are sorted, they will still take some work to get right. After the initial excitement of the introduction, where the figure of 0.3 seconds off the time of the factory bikes was bandied about, HRC staff is now being more realistic. Casey Stoner reportedly said the bike would be 0.5 to 0.8 seconds slower than a factory bike, but that time target needs some explanation.

The gap of 0.8 seconds should not be taken to mean to Marc Marquez, but rather that if Marc Marquez were to ride both the production racer and the full factory RC213V, Marquez would be 0.5 to 0.8 slower on the RCV1000R than he is on the RC213V.

Unfortunately, Honda has not put Marquez on an RCV1000R, instead leaving Nicky Hayden, Hiroshi Aoyama, and Scott Redding to ride the bikes. Redding is injured, and Hayden and Aoyama are still working on setup, but the question is how competitive they would be if they were on factory bikes.

Hayden ended the test 1.8 seconds behind Marquez, Aoyama 2.2 seconds off the time of Marquez, and though there is still clear room for improvement, the better part of a second of the difference is down to Marc Marquez, rather than any kind of equipment difference.

A more realistic target for Hayden might be to get the bike close to the top 10, and round the spot where the Ducatis are, unless they improve. The Honda production racer is clearly an improvement on most of the old CRT machines, but it’s still a long way from being competitive with the factory prototypes.

MotoGP heads home now, for a well-earned rest. The Forward team will travel to Jerez, for a test at the end of the month with the Ducati test team, along with a number of other Open class entries. But the 2013 season is finally over, and on-track action is rapidly drawing to a close. It’s been a long, memorable and spectacular season. And next year promises to be even better.

Photo: © 2013 Scott Jones / Scott Jones Photography – All Rights Reserved

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