LONDON, ENGLAND, – The recently concluded MotoGP test in Sepang didn’t provide too many surprises. Rossi struggled, the Hondas were fast, the Yamahas were steady, and the Suzuki worked well on a track where it often works well.
That’s the view of former 500cc World Champion Kevin Schwantz, who analyzed the test with the help of some paddock insiders.
“The Ducatis, we’ve seen over the past three or four years that nobody can ride it but (Casey) Stoner,” Schwantz said, his opinion in direct opposition to the Ducati company line, espoused by Stoner and former teammate Nicky Hayden, that that wasn’t the case. “Doesn’t surprise me that they need to have a bit of re-think and figure out what’s going on and find a direction again. Maybe a Valentino (Rossi) at 80 or 90% isn’t good enough to develop a bike. Maybe he needs to be able to ride it harder than that and maybe right now he’s just trying to get that fitness level back.
“The other thing Valentino’s good at is making things bigger than maybe they are,” Schwantz began, “as far as issues with the bike or issues with himself.” That opinion is widespread. Many believe he’s overplaying his injury as a way of buying time should he not get up to speed on the Desmosedici by the first race. “Maybe not showing his complete hand. I think that’s something maybe (Jorge) Lorenzo’s learned from him and Lorenzo’s out there working as he should and trying to develop a bike, but not make a big, ‘Whoa, look at our stuff; it’s really good,’” because I think a lot of us realize if you give Honda a carrot to chase, they’re going to find a way to get there. You let them think they are the carrot, maybe they all, ‘Whoa, whoa, whoa, we don’t need to work any harder.’ So whether anybody out there’s smart enough and thinks that far ahead,” isn’t known.
“I think Ducati, if they are struggling, once Valentino’s fitness gets back, once they’ve had a chance to really develop some stuff, I think midway through the season, at the latest, he’ll be right there at the front. And hopefully it’s something that Nicky (Hayden) benefits from as well. I think Nicky’s had a pretty tough time at Ducati so far. It’d be good to see him on a bike that he’s really comfortable on.”
The Honda riders appeared the most comfortable on the updated RC212V. San Carlo Honda Gresini’s Marco Simoncelli, who has full factory backing, finished the test with the fastest time on the third day and overall, followed by Repsol Honda’s Dani Pedrosa, on the strength of his day two time, and Stoner, who was fastest the first day. Stoner did crash on the final day, but he blamed paint on the curbing. Simoncelli’s teammate Hiroshi Aoyama also crashed, unhurt, though test rider Kousuke Akiyoshi fractured his arm in a Thursday crash. Repsol Honda’s Andrea Dovizioso was fifth fastest overall and San Carlo Honda Gresini’s Hiroshi Aoyama, seventh.
“I think, from my outside view looking into the Honda camp, is there’s two guys there that are really fighting to get that the factory’s-going-to-listen-to-them status,” Schwantz said of Pedrosa and Stoner. “Dani (Pedrosa) and Alberto (Puig, Pedrosa’s mentor and manager) have had it. Casey’s realizing that now that he’s there he needs to go in and immediately start going really, really fast and try and convince those guys they need to listen to him and not to Dani. So it might work that they both give input and the thing gets so good that absolutely anybody can ride it and we’ve got five Hondas at the front of every race. It could also be the scenario that those two guys do everything they can to get to where they are to be the best and the competition amongst them completely makes them lose their focus and Honda once again loses their direction from them. It’ll be interesting to see how that plays out and if those two egos can actually continue to make that Honda better, because it really seems like over the winter this year, I mean, it was a decent bike quite a few places last year, but Dani just happened to fall off of it a couple of times and right at the wrong time and get a bit banged up.” Pedrosa’s most damaging crash wasn’t his fault. He was thrown to the ground during practice for the Japanese Grand Prix at Motegi when human error caused the throttle to stick. Pedrosa fractured his collarbone and, though he returned in Australia after missing Motegi and Malaysia, was never close to racing fitness.
Schwantz talked to his fellow Texan Ben Spies before he left for Malaysia and got a text from Spies following the test. The gist of the text was that Spies and teammate Jorge Lorenzo were going through their test program, evaluating the new engine, and not concerned with an outright lap time. The text also said that the Yamaha teammates “didn’t really go there and make a rule of ‘We gotta try and go as fast as we possibly can. We just worked on electronics. We tested this, we tested. We used it as a test.’”
As did the one-man Rizla Suzuki team, which had encouraging results after a miserable season. Second year rider Alvaro Bautista is now the lone standard-bearer for Suzuki. Bautista had a rough introduction to the class, partly because he was often injured. Now at full fitness, he was able to finish with the tenth fastest time on a track where he tied a season best fifth-he was also fifth at Catalunya-last year. Teammate Loris Capirossi scored points in only eight of 18 races. His best, and the team’s best overall day, was in Catalunya, where he finished seventh. Capirossi moved to the Pramac Racing Ducati team for 2011, which Schwantz believes will benefit Suzuki.
In Sepang, Bautista emphasized his overall physical condition, at least until the third day of the test when he had to withdraw with stomach cramps. Being in peak physical condition, especially racing the world’s best, fittest riders, is paramount, Schwantz said. “You bang yourself up at the start of the season, it’s hard to find time in there for recovery, unless you stop racing and that’s what Rossi did when he broke his leg. He took some time off and he came back and he was decent.
“Suzuki’s always been good at Malaysia. Seems like (Loris) Capirossi and (Bautista), whenever they went there and tested, they were like third, fourth. They’re ‘Aw man, the Suzuki’s going to be good.’ It’s one of those places that grip’s easy to find. Even though it is hot and typically grip is hard to find for any length of time, they can always put some new grip in and find a way to go fast for a lap or two.
“It’d be interesting for me to look at the consistency that they were there and see.” No complete listing of rider lap times was released. “But I don’t think the bike’s bad. There’s maybe some basic design flaws there that don’t let them maybe build heat as quick as they need to in a tire. Maybe they build heat a different way with trying to do it with the power of the motorcycle. And with that, then now the tire’s getting overheated too quick. So whatever it is they need to be fixed I don’t think has been fixed yet. It would be interesting to see how much headway they can make.
“Very, very possible that over the past two years or three years with (Loris) Capirossi there that they have had absolutely no clue as to what direction they’re headed. I think Stuart Shenton is smarter than that to realize every time (Capirossi) comes in he says something different. But I feel like Loris is always trying to be the guy that was developing the bike. ‘Bautista’s new, he doesn’t know anything.’ Whoever’s been there before Bautista and Capirossi’s just been giving input. Because when he rides it hard it’s fast.
“My take on it is if you can find a way to get it there for a lap, it shouldn’t be a complete re-configuration of the motorcycle to get it to race close to that. Maybe Tom (O’Kane, Bautista’s crew chief) and Alvaro and the rest of the team can find a direction and start making some inroads with some of these issues that they’ve got, without having Capirossi there and the Japanese going, ‘No, no, no, no. He’s more experienced, we have to follow his direction,’ because he could’ve been doing this for a long time.”