Considered the one rider who will be able to consistently challenge Stoner, Jorge Lorenzo was very satisfied with the overall performance of the new 1000cc M1.
Valentino Rossi was obviously much happier with the latest twin-spar aluminum-framed iteration of the GP12 Ducati, proclaiming it vastly improved over the troubled GP11 he struggled with last year.
Stoner was the class of the MotoGP field as usual, despite sitting out the first day due to back problems, and a chattering issue that the team couldn’t quite tune out.
Dani Pedrosa seemed to adapt well to the 1000cc RC213V, carding the third quickest time of the first Sepang test.
Ben Spies is looking to put together a serious title run this year — and the Yamaha brass is expecting it — after some disappointing setbacks last season.
Reigning Moto2 champion Helmut Bradl managed to gather enough sponsorship to fund a Honda satellite MotoGP effort for 2012, and he impressed many in his first MotoGP test.
An electronic glitch prevented Colin Edwards from running NGM Mobile Forward Racing’s newer 2012 model on the first day, but once it was fixed, the team made some significant progress during the test despite struggling with tire chatter.
Alvaro Bautista saw the writing on the wall regarding Suzuki’s pull-out from MotoGP, and quickly signed with the Gresini Honda team for 2012. Some are expecting big things from the Spaniard this year.
The 2012 MotoGP World Championship officially kicked off under the desert lights in Qatar. But the season actually began two months earlier when the 2012 testing season began under the sweltering Malaysia sun in Sepang. It was there — over three long humid days — that a sense of what the evolving championship would look like developed.
Financial realities finally caught up to the paddock in 2011. The notion that manufacturers could spend freely, and lease their prototypes for millions of euros, came to a crashing halt. Sponsorship continued to dry up, as did the coffers of at least two of the three remaining factories. Anticipating this, the major parties, Dorna, the FIM, and teams organization IRTA, agreed on a formula for filling the grid with lower-priced, lower-spec machines that unfortunately have attracted mostly less-talented riders.
The CRT (Claiming Rule Teams) machines made their debut last season, but it wasn’t until early in February this year that they shared the track with the latest and greatest 2012 prototypes. On the first day of the test, NGM Mobile Forward Racing’s Colin Edwards — considered the best of the CRT set — had electrical problems with the team’s new generation machine that forced him onto a lower-spec backup bike. When the software glitch was remedied on the latest bike, it suffered from severe chattering on days two and three.
“Honestly, you can see my hands,” he said, showing heavy calluses. “I feel like I’ve been holding onto a jackhammer the last three days.” Edwards believed the chattering was caused by Bridgestone’s new rear tires, which offer a faster warm-up at the cost of durability. Last year the tires were blamed for a number of crashes — a good portion of the MotoGP field have suffered a cold tire crash at one time or another, including all three Repsol Honda riders on the first day of practice for the 2011 Dutch TT. Edwards was willing to return to the old tire to alleviate the chatter. “I’ll give up a little safety or whatever on the first couple laps to have no chatter.”
The NGM Forward team is the only one using Bosch electronics, but the company’s technicians made a huge leap at the test and Edwards was closer to being able to ride the bike to its potential. Edwards felt that without the chattering, he’d be up very close to the satellite prototypes. “You know, with as much chatter as I have, I don’t think it’s that bad. I mean if we didn’t have any chatter, on my kids’ lives we could do a 3.0 or 2.5, no problem, easy.” Nonetheless, the CRT teams’ competitiveness remains a major question mark.
Bridgestone’s Hiroshi Yamada admitted that solving the chatter issue would be difficult. Before the control tire era, Bridgestone supplied tires to all five MotoGP manufacturers. What worked on one machine didn’t work on the others, “so the chattering is more related to the character of the machine or chassis, especially chassis. So honestly speaking we have no one line to solve this problem,” he said. The softer rear casing made the contact patch larger, which gave the riders more feedback. “This is our target and maybe the force from the tire is a little bit more; I don’t know how much percentage, 10 percent or 20 percent more. Maybe this makes the chattering problem.”
There was no question the new rear warmed up faster, even if the temperature in Sepang was reliably in the 90s. The question was how the tires would perform at the end of the race. It hasn’t been uncommon for Bridgestone riders to turn their fastest time on their last laps. “Concerning the rear, still we don’t know durability,” Yamada said. The determining factor would be lap time. “So how fast the lap time is also very important.” If it’s two- or three-tenths per lap, “this is a big gap for the whole 25 laps.”
Repsol Honda’s Casey Stoner missed the first day of the test due to a recurrence of an old back problem that restricted him to the massage table on Tuesday before he got down to business on Wednesday and Thursday. By the end of the third day he had a gap of 0.591 seconds on the field, and it could have been much more. Besides his back, Stoner was also hampered by chattering; without those problems, he might have had a second on the field.
Yamaha’s Jorge Lorenzo, who rode well in Sepang after a forced layoff following the loss of part of his finger in the Australian Grand Prix, was second to Stoner. Teammate Ben Spies, fourth fastest, was also on the pace, as was Repsol Honda’s Dani Pedrosa, who finished with the third best time. But everyone was watching Valentino Rossi, and he didn’t disappoint. Using the all-new GP12 with a conventional aluminum perimeter frame, Rossi kept the gap to Lorenzo at about 0.7 seconds. More importantly, he’d regained the front-end feel that was missing last year, when he matched his career high with 12 crashes.
After the first day on the new bike, Rossi was effusive. “Now I can squeeze the front tire, I can use the front,” he glowed. “I have a quite good temperature and also the tire works well, so is a big, big step compared to last year. And also about the position on the bike, last year I never feel confident. With this one I am okay, and I have enough room on the straight, I am in a good position in the corner.”
When the test ended his confidence was soaring. “For me, now Lorenzo and Stoner ride also better than me,” Rossi began, “but maybe with Pedrosa/Spies maybe is not impossible. And already fight for the podium for us is great.” Added crew chief Jeremy Burgess, “I definitely expect us to be challenging for the podium. I really think we should be in the mix with anybody other than perhaps (Stoner and Lorenzo) and that leaves us pumped up, really, for the podium.” Burgess explained that he’d been nervous prior to the test, “but three things I wanted here were a bike that braked and turned in well and doesn’t chatter. We had those three things and it is full credit to Ducati’s chassis design group.” Rossi’s teammate Nicky Hayden ran only a handful of laps due to his shoulder injury, which was due for surgery back in California immediately following the test.
Too often last year Lorenzo and Spies were handicapped by the power shortcomings of the 800cc YZR-M1. In Sepang, the new YZR-M1 showed itself to be much closer in both acceleration and top speed to the Hondas.
“It is more fun,” to ride the 1000, “because you have more torque and you don’t need to fight with an aggressive engine in the slow corners and you can enjoy it,” Lorenzo said. “I enjoy it a lot more than the 800.” All of the 1000s make massive amounts of power; the key will be getting the most out of it.
Now Lorenzo said he was “very happy with the power, the acceleration and the top speed. This was a thing that we didn’t have in the past and now we do. We need to work a bit more in electronics for the exit of the corner. The problem is not the wheelie, but we need to make it smoother. Yamaha has concentrated on the areas it is not good on and this is good. They concentrated in maximum power and top speed and we got it, so maybe now we have to look at acceleration.”
Spies refutes the idea that the 1000s will forcibly alter riding styles. “The corner speeds are going to be a little bit lower, but I don’t think it’s going to dramatically change anything,” Spies said. “I just think it’s going to help a little bit for me being a bigger rider, top speeds and things like that. That could really be the benefit. I don’t think these bikes — in no way, shape or form, even with a lot of power — resemble a superbike, so it’s still mainly the bikes just have a lot of torque now. That’s the only difference. Obviously with the 1000 you have a lot less rpm, just in revving and the power delivery is just so much different.”
A bigger problem is between the CRT machines and the MotoGP prototypes. It’s expected that Dorna will announce the technical regulations for 2013 and beyond in May. Dorna CEO Carmelo Ezpeleta has a delicate balancing act. On the one hand he has to preserve the championship, which wouldn’t exist with the factories that supply 12 prototypes and have the option of continuing to do so in 2013. On the other hand, the factories are loath to be saddled with burdensome technical regulations that stifle development. One significant plus is that all three manufacturers are committed to the championship through 2016.
Said HRC’s Shuhei Nakamoto, “We have to make it cheaper. I don’t think we have to make it slower. Because there are some areas of interest for the technical area. To make the machine slower there’s no reason to continue in MotoGP. I fully understand and agree for the need to make the machine cheaper, but to make the machine slower, there’s no reason to stay here.”
Suggestions on slowing down the prototypes included rev limits, control ECUs, and weight penalties. “All of these we are against,” Nakamoto said. “Carmelo (Ezpeleta), he’s not a technician. For the technical regulation area, if he makes something, maybe not so good a decision. We fully support Carmelo about the MotoGP racing activities or promotion area. He should be concerned with this area. The technical regulation area we have the MSMA. We can manage.”
Ezpeleta’s proposal is that the Ducati, Honda, and Yamaha each produce a maximum of two full prototypes and two prototypes to lease for €1 million, plus crash damage. Their recent five-year deal allows them to race prototypes through 2016. But of what specification? Rather than specific technical regulations, Ezpeleta said Dorna was considering recommending freezing development of the engine or chassis for a defined period. To further limit costs, they may go to one motorcycle per rider starting in 2013. If so, the number of engines may be cut from six to five. But that’s only one of the suggestions to be offered. Nothing will be decided until late May.
Already the cost of racing has had an effect on the grid. Team owner Fausto Gresini has cut back his San Carlo Honda Gresini race team to one RC213V for 2012, replacing the second prototype with a CRT machine. The Gresini CRT will mate a Ten Kate Honda CBR1000RR engine in a British-made FTR chassis, along with Showa suspension and Cosworth electronics.
“I think it’s clear that MotoGP has many problems for four or five years, every year it gets more difficult,” Gresini said. “And this financial problem is difficult. There’s no money and every year the bike is improved. And every year MotoGP riders decrease and this is clear; for Dorna it’s an emergency. The manufacturers aren’t working too much to increase the number of riders and in that case it’s necessary for Dorna to work in another different way. In that case, for sure MotoGP is finished.” He added, “There needs to be a big change. And for this reason we need to decrease the cost and invest in new and young riders. This is important.”
Gresini hopes to bridge the gap with homegrown talent. This year, he’s the only team owner to field riders on MotoGP, CRT, Moto2, and the new Moto3 machines. That should bring new blood into the championship.
He continued. “The manufacturers have two riders and the satellite teams pay a lot money. OK, bring us this rider. But they don’t have the possibility to invest in young riders. The cost of the bike is too much and the teams don’t always have a sponsor to finance this project for young riders, because the cost is very, very expensive. And for this reason, it’s clear it’s necessary to change the system. And the manufacturers, for me, don’t have a good focus for the problem. They’re saying the problem isn’t for the manufacturers, but for Dorna. I think it’s a mistake.”
It may not be the only mistake. Already questions about the future of MotoGP are being answered, but the final verdict won’t be known for at least another year. SR