The second IRTA pre-season MotoGP test at the Sepang Circuit in Malaysia has ended. Despite a “check engine” red dashboard light on Dani Pedrosa’s Repsol Honda on the second day, there was no performance problem, and the Hondas of Casey Stoner (2:00.473) and Pedrosa (2:00.648) took the two top time spots on the third day. This is what experienced observers expected after the first test, whose order of times seemed to predict the 2012 championship.
Honda chief Shuhei Nakamoto said, “…the engine has no problem at all,” indicating that there was no rev cut or other performance limitation imposed.
The big upset was Andrea Dovizioso on the Tech3 Yamaha (he was cut from the Repsol squad as Honda reverted to just two riders), who was third-fastest, only 0.329 of a second off Stoner’s best lap—and ahead of Jorge Lorenzo, fourth (2:00.802) on a factory Yamaha. One second covered the top eight riders, a natural result of teams bringing their settings closer to optimum.
The big question—whatever happened to seven-time top-class champion Valentino Rossi?—is no closer to an answer. After Ducati adopted a conventional twin-beam aluminum chassis in an attempt to find improved front-end feel (feel is warning that the grip limit is being approached), Rossi said the bike for the first time was responding to normal chassis tuning, and it appeared the team was on its way back to competitiveness. But with Rossi and teammate Nicky Hayden 10th and 11th on the final test day (even if closer in times to Stoner now), questions outnumber answers. Ducati now has only the three-day Jerez, Spain, test, March 23-25, in which to find and implement answers before the first Grand Prix, scheduled for April 8 at the Losail Circuit in Qatar.
Stoner’s remarks make his top performance sound routine—expected, even. “The chassis balance feels good, as does the traction on the bike. It’s turning well, but we really need to get rid of the chatter. In general, we are happy with the bike.”
Roger, A-Okay, Houston—over and out. Stoner also said that Honda had tried a shorter wheelbase and reduced the chatter a bit, but that plenty of work remained to be done.
Pedrosa said, “We have less chatter compared to the first test. We need to keep improving on entry and middle of the corner.”
Entry and mid-corner are where load on the front is greatest, making chatter most likely.
Lorenzo spoke mainly of improved throttle connection from new electronics and of his grueling race-distance simulation. Throttle connection means the solid predictability of engine response to throttle changes, which is a very difficult area now that fuel is so severely restricted. This year’s 1000cc engines are 25 percent bigger than the 800s used from 2007 to 2011 but must go race distance on the same 21 liters (5.5 gallons) of fuel as before. Every use of peak power takes fuel from off-corner acceleration, where throttle connection is essential to keeping the rear tire at its limit. Electronics cannot smooth engines that are leaned out close to the misfire limit!
Lorenzo said, “It’s been really tough physically, making the race simulation.”
Tech3 Yamaha rider Cal Crutchlow agreed, saying it was exhausting to lap quickly with the new series-spec Bridgestone rear tire.
Lorenzo added, “The rider that can keep the tires strong to the end of the race will have a strong season. After three or four laps, the rear tire grip drops and then it continues to drop steadily after that.”
He also said, “It’s very different to last year. It’s almost like racing in the rain, trying to control the rear in the corner exits and acceleration.”
What is different? Riders had asked for tires that would come more quickly to racing grip level to reduce the considerable risk in the first three laps as they try to both stay upright and yet not lose position by being overly cautious.
Dorna CEO Carmelo Ezpeleta has much invested in his concept of adding the Superbike-powered homebuilt “CRT” bikes to pack the back of the grid. But with tires as they were through the 2011 season, low-revving “valve-spring” engines would not have come close to warming up such tires. In times past, we had a name for fast-warming tires: qualifiers. They warm up fast but fade just as quickly.
Adding to the confusion, Lorenzo was also quoted as saying that rear grip remained constant after the drop. Which is it, “drop steadily” or “remained constant”?
On the third test day, Lorenzo evaluated a new M1 chassis. “The new chassis is not better, so we went back to the standard one, with the new engine and new electronics.”
Colin Edwards moved closer to competitive times on his Suter/BMW CRT with a 2:03.681, now 3.21 seconds away from Stoner’s time but 13th on the time sheet. Behind him were the BQR Kawasaki/FTR CRT bikes, both more than six seconds out—a two-second improvement for them.
Still absent are the much-anticipated Aprilia “crossovers,” which are a blend of near-factory engines and near-factory chassis that is causing some to ask, “At what point does a factory-assisted CRT become a prototype?” What the hell, let ’em run! Aprilia’s last try in MotoGP, the ill-fated three-cylinder 990cc “Cube,” devolved into a freestyle “stunter” for rider Garry McCoy, who wowed the crowds in nearly last place with smoky slides. Now that Aprilia has made its RSV4 seriously competitive in World Superbike, there’s surely a place for a variant in MotoGP.
Honda, led by Stoner with Pedrosa close behind, is in command. I think it can afford the R&D cost to stay there.
As a final word of caution, outsiders like us still have no idea to what degree these different machines had their full fuel economy software in operation. As EPA new-car stickers point out, “Your mileage may vary.” We’ll see at Qatar.