Analysis: Sepang II MotoGP Test

Honda and Yamaha square off for pre-season supremacy.

Jorge Lorenzo

Jorge Lorenzo

We've all seen the lap times and read the comments from the most recent MotoGP test at the Sepang Circuit in Malaysia. There were no big surprises: Dani Pedrosa on the dominant make, Honda, was fastest most of the time, but the current world champion, Jorge Lorenzo, on a factory Yamaha, ended up with the quickest time over the three days. Rookie Repsol Honda hire Marc Marquez was third-fastest after Pedrosa, Tech3 Yamaha rider Cal Crutchlow pushed to fourth and the revived (by Yamaha) Valentino Rossi was fifth-quickest, 0.780 of a second off of Lorenzo's top time.

But what’s with this elbow-dragging? Both Marquez and Lorenzo were photographed as “Bilbow

Draggins.” Yet traction was always marginal from overnight rain, as revealed by numerous crashes and rider comments. It occurs to me that elbows on the deck may be the result of riders experimentally pushing themselves down to lift their bikes up in search of what grip there was.

Those of us hoping to see dynamic new technology were disappointed by sameness. Honda was interested in engine durability for the five-engines-per-rider rule newly in force for 2013. Innovation as a tool for victory is also hammered by the no-development rule. Now, you run the same engine configuration all season; software changes only. Yamaha's long-hoped-for seamless-shift transmission did not appear, as revealed by Lorenzo in a wicked moment of candor (Honda's trick tranny adds nearly $800,000 to the cost of a leased RC213V and has to be serviced every race by Honda personnel). Crutchlow let the press know at every opportunity that he was riding last year's Yamaha, and that he'd have no new parts for the first four races. Like my mother once said, all people's problems are as big as they can be.

Speaking of which, new Ducati Corse chief Bernhard Gobmeier treated us to his three-step plan. Here it is: 1) Use all hardware in-hand, test everything to define a direction of change; 2) in the middle term, radical measures were introduced at Sepang II in the form of significant geometry and cg changes to improve handling; and 3) in the longer term, an updated engine (still with 90-degree Vee angle and desmo valvetrain) was hinted to be under development. (The revelation that Honda’s current RC213V engine also is a self-balancing 90-degree V-Four stirs the pot and makes winter worth living through.)

Andrea Dovizioso

Andrea Dovizioso

And the result? Factory riders Andrea Dovizioso and Nicky Hayden were eighth and ninth, 1.368 and 1.496 seconds away from Lorenzo. Although still discouraging, that's an improvement over the more usual two-second gap.

Bridgestone didn’t bring any experimental tires, such as the two extra-hard compounds presented at the first Sepang test. This time around, tire options included hard or extra-hard fronts and soft, medium or hard (asymmetric) rears.

As the riders themselves say, the lap times are almost irrelevant. A rider doesn’t get to quick times by riding around and around. He gets there by identifying the specific problems that are slowing his laps and then, in some measure, solving them. Lorenzo attempted to better his current settings. “We need to improve the acceleration a little bit,” he said, “but for the moment, no new bits to try.”

After the first day, leader Pedrosa said, “The bike is not ready for maximum push. It is not done yet, but we are on it.” New-man Marquez, third-fastest on the opening day, said, “The position is not important. For me to be 0.3 second from Dani is better than I expected. But I know Dani, Jorge and Valentino are stronger than me and very consistent. At the moment, it is not our battle.”

Well said, but despite this realism, once the season begins, many veteran observers expect to see Marquez learning from the front.

Marc Marquez

Marc Marquez

Speaking of realism, Crutchlow can always be relied upon for a full measure. “Once I got to my best lap time today, I pretty much stayed at that pace for the rest of the day because the grip wasn’t there. There were a few crashes, and it was obvious that we’d got use to the grip that we had at the last test, but it wasn’t there. When people started to push, they crashed.”

On another subject, Suzuki factory test rider Nobu Aoki was on the scene and described the new MotoGP prototype. “We are on schedule,” he said. “Last week, we launched a new version of the bike, which performed pretty well. We’re happy with the chassis and engine, but we still need to improve many small things. We’ve been testing at Motegi and almost every week at the private Suzuki test track. The plan is to take part in the Barcelona post-race test, alongside the other teams. I will be riding at the test and also one European rider.”

Dovizioso described Stage 2 of Gobmeier’s plan: “We made a comparison between two bikes with different configurations. One had a different fuel tank and weight distribution.” After following Pedrosa for two laps, Dovizioso said, “The main problem is turning. In the braking and on the exit, we are not the best, but we don’t lose too much.” The new fuel tank slightly improved braking and corner entry. “They are only small things,” he said, “but they can help in every corner, and at the end, it makes a different lap time.”

Dovizioso is talking about hard work. He tested a modified, non-ideal bike to evaluate one aspect of its performance. Detail by detail, this is how it is done. Not by flying around the circuit with the greatest of ease, Superman-style. The lap time is made of parts, painstakingly manufactured, and then assembled.

Hayden tested something similar, saying, it “helped make the bike a little nimbler on change of direction. Also, I’m able to brake better with the same amount of pressure on the lever. We still need to work on it but, anyway, it’s an improvement.”

Nicky Hayden

Nicky Hayden

How does he know he can “brake better”? It’s not just a feeling! The numbers are on the screen: GPS shows exactly how many meters of braking distance he uses approaching each corner—precise knowledge.

Ben Spies’ shoulder is still weak from his off-season surgery, and there is scar tissue to be reduced. He said the Ignite Pramac Ducati is a handful and that chatter is present. He is “upbeat but frustrated” with his current situation.

Of the second day, Lorenzo said, “The track was better today and everybody improved, so I would say 1 to 1.2 seconds came from the track, then we kept playing with the setting of the suspension and electronics to find the rest. We improved the acceleration a little bit—small details. Also, I think my riding is a few tenths better. We still need to improve acceleration.”

Rossi, learning to ride the evolved Yamaha YZR-M1 after two years on a Ducati, said, “I am not 100

percent happy, because we tried to improve traction on the exit of the corner when the tires have more than 10 laps. We were able to improve a bit, but we lost the good balance of the M1. So, we paid a high price to improve the traction. You can ride the bike very well, but we spin a little too much on the exit from the corners.”

Rossi was clearly impressed by Lorenzo’s consistency, saying, “The difference today was Lorenzo,

especially his pace: two minutes, two minutes, two minutes… @$?%!”

Valentino Rossi

Valentino Rossi

Hoping to improve corner entry, Pedrosa continued his program. “It was a hard day due to the high

temperatures,” he said. “But despite the heat, we completed various tasks that we had scheduled.”

Marquez described “trying a lot of things to give information to the technicians. It’s tough, but it’s an important job when it comes to deciding which way to go with the setup. We did a good job on the 64 laps that I rode today. Now, we have to compile the data and prepare for the final day of the test, in which we will continue to put in the laps and look for the best direction to follow this preseason.”

Pretty much another day, another dollar for the working stiffs in the paddock! Sixty-four laps is three race distances—in sickening heat and humidity.

Then, there’s injury, which is another kind of hard day. “I made a small mistake yesterday,” said Spies, “which dug my elbow into the ground. It was an easy crash, but it upset my back and shoulder a little bit, so I had a few spasms yesterday and couldn’t do a whole lot of riding.”

On the third day, it rained again. But sun arrived at 10 a.m., and an hour later, the track was dry enough for slicks (a few riders tested wet-weather setups, essential in rainy Europe). Even so, grip never equaled that of Wednesday. Lorenzo soldiered on with his to-do list, which included a 20-lap race simulation. He ran low 2:01s for five laps, mid-to-high 2:01s for the next 10 but could only manage 2:02s for the last four to five laps. Riders describe tire life not as a uniform loss of properties over time but as step-like drops in performance.

“It was a little worse than I expected,” said Lorenzo, “because we had some problems with the front tire under braking. It started from the beginning, and I had to slow down a little bit. The setup with the full tank was not perfect for these difficult track conditions, but I was the only one at the front to try a race simulation. If you don’t try, you don’t learn.”

Marquez fell twice, which is proper. He must seek and find the limit with this new motorcycle and learn the warnings it gives as the limit is approached.

Men at work. Next stop: Austin, Texas, and the new Circuit of The Americas, March 12-14.

Sepang II three-day MotoGP Test combined lap times

POS Rider Team Fastest Lap Gap Total Laps
1 Jorge LORENZO Yamaha Factory Racing Team 2’00.282 139
2 Dani PEDROSA Repsol Honda Team 2’00.562 0.280 155
3 Marc MARQUEZ Repsol Honda Team 2’00.643 0.361 141
4 Cal CRUTCHLOW Monster Yamaha Tech 3 2’00.907 0.625 146
5 Valentino ROSSI Yamaha Factory Racing Team 2’01.062 0.780 149
6 Alvaro BAUTISTA GO&FUN Honda Gresini 2’01.078 0.796 133
7 Stefan BRADL LCR Honda MotoGP 2’01.309 1.027 138
8 Andrea DOVIZIOSO Ducati Team 2’01.650 1.368 75
9 Nicky HAYDEN Ducati Team 2’01.778 1.496 168
10 Bradley SMITH Monster Yamaha Tech 3 2’02.023 1.741 151
11 Andrea IANNONE Energy T.I. Pramac Racing Team 2’02.566 2.284 126
12 Michele PIRRO Ducati Test Team 2’02.773 2.491 136
13 Randy DE PUNIET Power Electronics Aspar 2’02.863 2.581 124
14 Aleix ESPARGARO Power Electronics Aspar 2’02.905 2.623 118
15 Katsuyuki NAKASUGA Yamaha Factory Racing 2’02.946 2.664 99
16 Ben SPIES Ignite Pramac Racing Team 2’03.055 2.773 94
17 Hector BARBERA Avintia Blusens 2’03.155 2.873 127
18 Wataru YOSHIKAWA Yamaha Factory Racing 2’03.257 2.975 66
19 Hiroshi AOYAMA Avintia Blusens 2’03.990 3.708 138
20 Karel ABRAHAM Cardion AB Motoracing 2’04.066 3.784 112
21 Colin EDWARDS NGM Mobile Forward Racing 2’04.102 3.820 92
22 Danilo PETRUCCI Came IodaRacing Project 2’04.279 3.997 121
23 Takumi TAKAHASHI HRC Test Team 2’04.512 4.230 176
24 Michael LAVERTY Paul Bird Motorsport 2’04.546 4.264 43
25 Yonny HERNANDEZ Paul Bird Motorsport 2’04.671 4.389 134
26 Lukas PESEK Came IodaRacing Project 2’04.674 4.392 103
27 Claudio CORTI NGM Mobile Forward Racing 2’04.709 4.427 106
28 Bryan STARING GO&FUN Honda Gresini 2’05.313 5.031 118
Ben Spies action shot

Ben Spies action shot

Valentino Rossi action shot

Valentino Rossi action shot

Sepang Circuit

Sepang Circuit

Marc Marquez

Marc Marquez

Marc Marquez action shot #1

Marc Marquez action shot #1

Marc Marquez action shot #2

Marc Marquez action shot #2

Jorge Lorenzo action shot

Jorge Lorenzo action shot

Andrea Dovizioso

Andrea Dovizioso

Andrea Dovizioso action shot

Andrea Dovizioso action shot

Dani Pedrosa action shot

Dani Pedrosa action shot

Valentino Rossi

Valentino Rossi

Nicky Hayden and Bernhard Gobmeier

Nicky Hayden and Bernhard Gobmeier

Nicky Hayden action shot

Nicky Hayden action shot