Sepang MotoGP Test Wrap-Up

World Champion Marc Marquez leads Yamaha trio at first pre-season test in Malaysia.

Repsol Honda Team rider Marc Marquez Sepang test action shot

Marc Marquez dominated the first test of the 2014 MotoGP season at Malaysia's Sepang International Circuit, bettering Casey Stoner's two-year-old outright lap record with a 1:59.533. Of greater significance, on the final day of the three-day test, the reigning world champion completed a 20-lap race simulation on a new-specification Bridgestone hard-compound rear slick. According to the Japanese tire supplier, total time for the Spaniard's run was 29 seconds quicker than the race time of the winner of last year's Malaysian Grand Prix, Marquez's Repsol Honda teammate, Dani Pedrosa.

“The positive thing is that we were able to use the hard rear tire,” Marquez said. “Last year, it was not like that. Consistency was quite good and not so far from the soft one. With all the tires, I did 25 or 27 laps. They are working so good; I didn’t find any problems.”

In all, Marquez completed 167 laps of the 3.4-mile track, 25 fewer than Pedrosa, who posted the sixth-quickest time, a 2:00.223, but was not able to put in an equally long run due to a brake problem that resulted in an off-track excursion. Factory Yamaha riders Valentino Rossi and Jorge Lorenzo were second- and third-quickest, respectively, with Aleix Espargaro (Forward Racing) and Stefan Bradl (LCR Honda) rounding out the top five.

Despite posting times nearly as quick as those of Marquez (only four riders lapped under the 2-minute mark), Rossi and Lorenzo criticized the latest-spec rubber.

“I am a little bit upset with the new Bridgestone tire,” Lorenzo said, “because it’s working really bad for the Yamahas—much worse than the standard one. We found more chattering than normal. More problems in braking. The front tire was collapsing a lot; it was flat and not stopping. Every lap was worse. I feel very disappointed about the race pace because I didn’t expect to have so many problems.”

Yamaha Factory Racing rider Jorge Lorenzo

“I expected to go faster,” admitted Rossi, now working with a new crew chief, Silvano Galbusera. “We need more time to set up the bike to use the new tire.” Rossi’s best lap was 1:59.727—the first time in his career he’d circulated Sepang in less than 2 minutes. “I feel competitive,” he said, “and stronger than last year.”

Contributing to the rider workload at Sepang is a new lower maximum fuel capacity for prototypes: 20 liters, one less than was allowed last season, which made initial throttle pickup more difficult for the Yamahas, especially at deep lean angles.

“The connection when you are on the edge is a bit more rough,” said Rossi, “so we have to make the right balance. Our goal is to arrive at 20 liters but with the same feeling as last year.”

“A little less is a lot,” Lorenzo told the press after the second day of testing. “We’re trying our best to reduce fuel consumption every lap. I think today we made a step forward.” At the end of the three days, he said, “For the moment, I can finish the race at this track, and the bike is smoother than the first day. It’s quite similar to last year, not better, but very similar.”

Just like with the new tires, Honda is clearly in a better position. “At the moment, we don’t have a lot of problems with fuel consumption,” Marquez said. “It’s not completely the same as before—a little bit aggressive in the bottom area—but we are quite good in that aspect.”

Ducati’s struggles are well documented, but Sporting Director Paolo Ciabatti said at Sepang the factory still hasn’t decided if its two works bikes will remain prototypes or if all three entries will tackle the Open class with its Dorna-supplied Magneti Marelli software, 24 liters of fuel, up to 12 engines (with possible further development; prototype engines are “frozen”), and softer-option rear tire. The series-imposed deadline is February 28.

Ducati Team rider Andrea Dovizioso Sepang test action shot

Returning team rider Andrea Dovizioso found enough improvements to the GP14 to post the test’s seventh-quickest time, 0.147 seconds slower than Pedrosa. “We improved braking in the last part of the entry,” Dovizioso said, “so we are able to be more aggressive to stop the bike and enter easier with more speed. Our wheelie is less in the first part of the acceleration, so we are able to use more power. All the other points are still the same.”

Riders were able to use both 2013- and ’14-spec Bridgestones. Only current-year rubber—seemingly designed for the abuse-tolerance made necessary by the rougher engine response on less fuel—will be available at the next test, scheduled for February 26–28. “I tried just the new soft,” Dovizioso said. “On the left, the softer, it’s better. But on the right, traction is worse.

“Unfortunately, the bike still isn’t turning. Until you’re able to turn the bike, your angle on exit is still the same. So we are not able to close the line more, pick up the bike, and make the acceleration with less angle. This is the way to ride MotoGP. Until we improve that point, it’s difficult to be really close to the fastest rider.”

Dovizioso's new teammate, Cal Crutchlow, is adapting to the Ducati. "We spent the morning with the GP13 and the afternoon with the GP14," he said after the first day of testing. "The bikes are very similar. It's not like we came out with the engine upside down on the seat; it just looks a little different. There are positives with both. I think we need to take a piece off one bike and a piece off another and try to build a better bike from that.

“I am very rusty; I did one day on a motorcycle all winter. Going out on track, I was a little dizzy. We had a small issue with the gear change, which upset the bike, and I literally fell over.

Ducati Team rider Cal Crutchlow

“It’s difficult to go from being at the front, competitive and fast, to learning how to ride again. I can’t ride this bike anywhere near how I rode the Yamaha; I can’t get away with it. Everyone says riding this bike more aggressive works. It does in a way, but it’s having the confidence to do it. I’m step-by-step learning a whole new system of electronics, engines, everything, and I’m not willing to ride the bike like that at this minute.”

Crutchlow did one lap on the new hard-compound rear tire at lunchtime, the hottest part of the day. “With that bike, it never worked,” he said. “We had a lot of sliding. With the Ducati, the softer tire works a lot better because you have to carry angle, whereas with the new hard, if you pick the bike up more, it’s better. But we can’t make the Ducati do what we want in the middle .

“Characteristically, this has been the worst circuit of the year for Ducati because grip is low and it exaggerates everything. So testing here is crucial. If you can solve problems here, normally the bike works better at every circuit. In Valencia, I said the turn-in was one of the worst things. And the wheelie. The ’14 bike is a little better.”

Surprise of the test was the elder Espargaro (younger brother Pol, the reigning Moto2 champion, is making his MotoGP debut with Tech 3 Yamaha) on the hybrid Forward Racing Open-class entry, a pneumatic-valve Yamaha YZR-M1 engine in an FTR chassis based on Yamaha blueprints.

“This morning, we made a long run,” Espargaro said at the end of the third day of riding. “I had a lot of pain in my hands, so I was not able to do the race distance. But we did 12 laps at a good pace. We know that our target in the next test is to keep trying with a used tire because as soon as I have more than 12 laps, it starts to slide so much.”

The factory Yamaha duo acknowledged Espargaro’s skills. “I know Aleix,” Lorenzo said. “The last two years, he won best CRT rider, so he is very quick. Let’s see how he does in the future and if this category can compete even with our category.”

Yamaha Factory Team rider Valentino Rossi Sepang test action shot

“It is quite impressive that the bike is so fast,” Rossi said. “It’s not just the bike. In his career, Espargaro hasn’t won a lot, but in the last years, he improved. I’m worried because maybe Yamaha gave him too good a bike.”

Espargaro's teammate, Colin Edwards, was down the field, 14th of 27 runners, just behind Nicky Hayden on the quickest of the four metal-valve-spring Open-class Honda RCV1000Rs. "I'm in the deeeep deeeep," the 39-year-old tweeted.

Track temperatures were blazingly hot, peaking, according to Bridgestone, at 134 degrees Fahrenheit. Hayden tweeted a photo showing his bare right foot with the caption, “The bike was putting off so much heat this morning it gave me blisters.”

Hayden was disappointed he wasn’t more competitive but optimistic. “We improved our lap times and feeling for the bike, especially in corner entry. We clearly need a bit more power—it’s a bit demoralizing when you try to follow another rider and the gap is so big—but the strong point of this Honda is that it handles well.”

With an improved motorcycle, new tires that suit his riding style, and little concern for running out of gas during the final stages of a race, Marquez, who turns 21 on February 17, currently has the upper hand. “Last year, every time when I went out on the track, I was on the limit,” he said. “I had the advantage that any result was okay. This year, I feel more comfortable with the bike. If I finish fourth, fifth or sixth, it will be a disaster.”

Runner-up to Marquez in 2013, two-time premier-class champion Lorenzo has three goals for the second Sepang test: “Improve the bike, improve my physical condition, be faster.” Get to work, Yamaha.

1 Marc Marquez Repsol Honda Team 1:59.533 167
2 Valentino Rossi Yamaha Factory Racing 1:59.727 0.194 177
3 Jorge Lorenzo Yamaha Factory Racing 1:59.866 0.333 161
4 Aleix Espargaro NGM Mobile Forward Racing 1:59.998 0.465 111
5 Stefan Bradl LCR Honda MotoGP 2:00.112 0.579 151
6 Dani Pedrosa Repsol Honda Team 2:00.223 0.690 192
7 Andrea Dovizioso Ducati Team 2:00.370 0.837 112
8 Bradley Smith Monster Yamaha Tech 3 2:00.603 1.122 186
9 Pol Espargaro Monster Yamaha Tech 3 2:00.655 1.192 162
10 Andrea Iannone Pramac Racing 2:00.725 1.255 150
11 Alvaro Bautista GO&FUN Honda Gresini 2:00.788 1.363 170
12 Cal Crutchlow Ducati Team 2:01.057 1.524 144
13 Nicky Hayden Drive M7 Aspar 2:01.514 1.981 173
14 Colin Edwards NGM Mobile Forward Racing 2:01.731 2.198 108
15 Michele Pirro Ducati Test Team 2:01.782 2.249 171
16 Hiroshi Aoyama Drive M7 Aspar 2:02.383 2.850 183
17 Randy De Puniet Suzuki Test Team 2:02.486 2.953 238
18 Yonny Hernandez Energy T.I. Pramac Racing 2:02.556 3.023 159
19 Kosuke Akiyoshi HRC Test Team 2:02.619 3.086 190
20 Katsuyuki Nakasuga Yamaha Factory Test Team 2:02.788 3.255 129
21 Scott Redding GO&FUN Honda Gresini 2:02.833 3.300 161
22 Michael Laverty Paul Bird Motorsport 2:03.187 3.654 96
23 Hector Barbera Avintia Racing 2:03.204 3.671 135
24 Broc Parkes Paul Bird Motorport 2:03.402 3.869 126
25 Mike Di Meglio Avintia Racing 2:04.516 4.983 143
26 Karel Abraham Cardion AB Motoracing 2:05.261 5.728 85
27 Nobuatsu Aoki Suzuki Test Team 2:05.686 6.153 12

Repsol Honda Team rider Marc Marquez.

Yamaha Factory Team rider Valentino Rossi.

Yamaha Factory Racing rider Jorge Lorenzo.

NGM Mobile Forward Racing rider Aleix Espargaro.

LCR Honda MotoGP rider Stefan Bradl.

Repsol Honda Team rider Dani Pedrosa.

Ducati Team rider Andrea Dovizioso.

Ducati Team rider Cal Crutchlow.

Drive M7 Aspar rider Nicky Hayden.

Suzuki Test Team rider Randy De Puniet.