As the dust settles on a long and arduous MotoGP season, you would think that the teams and riders would be ready for a long and well-deserved break. But there is no such luck for the paddock: the riders had the grand total of two days to get away from the bike, while the mechanics and engineers were back hard at work the day after the race, fettling the 2006 bikes to get ready for a procession of journalists, sponsors, camp followers, and even Valentino Rossi's assistant Uccio, who reportedly put in the slowest lap ever achieved on a MotoGP bike. On the Wednesday, they were joined once again by the riders, and the 2007 season started in earnest.
And the return to testing has not been so keenly anticipated since the return of the four-strokes to the premier class in 2001. The motorcycle racing world held its collective breath, awaiting the first formal outing of the 800s, eager to see what the future holds for MotoGP. But their tension and curiosity was to be only partly relieved and assuaged over the days and weeks that were to come. For the winter testing schedule is a complicated and intricate affair. What it is not is a straight contest of strength, with all the teams turning up with their best bikes and their best riders, running head-to-head with the competition, with transponders recording and publishing official times for each and every lap. What testing entails is an ever-changing mixture of teams and riders, fielding racing motorcycles in unknown states of development, on a range of tires, in a drive to go faster. At each event, times are released, but sometimes there is a full timesheet available, while at others the teams themselves choose to release lap times for their riders, which may or may not include their fastest lap, and may or may not even be accurate (if the rumors about Biaggi's fastest World Superbike test time at Valencia are to be believed), and may have been set on either race tires or qualifiers.
So, while the excitement was great at Valencia, it was colored by frustration. Valentino Rossi was first to ruin the party, by spending part of the first day of testing riding the 990cc Yamaha M1, in an attempt to try and identify where the team had gone wrong on race day. Other 990s joined him, most of them not by choice, but by lack of available 800s. Marco Melandri, Toni Elias and Alex Barros were all out on old bikes on new tires, able at least to get some data on the Bridgestones both teams are switching to.
The team most conspicuous by their absence was Kawasaki. The Team Green bike was the only 800 yet to make a public appearance, but Valencia was not the stage which Kawasaki had chosen to make its debut. Of course, this absence did nothing to staunch the flow of rumors that the Kawasaki 800 was a long way from being either competitive or reliable, or possibly both. We would have to wait until Sepang to learn the truth.
What we did learn at Valencia was that the 800s were very, very fast. The only 800 we'd seen at Valencia so far was the Ilmor X3, which was running a couple of seconds a lap behind the 990s. On the first day of testing, Valentino Rossi demonstrated just how far behind Ilmor is, by lapping the track faster on the 800 than he had during the race on the 990, setting a stunning time of 1:32.7, fast enough to beat Loris Capirossi's lap record set on Sunday. The only people capable of following Rossi's time were the Gresini men on their Bridgestone-shod 990 cc Hondas, both Elias and Melandri setting times faster than Capirossi's race lap. Behind the 990s, Hopkins and Vermeulen on the Suzukis, Capirossi on the Ducati, and Pedrosa on the Honda 800 all finished within 0.1 seconds of each other. Freshly crowned MotoGP World Champion Nicky Hayden was a couple of tenths behind, but the reason for this would only appear later.
The next day, Pedrosa set an even faster time, shaving a couple of hundredths off Rossi's time from Wednesday. Vermeulen and Hopkins followed close behind again, with Casey Stoner quickly getting accustomed to the Ducati just behind the Suzuki men, and fractionally ahead of team mate Loris Capirossi. The Doctor could not match his time from the previous day, the changes to the bike he tried out not working to plan.
Two weeks later, the circus transferred to Sepang. The Malaysian race weekend in September had been full of meteorological surprises, and it put on a repeat performance during the tests. In case we had forgotten about the rain canceling qualifying in September, the first day of testing ended with a downpour to remind us. In the tropics, when it rains, it really, really rains, and the track flooded within minutes, staying wet long enough to curtail the second day's testing as well. And though the third and final day started dry, the rains returned to finish up the last session, not hard enough to flood the track again, but enough to chase off everyone except Nicky Hayden and Toni Elias, who seized the opportunity to run a few wet weather tests. A choice which may pay off next year, if the 2006 run of rainy race weekends is anything to go by.
The patchwork principle was at work again in Sepang, with Ducati absent in all their guises, Marco Melandri and Dani Pedrosa missing due to surgery for arm pump, and Valentino Rossi competing on four wheels instead of two in the WRC New Zealand rally. In their place, Kawasaki turned up with their test rider-turned-racer Olivier Jacque, though his first outing was aboard the old 990, rather than the 800.
Of those present, it was the Suzuki's turn to take the speed honors: Though Colin Edwards finished the first day with the fastest time, the Suzukis were close behind, split only by OJ on the 990 Kawasaki. But over the next two days, the Suzukis dominated, with Hopkins and Vermeulen consistently faster than everyone else at the track. Jacque's appearance at Sepang was brief, trading the Kawasaki 990 in for the 800 on the second day, before retiring with mechanical problems, and going home early. But Kawasaki weren't the only team with problems. Throughout the test, the Hondas seemed to struggle, never really getting on the pace. After the test was over, both Hayden and Elias complained of a lack of power from the RC212V, which helped to explain their deficit of nearly 1.3 seconds to the Suzukis, which had broken the lap record, and come within a second of the pole record at the Malaysian track.
After the tropical Malay heat, it was time to return to the more temperate climes of southern Spain, for the final test session before the official winter testing ban set in on December 1st. At Jerez the patchwork changed again, with Kawasaki disappearing, preferring to test in Japan, away from the prying eyes of the international press, Ducati and Ilmor returning to the fray, and Nicky Hayden taking his turn on the injury list, taking time off to have surgery on a shoulder injury exacerbated by the torpedoing administered at the hands of his team mate Dani Pedrosa in Estoril, and which had caused him problems in previous tests.
And rubbing salt into Hayden's surgical wounds, it was Pedrosa who set the pace at Jerez, breaking into the 1:39s on a qualifier on the last day of the test. Earlier, it had been Valentino Rossi who had led the way, leading on a cold and damp first day, and holding onto that advantage during the much better weather on day two. But on the last day, Rossi could only get within a quarter of a second of Pedrosa, with Marco Melandri 4/10ths behind Rossi. Judged solely by the timesheet, the Suzukis seemed to have lost their edge, finishing in 4th and 5th at Jerez. But the times set by Hopkins and Vermeulen were set on race tires, not qualifiers, unlike the three ahead of them, and put them in front of Shinya Nakano on the Michelin-shod Konica Minolta Honda, Colin Edwards on the other Yamaha, and Alex Barros on the d'Antin Ducati, transformed by the Bridgestones from grid filler to competitive tool. Behind Barros, it was the factory Ducati team's turn to struggle, as both Stoner and Capirossi battled with engine management software problems on the Ducati GP7.
So, now that testing has ended, what conclusions can we draw, most tentatively, from what we have seen so far?
The most striking thing has been the instant speed of the Suzukis. The GSV-R's handling has always been exceptional, but it seemed that Suzuki just couldn't make the 990's engine competitive. Like Aprilia, they started off on the wrong foot, throwing technology at the engine, instead of trying to make it ridable first and foremost, then worrying about power. With this history, few people were expecting Suzuki's 800 to be competitive from the off, if at all, Suzuki's prior approach being to make their solution overly complex, and then spend years trying to fix the problems they had built for themselves. So what many feared would be another season of midfield grind is starting to look like a year of genuine contention. Both Hopkins and Vermeulen are highly rated as riders, both have excellent corner speed, thought to be the key to 800 cc success, and both will be hungry. On current form, Suzuki looks like a real threat.
The other big surprise is that the Honda is looking pretty mediocre. It was Honda who pushed hardest for the switch to 800 cc, which the conspiracy theorists claimed was a plot by HRC, for all they had to do was lose a cylinder, and continue to race the bike they already had. But the times set so far have mostly put the Honda riders firmly in mid-pack, and Hayden, Elias and Melandri have all complained of a lack of power. Nicky Hayden, starting on the defense of his title, will really needs more out of the Honda if he is to retain his crown, but the bike just doesn't seem to want to work for him. Hayden's injured shoulder hasn't helped, but he is not setting the times on the RC212V he was hoping for.
To add yet more grist to the tinfoil hat brigade, there has been only one exception to the massed ranks of midfield Hondas, and that's the man said to be HRC's favorite son: Dani Pedrosa. Pedrosa has been impressively fast on the RC212V from the word go, heading the timesheets at both Valencia and Jerez, the only two sessions he's attended this winter. From the moment an eager public first laid eyes on the Honda 800, vicious tongues were whispering that the pint-sized bike had been designed solely and specifically for the equally pint-sized Pedrosa. The RC212V's 990cc predecessor was hardly the largest bike in the world, but the 800 looks as if it's been shoehorned into a 250 chassis. Pedrosa, at 5'3" and 112 lbs, sits perfectly aboard the RC212V, the tank fitting sweetly between his knees, where he seemed slightly dwarfed, having to stretch on the old 990. And with so little weight to carry, the extra drive Pedrosa gets out of corners is paying dividends. Already, both Rossi and Hayden have pronounced that the tiny Spaniard will be their main obstacle in the title race. Some of it is mind games, putting pressure on Pedrosa early, but the testing so far has demonstrated that they may need to use anything and everything they can to try and stop little Dani.
Of course, Honda isn't the only team which has failed to live up to expectations. MotoGP followers all thought that the Ducati 800cc GP7 bike's early appearance meant that Ducati could give them a serious advantage heading in to 2007. However, after starting the postseason in good form at Valencia, the Bologna-based team seem to have headed off in the wrong direction, with the software updates applied in Jerez turning out to be what are known in programming as "bug-for-bug releases", where the solution for a particular problem causes 15 other problems to spring up in its stead, like dragon's teeth. Based on the sound of the engine and the design of the exhaust system, Ducati seems to have switched back to a "screamer" engine configuration from a "big bang".
The advantage of the big bang is that the wider spaced power pulses allow the tire to recover and give better drive out of corners. But the big bang needs beefier crankshafts and primary gears to deal with so much power being unleashed in a fraction of a second, sapping top end power.
Enter the screamer. With power pulses more evenly spaced, power outputs can be higher, at the expense of drive. Fortunately for Ducati, engine management and traction control has come on in leaps and bounds over the past few years, meaning that electronics are getting better and better at compensating for the lost traction. With the GP7 already down 40-odd horsepower on the 990 bike, the screamer's increased top end must look very attractive to Ducati.
The problem is, they are running into the point where software theory runs into the solid brick wall of buggy practice, making finding a set-up that works an elusive and ever-shifting target. At Jerez, Alex Barros was faster on the d'Antin satellite Ducati than Stoner and Capirossi on the factory bikes, which could very well be down to Barros being on an older, less experimental bike than Stoner and Capirex. With the d'Antin bikes now on competitive Bridgestone rubber, rather than the Dunlops which left them languishing at the back of the field, and with a proven winner like Barros aboard, good times could be coming for d'Antin, and it could even get embarrassing for the factory bikes.
But pity poor Kawasaki. Where Honda and Ducati are ironing out niggles, Team Green are wandering in the wilderness. So far, slow lap times have been combined with technical problems, giving the impression of a team which is a very, very long way behind in their bike development. Possibly, Shinya Nakano had an inkling that this was happening, which is why he jumped ship to join Konica Minolta Honda, preferring a ride on a satellite Honda to a year among the back markers, fighting the Kawasaki.
At least the Kawasakis will be ahead of the Ilmor. The excitement of a new entry to MotoGP is starting to ebb, and the Ilmor SRT X3's deficit is getting more difficult to conceal. Consistently at least a second behind the nearest competition, Ilmor's woes were made worse at Jerez, with test rider Jeremy McWilliams crashing heavily and breaking a leg. And the riders have yet to be officially named, despite the list of candidates being pretty short, hinting at big problems behind the scenes. Perhaps the newly-appointed team manager, Mike Janes, will solve the problems, but observers are saying that bringing someone with experience in four wheel racing into a team coming from four wheel racing could see Ilmor falling into the trap that Aprilia and John Barnard fell into before them: Forgetting that bikes really are different.
And then, of course, there's The Doctor. So far, Valentino Rossi has run very near the front during testing, and is putting in monster numbers of laps on the new Yamaha 800. Rossi is determined not to repeat last year's mistake, where a lack of commitment during preseason testing (possibly resulting from his flirtation with Ferrari and F1) meant that Yamaha arrived at the first race of the season with major chatter problems, and spent the first half of the season trying to fix it, rather than concentrating on defending Rossi's title. That is not a mistake he would like to make again, but already rumors are rife that Rossi will switch to the WRC world rally championship at the end of the 2007 season, after he's wrapped up the MotoGP title. The rumors have some authority, as Rally racing is Rossi's second passion, and he did reasonably well in the New Zealand WRC rally. But no matter what his long term plans are, it seems unlikely that Rossi won't focus on two wheels over the winter, as he wants the title back. Badly.
To underline his determination to regain his title, Rossi has found an entertaining artistic and pseudo-historical device: Excalibur appears on the front of his Yamaha, an allusion to the legendary sword of King Arthur. Unfortunately, The Doctor is no Doctor of old English myth and legend: The image of Excalibur is a reference to the story of the young Arthur pulling the sword from the stone, and earning the title of King of the Britons. But in most versions of the tale, Excalibur is the sword given to Arthur by the Lady in the Lake, after the sword taken from the stone, the one which made Arthur king, is broken in a fight with King Pellinore. I'm sure that Valentino Rossi won't let a little literary inaccuracy get in his way, but I can't see anyone giving The Doctor anything this year. But we know his mettle; he has shown it time and again. Sword or no sword, Valentino Rossi intends to be crowned king once again.