Photo Courtesy of Honda Pro Images
SEPANG, MALAYSIA, FEB 1 - The 2012 MotoGP winter testing season is looking a lot like the 2011 season, with Honda dominating every day, though at a slightly slower pace. How can that be? The 800s that were raced in 2011 were at the peak of their development after having been introduced four years earlier; the 1000s that replaced them are at the start of their development lives. And it's going to take a test or two for the riders to get the most out of them.
Repsol Honda's Casey Stoner is doing his part. A day after he was immobilized by a balky back, the reigning World Champion blitzed the field. His lap time of 2:00.895 was faster than his best official lap from the GP, but slower than a time he threw down at the end of last year's testing season here in Sepang. The fact that he did it on a morning when he wasn't sure he could ride, and after sitting out the first day, makes it that much more impressive. And now that he's up to speed, look for him to continue to dominate on Thursday - the final day of the three-day test that opened the winter testing season.
"Everything's gone pretty well for us today," Stoner said. "I wouldn't have done as many laps as I'd like to do, and, believe it or not, yeah, I would like to do some more laps today. But, yeah, we're pretty happy with everything we did."
Stoner spent the day doing a back-to-back test of the latest version of the RC213V that he last rode in the post-Valencia test.
"We've got some good direction on what we want to do and where we want to go," he said. "Unfortunately, we'd like to take some good things with one and put it with the other, as usual. But no, we at least found a direction we wanted to go. We've just got to reduce one of the problems that we had with one."
The problem is front-end chatter, brought on, Stoner believes, by the newest generation of control Bridgestone tires - mostly the new rear with the softer casing.
"I've been all day just basically comparing between the two," he said. "Then we used the harder front tire this afternoon and found that we had a lot more chattering with that, so we tried to reduce that a little bit in the chassis that we preferred. And we improved it a little bit, but by no means enough. If we go to a track like the Czech Republic in Brno, the chattering's normally a lot worse there, so I think we can have some more problems. If we can reduce it enough here then we should be okay for the rest of the season. But this has given us a good indication if we can do anything with it or not."
What Stoner couldn't do anything with was his back, at least a day earlier. A day later he was "extremely worried even this morning waking up whether I could ride again at all. So, [his masseuse] did a great job and the tablets I was able to take at least took the big edge off it, so I can get on the bike and then when you push it through what it actually wants you to do it's sort of a little easier to deal with through the rest of the day."
Though he had the fastest time, when the day ended it wasn't Stoner's name atop the time charts. The name on top was Yamaha's Ben Spies and his lap time was more than 2.5 seconds faster than the rest - and faster than anyone had ever gone around Sepang. In fact it was a mistake, which took a few riders by surprise.
"I was very worried, because he make this lap time from the pit. So I say, f---," Ducati Marlboro's Valentino Rossi said, "if he's on a flying lap. No, I understand it is a bit too fast here."
Laughed Spies, "That was just... I don't know how that came up. I was laughing about it pretty hard. I don't think it scared too many people."
What may have scared them, or at least caused them to take notice, was that Spies was second fastest to Stoner at a gap of .157 of a second.
"We got going pretty good in the morning," the Texan said after turning his best lap on the 14th of 37. "We were going good even when the track slowed down [because of the afternoon heat]. The lap time was slower, but the pace was still good.
"We just really concentrated on starting to mess with the balance of the bike a little bit and get a direction that way and start playing around with the electronics a little bit and more kinda get a real good foundation with the bike, because we haven't really done that since Valencia. At Valencia we compared some stuff and got in the right direction and came here and got up to speed yesterday and didn't change anything. And today was more or less just kinda messing with the bike and see what the things, changing things, what it does to the bike. Because the 800 and 1000 react different, to different changes. So that's what we did today and also played with the electronics a bit."
Yamaha's Jorge Lorenzo dropped to third after being fastest on Tuesday, with Repsol Honda's Dani Pedrosa also dropping two spots, from second to fourth. Next came Monster Yamaha Tech 3's Cal Crutchlow and the first Ducati of Pramac's Hector Barbera. Ducati Marlboro's Valentino Rossi was seventh fastest - he'd been fifth on Tuesday - and the gap to the top increased from .735 of a second to .991 of a second.
Still, the encouragement he took from the first day continued on day two, despite what appeared to be some backsliding.
"So, is anyway a good day. It's positive," Rossi said. "I'm quite happy, because we make a step compared to yesterday and our target for today is try to go in 2:01 and I was able. I make three, four lap in 2:01. Yeah, you know the position is worse than yesterday and also the distance from the first position is one or two-tenths more, but is a little bit what we expect if we are positive, because we know that Honda, Yamaha are very fast. Is already one year that they try the bike. Our bike is brand new. The four riders of the other factory teams are very strong, so the work is difficult. But we have to wait tomorrow. Tomorrow will be another important day where I can try to push more, try to make the best lap time try to understand the distance with the other guys. I hope to improve my lap times and to if I stay at less than one second from top, I'm happy."
Not happy today was his teammate Nicky Hayden. The Kentuckian felt fine when he first went out and went faster on his second flying lap. Then he lost strength in his shoulder, which affected his riding.
"I'm okay under braking because I can lock my shoulder out, but when the bike shakes I don't have enough strength to hold on," he said. "I didn't want to crash and cause bigger problems, so I just decided to chill out. It's a bit of a bummer, but that's how it goes sometimes. They've done a great job with the new bike, and you can see just from looking at it that it's really slick. I just wish I could ride it closer to the edge and really see what it does and how it reacts to changes. Maybe I'll do a few more exits tomorrow, but that's about it."