Former 500cc World Champion Wayne Gardner will be offering his GP insights on a regular basis to cyclenews.com readers and we're happy to have him. For more from the Wollongong Wonder, visit his website at www.waynegardnerapproved.com.au.SURPRISE PACKAGE
I have to admit to being a little surprised by the outstanding performance of Marco Simoncelli at last week's pre-season test at Sepang. Finishing the final day as the fastest rider is a pretty impressive achievement, especially considering he ended up in front of the three factory Repsol Hondas. Then again, maybe he's just finally clicking with it all. During the second half of last season Simoncelli really started to show some strong potential and steady improvement, and it looks like last week's effort is merely a continuation of that. It seems that he really understands how to ride the Honda now. Of course, it's always hard to read a lot into pre-season test times. They all depend very much on the time of day they were set, what the weather was like, what the track conditions were, and so on. That said, his lap times were impressive. Does this mean we can expect to see him running at the front this season? I'm still not sure. It's one thing to be fast for one lap. It's another thing entirely to be fast for 25. But he has got a few things going for him. The first is his riding style. He's very much modelled himself on Valentino Rossi and if he can perfect that he could well be a force. The second is his bike. Though technically a satellite rider, he is getting some help from the Honda factory and the machine he's on now isn't that much different to what Stoner, Pedrosa and Dovizioso are riding. If he manages to score some very strong results in the first few races, I believe Honda will definitely step up their level of support, maybe even with full works equipment. I think what we can say after looking at last week's lap times is that it's going to be a very close and exciting season. I think we can also say that there's also virtually nothing between Honda and Yamaha. In fact, it's maybe the closest they've ever been.
BEHIND THE TIMES
Although it pains me to say it, Valentino Rossi and Ducati will not win the World Championship this year. There's simply no chance. As evidenced by the tail-end performances of all the Ducati riders last week, the bike is just too far behind the eight ball. They are a long way behind Yamaha and Honda, maybe by as much as three years. They have a massive amount of work to do. It will take time and there will be no miracle cures. It's certainly not going to happen in time for the first race. Jerry Burgess has stated that Vale won't be fully fit until April and I think the bike really won't be ready until then, either.Still on the subject of Vale, he finished the test pretty much where I expected, although I did think he might have been a little higher up the order, to be honest. Having said that, it was the team's first real test and first true indication of where future bike development should head. If they've come away with a definite idea about this direction, then last week can be classed as a major success. Let's hope so. Once again, the ordinary lap times set by all the Ducati riders shows just how great Stoner was on that bike. He constantly rode it way above its potential and was able to achieve results the bike simply didn't deserve - especially last year. I can't help thinking that Ducati's problems are all of their own making. With Stoner's talents effectively masking the bike's inherent problems for a number of years, Ducati always seemed unwilling to listen to the complaints of its other riders. It's only now, with Vale on board, that they've been forced to take note and act.
This year's MotoGP World Championship will be between Casey Stoner and Jorge Lorenzo, and if I had to put money down right now, I'd have to favor Lorenzo. He's my choice at this point in time. He's consistent, he's blindingly fast, he hardly ever crashes, and he's coming off a successful championship year. If Stoner can just improve his consistency he could well be the one to come out on top, but I have a feeling the reigning champ will just shade him. As for Valentino, I think he'll definitely win races this year, but he'll have to wait until about the halfway point of the season before he's able to challenge.
BACK OF THE PACK
If Marco Simoncelli's time sheet-topping performance was the biggest surprise of last week's Sepang test, then the dismal effort of Honda rider and MotoGP returnee Toni Elias was the biggest disappointment. Finishing up last of the regulars and several seconds off the pace is seriously bad news for the reigning Moto2 champion and I'm quite stunned at just how awful he was. From his comments it seems as though he's struggling with the hardness of the Bridgestone tires and requires something a little less rigid. I can certainly understand what he's on about. When I was racing I actually preferred a fairly stiff feel to the bike and I remember the Michelins we used back then had a very stiff carcass. The problem is that while a stiff tire offers a lot of grip, when it lets go it tends to snap. On the other hand, a softer tire with a baggier feel that Elias seems to favor offers less grip but greater rider feedback. The bad news is that he's just going to have to deal with it. One way around his problems could be to talk with the suspension technicians to try and find a way of compensating by softening the feel of the actual bike. If not, then maybe Honda can help him out with a chassis variation that offers more softness. One thing's for sure: he needs to find a solution, and fast.