MotoGP fans who have been following the results of winter testing will have noticed the reversal of fortune that occurred at this week’s three-day test in Phillip Island, Australia. In Jerez, back at the end of November, the Suzukis were near the top of the timesheets (Vermeulen fourth-quickest and Hopkins fifth), and after the winter break they came out swinging, topping the timesheets at the last test in Sepang. However, despite both riders being quite comfortable on the Phillip Island circuit, the Suzuki team was unable to continue their streak of chart-topping speed at this week’s Australian test, with Ducatis and Hondas running the show while Vermeulen and Hopkins were relegated to 9th and 11th, respectively.
The quick turnaround in running order, and the sudden surge of speed from the Ducatis and Hondas (Hayden and Pedrosa are in the #1 and #2 spots, respectively, with all four Ducatis closely following) is a graphic illustration of the relentless pace of development surrounding the still relatively new 800cc MotoGP machines. The fact that all four Ducati riders (Capirossi and Stoner on the Marlboro-backed factory squad, and Hoffman and Barros on the Pramac d’Antin customer bikes) are grouped together so closely makes it seem quite likely that all four Ducatis are the same spec at this point. Ducati’s performance, together with the jump to the front of the pack made by both factory Hondas doesn’t necessarily imply the Suzukis got slower – some of the other teams just suddenly got significantly faster.
If this tells us anything, it is that the pre-season situation is even more fluid than usual. We’ve always said that pre-season testing times aren’t an accurate gauge of how things will shake out once the racing gets started, but they can sometimes provide at least a hint of how well a particular tire/bike combo is dialed in for the specific track being tested at. In this case, though, these rapid changes in the configuration of each brand’s racing machines will continue right up to the first day of racing and then throughout the season, with new parts coming at a much quicker pace than they did last year during the final competitive season on the 990cc bikes. Suzuki could just as easily leapfrog their machines back past the other brands, Honda and Ducati could make bigger jumps to stay out front, or Yamaha could pass everyone up (Valentino Rossi and Colin Edwards did not attend the Phillip Island test, but were among the quickest at the previous Jerez and Sepang tests, and will be back for the upcoming return to Sepang). We’re likely to see the different manufacturers continue to swap spots at the upcoming tests in Sepang, Qatar, and Jerez.
The only clear trend we can deduce from these time charts is that, with the 800cc machines still so early in their developement cycle, what the riders are being given by their respective factories is making a bigger difference than usual, which is demonstrated by the ‘clumping’ together of particular brands on the timesheets. The engineers and test riders back at the factories are working overtime for the advantage that will put their riders out front when the season kicks off in just over a month’s time at Qatar (February 10). We’ll have to wait until then to see how things shake out, and if the pace of developement keeps fresh faces at the front. We hope so, as that means plenty of different riders on the podium and a close race for the championship – all the makings of an exciting season!