The phoney war is over. It ended with final honours going to the rider who opened proceedings earlier this year at Sepang.
World Champion Jorge Lorenzo was a full half-second ahead after three days of testing at the Qatar circuit of Losail, where the season begins in less than two weeks.
It rounded off an almost perfect start to 2016 for the Movistar Yamaha rider. Team-mate and defeated 2015 title rival Valentino Rossi was not far behind Mr Perfect’s benchmark. But he was behind …
Even more so, the Repsol Honda challengers. Marc Marquez did come close, ending up fourth overall. It was only at the last gasp, and perhaps just in time, as he smilingly said that at last he’d adapted both the bike and his riding style so he could begin to “ride as I like”.
With Dani Pedrosa a glum tenth overall, all three tests had been difficult for Honda, having obvious problems adapting especially to the new control software. But it is only testing.
Early signs were good, for a season with more potential winners and rostrum contenders than usual – the intended pay-off for the somewhat downgraded control electronics package. Several satellite riders showed well again at this final test.
Second-fastest overall was a seemingly reborn Scott Redding, whose switch from Honda to an Octo Pramac Ducati is clearly paying early dividends; while Avintia Ducati’s Hector Barbera also ran strongly at all three tests. It was the first time Redding had two bikes at his disposal.
The biggest impression, however, came from last year’s underdog Suzuki GSX-RR, and ever-impressive Maverick Vinales, tipped by some as the next Marquez. Fastest at the previous weather-hit Australian tests, the ex-Moto3 champion headed the time-sheets on the middle of three days at Losail, and ended up narrowly third overall, ahead of Marquez, Rossi and Andrea Iannone, finally the top Ducati as the factory squad polish their evolutionary GP16.
Lorenzo’s 1’54.810 was less than a tenth off his 2015 qualifying time, although seven tenths off Dovizioso’s pole. Redding’s best was 1’55.325; but the next second took in another 13 riders, separated by little more than notional margins.
But these are early days, as everybody adapts to major technical changes: firstly the electronics; and secondly the switch to Michelin tyres. Good lap times and improving rider confidence after a slightly shaky start were an impressive showing for the French manufacturers after seven years away. But there were a number of crashes claiming big-name victims. Tyre development is inevitably at a fairly early stage, and there are many questions to be answered.
One concerns performance over full race distance. A number of race simulations were encouraging; but the heat of battle might be different.
For Rossi, this factor combines with the electronics to make for a difficult season, which might favour his depth of experience and ability to adapt to changing circumstances.
When the tyres start to go down, he explained, the lack of electronic sophistication gives the rider a more complicated task. For the first four or five laps, “you don’t feel the difference,” he said. “But after, you do. The races will become more difficult for the riders. You have to play more with the bike.”
At this early stage, all this seems to favour the Yamahas. Rossi had already decided to abandon the new 2016 chassis, distinguished by a rear-mounted fuel tank, in favour of a 2015/16 hybrid. At Qatar Lorenzo followed suit. It meant they could concentrate on preparing for the first race, while others were still casting around.
Honda had a difficult start, but caught up significantly by the end; Ducati made steady progress, and finished up outranking the best of their satellite riders for the first time this year. Iannone was reliably faster than Andrea Dovizioso, although in the end only by two tenths and two places. They were sixth and eighth.
Between them, Cal Crutchlow – top satellite Honda on the LCR bike, and a couple of tenths clear of Pedrosa’s factory bike.The Englishman had an upgraded engine for the test, but was searching for confidence in the front end, crashing heavily on the last day.
Barbera placed top satellite Ducati again, ahead of Pedrosa; then Pol Espargaro this time the better of the Monster Yamaha pair, with Bradley Smith two places lower but less than two tenths slower. The satellite riders are on last year’s bike.
Yonny Hernandez was between them on the Aspar Duke; Loris Baz (Avintia Ducati) behind. Then Aleix Espargaro (Ecstar Suzuki); troubled by not only a number of crashes, but also the psychological difficulty of ultra-fast team-mate Vinales.
Espargaro was the last rider within a second of Redding: then came Michele Pirro, subbing for the injured Petrucci in the Pramac Ducati team; then Tito Rabat (EG VDS Honda), the only rookie in the class.
At the rear, both Aprilia – Bautista 18th and Bradl 21st (see separate News story); with Jack Miller (EG-VDS Honda) and Eugene Laverty (Aspar Ducati) between.
Miller was feeling the effects of his double leg break more at the right-handed Losail than reverse-direction Phillip Island.
At the bottom, factory test riders Hiro Aoyama for Honda and Takuya Tsuda for Suzuki. The latter was testing Suzuki’s seamless-shift gearbox (see separate News story); and both had the task of track-cleaning, as the regular riders waited for the temperature to drop. Although the track was open from 4pm to 11, all real testing was done in a window after sunset at around six, and before the dew settled an hour or so before close-down.
Miller telling us how it feels to put pressure on that broken leg!
MOTO2/MOTO3 Tests – Jerez
Fine early spring conditions greeted the smaller classes as they met for the first time in official group tests, where Moto2 records tumbled, and Axel Pons emerged as a surprise overall leader.
The son of 250 double champion Sito was at the head of a gang of 12 Kalex riders: the first non-Kalex chassis was Simone Corsi’s official Speed Up in 13th, more than 1.2 seconds away.
Even further down, 14th fastest and 1.2 seconds off the pace, Johann Zarco. The Ajo team rider has stayed on, trying to become the first Moto2 champion to defend his title successfully. The Frenchman was typically unflustered, and pronounced himself satisfied with testing progress.
Pons was fast throughout, and his Day Two one-lap flyer of 1’41.730 put him 0.345 ahead of the pack. Margins from then were much smaller.
Ex-Speed Up rider Sam Lowes was at the head, and even more cheerful than usual as he enjoyed the switch to Kalex with the Gresini Team. “I’ve got everything I need to win the World Championship,” he glowed.
Zarco apart, the usual suspects were up in the top group: rising star Lorenzo Baldassari (Forward) third, narrowly ahead of title candidate Alex Rins (Paginas Amarillas); then Swiss veterans Thomas Luthi and Dominque Aegerter (both Interwetten).
Taka Nakagami, Jonas Folger, Sandro Cortese and Marcel Schrotter (also switched to Kalex) completed the top ten.
Moto3 champion Danny Kent made a flying start, placing 12th, within a second of the top. Fellow class rookie and Leopard Racing team-mate Miguel Oliveira was 23rd.
Moto3 times did not challenge the record books, but also threw up at least one surprise.
Spanish CEV champion of 2015 Nicolo Bulega made a blazing debut, topping the time sheets on two out of three days on his Sky VR46 KTM, and ending up third overall. Bulega is filling the role held last year by under-aged Fabio Quartararo, then double CEV champion.
His team-mate Romano Fenati emerged at the top overall on a Day 2 time of 1’46.55, just under Brad Binder’s race record – last year’s fastest lap, but still three tenths short of Jack Miller’s 2014 best time.
With the rival marques taking alternate places all the way to eighth, EG Honda’s Jorge Navarro was second overall, just six hundredths adrift; and Ongetta Rivacold Honda rider Niccolo Antonelli a close fourth.
Then Binder’s Red Bull KTM, Enea Bastianini’s Gresini Honda; top rookie Joan Mir (Leopard KTM) and Livio Loi (RW Honda); before top Mahindra rider Jorge Martin, ninth on the Aspar bike, 0.449 down.
Quartararo, also switched from Honda to KTM, was 12th.
Moto 2 and 3 have three more testing days at Qatar, from March 11 to 13, before the first race.