For the second time in the month of February, the best motorcycle road racers in the world were in Sepang, Malaysia with the goal of refining their prototype machines in preparation for the start of the 2013 season on April 7 in Qatar.
Unfortunately for everyone involved, the weather gods did not cooperate as agreeably as they did in the first test just three weeks before.
The sky was overcast but the air free of rain drops when the riders took to the track on Tuesday February 26, the opening day of the test. Sadly, rain had fallen periodically over the previous two days and the track surface displayed the dirty, greasy characteristics one would expect to find after significant precipitation.
Despite those less-than-ideal conditions, Dani Pedrosa picked up right where he left off at the first Sepang winter test as he led the session with a best lap time of 2:01.580. It marked the fourth successive session in which Pedrosa established himself as the pace setter.
Perhaps most disconcerting for his competitors, Pedrosa posted three other lap times that all would have been good enough to put him atop the time sheet.
Pedrosa's Repsol Honda teammate, Marc Marquez, continued his impressive rookie-campaign by finishing third, just .362 seconds behind the leader.
Reigning world champion and factory Yamaha lead rider Jorge Lorenzo once again played second fiddle to Pedrosa, a position he occupied in all three sessions of the first Sepang test. He finished the opening session .235 seconds off the pace.
The most surprising development of the day was LCR Honda's Stefan Bradl who finished in fourth place.
Typically low-key, the German rider offered this understatement when asked about a session in which he finished ahead of Valentino Rossi and Cal Crutchlow (per motogp.com): "By the end of our running we had found ourselves in a good position, so that was good."
Speaking of the nine-time world champion, Rossi had the most frustrating day of any factory rider. An unspecified "electrical fault" confined his 2013-spec M1 to the garage for the entirety of the morning session and forced him to use the 2012 machine. Before he could get the 2013 M1 out on track in the afternoon, the skies opened up and didn't cease releasing their burden until it was too late—any chance of more dry track time on Tuesday had vanished. Rossi finished the session in a disappointing fifth place, but still only .448 behind the leader.
Wednesday, the second day of the test, brought with it a full eight hours of dry track time and a surprising improvement from the factory Ducati team.
Nicky Hayden completed 69 laps, more than the distance of three races, and his teammate Andrea Dovizioso completed 49 laps. Both riders posted their fastest times of the year—Hayden with a 2:01.778 and Dovizioso with a 2:01.803, good for eighth and ninth place, respectively.
Hayden summed up the improvement (per Crash.net): “The good weather helped us to do a full day, and although it wasn't easy, we did a good step. We tried some things with the fork that really helped smooth out the bumps, and I had improved feeling and much better consistency."
Rossi's fortunes were very nearly the opposite of his former team's on day two. He experienced another technical problem with his M1 in the morning and finished the day in fifth place again, but his time was .783 seconds behind the leader—bringing to mind the ill luck Ben Spies experienced throughout the 2012 season on Yamaha's second factory bike.
The stars of the day were Lorenzo and Crutchlow.
Lorenzo was the first man to beat Pedrosa in 2013 with a scorching lap of 2:00.282—still not as fast as Pedrosa's 2:00.100 in the third session of the previous test, but impressive nonetheless.
Crutchlow managed a third-place finish, ahead of Marquez and Rossi, with a time of 2:00.907. Afterwards, he was pragmatic in his assessment of his impressive day (per MotorcycleNews.com):
I'm happy with my pace because we've tried a couple of different settings and we need to work on fine-tuning the best one. The main goal has been trying to stop the front of the bike lifting so much when I change direction on the throttle. The bike feels quite heavy so we need to reduce how much the fork comes up without sacrificing too much in another area like the braking.
I'm sure if I had put in some new tyres at the start of the day I could have gone faster. But I waited to use mine around lunch and I still went faster, even though the track temperature was much higher at that point. I'm not really too concerned about the times though. I'm just concentrating on making the package we have got better for the first race in Qatar.
The morning session of the third and final day, if nothing else, gave the riders a chance to test their wet setup. Marquez, aggressive to a fault, went down on the wet track, but it was only a minor tumble and he was able to walk away unscathed.
Once the track dried out in the afternoon, the Repsol Honda duo solidified their standing as the strongest team.
Pedrosa led the session with a best lap of 2:00.562, and, though it was only a preseason test, Marquez finished in second place for the first time in the premier class—only .081 seconds behind his teammate.
Pedrosa expressed his satisfaction with the three-day test (per TheCheckeredFlag.co.uk):
“This morning we were able to try out the wet weather setup; it was only for a short time, but nevertheless we were able to put in some laps with it. In the afternoon, with the track dry and with slicks, we continued working on suspension settings. Overall, it’s been a positive three days. Now we’re off to Austin, and this is going to be an interesting test for the team and for myself. We’ve never ridden there and it’s a new track”.
Rossi's struggles continued on the third day.
This time, instead of an electrical problem, it was the M1's brakes that betrayed him (per Crash.net): "Today it was the brakes - we lost time modifying the setting because the bike didn't stop and then after one and a half hours we understand that the problem was the brakes. The system lost pressure. So we were unlucky."
Unlucky? Yes, absolutely. But, that Rossi still managed to finish just .070 seconds behind Lorenzo indicates that once he becomes better acclimated with the M1, Rossi will be fighting with Pedrosa, Lorenzo and Marquez for race wins. Unless, of course, Ben Spies' old bike continues its pernicious ways.
Spies himself continued the struggle of returning to full fitness following offseason shoulder surgery.
He finished day three in 14th place behind Randy DePuniet (who rides a CRT machine) and Ducati test rider Michele Pirro. 2013, at least initially, is shaping up to be a long, arduous trek toward competitiveness for Ben Spies.
Two riders who left Sepang under more positive circumstances were Stefan Bradl, whose LCR Honda is now "factory supported," and Alvaro Bautista.
After his impressive day-one performance, Bradl finished both of the subsequent sessions in seventh place, and was happy to be there. He is still getting to know his newly factory-supported machine, and believes it has more to give (per TheCheckeredFlag.co.uk):
It has been another productive test for us! We still have to improve few tenths of a second but we did anyway good progress with the new bike. We found some interesting front suspension settings, which allowed us to increase the front tyre feeling and some new traction control map gaining a bit more drive in the corner exits. I am looking forward to discover the new circuit in Texas and continue our bike development!
Bautista was equally upbeat after finishing fifth in the final session, only .016 seconds behind Rossi.
His Go & Fun Honda Gresini is the lone prototype machine using Showa suspension—the rest choosing Ohlins—and it has been postulated that Honda, who owns a controlling interest in Showa, was forcing the suspension components on the Spanish rider's machine.
Whether they are or not, it appears the Showa suspension is up to the task of competing with Ohlins.
After the test, Bautista gushed about his machine (per thecheckeredflag.co.uk):
I am delighted. Things couldn’t have gone much better than they did today. This has been an extremely useful and positive test for us. Now we know we have the tools to fight at the front but more importantly we have gained an understanding of the changes we need to make in order to make swift improvements to the set-up. My feeling with the bike was really good today. There were already some positive signs yesterday and we were able to confirm them today. I can’t wait to get back on track because I am having a lot of fun with this bike at the moment.
With Bautista, Bradl and Crutchlow all showing the pace to fight for the podium, and, of course, Rossi's presence atop a competitive machine and newcomer Marquez's tenacious style and blisteringly fast pace, it appears 2013 may be the most competitive MotoGP season in a very long time.