With the first two winter tests of the 2005 MotoGP pre-season schedule completed, both at the 5.548km Sepang circuit, just what can we glean from the results of both Malaysian events, and just what should we read into the lap times and other information available from these unofficially timed tests?
It would seem that a lot of race fans out there hold these tests in high regard in relation to the ultimate lap times recorded, unofficial as they are and without depth--the depth you get from a Grand Prix meeting, anyway. The fans use these tests as a performance guide to the race meetings due to take place during the forthcoming season. It's the same every year, but is it rational to do so?
The times appear to be taken as gospel and predictions from the paying public are made, money is laid out and bar room bets are made. It's a sure thing, right? You can't lose; it's there in black and white from the journalists, the riders and from the upbeat press releases... or is it?
Well, as far as this season goes, aside from those punters tipping Rossi (always a good bet, it would seem), maybe your money is best left in that offshore account for the time being, certainly at this stage of the proceedings. I say this season but, to be fair, I say the same thing every pre-season. No points, no prizes and plenty of people being led up the garden path of blind faith. Oh, the cynical correspondent. It's called testing for a reason. It's not just a hot-lap shootout, and here's why:
Keep in mind that I'm not here to pour scorn on your personal opinion. Each to their own, of course. I'm here to whisper a few home truths in your ear. Yes, I did say truths, or as close to truths as I am allowed to divulge without burning my fingers at the source.
If you read the test times, listen to the PR people talk and even believe what certain riders are saying, what stands as gospel now (unofficial gospel) may not be the reality when the red lights go out and the multi-national grid streams toward Turn one at the seventeen circuits to be visited by the MotoGP circus this coming season.
For instance, does Tamada's hot lap (the fastest lap of this latest test), a 2:00.955, at Sepang on Sunday (February 13th, 2005) actually mean anything for the race meeting at Sepang in September--or in fact, for any of the races during 2005?
Does Loris Capirossi's fastest circulation of 2:00.54 on the Desmosedici GP-5--set on a qualifying tire--at the first Sepang test (25th January 2005), actually mean anything apart from daily bragging rights in the paddock or hotel lounge? Certainly in direct relation to race pace, as it's race pace that counts, not a one-off qualifying tire lap. It's not the be-all and end-all that some may believe it to be. Encouraging, yes; an absolute, no.
With no disrespect to Makoto or Loris, a session-ending fastest lap at a test doesn't invariably mean much aside from momentum building and confidence and, of course, being safe in the knowledge you are heading in the right direction with your own personal winter test program. Confidence in top-level sport is everything and as a competitor, finishing first is always the goal, be it at a test or a race meeting.
Mechanically speaking, for the factories, it's, of course, of utmost importance. All the data work completed is an important step in providing the contracted riders with a motorcycle quick enough to win on and of course, in turn, for the future development of your own project. But, for pure race pace and season-long competitiveness, these tests and the ultimate fastest lap time recorded at them is only a building block, not a cast iron guarantee of success.
The testing of evolutionary parts, new compounds of tires--indeed, everything on the winter schedule of assessment--is vital. Be it a sticky ?Q' tire, an electronics package, a new chassis or a refinement of a fuel injection system, it's all key to your season but not to the actual reality of an unofficial timing session fastest lap. Not in relation to what is to come from the first Grand Prix of the year under race conditions, anyway.
It does then beg a question, does it not? Will you be thinking about who topped the Sepang test timing sheets (either test) when you are watching the podium presentations at Jerez on April 10th or will you be looking at the depth chart for lap times at race pace?
You see, the one thing we don't get at these first tests on the whistle-stop tour of the pre-season testing facilities is official timing and, more importantly, the depth of knowledge we can get from the stacks of timing information made available to us from those wonderful people at Dorna at race meetings and at the official IRTA tests at the end of March (Barcelona and Jerez this year).
The IRTA tests, as with Grand Prix meetings, are timed officially. That means that the transponders on the motorcycles (compulsory at Grands Prix and at official tests) send an electronically guided signal to the timing monitors on every lap taken by every rider. Tire tests, race simulations, set-up data collection, engine tests--you name it--if you cross the point on the tarmac where the track sensors are buried, it sends that time, good or bad, to the sensor relay computer which, in turn, records that lap for all time. Whether you are situated in the press office, the pit-lane suites (at some tracks) in the garages or at home data-watching on the MotoGP site, every lap is there--your own depth chart. At the early winter tests, that isn't the case. Some riders, and indeed, some teams (Suzuki at this latest Sepang test) run with no transponders at all. The team records the time personally with no distribution unless, of course, a hot time is recorded. Then, we all hear about it. Max Biaggi is one rider famous for the removal of the transponder from his bike when it suits him.
Unless you have your sources at the tracks on the test schedule (thank you, Sepang sources) or are present to get a glimpse of the lap charts to see just who really is lapping the most consistently on race tires, then it's a game of guessing correctly or taking the times at face value. A dangerous occupation.
For instance, Tamada's hot lap at Sepang II was recorded on a new Michelin qualifying tire--one of five new 'Q' tire compounds tested by the Japan Italy Racing organization by their rider Tamada on his customer RC211V machine in the sweltering and oppressive conditions in Malaysia. The use of a qualifying tire was no secret. The press release told us this information but that isn't always the case. In fact it's rare these days to take an apparent edge off your "success" by admitting to such an act. That's the world of PR competition. It's a tough club to be a member of.
What we didn't see officially on a timing screen or in the press release or anywhere, for that matter, outside of the Konica Minolta team infrastructure, was a depth chart. A data acquisition schedule for all of Tamada's laps yesterday, indeed the entire three days of testing. Just what was the feisty Japanese rider's pace on the varying short and full distance (race distance) runs with varying compounds and constructions of the new 2005 Michelin race tires? We won't ever know--not 100%, anyway.
We have it from our source at Sepang that Tamada, in fact, came in eighth overall on race tires over the course of the entire test. The fastest rider, after a race simulation from all concerned, was Valentino Rossi on the Gauloises-sponsored Yamaha M1. This the case, apparently, even though, unofficially, Rossi's ultimate fastest lap of the test, a 2:01.275, left the Italian multiple Grand Prix World Champion in fourth spot overall on the timing sheets after three days (two days for Rossi after a Saturday illness).
Rossi, again from our source, although fighting a throat infection, would have "won" the race yesterday had it been for real, and with a margin of more than five seconds over the next "fastest" man on the day, Carlos Checa on-board the GP-5 Ducati. That's information from a solid race-pace, full-race-distance run at the Sepang facility.
Now, today I've seen Rossi's performance described as "okay" from a few corners of the racing fraternity--the Yamaha bid for 2005 described in some quarters as "needing more time to jell". I'd say not. Even Rossi's team-mate Colin Edwards II has been branded on some of the race fan forums as looking likely to struggle as his fastest time of the test overall left him down in ninth spot, depending on who's times you believe, of course. Well, according to our information, on race pace, after three days of heavy Michelin tire testing outweighed Colin's set-up data-collection program, the Texas Tornado would have finished the race in fifth spot ahead of both factory Hondas and a works Ducati and not that far back of Checa in second. Remember, it's still at a test and without the riders having their race faces on and the adrenaline pumping and development between now and that first race at Jerez.
It's not entirely cemented as 100% provable fact--as these things never are--but Colin, for example only, isn't as off-the-pace as some are suggesting after two winter tests. Indeed, and in reverse, on race pace only, some are not as fast as the ultimate timing sheets may state and it is race pace that counts come the Sunday (or Saturday at Assen and Qatar this season) of a race meeting.
Now, you also have to factor into your wager for championship glory in 2005 the fact that, so far, we have only been to Sepang twice. We have Phillip Island up next as a test facility for many and then some teams travel to Qatar to the Losail circuit before heading back to Europe for the IRTA tests. Kawasaki is not attending the Phillip Island tests and will be in action next at Jerez at the end of February. There will, however, be teams from Suzuki, HRC, Ducati and Yamaha testing at the Australian circuit situated overlooking the ocean this week, 17th - 19th February.
Phillip Island is an entirely different circuit from Sepang and a whole new approach is needed to get the best from the motorcycles. You will see different weather conditions, some teams with new parts again to test, new tires on hand to assess and some riders possibly not feeling particularly well after Sepang (the flu is prevalent, it would seem) and again the same scenario in Qatar, March 1st - 3rd, hopefully minus the ill health.
There are many variables to pencil in but one thing is for sure, the next time you study a list of unofficial times from your favourite correspondent or news outlet, without the aid of an in-depth lap chart, think on. A hot lap at a test, may or may not be on a qualifying tire, isn't gospel and does not automatically ensure season-long competitiveness or a solid push for the MotoGP world title.
Looking deeper into things may give you a better chance of taking the bookmaker's money this year. Maybe Alex Barros would be an outside bet worth having or maybe Colin Edwards II. The truth is out there, folks, but not in a list of unofficial testing times. It's your choice, of course, and may the best man win, fast test time or not.
Although, is anybody actually betting against Rossi this year?