As the MotoGP paddock gathered its thoughts at the end of an intriguing opening test of 2014, the performance of the reigning world champion was the hot topic in the scorching heat of Sepang.
It wasn’t the fact that he topped the timesheets on each day, but more the manner in which he did it that showed this was a serious statement of intent to kick off the year’s track action.
Not only did he set the fastest ever MotoGP lap of the Malaysian venue, with a spellbinding 1.59.533, a final day long distance run of 19-laps rammed home his supremacy.
The message is clear. It is going to take something out of this world for him to be denied becoming the first rider to defend the premier class since Valentino Rossi in 2009.
Each lap of his long run was more than a second faster than Dani Pedrosa’s pace, when he dominated last October’s Malaysian round. And the final timesheets somewhat flattered the rest. Rossi was second and within 0.2s.
Marquez’s race pace though was so superior to Rossi’s that the Italian would have needed a Hubble Space Telescope to see him if this was a battle for 25-points.
That Rossi was second will warm the hearts of MotoGP fans around the world. He looks confident and feels confident, but the acid test will come when the season commences in Qatar on 23 March. Rossi is still seeking to improve his pace on brand new Bridgestone tyres and a full fuel load, which was a major factor in why he finished fourth in the same number of races factory Yamaha teammate Jorge Lorenzo won last season!
The test proved an old dog can still teach itself new tricks. A revamp to his riding style was stressing the tyres less, and there was a genuine belief that Rossi will pose a stronger challenge in 2014. That’s good news for all MotoGP fans, with Rossi’s decision on whether to race on or retire this season entirely based on his competitiveness. So far, so good I’d say.
The revelation of the test was undoubtedly Aleix Espargaro on the new FTR-Yamaha Open class bike. Effectively the factory spec engine and chassis package used by Cal Crutchlow at the end of last season, the bike can run more fuel, more engines and use softer tyres than the factory bikes.
Espargaro’s incredible fourth position immediately vindicated Dorna boss Carmelo Ezpeleta’s masterplan for the Open class. The ethos is simple. More competitive bikes available to non-factory teams at a more competitive price, to balance out the performance gap between independent and full factory teams.
Mission accomplished so far. Without wanting to diminish Espargaro’s outstanding performance though, I shall offer a quick word of caution.
The influence of extra soft tyres that Open class riders can use should not be underestimated for an outright lap time. Lorenzo calculates its value to be around 0.5 to 0.7s. Nor should the fact that with 24 litres, Espargaro’s FTR-Yamaha has none of the fuel consumption concerns that the factory prototypes have, which are restricted to just 20 litres.
Espargaro looks set for another giant-killing season and he was one of only four riders to break the two-minute barrier last week. When the other three are Marquez, Rossi and Lorenzo, you’re mixing in some pretty esteemed company and factory bosses may already be wondering how he has so far slipped under their radar.
Forward Racing meanwhile, which spent close to £350,000 to buy him out of an Aspar contract, must feel like they’ve got an instant return on their investment.
On paper, Espargaro’s eye-catching performance wouldn’t have made comfortable reading for Bradley Smith. Smith remains on the prototype Yamaha YZR-M1 at Tech 3, but the Oxfordshire rider is in better shape than his eighth position suggests. It’s an old cliché, but there are no points for testing and rather than run a soft tyre and low fuel load to put in a fast lap, he wanted to ensure that come race night in Qatar he is as best prepared as possible to focus on adapting himself and his bike to the new generation Bridgestone tyres.
Cal Crutchlow must have cast an envious glance over at Espargaro’s bike, as early life in the lion’s den at Ducati continues to be a problematic one. A new GP14 Desmosedici offered only minimal improvements and it was no great shock to see Crutchlow marooned outside of the top 10 and a massive 1.5s off the record-busting pace set by Marquez.
Crutchlow is standing at the bottom of a very steep mountain and the worry must be how long it is going to take to reach the summit.
New Ducati technical mastermind Gigi Dall’Igna has only been at the helm for three months and time is the biggest enemy in him leading an Italian renaissance. It could be one to two years before Ducati is even remotely close to threatening Honda and Yamaha’s domination.
Crutchlow is going to need the patience of a saint to see improvements filter out of Bologna. That’s easier said than done, as most people that live their lives at 200mph want everything yesterday.
Debate rages on about whether Ducati will move to the Open class, but for me it is a no-brainer. A factory entry in 2014 is subject to a freeze on engine development and serious testing constraints. Join the Open class and there is no engine freeze and unlimited testing. Development is essential for a factory playing catch-up from as far back as Ducati and entering the Open class is the only way Ducati can seriously experiment to improve.
And Crutchlow at least needs to see signs of some tangible progress before the brutally unforgiving Desmosedici sucks all of the motivation and confidence out of him, as we’ve seen in the past with the likes of Rossi, Dovizioso and Hayden.
If Crutchlow didn’t like being in 12th, then spare a thought for last year’s Silverstone hero Scott Redding. He was 21st and in danger of information overload at the conclusion to his first serious test on the new production Honda RCV1000R.
Redding is more out on a limb than any rookie I can recall in recent memory. The quartet on the production Honda, including vastly experienced duo Nicky Hayden and Hiroshi Aoyama, don’t share vital data. And Redding is the only one on Nissin brakes and Showa suspension. So he’s absolutely nothing to compare himself against.
It’s a steep and unforgiving learning curve in MotoGP, but Silverstone fans know more than any other that Redding’s got the talent to do it. Just cast your mind back to last year’s stunning Moto2 win in front of a record and raucous Silverstone crowd. He needs to look and learn this season and not get too demoralised by not being able to challenge where his talent level warrants. His time will come on a more competitive bike in the future.
I don’t normally give out advice because I tend not to be that good at it.
But I’ll break with tradition for once and urge you to make sure you get hold of a ticket for the British MotoGP round at Silverstone. With five British riders in MotoGP, including Leon Camier and Michael Laverty, and nine in total across all three classes, it’s the biggest British contingent I can recall in many a year. It’s the quality of our home-grown talent and not just the quantity too that gives all of us British MotoGP fans hope for a very bright future.
Enjoy the opening 11 races and see you at Silverstone in August.