The 2005 MotoGP season officially opened this past weekend with a three day test at Malaysia’s Sepang International Circuit. Yamaha, Honda, Suzuki, Ducati and Kawasaki came to Sepang to start their winter testing program and see whether the off-season has resulted in improvements to the bikes or a step backwards.
The first impressions offer a couple of surprises and some confirmations of what was predicted. First, as expected, Yamaha has come out strong. Both Rossi and Edwards have been near the top of the timing chart, whether testing suspension, tires, engine or suspension changes. With both Yamahas running so strong, the other teams better take notice because last season Rossi carried his pre-season speed into the first race and blitz’ed ‘em all.
The first of the surprises was Ducati’s return to the top of the timing charts. Capirossi has consistently been the fastest guy on track, showing that Ducati may have found the way out of their engine/chassis/tire quagmire of last season. However, with teammate Checa injured, its hard to tell yet if this is a drastic improvement in the bike or if its just Capirossi riding harder than anyone else.
The second big surprise was Biaggi’s competitiveness considering his lingering leg injury. Despite walking on crutches in the pits, Biaggi has turned in lap times in the top five and within half a second of Capirossi. This bodes well for Honda’s commitment to build their 2005 RC211V around Biaggi (no matter how much this decision has been questioned by everyone outside, uh, Biaggi’s living room) since it means Biaggi can start developing the bike now rather than having Gibernau handle development duties for this first test. This is undoubtedly bad for Gibernau and probably for all the other Honda riders since none of them seem to have the same riding style as Biaggi.
A third surprise was the fast lap times turned in on the first day by both Suzuki riders. While they are still down on speed compared to the other teams, at least they haven’t taken a step backwards after having tuning legend Erv Kanemoto leave to help Biaggi and Hayden at Repsol Honda. It seems that Suzuki’s development cycle is still moving to slow too keep up with the competition but they are still improving and the two riders can put in fast laps when taking advantage of the soft Bridgestone tires and the bike’s excellant handling.
The final surprise was to see Barros as the fastest Honda rider for both days. Barros does have the advantage of being on the same bike as last year, something only Gibernau can also look forward to, and that has probably allowed him to work on going faster rather than adapting to a new bike. Bayliss and Melandri have to figure out how to ride a Honda, Tamada has to learn the Michelin tires, Hayden and Biaggi have to test the new parts for the 2005 bike but I thought Gibernau would have been the one to come out swinging. We’ll see if Barros stays fastest at the end of day three, which is when everyone puts aside some of the component testing and goes after fast laps.
While not a surprise, it was sad to see that Kawasaki didn’t immediately make a mark with their test times. After Nakano’s spectacular rides in 2004, there was always the hope that the smallest of the Japanese manufacturers would make another quantum leap and jump up to the Honda/Yamaha level this season. Perhaps the next few test seasons will bring about that surprise.
Also not a surprise, but equally sad to see, is that Team KR Proton still don’t have funding or a rider in place and thus weren’t able to make this first test. These test sessions are probably more important for these little teams than for the big guys, so missing this test will pretty much crush any chance that the KTM powered Proton will have a snow ball’s chance in hell at being competitive.
And finally, not a surprise at all…both Melandri and Xaus have already crashed.
[image from Ducati web site.]