Crutchlow on top as MotoGP testing ends


When someone once congratulated Eddie Lawson for being fastest in practice, the four-time 500 World Champion shrugged his shoulders and said “you don’t get points for practice”. He was right, of course, and it’s the same with testing: no points, no prize money, no nothing, save for a faint feeling of satisfaction.

Certainly, Cal Crutchlow must have left Jerez on Monday evening wearing a faint glimmer of a smile on his face after topping the final pre-season tests.

Sure, conditions weren’t ideal, with just a couple of hours of dry track time on the last day of the three-day session, but his lap time was good, two tenths inside the lap record, and on last year’s ‘bike, too. It put him a fraction ahead of factory Yamaha riders Valentino Rossi, one hundredths down on Crutchlow, and Jorge Lorenzo, another hundredth down, both of them on their 2013 YZR-M1s.

Crutchlow looked good at Jerez. He still has the burning aggression that makes him such a joy to watch, but he’s learned to smooth things out, which is what you need to make the Yamaha go absolutely as fast as it will go. That’s what Lorenzo does, which is why mantequilla (Spanish for butter, as in buttery smooth) is his MotoGP maxim.

Learning to ride more smoothly sounds easy to do, but it isn’t. All hell is breaking loose when you’re riding a race ‘bike at ten tenths. To see through the chaos of speed, horsepower, g-forces and everything else while staying serene would be entirely impossible for you, me and pretty much everyone else. Crutchlow has been working on finding that ability to smooth out the madness since he came to MotoGP in 2011, and it looks like he’s just about there.

Rossi and Lorenzo looked as smooth and inconspicuously fast as ever at Jerez. It’s weird seeing Rossi back in the Yamaha pit, where nothing seems to have changed since he walked out at the end of 2010. It’s like the garage had been preserved in aspic for his return: the people are the same, the colours are the same and the ‘bikes are the same (from the outside at least). You stand there in pitlane looking at all this, wondering is the last two years were just a dream you had last night.

Rossi led day two at Jerez and Dorna must’ve been hoping that things had stayed that way – Rossi on top would surely add some tens of millions to the TV ratings for the opening race at Qatar on April 7. But if Rossi’s best time was faster than that of his team-mate, his consistency wasn’t up there with Lorenzo. He will have to fight hard to make the podium at Qatar, because he’s got a young rookie called Marc Marquez and his team-mate Dani Pedrosa to deal with.

Marquez was sixth at Jerez, behind Stefan Bradl and six tenths down on Crutchlow, though I’m sure that’s not indicative of his true potential.

If I were a betting man I’d put some money on Marquez winning in Qatar, just for the sheer hell of it. The young man is phenomenally fast. To get an idea of his true potential, please refer to the earlier tests at Austin, a new track for everyone. Marquez bettered Lorenzo, Rossi and Pedrosa at the Texas venue. And consider this: Marquez has zero race miles on a MotoGP ‘bike. Between them the other three have ridden 417 premier-class races, which is around 30,000 racing miles.

Call him what you will – Marquez the Merciless, Marquez the Magical – he looked magnificent at Jerez: elbow on the ground at pretty much every corner, backside out of the seat every now and again. Might he be the first man since Max Biaggi and Jarno Saarinen to win his first race in the class of kings? Might he even be the first man since King Kenny Roberts to win the premier class title in his rookie year?

Remember Ducati’s rookie MotoGP season, a full 10 years ago? The factory’s Desmosedici won its first victory just six races into the year. The embattled factory won’t be doing that again in 2013, having horribly lost their way in recent years. Rather than listen to the usual complaints of Andrea Dovizioso and the other Ducatis at Jerez (“It won’t turn, it won’t turn”), I had a chat with Karel Abraham, who’s riding an Aprilia CRT bike after two mostly painful years on a Desmosedici. So how do the two ‘bikes – one, an immensely expensive handmade one-off prototype, the other, a much cheaper street/race hybrid – compare?

“The Aprilia’s engine is slower, but the chassis is better and it’s nice for me to ride a ‘bike that I can trust,” said Abraham, delighted that he no longer has to sling a leg over the fickle Ducati.

So how is the chassis better? “It’s better in braking, in corner entry, mid-corner and corner exit.” Ah, right. In every corner? “Yes, every corner.”

It’s a mystery how Ducati can spend so many millions and still get it so wrong, when a hotted-up streetbike can be so right.

Of course, there’s another thing you have to bear in mind with testing. Not only are there no points or prizes, but also (and please forgive me for stating the obvious) it’s not racing. Not everyone is trying to do the same thing: go absolutely as fast as possible. Some riders fit new tyres and run low fuel loads in the quest for a qualifying-style, one-off, ego-boosting lap time. Others (not many, though) don’t bother with that kind of thing. Rookie Bradley Smith – 13th overall at the tests – was one such man at Jerez.

His Tech 3 crew wouldn’t allow him the luxury of new tyres and low fuel load at the end of each day, because they wanted him to stay utterly focused on learning to ride has M1 fast, lap after lap, smoothing out his riding and working on a base setting that will work throughout a race, not just for one hot lap. There’s no doubt Tech 3 know best and Smith knows that, though he would have loved to have done an all-out lap at Jerez, “because it’d be good for my ego”.

The good thing for Smith and everyone else is that the racing – the real battle of egos – begins in less than two weeks time.

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