This is your early season wake-up call. Yes, in case you didn’t already know it, 2015 MotoGP testing began earlier today at Sepang. While I and many of you shivered over our porridge in Europe, Marc Márquez and the rest were turning sweaty laps in Malaysia’s tropical heat.
All the factories are there. This is the way it is nowadays, with the top teams almost always testing side by side to save costs. Money is saved, but secrecy is lost: riders can watch and learn from their rivals and engineers can spy on other machines while dissecting their lap times and split times to the nth degree. There are no secrets anymore.
It didn’t used to be like this. Back in the day, riders and teams would disappear on hush-hush private tests – we’re off to the beach, honest – to grind out endless laps, hunting out those elusive few tenths.
Alex Briggs, mechanic to Valentino Rossi and former spannerman to Mick Doohan, is one of many who misses those days.
“We used to go solo testing with Mick,” recalls Briggs. “We’d get a new set of cylinders from HRC and off we’d go for a few days testing somewhere. We’d get everything spot on and we’d turn up at the next race and ambush our rivals – whammo! You don’t get to do that anymore.”
Incidentally, Briggs started out as a bus mechanic, which he rates as the most important job of his career, because he had the lives of 80 people in his hands, not just one.
Briggs’ job this week will be to help Valentino Rossi close the gap on Honda. Not an easy job, since Honda has the best rider and the best bike. It also has the best test rider, which goes some way to explaining why it has the best bike.
Finding fast test riders is a huge problem in motorcycle racing, unlike in car racing, where drivers aren’t vital moveable ballast and don’t have physically different styles. Car people tell me that if you find a decent test driver, you can dial in your settings and the driver will get close to the mark and give decent feedback.
In bike racing, if you’re fast enough to race a MotoGP bike at the limit, you will have a contract to race in MotoGP. Currently, most of the factories use Japanese Superbike riders to test their MotoGP bikes. Most of these riders – like Katsuyuki Nakasuga, who finished second in the rain-hit 2012 Valencia GP – are around 1.5-2sec off the front-running pace, so they can only offer feedback of limited use, because a racing motorcycle behaves very differently at 1min 32sec and 1min 30.5sec. This causes problems for the factories, because testing with their top riders is restricted and there’s not enough time to test new stuff during race weekends.
That’s why HRC are so lucky to have Casey Stoner to test the RC213V. Shuhei Nakamoto must’ve cried blood when the Australian announced his retirement in May 2012, but now he knows full well how lucky he is to have Stoner testing for Marc Márquez and Dani Pedrosa. Last week, while the Spaniards were on their way to Bali for the Repsol Honda team launch, Stoner was riding around Sepang, testing revised front internals, engine mapping, engine-braking software and other bits and pieces. His expert feedback will save the team vital time, which can then be used to hunt down a few extra tenths to keep them one or two steps ahead of their rivals.
While Márquez sweats it out in Malaysia this week, British Superbike champion Shane Byrne is in Spain, hoping the weather is kind enough to allow him his first laps of the new year on his PBM Kawasaki ZX-10R. Last week Byrne was in London, where he was awarded the Torrens Trophy at the Royal Automobile Club. It’s not often that bike racers get to hang out in the salubrious environs of Pall Mall (where King Charles II’s favourite mistress Nell Gwynn used to reside) so it was good to see Byrne enjoying the plush do.
Stuart Higgs, Paul Bird, Byrne and John Mowatt
Byrne received the award for his brilliant ride to a fourth BSB title, no less than 11 years after he secured his first BSB crown. Previous winners include Barry Sheene, James Toseland and Tom Sykes.
I must declare an interest here. I sit on the five-strong Torrens committee, which also includes Steve Parrish. Quite a rum do, then.
Although the decision to give the 2014 Torrens to Byrne was unanimous, I was also quite keen on Michael Dunlop, whose speed and style on the roads is literally jaw-dropping to behold.
The Torrens is now the UK’s major motorcycling award, and the RAC wants to make it even bigger and better, with further awards linked to the big one. We may seek out young up-and-comers or industry successes to reward. Either way, it’s great that British motorcycling once again has a grand award to which to aspire.