It had all looked fairly straightforward so far in the 2012 preseason: Honda fastest, Stoner picking up from where he left off and the rest making steady steps forward in the race to be ready for Qatar and beyond.
It was almost the same script in Sepang last week - but not quite. The first cracks appear to be showing in the Honda 1000cc project whilst Yamaha edge closer to becoming the best bike on the grid — or at least that which the top factory riders feel most comfortable taking out for an extended spin.
Looking at the timesheets, the Stoner-Pedrosa one-two remained the same, although the reigning World Champion does like to make analysis difficult. Never one to stay out on track any longer than required after pinpointing a difference in setting, at no point did Stoner ride more than four laps in a single stint. That said, those laps that he did put down were almost invariably quicker than 2:02.
Pedrosa (pictured) was similarly frugal in his laps and slightly slower, meaning that neither of the Repsol Honda riders have undertaken a race simulation. Stoner doesn't like them, citing a lack of useful information to be garnered from long stints, but it also serves to hide any direct comparisons with Jorge Lorenzo after the Spaniard's eye-opening run on the Thursday.
Take Andrea Dovizioso's position on the timesheet out of the equation (his quickest lap was a sprint at the end of the test) and you have Lorenzo close behind Stoner and Pedrosa. One thing that can be said about the 2010 champ is that he always pushes to the limit, giving a good idea of where the Yamaha M1 is at in its development process.
One lap fewer than race distance, Lorenzo's nineteen times around the Sepang circuit gave food for thought in terms of consistency as well as speed. Want pace? He went above the 2:02 barrier just three times, on Bridgestone tyres which are also in need of development to avoid premature degradation.
Yamaha and Ducati had more room for improvement after the Valencia test, so it was to be expected that times would be closer at some point before the season opener. Yamaha may not quite manage to nudge Stoner off the top spot at the Jerez official test, but there is reason for concern.
HRC still haven't worked out exactly how to spread the extra 4kgs -required by a last minute regulation change- around the RC213V. That will be a question of trial and error for both factory riders, bearing in mind their styles and slightly different body shapes.
They've also had engine issues which are the biggest worry for any Honda project. Having to sit out the second day of a test due to a faulty motor, even as a precautionary measure, is unthinkable for Honda. When was the last time anything like that occurred? It is almost unprecedented.
Hondas are traditionally built around the most powerful engine available, sometimes at the expense of the chassis. Compare that to Yamaha's chassis-based philosophy and it's a matter of approach, but becomes serious when the seeds of doubt are sown in the engineers' minds. The standard/pneumatic valve saga of the 2007 RC213V is a classic example.
So, HRC have a persistent chattering problem, an engine worry, around 30 per cent less budget with which to address both issues and a Yamaha resurgence to withstand. For the moment, they are still one step ahead of the rest.
- Sports & Recreation