The 2012 MotoGP World Championship officially gets underway this weekend but the teams have had their eyes on Qatar since the falling of the chequered flag in Valencia last November. 24 hours after Casey Stoner's dramatic victory, the teams swapped their 800cc machines to the 1000cc monsters which will light up the Losail circuit in a matter of days.
Repsol Honda got straight down to business on the opening day of testing with a dominant 1-2, led by Dani Pedrosa. Yamaha stressed to everyone that they weren't chasing lap times and that was just as well, as they trailed by a full second. With the finger injury sustained at Phillip Island still troubling Jorge Lorenzo, Ben Spies was asked to spearhead Yamaha's testing programme and the American halved the deficit on day two before declaring there was “lots of potential” in the YZR-M1.
Valentino Rossi was pinning his title hopes on a major step forward from the Ducati GP12 but in November, it wasn't immediately noticeable. 'The Doctor' was keen to point out that the bike wasn't the finished article and a busy winter lied ahead for the Italian squad. BQR were the only CRT entrants to make the Valencia test and the near-five-second gap to the leaders illustrated the hard work that awaited the Spanish team in the new year.
When testing resumed in Malaysia in late January, the newly-named Avintia Racing had been joined by NGM Mobile Forward Racing, another Claiming Rules Team. Colin Edwards was charged with the task of riding the Suter-BMW and the experienced American comfortably outpaced Jordi Torres and Ivan Silva of Blusens, although none of them lit up the timesheets.
That was left to Jorge Lorenzo who marked his return with the fastest time on day one, four tenths quicker than Dani Pedrosa while Cal Crutchlow finished a superb third for Tech 3. The opening day was also notable for the debut of Alvaro Bautista on the 2012-spec Honda. Emotions ran high with the Italian team who hadn't taken to the Sepang circuit since Marco Simoncelli's tragic death in October and Bautista took 'his bike' to ninth place.
Casey Stoner was conspicuous by his absence on day one after a strained back muscle left him on the sidelines but the World Champion bounced back to beat the Yamahas 24 hours later. His advantage was small though from the Yamahas while Ducati also got two bikes within a second of the pace. They probably hadn't expected Hector Barbera's Pramac bike to be the one leading the challenge but that proved to be the case as the Spaniard edged out Valentino Rossi for sixth.
Testing is all about ironing out issues and Repsol Honda were starting to get on top of theirs by the third and final day in Malaysia. Stoner had complained of chatter problems but by the end of the test, he declared himself happy, mind you, a 1:59.607 probably lightened his mood, especially given the half-second gap back to Lorenzo in second. Pedrosa and Spies followed their teammates in third and fourth with Rossi and Barbera closely matched again on the fringes of the top six.
A fascinating battle was emerging at Tech 3 between Cal Crutchlow and new teammate Andrea Dovizioso. Just a tenth separated them at the end of the test although the Briton maintained the advantage, could he keep his nose in front four weeks on when MotoGP returned to Malaysia?
We wouldn't get a true indication as rain wiped out almost half of the entire test in late February, the afternoon of days one and two were completely washed out. In the little dry running that did take place, Yamaha dominated with the factory boys one and two, followed by the Tech 3 teammates. Honda were unable to challenge them after an engine problem on Pedrosa's bike forced the manufacturer to withdraw all of its riders for the day while the issue was investigated.
Once the problem was resolved, normal service was resumed as Stoner and Pedrosa topped the timesheets. The man most relieved to gain some dry-weather mileage was Stefan Bradl whose preparations for the 2012 campaign continued apace. The Moto2 champion will race for LCR Honda in the upcoming season after replacing Toni Elias and the German turned heads in Malaysia by outpacing the factory Ducatis. What that meant for the men in red was another matter altogether. Valentino Rossi made it clear as he left Asia that Ducati were not where they wanted to be as front-end problems continued to plague them. Despite seeing Nicky Hayden go fastest on a rain-affected second day at the final test, they still seem to have a lengthy list of remedies that need trying out.
The final day at Jerez came down to a head-to-head between Honda and Yamaha, a possible preview for this weekend's Qatar Grand Prix. Jorge Lorenzo was on top for almost the entire day while Stoner's consistency over a race simulation caught the eye but the World Champion sent out a message in the last ten minutes with a blistering lap, 0.173s quicker than Jorge. Pedrosa, Spies and Crutchlow followed behind with the leading Ducati sixth on the leaderboard courtesy of Rossi, a second off the pace.
The top 12 riders were all on board 1000cc motorcycles with the remaining nine (excluding test riders) representing the Claiming Rule Teams. Aspar claimed the honours after an impressive display from Randy de Puniet. The Spanish outfit had tested away from the factory teams for most of the winter but when they finally ran alongside the competition, they eased fears that the CRT bikes would be moving chicanes.
Danilo Petrucci was next up for Ioda Racing ahead of Colin Edwards and Mattia Pasini who had inherited the Speed Master ride from the unfortunate Anthony West. Michele Pirro got his first taste of Gresini's FTR-Honda but he will still head to Qatar undercooked while testing times indicate that James Ellison and the Avintia duo will need all the preparation they can get to avoid qualifying at the back.
All questions will begin to be answered this weekend as the MotoGP season finally gets underway in Qatar. The Checkered Flag will have full coverage throughout the weekend.