Less than four weeks away from the opening round of the Superbike World Championship in Phillip Island, preseason testing ramped up in both WSBK and MotoGP in recent days and we got our first hints of what to expect.
It is easy to read too much into the lap times from these tests, and that's both the first observation and the one to keep in mind when considering the rest.
It's testing, not racing
A day's work gets boiled down to a list of one fastest lap per rider, but that's not the real story — or the real purpose. The goal is not to go fastest now, but to learn what you need to know to go faster later, when it counts. At the MotoGP test, for example, Honda was testing more than one engine, KTM was testing more than one chassis, etc. Teams are still experimenting with fairing shapes, trying to recover some of the aerodynamic advantage lost when winglets were outlawed.
So should we get excited that Andrea Iannone was fastest on the Suzuki today at the MotoGP test at Sepang? Well, Maverick Viñales was near the top of the time sheets at last year's preseason tests on the Suzuki and he won only one race. Should we declare Jorge Lorenzo's move to Ducati a mistake because he barely cracked the top 10? Not yet. Should we think Marc Márquez's 10th-place ranking in today's session is indicative of where he'll finish the 2017 season? Nope. We're just bench racing here, so keep it all in perspective.
Slow start for the new Honda Superbike
Honda World Superbike riders Michael van der Mark and Nicky Hayden finished fourth and fifth in the final standings for 2016, and with a new CBR1000RR coming out for 2017, there were high hopes that Honda could contend for a title. Stefan Bradl came over to replace van der Mark, who left for Yamaha, giving the team the experience of two former MotoGP riders. Could Hayden become the first rider ever to win both MotoGP and WSBK titles? Early results are not promising.
There are plenty of explanations why the Hondas were nearly a couple of seconds off the pace at the early tests. The Ten Kate team just got the new bikes only two weeks before the first test. It takes time to turn a street bike into a winning Superbike, getting the electronics dialed in and finding the right baseline setup for an all-new machine. Plus, Hayden is still not 100 percent fit after recovering from an off-season knee injury.
Still, anyone who thought a new CBR1000RR would be the magic bullet got a reality check.
The best hope for a U.S. world champion
With not a single U.S. racer in any MotoGP class, and only Nicky Hayden in WSBK, P.J. Jacobsen remains the best hope of a U.S. world champion in motorcycle road racing in 2017. The World Supersport rider from Montgomery, N.Y., switched to MV Agusta for this season and actually laid down the quickest time in Portugal. The reality check? He still has to compete against one of the most proven combinations in roadracing, five-time Supersport champ Kenan Sofuoglu, who wasn't at the test, and his Kawasaki.
Spending millions to finish 12th?
The good news is that there will be six factory teams in MotoGP for 2017, giving fans lots of choices of who (and which marque) to cheer for. The bad news is that you can have one of those coveted factory rides, beat every satellite team on the grid, and still finish 12th. (And finishing ahead of the Hondas, Yamahas and Ducatis run by the satellite teams is no given.) What's great for fans can be very frustrating and costly for factory teams and their riders.
KTM is the newest team in MotoGP and stocked its paddock with the two former Tech 3 Yamaha riders, Pol Espargaro and Bradley Smith. In its rookie year, KTM will be trying to beat the satellite teams and finish in the top 10, while Aprilia will try to take the next step up and compete with relative newcomer Suzuki, and Suzuki will be trying to get closer to Honda, Yamaha and Ducati. There will be more disappointments than celebrations.
Manufacturers go racing to improve the image of their brands, and it takes a lot of money to compete in MotoGP. We'll see some very expensive outside-the-top-10 finishes this year.
Casey Stoner is the most otherworldly alien
Lots of retired guys like to go fishing and spend time with the family, but only one retiree occasionally interrupts that schedule to go ride a MotoGP faster than any human on the planet. Casey Stoner topped the time sheets at Sepang as a Ducati test rider, four years after he retired from MotoGP. If being the only rider who could ever win a title (or even come close) on the Ducati Desmosedici was not enough to confirm Stoner's talents were the most otherworldly of all the aliens, then coming out of retirement to be fastest should provide the final proof.
The natural reaction of all of us who wish we had a tiny shred of Stoner's talent is to ask, "Why isn't he still out there winning more world championships?" And the answer is as simple as it is hard to understand: He doesn't want to.
Think about it this way. He still gets to ride the greatest prototype motorcycles on the planet, but he doesn't have to endure the press conferences he hates, the crush of fans wanting selfies with him that is foreign to his personality, and the obligations to smile and glad-hand sponsors writing big checks. Really, it's a pretty good gig for a retired guy.