Testing, Testing, 1, 2, 3

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A Season of Change Fires Up Early

Spies' star continues to rise; the Texan was third fastest in recent off-season testing at Valencia aboard the new factory Yamaha M1.The curtain drew on the 2010 FIM MotoGP World Championship on November 7; precisely one day later, preparations for next year’s campaign began in earnest. The transition between the two seasons will experience some of the most dramatic change in the history of the sport—and fans of the sport received an early taste of how things might develop. First off, we have the pre-eminent rider of his, or perhaps any, time—Valentino Rossi. For the past 10 seasons, Rossi has been MotoGP and vice-versa. No coincidence, then, that the last time the grid experienced this degree of upheaval was when the Italian left the factory Honda team to join Yamaha following the 2003 season. Rossi is the lead domino, the rider that triggers the ripples that course throughout the sport.

The first competitor to fall, so to speak, in Rossi’s wake is none other than Ben Spies, who has moved up to the factory Yamaha team from the satellite Tech 3 squad. Every rider on the grid must deal with a certain amount of pressure to perform—just imagine what must be running through the Texan’s mind this off-season. He’s the MotoGP rookie-of-the-year; he’s replacing the greatest rider to ever swing a leg over; his teammate is the reigning world champion. As far as tall orders go, this was a skyscraper.

Yet in his first serious test of the factory Yamaha M1, Spies clocked the third-fastest time behind Casey Stoner, now aboard his new factory Honda ride, and Jorge Lorenzo. Although testing times must always be taken with a grain of salt (or two), the fact that Spies managed to lap just 0.15 seconds off his new teammate’s pace was remarkable.

It’s also worth noting that the American was a full second faster than his old teammate, Colin Edwards, despite the fact that he found the factory M1 (fitted with an updated swing arm, but the standard 800cc engine) comparable to his old machine.

“[There’s] not a big, big difference, but in every way the bike is better, which at the end of the day is big,” Spies reported after the conclusion of the test. “There’s not one thing that I’d say is much better, just little things. Like the chassis and how it has more grip in places. It makes the overall lap time better. Also, being on the factory team helps. Just in terms of engineers and data people and people looking at your data and maybe finding stuff that you didn’t think was wrong.” The prospect of the former AMA and World Superbike Champion aboard a factory Yamaha must be giving at least a few of his competitors pause for reflection. Example: With Rossi leaving the team, the path had seemingly been cleared for Lorenzo to absorb 100% of the attention from his team. But the meteoric rise of Spies’ career over the past five seasons—combined with his undeniable pace—looks likely to cause some distress. Still, the Texan is remaining level-headed through it all: “It’s too early to speculate on what I can do [in 2011]. But as a rider, I want to improve in every way. I want to fight for the top five. I want to win a Grand Prix.”

If Spies was mightily impressive at the Valencia tests, then Stoner looked downright frightening. In his first ride aboard the Honda—by all indications, a very different bike to the Ducati he’d campaigned over the past four seasons—the Aussie blitzed the field, finishing at the very top of the order, some four-tenths up on the next fastest Hondas ridden by Dani Pedrosa and Marco Simoncelli. Despite a generally sub-par season for Stoner, there were a few races where he was absolutely untouchable—and that was the rider plying his trade at Valencia.

“Casey on a Honda could be a very scary situation,” Spies commented about his rival’s move. “The Honda’s working quite well now. When Casey’s on, there’s been nobody on a Ducati that can touch him. Those are just facts. So it’s going to be scary to see what he does on a Honda. Again, it’s one of those things that could go really bad for everybody. We’ll have to see.”

While Ducati and Yamaha have adopted a more-or-less traditional approach of selecting riders for next year’s challenge—two riders each, one ostensibly the team leader—the factory Honda team is coming into 2011 with both guns blazing. Or, rather, four guns blazing.

When Stoner elected to jump from Ducati to Honda, onlookers figured that he would partner Pedrosa on the factory machines and Andrea Dovizioso would be shuffled off to a satellite concern. Instead, Repsol Honda have opted to run three factory bikes, plus give “significant support” to satellite rider Simoncelli, who progressed well over the course of his rookie season.

This situation, arguably, gives Honda four different riders capable of finishing on the podium and two, maybe three, prepared to challenge for the title. If the Honda engineers can keep improving their machinery, the Yamaha and Ducati efforts might just find themselves fighting over fifth place. This past season, an injured Pedrosa still managed four wins and an off-song Stoner captured three—just imagine what’s possible if everything falls into place for Honda.

While post-season testing doesn’t always reveal much—Rossi was the slowest of the 2011 Ducati riders—in this case, the Valencia sessions afforded fans a sneak peak at what promises to be a spectacular season. We’ll have no fewer than five riders campaigning for Ducati, five riders aboard Honda equipment, four Yamahas and one lone Suzuki. This may represent one of the smallest grids in modern Grand Prix history, but it might also be the most competitive ever.

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