There's no doubt the MotoGP™ natives were getting restless after such a long layoff, so the start of official pre-season testing at Sepang International Raceway in Malaysia this week (January 30-February 1) could not have come at a better time.
As he was in the first pre-season test at Valencia way back in November, Maverick Vinales was again the fastest rider on track as he continues to impress for his new employer Movistar Yamaha – although it did take him until the final day to inch his way to the top after Aussie Casey Stoner (Ducati Test Team) and Andrea Iannone (Ecstar Suzuki) both took turns as the leading lights.
And unlike 2016, when a swathe of rule changes saw the pre-season take on an air of unpredictability, this year it's all rather settled (apart from the abolition of external winglets) and the big guns appear to be in great shape – or in the case of Jorge Lorenzo, slowly unlocking the Ducati code – as the season opener in Qatar on March 26 edges closer.
Pre-season testing will continue at Phillip Island from February 15-17, but in the meantime here are some of the key observations from Sepang:
1. Vinales grabbed the limelight again, but so did Yamaha with its audacious fairing design that included 'internal' winglets. It's apparently already been given the green light by MotoGP's technical boffin, so there's a fair chance it will become a permanent Yamaha fixture. But then again, Phillip Island may throw up another fairing design, and we probably won't get an idea of the final spec until round one gets underway.
2. Jack Miller (Team EG 0,0 Marc VDS ) may have finally turned the corner, as he's taken an instant liking to the new chassis handed to him by Honda. The 22-year-old Queenslander says his confidence is back – a precious commodity on a bike that produces 250-plus horsepower and weighs around 157kg. The Aussie also has an experienced new crew chief by his side.
3. Johann Zarco (Monster Yamaha Tech 3) was the fastest rookie, just ahead of his old Moto2 arch-rival Alex Rins (Ecstar Suzuki). Zarco's one smart cookie and is the master of making piecemeal progress – and at Sepang that meant he was the last rider to break into the 1:59s, joining Vinales, Andrea Iannone (Ecstar Suzuki), world champion Marc Marquez (Repsol Honda), Andrea Dovizioso (Ducati Team), Valentino Rossi (Movistar Yamaha), surprise packet Alvaro Bautista (Pull&Bear Aspar Ducati), Stoner, Cal Crutchlow (LCR Honda) and Lorenzo.
4. Stoner mentioned it in his private test, and then it happened again – Sepang now takes an eternity to dry after precipitation. We're talking about 12 full hours to dry out! Apparently some surface work is planned before the circuit hosts its MotoGP™ round on October 29.
5. Aprilia (Aleix Espargaro/Sam Lowes) and KTM (Pol Espargaro/Bradley Smith) aren’t a gazillion miles off the pace, especially the former. Espargaro has pinpointed power distribution and stability as major areas to work on in the remaining tests, while the KTM its corner entry speed – there certainly appears to be plenty of mumbo.
6. There was very little in times between the championship top brass at Sepang, but Phillip Island, with its heavy emphasis on chassis set-up, may beat to an entirely different drum. Or maybe not – and then we'll have a better idea if this season is going to be the absolute humdinger everyone is predicting.
Images courtesy motogp.com