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2004 well and truly underway in lively Sepang test

2004 well and truly underway in lively Sepang test

2004 well and truly underway in lively Sepang test

The first rumblings of the 2004 MotoGP season were to be heard today in Malaysia, and luckily it wasn't the sound of the thunder, lightning and torrential rain which had struck the region on the eve of this first private test of the new year. The Sepang circuit became a hive of activity from the moment the track opened its doors at 9am this morning, with bright early morning sunshine allowing riders the maximum opportunity to begin work on their bikes, and settling any worries that the weather would have any part to play in this first series of tests… until later in the afternoon, when the forecast light rain cut proceedings short by around an hour. Nevertheless, in the stifling 32º heat and humidity, the riders were generally pleased to have got a relatively good, if difficult track time in.

There was no sign of Alex Barros amongst the Honda contingent, although the sight of his former Honda Pons crew chief Ramon Forcada and selected mechanics in 'civvies' loitering with the HRC team suggests that tongues will do more than wag once the assembled press corps gets its teeth into this first day of events. In his new role as HRC test rider, Tohru Ukawa was present at the track and was joined by the rest of his Honda colleagues. However, Ukawa had the privilege of being the only one to be riding the Japanese factory's 2004 machine, which at first sight doesn't reveal much as regards where Honda will be looking to gain an extra edge in order to defend its title in the wake of the revived challenges from both Ducati and Yamaha at least.

Nicky Hayden had his first testing session of the pre-season - his first action after an operation on his damaged thumb. The young American is not at 100 percent fitness yet, but after trying out new leathers, boots and gloves he is well on his way. The rest of the Honda set were present; Max Biaggi and Makoto Tamada riding from either side of a split garage and the seemingly harmonious partnership of Sete Gibernau and Colin Edwards.

Shinya Nakano joined Alex Hofmann in the Kawasaki box for the first time, with a green stripe down the front of his helmet confirming his new allegiance. Nakano took his first tentative steps on the Bridgestone-shod machine, which is radically different to last year's effort, the fuel-tank being tucked under the seat to vacate vital space for major chassis, geometry and balance changes, as well as the removal of the familiar ‘smiley' front air intake, which had become an ironic reminder of the factory's plight.

Passport problems behind him, Kenny Roberts was able to join John Hopkins at this test, and meant there were more bikes running Bridgestone than Michelin today, with team tester Kousuke Akiyoshi also out on track. The various versions of the Suzuki out on track were not as drastically remodelled as the Kawasaki, but it is understood that key changes are being made underneath the fairing, especially to the engine management system, with more promised before the season proper gets under way.

Finally, Andrew Pitt also made an appearance at the test. Riding in the blue and yellow of Moriwaki, the Australian former World Supersport Champion took to the MDF211V for the first time, after splitting from the Kawasaki family. Pitt is hopeful that the Moriwaki-designed chassis housing the championship-winning Honda V5 engine will be able to take him to five GPs this season, and that it brings him more luck than the Ninja ZX-RR did beforehand.

There were no major incidents on the first day of testing, with all the riders seeing in a good number of laps, many accustoming themselves both to the climate and the new personnel within their teams. All the riders admitted to being a little rusty at first, but soon got into the swing of things, with Max Biaggi and Sete Gibernau the main ones to watch, setting unofficial lap times below that of the race record at Sepang. Tamada also had a good showing in the heat, whilst it seems that Shinya Nakano may take a while yet to adapt to the new Kawasaki.

Max Biaggi 2'03.47, 47 laps
Sete Gibernau 2'03.51, 58
Makoto Tamada 2'04.00, 41
Colin Edwards 2'04.26, 51
Nicky Hayden 2'04.72, 57
Shinichi Itoh 2'05.07, 55
Tohru Ukawa 2'05.66, 62
Alex Hofmann 2'06.26, 41
Shinya Nakano 2'06.50, 44
Andrew Pitt 2'07.70, 58

MotoGP, 2003

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