By Peter McLaren
Randy de Puniet's move from a factory Kawasaki to a satellite LCR Honda for 2008 was widely labelled as a bad idea, but the Frenchman continued to prove his doubters wrong by holding the top spot during the second day of January testing at Sepang.
de Puniet took his debut MotoGP podium with Kawasaki last season, while Carlos Checa recorded a best finish of sixth for the one-man LCR outfit, during a difficult year for all the satellite Honda/Michelin riders.
But de Puniet was instantly on the pace with both LCR's 2007 RC212V - which he took to third on his test debut at Valencia - and has so far been even more impressive with the part-2008 package - a new chassis and old engine - which he has taken to the top at Sepang.
de Puniet was 0.487secs clear of injured factory Honda rider Dani Pedrosa on Tuesday, then edged out Yamaha Tech 3's Colin Edwards (riding a full 2008 factory M1) by 0.188secs after lowering the leading time by 0.25secs on day two.
The test is being attended by all five factory MotoGP teams, meaning that de Puniet has also held off the likes of current world champion Casey Stoner (factory Ducati), plus former world champions Valentino Rossi (factory Yamaha) and Nicky Hayden (factory Honda).
"I'm very surprised and very happy - with the bike, the tyres and the staff," de Puniet told Crash.net
on Wednesday evening. "It's a big change - new bike, tyres and team - but I've kept Ohlins suspension and also my crew chief came with me [to LCR]. That was a priority for me.
"I set my best time with a qualifying tyre today, but I used a race tyre yesterday and I did the same lap time as yesterday with a race tyre again today," he revealed. "The priority today was to use a qualifying tyre - because for me the Michelin qualifying tyre is new and it's different to Bridgestone - and also to do a race simulation. Maybe tomorrow morning I will try to set a really fast lap time with a race tyre."
Despite his all-conquering qualifying lap, de Puniet's race simulation was arguably even more impressive.
"I did a full race simulation, 20 laps. I think I was faster than my lap times in the GP here [with Kawasaki] by 0.4 of a second, every lap. I finished fourth in the GP and only four-seconds behind Stoner, who won the race. It's interesting because Stoner also did a race simulation today - although not totally because he had a problem - and I was approximately on the same time as him after 12 or 14 laps.
"So it's good to start the season like this and now I'm waiting for the new engine, which I will have at the Jerez test [February 16 - 18] and which I think will be even better," he declared. "It's difficult to know exactly how much better the new engine will be, but at a fast track like this it could be worth two or three tenths. We'll see; I hope to have a good surprise at Jerez."