By Peter McLaren
Colin Edwards says his exit from the factory Yamaha team has removed pressure from his shoulders, increased his motivation and - if last week's Sepang test is anything to go - helped propel him to the sharp end of the MotoGP field.
Edwards, transferred to the satellite Tech 3 outfit to make way for 250cc world champion Jorge Lorenzo
in the Fiat team, finished the three-day Malaysian test in fourth place - but was second on all-important race tyre times after a "phenomenal" lap of 2mins 1.179secs, which put him just 0.2secs slower than world champion Casey Stoner.
"Colin was one of the fastest on race tyres, which is very important," team principal Herve Poncharal told Crash.net
. "Qualifying tyres may change the order - I think Nicky Hayden
[quickest overall at the test] improved his time by almost one and a half seconds with a qualifying tyre - but what we're here for is to prepare for racing."
Edwards was the only rider in the top eight to set his best time while using multi-lap rubber - and his only real disappointment was that he couldn't lower his pace further during a qualifying run.
"Our plan was to come here and figure out why we're getting a little bit of chatter with the qualifier. We fixed that problem and now we've encountered another problem. We know how to fix that too so it's no big deal," Edwards told Crash.net
"But as far as race tyres, the bike, the team and everything - I couldn't be happier. Michelin have been doing a brilliant job and Yamaha have made a pretty big step with the chassis, so it's looking good so far," he confirmed.
Sepang marked the former double World Superbike champion's first taste of the new 2008 YZR-M1, which for the satellite Tech 3 team is powered by an improved version of the traditional spring-valve engine. The pneumatic-valve engine is presently only available to the factory team, until it shows a clear - and reliable - improvement over the standard design.
"Engine wise, we're not running the latest of the latest, but I think it's stronger than what we had at the last test," said Edwards. "We could use a little more top speed, but that'll come whenever they have it available."
The #5 added that it's rumoured he'll get the pneumatic-valve engine "a couple of races into the season."
Whatever the valve system, Edwards gives the impression that the biggest card up his sleeve will be Michelin tyres - despite last year's sudden decline, which prompted former team-mate Valentino Rossi
to make a much-publicised switch to Bridgestone. A decision the Italian superstar, almost 0.7secs slower than Edwards on race tyres at Sepang, may yet regret...