MotoGP's first official test of 2024 at Sepang lived up to the off-season hype, delivering lap record after lap record, the tantalising promise of a multi-rider championship fight and some truly insightful developments for various off-season storylines.
"I think it won't be only Pecco [Bagnaia] and me," said Jorge Martin, defending champion Bagnaia's closest 2023 rival. "There will be many more riders. More strong riders that will be fighting for the title."
It's a tempting conclusion to draw after such a competitive test - but while all the track time and the extra grip did bunch the field up spectacularly, and perhaps deceptively, the test still painted a truly tantalising picture.
Here are our main takeaways:
Marquez is getting there
Let's start with the big-ticket item.
Unlike Valencia last November, when Marc Marquez was scary fast on the Ducati from effectively first contact, his Sepang test was much more of a slow burn.
But Marquez's expectations for Sepang, a track that is not among his MotoGP favourites, had foreshadowed this, and he was compromised by a mechanical issue-ridden opening day.
On the second day, though still riding the Ducati in something of a Honda-esque style and struggling to make the most of its corner exit grip, he already had good pace. And a perfectly competitive time attack followed on Thursday morning.
"He's too close," laughed brother and Gresini team-mate Alex Marquez - himself also quick on the same bike - when asked whether he was giving Marc any pointers. But he wasn't really joking.
"He doesn't need help," Alex continued.
Testing as it happened
"He completely lost the first day. When you lose the first day here in Sepang, we arrived from winter, second day, you're always delayed. In his second day, second day and a half, he's too close to us."
Martin, too, suggested that the elder Marquez could still be ready to win in Qatar at next month's season-opener.
A star is born
On the one hand, rookie Pedro Acosta has benefitted from having had the three extra days of shakedown at this same track last week, so of course, his laptime is inflated somewhat relative to the competition.
On the other hand... what a laptime. Acosta took massive chunks out of his personal best on most days, he's within four hundredths of a second KTM's standard-bearer Brad Binder, and he's below the track's pole record. And he says he should've been faster if not for going wide at Turns 5 and 12.
And his sprint simulation was very quick, too.
Maybe it isn't that big of a surprise given Acosta was a rookie Moto3 champion and sophomore Moto2 champion, but it really has taken him no time to become a genuine factor in the premier class.
Acosta's laptime progression
Shakedown, Day 1 - 1m59.385s
Shakedown, Day 2 - 1m58.531s
Shakedown, Day 3 - 1m58.189s
Test, Day 1 - 1m58.220s
Test, Day 2 - 1m57.726s
Test, Day 3 - 1m57.365s
And, as a side note, it was an extremely alarming showing for his Tech3 GasGas team-mate Augusto Fernandez, who on the heels of a solid 2023 campaign, spent the test generally lost, off the pace on a single lap and completely outshone by Acosta at every step.
Honda still has a major weakness
Though it's still quite far away from what the Ducatis are managing, Joan Mir's 1m57.374s should bring big smiles to Honda, especially as he then crashed on his outlap while trying to set up a second push on a new tyre.
The bike is conclusively better, like last year's Valencia test promised it would be, and it does appear to have taken a bigger step forward than probably anyone else.
But the headline single-lap gains may be flattering a bit. Honda newcomer Luca Marini on Wednesday admitted that he wasn't at all impressed with how the tyres on his RC213V were holding up in a sprint simulation, with how quickly the rear grip fluttered away.
"Yes," commented Mir on Marini's feedback. "Welcome. Welcome to this world."
... and so does Yamaha
Like for its fellow 'Rank D' concession manufacturer Honda, there is a clear message from Yamaha's riders that it is heading in a clearer direction than before, that progress is tangible, that things are changing.
But here too there is serious reason to doubt - maybe an even bigger reason to doubt than for Honda - that this tangible progress will translate into immediate results.
The M1 is a lot more potent in a straight line, as star rider Fabio Quartararo demanded. It has a more advanced aero package now.
And it still just cannot get it done in qualifying trim.
It's leaving Quartararo scratching his head. He was happy to post a 1m57.525s - obviously Yamaha's best Sepang laptime by far - and yet it didn't even take him into the top 10.
The M1 should be a more combative bike thanks to its increased top speed, but as Quartararo himself admits, it just won't make that big a difference if it's still qualifying on row four.
The Beast is (probably) back
Even though he ultimately gave up the first place he'd held after day two, this was still a truly spectacular test for Enea Bastianini - at the sharp end of the timing screens virtually all the time and over the moon with Ducati's 2024 offering.
Bastianini was injured for so much of 2023 but he also never quite gelled with that year's Desmosedici. This looked clear from the start - and it has not been the case with the GP24, which he believes is both an improvement in every area but also a step more towards the GP21 he had rode in his breakout season at Gresini.
"Enea is absolutely on the moon," Ducati boss Davide Tardozzi told MotoGP.com. "[Last year] he was struggling till the end, also in Valencia. Now he's another rider.
"He's the Enea Bastianini that we saw in 2022. We are really confident he'll be one of the contenders."
But a word of warning. As Tardozzi himself also brought up, Bastianini did win at Sepang last year. It is a limited sample size, but he has been routinely spectacular at the Malaysian venue in MotoGP.
Bastianini himself is convinced this showing is not track-specific, as his feeling is just so much better - but he knows he needs to back it up in Qatar at the next test.
Martin's aero u-turn
It has been a very credible test for Martin, arguably MotoGP's master of flyaway tracks and a no-brainer 2024 title contender.
But there was one major question mark hanging over it after Wednesday, when he admitted that he still just couldn't find his groove with Ducati's overhauled 2024 aero - even while the factory riders were getting it to work for themselves.
"I had a bit of a headache, because I saw Pecco and Enea liked it. And I didn't!" Martin reflected.
"So, it was strange, because normally we have the same comment.
"Today straight away in the morning I felt competitive, then I did the back-to-back like two times, and I felt that it's a bit better, has more potential."
And this is not just a rider taking one on the chin and accepting the factory's new development even if he's not fully convinced.
That wouldn't sound very Martin-like anyway, but his fastest lap of the test did come on the new aero.
Two of three three riders on Aprilia's new-for-2024 bike haven't found particular comfort with it over the course of the test. And its sole rider with a hand-me-down 2023 bike to start the season high-sided off that 2023 bike immediately on Tuesday, and sat out the whole test after that.
The heat issue isn't fixed. The engine still lacks mid-range torque. There are question marks on how it'll fare in a pack, again.
But it is impossible in good conscience to say Aprilia's had a bad test, not when Aleix Espargaro was the only rider to prevent a top-six Ducati lockout, lapping just four tenths off in high-grip conditions at a track traditionally unfavourable for the RS-GP.
The new aero is working for Espargaro. A lot. It's giving him the corner speed and the stability he seeks.
The same doesn't seem to be true for Maverick Vinales and Miguel Oliveira yet, and Aprilia needs its entire line-up firing on all cylinders. But Espargaro's pace is a proof of concept that shows Aprilia is far from done with its MotoGP ongoing surge.
Injuries keep coming
This isn't really some big takeaway about the calendar or the format, as it is would be a leap to link Franco Morbidelli's injury or Raul Fernandez's injury with either.
But, even if it's coincidental, it's a shame that MotoGP 2024 is kicking off kind of where 2023 left off, with injuries that could well be season-altering.
Morbidelli, whose crash happened in a road bike outing at Portimao during World Superbike testing, has been ruled out of the pre-season entirely as a precaution.
Assuming he's shrugged off the crash by Qatar race weekend next month - and that can never be taken for granted given it was a head impact with clear neurological consequences - he will head into his debut grand prix as a Ducati rider with basically no knowledge of the bike.
Fernandez is in a better situation - Trackhouse sounds pretty confident that he'll recover from what he's described as "small fractures in the bone of the hip" in time for the Qatar test - but he too could've really used a clean pre-season.
VR46's fantastic consolation prize
"If the race was tomorrow, I could be not so bad. Not so bad, yes."
Fabio Di Giannantonio was a being a bit modest. He wasn't the quickest over one lap in the end - competitive but not amazing, on a bike configuration he wasn't too happy with - but his sprint simulation performance has raised eyebrows.
He was also, overall, a consistent frontrunner through the whole test.
We need a bigger sample size to say that Di Giannantonio's incredible 2023 turnaround can be sustained without Gresini/Frankie Carchedi magic, but it's looking like - in settling for a rider who wasn't its first choice to replace Marini (that was Fermin Aldeguer) - VR46 has still played an absolute blinder.
Bagnaia will still win a lot of races
If anything, the reigning champion looks more comfortable than definitely in the 2022 pre-season and also in the 2023 pre-season.
Both of those pre-seasons set up championship runs, so while the competition within Ducati in particular looks sterner than ever, bet against him at your own risk.