So we're finally racing again, after what seemed like an eternity. Even though we were here just a couple of days ago for the final test of the year, walking through the paddock on Thursday was like being in another world. If a racetrack during a test on is a cold, desolate place, come race weekend, there's a completely different vibe.
There was of course much focus and talk about the ongoing disaster in Japan, everyone enquiring of Japanese friends and colleagues how things were in their hometown. As a mark of respect and to show their (and our) concern for Japan, Dorna announced there would be a minute's silence before the MotoGP race, and just about all of the MotoGP teams are carrying some form of Kanji text wishing everyone in Japan well on their bikes or leathers somewhere.
Despite the obvious concern about Japan, the overwhelming feeling in the paddock was a buzz of excitement, everyone glad to have the long wait over and to be racing again. All those hours of hard, tiring but necessary work busting out laps to prepare for the season are finally over, and now those laps actually mean something.
The weird four-day schedule - more of which later - has left riders a little befuddled as to how to deal with having one session of practice on one day, two on another, and for the Moto2 and 125 classes, no warmup on race day. Qualifying, Casey Stoner said, would be a little odd. "We get straight out of bed and go qualifying," he said, not the only rider to express his exasperation at the schedule.
The four-day schedule was instituted to compress the amount of practice into the limited hours between nightfall and the point at which the temperatures drop low enough for dew to form on the track, turning the surface treacherous. Riding after 11pm proved to be very tricky in previous years, with several riders being caught out by the conditions, especially during testing.
The biggest concern was for the 125cc and Moto2 riders, whose warmup session happens on Saturday night, leaving the riders no track time on Sunday before the race. On Sunday, the riders will get one (or possibly two) sighting laps, a warmup lap and then they go race. Given the already chaotic first-corner scenes in an ordinary Moto2 race, sending 39 riders barreling into the first corner without any track time is positively perilous.
On track, the most unsurprising event of the day was Casey Stoner blitzing FP1 in exactly the same style he blitzed preseason testing. Once the flag dropped for the end of the session, Stoner had put six tenths of a second on the rest of the field, and was making the other riders look markedly mediocre. Stoner continues to look like a Cheshire cat who has found his way into a fishmonger's, but is playing down the pressure of being the odds-on favorite to win here at Qatar and the rest of the season. He told the press he didn't really feel any outside pressure, as other people could never put the same kind of pressure on him that he puts upon himself. If he doesn't win the championship this season - like any other season - he'll be very disappointed, and nothing anybody else says will make much difference to him.
The mark of Stoner's speed was in his lap times, cracking into the 1'55s at will whenever he put his mind to it. He was especially pleased as he had used the hard tire, and felt he had a strong race pace. Just to scare the competition, perhaps, he added that the bike was still only "maybe 80%" and that with a bit more rear edge grip there was plenty more to come.
The mark of the Honda's speed was the fact that 2nd fastest man of the day was Dani Pedrosa. Stoner's Repsol Honda teammate was the best of the rest, but the fact that he was just a few hundredths ahead of the chasing pack was rather deceptive. Pedrosa said he had had a problem with a rear tire, which had not responded as it should have at all. The tire was exactly the same as he had used without problems during testing, and the team suspected that this was just a one-off case of receiving a tire which a minor defect, a rarity thanks to Bridgestone's rigorous QA process.
As a side note, rumors abound in the paddock that Bridgestone have extended their agreement with Dorna as sole tire supplier for MotoGP for 2012 through 2014, though nobody could confirm this. The renewal had long been uncertain, with credible rumors doing the rounds that Pirelli would be awarded the new tire contract, strengthened by a suspiciously large contingent of Pirelli bigwigs turning up for the Valencia MotoGP round last season. Any chance of a deal with Pirelli was probably lost over the winter, once Formula One started testing the new Pirelli tires. Supplying F1, World Superbikes and MotoGP would have stressed Pirelli's capacity far beyond its limits.
Getting back to the riders, Stoner's rivals seemed surprisingly unfazed by the pace of the Australian. Yes he is fast, Jorge Lorenzo, Ben Spies, Valentino Rossi, Dani Pedrosa and Nicky Hayden admitted, but they felt they would be able to find enough to keep Stoner within sight.
The two most interesting transformations were in the fortunes of two former teammates and now bitter rivals. Jorge Lorenzo was a frustrated man on Monday evening after the test, seething at the setup the team had been testing in the high winds. On Thursday - despite being only 7th, behind his new teammate Ben Spies, he was much happier, the team having reverted to a setup they had used in 2010. He felt that with a couple of tweaks to that setup, he should be able to drop his laptimes to a consistent 1'56.0, which is likely to be somewhere in the vicinity of race pace, at least for anyone not Australian and riding a Repsol.
The other metamorphosis was that of Valentino Rossi. The team had had been expecting to end practice crying, Rossi joked, but instead they were laughing. A final camera shot of the Marlboro Ducati garage at the end of practice confirmed his affirmation, Jerry Burgess all grinning almost as much as Casey Stoner would be later.
The change in Rossi's demeanor was a result of a setup change to the rear of the bike. That had helped the bike to turn, and given him enough extra pace to end the session in 5th. It was a setting they had tried during the test but discarded early, he said, and in hindsight, he was annoyed they had given up on the setup so early on in the test. He might still be three quarters of a second off the pace of Stoner, but he clearly believed he had a handle on the situation, and would be able to make significant progress in the coming days.
Nicky Hayden was a good deal less happy, managing only the 11th fastest time, not where he had hoped to be. The American had been closer to the front early on, but while the rest got quicker, Hayden never really found much more pace.
We finally also got to the bottom of the mystery "flexi-package" that Ducati have been testing. Marlboro team manager Vito Guareschi explained that what it entailed was just a revised front subframe (what Ducati uses as a chassis, in their design with the engine as a stressed member) which was "one step" softer than the standard chassis which they had tested at Valencia at the end of the year, though Guareschi could not be specific as to exactly how much "one step" was. The rest of the package was the same as the standard bike, using 48mm 2011 Ohlins forks, the new slotted top yoke of the triple clamps, and the medium stiffness swingarm of the three that Ducati has available.
Guareschi also revealed that this package had not been discarded as had been thought. Only two of the softer frames had been produced so far, and both had been taken to Sepang, one each for both Rossi and Hayden. Rossi and his crew had decided to focus on finding a base setup rather than testing a new package, passing the chassis over to Hayden for the American to test.
After the test, Filippo Preziosi had decided that this softer chassis was the direction the GP11 would go in the future, but given that a carbon fiber chassis takes three weeks to cure the chassis in the autoclave, the team would have to wait until Estoril at the earliest for the new chassis to be ready. For the time being, Nicky Hayden is using the two softer chassis, while Valentino Rossi continues to work on the standard GP11 from Valencia.
The man who took Valentino Rossi's place - as if such a thing was possible - at the factory Yamaha team was another rider who was very satisfied despite his finishing position. Ben Spies had spent the session on the tires he didn't like, using them to work on setup before pushing for a time on the tires he felt most comfortable on. Spies had tried a couple of setup changes, one of which worked, one of which didn't, but he believed he had a few tenths more he could extract out of the bike. Though that would still leave him slower than Stoner, it would at least mean being able to keep him in sight.
The biggest surprise of the day came from Mapfre Aspar's Hector Barbera. The Spaniard rocketed to the 3rd fastest time of the day at the end of the session, causing quite a few shocked faces. The truth of the matter was that Barbera's speed was entirely borrowed, the Spaniard employing his usual modus operandi of catching a tow to set a fast time. This time the victim was Nicky Hayden, and he showed his gratitude to the American by backing off in turn 2, and blocking any chance Hayden had of improving his own lap time. Barbera is not endearing himself to anyone with this behavior, and should perhaps be awarded the soubriquet of The Trailer.
While the real drama was out on the track, the melodrama was all off the track, created by the weird four-day schedule and by a change to the press code. The night race is bad enough for the riders, but for the media, it completely destroys your natural day-night rhythm. My friend and colleague Jensen Beeler from Asphalt & Rubber summed it up best: "Going to bed as the sun comes up, and getting up just when it gets dark: now I know what a vampire feels like." For once the riders finish and head back to the hotel, the work of the media begins: writing up the day's events for the consumption of eager fans.
The four-day schedule has made things even worse. Every day is different, with FP1 on Thursday, FP2 & FP3 on Friday, QP on Saturday, and then the warmup and race on Sunday night. Scheduling rider debriefs has become a nightmare of the first order for the already stressed press officers, with even the best of them looking close to cardiac arrest. There is some coordination between the teams, but even that is not completely possible, and that led to a rather wry scheduling conflict: The word went out that Jorge Lorenzo would be speaking at 10pm, then only moments later, journalists' phones all buzzed with a text message to say that Valentino Rossi would also be speaking at 10pm. Wisely, Yamaha decided that there was no point in putting up a fight, moving Lorenzo five minutes earlier, meaning that the media got to speak to both men with virtually no overlap.
The real drama came during the official press conference, and I am sorry to say I missed it, as I was out in the paddock enjoying catching up with various people I hadn't seen for a while. The format of the press conferences has been changed: last year, there would be an official part of the press conference, the media all sat politely in their seats and asking questions, and a "media scrum" afterwards, where the journalists would descend upon the riders like vultures on a rotting carcass and pound them with questions in their own languages.
The media scrum had caused some extremely uncomfortable situations for both riders and journalists, with people being almost crushed in the masses surrounding a rider. And so Dorna decided that it would be better to scrap the scrums, and allow the press to ask questions in their own language during the official press conference (where the working language is English). The trouble was that the first question to be asked was addressed to Dani Pedrosa, and was made in Catalan. There was an immediate uproar, with journalists accusing each other of being "unprofessional" - the worst accusation one journalist can make to another, for some reason - and a lot of huffing and puffing ensued. A petition circulated throughout the media center, and was duly submitted to Dorna. Reverting to the old format is out of the question, but perhaps Dorna will find a different way to accommodate the questions. Mostly, though, journalists, like everyone else in the world, hate to change their ways. This may be a sport which is predicated on technological advance and constant progress, but that doesn't mean that the media actually embraces change.
Tomorrow we return, for two more sessions of MotoGP, and one each of Moto2 and 125cc. It promises to be just as confusing as today was.