It's Friday, the bikes have been out on track, and very much as expected, the Repsol Hondas are a class apart. Or rather, two of them are, Casey Stoner going fastest in the morning, while Dani Pedrosa topped the timesheets in the afternoon. The third member of the Repsol Honda team had a day to forget: after a crash in the morning, Andrea Dovizioso lost all confidence in the front end of his RC212V, and struggled for the rest of the day. "We don't need to study what happened," Dovizioso said, "we just need to stop and forget all about it."
Dovizioso did not suffer alone: everyone complained of the same thing, that the track had a lot less grip than in previous years. What that came down to was a combination of track temperature and the wind, the gusts making the track easier in some parts, harder in others. Every rider I spoke to complained of a lack of confidence in the front end, and both sessions were marred by crashes, especially in the tricky section including turns 11 and 12, which are both very fast and very bumpy, and require confidence in the front end and a healthy dollop of courage to keep pinned.
Jorge Lorenzo had to contend with a lack of confidence in the front, but also a lack of grip in the rear, his Yamaha M1 just not providing the traction he was seeking. The rear was spinning up instead of driving out, but the reigning World Champion said he believed they would find some solutions to the problems he was facing, allowing him to at least be closer to the Repsols - though competing with them would be difficult.
The problem with the front end - "the front is always closing," Lorenzo repeated several times - is much harder to solve, and was illustrated beautifully by Karel Abraham, the Cardion AB Ducati rider and rookie in the class. During FP2, Abraham had the front end of his Ducati fold completely, but the Czech rookie rode it out, saving the front so late he was forced to run wide and shoot through the gravel trap. The front end loss was symptomatic of the lack of grip for the Jerez circuit; Abraham's save was indicative of the skill of the underappreciated Czech. That save made a lot of believers at trackside.
Even the two fastest men struggled with the front end, which helped to explain the relatively slow pace in the afternoon session. Casey Stoner also warned that the apparent advantage that Pedrosa and himself had over the rest of the field was deceptive, and he did not expect it to last. "We saw the same thing at Qatar," Stoner said, "but Jorge was much faster in the race."
Dovizioso had an interesting analysis of the state of competition, the Italian arguing that Pedrosa had a better pace than Stoner in terms of lap times. He added that Lorenzo was sure to be a factor in the race, the Spaniard being faster than suggested by the timesheets. Behind Lorenzo, the field was close, Dovizioso estimated, the Italian believing he had options for a podium himself if his team could find a couple of setup tweaks on Saturday. "A podium here is so important, but the level is so high that a podium is also so difficult," Dovizioso added.
The surprise of the day - or perhaps not, given that this is Valentino Rossi - was the seven-time MotoGP World Champion's 3rd fastest time in the morning, followed up by the 5th quickest time in the afternoon. Rossi's shoulder was still a little painful, the Italian said, but he was starting to regain some of the endurance he had lost since the operation. He felt his shoulder would last longer than at Qatar, and was confident they were making progress with the bike.
Most of the steps were down to his own love of Jerez, though. "I like Jerez much better than Qatar," Rossi said, "but for the Ducati is the other way around." Rossi drew a similar parallel with his shoulder, when asked to describe where his adventure with the machine stood. "It will be six months since the operation on May 15th," Rossi said, "so my shoulder should be fixed then. The Ducati will take much longer," he warned.
The bike has some fundamental problems, the Italian warned, the main one being the its refusal to turn. Some of that might be fixed by the revised chassis Rossi is hoping to test at Estoril, but Rossi also explained that part of it was about the engine characteristics. The engine lacked bottom end and responded very aggressively to the throttle, Rossi said, which was a result of Ducati's focus on maximum performance. What was needed, the Italian explained, was more attention to the details, to the finesses of throttle response which would allow the bike to be turned using the throttle.
Both Stoner and Rossi made highly illuminating comments about the different natures of the bike. The Yamaha M1 was more like a 250, Rossi said, allowing a very rounded, high corner speed style, which gave it drive out of the corners. The Ducati, on the other hand, was much tougher to move around. "We need to use a different line, because of the understeer. You have to turn tighter and pick the bike up as soon as possible," Rossi said. Some work was already going on in this area, Ducati providing a different electronics package which was much smoother than the first system Rossi tested, which he described as "very rude". More was needed, Rossi explained, and it would take a long time before the bike was truly competitive.
Casey Stoner corroborated Rossi's findings, saying that the Honda was much easier to turn, an asset in the short corners, such as Turns 1, 2 and 3. He could then use the smoothness of the Honda to drive out of the corners, using the throttle to help turn the bike. He had had to change his style to adapt to the Honda, Stoner said, but he emphasized that this was the only way to be able to be fast. "I ride to the character of the bike," Stoner said, "I try to ride it the way to get the best out of it." It was a mistake to try to match the bike to your own style, the Australian said, instead you have to exploit the strengths which each machine had.
While Rossi and Stoner were being grilled on the differences between the Ducati, Honda and Yamaha, Dani Pedrosa was trying to avoid answering questions about his shoulder. The Spaniard's press officer decided to step in at one point, telling journalists again that the reason they issued the press release was precisely because they had nothing more to say on the issue. Pedrosa sat, visibly bored, answering the same question again and again in Spanish, Catalan and English. No, he did not know whether his shoulder would hold up all race. No, he was not spending any time worrying about it. "If you don't know something, you don't know something," Pedrosa said. "If you do know, you just accept it." In other words, you play the cards you've been dealt. Dani Pedrosa is a good deal more phlegmatic about his situation than the media who are chasing him.
Pedrosa will likely have surgery as soon as possible after Jerez, as there is some urgency to remove the plate fitted to his collarbone. Once that has been removed, he faces a period of 4 to 6 weeks while the holes made by the screws securing the plate to his collarbone fill up with fresh bone. Until then, his collarbone will still be weaker than normal, meaning there will be a slight risk of him reinjuring the bone at Estoril, should he crash. But not removing it is not an option, as either the plate or one of the screws holding is probably causing the arterial problem Pedrosa is suffering, and there is a risk that that could cause serious damage.
A couple of interesting rumors emerged from various parts of the paddock at Jerez, of varying reliability. The first is that the Ten Kate squad - famous for their World Supersport and World Superbike teams - are getting close to testing a Moto2 prototype. The machine is rumored to be sitting in the team's facility in Nieuwleusden in the Netherlands, due to get its track debut some time soon. Ten Kate showed a passing interest in Moto2 when the class was first announced, but the Dutch team have watched the field to see how it plays out before taking the plunge.
The second rumor was far more interesting, but also far harder to verify. Attempts to find out more have fallen at several hurdles, and so this should be taken with a very sizable pinch of salt. There were whispers in the paddock that at Qatar, delegates from the Istanbul circuit were present, and had some discussions with Dorna about making a reappearance on the calendar. The rumored option is for Istanbul to be a reserve circuit for this year, to take the place of the Japanese Grand Prix should racing be impossible at Motegi.
The other option rumored as a replacement for Motegi is Suzuka, that track having suffered no problems after the earthquake. The problem with Suzuka is history, however, and the tragic death of Dajiroh Kato at the track. That fatality still weighs heavily on the paddock, and it may not be politically viable for MotoGP to make a return there.
Racing at either Suzuka and Istanbul would be fantastic news for MotoGP fans, as both tracks were greatly loved by both fans and riders. But given the frenzy of rumor surrounding the situation in Japan at the moment, it is hard to judge the value of the rumors currently circulating. We may well end up racing at Motegi in October, all according to plan. But on the other hand, maybe we won't.