We're in England, so naturally, all the talk is of the weather. The morning saw all three classes get in a completely dry session, but the rain which had been threatening all day finally fell in the first few minutes of the 125cc session. It rained properly, wetting the track completely, and then promptly stopped. That left the MotoGP riders on a track that was progressively drying, but oddly, only in the second half of the circuit, making for very tricky conditions.
Tricky or not, morning or afternoon, wet or dry, Casey Stoner was fastest, and by an embarrassing amount. The Repsol Honda rider was over six tenths quicker in the morning, then put in a final blitz in the afternoon to put eight tenths on the man in 2nd place, Marco Simoncelli. If you need an illustration of just how great Stoner's domination is, you need only look at the final sector times. While the Australian is either a little bit faster or just a little bit slower than the rest through the first three sectors of the track, his advantage in the final sector - from Chapel through Stowe, Vale and Club over the line - is eight tenths of a second, a huge gap in a forty second section.
As if to rub salt in the wounds, Stoner told the press that he didn't feel particularly comfortable through that section. When asked how come he was so much faster in T4, he replied "It's as surprising to me as it is to you," meaning the assembled media. There was one corner he was happy with, and two he felt there was plenty of room for improvement, but given the vast gap he has over 2nd and further back, improvement is the last thing that anyone (other than Stoner) really needs.
Simoncelli is once again quick here, in both wet and dry conditions, and is looking to make amends for his poor finish in Barcelona, though there is still a long way to go until the race. But the Italian is now fast from the start of the first session, a crucial skill in the limited practice schedule of MotoGP weekends.
Behind the two fast Hondas, the order differs depending on the conditions. In the dry, Jorge Lorenzo is a second behind Stoner, and just ahead of a very close group of riders including Nicky Hayden, Andrea Dovizioso, Cal Crutchlow and Ben Spies. In the wet, the gaps grow exponentially, with Hayden ahead of Crutchlow, and Lorenzo three seconds off Stoner's best time. Jorge Lorenzo is looking and sounding increasingly resigned to grabbing what points he can, unable to fend off Stoner at fast tracks like Silverstone. Lorenzo's problem is losing time in braking, a problem he had at Estoril as well, though it is nowhere near as bad as it was in Portugal. The Spaniard was faster this morning than he was during either free practice session here last year - when he dominated the weekend - but this year he is up against The Creature From Planet Stoner. The Yamaha has obviously made progress this year, just not as much as the Hondas, despite Stoner's protestations that they are basically riding the same bike as Pedrosa finished the season with at Valencia 2010.
Meanwhile, over in Ducati, fundamental questions are being asked. The Italian press asked whether Rossi longed for an aluminium twin spar frame (they used the word "Deltabox", Yamaha's trademarked name for the traditional Japanese twin spar frame), but Rossi insisted that he believed they could make the Ducati carbon fiber subframe construction work just as well. Neither the material nor the design was the problem, he said, it just needed some work to be done to get it sorted.
Rossi said that they had managed to improve the front end a good deal - helped by the new, softer chassis, an innovation which Hayden had been calling for since he joined Ducati in 2009 - but that the problem they were now dealing with was instability and pumping at the rear. That was a much harder problem to solve, and would require a fundamental redesign of the rear of the bike. That problem has been addressed on the 2012 bike, the swingarm having been inverted on the GP12, with the shock mounted differently to this year's bike. But that change could not be simply taken from the GP12 and transferred to this year's GP11, requiring a more fundamental redesign. Until this problem has been solved, winning races is going to be hard, and the question remains how much more patience Rossi's fans - most especially in Italy - are prepared to show.
Rossi's position is pretty dire: 12th in the dry morning session (though admittedly, learning the track), then 9th in the afternoon nearly four seconds behind Stoner. The problem was a lack of grip at the rear, making corner entry problematic and preventing the Italian from carrying the corner speed that he likes. The underlying problem, however, is that Rossi simply does not have a base setup to work with, and just as Nicky Hayden did in his first year at Ducati, Rossi, Burgess and the crew are turning up at new tracks and having to make a guess at what works best. At Silverstone, they got it wrong, and will be trying a very big change in the morning to try to fix the problem. At least Hayden has some pace and is providing useful data for Rossi to work with.
Cal Crutchlow continues to impress, finishing ahead of at least one of the factory Yamahas in both sessions. The adaptation to the Bridgestone tires and carbon brakes had been drastic, he said today, in a very interesting debrief session with the press. When asked about the comparison between WSBK and MotoGP, he said that WSBK was "50% easier than riding here [in MotoGP]". Not that he expected anyone from the WSBK paddock to believe him - he'd been told the same by James Toseland, and had ignored the information completely, rather to his own detriment. But Crutchlow is clearly made of the right stuff, having to learn tracks almost every weekend we go racing.
After practice was done, Yamaha organized a very interesting event, more of which tomorrow and after the weekend. Jorge Lorenzo and his manager Wilco Zeelenberg took a select group of journalists round the track on scooters while talking about the nitty gritty of riding Silverstone. It was a fascinating insight into the mind of a racer, with the added bonus of Zeelenberg's outstanding technical analysis of riding. The only downside of the event was that the group selected housed a fair number of ex-racers, meaning the no-overtaking rule went out of the window after about 2 corners. You can take the man out of the race track, but you can never take the racer out of the man.
Talking to the communications officers after the event threw up some interesting parallels with Rossi's move to Ducati. Since the switch, Rossi's crew has been flat out trying to figure out solutions. As engineers, they've been loving the challenge, though as competitors they have not been happy with the results.
Rossi's departure from Yamaha produced a similar effect on the communications and PR staff: where once their job was merely to limit access to Rossi, now they are having to work harder to promote the Yamaha brand and Lorenzo and Spies as riders. For better or for worse, Rossi is bigger than the sport, and there was never a shortage of attention for the team. With Rossi gone, the team is having to get creative to generate a buzz, and like Rossi's pit crew, they appear to be relishing the challenge. At Barcelona, they staged the flash mob outside the Sagrada Familia, putting Lorenzo on a fake grid and having him ride his M1 along the streets of the city (an idea, by the way, which came straight from the brains of Yamaha's communications staff, and not from an outside agency). At Silverstone, they gave a group of journalists intimate and informal access to Lorenzo, to ease relations between the two parties. Expect more of the same over the next few months, and that can only be a good thing.
Simultaneously with MotoGP at Silverstone, the World Superbike series is racing at Misano. The contest there is between the two men who will be contending for the championship, with Carlos Checa leading Max Biaggi by a small margin. The chasing pack is led by Marco Melandri, though the gap to the leaders is rather large. Betting against another Checa double would probably be rather foolish, but then again, so would betting against Biaggi scoring his first win of the season at the Adriatic circuit. With Stoner fast catching Lorenzo and starting to look invincible, and Checa both fast and unflappable, both the MotoGP and World Superbike titles could well be settled sooner rather than later. But first, there's some racing to do.