It's funny how the mood of the paddock can swing. There was much to talk about after qualifying on Friday - because race day is on Saturday here, a hangover of Assen's Dutch Reformed Church past - such as Marco Simoncelli's second pole, Casey Stoner's relatively lowly 3rd place, Jorge Lorenzo missing out on the front row twice in 7 races, Karel Abraham - yes, the kid with the rich daddy, or perhaps we should say the really, really fast kid with the rich daddy - being quickest of the Ducatis, and Valentino Rossi struggling with the GP11.1 just as much as he did with the GP11.0. But instead, all anyone wanted to talk about was tires.
The topic got chewed over by every rider, journalists moving from hospitality unit to hospitality unit to ask the same questions, and receive the same answers, more or less, the only variation being in the solutions offered. The problem, of course, is that the Bridgestones are simply too good. MotoGP's spec tires offer phenomenal levels of grip - in an offhand comment, Casey Stoner referred to 58 degrees of lean as "not that much" - with outstanding duration. It is common for riders to set their fastest laps in the second half of the race, the point at which the tires are supposed to be degrading and losing grip.
The downside to all that grip is that it is only available once the tires are up to temperature, and achieving that is sometimes very difficult. The only way to get the tires up to temperature is to push them hard, getting hard on the brakes into a corner, before slamming the bike onto one ear to load the tires. However, if the tires aren't warm enough, they just let go, the rear being especially treacherous in this respect, sliding, then gripping, then launching the rider into low earth orbit, or just letting go and lowsiding the rider through the gravel.
The morning FP2 session had examples of almost every type of cold tire crash, though curiously, only the Repsol Honda bikes were involved. Casey Stoner - assisted by a small patch of water - flicked off his RC212V in the first minutes of the session, a minute later, Andrea Dovizioso had a huge cold-tire highside in exactly the same spot (Nicky Hayden later diagnosed the crash as a closed-throttle incident, where the rear just comes round with nothing you can do), then finally, another minute later, Hiroshi Aoyama - subbing for the still injured Dani Pedrosa - lost the bike in the frighteningly fast Ramshoek.
The common factor in all these crashes was Assen's lack of left-hand corners, Stoner and Dovizioso going down at De Bult, the third left hander on the track, Aoyama at the Ramshoek, the fourth. There is the best part of a mile between the third left hander and the fourth, and only one more time the bike gets onto the left-hand side of the tire before crossing the finish line, that being at the final chicane. The left-hand side of the tire has plenty of time to cool off, which it rapidly does.
Even the infinitely experienced Loris Capirossi got caught out by the tires, falling very heavily during qualifying and dislocating his shoulder and injuring his ribs. Capirossi's injury means that we once again have a man short on the grid, and this is precisely the problem: the Bridgestones, brilliant as they are, can be a little precocious, and when they let go, people get hurt.
This is precisely the objection that was raised in the Safety Commission on Friday. A larger attendance than normal (though far from massive) saw subjects as diverse as different types of astroturf and resurfacing at Silverstone covered, but a big part of the discussion was about the need for a different approach to the tires. Cal Crutchlow led part of the debate, comparing his experiences with the World Superbike Pirellis, which warm up almost immediately, but lose grip towards the end of the race. Designing a tire like that is not something that Bridgestone is able (or willing) to do in the short term - though they are working on the problem - and so that leaves the riders scratching around for solutions.
More tires is one solution, though a bigger step between the hard tire and the soft is a much more popular one. Yet another is to have the ability to change the allocation numbers so that riders can take more than just a single extra hard or soft front tire, but can instead decide to take a lot more soft rears when it's cold or hard rears when it's hot. Currently they get 5 soft rears and 5 hard rears, and they are sometimes left with a large pile of either unused or unusable tires. Allowing riders to have 7 of one compound and 3 of the other might solve this problem altogether, but that would require Bridgestone to produce a lot more tires.
The real solution is to make tires that warm up faster and degrade a little bit more, which is exactly what Bridgestone have already done. Unfortunately, they did it based on the data from last year, and 2010 was rather exceptional. For the first half of the year, every race we went to was hot and dry, allowing the tires to get up to temperature quickly. This year, we're having an exceptionally cold and wet year, and so the gains the new tires have made in warmup time have been lost in track temperature. The track temperature for qualifying at Assen in 2010, for example, was 15 degrees warmer than the same session this year.
Bridgestone offered to solve the problem this weekend, by first offering to cut the tires to allow them to warm a little more quickly, and then offering to ship a whole selection of tires with a one-step softer compound on the left-hand side, to cope with Assen's lack of left handers. But the trouble is, Bridgestone must offer the change to all the teams, and the rules state that the tire allocation can only be changed if all the teams agree. There was no unanimity for the cut slicks, and then there was no unanimity on the softer rear, and so the truckload of Bridgestone tires on the road from the factory's storage facility in Germany was left in limbo, making the journey in vain.
The hunt is on for the team that rejected the offer of extra tires, but so far there has been nothing but conjecture. Repsol Honda are prime candidates - Casey Stoner is a known fan of the hard tire - but then it was the three Repsols that went down on cold tires this morning. Marco Simoncelli and Ben Spies have done brilliantly in the cold conditions, though Spies' teammate Lorenzo has lacked confidence just as he has lacked grip. This time tomorrow, once the media have spoken to all the riders, the truth will out.
The cold is what is playing merry hell with Valentino Rossi's GP11.1. The MotoGP legend has clearly not forgotten how to ride - bagging the 2nd fastest time on a brand new bike in the wet was proof of that - but in the cold conditions, the destroked GP12 is proving just as treacherous as the GP11.0, the bike Preziosi designed for this year. The old problems are back - a lack of front end feel - something that Rossi and his crew had hoped would disappear along with the old design.
Their hope was based on the way the GP12 had responded during testing, Rossi praising the front end feel of the 2012 Ducati Desmosedici after testing the bike at Jerez and Mugello. The problem, it now appears, is that the weather at Mugello has been perfect - read: dry and hot - while conditions at Assen have been anything but. The rear of the new bike is still clearly improved, but without any feeling in the front, there is nothing Rossi can do.
His team tried turning the bike upside down, but as both Casey Stoner and Nicky Hayden said so many times last year, the sweet spot on the Ducati is so small that if you don't get within a gnat's whisker of it first time round, you have no idea it's even there. Burgess and the team have some more ideas for Saturday warmup, but the outlook is not good until they get to Mugello, a track that has both plenty of data and nice, hot, Italian sunshine. Those could be the two magic ingredients that soothe Valentino Rossi's pain. Until then, he can only hang on, and keep trying to figure out the mystery of the Ducati.