Herve Poncharal joked at Assen that if the MotoGP series wanted to find an extra source of income, it should offer to organize events in drought-stricken areas, as a MotoGP race appears to be a guarantee of rain this year. Mugello is no different: the locals say there has been no rain for weeks now - though the rich verdant green of the countryside would appear to suggest otherwise - and as soon as the MotoGP circus rolls into the Tuscan hills, the heavens part and rain falls.
The day started well enough - stunningly so, hot temperatures, clear skies - but as the morning neared an end, the clouds started to roll in. The 125cc class started with a few spots of rain, getting heavier as the MotoGP class started then drying out towards the end. So the MotoGP riders lost the best part of a session, while the wily Andrea Dovizioso posted a positively scorching time on the very last lap of the session, just as the track had dried enough to put in a good time.
Dovizioso's time belies the truth of the afternoon, though. For the first half of the session, everyone but Randy de Puniet - whether to please the sponsors or just to get some feeling with the bike - sat waiting in the garage, some venturing out to talk to passing TV commentators, others chatting idly with their mechanics and crew. The track was, as Casey Stoner said afterwards, too wet for slicks, but dry enough to destroy a rain tire should you venture out on one. Even cut slicks would have been no good, the Repsol Honda rider said, as they would have destroyed themselves just as quickly.
The delay suited some and frustrated others, the two ends of the spectrum probably represented by Dani Pedrosa and Valentino Rossi. Pedrosa, returning to the bike for the first time since Le Mans nearly two months ago and after having had two operations on his collarbone, was glad to get a few extra hours of rest and recovery. Mugello is a hard track to come back to, especially with a weak shoulder. Braking from 330km/h for turn one, the bike balanced nicely on its nose for the downhill section, is tough enough when you are fit, let alone when the shoulder is hurting. But his collarbone held up relatively well, losing strength and increasing pain as the morning FP1 session progressed. If he can handle the pain, Pedrosa said, he should be able to last the race. A podium is too much to ask at Mugello, but he will get valuable time on the bike, with time to recover for the next two. Pedrosa has won at both the Sachsenring and Laguna Seca, and is hoping to be fit enough to be competitive there.
Valentino Rossi was deeply frustrated by the neither-one-thing-nor-the-other conditions. The morning session had been a bit of a disaster, with first one bike stopping due to an electrical problem - apparently a melted wire - then a couple of laps later, his second bike stopped with a different electrical problem. The Italian only posted 7 full laps, ending the first session down in 13th, a long way off where he needs to be.
The problems are all part of the decision to race the Ducati GP11.1. The GP12 which the 800 version is based around was still in the early stages of development, and as with all skunkworks projects, there are always a few loose ends hanging around, which you discover and fix during the testing process. That testing process has been accelerated for the GP11.1, with Rossi using the race weekends as part race, part test for 2012, which means problems like this can easily arise.
Though the new bike is much better in the rear, the pumping now completely gone, even in the hot weather of the morning session at Mugello, the front still suffers the same problems, the bike still hard to turn and lacking feedback from the front. The 1000cc GP12 that Rossi tested here a few weeks ago had less of a problem, but part of that is the different nature of the two engine capacities. The 800cc bike needs more corner speed and hence more edge grip, Rossi explained in his press debrief, whereas with the 1000, he could use the extra power to help turn the bike. From a glass-half-full perspective, Ducati have cleared one huge hurdle already, fixing the pumping that has plagued the Desmosedici almost from the start of the 800 era. With that issue dealt with, they can work on the next one, the problems at the front of the bike. That, however, remains a rather thorny problem to tackle.
What is clear from the results of the dry morning practice is that the lap record is in serious danger. Everyone praised the new surface, saying it gave much more grip than the old one, with Casey Stoner sounding the only slightly negative note, mourning the loss of the banking when the asphalt was replaced, the corners now much flatter than they were. The old layout of the track with the banked corners was naturally faster, Stoner said, but the new surface and the removal of the bumps had made it easier to go fast despite the flatter corners.
Despite a shoulder twinge - probably nerve pain or a pinched muscle, a remnant of his cold tire crash in FP2 at Assen last weekend - Stoner was confident they would get into the low 1'48s on Saturday (at least if the weather holds up), which would put them in line to match Rossi's pole record from 2008, the last year that MotoGP allowed soft qualifying tires. With three Hondas in the top three spots in FP1 - though Andrea Dovizioso was assisted by following Stoner around - it would be unwise to lay money against a Honda rider taking victory on Sunday, though the question is whether they will be playing the Australian or the Italian national anthem for the podium ceremony.
The smart money says the championship leader is the man to beat, but Simoncelli just keeps on displaying the incredible speed he has. The San Carlo Gresini rider topped the morning timesheets and looked fast and aggressive throughout. Simoncelli really needs a result on Sunday, or HRC is likely to start losing patience. He has the speed for the results, the only question mark hangs over his intelligence and attitude. The calmness and patience to wait is what will put him on the podium, qualities which Simoncelli has patently failed to display so far this year.
The fallout from yesterday's press conference - it would be fairer to say, the fallout from the Le Mans race - continued into Friday, with Dani Pedrosa once again expressing his disgust with the Italian. What had angered Pedrosa most, he told the Spanish press, was that Simoncelli had only offered to apologize when it was already too late. When asked about Simoncelli's statement that he had sent Pedrosa a text message with his apology, Pedrosa denied he had ever received it, and accused Simoncelli of lying about having sent it. "If he had come to me to apologize on Sunday at Le Mans, I would have accepted it," Pedrosa said, but what had come had been far too little, and most of all, far too late.
A ban is what Simoncelli should be given, Pedrosa said, the ride through a laughably inadequate penalty. "He does not learn," Pedrosa repeated, adding a warning of his own. "Race Direction cannot provide good safety," Pedrosa said when asked what he would do when he next faced Simoncelli, "So you must look after yourself."
Pedrosa was a victim of his own politeness, he explained, when asked to give his version of events at Le Mans. Pedrosa had left Simoncelli room on the outside, and Simoncelli took and then cut across Pedrosa's nose leaving him nowhere to go but crash. "Simoncelli overtook me in the previous corner, then I passed him back on the straight. And I didn't close the door on the outside, because I passed him before the braking zone, so I thought if I moved to the right, I will block him and maybe he has no space to brake. So I decided to stay next to him, so he had space to come beside me."
That was when it all went wrong, Pedrosa explained. "Suddenly, I see someone crossing in front of me, and getting in front of me, and that was it. And he just released the brakes, and he was on the outside, I had the inside. If he wanted really to go in, he should have waited for me to go first. In my opinion, he was nuts at this point, because first of all, he had a better rhythm than me, and so he could maybe have taken second in that race, he was on the outside, he does not have the right to take the line. Even though he said he was right, he did not make the corner, so that shows he wasn't right."
The issue even got taken to the Safety Commission, where a group of riders confronted Simoncelli about his riding. A heated argument spilled over from the meeting, with Jorge Lorenzo and Marco Simoncelli arguing publicly afterwards. Lorenzo afterwards complained that Simoncelli would not listen, saying that Pedrosa was right, he was all hair and no brains.
The Safety Commission had been originally met to discuss the tire situation. Bridgestone engineers were seen running around all of the MotoGP riders this afternoon, discussing a proposal to bring a softer step tire to Laguna Seca, just as they had offered to do for Assen. The offer is there because Laguna Seca can suffer the same kind of cool and damp conditions that the rest of the year has seen, and Bridgestone is starting to be a little concerned at the storm of criticism it has faced over the warmup time its current crop of tires require.
There could be a more permanent solution next year. A proposal has been put forward for Bridgestone to expand the tire selection from two to three different specs. Bridgestone has rejected a request to do so for the rest of this season, on the entirely reasonable grounds that the logistics required are just not feasible at such short notice. The Japanese tire company are not enthusiastic about the prospect of an extended selection for 2012 either, given the extra logistics required. More tires would mean much more expense, including bringing an extra truck and crew to the track just to transport and house the extra tires. It may, however, allow riders to select a softer tire, and avoid some of the big get-offs we have seen this season, and the spate of broken collarbones. The thought of fuller grids and fewer injured riders may be enough for Dorna to pressure Bridgestone into acceding to that request.