Due to technical issues (internet connection problems in the accommodation we are staying in at Mugello), Thursday's round up is late, for which you have our sincere apologies. We hope you will bear with us through this.
MotoGP rolls into Mugello with what looks like being the hottest weekend of the year ahead of it. And from the events of the first day, that's hottest in every conceivable sense of the word.
That this is going to be something special came as we rolled into the car park at the spectacularly situated Italian circuit. Where normally, Thursday afternoons are a relatively quiet affair, the paddock was bustling with people and the paddock car parks were filling up quickly. Valentino Rossi riding a Ducati is a big deal anywhere, but at Mugello, it is something akin to seeing the Beatles in the Cavern Club or Jimi Hendrix at Woodstock. Crowds have been down at every track so far this season - economies around the world continue to suffer - but Mugello could be on course for a record attendance.
The crowds are unlikely to see what they came for, however. From the beginning of the year, Rossi has struggled to get to grips with the Ducati Desmosedici, even abandoning the 2011 bike - the GP11 - at the last race in favor of a 2012 machine with a destroked engine, now dubbed the GP11.1. But at Assen, the main problem remained. While the rear pumping issue was solved on the new bike, the lack of front feel - a result of the inability to get heat into the front Bridgestone - remains.
The problem is worryingly similar to the situation at Suzuki, where the bike only works in hot temperatures - one reason to keep an eye on Alvaro Bautista this weekend, who may finally be able to find some grip from his GSV-R. The heat of the air and from the track gives the tires an initial bump in temperature, leaving the bike and the rider with less work to do to get the recalcitrant Bridgestones into the zone where they go from giving frighteningly little feedback into the temperature range where they become the very best motorcycle tires on the face of the planet.
Then, the Desmosedici's front-end woes disappear, and Rossi is able to push. When Rossi tested the GP12 here (identical to the GP11.1 except for the conrods and the crankshaft), temperatures were like they are expected to be for Sunday, Rossi said in the press conference. "Maybe the temperature will help us," Rossi said, though he also did his best to temper expectations. "We are not strong enough to fight for the victory," the Italian warned, "and also not for the podium." There could be a lot of disappointed Italians come Sunday night.
Naturally, the assembled minds of the paddock are trying to figure out why Rossi is struggling on the Ducati. Nobody believes Rossi has lost his edge - many paddock insiders, including myself, believe that the Italian is capable of riding better than he ever has, pushed on by the incredible level of the kids who came into the class to try (and in two cases, succeed) to beat him. Capable, if only he were still with Yamaha or Honda, and not struggling on a wayward Ducati.
The two favorite explanations for the problems with the Ducati center around the chassis. One group believe the size of the chassis is the problem, with so little material in the small forward subframe which comprises the Ducati's front chassis that engineering in sufficient flex is a difficult proposition. Another group believe that the issue is the use of carbon fiber, with not so much the stiffness being the problem as the way that it responds when flexing. Carbon fiber tends to snap back into position, rather than return to its original position at a more controlled pace. That in turn gives it a very harsh feel, which may run against the instincts of a rider who has spent the best part of 20 years riding aluminum twin beam frames.
While Rossi's travails on the Ducati are the biggest story of the season, the biggest news of this weekend was the return to the track of Dani Pedrosa after three races' absence. The Repsol Honda rider was in the press conference, where he dealt irritably with questions concerning the mysteries and rumors surrounding his injury. No, he told the press conference, he did not crash riding a supermoto machine, he had not touched a motorcycle all during his injury. No, he had not been bowling, but had merely gone to a bowling alley as a visitor. His response to the question about whether he had bowled himself showed his irritation with the questions and rumors: "Do you think I'm stupid?" Definitely not, but that never stopped people trying to sell newspapers.
The real cause of Pedrosa's injury was a piece of bone that probably came loose during training. The problem was that the plate inserted into Pedrosa's shoulder to reinforce his collarbone was smaller than usual, and the screws used to hold the plate and collarbone in place were shorter than usual, to allay Pedrosa's fear of a recurrence of the Thoracic Outlet Syndrome that plagued him after his broken collarbone at Motegi last year. The new system was slightly weaker and less stable than a normal plated collarbone (such as the ones fitted to Colin Edwards and Cal Crutchlow), with the result that a small piece of bone came loose. Pedrosa had noticed pain while training, and after examination by surgeons, and a second operation to fix the loose bone fragment, everything was strong once again.
Some - perhaps a large part - of Pedrosa's irritation was a result of the seating arrangements. Somehow - whether through ignorance or by design - Pedrosa found himself seated next to the man he blames for breaking his collarbone, Marco Simoncelli. The situation made both men uncomfortable, neither looking at the other throughout the event, even when a spat erupted between the two at the end of the press conference.
Pedrosa struck the first blow when asked about the events at Le Mans. "If somebody is still doubting about this, it's unbelievable" Pedrosa said, referring to the train of events which saw Simoncelli cut off Pedrosa's path and the two collide. "It's clear what he is showing on the track."
Pedrosa's anger was clear to see, and Simoncelli's response - in press releases, and in a text message which the Italian says he sent the Spaniard - had done nothing to pacify him. "In Estoril, he was joking that maybe somebody should arrest him," Pedrosa said of Simoncelli, "but maybe he needs it. On his head is nothing but hair." The latter phrase is a literal translation of a piece of wordplay which is quite funny in Spanish, which you might translate into English as "his head is full of nothing but hair," implying that the space underneath his hair is worryingly empty.
Simoncelli was unimpressed by Pedrosa's accusations. "For me, the things that he and his manager say are stupid things," Simoncelli said. "Is better not to speak with him or his manager." The exchange made for an awkward group photograph at the end of the press conference. The body language was beyond stilted, the gaps between the riders - Simoncelli standing next to Pedrosa, Rossi beside Casey Stoner - as large as possible in a group photograph.
Simoncelli has been the talk of the paddock. The Italian has quickly become a fan favorite, and is immensely exciting to watch on a motorcycle. The fact that he is 2nd in the BMW M Award (the classification for the fastest qualifiers) is a demonstration of Simoncelli's raw speed. The fact that he is in 10th in the World Championship standings, with the struggling Toni Elias the only Honda rider behind him, is a testament to his erratic race performance.
There is a strong current of sentiment in the paddock against Simoncelli, and not just emanating from the Spanish media. One mechanic told me that he was disgusted to read comparisons of Simoncelli's passes to the passes of Eddie Lawson, Wayne Rainey and Wayne Gardner in the past. "They never left another rider no room," he said, "Simoncelli is not Wayne Gardner." Simoncelli's former 250 rival Alvaro Bautista - no nowhere near Simoncelli on the race track - has been saying the same thing about Simoncelli for years. Previously, Bautista has told the Spanish media, his complaints were dismissed, but now everybody suddenly agrees with him.
Such complaints will not deter the vast band of fans that Simoncelli has amassed, both in Italy and aboard, however. As Valentino Rossi falters, the allegiance of the Italian - and a large section of the British and American - fans has switched from the nine-time World Champion to Simoncelli. The Italian brings a much-needed dose of excitement into the MotoGP series - though for both the right and the wrong reasons. Simoncelli bears the weight of expectations on his shoulders at Mugello, and his record at the track suggests that he could do well on Sunday.
Simoncelli's biggest problem, however, is that his record at every other track so far this season has been frankly dismal. Four race crashes - two on the first lap - a ride-through and two reasonable finishes is not a fantastic record for the Italian. If Simoncelli crashes again, or is involved in another incident, then HRC could start to lose patience with the Italian. He may be good marketing value for the San Carlo Gresini team, but he has not got the results that Honda demands, nor that his status and equipment as a factory rider deserves.