Bridgestone must be regretting getting that single tire contract around now, as once again, the only topic of conversation in the MotoGP paddock was the tires, and the tone of the conversation was a very long way from being universally positive. Four big crashes during the morning free practice session - two big enough that if circumstances had been otherwise, they could have resulted in serious injury - had everyone complaining of the cold temperature performance of the Bridgestones. But more of that later.
First, to the actual results: In the 125cc class, Nico Terol remains imperious, though Hector Faubel is snapping angrily at his heels and may well give his Bankia Aspar teammate a run for his money. Just seven thousandths separated the pair at the end of Friday. The gaps in Moto2 are similarly minuscule: Thomas Luthi leads Aleix Espargaro by the second-smallest of measurable margins, Luthi setting a time two-thousandths of a second quicker than the Spaniard. Yuki Takahashi is a further eight thousandths back, while Scott Redding lags a relatively massive seven hundredths of a second behind Luthi. Less than a second covers the first 26 riders at the Sachsenring, promising an exciting and probably chaotic race on Sunday.
In the MotoGP class, Marco Simoncelli was the fastest round the tight and technical Sachsenring, though the times are four tenths off the lap-record pace. Jorge Lorenzo was 2nd, less than a tenth behind, while the Repsol Honda armada followed a couple of tenths further back, Dani Pedrosa - his shoulder growing stronger as quickly as he had hoped - at the head, with Casey Stoner and Andrea Dovizioso following. Nicky Hayden is the fastest Ducati, his results giving him pause to reconsider whether to ride the GP11.1 next weekend at Laguna Seca, stick with the GP11 on which is clearly very comfortable, or use one of each as a less risky experiment.
Hayden's teammate Valentino Rossi - nine-time World Champion in all classes, seven-time World Champion in the premier class, with titles on 500cc two-stroke, 990cc four-stroke and 800cc four-stroke machines, in case you had forgotten - was 12th fastest in the afternoon, and continues to struggle with the weight balance of the bike. The GP11.1 has fixed the rear pumping, but the front remains the problem, with no feeling and no feedback, Rossi clearly not comfortable on the bike. The problem remains getting temperature into the front tire, and given the nature of the Bridgestones (more of which later) and the nature of the 800cc MotoGP machines, that is absolutely crucial to going fast.
Though Ducati's struggles have received the most publicity, things have not all been rosy over at Yamaha. Lorenzo's fortunes have improved radically since returning to much of the 2010 Yamaha M1, though the Spaniard remains cagey as to exactly what he is using. Informed opinion in the paddock says he is using the 2010 chassis and swingarm, with the 2011 engine and suspension, as well as the 2011 electronics package. Ben Spies is equally opaque about what parts he is using, but he is frank about why that is. "Honestly, I don't know what I'm using," Spies said in response to questions about whether he was using the 2011 or 2010 frame. His lack of speed at the Sachsenring is down to his health, not his bike, the Texan suffering with a nasty head cold which is clouding his concentration and giving him minor vision problems. But at 280 km/h, there is no such thing as minor vision problems.
The Monster Tech 3 Yamahas also continue to struggle, both Colin Edwards and Cal Crutchlow troubled by a front-end nervousness that manifests itself as a shaking through the handlebars, both at full lean and when straight. The cause of the problem is unclear, Crutchlow equally in the dark about which chassis he is using. "I have to ride what I've been given, so it doesn't really matter what chassis it is," Crutchlow said. It was clear, however, that his bike was different to Lorenzo's, as Lorenzo was able to get the bike to hold a tighter line that he was able to. "Obviously, Lorenzo would be quicker on my bike than I am," Crutchlow said, "but it's clear that he's on a different bike to mine." The Englishman was at least happy they had identified the problem, as that meant they could at least work on solutions, though he also said he was getting heartily sick of the volume of criticism and unwanted advice he was receiving. "I think my phone's been hacked, I've had that many messages," Crutchlow joked.
But of course the real news at the Sachsenring was the four big crashes at Turn 11, the fast right-hander at the top of the hill, taken in 4th or 5th gear before the riders swoop down what has been nicknamed "The Waterfall", the back straight onto the final two corners. Toni Elias, Casey Stoner, Valentino Rossi and Dani Pedrosa all went down there, a fast and terrifying place to crash. Elias and Pedrosa came away relatively unscathed - in Pedrosa's case, very luckily, given that he is still recovering from the surgery to fix the collarbone he broke in the notorious Simoncelli incident at Le Mans - but Rossi and Stoner were less lucky. Rossi fell awkwardly on his shoulder - the one he had surgery on over the winter, and which had troubled him all last year - and that shoulder is giving him some pain again. He also caught his leathers on the kerbstones, which ripped slightly, then wore a hole through his leathers and then into his forearm. The sight was more serious than the discomfort, he said, it looking a little too much like an anatomy lesson. Stoner fell heavily on his right forearm, suffering contusions on the bone, much to his relief, as he had feared it was broken. Both will be fit to ride again tomorrow, though Stoner admitted the crash had shaken him up a little, and made him rather cautious.
The cause of the crash was simple: the right side of the Bridgestone front tire was not getting up to temperature in the cold and windy conditions. The wind had been a factor, Stoner said, as the wind chill had cooled the right side during the long section between the second right-hand corner (Turn 3) and the next right hander (Turn 11), and the front had simply gone away from him in the crash. Stoner's mistake, he said, was to try and save it - which he did a few more times later on - as the rear then dug in and flicked him over the handlebars. Rossi also attributed the problem to the improved grip of the soft rear that Bridgestone had brought, putting even more pressure on the front at a point in the track where there is little for the front to grab a hold of.
Casey Stoner described the problem in detail: "Well, we're accelerating pretty hard off of that hill. It's coming off a flat plateau, and then sort of drops down, and as you come on, you're on the gas in 4th or 5th gear, and the front wants to lift a little bit. The front is coming light, and that's why it wants to go. There's also a point on the track where we have to stay inside to get the correct line, but then you have to lift up and over another part of the track. All these things just make the bike too light, and you can't get enough weight on the front."
Different riders had different solutions to the problem, each from their own perspective. Dani Pedrosa wanted the Friday morning session scrapped, and to go back to three 1-hour sessions of practice, but he was alone in this desire. Casey Stoner wanted to have a tire with a much wider operating temperature, but retaining the characteristics of the current tire. Valentino Rossi, Ben Spies and Andrea Dovizioso all wanted an extra tire to choose from, a softer tire to be able to cope with cold conditions in the morning. And this, according to Matt Birt of MCN, is what they are going to get. Birt posted an update on his Twitter page, saying that all of the riders except for Karel Abraham had attended the Safety Commission, and they had persuaded Bridgestone to bring a third option of tire from Brno onwards.
Such a move would require both a revised contract between Bridgestone and Dorna, and also a change to the MotoGP regulations. The Grand Prix Commission will have to be convened to rubber stamp the move, but if the parties can agree, then it should not be a problem.
Another solution put forward would be to have an asymmetric front to go with the asymmetric rear. Rossi, Spies and Dovizioso were enthusiastic about such a move, Rossi saying that it would only be needed at a couple of tracks, such as here at the Sachsenring and at Phillip Island. Casey Stoner was less enthusiastic, saying that he was worried that such a move might compromise stability under braking. But the definitive answer as to whether this was a good idea was given by the one man with experience of such tires, Nicky Hayden, who had used asymmetric Michelins during his time at Honda. "Just like the rear tire's good, the front here would be awesome," he said.
That, though, would be a good deal more complicated than just bringing an extra option to the races. Given the PR nightmare that this year's unseasonably cold weather has caused Bridgestone in MotoGP, a quicker fix is needed, and producing some more tires in Japan and using up the softer compounds while they arrive by ocean freighter might help silence the constant stream of criticism leveled at the Bridgestone tires.
It has to be emphasized that nobody has anything but the highest praise for the tires once they get up to temperature; but getting to that point can be a treacherous path indeed. Push too hard, and a cold tire will let go, flinging you off your machine. Don't push hard enough, and the tire never reaches its operating temperature, flinging you off your machine. Riding an 800cc MotoGP machine with Bridgestone tires is truly walking the razor's edge.