The summer break officially ended at 9:15am this morning, when the peace which reigned in the wooded Moravian hills was split asunder by the crackle of a pack of howling 125cc two strokes. Though the wooded Moravian hills are wonderful when silent, the addition of racing motorcycles offered a vast improvement, as many of the people who have already crowded the paddock and track agreed.
Fastest man of the day is Dani Pedrosa, the Repsol Honda rider untouchable in the morning, smashing the race lap record and getting within a couple of tenths of the pole record straight off the bat. Pedrosa was a tenth slower in the afternoon, allowing his teammate Casey Stoner to close the gap, from just under a second to less than four tenths. But the break has done Pedrosa good. Having spent the period leading up to Laguna Seca either in hospital, at the physiotherapists or at the racetrack, having a mental break had made a big difference.
Ever the perfectionist - I once asked Casey Stoner if he was ever completely happy with his setup, and he replied that the day you start being happy with your setup is the day you start to get slower - the Australian said the only good thing about the practice session was that they had improved their time while Pedrosa had not managed to improve his. Stoner and his crew are struggling with tire problems, a legacy of the races at Mugello and Sachsenring. The rear tire had had blistering problems, and they had gone backwards and forwards trying to cure the blistering, but whatever they did had not worked. Putting less pressure on the rear made no difference to the blistering, and ruined what speed they had, Stoner said. He had no feeling at the front and no grip at the rear, describing the bike as feeling "rough" and uncomfortable to ride, not words usually associated with Honda's Grand Prix motorcycles. Stoner felt they should go back to the old setup they were using earlier in the season, which gave him a little more feeling.
Marco Simoncelli was 3rd fastest in both sessions, despite a crash at the end of the morning. Like almost everyone, he is struggling with feel from the front tire, giving him trouble on corner entry. If the San Carlo Gresini rider has a few issues, defending World Champion Jorge Lorenzo is not happy at all. "I expected fewer problems and more performance," he summed up his day, pinpointing a lack of feel from the front as the root cause. More performance could come from a new engine which the Yamaha riders are due to test on Monday, alongside the 1000cc bikes.
As an aside, the testing situation has become very difficult to keep track of. Both Yamaha and Honda will test their 1000s on Monday, as those two still have testing days for their 1000s left. Suter is reportedly due to give their 1000 CRT bike another run out on Monday, giving MotoGP followers another chance to assess the viability of the CRT rules. Meanwhile, Yamaha and Ducati are also scheduled to test their 800s, with Ducati focusing on the 800 altogether. Both Nicky Hayden and Valentino Rossi will do a couple of back-to-back runs with the GP11 and GP11.1 on Monday, before focusing on the GP11.1. Hayden's main objective is just to get a good understanding of the GP11.1, while Rossi will have a few new parts to test. One big area will be the electronics, Rossi told the press, but they will also have some hardware, though Rossi was coy on exactly what. "We have some small parts for the forks, for the front, all small parts to help improve the feeling at the front," was all Rossi would say.
Rossi was actually quite content with the work on Friday. After losing some time on the hard tire, thinking it might be the race tire, then discarding it after it was sliding too much, the Italian then said that a change to the position of the front had made an improvement, helping with feeling at the front and allowing him to do four or five laps at a good pace. Rossi felt reasonably confident of matching the pace of Ben Spies and Andrea Dovizioso, but he feared what the other riders would do. "But you know, it's just Friday, and for sure the other guys in front will improve."
Improvement for Ben Spies might be difficult, the Texan struggling with a trapped nerve. Though immensely painful, he had no idea how it had happened, the pain starting suddenly as he sat at the table a couple of days ago. Physiotherapy was helping a little, but he needed a miracle cure to be truly competitive. Still, 6th overall at the end of the first day was not bad, but Spies was nowhere near 100%.
While everyone struggled with rear feeling at the front, there could be some relief to come next year. A Bridgestone spokesperson explained that the Japanese tire giant was working on a different construction for 2012, an evolution of the tire tested - and greatly appreciated - by the riders at Estoril. That construction is less stiff, and so should provide more feedback and more feel for the riders. Such a new tire could be half the battle for Ducati, as it is precisely this problem that besets the Desmosedici. A little more feel from the front end could accelerate the development of the Ducati, and get Valentino Rossi within reach of the lead group again. From there, the other half of the job - changing the Ducati to improve the front end - should be considerably easier. The problem for Ducati is that the softer construction will also benefit Yamaha and Honda, so Ducati have to hope that they make make the most gains from the new tire.
Motegi is also an issue, as usual, with all of the riders attending the Safety Commission on Friday evening. The ideal situation, Valentino Rossi agreed with one journalist, would be for everyone to agree on a position and to follow it through. But the first indications from the Safety Commission are that no such agreement was reached. There is still too much disagreement among the riders, and a lot of pressure is being brought to bear by the Japanese factories - though the Japanese factories are keen to deny any such accusations. Marco Simoncelli told one journalist from GPOne.com that if he had a signed contract for 2012, he would not go to Motegi. But Honda are holding out on Simoncelli, delaying the signing of a new contract. This pressure is probably what caused Simoncelli's manager to hint at talks with Ducati, something strenuously denied by the Ducati camp. It is clearly an attempt to pressure Honda into signing Simoncelli sooner rather than later, so that Simoncelli feels free to decide on attending Motegi without outside pressure.
And this goes to the heart of the matter. As veteran Italian journalist Nereo Balanzin pointed out to me, a lot of pressure is being put on a group of young men who are extremely competitive and in the prime of their lives, their early to mid twenties. Men in that age group do not respond very well to being forced into a decision at the best of times, but when the group consists of people with the kind of self-confidence and drive that allows them to achieve at the highest level of sports, they respond incredibly poorly. It looks almost certain that nearly everyone will be at Motegi, but quite a few will be there for the shortest period possible, and there will be much grumbling along the way.