The Indianapolis Motor Speedway is an immensely successful motorsports venue, but its very success worked against it on the first day of practice. After complaints last year that the track was too bumpy and the kerbs were raised too much, the infield part of the circuit was completely resurfaced and many of the bumps were removed. The MotoGP riders were almost unanimously impressed by the effort put in by Indy, and the change was universally appreciated as a sign that IMS was keen on keeping MotoGP at the facility for the immediate future.
The praise soon evaporated after the Friday morning session of practice, however. Like all newly-laid tarmac, the track was very dirty, and the Spanish contingent especially were complaining bitterly about the lack of grip. "I never tried asphalt so slippery," Jorge Lorenzo said after FP1, and several riders commented that the track was like riding in the wet. "You can't lean the bike in the corners," Dani Pedrosa added, "And the tires are destroyed."
The root of the problem is the lack of use that the infield track gets, being employed solely by MotoGP and the (very) occasional track day run by former MotoGP legend Kevin Schwantz. As a result, the track is dirty and has very little rubber laid down on the surface, meaning the track was immensely slippery for the first session. The fact that there are only 17 MotoGP bikes circulating didn't help either, with so few bikes not helping to lay down very much rubber at all.
Enter Moto2: 38 600cc four-strokes laying down rubber through (oversized) Dunlop slicks helped enormously in both cleaning the track and putting down rubber, and when the MotoGP bikes took to the track again in the afternoon, the surface was hugely improved. "This afternoon the step was massive, and there was normal grip," Valentino Rossi said, after describing the track as being "like in the wet" during the morning session. The difference was visible in the times: the FP2 times were close to three seconds faster than the times from FP1, and the track should improve as the weekend goes on. "We need rubber on the track and no rain," is how Ben Spies summed it up. Nicky Hayden concurred: "Hopefully with so many Moto2 bikes it should get better."
With the bumps gone and the grip improving, the riders were much happier. The only problem was that even with 38 Moto2 bikes circulating, not all of the track was being cleaned. While the racing line was getting pretty grippy, outside of the racing line was still slippery. "If you get off line, you are in the shit, it's like rain!" Rossi summed up the line succinctly. That could cause a few problems in overtaking, with more worries for the packed Moto2 field than for MotoGP, but the first couple of race laps were expected to be pretty hairy. "First four turns is where we see a lot of action in the first lap," Ben Spies explained, "so as long as everybody can stay within that 8 foot area of the good line, I think it's OK. If you get off-line majorly and try to keep your pace up, you could easily crash."
Spies had good reason to be happy: the factory Yamaha rider was fastest in the morning session, and 2nd in the afternoon. The Yamahas overall were doing pretty well, the M1 seeming to use the front tires a little better than the Hondas, with all of the Honda riders as well as the Ducatis complaining that both the hard and the soft front tires were only lasting for 5 or 6 laps. The reason the tires were being worn was simple: the stone chips that constitute the new asphalt have not yet been worn, so though the surface is smooth, the individual stones have a lot of sharp edges, Spies explained. This will only improve over time, as rubber is laid down and the sharp edges worn down.
Overall, there was not much the teams could do to work on setup. The morning session had been too slippery, the data from the previous year proving to be useless. Only in the afternoon could you learn anything positive, but the changing conditions had their drawbacks. Valentino Rossi and his crew had tried a radical change to the setup in the afternoon, and that had not worked out as planned, the team electing to return to "a more normal set up" for Saturday. On the other side of the Marlboro Ducati garage, Nicky Hayden was struggling more with the fact the conditions were changing rather than the conditions themselves. "It's taking me a little bit of time to get used to the new bike," Hayden told the media, "and the team, we're not sure how it would react in a few areas." When conditions are changing so much throughout practice, then extracting usable data from a bike they're not too familiar with is proving to be a major headache.
The asphalt was not the only target of blame from the riders, Bridgestone once again copped a lot of criticism for the conservative choice of tires. The hard rear tire especially was singled out for much criticism. "The rear hard tire is useless," Dani Pedrosa said, and his Repsol Honda teammate Casey Stoner said he hadn't even bothered trying it. Valentino Rossi told the press that he had talked to Bridgestone at Mugello and asked them to change the allocation for Indianapolis then. "I said already to Bridgestone in Mugello to modify the allocation for Indianapolis because the rubber that we have on the hard tire is completely useless," Rossi said. "But they didn't modify, so we have to manage with just 5 or 6 tires on the weekend." Stoner was equally critical: "We've asked Bridgestone for a lot of things and never really got any of them." The solution, Stoner told reporters, was simple. "Bridgestone need to bring back the tires they had in '08," Stoner said. "They were working much better, and they had a much wider temperature range."
The role of single-tire supplier was rather forced on Bridgestone, when the defections from Michelin reached a peak towards the end of the 2008 season. They have responded by being very conservative with their choices, as they did not want to risk tire degradation making the Japanese company look incapable of producing a tire that can last a race. Add to that the fact that Bridgestone's MotoGP R&D is aimed at learning lessons about tire durability, and you have a recipe for conflict. Bridgestone's PR department have had their work cut out in 2011.