There were plenty of big names to watch out for at Jerez, but the real star of the show was the weather. She turned out to be such a prima donna that she almost completely halted on-track action for the first session of MotoGP, though not so much through her ferocity as by her fickleness. A rain shower at the end of the previous Moto3 made the track just greasy enough for it to be no use for slick tires, and nowhere near wet enough to get any useful information from wets, and so the vast majority of the MotoGP grid spent all of FP1 suited up but twiddling their thumbs.
A few brave souls did venture out - 9 of the 21 MotoGP riders eventually set a time - but for most, it was little more than a quick lap to test wet settings once the rain started falling in earnest. With the afternoon session taking place on a much wetter track, the CRT bikes took their very first scalp. Ivan Silva, riding a Kawasaki-powered Avintia Blusens bike topped the combined timesheets from both sessions of practice, though the place was more a reflection of the amount of work Silva and his team had to do rather than his natural pace in the wet. Silva has a new chassis to test at Jerez, a combined carbon fiber/aluminium hybrid built by Inmotec and based on their Moto2 bike, a chassis that won a race - admittedly in a downpour - in the Spanish CEV championship last year. Jerez is the first shakedown for the chassis, and so Silva had plenty of reason to be out, whatever the weather. After setting the fastest lap of the day on the FTR chassis, focus switched to the Inmotec, which obviously is in need of a lot more work.
The afternoon session was a little more ordinary, though the weather still played a significant role. Practice started wet, but the track started to dry out relatively quickly, causing huge problems for the tires, though times were a long way from record pace. But at the end of FP2, it was Dani Pedrosa who nabbed the fastest time, the Repsol Honda man the rider who complained least about tires. Ducati's Valentino Rossi took second - yes, you read that right, again more of which anon - finishing ahead of Jorge Lorenzo and Casey Stoner, with the second Ducati of Nicky Hayden in 5th.
Monster Tech 3 Yamaha's Cal Crutchlow had a simple explanation for Pedrosa's speed: "he's lighter than everyone else, so he's not loading the tires as much, and they're lasting much better. He'll be lapping riders pretty quickly." Pedrosa was also concerned about tire wear, though his worries were more about the front, but his comments were merely part of a massive chorus of disapproval about the tires and the way they were being destroyed within three or four laps - or just one lap, if you put your mind to it, according to Andrea Dovizioso.
Casey Stoner, Jorge Lorenzo, Valentino Rossi, Cal Crutchlow, Andrea Dovizioso; everyone you spoke to said the same thing: in the half-wet, half-dry conditions that have prevailed at Jerez - a mirror image of what happened last year - the wet tires started spinning, getting way too hot and shedding their tread as a result. Despite switching to a harder compound for the wets, the result was the same, tires that destroyed themselves in just a few laps.
That a Bridgestone rain tire should destroy itself so quickly comes as something as a surprise. In the early days of competing in MotoGP, Bridgestone sent test riders out on rain tires to ride on a fully dry track, to find out how long the tire would last before it was destroyed. Casey Stoner was adamant that the older generation of Bridgestone rain tires were indeed much better when the track started to dry. "With the old Bridgestones, we used to get movement in the tire, but it would stay together," Stoner said. The new tires were the opposite, much more stable, but they were tearing themselves apart within four laps.
Jorge Lorenzo's displeasure was visible even on the TV screens: at the end of FP2, Lorenzo stormed to the back of the garage, angry at the rate of tire wear and the inability of his crew to find a solution. The tire dropped off too much and too quickly, he said, and this was something they had to fix.
That, however, may well prove to be impossible. Though he too was disappointed by the rate at which the tires destroyed themselves, Andrea Dovizioso regarded it as inevitable. "It's impossible to make a tire for these conditions," the Italian said. Rain tires are never going to last once the track starts to dry.
Several journalists raised the question of intermediate tires, but here opinion was split. Casey Stoner dismissed the idea out of hand, saying that he had never found a use for intermediate tires, preferring to run either full wets or chance it on a slick. Cal Crutchlow, however, viewed it differently: if conditions were to be anything like they were on Friday, then his preference would be to start on an intermediate, and hope that it would last the difference. With intermediates having been banned since the introduction of the single tire rule, Crutchlow would instead choose to start on a rain tire, and then pit early and gamble on it staying dry enough to use slicks. With the tires dropping off so quickly, matching the times of a destroyed wet with a slick on a damp track should be easily possible.
While the general tone among most of the riders was one of irritation, the mood in the Ducati garage - or at least, Rossi's side of the garage - was very different indeed. The Italian was, if not delighted, then at least very pleased with his 2nd spot, and his result had reawakened a belief that he could be competitive in the wet. After 18 months of looking tentative on the bike, at Jerez, Rossi at last showed some aggression, pushing the bike hard and looking for the first time like he was really trying. No doubt his outburst of frustration on Italian TV had relieved some of the tension for Rossi, and imbued him with a new sense of purpose. Watching him ride, it certainly looked like it.
Rossi has his sights set on a podium, which he believes is entirely possible if it is wet. Teammate Nicky Hayden even described the Ducati as "the best bike in the wet" and that was an opinion share by Valentino Rossi. The session today had confirmed what Ducati had hoped for the new bike: that it would be as good in the wet as the GP11 was, and that had given Rossi heart.
The problem is, though, that Ducati do not understand exactly why they are so fast in the wet, while they continue to struggle in the dry. Both Hayden and Rossi were mystified, though Rossi explained that when the bike had the carbon fiber chassis, they believed that it was the stiffness of the chassis that actually helped. "Our chassis was too stiff in the dry," Rossi said, "but in the wet, all the chassis are too stiff." The theory was that the very stiffness of the chassis helped work the tires harder, making them warm up quicker and providing better grip. The problem with this theory, Rossi acknowledged, was that the same thing happened with the aluminium monocoque chassis that had replaced the carbon fiber at Aragon last year, and the aluminium twin spar chassis currently housing the Desmosedici GP12 also showed the same behavior.
It appears that Ducati do not have an adequate explanation for why their bike works in the wet but not in the dry, but a process of deduction points to a number of possible candidates. Firstly, what is clear is that the style of chassis is frankly irrelevant; the bike behaved the same with the CF chassis as it did with aluminium, and both the monocoque and full twin spar showed the same tendency to run wide and not give feedback. Rolling the engine back so that the V is at 45 degrees to the horizontal has helped, at least in terms of easier setup and the bike responding to changes as expected, but the GP12 still runs wide, and it still won't turn the way the riders want it too.
The response to rolling the engine back is a positive aspect, but the real benefit would come from having a narrower V angle. A tighter, more compact engine would produce a better weight distribution, and allow Ducati to put more weight over the front wheel without compromising rake or trail.
The other problem is clearly one of power delivery. The engine is too aggressive, and this makes managing the throttle through the corners quite a handful. Too much electronic intervention is required to tame the power delivery, and this is interfering with the connection between the rider's right wrist and the power at the back wheel. The reason the bike improves massively in the wet is because the engine never really gets into its power band, the bike spinning up well before the engine turns vicious. Andrea Dovizioso put it very well, when he said "the best riders in the wet are the ones that use the least throttle." Gentle, smooth, coaxing the bike forward is the way to go in the wet. Once the track dries, and the wet mapping cutting power by 20-odd percent is replaced with the full-fat fire-breathing one, the bike once again becomes unmanageable.
Ducati's savior may come in the unlikely form of Dorna CEO Carmelo Ezpeleta. Ezpeleta is determined to push through a rev limit - looking increasingly like it will be set even lower than expected, at 14,500rpm, rather than 15,000 - and such a rev limit will terminate Ducati's wild goose chase for power. Filippo Preziosi seems to believe that Ducati's strength lies in exploiting the advantages of the desmodromic system to create more power at high revs, while all of the riders say that the engine is already too powerful and too aggressive. A lower rev limit will force Ducati to create an engine with a wider powerband, while still benefiting from the lower power losses of the desmodromic valves when compared to a conventional spring. If Carmelo Ezpeleta gets his way - and he will, you can be sure of that - then he may just turn out to be the reason that Valentino Rossi returns to winning ways. Dorna have long been accused of manipulating the series to favor Rossi, but in this case, the Italian could well be the unwitting beneficiary of a rule aimed at something completely different.
What the weather really will do on Saturday and Sunday remains to be seen. More rain is expected, but the forecast is changing from hour to hour. What the riders really want is for the race to be either completely wet or completely dry, but knowing MotoGP's luck with weather, it's going to be very much neither fish nor flesh. Which should at least make for a very entertaining race.