The times were close after the first day of practice, closer than they have been for a very long time. Just 0.471 seconds separates the top 11 MotoGP prototypes (Karel Abraham is barely fit enough to ride, after breaking fingers in his left hand, and is way off the pace), with Ben Spies leading Cal Crutchlow by just 0.006, just a tenth separating Nicky Hayden in 3rd from Dani Pedrosa in 6th, and less than a tenth between Andrea Dovizioso in 7th and Stefan Bradl in 11th. It has all the makings of a great race, right?
Not according to Cal Crutchlow. "Lorenzo will run away with it," the Monster Tech 3 Yamaha man opined. Everyone except for Jorge Lorenzo and Dani Pedrosa had set their fastest time on the soft tire, Crutchlow explained. Lorenzo's best time, a 1'35.057, was set in the middle of a run with a used hard tire, his race rhythm in the 1'35.0 while everyone else was running 1'35.3. Lorenzo was looking very smooth on the bike, team manager Wilco Zeelenberg saying he was pretty pleased with the bike and the way the first day had gone.
Lorenzo himself did not get much time to talk about how the day went, spending his time with the press fielding questions about the split with his manager Marcos Hirsch, the man who started out as his personal trainer before taking over from Dani Amatriain as his business manager. The split was amicable, he was at pains to point out, and was because Lorenzo felt it was time to take the next step in his career, working on sponsors both on track and off track. His new manager, Albert Valera, would be at the track more often and would work more on sponsorship, the main priority now that Lorenzo's contract extension with Yamaha had been tied up. Rumors had appeared in the Spanish media that the split had come about because Hirsch had not discussed the final offer from HRC with Lorenzo, but the Majorcan was adamant that there was no truth in this rumor. Lorenzo had known all of the details of all of the deals, and made a fully-informed choice to stay with Yamaha.
While the Yamaha men were happy - Ben Spies affirmed that though being top was nice, what was more important was that he was happy with the bike - the mood at Honda and Ducati was different. Upbeat but concerned perhaps best summarizes the situation at Ducati. The four tenths that separated him from Spies was Valentino Rossi's best dry result at Ducati, the gap to the front very much closed. Nicky Hayden had looked even better, leading the session at one point, before finishing in 3rd, a tenth down on Spies. They can do five or six fast laps, both factory Ducati men told the media, the problem comes after that. Maintaining that pace beyond that point was virtually impossible, though.
The problem is the tires: the Ducati's aggressive power delivery uses them up too quickly, and the lap times drop off far too much after that. Nicky Hayden's race at Silverstone was a prime example: the American was running hard in the early laps, but once his tire was gone, his only option was to go into damage limitation mode and salvage what he could. The good news for Ducati is that the updated electronics package they are using at Assen is helping, providing "a better connection on the bottom end" as Nicky Hayden put it. The relationship between throttle and rear tire is improved, some of the aggressiveness gone. More was needed, especially more mechanical grip, Valentino Rossi explained, and geometry changes might help with that. Though the power delivery was improving, the understeer remained, however. "Understeer remains in the character of this bike," Rossi said.
At Honda, there were far from happy faces. The Repsol Honda riders have a new chassis, but that had done little to help. Casey Stoner told the press that the new chassis had felt a little better in the morning, but worse again in the afternoon. Dani Pedrosa's experience was much the same, saying that he couldn't feel much difference between the two. They had both concentrated on the standard chassis in the afternoon, explaining in part why Stoner had spent so much time in the pits, effectively working with one bike, as the other had the new chassis that was causing so many problems.
The problem was the tires, and Stoner once again launched into an attack on Bridgestone, expressing his unhappiness with the way the new front tire was introduced. He also pointed out - with a little prompting from a veteran journalist - that the performance of the 2012 tires was much worse than the previous generation of tires, offering that as an explanation for the fact that the 1000cc bikes were not really any faster than the 800s had been. Valentino Rossi defended the new tires, however, telling the press that the drop in performance was the price that had to be paid for the massively increased safety of the new tires. The early morning highside is a thing of the past, and the price for that is greater performance drop off.
Stoner was also asked about why the satellite riders don't get chatter on their bikes, and whether the fact that Alvaro Bautista was using Showa suspension rather than Ohlins could have anything to do with that. The Australian replied that the satellite bikes do actually have chatter - he had spoken to Honda technicians who could see it very clearly in the data - but that the satellite riders apparently cannot feel it. Perhaps they were not sensitive enough to detect it, Stoner suggested, while he and Pedrosa are.
After the news that Cal Crutchlow had been offered a two-year big money deal with Ducati, Nicky Hayden was asked about his situation at Ducati. With Crutchlow holding an offer and Ducati CEO Gabriele Del Torchio having made his intent to keep Rossi at Ducati perfectly clear, there may not be room for Hayden at the Ducati inn. Hayden joked most of the speculation off, saying that he had offers, but that he wanted to stay in MotoGP, hinting, perhaps, that those offers had come from WSBK. Ducati had an option to keep Hayden, but that ran out at the end of the month, the Kentuckian said. Though talks with Ducati had been positive, they were telling Hayden that their hands were tied until the deal with Audi was finalized.
Hayden himself was keen to stay. The bike had to come good some time soon, he was certain, as the people at Ducati were working too hard for it not to. After several hard years at Ducati, Hayden said he would find it frustrating not to be there when the bike finally started winning races. The American was also asked about who was representing him, and he said that he was doing most of it himself nowadays, adding that he was making a lot more money since he starting managing himself. Getting rid of his managers had been a smart move, he said: "So much bulls**t comes with those guys," he quipped.
Given that Hayden has often been the fastest Ducati rider, there is no question he deserves to stay, if not at Ducati, then at least on a competitive MotoGP bike. The problem is, there are ever fewer of those available, and right now, the talent pool is pretty deep.