Valencia MotoGP Test Day 1 Round Up: Of Debuts, Jealousies, And The Confounded Weather
If there is one subject that is getting mind-numbingly tedious to have to write about in motorcycle racing right now, it's the weather. Almost every race this year has lost at least one session to difficult conditions, and we had hoped that the 2013 season might start off a little better. No such luck.
After a dry, clear night, the first rain showers arrived shortly before 10am, when the track was due to open for the test. By the time the track opened, enough rain had fallen to make it slick, greasy and extremely difficult to ride. That put an end to almost everyone's carefully laid plans, leaving large groups of people wandering around and alternating between looking to the skies and carefully examining the track. A few brave souls ventured out on to the track - including Valentino Rossi, at a few minutes after ten, the earliest he has ever taken to the track during testing since I've been following MotoGP, Rossi notoriously ill-disposed to mornings (as, I must admit, am I) - but for the most part, silence prevailed.
This was perhaps toughest on the TV commentators. Because of Rossi's return to Yamaha, the first couple of hours of the test were streamed live on the MotoGP.com website, as well as broadcast on both Italian and Spanish TV. There was virtually nothing to show, though, except images of crowds milling in pit lane, riders wandering around chatting, some in leathers, some not, and endless repeats of slow-motion shots from the few bikes that had turned a lap in the morning, leaving commentators racking their brains for subjects to discuss, leading at one point to a surprisingly long discussion about fruit, and the riders who eat it.
The TV got their money shot, though, Valentino Rossi having gone out early on the rather beautifully turned out Yamaha M1, carefully denuded of Yamaha stickers. Surveying the chaos as photographers and journalists milled around Rossi's garage, all vying with each other to get the best shot of the Italian on the Yamaha, Jorge Lorenzo commented from the pit wall "mira el campeon," a phrase which could be translated as "look at the champion," but which I like to think should be translated as "behold the champion!" Lorenzo, officially honored as the 2012 MotoGP World Champion, some 36 hours previously, got a glimpse of the media storm that follows Valentino Rossi around. Whatever Rossi does on the track, the mind games in the garage and in the media will be very hard fought indeed.
Whether Rossi will be quick or not is an unknown. The times themselves were rendered meaningless by the track conditions, though Rossi appeared to be lapping at a reasonable pace when he was out with other riders. I went out to the side of the track to get a look at Rossi in person, memories of standing at Turn 11 in November 2010, watching a stranger dressed as Rossi wobble around on the Ducati during his first outing on the bike, and had gone to the same spot on Saturday to see Rossi ride the Ducati again ahead of the test. Now back on the Yamaha, the Italian looked more comfortable, moving from side to side more smoothly than he ever had on the Ducati. More interesting was watching Rossi over a number of laps, building carefully from slow beginnings, gaining confidence with each lap, throwing the bike into the corner ever more forcefully and being more and more aggressive with the gas.
Maybe that was down to changing conditions, or maybe he was genuinely feeling more confident; without being able to examine the mind of the rider, that is hard to say. The body language in the garage was all smiles - real smiles, not the forced cheerfulness with which Rossi had tried to buoy his spirits while at Ducati - and not just from Rossi, but also from everyone in his team. It has not just been a long two years for Rossi, it has been equally mentally tough on Jerry Burgess and the rest of Rossi's crew.
Does Valentino Rossi still have it? That is the million dollar question, and one which it is still far too early to answer. Without seeing Rossi on a dry track, and comparing the times he posted, it is almost impossible to say. What is clear is that a weight has been lifted from Rossi's shoulders, and that his mental state is far more positive than it was on Sunday. What Rossi felt and thought on Tuesday we do not know, as his contract with Ducati expires at midnight on December 31st. Until then, there is silence.
At least we got to see Valentino Rossi lap on the Yamaha. The other eagerly-awaited debut - one of three - was abandoned entirely due to the weather. The assembled media crowded into the Repsol Honda garage to see Marc Marquez sitting on his RC213V - actually, Casey Stoner's RC213V with a special set of fairings - but we would not see him ride the bike. Honda and his team decided it was too dangerous for the rookie to ride the machine in those conditions, the team deciding to wait until Marquez has a dry track to ride. In theory, that could be Wednesday at Valencia, but that would only happen if the heavy rain every single weather forecaster has been predicting for the area turns out to be the product of a mass psychosis. The likely scenario is that Marquez will go home and wait for the private test Honda have scheduled for Sepang at the end of the month, mulling over all the team have told him about the electronics and bike settings in the meantime. That the Spaniard was keen to ride the bike was obvious from his demeanor, Marquez moving around the garage like a hyperactive kid on Christmas morning.
The last of the big-three debuts was Andrea Dovizioso riding the Ducati, and the Italian was remarkably upbeat. He had been expecting a wild beast of an engine, he said, but he had been pleasantly surprised. The bike was much better than he had expected, and he had felt the better traction the Ducati has in the wet which he had noticed when racing Rossi in the rain earlier in the year. But whether the bike had any real problems, and where such problems might lie, Dovizioso would not be drawn on. "It is impossible to put the bike on the limit," he said, and without reaching the limit, it was impossible to understand how it would react. He would wait until Ducati's private test at Jerez later this month, and hope for dry weather there. One phrase Dovizioso used over and over again when talking to the (Italian) media was "troppo presto", too soon. On a rainy day at Valencia, there is not much you can learn.
Testing continues on Wednesday, when Bradley Smith is likely to make his debut. If, at least, the rain falls steadily, and does not leave the half-and-half, wet-and-dry conditions which blighted much of the test on Tuesday. Yamaha head north to Aragon in the hope of finding more clement weather, an idle hope indeed if the forecasters are to be believed. We can only hope that the weather gods will finally grow tired of tormenting motorcycle racers, and move on to find another sport to ruin. I suggest tennis.