Valentino Rossi being fastest in a dry MotoGP session brought joy to the hearts of his millions of fans, but also relief to the writers of motorcycle racing headlines. For the past two years, with the exception of a damp and freezing session at Silverstone, the media - especially in Italy - have spent many hours puzzling over how to shoehorn Rossi's name into a news item without it appearing overly clumsy. With little success: "Pedrosa grabs pole, Rossi to start from ninth" sounds, well, as awkward as it does dispiriting.
On Sunday, there was no need for tricky sentence construction. Valentino Rossi grabbed the headlines the way he would want to, on merit. Under a warm sun, and a dry track - well, relatively, but more of that later - Rossi just flat out beat his teammate, and the factory Hondas, and all the other 24 MotoGP machines that took to the track for the second day of the test at Jerez. Beating his teammate, even if it was by just fifteen thousandths of a second, was crucial. That hadn't happened in any of the previous tests, and the gap between himself and Jorge Lorenzo stayed pretty constant: at least three tenths of a second.
So has the natural order been reinstated, with the old king once again taking his rightful place on the throne? That would be over-egging the pudding on the basis of just this one result, but it clearly signifies that Rossi can be competitive. It doesn't suddenly make him favorite for the title, but it is confirmation that he will be fighting for podiums, and a genuine contender for the win.
Rossi himself was happy - more than happy; delighted, relieved, elated - to be back at the front, but he was under no illusions that this put him firmly on his way to his tenth world title. The great news was that his team had tried a change to the bike - the position of the front forks, and a tweak to the rear shock - and this had made an immediate improvement, something which had not happened for the past two years. The bad news - or perhaps it is also good news, as it offers room for improvement - is that Rossi still needs to adapt his style to the 2013 M1, learning to improve his corner entry speed, for example.
Several factors aided Rossi, perhaps the biggest being track conditions. Just like yesterday, being on track at the right time was important, getting a good lap with fresh tires when the track was at its best. Jorge Lorenzo did it yesterday in the wet; teammate Valentino Rossi did it on Sunday in the dry.
For though the sun was shining, track conditions were tricky throughout. Compare the times of Lorenzo and Dani Pedrosa to the times set here last year, and both men are roughly half a second down. That is in no small part due to the rain; not just the downpour that soaked the track on Saturday (and chased the riders off the track at the end of Sunday afternoon), but the unusually heavy rain that has fallen throughout the winter in southern Andalucia, which has soaked the ground and raised the level of the groundwater. As a consequence, the Jerez track now takes an extraordinarily long time to dry out. Much longer than it used to: even with the sun out and the wind helping to dry the track, water is seeping up through the tarmac and leaving the surface wet.
The part of the track which suffers the most with this is the lowest part on the circuit: the wide hairpin at the end of the back straight. That corner is named for a sherry, the drink which gets its name from the city of Jerez. It is called Dry Sack. The irony is strangely satisfying.
Many riders complained that his was causing the grip at the track to change from lap to lap. Looking at the lap charts, you can see the problem, lap times varying wildly, even for Mr Metronome, Jorge Lorenzo. Hit that corner, or a number of corners around the track, just at the wrong time, when the groundwater is seeping up into the surface, and you find yourself struggling to keep control of the bike. Hit it when the surface is dry, and the groundwater pressure has subsided, allowing the track surface to heat up and you fly around the track.
The greasy and unpredictable - though that is perhaps too strong a word - track conditions also exposed a weakness in the Repsol Hondas. Where previously, the Hondas have been exceptionally strong in testing, neither Dani Pedrosa nor Marc Marquez could make much of a dent in the pace of the Yamahas, the Honda suffering badly in the area in which they are usually strongest. On a greasy track, the rear of the Honda was spinning up too much, destroying the drive which gives the bike its advantage. Pedrosa - unusually taciturn, even by his own standards - did not elaborate much beyond complaining of sliding. Marquez, more forthcoming, had struggled with rear grip, but also with the Moto2 lines that had become ingrained, and needed to be changed to accommodate riding a MotoGP bike. Marquez finished a lowly 7th, sandwiched between the two satellite Hondas, less than a tenth separating Alvaro Bautista, Marquez and Stefan Bradl.
The Honda's problems on a greasy track could turn out to be a weakness, and benefit the Yamaha men at some rounds this year. Le Mans, in particular, is a very greasy surface, where finding grip is difficult. The Yamahas can compensate with corner speed, carrying as much as possible through the corner to give a faster exit out of the corner, but the Honda's point-and-shoot style means that a lack of grip basically halts progress.
Despite his complaints yesterday, Tech 3 man Cal Crutchlow was right on the pace with Rossi and Lorenzo. And not just on the pace: Crutchlow was by far the most consistent of the three, posting fast laps whatever the conditions, while both Rossi and Lorenzo were much more variable in the times. Crutchlow was one of few people to improve his time from last year, impressive especially as he is on the same bike as he was then. Crutchlow's team boss Herve Poncharal remarked on the change, saying it was obvious that Crutchlow's riding had improved from last season. The Englishman is much smoother, getting into and through corners with much less effort, Poncharal said, promising much for the 2013 season.
The greasiness of the track, and the need to get the timing of your fast lap just right was demonstrated by Hector Barbera. The Avintia Blusens man was the fastest CRT bike - quicker than both Aspar riders Aleix Espargaro and Randy de Puniet, and quicker even than young British rider Bradley Smith. Barbera had got lucky with the track, posting a quick lap just as conditions were best. His second fastest lap was over half a second slower, which would put him further down the timesheets.
Barbera's times are a sign that the CRT machines are slowly - very slow indeed - starting to improve, the gap at Jerez closed from 3 seconds to just two. Getting closer still is likely to prove almost impossible, but at least the CRT machines are now in more or less the same ballpark as the factory prototypes, though there are still one or two fences between the CRT teams and factory support of the satellite and factory teams.
Testing continues on Monday, and forecasts coming in are hard to interpret. There may be some rain on Monday morning, or they may not. That uncertainty is likely to make the track greasy once again, losing another day of testing for Pedrosa and Marquez ahead of the season starter in Qatar. The rain may be a right royal pain in the behind for judging rider potential, but it has certainly added plenty of interest and a good deal of excitement to the 2013 MotoGP season. Even when it does not fall....