"I don't really want to look at the timesheet," Cal Crutchlow said at the end of the first day of practice at Mugello, "because Lorenzo's run was an absolute joke." Crutchlow is well-known for his colorful language - in every sense of that phrase - and his words are easy to misinterpret. But a glance at the consistency of Lorenzo's times soon makes you understand exactly what Crutchlow meant. On the hard rear tire, Lorenzo was running mid to low 1'48s, with many laps within a few hundredths of each other. On the evidence of Friday, Lorenzo is not just going to win this race, he is going to embarrass the entire field.
Just where does this speed come from? Crutchlow had told an Italian journalist previously that looking at Lorenzo's data, he leans the bike over further than it has any business being leaned over. Whenever any other rider uses that much lean angle, they crash. Lorenzo was reluctant at first to divulge his secrets, joking that he treated his tires with Rockstar, the brand of energy drink that is his personal sponsor, but later he explained the key to carrying so much lean angle was mainly smoothness. "It's a combination of things, it's the way you brake, the way you enter the corner, the way you move on the bike, if you are smooth or you are aggressive. If you are more aggressive, you can enter faster but then if you want to make the same angle you can crash. It's not easy to change your riding style to get more lean angle."
Though several riders got close to Lorenzo's time, most were on soft tires at the time, and none had the spirit-sapping consistency of the Factory Yamaha man. For example, despite posting the third-fastest time of the afternoon session, Nicky Hayden was fairly downbeat after practice. His pace on hard tires had been around a 1'48.9, he said, but the Factory Ducati rider had struggled with corner entry. That is a long way from Lorenzo's pace. Hayden's teammate Valentino Rossi was well down the timesheets, but the Italian had never bothered fitting a soft tire. There was little point, as racing on the soft is not an option: the prototype riders have been advised that the soft won't last the race distance, though it could be possible for the CRT riders to race the soft, the CRT bikes not loading the tires as much as the prototypes.
But it was not just the soft not being a race option: Rossi had suffered chatter for most of both sessions, he said, and his first priority was trying to fix that. The problem seemed to be a setting with the front fork, and his crew appeared to have solved the issue by the end of the day. Rossi was losing his time in the second half of the track, and if the chatter was fixed, then he felt he was not too far from the group at the front, he said. Tomorrow would see whether the problem really was solved or not.
The Hondas were in deeper trouble, however. Both riders struggled with the hard tire, though Dani Pedrosa's crew had found some solutions in the afternoon, which Pedrosa described as "a big step forward". Stoner, however, had had a very tough day indeed. They were a long way off the pace, Stoner said, explaining that they simply could not get the hard tire to work, in much the same way as they had at Assen. They were not getting enough temperature into the normal hard tire - never mind the additional hard tire, with the extra rubber layer to dissipate the heat. They can't get any feeling from it, especially on the left side, and that made the bike very nervous, Stoner said.
Stoner had not just struggled with the tires, however, he had also had a spot of bother with a CRT bike. On the TV feed, all we saw was Stoner nearly running into the back of Danilo Petrucci on the IODA CRT machine, and then putting a rather hard move on the Italian. But there was more to it than that, Stoner explained. After Stoner had passed him going into one corner, Petrucci had outbraked the Australian and tried to go around the outside. Petrucci had then hit the limiter and Stoner had nearly run into the back of him. "He destroyed my lap," Stoner told the press, and that had prompted Stoner to make it clear to Petrucci that he was not happy with the chain of events. He had not actually touched Petrucci, he said. "I didn't push him off track. I just didn't give him a lot of room and needed him to back off and give me my space," Stoner said, before launching an attack on the CRT bikes, and the danger of the speed differential between the CRTs and the factory prototypes.
After Stoner's media debrief, debate raged hotly between journalists over the wrongs and rights of the move. A part of the press - probably the majority - believed there was nothing much wrong with Stoner's move: there had been no contact, and Stoner was the faster rider by far. Another part said that though the move was on the edge of acceptability, it was not a good example to the younger riders which Stoner had been so vocal about wanting better behavior from. Race Direction more or less agreed: both Stoner and Petrucci were hauled in to have a conversation about the incident. No action was taken against either rider, but the very fact that they were hauled up before the beak should have been enough to inform the pair to take it a little easy.
From my perspective, certainly from the initial viewing, the move appeared way over the top from Stoner. His explanation of what happened prior to that incident - events that Race Direction would have seen, having access to every camera shot at the track, not just the few shown on the live feed - mitigates Stoner's behavior a little, and certainly goes a long way towards explaining it. It was certainly a lapse of judgment, however, and a move which Stoner would have been wiser not to make. The biggest problem is that at a stroke, Stoner has undone all the good he has attempted to do in improving rider safety. Any criticism he now makes of other riders will be thrown back in his face, with charges of hypocrisy. He will find it hard to be taken seriously in his criticisms in the future.
The reality of the situation was summed up by several journalists after the event. Stoner is just like Mick Doohan, they said: like Doohan, Stoner really just wants the track to himself. Anyone else having the temerity to use the track is a mere irritation, impinging on what Stoner and Doohan believed was their territory. Arguing the point with them was impossible, for as one journalist pointed out, "Mick was right even when he was wrong." That self-belief, that utter conviction is what allows them to scale the giddy heights they do. There is no room for nuance, or debate, or shades of opinion in their world: if they stopped to contemplate situations, they would lose a couple of seconds a lap. What the rest of the world thinks is irrelevant: it won't make them any faster on the track, so it is not even worth thinking about. Riders are extraordinary individuals, so it is perhaps churlish to expect them to be open to the kind of reason which might persuade ordinary people.
On Thursday, there had been much complaining about the tire situation, and the fact that Bridgestone had asked all of the MotoGP riders to put in a run of 12 consecutive laps on the normal hard tire - the original construction, not the new 'safety' construction with the extra heat dissipation layer - before allowing them to race on it. The red flag that came halfway through the afternoon session of practice - a result of a Hector Barbera crash that required cleaning the track of the gravel and dust thrown on to it - meant that was impossible for most of the riders, but almost everyone had put more than enough laps on the tire. The preliminary results of the examination looked positive, though I asked before the examination was complete. No damage was found, and no anomalies which point to the tires disintegrating in the heat. The hard tire, the version which Bridgestone had originally planned as the harder of the two options, will be the one that almost all the prototype riders, at least, will race. The safety tire is still an option, but the original hard gave fractionally better edge grip, though they both felt almost identical.
And so the tire situation at Mugello looks like ending not with a bang, but with a whimper. Bridgestone's original allocation turned out to be a pretty good fit to Mugello's hot and high-speed track. The problems at Assen were just that, problems in very specific conditions, with temperatures much higher than expected causing unforeseen problems. That is in itself a fundamental flaw of the spec tire system: the allocation is decided at the start of the season, and tires manufactured a very long way in advance, then shipped from Japan to Europe by surface freight. A larger allocation with an extra tire choice might fix the problem, as would requiring the tires to be manufactured in Europe, to allow tires to be built especially much closer to the event, when the tire manufacturer has a clearer idea of the weather conditions likely to prevail.
Change, at least in the short and medium term, is unlikely. Cost is key, and until MotoGP can start to generate massive income from sponsorship, the keeping costs down will be the most important factor in the rules. On any given Sunday, MotoGP should be about the very best riders on the very best bikes featuring the very best components that money can buy. But MotoGP simply does not have the money to do that, and so we have the very best riders on some extraordinary machines, on top flight components. It is better than no championship at all.