With the bikes finally back on track at Le Mans, the flood of rumor and innuendo that has dogged every MotoGP press conference and rider debrief in France dwindled to a mere trickle. Instead of questions of who has been talking to who, and who was seen in which hospitality, Friday's debriefs actually talked about the conditions on track.
That did not prevent the same Italian journalist who harassed Jorge Lorenzo about his manager, Marcos Hirsch' visit to the Ducati hospitality. And once again, Lorenzo hammered out the same old story: Marcos is talking to Filippo Preziosi about his new Multistrada. And no, I have not spoken to Ducati yet.
When Lorenzo did get to talk about the bike, he said he was happy with the setting, which they'd brought with them from Jerez. There'd been a problem with his number one bike early on, and so Lorenzo had gone out on his second bike. He'd spent most of the first part of the session just getting a feel for the track again. "I always adapt to the bike first, and only then start modifying the setup," Lorenzo explained.
But the Yamaha is so good it doesn't really need much tweaking. "Le Mans suits the Yamaha," Lorenzo said, explaining that this went as far back as when Max Biaggi was riding the M1 here in 2002, when Biaggi scored a podium here in the first year of the MotoGP era.
Lorenzo also commented on the new asymmetric tire Bridgestone has brought. He pronounced himself happy with the new tires, though not satisfied. When asked whether there were any problems with the tires, Lorenzo replied "There are always problems with the tires. Because when you are at the limit, you always have problems with traction and spinning. But with these problems, we can be at the front."
The man ahead of Lorenzo, Casey Stoner, was equally happy at Le Mans. The experience had been the opposite to Jerez, he said. "We didn't start with such a good feeling, but step by step we improved." That was not the case three weeks ago in Spain, where they went round in circles. "We didn't go backwards, we just didn't go forwards," Stoner explained. The bike was feeling a little better than in Spain. "We got a little bit more confidence in the front end," Stoner said, but this merely exposes the problem the Ducati has. "After Barcelona last year, we've got the bike to turn a lot harder, a lot better," Stoner commented, "And we were already have problems last year with the front wanting to wash out. Having the bike turn better just magnifies those problems," the Marlboro Ducati rider explained.
Stoner emphasized once again the new engine had made a huge difference to the bike. "I exit the last corner so much smoother, so much more consistently, with a lot less wheelie. It just feels a lot more progressive and a lot less aggressive coming out of the corners. The feeling is very nice, I have a lot feeling, a lot more understanding."
Stoner also has new handlebars at Le Mans, strengthened to prevent them from breaking in the event of a crash. Ducati had to add material to the clipons to strengthen them, while taking weight off the triple clamp to balance it out again, but the net gain was that Stoner believed he would be able to get back on and ride the bike if he should crash during a race. "I'm sick of snapping handlebars. Basically, every time we dropped the bike, it snapped the handlebar. So many other people can crash, get back up and finish, and we were never able to do that. The one time we did manage to do that, we had a perfect sized stone that jammed the engine open. But I'd rather that happened than snap a handlebar."
Over at Honda, the two riders continued to work in two different directions. Dani Pedrosa underlined just how different the setup was between himself and Andrea Dovizioso. "Completely, completely different." And so Dovizioso had been working with the new chassis, which he had used during the test, while Pedrosa was continuing with the chassis he'd used in the race at Jerez.
Dovizioso had had the best of the day, finishing less than a quarter of a second off the fastest man, Valentino Rossi, and over three tenths ahead of Pedrosa. The team had some electronic updates, which had helped Dovizioso, though Pedrosa was less sure of the improvements. "I'm 50/50, some good, some not so good. Tomorrow we try a new recipe."
Beating his teammate had been important for Dovizioso, but more important was being close to the pace. "It's important to be fast, so you can start close to the fastest riders," the Italian said. "It's good to be this close this early."
Pedrosa, meanwhile, was reasonably content with the situation. The chassis he is using is "the best chassis we have," Pedrosa said, and it's close enough to allow the team to find a base setting to start work from. When asked about Marco Melandri's decision to switch from Ohlins back to Showa, Pedrosa neatly ducked the question. "That's not possible. HRC has a contract with Ohlins."
The fastest man of the day was also probably the happiest man of the day. "Being first is always a special taste, and making the fastest lap on the last lap of practice is also a special taste," Rossi quipped. The bike is good, Rossi told the press, echoing the comments of his teammate. Which is a good thing, as Rossi is still having problems with his shoulder. "I expected to arrive here 100%," Rossi said, "but I am not, and am disappointed." Rossi's problems are mostly with a lack of motion, and pain under heavy braking. "The problem is pain, and a lack of power," he explained.
Rossi's confidence comes mostly from the knowledge that the setup modifications the team found at the Jerez test - adding stiffness to the rear suspension for more rear traction - were working well at Le Mans. The conditions were also an enormous help in this respect, Rossi added. "This is the best Le Mans I have ever seen." The track has much more grip with good weather, he pointed out, not needing to add that good weather at Le Mans is an extreme rarity. The key to victory, Rossi said, was the last section of the track. "This is the mirror of the track," he explained. "From this part, you understand if the bike is OK. If it works there, it works everywhere else."
Rossi also had words of encouragement for Ben Spies. "I think Ben has a very difficult job this year," Rossi said. "He has to learn MotoGP, he has to learn Bridgestones, but very very much, and sometimes we forget, he has to learn tracks." That had been a problem for previous riders coming over from World Superbikes, Rossi explained. "In the past, you see a lot of Superbike riders quite fast at the tracks that they know, but a disaster at the tracks they do not know." The biggest difference between the two classes were the electronics and the Bridgestone tires, Rossi said, much more than the bike. "For me, the big problem is understanding these tires, which are very different to the Pirellis. If you put Bridgestones on the Superbikes, for me, there would be not a big difference between the two classes."
Speaking of World Superbikes, Rossi was also asked if he could understand Troy Bayliss wanting to come back to racing. "Yes I can. But I can't understand why he stopped!"
In other news from Le Mans, Nicky Hayden was happier than he has been at the French track for a long while, explaining that the team had made changes during practice which helped his situation enormously. Last year, he said, those changes would have only been possible once the session had ended. But communication in the team is much better, allowing them to make changes much more quickly.
The Ducatis have also dropped the barcode logo, in part due to France's strict interpretation of the anti-tobacco advertising guidelines. The same rules have also struck the Suzukis, the Rizla logos being forced off the bike, replaced with a frankly gorgeous plain paint job with a large white number on the side of the bike. Alvaro Bautista suffered through a lot of pain during the first day of practice, and is still uncertain whether he will be able to ride. The team has until qualifying to make up their minds, but have Nobuatsu Aoki standing in the wings ready to take over Bautista's seat, if the pain is too much for him.