Valentino Rossi put the fear of God into his rivals on the first day of practice at Mugello, leading the session almost from start to finish. He had spent Thursday explaining that his shoulder injury was worse than expected, and dampening expectations. There was no such thing on Friday afternoon, though, as Rossi smashed Casey Stoner's race lap record by over a quarter of a second.
The one question mark over that time was the fact that Rossi used a soft tire to set it, but Rossi thought the soft tires might actually last the entire race. Rossi intends to test that tomorrow, but even if the soft tires don't look like they'll last, the rest of the MotoGP field need to be worried, as the Fiat Yamaha rider was still faster than everyone else on the harder compound.
During the rider debrief, Rossi spent more time explaining about his shoulder injury. "The shoulder gives me pain, the condition is a little better than Le Mans. It's especially better while changing direction, and now I can stay behind the fairing, which was not possible in Le Mans and Jerez. But I have pain when I have to stop hard," Rossi told the assembled press.
Luckily the flowing nature of Mugello is kind to Rossi's damaged shoulder. "The typology of the track helps me, because it is more flowing," he explained. There were only two places he was expecting real trouble: At San Donato and at Scarperia, both places which require hard straight line braking.
The biggest improvement is in the setup, however. Rossi and his crew had put together four new setups to test, with bigger changes than they had tried before. The test had worked. "We worked hard to gain some rear grip and better agility. The last setting I tried I am very happy with, I was fast. This was the biggest improvement," Rossi said.
Rossi's shoulder remains a concern, but the Italian was fairly sanguine about the situation. While acknowledging that the injury is going to take a while to heal, at least now he knew where he was, Rossi said. "We underestimated the shoulder problem," Rossi admitted, and this had been the problem. Rossi had expected to improve much more quickly, and had become frustrated at his lack of progress. Knowing that the injury would take 4 months to heal fully made it easier to deal with: "It's better for the mind. If you know you have a problem for three months, you get angry, but you get ready for this situation. When you wait week by week, expecting to be back at 100% in one month, you become more angry every day. You are also scared, because you say why is this happening? Now the situation is clear. We know we are in the shit for a period, but I prefer this, because now we know."
Rossi wasted few words on his haircut. He explained that he had wanted to do something like this for a while, but his hair had not been long enough. Now, with summer approaching and his hair relatively long, he decided to seize the chance to get something resembling a mohawk. It is due to go after Mugello, when he will cut his hair short once again. For now though, he was happy with the result: "This is a haircut for a battle."
While Rossi's weekend had gotten off to a good start, Casey Stoner's had not gone so smoothly. Stoner had done about three laps on one bike fitted with the 2009 forks, to test if they would solve the problem. But some headshake out of Biondetti forced the brake pads back into the caliper, effectively disabling the front brake. He arrived at Bucine with no brakes, and not enough time to pump the brakes back into position. The brake problem is common, something which Stoner's Marlboro Ducati teammate confirmed. "We've had the same problem since Sepang," Stoner explained. "If we have too much of a headshake, the pads open up and when you go to brake, there's nothing there, we have to wait for them to pump up again."
The related crash disrupted Stoner's program entirely. After he toppled over in the gravel, he took the bike back into the pits to be checked over, but his bad luck continued, as some gravel seemed to have been stuck somewhere in the steering. "The bike just kept locking up the front end. Whenever we went to tip it into the corner there was just no steering. There was something wrong with it from when I dropped it in the gravel." Stoner didn't want to waste too much time on the bike with the 2010 forks, because he didn't really have much confidence in it.
Tomorrow, the team will test both Stoner's bikes with the old forks. "We know the forks work, because they worked last year. The small amount of time I had on them didn't allow me to get real feeling. But I did feel that it was little bit more harsh, but with more feedback. I just had a more aggressive feel to the forks."
Stoner explained the differences between the older forks and the newer forks in some detail. "The point of the newer forks is that they stay lower in the stroke, they don't pop up so much. If it stays lower, it gives you less travel. With a fork that returns more, you've got more travel to work with. Especially on a track like Mugello, which is so bumpy." The forks are also different dimensions, Stoner told the press. "The tubes are a little narrower, and also they have a different top out spring."
Nicky Hayden was less inclined to test the new forks. "We're not that desperate yet. At the moment we're going to work with some springs and clickers before we go changing forks." He too had had problems with the brakes, and it was not a problem confined to the Ducati. "It's a pretty common problem for any bike," Hayden explained. "I even had that problem on a Superbike. You get that head shake, and you've got to grab the brakes twice to get them back. I had that problem once this year, we had to change a little back spring not to have the problem. It doesn't matter what kind of bike you have, you have that problem."
At Honda, the problem is that the RC212V lacks the agility required at Mugello. "The bike is difficult to turn," Andrea Dovizioso said, and it also had a problem in the middle of the corner. "The bike wants to go straight when you release the brake." This meant that the Repsol Honda rider felt he could not go into the corner carrying as much corner speed as he wanted, as the bike would want to run wide the moment he lets off the brake. Dovi summed it up in a nutshell: "We are too slow."
While Rossi's performance was stunning, there was another rider who raised plenty of eyebrows at Mugello. It was Ben Spies' 6th fastest time that impressed many people, on his first visit to the track. The Monster Tech 3 Yamaha rider chipped away through the session, taking a half a second or more off his best lap time each time he went out. At a track which is notoriously difficult to learn, that is quite an achievement.
A less obvious, but perhaps no less remarkable achievement was Rizla Suzuki's Alvaro Bautista. While Loris Capirossi set the 3rd fastest time with a single hot lap, Bautista is still struggling with his the collarbone he injured in a motocross track. He rode on Friday without painkillers, just to see how well his body would hold up, but it took all the grit he could muster. "Today, Alvaro found out just how hard MotoGP is," one team member remarked. He passed the test, and will be racing, but from Saturday, he will be using injections to relieve some of the pain.