Valentino Rossi is back, and it shows. The paddock is buzzing again, as it did at Mugello, before the Fiat Yamaha rider suffered the vicious highside that snapped his tibia and put him out of action for the last six weeks. At the pre-race press conference, Rossi's answers were nearly drowned out by the frantic clicking of camera lenses, the Italian forced to squint in the barrage of flashlights going off.
"You could tell from the crowds round his motorhome that Valentino is back in the paddock," Nicky Hayden quipped. The press was no better, crowding round Rossi after the official part of the press conference was over, standing four deep to try and interview the Italian.
Rossi was clearly happy to be back in the paddock, and thanked the doctors for doing such a great job. He had been lucky, Rossi explained: "the doctors put a pin in the tibia, and the tibia is very straight, so it is in a perfect position." This had meant that the surgery had been relatively straightforward, and the bone had been quick to heal.
Once Rossi realized just how quickly his injuries were healing, he started making plans to return. "Immediately after the crash, we started to speak about Misano in September," Rossi explained. "Then after one week we speak about Brno, then after another week, we start to think maybe the Sachsenring...." Sitting at home and watching the races had been easy at first, Rossi told the press, but got more difficult as his injury progressed. "When you cannot ride it's easier," Rossi said, "but when you understand that maybe you can ride, you have to try."
Another factor for making an early return was the fear that staying away longer would require longer to get back up to speed. "I think the longer you stay outside, the longer you need to come back," Rossi said, and his reason for coming back early was simple: "I want to use these two races to get back the feel with the bike."
Using the Sachsenring and Laguna Seca races to ease back into racing means that Rossi believes he can be competitive again by Brno. " I think, for Brno, I can be quite good," he mused, "but for come back 100%, if everything is OK, I think Misano." Rossi had decided to race at the Sachsenring and Laguna Seca because he didn't want to extend that period any further: "I know that if I don't make these two races (Sachsenring and Laguna), I have to wait until Brno, and then, the time to come back is very long."
The lowest time had been in the hospital, Rossi explained. "Every morning in the hospital, you wake up and somebody you don't know wakes you up and puts a needle in your arm to take your blood. At seven o'clock in the morning." Normally, Rossi is not yet awake that early, so being awoken so early in a strange bed was very tough for the Italian. When asked if this had ever made him to think about stopping, Rossi was emphatic. "No!" he exclaimed in response to the question.
Rossi's leg was still causing him pain, but the progress he had made since the Misano test last week had been huge. He had suffered "pain everywhere" after the first test on the Superbike, but that had vastly improved at Brno. He can now brake at "about 90%" with no problems, the straight up-down movement not being a problem. The pain, Rossi explained, came from twisting his lower leg, though his knee was also a worry. "The other big problem I have is the inside of the knee. After ten laps, I have a lot of pain."
Perhaps Rossi's biggest worry, though, was not his knee, but his shoulder. The injury he suffered riding a motocross bike during training had been exacerbated by not being able to work during his stay in hospital, Rossi explained. "I have a lot of problems with my shoulder after the leg, because I have to stay 15 days in bed, so the shoulder became a lot more stiff, and I lost a lot of movement," Rossi recounted. "From that moment, I had to start the hard work with the physical therapy to recover the movement. So from two weeks, I work very hard in the swimming pool for the shoulder, and now the situation is not so bad. I have pain anyway, but my shoulder has improved from the last time. I think it's possible for the shoulder to be 100% I hope around Brno."
Despite the seriousness of the leg injury, it was not hampering him as much as his shoulder, though. "It is unbelievable because the injury of the leg is a lot worse," Rossi explained, "but give less problems than the shoulder, because the shoulder is very critical. I cannot make an operation on the shoulder because I do not have enough time, because the shoulder needs two months to recover. So I have tried to improve my muscle, to have less pain, and decide what to do at the end of the season. But I hope I will not need another operation."
Rossi's plan is to attempt to ride as much as possible during practice, and to see from there whether he believes he can race. With things progressing as rapidly as they have been - thanks in part to fifteen sessions in the hyperbaric chamber of two hours each, causing massive headaches and further recuperation using an oxygen mask - you would have to say that Rossi has a pretty good chance of racing on Sunday. Winning, though, will be a different matter.