To get one important question out of the way first (I'll come to The Big Question later), Ducati will be running a big bang engine next year. Nicky Hayden said he preferred the feel of it, Filippo Preziosi said that the Screamer had "good potential" - code, in case you haven't guessed, for being very rough around the edges - but the big bang does what it is supposed to do: give the rider great feedback.
The Screamer vs Big Bang decision was what the Valencia tests were ostensibly about before Valentino Rossi turned a wheel on the track, but with the Italian legend ending day one in 10th, and day two in 15th, all that changed. While the man who had left Ducati to ride for Honda was scorching around on day one, then setting the fastest time on day two, Valentino Rossi, who had taken Casey Stoner's place in Ducati, was wobbling around at the rear.
And precisely this is the Ducati's problem. Ducati's MotoGP project director, and the genius behind the Bologna factory's MotoGP bike Filippo Preziosi told the press that Rossi's problem was with feeling in the front end. It was the typical Ducati quandary: To go fast on the Desmosedici, you have to get heat into the tires. To get heat into the tires on the Desmosedici, you have to go fast. Without heat in the tires, the bike feels terrible, giving no feedback and feeling like it is about to wash out the front. Just like the first attempts at breaking the sound barrier, where the planes felt like they were about to shake themselves to bits until they had passed through the barrier and the airflow smoothed out once again, you have to get the Ducati Desmosedici MotoGP through that frightening section, where it feels like you might crash at any moment, before the front starts to grip and you can push, further than you had ever dreamed of just a few seconds previously.
Ironically, the task of adjustment was easier for less experienced riders, Preziosi said. The fact that Karel Abraham - MotoGP rookie and within a couple of hundredths of The Doctor on his first official test on the Ducati - could go so fast was down to the rider's expectations, according to Preziosi. Abraham had no preconceived notion of what a MotoGP bike should feel like, and so just dealt with the situation as it came, riding what he had been given. Rossi, on the other hand, had long experience of MotoGP bikes, and expected the bike to react a certain way, and when it didn't he struggled to understand.
Randy de Puniet was the other rider Preziosi mentioned, praising the speed of the Frenchman on the Pramac Ducati. And De Puniet bears a remarkable resemblance to Casey Stoner, the man he had replaced at LCR Honda, and who had suffered a spate of front-end crashes while still on the Michelins which miraculously disappeared once the team switched to Bridgestones. De Puniet just pushes without worrying, apparently finding out where the limit is by the simple expedient of checking whether he had gravel between this teeth or not. On a Ducati Desmosedici MotoGP bike, this is a recipe for success.
Valentino Rossi, on the other hand, comes from a bike that worked for everybody, a bike that everybody who has ridden it has ended up in the top 6 with in recent years. Jorge Lorenzo's modus operandi illustrates the nature of the Yamaha YZR-M1 perfectly: The 2010 World Champion starts a session slowly, setting lap times well down the running order, before ratcheting up the speed each lap until the pace is simply breathtaking. Try that on a Ducati and you scare yourself stupid, never breaking through into the smooth air of a grippy front tire and a faster lap time.
What had surprised Preziosi most on the second day of the test was Rossi's incredible calmness and positive attitude, the Italian remaining calm despite such a "bad test" as the Ducati MotoGP boss put it. At least Rossi was providing a lot of feedback, Preziosi said, and giving them a lot of work to do. Back in Bologna, the design team would have a meeting with Rossi's long-time crew chief Jerry Burgess, and run some models to help improve the front-end feel. The list of changes would be long indeed, altering rider position, weight distribution, chassis stiffness and geometry before the next test at Sepang. "Now we need to adapt the bike to Valentino," Preziosi explained.
It was not all negative, however. Rossi liked the rear grip - a problem he has suffered with all year on the Yamaha, and he liked the engine and the feel of the electronics which held it in check. Mostly, though, Ducati had a lot of work to do over the winter, to get ready for the Sepang test at the start of February. "We have a lot of information," Preziosi said, "now we need some answers."
The man who had left to make way for Rossi told the press he was surprised by Rossi's difficulty, that he hadn't expected the Italian to struggle so much. But he knew that Rossi needs time to get to understand a machine, before moving on to exploit its potential. "It takes time to get used to the Ducati," Stoner acknowledged.
The Australian had no such problems, setting a blistering pace from the moment he took to the track on his (mostly) 2010-spec Honda RC212V. Stoner had not spent too much time testing, focusing mainly on getting comfortable and familiar with the bike, work which consisted mainly of cutting back the electronics to restore the Australian's feel with the throttle. When asked whether he was running a race mapping on the engine when he set his fastest time, Stoner said there was little point doing anything else, and that using a fire-breathing, fuel-swigging opened up fuel map left nothing to be learned about the bike.
One man was faster than Stoner at the test, though, Jorge Lorenzo setting the quickest time on the first day of the test on Tuesday. Lorenzo had spent most of his time doing back-to-back runs between the 2010 Yamaha YZR-M1, and the revised 2011 bike, which featured a new chassis, the new 2011 Ohlins suspension and a slightly modified engine. The difference was not much, Lorenzo avowed, but the new bike just did everything a little better.
Dani Pedrosa had also been testing a new chassis on his Repsol Honda, which gave some improvement in braking. But Pedrosa's main concern was his health, his left arm showing symptoms of nerve damage after working too hard, losing strength and feeling after working the arm too hard. The problem could be something as minor as a screw in his plated collarbone being fractionally too long, and blocking a nerve just enough to have an effect. Previous scans on the injured collarbone had shown no problems, Pedrosa told the press, but he was to undergo a CAT scan, an MRI and a vascular test on Thursday, as soon as he returned to Barcelona.
The most worrying prospect of all for the Repsol Honda rider is the prospect of permanent damage to his left arm. If Pedrosa does not recover full strength after this injury, it could potentially threaten the Spaniard's career. Given what was known at the time he was speaking to the press, the team was not expecting to find much in the way of nerve damage to Pedrosa's arm.
Perhaps the most impressive and surprising showing of the test, though, was Alvaro Bautista's 7th fastest time overall. The Suzuki is known to be fast, but only when the weather cooperates. With air temps in the range of 18 degrees, and track temps only a couple of degrees higher, things were far from what had previously been thought of as the Suzuki's natural habitat. Whether the revised parts the Hamamatsu factory had brought were good enough to make the difference remains to be seen, but a 7th time overall during the test is extremely impressive, no matter which yardstick you use.
The MotoGP circus packs up now, heading home to their respective boltholes for the remainder of the season. The circus reconvenes again at the start of February, at the Sepang circuit in Malaysia. Expect Ducati to bring a whole heap of modified parts for Rossi to test: if they got away with a poor result by the Italian at Valencia, having a similarly miserable test in Malaysia would put the final nail in the coffin of the Italian. It is hard to believe that Valentino Rossi would willing lie down quietly while they nail the lid in place. Rossi has shown an uncanny ability to ride whatever he is given - at least eventually - and the Italian is not dead yet.