A remarkable and historic day for MotoGP started in farce and ended in, if not glory, then at least some form of euphoria. At 10am, TV broadcasters around the world switched over live to Valencia, for two hours of broadcasting riders looking out of garages at a wet and windy track, while the media of the world huddled outside the Marlboro Ducati pits waiting for Valentino Rossi to emerge. Dorna staff were looking particularly nervous, having sold a pile of off-season subscriptions for their (otherwise excellent) streaming video coverage off the back of Rossi's Ducati debut, and now there was nothing to placate the punters with, other than the expert time-filling of Gavin Emmett (and no, we're not related).
Eventually, the surface dried out enough for the riders to venture out on track, with Rossi dispersing the throngs around his garage by the simple expedient of going out and putting in a few laps, temporarily slaking the crowd's appetite. With that out of the way, the world of MotoGP could return to what will pass for normal from now on, while Rossi is on the Ducati.
The impressions left after the test were mixed, and leave plenty of food for thought. Rossi's first laps on the Ducati looked positively tentative, like a journalist finally allowed to ride a MotoGP bike (a practice long since abandoned after journos proved time and time again that they are not fast enough to make a MotoGP bike work properly), but with three or four laps Rossi was starting to look more natural. Going out to the track to watch the bikes through the fast right-hand flick of Turn 12, into the long, long glorious left-hander that is Turn 13 was instructive. Rossi looked smooth through there, utterly tight and controlled, but hard to judge just how fast he was. Jorge Lorenzo was Jorge Lorenzo: smooth, precise and blisteringly fast. Marco Simoncelli looked as if he'd heard they'd passed a law forbidding motorcycles from having two wheels on the ground at the same time unless at least one of them was sliding. And Casey Stoner looked like he'd never been away, as if he'd been riding a Honda for the past 10 years.
In the spectacle stakes, Stoner won hands down: wrestling the RC212V through the flick, then slinging the rear of the Honda out to slide it over the hill and down toward 14, before wringing its neck onto the front straight and off into Turn 1 again. Stoner looked every inch of fast, and having been at the top of the timesheets for most of the day, that's exactly what he was. Most frighteningly for the opposition, in the press debrief at the end of day 1, Stoner was positively beaming, telling journalists that this was exactly what he had expected and hoped for.
He described the engine and it's power delivery as "smooth" - a surprise, as Dani Pedrosa and Andrea Dovizioso have spent the past two years complaining about the aggressive nature of the Honda's power. Stoner and his crew had spent most of the day on a 2010 version of the bike, sorting out a seating position to replicate the position the team had found on the Ducati at Aragon which had solved most of the front end issues which had blighted his 2010 season, before working on setting up the electronics to suit Stoner's hyper-aggressive style. Most ominously of all, when asked about any issues with front end feel, Stoner immediately answered "None. The feeling's been fantastic, and I've gotten plenty of feedback."
Stoner looked the happiest I have seen him in the two years I have been in the paddock, and was grinning like a Cheshire cat in front of the press. He was obviously bombarded with questions asking for comparisons to the Ducati, which he dealt with rather deftly, and with dignity. When he said the Honda's engine felt smooth, the question came immediately: "Smoother than the Ducati?" To which Stoner simply replied: "Smooth."
When asked if he felt the potential of the Honda meant that he would be able to find the three quarters of a second he lagged behind Lorenzo's time, he answered euphemistically "Heck, yeah!" Only in his mind, the word he used probably wasn't "heck".
The situation over at Ducati showed that Ducati had handled the rider switch more deftly than Yamaha. Where Casey Stoner had been allowed to use his own judgement to handle questions, Valentino Rossi had been prohibited by Yamaha from speaking to the media. Instead, Ducati's MotoGP project manager - and technical genius - Filippo Preziosi fielded questions from the press, and the first question translated roughly as "So what did Valentino say about the bike?"
Preziosi was similarly deft in his answers, giving away little of what Rossi had told him. But he did say that he had been surprised by the precision of Rossi's feedback: "he found the good things about the bike, and explained the bad things very well," Preziosi said. He had also been surprised by Rossi's calmness, his ability to focus on the task at hand without being flustered, and was pleased by Rossi's positive attitude.
Rossi had spent most of the day on board the 2011 version of the big bang engine, Preziosi said. He had gone out on a bike set up using Casey Stoner's settings, modified for Rossi's height and weight, and worked from there. Rossi had identified a problem with the front, and his crew had solved, it, and gone on to work on a problem with rear grip. Communication with the team had been good, with few problems. "In the paddock, we speak the same language, the language of engineering," Preziosi said, when asked if the English-speaking crew had had problems with the Italian engineers from Ducati.
Most telling of all was Preziosi's answer to the question of what he had been looking forward to most. Not seeing Rossi leave the pits for the first time on the bike he had designed, Preziosi said, but the moment he returned there after his first run, and took off his helmet to tell him what he thought.
Ducati still have a lot of work to do, though. They have to decide whether to stick with the big bang engine, or to switch to the screamer. The difference, Preziosi explained, was that the screamer was more powerful, but also more aggressive, and more difficult to manage. The screamer was also marginally more reliable, a quality that can also be sacrificed in the chase for power. Nicky Hayden said that there was not that much difference between the two, but if he had to race tomorrow, he'd choose to race the big bang, as witnessed by the fact that Hayden set his fastest time on the big bang engine. The screamer, though, was "the best sounding engine in racing," according to Hayden. The fact that Valencia is a track not suited to exploiting the difference between the two was a good thing, Preziosi pointed out: "If the riders can use the screamer here, then they can use it anywhere," he said.
At Yamaha, Jorge Lorenzo tested a new engine and the 2011 forks, and was blisteringly fast on both, getting within a couple of thousandths of a time in the 1'31s, despite very strong winds and less than ideal conditions. Ben Spies had spent his time also testing the new forks, but displayed a surprising lack of knowledge of what he had been testing. The factory bike felt "a bit better" everywhere, he said, describing it as "very similar, but with subtle changes." When asked to elaborate, he said he didn't know what he'd tested, but that the bike had better grip, better feel and better stability. What that translated into, though, was the third fastest time, just a tenth of a second off Casey Stoner, and eight tenths of his brand new teammate - proudly sporting a retro-styled number 1, modeled on the number run by Wayne Rainey - Jorge Lorenzo.
Now well past midnight in Valencia, the wind is whipping through the hills, and lashing the locality. The weather is expected to improve slightly tomorrow, with plenty of sun and a little bit less wind. With just these two days of testing, and then two more lots of three days at Sepang, before the final two days in Qatar, the MotoGP teams have a lot of work to get through before the 2011 MotoGP season gets underway in March.