There is little that motorcycle racing fans love more than a good conspiracy. No mishap, contract dispute, or rider swap is ever the result of chance, error, greed or incompetence; there are always darker and greater powers involved, be it Dorna, Honda, or a major sponsor. They do not let the fact that their theories bear little resemblance to reality in 99.999% of the cases spoil the fun, and rightly so, moving happily on to the next dark conspiracy.
It took less than 10 minutes of the first session of MotoGP free practice before they had plenty to get their teeth into. Casey Stoner barely made it out of the pits before his Honda RC213V packed up, and he was forced to park it up by the side of the track, the bike felled by a mystery electronics issue. Stoner lost a lot of time in that first session, working with just a single bike as his mechanics tried to find out what had caused his first bike to fail. In the afternoon, an issue with the brake caused Stoner similar problems, losing valuable track time he needs to get back up to speed again.
A plot to prevent Stoner from interfering with Dani Pedrosa's shot at the title? An entertaining idea, but in the reality stakes, somewhere beyond the moon landings conspiracy. Stoner's problems are the kind of issue that every team has from time to time, with minor technical issues conspiring to work against them.
As frustrating as it may have been, it will have had little effect on Stoner's pace, though. The Australian is nowhere near race fitness, just 6 weeks into a recuperation period which really needs 6 months at the least, and Stoner is having to find ways around his rigid ankle, which he cannot bend to push himself forward on the pegs to keep weight over the front wheel under acceleration. Instead, he is having to use his arms to pull himself forward, placing much more stress on them than he is used to. With his ankle immobilized, he has been unable to train, and Stoner is uncertain of his race fitness.
The Australian hopes to be better tomorrow, once he has had a chance to rest and devise ways or riding around his ankle. But hopes of winning races are growing slim: Stoner compared his situation to Indianapolis, when he raced immediately after injuring his ankle. Though surprisingly fast in the first part of the race, as the laps ticked off, his arms began to tire from having to compensate for his unwilling ankle and he had to slow up his pace. The Motegi circuit doesn't help, the track consisting of a lot of straights with short and tight corners connecting them. The bike spends a lot of time under either hard braking or hard acceleration, and it is the acceleration which is causing Stoner problems. Sepang should be better, and Phillip Island better still, but coming back so early is tougher than Stoner thought.
The question is whether Dani Pedrosa will even need any help. The Spaniard ended the day under the race lap record and on top of the timesheets, though his advantage over Jorge Lorenzo was small. Pedrosa had little to say after practice, usually a sign that things are going well. He had tried both the harder and the softer of the two compounds, and was pleased with the grip of the new asphalt of the resurfaced track. Pedrosa is in the groove, hitting his stride in the second half of the season and is looking like the man to beat. If it hadn't been for the mishap in Misano, he would be looking very much like a potential champion, but the points he lost in Italy have left him with a hill to climb.
The man in second place is satisfied as well. Jorge Lorenzo understands that the Hondas have an advantage at Motegi, but, as he pointed out, "Our bike is very good as well." The factory Yamaha man got off to a good start, with a small tweak to the electronics giving him an extra boost of speed. Lorenzo was happy on both hard and soft tires, a little faster on the hard rear, but he believes the soft will be the tire for the race. The 2010 champion is confident: "I think we can fight for the victory here."
His teammate Ben Spies agrees that the hard will not be the race tire, as he spent the entire day testing that hypothesis. So much time, in fact, that he missed out on the opportunity to try the soft, ending up well down the order in 6th and eight tenths off the pace. The soft tire should be good for a few tenths, however, and on Saturday, the Texan should find himself much closer to the action.
While Spies is down in 6th, the other fast Yamaha is that of Andrea Dovizioso, who has once again excelled at a track where he always goes well. Dovizioso has the pace to match Pedrosa and Lorenzo, he told MotoGP.com, but not over the full distance of the race. The good news is that they have just two or three problems to fix, and if they can do that, the Italian believes he has a shot at mixing it up all race.
One of Dovizioso's problems is in braking, but he is not alone. Dovizioso, Spies and Valentino Rossi have all been complaining of overheating brakes, leaving them struggling, especially at the end of the long and fast back straight at Motegi. More weight and the higher speeds of the 1000s mean that brake temperatures are up on what had been expected, despite the high mass carbon disks they are using. It is not yet causing a safety issue, Dovizioso said, but it is clearly a concern. Brembo have some work to do for next year.
Leaving brake temperature aside, Rossi was happy with his first day's work. A modification at the end of the second session saw him gain the rear grip he has been missing and improve his acceleration. The improvement cut his deficit to the leaders to just six tenths of a second, a gap that gave the Italian confidence. But the added speed came at a cost, the old Ducati bugbear of tire wear raising its head and Rossi losing a lot of time once the rear tire starts to slide after a few laps. If Rossi and his crew can fix the sliding rear and make the soft tire last the distance, then he believes he could be in with a shot at the podium. The problem is that there is a big group of riders all in the same time bracket, and he will have his hands full trying to stay ahead of them. It will not be easy.
Rossi's teammate Nicky Hayden is having a much tougher time. His injured right hand is causing him problems with braking, the lack of strength a real issue at a circuit with so many hard braking areas. The new chassis is not helping as much as he had hoped either: Hayden has the new revision of the Ducati Desmosedici chassis which Rossi has been using since Misano, but he is not getting the braking feedback he was hoping for. Corner entry is a problem, and a solution is needed for the American.
The weather, at least, is playing along. Apart from the first session of Moto3 practice, when the track was still a little damp from the overnight rain, conditions have been just about ideal for motorcycle racing. It is looking likely that we could see an entirely dry weekend at Motegi, one of just a handful this year. The riders will be very happy indeed if it holds up.