There was naturally only one topic of conversation in the paddock in Assen, and I'm sure you won't be shocked to hear that it wasn't the composition of the new Greek cabinet. Valentino Rossi's brand new Ducati, the legality of using parts for a 2011 bike which have been tested for a 2012 machine, and what this all means about the machine that Casey Stoner left behind for Valentino Rossi, all these things were discussed, but really, they all boil down to what is rapidly becoming the most over-debated topic in motorcycle racing at the moment: Valentino Rossi vs Casey Stoner.
The two protagonists themselves agreed on one thing: The development iteration just discarded by Rossi in favor of the chassis based on the GP12 frame was about at the end of its potential, everything else they were at odds at. Unsurprisingly, given that this is turning into one of the classic rivalries of the modern era, and that they have so much to disagree about.
First, the reason for the change: Basically, Rossi could not go fast on the GP11, and nothing that he or his crew did to the bike helped. "Everything I do, with all my experience, when I do things to go fast with the GP12, I have results and I go faster," Rossi said. "With the GP11 I don't." Rossi made his dislike for the GP11 fairly obvious: "The results of the beginning of the year are worse than we expected, and I had a lot of difficulty to go fast with the GP11," Rossi told the press, saying that the solution was equally obvious. "We pushed a lot to fix the problems on the GP11 but Filippo understood that the answer was the GP12. Fortunately the bike we have in the factory is different from the GP11 in all the areas we suffer."
How is the GP12 (and hopefully, the GP11.1) better? "The GP12 is much more stable, it puts a different pressure on the front, and gives me a better feeling on the front side of the bike. I have less movement in acceleration and I can create also more rear grip compared to the other bike," Rossi said. Will it work though? "Is a risk! Is a risk this bike is no good with the 800 engine, but when you need to recover, you need to take a risk." Rossi was also asked if the decision to switch chassis was taken after struggling so much at Silverstone, and produced one of the most apposite slips of the tongue heard in a long while: "At Strugglestone," Rossi started, before correcting himself, and going on to explain that his decision had been taken much earlier, shortly after the first test at Jerez, and had taken this long to get everything ready.
Rossi laid the problems of the GP11 firmly at the door of Casey Stoner. "Stoner was riding the bike in a very good way," Rossi conceded, but the bike had not been developing in the right direction, and the results of the Ducati had got worse every year. "I think this bike is at the end of it's development, and with the new bike, we will have a lot more space to improve the bike."
Unsurprisingly, Stoner rejected criticism of his development skills, pointing out that Ducati's budget and resources had been the biggest stumbling block during his tenure there. "There were a lot of different things we asked for which they just couldn't do, things I asked for, my technicians, everybody," Stoner said in the press conference, "But we knew they were trying as hard as they could but without the resources, this is all they could come up with. Filippo tried everything he could and tried to get things to us as quickly as possible, but he wanted to make sure that everything was tested correctly, and when you don't have the budget and the time and the resources, then it's hard to do, and with us, they weren't able to do it."
The changes made to the Ducati during his tenure there were minimal, Stoner said: " From 2007 to 2008 they changed more or less nothing. 2009 and 2010, other than the chassis? That's it. We didn't change anything also in the past years. We changed to the big bang engine, but that was it. We did small steps each year and that's all they had the time for, they had all the season to develop one thing, we changed that and that was it. They would spend all the next season developing the next thing."
Stoner was not surprised to hear of such major changes to the Ducati, though, given the problems that Rossi had been having with the bike. "Honestly, they needed it," Stoner said. "If they don't do it, they look like they're doing nothing, and without real results this year they're in big trouble." With Valentino Rossi on board, budget was clearly no longer a problem, and this is something Stoner had been expecting. "I said at the beginning of the season that because they took Valentino they will for sure put more money and more development into this program. Obviously they had the budget to do something new, and if you have this possibility, you must do it if you're struggling like this."
The legality of testing parts on the GP12 which get used this year was also discussed, and as you might expect, Casey Stoner was unconvinced that the Ducati tests were legal. "If they're using parts this year that are going to be on next year's bike, I'm not sure this is allowed," he said, but the consensus elsewhere in the paddock was that the problem is that there are no rules. The rulebook says that testing is prohibited for "machines eligible for the MotoGP class" but that is a phrase so general that you could ride a coach and horses (not eligible for MotoGP) through it without the rulemakers making a fuss. Whether it is in the spirit of the rules is largely irrelevant, the point is it is not against the letter of the law.
Whether any of that testing does Ducati any good is another matter altogether. On Thursday - race day at Assen is traditionally on Saturday, so practice starts a day ahead of the regular schedule - rain is expected for much of the day, making setup a guess at best. The forecast for the long term is excellent - tropical temperatures and bright sunshine expected for early next week, but through Saturday, the forecast is grim. Three days of riding the GP11.1 in the rain is unlikely to teach Rossi and his crew very much about the potential of the bike. He may be forced to do all of his setup work in the pressure cooker atmosphere of Mugello. But at least he has track time there with the GP12 to base it on.
We have already had the first glimpse of the GP11.1 (photos of which have appeared on GPOne.com), and I had a chance to go and have a bit of a peek at the machine as it was warmed up. The rear swingarm appears to be attached to a carbon fiber subframe rather than the crankcases, and the shock is mounted at the top on the same subframe, rather than the bottom of the engine casing via a linkage as it was on the GP11.0. The fairing is now the double-gill side vent version rather than the large single vent, and the swingarm bracing is underneath rather than above. The lower front exhaust is now large, vaguely trumpet shaped, and emerging from the side, altered from the elegantly tucked away side exit as it was previously. Whether it works or not is a different question, and one we will see tomorrow.