It has been a while since Valentino Rossi's name has topped the timesheets in MotoGP: once during the test at Jerez back in March, before that at a wet Silverstone almost exactly a year ago. Since that time, he's been close on occasion, but never fastest. Until today.
The Italian set out on a hot final run to set the best time of the day, and take over the top spot from his Yamaha Factory Racing teammate Jorge Lorenzo, to the delight of the assembled crowd, so many of whom wear his colors. (On a side note, I often wonder what colors will adorn the racetracks of the world once Rossi retires. Right now, you do not need a GPS to guide you to the circuit, you just follow the sea of yellow to the gates.)
Rossi was delighted, but he was also relieved, having confirmed to himself that he can still be at the front. "Today I am very happy about the result," Rossi told the press, saying that to be at the front was a great feeling. But Rossi was also realistic: it is only Friday, he pointed out to the media, and he had been fast on Friday at previous races.
The time was set while working on qualifying, his weakest point since his return to Yamaha and the introduction of the new qualifying format. Once a formidable qualifier, he has yet to get to grips with the high-pressure 15 minute qualifying dash, his best grid position a fifth spot at Jerez. He had set out to try a practice run at qualifying on Friday, to simulate the added speed he will need on Saturday afternoon. The first part of the afternoon session had been spent on a hard rear, to try to see if that could be the race tire, before Rossi put on a soft rear for a final three-lap push for the pole.
"We decided to do like this, first because we wanted to try the hard tire, make some laps - I did like 15 laps," Rossi said on Friday. "And second for try the qualifying, for try if I'm able to improve my lap time in one lap with a soft tire, what I have to do tomorrow. For sure, yes, is a test for the qualifying, and was not so bad. But I think that anyway to stay on top tomorrow, we have to go faster." Rossi had briefly abandoned the pursuit of race set up to prepare for qualifying with some success. He will have to go faster on Saturday, though, he admitted. "For sure we have to go in 1'41," Rossi said.
Is Rossi's flying lap a realistic representation of his race pace? That is hard to say. Rossi had been trying the hard rear tire, but the hard rear is almost impossible to use for the Yamahas, all of them preferring the soft, though Crutchlow and Smith had both spent time on the hard rear. The Hondas had been using a mix of both rear compounds, as had the Ducatis. On the hard rear, Rossi's pace was around 1'42.9, a little slower than Jorge Lorenzo and Dani Pedrosa, a little faster than Alvaro Bautista and Cal Crutchlow. On the soft tire, and in 'pseudo-qualifying' mode, he was a few hundredths quicker than Jorge Lorenzo.
The tire issues which make Rossi's race pace so difficult to discern are occupying the entire paddock. The Yamahas, especially, can only really use the softer of the two options Bridgestone have brought, as has been the case for much of the season. This is exercising Jorge Lorenzo, who expressed frustration at having to eke out another weekend with what is effectively a tire allocation of 7 rear tires, instead of the maximum of 11. If only the soft works, the 4 harder option tires the riders must use are effectively unusable.
The Hondas are more flexible in their choice of tires, being able to use both compounds. Neither Marc Marquez nor Dani Pedrosa had made a decision on which would be better, but they still had some work to do on set up. Marquez had his plan for Saturday clearly in mind: in FP3, they would continue to work on finding the optimum set up, before concentrating on tire choice in FP4. FP4 is the natural session to do so, Marquez suggested, as with nothing at stake in the session, the riders' efforts could be concentrated entirely on race pace.
Cal Crutchlow had already warned against underestimating the Hondas. "We know the Hondas take a little bit longer to set up, but when they come out Saturday morning, they normally take a second off," the Tech 3 man warned. "Tomorrow morning and tomorrow afternoon will show the true potential of the Honda, I believe. You never really read into what Honda does on a Friday, because they take so much more time to set up electronically as well as set up wise." The factory Yamahas' top two slots should not be taken for granted. Once the Hondas get up to speed, it could all change.
Marc Marquez was also asked about accusations that he and his team had been copying set up data from Dani Pedrosa, and that this had helped them at Mugello. Marquez denied using set up data, saying it was useless to him because of their differing riding styles, but admitted that he checked Pedrosa's data after every session. "About checking and comparing the data, I compare every practice," Marquez told the media. "When I finish the practice I compare with him, because I know that for example he is much faster, so I would like to compare. But about the set up, we didn't compare, because you know, in the end, we have such a different riding style. In the preseason in Jerez and Malaysia I tried his set up, but I was not able to ride with his set up. So we just compare the speed in the middle of the corner on data, but about the set up, we never compared that."
Marquez had started out basing his set up on Casey Stoner's, and he was still close to that in terms of electronics, Marquez explained. Asked if he was still using a set up similar to Stoner's, Marquez was frank: "About the electronics side? Yes. About the bike? It's different, because we have a different chassis, different swingarm, so we are using a different set up." Marquez said. This data sharing is common to all factories: in Honda, Yamaha and Ducati, all riders can see each other's data, to check speed, acceleration and braking points. If a rider does not understand where he is losing time, looking at the data of another rider can be very instructive. A quick glance at corner speeds, braking points or throttle traces can tell a rider exactly where they are going wrong.
The difference between data and set up was visible down in pit lane, where the Yamahas are split into two camps. Cal Crutchlow, Jorge Lorenzo and, to a lesser extent, Bradley Smith are all using a much longer bike, while Valentino Rossi is using a much shorter bike, with the rear axle further forward and the headstock further back. The result is very similar, and the center of mass on the bikes is also fairly similar, Bradley Smith explained. "If you look at Valentino's setting compared to Jorge's, they are completely different. So you can't really say one setting works or one setting doesn't," Smith said, "but just that balance of where they have put the weight, that center of gravity balance seems to be in a similar spot, so we need to try to follow that direction, I feel."
While much of the focus was on today's practice, Cal Crutchlow fielded a host of questions about his future. After the meeting he had with Yamaha on Sunday night at Mugello, the media gathered on Friday afternoon tried to pry whatever they could out of the Englishman about his future. Crutchlow remained coy, saying only that the exchange of views had been useful, but that nothing had changed. Pushed for details of the parties he was speaking to, Crutchlow joked that there had been contacts, but no contracts.
The press were unwilling to settle for this, and he was asked about his level of interest in the Suzuki test on Monday. His interest in it was as a potential rival, more than anything else, Crutchlow explained. "I'm curious [to see the Suzuki] because it might be on the grid next year," he told the press. "I'm curious to see it's potential, because someone else decent might be on it, because they're fast and they might go fast on it."
He would not be trying to evaluate it as a bike he could potentially be racing next season, he protested. "I'm not interested to look at it and think 'I might ride that, it might be strong in this area.' I don't really care yet, because it's got a long way to go. And it's not going to come out of the blocks next year and blow everything away. But if they manage to sign a really good rider, then you look at it with the potential of maybe it could be really good with that rider on it."
While the Suzuki is to take the track on Monday, it will not have the company it might have hoped for. The Factory Yamaha team will be heading for Aragon on Monday, skipping the test at Barcelona to test instead on Tuesday and Wednesday at the track in Alcañiz. They will be joined there by the Repsol Honda team, leaving only Suzuki, the CRT teams and Ducati to test at Barcelona on Monday. Given that Ducati will be the first target to aim for for Suzuki, that may not be such a bad thing.