The news that Sete Gibernau would be returning to MotoGP to test the Ducati Desmosedici bikes raised a flurry of interest when it was announced last week. It launched a veritable firestorm of speculation about a possible return to racing, and whether the arrival of Gibernau made Marco Melandri's position at Ducati even more precarious. There was also the question of whether nearly two years away from racing would have dulled Gibernau's race reflexes so much that he would no longer be competitive. Only test times from Mugello would tell.
After two days of testing, we finally have times to base a judgment on. Frustratingly, though, weather conditions in Mugello are more British than Italian, meaning that so far Gibernau's track time has been limited to just 20 laps on both Tuesday and Wednesday, and even those laps have been ridden under track conditions which are far from ideal.
Despite the damp, Gibernau is still apparently in good shape. On Wednesday, the Spaniard set a fastest lap of 1'52.6 on the GP9, which uses the new carbon-fiber chassis. Although still 4 seconds off the pole record, and 2 seconds slower than the fastest race lap, that's a perfectly respectable time for a rider who hasn't ridden a MotoGP bike for 21 months, and has only ridden an 800cc MotoGP bike in a few tests at the end of the 2006 season, especially under less than perfect conditions.
But the underlying issue is of course Marco Melandri. And a quick comparison of Gibernau's times with Melandri's from practice at Mugello provides some interesting food for thought. Melandri's fastest lap during FP3 at Mugello - a session ridden under less than ideal conditions - was 1'52.419. Just 0.2 seconds faster than Gibernau, after a winter of testing and a third of a season racing on the bike. On this evidence, Gibernau could be just as competitive as Melandri if he were to take over the Italian's seat at Ducati.
The times also indicate that the problem really is with Melandri, despite his protestations on his blog. There, Melandri denied that his poor results were down to mental problems, stating that racing at the highest level is always about the complete package, and the combination of rider, bike and tires. "I believe that in my sport the factors which determine the results are bike - rider - tires, and count for 33 - 33 - 33. If there's a problem with one of those factors, then you can wave goodbye to good results, " Melandri wrote.
The more cynical, and mathematically minded among you may point to the missing 1% from Melandri's equation, and perhaps identify that as the factor separating Melandri from the front of the field.