The madness which unfolded at yesterday's press conference heralded the return of Valentino Rossi into the paddock. Rossi's return to the track was, by comparison, relatively ordinary, or perhaps we had just forgotten what he standard level of hype and fascination Rossi generates any time he is at a racetrack.
After worming his way through a wall of photographers, all desperate to capture his first meters back on the Fiat Yamaha M1, Rossi rolled out onto the Sachsenring circuit, and quickly demonstrated that no, his return had not been too early. Rossi led the timesheets early, and spent most of the session in the top five, before slipping down the order to finish the day in 7th.
"I'm happy because I feel quite good on the bike. This is the most important thing," Rossi said after practice. He was helped by the track, Rossi explained: "It has a lot of left corners, so it's a good track to come back."
Rossi's leg was holding up better than he expected, he said. "I have some pain but I can move on the bike and ride the bike as I like." But the leg was not the main issue, as he had told the press conference on Thursday. "I am very happy about the shoulder," Rossi said. "Finally, we worked very much in this period, and I have a lot less pain compared to Jerez, Le Mans and Mugello." The shoulder injury had been a major factor in his ceding points to his teammate, and seeing a marked improvement was a big factor, according to Rossi. "This is so important, because the shoulder give me a lot of problems for riding."
So far, Rossi seemed to have absorbed the first day of practice well, but the team wanted to see how his leg would react overnight. "We have to understand my physical condition tomorrow after the practice of today, to see if the leg has a problem or is swollen," Rossi told the media, "but I feel good. The only question mark depends on 30 laps in a row."
The fact that the Sachsenring is mainly left handers helped, as Rossi suffered most when he had to turn right. "On the right, I have to move my foot backwards, and this movement I have a lot of pain, because the rear muscles of the leg are not 100%." Nor was a racing crouch conducive to a healthy leg. "My knee suffers quite a lot when it stays very bent," Rossi added.
Rossi himself was surprised at how quickly he has recovered. "Everything has gone well after the crash, from the surgery to the recovery period at home." His rapid recovery had been down to getting the best possible help, Rossi explained. "I have a lot of good people who helped me to improve my condition, and I worked 5 or 6 hours every day to be fit."
The team had modified the bike a little, to ease Rossi's return to racing. They had made the bike more agile by changing the suspension, modified the rear brake, moving it down and making it grab more quickly, and therefore easier to operate. But Dainese had also helped a great deal, by modifying Rossi's leathers and boots. The Italian firm had added padding, and made the boot and leathers wider. To avoid further injury, they had also added stiffer protection, consisting of a mixture of kevlar and carbon fiber. Most of all, though Rossi realized that it was down to him. "I cannot crash. I have to remain calm."
Rossi's Fiat Yamaha teammate had had a more difficult start to the weekend. The championship leader started off well, but his progressed stalled. "We didn't improve in the middle of the session," the Jorge Lorenzo explained. His biggest problems were the front tire and himself, Lorenzo said. He would be working on the front end on Saturday, but most of all, Lorenzo told the press, he would be working on his own riding style.
The problem was not having Rossi back, Lorenzo emphasized. The return of his teammate did not affect his frame of mind. It's just that things don't always go your way, he explained. "This is racing, you can win, you can lose. The other riders have the opportunities to beat me, this is the reality." That was why races were never a foregone conclusion: "Sometimes you go fast, sometimes you struggle a bit more."
Casey Stoner identified Dani Pedrosa as the chief threat for the weekend. "Dani struggles with setup normally at the start of the weekend, so if they get the setup right out of the box, he's going to be fast all weekend," Stoner intimated. "He's the man to chase down at the moment. He's almost two tenths faster than everyone else in T1."
Though Stoner was fast, he was still having issues with braking. "Our main issue is under heavy braking with stability. It's wanting to go into the corner and pumping a little bit, I am feeling every bump in the corner." Tire choice helped, but would not solve the problem completely. " It's a lot better with the soft front tire," Stoner said, but their main focus would be on trying to fix the problem with a mixture of tire pressures and modifying the suspension to absorb the bumps a little better.
When asked whether the tiny gaps in the timesheets would translate into great racing, Stoner was clear. "The only reason there's a small gap is because it's a 1'20 circuit, it's the shortest circuit other than Laguna in the whole season," Stoner explained. "It looks tight, but it's not. You know, two tenths of a second here is the same as half a second or more anywhere else, so it looks all very close, but the racing is going to be all spread out like at other tracks." Short, technical tracks were not the answer to producing closer racing, Stoner said. "The closest racing is at big tracks like Mugello, Silverstone, Phillip Island, all the big faster circuits you see the great races, but in these smaller tight twisty ones the field usually spreads out."
So far this season, Stoner had been on the pace, but not been able to translate that into the results. The remedy was simple, and down to Stoner alone: "I've just got to get the job done, because I've just made small mistakes and things have held me back," he said. "But Jorge's riding well, he's not making any mistakes, and that's the difference."
Stoner was not that surprised that Rossi had returned so soon, and was lapping so quickly. "When I first heard about Valentino coming back, I though wow, that's fast, that's early," Stoner said. "But then I thought about things, and about how fast people come back when they plate bones. We've seen Haga for one come back from a completely broken collarbone, have it plated and there's not too many issues." Stoner predicted that Rossi's leg would not be the limiting factor for the Italian. "By the sound of it, Valentino has a bit more trouble in his shoulder still, and we know that muscular problems are normally a lot worse than bone issues."
But Stoner, for one, was not surprised at how fast Rossi was lapping. "For sure he did a little better than I expected him too," Stoner said, "but he knows how to go fast." That is not something you forget in a hurry.