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.
Press releases from the MotoGP teams after the first day of practice at Barcelona:
Press releases from the Moto2 and Moto3 teams after the first day of practice at Barcelona:
The second Moto2 free practice session was topped by a dynamic Pol Espargaro, who lead his nearest rival and world title combatant Scott Redding by some three tenths of a second. He was followed by the impressively quick but frustratingly inconsistent Takaaki Nakagami who rounded out the top three places. Local boy Jordi Torres finished a creditable fourth place in front of Thomas Luthi, Johan Zarco, Dominique Aegerter and Tito Rabat.
The baking Barcelona sunshine brought track temperatures through the roof for the start of MotoGP FP2. The session was headed by a revitalised Valentino Rossi, the Italian setting a time of 1:42.297, the fastest lap of the weekend so far and quicker than the existing circuit race lap record. His teammate Jorge Lorenzo, who looked in seriously ominous form early in the session, ended up in second place only four hundredths behind Rossi. He was followed closely in third by fellow championship favourite and countryman Dani Pedrosa, the Spaniards appear to be reveling at their home track.
Isaac Vinales topped the time sheets for the second Moto3 free practice session at the circuit de Catalunya. The track temperature had risen by ten degrees since the morning session and Vinales' time of 1:52.339 was some three tenths slower than the fastest time set in the cooler FP1. Alex Marquez finished FP2 in second place ahead of Isaac's more fancied cousin Maverick, Alex Rins, Luis Salom and Efren Vazquez rounded out an all-Spanish top six.
Pol Espargaro has begun his season revival by setting the pace in the opening practice session of his home Grand Prix. The Spaniard finished a tenth ahead of Swisse rider Thomas Luthi, who sat at the top of the time sheets for much of the session in a strong showing after starting the season injured. Veteran Alex DeAngelis rounded out the top three in a surprisingly strong showing aboard his Speed Up machine.
Casey Stoner has quashed rumors that he could make a return to MotoGP. In an interview with the British magazine Autosport, he says he will not come back to Grand Prix racing while it continues in the direction it is heading in. "I'm closed. I'm done with it," Stoner told Autosport.
There have been persistent rumors that Stoner could come back for a couple of wildcards at the end of the season, though the Australian has denied he would be interested in coming in as a wildcard. More outlandish rumors surfaced a month ago, claiming that Stoner was close to making a shock return to Ducati, and that the Italian company's new German ownership had offered him a large sum to race again. But Stoner told Autosport that there was no truth in either of those rumors, and he had absolutely no interest in a return to MotoGP at the moment.
Jorge Lorenzo has set a blistering pace in the opening practice session of the weekend at Catalunya. The Spaniard took over at the top in the second half of the session with a scorching time of 1:42.422. Championship leader Dani Pedrosa, participating in his 200th Grand Prix weekend, set the pace in the early stages and ended the session a mere two hundredths behind his compatriot. Cal Crutchlow continued his impressive early season form to finish in third place, less than a tenth behind his fellow Yamaha rider Lorenzo.
Luis Salom has carried the momentum from his win into Barcelona, dominating the first session of free practice at the circuit and posting a new lap record in the process. Salom was over eight tenths quicker than Maverick Vinales, while third place man Miguel Oliveira was over a second behind the Red Bull KTM rider. Oliveira led a brace of FTR Hondas, Jack Miller taking fourth spot ahead of Isaac Vinales, while the two Alexes, Rins and Marquez, took sixth and seventh respectively.
This is going to be a big weekend in MotoGP, perhaps one of the most significant in a long while. The outcome of Sunday's race is unlikely to be earth-shattering - the chance of the top three being entirely Spanish, and composed of two Repsol Hondas and a Factory Yamaha is pretty large - and the championship will look much the same on Sunday night as it does now. Yet this weekend will be key.
Much of the interest - and intrigue - revolves around the test on Monday. The most visible piece of the MotoGP puzzle will be in the Suzuki garage, where their brand new MotoGP machine is due to make its first real public debut. The bike has had a number of private tests, some more secretive than others, the latest being last week at Motegi with Randy de Puniet. The times that were leaked from that test were respectable, though with only test riders for competition, it is hard to put them into context.
At Barcelona, a public test, with official timing, and up against the full MotoGP field, there will be nowhere to hide. Will the Suzuki be able to match the times of the Hondas and Yamahas? Unlikely, the bike is still at an early stage of development. But it should be faster than the CRT machines, and close to the Ducati satellite bikes. De Puniet's first target will be himself, and the time he sets during practice and the race on the Aprilia CRT he rides for Aspar.
Even more intriguing at the test is what Yamaha will be bringing. Rumors abound that the seamless transmission which the factory is working on is due to be tested soon, with many believing it could get its first official run out in the hands of the factory riders at Barcelona on Monday. Raising further suspicions that something major is afoot in the Yamaha camp is the fact that they also have a test scheduled for Aragon later in the week. If the gearbox is not quite ready to be raced, then Yamaha could wait to try it at Aragon; if it is ready, trying it at two different circuits would be a good way of giving it a thorough workout. The difference between a seamless and a conventional gearbox is audible, so we should know soon enough.
Press release previews from the MotoGP teams and Bridgestone ahead of this week's Catalonian GP at Barcelona:
Press release previews from the Moto2 and Moto3 teams ahead of this weekend's races at Barcelona: