As a MotoGP rider, dealing with the press can be a lot like boxing against a stronger opponent: put in a quick attack, and then grab on and defend for dear life. At Laguna Seca, Ben Spies showed he had mastered the art perfectly. After dropping the bombshell that he would be leaving Yamaha on Tuesday — on Thursday Spies was in full defensive mode, deflecting questions and saying that he would not be discussing the situation and what had motivated his decision “until I’m ready to talk about the future.” To carry that off, and persist in your position in a room full of journalists hell-bent on wheedling the truth out of you, is quite an achievement.
Fortunately for Spies, his announcement had given the assembled media hordes – well, not quite a horde, as dwindling print sales, economic stagnation in the key markets of Spain and Italy, and a few broader issues with journalists traveling on tourist visas meant that press corps numbers at Laguna are down – had plenty of other issues to sink their teeth into. Spies leaving Yamaha opens up another seat, and with the Texan looking almost certain to switch back to the World Superbike series with the BMW Italia squad next season, an extra factory prototype, something of increasing scarcity in these days of dwindling factory involvement.
Naturally, with Spies out of the equation, the media and fans have joined in an epic game of fill-in-the-blanks to try and slot all the surplus of talented riders into the limited space for available rides.
It’s a good job that we are here in Mugello. Normally, at the end of three back-to-back race weekends, riders, team members and journalists are all just about ready to strangle each other – some paddock insiders have colorful tales of intra-team punch-ups, which they will tell if plied with a few drinks – but this is Mugello, the one weekend each season which everybody looks forward to.
There is something very special about the setting, the track, the weather, the location which mellows everyone out. Maybe it is the spectacularly located Tuscan villas most of the teams stay in for the weekend – there is nothing quite like taking a dip in a private pool as the sun goes down behind the beautiful hills of Tuscany to calm the spirits. But the truth is that everyone seems to wear a smile around the Mugello paddock, no matter what hardship they have suffered in the weeks before the weekend.
It is to be a special weekend, just as every race at Mugello is special. And it will be important too, with several big announcements already made, and more to come. The biggest – and least surprising – was the announcement that Dani Pedrosa and Marc Marquez will ride for the factory Repsol Honda team for the next two season. Both signings had been long expected, despite some rumors that Valentino Rossi would be moved into the Repsol team in Pedrosa’s place. HRC Vice President Shuhei Nakamoto explained to the press that the decision to sign Pedrosa had been because of the experience of the Spaniard. “A good rider with good experience,” is how Nakamoto described Pedrosa, saying that his signing was good for Honda.
And Honda was not Pedrosa’s only option. He had had other options on the table and been able to decide freely where he wanted to go, Pedrosa told Spanish media, the implication being that he had an offer from Yamaha, though Pedrosa refused to go into details. He had been a Honda rider throughout all of his career, Pedrosa said, and so to continue had been the best option.
Silly Season has hit full swing in Germany, not just for the MotoGP class but for the support classes as well. And while movements in MotoGP are mainly about what is happening next year, in Moto2 and Moto3 – and even among the CRT machines – there is some serious rider swapping going on for the rest of this season.
In MotoGP, the next two key movements just got a lot closer. Dani Pedrosa is now very close to staying with the Repsol Honda team, telling Spanish journalists that he would sign a new two-year contract with HRC either here in the Sachsenring or at Mugello at the latest. His priority had been to stay on a bike he felt he could win with, telling the Spanish newspaper ABC earlier this week that Honda and Yamaha had been his only realistic options. The Ducati, he said rather pointedly, was more something a rider might consider before their retirement.
The times were close after the first day of practice, closer than they have been for a very long time. Just 0.471 seconds separates the top 11 MotoGP prototypes (Karel Abraham is barely fit enough to ride, after breaking fingers in his left hand, and is way off the pace), with Ben Spies leading Cal Crutchlow by just 0.006, just a tenth separating Nicky Hayden in 3rd from Dani Pedrosa in 6th, and less than a tenth between Andrea Dovizioso in 7th and Stefan Bradl in 11th. It has all the makings of a great race, right?
Not according to Cal Crutchlow. “Lorenzo will run away with it,” the Monster Tech 3 Yamaha man opined. Everyone except for Jorge Lorenzo and Dani Pedrosa had set their fastest time on the soft tire, Crutchlow explained. Lorenzo’s best time, a 1’35.057, was set in the middle of a run with a used hard tire, his race rhythm in the 1’35.0 while everyone else was running 1’35.3. Lorenzo was looking very smooth on the bike, team manager Wilco Zeelenberg saying he was pretty pleased with the bike and the way the first day had gone.
Two topics dominated Thursday’s round of talk at the rider debriefs and press conferences – well, three actually, but the Marquez/Espargaro clash at Barcelona was really just rehashing of old ground – and the talk was about contracts and tires, probably in that order of importance. With Casey Stoner retired and Jorge Lorenzo having renewed his contract with Yamaha for two more years, attention is turning to the other players in the field, and so every rider speaking to the press was given a grilling as to their plans for next year.
That interrogation revealed only a very little. In the press conference, Jorge Lorenzo admitted he had been made an offer by Honda, and had only decided to sign for Yamaha once Lin Jarvis upped his original offer in response to Honda’s. Lorenzo would not be drawn on the size of the sums involved – a clumsy and badly phrased question in the press conference asked by me was easily evaded by the Spaniard – but logic dictates that it would be more than the reported 8 million a year his previous contract was worth. But money was not the main driver behind the signing, Lorenzo said. “I listened to my heart, and my heart said Yamaha.” As Lorenzo’s team manager Wilco Zeelenberg said at Barcelona, and repeated again at Silverstone, Lorenzo wants to win championships, and Yamaha gave him the best shot at doing that.
If MotoGP can be said to have a backyard, then the Montmelo circuit just outside Barcelona is surely it. Series organizer Dorna has its offices just south of the city, and the Catalunya region – and especially the dormitory towns surrounding Barcelona – has provide a rich seam of riding talent, a seam almost as rich as its Italian counterpart surrounding the Misano circuit, comprising Cattolica, Riccione and the immediate area. So this is a home race for everyone, almost literally for some people. Where normally, nearly everyone in the paddock stays in hotels or rented accommodation, Dorna staff and some team members are now commuting to work from their homes in Barcelona.
And there are plenty of riders in more or less the same boat. Jorge Lorenzo lives in the city, Dani Pedrosa is from Sabadell, the industrial town just south of the track, while the Espargaro brothers Aleix and Pol are from Granollers, the town just a stone’s throw from the Montmelo track. The pressure is enormous, as both Dani Pedrosa and Lorge Lorenzo acknowledged in the press conference today. Media appearances go through the roof, friends, family, sponsors, business contacts, everyone wants a piece of the Spanish riders, and they barely get a moments rest. Actually riding a MotoGP bike at the limit feels like a blessed relief.
It is hard to upstage Valentino Rossi. It takes something large, significant, to take the limelight away from the nine-time World Champion, and the man who has been the charismatic heart of MotoGP for the best part of 15 years. To do that, you have to “Go big or go home,” as British road racer Guy Martin likes to put it.
At Le Mans, Casey Stoner upstaged Rossi. The press conference – usually a rather staid affair, with the usual niceties about the track, each rider’s chances at the circuit and a couple of witticisms – started unusually, with Nick Harris, the veteran commentator who leads the official press conferences, saying that Stoner would like to make a statement to the press. Stoner then proceeded to press the big red button that set Twitter, the internet and newswires ablaze. In the process, he did not so much ignite the 2013 MotoGP Silly Season, as douse it in liquid oxygen and set a flame thrower to it.
For most of the groups inside the MotoGP paddock, this final visit to Estoril for the Portuguese Grand Prix is tinged with sadness. Everyone loves this place, except for arguably the most important group of individuals present: the riders. The track is too tight for a MotoGP bike, especially the tight uphill chicane that follows a couple of corners after the back straight, and the many surfaces of Estoril make it very difficult to cope with. But for anyone who doesn’t actually have to ride the track, Estoril is wonderful. Teams and journalists either stay in the beautiful seaside resort of Cascais, or else in the magical town of Sintra, up the mountain overlooking the Portuguese circuit. As far as ambiance is concerned, the Portuguese round of MotoGP is very hard to beat.
Unfortunately for the Estoril circuit and the many fans it has in the paddock, this is the last time we will be coming here for the foreseeable future. The state of the Portuguese economy, combined with the fact that this is one of the least attended races of the season means that it is just not viable for the time being, especially not as the circuit really needs resurfacing. In a last-ditch effort to attract as many people as possible to the Grand Prix, the circuit organizers have slashed prices by quite an astonishing level. The cheapest ticket for the weekend? 2 euros. The most expensive? 20 euros for a three-day pass and the best seating. There are several circuits where you could spend ten times that much on a ticket. A bit of judicious googling for hotels and flights and you could come to the Portuguese GP for just the cost of entry for another European round.
Though the night race at Qatar is spectacular, the paddock at Jerez feels like a proper paddock. There is a bustle missing from Qatar, and the return of the hospitality units means that it is an altogether more colorful place. The presence of the hospitality units also means seeing more old friends, the men and women who slave all weekend putting the units together and ensuring that everything runs smoothly within them, and that the guests who spend their time there – including, most importantly, the people who foot the bill for this whole MotoGP malarkey – pass it as pleasantly as possible. These are the people who are the backbone of MotoGP, the foundation on which it is built, and it is always a happy moment meeting them again.
The reappearance of the hospitality units also sees the reopening of another, more informal competition. Not content with just facing each other out on the track, the teams also vie for attention in the paddock as well. The rules of the contest are simple and rather childish: the team with the biggest, shiniest, most impressive hospitality unit wins. This year, the contest is already over: Avintia Racing, fielding Maverick Vinales in Moto3, Julian Simon in Moto2, and Yonny Hernandez and Ivan Silva in MotoGP, have erected a structure that can only be described as humungous (see photo). Where most units are the size of a spacious lounge, the Avintia hospitality unit is about the size of a basketball stadium. The fact that Avintia is a construction company has doubtless influenced their design decisions, and if the racing doesn’t work out, they can always turn it into an olympic sized swimming pool.