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David Emmett

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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.

MotoGP’s 2013 Silly Season is one of the most complicated in many years. Though the retirement of Casey Stoner has opened up the market, the real complication lies with two factors, and the way those two interact. The issue can be summed up in a single question: what are we going to do with Marc Marquez?

It has been clear for some time that Marc Marquez is going to be one of the hottest properties in MotoGP in 2013, the Spaniard expected to graduate to the premier class at the end of this season. Under normal circumstances, this would not be an issue, but the situation that MotoGP finds itself currently in means that we are a very long way from normal circumstances.

The combination of the global financial crisis and the radically depleted field, a consequence of the cost hyperinflation the switch to 800cc caused back in 2007, has meant that the series finds itself in a period of transition, with the return to 1000cc machines just the first step in a major rules shakeup.

The scale of the proposed changes – a rev limit, a single ECU, one bike per rider, a cap on lease prices, and a limit to the number of bikes each factory can provide – means that discussions about the rules are ongoing, the situation changing at each Grand Prix as the haggling and horse-trading between the factories and Dorna continues.

Marquez was expected to fall victim to the Rookie Rule, the provision introduced when Ben Spies entered MotoGP in 2010, preventing a rider from going straight to a factory team in his first season in the class. Both HRC and Repsol, the Spanish oil giant who have backed Marquez throughout his career, have made no secret of their preference of putting Marquez directly into the factory Repsol Honda team.

The Rookie Rule prevents this happening, leaving Repsol and Monlau Competicion, who run Marquez’ Moto2 team (and the 125cc team he raced in before that) casting about for alternatives. Their preferred option, if Marquez cannot go straight to the factory team, is for Monlau to move up as an independent satellite team running Marquez as the sole rider. The team would be backed by Honda, and Marquez would have full factory-spec equipment at his disposal.

But that itself poses a problem. Under the current proposals, which look very close to being finalized, each manufacturer will only be allowed to supply a maximum of four riders with bikes in 2013, two riders in a factory team and two riders in satellite teams.

With the direct route into the factory team blocked, Marquez causes a dilemma, for Honda, and for the satellite teams involved: placing Marquez with either the San Carlo Gresini or the LCR satellite teams will cause problems with the teams’ existing sponsors, and if Marquez brings his own team of mechanics with him, then it would also mean satellite teams breaking long-standing relationships with mechanics already working for the teams.

Likewise for Honda, if HRC grants Repsol and Monlau’s wish of creating a separate team for Marquez, that could mean being forced to take away a bike from one of the two Honda satellite teams.

To hear the perspective of the satellite teams themselves, I spoke to Lucio Cecchinello at Barcelona, owner of the LCR Honda team currently fielding Stefan Bradl in MotoGP. Cecchinello and Gresini are the parties in the most difficult situation, and though Cecchinello pronounced himself a supporter of the Rookie Rule, he was clear that the current set of circumstances made the situation even more complicated than it would normally be.

Barcelona looks set to remain on the MotoGP calendar for the foreseeable future, despite concerns over the financial viability of the round. In an interview with the Spanish newspaper Mundo Deportivo, Dorna CEO Carmelo Ezpeleta has confirmed that the contract, signed for five years in 2011, will be honored by both Dorna and the regional government of Catalonya, which helps fund the race.

Back in March, at the presentation of the Jerez round, Ezpeleta had stated that he expected there to be three Spanish rounds of MotoGP in 2013, with both Aragon and Jerez confirmed, and Barcelona and Valencia alternating. However, in the interview with Mundo Deportivo, Ezpeleta was less certain of the continuation of Jerez, as the agreement he had signed had been with the previous mayor of Jerez of the socialist PSOE party, and he had not yet spoken to the new mayor from the conservative PP party. However, Jerez, like Barcelona, has a five-year contract with Dorna to organize a MotoGP round, and Ezpeleta expect the race to go ahead.

Race day at Barcelona saw three different races in each of the three classes, and each with a particular lesson to teach. In Moto3, Maverick Vinales was the only rider to understand that it is better to escape from a battling group than get caught up in all the excitement. Vinales eventually won with a massively comfortable lead, but while there is no doubt that the Spaniard’s pace was particularly tough, those in the group behind him gave him a big helping hand by turning on each other instead of banding together to hunt down Vinales for the win. Even 2nd place went to the smartest rider, rather than the most fierce: Sandro Cortese had been forced to ride more carefully due to a very painful right hand he suffered in a crash during qualifying, and by conserving his forces for when he needed them most, he bagged second spot and did very well in the Championship race. Brave, mature, and above all intelligent riding by the young German.

Moto2 deserves a chapter apart, and one which will surely be forthcoming later in the week, probably entitled “The Multitudinous Sins of Marc Marquez”. Marquez was initially punished after a collision with Pol Espargaro which saw Espargaro crash heavily. The Catalunya Caixa rider was given a one minute penalty, but his appeal was upheld, and the penalty was canceled. But the penalty was more about what had happened at Qatar than the incident at Barcelona. After the move on Thomas Luthi, Marquez was given a yellow card by Race Direction, and warned to take care in future. Race Direction appeared to have decided that this move was worthy of a second yellow card, and had therefore decided to apply a penalty. While there is merit to their argument – especially in punishing riders at the front, talk to mid-pack riders and they will tell you that it is a proper killing field further back – this particular incident seems a poor one to pick. As this incident is being viewed by the fans in isolation, rather than as part of the bigger picture, including Marquez’ prior form. Viewed separately, this pass looks too much like an ordinary racing incident to be worthy of such severe punishment.

Up front, Andrea Iannone had one of his days. When the Italian is good, he is utterly unbeatable, showing the style, ability, intelligence and ruthlessness to seal the win. Unfortunately for Iannone, those days are few and far between, with too many days where the Italian ends up miles off the pace.

The MotoGP lesson was perhaps the most interesting of all, because of what it told us of the relative strengths of the Hondas and Yamahas, and how they use the tires. In both practice and race, the Hondas went with the harder rear tire while the Yamaha riders preferred the softer option, because of the way the bike uses the tires. The difference was visible in the stunning 2000 fps video that Dorna provided from some of the corners, proving once again that though Dorna may have a bunch of stuff horribly wrong, their TV coverage is absolutely top notch. Shots of the Hondas showed the rear spinning, and sliding around the corner to get more drive, while the Yamahas looked to be wheels in line, driving out of the corner with less power, but getting it down earlier in the corner.

It has been great to have some consistent weather, Casey Stoner said at the qualifying press conference at Barcelona, a sentiment that was shared by everyone at the Montmelo circuit, riders, teams, fans and media. Apart from the anomaly that is Qatar (a night race with practice in cooling temperatures) all of the MotoGP rounds held so far have featured massive changes in weather almost from session to session. With four session all with comparable temperatures – a little cooler in the mornings, a little warmer in the afternoons – the riders have been able to actually spend some time working on a consistent set up.

What they have learned is that the tires are going to be a huge part in Sunday’s race. The 2012 Bridgestones are built to a new specification and a new philosophy, softer to get up to temperature more quickly and to provide better feedback. This the Japanese tire company has succeeded in spectacularly well, the only downside (though that is debatable) is that the tires wear more quickly. This makes tire management critical for the race, with both hard and soft tires dropping off rapidly after 7 laps, and then needing managing to get them home.

In light of the tire management issues, Casey Stoner expressed his surprise that so many riders had spent time on the soft tire, but a quick survey of the paddock says that the soft tire is a viable race option. While Stoner is convinced that the hard tire will be the race compound, others are less certain. The Yamahas especially seem to prefer the soft tire, Andrea Dovizioso saying that the hard drops off more than the soft. Nicky Hayden found something similar: the hard spins too much, he told the press, and so the soft tire is easier to manage as the tires wear. Both are capable of lasting the distance, it will just be about which tire is in better shape at the end.

After the fickle weather which has dogged the first three European rounds of MotoGP, the first day of practice at Barcelona weekend got off to a dry, warm and sunny start. It was just what the teams and riders needed, some dry track time to work on the issues they face: for Honda, the chatter which they have suffered since the introduction of the RCV213V in the middle of last year, for Ducati, the lack of rear grip and poor drive out of corners, and for Yamaha, well, nothing really, it’s a pretty good bike as it is.

Conditions were pretty near ideal, though the blazing afternoon sun made the track a little too hot to get the best out of the tires, and it showed in the times. In the MotoGP class, Jorge Lorenzo posted a time well inside the race lap record, while in Moto2, Thomas Luthi obliterated the outright lap record in the morning session. Only Moto3 lagged behind, the brand new four-stroke class still a way off the times set by the 125cc bikes which they replaced.

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.

Casey Stoner’s retirement announcement marked the – unhealthily early – opening of MotoGP’s silly season, and with just two weeks having passed, it is, in the words of Nicky Hayden, “too early to start thinking about that.” At the moment, factories, teams, and riders are still absorbing the news and pondering their strategy for the many talks and negotiations which will surely follow. Though the paddock, the media, and the internet are full of speculation, everything is so open that even the wildest guess may turn out to be true.

Even so, there are a few hard truths that we can be sure of, and most of them revolve around Marc Marquez. After Jorge Lorenzo and Valentino Rossi, Marquez will play a key role in who goes where in 2013. Honda is a strong supporter of the Spaniard, in no small part due to the backing of oil giant Repsol. It seems almost certain (almost, but not completely) that Marquez will end up on a Honda in 2013, but that brings its own set of challenges. For the question is not so much what Marquez is to ride – money bet on it being a factory-spec and factory-supported Honda RC213V is probably the safest investment going given the troubled time the stock markets are going through – as which team he will be riding it in.

Once the shock of Casey Stoner’s retirement passed, the speculation began over who would take his place at Honda, and what his departure would mean for contract negotiations among the other riders in the paddock. The permutations are endless, much like a sliding puzzle: will Repsol be able to tempt Jorge Lorenzo away from Yamaha? If Lorenzo does go, will Valentino Rossi be welcome at Yamaha, or could he even go back to Honda, the factory team he left at the end of 2003? What of Dani Pedrosa and Marc Marquez, and where do Ben Spies and Nicky Hayden fit into this?

But amidst all of the focus on the riders’ market, a bigger catch appears to have slipped under the radar. For Stoner’s retirement means that it is not just his seat at Honda that will be available next year, his current crew, including crew chief Cristian Gabarrini is also up for grabs. Gabarrini and crew – mechanics Bruno Leoni, Roberto Cierici, Andrea Brunetti, Filippo Brunetto, and Lorenzo Gagni – came across to Honda along with Stoner when he left Ducati at the end of 2010, the group remaining intensely loyal to the Australian since winning their first world title together at Ducati in 2007.

Funny how things turn out. On a weekend that looked like being overshadowed by one subject – Casey Stoner’s shock retirement announcement and its repercussions – along came the rain and provided spectacle to cheer the hearts of racing fans of every persuasion. Rain offers new opportunities, and such opportunities light a fire in the breasts of racers being kept from running at the front under ordinary circumstances. At the same time, should that fire burn too fiercely, those same racers can fall prey to their own overreaching ambition, and fall within sight of glory.

Sunday at Le Mans saw plentiful examples of both. In three outstanding, if rain-sodden races, the fine balance between head and heart that racing requires was demonstrated several times over. Riders took the chances on offer: those who wanted it too much suffered the consequences and crashed out ignominiously; those who did not want it enough floundered around miserably at the rear; those that got it just right were richly rewarded.

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.