Writing about MotoGP is hard at the moment. There are so many great stories to tell – the astonishing rise of Romano Fenati out of nowhere in Moto3, the legion of Kalexes taking on Marc Marquez in Moto2, the frenetic pace of development among the CRT machines, the ascendancy of Dani Pedrosa as a challenger for Jorge Lorenzo and Casey Stoner, the rebirth of Cal Crutchlow as a serious force to be reckoned with, the HRC design gaffe that left the RC213V seriously afflicted by chatter, just to name a few – but it is hard to get around to telling them. Because the vast majority of fans only want to read about one single subject: the enigma of Valentino Rossi’s continuing battle with the Ducati Desmosedici, and his fall from championship contender to mid-pack straggler.
There were plenty of big names to watch out for at Jerez, but the real star of the show was the weather. She turned out to be such a prima donna that she almost completely halted on-track action for the first session of MotoGP, though not so much through her ferocity as by her fickleness. A rain shower at the end of the previous Moto3 made the track just greasy enough for it to be no use for slick tires, and nowhere near wet enough to get any useful information from wets, and so the vast majority of the MotoGP grid spent all of FP1 suited up but twiddling their thumbs.
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.
After the opening of hostilities in the black of the desert night in Qatar, the 2012 MotoGP season gets underway for real – or at least, what feels like for real – this weekend in Jerez. The paddock finally full, not of Nissen huts, but of sleek and shiny hospitality units and race trucks; the stands full of fans, and spread all around the track, not huddled together at one end of Qatar’s single grandstand; the bikes displaying their natural glory in daylight, not the fluorescent glare of Qatar’s admittedly spectacular floodlit fish bowl.
The track is familiar to all. We were here just a month ago, for the final IRTA test ahead of the season, and everyone has had a chance to find a decent setup for the track. Fastest man during the test was also the fastest man at Qatar, though arm pump prevented Casey Stoner from capitalizing on that speed, and his title rival Jorge Lorenzo taking advantage to secure a well-deserved victory.
It is ironic that the high point of the relationship between Valentino Rossi and Ducati came as he rode the first few meters out of pit lane and on to the track at the Valencia MotoGP test in November 2010. All of the excitement that had been building since the first rumors emerged in early June that the nine time world champion would be leaving Yamaha to join the iconic Italian manufacturer culminated as Rossi emerged from a crowd of photographers and powered down pit lane, watched by a large group of fans who had come to the test to see this very moment.
From that point on, it was all downhill. Within a few laps, it was clear that Rossi would struggle with this bike, and though everyone was putting a brave face on his performance, he left the test in 15th place, one-and-three-quarters of a second behind his ex-teammate Jorge Lorenzo, and 1.7 seconds behind Casey Stoner, the man whose bike he was now riding and who had left Ducati to join Honda. The contrast between the two could not be greater: where Stoner was bullying the Honda around as if he had been born on the RC212V, Rossi – handicapped in part by his still-injured shoulder – looked like a frightened rookie, thoroughly intimidated by the bike.
Rossi learned two important but disturbing things at that test: the first was that the Ducati was a much, much worse bike than he had expected. Stoner’s brilliance and the genius of his crew chief Cristian Gabbarini had flattered the machine, disguising its massive weakness. The second was that Casey Stoner had to be a much, much better rider than he thought if the Australian had managed to be competitive on the bike that had so shaken Rossi’s confidence. Throughout the year, as Rossi struggled, he was forced to answer the same question over and over again. Why could he, the man with nine world titles and widely regarded as one of the greatest racers of all time, not be competitive on the bike that Stoner had won three races on the previous season, and put on the podium at Valencia before handing it over to Rossi? “Casey rode this bike in a special way,” Rossi answered every time. “I cannot ride this bike like that.”
Understanding that Stoner could be so competitive on the Ducati must have been a blow to Rossi’s confidence and his self image. After their legendary and heart-stopping duel at Laguna Seca, Rossi had felt he had the measure of the Australian, beating Stoner more often than not and taking the 2008 and 2009 titles. Once he realized that throughout that period, Stoner had been bringing a knife to a gunfight and still regularly beating him – even after the introduction of the spec tire – Rossi must have asked questions of his own ability.
Jerez is to remain on the MotoGP calendar for at least one more year. Dorna CEO Carmelo Ezpeleta announced the extension during the official presentation in Madrid of this year’s Spanish GP at the iconic Jerez circuit, stating that Jerez will stay on the calendar for 2013. He also confirmed that from next year, there will be just 3 races on the Iberian peninsula (Spain and Portugal), with Jerez and Aragon certain to stay, while Barcelona and Valencia could alternate, as is currently being proposed for Formula 1. Meanwhile, the Portuguese Grand Prix at Estoril appears destined to disappear from the calendar.
Rumors surrounding the fate of the Jerez Grand Prix had been circulating for a while, with the circuit still in financial problems over non-payment of debts to the consortium that carried out remodelling work at the circuit back in 2001. It was widely expected that Jerez would be dropped from the calendar, but sources close to the circuit owners were confident of being able to continue. Though the official confirmation is only for 2013, the chances of the race remaining at the track for the next five years look very good.
Valentino Rossi’s litany of complaints about the Ducati Desmosedici GP12 given live on Italian TV after the Qatar round of MotoGP triggered a wave of speculation. For the first time, Rossi had openly complained that Ducati had not given him the bike that he believes he needs to go fast, and that he had felt like pulling in before the end of the race. That, combined with an interview Rossi also did with the Italian magazine Motosprint in which he implied that Ducati Corse boss Filippo Preziosi was failing to provide the help that he and the other Ducati riders needed caused a massive reaction throughout the media and across the web.
Some reaction was amusing, such as the Downfall parody on YouTube, discussing Rossi’s poor qualifying at Qatar. Others were more serious, including an article on the Spanish website Motocuatro.com suggesting that Rossi could try to get out of his contract before the year was over and wait for 2013, when, the article suggested, he could obtain a satellite Yamaha M1 to compete with the blessing of Dorna. Rumors quickly started to grow that Rossi’s relationship with Ducati could be over, and sooner than anyone expected.
One of the great pleasures in watching Casey Stoner ride a MotoGP machine is the controlled way in which he manages to slide the bike through the corners. In an era when the spectacular slides once so beloved by fans have been tamed by electronic intervention, Stoner has managed to convince his engineers to limit the electronics sufficiently to give him enough control to slide the bike to help get it turned.
His ability has fascinated both fans and journalists around the world, and many have tried to get him to explain how he does it, but Stoner himself has always found it very hard to say exactly what he is doing. At Qatar, a group of journalists pressed the Repsol Honda rider again to explain exactly where and when he chooses to slide the rear, and what benefits it provides. Though he protested it was hard – “It’s really difficult to explain, so many people have asked me,” he said – he went on to talk at length about what he does and why.
Bridgestone has announced that they are going to bring forward the introduction of a new 2012-spec front tire, and start allowing riders to use it starting from the Jerez round of MotoGP. The new tire was tested extensively during the pre-season, with versions tried at both Sepang tests and at the IRTA test at Jerez. The tire features a modified construction which allows it to heat up more quickly as well as provide more feedback to the riders.
The selected construction was one of two types tested during the pre-season. The two types – designated as “21” and “24” – differed only slightly, the central section being slightly less rigid in construction on the 21, when compared to the 24. The riders were positive about both types, but were split on which tire was best. The majority of the riders preferred the 21, praising it as having better stability and feedback. Surprisingly, the Honda riders took the opposite view, saying that it was the 24 which was the more stable tire, the 21 providing less stability under braking.
When Suzuki announced that they would be pulling out of MotoGP at the end of the 2011 season, they were keen to emphasize that the withdrawal was only temporary, saying they were planning a return to MotoGP in 2014. Though many paddock regulars were sceptical about such a suggestion, Suzuki is sticking to its guns, it seems. In an interview with Italian website GPOne, Suzuki Racing’s technical director Shinichi Sahara reaffirmed that they were still working towards a 2014 return to MotoGP, based on the motorcycle the factory had been developing before the decision was made to pull out.
The night schedule at Qatar means that writers and journalists end the weekend in a state of utter exhaustion. To bed at dawn for a few hours fitful sleep, up around noon, off the to the track for a full day’s – or night’s – work, then do the same thing over again. Race day is worse, the schedule is tougher, the adrenaline rush greater, the comedown even bigger. And there’s usually about twice as much work to do as well. It is still the greatest job in the world, of course, but it makes you long for sleep a couple of times a year. Qatar race-night round ups tend to be terse, and given my usual verbosity, this is no bad thing.