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David Emmett

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Colin Edwards has broken his left collarbone in a crash during qualifying for the Portuguese MotoGP round at Estoril on Saturday. The NGM Forward rider was knocked off his bike in the latter part of qualifying practice, as he cruised around off the racing line. Randy de Puniet lost the front of his Power Electronics Aprilia machine, which slid along the track and hit Edwards’ Suter BMW. Edwards fell heavily, suffering a mild concussion and injuring his collarbone in the fall. De Puniet was taken to the medical center, where he was diagnosed with bruising to his finger, and general soreness.

There appears to be a new rule of thumb for gauging the weather: If there’s a motorcycle race on, then chances are it will be raining, at least for some of the time. After a weekend of climate-curtailed practice 7 days ago at Jerez, the weather looks like being a major factor at Estoril as well. Though no rain fell during any of the nine sessions of practice – two Moto3, two Moto2, two MotoGP and three Red Bull Rookies – took place, the rain was still very much a factor. The day started with a wet Moto3 session, the track taking a long time to dry out after the overnight rain that lashed the circuit. The track started to dry during MotoGP FP1, and by the second half of that session, it was dry enough for everyone to run slicks, albeit the softer compound that Bridgestone has brought.

By Moto2 FP1, the track was nominally dry, but problems with the damp remained. Parts of the track have been resurfaced, in particular, Turn 6 and Turn 13, and though the new surface is pretty good in general, the problem is that the new asphalt is still dark, and it is impossible to see where the damp patches are. At Turn 13, the sweeping Parabolica that leads back onto the front straight, the problem is exacerbated by the fact that water appears to be seeping up through the ground, which is still saturated after weeks of heavy rain.

As a result, though the afternoon sessions all looked to be perfectly dry, in fact there was still a lot of water in the final corner. Worse still, the water was invisible to the naked eye – or at least the naked eye travelling at upwards of 100 mph aboard a racing motorcycle. Consequently, everyone was taking it easy through that final corner, and losing out massively in terms of lap times. Monster Tech 3 Yamaha estimated that most riders were losing about 1.5 seconds in that part of the track, not just in terms of corner speed, but also due to losing the drive on to the front straight.

Top speeds for the 1000cc MotoGP class are only a couple of km/h faster than in 2011, when the bikes were still 800cc, and had 30-40 hp less. At a track with a reasonably fast final corner followed by a kilometer-long straight, the 1000’s should be slaughtering the top speeds set by the 800s. The MotoGP bikes are four tenths down in the third sector, and nearly half a second slower in the final sector, including the final turn and run on to the front straight. All that means that lap times are seriously down on where they were last year, in all classes.

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.

Casey Stoner has moved to quash rumors of his retirement which appeared in the Spanish press after Jerez. He would continue competing in MotoGP for as long as he still enjoyed the racing, and right now, he was still having fun, he said after the pre-event press conference for the Estoril MotoGP round. When he stopped having fun, he would retire, but that moment had not yet been reached, he said.

The rumors of his retirement which had emerged had irritated the reigning World Champion, and he had a few sharp comments for the media who made them. Asked by one journalist what he meant when he said he intended to continue racing for a few more years, Stoner retorted “I was basically saying, don’t listen to what you read in the press. Don’t read what you produce.”

Two traditions surround MotoGP’s Silly Season: the first is that it kicks off earlier each year; and the second is that it kicks off with the wilder and more improbable rumors, before settling down and becoming a fraction realistic until the contracts finally start to get signed. The problem with the improbable rumors is that occasionally, one of the truly barking ones turns out to be true.

Jerez saw another round in the game of bluff poker being played between Dorna and the manufacturers over the future of MotoGP’s rules, and both sides took another step closer to an agreement. Reports emanating from the discussions suggest that Dorna has made a concession to the MSMA over the rev limits, while the factories are pushing through a single-bike rule, and an agreement should be ready by the middle of the year.

Ever since the MSMA lost their monopoly over the rules at the end of 2011, when the contract between the MSMA and Dorna lapsed, Dorna has had the stronger hand, and Carmelo Ezpeleta has been pushing the factories hard for changes. The pressure is starting to pay off for Ezpeleta, as by a combination of cajoling, threats and promises, he has also reached an agreement over the future shape of the sport. MotoGP is to undergo a radical transformation from the pure technology exercise that was the 800cc era, and become a sport focused on entertainment, where costs are kept in check.

The weather may have tried to claim the leading role at Jerez on Sunday, but after three fascinating races, there are still a few stars which easily outshone it. First and foremost is surely Romano Fenati: the Italian teenager won a Moto3 race at just the second attempt, going one better than his first race. Winning was impressive enough – you had to go back to 1991 and Nobby Ueda to find a rookie with a better debut, and Fenati’s victory made him the 3rd youngest winner behind Scott Redding and Marc Marquez – but it was the manner of his victory which impressed most.

Not only did the 16-year-old keep his head in the treacherous conditions while all around him fell, ran off track or made other serious mistakes, he also managed to run at a pace simply inconceivable to the rest of the field. Fenati was over 1.5 seconds a lap quicker than the rest, and he went on to win by over 36 seconds. This was just his second ever race in the rain (he won the first one, naturally) and he still felt he lacked experience in the wet. His victory received the loudest round of applause in the media center all day.

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.