The last race of the year is always one for farewells, but we had an awful lot of goodbyes on Sunday at Valencia. The last ever race for the 800cc MotoGP bikes, the last ever race of Loris Capirossi's very long and highly colorful career (some paddock wags suggesting that the first win of his career came against a rider called Maximus Decimus Meridius), the end of the two-stroke Grand Prix era, with the 125cc bikes making way for the Moto3 machines. The departure of some of the finest journalists and broadcasters from the paddock, as the Spanish state TV company TVE ended its tenure in the paddock. Riders heading off to the World Superbike paddock, some returning to their old stomping ground, as is the case with Kenan Sofuoglu, others to try pastures new, Hiroshi Aoyama joining the Ten Kate Honda squad.
It seems somehow fitting that the last ever qualifying session for the 800cc MotoGP bikes should be dominated so utterly by the man who has dominated the 800cc era. Despite the fact that Casey Stoner won only the first and the last 800cc titles, he still has the most pole positions and wins in the period between 2007 and 2011. Stoner ended the penultimate day of the 2011 season in style, matching Mick Doohan's record of 12 pole position in a single season and beating everyone else on the grid by over a second.
It wasn't just that Stoner was in a different time zone to the rest of the field, it was also the panache with which he did it. Turn 13 - the long, long left hander that runs over the hill and down towards the final tight corner leading back onto the straight - is a pretty spectacular sight at the best of times. Perhaps the iconic image of the 990 era was of Nicky Hayden sliding the back his V5 RC211V round there back in 2006. If anything, Casey Stoner was even more outrageous, getting the back of the successor RC212V - an RC211V with one cylinder removed - stepped out so far it looked like he was back racing dirt track, not a MotoGP bike. "Casey is very confident with the bike and also in the right position in the seat," was Valentino Rossi's understated assessment of Stoner's slide. "We slide also, but he slide more."
Some semblance of normality has returned to the MotoGP paddock now that the bikes are back on track, and everyone is back doing what they are supposed to be. "For me, I was happy to be here, be around the team, see all the tributes honoring Marco and see everybody showing a lot of class and a lot of respect," Nicky Hayden said. "It's still kind of there at the back of everybody's mind, but it don't change what I do. We're racers, we ride motorcycles." His teammate Valentino Rossi agreed. "It's a good feeling to come back on the bike," Rossi said, adding that there were more positives than negatives from riding. Once on the bike, everything changes, and every ounce of focus is needed to get a MotoGP up to a competitive speed.
That task is made doubly difficult in the wet at Valencia. Everyone commented on the state of the track, complaining that it is incredibly slippery when wet. The cause, Dani Pedrosa speculated, was the age of the surface, the tarmac having lost a lot of its grip over the years. Normally, Pedrosa said, tracks were marginally easier to ride when wet, but Valencia is now so treacherous that it requires even more concentration in the wet.
It's a good thing that we're going to go racing again. Marco Simoncelli's tragic death at Sepang has cast a very heavy and very dark pall over the MotoGP paddock, and two weeks of inaction - the one thing that motorcycle racers cannot bear, along with just about everyone else in the paddock - meeting again at Valencia with the purpose of racing has given some direction again. Walking into the paddock at lunchtime today, the atmosphere was subdued, with journalists and team members holding quiet conversations everywhere, mostly on the subject of Marco Simoncelli, the crash in Sepang and their memories of the Italian.
The process of talking and the unfurling of tributes to the fallen Italian have been cathartic. His team had his bike in the pit box with the text "It has been an honor and a privilege to work with you" on a banner behind it, they also unfurled a banner above the media center with this number on it, the Ducati hospitality trucks have his number on them and the message "always in our hearts" and the number 58 is on stickers, badges and bikes everywhere. The activity, the discussions, the shared memories have started the process of healing the pain.
The paddock is about to reconvene at the final round of the year at Valencia and return to the normal business of racing, or at least, as normal as possible less than two weeks after the death of Marco Simoncelli in a tragic accident at Sepang, and there are still a few empty seats to fill on the 2012 MotoGP grid. The slots at the Ducati, Honda and Yamaha factory teams are filled, as are the Monster Tech 3 Yamaha satellite seats, and of course Karel Abraham at the Cardion AB team, but beyond that, MotoGP's silly season for 2012 is still in full swing.
In a stroke of bitter irony, Marco Simoncelli's death gave the rider merry-go-round a bit more impetus. Simoncelli's place in the San Carlo Gresini Honda team had already been confirmed, complete with factory Honda RC213V and HRC contract. His death blows everything wide open again, and adds a massive number of complications. Though it is far too soon for Gresini to be signing contracts - Fausto Gresini was hit particularly hard by Simoncelli's death, as he was close to the Italian personally, and this was the second rider he has lost to a fatal crash, after Daijiro Kato back in 2003 - rider managers will be circling the Gresini pit box and making cautions enquiries as to the team's plans for 2012. As tragic as the loss of Marco Simoncelli is, life goes on, and riders will be racing next year, one of them from the garage destined for Simoncelli before his demise.
In part 1 of this series, we discussed the new 1000cc rules for 2012, especially those for the so-called Claiming Rule Teams, the privateer teams which will be allowed to use engines from production bikes if they so wish. In part 2, we discussed Infront Motor Sports' objections to those new rules as organizers of the World Superbike series, and why their objections are likely to fail. In part 3, we turn our attention to the reasoning behind these new rules, the politics which surround them, and the circumstances which have served to put the changes into high gear.
Carmelo Ezpeleta, CEO of Dorna, is one of the most vilified men among many fans of MotoGP. He is blamed for the many changes that have altered the face of MotoGP, not least for killing off the 990s and bringing in the 800s, which have robbed the sport of so much of its spectacle. Ezpeleta gets the blame for each new rule change, charged with fiddling while Rome burns.
Sepang looks like being a Repsol whitewash this weekend, with Dani Pedrosa, Casey Stoner and Andrea Dovizioso spread across the front row of the grid for Sunday's race, and FP3 the only session where there wasn't a Repsol 1-2-3 on the timesheets, Marco Simoncelli getting in among the orange, red and black bikes. On Friday, it looked like being a Pedrosa runaway, but his teammates have closed the gap considerably since then. Only the most contrarian investor would risk betting against a Honda victory - and only the brave would take the very long odds on offer for a Honda 1-2-3 - but Pedrosa is not quite the certainty that he was after the first day of practice.
The Spaniard was blisteringly fast out of the box, but as the weekend has progressed, the rest of the pack has closed up, with little to choose between the three Repsols after qualifying. Part of this has been down to tires: Pedrosa has immediately taken a shine to the softer tires, while Stoner has been working with the hard tire all weekend, always his preferred option as a race tire. The problem that Stoner has had has been an inability to get the bike to both turn and grip, sacrificing one to obtain the other. Sepang looks like being one of the surprisingly few weekends when Stoner and his crew have not been able to find a good setup from the start, and the Australian will have his hands full with both Pedrosa and Dovizioso for the win.
The timesheets at the end of day one at Sepang are telling. This is a track at which the teams spent six days testing back in February prior to the start of the year, much as they have done every year, and so they have enough data on the track to fill every iPod Steve Jobs ever sold. They should know how to set up a bike to go around this track, despite everyone complaining of a lack of grip, as is often the case in the hot October weather.
With that variable removed, the timesheet is a pretty good reflection of the state of MotoGP: Four factory Hondas sit at its head, the three Repsols followed by San Carlo's Marco Simoncelli; Hiroshi Aoyama on the satellite Honda follows, with the first Yamaha in 6th position, Monster Tech 3 Yamaha's Colin Edwards happy on the setting they found during the pre-season tests. Alvaro Bautista is 7th, the Suzuki thriving in the Malaysian heat as it always has done, and Randy de Puniet on a satellite Ducati is in 8th. That, in a nutshell, is a pretty good summary of the 2011 MotoGP season.
2011 Sepang MotoGP Thursday Round Up: On Marquez' Big Mistake, And MotoGP's Silly Season Winding Down
After an eight-hour flight from Melbourne to Kuala Lumpur, the MotoGP circus has rolled up at the Sepang circuit ready to do it all again a week later. Fortunately for most of the teams, they have had a day or two in Kuala Lumpur to acclimatize to the sweltering Malaysian heat, quite a contrast to the blustery cool of Phillip Island.
The climate inside the air-conditioned rooms where negotiations are taking place over 2012 is just as fevered as the hot and sweaty conditions outside, however. The spare time forced on the paddock has given riders, their managers and teams time to try to reach agreement over next season. With just two races of 2011 next to go, and with all of the major pieces having slotted into place, the final seats on the grid are starting to shake out.
The biggest announcement came on Thursday afternoon at the circuit, and had held much of the Spanish press in its thrall throughout the week. Marc Marquez finally announced that he will be staying in Moto2 for another year, and not moving up to MotoGP as many had hoped he would. For the full details, see this story here, but part of the decision was down to Marquez' personal backing from Repsol. The Spanish petroleum giant is getting an unprecedented bang for their buck at the moment, with Casey Stoner dominating in MotoGP on the Repsol Honda - and Dani Pedrosa and Andrea Dovizioso picking up the baton on the rare occasions that Stoner falters - while Marc Marquez is storming up the field in Moto2. Repsol is getting massive exposure in their home market from having the two championship favorites on their books, and will be hoping to capitalize with a brace of #1 plates in both MotoGP and Moto2 next season.
It is a subject we keep returning to, but Sunday's events at Phillip Island just serve to underline Nicky Hayden's truism on racing. "That's why we line up on Sunday," he said memorably ahead of the final race of the 2006 season, in which he clinched the championship, "you never know what's gonna happen."
There was never any real doubt that Casey Stoner would win the race at Phillip Island on Sunday. The Repsol Honda rider had dominated as usual, topping every session of practice and setting a pace that no one else could follow. Nor was there much doubt that Stoner was on his way to his second MotoGP championship; the Australian had a 40-point lead, and looked certain to pick up more points at Phillip Island, and clinch the title at Sepang. On Saturday, he told reporters that he wasn't thinking about the championship, rating his chances of lifting it on Sunday - on his birthday, at his home race - as very slim indeed.