Just seven more days, and the biggest open piece of MotoGP's puzzle should be slotted into place. On Saturday night, Valentino Rossi met with Ducati CEO Gabriele Del Torchio, to discuss the details of the offer Ducati have for Rossi, and this morning, Del Torchio told French journalist Michel Turco that he expected to know Rossi's answer within the next seven days. The money from Ducati is generous, some 17 million euros a season, if the rumors are to be believed, but the money will not be the important part of the deal. The biggest item will be what help Ducati will get from Audi, and whether the rate of progress at Borgo Panigale can be ramped up to start rolling out updates faster, and start to change some of the things which Rossi and Burgess believe are vital before the bike can even begin to become competitive.
2012 Laguna Seca Saturday Round Up: Lorenzo's Blistering Pace, Stoner's Traffic Problems and Rossi's Ducati Offer
Despite dominating the championship so far, Jorge Lorenzo does not get a lot of pole positions. Except at Laguna: though this was only his third of the season, Saturday's pole position was Lorenzo's fourth in a row at the circuit, and he secured it in convincing style. The circuit record tumbled - it had stood since 2008, set by Casey Stoner when he looked on his way to dominating the US GP at Laguna, before his run in with Valentino Rossi. There has been much complaining about the Bridgestone tires of late, yet both Lorenzo and Stoner beat the pole record on the tire they will probably race on, a pole record set on super-soft special qualifiers, which at a track like Laguna Seca you could just about eke two laps out of before they were finished. In reality, there's not so much wrong with these tires.
The pole record could have been beaten by a lot more, but Casey Stoner kept running into traffic each time he went for a fast lap. Up by a tenth or more at each split a number of times, he would suddenly run into a rider cruising, or a CRT machine on a hot lap, and lose out. On his last attempt, he ran into Danilo Petrucci just before the final corner, working his way swiftly past to take pole from Lorenzo with a couple of minutes to go. But Lorenzo would not be denied, pushing hard in the final sector to get pole back from Stoner in the dying moments.
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 border issues with journalists traveling on tourist visas meant that press corps numbers at Laguna are down - 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 to slot all the surplus of talented riders into the limited available rides.
It has been an intense week or so for speculation about the next and biggest cog in MotoGP's Silly Season merry-go-round. The question of Valentino Rossi's future has filled the media, with multiple sometimes conflicting stories appearing in the international press. That Rossi should dominate the headlines is logical. After all, with Casey Stoner retiring, and the futures of Jorge Lorenzo, Dani Pedrosa and Marc Marquez all settled, Rossi's decision will determine not just where he lands, but to a massive degree who will fill the rest of the seats in MotoGP next year.
Rossi's choice is fairly straightforward: he can elect to stay at Ducati and hope that Filippo Preziosi can provide him with a competitive bike soon; he can take up the offer he is believed to have from Yamaha to join the factory team; or he can accept a ride with a satellite Honda team aboard a full-factory RC213V. During his daily briefing with the press at each race weekend, Rossi has suggested that his primary focus is to stay with Ducati and make the Desmosedici competitive. Yet all of the news stories in the past 10 days have been suggesting that Rossi is close to signing a deal with Yamaha, with the sponsors backing the deal varying depending on the source.
Great tracks produce great racing, even in the MotoGP class, where the combination of fuel limits, extremely advanced electronics and stiff Bridgestone tires mean that the way to win races is by being absolutely inch-perfect on every lap. And Mugello is a great track, there is no doubt of that, despite the fact that the usual Mugello atmosphere had been muted by a combination of a dismal Italian economy and sky-high ticket prices at the circuit, the only way for the circuit to recoup some of the sanctioning fee it must pay Dorna to run the race. The hillsides were very sparsely populated, perhaps in part a result of the total Spanish domination of qualifying, putting three Spaniards on the front row in MotoGP, and another two on the Moto3 and Moto2 poles as well.
The Italian fans that stayed away missed not only some great races, but also some sterling performances from local Italian riders. There were Italians on the podium in all three classes, even one Italian winner, Andrea Iannone winning the Moto2 race. The people sitting at home who had intended to fill those empty grandstands may well have regretted not going.
Mugello is a special place, and a special race. One of the things that makes it so special is the atmosphere, the massed crowds that arrive on Thursday and Friday, and party noisily until Sunday night, filling the Tuscan skies with the sound of fireworks, engines being held against their limiters, popping exhausts, and very, very loud Italian pop music (or as was the case on Saturday night as we left the track, Jingle Bells composed entirely of fart noises).
They aren't here. The hillsides are not exactly empty, but the sparse scattering of tents that dot them are a very pale imitation of the wall of color that used to cover the grass at Mugello. The roads are relatively quiet, bikes fairly few and far between, and travelling to and from the circuit is not the nightmare that it has been in previous years.
So why haven't the crowds come? There are lots of reasons. First and foremost the state of the Italian economy, of course. As in Spain, unemployment in Italy is rising, and those who still have a job are more careful about spending money. High ticket prices don't help, of course, a general trend at racetracks around the world. Holding the race in mid-July, when the locals would rather be heading to the beach, rather than in early June was another reason. And then of course there is Valentino Rossi. The Italian legend qualified in 10th on Saturday, and realistically, his chances of battling for the podium are virtually non-existent. And it's not just Rossi, competitive Italian riders provide thin pickings for the locals to support. There is certainly a chance of seeing an Italian victory on Sunday, but the odds are stacked against it.
"I don't really want to look at the timesheet," Cal Crutchlow said at the end of the first day of practice at Mugello, "because Lorenzo's run was an absolute joke." Crutchlow is well-known for his colorful language - in every sense of that phrase - and his words are easy to misinterpret. But a glance at the consistency of Lorenzo's times soon makes you understand exactly what Crutchlow meant. On the hard rear tire, Lorenzo was running mid to low 1'48s, with many laps within a few hundredths of each other. On the evidence of Friday, Lorenzo is not just going to win this race, he is going to embarrass the entire field.
It's a good job 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.
At Mugello, a large number of pieces in MotoGP's Silly Season for 2013 are expected to fall into place. The long-expected announcement of the Repsol Honda team will be made on Thursday, according to Catalunya Radio, with Marc Marquez taking his place alongside Dani Pedrosa, who has inked a two-year extension with HRC. Pedrosa acknowledged at the Sachsenring that there were only details left to clear up, and after winning Germany, the Spaniard appears to have cleared the final hurdles to a new deal.
Mugello also looks like being the deadline for Cal Crutchlow. The 26-year-old Coventry man has offers of two-year deals from both the Factory Ducati and his current Monster Tech 3 Yamaha team. What Crutchlow would really like is a seat at the factory Yamaha team, but with that seat probably unavailable - either being held open for a possible return to the fold of Valentino Rossi, or else retaining current rider Ben Spies - Crutchlow is instead likely to accept Ducati's offer of a factory ride, believing that factory equipment is his only chance of winning races and a championship. According to British motorcycling journal MCN, Crutchlow has been given until Mugello to make up his mind.
There was one glaring omission from the post-Sachsenring round up I wrote on Sunday night. Well, two actually, but the biggest was that I neglected to give Dani Pedrosa the attention he deserved for a fantastic win, his first in over nine months. Pedrosa managed the race brilliantly, starting on a bike which had seen massive changes ahead of the race, and which he took a few laps to get accustomed to. He did so by dropping behind Stoner, and following in the wake of the reigning World Champion, until he was comfortable enough to make a pass. He accomplished this with ease, and the pair engaged in some synchronized drifting to the end of the race, when Pedrosa upped his pace and forced Stoner into an error. The Australian may have believed that he had the pace and the move to beat Pedrosa, but the fact that he crashed would suggest that Pedrosa was forcing Stoner much closer to the limit than the champion realized.