Over the past few days, I have been asked by a number of people - either directly or via Twitter - whether I will be going to Motegi for the Japanese MotoGP round this weekend. The short answer is I won't, but I felt I owed my readers an explanation of just why not.
It all started at the Sachsenring. Well I suppose it started earlier, at Barcelona, when the first rumblings of a rider rebellion over the Motegi MotoGP round appeared, and debate erupted in the paddock over whether it would be safe to travel to Japan for the race. The paddock is split roughly into two camps separated mainly by nationality, a fact that the amateur anthropologist in me finds rather intriguing. The Spaniards and Italians - and for some reason, the majority of the Australians too - were and are dead set against the Motegi race going ahead, saying the situation at the track and at the damaged Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant made staging the event far too dangerous. Those hailing from the UK and the US disagreed, saying that all of the science showed that the situation was safe at the track, and that the nuclear plant was being brought back under control. Arguments were frequent, and though still respectful, there was a complete lack of understanding and empathy on either side. The participants were starting to look at each other as if the others were completely insane.
As you may have noticed, MotoMatters.com was offline yesterday for quite a long time. The problem lay not with our hosting company, but with the data center where our hosting company houses the servers we rent from them. A fault in the power supply infrastructure meant that the building where our servers are housed went down completely.
The situation has now been rectified and we are up and running again. I am very sorry for being offline for such a long time (over half a day), but this was an unforeseen situation, and the infrastructure to protect against such a freak event is so costly that the expense is hard to justify. That is a decision that means that you, our readers, suffer, and for this, you have my sincere apologies. If you'd like to support the site and allow us to make that kind of investment, then consider taking out a subscription.
The good news is that it happened on Wednesday, rather than on Sunday. And the even better news is that we have a lot to look forward to this weekend! So again, our apologies for the outage, and we hope our coverage of the event (I am reporting live from Brno this weekend) makes up for the site being offline.
France is a wonderful country, famed for its food, its pace of life and its warm, passionate people. The Sarthe region, where the Le Mans circuit (or Circuit de la Sarthe, to give it its official name) is situated, is beautiful; rich, green, rolling hills, close woodlands, tight green valleys filled with charming towns and villages. The city of Le Mans itself has its attractions, a stately square and some grand 18th and 19th century architecture. The people in the city and the surrounding villages are warm, friendly and helpful, especially if you are prepared to make an effort to speak at least some French.
All that ends once you arrive at the circuit. It starts at the gate with the security guards, who, to be fair, are no worse than security guards at most of the other races, it being their job to be professionally unpleasant. But it gets worse as you go further in. The facility itself is ramshackle and crumbling, a patched-up shade of what was perhaps once its former glory. Once inside the building, having to deal with the circuit staff makes things worse. Specially bussed-in from Paris, they combine the miserable temperament of the curmudgeon with the professional obstructionism of the jobsworth, appearing to be selected on their disposition towards discouraging people from asking questions in the first place, and then abiding by such an arcane set of regulations with almost Teutonic efficiency that honoring requests for assistance take the entire duration of the weekend, getting the requested job done long after it has become irrelevant.
Yesterday, I made a minor change to the website (technical details below), and since then, a few people have reported having problems logging into the website. The problem is caused by the cookies (the small files which tell your browser you are logged in to MotoMatters.com), and the way some web browsers interpret them and the change I made.
Running MotoMatters.com is the second most rewarding thing I do as a person, second only to my marriage with my wife. It is a source of intense pleasure, pride and satisfaction, of the response and appreciation we receive, as well as the support from both inside and outside the racing community.
The thing that I am most proud of, however, has very little to do with me. Though I do my best to provide intelligent, thoughtful articles, I am all too often put to shame by the quality of the comments. So many people who contribute comments to the stories do so with such wit, intelligence and clarity of thought that it is truly humbling to read the comments and see the gaps in my own thinking and reporting. The comments are a constant reminder that I will have to up my game if I am to be anywhere near the 50th percentile in terms of knowledge and intelligence. They are also a rich source of inspiration, and I steal freely from the ideas discussed when researching stories.
I am not alone in my assessment. I have had several of the biggest names in the paddock compliment me on the intelligence of the comments, and the extraordinarily high level of the debate on the site. Compliments have come from riders, journalists, team managers, race officials, people are impressed most of all not by what I write, but what you write.
(Editor's note: I made a photo lap of the Aragon circuit last year, to give readers an idea of just how steep and tricky the circuit is. I've reposted this photo lap as a reminder for anyone who has forgotten.)
Motorland Aragon is a brand new track on the MotoGP calendar, and if it has a defining feature, it's the elevation around the track. The track winds uphill, drops down a little, then climbs back up again before plummeting down the back straight towards the final corner. I went for a walk around the track to explore, and took some photos.
When you arrive to pick up your credentials at a motorcycle racing event, they make you sign a form. On that form, you are informed that motorsports are dangerous in whatever capacity you attend, and you do so at your own risk. If you don't sign the form, you don't get your passes, that's how seriously they take this.
For this is something that race fans tend to forget: motorcycle racing really is dangerous. For years now we've been spoiled, with riders invariably getting up and walking away, or at worst being flown out to the nearest hospital in a medivac helicopter, making their return with steel pins holding broken bones together, after missing just a handful of races. Only occasionally does it end badly, such as when Craig Jones was killed in a World Supersport race at Brands Hatch in 2008, or when Daijiro Katoh suffered fatal injuries during the 2003 Japanese MotoGP round at Suzuka.
But even those accidents were a sign of how things have changed. In the early years of Grand Prix racing, all the way through to the mid-1970s, Grand Prix racing would lose a handful of riders every season. Protective gear has improved vastly over the years, and the track especially have seen huge changes, with street circuits disappearing, hard obstacles being removed and walls being pushed back as far as possible, and then covered in air fence for good measure.
Mugello truly is a spectacular setting for motorcycle racing. Truth be told, Mugello is a spectacular setting for any kind of activity, from a leisurely picnic to a high-speed chase through the scenery. But it really is an amazing place for a motorcycle race. The track sits wedged in a valley between a couple of hills, and this generates a huge amount of elevation changes as it snakes its way up and around the valley. To try and give you an impression of the differences in elevation, I took a wander around the track on Thursday evening, and took a few photos to try to capture the circuit from the asphalt, rather than from trackside. You can follow the way around the circuit with this track map, or on Google maps.
The response to the tale of woe that my visit to Le Mans to cover the Grand Prix has become has been both touching and overwhelming. Offers of help have coming flooding in from all over the world, for which I am truly grateful. The only problem with having an international audience is that despite the many kind offers of help, few of them have come from anywhere close enough to be of immediate assistance.
Motorcycles have been my life now for many years. I grew up watching my uncle race; tracing the logos of the great British marques onto my school bag along with the rest of my peers; and gawping in awe and wonder at the first of the new generation of race-inspired street bikes that appeared at the end of the 1970s, and evolved to become the stunning machines which now grace our highways. I truly love motorcycles, with a passion.
Except when they break down. Then, understandably, the ardor cools and frustration rears its ugly head, as hours and days of useful time starts to disappear down a drain of phone calls to family, friends, colleagues, insurance companies and breakdown services, in an attempt to salvage what you can of a weekend.
Readers of MotoMatters.com may have noticed a distinct and sudden dearth of updates on rider debriefs and news on the website, from Saturday evening onwards. What would be the point, you may have asked yourselves, of going all the way to Le Mans, and then not bothering to use that opportunity wisely? The explanation for that mystery is simple: my trusty steed, the BMW R1150GS that has served me so faithfully, decided to quit on me. That breakdown quickly turned into something of a disaster.
Today we take you on a lap of the circuit, as seen from trackside. On Thursday, little moves on the track, and so we are free to go round the circuit, if we so wish. Most people go round on the scooter, many riders go round on a bicycle, mixing physical training with mental training. I like to circulate on foot, to get a sense of the elevation changes around the track. Here's my lap of Le Mans:
I never fail to get a thrill of excitement when I enter the paddock on race day, and this morning was no exception. I'm not a morning person by any stretch of the imagination, but despite having to get up at 5:30am to get in on time, I still got that electric tingle as we arrived at the gate. Here's a few of my (poorly shot) photos to give you an idea of why.
Whenever groups of people band together, they inevitably start to take on each others habits, mannerisms and perhaps most especially, appearance. The MotoGP paddock is no different, and the dress adopted by its members means they all bear a remarkable resemblance to one another. The fact that many of the people in the paddock are restricted to wearing team uniforms merely underlines the uniformity. So here's your guide to the latest in MotoGP paddock chic:
Your model for today is Tom Tremayne, Bridgestone's extremely helpful and knowledgeable press officer. Let's walk through the key items of Tom's dress:
With MotoGP reconvened at Jerez, after being forced to skip Motegi due to volcanic ash grounding flights in Europe, the paddock in Southern Spain is filling up once again. Hospitality units are up, and team members forced to skip Qatar to cut spending are all back in the paddock, giving the place a more homely feel. "It feels like the first day back at school," MotoGP technical guru Neil Spalding said, upon entering the media center this morning. "Qatar just isn't the same."
That is in part because Qatar is an overseas round, where the teams are housed in rows of temporary huts, all identical and impossible to distinguish one from another. At Jerez, the hospitality units are back, adding color and visual interest to the paddock, and creating an easily navigable route for finding your way about. Most of all, though, is the return to a normal schedule, with activity taking place during daylight hours, rather than starting as the sun goes down and the day ending as the sun returns again.
Once practice got underway for this weekend's World Superbike round at Assen, I received an urgent email from the family of one rider in the MotoGP paddock asking me where the sudden burst of speed was coming from. All of a sudden, the World Superbike men were going faster than the MotoGP riders, and Ben Spies' pole record from 2009 was not so much being shattered, as being stomped on, atomized and then thrown away like a cheap plaything.
Of course, this had little do to with any slowness on the part of Ben Spies. Instead, a key change in the circuit layout has transformed the back section of the track, and even restored some of its former glory. The entry to the Ruskenhoek, at the end of the Veenslang (the back straight), was bowdlerized around 4 years ago, as part of the changes which removed Assen's glorious North Loop, and replaced it with the crochet hook section which sits there instead. It became a sharp, almost 90 degree right hander, slowing riders right down for the long left of the Ruskenhoek, at the end of which was another right, the Stekkenwal.