It is hard to upstage Valentino Rossi. It takes something large, significant, to take the limelight away from the nine-time World Champion, and the man who has been the charismatic heart of MotoGP for the best part of 15 years. To do that, you have to "Go big or go home," as British road racer Guy Martin likes to put it.
At Le Mans, Casey Stoner upstaged Rossi. The press conference - usually a rather staid affair, with the usual niceties about the track, each rider's chances at the circuit and a couple of witticisms - started unusually, with Nick Harris, the veteran commentator who leads the official press conferences, saying that Stoner would like to make a statement to the press. Stoner then proceeded to press the big red button that set Twitter, the internet and newswires ablaze. In the process, he did not so much ignite the 2013 MotoGP Silly Season, as douse it in liquid oxygen and set a flame thrower to it.
Stoner's announcement that he will retire at the end of this season has been covered in depth just about everywhere - see transcripts of his statement to the press here, and his detailed responses to questions here - but the question is, what happened to the Australian's denials exactly two weeks ago at Estoril of the stories that emerged in the Spanish press? Was the report in Solo Moto correct, and had Stoner already decided to retire at Jerez, or was Stoner being truthful when he denied any decision had been made. Piecing together the puzzle of what happened over the past few weeks, the following picture emerges.
If there's one lesson we can take from Sunday's race at Estoril, it's this: "I've always said we know Casey's the guy that's the fastest guy in the world. Maybe over the seasons he hasn't put the championships together, but by far he's the best guy in the world." Cal Crutchlow is not known for mincing his words, and his description of Casey Stoner pulls no punches. But given the fact that Stoner only managed to win the Portuguese round of MotoGP by a second and a bit, is that not a little exaggerated?
Here's what Stoner had to say about it, when I asked him if winning with the chatter he suffered - even on the TV screens the massive vibration front and rear was clearly visible - made him more confident about the level of his performance. "It gives me a lot more confidence. That's the thing, you know, with arm pump, with the chatter problem, I've been feeling like crap all week, and my body's not as good as I normally am, and we still managed to hang on, we still managed to be clearly faster than the others at the end of the race."
The rain, which has been chasing motorcycle races around this season, finally got bored and moved off on Saturday, giving the track at Estoril a chance to dry. The final corner, which proved so treacherous on Friday, was greatly improved - and made even better by the addition of a cone on the inside of Turn 13, marking where the wet patches were so the riders could take a line inside them. But the wet patches were still there, with water apparently seeping up from the ground to be sucked to the surface. The repairs to the track had been half the problem; the new asphalt was still so fresh that the bitumen was sucking up water from below. Not a lot the track can do about such a problem, and rather cruel to be punished for trying to fix the track in the first place.
While their resurfacing attempts may not have paid off as intended, the circuit management's bargain basement approach to ticket pricing made a huge difference. The track was busier on a Saturday than any time I have ever been here, with many fans deciding that for the price of a tank of gas and a cheap hotel, they would head for Estoril. With tickets selling for between 2 euros for the cheapest single-day entrance to 20 euros for a three-day grandstand pass, the entertainment is also a little limited. Jumbotrons around the track are few and far between, the only one I have seen has been opposite the main grandstand. But for 2 euros, and with some great seating around Estoril, who is going to complain?
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 9 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.
2012 Estoril MotoGP Thursday Round Up - On Stoner's Non-Retirement, Rossi's Chances at Yamaha and Riding New Bikes
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 well-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 a quite 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.
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.
Each race adds another chapter to the epic saga that Rossi's problems have become, and the weekend of the Spanish Grand Prix is no exception. It is a tale that needs to be told, however tiresome it may have become to some, and I shall return to later on. But first, we have three fascinating sessions of qualifying which need attention.
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.
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."