Niccolo Canepa's weekend at Phillip Island got off to a bad start. The Pramac Ducati rider crashed during the first session of free practice on Friday, going down at the - literally - scorching Doohan corner at around 200 km/h. The Italian slid a long way on the tarmac, burning a hole through his leathers and removing a big chunk of skin from his right arm and elbow. His injuries were sufficiently serious to require a skin transplant at a Melbourne hospital, and his participation at this weekend's Malaysian Grand Prix at Sepang was put in doubt.
There is an unspoken rule among motorcycle racers: you always ride, no matter what. Broken bones are shrugged off, bruises laughed at and only very severe injury is enough to keep riders off their bikes. There is one exception, and that is one honored more in the breach than in the observance: brain injuries (usually contusions and concussions) and broken vertebrae are taken deadly seriously, and if suspected will make the normally extraordinarily lenient medical staff of the Clinica Mobile hesitate to give a rider the all-clear.
So naturally, when Casey Stoner took two months away from racing to treat an illness that stubbornly refused to be diagnosed despite being examined by a trail of doctors around the world, a blaze of rumors swept through the MotoGP paddock. As there was apparently nothing wrong with the Australian, it had to be something else. Some said he was a broken man, and could no longer cope with the mental pressure being applied to him by Valentino Rossi. Others claimed that he hated Europe and wanted to leave MotoGP altogether, asserting that Stoner's preferred option was to go and race V8 Supercars in Australia instead. Some alleged that the problem was being caused by Stoner's poor diet and exercise routine, the 2007 World Champ surviving on chocolate and vitamins, rather than nutritionally-balanced meals. The most bizarre rumors involved friction within the team, caused by Ducati team boss Livio Suppo having made a pass at Stoner's young wife.
Whatever the real cause of Stoner's problem, opinion in the paddock was almost unanimous before Stoner's return to racing at Estoril. No one who had ever taken time away from racing to recover from a series of vague and poorly-defined complaints had ever returned to their pre-absence form, and, it was feared, much the same fate awaited Casey Stoner. Upon his return, the consensus ran, he might turn up at the front every now and again but he would never be the force that he was in 2007 and 2008. Nobody else before him had, so why would Stoner be any different?
The rumors that Valentino Rossi is contemplating a switch to Ducati have been brewing for some time now. We wrote about the background to the story earlier, and at Phillip Island, MCN's Matt Birt took the opportunity to ask both Valentino Rossi and his crew chief Jeremy Burgess about the rumors.
Valentino Rossi was short and to the point, giving the same answer he'd given to Spanish and Italian journalists previously. He pointed to the fact that he already had a contract with Yamaha for next season, and repeated that he will only make a decision next year. Burgess was typically more forthright, denying the rumors outright, and putting them down to "dickhead Italian journalists". At the time he was supposed to be entering the Ducati factory, Burgess said, he was sitting at home in Australia. Read the full report over on MCN.
Results and summary of the MotoGP race at Phillip Island:
The weather at Phillip Island for the MotoGP qualifying session was exactly as you would expect in the South Atlantic spring - cool and blustery, the Antipodean sun breaking through the clouds and warming the track, chasing off the morning rain. But Phillip Island's fickle weather has made it supremely difficult to find a race setup so far this weekend, and so when the bikes hit the track for qualifying, the focus was at first on weighing up the tire options, most teams still undecided on whether to run the softer or harder option for the race on Sunday, especially at the rear.
Grip or no grip, Casey Stoner was the first and fastest out of the blocks, the Australian - sporting a special helmet paint scheme today, to match a special livery due to be run tomorrow - heading into the 1'30s and the top of the timesheets in the first six minutes of practice. Valentino Rossi was soon approaching Stoner's pace, but still over half a second off the Australian's time as he gradually lowered his lap times towards that 1'30 marker.
Result of MotoGP qualifying at Phillip Island:
Casey Stoner was fastest on a cold Saturday morning at Phillip Island. The Australian was fast from the start, ceding the top spot only briefly to Dani Pedrosa, before forcing the Repsol Honda man back into 2nd spot. But Stoner's margin was small indeed, less than five hundredths of a second over Pedrosa. Valentino Rossi was 3rd fastest, over quarter of a second off Stoner, while Jorge Lorenzo improved his standing, but still eight tenths slower than the Ducati of Stoner.
The session was brief, however, as the weather turned and the rain chased everyone into the pits just after the halfway mark. With less than 5 minutes to go, the riders took to the track once again, but the wet track meant that times were 10 seconds or more slower than the best times set previously, and nobody improved their time.
It is a truth universally acknowledged that the heart of MotoGP lies in Europe, and more particularly, in Spain and Italy. Most of the teams are based in one of these two countries, the riders are overwhelmingly from those two Mediterranean countries, and at least a passing knowledge of either Spanish or Italian - the two are similar enough that knowledge of one will allow you to get by in the other - is an absolute prerequisite for survival in the MotoGP paddock.
But MotoGP's Eurocentric nature begs an important question: Why fly a couple of hundred tons of equipment halfway around the world to race at an unearthly time, when the series' major television audience is still safely tucked up in bed and fast asleep after what is usually a very lively Saturday night in Barcelona, Madrid, Rome or Milan? Why on earth would a series which has its heart around the Mediterranean fly all the way to Australia, and close to that distant continent's most southerly tip at that?
The Edge Of The World
For anyone who has seen the track at Phillip Island, or watched a race at the circuit, the matter needs no explanation at all. Despite being perched on the very edge of Australia - or perhaps because of it - Phillip Island is probably the greatest motorcycle racing circuit on the planet, and certainly the finest track that the MotoGP series visits still left on the calendar. The track balances on the edge of the world, located beside the Bass Strait with only Tasmania between the runoff at Siberia and the great Southern Ocean.
The reason for the track's greatness is that it has been largely left untouched. The layout of the circuit is mostly unchanged since its construction in the early 1950s, taking the place of an earlier 10 mile circuit which had staged racing since the late '20s. The layout is therefore fairly simple: fast sweepers connected by a few short straights and a couple of tight corners, all flowing up and down the rolling hills of Phillip Island where once public roads ran. Yet this simplicity produces a thing of exquisite beauty; from the first corner to the last, the Phillip Island circuit challenges tires, machinery and riders equally, and has managed to generate some of the most exciting racing ever seen in the past couple of decades.
For almost as long as Valentino Rossi has been racing in the premier class, there have been rumors that the Italian would one day make the switch to Ducati. For the most part, they have been based on little more than wishful thinking - the marriage of Italy's most famous motorcycle racer and Italy's most famous racing motorcycle is one which is surely made in heaven - yet over the past few weeks, those rumors seem to have been gaining some substance.
The new wave of speculation was generated by Rossi's public expressions of displeasure at his team mate Jorge Lorenzo being offered a one-year contract, an option which has never been offered to Rossi even when he requested it. To make things worse, Lorenzo was allowed to hold out before signing until after the Brno round of MotoGP, traditionally Yamaha's cut-off point for contracts, and a deadline which Rossi again always had imposed on him.
Rossi made several pointed statements in the press complaining that he had developed the Yamaha M1 and Lorenzo was taking advantage of his hard work, and that having two of the very best riders in a single team was an unusual and in his eyes untenable situation. His father Graziano hinted at Rossi's willingness to leave, comparing Yamaha to a wife who had been found cuckolding her husband, and hinting that what was good for the goose might also be good for the gander.
There was a fairly hefty injury toll at the cool and dusty Phillip Island track on Friday. There were fallers in all of the categories, but the heaviest of the lot were Hector Barbera in the 250cc class and Niccolo Canepa in MotoGP. Barbera highsided, landing heavily on his back and knocking the wind out of him. As he struggled for breath, Barbera told the press afterwards, he feared the worst, the incident bringing back bad memories of his huge crash at Motegi last year. This time he got away with just some very nasty and very painful bruising, but he is currently behind held under observation, just to make sure that the cracked vertebrae he suffered last year have not been injured again.
Niccolo Canepa was not so lucky. The Italian slid a long way after crashing at Turn 1 and burning a hole in his leathers and through his arm. After examination at the Clinica Mobile, he was taken off to hospital in Melbourne for examination, where it was decided he would need a skin graft, though Canepa had suffered no nerve damage as had been feared at first. The injury means that the Italian will not be able to race on Sunday, and will miss the Australian Grand Prix.
As we wrote just yesterday, the question of the 7th Honda on the 2010 MotoGP grid is yet to be settled. That bike is currently being fielded by Scot Honda, with Gabor Talmacsi riding it, but the Hungarian has been circulating at the back now for some time. Though Talmacsi was a latecomer to the series, only making the switch from the 250cc class at Barcelona after falling out with the Balatonring 250cc team earlier in the year, Honda's patience is starting to wear thin. Talmacsi has blamed his poor performance on the lack of an official HRC technician in the garage, as Dovizioso had when he rode the bike, but suspicion has continued to mount that the leap from the 125 class (Talmacsi rode just three races on the Aprilia RSA 250 before leaving the team) to MotoGP is just too large to make in one go.
For some time now, rumors have been emerging that HRC will give the RC212V currently being fielded by Scot Honda to Team LCR instead, expanding the team's presence on the grid from one to two bikes. When asked at Estoril about who would get the 7th Honda, a spokesperson for HRC told MotoMatters.com that no decision had yet been taken, which seemed to imply that support for the Scot Honda project was slipping.
Valentino Rossi was the fastest man out of the blocks in the MotoGP class at Phillip Island, the cool but sunny weather and dusty track conditions keeping the Italian well off lap record pace. The Italian was just over a tenth faster than Casey Stoner, the birthday boy (he turned 24 today) the only rider close to matching Rossi's time. But a few spots of rain later in the session prevented the Australian from making an attempt at the top of the timesheets. Dani Pedrosa was 3rd fastest, but nearly half a second off Rossi's time, finishing ahead of Alex de Angelis in 4th, the still jobless Italian making a strong case for taking a competitive ride either here or in World Superbikes.
The man challenging Valentino Rossi for the title, Jorge Lorenzo, could manage just the 6th fastest time. The Spaniard complained of weakness and a stomach problem, which was not helped by lowsiding out towards the end of the session. Lorenzo was the 3rd fastest Yamaha, with Colin Edwards finishing the day ahead of Lorenzo in 5th.
If one thing has become clear since the switch to the new 800cc formula, it has been the importance of the crew chief. With set up being an increasingly vital part of racing in MotoGP (get it wrong and you're nowhere, as Valentino Rossi found out at Estoril), the role of chief engineer has come under increasing scrutiny.
This seems to have motivated Daniele Romagnoli's decision to leave Yamaha at the end of this season. The experienced engineer was Colin Edwards' crew chief at the factory Yamaha team until the arrival of Jorge Lorenzo, who brought with him his own preferred option of crew chief, Ramon Forcada. With Forcada's arrival, Romagnoli was promoted to team manager of Lorenzo's side of Fiat Yamaha's divided garage.
According to GPOne.com, Romagnoli has announced that he will be leaving the team at the end of the year. Romagnoli's passion lies in the engineering side of racing, and his duties as Lorenzo's team manager have taking him away from the technical side of things. As with so many brilliant people with technical skills, "promotion" to management often leaves them unfulfilled. So Romagnoli will be looking for a place as a crew chief elsewhere in the MotoGP paddock, returning to where his main interest lies.