Qualifying for Sunday's Catalunya Grand Prix took place in intense heat, making the conditions difficult for both riders and bikes. The riders were thankful that this was the first outing for Bridgestone's asymmetric dual compound tires, for the combination of very high track temperatures and the Barcelona track's endless right handers made a very hard compound necessary on the right-hand side of the tire, but a relatively softer compound on the left-hand side.
The heat meant that the early running was made by the riders on the hardest of the tires available, the extra-hard rear and the hard front, the compounds the teams are almost certain to be using in the race tomorrow. It was Jorge Lorenzo who took practice for the race to the greatest extreme, the Spaniard starting out the session with a monster run of 17 laps, over two thirds of race distance.
It wasn't just a long run, however, Lorenzo also demonstrated he was on race pace, taking the top spot after just a couple of laps, briefly ceding it to Andrea Dovizioso, then snatching it back, the first rider to lap under 1'43, with a time of 1'42.990. A lap later, Lorenzo took another two tenths off his time, setting out a marker of where race pace will be, and following it up with a long string of laps in the high 1'42s and low 1'43s.
The only person capable of following was Lorenzo's Fiat Yamaha team mate, Valentino Rossi. Rossi too ran low 1'43s, taking a provisional 2nd place on the grid with a quarter of the session gone. The other candidates for victory tomorrow were all running mid-1'43s, a couple of tenths off Rossi's pace.
The advent of Gabor Talmacsi to the Scot Honda team led to an avalanche of speculation that this would be the end of current rider Yuki Takahashi's MotoGP career. The two men have a single bike each at this weekend's Catalunya Grand Prix, which works fine when the sun is shining, but would make a flag-to-flag race in mixed conditions an impossible challenge. This bald fact prompted speculation that there would only be room for one rider in the team, and that rider would be the one who could bring money in in the form of sponsorship.
But in an informal press conference, Cirano Mularoni, boss of the Scot Honda team, denied that Takahashi would be given his marching orders at the end of this weekend. "Our plan is to run two riders for the rest of the season. We will need two more bikes for this, but of course they will be difficult to obtain so late after the start of the year," Mularoni said, according to MotoGP.com.
Honda has always denied it was capable of providing any more bikes, and after a winter of cost-cutting measures, the mood is not one of expansion. There is, however, an overriding reason why this time, things could be different. The Japanese factories - with Honda at their helm - have long ensured that MotoGP has a Japanese rider in the series. If Takahashi were to be forced out, this would leave MotoGP without a regular Japanese rider for the first time since 1991. This is unlikely to be acceptable to Honda, as the factory team with the strongest ties back to Japan, and it is not unthinkable that Honda might just step up to provide the extra equipment and keep Takahashi in the series.
By Assen, we should know how successful that attempt has been. And with the wildly variable weather Holland has had for the past few weeks, varying between pleasantly warm and cold and very, very wet, a flag-to-flag race is a very likely scenario at Assen.
Both the Italian and the Spanish press are known for being quick to jump the gun, and this seems to be the case with the story in the Gazzetta dello Sport that we reported on earlier, which claimed that Marco Simoncelli had signed a contract with HRC for the next two years. This afternoon at Barcelona, both Fausto Gresini and Marco Simoncelli denied that any such contract had been signed, though both men admitted that talks had taken place.
Talking to GPOne.com, Simoncelli said, "I've only talked to Gresini, not to anyone from Japan," while Fausto Gresini told Italian television "Obviously we are interested, and we are working on that project." But Gresini denied any deal had already been done: "It would be great news if true, but it still can't be confirmed by me."
Simoncelli confirmed his intentions to move up to MotoGP next year, though, and that he had several options he could pursue. "It's true that I want to go to MotoGP, and that I will do it with Yamaha or Honda, but at the moment, I have nothing signed," he told GPOne.com.
The three hot properties all tipped to make the jump up to MotoGP next season are making the established riders nervous. Most of the worry has so far been concentrated in the Tech 3 Yamaha garage, with both the American World Superbike rider Ben Spies and the Italian 250 champion Marco Simoncelli being expected to be filling seats there next year. But at least one of either Colin Edwards and James Toseland may be able to sleep a little easier this weekend, as the competition may not be as fierce as they had feared.
The Italian sports daily Gazzetta dello Sport is reporting that far from going to Yamaha, Marco Simoncelli has signed a two-year contract with Honda to ride in MotoGP. With the new rule preventing rookies from going straight to a factory team, Simoncelli would have to spend 2010 with the Gresini Honda team, presumably as the recipient of Toni Elias' factory-spec RC212V. For 2011, Simoncelli could then make the step up to the full factory Repsol Honda team, if his results are good enough.
Such a move seems to be entirely logical, but it remains a risk. Since the switch to the 800cc formula, Honda has failed to dominate, as they did with the 990s and the 500cc bikes before that. The victims of these problems have been the riders on the satellite teams, with HRC understandably concentrating all their efforts on the factory teams to the detriment of the satellite riders. This year, Toni Elias has suffered exactly the same fate, with the Gresini team yet to receive updated parts for his ostensibly factory-spec Honda. If Honda finds itself in the same position again next year, there are no guarantees that Simoncelli coud suffer exactly the same fate.
Results of the MotoGP Qualifying Practice at Catalunya:
Jorge Lorenzo destroyed the competition during the second session of free practice, with a final five minutes in which he smashed the race lap record and put in a run faster than anyone else on track. With nearly 5 minutes left in the session, Lorenzo first took pole from team mate Rossi, taking nearly 0.6 seconds off the Italian, then dropped under 1'42 with a lap of 1'41.899. To put that into perspective, last year, that time would have put the Spaniard in 7th place on the grid, ahead of 12 other riders all using the now abolished super-sticky qualifying tires.
Andrea Dovizioso set the 2nd fastest time, jumping ahead of Valentino Rossi in the final minutes of the session, though the Repsol Honda rider had been quick for much of practice. Rossi was left down in 3rd, just under a second slower than his team mate and now title rival Jorge Lorenzo. Rossi had taken the lead in the second half of the session, and led until usurped by his team mate.
Dani Pedrosa finished in 4th, the Spaniard managing his pain much better than yesterday, when he was well down the order. Pedrosa even led in the first half of practice, until Rossi took the top spot away.
Strange things happening over at Ducati, however. Casey Stoner was a lowly - for Stoner - 7th on the timesheets, and was never a factor, even spending a large part of FP2 outside the top 10. Likewise, Nicky Hayden's gains from yesterday seemed to have disappeared into thin air, languishing down in 17th place until the final minutes, when he leapt up the standings to eventually finish 10th. Hayden was once again not the second fastest Ducati, as Niccolo Canepa found a little something to take him up to 9th spot. The Pramac rider had been pretty fast all session, so it was a clear improvement.
Jorge Martinez, boss of the Aspar team, has made his desire to field a team in MotoGP almost deafeningly clear. The former 80cc and 125cc World Champion has been trying for the past two years to line up a team in the premier class, coming tantalizingly close at the end of 2009 with Kawasaki, the deal finally falling through over arguments about what nationality the rider would be.
But in 2010, Martinez will finally achieve his ambition. After a press conference held with Mapfre, the Spanish insurance giant which sponsors the 250cc team, Martinez told the Spanish sports daily El Mundo Deportivo that he will definitely be in MotoGP with one machine in 2010, and a two-bike team in 2011.
Taken at face value, that's good news, but there is reason to treat the announcement with a sizable pinch of salt. Martinez told El Mundo Deportivo that he wanted to make the announcement here in Barcelona, even though he did not yet know which manufacturer he will be leasing bikes from next year. Going through the list of possibilities, even a single bike for Aspar's MotoGP project looks ambitious, if not entirely impossible. Honda has repeatedly said it will not provide any more than the 6 machines it already has on the MotoGP grid; Suzuki has said it cannot afford to increase its involvement, even admitting that they had come close to pulling out of MotoGP during the winter; Ducati has already expanded its delegation from 4 to 5 bikes, and that was only because of the demise of the Bridgestone test team after the introduction of the single tire rule; and Kawasaki has already withdrawn from the series, leaving just the rump of Hayate - despite Marco Melandri's outstanding results on the underdeveloped machine.
If there is one subject that will get MotoGP fans arguing, it is how much of Casey Stoner's success is down to his almost symbiotic relationship with the Ducati Desmosedici, and whether the Australian would be as fast on any other bike. Unfortunately for the fans, that questions looks like it will continue to go unanswered, as according to the German magazine Speedweek, Stoner is close to extending his current contract with Ducati for 2010.
According to the intervew in Speedweek, Stoner, together with his father and manager Colin, is close to reaching a deal which would see him stay with Ducati for next season. The deal would only be for one more season, though Stoner warns not to read too much into that. "I don't want to pin myself down contractually for any longer," Stoner reportedly told Speedweek.
Stoner's decision to stay with Ducati was not for a lack of interest from elsewhere, but the Australian made it plain that he has not forgotten past refusals. Both Honda and Yamaha declined to offer Stoner a factory bike at the end of the 2006 season, and that refusal still smarts with Stoner. "It's going to be quite a while before we're ready to talk to the people from Yamaha or Honda," Stoner told Speedweek.
That does not necessarily mean that Stoner will be staying with Ducati until the end of his career. "Nothing is forever," he said, but he added that he had no desire to switch either team or manufacturer. "I definitely want to win another title with Ducati," Stoner told Speedweek.
Valentino Rossi set the fastest time in a fascinating and surprising first session of free practice, but that was one of the least surprising aspects of the whole weekend. Rossi and Fiat Yamaha team mate Jorge Lorenzo swapped the lead a number of times, but Rossi comfortably took the top spot by firing in an incredibly fast lap with 5 minutes of the session left. Lorenzo closed the gap in the final minutes, from half a second to just over 3/10ths, but could not match the Italian's pace. Casey Stoner was 3rd fastest, going fast despite a crash with a quarter of the session left, lowsiding out unhurt at the tight La Caixa corner.
A top 3 of Rossi, Lorenzo and Stoner is hardly a surprise, but behind them, things were hugely shaken up. Andrea Dovizioso in 4th is to be expected, but Randy de Puniet's 5th spot is an impressive showing on the LCR Honda, while Nicky Hayden's 6th fastest time is almost downright shocking. Prior to the MotoGP round at Barcelona, Hayden told the press that he would be trying a radically revised setup to his Ducati GP9, and it looks like it has worked. Hayden was well inside the top 10 for most of the session, and was seen with a broad smile on his face in the pits after the session, the first time that's happened for a long time. It's very early days to be passing judgment, but so far the changes seem to have worked for Hayden.
Loris Capirossi continued his run of decent form, finishing 7th ahead of Colin Edwards, while Edwards' Tech 3 Yamaha team mate James Toseland built on his strong result at Mugello, taking 10th place.
After Gabor Talmacsi made the shock announcement prior to the Le Mans Grand Prix that he would not be riding for the Aspar team in the 250 class any longer, the rumors began about where the Hungarian would go for the rest of the season. There was no doubt that a rider as talented as the 2007 125cc World Champion would spend too long without a ride, but the question was, where? There were rumors of a ride in World Superbikes, as well as talk of the Hungarian taking the place of the injured Sete Gibernau, at least temporarily.
But the strongest rumor revolved around Team Scot Honda. After a brilliant 2008 season with Andrea Dovizioso at the helm, the team has been struggling badly, newly promoted Japanese rider Yuki Takahashi scrambling just to score points. The team has also been suffering with a lack of sponsorship, after Dovizioso jumped ship to join the factory Repsol Honda squad.
It turns out that there is no smoke without fire: Motorcycle News is reporting that Gabor Talmacsi will be riding for the Scot Honda squad at Barcelona, starting this afternoon. According to MCN, Talmacsi has only just been given clearance by HRC to use Takahashi's 2nd bike, and will make his MotoGP debut in this afternoon's first session of free practice at the Barcelona circuit. The report is confirmed by Talmacsi's name appearing on the official entry list for the MotoGP class at Catalunya.
The logic is simple: Team Scot needs funds, and as one of Hungary's biggest sports stars, Gabor Talmacsi will bring much needed cash into the team. And with the weather forecast to be clear skies all weekend long at Barcelona, the question of what to do in a wet race need not be addressed.
The Catalunya Grand Prix, to be held at Barcelona's Montmelo circuit, is one of the most anticipated events on the MotoGP calendar. The circuit, just a few kilometers outside Barcelona, Spain's second largest city, lies in the heart of Catalunya, the most industrious of Spain's autonomous regions and the heart of Spanish motorcycling. Three of the four Spanish riders currently in the MotoGP class are from within a thirty minute drive from the Montmelo circuit, Dani Pedrosa almost able to see the track from the window of his apartment.
And it's not just the riders. Dorna - or at least, the part of Dorna that concerns itself with MotoGP - has its offices in Barcelona. Spain's motorcycle industry, such as it is, is still based around Barcelona, as were the historic brands such as Ossa and Bultaco which were once produced not far from the city. The city is home to several of the country's major motorcycle magazines, and the surrounding region is studded with the homes of racers old and new.
So for a huge section of Spain's multitude of race fans, the Catalunya Grand Prix is their nearest race. Last year over 110,000 turned out on race day, and this year is likely to be the same, recession or no recession. All of Spain has been hit incredibly hard by the economic crisis, though the problem has been the bursting of the housing bubble rather than problems in the financial sector. But while the Catalonians have a reputation for being more serious and more dour than the rest of Spain, the fans at Barcelona still know how to throw a party. The atmosphere may not reach the levels of abandon that you see at Jerez, where the Andalusian fans party as if there's no tomorrow; at the Montmelo circuit, the fans are prepared to accept the possible existence of tomorrow, though more in theory than in practice.
The fans may be looking forward to the MotoGP round at Barcelona, and a chance to forget about their problems, however briefly, but even their anticipation cannot match that of the riders and teams. The irony is, though, that while the teams are looking forward to race day on Sunday, the riders cannot wait until the Monday after the race. Not to relax after having survived the second of the three Spanish Grand Prix, but rather so that they can get to work testing.
For the Monday after the race sees the first day of MotoGP's very limited testing program, most testing having been scrapped in an attempt to save money. Together with the reduction in practice from four sessions to just three, all of the teams have been crying out for a chance to spend some time seriously evaluating new parts for the factory teams, or just running through setup options trying to find the best setup for the satellite teams.
Of all the riders desperate for test time, none has longed for a chance to do some uninterrupted testing more than Nicky Hayden. The 2006 World Champion has been suffering with the Ducati curse, an affliction which struck down Marco Melandri last year. For the Ducati Desmosedici continues to be impossible to ride fast for everyone but Hayden's Marlboro Ducati team mate Casey Stoner, it seems. Just like last year, the bikes regularly split the field, Casey Stoner leading at the front, while Hayden, Sete Gibernau and the Pramac Ducatis bring up the rear.
On the eve of the Catalunya Grand Prix at Barcelona comes disturbing news from Spain. Dani Amatriain, the former manager of Jorge Lorenzo and the Espargaro brothers Pol and Aleix, has been arrested by local police for issuing a series of death threats, for extortion and for obstruction of justice. The former racer had been sacked by Lorenzo in October of last year, and had withdrawn from the Grand Prix scene, saying at the time that he would have to "consider, analyze and reflect on my next steps in all aspects of my life, both professionally and my family life."
But it seems that Amatriain had a difficult time letting go. Amatriain is alleged to have threatened Jorge Lorenzo, the Espargaro brothers and several other Grand Prix riders with death and physical harm, to have demanded financial compensation, and to have demanded that certain riders sign with specific teams. The allegations were that the Spaniard had been making the threats for several months, but that the threats had intensified over the past few weeks. Amatriain is alleged to have made the threats both by telephone, in calls made in the very early hours of the morning, and also face to face. According to reports in the Spanish press, Amatriain spent the night in prison, before being released after questioning.
After Dani Pedrosa fractured the greater trochanter of his right thigh during practice at Mugello, his chances of racing at his home Grand Prix at Barcelona looked to be slim. But after a week of complete rest, things have turned around for the Spaniard, and he announced today that he will be racing at Barcelona after all.
Pedrosa was examined by Dr. Mir and Dr. Ribas at the Dexeus Institut in Barcelona today, and after a trial with painkilling injections, was given the all clear to race in the Catalunya Grand Prix. In a press release issued by the Repsol Honda team, he said "I'm really looking forward to my home Grand Prix even though the build-up has hardly been perfect. For the past week I've just been resting and that's pretty boring. But today I went to see the doctor and the results of the new scan have been quite positive. They decided to give me a trial pain-killing injection so that I can judge how it will feel ahead of the weekend. And today's scan really helped them pinpoint the best location for the injection so it can have the maximum effect, which was something they weren't able to do in Mugello. The feeling was good, so it looks like I'll have an injection before riding each day."
"Obviously it's still not going to be comfortable riding the bike but I'm feeling positive that we can go into the weekend and aim for the best possible result. In spite of the problems, my motivation for my home race is still the same. I've been waiting for this race for a long time and I want to get the best possible result for all the fans who will be there to support me. I hope I can give them a good weekend," Pedrosa said.
Last year's Red Bull US GP was unforgettable, featuring one of the most incredible races of the modern era, as Valentino Rossi and Casey Stoner slugged it out in a no-holds-barred scrap for glory. This year promises to be just as good a race, but an even bigger event. The race has been scheduled to be held on the July 4th weekend, making this year's US GP a huge festival of racing.
Part of the celebrations will help do some good too. On July 2nd, Riders for Health, the organization set up by former GP star Randy Mamola together with Barry and Andrea Coleman, will be holding the Day of Stars, a unique opportunity to spend some time with some of the greatest names in motorcycle racing history. For a contribution of just USD 500, you get the chance to take a motorcycle tour of the scenic Carmel Valley wine country, have lunch with Randy Mamola, Wayne Rainey, Don Emde and a host of current and former GP stars and other celebrities, take part in the Parade Lap around the spectacular Laguna Seca circuit, and then take a special behind-the-scenes tour of the MotoGP paddock.
The Day of Stars is a chance to spend an unforgettable day with the people at the heart of MotoGP, while at the same time, doing a huge amount of good in helping provide primary health care to Africa's more remote regions. There are still a limited number of tickets available, and so you'll have to be quick if you are to join the select few who will be spending time with MotoGP's biggest names. You can find out more about the Day of Stars from the Riders for Health Day of Stars website, and you can book tickets through the Laguna Seca website, ticket code BB19WRFH-MC. Better hurry, before they're all gone.
After months of difficulty, Donington Park's difficulties appear to be at an end. The circuit killed two birds with one stone today, announcing both that it had passed the FIM inspection ahead of this months World Superbike and next month's MotoGP round, and that the track owners had reached a settlement with DVLL, the company running the track.
The track had been facing scrutiny after a new paddock access tunnel was put in place for the Formula 1 Grand Prix, due to take place in 2010, creating problems with run off. A number of events had been canceled and postponed this year, with some events taking place under a yellow flag at the section around McLeans. But a visit by FIM Safety Officer Claude Danis confirmed that the necessary changes had been made to restore run off between McLeans and Coppice. With the FIM licence now granted, the planned rounds of World Superbikes and MotoGP can go ahead unhindered.
In a press release issued by Donington Ventures Leisure Limited, the circuit CEO Simon Gillett said, "This is great news for everybody at Donington Park and all of the fans. The ticket sales for both of our world class motorcycle racing events have been extremely positive and we'd like to thank the fans who have remained loyal and believed in us for committing to buying tickets. We have already sold 50 per cent more tickets than we had at this time last year for World Superbikes and the sales of our MotoGP tickets have remained at the same level. We've also now opened up the opportunity for the on the day tickets for both events, which should encourage more fans to come and witness safe, enjoyable and exciting two-wheel racing at one of the UK's premier motorsport circuits. I'd like to thank the FIM for the positive working relationship that we have so far enjoyed and look forward to continuing to work with them in the future."