The intense rivalry between Valentino Rossi and Jorge Lorenzo continues apace, the next instalment taking place on Saturday morning during the second session of free practice for the MotoGP class. After Rossi took first blood yesterday, Jorge Lorenzo set about extracting revenge, but that would be no easy task. Rossi and Lorenzo swapped the lead multiple times during the session, with Dani Pedrosa getting involved early on, before the two Fiat Yamaha men cracked into the 1'34s and left the Repsol Honda rider behind.
Lorenzo looked like clinching the session with a blistering final lap, but Rossi had crossed the line with a couple of seconds on the clock, and another shot at a lap. He made it count, destroying the race lap record and besting Lorenzo's time by two tenths of a second. Pedrosa ended up in 3rd, comfortably ahead of the LCR Honda of Randy de Puniet and Pedrosa's Repsol Honda team mate Andrea Dovizioso. Ducati's Nicky Hayden finished the session in 6th, continuing to improve, while Monster Tech 3 Yamaha's Colin Edwards was 7th.
Ever since Casey Stoner decided to pull out of three MotoGP races due to ill health, a tsunami of speculation concerning the state of the Ducati squad has washed over the internet and the written press, with millions of fans and journalists venturing opinions on the subject, while only a few actually had any facts to base those opinions on. None of the protagonists have been particularly easy to reach, nor very forthcoming about the situation.
At Indianapolis, that changed, at least a little. Though we have heard virtually nothing from Casey Stoner, and only brief quotes from the Ducati organization so far, at Indy, Dean Adams of Superbikeplanet sat down with Ducati team boss Livio Suppo for an extended interview. The interview covered many subjects, from the obvious - such as the current state of Casey Stoner's health - to the philosophical - such as the question of whether switching to an 800cc formula made MotoGP more expensive, and raised some interesting points.
Two points were of particular interest, though. The first was the question of why the Ducati is perceived to be such a difficult bike to ride. Suppo denied that a problem existed, pointing out that since Barcelona, the gap between Nicky Hayden's pace on the GP9 and Casey Stoner's was broadly comparable to the gap between Valentino Rossi's and Colin Edwards on the dominate Yamaha M1. Suppo believes that the problem - if you can call it that - is just down to the difference between the four top riders (Rossi, Stoner, Jorge Lorenzo and Dani Pedrosa) and the rest of the field. "So in the last seasons, if you don't have one of these top four guys, you don't win races," Suppo told Superbikeplanet.
With Jorge Lorenzo already signed for Yamaha, and Dani Pedrosa a strong candidate to announce his contract renewal with Honda this weekend, the silly season focus has shifted to the next log damming up the river, the Texan Ben Spies. Spies has been widely expected to stay at Yamaha, but the question mark surrounding the Texan sensation has been whether his future lies in World Superbikes or in MotoGP. Yamaha have made no secret of the fact they'd like to keep the American in World Superbikes for another year, while reports are rife that both Ducati and Suzuki made approaches to Spies to join them in MotoGP.
Yamaha, it seems, have won this particular battle. According to Speedweek's Gunther Wiesinger - about whom a press officer once complained to me that he knew too much - Spies has penned a new deal with Yamaha, signing on for another two years. The first year of the contract would see Spies staying on in World Superbikes, either to defend or to conquer the World Superbike title for Yamaha in 2010, with Spies stepping up to MotoGP in 2011, most likely to take over Colin Edwards' seat in the Tech 3 Yamaha squad.
With Spies staying in World Superbikes, this paves the way for more dominoes to fall into place in both MotoGP and World Superbikes. The prime beneficiary will be Colin Edwards, who will get to keep his Yamaha Japan-funded seat in the Monster Tech 3 Yamaha squad, though Edwards' partner is still to be decided. In World Superbikes, there will probably only be one seat vacant in the Yamaha Motor Italia squad, which could go to Cal Crutchlow, though reports are placing him in Moto2 with Gresini next season. That Yamaha Superbike seat will be very hotly contested, with the new R1 clearly competitive, and the team highly proficient. If Crutchlow doesn't take the seat, the chances of the man dominating the BSB championship, Leon Camier, is the prime candidate.
These things will start to sort themselves out over the next few weeks. Stand by for a deluge of silly season news from World Superbikes over the coming weeks.
~~~ UPDATE ~~~
Yamaha Racing have now officially announced the news. The text of the press release follows:
Valentino Rossi has struck the first blow at Misano, edging ahead of Fiat Yamaha team mate Jorge Lorenzo, with 10 minutes to go, then taking another tenth of a second off his best time to hold onto provisional pole. Lorenzo had dominated the session up until that point, only briefly ceding the lead to Dani Pedrosa, and hammering a whole sequence of laps in the 1'35s, over half a second faster than the rest of the field for most of practice. Lorenzo even looked like taking back provisional pole from Rossi, but the Spaniard ran into traffic on two fast laps in succession, leaving him stuck in 2nd. His fastest lap may have been slower than Rossi's, but his race pace was a good deal faster than anyone else could match.
Dani Pedrosa rounds out the provisional front row, to nobody's surprise, the Spaniard developing a bizarre problem with his Repsol Honda at the end of the session, fluid spraying either from a loose clutch reservoir or front fork, forcing a furious Pedrosa to ditch the bike and take a trip back to the pits on a scooter. Pedrosa's misfortune allowed Alex de Angelis to close right in on him, the man from San Marino - just a few kilometers from the circuit - getting to within 0.016 of Pedrosa's time, and finishing ahead of Pedrosa's team mate Andrea Dovizioso and Monster Tech 3 Yamaha's Colin Edwards. Dovizioso has switched to Ohlins this weekend, and his first run out was fairly successful, the Repsol Honda rider finishing pretty close to where he might have been expected to end up if he had stuck with the Showa suspension Pedrosa is still using.
Most striking of all, however, is the gap between the Fiat Yamahas and the rest of the field. Pedrosa is over six tenths behind Lorenzo, and three quarters of a second behind Rossi, while a second covers 3rd to 12th places. The Fiat Yamahas appear to be in a league of their own. Again.
Silly Season is just about over in MotoGP: With the announcement that Ducati have just offered Nicky Hayden a new one-year contract for 2010, the available factory seats are all filled, with the notable exception of Honda. Andrea Dovizioso has admitted he is very close to a new deal with Honda, but most of the media and fan attention has been focused on the future of Dani Pedrosa.
At Indianapolis, Pedrosa acknowledged approaches by Ducati - for a salary thought to be broadly similar to the gigantic sums on offer to Jorge Lorenzo, before he turned the Bologna factory down - but repeated that discussions with Honda were still ongoing, and that no firm conclusions had been reached. The sticking point, it was believed, was the role that Pedrosa's manager and mentor Alberto Puig was to play next season, with HRC pushing for a much diminished role for the former GP winner, and Pedrosa refusing to sign unless he had the man who has done so much for his career by his side.
Reports coming out of Spain earlier today - published by the sports daily Sport.es and reported by the Catalonian radio station Catalunya Informacio - indicate that Dani Pedrosa has already decided to sign a new contract with the Repsol Honda squad, and will make an official announcement this weekend at Misano. According to the reports, Pedrosa will sign a contract for at least one year, but no word has been forthcoming on the role of Pedrosa's manager Puig.
What was expected at Indianapolis appears to have been delayed a week to Misano. MotoGP's silly season, blocked for so long by Jorge Lorenzo, is starting to move again, with a spate of riders slotting into place for next season. The biggest (official) news so far is that Ducati have decided to exercise the option they have on American rider Nicky Hayden, extending his contract for another year through the 2010 season. Hayden's contract is a reward for the solid progress the Kentucky Kid has made throughout the season, gradually overcoming the difficult start the American made at the start of the year. That progress reached a provisional peak last week, when Hayden finished in 3rd place at Indianapolis, his first podium in a year, and his first on the Ducati.
Hayden has also been a huge marketing success for the Italian motorcycle manufacturer. The likable American helped sell out the limited edition Ducati 848s with Hayden's 2009 Laguna Seca livery almost immediately after release, and Hayden's face adorns the walls of Ducati dealerships around the world, but especially in the US, a key market for Ducati.
But there's another reason for the Ducati announcement. Spanish media sources are reporting that Dani Pedrosa has renewed his contract with the Repsol Honda team (see separate story), taking the last of the Fantastic Four off the market, and leaving Ducati with just the "humans" to select from. Hayden has repeated proven himself to be among the best of the rest, and with a string of solid results in recent races, he will help Ducati score valuable points in the manufacturers standings, a championship that has always been important to the Borgo Panigale factory.
An interesting press release has just dropped into our mailbox, one which highlights how the lack of testing is impacting the teams and their efforts at developing the bikes. Repsol Honda has just announced that Andrea Dovizioso is to switch from Showa suspension to Ohlins at Misano, and to continue using the Swedish forks and shocks for the rest of the season.
Both Dovizioso and Repsol Honda team mate Dani Pedrosa tested the Ohlins suspension units during the post-race test at Brno in mid-August, but as it rained for a couple of hours during the one-day test, Pedrosa in particular lost a lot of his opportunity to test the new suspension. As a consequence, it appears that Repsol Honda have decided to take a different tack, with Pedrosa sticking with Showa while Andrea Dovizioso - who is out of the running for a top 3 finish in the championship - running Ohlins, partly with a view to gaining enough data for both riders to use the new Ohlins suspension next year.
The problem is of course with testing now drastically reduced, it has become significantly more difficult to test major changes such as this, but during the season and in the pre-season testing. It is likely that we will see more of these kind of changes taking place mid-season, using the remaining races as testing in preparation for the following year. Dani Pedrosa's mid-season tire switch from Michelin to Bridgestone was a case in point. The Spaniard arrived at the start of this season much better prepared to use the Japanese tires than other Michelin runners who had to wait until the end of the 2008 season.
At last weekend's Red Bull Indianapolis GP, along with the usual vendor shows, stands, test rides and other activities, a rather special demonstration was being given in the media center. The oscar-winning special effects director John Bruno - responsible for the effects in some of the best special effects movies of all time, such as Titanic, Terminator 2, The Abyss, X-Men The Last Stand and a host of others - was showing footage from his latest 3D projects, which included a three-minute highlight reel from the previous race in the US, the Red Bull US GP at Laguna Seca.
I was intrigued by the thought of watching motorcycle racing in three dimensions, and decided to go and take a look. I am old enough to remember some of the previous 3D projects, which required the wearing of cheap cardboard classes with different colored lenses (Jaws 3D anyone?) and had failed to impress me even at a fairly tender age. I was lucky enough to walk in on a special presentation being given to the Tech 3 Yamaha team by John Bruno himself, just as the standard (non-motorcycling footage) was finishing.
The MotoGP footage started with an opening shot of the Corkscrew at Laguna Seca, and from the off, I was hooked. Choosing the Corkscrew to open on was a stroke of brilliance, as that most iconic of turns is famed for its incredible drop, and for the first time on a TV screen, the elevation change just leapt off the screen at you. Perhaps even more impressive was the bump at the top of the turn: Though it has been flattened off in recent years, the ridge at the top where the track drops down is suddenly blindingly obvious. It really was just like being there, whereas every other time I have seen the Corkscrew - either on TV or in photos (even the fantastic shots by our very own Scott Jones), the pictures have failed to do justice to the turn.
Since the announcement of the new engine limits, which permit each rider to use 5 engines for the last 7 races of the season, to be cut to 6 engines for the entire 18-race season next year, we at MotoGPMatters.com have been wondering just how this is going to work out. After quizzing Monster Tech 3 Yamaha's Guy Coulon on Thursday, who told us it shouldn't be a problem for them, we put the same questions to Andrea Dovizioso's Repsol Honda crew chief Pete Benson. Here's what he had to say on the subject:
MGPM: I wanted to ask about the engine limits. How's it going so far, it's only been one race, but have you run into any problems?
Pete Benson: No, this year it's absolutely no problem, because you've got 5 engines to the end of the season. We've still got five new engines in our allocation. It's very, very easy at the moment. Next year, basically the engine mileage itself is not a problem, but you crash a bike and damage the engine, that's when it becomes a problem. Because then there's a very good chance we'll get to the end of the year and you'll, say, get to the last race and only have one engine left without taking a penalty. It's not something I'm really in favor of, but they say they [the MSMA] need to do it so they're going to do it.
MGPM: What happens when you crash the Honda engine? Is it susceptible to damage? Does it let gravel in through the airbox?
PB: Well,you know, generally no, but if you fire things into a gravel trap hard enough things are going to break. They've got good filter systems and everything on them, but if you tear all the fairings and everything off them, then there's always that chance, you know? And it's not just that, if you crash a bike hard enough, you can break the crankcase or punch a hole in the end of the cases. It doesn't happen very often, but it can happen.
After his impressive victory at Indianapolis - in a race which he described as "boring" once Rossi had crashed - Jorge Lorenzo spoke briefly to the English-language press about the race and how it affected the championship. Here's what he had to say:
Q: Now that your future is settled, you've made your choice for Yamaha over Ducati, was it easier to concentrate?
JL: No I don't think so. I think I was riding quite well in Donington, I was leading the race, by one and a half seconds, but I pass the white line and I crash. I couldn't do anything about it. Maybe I was wrong in my line, but nothing more. Maybe in Brno I did a mistake in this corner, because I wanted to open a gap between me and Valentino, and maybe I had to be following him not to pass him. Maybe you are right in Brno, but not in Donington.
Q: Every time you crash you learn very quickly, you never make the same mistake twice. Was your plan to get ahead of Valentino or stay behind him?
JL: You know, now that I win, it is very easy to say I don't make mistakes, that I am the best, but it could happen again to me that I crash. So, today has been good, but you don't know in the future.
Q: Have you started to believe in the championship again, or is 25 points still too much?
Results and summary of Indianapolis MotoGP race:
The news that the MSMA is moving closer to allowing engines to be leased has been received with enthusiasm both inside the paddock and out. The move is aimed at reducing costs and expanding the grid, and word from inside the paddock is that it might just work. The proposal is due to come into force in 2011, but rumors are rife that it could happen before then.
It seems that Yamaha could lease one engine to a team in 2010. That team would be Hayate, allowing the plucky little team which has done so outstandingly with so few means to stay in MotoGP, and bring the grid size up to 18. The news was reported by GPOne.com, and discrete enquiries around the paddock have confirmed the report, though no one would speak on the record.
The idea of the Hayate team running a Yamaha engine in 2010 makes a huge amount of sense. According to the reports, the new bike would use the existing Hayate / Kawasaki frame, and drop the Yamaha engine into it. Given that the man who designed the Yamaha M1 is Ichiro Yoda, who left Yamaha to redesign the Kawasaki, and is still in charge of the Hayate team, the bikes and the configuration are unlikely to be vastly different. The engine should fit without too much work, as both the Yamaha and Kawasaki engines are inline fours.
By running the engine in 2010, the members of the Grand Prix Commission - and especially the manufacturers and the IRTA - can test out in practice just how well such a proposal would work. And with restricted engine numbers, it should be relatively affordable for the cash-strapped team. Unfortunately - if somewhat understandably - Hayate have lost their star rider, Marco Melandri having signed for San Carlo Gresini. But with so many riders likely to be out of a job and offering their services for free to stay in the series, it shouldn't be hard to find a rider capable of surprising the field once again.
Results of the morning warm up session for the MotoGP class: