Max Neukirchner started the 2009 World Superbike season full of hope, and widely tipped as a potential title candidate. But 2009 has been uncommonly cruel to the Alstare Suzuki rider, and his season has been plagued by injury. A horrific first-corner pile up at the Monza round in May saw the German break bones all the way down his leg, and after a lengthy recovery, Neukirchner made a return to riding at the official Imola World Superbike test this week.
His return was not to be long-lived. Neukirchner crashed heavily on just the second day of testing, losing control of his Brux Alstare Suzuki as he exited the Tamburello corner and highsiding on to his back. Neukirchner was examined at the Clinica Mobile, then taken off to a local hospital for further examination. At first he thought he had escaped relatively uninjured, saying "that was a proper crash, but nothing like Monza." But X-rays revealed fractured vertebrae, further endangering his season.
According to the UK's Motorcycle News, Neukirchner's injuries mean that he will be out for either a month or for the rest of the year, depending on the treatment. Given that Neukirchner has already missed over half the season, it may make more sense for the German to have surgery to correct the problem fully, without risking further injury. But riders being riders, he is more likely to want to return to racing as soon as possible, and get back into racing rhythm.
MotoGPMatters.com is here at a hot and humid Sachsenring and at full strength. Both David Emmett and Scott Jones will be chasing round the paddock looking for great stories and fantastic photos, so be sure to check back regularly. Right now, the sun is out and it's pretty warm, but it looks like being a weekend of three seasons in three days. Friday is expected to be very hot and muggy, with thunderstorms expected to arrive in the evening. The thunderstorms will mark a change in the weather, with the heat disappearing and temperatures dropping from a hot 29°C to a positively chilly 13°C on Saturday, bringing with them a healthy portion of rain. On Sunday, we move from autumnal chill to a spring-like 18°C, with clouds but no rain.
The weather is going to make finding a setup very difficult, as the lessons learned in the heat of Friday will be lost in the cool of the rest of the weekend. Added to that the likelihood of Saturday's two practice sessions being wet while the race is dry means that the 17-man MotoGP field will be very busy on Sunday morning trying to find a setup for the race.
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The Team Toth saga seems set to run and run. Three weeks ago, disaster was averted at Assen by an urgent transfer of funds from Mattia Pasini's Team Toth to Aprilia, who then released the ECUs required to operate the factory-spec RSA 250s Pasini is racing halfway through the first session of free practice. Now, that scenario looks set to be repeated, as according to both GPOne.com and the Italian sports daily Corriere dello Sport, Aprilia are once again holding on to the ECUs to be used by Team Toth, waiting for another payment to be made before allowing Pasini and team mate Imre Toth Jr to race.
The signs of financial trouble have been on the wall for a while: At Mugello, Pasini sported a garish pink livery, promoting a special Ladies' Night offer at a local Rimini night club. Entertaining it might be, but single-race deals with night clubs are unlikely to cover the million euro lease price for a factory-spec Aprilia 250. If the situation continues as is, Team Toth may be forced to withdraw entirely.
Pasini, it appears, may already have that situation covered. The Italian is said to be in talks with the Pramac Ducati team as a replacement for Niccolo Canepa, who has had a deeply disappointing season since entering the MotoGP class. The former FIM Superstock 1000 champion has struggled to get to grips with the Ducati Desmosedici, with only the arrival of Gabor Talmacsi granting Canepa a temporary reprieve from the ignominy of running around in last. Canepa is said to have been given until the Donington round of MotoGP to start improving his results, or face replacement.
Cal Crutchlow continued his dominance of the World Supersport class in the searing heat of the Imola test. The Yamaha rider set a time over 6/10ths faster than the second fastest man, Ten Kate Honda's Kenan Sofuoglu. Crutchlow's main title rival, Eugene Laverty was a tenth behind Sofuoglu, and another tenth ahead of Crutchlow's Yamaha team mate Fabien Foret.
Testing continues tomorrow.
Michel Fabrizio topped the timesheets after the first day of testing for the World Superbike field at Imola, edging out Yamaha's Ben Spies in the final laps. Fabrizio and Spies were followed by a brace of Hondas bracketing a BMW, Johnny Rea finishing the day ahead of BMW's Ruben Xaus, who was in turn just a few thousandths faster than Rea's Ten Kate Honda team mate Carlos Checa.
The test took place in searing conditions, as the typical summer heat of the lower Po valley took its toll on men, machinery and the tires which Pirelli have brought along for testing. Slightly cooler conditions are expected for tomorrow, for which the Superbike riders will be most grateful.
One of the most hotly debated subjects of the past month has been Casey Stoner's mystery illness. The Australian first showed the symptoms at the Catalunya Grand Prix, where he crossed the line in third position completely drained and without any strength in his body. Despite pronouncing himself recovered, Stoner suffered exactly the same fate at Assen during the Dutch TT, and at Laguna Seca, a less optimistic Stoner slipped off the podium to take 4th place, once again completely drained and vomiting, the physical demands of the tough Laguna Seca track taking its toll on the Ducati rider.
Fortunately for the Australian, the doctors in the US, working with the staff of the Clinica Mobile, believe they have tracked down the cause of Stoner's illness. According to the latest Ducati press release, Stoner has been diagnosed with a case of "slight gastritis and mild anemia" and is currently undergoing treatment to deal with the problem. As both gastritis and anemia have a number of causes, it is hard to pinpoint exactly what caused the disease, but gastrits and anemia are occasionally linked. The gastritis causes the stomach cramps, and anemia is a common cause of fatigue and general weakness, a symptom made worse by exercise. With treatment now underway, recovery should just be a matter of weeks, according to the Ducati press release.
While most of the attention this week will be on the 9th round of the MotoGP championship at the Sachsenring in Germany, the World Superbike paddock will also be back in action, though on a much more modest scale. This week, the series will be holding its official test at Imola, as part of the familiarization process for the return of the classic Italian track to the calendar.
The track is not completely unchanged, however. A new chicane has been put in in front of the pit garages, the New Variante Bassa, replacing the fast left kink which was there before. Further alterations are expected after the test has completed, moving fencing back and creating extra run off.
The first day of the test on Tuesday will be given over to the two Superstock classes, the Superstock 1000 FIM Cup and the European Superstock 600 Championship. The World Superbike and World Supersport field will be in action on Wednesday and Thursday. So should you happen to be in the vicinity of the Imola circuit, it will be worth your while to drop in and see just how hard the teams and riders have to work outside of race weekends.
Sete Gibernau's Grupo Francisco Hernando team was not the only squad to withdraw from Grand Prix motorcycling this week. American rider and former Kenny Roberts protege Steve Bonsey has lost his ride as well, after Bonsey's Milar - Lucky Juegos team pulled out of the 250cc championship as well. According to paddock veteran Dennis Noyes - resident in Spain and well-connected inside Spanish racing circles - the team, run by Josep Criville, brother of former 500cc World Champion Alex Criville, has been 'dissolved' due to a lack of funds.
The news is very tough on Bonsey, as the Aprilia Madrid team which Bonsey was due to race for in 2009 folded at the start of the season. Bonsey eventually found a new home with the Milar - Lucky Juegos team at the Catalunya Grand Prix, but his new engagement was to last for just two races, Catalunya and the subsequent Dutch TT at Assen. Just a few weeks later, Bonsey once again fell foul of a lack of funding, despite scoring points on the team's aging privateer-spec Aprilia. Bonsey had been hoping to use the opportunity to secure a ride in the promising Moto2 class next season, but now, his pursuit of that goal will have to start all over again.
It's been a tough season so far for MotoGP, with the withdrawal of Kawasaki before the start of the season, the Japanese factory finally yielding to pressure from Carmelo Ezpeleta and Dorna to provide machinery and limited support for a single season for Marco Melandri. Then came the rider switch at Team Scot, Gabor Talmacsi stepping in, bringing Hungarian oil money to rescue the team which was close to financial ruin.
Now, another dark day for the series, as Sete Gibernau's Grupo Francisco Hernando team has just announced that they will be pulling out of MotoGP with immediate effect. The reasons given for the withdrawal are unsurprising - the global financial crisis - but the announcement came as a shock to Sete Gibernau. In the press release, the Spanish veteran stated "The person most surprised by this decision was me. Everyone in the team worked hard to keep the project on track. On a personal level, it was a brave gamble, taken with the hope of building a successful project which would achieve targets we had set for ourselves as each Grand Prix passed."
Gibernau said he was very disappointed that the project had foundered at this stage. "It's truly a pity that we are forced to abandon the project at this stage, just when we were convinced we were on the verge of achieving the results we were looking for. I'd like to thank the team, my personal sponsors, the fans and all the press, the treatment I have received, which has repaid in full the hard work and efforts which I have put in to return to racing after two years out of the World Championship. Your support has made me be happy to be racing in MotoGP again," Gibernau added.
The rivalry between Jorge Lorenzo and Dani Pedrosa is both bitter and well-known. The rivalry, which started in 2005 after incidents in the German and Japanese Grand Prix, first came to the attention of the English-speaking world when it took the King of Spain to force the two Spaniards to shake hands, after both men ended up on the podium at Jerez in 2008. Since then, the two men have kept a careful if respectful distance between each other.
That may not be possible next year, though. The Spanish press is full of the prospect that Jorge Lorenzo could make the switch to Honda next year, and though the rumors so far suggest a return of Telefonica to sponsor a one-bike factory-supported team for Lorenzo, the Mallorcan could also join Repsol Honda, as a team mate to his rival Dani Pedrosa.
The Spanish radio channel Onda Cero spoke to Dani Pedrosa about this prospect, and the diminutive Spaniard was remarkably sanguine about the whole affair. Asked about the necessity of placing a wall down the middle of the garage if Lorenzo were to join Pedrosa as a Repsol Honda team mate, Pedrosa said it wouldn't be necessary. "The wall at Yamaha was put there because Rossi wanted it," he told Onda Cero. "I don't think Lorenzo thought it was a problem. But anyway, the policies at Honda are different. I don't know whether they work more as a team at Yamaha, but that's not the impression that Honda want to give."
However, there is no certainty that Pedrosa will even be at Repsol Honda next year. Though the Spaniard was keen to emphasize the excellent relations he has with HRC, he refused to be pushed on the subject of signing a new contract with the Repsol team. "We didn't renew the last contract until October. This year, we've started to talk very early, and it's a subject which is very distracting for riders."
The story of the Haojue team is a tale of woe, and one which appears to be reaching its tragic conclusion. After dismissing engine designer Jan Witteveen for "a lack of performance" the team elected to skip the Catalunya round of the 125cc World Championship. Their subsequent non-appearance at the Assen round added fuel to the flames of speculation which licked around their future, but the announcement that both Michael Ranseder and Matthew Hoyle have been released from their contracts showed that there was a real fire raging behind the smoke emanating from the team garage.
Ranseder has come out of the episode reasonably well, the Austrian rider having found a home with the Italian CBC Corse team and due to make his debut at the upcoming Sachsenring round. No news of the fate of Matthew Hoyle yet, this being the first season that the young British rider was to spend in the 125 class, after a strong year in the Red Bull Rookies Cup.
But Ranseder's pronouncements on his personal website do not bode well for the Chinese-backed Haojue team. Prior to the Assen race, Ranseder announced that he had finally been released by the Haojue team, after finding out that the most of the rest of the team had also been released. "I'd found out in the last few weeks that the contracts of most of the team members had been terminated. At first, it wasn't really clear to me why my contract hadn't been dissolved as well. I was desperate to get hold of Garry Taylor, and he told me that I can go look for another ride straight away," Ranseder wrote on his website.
With no riders, only a skeleton crew at best and development of the bike at something close to a standstill, the days of the Haojue team are surely numbered. An interesting experiment, bringing Chinese money into a sport which desperately needs it, is likely to fade far too quickly into the history books.
MotoGPMatters.com's Scott Jones had spoken to Guy Coulon at the MotoGP season opener at Qatar, and the conversation had left us with some questions unanswered. Colin Edwards' crew chief had told us that he wanted to reserve judgment on issues such as tires and the practice restrictions until a few races into the season. At the halfway mark of the season, we felt it was a good time to catch up with Coulon again and get his opinion, as well as ask about the Tech 3 team's plans for the fledgling Moto2 series due to launch next year. Scott Jones spoke to Guy Coulon
MGPM: When we spoke in Qatar, you said we would need to go to several races where there had been no winter testing to know how the shortened practice schedule and new tire rules would affect race preparation. What can you tell us seven races into the season?
Coulon: But already we have another change [in the practice schedule] from Le Mans. We started the beginning of the season with only three sessions of 45 minutes each. From Le Mans, we still have three sessions but each is one hour now. So the main thing we have learned this year is that the Yamaha is not difficult to set up, and I think we have an advantage with fewer [practice] sessions.
But of course we have to use the time we have differently from before when we had more practice sessions. Before we had four hours and now we have three, so we must be very focused on what changes we want to make. We must decide after each change if we will keep those settings or not. When we had more time we could compare settings, and if the rider was unsure which was better, we could compare the two settings again before moving forward. But now when we compare different settings, we must decide right away if we keep those settings or not; we follow this way or we follow that way. So that is different from before. But also this year we have only one tire manufacturer, and that means we have many fewer types of tires to combine with our tests of different chassis settings.
The summer break is traditionally the moment that MotoGP's silly season is unleashed in all its fury, and with two more races to go, it is already starting to build up some momentum. At the center of the whirlwind is Jorge Lorenzo, the young Spaniard who has made an astonishing impact in his second season of MotoGP, winning two races and missing out on a podium only once so far this year, when he crashed out at Jerez.
Lorenzo's contract with Yamaha runs out at the end of the season, and the Mallorcan seems not to be in too much of a hurry to renew it. In all of his pronouncements so far, Lorenzo has reiterated that Yamaha is his primary option, but that this does not mean that staying with Yamaha is an automatic choice, for either Lorenzo or Yamaha. Rumors about Honda's offer to Lorenzo are growing, and both Yamaha and Lorenzo are engaged in a complex bout of contractual wrestling in a bid for the upper hand in negotiations.
Yamaha boss Masao Furusawa made the factory's position clear in an interview with Gazzetta dello Sport recently: Yamaha are keen to hold on to the Spanish prodigy, but not at any price: "We know about Honda's offer," Furusawa told La Gazzetta, "If he wants to go with them, we won't be raising our stakes in order to retain him."