The radical drop in the size of the MotoGP grid has everyone inside MotoGP worried. First Kawasaki officially withdrew, leaving only Marco Melandri on the Hayate in the class, then Grupo Francisco Hernando pulled out of sponsoring Sete Gibernau's GFH team, dropping the number of entries from 18 to 17. Add to that the shenanigans surrounding Yuki Takahashi's replacement by Gabor Talmacsi, after Talmacsi was able to bring funds to the cash-strapped team, and the picture of a series in crisis is complete.
Clearly something has to be done, to reduce costs and to expand the number of bikes on the grid. Last week at the Sachsenring, the Grand Prix Commission met to discuss the situation, and Dorna CEO Carmelo Ezpeleta launched the idea of a two-tier system, allowing bikes with prototype chassis with engines based on production bikes to race against the current generation of fully factory supported prototype 800s. The story was unearthed by Paolo Scalera of the Italian sports daily Corriere dello Sport, and senior MotoGP journalist Michael Scott in last week's issue of GPWeek opined that the move was probably a bullying tactic by Ezpeleta, aimed at forcing the factories into coming up with a counterproposal.
It seems the thought of racing against production-based engines has done exactly that. At Donington, Tech 3 boss and head of IRTA Herve Poncharal spoke extensively to MotoGPMatters.com, covering a wide range of subjects. One of the subjects he discussed at length was the cost-cutting proposals put forward by the MSMA to counter the exodus of teams from the premier class. He revealed that as Mike Scott had predicted, the MSMA had offered to lease engines only to MotoGP teams at a much more affordable price, allowing them to build their own prototype chassis around the engine.
The Spanish veteran Alex Debon topped the free practice session for the 250 class at Donington, setting the fastest time in the final minutes of the session. Marco Simoncelli and Mattia Pasini had made the early running, but as the clock ticked down, a mass of other riders got involved with the race for the top of the timesheets. In the end, Debon beat out Hiroshi Aoyama and Alvaro Bautista, forcing Simoncelli down into 4th. The 250 riders were lucky, though, as they were the only class not to have rain disrupt their session.
Max Biaggi topped the timesheets once again at Brno, the only man to drop under the 2 minute marker during the first session of qualifying. Ducati's Michel Fabrizio improved his position, setting the 2nd fastest time, ahead of Carlos Checa and a remarkable Makoto Tamada on the Kawasaki. Tamada has been very much mid-pack so far this year, but his return from injury appears to have inspired him. Yamaha's Ben Spies was 5th quickest in the session, while Nori Haga improved, but only up to 16th. Qualifying continues tomorrow morning, the top 20 advancing to Superpole.
Cal Crutchlow topped the timesheets in the first session of free practice for the World Supersport class at Brno, completely dominating the field. The young Briton finished over 1.4 seconds ahead of his Yamaha teammate Fabien Foret, no one capable of getting anywhere near him. Behind Foret, the Hondas of Kenan Sofuoglu and Eugene Laverty took 3rd and 4th, just a couple of tenths off Foret's times.
Dani Pedrosa took first blood at Donington, taking advantage of a quickly drying track to set the fastest time in the first session of free practice for the MotoGP class. The session started out wet, rain falling just minutes before the session was due to start, and continuing to fall early on. In the early soaking conditions, it was Jorge Lorenzo and Valentino Rossi who dominated, with Casey Stoner not far behind.
As the track started to dry, the balance shifted in Stoner's favor, the Ducati rider soon getting a significant lead, though Lorenzo and Rossi were soon giving chase.
By the time the session entered its final moments, a dry line had formed almost completely round the track, and a host of riders started to radically improve their times. In the end, though it was not Stoner, nor Lorenzo or Rossi who topped the timesheets, but Dani Pedrosa, the Repsol Honda man putting in a flying lap as the flag fell for the end of the session, taking the top spot by nearly a quarter of a second. Casey Stoner was forced into 2nd spot, ahead of Valentino Rossi and Andrea Dovizioso, while Jorge Lorenzo was 5th.
Practice continues tomorrow, and most likely in similar conditions. The predictions are that the morning session will be mainly dry, while qualifying in the afternoon will be wet.
Esteve Rabat topped the timesheets for the first session of free practice for the 125cc class, but the result was distorted by a huge downpour which came just a few minutes into the session. The torrential downpour chased the 125 riders back into their garages, only to re-emerge once the deluge had abated, at which point the riders made use of the time to work on their wet setup skills. This being England in July, they are likely to need it.
It's a busy weekend for motorsports fans, with MotoGP at Donington, World Superbikes at Brno and Formula 1 in Hungary. Over in Brno, the World Superbike field have just been out for their first session of free practice, and the Aprilia of Max Biaggi was the quickest of the lot. Both Aprilias were quick for much of the session, Biaggi's team mate Shinya Nakono featuring near the top of the timesheets as well early on, only to drop down later.
John Hopkins made a solid return after his misdiagnosed case of osteoporosis in his injured hip. The hip is still painful, but it didn't stop him from taking the 2nd fastest time during practice, nearly two tenths ahead of fellow American Ben Spies on the Yamaha. Michel Fabrizio was fourth quickest, while championship leader Nori Haga is still suffering from the injuries suffered at Donington Park and could only manage the 18th fastest time.
Saying goodbye is one of the hardest things to do. At the end of a relationship, no matter how badly it ends, it is all too easy to look back at the good things, the happy memories, and gloss over the cracks and flaws that caused it all to end.
So it goes with Donington, which hosts the MotoGP series for the last time this year, for at least five years and probably longer. The track, located on the fringe of Leicestershire, has a long and glorious history of racing, dating back to 1937, though the circuit was closed after the Second World War, only hosting racing again in 1977. But based on the roads that ran round the grounds of the estate the track is built on, it still has the feel of an old-fashioned road circuit, like the best parts of Assen or Phillip Island.
The run down the hill through Craner Curves is still legendary, one of the finest sections of track still on the calendar today, and Schwantz, McLeans and Coppice are as challenging to get right as anywhere. The track has seen some memorable moments, from the affable Simon Crafar winning his only Grand Prix here in 1998 on the WCM Yamaha, to Valentino Rossi's battles with Loris Capirossi, or with Kenny Roberts Jr and Jeremy McWilliams, to Scott Redding's first victory for a British rider in the 125 class just last year.
Then there are the bad points. Most of the riders - all except Casey Stoner, rather surprisingly - hate the Melbourne Loop, calling it dismissively the "car park section", which is basically a set of esses and two short straights joined by hairpins. But even the horrors of the Melbourne Loop have their bright side: The Foggy Esses, the Melbourne Hairpin and Goddards are all excellent places for passing, generating plenty of spectacle despite the lack of respect they are regarded with by the riders.
After a quick dash across Germany, then down to Calais and up the M1 to the East Midlands airport, MotoGPMatters.com is coming to you live once again from Donington Park for the British Grand Prix. It's Thursday afternoon, and Scott Jones is off shooting photos at the Day of Champions, the special event put on every year at Donington to raise money for Riders for Health, the excellent charity that provides the support to get first-line health care to the remote parts of Africa. You can find out more about their vital work on the Riders website.
Despite the very English weather - sunny and pleasant one moment, pouring down a couple of minutes later - the crowds are out in force, the paddock full of people taking advantage of the rare chance to wander through and gaze at the hospitality units and snag the occasional autograph. The turnout is encouraging, and the chances are good of a big attendance, as this will be the last time the MotoGP class visits Donington before the whole circus shifts over to Silverstone in 2010.
The move was occasioned by Donington's successful bid to host Formula 1, but the track has an awful lot to do if it is to get ready for the masses of fans and the level of facilities required by the world's premier four-wheeled series. Right now, the vibe at Donington is not one of upmarket luxury, which they have to come to expect from the brand new tracks in the Middle and Far East.
The mood so far is a mixture of sadness and relief. Sadness at leaving the track behind - Except for the rather silly Melbourne Loop, Donington is still a fantastic track - and relief at not having to work in conditions more like the 1940s than the 21st century.
The Aliens. That's what Randy de Puniet calls them. The Frenchman can find no other logical explanation for why Valentino Rossi, Jorge Lorenzo, Dani Pedrosa and Casey Stoner should be so much faster than the rest of the field. Certainly, the Yamaha is the best bike of the field, but in the hands of two-time World Superbike Champion Colin Edwards, it isn't half a second a lap or more faster. The Honda was the best bike of the 990 era, but only Dani Pedrosa has been able to win races on its 800cc cousin, even podiums being a rare event for anyone else riding the bike. And as for the Ducati, it has been the kiss of death for anyone who isn't called Casey Stoner.
Even better than the fact that these four are faster than the rest of the field is the fact that they are all pretty evenly matched. They may be half a second quicker than the 13 other MotoGP riders, but there's only tenths or fractions of tenths separating the four of them. The results reflect this: the margin of victory has been falling, from an average of 4.5 seconds for the first 9 races last year to just over 4 seconds this year, but that includes the monster 17.7 second victory by Jorge Lorenzo at Le Mans this year, where last year the largest gap was just 10 seconds.
As the gaps have closed, so the racing has become tenser. On any given day, any one of the Aliens can win, something they have all done at least once this year. It's clear that the Fantastic Four are on a showdown for the title and that a clash between the four is looming, but each time it looks like the fans might be in for the treat they've been waiting for, something has always conspired to prevent it. At first, it was Dani Pedrosa's recovery from a skin graft on his knee that left the Spaniard out of contention. Then Pedrosa had another crash, fracturing the top of his femur, and leaving him to struggle in races.
As Pedrosa began to recover, Casey Stoner suddenly started to suffer from vomiting and chronic fatigue, and was diagnosed with anemia and gastritis. The effort of racing beyond half distance has become too much for the Australian, taking him out of contention too early. And last time out at Laguna Seca, Jorge Lorenzo threatened to take himself out of the equation, dislocating a collarbone in a giant highside.
And so MotoGP fans have been left wanting, kept hungry at the prospect of the proper four-way battle they know awaits them. Like Tantalus, the race that would sate their appetite seems forever to be just out of their reach.
That did not stop MotoGP fans descending on the steeply wooded valleys of Saxony in their hundreds of thousands. The German track has provided great spectacle before, and the fans hoped it would do so again, and maybe this time, Rossi, Pedrosa, Lorenzo and Stoner would put on a race.
At every press conference, in every interview, in fact just about any time Valentino Rossi answers questions in public, the same question comes up again and again: "Why do you stick your leg out when you're braking for a corner?" And every time, Rossi shrugs and explains that he doesn't really know; "it just feels natural to do" is the answer he usually gives.
The move - taking his foot of the footpeg, dangling it as if almost preparing to slide it on the ground dirt-track style, before finally picking it up and putting it back on the footpeg, ready to help tip the bike into the corner - has become Rossi's trademark, but he is no longer alone in his leg waving. One by one, the rest of the grid have taken on the move, and it has spread to riders in every class, from MotoGP to 125s to World Supersport. First Marco Melandri and Loris Capirossi followed Rossi's example, then Max Biaggi, then the current generation of Dani Pedrosa, Casey Stoner and Jorge Lorenzo. Now, just about everyone is doing it, all the way down to club racers.
With no explanation forthcoming from the originator of that distinctive dangle - usually dubbed "the Rossi Leg Wave" - observers have turned to a mixture of speculation and the other riders for an answer to the puzzle. Other proponents of the leg wave such as Casey Stoner and Dani Pedrosa claim that it helps them balance the bike as they approach the corner on the brakes, and armchair pundits follow a similar line, offering a range of theories grounded only very vaguely in physics concerning balance, leverage and weight transfer. It is clear that the debate over the subject has entered that most dangerous phase, the point where speculation based on science ends and darker, more occult attribution begins.
There's only so many compact flash cards that a photographer can carry, and the number of photos they can process is even fewer. So for now, here are the last of Scott Jones' Fab Photos frmm Germany
It should be obvious by now that MotoGPMatters.com's shooter Scott Jones has a nose for the right place to stand in. After capturing Mike di Meglio's practice crash in perfect detail, Scott also grabbed Bradley Smith's second lap pile up with Finnish wildcard rider Eeki Kuparinen. Here's how it went:
Bradley slides off inside Kuparinen
They both hit the gravel
Bradley hanging on to his Aprilia
If you enjoyed the previous instalments of photos from the German Grand Prix at the Sachsenring, you'll love the final collection from Scott Jones. If you want more after that, you'll have to wait until Donington, like the rest of us.