Results of the 125cc FP1 session at Mugello:
It's hard to overstate just how important motorcycling is both to Italian culture and the Italian economy. Originally adopted as cheap transport, Italians almost literally grow up on two wheels, transported about as children on Vespas before graduating to small-capacity Aprilias, Piaggios, Vespas, Derbis, Gileras and even Yamahas, Suzukis and Hondas when they hit their mid-teens. Eventually, as Italians grow older, they end up with either a Piaggio or a Suzuki Burgman to commute on, or a Ducati Monster, or perhaps a Triumph Speed Triple to cruise the country's city streets and beautiful beachfronts.
This passion has produced hundreds of businesses scattered around the north of the country. The old centers of boot and saddlemaking turned their skills with leather to gloves, boots and protective clothing, while the dozens of motorcycle manufacturers - now reduced to just a handful - spawned a vibrant industry building parts and accessories for every conceivable shape or form of two-wheeled vehicle. The chances are that if you own or ride a motorcycle, you have something Italian either attached to or associated with it, be it Brembo brakes, Marchesini wheels, Alpinestars leathers, Sidi boots, Nolan helmets, Arrow or Termignoni exhausts, or Pirelli tires. Or perhaps you just own a Moto Guzzi, an Aprilia, a Moto Morini or a Ducati. Motorcycling without Italy is simply inconceivable.
It should come as no surprise, then, that the Italian Grand Prix at Mugello is an event that captivates both the hearts and the minds of the Italian people. Mugello and the Italian Grand Prix are at the heart of Italy, both physically and metaphorically. The breathtaking track, surrounded by the beautiful, bucolic Tuscan hills, lies in a fold of Italy's Apennine mountains, just north of Florence. Glorious winding roads thread through the surrounding mountains, and at each mountain pass or major crossroads, there's a cafe where you can stop for a coffee and a bite to eat. In every one of these establishments hangs a shrine to motorcycling: helmets, leathers, signed photos of Italian motorcycling legends - Valentino Rossi, Giacomo Agostini, Marco Lucchinelli, Luca Cadalora - cards, folders, maps, gloves; All the regalia of motorcycling hang here. And as you sit nursing your espresso, your reverie is interrupted every couple of minutes by the rumble, roar or shriek of bikes as they chase that perfect zen moment of motorcycling, dancing to the rhythm of the Passo Sambuca, or the Passo di Raticosa, or the legendary Passo di Futa.
On The Road
It is no coincidence that this latter pass leads from Borgo Panigale, a nondescript outer suburb of Bologna, through the outskirts of the city, then south towards Florence, up and over some of the most magnificent motorcycling roads on the planet, before arriving some 80 kilometers later in the village of Scarperia, past that town's beautiful bell tower, and then down winding, tiny local roads until a giant red crash helmet marks the entrance to the Mugello circuit. In Borgo Panigale, Ducati builds the motorcycles it sells to support its racing habit, then tests those bikes on that illustrious pass, on the grounds that if a motorcycle performs well on the Passo di Futa, it will perform well on any road on the planet.
The one motorcycle which Ducati has not tested over the Passo di Futa - or at least, not that they will admit to - is the Desmosedici GP9. Instead, the weapon that won the 2007 championship for Casey Stoner and the Bologna factory is tested mainly just over the other side of the Passo di Futa, at the Mugello circuit. But the Mugello track has all the elements you will find on the Futa pass and more: The 320 km/h front straight kinks, then dips right at the point you need to get hard on the brakes to slow the bike up for the double apex right hander at San Donato. The track then climbs up through a series of left-right flicks before heading over the blind crest into Casanova, and down towards the double right of Arrabbiata 1 and 2.
At Miller Motorsports Park this weekend, one wildcard rider will be receiving a good deal of attention, more perhaps than is warranted by her results alone. The key word there, and the reason for all the attention, is "her". For Melissa Paris will be making her debut in the World Supersport class, becoming one of a small number of women riders to have raced in international competition.
The team press release trumpeted the news that Paris will be the first female rider to have raced in the World Supersport Championship, a fact that was repeated unquestioningly by a large number of racing sites who ought to know better. Though technically they are correct, Paris won't be the first woman to race in the World Supersport class. In 1998, the year before the World Supersport Series became the World Supersport Championship, a matter mostly of nomenclature, the German racer Katja Poensgen raced as a wildcard at the Nurburgring in the World Supersport race, finishing a respectable 20th, and ahead of 16 other entrants in the class. Poensgen, now a TV presenter with German sports channel DSF, later went on to have two years in the 250 class, one with Shell Advance and Dark Dog in 2001, then a disastrous year aboard a severely underpowered Molenaar Racing Honda in 2003, in which she and her team mate alternated at the rear of the grid.
But Poensgen is not the only woman to have raced internationally: Dutchwoman Iris ten Katen just retired as European Women's champion at the end of last season, and after some respectable results in the Dutch Open Championship; Alessia Polita contested the European Superstock 600 championship, the entry class for World Supersport, scoring points in a large field; Maria Costello competes regularly in the International Road Racing series, racing on public roads in Ireland and the Isle of Man; And just two weeks ago, the 18-year-old Frenchwoman Ornella Ongaro entered the French 125cc Grand Prix as a wildcard.
The death of 250 class has concentrated minds over at Aprilia. The race department at Italian factory is still fuming over the decision by the Grand Prix Commission to scrap the 250s and replace them with 600cc four strokes. The company is planning its revenge, however, which revolves in large part around a switch to the rival (a description which both Dorna and Infront Motor Sports deny) World Superbike series.
The factory already has two of their new and highly desirable Aprilia RSV4 superbikes running in the series, and according to the German-language weekly, Motorsport Aktuell, they are preparing to expand their involvement for next year. With the resources freed up by the demise of the 250s, Aprilia are looking to field two more RSV4s in a factory-supported satellite team in World Superbikes in 2010.
Prime candidate to run the team is Luca Montiron's JiR team, according to Motorsport Aktuell. Montiron, who previously ran the Konica Minolta-sponsored JiR team in MotoGP, before being forced out by Honda, is currently running two Aprilia RSV4 bikes in the FIM Superstock 1000 Cup, to limited success.
Aprilia's Technical Director Gigi dall'Igna told MSA "Although our 2010 racing program hasn't been finalized yet, I think the JiR team will be running the other two machines in 2010. Our goal is to have another strong Aprilia team in the World Superbike Championship next season. JiR will have the same equipment as the factory team, and will receive full support from Noale."
When the Moto2 class was announced, its stated purpose was to make the intermediate class affordable for small teams once again, after a period in which the cost of leasing a factory-spec Aprilia RSA 250 - effectively, the only way to be competitive - had reached around one million euros. As the entry date for the class approaches, it seems that those "small teams" being targeted are increasingly being found in the MotoGP class, and not just among the many privateer teams currently racing in the 250 class.
Earlier this week, news emerged that Tech 3 had a very keen interest in the Moto2 class, and today, GPOne.com is reporting that another MotoGP team will be following their example. Fausto Gresini, owner of the San Carlo Gresini Honda team in MotoGP, told GPOne.com that he will be entering a two rider team in the series next season. "I will be entering a Moto2 team on Friday," he told the authoratitive Italian website. "It will be the first thing I do when I arrive at Mugello, after having talked to (Dorna CEO) Carmelo Ezpeleta."
The attraction for Gresini - as for Tech 3 - is the chance to enter a championship they have a chance of winning, an objective which is currently impossible in MotoGP. With engine performance expected to be identical - with engines to be allocated to the teams at random, and only handed over at the start of the weekend, to be returned immediately after the race - the series will be much more about having an efficient team and a talented rider, rather than enough money to afford competitive equipment.
The road to the 125 World Championship has been long and hard for the Haojue team. First, they were forced to change their name from Maxtra, due to trademark conflicts earlier this year. Since then, there have been persistent reports of problems between the UK-based team run by Garry Taylor and Jan Witteveen, the man responsible for engine development. Adding to the team's troubles is a continuing lack of results, with both Matthew Hoyle and Michael Ranseder either failing to start or failing to qualify at Japan, Jerez and Le Mans.
The problem is down to a huge lack of top speed - as much as 22 km/h, according to team principal Garry Taylor. With the bikes so uncompetitive, the team have decided to skip the Italian Grand Prix at Mugello to focus on development. "The early GP results show that we are not yet competitive, so we have decided to concentrate our resources on developing and improving the situation," Garry Taylor said. Currently, the plan is to miss just the Italian round, but the race after at Barcelona is also at risk, the track, like Mugello, having a very high-speed front straight, precisely the area the team is weakest.
Haojue's withdrawal will fuel the speculation surrounding the split with Witteveen. The team has continually denied any rift, but Witteveen has been cited in the German press as having reduced his involvement to an absolute minimum, and given the Dutchman's previous record with Aprilia, the lack of performance for Haojue would seem to back this up. The hope must be that by missing the next race or two, the Haojue team will be able to find enough performance to at least get the bike to a point where it is confident of qualifying.
Stepping up from one series to another as champion can be very hard. Just ask Brendan Roberts. The reigning FIM Superstock 1000 Champion has struggled just to score points since moving up to the World Superbike class, despite riding a Superbike spec version of the Ducati 1098R he won the 2008 Superstock Cup on. To add insult to injury, or rather, adding injury to insult, Roberts was one of the riders caught up in the huge first-corner pile up at Monza, the Australian not breaking anything, but coming away from the incident severely battered and bruised.
At Kyalami in South Africa, Roberts seat aboard the Guandalini Ducati was taken by the former BSB champion Gregorio Lavilla. At the time, speculation abounded that the Kyalami ride was basically an audition for Lavilla, and if his results were good enough, Lavilla would take Roberts' place in the Guandalini team permanently. Lavilla finished 11th and 12th in the two South African races, beating Roberts' best finish of 13th at Assen.
That audition has been successful for Lavilla, as the Spanish veteran revealed to the Spanish magazine Motociclismo that he will be riding with the Guandalini team for the rest of the season. When asked by the magazine if he would be staying in World Superbikes, Lavilla replied: "I can confirm that I am. I am going to stay for the rest of the season." As Lavilla put it, "I've achieved my objective for the season, a return to the World Superbike series."
Regis Laconi's condition continues to improve, as he recovers from the surgery required after his horrific crash at Kyalami. The Frenchman is awake again after surgery, and has already exchanged a few words with the medical staff at the Sunninghill Hospital in Johannesburg, where he is undergoing treatment. More importantly, Laconi is moving all of his limbs independently, confounding earlier reports that the Frenchman had shown signs of paralysis in his left leg.
The reports of Laconi's recovery was also confirmed by Ducati boss Davide Tardozzi. In a post on Ducati's blog, the Italian refuted earlier reports of Laconi's paralysis. "I spoke this morning to his technical chief who has remained in Johannesburg to support his rider and fortunately the rumours that have spread in the press about Regis' loss of mobility in his left leg are wholly untrue. Regis is a wonderful man who has always given 110%," Tardozzi wrote.
In defense of the press, the reports were more than rumors. MotoGPMatters.com received confirmation from three independent sources that Laconi had signs of paralysis. Of course, the problem is that all of those sources came from inside the World Superbike paddock, and as anyone who has ever had the privilege of spending any time there will be aware, that paddock is a like a miniature Italian village, where everyone knows everyone, and what's more, where everyone gossips with everyone. Try as we might, it is not always easy to distinguish gossip from distortion from fact.
If Regis Laconi's recovery continues as it is, the Frenchman is due to be flown back to France for further treatment in a specialist clinic in France. Once again, we send our best wishes to Regis Laconi, and wish him a speedy and full recovery.
The Moto2 category, brought in to replace the 250 class, is proving to be a big hit with the people it was aimed at: The teams. The series organizer is already predicting that the 34 available places will be over-subscribed, meaning that the grid could feature no 250s at all in 2010.
Interest is not just coming from the current crop of 250 teams though. The Tech 3 team, currently active in MotoGP with Colin Edwards and James Toseland, has already expressed an interest, and in an interview with the French motorcycle magazine MotoRevue, the team manager Herve Poncharal explains just why.
"<Satellite> MotoGP teams like us have little more to do at a weekend than just adjust the bike and fiddle with the settings. We have nothing more to do, it's stipulated in our contracts that we are not allowed to make any modifications to the machines which have been placed at our disposal. If you have a highly-skilled team, it's hard to hang on to them if you don't have enough of a challenge for your boys for the entire year." Poncharal's problems are caused by the contracts by which the satellite teams are supplied bikes. The bikes are only leased to the team, and as a consequence, there's only a very limited number of options the teams have for setting the bikes up.
Poncharal sees Moto2 as a chance to hang on to the young engineers he is bringing into motorcycle racing, as well as a chance for fellow team founder Guy Coulon to get back to designing and building chassis, a skill he is currently unable to practice. "Moto2 will allow us to get back to what we used to do during the winter and the Grand Prix. We have young engineers who do fewer races than their counterparts in Supersport. If we can give them more work to do, they are more likely to want to stay with us."
It's over. At a press conference in Budapest today, Gabor Talmacsi and Jorge Martinez, head of the Aspar team, announced that they had failed to reach an agreement over the media rights which had caused the split between the two parties in the first place. As a consequence, Talmacsi's split with the Aspar team was now permanent, and the Hungarian star would not be riding for the Aspar-run Balatonring team for the remainder of the years.
The press conference, a tense if respectful affair, was held after Talmacsi and Martinez had met to try and find a resolution for their differences. The sticking point remained the matter of media rights, a very important factor for Talmacsi, as the former 125 World Champion is one of Hungary's biggest sports stars, and a substantial source of income for him. Neither Talmacsi nor Martinez were prepared to go into detail about the exact nature of their dispute.
Both men emphasized that the break up had been relatively harmonious. Jorge Martinez praised Talmacsi's professionalism, saying "Our relationship with Gabor has been excellent, both personally and professionally. But for sure, I'm very sad about this." Martinez also stated that the Balatonring project would continue, and that it will continue with a Hungarian rider.
Last year, we complained about the silly season starting early, yet in 2009 it seems to have started even earlier yet. With a host of young riders on the verge of entering MotoGP, there is already a veritable tsunami of speculation concerning who will be filling which seats next year. Marco Simoncelli and Alvaro Bautista look almost certain to move up to the premier class from 250s, and over in World Superbikes, Ben Spies is widely tipped to move across to MotoGP, while there are even whisperings of a couple of the standout young British riders - such as Leon Haslam and Johnny Rea - taking a chance.
With all these young guns getting ready to kick the door down, and any increase in the numbers of bikes on the grid extremely unlikely - whether or not the Grand Prix Commission decides to go to a single bike for 2010 - that means that some of the riders already in the series are going to have to make way. Some are safe by virtue of their nationality - James Toseland's seat in MotoGP is safe (though not necessarily his seat at Tech 3) for as long as the BBC has a deal to televise MotoGP, or until another British rider can be found to take his place, and Yuki Takahashi is safe as long as Hiroshi Aoyama decides to stay in the 250cc / Moto2 class next year - but others are less fortunate.
One possible candidate for the transfer list is Colin Edwards. Despite the fact that the Texan is having a pretty good year and is a fair bet for at least one podium this season, the Yamaha veteran is simply becoming too expensive to maintain. The economic downturn has hit motorcycle sales in the US very hard, and as Yamaha is paying for most of Colin Edwards' considerable salary, it looks unlikely that they will be able or willing to do a similar deal for 2010.
More news of replacements at the US round of World Superbikes at Miller Motorsports Park. After Regis Laconi's horrific crash at Kyalami, an incident in which the charismatic Frenchman fractured two vertebrae and leaves him likely to be out of racing for remainder of the season, speculation naturally turned to who would replace Laconi at subsequent races.
With a host of talented riders currently available due to a dearth of sponsorship, forcing teams to pull out of already signed deals, the list of possible replacements for Laconi is long. The two prime candidates for the ride are former BSB champion Gregorio Lavilla, who filled in for the injured Brendan Roberts at Kyalami, and the Italian Lorenzo Lanzi, who was scheduled to race a KTM for Stefano Caracchi in the Italian Superbike championship, but withdrew after Lanzi claimed he was close to securing a ride in World Superbikes.
It now looks like Lanzi will be getting the ride. According to GPOne.com, DFX Corse manager Daniele Carli told the Italian TV program "Paddock, Uomini e Corse" (Paddock, Men And Racing) that he was already engaged in contract talks with Lanzi to take Laconi's place. Lanzi is very familiar with the Ducati 1098R, having raced one for the R.G. team last year in World Superbikes.
This does not mean that Gregorio Lavilla is definitely out of World Superbikes, however. Rumors have been growing that Guandalini Racing want to drop their current second rider Brendan Roberts, the reigning Superstock 1000 champion having difficulties adapting to the World Superbike spec version of the bike he won his title on last year. According to the paddock gossips, Lavilla is still very much in the frame for Roberts' ride.
As MotoGPMatters.com revealed last week, Jamie Hacking has been confirmed as Makoto Tamada's replacement at PBM Kawasaki for the US round of World Superbikes at Miller Motorsports Park, Utah. The American - born in Oswaldtwistle, in the north of England - has seen action in the World Superbike series before, running as a wildcard in 1998 and 1999 at Laguna Seca, his best result a 7th place finish. However, Hacking has been one of the few riders in the world to make the Kawasaki ZX-10R truly competitive in Superbike racing, and Miller is a track where Hacking has an outstanding record. Hacking has a tough act to follow, after South African Sheridan Morais scored a 13th and 11th place finish in his World Superbike debut in Kyalami, and beating his team mate Broc Parkes.
Hacking won't be the only AMA rider acting as a replacement, as Jake Zemke has been called up to sub for John Hopkins. Hopper's recovery from the horrific crash at Assen - the second year in succession he's been savaged by the Dutch track - is proceeding well, but it is far too early for the American to start racing again. As a consequence, American veteran Zemke will be riding Hopkins' Stiggy Racing Honda. Zemke is currently riding a Honda CBR600RR in the AMA Daytona Sportbike class, and is the reigning champion in the now defunct AMA Formula Xtreme championship. Zemke raced a Honda CBR1000RR in AMA Superbikes from 2004 to 2007 with American Honda.