Notes from Portimao from our man on the ground:
Notes on WorldSBK race 1 from our man on the ground at Portimao:
Will MotoGP survive the loss of Valentino Rossi? From the evidence of Misano, the answer is yes. According to the official figures released by Dorna, the attendance over all three days was down just 133 fans. Not bad, when the three-day attendance was over 158,000. The Sunday numbers – a better measure, as the three-day figures are mostly derived by double and triple counting – were down a little, from 100,000 to 96,000.
Disregarding the official numbers (justifiably, as there are plenty of good reasons to suspect the books are well and truly cooked at some circuits), judging visually, the grandstands and grass banks were pretty full, almost as full as last year. Despite the horrendous rain which was heaviest as the fans were making their way to the circuit, and continued all the way up until the flag dropped.
Valentino Rossi is irreplaceable as an icon of the sport, known both inside and outside motorcycle racing. But the cast of characters, heroes and villains, which the sport now has, and the intense and close racing we see is enough to keep the overwhelming majority of the fans watching. There will undoubtedly be a drop in attendance and TV figures, but on the evidence of Misano, it will be nearer a survivable 10%, not a disastrous 40%. MotoGP will survive the loss of Valentino Rossi, once he goes.
All three MotoGP classes gave the fans a reason to keep watching. The rain created a spectacle of its own, with crashes shaking up the outcomes. The early leaders crashed out in both Moto2 and MotoGP, with major consequences for the title in the Moto2 race. Though the winner checked out early in Moto3, the battle for the podium – and as a result, for the championship – heated up behind. And both MotoGP and Moto3 were decided in the last few laps, as riders launched attacks and either saw them rebuffed, or got through to seize glory.
It feels like the two days of practice we have had at Misano are set to come to naught. With a cold first day of practice, a cool morning on the second day, and a hot afternoon, conditions have been hard enough to track, especially after heavy rain on Thursday scoured any rubber from previous events from the surface. But the riders have had no practice in the wet, and with rain set to fall on Sunday – exactly when, we don't know, but fall it will – everything is very much up in the air.
The five factories who tested here should be used to it. The track feels totally different from the test here back in August, grip levels radically lower. Tires feel very different too, despite Michelin insisting they are using the same tires this weekend as they brought to the test. It's all a bit topsy turvy, so why should adding a bit of rain make it any more complicated.
A wet Sunday would be a shame in more than one way. The Misano races in all three classes are shaping up to be fantastic spectacles. In Moto3, four of the top five in the championship start from the first two rows, with Enea Bastianini thrown into the mix for good measure. Moto2 pits Franco Morbidelli against a resurgent Mattia Pasini, the Italian veteran making it four pole positions in a row. Tom Luthi may be on the third row, but his qualifying position belies his pace. Sadly, Alex Márquez will be absent, the Spaniard having banged up his hip badly enough that it's trapped a nerve.
MotoGP is fated not to escape the influence of the weather this season. There has barely been a race which has not been affected in one way or another. Even when it hasn't rained, it has been stiflingly hot, sizzling tracks causing tires to wilt. So why should things be any different at Misano?
Heavy overnight rain left the track still spotty and damp in patches in the morning, Moto3 getting the worst of it, MotoGP just being left to deal with the occasional stubborn spot of dampness where the water took longer to dry. It caused a spate of crashes in the morning, and though the track dried nicely and blue skies dominated, it was cooler than normal. When Marc Márquez tried the hardest front tire, that proved just a little too critical, the Repsol Honda rider washing out the front in the final corner.
The rain had also washed any residual rubber from the track, radically altering the grip level. That was a major setback for the factories which had tested at Misano prior to Silverstone, in preparation for this Grand Prix. "The feeling is completely different than at the test," Aleix Espargaro complained. "It looks like all the settings we had were not working. The grip is completely different. No grip at all. It feels like ice."
Does the absence of Valentino Rossi from the Misano race make much difference? It is too early to tell. Certainly the media center feels a little more empty, but this is a trend which has been underway for a while. Print media has less money to spend, and non-specialist media is increasingly choosing not to report from the race track, taking their information from publicly available sources such as the ever-expanding TV coverage.
Specialist print media and websites are also suffering, though their very rationale depends on being at the track, and so they have little choice. So maybe a more empty press room is a sign that Italian newspapers have decided against sending a correspondent because Valentino Rossi is not racing. Alternatively, it could just be a sign of a more general decline in media presence.
The paddock feels pretty busy, but then it was only Thursday, and the real frenzy doesn't start until the bikes hit the track. We won't really know how badly Rossi absence affects the Misano race until the flag drops on Sunday, and official figures and empty spots on grandstands tell the true tale.
Will we get a glimpse of a MotoGP future without Valentino Rossi at Misano? The news that the Italian icon had broken his right leg in an enduro accident will have caused hearts to sink at the Misano World Circuit Marco Simoncelli, just a few kilometers from Rossi's home in Tavullia. Recent editions have been packed to the rafters. With motorcycling's biggest draw out of action, ticket sales, the biggest source of revenue covering the cost of hosting a MotoGP race, are likely to be down.
How much, is the question, of course. Yes, Valentino Rossi is still unquestionably the biggest name in motorcycle racing, but there are plenty of reasons to be watching right now, and plenty of things for Italian fans to cheer for. An Italian rider, Andrea Dovizioso, is leading the championship on an Italian motorcycle, the Ducati Desmosedici GP17. The racing is closer than it has ever been, with any of five or six riders in with a realistic shout of the win, and a handful more a chance of a podium. More often than not, races are won on the last couple of laps, and surprisingly often, in the last corner. Though the loss of Rossi is an undeniable blow, the show will likely be as good as ever.
As of Wednesday afternoon, the signs are that numbers will be down. There are still plenty of tickets on sale for Sunday at Misano, both in the grandstands and for general admission. Normally, tickets would be few and far between. There is every chance that the grandstands, and more especially the paddock, will be a lot quieter than in previous years.
When news came in that Valentino Rossi had broken his leg riding an Enduro bike while training, the eternal discussion kicked off among fans about why MotoGP riders are allowed anywhere near an off road bike outside the track. The question is doubly relevant, as this is the second Italian race for which Valentino Rossi has managed to injure himself riding a dirt bike.
The simple answer, of course, is that people whose job it is to race motorcycles need to practice riding motorcycles to do their jobs. And riding a bike off road is a lot safer than riding a bike on the road (crashing at 70 km/h on dirt doesn't hurt as much as crashing at 200 km/h on asphalt).
Fans, however, are impervious to such arguments. So instead of journalists explaining why MotoGP riders ride dirt bikes, here are a bunch of quotes from MotoGP riders, explaining in their own words why they ride off road.
The announcement by MegaRide, an Italian vehicle dynamics start up, that they had signed a collaboration agreement with Ducati Corse to supply and develop tire simulation software set the motorcycle racing rumor mill alight. The wording of the press release, combined with a general lack of knowledge among many MotoGP fans and journalists about exactly how the spec Magneti Marelli operates, left many questions about the exact nature of the software, and how Ducati were using it.
Fans and journalists interpreted the collaboration to mean that Ducati were already using the MegaRide software to extract greater performance from the Michelin tires. The fact that Andrea Dovizioso and Jorge Lorenzo would regularly be able to use the softer compounds Michelin brought to races was seen as proof of this.
If there is one thing that makes real life much more interesting than fiction, it is that real life is no respecter of plausible plot lines. If you were to take a script of the 2017 MotoGP season so far to a movie producer or a fiction publisher, they would reject it 30 seconds into your pitch. It is all a little too implausible.
Five riders battling for the championship after 12 rounds? Never happens. A championship leader with a record low number of points? A ridiculous notion. Riders winning races one weekend, then struggling to make the top five, or even top ten the next? A horribly transparent plot device to create tension. Championship leaders conveniently crashing, struggling with tires, or suffering bike problems? A little too convenient to be credible.
How about the supposedly colorless second rider in a team suddenly blossoming into a championship contender? The most trite of clichés, like the mousy librarian who transforms into a babe once she takes her glasses off. The struggle of a rider swapping bikes to become competitive, making up and down progress, and a big step forward when handed a technological MacGuffin? So blatant it's obscene. No professional writer of fiction would stoop to such depths.