Four weeks between races this early in the season is clearly far too long. Since arriving at Estoril, the various members of the paddock have been behaving like sailors on shore leave, getting drunk, chasing women and picking fights with everyone in their vicinity. Well, the getting drunk and chasing women part I made up, but the mood in the paddock is deeply pugnacious, as witnessed by the verbal scraps breaking out everywhere.
On Friday, we had round one of Valentino Rossi in the red corner vs Casey Stoner in the blue corner, with Jorge Lorenzo throwing in some trash talking of Marco Simoncelli as he prepared to face off with the San Carlo Gresini Honda rider. Saturday saw Rossi vs Stoner briefly revisited, while Lorenzo and Simoncelli erupted into a full-scale verbal conflict during the post-qualifying press conference.
First, Lorenzo vs Simoncelli: there's a transcript of the argument over on the MotoGP.com website, as well as a video (pay-per-view), and there is an elegant and entertaining summary by Eurosport commentator Julian Ryder over on Superbikeplanet. But the argument boils down to the following: Lorenzo complained that Simoncelli was too aggressive, citing Simoncelli's moves in Valencia last year as an example. Simoncelli accepts that some may feel his riding style is aggressive, but that's just the way he's learned to ride. However, he rejects Lorenzo's example - the race at Valencia last year - saying that it was he who had left the meeting with Lorenzo's tire marks all down his leathers. Simoncelli then went on to point out that it was Jorge Lorenzo who had been excluded by Race Direction, after taking out Alex de Angelis at Motegi. Lorenzo expressed his contrition at that incident, then took a stand to say that these were not mini-bikes, but large, fast, MotoGP machines, and that the riders were taking their lives in their own hands. Risking your own skin was acceptable, Lorenzo pontificated, but taking risks which could potentially leave other riders injured was not.
So who was right? Frankly, both of them were. Jorge Lorenzo is not the only rider to regard Simoncelli as aggressive. Lorenzo mentioned Andrea Dovizioso, who has complained about Simoncelli in the past, but both Ben Spies and Casey Stoner agreed that Simoncelli was too aggressive in his passing. Spies tempered his assessment with some admiration, though: "He [Simoncelli] is a bit over the top, but I respect the guy because he's not afraid," Spies said. "But some of those passes were made without thinking about the consequences," Spies added. Even Simoncelli's friend in the paddock Valentino Rossi concurred that the San Carlo Gresini man was an aggressive rider. "But watching two riders who are aggressive is very entertaining!" Rossi added.
But Simoncelli was right to say that Valencia was a poor example to pick on. The examples in 250 were legion, but Simoncelli's race in Sepang last year, where he physically barged Hiroshi Aoyama aside with no regard for whether the Japanese rider would make it through the corner or not was a typical example of Simoncelli's tendency to use other riders as a berm, bouncing off the inside of them to make sure he will make the corner. So why Lorenzo picked Valencia is a bit of a mystery, given that Lorenzo bore at least some of the blame for that pass.
The Rossi vs Stoner battle saw a slight reprise, and it was Casey Stoner's turn to react to what Valentino Rossi had said on Friday - the timing of the press debriefs means that Stoner speaks before Rossi, so Rossi is presented with statements by Stoner on the same afternoon, while Stoner has to wait until the next day to respond to what Rossi had to say. Asked if he had read what Valentino Rossi had had to say about him, Stoner was short. "No," the implication being that he had no interest in reading Rossi's remarks either.
When confronted with Rossi's statements to the Italian press that Stoner seemed obsessed with the Italian, Stoner merely said that he answers the questions which he is asked. He had little interesting in talking about Rossi, preferring to do his talking on the track, Stoner said, but he understood why Rossi kept bringing the matter up. "I'm one of his biggest rivals," Stoner said, "so he has to try his mind games on me."
The Moto2 class was no different. Tempers have been flaring behind the scenes, with Suter catching much of the flak. In an interview with a Spanish journalist yesterday, Kenan Sofuoglu was highly vocal in his criticism of the Swiss chassis manufacturer, claiming many broken promises. Critics may point to Sofuoglu's lack of results and see the root of his criticism there, but there are other teams who are voicing the same concerns, though rather more privately.
It wasn't just the riders who were getting tetchy with each other, even the journalists were keen to display their outrage. A guest of the Repsol Honda team sat in on Casey Stoner's media debrief, even having the temerity to ask an (admittedly, rather bland) question. Once the debrief was over, the media veterans were aghast at how a mere paddock guest had been allowed into the debrief, to mingle with motorcycling journalism's elite, complaining that the Honda hospitality had not been swept for interlopers from the real world. Their sense of self-importance duly bolstered, the press left the hospitality muttering darkly about the people who pay their wages.
Almost as an afterthought, there were also bikes on track. Jorge Lorenzo took pole, continuing his role as the invisible world champion, the rider who goes barely unnoticed until you look at the timesheets or the championship standings. He finished ahead of Marco Simoncelli, who looked to be on course to take pole back again, until he crashed out while on a hot lap. That is an all too familiar refrain, and at the core of Simoncelli's problem at the moment: Jorge Lorenzo didn't become world champion until he learned to pace himself and the risks he took; that is not a stage that Simoncelli looks like reaching in the foreseeable future.
Dani Pedrosa sits on 3rd on the grid, while Casey Stoner has been struggling to get the Honda turned and managed only 4th. Ben Spies found some improvement to end up 5th on the grid, while Valentino Rossi saw yesterday's improvement disappear again, the Italian stuck down in 9th. Rossi is starting to face the same kind of problems encountered by Casey Stoner and Nicky Hayden last year, where setup changes in a particular direction would succeed only very erratically. A small change might bring a big improvement, or it may bring none, while a huge change may make no difference. The Ducati's front end remains a problem, but Rossi was optimistic the new chassis to be tested on Monday would be a first step in the right direction to solving the issue permanently.
At least there will be a race tomorrow. We can only hope that the release of adrenaline produced by an actual race will go some way to relieving the tension in the paddock, and give everyone something real to talk about for a while. With the weather forecast still very uncertain, we could instead see yet more incidents to fill the pages of the papers over the next two weeks before Le Mans.