We're finally racing again, and the deafening roar of the MotoGP bikes has silenced the whining that has been emanating from the paddock over the past few days, at least for the moment. Instead of sniping about who had said what about whom, there was an actual contest at Estoril. Even the weather didn't intervene, at least, not once the warmup was finished.
The race was hardly a thriller - the electronics necessitated by the combination of highly-strung 800cc engines and meager 21 liters of fuel have been fatal to racing excitement, for the most part - but it was certainly a fascinating intellectual exercise, and there was much to be learned from Portuguese Grand Prix. The trouble is, of course, that those lessons are most rewarding to the committed student of the sport, the sterile racing now rather too esoteric for the casual fan.
The best news of the day - indeed, the best news the series has had for a while, outside of the promise offered by the CRT machines due to take to the track in 2012 - was the return of Dani Pedrosa, if not exactly back to full fitness, the worrying shoulder problem now obviously fixed. The removal of the plate fixing Pedrosa's collarbone in place - a relic of his practice crash at Motegi last year - has finally solved the blood starvation problem that the Repsol Honda rider was suffering when racing a MotoGP bike. Despite being in obvious pain, Pedrosa got off the bike at the end sporting the largest grin his small stature can bear without toppling over at the weight of it.
Pedrosa's sense of relief was palpable: speaking after the official press conference, the Spaniard was animated and smiling, almost as if he couldn't believe that his suffering was at an end. The pain in Pedrosa's shoulder was just what you would expect after surgery, with muscle cramps and neck pain giving the Spaniard real grief, but that paled into insignificance compared to the knowledge that the numbness and lack of feeling in his left arm was gone. "Even though it hurt so much," Pedrosa said, "I was smiling inside my helmet. The numbness was gone, and the temperature of my hand was normal."
The recurrence of that numbness at Qatar had come as something of a shock to Pedrosa. He had thought that rest after Valencia would be sufficient to fix the problem, but once it reappeared, it meant the problem was serious. So serious that it could have ended his career, Pedrosa revealed. "This problem is alright for normal life," Pedrosa said, "but riding is impossible." The doctors had not been able to give him any guarantees that the surgery would succeed, but the fact that he could ride a full, dry MotoGP race and come away with feeling in his left arm meant that the problem had finally been both identified and corrected.
Pedrosa had ridden an almost flawless race, latching on to Jorge Lorenzo's wheel off the line, and once he realized he was strong enough and his shoulder worries were over, launching an attack which Lorenzo simply had no answer to. Once the Repsol Honda man was past, he dropped the hammer, putting 3 seconds on Lorenzo in the space of under 5 laps, taking victory in compelling fashion at a track he had never won at before. Pedrosa's return to fitness means that the Fantastic Four are nearly back to full strength, and the prospect - so often promised, so rarely delivered - of the four best riders in the world, all fairly evenly matched, slugging it out race after race took another step closer to reality.
It was hard to find anyone who did not share Pedrosa's sense of relief. Even the man Pedrosa beat at Estoril was sanguine about losing to the Repsol Honda rider. Despite winning here for the last three years in a row, Jorge Lorenzo understood that 2nd place was all he was capable of here in Estoril.
Lorenzo's problem was braking, the factory Yamaha rider finding himself having to brake for Turn 1 40 meters earlier than last year at the start of FP1. The team made up a lot of that lost ground over the course of the weekend, but the underlying problem remained. Lorenzo couldn't keep up the pace once Pedrosa got past, saying that he couldn't ride at 100% for much longer. The mental strain of being inch-perfect all race long, with a hungry Dani Pedrosa breathing down your neck, had proved too much for him in the end, and once Pedrosa made his move, Lorenzo backed off and settled for 2nd.
Pedrosa's teammate Casey Stoner made it two Repsol Hondas in the top three, but the Australian was far from delighted. A recurrence of a back problem which Stoner suffers - a relic of hitting a hay bale in a crash at Barcelona in 2003 - saw the Australian's back seize up for half a lap, dropping right off the pace of the leaders and never able to recover it. Stoner stood in the press conference room bent over like an old man, barely able to stand and drawn from the pain.
Stoner had taken one more potshot, this time at Marco Simoncelli, after the Italian nearly wiped Stoner out going into Turn 1. Stoner had returned the favor on the exit of that corner, though the Australian was at least a little contrite to have done unto Simoncelli which Simoncelli had done unto him just a few meters earlier. He remained a dangerous rider, Stoner remarked, a point that Simoncelli himself had underlined by crashing out at Turn 4 on the first lap.
All this talk of dangerous riding had claimed another victim, this time in the shape of the factory Yamaha rider Ben Spies. His crew had forgotten to remove a fuel breather pipe blocker on the grid, leaving Spies to rip that off himself. That in turn exposed another piece of hose, one which Spies was unsure of its function. Afraid that this might have something to do with his brakes, and worried that he might wipe out his fellow riders, a concern after the issue had so vocally been raised during the safety commission, Spies was riding extremely carefully, allowing other riders past and taking a completely different line, afraid he might wipe the others out. The Texan was forced to out onto parts of the track that he hadn't been on before, and it was there that he met a bump he hadn't encountered before. That bump meant he lost the front, taking himself out of the race.
If Pedrosa's relief was immediate at Estoril, Valentino Rossi's has been building for a while. Estoril confirmed what the Italian had found at Jerez, that his shoulder is now strong enough for Rossi to ride naturally, a fact that was clear to even the most casual observers. Valentino Rossi looked like Valentino Rossi again, rather than some imposter who kept sneaking into his leathers to ride the Ducati shortly before every race.
The shoulder wasn't perfect, Rossi told the media, but he was only losing about 15% of its normal strength. The problem now was that Rossi was able to compensate for the weakness in his right shoulder by using his left leg to control the bike, and this was causing the muscles in his leg to cramp and tighten up. But with improvement happening as fast as it was, Rossi estimated that he should be back to 100% at Barcelona, some 5 weeks from now.
The bigger problem now, of course, is that the Ducati still badly needs fixing. The machine lacks front end feel and is difficult to turn, though a revised electronics package helped a little by making the throttle response a little less aggressive. On Monday, Rossi and Hayden will have a new chassis to test - or rather a new front subframe, the part which passes as a chassis, consisting of a monocoque connecting the headstock to the front engine mounts. Hayden also told the media they had a new engine to test, though Valentino Rossi feigned ignorance of the new engine. The motor will have a heavier flywheel to control the revs a little and make the bike easier to turn, Hayden explained, and the combination of the two should go some way towards making the bike a little more competitive. Though Casey Stoner never tires of pointing out that it was already capable of winning races when he was on it, the insinuation being that the problem lay not in the chassis, but in the nut between the handlebars, as the old saying has it.
Testing now starts at 10am on Monday morning, or at least it will, weather permitting. Given the predictability of the weather at Estoril, we should find that out at about 9:55am on Monday.