After all the hue and cry over the past month and a half - starting at Jerez with the crash between Valentino Rossi and Casey Stoner, worsening with the public spat between Jorge Lorenzo and Marco Simoncelli's about the Italian's 'dangerous' riding style, further deteriorating with Valentino Rossi accusing the latest generation of MotoGP riders of being 'pussies', finding its nadir in the crash between Simoncelli and Dani Pedrosa and its subsequent fallout, and culminating in Simoncelli's appearance in front of Race Direction at Catalunya - the pre-event day at the Barcelona round of MotoGP has been remarkably muted. It is as if everyone in the paddock has had a quiet word with the riders and told them to try and take some of the heat out of the situation. And given that Marco Simoncelli has received threats of violence at Barcelona, (though admittedly internet threats, which tend in general to result in nothing at all), that was probably a sensible decision.
After the meeting with Simoncelli, Race Direction issued a statement which was suitably authoritative. Simoncelli had appeared before them, the statement said, admitted to his crimes, and promised to mend his ways. In a press conference afterwards, Simoncelli fleshed out his statements a little. He repeated his belief that this was a race incident, but said that he realized that it was a situation which he could have avoided. His mistake, he confessed, was making the pass in that place. He was faster than Pedrosa, and could have passed at any time.
Simoncelli touched upon why he thought that the atmosphere had gotten tense in the paddock, suggesting that the fact that there are now so many fast riders put a lot more pressure on everybody, and made them all a lot more uptight. Both Nicky Hayden and Valentino Rossi added another dimension to this, explaining that the combination of the 800cc bikes and the Bridgestone tires have left ever thinner margins for overtaking. You could no longer set someone up the corner before, Hayden explained, adding that the braking zone was now so tight that there was little opportunity to get past.
Rossi concurred, putting most of the blame for the difficulties in passing on the Bridgestone tires. The time between braking and corner entry is now much less, Rossi said, leaving less time to try to make a pass. On the 500s, from the braking point to the corner entry left you 30 or 40 meters to try and make a pass, and as everyone was going more slowly, there was also more time to get past someone. Now with the 800s, the Bridgestones and the electronics, the bikes were all much closer to the limit, and the risks you had to take to make a pass were greater as well. All this meant that in the past, there were four or five corners at each circuit where you could attempt to get past someone. Now, there is only one, or if you are lucky, two.
Elsewhere, there was much talk of engines, both the larger capacity 2012 machines and of the options for taking new - and upgraded - engines from this season's allocation. Both Casey Stoner and Valentino Rossi sang the praises of the larger capacity bikes, with Stoner in particular raving about the power of the 1000cc Honda engine. It made power everywhere, Stoner said (very hoarsely, as the Australian had picked up a very serious bout of the 'flu on a flight back home), all throughout the rev range, something that the 800s never had. And for anyone worried about the dominance of Honda's 2011 bike, he produced a very ominous phrase. The 1000cc bike, he told the press conference kept all of the current bike's good points, and fixed all of its problems. If the 2011 bike is dominant, the 2012 machine promises to wipe the competition away.
The Ducati 1000 is not so far advanced, Rossi revealed, saying that the new rear end on the 2012 bike - with the bracing underneath, rather than on top of the swingarm - fixed a lot of the pumping problems they had with 2011 machine. The front end still had the same understeer problems, though Rossi put that down to the fact that the 1000cc machine is not using the newer, softer chassis that was introduced for the 800 at the Estoril test. Rossi denied that the new swingarm from the 1000 could be used on the 800, however. The two bikes were too different, he emphasized, making swapping parts between the two not something that was easily done.
The big question about this season's engines was about who was going to be using what engines where. With Catalunya the 5th round of the season, this is just about the earliest that the teams could consider swapping out one engine from the allocation for a new one. And as both Yamaha and Ducati have engines in the pipeline with uprated performance - more acceleration and power for the Yamaha, a heavier crankshaft for the Ducati - the temptation (as Rossi put it to the Italian press) was great to switch now, instead of waiting until after the 6th race of the season, which would be the ideal time to switch - with six engines for the 18-race season, pairs of engines would be used for six-race stretches.
Jorge Lorenzo has little choice but to take a new engine, one of the engines having lunched itself in the gravel trap during warmup at Le Mans. Lorenzo refused point blank to answer questions about which engine they would be using to replace the one they'd lost. I was fortunate to be sitting just in front of Lorenzo's team manager Wilco Zeelenberg and Yamaha racing boss Lin Jarvis, so I immediately turned and put the same question to them. They were less blunt than Lorenzo, but equally uninformative, with Zeelenberg willing only to drop cryptic hints about the engine already having seen track time. My own personal guess at his meaning was that Lorenzo will be running the engine that he used for the Estoril test (one that has not come out of the allocation), but as it remained entirely unclear whether this was an engine built to the same spec as the engines currently being used by the factory Yamaha team, or one of the newer spec still being developed by Yamaha to provide more acceleration and more peak horsepower, that still left me none the wiser as to what the reigning World Champion will be running at Barcelona. Such things cannot remain a secret for long, however, and we shall find out soon enough.
It will be interesting to see what reception the riders receive tomorrow, once the fans start to arrive. There was little sign of animosity towards Simoncelli or any of the other riders among the crowds attending the Motos Solidarios event (the Spanish equivalent of Riders for Health) among the crowds. That may change when the #58 bike hits the track tomorrow, but with Spaniards dominating in the 125cc class, highly competitive in the Moto2 class and reigning World Champion in the MotoGP class, the fans will have little to complain about.