Though the night race at Qatar is spectacular, the paddock at Jerez feels like a proper paddock. There is a bustle missing from Qatar, and the return of the hospitality units means that it is an altogether more colorful place. The presence of the hospitality units also means seeing more old friends, the men and women who slave all weekend putting the units together and ensuring that everything runs smoothly within them, and that the guests who spend their time there - including, most importantly, the people who foot the bill for this whole MotoGP malarkey - pass it as pleasantly as possible. These are the people who are the backbone of MotoGP, the foundation on which it is built, and it is always a happy moment meeting them again.
The reappearance of the hospitality units also sees the reopening of another, more informal competition. Not content with just facing each other out on the track, the teams also vie for attention in the paddock as well. The rules of the contest are simple and rather childish: the team with the biggest, shiniest, most impressive hospitality unit wins. This year, the contest is already over: Avintia Racing, fielding Maverick Vinales in Moto3, Julian Simon in Moto2, and Yonny Hernandez and Ivan Silva in MotoGP, have erected a structure that can only be described as humungous (see photo below). Where most units are the size of a spacious lounge, the Avintia hospitality unit is about the size of a basketball stadium. The fact that Avintia is a construction company has doubtless influenced their design decisions, and if the racing doesn't work out, they can always turn it into an olympic sized swimming pool...
With no on-track action - other than the usual laps of the track on a scooter, taking care to avoid trucks carrying advertising hoardings and wandering journalists - the riders contented themselves with the usual round of press conferences ahead of the event. The biggest draw - naturally - was Valentino Rossi, interest even greater, if possible, due to his remarks on Italian television expressing his exasperation with the situation. Those remarks had been born of frustration, Rossi admitted, and overall, he was much more hopeful for this weekend.
"I am very happy to be here," he told the assembled media, "because this track is very important for me, I did lot of good results in the past, and I like a lot this track. But especially in the last test before the start of the season, my performance with the Desmosedici was not so bad. I did some good lap times and especially at the end, I finish in 6th position." A month later, and with enough data to make a go of it, Rossi was confident of being substantially closer to the sharp end than the dismal weekend he had at Qatar.
Asked about the rumors concerning an early exit from Ducati, Rossi was emphatic. "No," Rossi answered. "I never thought to leave Ducati, I have zero chance to ride another bike." The Italian knew what he was getting himself into from the start. "You know, when you sign a contract, you have to arrive at the end giving the maximum effort. So this is our target now."
But Rossi stood by his comments on the weakness of the bike. When asked whether the horsepower of the Ducati (or the "lion in the cowling" as Rossi had dubbed it at Qatar) could be tamed using electronics, or whether a new engine was needed, Rossi was very clear. It was the engine that needed modifying, Rossi said, adding "This is one of the most important targets to improve our performance, because I have always some difficulty in acceleration, to open the throttle. More important than managing the power is to have the right link between the throttle and what's happening in the engine," Rossi said. "Our engine is very powerful, and we have to use a lot of electronics for use this power. So I think to improve the acceleration of this bike, we need to work more on the engine, not just the electronics. Also with this we can try to use less electronics."
Would he like to try a bike with a narrower V angle engine, Rossi was asked, and though he acknowledged that many people in the paddock had suggested this, he himself did not know for sure. "Sincerely, I don't know, I don't have the answer. But to modify the angle of our engine needs a lot of time, because you have to do the engine again." But a version of the engine modified to produce less power was already under production, Rossi said. At the Estoril test, he hoped to test "the same engine but with two or three modifications for better delivery," Rossi said. Whether it would be ready on time was uncertain: "Filippo is not here, because he is working on this this week, but I don't know if it will be ready for Portugal test. Fortunately, we have some other tests later, so at this moment, we don't know, but we hope, we hope as soon as possible."
In the press conference, Nicky Hayden concurred that the biggest problem with the Ducati was the amount of power the bike had, and trying to get it on the ground. "We've struggled with traction all year," Hayden told the press conference, "we need a smoother engine."
Valentino Rossi's comments to Italian TV were not the only subject to have been carried over from Qatar to Jerez. The other big story from the season opener was of Rossi's arch rival Casey Stoner, and the arm pump that had mysteriously appeared and robbed him of the lead in Qatar. This, too, had been the subject of much speculation, with a lot of people pitching with their comments and advice. How Stoner had gone about trying to fix it, the Australian refused to say, though the sparse information we could glean from him suggested that it mainly concerned diet and stretching, but he was also adamant that this was a highly sporadic problem. Arm pump occurs occasionally, and this was only the second time in his career where it had been a problem. He ruled surgery out, as that was only a temporary fix, and meant that it would merely recur again a few months later. The scars on the forearms of Nicky Hayden bear witness to this, Hayden also having suffered with the problem.
The one thing that it wasn't caused by was the lack of long runs, Stoner said. He was quite adamant that the length of time he spent on track meant nothing, and that the way he worked - many short runs, rather than a few long ones - had no effect on the condition. "I haven't done it [only doing short runs - Ed.] my whole career, and I've never had arm pump," Stoner said. He was unconvinced of the merits of long runs: "Everybody's finding the excuse of why a long run is going to be beneficial, and I still haven't found it yet," Stoner explained, "Except when there was tire competition. Then, we were using tires that could just do race distance and we had to make sure they would finish the race." That was no longer a factor. "Now, we're on the same tires, and these tires can do stupid amounts of laps. We know the tire wear's very good, we spend a lot of time watching the tire wear. Then we have fuel consumption, if we're struggling with fuel consumption, then maybe a long run can give us a more clear idea, but at the same time, you calculate it for a certain amount of laps and you know what the fuel consumption is going to be." Not doing long runs had not hurt him in the past, Stoner pointed out. "I've been using this same technique for a long time, we've won more races than anybody else in the last 5 years or so, so it works."
Part of the problem had been that he'd been forced to use new gloves, and that as protection improved in the gloves, so they got stiffer. Breaking the gloves in was a problem: "The only way to break gloves in is by riding these bikes," Stoner said, adding that he had tried all sorts of other ways of doing. Even wearing them while he raced karts, or wearing them around the house did not stretch the gloves correctly, and could even make the situation worse. Using the gloves for anything other than racing bikes meant you were stretching the gloves in the wrong places, and that could create folds in the material, which in turn would cause blisters. So modern gloves are like Bridgestone tires? I asked Stoner. "That's a pretty good description," he replied.
While all of the attention was being focused on Rossi and Stoner, a Spaniard is leading the championship, and is coming to two of his strongest tracks of the season. I asked Jorge Lorenzo's manager Wilco Zeelenberg if Lorenzo minded that all of the media were talking about Rossi, and not about him, but Zeelenberg said that Lorenzo understood the situation. Rossi has always been at the center of the media storm, and everyone understands this. And frankly, Zeelenberg added, there was quite a tale to tell.
The weather could add a few dramatic twists to the plot this weekend, with the rain set to move in from tomorrow morning. One Italian journalist who had driven down from Lisbon - a question of return flights and hire cars - had said that he had driven all the way in the rain, until he arrived at Seville, some 100 km north of Jerez. The weather forecast has gotten worse - rain is now expected to start on Friday, and continue through Sunday, only letting up once the race is over. Though Lorenzo and Stoner were confident in the rain, the wet favors Ducati rather more. Rossi acknowledged that the Ducati was pretty good in the wet, and that a wet race was probably his best chance of a good result. The problem was that what Ducati needed was more time in the dry, to gather more data and try to find a solution to their problems. But if Rossi did end on the podium because it was wet, it is unlikely he'll do much complaining about it.