Two topics dominated Thursday's round of talk, rider debriefs and press conferences - well, three actually, but the Marquez/Espargaro clash at Barcelona was really just rehashing old ground - and they were contracts and tires, probably in that order of importance. With Casey Stoner retired and Jorge Lorenzo having renewed his contract with Yamaha for two more years, attention is turning to the other players in the field, and so every rider speaking to the press was given a grilling as to their plans for next year.
That interrogation revealed only a very little. In the press conference, Jorge Lorenzo admitted he had been made an offer by Honda, and had only decided to sign for Yamaha once Lin Jarvis upped his original offer in response to Honda's. Lorenzo would not be drawn on the size of the sums involved - a clumsy and badly phrased question in the press conference asked by me was easily evaded by the Spaniard - but logic dictates that it would be more than the reported 8 million a year his previous contract was worth. But money was not the main driver behind the signing, Lorenzo said. "I listened to my heart, and my heart said Yamaha." As Lorenzo's team manager Wilco Zeelenberg said at Barcelona, and repeated again at Silverstone, Lorenzo wants to win championships, and Yamaha gave him the best shot at doing that.
As an aside, Lorenzo also joked that he had stayed with Yamaha to leave Casey Stoner seat open for him, in case the Australian changed his mind. Though Stoner laughed along with the joke, when asked if he had had any second thoughts about his decision, he was adamant that he was not coming back. "My resolve [to retire] is stronger, 100%," Stoner said. "Every time we're here for a race meeting, and you hear everything that's going on, see everything that's going on, it makes me that much more sure that I made the right decision."
The offer to Jorge Lorenzo from Honda came as something of a surprise to current Repsol Honda man Dani Pedrosa. Speaking to MotoMatters.com, Pedrosa was coy about his options, saying only that he expected to stay with Honda, but speaking to the Spanish press, he admitted that he had not yet had any contact with Honda, despite HRC Marketing Director Livio Suppo telling the Italian press last week that Honda's priority was to extend their contract with Pedrosa. With no word from Honda, Pedrosa had spoken to Yamaha, he said, adding that those were the only two factories with any realistic choices for any rider with aspirations of the championship. "Everyone has to look at where their best options lie," Pedrosa said. Asked about Marc Marquez, Pedrosa was dismissive, telling the press that he had never really worried about who his teammate was.
If anything, Valentino Rossi was even more coy on his future, and even more careful about the way he phrased his answers. The Italian would say only that nothing had changed for him with Lorenzo's signing, and that it made no difference to his priorities. The main thing, Rossi said, was to concentrate on improving the performance of the Ducati, and he was not looking beyond that point. When pressed about when he might start to think about his options, the Italian would say only that the updates coming at Laguna Seca would be important, but that he did not expect to make a decision until some point during the summer break, and that the earliest an announcement would come would be at Brno - the place, we should remember, where Ducati CEO Gabriele del Torchio officially announced the signing of Rossi back in 2010.
It is hard to get a sense of what Rossi's plans genuinely are, though that does nothing to douse the speculation that is running like wildfire through the MotoGP paddock. Rossi's stated aim - stated over and over again, every weekend - is to make the Ducati competitive, but there must come a point where the Italian stops believing that such a thing is possible. The stream of updates trickling through on a regular basis at least demonstrate that Ducati is doing everything they can to solve the problem, leaving no doubt about their intentions, though still plenty of doubt about their ability to fix it. The question is, at what point does Rossi give up on any hope of making the Ducati competitive, and start to look elsewhere? The Laguna Seca round, especially the radically updated engine expected there, will be crucial to Rossi's decision-making process. If the bike makes a big leap forward, Rossi may stay. If it doesn't, despite the updates, then there is little reason for him to hang around.
When not talking about contracts, and who has or has not been talking to who, the riders spent plenty of time talking about tires, and especially about the rain and its effects. The Honda riders continue to be upset about the switch to the new '33' spec front tire, which induces massive chatter in the front of their bike. Speak to anyone involved in racing at Yamaha, however, and they reply that chatter is not a problem for them at all, whilst at the same time doing their best not to look too smug.
But fixing chatter will be low down on the list of priorities, as chatter is not normally an issue in the wet. That does not mean it won't have an effect, though. When I asked Casey Stoner about the state of his rear tire at Le Mans, the Australian admitted candidly that it was a consequence of spending all of their testing time trying to fix the chatter. The Honda's engine braking system was what was wrecking the Honda's tire, Stoner said, the rear locking up on corner entry causing the tire to overheat. "It's a development that we just haven't had yet," Stoner explained, "We've been concentrating too much on trying to get rid of chatter, so other things we need have been put on the back burner, until we fix the chatter."
While chatter is not a problem for the Ducatis, Valentino Rossi was concerned about the rain, as he was still learning his way around Silverstone. Built outside an airfield, on a hilltop plateau meant that the track was flat and featured many blind corners, precisely because of the flatness of the track. What's more, the track was very wide, making it difficult to judge exactly the right line through several sections. More time was needed just to learn the fastest line around the track, Rossi said, having lost a year to the rest of the field after skipping the 2010 race due to injury.
Wet or dry, though, the Yamahas look like the bike to beat at Silverstone. If Casey Stoner is serious about defending his 2011 title, he will need to outscore Jorge Lorenzo this weekend. But a happy Lorenzo and a bike that handles well without sacrificing too much performance is a tough bike to beat. Much work remains for Honda.