Thursday at Valencia was one of the strangest days in MotoGP that I have known since I first started covering the sport professionally. Maybe it's just the fact that the usual schedule was disrupted. Every race weekend has a rhythm: on Thursday, it's a late start, then rider debriefs, then a press conference, then work; on Friday, Saturday and Sunday, it's an early start, watch practice, rider debriefs/press conferences and then work.
That rhythm was wildly out of sync at Valencia. Earlier start, Moto3 press conference, HRC press conference, a couple of rider debriefs. Then an unnatural lull, as the riders headed into the press conference room for their meeting with the Permanent Bureau, consisting of Dorna boss Carmelo Ezpeleta and FIM president Vito Ippolito addressed the MotoGP riders and their team managers. Ten minutes after the riders started streaming through the paddock on their way to the meeting, they were all heading back out again.
What happened in the meeting with the Permanent Bureau? The first rule of meeting with the Permanent Bureau is don't talk about meeting with the Permanent Bureau, apparently, as no one was willing to tell us about it, apart from some platitudes from Jorge Lorenzo about it being interesting to get different perspectives from people to get new ideas. Not that anyone truly believed that the riders came out with new ideas, but still.
What they must have talked about in the rider meeting was to move on from Sepang and focus on events at Valencia. Nobody, none of the riders involved, had any interest in going over the events of Sepang again, and so they did not really need to be told twice. There was a suspicion – and I stress, it was nothing more than that – that the Honda and Yamaha riders had all been told not to comment on events, and to put it behind them. That is probably smart advice, but it left the journalists (of which there were a colossal number at Valencia) feeling frustrated. There was much to ask: had anyone changed their minds, or their positions, after having time to look back at the footage again?
The answer would probably have been no, from the few hints that were dropped. When asked if he regretted anything, Valentino Rossi said that he only regretted going wide in Turn 13, and not following his normal line. Marc Márquez said he had not changed his view of the incident, standing by his words at Sepang. His only regret was not finishing the race, hardly words of conciliation. The only rider expressing any regret was Jorge Lorenzo, who apologized for the thumbs down gesture he had made on the podium at Sepang. Then again, after the booing he had been subjected to, it is hard to blame him for acting as he did.
Most of all, the day seemed like one PR disaster after another. Calling off the usual press conference was widely regarded as a mistake, at least among the media. Then again, perhaps the media are not an entirely disinterested party. The reasoning was that it would be better for the main protagonists to get it all out in the open, so they can start the weekend under no illusions, and with everyone having spoken their piece.
When you are in a hole, stop digging
Worse was to come, however. In their press release earlier this week, Honda had promised to supply journalists with data from Márquez' bike at Sepang, to prove that the cause of the crash had been a sudden spike in brake data. Naturally, they were immediately inundated with requests for the data. Taken aback at the demand, they pondered their best response, and decided to hold a press conference at Valencia to present the data.
The problem they faced is that the raw data don't mean much to the untrained eye. It takes training to understand what all the lines on the screen mean, and experience and a technical background to be able to interpret them correctly and put them in some kind of context. Of the couple of hundred permanent journalists in the paddock, only a handful would actually understand what they had in front of them. A presentation by a technical expert who could explain what was going on would be a better option.
It then occurred to HRC that to present the data on Thursday at Valencia may not give the best impression of Honda. They may end up looking as if they were trying to influence the outcome of Valentino Rossi's CAS appeal, which was scheduled to be held some time before Friday. It was too late, however: the invitations had already been sent out, and the press conference convened. In another bizarre twist, on Thursday morning we learned that the CAS would rule on Rossi's request for a stay of his penalty on Thursday, leading to mutterings that the HRC press conference should be held after the ruling came out. In a final irony, the outcome of Rossi's request for a stay was made public actually during the HRC press conference. Team principal Livio Suppo was resolute, however: HRC did not want to look as if it was getting involved. There will be another press conference, this time probably on Monday. Then, they promised, they would finally explain the data to the media.
So the press conference boiled down to an apology, probably heartfelt, for wasting journalists' time, and raising the hopes of the fans. The decision to cancel was arguably the right one, for the reasons given: by not providing the data, they were not helping to fuel the flames, making it easier for all parties concerned – especially (and ironically) the two Movistar Yamaha riders – to concentrate on the race on Sunday, and what they have to do to settle the championship.
Diamonds in the dirt
Despite the fact the press conference had been called to tell us nothing, we still learned some useful details. Livio Suppo stood by Márquez' explanation of his race at Phillip Island, and had some facts to back it up. All of the Hondas had problems with the asymmetric front tire at Phillip Island, he explained, especially with overheating the right side of the tire, which was the softest compound. That was evident from where Márquez had slowed up – all of the right-hand corners at the track – on the laps when he lost ground again.
Suppo pointed Márquez' pace in FP4 in Australia. In his first run there, Márquez did a 1'30, followed by two laps of 1'29, and then a lap of 1'33, slower to let the front tire cool again. Two more laps of 1'29 followed, and then a final lap of 1'30. Bridgestone confirmed that it was entirely plausible for Márquez to have been allowing his tire to cool. It was a strategy which had been used fairly widely, and the asymmetric front tire made it particularly applicable at Phillip Island. The Japanese tire company did not specifically confirm that this was what Márquez was doing in Australia, but they did say that this was entirely plausible, and the most logical and reasonable explanation for his lap times.
Kind of blue
If HRC did not cover themselves in glory at Valencia, Yamaha have managed to turn what should have been triumph into an utter disaster. The Movistar Yamaha team have already wrapped up the constructors' title and the team crown, and one of their two riders will be world champion after the race is finished on Sunday. They had scheduled a Yamaha All Star Event for Saturday night, where they intended to celebrate all of their champions from around the world. Because of the deep divide within the factory Yamaha team, they have had to call it off. You can't help feel that whoever wins the title on Sunday, Yamaha will have to celebrate it with conspicuous care, rather than unconfined joy.
At least they can be sure that both riders will be staying with them for 2016. Both Rossi and Lorenzo made their commitment to Yamaha plain, saying there was no question of them riding for anyone else next year, as they both have a contract for 2016. Jorge Lorenzo said that he hoped to spend the rest of his career and beyond with Yamaha, making his commitment plain. He is widely expected to join Ducati for 2017, and has often been seen consorting with Gigi Dall'Igna and Paolo Ciabatti in the past few weeks.
As for Rossi, the Italian made it clear he had lost none of his passion for racing, but would make up his mind about continuing to race in the course of the 2016 season. "During next year a lot of things will change and after that I will decide if I will continue or not," Rossi said.
Rossi seemed surprisingly upbeat after learning that his request to have his penalty suspended at Valencia had been turned down. It would make life difficult, Rossi said, explaining "It was already difficult but starting from last makes the race a lot harder." It would not prevent him from trying, however, the Italian confirming his commitment to chase the best result possible at Valencia. He had not considered the best strategy, either in the race or during qualifying, he said. Starting from last place on the grid made coming up with a successful race strategy difficult. Best just to concentrate on the weekend, work on set up, and try to work as normally as possible. That even included running a normal qualifying program, instead of looking at trying to use Q2 as an extra session of free practice. Every race weekend has a rhythm, and doing things differently can prove more disruptive than beneficial.
The CAS ruling has raised a lot of questions, and given rise to a number of suggestions for the best strategy for Rossi to follow. First of all, it means that Rossi will serve his penalty at Valencia, and start from the back of the grid. The appeal will continue, but it will not be heard until some time in 2016, and probably later rather than sooner. The CAS has the ability to either reduce or annul his penalty, but not increase it. Should Rossi's punishment be overturned, then he could find himself back on one penalty point in total. The penalty at Valencia cannot be overturned, however. He will still have served the time, rather like a defendant who has been refused bail.
What is Rossi's best strategy to overcome his penalty? There has been much talk among fans of taking an extra engine, in the hope that a fresh engine would have more horsepower than the two he is currently using, numbers four and five. There are two objections to this suggestion. The first is that as engine design is frozen for the year, any engine he uses will have exactly the same design and horsepower as any of the fresh engines he has had during 2015. The second is that taking a fresh engine would mean that he would have to start from pit lane, five seconds after the green lights are shown there, which is after the last bike on the grid has passed. In the best case scenario, Rossi would start a long way behind the leaders. In the worst case, he would have to wait for a stalled bike to get going, losing even more ground. Starting on his existing engine from the back of the grid is still his best option, though Yamaha's engineers may take a risk with the maximum revs the engine can make, to eke just a little more horsepower out of the unit. That could backfire badly if the engine blows up during the race, however.
Will riders get out of the way to let Rossi through? "My team spends millions of Euros a year to go racing. So I’ll be racing," replied Cal Crutchlow. Similar replies were given by most riders, whatever their sympathies in the affair. It was not even particularly easy to stand aside to let someone else through, as several riders pointed out. The bikes don't have mirrors, and you can't just let someone past because you think it might be Valentino Rossi. Make a mistake, and you could be giving up a position to the man you were fighting for points with.
Blue on blue?
The situation is particularly tricky for the Monster Tech 3 Yamaha riders. They face a rather difficult dilemma: do they help Yamaha by letting Valentino Rossi through? Or do they help Yamaha by holding Rossi off and allowing Lorenzo to take the championship? That decision would be easier if either rider were on a Honda, the Tech 3 riders explained, but both Rossi and Lorenzo are on Yamahas, so they could not make an easy decision.
Bradley Smith laid out the dilemma most clearly. If Lorenzo were to end up in front of him, and if he felt he were faster than Lorenzo, would the Englishman try to pass him? "Absolutely! I'm there racing for myself and for my results." But the situation was a lot more complex than just that. "These are obviously scenarios I have thought about. So basically if by lap six, lap eight, lap ten, Valentino is coming through, and you see a blue bike with a yellow stripe, you don't close the door," Smith explained. "Why? Because you don't know what speed he's got and he's obviously on the move. Because he's passed however many guys were behind you, and he's going in one direction. Then if you follow, and you can follow, great, and that's it."
But it was not just a matter of letting Rossi through, it would depend entirely when and where such a situation might occur. "The thing is, if I'm in third position, Jorge's second and I'm third, and Valentino's fighting with me on the last corner, I'm not letting him by," Smith explained. "That spot's mine, 100%, he'll have to earn it from me. But also knowing that I'm not going to get in the way of a race if it's on lap ten. This is only if it comes down to the last lap that I'll take what is mine." He would fight much harder for third than he would for fifth, of course. "It depends what bonus money is involved!" the Englishman joked.
On Friday, all of the talking stops, as the bikes take to the track at last. Then, we will finally have something to take our minds off the speculation and theorizing which has dominated the last ten days. There is nothing like actual data to occupy idle minds. Friday should be a good deal less strange than Thursday ever was.
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