We are creatures of habit in the paddock. After having had our biorhythms put out of whack by a wild and weird Thursday, having bikes on the track on Friday brought us all back into line, and restored a sense of normality to MotoGP. This was a race weekend once again, and the arguments and backbiting have been put aside for a moment.
Though the return of racing motorcycles going fast around a circuit brought some joy back to the paddock, the day was also tinged with sadness. Two events punctuated the day, celebrating two mighty monuments of the paddock, who depart for pastures new. At lunchtime, Nicky Hayden was inducted as a MotoGP Legend, with a ceremony and a brief press conference. In the evening, Bridgestone held an official soiree to take their leave of the paddock, as they ended their role of official tire supplier.
A Farewell to Arms
Hayden was given a warm reception, a full press conference room calling in to pay their respects to a rider who has gone through a tough couple of years. He went over all of the old ground and answered questions he has faced a million times with the same dignity he has shown throughout his time in MotoGP. Best moment? The championship in 2006, of course, when he captured the dream he had been chasing since he was old enough to know what he wanted to do with his life, become a world champion. The two wins at Laguna Seca, and victory at Assen, when Colin Edwards threw the race away in the final chicane.
Asked about the low point in his career, Hayden was his usual gracious self, saying that was something he would prefer not to dwell on. It typifies the man, always trying to look past the negative and see the positive, choosing not to speak ill of others or lay the blame of his own misfortune at the door of others. But there was one moment that he kept turning over in his mind, he said, and that was the one corner which stands between himself and the Grand Slam, victory in all disciplines of dirt track, as well as an AMA roadracing championship. "I came close to winning a Mile at Del Mar, where Scott Parker beat me," Hayden mused. "I passed him going into three, but that's the one race that still keeps me up. If I think about if I could have one last lap over again, I know exactly what I would do."
Hayden had praise for the teammates he had shared a garage with: for Casey Stoner, who had the most raw speed he had ever seen. For Valentino Rossi, who was both talented and determined, and an example most of all for his comeback to competitiveness after tough times at Ducati. Chasing a championship at 36 years of age was truly remarkable, Hayden commented.
Nicky Hayden will be truly missed in MotoGP. He was a true gentleman of the sport, always well-spoken, always polite, as honest as discretion would allow. Though he would never give journalist the dirt that we all too often seem to crave, he would always leave you with a quip, or a quote, or a witticism. Though you rarely came away with a great scoop after talking to Hayden, you never felt like you were leaving empty handed. Hayden was a great representative for his country, but above all for his family.
Does Hayden deserve to be granted MotoGP Legend status? If he was to be judged on his win tally alone, he would not make it. But he is a MotoGP champion, and he has left a lasting impression on the sport. He was the last bastion of American racing in Grand Prix, and now that standard bearer is gone. He deserves to be remembered, whether you regard him as a legend or not.
After a bitter-sweet press conference at lunchtime, there was another fond farewell in the evening. Bridgestone invited the media to a brief presentation combined with an award ceremony for their photography challenge, won by the estimable Bonnie Lane. Warm words were once again spoken, a long line of paddock big hitters singing the praises of the Japanese tires. From entry into the class in 2002, to their first win with Makoto Tamada in 2004, to their successful partnership with Ducati, the Italian factory choosing to drop Michelins in favor of the Japanese tires. That was a gamble which paid off, not just for Loris Capirossi and the men who rode with him, such as Sete Gibernau and Troy Bayliss, but especially for Casey Stoner, who dominated the 2007 season as a young man. That precipitated the eventual mass desertion to Bridgestone, and then the instigation of the single tire rule.
In the afternoon, the riders had sung the praises of the Bridgestones. "The front tire is fantastic, you can bring the bike to the limit in every corner for all the race," Rossi told reporters. His words were echoed everywhere we went, and again in the evening by Loris Capirossi, and the bosses of Yamaha, Honda and Ducati.
Rise to dominance
Bridgestone's achievement is remarkable as sole tire supplier. They had effectively won the tire wars when new rules were introduced in 2007, limiting the number of tires for each rider, and demanding that all of the tires had to be present in the paddock by Thursday. That effectively neutered Michelin's advantage, which had been to bring a lot of tires to the track, and then manufacture special tires on Friday night to suit the conditions and temperature expected on Sunday. That worked when Michelin could bring drive their tires overnight from the Michelin factory in Clermont Ferrand in France to the European rounds, though it was less successful at the overseas rounds.
Bridgestone's manufacturing facility was in Japan, meaning they could not tailor tires to a specific situation. Instead, they concentrated on tires which worked in a much wider temperature operating window, and when Michelin could no longer manufacture special tires, Bridgestone started to dominate. Valentino Rossi defected to the tires in 2008, the rest of the paddock signaling their intention for the 2009 season. With MotoGP threatening to become a de facto spec tire class, Dorna and the FIM seized the opportunity to turn it into a de jure spec tire, earning money for the series through the sponsorship deal, and ensuring that everyone had access to precisely the same tires.
Bridgestone faced a few hiccups in 2009 and 2010, when so many riders ended up badly injured due to cold tire highsides. But a change to the tires to improve warm up performance made a huge difference, drastically cutting the number of crashes while maintaining outright lap times. The riders continue to complain about the spec tires, but their complaints no longer center around safety. The current generation of Bridgestone tires offer superlative performance, incredible durability, and very fast warm up. Riders regularly put 40 laps or more on the tires, and race records are being set in the last few laps of the race. They leave massive shoes to fill.
As outstanding as those Bridgestone tires are, there were still a fair few complaints about them on Friday. Temperatures were higher than expected, meaning that for some of the bikes, the allocation of front tires, especially, were right on the upper edge of the performance envelope. "It looks like here after four, five laps, not only the rear tire, but also the front tire is overheating. Because I think nobody expected this temperature here at Valencia and looks like the front tire is on the soft side," Marc Márquez said. Did that mean we could expect another Phillip Island style race, came the semi-serious question? Márquez laughed off the question, before offering a more serious answer. "In the end it looks like here I need to try to manage again the tires," he said. He had problems with the extra soft tire, as he had at Phillip Island, but also with the soft front, a tire he hadn't used in Australia. That was a tire which had given him problems throughout the Le Mans race, Márquez having to save crashes all through the race.
It wasn't only Márquez who had a problem with the tires. Cal Crutchlow had the same complaint. "The tires here are no good," he said. The right-hand side of the asymmetric tire was too soft, as was the harder of the two symmetric options. Crutchlow said he would ask in the Safety Commission for the medium tire – one step harder than the two symmetric front tires available – to be made available. That is not something which Bridgestone would consider: the medium tire would be good for braking, and for the many left-hand corners, but it would inevitably lead to a spate of crashes in Turn 4, the first right hander after a couple of kilometers of lefts. The right side of the tire would cool down, and riders would inevitably ask too much of the tire and thrown them off, Bridgestone feared.
In reality, it was only the Hondas which were suffering with tire choice, and only because air and ground temperatures were unexpectedly warm. The Yamahas had no problem at all, most of them using either the asymmetric front or the soft, though Pol Espargaro gave his preference to the extra soft tire. How good the front tires were showed up in the timesheets, Jorge Lorenzo leading after the first day.
Lorenzo was fast from the off, with a strong rhythm and good pace, but he did not have it all his own way. The two Repsol Hondas were quick too, with the pace of Marc Márquez being masked on the timesheet by the fact that he did not put a new tire in at the end of FP2. He had alternated between the medium and the hard tire, with no real preference between the two, and had been fast on both tires. Dani Pedrosa was also not happy, struggling with both front and rear grip. Despite that, Pedrosa ended the day in second spot, a quarter of a second off the pace of Lorenzo.
The good news for Valentino Rossi was that he came out and was immediately fast from the beginning of practice. He had a good feeling with the bike, and the changes they had made had helped improve the bike, Rossi's pace broadly similar to the leaders. At the moment, Rossi is a fraction slower than Lorenzo, Márquez and Pedrosa, but given his usual form, he should be fast enough on Sunday. He will have his work cut out in the race, starting from the back of the grid, but Valencia is a track where anything can happen. "It is a treacherous little track," Wilco Zeelenberg mused. "It's easy to make a mistake." That explained the many topsy-turvy results throughout the years, he said, but with stable weather expected and the new surface laid last year, the track should be a little less unpredictable.
With Rossi due to serve his grid penalty at Valencia, and start from the back of the grid, there was much speculation around what Rossi's strategy might be for qualifying. The penalty is due to be served on the grid, rather than on qualifying, so Rossi's position will be recorded as the one earned by his performance in Q2. But on the grid, Rossi must go to the back of the grid, the rest of the field moving up one place to fill the gap left by Rossi. They would contest Q2 as normal, Rossi told reporters. He and his team had considered an alternative strategy, but they believed the most important thing was to treat this weekend like an ordinary MotoGP race. Any deviation from the norm would only distract Rossi from what is already a very high-tension event.
The 64,000 dollar question
The tension is still palpable everywhere, not least among those involved at a high level in the sport. Rumors of sponsors jumping ship over the aftermath of Sepang are running rife, fed by real facts on the ground. Italian watchmaker Sector is to drop sponsorship of Jorge Lorenzo, ostensibly over his actions at Sepang. Movistar is said to be deeply irritated, after having been forced to cancel the special celebration planned after the race with the two riders involved, Jorge Lorenzo and Valentino Rossi.
Then there is the realm of more unsubstantiated gossip. It is known that Repsol are having to take a big hit for their investment in Canadian tar sands projects, which looked very profitable at over $100 a barrel, but is running a dramatic loss now that oil prices have slipped well under $50 a barrel. Repsol are having to lay off their staff in large quantities, and questions are being asked of whether the Spanish oil giant gets sufficient return on its sponsorship investment. A week ago, I laughed the rumors of Repsol pulling out of Honda sponsorship as untrustworthy. This week, I am taking them much more seriously, as the Spanish oil giant is also looking at withdrawing from the FIM CEV championship. Another big sponsor is rumored to be getting cold feet, and looking to get out of the relationship they had with the Repsol Honda squad.
Have the events of Sepang driven money out of the sport? That would be stretching a point, but only a little. For sponsors who were mulling over the relationship with the various factories, and looking for an excuse to get out, Sepang provided the perfect cover story. There may be more of those than we think.
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