There is good news and bad news for MotoGP fans. The good news is that the 2016 season is just a few hours away from kicking off, with the Moto3 bikes the first to go out at 6pm, shortly after the sun sets in Qatar. The good news is that the season opener takes place at the Losail International Circuit, a first class facility featuring a fantastic track, with a good mixture of fast and slow curves, and a serious test of both rider and machine. The good news is that with the switch to spec electronics and the unified software, the racing is set to get closer among the factories, and put more control in the hands of the rider. The best news is that the MotoGP field has never been so strong, so deep in talent, and feature such a broad range of competitive machinery, that Moto2 looks like being much more of a contest this year than it was in previous seasons, and that Moto3 features some spectacularly talent rookies, up against fiercely competitive established riders. The racing this year is set to be outstanding in all three Grand Prix classes.
The bad news, though, is really bad. Of immediate importance to MotoGP fans is that it has rained on and off in the Gulf region for the past couple of weeks, and rained all day on Wednesday. The fact that Qatar is a night race means that if it rains at any time, the track will be immediately closed, the floodlights causing dazzling reflections from any water on the surface, making it impossible to ride. The current forecast is for it to stay dry until Tuesday, but whether such forecasts can be trusted remains to be seen.
The worst news is that the opening race of the season is in Qatar. The first race of the year will be held in front of a tiny crowd (more fans will often turn up at a European track on a Thursday, when there is no on-track action, than on race day in Qatar), at a track surrounded by desert, where sand and dust tends to blow in and cover the track, causing severe tire wear and making the track treacherous if a rider gets off line. Beside the track sits the Lusail Sports Arena, part of a massive expansion of sporting facilities which have cost the lives of over 1200 migrant workers already, and are set to cost the lives of more. You see these migrant workers packed into buses as you drive to the track, on their way to work long hours for little pay, which all too often they do not receive. They cannot leave, as under the country's Kafala system, the employers take away their passports, making travel or complaint impossible.
It is hard to imagine a less suitable place for a MotoGP race. Through an accident of geography, the country sits atop a rich seam of plankton which died 200-300 million years ago, decaying under pressure to create natural gas. That gas is a valued commodity, and the billions of dollars it generates bestows accidental wealth upon the natives of the country (some 10% of its population). Some of its natives become so wealthy they can afford to build their own racetracks, and pay Dorna enough to convince them to host the opening race of each MotoGP season. Of course, Qatar is hardly the only morally questionable place to hold a MotoGP race – corruption is endemic in Malaysia and Argentina, and depressingly common in both Italy and Spain – but nowhere are human rights abuses and the suppression of freedom so egregious as in Qatar. Without access to a VPN, 10% or more of even the most innocent Google searches are likely to run up against the country's national internet censorship policy, websites being blocked for no discernible reason. The combination of a vampire schedule and a disagreeable record on human rights is the reason I would rather stay at home.
The ban hammer?
Seen in the light of Qatar's expanding censorship legislation, the atmosphere at the first pre-event press conference to be held under the new FIM regulations curtailing freedom of expression was suitably restrained. Despite the fact that this was the first press conference in which Valentino Rossi and Marc Márquez appeared together since the fateful Thursday presser at Sepang, where the 2015 season descended into paranoia and conspiracy, there was no drama, no untoward words, no blazing rows. In an atmosphere which can only be described as Antarctic, Rossi and Márquez deflected questions about their rivalry with vague platitudes, studiously ignoring one another all the while.
Even after the cameras were switched off, the two men were remarkably restrained in their statements to their respective national media, though a little more pointed than in the press conference. Rossi once again referred to the incident between Senna and Prost, telling the Italian press that he did not appreciate the greatness of Senna until it was too late. He praised Senna's audacity in wiping Prost out in the first corner at Suzuka, while insisting that he hoped he never found himself in a situation like that, and then hinting that the danger of such a maneuver was related mainly to the speeds involved. "But I hope that everything is fine," Rossi said. "I hope that there is respect on the track. I hope that everyone races only for themselves."
Was the lack of fireworks down to being muzzled by Dorna? Though Dorna may have had a word, the bigger factor was probably their respective employers. Neither Yamaha nor Honda are keen to see any fanning of the flames of this feud. Both factories had to cancel major PR events at the end of 2015, something which given the money involved will not have gone down well in Japan.
Plus ça change
Did the new Dorna edict play a role? I asked this of people inside some of the larger teams, getting their honest response on condition of anonymity. They confirmed that the new rules are virtually identical to the terms in the participation agreements, the commercial contracts signed between the teams and IRTA, who grant teams their grid slots. "The general feeling is this is in response to press releases put out last year," one source told me. It had not had an effect on riders particularly, sources told me, but it had made the teams a little wary. "Everyone is waiting to find out what the rules mean by 'irresponsible'", a source told me. "Once Dorna tells a team they have broken the rules, we will know where the limit is."
That limit will immediately be challenged, however. "The first thing we'll do if they accuse us is point to old press releases and ask why those weren't irresponsible," said the source. They would immediately use those as counter arguments, in an attempt to get Dorna to drop the charge. It seems like a rule which is simultaneously excessively onerous, and utterly ineffective. The text of the rule (shown below) does not include any penalty, making it unclear just how Dorna intends to punish any breach.
Overall, the impression was that moving the terms of the participation agreement into the FIM rulebook was entirely unnecessary. "It's not in our interest to make wild claims against the sport," a source told me. "This is our livelihood, and our passion. We want the sport to be a success, and we want to be a success in the sport. We have nothing to gain by saying negative things about MotoGP." MotoGP may be a passion first, but it is a business second. And the business is a very important part, for everyone involved in it.
An almost comical moment came during the press conference when the riders were asked how they felt about the responsibility for decisions on dangerous riding being taken out of the hands of Race Direction and put into the hands of the FIM Stewards Panel. The news was met with surprise by nearly all of the six riders in the press conference, who quickly responded that they thought it was probably a good thing. The moment provided an insight into the mind of a MotoGP racer. They do not know the minutiae of the rules and regulations, nor do they particularly care about it. They only want to know what is allowed and what is not, and how they can use that knowledge to try to win races. It takes intense focus to compete in MotoGP. There is no room for fripperies such as this.
Tires and electronics, as ever
But enough of politics. There was talk of racing too. Jorge Lorenzo repeated that he felt that the combination of new Michelin tires and the spec software would make the bike much more physical to ride. More interestingly, he acknowledged that it might not be possible to use his old strategy of pushing hard to make a break from the start of the race. The Michelin tires take a little longer to come up to temperature, and riders who have pushed too hard on a cold tire have paid the price. (Danilo Petrucci was once such rider, now having a total of three plates and twelve screws to hold the three broken metacarpal bones in his right hand together).
Riders would have to change their strategy, Jorge Lorenzo claimed. The truth of those statements will appear in the timesheets over the next few days. If Lorenzo tries to push hard straight out of the pits on some of his runs, as he did on the Bridgestones, then we will soon find out whether that is still a viable strategy.
Scott Redding raised another issue with respect to tire life on Wednesday. MotoGP always races after Moto2, the 600 class leaving big swathes of rubber from their fat tires on the track. "Maybe with the Dunlop it's going to affect the feeling," Redding said. This was one reason he had not done a race simulation at Qatar, but had instead focused on doing lots of runs with old tires. "We didn't want to set a pace, and then in the race feel like, why can't I reach that lap time?" the Pramac Ducati rider said.
The truth is out there, on track
Of course, all there really was on Wednesday was a lot of speculation. Everyone believes the spec electronics will make the racing closer. Everyone believes the Michelins will have a big effect on who goes fast and who doesn't. Everyone believes that the championship is wide open. They can believe that, because testing is not the same as racing. The intensity, the competition, the sheer blood lust for success is all missing. Valentino Rossi expressed it best. "Tests are important, but the race weekend is different and all the riders can do a little bit better and give a little bit more." From Thursday, we find out exactly what the riders can give. There is no place to hide any longer.
188.8.131.52 Public Pronouncements by Teams and Riders
a) Teams and Riders must avoid any public declaration or press release which could damage or negatively affect the MotoGP World Championship. Accordingly, it is an obligation for all Riders, Teams and Teams’ directors and/or personnel and/or representative thereof, to refrain from releasing any public pronouncement which may irresponsibly harm the lawful interests of the MotoGP Members or which may be contrary to the integrity of MotoGP or the sport.
b) Public pronouncements which harm irresponsibly the lawful interest of MotoGP or which are contrary to the integrity of MotoGP or the sport shall include, but not be limited to:
- public statements or comments to the media that irresponsibly attack, disparage, disrepute or damage the MotoGP™ Members.
- Public comments that members and Riders of the Team know, or should reasonably know, will irresponsibly harm the reputation, image or best interests of the sport and/or any of the MotoGP Members are expressly covered by this regulation.
- It is understood that responsible expressions of legitimate disagreement with the MotoGP Members and/or MotoGP policies are not prohibited.
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