The measure of a rider's importance is the number of journalists which turn up at their media debriefs, held every day over the course of a MotoGP weekend. There is more than one to define importance, of course. Factory riders garner more media attention than satellite riders. Riders battling for the championship draw bigger crowds than riders at the tail end of the title chase. And sometimes, an incident can create a lot more interest in a rider than they usually draw.
All of these factors came together on Thursday afternoon to draw a huge pack of journalists, photographers, and TV crews into the Movistar Yamaha hospitality unit. They came to hear, and more importantly, see Valentino Rossi speak publicly for the first time since he was hospitalized by a motocross crash a week ago today. The sport's biggest star, battling for the championship, risking serious injury while training. No wonder the place was heaving.
Rossi wandered into the hospitality through the back door as always, and walked across to stand in front of the sponsor backdrop used for TV interviews. (In the world of MotoGP media, TV is king. The TV always goes first.) He moved a little more stiffly than usual, not as supple around the waist, clearly still not fully recovered. But when he sat down to talk to us mere mortals of the written word, he was fairly optimistic.
"I'm not so bad," Rossi started, using a phrase he employs to cover a range of meanings, most of which are positive. "I feel quite good. Especially in the last few days my condition improved, fortunately, because it was a bad crash. Very painful. Especially in the stomach and all the front. I stayed one night in hospital because it was difficult to breathe, but also when I came home I had two or three days that were very painful. I was quite negative about the race."
Take to the TMAX
After those first days his condition improved, and he was able to breathe a little more easily. The next test is to see how he feel actually on a MotoGP bike, and how he reacts to that. He had already ridden a motorcycle, starting off on his Yamaha TMAX scooter, then a quick outing on a Yamaha YZF-R6. That gave him confidence to try to ride at Mugello, though the stresses were not comparable, he said.
He expected to have two main problems riding the Yamaha M1. "My movement on the seat, for change direction, which here in Mugello is quite severe," he said, "and especially when you push hard you need to breathe longer and I still have some pain. These are the parts I need to understand."
How had the accident happened? He had been riding at his favorite motocross track, at Cavallara, when he landed outside the track from a jump, hitting much softer ground than the race track. "So when I landed the bike stopped I went over the front, and took the handlebar here and also a big hit to the ground."
It's hard to train wrapped in cotton wool
You would have thought he had learned after seriously injuring a shoulder back in 2010, an injury which almost certainly cost him the MotoGP title. But despite spending more time riding flat track, an activity which involves less risk, he had never stopped riding an MX bike. "I always ride motocross, also after 2010, because I like. I enjoy a lot and I think it's the best training, physically and mentally. But I think that after this crash my motocross career is maybe over! I feel lucky because sincerely with that crash it's very easy to break something and stay at home for the two most important races of the season. So for me it is great to be here and tomorrow to try."
Should riders be stopped from riding motocross bikes, given the large investment which factories and teams make in their riders? Every rider we spoke to was adamant: riders need to train, and there is risk in every form of physical training. "Valentino, me, other riders, at home on the sofa? You don't improve. You must train, you must do some things," Marc Márquez said.
"Even when you ride with a bicycle, you can crash," he added."When you ride, there can be many things that happen. But on the sofa, sure it will be easy and good, but then you can't improve. So if something is going to happen, it will happen, but I will keep riding motocross." What that means is that teams will need to keep specialists on speed dial and have their press releases already prepared.
'70' vs '06' again
If injury and danger were one major topic of conversation at Mugello, the stiffer front tire available to all of the riders was the other. The eagerness of the small group which had agitated for its adoption was clear. "One of the main items for me is try to get back that front feeling, because it's something that I'm missing this first part of the season," Marc Márquez told us. "Many crashes that I had, I didn't understand."
Though he had been vague at the Jerez test, Márquez was much more enthusiastic about the stiffer front after trying it out at Barcelona. "Already at the Montmelo test, we tried that front tire and I started to come back with my normal riding style and the front feeling," Márquez said. "It's something that I need to get used to, because this first part of the season I was struggling there. And in Montmelo it looks like we are getting that confidence back, I don't want to say faster or slower, because in the end, the speed is there, but at minimum try to understand the front tire."
Jorge Lorenzo, by contrast, was much less happy, though he tried to dance around the question of how the stiffer front will affect him. "For me it was ... better to wait a little bit more, to see how the tire reacts in more tracks, because when you test this tire in Sepang, nobody likes it," Lorenzo said. "Now in Jerez everybody likes it, so it's a little bit weird to choose one tire just for one track."
Lorenzo was one of the riders who had proposed bringing both constructions to a few tracks, to get a better idea of whether the stiffer front really was an improvement over the original 2017 tire, known colloquially as the '06'. The problem is that such a move would have created a lot of problems for the tire allocation, if Michelin had brought two fronts using the same compound but a different construction.
Scott Redding had opposed the idea. "I was a bit concerned, because there was some talk around that we were going to have both tires from Mugello. That for me would have been a bad idea, because once you choose that tire, you could have been in a bad situation, and there's no way to come back if the other one was a big advantage." Riders are allowed 10 front tires, with a maximum of 5 per type, so they could easily have found themselves having opted for the maximum of one particular spec, which turned out to be the wrong one.
Redding was also one of the few riders who was publicly willing to speak out against the way the decision had been made to switch back to the stiffer front tire, the so-called '70'. That the decision to switch tires had been made in the Safety Commission was itself rather odd, as ace MotoGP journalist Manuel Pecino covers in this story on the Sport Rider website. It was not the correct way to handle such a change, Redding said. "I don't think it's right at all, if I'm honest."
Some animals are more equal than others
Nor was the decision as clear cut as it had been presented to the press, Redding told us. "It's a pinch full of people that wanted the tire to change, it wasn't 70% of the field," he said. "So really it's unfair in a way that there are people who have power and people that decide which way things go. And in the end you can't change it, so in the end there's no point fighting against it, you're better off joining it. But it's the same as anything. When someone has a lot of power in a certain sport, they use it to their advantage. If I was them I would, why wouldn't you?"
In Redding's view, the move to the stiffer front was a move backwards, not forwards. The less stiff '06' was the one the riders had chosen over the winter, and this was the direction which development had taken them. "We developed that tire from last year, it developed into the tire we got this year," Redding said. "A pinch full of people didn't like the way it went, or the performance wasn't as they expected with the front tire, they kicked up a bit of dust and we went back to that tire. But what a lot of them forget is that Michelin didn't just come with "OK guys, we have a new tire!" It was what we developed as a field of MotoGP riders, what we developed to it do."
"In the end, it shouldn't have even come to that decision," Redding said. "In my opinion it should have been, you guys developed that tire, we will develop for next year, but we won't go back to last year. Rules are rules. It's not going to make it more dangerous. It's one of those things. But in the end, it should just be stuck out for the year, end of story. It just costs more money in the end."
How the tire affects the MotoGP field remains to be seen. Most likely, we won't get the full picture until the end of the race, as the biggest difference is that the stiffer construction should generate less heat through movement in the carcass over the course of 23 laps, rather than just a few laps in practice. But Friday practice should at least offer a glimpse of the winners and losers from the battle of the front Michelin.
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