October 16th, 2009
Pol Espargaro made the early running in the first session of free practice for the 125cc class. The Spaniard, winner of two of the last three races, was over a quarter of a second faster than the championship front runners. Bradley Smith was fastest of that group, just edging out Nicolas Terol and Smith's team mate and the man looking to secure the championship this weekend, Julian Simon.
British riders Danny Webb and Scott Redding ended the day further down the field, after both men crashed without injury during the session, Webb setting the 16th time, Redding the 22nd time. American Cameron Beaubier was 25th quickest.
If one thing has become clear since the switch to the new 800cc formula, it has been the importance of the crew chief. With set up being an increasingly vital part of racing in MotoGP (get it wrong and you're nowhere, as Valentino Rossi found out at Estoril), the role of chief engineer has come under increasing scrutiny.
This seems to have motivated Daniele Romagnoli's decision to leave Yamaha at the end of this season. The experienced engineer was Colin Edwards' crew chief at the factory Yamaha team until the arrival of Jorge Lorenzo, who brought with him his own preferred option of crew chief, Ramon Forcada. With Forcada's arrival, Romagnoli was promoted to team manager of Lorenzo's side of Fiat Yamaha's divided garage.
According to GPOne.com, Romagnoli has announced that he will be leaving the team at the end of the year. Romagnoli's passion lies in the engineering side of racing, and his duties as Lorenzo's team manager have taking him away from the technical side of things. As with so many brilliant people with technical skills, "promotion" to management often leaves them unfulfilled. So Romagnoli will be looking for a place as a crew chief elsewhere in the MotoGP paddock, returning to where his main interest lies.
With the announcement at Estoril that Hiroshi Aoyama is to ascend to the MotoGP class aboard a Honda RC212V in a team run by Daniel Epp, the man behind the current Caffe Latte team in the 250 class, the number of Hondas on the grid for 2010 increased from six to seven. The team is to be sponsored in part by the Swiss iced coffee company Caffe Latte, but the effort is also to be heavily supported by Honda. HRC have a long tradition of keeping a Japanese rider in the MotoGP class and were keen to find a replacement for Yuki Takahashi, who was muscled out at Team Scot and replaced by Gabor Talmacsi, the Hungarian bringing a badly-needed injection of funds to the cash-strapped team. With Hiroshi Aoyama edging ever closer to becoming Japan's first World Champion since the much-lamented Daijiro Katoh in 2001, and doing so on board an aging Honda RS250RW, the Japanese rider seems not only the logical choice, but also a highly deserving one.
The Caffe Latte RC212V will be an additional Honda on the grid, but the final line-up for the marque is still not entirely finalized. Honda expect to field seven bikes, and six of them have been settled: The factory Repsol team will see Dani Pedrosa and Andrea Dovizioso return - though Dovizioso's current crew chief Pete Benson is believed to have been ousted, and is looking for work elsewhere; The San Carlo Gresini team will field the two Marcos, Melandri aboard a factory and Simoncelli riding a satellite spec bike; Randy de Puniet will make a return at LCR Honda, riding the new pseudo-factory satellite spec RC212V; And Aoyama's Caffe Latte bike will make 6.
Newly sacked German rider Max Neukirchner has quickly found gainful employment, signing a deal that will see him partnering with Jonny Rea on a Ten Kate Honda CBR1000RR in the World Superbike series in 2010. This year, Neukirchner has battled injuries incurred at Monza and Imola and his contract with Alstare Suzuki was terminated in late September by team owner Frankie Batta, allegedly over concerns about his level of fitness. Current Ten Kate rider Carlos Checa, despite a flurry of late season activity, will not return to the Ten Kate team, who are downsizing to two riders in 2010. Checa is thought to be in line for a testing gig with the Ducati MotoGp team. Checa has a history with Ducati, having ridden for the team in MotoGP in 2005, alongside Loris Capirossi.
Amid a recent raft of rumors that Max Neukirchner has left/been fired from the Alstare Suzuki team, owner Frankie Batta has acknowledged that Neukirchner will not be riding for the team in 2010. According to GPone.com, Batta says that the team declined to exercise an option on the German in late September because he wasn't forthright about his physical condition. Specifically, Batta says that Neukirchner underwent a delicate operation on his back that the team was not informed of and when it was discovered, declined to meet with the team at Magny-Cours and undergo a physical in Belgium, where the Alstare team is located. Batta went on to say that the second seat on the team will be filled by Sylvain Guintoli, currently riding for the Worx Crescent Suzuki team in the British Superbike series. Exactly how the team came to avail itself of Guintoli's services is unclear, as the Frenchman is under contract to the Worx team for 2010.
Alstare has issued a press release confirming that Max Neukirchner's contract has not been extended and their reasons why it hasn't.
Leon Haslam, speaking to Tony Carter on the Eurosport coverage of the first race of the Oulton BSB round, has confirmed one of the worst-held secrets of the World Superbike silly season, namely that he'll moving over to the factory Alstare Suzuki team in 2010. Haslam didn't speculate on who might be his teammate, claiming that he has no knowledge of who it would be. Recent rampant speculation has placed current Alstare rider Max Neukirchner at odds with team owner Frankie Batta, with the German touted to leave the team and sign with Ten Kate Honda. The Haslam signing also suggests that long-time Suzuki favorite, Yukio "Crash" Kagayama, will not return to the Alstare team. Kagayama, who hasn't had a win since 2006, is widely tipped to return to the BSB.
British racing site Bike Sport News is reporting that soon-to-be ex-Yamaha rider Tom Sykes will partner with Chris Vermeulen at Paul Bird Kawasaki in 2010. Sykes, who currently lies 8th in the point standings, has had a creditable year but has had the misfortune of being paired with the best pure rookie in recent times, Ben Spies, and has perhaps unfairly suffered in comparison. Paul Bird, interviewed on the Eurosport coverage of the Oulton BSB round, commented that there was a good chance that Sykes would be joining the team and exactly who would be occupying the seat would be sorted by the middle of next week. Bird also commented that the team's second rider would be British, which doesn't eliminate Shane "Shakey" Byrne, who has been heavily rumored to join the team. Bird's statement does, however, confirm rumors that Australian Broc Parkes will not return to the team.
A variety of sources are reporting that Max Neukirchner will make a shocking jump to ride alongside Jonny Rea on the Ten Kate Honda team in 2010. Although the young German rider had a contract with Alstare Suzuki for 2010, it is believed that the pact was terminated as early as the first of October by the team due to fitness concerns based on injuries incurred at the mid-summer Imola test. Rumor has it that Alstare owner Frankie Batta used the fitness issue to clear the decks so that a French ex-MotoGP rider (although who that could be is kind of hazy with Sylvain Guintoli already signed to the BSB Worx team for next year) could come aboard the sinking Alstare ship bearing a bucketload of Francs to rescue the cash-strapped team.
Ten Kate had been thought to be on the verge of re-signing current rider Carlos Checa after former riders James Toseland and Chris Vermeulen inked deals with different teams. The Neukirchner/Ten Kate agreement will reportedly be sealed sometime next week.
Astare Suzuki, on a post on the team's website, has expressed surprise that Max Neukirchner, who incurred grave injuries to his back at the mid-summer Imola WSBK test, would be available for the apres-season test at Portimao, Portugal. Citing a recent physical exam at Imola, the team claims that "...doctors Costa, Corbascio and neuro-surgeon Professor Bollini all declared that they would not take responsibility for allowing Max to ride a bike again this year. "
The usually well informed Italian site GPone.com is reporting that Stiggy Honda will release rising British star Leon Haslam from whatever contractual relationship they have with the Pocket Rocket immediately after the final round at Portimao. It has been widely rumored for weeks that Haslam will sign (if he hasn't already) with Frankie Batta's Alstare Suzuki team. This release would allow Haslam to test with the team immediately following the Portugese round. Stiggy, whose financial problems have forced the team to cut their involvement in WSBK and WSS to one rider per series for the last three races of 2009 and forced a dissolution of their partnership with S2 Racing, will reportedly divulge which direction the team will take in 2010 at Portimao.
The Estoril MotoGP round saw the long-awaited announcement of the list of teams whose entries for Moto2 have been accepted. Among the expected candidates was a name which raised one or two eyebrows in the press room: The Hayate team, formerly the factory Kawasaki team, had been granted not one but two entries for the Moto2 class next season.
Despite the fact that the rationale for the Moto2 class is to make racing affordable again, the expense of running two riders in the class alongside a MotoGP entry would seem to be the Hayate team extending themselves beyond their current means. The team has gone almost entirely unsponsored, apart from the funds provided by Dorna and Kawasaki as part of the agreement to allow Kawasaki to leave the series before the end of their contract, which was due to expire at the end of 2011. The chances of Hayate procuring the necessary 5-6 million euros in sponsorship the team would require to run a MotoGP team next season, in addition to the extra million or so euros a two-rider Moto2 team would cost, seem fairly remote.
Phillip Island will kick off the year with Portimao to follow in the former Qatar slot. Magny Cours will regain the season-ending race it had from 2003-2007.
The 2009 MotoGP season has seen the advent of a remarkable period in motorcycle road racing. For the first time in perhaps twenty years, there are not one or two riders dominating the championship, but a grand total of four. On any given day, at any given racetrack, any one of Valentino Rossi, Jorge Lorenzo, Dani Pedrosa or Casey Stoner can win, sometimes by a few hundredths, sometimes by a few seconds.
What is even more remarkable is the gap these four have over the rest of the field. Check each rider's fastest lap of the race at a particular circuit and the fifth fastest man is inevitably well over half a second slower than the leaders. While the leaders finish within seconds of each other, the race for fifth usually takes place half a minute or more behind the winner.
So dominant have Stoner, Pedrosa, Lorenzo and Rossi become that they have spawned a veritable avalanche of nicknames: the Aliens, the Untouchables, the Fantastic Four, the list goes on and on. And because there are four of them operating at such a peak of performance in terms of talent, application and fitness, each must push himself to the limit not to get left behind by the other three, and come sailing back down to Earth with mere mortals such as double World Superbike Champion Colin Edwards or former 125cc World Champion Andrea Dovizioso.
Then There Were Three
The stress of having to push to the limit and beyond just to keep up was what was blamed by many, both inside and outside the paddock, when the Fantastic Four lost one of its number. After suffering stomach cramps, vomiting and extreme fatigue at Barcelona and at subsequent races, and after initial medical tests failed to yield a conclusive diagnosis, Casey Stoner returned to Australia to sit out the races at Brno, Indianapolis and Misano, and try to pinpoint an exact cause.
Motorcycle racers, journalists and fans tend to talk about the sport in terms of a physical struggle. Riders and teams are always fighting or battling for the lead, championship or what have you. To be sure, there are parallells between the sweet science and racing; fighters and racers both spend endless hours training to be in top condition and both have to ply their trade hurting as often as not. Strategy is important too, as the combatants look to defend their position or deliver a knock-out blow that will defeat their opponent. The two men that are left in the ring in the 2009 World Superbike series championship, Ben Spies and Noriyuki Haga, came into the next to last round at Magny Cours, nearly too close to call on points, each looking for the advantage that would KO their rival or serve to let them live to fight another day.
Race 1: Don't Look Back, Something Might be Gaining on You