In the heart of Spain, all talk is naturally of Spanish riders, and the man who has been at the center of a veritable media - and medical - whirlwind is Dani Pedrosa. Since the numbness and weakness in his arm reappeared at the race in Qatar, a result of the broken collarbone he suffered at Motegi last year, the Spaniard has undergone a series of tests and examinations to try and get to the root cause of the problem. And as a result, has faced enormous media scrutiny about the issue as well.
The Repsol Honda team has tried to ease the media pressure on Pedrosa by issuing press releases every couple of days with updates on his condition, but the problem has been that those press release have contained conflicting information. That in itself is because the cause of Pedrosa's medical complaint has been so very difficult to pin down.
The mixed messages coming out of the Repsol camp has actually ended up being counter-productive, and Pedrosa has faced even more questioning than usual over the problem. In the end, the normally polite and well-mannered Pedrosa snapped when asked by one veteran reporter in the pre-event press conference to clarify the cause of his problems. "Did you read the press release?" he barked at the reporter, then back-tracked and added he was so tired of the whole issue. "It's already been one-and-a-half weeks for me about this issue," he said, looking utterly fed up, "I am tired of it. I just want to talk about the Grand Prix."
To be fair to Pedrosa, he had faced a grilling from various reporters during the press conference, including a rather leading question about whether he would be changing his doctor. Pedrosa would not be drawn on this, and given that Pedrosa was operated on by Dr Xavier Mir, one of the top sports surgeons in Spain and probably the world, that seems extremely unlikely.
Though the questioning was rather harsh, there is still a question mark over the haste with which Pedrosa's broken collarbone was plated last year. Pedrosa was flown back to Spain within hours of the injury happening, and was wheeled straight off the plane and into the operating theater to have a plate fitted. There was a lot of pressure on Pedrosa to make an early return, which may have distracted focus from Pedrosa's long-term well being.
That, though, is just speculation. What we do know (now, at least) is that Pedrosa's problem is due to his subclavian artery (which feeds blood to his left arm) being compressed sometimes by the plate fitted to his collarbone, causing a lack of blood flow to his arm, with numbness, weakness and pain as a result. Removing the plate should relieve the pressure on his artery (called subclavian because it sits below the clavicle, or collarbone) and allow normal blood flow again. Pedrosa's condition is known as Thoracic Outlet Syndrome, and the literature available on the problem makes for grim reading. Pedrosa should be fast for the first half of the race, but how he holds up for the full 45 minutes is a different matter altogether.
As for the other favorites - all of whom were also at the press conference - the mood was resigned unless they happened to be Australian. Valentino Rossi reiterated that he has two problems: a painful shoulder and a Ducati Desmosedici that doesn't want to turn, and that he has not been able to test and work on solutions because of his shoulder injury. The work they did manage to do leaves them with some avenues to pursue, but what is really needed is major changes to the Desmosedici.
Those changes are to arrive at Estoril, leaving the Bologna factory working flat out to get things ready on time. At the test in Portugal, Rossi and teammate Nicky Hayden will be testing a new softer chassis, and according to Matt Birt of Motorcycle News, a revised engine configuration featuring a heavier crankshaft, and potentially either revised firing order or perhaps - reading between the lines of Jerry Burgess' quotes in MCN - a reversal of the engine running direction, a trick which worked rather well on the Yamaha.
Jorge Lorenzo, one of the main favorites for the race, may have to wait even longer for new parts to test. It will be "the fifth or sixth race" before Lorenzo receives any updates, he told the press conference, a situation that does not make the reigning world champion particularly happy. That is in part constrained by the engine rules, as Lin Jarvis told me today that they will have two engine revisions, arriving when each set of old engines is shelved. With six engines allowed for each rider for the entire season, that basically means that new, slightly tweaked, engines arrive at six race intervals.
The Cheshire Cat in the room was Casey Stoner, the Repsol Honda rider looking relaxed and happy to be at a track where he hasn't won since 1997, also on a Honda, but in a 125cc Spanish CEV championship race. Hopes were high, he said, as with the Honda, he had much more confidence with the front, as well as much more traction from the rear.
Speaking to reporters after the press conference, he added some interesting details to the statements he made earlier. Riding the Honda, he said, was less stressful, both physically and mentally, as it did not need to be ridden at 100% to keep the tires working. "Basically, when I was at the front with the Ducati then I had to keep pushing it," Stoner said. "If I didn't keep pushing it then the tires would go cold and the bike wouldn't work right."
This was very different on the Honda, Stoner said. Speaking of his race at Qatar, Stoner told reporters that "on this bike, as soon as I had that lead, there was no reason to push it any more." Maintaining a reasonable pace without pushing at the limit wasn't necessary, Stoner explained. "A 1'55.0 [at Qatar] isn't an easy lap time to get to, and there's no point doing that if we're pulling a gap lap-by-lap." On the Honda, there was no need, he added. "We knew there was no risk in doing 1'55.8, 1'56.0, so we went there and we were still pulling an advantage." That was nice, Stoner added, being able to back off on the Honda a lot more than he ever did on the Ducati.
Naturally, Stoner was also asked questions about Ducati, and as diplomatically as he could, he pointed out the Ducati's failings. The biggest problem boiled down to being able to produce reliably identical chassis was what emerged from Stoner's words. " Last year we had one bike feeling completely different to the other, one had maybe a little bit more grip, but more movement," he explained. "There was always slight differences between the two and we could never get consistency between them," he added, saying that this was the reason he favored one bike over the other in his time at Ducati. On the Honda, he could ride either bike, and they would both respond exactly the same, allowing him to try different setups and understand how they worked.
Stoner was also perfectly clear about what he thought of Ducati deciding to make such major changes to the Desmosedici at the prompting of Valentino Rossi and his veteran pit crew led by Jerry Burgess. Asked if he thought it was necessary to make major changes to a bike that he had won three of the last six races of 2010 on, Stoner said "If they improve, then yeah, it's necessary."
He was at pains to emphasize that that was something that Ducati had never been willing to do for him. "They never had the budget, but obviously with the extra pressure they're going to do it," Stoner said, referring to the pressure put on Ducati by having the seven-time MotoGP champion Valentino Rossi riding the bike. This had been pivotal in his decision to leave, he said. "This is the exact reason why I left," he told reporters. "If we didn't get a great bike at the start of the season, we couldn't do anything with it all year. The fact that they are changing things through the season really proves to me what we meant to them, and obviously not enough. So that's why we changed."
Ducati may have the handicap of being the smallest factory involved in MotoGP (a title Suzuki might dispute), but the one advantage they do have is that they have not been affected by the Japanese earthquake. To see how the various Japanese manufacturers were doing, I decided to do the rounds of Yamaha, Honda and Suzuki. As it turned out, hunting down HRC boss Shuhei Nakamoto proved unnecessary, as Honda organized a press conference to talk about the situation for the Japanese company, but more of that later.
Rizla Suzuki boss Paul Denning said that the situation for Suzuki was fine, as the factory in Hamamatsu was located in the part of Japan that was completely unaffected by the earthquake. It was almost surreal, Denning said, as around Suzuki's factory, there was no damage, no food shortages and no fuel rationing. The situation was normal, hard to believe for a country so badly hit by the earthquake and ensuing tsunami.
At Yamaha, the situation was slightly more worrying. Yamaha boss Lin Jarvis told me that the factory had no problems with their 2011 bike, as a lot of the preparatory work had been started back in October of last year. The parts were all ready to go, and work on this year's bike was not suffering any ill effects.
The story for the 2012 1000cc bike was a different story altogether, however. "Next year's bike is still at the prototype stage," Jarvis said, "and everything has to be made from scratch." Development had suffered a setback, and the planned introduction at Mugello was far from certain. Jarvis refused to be drawn on whether Yamaha would be able to test the 1000cc bike at Mugello or not, saying only that it was "too early to tell." The biggest problem, Jarvis added, was not the racing department, but Yamaha's street bikes, with production of their road bikes hampered by damage to their facilities and to the companies who supply them.
By far the most entertaining press conference of the day came from HRC boss Shuhei Nakamoto. His performance was reminiscent of a character from a French novel written by Honore de Balzac called Eugenie Grandet. In that story, Eugenie's father, Felix is a shrewd and miserly businessman, whose business wealth had been amassed through the ploy of pretending to have a stutter. By stuttering at key parts of the negotiation, Felix Grandet had discovered, he could get the other side to complete his sentences, revealing their hands before he had revealed his own.
That was what was going through my mind during the HRC press conference, when Nakamoto-san - who understands English very well and speaks it more than well enough to operate in a business environment - put on a fine display of Japanese incomprehension coupled with stammering language difficulties, handily obscuring his point. The assembled journalists left the press conference bemused and befuddled, and having learned surprising little of Honda's situation.
What Nakamoto told us - we think, at least - is that HRC does not anticipate any problems with parts, as they have found alternative suppliers to help them where some of the companies supplying them have been damaged. The 2011 bikes should be fine for the rest of the season, but like Yamaha, the 1000cc machine for 2012 had suffered some delay. The bike was ready, but the planned circuit test had had to be canceled.
Veteran American journalist Dennis Noyes threw up an interesting idea afterwards. Noyes had had a conversation on the plane from the US with someone in the Yamaha camp, and they had pointed out to him that the one part that Honda may be short of is their gearbox. The gearbox itself is reportedly a high-maintenance affair, with gearboxes being stripped and checked every day (something which is allowed under the engine rules, as only the engine parts are sealed and restricted). If HRC is suffering a shortage of gearbox parts, the first place that could surface is at Estoril. I - probably along with a whole host of other journalists - will be at trackside in Portugal with my trusty Olympus recorder in my hand, trying to catch Honda gearchanges, and measuring whether they are suddenly slower or not. You'll be the first to know if I find anything.