From time to time, the media gets hoist by its own petard. A story comes along which everyone picks up and runs with, pushed to ever more dizzying heights of breathless commentary; what ifs, maybes, and wild speculation. Professional sports are soap opera for men, as the great darts promoter Barry Hearn once said, and the logical corollary of that is that sports media extrapolate throwaway comments and a handful of facts into vast sweeping narratives.
Thus it was that what looked like the entire MotoGP media contingent packed into Honda's hospitality unit to hear what Dani Pedrosa had to say during his media debrief. It was both genuinely impressive and actually quite frightening. Normally, somewhere between 20 and 30 journalists and photographers attend Pedrosa's media debrief in the HRC hospitality, which is held upstairs on a unit built in the space between two trucks holding offices. A large balcony spans the space between the two trucks, with stairs ascending to a space full of chairs on the roof of one of the trucks, and a table where first Marc Márquez, and then Dani Pedrosa sit and give their account of the day to the assembled media.
Instead of 30 journalists, there was what looked like between 200 and 300 people. Honda's design is meant to be spacious and airy, but that amount of people standing on the roof of what is basically a truck trailer made it look crowded, and rather fragile. Coward that I am, I chose to stay downstairs, and listen there.
The announcement we had all come to hear was whether Pedrosa would be retiring, as was being widely predicted, or joining a different team, such as the Petronas Yamaha squad which is expected to arrive in the paddock next year. By the time Pedrosa entered the hospitality, you could cut the tension with a knife – or you would have been able to, if you could find enough space to actually move your arms sufficiently to wield a knife. We were ready.
Letting the air out
What followed was – well, nothing much. All the build up, all the tension, and Pedrosa had nothing of consequence to say. And he was genuinely sorry for letting people's expectations down, if somewhat bemused by the whole situation. "I see more people here than when I win a race!" Pedrosa joked. "Sorry I created this expectation for not much."
"I'm sorry that everybody is here because I expect that I could say something more here," Pedrosa told the thronged media. "It was my plan that I can say something here but unfortunately things still are not as clear as I would like and I can’t really say anything. All I can say today is that I have several options, that are good options, but still it's not so clear so I cannot say much more than this. I need time to think about them. I will no rush and take the wrong decision, but at the same time I would like to have it clear because it would allow me to race with more free mind and focus on the GP. But today this is the situation and I guess in the future I will know more."
Various journalists tried to lure him into revealing further details, but he remained coy. "I cannot speak about the options," he said in reply to a question about whether he would be retiring. "I cannot say more about the options at this moment," he replied when asked if his options were in MotoGP or elsewhere ("DP to SBK!" one rider joked privately.) Did this mean he intended to continue racing, Pedrosa was asked? "That's the same question the other way around!" he scolded.
Telling the story
So how did 200+ journalists end up crammed like sardines into the space occupied by a few dozen chairs, trying to focus acutely on the small, intense man sat behind a table at the other end of the roof of a truck? Swept along by the narrative. A sequence of events which had everyone leaping to conclusions which the bare facts simply did not warrant. But the narrative, the precious narrative took us there.
It started at Mugello, when Pedrosa said he hoped to be able to say more about his future at Barcelona. At the time, the Spaniard's comments were not given much thought, other than to allow for speculation about what he might end up doing. The shock announcement that Jorge Lorenzo would be replacing Dani Pedrosa at Repsol Honda left the paddock in a speculative fever. Articles on Pedrosa's future took on the same outlandish tone. If Lorenzo moved to Honda, something so outside the realm of the expected, what might Pedrosa do?
Earlier this week, Dorna poured oil on the flames by announcing that they would be streaming Pedrosa's debrief live on the MotoGP.com website. It is something they have done before, with Valentino Rossi's and Marc Márquez' debrief after their clash in Argentina, then again on the Thursday before the following race in Austin. Streaming debriefs live is therefore not uncommon, but it is something reserved for when they expect really big news.
In on the secret
The other thing to bear in mind is that the series organizer – and also main media content provider – is also the first to know of major developments. When a factory signs a new rider, they usually tell Dorna very soon afterwards, to allow Dorna to prepare themselves for the official announcement. So when Dorna decides to livestream a media debrief, it is easy to deduce that they have been told in advance that it will be worth their while.
If you were looking for omens of Pedrosa's future, you had a wealth of them to choose from. The media, especially, saw those omens and performed a special kind of mathematics, putting one and one together to come up with a number normally requiring an exponent. We went all in on Dani Pedrosa's retirement, fabricating an entire narrative from the tiniest of clues. If you wanted to know how conspiracy theories come about, it is through this exact same process.
I cannot say I was immune to it all. Though I refrained from too much speculation on Pedrosa's future, I felt there was a strong chance he would retire. As is so often the case, I was wrong.
So what was Pedrosa intending to announce this weekend? We cannot know, but the signs are that it is Pedrosa who will be taking a seat on the factory-backed Yamaha in the Petronas/Sepang International Circuit team. That project is slowly taking shape (though many, many question marks still remain), and Pedrosa probably expected to be able to announce he would be joining that team.
Though there are still many obstacles to be overcome, the Petronas/Sepang team looks like it will actually happen, I learned on Thursday. As far as I can tell, the plan is for the Sepang International Circuit to run their own MotoGP team, under the guidance of an experienced team manager. They will purchase the grid slots from the Marc VDS team, Marc van der Straten having lost interest in MotoGP, due to its high cost and lack of concrete results. The biggest problem is assembling the team, putting all the pieces in place to run what is a major undertaking. At this stage, finding a rider and leasing a bike are the easy parts, especially when money is not an object, as is the case when you have a sponsor as willing and with as deep pockets as Malaysian oil giant Petronas.
All those practicalities mean that the team and the bike weren't ready for Pedrosa to be able to make an announcement. There is the matter of the second rider: Franco Morbidelli is the favorite here, especially if the Marc VDS team decide to drop out of MotoGP. That would be something which would worry the rest of the grid. "I think for example, if he was to step on a Yamaha, we could be in trouble, it could be another Zarco kicking around," Jack Miller opined on Thursday. If Yamaha is to supply bikes, they will need to know soon, Yamaha boss Lin Jarvis having given the end of June as the latest point at which they will still have enough time to have the bikes and the support ready in time.
All that will have to wait for another day, and – presumably – another media debrief which is streamed live by MotoGP.com. I would like to say that we won't be fooled so easily next time. But I am pretty sure we will.
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