There are races that are thrilling, and there are races that are tense. Saturday's World Superbike race at Misano was the latter. After the two Kawasakis escaped from the pack – a pack where Misano's notorious Turn 1 chicane had wreaked havoc on the grid, as usual – Tom Sykes and Jonathan Rea were never separated by more than a few tenths. You could feel that an attack was inevitable, that the status quo could not stand. Something was coming, and that made the race feel excruciatingly tense.
Attending races of series you don't normally cover is always informative and instructive. To paraphrase a famous quote, the World Superbike paddock is a foreign country, they do things differently there. While I feel I have a reasonable grasp of the workings of MotoGP, coming to WorldSBK at Misano both makes me all too conscious of how much I don't know, and lets me look at the Grand Prix paddock with fresh eyes.
World Superbikes is a much more human experience. The paddock is a friendlier, more relaxed place. The hospitality units are more modest and therefore more inviting, rather than the great gleaming monstrosities in the MotoGP paddock. That also creates more of a feeling of space: you are no longer jammed in between towering facades, but can still see the sky.
Then there's the paddock show. Free on Friday, but €20 extra on Saturday on Sunday, World Superbike fans at Misano get access to the paddock, and can watch the proceedings on screens set up in a giant tent, complete with live interviews with riders and commentary by host Michael Hill. It brings fans and riders together, and turns them into beings of flesh and blood, rather than the unapproachable and aloof status some MotoGP riders can attain. World Superbikes is very much the people's championship.
While Johann Zarco is out in Japan, testing the Suzuki GSX-RR MotoGP bike, the 2017 MotoGP rider line up is starting to solidify further. Ironically, it is looking like Johann Zarco will not be the rider Suzuki selects to pilot its factory MotoGP bike alongside Andrea Iannone.
Team boss Davide Brivio is in Japan along with the test team to finalize their plans for 2017. At Barcelona, Brivio admitted to MotoMatters.com that he would be going to discuss Suzuki's choice of rider for next year. The Italian acknowledged that both Aleix Espargaro and Alex Rins were under discussion, and though he declined to state a preference, he did say "It's clear what our choice is."
"I am not a very happy man," Tech 3 boss Hervé Poncharal told us on the Thursday before Barcelona. His problem? Attracting competitive riders to take the seats vacated by Bradley Smith and Pol Espargaro. Their destination was emblematic of Poncharal's problem: at Barcelona, Espargaro announced he would be reunited with his Tech 3 teammate in the factory KTM team in 2017 and 2018.
So Poncharal found himself with the looming likelihood of fielding two rookies in 2017. The Tech 3 boss signed Jonas Folger back in Le Mans, while Johann Zarco is the prime candidate to fill the second Tech 3 seat. (Zarco is currently in Japan testing Suzuki's GSX-RR MotoGP machine. He is expected to sign with Tech 3 once Suzuki have announced they are signing Alex Rins to partner Andrea Iannone.)
The original hope was either to keep Pol Espargaro alongside Folger, to ensure consistency of results, or welcome Alex Rins into the fold on a factory Yamaha contract. Either way, it would ensure the publicity which is vital to keeping sponsors happy. Two rookies and no factory connections is a lot less appealing to the people who help provide the €8-€9 million it costs to run the Tech 3 team.
On the day after the Barcelona MotoGP race, the entire grid bar the Aspar Ducatis were back at the track for a full day of testing. Conditions were ideal; so ideal that they perhaps a little confusing. Though it was hot and dry, the fact that only MotoGP bikes are circulating and laying down Michelin rubber meant the track felt different to race day, when the MotoGP bikes have to follow Moto2, and cope with the Dunlop rubber the fat rear tires smear on the track.
On Friday, a young man died in a freak crash at the Circuit de Catalunya, and we mourned him. On Saturday, we went through the motions, picking up the rhythm of a normal race weekend, but in a state of mild shock. On Sunday morning, we remembered Luis Salom, the whole paddock and a circuit full of fans standing in silence, united both in the memory of a bright young talent who take took from us, and in the knowledge that it can happen again. On Sunday afternoon, we raced, and reminded ourselves of why young men and women risk their lives with the frankly rather futile objective of demonstrating that they can ride in circles on a motorbike faster than anyone else.
"It was difficult to not cry when we were in the minute of silence," Maverick Viñales reflected on Sunday afternoon. "It was a really difficult race, but I think the best way to remember Luis is racing, and trying to make the best result. I know he will be always with us." Marc Márquez felt much the same. "In the end also this Sunday, I liked it was again the atmosphere of the family, the MotoGP family. Because when we were there together on the grid, when we were racing, everybody was racing for Luis. Everybody dedicated the race to Luis."
What does the MotoGP paddock do the day after a rider dies? Carry on as normal. Or nearly normal: bikes circulate, riders compete, but conversations are more hushed, the mood muted. The whole paddock is a quieter place, bar the bellowing of racing four stroke engines.
Heartless? That is putting it a little strongly. It is in part a coping mechanism, immersing yourself in your work to avoid dwelling on tragedy, and thinking too much about danger. But it is also a response to the request of Luis Salom's family and team. When Dorna boss Carmelo Ezpeleta asked them what they wanted to do, they said they wanted the race to go ahead.
Their wishes would be respected, but it was not the first choice of everyone in the paddock. Danilo Petrucci told the Italian press he would have preferred to have packed up and gone home, and he was not alone. "Yesterday I was crying together with my brother because [Luis Salom] was really young," Aleix Espargaro told us. "This is a disaster. With Pol we were thinking that the best thing was to not race because actually now I feel empty inside." We all felt empty inside, and still do.
If there is an axis around which every MotoGP season revolves, it has to be the sparkling jewels in the crown at Mugello and Barcelona. From the glory of the Tuscan circuit, all high speed and rolling hills set just an hour down the road from the heart of Italian sports motorcycles, the circuits heads to the magnificent track at Montmeló, just outside Barcelona. A stone's throw away from the cradle of Spanish motorcycling, and with a third or so of the grid (and the paddock regulars) having been born within an hour's drive, Barcelona is MotoGP's true home race.
Like Mugello, it is a track worthy of MotoGP, where the big bikes can properly stretch their legs. A massive front straight, exhaust noise booming between the great wall of a grandstand, with a tricky right-left chicane at the end of it. Lots of long fast corners, allowing differing lines and offering up chances to try to pass. A couple of hard braking sections with more opportunities to pass.
After the chicane at Turn 1 and 2, the next favorite passing spot is into Turn 5, a tight left hander. If you're feeling cheeky, you can have a sniff at Turn 7, though that can leave you open at Turn 9. Turn 10 is prime passing territory, a fast approach with a long downhill braking section, before you flick it left round a long, wide corner. Care is needed, though, as it is easy to lose the front on the greasy off-camber corner, or run wide when passing. That allows the rider you just passed to come back underneath. If the pass does not stick there, all is not quite lost, but it will require every gram of skill and bravery you can muster. Passes are possible at the final corner, as Valentino Rossi so stunningly demonstrated in 2009, but they are far from easy.
In any other year, the approaching weekend at Barcelona would see speculation around MotoGP's Silly Season nearing its peak, with a spate of contracts signed in the weeks which follow. But this is not any other year. Going into the 2016 Gran Premi de Catalunya at the Montmeló circuit, eight of the twelve factory seats open for next season have already been filled, while a ninth is just a matter of days away. Of the remaining three, only the seat at Aprilia is truly up for grabs, the open seats at Suzuki and KTM already having riders penciled in. It is truly a bizarre year.
So where are we so far? The seats at the factory Ducati and Yamaha teams are all taken, with Andrea Dovizioso partnering Jorge Lorenzo at Ducati while Maverick Viñales joins Valentino Rossi at Movistar Yamaha. Repsol Honda is as good as complete: Dani Pedrosa has already signed on for two more years, while Marc Márquez acknowledged at the press launch for the Barcelona MotoGP race that he would "definitely continue with this bike." He will sign a contract with Honda again, but he wants it to be a "perfect" contract.
Suzuki, KTM and Aprilia all have one rider signed already. Sam Lowes' seat at Aprilia was settled already two years' ago, when he signed for Gresini to race in Moto2 in 2016, and MotoGP for 2017 and 2018. Bradley Smith was the next to slot into place, signing on for the first seat at KTM ahead of the first race of this year. And Andrea Iannone took over at ECSTAR Suzuki after Viñales announced he was leaving, and Ducati announced they were keeping Dovizioso.
Donington Park has become the personal playground of 2013 WorldSBK champion Tom Sykes. Sykes has now claimed an incredible eight wins in a row at his home circuit, and after Sunday's races he explained how much it meant and also what it means going forward. Marcel Duinker offers his insight into whether Sykes has an advantage at Donington Park due to his riding style.
For the majority of last year PJ Jacobsen was the sole American riding in the WorldSBK paddock but last weekend the numbers swelled to three with Cameron Beaubier joining series rookie Nicky Hayden on the Superbike starting grid. The MotoAmerica champion aquitted himself well and we will assess what it means for the domestic championship.