As expected, Casey Stoner's return to the MotoGP paddock at Estoril generated a genuine media storm. Wisely, the Marlboro Ducati team chose to put on a special press conference in the team hospitality unit, to field questions from the press and provide an explanation of the current situation.
Press debriefs in the Marlboro hospitality unit usually involve a couple of handfuls of journalists and the odd stray photographer, but not so on a hot and humid Thursday afternoon. Almost everyone with a press pass and twenty or so TV crews packed into the shiny red unit, as Livio Suppo, Casey Stoner and Filippo Preziosi faced the media.
Team boss Suppo opened the session, welcoming the prodigal Stoner back to the Ducati fold. "Today is a very good day for us. Casey's back." Suppo said. He then went on to express his support, saying "We understood the situation and we totally support Casey."
Suppo then turned to his rider, and Casey Stoner - looking fairly healthy and much more relaxed than he did at Donington in July - proceeded to explain what had happened, and why he had chosen to miss three full rounds of MotoGP. Stoner made it clear from the outset that it had not been easy: "For me it was a very difficult decision to make," Stoner told the media. "Basically we went back to Australia after Donington just to get an understanding of what's going on, to see some more doctors and hopefully go in the right direction. We were planning to come back after Brno, but unfortunately we didn't find any solutions in the short time available. And we had many recommendations from my doctors, and my wife, my father said enough, you've got to have a time out. So the decision was made just to spend three races away. There was never going to be more races away than those three, and already for me, missing those three was a really tough decision. It was a decision that I wasn't forced into but was highly recommended to take by everyone."
Stoner went on to say he had spent all his time consulting his doctors. "During this period we did everything we could, from seeing the right doctors to doing the right things, being on the right diet, to try and increase the levels which the blood tests were showing was a little bit low. So we will just have to see over this weekend how I perform, and how things compare with the last tests."
Stoner emphasized that the team had been fully behind him. "Everyone's been doing the best job that they can, including myself," he said, and added that he had been apologizing to his team since the race at Barcelona for not being able to be competitive. Stoner then went on to apologize formally to his team. "My first apology is to my team, to everyone. Hopefully we can come back this weekend in a positive frame of mind and be competitive again. I've been away too long from the bike, and I really miss it."
Stoner also revealed that he had found it immensely difficult to miss the races, so much so that he couldn't bear to watch them on TV. "I didn't want to watch the races, I just wanted to find out the results, it was too hard to watch" he said. "Even now, it feels like I've missed out on so much."
Stoner spoke of some of the avenues the doctors explored in trying to get to the bottom of his problems. "We went off lactose, we went off gluten for two or three weeks, to try and get a reaction from that. Unfortunately, medical things take some time to understand them. You need to get things out of your system before you can get other things in your system to see if it works. We've found recently that I've had quite low blood pressure and low sodium levels so we're trying to increase that to see if that helps. We might have found something with lactose, a lactose intolerance to some degree, so I've gone off lactose to see if that helps." Previous tests for lactose intolerance had been inconclusive, due to Stoner coming down with the flu directly after switching back to eating foods containing lactose, making a proper diagnosis impossible.
Stoner dismissed rumors that a bad diet may have contributed to his illness. "We haven't changed my diet because I already had a good diet before, but we're trying to change it to put things in my diet that will put something in my system to help me pick myself up again."
When asked how he had spent his time away, Stoner said that it had been a mixture of rest and light exercise. "For the first month there was complete rest, there was no physical exercise at all," Stoner told the media. "After that we started training lightly on the bike again, I was out there with my trainer, and we did a good week or so training. Basically just light stuff, just to keep the muscles working, because after so long off the bike, the muscles are going to be sore and tired. After the exercise, we still found the same problems, I was still running into that wall, and we couldn't fix it."
"We had a lot of doctors on the case, they can see the problem. We had heart tests as well, because they thought my heart might not have been working properly and I could have had a heart failure, and they can see that in my fitness level just drops off after a certain degree. My heart rate won't go above a certain level, even when I'm pushing it. So we're looking to see if there's something which isn't being absorbed enough in my diet."
The good news was that Stoner was starting to sense some improvement. "I myself feel better, day to day even, and really we'll just have to wait to get out on the bike to see if it has improved. I think even with this track, we should be at a better level than at the earlier races."
Stoner mocked rumors of his retirement, saying that he had laughed at how quickly they had appeared. "I heard on day 3 of Brno that I was retiring," he said. "It's pretty immature of people to spread these rumors." His intention, he kept repeating, was only ever to take 3 races off. "I am looking forward to my future, especially if we can sort this out," Stoner replied to questions about his motivation to continue. "I'm looking forward to this weekend, because it's been too hard to be away from racing. It only takes you a couple of weeks away from racing to realize that this is what you really want to do and what you want to get back to doing."
Stoner also dismissed rumors of problems between himself and Ducati. Stoner told the assembled media that it had been his decision to handle the situation as they did, and concentrate on getting better in Australia without assistance from Ducati. "It's difficult for people over here to understand that being away from the sport meant I had to be away from the sport. I had to sort this out on my own. If I'm not here racing, what reason would there be for me to be in contact with the media and everyone here?"
Nor had he been upset by Ducati's approach to Jorge Lorenzo. "It's understandable," Stoner said. "It was no problem for me. There was an opportunity there, I'm sure a lot of riders were speaking to a lot of teams; it was that part of the season." But Stoner was clear on where he wanted to stay: "Ducati know I'm happy here, and they know I'm happy with the work they've been doing."
He also explained that part of the lack of communication was down to the remoteness of Stoner's house in Australia. "Mobile phones don't work where I live," he said. "So I was out of contact with everyone until the doctors appointments."
When asked whether his problems could have been caused by stress, Stoner replied that he did not believe this was the case. Any stress he may suffer, he said, was solely down to the pressure he puts on himself, one factor which the doctors did identify. "They said over-training, things like this. Maybe pushing myself too hard," Stoner conceded. "My biggest critic is myself. All the pressure comes from me, I don't feel pressure from elsewhere. If I'm not getting results, the biggest problem I have is myself. I'm disappointed in myself. This is what confuses some people; when I'm interviewed after the races, even when I win, when I don't look so happy it's not that I'm not happy, it's that I'm disappointed that I made a mistake or I don't believe I rode the best race I could. This is the only criticism that I could have. It's definitely not a problem of pressure."