Since rumors that Casey Stoner had already signed a contract with Honda broke a few days after Jerez, the atmosphere in the motorcycle racing media has become positively frantic. The three-week delay between Jerez and Le Mans has certainly not helped, with a string of stories leaking out from Italy and Spain that Honda had signed Stoner, that Ducati had offered Valentino Rossi a contract, that Honda had targeted a "dream team" of Casey Stoner and Jorge Lorenzo for their 2011 line-up. Most of those stories probably bear some relation to reality, but that relationship is extraordinarily tenuous with some of them.
That fevered atmosphere spilled over into the pre-event press conferences and rider debriefs here at Le Mans. Normally, the talk is all of what new parts riders have, and what they expect of the weekend, but apart from the questions put at the official press conference by the host and TV commentator Nick Harris, the only thing that the assembled press wanted to talk about was the future of the Fantastic Four; Casey Stoner, Dani Pedrosa, Jorge Lorenzo and Valentino Rossi.
The tone was set in the debrief with Jorge Lorenzo: After touching briefly on the tests at Jerez - where the Fiat Yamaha rider practiced his starts and tried to find ways to improve the early part of his race - the questions about a possible switch to Ducati came thick and fast. Lorenzo insisted that has loyalties lie with Yamaha right now, saying "there is a good atmosphere in the team, and I feel good with Yamaha." His first option was to stay with Yamaha, he said.
Lorenzo had gotten off lightly with the English-speaking press. The last five minutes of the debrief with the Spanish and Italian press were spent in a protracted debate between the reporter for the Gazzetta dello Sport and Lorenzo, with the reporter trying to get Lorenzo to admit that he was in negotiations with Ducati. The debate went something like this:
"Have you been speaking to Ducati?"
"No, I haven't been speaking to Ducati?"
"But Marcos [Hirsch, Lorenzo's manager] spoke to Filippo Preziosi at Jerez."
"Yes, because he wanted to talk to him about his own bike." [Hirsch is reported to have purchased a Multistrada recently]
"But did Marcos talk to Ducati about you?"
"I don't know, Marcos was talking to Filippo about his bike."
"But did Marcos talk about you?"
"I don't know. I have not spoken to Ducati."
Round and round it went, without leading to much of a conclusion.
The atmosphere was to deteriorate in the official press conference, where Lorenzo, Rossi, Stoner and Pedrosa all faced the press, alongside local hero Randy de Puniet. With the press having interrogated Lorenzo earlier, the Spaniard got a pass, but the other three faced the kind of grilling normally seen at congressional hearings.
Valentino Rossi was the first to face the inquisition, deflecting questions with his usual wit. The Italian said that "the game had changed" compared to 2003, when he negotiated his switch to Yamaha. "We started to speak a lot later in the season. Now it is too early, but this is the game." When asked by a Spanish journalist - in English - "Is it a pressure for you that everybody in Italy wants to see you on Ducati?" Rossi misunderstood - or at least seemed to misunderstand. "Is it a pleasure?" he queried, then chided the Spanish journalist for not asking in Italian. Finally, he indicated he had understood the question. "It is a pleasure, but not a big pressure," he joked.
The exchanges with Casey Stoner and Dani Pedrosa were less light-hearted. Stoner had the better of the questions, joking "we're never going to avoid these questions, are we?" He tried to underline that his main focus was on winning the championship this year. But when asked about his relationship with Livio Suppo, the Australian pointed out that it was excellent, despite reports to the contrary in the media, and that it was normal that everyone is talking to everyone. Stoner was also asked if thought it was important to be the first rider to make a move, but the Australian was dismissive of that notion. "It's irrelevant, basically," the Marlboro Ducati rider said. "This is a decision which has to be thought about for the future and not rushed into."
The atmosphere was bleakest with Dani Pedrosa. Pedrosa was at pains to point out that he had been with Honda for a very long time. He denied there was any communication problem with HRC, saying "I have always had good communication with Honda. I have made many many contracts with Honda."
But Pedrosa did let slip how the forces inside HRC might be changing. "When the time comes, I will deal with them [Honda], not with someone else, or Livio Suppo. I will do a contract with Honda like I did with the past." It may just be a miscommunication, or it may be a little bit too much tealeaf gazing on the part of this commentator, but the exclusion of Suppo could point to Pedrosa feeling that the balance of power is shifting inside Honda, and not necessarily in his favor.
That was just a warm up, though. Pedrosa then faced a veritable onslaught from an Italian journalist, who claimed that Honda had questioned Pedrosa's leadership. "I don't know where you get this information from," the Spaniard told the journalist, to which the pressman replied "Honda said." "Who is Honda?" Pedrosa retorted, and a rather pointed exchange took place, generating plenty of heat, but very little light. "I don't have any problem with Honda," Pedrosa kept reiterating, pointing to his long relationship with the Japanese manufacturer.
This was just the very start of it. The questions are not going to go away, until the situation has played itself out. Casey Stoner summed it up best. "It's great once you've the contract signed," the 2007 World Champion told the press, "because nobody asks you questions about it any more."