Friday, 23 November 2012

Goodbye 2012, Hello 2013! Testing Times Ahead...

Soon comes around doesn't it? The 2012 season has drawn to a close, all the bikes are off to Shows around the world, riders are all on holiday or rallying or whatever they choose to do and Alex Briggs has hung his pass on the back of the door with the other 19 he's collected... THAT'S when I know it's all over...It was a season that, in places, lacked excitement and few meaningful on-track battles at the front, with Brno and Silverstone the notable exceptions in a difficult season.

Things at Valencia for the final GP could've been so different in the MotoGP class and really they should have been but for two episodes of misfortune, Jorge at Assen and Dani at Misano which in turn would maybe have lead to a different podium at Phillip Island at the penultimate round, where win or bust for Pedrosa was the order of the day.

It was Lorenzos early season form that helped him secure the title, every season is a marathon not a sprint but in 2012 it was Yamaha who got the head start in to that marathon while HRC were still tying their laces. Yamaha were hurting from losing their crown to Casey Stoner at the end of 2011 and came out swinging, Honda had made errors with the new bike that both riders were critical of, although I guess one of the riders was just moaning for no reason... However the Yamaha looked to be on rails and the  metronomic rhythm and blistering pace of Lorenzo was no match for his biggest rivals and the season looked to be a foregone conclusion as far in to the championship as Silverstone.

But Honda fixed the RCV213V a little and the tide turned...

Dani Pedrosa found some self-belief, a consistent but somewhat lack-lustre start to the season saw the diddy Spaniard consistently finish top four and remain fully fit. His first victory of the season at the German GP at Sachsenring saw the beginning of a sequence that, had Honda produced THAT bike for Qatar would have seen a whole different light shed on the 2012 season.

Sachsenring was almost the beginning of the end of Casey Stoners title charge, a fighting second at Silverstone followed by a win at Assen showed he had the desire to defend his crown, even though at that point he was all for retirement from the sport, a distant eighth at Mugello made many ask questions of Caseys commitment before a dominant win at Laguna (the race noted for its ONE pass) saw a brief upturn in fortune but then came Indianapolis qualifying, and we all know what happened there...

Caseys injury at Indy saw a fire lit under Pedrosa, after spending the whole of 2011 in the dark shadow of his imperious team-mate, he looked a different rider. While Stoner struggled round the Brickyard (struggled as in finished fourth, 30 secs ahead of Valentino Rossi) with an injury that curtailed his season, Dani, in true Spanish style, took the bull by the horns (you see what I did there? Always thinking...) and embarked on a remarkable string of results which Lorenzo had no answer to, regardless of how hard he tried. You could sense the tension in the Yamaha camp as Dani was on a run of form that matched Lorenzo's early season stats, at Phillip Island though the story was to end prematurely.

I know that every season can be looked at in hindsight with ifs, buts and maybes but really, IF after qualifying on pole for the San Marino GP at Misano, the chain of events that followed hadn't happened therefore making Dani over-ride too early at Phillip Island and IF Jorge hadn't have been skittled by Bautista at Assen or dropped it at Valencia...well  the championship would have looked the same...

Jorge was going to win at Assen, of that I have no doubt. Dani was going to win at Misano, again of that I have no doubt - such is the season we've just had - so taking that in to account, with the Phillip Island result staying as per qualifying leaving Dani in third, which was also more than likely and Jorge staying on to finish second at Valencia, then Dani Pedrosa still would not have been 2012 World Champion. Jorge would have still taken the crown 390 to 369. Even though both riders shared an outstanding run of results, it was Pedrosa's early season form over the first six races with three 3rds and a 4th that ultimately cost him the title compared to Lorenzo's staggering 1st/2nd consistency throughout the year.

But, back to reality, as it was Dani had to ride hard, fast and early at Phillip Island to stand any chance of clawing the defecit back on Jorge, and in Stoners back yard it was, ironically, the tallest of orders for the shortest of riders... On that day nobody, and I mean N.O.B.O.D.Y, was going to beat Stoner on his final appearance in front of his adoring crowd and it was the simplest mistake that handed Jorge Lorenzo his second world crown. A crown won the hard way, from the front and without the 'ah, but' stigma of injury to his closest contenders.

Dani was back to dominant form at Valencia where interference from Mother Nature saw the most exciting race of the season unfold. Starting from Pit Lane after a last minute tyre change saw Dani chase down race leader Lorenzo and win from the very back of the pack. Sadly an uncharacteristic lapse of concentration saw Jorge end the season in the gravel, and with it the chance of taking the record for most podium appearances in a season, after a mis-guided attempt to pass James Ellison, who rode a fantastic last race to finish a deserved ninth. Shock of the day was a CRT machine leading for two laps, a mix of youthful exuberance and nationalistic pride helping Aleix Espagaro to his short burst in the limelight before normal service was resumed.

Maybe Dani felt a little karma at this point after his Phillip Island off, over-excitement putting paid to a points haul there and the same for Lorenzo at Valencia. Either way it didn't prevent him from hammering home his seventh win of the season and taking the 'prize' of Most Wins in 2012. He'll carry that forward in to 2013, whereas Jorge showed us that he still has, albeit deep-rooted, that impetuousness that flared so often in the junior classes with his haste to get around James Ellison but his consistency is nothing short of phenomenal, and if Dani starts '13 the way he ended '12, then it's going to be an amazing season.

Testing for 2013 was held in difficult conditions over the Tuesday and Wednesday  following the  GP with Valentino Rossi's long-awaited return to Yamaha the focal point of most peoples attention. The keener eyes of the paddock were waiting for the young pretender to take his place at the top table. Enter Marc Marquez....erm...but not until the Thursday and, sadly by that point, Yamaha had de-camped to Aragon.

This is the point where my limited vocabulary runs out of superlatives, his performance in testing was nothing short of spectacular. Whereas rookies before him had had two full days and a 100+ laps to get within 2 seconds of the fastest time of the test Marquez required half a day, 28 laps in total, to get to within 1 second of Dani Pedrosa's best time. I said it last time, this kid is special, very special. He may well visit the Clinica Mobile on a regular basis as he searches for the limit on a 1000cc Prototype, just as Jorge did in his maiden season on the 800. But believe me, he's going to win races next season. Dani, Jorge, Marc, Cal, Stefan all fighting it out to be on that podium...oh and Valentino too. Bring on Sepang!

David Emmett at sums the testing and rookie debut up far better than I right here and if you haven't already, then read it - it's an education in to the future of MotoGP and that future IS Marc Marquez.

Final word, as I said earlier, goes to @guyhanderson 'What if...'

Casey Stoner retiring at the age of 27 is nothing if not remarkable.  And he neatly steps away from the circus as a two-time world champion to enjoy fishing and his marriage and daughter as well as some V8 car racing it seems.  It must take a lot of determination to get to the top and even more to walk away from it all when riding the crest of the biggest wave in bike racing.  Its almost been universally accepted in the racing circus that Stoner has done what a lot wish they could do; that is separate the mind-blowing act of racing from reality.  Its not that important to Stoner; it might be to armchair experts and 99% of the other riders, but to him?  “Pfft…!” as he might say.

But what if he hadn’t?  What if he had stayed at Honda next year? He was possibly the number 1 in the team as the reigning World Champion at the time of joining and recognised by all as being the fastest on the RCV213, although Pedrosa’s transformation into a tougher, faster rider this year has been not much short of brilliant.

Stoner staying would have caused HRC a mighty headache.  Remember the 3 man team last year with Stoner, Pedrosa and Dovizioso?  As rich as Honda are they only wanted a 2-man team, and only ran a three man team because Dovizioso (foolishly?) exercised his rights in his contract that said if he was third the season before he would be retained.  But Stoner left Ducati and Honda wanted him. 

So to 2012 and there was one thing that was 100% cast-iron certain; Honda wanted to keep Marquez in the family.  Marquez is Spanish, but don’t read too much into that – they’d have wanted him if he had been British and that fast!  Repsol have no problem with Marquez, after all he’s already riding a bike sponsored by them; a perfect marketing tool for Repsol and the other sponsors.  There was no way Honda were going to let him go to Yamaha.  Can you imagine Lorenzo and Marquez in a team together?  What a prospect; the current World Champion and almost certainly a future WC.  Now Rossi is good and alongside Lorenzo, Yamaha have a great team, but Lorenzo and Marquez? Phew.  Anyway dream on; its not happened - yet. You almost get the feeling Honda paid Yamaha to take Rossi, so they couldn’t have Marquez.  Don’t ya?

So if Stoner hadn’t have announced his retirement; Stoner, Pedrosa and Marquez in one team?  I think not.  Marquez to LCR to replace Bradl who is rookie of the season would have been a tough call.  So I guess Marquez to Gresini might have been the only way, but those guys are the only team to run Showa suspenders still.  The rest of Honda went to Ohlïns (after Yamaha sold them) because basically they make better suspenders.  And as you can tell everybody wants Ohlins.  I guess there could have been some technical and political manoeuvring to give Marquez a full-on full-fat factory bike at Gresini, and he may have brought some headline sponsors with him, but at the same time I doubt Repsol would have been happy.  Or Pedrosa out of Honda and off to Yamaha with Alberto Puig?  Blimey – now there’s a salivating thought!  Puig is pretty much a Honda man, and I doubt he’d hold the same sway at Yamaha as he does at Honda.  Alternatively, Pedrosa to Ducati, but Dani is much shrewder than that – he’s seen the metaphorical car crash that has been happening at Ducati for the past 2 years.  Personally I would have liked to have seen Pedrosa at Yamaha, but you have to admire his loyalty staying at Honda ever since he stepped up to the main class, despite all the speculation. 

At the end of the day, as much as Casey Stoner retiring might be a big disappointment to 99.9% of race fans, it sure as hell helped sort out the remaining riders’ team places.

Takes a special kind of talent to get 'pfft...!' in to a piece doesn't it...

Thanks for reading.


Tuesday, 13 November 2012

Goodbye Casey Stoner...and Thank You

The 2012 MotoGP season came to a close this weekend and with it came the end of Repsol Hondas Casey Stoner. The very much maligned and misunderstood Aussie has hung up his Alpinestars for the very last time (NB: 'very last time' is subject to change), heading to his ranch to steer cattle, ride horses, go hunting and more than likely practice making more babies with his beautiful wife and do you know something? I'm so jealous...sorry, I mean I'm going to miss him.

I've not always been a fan of Stoners, my admiration has always been there just because he races motorcycles, but the full appreciation of his style and sheer speed is only, in the grand scheme of things, relatively recent. In his days as a Ducati rider I may have been guilty of having a soft spot for Valentino Rossi which, on occasion, clouded my judgement of Casey. The tide of change began at the Valencia post-season test in 2010 and, to be honest, the comments made in that Summer by Rossi and Jerry Burgess about him not trying and 'we can fix that bike in 80 seconds' probably let me see the nine time champion in a different light. The comments were unnecessary and disrespectful, regardless of who the rider was it was aimed at. Didn't it come back to bite them on the arse tho...

As I've said before, Casey Stoner has THE most exciting riding style I've ever witnessed, what he did on that Honda defied belief, he made a motorcycle make shapes it wasn't designed to do and made his achievements on the Ducati look all the more impressive. Although the racing in 2011 wasn't the most exciting, Stoner was imperious and it got to the point that I was just enjoying watching him race, it was that special. If it wasn't for Rossi's ambition out-weighing his talent at Jerez then he would undoubtedly have gone a full season appearing on the Podium in every race. I lost a little more respect for Valentino Rossi that day, apologising to Casey in front of the watching world but without removing his helmet, maybe afraid the fans would see through his insincerity...

Yes he moans. So do you. So do I. But we don't get jumped on every time we express an opinion, if something's not right he says it's not right. Why flower it up? It is what it is. The thing that strikes me most though is the irony of the patch on his leathers and his pit board as he crossed the line...'Gone Fishing'. As I tweeted earlier in the week, that is something Casey has done throughout his MotoGP career, and every time he's 'gone fishing' he's got a bite and with the growth of social media he gets thousands of bites every time he drops bait. And I love that.

So, thank you Casey. Thank you for leaving me, at times, lost for words with your style and speed. Thank you for helping the likes of Lorenzo, Pedrosa, Crutchlow etc raise their game. You will be missed.

As with the last installment of Straw Bales, @guyhanderson as again kindly penned a piece that is worthy of a read. I'll leave the last words to Guy...

“This website won't be updated during the 2011 Campaign.” *

There is more than one Casey it seems.  One is a father and husband who likes nothing better than fishing and the outback.  The other is, in the eyes of some, an arrogant whining Aussie who rides faster than anyone else. 

MotoGP fans don’t get to see nice Mr Stoner except maybe at Philip Island when TV shows him with his family.  Some MotoGP fans only chose to see the arrogant part of Stoner.  But those of us who divest the emotion of favouritism get to see a blindingly fast exponent of bike racing.  A guy who has made the unrideable Ducati Desmosedici win when no one else could.  Stoner won the last six MGP races at Philip Island – 4 on a Ducati. 

Until this year Stoner’s biggest competitor was Valentino Rossi. Comparing one aspect of Stoner to one aspect of Rossi is telling: Rossi has had at sometimes in his career absolute adoration of a bike he has ridden.  Rossi looked lovingly at the Yamaha M1 of 2008, and has spoken with affection of other bikes he’s ridden.  Ever heard any such nonsense from Stoner?  Me neither.  It’s as if he hates the bike and he’s in a 45 minute fight with it hanging on for his life.  I’ve heard less contempt of Jimmy Saville than the way Stoner looks at his bike when he gets off at the end of a practice or qualifying session.  Consequently Stoner has a reputation.  A reputation that has been borne of beating Rossi.  And beating Rossi is tantamount to being the insurrection in the eyes of the fan-bois.  None of this is Stoner’s fault, but the negative press he receives may weigh (wears?) heavily on him.  And this ends up being a self fulfilling prophesy; that is, Stoner is negative/whining/ungrateful/disrespectful/whatever whereas he says his job is to ride a bike faster than anyone else and win races.  Which is what he does.  So what’s your problem? 

To some viewers beating Rossi is unthinkable, but to a rider it is probably the pinnacle of their career, although he would probably never admit that.  Admitting that beating a rider is above winning a World Championship is flawed.  It shows a flaw in your character of being a rider.  And 95% of winning is psychological, so you don’t do it.  You don’t admit anyone is better than you.  Least of to yourself.  Until you win the championship and are being gracious in victory (but never in defeat).

So Stoner carries these projections around with him; from being booed at Donington by fuckwits who are comparable to Jimmy Saville to being “difficult with the press’ and to this day I’m unsure if it bothers him or not. 

Well not anymore.  Valencia 2012 was the last time you will see Casey Stoner on a motorbike in a race.  Or so he says.  I hope he changes his mind, but at the same time I suspect he won’t.  He has that dogmatic determination of a winner that comes across as arrogant, but is the only way they know. 

You can look back and read the cold statistics that say Stoner won 2 championships 4 years apart in 2007 and 2011. Neatly they were on different machines; Ducati and Honda.  2007 was Stoner’s second year in MGP and his first on the new 800 Ducati Desmosedici.  And from then on he risked the ire of many; from Rossi’s fans for not showing enough respect through to journalists who don’t understand his quite ways, of his dislike for everything to do with racing that isn’t riding.  And this has probably been the biggest negative side of Stoner; his unease at being involved in anything other than racing. 

Stoner doesn’t do PR bullshit; he doesn’t enjoy corporate crap or pandering to sponsors.  This is Stoner’s flaw.  Or one of his flaws.  He is also unspeakably hard on himself and his team.  In fact someone from his team this weekend took him to one side and told him that there is only so much a bike can be made to do – there are indeed limits, though to Stoner they are obstacles he wants to overcome. 

But Stoner is tired of racing.  Contrast that to his earlier years – in one weekend he won 32 out of 35 races he rode in.

There is another Casey too.  Casey Jones, steamin and a rollin.  *winky smiley face ;-) 

* Want an illustration of what Stoner thinks of all the media stuff he has to do?  This quote is from - it hasn’t been touched for over a year.

As always, thanks for reading.

Tuesday, 23 October 2012

Marco Simoncelli Remembered

Today, 23rd October 2012, marks the first anniversary of the passing of the Italian motorcycle racing superstar, Marco Simoncelli. His death was without question the singular most upsetting event in recent race history and any race fan will be able to tell you exactly where they were when news broke that he'd lost his fight for life and their immediate feelings thereafter.
I was at a swimming gala in East Yorkshire with my daughter, it was her landmark first competitive race away from our home pool and I was following events on twitter. The story unfolded before me, text messages started arriving from as far afield as Australia asking if I was watching the tragic news developing.
I was sat on my own at that swim meet, as we didn't know many people in the swimming club at that point, and I went through the whole range of emotions as I sat there looking across at Emily having a great time with her team-mates blissfully unaware that 'Marco Lemonjelly', as she called him, had lost his life. It was hard to hide the sadness from one so happy, and in such a proud moment, as she took to the block for her race.
Loss of life is accepted by spectators and competitors alike as part of racing, it's always happened and will continue to do so - it's the nature of our sport - however, it is becoming increasing less and less common. Freak accidents still happen though and there is nothing that can be done to prevent them. Shoya Tomizawa and the brilliant Craig Jones to name but two where a second of time either way would've possibly seen a different outcome. I still wonder today what Jonesy would've done on a Moto2 bike, it was absolutely built for him.
I've read lots of tributes and remembrances about Marco today but this observant and openly honest piece from @GuyHAnderson on twitter sums up the whole picture of Marco better than I ever could and I whole-heartedly agree with every word...
Simoncelli’s death was possibly one of the most significant deaths in premier bike racing for years.  Others have died and although their death had an awful impact, none has lingered longer that the impact of Simoncelli’s. 
 But talking about his death is no substitute to talking about his life.
 Simoncelli wasn’t the best rider in MotoGP; that would be Stoner. He wasn’t the most polished PR-guy in the paddock either; that would be Rossi.  But he was a sum that was greater than his individual parts.  He was a lightening fast rider, a fantastic personality, and a young man having the time of his life.  He was a euphoric whirlwind that appeared to catch hold of everyone who met him, and just about every bike race fan who saw him.  Undoubtedly he was too much of a good-time nightmare to have been in F1, and MotoGP seemed to be perfect for him; he was an Italian where both F1 and MotoGP vie with football to be the sport of passion.  Only Spain has arguably a greater passion for racing on two wheels. 
 The thing is, he was good on a bike.  He may have been influenced by his fellow countryman Rossi in trying obscure and downright weird lines through corners and often this got him into trouble with the more orthodox lines the rest of the riders took, but his lines would work.  For him.  Sometimes.  And that was a major fascination in watching him, and why it used to be wonderful to watch Rossi too.  They both tried ‘another way’ to get around the strip of tarmac faster than anyone else. 
 I never met Simoncelli so for me to comment on his personality is unfair to everyone.  But those who met him just once gave to him a little bit of their heart that he has carried with him to his grave; a small part of everyone who met him died when he died as the piece of heart he stole from them died too.  Those who met him often or worked with him seemed to be swamped by his good nature, his perfect manners and no doubt his unstoppable joie de vie.  How they and his family feel must be indescribable. 
He wasn’t the best rider on a bike and his “remove brain before putting helmet on” style didn’t endear him to everyone; his antics in an effort to win the last ever 250cc World Championship that went to Aoyama were best described as mis-guided and at worst dangerous.  Also the incident with Dani Pedrosa in 2011 at Le Mans was one of the most controversial moments in past years.  For Simoncelli the incident was put behind him within hours; for others though the incident lingered and festered in the same way as the Rossi/Gibernau at Jerez in 2005.
 Simoncelli’s legacy is a strange one.  He was a World Champion once in 2008 on the Gilera, but had been correctly identified as a shining star by HRC, and riding the San Carlos Gresini bike Honda did their best to give him a full works, factory bike in all but Repsol colours.  Where he would have gone in coming years is a moot point and from some angles he would have caused team managers and DORNA a very big problem in finding a full-fat factory bike for his talents at the expense of others.  Others who may have been more boring to watch, but who would have been more consistent?  One thing is apparent, and that’s how far the effect of his death spread; understandably he was well known throughout motorbike racing, but exceptionally his death affected motorsport across the world from F1 to NASCAR to WRC; Simoncelli’s character transcended MotoGP.
 Would he have drawn Aprilia back to MotoGP earlier?  Would they have come back with a prototype bike for Simoncelli instead of the CRT bikes?  Or would he have been a Ducati rider that gave them two riders with equal and realistic chances of winning a championship?  There is no answer to those question and I merely ask them to show how deep the loss runs.  
 For me, a massive MotoGP fan who looks at WSBK occasionally, Simoncelli’s WSBK ride at Imola was one of the best I’ve seen.  It was an incredible idea executed perfectly, and probably confounded his rivals beyond irritation.
 Simoncelli died a year ago.  I never met him.  But I miss seeing him on my TV.   I miss reading about him on the web and in magazines.  I’ll leave the last words to man I’ve also never met, Lao Tzu, Te Tao Ching
 “The flame that burns twice as bright burns half as long.
 Thanks Guy, a most fitting tribute to a man sadly missed by so many.
Thanks for reading and Ciao Marco #58

Thursday, 11 October 2012

Exciting Times Coming!

Hello and welcome to the latest installment of StrawBales.

As I sit here contemplating the run in to the end of the season I must remain positive in my thoughts, it would be so easy to be drawn in to the negative aspects and disappointments of the season drawing to a close with WSB done and BSB almost done. There is still so much left undecided, even if some Championships are seemingly somewhat of a foregone conclusion, ie Moto's 2 & 3, but with MotoGP retaining some semblance of a fight to the finish there is still all to play for for Messrs Lorenzo and Pedrosa and the British Superbikes boys are again taking it to the wire.

This weekend in Japan we see the return of the current World Champion Casey Stoner to the fray and in his own words is feeling 'good and fresh' from his injury recuperation but freely admits that FP1 will be crucial in finding out how his ankle truly fairs and just how much weight transfer he can apply. It's good to have the Aussie back as I know the championship fight has missed him, and fans have certainly missed his style, he would certainly have had a big bearing on the current points standings.

As expected, and in the light of the Eugene Laverty/Max Biaggi farce in World Superbikes at Magny Cours, the spectre of 'team orders' was raised with the straight-talking Aussie and his reply said it all... 'HRC haven't asked me to help Dani and I don't think they will, I've said in the past I think championships should be won outright...' says it all really, and who in their right mind would argue..?

Dani goes well at Motegi and is the only rider to win there in all 3 classes, which is a feat in itself, and with it being Hondas home circuit you can be sure they'll be pulling out the stops to ensure there's a repeat of Dani's runaway win last season, with Casey second in an ideal world, no offence intended to Lorenzo fans anywhere but purely to keep the season alive!

There's also a big anniversary on race day, it will be 11 years exactly that Valentino Rossi clinched his first premier class crown on his Nastro Azzzuro Honda NSR500 down at Phillip Island in what was the closest race finish in years with the top nine covered by three seconds...oh to have that kind of racing today! 

Incidentally three of those in that top nine finish were Japanese riders, a contingent that is largely absent from the three Grand Prix classes today and the series is somewhat the poorer for it. Mad samurai warriors like the Aoki's, Harada, Ui, Tsujimura, 'cheese n' Tamada, Haga, Aoyama et al were a sight to behold in full flight and hopefully it won't be too long before we see a new batch of fast Japanese riders like Takaaki Nakagami in Moto2 and female rider Yui Watanbe in the Red Bull Rookies Cup series becoming regular championship contenders..

I have to say it's great to see Danny Kent get his opportunity in Moto2 with Tech3 for 2013, he was beginning to suffer from the same handicap as fellow county-man Scott Redding with his height becoming a bit of hindrance against the continental pocket rockets, so this opportunity will be a breath of fresh air for the Gloucestershire youngster (what do they put in the water down there?!). Also if you look at how Bradley Smith has performed on a bike with almost no development (regardless of your thoughts on how talented he is/isnt) and what is essentially a nail of a bike compared to the Kalex and Suter chassis of the Moto2 world, then the future looks bright for the Danny. Could we see him make the MotoGP step in two years? I wouldn't bet against it...

World Superbikes rounded off the season at Magny Cours last weekend in typically dramatic fashion. Aprilia's Max Biaggi held a healthy 30+ point advantage over Tom Sykes going in to the weekend but inclement weather and an uncharacteristic slip in race one from the Roman and a strong third place for Sykes meant it was all to play for in race two. Sykes did all he could do by winning the race and hoped Biaggi finished lower than 5th for the Yorkshireman to take the crown but it wasn't to be and the Italian maestro took his second World Superbike crown by 0.5 points, the closest points margin possible (as a dead-heat requires race win countback). 

There was an out-pouring of emotion on social media networks in favour of Tom winning the championship but, to be honest, it was actually Max's to lose with the points gap he had. If Tom won both races and Max followed him home both times the gap would still have been over 20 points so to say Tom lost the title is harsh on Biaggi, regardless of thoughts on his (lack of) personality. Sykes had a fantastic season, make no mistake - the teams goal back in February at Phillip Island was to finish in the Top 5, mission accomplished you would say. Bring on 2013!

This weekend, however, in a sleepy corner of the 'Garden of England' at Brands Hatch, the six Showdown contenders for the 2012 British Superbike title will fight it out over three races to see who will be finally crowned king. Shane Byrne leads the way by 9 points from uber-consistent Aussie Josh Brookes with Silverstone double-winner Alex Lowes 15 points adrift of Brookes in third and reigning champ Tommy Hill realistically, but not mathematically, out of the battle 18 points in arrears of the Lincolnshire twin. The remaining contenders of Laverty and Bridewell unfortunately, I believe, are too far back to make an impression on the top three in the championship although they can both have a big say on the race results as they're both capable of podium finishes - Bridewell was particularly quick at Brands last year on a Honda Firebalde that was actually five years old and was immediately retired after the race so, regardless of points standings, we have a minimum of six riders who all have podium potential, what a prospect!

For me its all in Shakey's hands, a double race win there at the summer round back in July and a host of dominant race wins prior to that must be ominous for the chasing pack although I have to say he was pushed well by Brookes and Hill that weekend and they weren't runaway wins by any means. Brookes was only .5s behind in race one and 1.5s in race two. Tommy Hill also has a strong record at Brands add Lowes to the mix and you have the makings of a race weekend to rival anything that happened last year...well...almost anyway, but this is motorcycle racing and anything can happen.

Byrne is in the ascendancy after his performances at Assen and Silverstone, where two of his main rivals each had rounds to forget - Hill with his starting grid crash in race one at Assen and Brookes at Silverstone who's Suzuki looked slightly down on power at the fast flowing venue, despite all his obvious efforts, compared to the Kawasaki and Honda he was chasing. Could Shakey have his off day this weekend, or was his off day at Cadwell Park in August? Has Brookes got what it takes to beat the Kent man in his own back yard or will Alex Lowes spring a further surprise, a 24 point deficit to claw back over three races is certainly achievable. It only takes a small mistake to put you on the back foot this weekend, as Brookes and Laverty will attest to from last year and if Hopper's bike hadn't reset itself on the opening lap of race two on the Sunday then race three would have had a whole different look to it...

The British Supersport title is far from over too, leathery Triumph-mounted Aussie Glen Richards holds a 12.5 point advantage over young Irish contender Jack Kennedy going in to the final two races this weekend. The Mar-Train Yamaha rider has had two rounds to forget at Assen and Silverstone after crashing out of at least one race each weekend so he has it all to do to turn his season back around and prove that the title-winning form he's shown wasn't just a flash in the pan and that he can over-come the smoothness and consistency of the old man of the series. Kennedy is definitely one for the future - whether that future goes through World Supersports or British Superbikes first is yet to be determined but he's definitely a star in the making. 

There are masses of 'if's', 'but's', 'maybe's', 'why's', 'wherefore's' and 'd'you mind if I don'ts' this weekend, possibly more than ever before as three riders can win the crown and the pressure will be at it's maximum for them all, so mistakes WILL be inevitable - how costly they are will remain to be seen. So, for those in the Eurosport coverage umbrella (sorry to you guys in South Africa who'd love to see BSB, yes that means you Ella!) for Saturday and Sunday afternoon make sure you've been to the toilet, take the phone off the hook, put a Do Not Disturb sign on the front door, if you're other half isn't in to racing sit them down and watch them change their mind (failing that throw them some cash and send them shopping, whether male or female!) and enjoy what will be possibly the most intense series of races you've ever witnessed.

I'll be there and, like a 5 year old child at Christmas, I absolutely can't wait!

Thanks for reading.

Monday, 10 September 2012

BSB Showdown Time, MotoGP & Even WSB!

A change around from the usual format to Straw Bales, in the lull of MotoGP action between Brno and Misano, and finally the calming of 'Silly Season', we can concentrate on the weekends action at Donington Park and British Superbikes for a change, looking in to the Showdown stage of the Championship.

British Superbikes

For those of you unfamiliar with the format of the British Superbikes Showdown, this weekends meeting at Donington Park was the last round that made up the 'regular' season. The top six riders in the championship now move forward to a level playing field of 500 points,  and on top of those 500 points are added the podium credits earned during the season - 3 credits for a win, 2 for second and 1 credit for third - all designed to reward the more consistent riders with a deserved advantage in the second part of the Championship.

The system has its flaws though, for example Team WFR Honda's Alex Lowes finished sixth in the championship's regular season on 146 points, a full 206 points behind leader Tommy Hill who'd scored 352. Once the Showdown rules and podium credits are applied, Alex is now only 33 points behind Tommy in the race for the title, where one race DNF by the current leader can throw the championship chase wide open - which, obviously, is the very aim of the format.

As well as Alex Lowes' deserved slot in the Showdown, a special mention to Supersonic BMW's Tommy Bridewell - for a team in its first season in BSB with almost the forgotten rider of the series, after being without a ride in the Championship at the start of the season, a fantastic effort by all concerned see's the Italian team in with a shout of the title with quite possibly the most improved rider of recent years in Bridewell, a great story with a potentially very happy ending.

Just as an example though, should the traditional championship chase still be in effect, Swan Yamaha's Tommy Hill would still lead the championship on 352 points from the Tyco Suzuki-mounted Josh  Brookes on 326 with the Rapid Solicitors Kawasaki of Shane Byrne effectively almost out of the running 97 points behind Hill, leaving it a straight fight between the top two over the last three rounds. That's still the case but now with a much narrower gap... It is harsh on the leader going in to the second phase really, after all their hard work and consistency seeing a massive advantage over some of the chasing pack wiped out just adds extra pressure to the situation. However, this is what MSVR wanted, to provide the paying fans with unrivaled entertainment in what is undoubtedly the premier domestic championship in the world and after last season you can't argue that it doesn't provide just that.

As for who will win the title come Brands Hatch in October, it's a very difficult call, not just for the reasons explained above either. If none of the 'Title Fighters' suffer a DNF, for me personally, I think Josh Brookes has his tail up after his double pole position, double fastest lap and double win at Donington yesterday, an impressive showing by anyone's standard, and will carry that forward to Assen and beyond. Tommy Hill looked a little jaded, giving 100%this weekend as he always does he couldn't lay a kangaroo skin glove on the increasingly likeable Aussie, a massive turnaround from Hill's similarly dominant display at Cadwell Park two weeks prior. Hill was chasing set-up all weekend, suffering chronic lack of grip (as opposed to team-mate Nori Haga who was suffering lack of glip, apparently) so confidence was not at it's highest throughout the meeting, a total contrast to Brookes who showed a rare moment of emotion in Parc Ferme after race two, a mark of just how much he's matured this year, both as a person and a rider. 

As a side note to that, I was fortunate enough to speak with Josh in the Paddock after qualifying, I was honest with him and said I'd been one of his harshest critics in the past but was really impressed with how he'd gone about his racing this year and how he was showing more character and maturity and that my opinion of him had changed for the better. He seemed genuinely appreciative of what I was saying - not that my opinion counts too much being just a race fan - but I'm sure I'm not the only one that has done an about-turn in their opinions of him. I also said something else to Josh, but I'll keep that back from you lot until after Brands Hatch...

Tommy has the experiences of last seasons epic Showdown with John Hopkins to draw on to combat the threat of Brookes and I think that will be invaluable as the story of the season unfolds. You know my thoughts on Tommy from my blog covering the Brands Hatch finale of 2011, he will always be a favourite of mine - well as close as I can get to having a favourite whilst accepting all other riders too, well they're all bloody good aren't they?! However, it's a split between head and heart for this one whereas last year it was Tommy all the way as I didn't want the 'dentists dream' to come over here and deny any of our boys the glory, just like the Trans-Atlantic Trophy races in days of yore, it was anyone but the Yank! Head says Brookes but heart says Hill...and your heart shouldn't rule your head! 

I'm not totally discounting Shane Byrne either who is well in the mix just 12 points back from fellow-southerner Hill, but just how well he will cope with his shoulder injury remains to be seen. Shoulder injuries are notoriously difficult to fix quickly and these next three tracks are high-speed maximum effort tracks so we wait and see just how much 'Shakey' can affect the top two before his home round at Brands Hatch. He says he'll be fit for Assen but his fit and our fit are light years apart, add to that the notorious bluff and bluster of just how serious the injury was we won't know the true extent of his fitness until FP1 in Holland.

Samsung Honda's Michael Laverty is 21 points back in fourth place, by no means out of the chase and also showed good form at Donington Park with a third and a second place so he is another carrying high confidence for the series debut at Assen on 21-23 September. Last year at this point on the sister Swan Yamaha he was 19 points back of Hill with three rounds remaining but a gravel trap excursion, after a coming together with Byrne, at Donington and a DNF in the second of three races at Brands Hatch put paid to his championship charge and he is desperate to make amends for that in 2012.

Looking at the comparison of the same point both last year and this, Brookes is the one who's greatly improved his position over 2011, finding himself just 10 points behind the leader over the 20 point deficit of last year. Tommy is 3 points to the good, Shakey is 5 points worse off and MLav 2 points further back than this time last year. Looking at the results over the final three races (remember Donington Park was the first round of the Showdown last year) of the first ever Showdown it was Tommy Hill who top scored with 118 points and no DNFs in the six races, Shane Byrne with 103 courtesy of a double victory on the final day with Laverty on 91 and Brookes the lowest scorer with 89, a DNF and distant sixth on the final day spoiling his previously consistent season. But that was last year...this is now, and its going to be an emotional roller-coaster for all concerned - riders, fans and team members alike, make sure you watch as it's a sight to behold and likely to go to the very last race, will we have the same drama as last season? Probably...


Over in MotoGP land we had a fantastic race in the Czech Republic at Brno. You may remember, if you've paid attention in previous blogs, that I pointed to Dani Pedrosa as a dark horse for the Championship. 

After the unfortunate injury to Casey Stoner's ankle that's ruled him out for the foreseeable future, many fans were throwing their arms up and saying 'well we might as well give Jorge the title now' wrong they were! 

Since Silverstone Dani Pedrosa has consistently appeared on the podium in the seven races from the British round to the latest round at Brno, the DNF at Assen was undoubtedly costly to Lorenzo's title aspirations as it's seen Dani close the gap on his rival taking 147 points to Lorenzo's 130, but its the sequences of the race results that make the most interesting reading. 

If you take the championship from Sachsenring, the Mallorcan and the Catalan have been inseparable on the podium finishing either 1/2 or 2/3 in the last five rounds, again with Pedrosa coming out on top scoring 111 to Jorge's 105 points. Without question the impetus lies with the diminutive Repsol Honda rider, this is the first season in his MotoGP career that Dani has started, and remained, fully fit and doesn't it show - winning three of the last five races including a memorable back to back at Indy and Brno.

If anyone thought the title was over and done, re-read that paragraph again. It is between these two riders and on this form, barring any injury/DNF, it will go down to the final race at Valencia in November in front of a partisan crowd, that itself would be fantastic for the sport as a whole and for the fans, who've been starved of a true down-to-the-wire championship battle since Nicky Hayden took the crown at Valencia in 2006!

I've no doubt Casey will return for Phillip Island, if not sooner and it's a mouth-watering prospect to see him wringing the neck of that RCV213V there for the very last(?) time. Valentino won there by 15 seconds in 2003, who'd bet against Casey doing the same this year just to prove a point? Honourable mention to Suzuka 8-Hour winner Jonathan Rea who deputises for the crocked Aussie at Misano and Aragon, a fantastic opportunity for the Northern Irishman to stake a claim on a seat for next season and if testing is anything to go by, he's doing that just fine.

After Dovi's not unexpected signing for Ducati, Ben Spies has unexpectedly signed for the Ducati Junior squad to campaign a factory GP13 next year alongside Moto2's own 'Crazy Joe' Andrea Iannone. Ben shares the same Superbike-derived style as Nicky Hayden who, all things considered, has gone well on the much-maligned GP12. (just kidding) and I think he'll do ok as he too has a point to prove after being bumped by Yamaha management to make way for the return of Valentino Rossi.

Cal Crutchlow will partner Bradley Smith in Team Rosbif, the irony of two Brits spearheading a French team not lost on the paddock comedians. This is good news for Cal and he rode the M1  accordingly at Brno securing his first MotoGP at a track he's traditionally excelled at.

Team Gresini is the final piece in the jigsaw of silly season, what of Alvaro Bautista? With Scott Redding a reported favourite to take a seat at Honda's second table and Johnny Rea doing his best to gatecrash the party it may be a while yet before that particular piece is put in place.

World Superbike

A quick nod in the direction of World Superbikes, the Nurburgring proved a happy hunting ground for the Brit Pack yesterday with admirable performances from Tom Sykes, Eugene Laverty, Leon Camier and Chaz Davies...yes Chaz Davies came of age in WSB this weekend with a third place in race one and a fine maiden win in race two, fully deserving his place for next season with the BMW Italia squad, true title contenders.

I mentioned Leon Camier too, another rider who, like Josh Brookes, I've been critical of in the past - however after watching yesterday my opinion is changing, two very mature rides and a bagful of deserved points for his efforts. Keep it up Leon, another rider I'm happy to be wrong about.

The championship fell wide open too at the Nurburgring with Biaggi falling in race two, Checa falling but remounting in race one and Melandri incredibly recording two DNF's leave the standings with Biaggi still on top from Melandri but Sykes has closed the gap in third to 26.5 points with 4 races left, all to play for!

As always thanks for reading.

Saturday, 11 August 2012

MotoGP...Never A Dull Moment!

Hello and welcome to my Straw Bales Blog, if you've read it before then welcome back, if you haven't then WHERE THE HELL HAVE YOU BEEN?! 

After the almost constant stream of racing over the past few weeks we are now currently two thirds of the way through the summer break for MotoGP, and what a few weeks of racing it was leading up to this break. The title battle pendulum has swung from Jorge Lorenzo to Casey Stoner and back again, we saw Casey finally get back to winning ways at Laguna Seca and Dani Pedrosa cement his top three place in the championship. The biggest news out of the US round, however, wasn't Casey's win or Valentino's off at the top of the Corkscrew. More on that in a little while.

The race at Laguna wasn't by any means a classic of epic proportions, one televised pass in the whole race doesn't do the show justice (what show? I hear you say!). As I've said previously, MotoGP racing of late hasn't been the stuff of legend, its more a game of chess than balls-out racing...but actually it is balls out racing. You just have to watch it with a different perspective on racing, for this season at least and admire the ability and control of the best riders in the world...yes you really have to watch what's happening. Concentrate, grasshopper. These boys are stunning to actually watch, not just look at.

Lorenzo is riding on a crest of confidence after putting together a sequence of second, first and second since his skittling at Assen. Pedrosa has posted a first, second and third over the same period with Casey fairing worst with a DNF, eighth and a win. Winning margins don't make for great reading either 5s,14s, 5s and 3.5s at Laguna Seca, however, there were three different winners in that sequence so it's not down to any one rider's domination and it show's how fine the line is between a perfect machine set-up and a not so perfect one - 0.3s a lap over 25+ laps makes a small gap look huge.

Anyway enough of my aimless ramblings, there is masses of proper news to get through!

So to British Superbikes...what?...there's something MORE important than my beloved BSB?! Oh yes, the British round of World Superbikes took place at the most spectator-unfriendly (great amenities though) circuit on the calendar, the barren flatland that is Silverstone. Well what a set of...oh ok...not that either...alright, here we go then...

Prioir to the Laguna Seca MotoGP round, Factory Yamaha rider Ben Spies announced his departure from the team effective from the end of the current campaign. Ben has yet to announce his future plans but all signs point to a return to the World Superbike paddock with the BMW Italia team alongside Marco Melandri. BMW are known to have one eye on a berth in MotoGP in the near future so it may not be too long before we see him back in the premier class of racing.

We don't know the in's, out's and wherefore's of Spies' decision but I know things aren't all they seem in the gleaming garages, internal team politics are rife and Ben's results of late have been less than sparking. He has regularly been bested by both satellite Yamaha M1's, not what you would expect from a much-heralded rider such as he, also with the almost infinite adjustability of Yamaha's flagship motorcycle the American and his long-time crew chief Tom Houseman it also looks as if the team have lost there way a little with the M1, causing Ben to maybe lose some of his famed steely confidence. Either that or the Valentino Rossi deal was in the bag earlier than we expected and he jumped before he was pushed....

As for the artist formerly known as the Honey Badger (was it @GuyHAnderson pointing out it had an anal pouch that changed his mind?!), Cal Crutchlow has reigned in his chest-beating 'I deserve a factory ride' of a few weeks ago and all the Ducati speculation of pre-Mugello has died a death somewhat. Could be that Cal may well be falling victim to the wrong passport colour and the dreaded MotoGP politics that blight so many riders every year? I'm not sure this is such a bad thing to be honest. He still has an offer on the table for two more years at Tech3, on a bike he clearly gets on with and that - as ably demonstrated by his team-mate - is undeniably podiumable (it's my blog and I'll use what words I want). Cal needs to shake the monkey off his back of finishing fourth though - a couple of podiums before the end of the season will underline his potential in the class and his right to be there. It may well pan out that Yamaha, similar to HRC with Gresini, provide a full factory M1 to the team and Cal would be better served securing that seat than a potentially career-killing Ducati GP13.

His team-mate is a more difficult connundrum (can anyone hear the Countdown music?). Andrea Dovizioso, it seems, will definitely move on from Herve Poncheral's team after the Valencian GP in November but his intended destination is still up for debate. Is he going to Ducati? In MotoGP? In WSB? Or, no, not after he forced HRC's hand to keep him on last season no.He's on the same Blacklist as Valentino Rossi. Most recent murmurings have him on the Ducati GP13 for next season, a move that may well raise eyebrows after he said in one TV interview that Ducati, for him, wasn't an option. MotoGP smoke and mirors yet again...? If Dovi does well on the Desmo and turns it around, kudos falls with him in doing something that the greatest rider of the modern era couldn't do - tame the beast. However, I'm not sure that his 250cc-derived style will suit the Bologna Bullet, after all, it didn't work for Capirossi, Melandri or Gibernau did it?! If he can adapt his style to suit the bike, rather than the other way round of more recent high-profile attempts, then who knows what could happen.

And so to the return of the prodigal son to his spiritual home of Yamaha after what will be two seasons in the MotoGP wilderness, chasing what should have been a marriage made in motorcycle racing heaven but, from his first lap of the Valencia test in 2010, was destined to be a nightmare realtionship of epic proportions for two of Itay's biggest icons, Valentino Rossi and Ducati. 

The furore on social media networks as his return was announced to the waiting world was a sight to behold. People openly weeping, some offering their first-born children in gratitude to Yamaha for his safe return (ok, that was a lie!) and heralding the return of the king! Did everyone see it like that? No... reality check time. 

Many fans are split at the news of VR's return, some saying he's failed at Ducati, some saying Ducati have killed the reputation he once had. I'm not that severe in my thoughts but I do think he's left unfinished business there and this may well be more damaging for Ducati than Rossi in the long run. Ducati spent millions of euro's in developing the bike he wanted, every new update brought fresh anticipation that they had turned the metaphorical corner (by loading the front confidently, of course) only to be denied with yet another spectacularly average result. The gain for Ducati was if he could develop a bike for all, a Yamaha/Ducati hybrid, sadly we'll never know, I hope the next incumbent of that seat can push them forwards and get the results the little factory deserve, much of that rests with Nicky Hayden too,who's results have out-shone his more illustrious team-mate of late and who's style is vastly different...a lesson to be learned?

The first and biggest point to makeis that the M1 he will throw his leg over in November at Valencia is not the baby he said bye bye to so emotionally at the end of 2010, that was the 800cc variant in which he had a massive say in development with alongside the godfather of the project, Masao Furasawa. The M1 he will ride has Rossi/Furusawa DNA but has been driven forward by Jorge Lorenzo and Ramon Forcada - it's their bike now, it's the complete role-reversal of Lorenzo joining Yamaha in 2008 to ride Rossi's bike. This bike is brand new from the ground up and is tailor made for Lorenzo, that's not to say that Rossi wont ride it well - he will - and it will suit his style far more than the Ducati was ever going to do.

Don't be sucked in to thinking that Rossi will pick up his 10th world championship in 2013, step back, have a good long look. He will be more competitive no doubt about it, he will almost certainly add to his tally of 46 wins for Yamaha but the Championship is a different level now. The Jorge lorenzo he left behind has grown in to almost the complete racer. He isn't intimidated by anyone, has a better record than his new team-mate over the last what will be three seasons and will be the team's number one rider in 2013, potentially with his second premier class championship under his belt to boot. It was the threat of Lorenzo that pushed Rossi to train harder than ever in early 2010 and he is acutely well aware of the young Mallorcan's ability and prodigious talent and also, at 34 years of age when next season begins, time is running out for the mercurial Italian to re-assert his authority in what will be the most hotly anticipated championship of all.

What isn't confirmed as yet is whether or not his crew will move with him. it wasn't until a month or so after Vale announced that he was moving to Ducati that Burgess, Briggs and co (sounds like a firm of lawyers!) also announced there intention to move, with Alex briggs tweeting that they were there at the start of the journey so it's only right to be there at the end. This was all when it seemed that VR was destined to retire at the end of his two year deal with the Bologna factory, so maybe the Aussies all had designs on hanging the pass on the back of the door for the last time at the end of this season and spending some well earned time with their families, especially JB who's wife has been very ill in recent years. Not only do the crew require wages, they also require numerous business-class flights from Australia to where ever in the world they are required to be...and they aren't cheap! If Yamaha are requesting VR brings sponsorship with him and 'only' offering a reported wage of around 4-5 Million euros, a further multi-thousand Euro airfare bill on top may well be something Yamaha could do without. After all, there is already a full team of technicians left following Spies' departure, not to mention ex-Rossi crew members in Stoners garage.

I have a sporting wager of one pint of beer with a good friend on Twitter, @_paulthomas_ believes that Valentino will win a race before the circus reaches Barcelona next season, which this year was round five. I believe he'll podium in that time but a win is too big an ask for me, who knows what damage the Ducati saga has caused mentally and to his confidence. Factor in the rest of the competion - Pedrosa will be keen to make his point in what could be his last season with HRC (and have a potential World Championship under his belt if things go his way!), Marquez will be keen to assert himself on the championship from the off - if not keen to assert himself on other riders who dare to be on the line he wants... Bradl will be fresh from an excellent debut year, Crutchlow may well be on identical machinery to Rossi but if Mugello was anything to go by then he'll not manage to pass him, and then there's the rest...who wont challenge much beyond the top 5 sadly. So I think my bet is reasonably safe, although I won't be disappointed if I lose either!

The bottom line is the GOAT is still hungry, he's proved that in the wet on that nail of a bike that he still has the speed and commitment to make a difference. I would love to see him back on top of the podium, with his big smile and back to 'I'm veeery veeery 'appy, thanks to-a my guys they-a give-a me a great-a bike-a, we go veeery fast and I arrive-a in first-a place. Ciao'

Welcome back VR, you've been missed.

Thanks for reading.

Tuesday, 17 July 2012

MotoGP Thoughts & 'That' Pass...

A triple-header of MotoGP races, as well as taking us to the halfway point of the season, leaves us with much to mull over in this instalment of Straw Bales – premier class championship leads diminishing one race and extending the next, contentious over-takes, the continuing saga of ‘Silly Season’ gathering more and more pace but, in essence, going nowhere...and they still can’t get that bloody Ducati to work properly, although it is getting better!

The main talking point back in Assen was the outrageous first turn, brain-out lunge by Alvaro Bautista on championship leader Jorge Lorenzo. After such a fantastic showing in qualifying at Silverstone, Bautista’s kamikaze run in to turn 1 was ill-thought to say the least and somewhat out of character for the pristinely-coiffered Spaniard...well, in this class anyway! For a world class rider to make that kind of move that early in the race there could only be one outcome, he was immediately reprimanded and demoted to the back of the grid for the next round at Sachsenring, while Lorenzo was left nursing a sore ankle and a diminished championship lead as Casey Stoner returned to whinging...sorry...winning ways, by almost 5 seconds from Dani Pedrosa.

The golden boy of MotoGP however had a weekend to forget at one of his favourite circuits. Qualifying in his almost now customary position on the fringe of the top ten, severe issues with Valentino Rossi’s rear Bridgestone prevented him making any challenge to the guys ahead of him with hand-sized chunks de-laminating from the rear Bridgestone causing him to pull in for a tyre change and finishing a lap down on the field.

Sachsenring was, as has become almost the norm for MotoGP this season, wet/dry. It’s almost as though Carmelo Ezpeleta really is playing God these days, he’s even managed to engineer ‘changeable’ weather at almost every round so far to try and spice up the sadly lacking show!

He came up trumps yet again on Saturday afternoon with a wet to drying session that provided us with quite possibly the most exciting 5 minutes of qualifying in recent years. Three changes of Pole Position in less than a minute Hayden (not just because the track goes left a lot either!), Bradl, Pedrosa, Lorenzo and Crutchlow (for 4.5 seconds!) all topping the timesheets, but when it really mattered Casey Stoner put in a final lap that took the breath of even some of his staunchest critics, just to remind us once again of his precocious talent.

A clean start this time (with Bautista right at the back out the way) saw Pedrosa take the hole-shot on a track that must be one of his favourites, he’s won there the previous 2 seasons, finished third in 2009 and crashing whilst leading by almost a week in the wet race of 2008. But it was Casey again that put on the move of the race round the outside on the never-ending left hander going up the hill – causing Eurosport’s Toby Moody to go apoplectic, hailing it as great a move as his stunning ‘Lorenzo’ on Lorenzo at Laguna Seca last year!

It was a battle between the two Repsol Hondas and was always going to go down to the last corner of the last lap...well it was until Casey slid off his RC213V at the bottom of the ‘Waterfall’ just two corners from home! An uncharacteristic mistake from the Aussie after taking 20 consecutive podiums, he admitted after the race that he planned to go all out for the win on the last turn...and in the light of recent events that would’ve been interesting to see!

Casey’s departure left Jorge Lorenzo in a welcome, if unexpected, second place to claw back 20 of the points he lost at Assen and the man quietly going about the business of securing a factory ride for 2013 Andrea Dovizioso taking his second successive podium on the Tech3 Yamaha M1 in third. Special mention must go to home rider Stefan Bradl, on pole for a couple of minutes on the Saturday and then equalling his best ever MotoGP finish (of fifth at Le Mans) on the Sunday. Definitely a talent for the future and making the least noise about it as well!

Which brings me up to date to Mugello *cracks knuckles* right where do I start! 

Firstly then, Mr Ezpeleta’s MotoGP micro-climate finally expired leaving us with almost unbroken cloud and 30C+ temperatures over the four days – just how a MotoGP weekend should be...outside of the Silverstone round of course!

Qualifying showed us a multitude of things, not least that it’s still the most exciting part of a race weekend – that Tissot watch must be worth as much as a win, either that or they’re promised to family members who are getting increasingly impatient...

Jorge had been supreme through all three Free Practice sessions with the questions forming on everyone’s lips ‘Who’s going to come second on Sunday?. However the course of a MotoGP weekend rarely runs true and on his final flying lap, showing Red at every timing split, he suddenly pulled on to pit lane and aborted the lap! Fuel? Tyres? Couldn’t be arsed? None of the previous, the bike switched to a default setting on his flying lap as prior to that he’d taken the short cut back on to the home straight and the bike lost its position on track - such is the complicated way-beyond-my-understanding nature of MotoGP electronics - and wouldn’t deliver the power where he needed it most...and the Lorenzo of old reared his ugly head as he stropped his way down pit lane to the post-qualifying press conference. 

Championship dark horse Pedrosa took pole, from Lorenzo and a politely surprised Hector Barbera. Although he was regularly fastest through the speed-trap, the caravan put a lap together all on his own and credit to him, it was a fast one – he should try this a little more often in a lot of people’s opinion. Nicky Hayden held up Ducati Corse honours with a fine fourth place, six places ahead of his illustrious team-mate who was again...erm...tenth, although his race pace on harder tyres belied his qualifying position and this was Mugello after all so it was always going to be about the race for Italy's darling..

King of Sachsenring qualifying, Stoner, struggled all weekend with the continued front and rear chatter of his Honda – not to mention the nerve of a massively slower CRT bike being on the very piece of tarmac he wanted to be on as his superior power propelled him out of the first chicane, therefore feeling the need to hard-pass in to the next left-hander...yet another show of petulance, and not the last of the weekend either!

The race began as predicted with Jorge bringing his ‘hammer’ to the first half of the race before changing to ‘butter’ but keeping the ominous ability to change back at will well in reserve. I remarked to a good friend on Twitter after qualifying that ‘Lorenzo is going to smash them tomorrow’ I know, no prizes for stating the obvious but it was a master-class of a race if not the most exciting. Dani kept his potentially best-yet season going with second and Dovi took yet another podium for Tech3 Yamaha, further strengthening his bid for a factory ride ahead of his team-mate. Bradl went one better than Sachsenring taking a stunning fourth in an amazing last lap dust up that saw Nicky Hayden’s potential fourth place reduced to seventh at the flag by Bradl, VR and Cal Crutchlow.

Now to the crux of a couple of issues...if you are anti-Stoner please keep reading...go on, you know you want to!

Much has been made of Casey’s tough move on Bautista, not least of which is that he’d be the first to complain if the Alpinestar was on the other foot and I completely agree, however, the thing that has really got my goat yet again this weekend is the vitriolic abuse that we have to endure on Twitter. People were calling for a race ban, points deductions, grid penalties anything that would hinder Casey Stoner’s season because he’s a total this that or the other. Really, the pass wasn’t that bad was it, hard yes, but the massive over-reaction from the mainly VR fans that flooded my timeline with ridiculously unjust chastisement just because of who it was, yet again disappointed me massively.

Marco Simoncelli got a ride through at Le Mans last year (thanks @MotoPodMart & @IntheGravel) for knocking off Dani Pedrosa, causing him to re-break his collarbone, in a move very reminiscent of Bautista at Assen. He himself got a grid penalty as we mentioned earlier as he was unable to continue, but I’m sure a ride through would have followed had he continued. Nobody fell off in the Stoner incident, but with the reaction you’d think he’d kicked him off in to the gravel and stood on his head triumphantly!

I appreciate it’s people’s opinion but really, how balanced is that opinion? Had another rider committed that pass, for example one with a bright yellow 46 on the front, then some would’ve been cheering and whooping in awe at yet another God-like pass from the master... How short in memory some people are when necessary.  Jorge Lorenzo at Motegi in 2010, Casey Stoner at Laguna Seca in 2008, Sete Gibernau at Jerez in 2004, passes that could be considered far more dangerous than what we witnessed on Sunday and all going unpunished, and even though Vale was at fault for all three he still went on to win two out of three of those races and took third at Motegi, safely protected by Race Direction. If those incidents were to be repeated these days I think we would see a very different outcome. These are the most high profile of his incidents but there have been more, Valentino is renowned for ‘hard’ (dirty?) passes when necessary and as I said, Casey is testament to that after Laguna Seca. So really, think about it – was it really that bad a pass in the grand scheme of things...? Or was it just hard, if a touch naughty, racing...after all it’s not like Stoner had any previous with Bautista, no score to settle or mind-games to play or just to show who owns the playground like other multiple champions have in the past...

Phew I feel better now! I won’t rise to the bait on twitter as mainly 140 characters aren’t enough, and I’m not the cyber police, far from it, but as @PaddockChatter posted after a particularly blinkered tweet (yes from a VR fan, sorry) accused them of being Stoner fans – which misses the point of PC completely ie they’re all RACE FANS - ‘If you’ve nothing nice to say, say nothing at all’.

Saying nice things brings me smoothly on to the subject of Cal Crutchlow and his relentless pursuit of a factory ride in whatever colour scheme he can get his hands on. Cal has been incredibly vocal about being courted to the point of being offered a verbal contract by Ducati Corse, something that comes across as a little ungrateful to his current employers – and is leaving them more than a little unimpressed with his actions so far. Cal truly has the talent to gain a factory ride, and on his start to this season no one can deny him his dream. However to come out and state he ‘deserves’ a factory ride is, for me, little mis-guided.

Although he was regularly out-scoring the factory Yamaha of Ben Spies and his Satellite Yamaha team-mate Andrea Dovizioso over the first third of the season, they’ve both outscored him over the last three races even though he’s out-qualified both over the same period, with Dovi taking a hat-trick of podiums in the races and we all know points make prizes.

Clearly the Yamaha is a competitive package, even in Satellite form as Dovi, and Cal are proving, so why would you be so open about potentially moving to a bike that he has out-qualified and out-pointed at almost every race this season and which could quite literally destroy his MotoGP career if it goes wrong and he burns his bridges with his actions and words?! Tech3 have shown their hand already by offering another two year deal on the same terms his current contract, which I’m sure is a fairly lucrative one even for a satellite team especially when bonuses from the team, and Cal's personal sponsor, Monster Energy kick in. But as yet, apart from qualifying front row this year to underline his potential, we’ve yet to see Cal debut on the podium on a regular basis like his team-mate – who as I said earlier, is in a far stronger position to gain a Factory seat than Cal and I would venture to suggest that with Marquez confirmed alongside Pedrosa for 2013/4, Dovi potentially looking at Gresini for 2013 and Ben Spies most likely to keep his Factory seat at the Yamaha top table, it looks like Ducati is Cal's only factory option. Is it his best option to secure podiums and race wins or best option to secure his financial future..?

For me, Yamaha is the better option for the Englishman, the team gel well, he’s comfortable on the Yamaha and there is less pressure and expectation to perform than a on a frontline Ducati that is almost crucifying a nine time world champion. I’ll support Cal wherever he goes just as I always have since the R6 Cup days, I just question his motivation and conduct in getting where he wants to be, after all we didn’t hear Casey or Valentino talking up their moves to Honda and Ducati respectively did we? And no other riders in this silliest of silly seasons are making as much noise as Cal,, some of whom are far more qualified to do so...

Last but not least mention goes to the future of MotoGP, some fantastic racing over these last three weekends from the axe-murderers of Moto3 – top notch, clean-ish racing from the likes of Cortese (like I said, clean-ish) Vinales, Kent, Fenati, Antonelli etc make it an absolute joy to watch.

Ive taken up enough of your time, I’m sure you’ve something more productive to do!

Thanks for reading and don’t be offended if you’re a Stoner Hater, it’s just my balanced opinion...

Wednesday, 20 June 2012

MotoGP Musings...

How time flies! It’s been a while since I managed to sit down and tap away on a keyboard to create another edition of Straw Bales...but finally here we are!

It’s been an interesting few weeks in the motorcycle racing world since the last instalment and far too much to cover in one blog without sending both of my dear readers to sleep (hi mum!) so I’ve decided to keep this one MotoGP-based mainly due to BSB being somewhat quiet and the TV coverage of Misano WSB confirming my thoughts of previous blogs!

The world of MotoGP has been in rumour-mill overdrive since Repsol Honda’s reigning World Champion Casey Stoner announced his intention to retire at the end of the current campaign. The permutations of the 2012 ‘Silly Season’ are innumerable and enough to make your head hurt if you pay too much attention to them. Aside to all the why’s, wherefores and do you mind if I dont’s there are three confirmed contracts for the 2013 MotoGP season - those of Bradley Smith’s with Tech 3 Yamaha, Stefan Bradl is one year in to a two year deal at LCR and the news released at Silverstone that Jorge Lorenzo has signed for 2 more seasons at Yamaha. So that’s 2 seats taken for definite next season, but the question mark over Smiths must remain.

As was pointed out to me by MotoPod Cast’s Martin Darlington, and with some delving it appears Smith himself metioned it on Eurosport coverage, the contract between Smith and Herve Poncheral is target-driven –  and not a slightly blinkered error of judgement to give the still-to-prove-himself Smith a seat at the second tier of the MotoGP table. In my opinion, and that’s all it is, I don’t believe Bradley has earned his place in MotoGP just yet. Save for one good season in the 125cc Championship back in 2009, ‘Bradders’ has failed to capitalise on his chances and put together a title-challenging run and prove his doubters – yes, people like me - wrong. I would be more than happy for Bradley to prove me wrong come the latter part of the season but since he stepped up to Moto2 it’s not been a stellar step in his career and he really needs to be challenging at the front of every race to be even considered for the step up.

It is clear to even the most casual observer that Great Britains other Moto2 rider, Scott Redding, is coming of age better than his compatriot so far in 2012 with two podiums to his name already and therefore should be better placed to step up to the big class for 2013 and hopefully with a two year contract that will allow him to learn then deliver.  His physical size notwithstanding, his riding style could be well suited to the brutal 1000(ish)cc powerhouses and I truly believe we have another star to follow in the footsteps of Cal Crutchlow.

Cal himself has done his prospects for 2013 no harm at all with his consistent top five finishes this season. He and his current team mate Andrea Dovizioso have one eye firmly on the other factory Yamaha M1 that may be vacated by Ben Spies at the end of the season unless he can turn round his poor early season form. The sticking point for anyone coveting Ben’s ride is his connection to the American motorcycle market, and Yamaha are more than aware of this, as is the way of the world the ‘sales & marketing’ machine is king and it’s sometimes more about that than pure talent.

Something else that came out at Silverstone was Dorna’s indication that the ‘Rookie Rule’ is likely to be abolished for 2013, paving the way for Repsol protégé Marc Marquez to replace Casey Stoner at HRC. It is accepted that Marquez will join the ranks of the MotoGP elite next term and nobody is under any illusion that he wont be on anything but full factory machinery so it makes sense for him to drop straight in to the Repsol Honda squad rather than field him out to Gresini Honda for one year, delaying the inevitable – which would leave any other potential replacement of Stoner on just a one year deal.

It was not long after the rumours of Lorenzo to Honda started to appear that HRC Vice President Shuhei Nakamoto announced that they would not run two Spaniards in the same squad ( here ). This was obviously before Dorna began the backtrack on the ‘Rookie Rule’ and was released to quash those Lorenzo rumours, but now the goalposts have been moved does this now pave the way for a two man Spanish Repsol Honda title assault in 2013? Personally, I would like to see another nationality on the other RC213V although that’s unlikely as Dani Pedrosa is held in high regard by Honda and can’t see him accepting a sideways move to Gresini Honda for instance.

Valentino Rossi said on stage on Saturday night at Silverstone that the team are expecting a whole host of changes (again!) for the Laguna Seca round at the end of July. He categorically stated that as it stands now he will stay with Ducati for 2013 but if these parts do not make the desired changes then he will begin to look at potential options for next season instead. These options are just as full of ‘if’s, but’s and maybe’s’ and where he will go only Valentino knows. I can’t see him in any full factory squad other than the one he is in, that is unless Suzuki make a shock return 12 months earlier than originally planned.

There are other hungrier and currently faster riders who are above VR in the pecking order for rides next season, and they’re a damn sight cheaper too and come without the travelling circus that is VR’s entourage but they don’t yet posess the marketing potential of the Italian. There is also the question of crew. Valentino will undoubtedly want to bring his crew with him should he move on, the biggest question over this is will they actually want to? These guys have been travelling the world, winning title after title, for almost 20 years and with Jerry Burgess having understandable concerns at home and other crew members with growing families it’s not a given that ‘my guys’ will move with him. Plus after chasing their backsides and not getting very far for the last 18 months, this Ducati ‘adventure’ must be taking its toll on MotoGP’s most successful crew.

The absolute bottom line is nobody can say for certain where people will be sitting when the music stops, every week there is another angle to consider and another permutation we hadn’t thought of. I mean, Cal to Ducati? Scott Redding to Ducati? I know both have been courted by the Italian giants and both would fare well on their bikes but it again depends on what happens above them. Nothing major will happen until Valentino and Dani Pedrosa decide what they’re going to do. Apart from the addition of Marquez, it is a realistic possibility that seven of the top eight seats could actually remain static for another season, has anybody actually considered that...?

One thing that was really noticeable at Silverstone was the glaring speed difference between CRT and prototype motorcycles, CRT positively sluggish in comparison. To make CRT a viable option for up and coming riders from Moto2 or World Superbikes something needs to be done to bring the lesser bikes closer in terms of lap times to the satellite teams rather than just hanging on to their coat-tails. If a successful Moto2 rider had the option of CRT or another season as a Moto2 front runner I have no doubt what they would choose. If CRT was closer time-wise we would see more big name riders partaking in that category rather than Edwards and de Puniet as the star attractions and replacing riders like Pasini, Hernandez etc to further enhance the profile of the series.

CRT will come good, it has too – it may not be in the same guise though as rules need to be amended to further improve the spec and competitiveness of the machines in order to attract the class of rider needed to push it forward to the next level.

The championship overall is looking at this early stage like Lorenzo’s second major crown could be in the making, his podium run so far has been reminiscent of the campaign Stoner put in last season and he looks completely at ease with his M1 and his style smoother and more accurate than ever. Ominous.

As much as I love BSB, as much as I love watching them do their thing – there really is nothing to beat MotoGP. The sight of the world’s elite riders mastering the bucking (not in Jorge Lorenzo’s case I must add...smooth like butter) sliding pinnacles of motorcycle engineering excellence is an experience every race fan should have. The TV does not do the colours of the machines and riders leathers justice; they are the most intense colours you can imagine but the biggest thing of the whole experience is the noise! It goes right through you, a true assault on the senses – not just the sheer noise of acceleration of the machines but the noise they make under braking and the split-second gear changes are just mind-blowing. If you have never seen a MotoGP bike in action, make that trip to Silverstone next year, even if it’s just for Practice or Qualifying. I promise you wont regret it.

Thanks for reading.

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