2011 MotoGP Le Mans Thursday Round Up - The Sniping Abates, But Only A Little

After Estoril, the MotoGP circus has washed up at Le Mans - though your humble narrator is not at the track, for reasons which I have laid out in a blog post elsewhere - with the prospect of some genuinely interesting developments at the circuit. After all, Le Mans is the first race after the one-day Estoril test, held on the Monday after the Portuguese Grand Prix, which saw a number of riders make some big steps forward; the revised front subframe / chassis on the Ducati GP11 worked well for both Valentino Rossi and Nicky Hayden; Jorge Lorenzo went back to some settings he used in 2010, and immediately found the confidence on the brakes he was missing during the race; and Casey Stoner had finally got the 2011-spec Ohlins forks to work on his Honda without them chattering in the corners.

But of course the first order of business was the soap opera that the 2011 MotoGP season has become. Valentino Rossi appears to be the main instigator, the Italian leaving Estoril with a few parting shots about MotoGP riders being "pussies" and like children, as we recounted in the post-test round up on Monday. Things got stirred up even further over the World Superbike event at Monza, when rumors emerged that Rossi was claiming to have been blocked and run off the track by Casey Stoner at the Estoril Monday test - which took place after the TV cameras had been removed after the race. Rossi further fanned the flames, rather ingeniously, by both confirming the incident and playing it down when he attended the opening of an Enel store at Milan earlier this week.

So naturally, the top item on the agenda for the media at Le Mans was keeping the drama going. First up was Casey Stoner, the Australian not in the main pre-event press conference, and so holding his debrief before official conference began. He was asked about his back, his Repsol Honda, and what he expected from the circuit and the weather - more of that later - but naturally, he was also asked for his side of the story.

Stoner reportedly seemed surprised when confronted with Rossi's comments, though he admitted that he had got in Rossi's way at one point during the test. Stoner said he found himself on the track at the same time as Rossi, and slowed to get a look at how the Ducati was behaving. But in observing the Desmosedici, Stoner forgot about braking for the upcoming corner, and found himself running wide and overtaking Rossi, and getting in his way. It was the kind of stupid mistake any rider might make - his ambition outweighing his talent, as one wag put it on Twitter - but it certainly had not been his intention.

In the press conference, Rossi dismissed the incident altogether, saying that it was "In reality nothing. No problem." The Italian seemed keen to drop the subject, perhaps bored with the media attention which it had garnered, especially after his comments to the press at Milan, video of which is over on GPOne.com. But Rossi looked uncomfortable at the Le Mans press conference, as did the man sitting beside him, Jorge Lorenzo.

The only man who looked like he was enjoying himself was Monster Tech 3 Yamaha rider Colin Edwards, the press once again delighted to see the Texan quote machine in the conference. Edwards was asked whether young riders were - in the words of Valentino Rossi - "pussies" but the Texan denied that they were. They were instead, to use a Texan phrase, "Young, dumb, full of piss and vinegar, ready to rip your head off and s*** in your neck," Edwards quipped. But that was exactly the attitude they needed to have, he explained, if they were to be up front. They key to their success was having a good package, but also being able to describe to their teams how they wanted that package to work. "They're not stupid," Edwards added, "These guys are fast, and they're fast for a reason."

Edwards wasn't the only rider to be making quips, though. One veteran journalist asked Jorge Lorenzo how he felt about the younger generation of riders being labeled as pussies. After asking for an explanation, the 2010 World Champion remarked that "It must be a shame to be beaten by kids every race," a reference to Rossi's comparing the current generation of riders to children.

It is hard to gauge the temperature of the paddock from a distance, but the impression lingers that the riders are growing a little bored with the off-track sniping. Clearly, the cancellation of Motegi gave the riders too much time to think between Jerez and Estoril, and another couple of weeks' off has not done them much good either. It also appears that the most active player in all of this is Valentino Rossi. Veteran US journalist Dennis Noyes posted one possible explanation on Twitter, which he had from Wayne Rainey. Rossi, Noyes reported Rainey as saying, was a master of using the media to get at his rivals when his own results were coming up short.

Le Mans looks like a good candidate for Rossi to start improving his results. The layout of the circuit - all stop-and-go hairpins, with only one really fast corner - suits the strength of the Ducati, which is stability under braking. The new chassis - well, the short carbon fiber subframe-cum-airbox which acts as a chassis on the Desmosedici, joining the engine to the front forks - has improved front end feel, and helped the bike to turn a little, diminishing its tendency to understeer. If Rossi can get good drive off the corners, then he is in with his first chance of a real podium at Le Mans, which would be a boost both Rossi and Ducati badly need. Some rain might help, and the forecast currently projects there being a 40% chance of it raining on Sunday.

But the favorites at Le Mans have to be the Hondas. The bike fires out of corners like no other, and having gained a little bit of stability on the brakes at the Estoril test, the RC212V should be unstoppable in France. The only problem is the physical condition of Repsol Honda's lead riders, Dani Pedrosa still in some pain from the surgery performed after Jerez to remove the plate from his collar bone, and suffering muscle cramps in his shoulder. Pedrosa is improving slowly, but with so much heavy braking at Le Mans, that might demand just a little too much of the Spaniard - though his injury did not prevent him winning at Estoril.

For Casey Stoner, the problem is lower down, the Australian suffering the recurrence of a back problem in Portugal. Stoner believes that the situation is under control again, and he should be able to race freely, and with the improvements he found at Estoril, he should be a genuine threat. The 2011 forks now worked as expected, with the tweaks the team had made at Estoril, and Stoner had a little more stability on the brakes.

But perhaps the real Honda champion will be Marco Simoncelli. The San Carlo Gresini Honda rider has run consistently at the front for the past two races, though he has also crashed out of both of them through unforced errors. If Simoncelli can hold it together on Sunday, he could finally get his first, long-awaited win in the premier class.

Simoncelli, incidentally, was the subject of the weekend's most bizarre press release. The San Carlo Gresini Honda team issued a statement denying that Simoncelli would be racing in World Superbike this season. The rumor had emerged from Monza, where Simoncelli was filmed sitting on Johnny Rea's Castrol Honda. Simoncelli also let slip that the Gresini team were preparing a CBR1000RR for him to practice on, and this appears to have been the trigger for a frenzy of speculation in the Italian media about World Superbike wildcards, especially given Simoncelli's previous appearance with Aprilia at Imola. It seemed obvious to most neutral observers that Simoncelli would not be riding in WSBK this year, but the media seems to be on a hair trigger just at the moment.

All this talk of the Hondas being favorite overlook recent history. The Yamahas have won the last three races at Le Mans, with Jorge Lorenzo having taken the last two. The track seemed to suit the Yamaha YZR-M1's strong points, being stable on braking and easy to flick through the corners. But the same case was being made at Estoril, with Lorenzo having dominated there in 2009 and 2010. In 2011, Lorenzo struggled, being passed easily on the brakes by Pedrosa for victory, which would suggest that Le Mans might not be so easy.

There is hope for Lorenzo yet: At Estoril, the Yamaha rider and his team switched back to some settings they used in 2010, and Lorenzo immediately found the space he had lost in braking. The Yamaha should be back up to speed, which puts Lorenzo back in the driving seat.

And if the Yamaha is good, then there is another man to take into account here: Colin Edwards has yet to win a MotoGP race, but Le Mans and Assen are always tracks where he seems to rise above himself and run right at the front. It seems impossible for a satellite rider to win a MotoGP race just at the moment, but with a little bit of luck - and perhaps a drop of rain - Edwards could finally buck that trend. Edwards, too, found some of the time he was missing during the Estoril test, and is very much a dark horse in France.

Of course, all this speculation comes to an end tomorrow, when the bikes actually hit the track. Only then will we see whether the advances made at the Estoril test were real or merely illusory. That, in itself, is something worth looking forward to.

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David, you might have just told your readers that you were in Le Mens, I think we wouldn't have noticed the difference :)

As extremely talented, and being the mutliple W.C that he is, there is the no small matter of a wee talent gulf to the top four. That is never going to change.

I am intrigued by this back twinge of Stoner's that affected him somewhat in Estoril. This goes back to an old injury from his 125 or 250 days? Is it just a muscular spasm or something more, and how often has it happened on track? Estoril was the first time I call recall hearing of such. It was never going to change the result of Estoril but a reoccurance in the midst of a proper dog fight in a race would be most unfortunate.

injury could have been aggravated from his near high-side on the first lap in Estoril. The landing would surely have been violent
and skewed.

That's immediately what I thought when I saw him grab his back later in the race. Riders are supremely fit, but they're not ballet dancers... Few athletes need to have absolute flexibility & strength in every muscle, so when a near-high-side flippy-do made his body wrench in a particular way, it could have easily tweaked or given a little tear to a seldom-used muscle.

Readers at home can try this by just trying to grab a full gallon of milk from over their head while twisted at the lower body and wrenching it quickly forward over the head, you just might hurt something lol. (seriously don't do this, I know I'd tweak something bad if I did this).

They have occurred in a serious way for both myself and my sister. We're both heavily into sport, and they are normally caused by a lack of conditioning and recovery for the affected area. I would be curious to know what other factors are affecting Casey. Any physiotherapists or sports docs that could offer some insight?

I'm not a physio etc. but I have gone through this (like many - very common injury). Here's a very basic interpretation.

The vertebrae are separated by gel-like pads commonly referred to as discs, and around each disc is a ligament that keeps it where it belongs.

This ligament is what fails... and the unfortunate thing is that only the 1/3 of it that goes up against the disc has nerves in it, the outer 2/3 does not - this is the problem, as you have damaged the ligament 2/3 of the way through before you actually feel any pain.

The same problem affects recovery, because everyone slacks off on their physio and core strength exercises as soon as there is no recurrent pain, but as you can see, the injury is not healed at all at that point. As ligaments take 6+ weeks to heal, you then get locked into a cycle of heal/hurt/heal/hurt (for months, or longer). Sometimes it goes one way long enough to fully heal, sometime you take it back to the last 1/3 and you get pain again.

The only true preventative exercise is building core strength - pelvic floor, abdominals etc. Yoga is an excellent way to achieve this (but try getting a top level motorcycle racer to do yoga...)

As soccer pundit Alan Hansen mused many years ago when a manchester united team full of youngsters were thumped by Aston Villa in the opening game of the season. He was proven wrong on every level in the many years since and Lorenzo is proving it to Rossi. Great comeback Jorge'

Lower back spasm. I almost felt it when Stoner grabbed it in Estoril.
I did find however that 'pushing the envelope',so to speak, was not the answer.
Let me open another can of worms. As I toned down my workouts and gained a little weight,the problem vanished as though it was never there.
No advice on this issue,other than to say... Casey need not be so hard on himself,off track or on track. Relax and enjoy the racing.
Many dislike his persona and many like the openess of it. In his case,he will always attract little in between .

Well yes if you aren't using it so much. I increased the attention paid to my back to solve my issues. Casey also has to maintain performance and anyone who rides a sportsbike will know that back muscles are a nice thing to have, else you get a painful ride and buy a cruiser instead. When I ride I have as little weight on my wrists as possible and you can't do it too effectively with a weak back. When the day does come though, Rocket III Roadster :)