If MotoGP can be said to have a backyard, then the Montmelo circuit just outside Barcelona is surely it. Series organizer Dorna has its offices just south of the city, and the Catalunya region - and especially the dormitory towns surrounding Barcelona - has provide a rich seam of riding talent, a seam almost as rich as its Italian counterpart surrounding the Misano circuit, comprising Cattolica, Riccione and the immediate area. So this is a home race for everyone, almost literally for some people. Where normally, nearly everyone in the paddock stays in hotels or rented accommodation, Dorna staff and some team members are now commuting to work from their homes in Barcelona.
And there are plenty of riders in more or less the same boat. Jorge Lorenzo lives in the city, Dani Pedrosa is from Sabadell, the industrial town just south of the track, while the Espargaro brothers Aleix and Pol are from Granollers, the town just a stone's throw from the Montmelo track. The pressure is enormous, as both Dani Pedrosa and Lorge Lorenzo acknowledged in the press conference today. Media appearances go through the roof, friends, family, sponsors, business contacts, everyone wants a piece of the Spanish riders, and they barely get a moments rest. Actually riding a MotoGP bike at the limit feels like a blessed relief.
After Casey Stoner dropped not so much a bombshell as a tactical nuke at the previous pre-event press conference at Le Mans, announcing he would be retiring, Thursday at Barcelona was a positively tedious affair, with little of any novelty or excitement to report. Valentino Rossi, Dani Pedrosa and Jorge Lorenzo all gave their thoughts on the Rookie Rule (see other story here), both Rossi and Pedrosa pointing out that whatever team Marc Marquez ends up on, the bike he gets will be a full factory affair. "As a rider, maybe you wish to go to a factory team," Pedrosa remarked, adding "if it's a factory bike, obviously it doesn't change much. If you're a talented guy, it doesn't matter much."
Jorge Lorenzo added some levity to the press conference, when asked by a long-time Dutch journalist about his relationship with Dani Pedrosa. The two had a long-standing feud, the low point being perhaps the podium at Jerez in 2008, where it took Juan Carlos II, the King of Spain, to get the two men to shake hands. Yet at Qatar, Lorenzo and Pedrosa embraced after the race as if the rivalry had been between two men who had always been friends. What had happened, asked Henk Keulemans? "In 2003 we were enemies, in 2005 we were worse enemies, and in 2008 even worse enemies. Now we can have a hug," Lorenzo quipped. "Maybe in two or three years we will get married."
One real subject of interest was the private test Ducati ran at Mugello. Several new parts had been tested, including eagerly-awaited engine upgrade - or should that be downgrade - parts to smooth power delivery. The new engine parts had been a disappointment, both Nicky Hayden and Valentino Rossi told the media. Though bottom end power had been improved, it had meant sacrificing too much top end, meaning that Hayden had been slower with the new engine than with the old one. Those modifications will be shelved, Hayden stating that he did not believe it was worth pursuing further. A major upgrade is expected at Laguna Seca, and Rossi and Hayden are confident that that will make a difference.
What will also make a difference is the new electronics package. "Nicky had a big smile on his face", Vitto Guareschi told me when I asked him about the new electronics, and both Hayden and Rossi were encouraged by the changes. The first touch of throttle was much less aggressive, making it easier to get out of the corner. Both men will be using the new electronics package at Barcelona, giving their expectations a boost.
Valentino Rossi will also be using the new aluminium swingarm that he and Hayden test at Mugello, as he really liked the feeling that it gave. Hayden was mildly positive, liking the feeling of the aluminium swingarm, but staying away from it for the moment as it also created chatter. That chatter was not a problem for Rossi, and the two #46 Ducatis were already equipped with the new part ready to go on Friday.
One of the main topics of conversation in the paddock is the earthquakes that have rocked the Emilia Romagna region, the area in which so many of the Italians involved in MotoGP live. Almost every Italian I spoke to reported having felt the quake, though almost miraculously, there is only one person reported as being affected by it, Alex de Angelis' crew chief having been forced out of his home after it was badly damaged. But a number of people also reported having moved for a night or two to the beach, as the safest place to be at the moment. The earthquakes are believed to be part of a so-called "earthquake swarm" with shocks expected to keep happening over the course of several months. Just as Italy is struggling under financial austerity measures forced upon them in the wake of the economic crisis, they are faced with the extra cost of dealing with the aftermath of these earthquakes. We can only hope that the earthquakes pass quickly, and with minimal damage.
MotoGP's Silly Season should offer some light relief to the tales of woe, but after Casey Stoner's nuclear strike at Le Mans, everyone is going through their options before making approaches, and so Silly Season is at a rather low ebb at the moment. After the story I wrote earlier this week about the other side of Silly Season - where Casey Stoner's crew might end up - I had a long and interesting chat with Stoner's crew chief Cristian Gabarrini. He said he had yet to give the matter much thought, though his preference was to stay with HRC for the foreseeable future. "I still have so much to learn," Gabarrini said, adding that this what appealed to him so much about working in racing. He then rather surprised me, confessing that at some point in the distant future, he might like to work in either Enduro or Motocross, perhaps even the AMA Supercross series. When I asked him why, Gabarrini said that whenever he talks to some of his friends involved in motocross, he always learns of different approaches to what is effectively the same problem: how to get the most out of the grip available to get around a circuit as fast as possible. There may be lessons there that could be applicable to motorcycle road racing, despite the massive difference in grip levels. For the moment, though, he has no intention of going anywhere, but talks have yet to be opened. A significant catch, wherever he goes.