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.
Winning a world championship requires several key ingredients: talent, skill, hard work, intelligence, courage, and a little bit of luck along the way. The ratio of each of those ingredients may vary for each individual champion - with the exception of hard work, the level of dedication to the sport remaining the same for everyone - but the factors involved are always the same.
That skill, talent and bravery are necessary is obvious to even the most casual observer. But the most underestimated of all these qualities is surely intelligence. Yet intelligence is the difference between a race winner and a champion: bravery, skill and luck may win you the odd race, but only intelligence applied over the course of a season will secure you a championship.
The necessity of intelligence in motorcycle racing was manifest during the Monza World Superbike round. For in both the Superbike and the Supersport races, decisions were made which could end up having a profound effect on the championships, and in both cases, the question boils down to a lapse of judgment, and a lack of intelligence used in the decision making process.
Three hundred and thirty-four point eight kilometers per hour. Two hundred and eight miles per hour. By any conceivable measure, that's fast, and the fact that Max Biaggi's lap time of 1'41.745 is nearly two-thirds of a second faster than the man in second place, Eugene Laverty, and four-tenths faster than anyone else has ever gone at Monza merely underlines the Roman Emperor's dominance at the Italian circuit, which sits in the suburbs of Milan.
A large part of the credit for that lap must go to the Aprilia RSV4; the combination of big HP numbers, a tiny frontal area and a small rider mean that the Aprilia has a serious advantage at the high-speed Monza circuit. But that does not do justice to Max Biaggi's role in the lap, the Italian putting in a clean, precise lap to take pole. Given the fact that Biaggi took the double here on the Aprilia last year, you would be forgiven for pronouncing Biaggi the winner before the race has even been run.
From the Cathedral of Racing to the Temple of Speed; the World Superbike circus has left Assen behind and rolled up at Monza, the high-speed track in the middle of a former royal park. While horsepower is a factor everywhere, at the scorching pace that Monza generates, it moves from being important to fairly decisive at the legendary Italian track.
So no surprise that the four cylinders are dominating at Monza, nor that the horsepower kings have come out on top. The BMW of Leon Haslam posted the fastest time of the day on Friday, with Max Biaggi's Aprilia a blink of an eye slower round the circuit. If anyone were foolish enough to doubt the top speed of the Aprilias, then Biaggi's new top speed record of 332.5 km/h - that's 206.6 miles per hour - should dispel them. So fast is the Aprilia that Ducati test rider Franco Battaini told GPOne.com recently that while he was testing the Ducati Desmosedici GP11 MotoGP machine at Mugello, Biaggi - also on track testing the Aprilia RSV4 - was staying with him effortlessly down Mugello's front straight.
Unsurprisingly, most of the attention this weekend went to the intrigues and infighting which characterized the MotoGP class. But while all eyes were on MotoGP, there were a couple of support races going on, and there was plenty to talk about in those classes as well.
The least interesting, or rather, the least surprising, was Nico Terol's crushing victory in the 125cc class, the Bankia Aspar rider's third win in a row in the third race of the season. To say that Terol is dominating the season would be like suggesting that Osama bin Laden was not generally regarded as having liberal views on religious tolerance. The Spaniard has rarely been off the top of the timesheets this year, commonly topping practice by as much as a second. The races have been even more blatantly unbalanced, Terol usually backing off with a comfortable lead after just one-third distance.
Hindsight, as they say, is always 20/20, and MotoGP tests following a race usually tend to bear this out. Teams suddenly find the time to try the setup changes they had figured out over the weekend but never quite got round to making to the bike to use in the race.
A case in point was Cal Crutchlow, who had had a moderately successful race on Sunday, coming home on Sunday. Crutchlow himself was far from pleased, however; the team were using a 15mm shorter wheelbase on Crutchlow's M1 than on any of the other Yamahas, intending to try a longer wheelbase during warmup on Sunday. The wet track on Sunday morning put a stop to this, so when Crutchlow got a chance to try the bike on Monday with the longer wheelbase, the fact that he rocketed to the sharp end of the timesheets confirmed two things: One, that the revised setup was working; and two, that Crutchlow could be troubling the front group sooner rather than later. Crutchlow's times on Monday were downright impressive, now all he has to do is ensure the team get the setup right on Sunday, and not on the day after at the test.
We're finally racing again, and the deafening roar of the MotoGP bikes has silenced the whining that has been emanating from the paddock over the past few days, at least for the moment. Instead of sniping about who had said what about whom, there was an actual contest at Estoril. Even the weather didn't intervene, at least, not once the warmup was finished.
The race was hardly a thriller - the electronics necessitated by the combination of highly-strung 800cc engines and meager 21 liters of fuel have been fatal to racing excitement, for the most part - but it was certainly a fascinating intellectual exercise, and there was much to be learned from Portuguese Grand Prix. The trouble is, of course, that those lessons are most rewarding to the committed student of the sport, the sterile racing now rather too esoteric for the casual fan.
Four weeks between races this early in the season is clearly far too long. Since arriving at Estoril, the various members of the paddock have been behaving like sailors on shore leave, getting drunk, chasing women and picking fights with everyone in their vicinity. Well, the getting drunk and chasing women part I made up, but the mood in the paddock is deeply pugnacious, as witnessed by the verbal scraps breaking out everywhere.
On Friday, we had round one of Valentino Rossi in the red corner vs Casey Stoner in the blue corner, with Jorge Lorenzo throwing in some trash talking of Marco Simoncelli as he prepared to face off with the San Carlo Gresini Honda rider. Saturday saw Rossi vs Stoner briefly revisited, while Lorenzo and Simoncelli erupted into a full-scale verbal conflict during the post-qualifying press conference.
"It's like kindergarten." That was how one journalist described the spate of complaints, insults and snide comments that filled the rider debriefs after the first day of free practice at Estoril. Casey Stoner accused Valentino Rossi of following him, then went on to talk again about Rossi's mistake at Jerez; Rossi launched a diatribe against Stoner, accusing him of saying a lot of things which were untrue about his move to Ducati; and then Jorge Lorenzo joined in the fun by attacking Marco Simoncelli, complaining that the Italian was a liability and a danger to others.
Apparently there were some bikes on track too, but in the interests of getting the fluff out of the way first, we'll walk through another day of WWE-style trash talk and petty bickering.
After a month's enforced rest, the MotoGP paddock has reassembled once again at Estoril, and at the press conference, the assembled riders - with one exception - looked as if they hadn't missed the media attention one single bit. The exception was Alvaro Bautista, the Rizla Suzuki rider barely able to believe his luck being back and with a chance of riding, just 41 days after breaking his femur in a horrific practice crash at Qatar.
Bautista positively beamed, speaking enthusiastically about the chance to start riding again, though still only cautiously optimistic he would be able to ride properly, the fracture still a little painful and without full motion in his leg. However, anyone who has followed Bautista's recovery process - driving to Madrid almost every day from his home in Talavera to spend time in a hyperbaric chamber. Sitting still is the one thing that motorcycle racers are not very good at, so spending a couple of hours doing nothing while getting a headache from too much oxygen is just about the worst thing you can do to a rider.