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.
The reason for the lack of enthusiasm from the other riders was obvious from the questions they had to face. The press - quite understandably - was interested in the fallout from the bizarre race at Jerez (hence Valentino Rossi and Casey Stoner's mild disinterest), or on the state of Dani Pedrosa's recovering collarbone after surgery to have the plate removed (an issue he has spent the past two months fielding questions on).
Pedrosa's answers were perhaps the most complete, the Spaniard explaining that although he has now had the plate removed, he still needs to test the shoulder on the bike. The plate fitted after Motegi was partially occluding the subclavian artery, which supplies the arm with blood, but merely removing the plate may not be quite sufficient to completely solve the problem, Pedrosa said. Because of the break, his collarbone was no longer slightly S-shaped, as it should be, but was now straighter. This in turn could mean that the collarbone itself is still partially blocking the artery in certain positions, but the only way that Pedrosa will be able to find this out is by going out and riding. He was hopeful that the problem had been solved, and was at least relieved to have had the plate removed, but practice and the race would show exactly where he was with the injury.
The Incident At Jerez - now so famous among MotoGP fans that it has acquired capital letters - occupied a good part of the press conference, once the official pleasantries were done. Despite the discomfort of the involved parties, we did learn a few new things about the incident. Casey Stoner's complaints of favoritism by the marshals received another airing, and he was adamant that one of the tasks of the marshals was to help get the riders back in the race again, even if that meant helping to bump-start an unwilling MotoGP machines.
One probing journalist managed to get out of him that Honda had finally fixed the root cause of the problem, modifying the slipper clutch so that the bike can be bump-started much more easily. This, after all, was what lay at the heart of both Casey Stoner's and Marco Simoncelli's problems. The bikes, Stoner later explained, had an automatic cutoff switch that killed the engine when running on its side to prevent damage to an engine due to oil starvation. With just six engines to last a season, that is a risk the teams simply cannot afford to take. The downside is that the bikes need to be push-started, and with Honda's design of slipper clutch, that was just about impossible. That weakness has now been fixed.
Valentino Rossi was perfectly contrite about the issue, owning up to the mistake himself, and bemoaning both the loss of points for himself, as well as the points lost by Casey Stoner. But the Australian could not help but get a little dig in, saying that he hoped he would not end up in the gravel this weekend, and that if he did, it would be through his own fault, and not the fault of a nameless other.
But Stoner also clarified his remarks to Rossi when the Italian came into the Repsol garage to apologize for his mistake. Stoner had said to Rossi "Your ambition outweighed your talent," a phrase in common parlance in Australia used to convey when someone had been a little overoptimistic in attempting a particular maneuver. He said he had meant the phrase to mean that Rossi had run out of talent while attempting that specific overtake, rather than run out of talent altogether. The phrase had perhaps been meant to sting, but Stoner denied that he had meant it to mean that Rossi's career was at an end.
The subject of testing was also foremost in the minds of those present, with questions fielded on both the official test on Monday, and the private test by Ducati at Jerez, where both Valentino Rossi and Nicky Hayden had ridden the 1000cc machine. The engine was much nicer to ride, Rossi said, with much more power off the bottom of the rev range, the peakiness of the 800s a thing of the past. But those expecting a return to the early days of the 990s will likely be disappointed, with Nicky Hayden describing it as a calmed-down version of the 990 machines which he raced between 2002 and 2006.
Casey Stoner also confirmed that he and Dani Pedrosa will be testing Honda's 1000cc MotoGP machine at Jerez some time after Le Mans. Honda were reluctant to give a date for the test - presumably to ensure privacy - saying only that it would be after the French Grand Prix. Yamaha boss Lin Jarvis told me that Yamaha had no plans to test their 1000cc machine before the official 1000cc test on the day after the Mugello MotoGP round. Jarvis also explained that the factories had also agreed that extra private testing would be allowed of the 1000cc machines, to prepare for the upcoming switch.
Back to the current season, and on Monday, the factories will roll out some changes for their 800cc machines. Yamaha will have a new engine to test, to address the horsepower and acceleration deficit that both Ben Spies and Jorge Lorenzo have been complaining about all throughout testing. Whether that engine will include a new gearbox is unknown, but Masao Furusawa told me at Qatar that he was less concerned about the gearbox and more concerned about the acceleration, so it is probably safe to assume that a new gearbox will have to wait a little longer.
But the biggest changes are expected at Ducati, with a new chassis and a new engine expected to hit the track, with speculation suggesting the engine could feature heavily revised internals, to help smooth the Desmosedici's power delivery. The bike suffers a couple of problems, chronic understeer and an aggressive power delivery, and both of these are quite clearly related. Much work is expected on the rear end of the Ducati - ironic, given that so many complaints have been about the front end - with the aim of proving more flex in the swingarm at full lean. Though those revisions would have to wait until Monday, Rossi also said he had a revised electronics package to try over the weekend, aimed at softening the power delivery and making it easier to handle.
The dark cloud hanging (literally) over the entire weekend remains the weather, with forecasts changing every time you look at them. Earlier in the week, it looked like it would rain on race day, but the current forecasts suggest that Sunday will be mainly dry. But there will be some rain this weekend, though the weathermen are in disagreement over whether that will fall on Friday or on Saturday, with Saturday the current favorite for precipitation.
Casey Stoner said he would welcome a wet practice session, as he would finally get a chance to put some solid data in the bank with a wet-weather setting. The brief Sunday warmup at Jerez - followed by a race cut short by That Incident - meant the Australian had been unable to persuade his electronics engineer to cut back on traction control in the wet, and let Stoner control the bike. "You know electronics people," Stoner said, "they don't want you to touch anything, and I want the control in my hand, not the computer." The electronics engineer was the only member of Stoner's crew not to make the switch to the Repsol Honda team, and Stoner was facing an uphill battle to get him to allow the Australian the freedom he wants.
Stoner also decried the electronic controls, saying that he spent most of his time working on electronics setup rather than anything else on the bike. When asked if that was due to the fuel limits, Stoner said they definitely played a part, and he was vehement that the current limits had no part in racing. "Why do we have these limits again?" Stoner asked, posing a rhetorical question which is echoed by the vast majority of MotoGP fans. His solution was simple, clear, and vociferous: "Give us 24 liters!" he demanded, but the MSMA seem currently disinclined to listen.
What the weather brings tomorrow we shall only know once the paddock awakes and the riders take to the track again. This is Estoril, and weather forecasts are valid for approximately five minutes. Stay tuned.