"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.
The best place to start is with Casey Stoner and Valentino Rossi. The conflict between the two has been simmering just below the surface ever since Stoner turned up at Qatar on the Ducati and destroyed the MotoGP field, leaving Rossi with a sense of helplessness at the speed of the Ducati - with Stoner aboard it, Loris Capirossi being firmly mid-pack back in 2007 - and the feeling that for the first time, he would not be able to overcome an inferior bike using his talent alone. The conflict has occasionally erupted into active combat, such as at Laguna Seca in 2008, when Rossi rode a tactically brilliant race to destroy Stoner's rhythm, putting a couple of firm and sometimes questionable moves on the Australian, forcing Stoner into a mistake which turned the momentum of that season around. But mostly, it has been confined to the odd skirmish, such as Rossi and Stoner swapping insults last year, Rossi accusing Stoner of just not trying hard enough, Stoner pointing out that Rossi was getting firmly beaten by his teammate Jorge Lorenzo.
All that is now over, and open warfare has been declared. The incident at Jerez was the straw that broke the camel's back, when Rossi got into Turn 1 too hot and lost the front end, wiping Stoner out in the process. The fact that Rossi could get back on his bike and continue the race while Stoner was unable to bump-start his Honda (especially when being pushed by just a single marshal, uphill and dangerously close to the racing line) pushed Stoner over the edge, while Rossi had been spoiling for a fight for some time, sick of having Stoner point out that Rossi was riding virtually the same bike that Stoner had won three of the last six races of 2010 on (and crashing out of the other three, Rossi was keen to point out).
The incident that ended the uneasy peace was fairly trivial, which is fitting for epic conflicts such as this. Towards the end of the second session of free practice, Valentino Rossi eased off the throttle, allowing Casey Stoner to get past. Rossi says he backed off to take a breather, before putting his head down for a final attempt at setting a fast time; Stoner says Rossi was waiting for him to get a tow. Stoner says Rossi's so desperate for a fast lap he'll wait for a tow; Rossi says that this happens in every practice session, and if Stoner is sick of people getting tows he should go race on his own.
It went downhill from there: Stoner says the signal he gave to Rossi - tapping the rear of his bike - was intended as a call to heel, Rossi being "like a dog who follows you everywhere." Rossi in turn said that if spent his time tapping the seat hump of his bike every time someone followed him, he would have broken several hundred of them. Stoner reiterated his point that Rossi's crash at Jerez was a "rookie mistake", while Rossi launched into an invective against Stoner's claims about him.
"Stoner says a lot of things which aren't true," Rossi claimed. "He says I signed with Ducati because I was forced to, I had no other choice, because I cannot get the same money because of Lorenzo [Rossi's former teammate at Fiat Yamaha]. He speaks about my shoulder like he was the best shoulder doctor in Melbourne Hospital. But he doesn't know nothing," Rossi said. The reason for this was simple, Rossi explained. "He [Stoner] never got over losing at Laguna Seca."
Valentino Rossi does not often descend to a tirade; his usual method of wounding his rivals is the seemingly casual, throwaway remark. Rossi's one-liners are like the poisoned arrows shot used by the tribes in the Amazon: deadly accurate, virtually unseen, and eventually fatal to the recipient. As Eurosport commentator Julian Ryder put it, "Valentino Rossi does not waste ammunition," which is what made Rossi's litany of complaints so remarkable.
What had got the GOAT's goat was apparently not so much the accusations, as Stoner's use of sarcasm. Rossi had entered the Repsol Honda garage after the Jerez race ready to face a deluge of abuse. "I expected him to call me a f*****g idiot, a b******d," Rossi explained on Friday evening, adding a string of expletives that demonstrated a surprising familiarity with the coarser side of English vocabulary. "But he said he trust my shoulder did not have a problem, he said the thing about the talent," - Stoner had said to Rossi at Jerez "your ambition outweighed your talent" - "I understood a little bit, but I expected a different reaction," Rossi said.
Stoner's reaction - and Rossi's incomprehension - underline the culture clash which lies at the heart of this dispute. Despite his amazing ability to appeal to fans across cultures and across nations, Rossi is at heart deeply Italian, in his thinking, in his personality, in his sense of humor. Rossi is much, much bigger than the sport of motorcycle racing, and his appeal is completely global. Yet at heart, Rossi is still the wild kid from a small village near the Italian party beaches, hanging with his Tavullia buddies and ripping up the neighborhood on their scooters. The kind of harsh Australian sarcastic banter personified by Casey Stoner is alien to Rossi's way of thinking, despite being surrounded by Australians in his pit crew.
Whatever the background for the conflict, a state of open warfare now exists between Valentino Rossi and Casey Stoner. The question of who is right and who is wrong is both impossible to ascertain, and completely irrelevant. At the very highest level, sport is fueled by sheer hatred, as Dean Adams so eloquently pointed out a couple of weeks ago. The papers are likely to be filled with cheap invective and scandal-induced headlines for much of the season, but the racing is only improved by the antipathy between two of the fastest men on the planet.
It is hard to escape the conclusion that Jorge Lorenzo is feeling a bit left out by the war of words between Rossi and Stoner. That would appear to be the only rational explanation for Lorenzo choosing today to launch an attack on Marco Simoncelli. Simoncelli was far too aggressive in his riding, and was going to get somebody injured, Lorenzo said.
The obvious explanation is Lorenzo's irritation that Simoncelli should be the fastest man in both sessions on Friday, beating Lorenzo at a track the Spaniard has previously dominated at. Simoncelli certainly seems motivated to make amends for what can only be described as a stupid mistake at Jerez, crashing out while in the lead, with no pressure from behind him. So far, the San Carlo Gresini Honda man seems to be right on course to do so.
Which brings us back to the racing, the bikes, what is supposed to be the core of MotoGP. Besides calling each other out, Rossi and Stoner also talked about the way that practice went, and what they had to say was actually more interesting than the petty name-calling that went on.
The good news for Valentino Rossi - and his many fans around the globe - is that his shoulder is now sufficiently recovered to allow him to ride naturally, to ride the way he wants to. The shoulder is still giving him pain, but it was clear to anyone watching that the old Rossi was back, the Italian looking like his old self again, not a tentative old man tiptoeing around a MotoGP machine.
Rossi also let slip just how afraid he had been in the months following his shoulder injury, as the injury and subsequent surgery had taken such a long time to heal. Riders are used to dealing with broken bones, Rossi explained, and coming back quickly after such a break. The length of time that the damaged ligaments and muscles in his shoulder had taken to heal had had him worried, Rossi admitted, and had even made him doubt he would ever be able to return at his old level.
But practice today had been a revelation to him, the month off seeing him recover most of the strength that had been missing from his shoulder. Though he still had some pain in his shoulder, Rossi said that he finally felt he could ride freely and naturally again, in his own riding style, not one forced on him by a lack of strength.
That makes things interesting for spectators, for with Rossi admitting that he is near enough to full fitness as makes no difference, we can now see where Rossi and the Ducati stand. The results from now on are a measure of Valentino Rossi's ability, and the developmental state of the Ducati Desmosedici GP11. Judging by the times set during practice today, the Ducati is four tenths behind the Hondas. That leaves Filippo Preziosi with a heap of work to do, but Rossi also stated his conviction that Ducati are now heading in the right direction. The changed electronics had helped with the engine character, and a modified weight distribution had improved Rossi's feeling with the front end of the bike, the machine's notorious bugbear. A new chassis to be tested on Monday should be a major step forward, but the few things that Rossi and his crew had found at Estoril - after extensive testing by the Ducati test squad - were already a big improvement.
Things were harder for the Honda, with Casey Stoner telling the media that he and his team had lost a lot of time during practice chasing a setup direction that eventually proved to be the wrong direction altogether. Hampered by a couple of small problems, including a problem with the brakes in the morning, Stoner and his crew had been chasing an improvement that wasn't there, but the Australian was confident that improvement would come on Saturday, having eliminated the setup changes they had looked at today.
Dani Pedrosa is also recovering from shoulder surgery, though his surgery is more recent than Rossi's, but the Spaniard was reasonably confident that the surgery had been a success. The only way he would be able to tell, Pedrosa explained, is when he can spend a full 30 minutes on the bike to test his endurance. Unfortunately, the surgery to remove the plate on his collarbone was still too recent, and so Pedrosa was dealing with stiffness and cramps in the muscles surrounding his collarbone. This had nothing to do with the earlier symptoms he had suffered, but until the region is healed completely - at least another couple of weeks' away - Pedrosa will not be able to test fully. Only during the race on Sunday will Pedrosa know whether the surgery has been a success or not, Pedrosa once again underlining that he was optimistic, but only cautiously so.
The wildcard in all of this is the weather. The MotoGP class, along with the 125s, got in two fully dry sessions, though the cold track temperatures in the morning were far from ideal. The Moto2 class lost most of the afternoon session to the conditions, not because they were bad, but because they were neither good enough to work on dry setup, nor bad enough to learn about riding in the wet.
But once Moto2 finished, the weather turned vicious, with thunderstorms striking just as the Red Bull Rookies took to the track. The Rookies were almost literally subjected to trial by fire, with lightning striking within a couple of meters of one of the youngsters, forcing him to run off the track and lose consciousness, with two more nearby riders also blacking out. The session was canceled immediately, the riders going out again once the heavy rain had lost most of its intensity.
The lightning produced some pretty dramatic effects in the paddock, too. It struck just as Casey Stoner was speaking to the media, plunging the Honda hospitality - along with the rest of the paddock - into darkness. Further debriefs were also rendered inaudible as the thunderstorms rolled over, with lightning causing a couple more power outages during the afternoon.
How the weather will develop over the weekend is a complete unknown. As I sit here typing this, the rain is falling steadily in Sintra, the stunningly beautiful hill town which sits just north of the circuit. Forecasts suggest that the rain will fall again on Saturday, with the afternoon qualifying likely to take place on a soaking track. The weather for race day is more promising, with the exception of around 1pm on Sunday. That's right: rain is likely to fall just as the race starts, potentially producing another lottery.
So far, however, forecasts have been fairly inaccurate, so come race day, anything can happen. And given the amount of ill temper in the paddock, it most probably will.
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