For most of the groups inside the MotoGP paddock, this final visit to Estoril for the Portuguese Grand Prix is tinged with sadness. Everyone loves this place, except for arguably the most important group of individuals present: the riders. The track is too tight for a MotoGP bike, especially the tight uphill chicane that follows a couple of corners after the back straight, and the many surfaces of Estoril make it very difficult to cope with. But for anyone who doesn't actually have to ride the track, Estoril is wonderful. Teams and journalists either stay in the beautiful seaside resort of Cascais, or else in the magical town of Sintra, up the mountain overlooking the Portuguese circuit. As far as ambiance is concerned, the Portuguese round of MotoGP is very hard to beat.
Unfortunately for the Estoril circuit and the many fans it has in the paddock, this is the last time we will be coming here for the foreseeable future. The state of the Portuguese economy, combined with the fact that this is one of the least well-attended races of the season means that it is just not viable for the time being, especially not as the circuit really needs resurfacing. In a last-ditch effort to attract as many people as possible to the Grand Prix, the circuit organizers have slashed prices by a quite astonishing level. The cheapest ticket for the weekend? 2 euros. The most expensive? 20 euros for a three-day pass and the best seating. There are several circuits where you could spend ten times that much on a ticket. A bit of judicious googling for hotels and flights and you could come to the Portuguese GP for just the cost of entry for another European round.
The reasons for the bargain-basement prices are simple: with Estoril scheduled just a week after the Jerez GP, the timing could not really be worse. Both races are within easy driving distance of anyone in the west of Spain and the southern half of Portugal, but in the crisis-stricken economies of both Spain and Portugal, people simply cannot afford to visit both races, which they might otherwise have done. Faced with fans who either have virtually no money to enter, or who have already spent much of it at Jerez last week, Estoril had little choice but to slash its prices. Even the journalists have benefited: internet access in the media center, which at most Southern European tracks costs upwards of 50 euros, costs just 15 euros at Estoril, a very reasonable amount, although it remains odd that the journalists sent to cover the race and promote the event should be asked to contribute towards its costs.
Apart from a shared sense of sadness at not returning to Estoril for a while, the main topic of conversation at Estoril has been the rumors concerning the two men who have come to dominate media coverage of MotoGP: Casey Stoner and Valentino Rossi. Most discussion focused on the reports of Stoner's imminent retirement which emerged in the Spanish press earlier this week. The reports were flatly denied by Stoner during the press conference - see separate story here - and almost laughed off by the Australian. He reiterated his intention to stay in the series until he stopped enjoying racing, but would not be drawn on how long that might be. A few years at most, it seems, with Stoner now looking to sign 1-year contracts until he retires, giving him more freedom to choose the moment he steps away from the series himself. But nobody expects Stoner to still be racing as he approaches his 40th birthday.
Much speculation also revolved around the source of the story around Stoner's retirement. Some paddock insiders felt sure the source was Italian, though others swore that it had to be Spanish, given that it had first appeared in the Spanish magazine Solo Moto. Whatever the provenance of the story, it turned out to completely incorrect, with Stoner summing it up succinctly: "Everybody's good at producing stories in this championship. I'm surprised anyone believes anything, really."
There is also much debate about what is to become of Valentino Rossi, with journalists grilling everybody and anybody connected to either Honda or Yamaha about Rossi's options for returning to a Japanese factory. Very few people are willing to say anything on the record, though a few are more forthcoming off the record. The consensus appears to be that Rossi's only realistic options are either to go to a factory team or to set up a team for himself. The satellite teams might welcome the money Rossi would bring, but they would not welcome the disruption: putting together a strong satellite effort such as Gresini, Tech 3 or LCR takes many years, carefully assembling the best (and most affordable) technicians when they become available. As a satellite team, signing Rossi would mean firing most of the staff that you have spent all those years putting together, to make way for Rossi's hand-picked and trusted staff, only to have them all leave after 1 or 2 years. A satellite team could be gutted of talent by Rossi, a rather ironic state of affairs.
As for the factory rides, Honda has pretty well excluded a return for the Italian, HRC boss Shuhei Nakamoto telling GPOne.com that it was time for Rossi to prove that it really was all about the rider and not the machine. Yamaha seems marginally more open to a Rossi return, though even there the likelihood is very close to zero. There is still one camp inside Yamaha that would like to see the Italian come back to Yamaha, but their numbers are diminishing. The decision by Yamaha management to back Jorge Lorenzo as the future for the factory has paid off, despite losing the championship to Casey Stoner last year. The factories - both Yamaha and Honda - believe that their ambitions for the MotoGP championship can only be realized if they have either of Casey Stoner or Jorge Lorenzo on their bikes. While there are very few paddock insiders who doubt that Rossi could win races on either a Yamaha or Honda, there are even fewer who believe he could challenge Lorenzo or Stoner for the title.
For the moment, Rossi is stuck at Ducati, and this weekend they will be following the path started at Jerez, and using what Rossi is describing as a more "Ducati set up." Rossi characterized this as "long and low" instead of the "short and high" set up he had used throughout his Yamaha career. The "long and low" set up seemed to give him the corner entry confidence he had been missing with the more Yamaha-like "short and high" set up he and his crew had been pursuing for much of his time at Ducati. The problem with that set up is on corner exit, where the excessive horsepower - the number being bandied about by the uncalibrated dyno used in the press room puts the number in the region of 280hp - causes more problems.
The real solution is to reduce horsepower, but that is something that cannot be achieved easily. Power can be cut using the electronics, but that still leaves the aggressive power delivery of the high-revving (and probably under capacity) Ducati GP12. Such a change will have to wait for a few more weeks.
But Rossi is not the only rider struggling with a different bike. Andrea Dovizioso is also still trying to figure out how to get the best out of the Yamaha, but at Jerez, the Italian said, he believed he had made an important discovery while following Cal Crutchlow. With the Honda, Dovizioso said, what was key was exploiting the Honda's strength in corner exit, and his riding style had been based around that. The Yamaha, on the other hand, required you to focus on braking and corner entry, carrying speed through the corner to minimize the damage on the way out of the turn. With that lesson in mind, Dovizioso's aim was to working on changing the style he had learned in all his years on a Honda MotoGP bike.
After so many years, it is not easy. Just as Valentino Rossi found out at Ducati.