Will they or won't they? "They", of course, were Yamaha, and the question was whether Yamaha would start to use their seamless gearbox at Misano, something which riders Valentino Rossi and Jorge Lorenzo had been asking for a long time. That the gearbox would be used at the test on Monday seemed obvious, but several publications - including both MCN and the Spanish website Motocuatro.com - predicted that Yamaha's seamless transmission would be raced at Misano.
They were right. In the press conference on Thursday, Jorge Lorenzo was the first to break the news. 'It will be here for the weekend,' he said, going on to clarify: 'tomorrow.' Rossi was delighted, telling the press conference he was very happy that Yamaha had decided to start using the seamless transmission, as it could help them in their fight against Honda.
It was not by any means a magic bullet, Rossi was at pains to stress, but it would make it easier to ride over the full length of a race. There is no real gain in terms of lap time, but with reduced tire wear and reduced strain on the rider, it did add up to gains in total race time. 'It was a nice feeling not to feel this dropping of power for a few milliseconds,' Lorenzo explained. 'You don't feel it on the seamless - it is like a scooter, an automatic bike.' The biggest gain was in shifting up through the gearbox with the bike banked over, Lorenzo said. With the conventional gearbox, the bike would move, but with the seamless, 'the bike doesn’t move and you save more the tires and are in more in control of the bike.'
Lorenzo had previously put the improvement at 2 or 3 seconds over the course of a race. Would this be enough to beat Honda? American journalist Dennis Noyes had crunched the numbers on the average advantage of each win, taking only races into account in which everyone was (more or less) fit, and conditions were dry. The outcome? The average advantage which a Honda won by was 18.728 seconds, the average advantage of a Yamaha win was 13.485. An improvement of 3 seconds over race distance would shift the balance back away from Honda, evening up the fight. As Jorge Lorenzo demonstrated at Silverstone last time out, if he can stay close in the last few laps, then he can attempt to put up a fight. That has got to be good for Lorenzo's title chances, and good for the spectacle of MotoGP. More equal performance has to be a good thing.
The really good news for the Yamahas is that the seamless gearbox will fit in the existing casings, meaning that it can be used in the engines which are already part of the allocation. That, at least, is what Yamaha boss Lin Jarvis told the press conference, though there is no reason to doubt his word. It would mean that Rossi and Lorenzo could retrofit the gearbox to all their bikes, using it in all the engines which they have already started using. The gearbox had been designed entirely by Yamaha themselves, Jarvis explained. It had been an expensive undertaking, and not been something they had wanted to do, but their hand had been forced, Jarvis said. 'If Honda hadn't invested a huge amount of money to develop the seamless, we wouldn't have invested a large amount of money to go seamless,' Jarvis explained, adding 'that's the nature of competition.'
Ironically, Misano is one track where Yamaha could probably vie with the Hondas without the seamless transmission. Jorge Lorenzo's record in MotoGP is exemplary: he has only ever finished either first or second at the circuit, winning the last two editions. Teammate Valentino Rossi won in 2008 and 2009, was on the podium in 2010, and even in 2012 on the Ducati. The track is literally within walking distance (albeit, a long walk) from his home in nearby Tavullia, a pilgrimage a group of his fans undertake every year. To say that Rossi comes to Misano more motivated than usual would be to put it mildly indeed.
So having the seamless transmission should help Lorenzo in his battle to retain his title, despite the gap to Marc Marquez. Yet however well he normally goes at Misano, it will be tough to beat the Hondas. Dani Pedrosa looked like walking away with the race last year, after dominating in qualifying, but an organizational failure on the grid after a tire warmer melted to his front brake meant he was forced to start from the back of the grid, and was then taken out in a crash with Hector Barbera. If Pedrosa is in the same form he was last year, he could be tough to beat. Pedrosa was unusually absent from Misano on Thursday, however, the Repsol Honda rider's customary press conferences having been canceled, with no reason given.
But what of Marc Marquez? The championship leader and outstanding rookie is back in good shape, and not expecting any problems from the shoulder he dislocated at Silverstone on Sunday morning. He was pleased not to have needed surgery on his shoulder, and was keen to see how he would cope with the shorter, tighter Misano circuit on a MotoGP bike. Marquez' record here is impressive: three wins in the last three years, making him firm favorite to be running at the front here this year too. Lorenzo may be strong at Misano, but he may need all the help from the seamless gearbox he can get to hold off Marc Marquez.
Marquez' crash at Silverstone was subject to discussion. One respected journalist I spoke to believed that the two penalty points Marquez was awarded had been far too lenient. Penalties were supposed to hurt, he said, and on the evidence of previous penalties awarded against Marquez - starting from the back of the grid at Phillip Island in 2011 and Valencia in 2012 - he had not learned enough from those punishments. Ignoring waved yellow flags - which Marquez claimed not to have seen - could have put the lives of volunteer marshals in danger, if the Racesafe organization which works UK motor sports events did not have an ingenious spotter system in place, in which one person stands aside and looks for trouble, warning the marshals clearing the wreckage of any impending danger. The only way to get Marquez looking for yellow flags, he argued, was to ban him for a race. That might get his attention sufficiently to make him think again about some of the risks he was taking. It had worked with Jorge Lorenzo, the Spaniard telling reporters previously that his one-race ban when he was racing 250s had made a big impression on him, and had actually made him change his ways. Maybe this is what Marquez will need in the future.
While much of the attention is on the fight for the championship, and the role which Valentino Rossi might play at his home round, it is easy to forget that this is also the second home race for Ducati. The Italian factory has already tested here, though it was nearly two months ago, and Andrea Dovizioso was not convinced it would make much difference. They would have a base setting for their electronics and gearbox, the Italian said, but would still have a lot of work to do. Ducati had benefited last year, when Valentino Rossi got on the podium, but that had been under special circumstances. Almost all of practice was lost to rain at Misano last year, giving Rossi and Ducati an advantage in set up. With the weather expected to be dry all weekend, a repeat of 2012 is unlikely.
Yet the layout of Misano can work on Ducati's favor. There are few fast corners, where Ducati suffers most. The track is good for bikes with good acceleration, which the Ducatis have, and with the improvements in corner entry, they may be a little bit closer to the front. For them to get on the podium would take a minor miracle, however, none of the Ducati riders believe that is likely.
One notable rider is to make his debut at Misano. Luca Marini, stepbrother of Valentino Rossi, has entered at Misano as a wild card, and will ride an FTR Honda for the Italian federation team. The 16-year-old Marini is currently second in the standings in the Italian Moto3 championship, and is keen to follow in his elder brother's footsteps. There will be a lot of eyes upon him, though he told the Italian sports daily Gazzetta dello Sport that his goal is top 20. That would be an achievement in and of itself.
With six more races of the 2013 season to go, speculation has started on the 2014 season. Enquiries revealed that there has been limited progress made so far, as MotoGP awaits an official calendar from the Formula 1 series, so that they can schedule their races around them. The season is likely to start on 23rd of March in Qatar, with rounds following in Argentina and Austin, before heading back to Europe. Silverstone will stay where it was this year, at the end of August, and Brazil is likely to be added as the final race. With Argentina and Brazil joining, that would make for a 20-race schedule. That is not the intention, I was told, though those involved in organizing the schedule are currently working with three different calendars, one with 18, one with 19 and one with 20 races on the schedule. 18 is still the preferred number, though contracts may prevent that from being achieved. Valencia is the prime candidate to be dropped from the schedule, followed shortly by Laguna Seca. Laguna is 'the most dangerous track on the calendar' I was told, and the very small amount which Laguna pays to organize the MotoGP race - and hence the reason why Moto2 and Moto3 don't go there - was another reason to leave it off the calendar. Contractual obligations mean that Laguna Seca will probably stay on the calendar for next year, but beyond that, it looks certain to disappear.
Finally, the subject of Casey Stoner, and wild card appearances being vetoed. In recent weeks, reports appeared in both the Spanish press and in MCN that Carmelo Ezpeleta had rejected the idea of Casey Stoner doing a wild card at Phillip Island. Some people had taken those reports and turned it into Ezpeleta having turned Honda's application down, and vetoed a come back by Stoner, so I decided to check. After making inquiries, I found out that Honda had never made a formal application to the Grand Prix Commission to have Stoner race as a wild card. I then asked HRC boss Shuhei Nakamoto if he had made an informal request to Ezpeleta to allow Stoner to race. The answer I got both times was simple: No. HRC had never applied for a wild card entry, nor had they ever had the intention of applying. It was understood that Stoner's only interest was in riding the bike, and that he had no desire to subject himself to the media circus involved in racing. He was happy testing, but had not expressed any interest in racing as a wild card.
Had Carmelo Ezpeleta been lying when he talked to reporters? Again, no. Ezpeleta had been asked a hypothetical question: would you grant Stoner a wild card entry for Phillip Island this year? His answer was no, that was not what wild card entries were for, but rather for showcasing local talent or new projects. But there had never been a plan from Honda to enter Stoner as a wild card, so the question itself was meaningless.
Stoner was happy testing, and there was much work still to do. His former crew chief and now senior HRC engineer Cristian Gabarrini had flown out to Motegi for Stoner's two-day test last week, only to be confronted by unrideable conditions. It was a typical tropical downpour, Gabarrini said, 30°, 85% humidity, and torrential rain. It had been a long way to fly to sit and watch the rain.
Rain is not expected at Misano, at least for the next couple of days. The weather looks like being very good, with just the hint of a few drops on Friday. Sunday, however, could be different, with rain expected to fall in the afternoon. When in the afternoon will be crucial. With a bit of luck, it will remain dry. MotoGP fans deserve it, especially if Lorenzo, Marquez, Pedrosa, and maybe even Valentino Rossi can serve up another thriller like Silverstone. There is good reason to expect that to happen.