May 12, 2007

Shanghai GP07, Race 4 "Unfulfilled Promise"

Shanghai, the race that never materialized for us, the race that almost never was.

It's been six days since the race that didn't happen; where my team was thwarted on the first lap by an incident involving Toni Elias and Nicky Hayden , forcing both Pramac d'Antin riders into the grass and almost completely out of the race.

The immediate feeling in the garage was one of shock, disappointment, and total frustration. To have travelled this far, worked this hard - to see our bike stuck in the grass, engine off, and Alex Barros struggling to free the front end from Elias' machine, it was numbing. You have to understand what it takes to go racing at this level. You have to look at what is driving all of us, and then you step back, breathe deep, disconnect, and realize that things happen in life that you can't predict. Especially in racing.

This is MotoGP - where riders push the limits of both man and machine every single time they get on the bike. Ship happens. That's the race. And we move on to LeMans.

We arrived on Tuesday, flying in on a Lufthansa plane alongside Rizla Suzuki, Ducati Marlboro, Gresini Honda, Bridgestone, Tech 3, and more MotoGP and 250cc personel than you could shake a stick at. Gino is all thumbs up after winning 4 of the last 5 MotoGP races . . .

The flight was longer than I thought, over eleven hours from Frankfurt to Shanghai. In economy. I sat with the electronics data engineer from Melandri, and he surprised me be reading National Geographic magazine and Star Wars books the entire flight. On my left sat Pepe, the personal coordinator and assistant to Alex Barros. And people think this life is glamourous, hahaha.

Grey skies welcomed us to Shanghai's airport, which is large and clean.

After dropping off our luggage at the Hotel, we asked our drivers to take us into the city where we had a fantastic day exploring the touristic areas of Shanghai's Bund district, and a few of us got off the beaten path and into some of the Real Life of China. Our hotel was located in the Anting area, known as Auto City. Unfortunately for us, the Chinese taxi driver's had no idea where this was, and on occasion it could take upwards of two hours to drive back from the city center. I should point out that it is illegal for any foreigner to drive on Chinese roads, so you're always at the mercy of your hotel driver, or more likely, your taxi-driver.

An average wage for a taxi driver in Shanghai is just under 200 USD a month. Our Hotel Driver was dumb as rocks, and he even complained and whined that we worked too long during the day because he had to wait for us. Not to mention he was late in the mornings to pick us up, also. His job was to sleep in the van while we were busting ass at the racetrack all day, so to hear him bitching was kind of weird. This was probably the easiest money he ever made, but part of the style of doing business out here is to (apparently) kick up a fuss and moan and groan about how hard things are in order to get more A) Money, or B) Time. It's always about Time and Money, unless there's Passion involved. We're always running low on time and money, but we got oodles of Passion to go around. And we always Rock the Shocker.

An example of passion outside the hotel. These electric scooters were everywhere, and it was creepy to see them rolling along without any sound. When the charge would get low, they went slower than I could run. In the outskirts, scooters and bicycles seem to be the main mode of transportation.

This shoe cobbler was working on the street, and we saw many things that indicate that China is still experiencing massive growth pains as it struggles to adapt to the 21st century. It is very much a mix of old and new, and I'll touch on that subject in a future post.

I missed taking some photos of a group of ancients playing cards in the street, but I had forgotten my camera charger and I was conscious to preserve the battery life as much as I could. As it was, I went through two batteries while in China. Maybe playing cards is the wrong description, because as we all know, you only need two Chinese people before you can start gambling, hahaha.

Wednesday was warm, and we erected our garage with a minimum of fuss. Everyone was eagerly anticipating the weekend's race, thoughts turning towards dreams of Wins and Podiums, blinding power down the two massive straightaways, dominating the competition.

Perhaps more than anyone else, the members of the Team understand "build-up", because when we are not at the races, we are constantly planning and preparing for the races. This year brought the new Ducati GP7, Bridgestone tires, and more importantly, Alex Barros, a rider capable of challenging anyone on the track when he's on form. Alex Hofmann brought his enthusiasm and commitment, and between both riders, two solid crews, and increased professionalism from the organization in general, we are looking at 2007 to be our break-out year. Shanghai was a perfect track for us to shine, to show who we are and what we're made out of. I look forward to LeMans, and truthfully, I look forward to every single race. No matter what happens, I remain hopeful and optimistic, and I know deep down that our faith will be rewarded.

Wednesday was not a good day for me. We ate some fantastic food in the city on Tuesday at a place called Ajisen Ramen (I know! Japanese fast food in China!), and I also sampled a few of the local foods from street vendors and whatnot. I am not scared of anything. I woke up far too early on Wednesday, nearly 5AM, not sure if it was the police training outside the Hotel's windows which stirred me from my sleep, or the strange stomach cramps that had my back aching. I skipped breakfast, suspecting a minor case of food poisoning, but as the day progressed, I realized I was suffering from a kidney stone. I've had a couple before, but it's been years since one has caused problems, and so here I was at the racetrack, forced to sit on the floor with my knees to my chest trying to stretch my lower back and ease some of the pain. I managed to get some things done, but nowhere near enough. The pain wreaked havoc with my guts, and I got to know the toilet in the paddock pretty well, unfortunately. Clinica Mobile wasn't at the racetrack that day, but luckily a few team members had some potent pain medication that helped. By Thursday afternoon, I was completely fine, strong and ready to fight.

The backside of the Paddock. The hangers are huge, and the towers on either end of the main straight help support a gigantic roof. It is truly and engineering marvel. Here's Dario Raimondi and Pernat, Loris' manager in the foreground.

The excitement for this race meant that the mechanics were chomping at the bit, and they began working on the bikes by Wednesday afternoon, instead of Thursday. There were a lot of things to change on the bikes, owing to Shanghai's unique circuit characteristics, which include incredibly long and fast straights, heavy braking areas, and very tight and twisty corners. Passing would be difficult, so we knew that getting a good position and a good start were critical. The bikes were prepped over the course of one and a half days, and while some of the mechanics had hoped to finish early on Thursday so they could go into the city for some shopping (the Holy Grail of Cheap Fakes was the mission, a 15 Euro iPod replica), we ended up working until 8:30PM, leaving the track after all the other teams had gone.

On Thursday, a few of us ventured into Shanghai, to eat at Park 97's Baci restaurant. My Italians proclaimed it the best Italian food in China, and as we saw the Gresini crew with Marco Melandri also enjoying their dinner, this was confirmed. We were joined by Bob Haro, owner of Harodesign and Axio Hardpacks, who was here to deliver the first run of Pramac Dantin racepacks to the team. Here we are with Bob and Frances, a beautiful and intelligent girl who works in the bicycle industry sourcing parts for all the major manufacturers. Frances was kind enough to be our umbrella girl later that weekend.

I caught some flack from the boys because I ordered a seafood pizza. I figured, Why Not? If I'm having pizza in Shanghai, I might as well make it special! Nonetheless, it wasn't very good.

After dinner we spent some time at the Park 97 club, which was banging. This little Chinese girl was spinning some seriously heavy beats, but we needed to leave early so we would be ready for Friday's sessions. Frances helped us communicate with the taxi drivers, and although we had cards with the hotel's address and directions written out, everyone managed to get lost and this is when we learned that it could take two hours to get back to the house. That was NOT good.

The rest of our team dinners were at a bizarre German restaurant in the middle of nowhere (read: Anting), with a staff of country folk who were pleasant and somewhat in shock as the Team ordered beer after beer and were generally loud, the volume level going from "Ten" to "Spanish-level". The food was almost exclusively deep-fried, chicken cordon-bleu, french fries, things like that. The T-Bone steak was pretty good, though, and that's what I usually had along with a Chinese potato pancake that would arrive about ten minutes after I'd finished my steak, hahaha. The ketchup was also weird, the bottles being re-used and re-filled with a slightly spicy mix of herbs and sauces. Actually, I was surprised they even had Ketchup, but those in the know realize it's one of the four main ingredients to making a cheap version of Sweet-n-Sour (ketchup, honey, red vinegar, and sugar). It was impossible to really know what you were having, so I just went with it. My stomach was fine.

Would you trust this bottle? I've trusted worse!

One deep fried potato pancake. MMMmmm, greasy.

Friday and Saturday saw us experimenting with various chassis set-ups, always looking for the right feeling that would see the bike and the tires last the entire race and give our riders the confidence to go out and do their job to the best of their ability. We didn't set the world on fire, but we were improving step by step, which is exactly what I like to see. I was quietly confident for Sunday.

Friday evening at the circuit I ran into a fellow Barfer from San Francisco, Scott Yu and his lovely wife, Kay. They had recently moved to Shanghai from Hong Kong and are both avid race fanatics. I always try and make time for the people who love this sport, because without them I wouldn't be here. Scott has one of the "whitest" accents I've ever heard, but he says everyone else just sounds too asian. Here's Scott and I verifying the Barf secret sign.

And how's this for random?? I ran into a couple of the Portugese guys from the Estoril circuit out here! They were working the track, like in Qatar, and they really seem to get around. Hi Guys! I should point out that the skies were almost always uniform grey, making telling time difficult. It was light at 5AM, and everything looked relatively the same all day long and into the evening. This is about 6:30-7PM Friday evening.

I also spent time with Bob Haro, making sure he had a great time at the race with his friends Gary, Phillip, and Frances, and it was really good to see that the relationship between our two organizations is only getting stronger. I'm sure it was a treat to see the bikes and all the action up close, and I hope they can join us for a race in the near future.

The hardpackspacks are just gorgeous, and I know the other teams are jealous. Bob - Thank you for making us look great!

While at the racetrack, I also met with Ben Grenon, of the Zhuhai Intl. Circuit, which is China's only other fullsize racetrack. He was here to check some things out, and even cooler, he's a diehard listener.

The real reason we're all here: This really hits the nail on the head. More Americans are getting out to the International races, and although there were definitely more people here than in 2005, there's a lot of room for improvement. Now that Turkey has officially been replaced with Indianapolis in 2008, I'm hoping more people catch the racing bug and start venturing out from behind their tv's and computers.

I went to sleep late Saturday night. After working on some files I had started to prepare my luggage because we were checking out of the Hotel on Sunday morning before going to the circuit. Most of the teams were flying out immediately following the race on Sunday night, so we wanted to carry all our luggage to the track that day and then proceed directly to the airport that night. Both of my A*s bags were open, clothes everywhere, computer equipment scattered across the room, and then the building's power went out. Lights Out! I stepped outside the room to see some of the hotel staff checking on us, but we couldn't communicate with them at all so everyone just went back into their rooms and tried to sleep. I turned on both my computers and used the light from the screens to see what I was doing. I managed to have everything bundled up before my batteries died. A large storm had blown in that night, and I went to sleep listening to thunder and heavy wind and rain against the hotel's windows. I was nervous, thinking that if the rain was heavy enough it might wash some of the traction from the track surface making for a tip-toe kind of race. Not to mention that I just really don't like the rain, even if it does make the grass green. For me, rain is only good for making the earth tacky for riding motocross. Anyway, I finally fell asleep and hoped that I would wake when my mobile phone alarms went off. And they went off too soon.

I woke on Sunday, refreshed and pumped. The hotel staff had been kind enough to find some Soy Bean milk (not common in these parts) so I could eat my Chinese donuts the way I used to as a child in Singapore. My team expressed their digust with my eating habits once again, telling me I was going to be in big trouble.

Quote of the week? "This one time, in Japan, one boy from So-n-So's team only ate rice because he didn't like the food there. He ate rice for three days, and then he HAD A BALL OF RICE IN HIS STOMACH." I kindly let them know that there were two billion rice-eaters in this part of the world, and they were just fine. The lack of cultural adventurism from some of my European teamates is staggering, and I sometimes wonder why they are travelling the world if they're not able to reach out and really grasp it all.

One plus to the heavy rains was that it washed away a lot of the pollution that really overpowers the skies here. Typically everything is hazy and grey, and if not for the auto-contrast, auto-level feature in Photoshop, I probably wouldn't be able to see anything in my cityscape pictures. Here's an untouched example.

Sunday's warm-ups were good, and the team continued to make changes to the bike to find the optimum race set-up. I was happy, the bikes were ready, the race was an hour later in the day than normal (meaning we had more time to work in a relaxed fashion), and the track was in good condition. Perfect for racing. The Red and White bikes lined up one in front of the other for the race, and I knew that if we nailed the start we'd be right in the thick of things, battling with the lead group. Both riders got great starts, moving up and into the swarm that wound it's way through the first three corners like a school of darting fish. Except one darted too much, Elias rear-ending Hayden and sending my riders offtrack. Everyone except Elias made it back into the race, but Barros was 40+ seconds back, an eternity in a race series where half a second is an eternity. The garage was seething, and more than one commented about how Rossi and Stoner had already made allegations of dangerous riding following the Turkey race. It really felt like our race had just been flushed down the drain, and while I was happy no one was hurt and the bikes were ok, I was bitterly disappointed because I truly felt we had something for China. Barros rejoined the race, setting fast laps as he refocused and targetted KRJR, 35 seconds ahead of him. As the laps dropped off one by one, so did Barros' times, the personal best lap Blue Helmets appearing onscreen. He was getting faster, and the momentum was pulling the team together so that we were no longer cursing, but cheering him on. Faster, Faster! Barros' pace was solidly in the times that 4th and 5th place Pedrosa and Melandri were running, and more impressively, Barros was setting these times while running around by himself without anyone to mark off of. You always ride faster when there's a carrot in front of you, so to see these times was astounding, much like Vermulen's times in Turkey. I know that AB would have been in the mix had he stayed with the lead group, and while I can't say whether we would have challenged Hopper for the Podium, we would have had a magnificent race. You never know how it's going to go, and that's why we race. Meanwhile, Hofmann was steadily picking people off, settling into a good rhythm in 9th place, unable to gain ground on Capirossi on the factory machine or Chris Vermulen. He didn't lose time, either, which was important to see because it proved the set-up of the machine. I was very proud of my riders for putting their heads down and getting back into the race after the near catastrophe on the first lap. For the Hoff, two top ten finishes in four races is a great start to the season, and I onlly see him getting stronger as the year goes on and physical fitness comes in to play more. For Barros, he is a proven winner, and when he's ready we're going to be here to give him the best bike we can. While we were breaking down the garage, the FIM was doing a teardown of the race-winning GP7 of Stoner. You couldn't believe it - there they were with the engine wide open in the garage, measuring the bore and stroke to insure that yes, it IS 800cc. This was undoubtedly one of the proudest moments for Ducati Corse, and while some were initially angry that another team had challenged them in this way, hinting that Ducati was cheating, here was solid proof that the pasta-makers had actually done it. They had knocked the Japanese back on their heels, showing that hard work and the core principles built into every Ducati were sound. I was smiling broadly as I checked everything out, because these are my bikes, my friends, and Ducati is the big brother to my team. Rock On, pasta-makers!

After the race, we packed up and left. Just like that. Everyone tried to take a shower in the offices behind the paddock, and I've got to say, these are the best facilities in racing that I've ever seen. There's a lake that surrounds the offices, and the buildings are suspended on stilts.

Narrow pathways wind around the offices, sometimes shrouded by trees.

It's just beautiful, and I wish we could have enjoyed it more at the time had we a better race. Scott had decided to stick around and catch a taxi with me back into the city because I was to stay in Shanghai for a couple days to check out the city and firm up some relationships. I said goodbye to my team with hugs and warm wishes, and it would be scarely a week before we would rejoin one another in Paris, enroute to LeMans, France. The Chinese race was over for me, but the Shanghai adventures were just beginning . . .

More on the Chinese experience as time permits. The weather is Beautiful here in Barcelona this weekend and I'm anxious to spend some time on two wheels, BMX'ing through the city streets on my way to getting some Pizza!


Another great write up Liam..What is up with you and dumb cab drivers?...this story just reminded me of our cab ride in Malaysia last year where the guy took us to KL instead of Bangi!

Hey Liam, you mentioned growing up as a boy in Singapore?! Where exactly? I lived in Singapore till I was 20. Am living in Virginia now. Thanks for your blog - I'm really enjoying MotoGP in a more personal way through you. I ride a Ducati Multistrada, by the way.

Excellent article once again Liam. Where would we be without the inside scoops(Rossi, Stoner addressing the riders carelessness (No-Name mentioned), Ducati being protested) and the sheer frustrations of travel. I anxiously await the next article. Chin up, Greg

Great article!I'm from rio and miss our brazilian GP did you ever came to Brazil, my friend? Anyway, we're looking forward for your french adventures. Good luck for the 2 Alexes and go fot it, fellas!
Bon voyage!

Hey, Liam,
Another great write-up as usual, though late :-(. I know it's unfair to expect you to write as soon as the race is done, but I can't help it; I just wait for your blog at each race.

I'm a big fan of Yamaha but when I read the stuff you write and FEEL the passion, I cannot help rooting for Ducati.

Take care,

Post a comment

(If you haven't left a comment here before, you may need to be approved by the site owner before your comment will appear. Until then, it won't appear on the entry. Thanks for waiting.)