April, 2008

April 25, 2008

GP08 Estoril, Race 3, "Mixed Feelings"

So Estoril has come and gone - and WOW, what a race! It was such a strange build-up to what eventually turned out to be a beautiful race for Lorenzo, who took the win from his third consecutive pole position (in as many races!). Absolutely stunning performance, and I'd be lying if I said I wasn't just a little jealous, haha. Still, despite the weeks that have passed since we battled in Portugal, the strongest emotion I have connected with this event is one of strangeness. The skies above the circuit serve notice . . . . and they were quite ominous, quite often!

When I look at the faces of JL48's pit crew, the mechanics who formerly worked on Colin Edwards' machines when he was partnered with Rossi on the Factory Yamaha Team, there's a new calm, a new confidence. There's nothing sweeter than results, and it totally justifies so many long days and late nights. In that respect, I feel like we're bound to have some good races in the future, and I believe that our turn around starts in Shanghai. It's a process, like all things that happen step by step, and by Le Mans, we should be even more equipped to battle for some real points. I'm looking for that quiet peace of success.

It's odd to think that this might be the final MotoGP race in China, as this is where my GP life kind of got started, but as one race fades, another comes to the forefront and takes its place. Who's life will be affected in China this year? Actually, while I have spent some time thinking about this past race in Estoril, the last two weeks have been a frantic dash to get everything ready for China, and there are beautiful, intricate little pieces of the Ducati puzzle flying throughout Europe at this very moment, destined to be forged in the fires of competition. I can't wait. The sheer complexity of the MotoGP Machine is incredible to think about, the lives of all the people, all the pieces coming together and converging at far-off lands. It's absolutely incredible when I think about how BIG this series is, how detailed, and yet how few people seem to be involved. It is truly a logistics masterpiece to make these races happen week in and week out, on time and full of passion.

I flew into Lisboa on Tuesday afternoon, leaving a wet and windy Barcelona. In fact, of all the flights I have been on, I think this may have been the most turbulent ride I've ever been a part of. It felt like we took off sideways into a severe cross-wind, and our landing had me clapping out loud with relief. That, and we must have had a rookie pilot fresh out of the military, because I would swear he was trying to rip the wings off our plane with some of his maneuvers. Either way, it was a bumpy ride and I almost felt like I got off on the wrong foot when I got to Portugal.

Felix and I had a couple hours to kill at the airport while we waited for various Team members to arrive from other cities, so I spent some time with my trusty little nintendo while a thin rain blew in. The weather had certainly not gotten any better, and situated as we were near the Atlantic coastline, it seemed as if there was a permanent squall sitting over Lisbon. Once we collected our rentacars, we headed straight for the circuit to arrange for a motorhome that one of our pilots would be using over the race weekend. I must say, the greenery in that area is lush and vivid, full of rolling hills and the scents sharp and full of water. You know how you get attuned to the smell of rain when you ride a motorcycle, you get used to feeling the temperature drop a few degrees and the air get thick and heavy before you ride into a storm. It's a beautiful feeling, knowing what you're about to face, knowing it's dangerous, and cold, and dark, and you still gotta keep pushing on and you whack that throttle open a little more so you can just get into it! I always rued riding through storms, because after every wet ride I would have to spend so much time cleaning and detailing my machines afterwards (immediately, because no girl goes to sleep wet in my house, hahaha) but the funny thing is that the sensations were that much more intense, and I was that much more alive. I could hear my engines sucking in their mix, sputtering and roaring their displeasure, and that cold wind would cut deep through your wet gear, almost burning you with its chill. I will never forget what it's like to feel the rain edging its way into my boots, first around the shins as my socks would get drenched by the huge mist my front tire would kick up, and slowly it would creep down until I knew my boots were filled with water, sloshing around with my toes. The rain giveth, and the rain taketh away, and doing the dance on two wheels is a beautiful ballet. Once, in my younger and far less calculating days, I bounced, skipped, and slid down a dark and rained out freeway one night. It was during a torrential downpour in Kaneohe, and it was magnificent. I can replay every split second even now, 10+ years later, because time slowed and I watched everything happen frame by frame, split second by split second. I don't even question how or why, but I'm still here and I got things to do - one of which is winning races.

The race week rolled by and the whole team was busy every night sorting one thing or another. We had both racetrucks at the track for the first time this season, which presented new problems and solutions for us to find because there's always kinks, but we got about with our business just fine. The weather was the dominating feature for the first practice days, alternating between nasty, pissy rain and wind to somewhat decent conditions. It fluctuated rapidly, with high overheard currents bringing dark cloud cover, then bright sunshine, within minutes. It meant constant alterations to the bikes, but our Ohlins specialist, Millsy (formerly of Mitsubishi's WRC factory team) had a handle on things so we were fine. Much like I'm something of a savant when it comes to oddball motorcycling knowledge, Millsy is a wealth of "all-things-rally", and as he's working out of my truck where I keep all the suspension components, we always get the chance to talk about old racing (as if there's not enough talk about racing at the races, hahahahahaha).

The race came up quick, and it was like the days bled into one another so that I couldn't tell you what Thursday, Friday, or Saturday was like without consulting my notebook, but on raceday I was hoping for rain. In the first rainy practice session, Bridgestone riders were doing well, on par or better than their Michelin counterparts. But in the dry? Overall, we were running into problems and only the genius of VR46 keep the Japanese rubber towards the very front. So yeah, I did a rain dance just before the race (because you never know). I was hoping it would be a clear cut kind of thing, either rain or dry, because the "Switch" races make me uncomfortable. But that's what it looked like we had in store for us, so after the bikes roared off the line the second bikes were hurriedly flipped into wet mode, or intermediate mode, or a combination of the two, and over again because the weather and drizzles kept coming in. It's hard to tell from the televised feeds and the internet, but there was some water coming down during the race, and when you add that to a track that's known for low grip, it's that many more greasy marbles on a basketball court.

As you can see, after the race I made it into the Estoril Casino, for my second visit ever into a gambling establishment. For a person like me, who believes we make our own luck, this can be a very, very, treacherous place, hahaha. Casino 1-0 Liam. Next year!

As is the tradition, there was a small GP gathering at Coconuts in the town of Cascais. It's a great location, right on the water overlooking a rocky beachfront, and after a long week at the track, there is nothing better than a cold drink with the tangy smell of the ocean. I even met some guys from Galicia who recognized me from the Spanish TV show I was featured on last year!

It was a early night, though, because the entire GP paddock was working the next day with a testing day at the track. I called it quits after congratulating the Yamaha boys, and Monday was a killer. 8 hours on the track with the bikes, then packing up everything to fly to China while getting our "euro-gear" stashed away in the trucks for Le Mans.

Ducati Malrboro's parts guy, Davide, headed back to Bologna a little earlier than the rest of his team for what is possibly the best reason ever. He got married! Big, Big Congratulations and Best Wishes to him and his new bride! "Baralda" is one of the keystones for that team, and he's one of the people who help me to do a better job myself. Big Ups to him, and if you ever meet him, you're in for a treat because he's one of the nicest people in the paddock (and smart like a computer, too).

These past two weeks, I've just kind of stayed quiet and offline. I had a tremendous day at the Chinese consulate getting my visa prepared, and while I was waiting in line for hours (in the rain, argh!), I spotted Randy Mamola and some of the local guys from Showa. I did manage to record some material with Popmonkey, of Ride on Two and MotoGPod, so if you interested in hearing some candid thoughts and stories (and babbling, plus rambling) you can Click Here to listen to some MotoGPod Podcasts.

The weather is finally changing here in Barcelona, with some sun and t-shirt weather, if only for a few hours during the early afternoons. I've had a lot of time to think, resting when possible, but mostly just chewing on the same old stuff and crunching away at things. I have been going through some of my older music collection stored on my previous laptop, and wow, it's great to re-discover songs from my past that still get me today! No doubt some of that will be posted here, but as we're getting ready for Shanghai, I've got some new tunes ready for you.

GP08 Shanghai track 1!

GP08 Shanghai track 2 - this one's hilarious!

ok, ok, I didn't spend all my time in front of the computer. I managed to grab a roasted chicken and hit the beach one afternoon, where I met this cool little dog running around. Here's to more days like that in the future, but for now, it's racetime.

April 07, 2008

We head to Cascais, Lisbon, Portugal, for Estoril!

Round 3 (or 4, who's counting?) is just around the corner. Literally. While the Gran Premio de Portugal takes place in another country, it was once a Spanish GP, and is unofficially considered to be one to this day as so many Spaniards will make the trek across the Iberian Peninsula to see the race. What does this race have in store for the Squadra Delle Pecore Nere?

We arrive tomorrow, with only a small time zone to hop through, meaning my flight there from BCN will be 40 minutes long, and the return flight 2:45 long. If . . . . everything goes according to plan, haha. In the meantime, let's get ready for Estoril with this Beautiful Re-Mix!

And while you're at it, have a look at the updated Extras Page, which features additional music you may not have caught since this season began.

April 06, 2008

GP08 Jerez, Race 2, "Down - But Not Out. Ever."

To say it's been a rough pre-season would be an understatement. Going into these last two races, everyone on the Team knew we were in for some difficult weekends. Everyone involved is looking for results - the riders, the Factory, the sponsors, everyone. How are things so different from last season, where we challenged at the sharp end with Alex Barros and Alex Hoffman, both on brand new bikes, the Ducati GP7? The answer, like everything in MotoGP, is not so simple. We are looking not just for answers, but for solutions. At heart I consider myself to be a problem solver. Let's take some time to go over how things have been so far, and look ahead towards the next 16 races. Nothing ever comes easy, but with the right resolve, the right attitudes, we can turn things around.

Sometimes it's a question of perspective. Was this past weekend at Jerez really that bad? Both my riders, Toni Elias and Sylvain Guintoli, are alive and healthy, as are the members of my Team. In fact, Sylvain just celebrated the birth of his second daughter this past week, something that was surely on his mind while he was away from his wife and home in England during the race week in Spain. And Toni? He's coming to grips with a motorcycle that is clearly a top level machine. A machine that's more than capable of propelling Casey Stoner to the front and keeping him there. Why is it that the other three Ducati's are so far from Stoner's performances? These last two months, I've received numerous emails with this question and more. My simple answer is this: It does me no good right now to think about that subject too much, because I have more than enough concerns with my own responsibilities on the Team. Were my bikes up and running at every event, in every session? Yes. Will they continue to be so? I trust that they will be, and if I've been doing my job correctly, we should be fine. But the question still stands, and during my downtime, I think about it. We all do. There's a fine line, a delicate balance, between providing positive support for the riders and the Team, and it's my personal viewpoint that at such moments an increase in pressure can do more harm than good. I continue to smile and think positively, because I know the people I am working with and I know that we have the ability and resources to excel. I wouldn't be here otherwise, and I believe my team mates feel the same.

About this time I normally go ahead and post some pictures from the weekend, tell some funny stories, and keep it light. The reality is, this isn't an easy time for the Team, and even with a large sponsor who's already heavily involved within MotoGP, sponsoring individual races as well as the Factory Team, the bottom line is that unfortunately, money doesn't always buy results. It helps, for sure, but racing is more than just the sum of its parts, haha. In a way, it's a beautiful compromise of sorts. I could probably write a book with what I've learned thus far in my racing career, but the trust placed in me means that what I write and what I say is naturally edited. But what I do say comes from within, and I'm going to continue writing about the feelings and emotions that course through me on this journey. So Liam, what's it like?

The Team has been working very hard these last months. We run a smaller ship than other efforts, and about the only group I can compare it to at this point is the Herve Poncharal's Tech 3 Yamaha Team. We have an innate ability and desire to get more things done with less, and even compared to last season, we are running with less personnel than before. Everyone has picked up the slack, with Team mechanics heading to the raceshop in Madrid between the races to prepare our new race trucks and trailers, continue to refine the pit garage and materials, and help build up the many sets of painted bodywork that a World Championship level team will go through over the course of a full season. My work with Ducati Corse has me busy in Barcelona, which is why my website updates have been coming about a week late. Actually, I kind of like it that way, because it gives me time to think and I don't feel like I'm under a deadline to get anything done because frankly, the website is the least of my worries right now, haha. The travel is starting to get intense again, and I didn't even realize that WSBK was racing in my Valencia this weekend, my backyard. I dropped the ball on planning to attend the race, and I also missed the worldwide press presentation for the new Ducati Monster 696 this past weekend, too! I would have loved to have made it to either of these, but a lot of things start to fall by the wayside when you're concentrating on MotoGP and your life is only half your own. Just maintaining the presence of mind to keep myself healthy and ready to ship out to the next race takes some effort, and it doesn't leave a lot of time for friends and sight-seeing. Besides, I am definitely not in a party mood this season. Not yet, at least.

The views of the full paddock from the grandstands above the main straight at Jerez are great. I really got the feeling that we were at a real Grand Prix race, because everyone was here flying their full colors, complete with giant hospitality units and massive crowds clogging the roadways every morning. I didn't see any traffic at night, though, because every night after dinner we usually had a few more things to take care of in the garage and that meant we managed to get back to our hotel on average at about midnight. Contrary to popular belief, the people who work in the races are not crazy party animals, and I even spotted some Factory teams working late into the night alongside us. We're here to win races, and we miss out on the big show and carnival like atmosphere that usually decends upon the small towns that host these amazing races. This Red Bull Energy Station is two stories tall, but our new Alice Team unit is even bigger! When the weather is better and I can take some better pictures, I'll do something nice to show you all how lucky we are this season. We even have special cooks coming in from Napoli, and believe me, those boys can cook up some tasty food! But . . . that's for another post, haha.

The race week passed me by quickly, and before I knew it, race day had come. No special dinners in the neighboring villages, like Porto Santa Maria or Rota, only the track and the hotel. Well, I did have some kick-ass grub at Venta Esteban's restaurant on Tuesday and Wednesday night, but after that it was all work. We left the hotel in the dark on Sunday morning, aiming to beat the 120K+ people who were arriving that day to watch the race. In the parking lot I spied this beautiful custom bike, no doubt the work of someone as passionate as us, with an equal respect for parts old as well as new. Even mixing production pieces from across brands (Honda CBR 1K, and Yamaha R6, etc), and across decades (70's-00's)! Despite our morning rush, I managed to take a minute to scrutinize the machine from front to back, and I came away impressed (even if you notice that there's a bolt missing from the carbon lower chain guard, haha).

While the colors don't do much for me, the amount of work invested in this custom streetfighter makes it worthy of some mad respect.

Why yes, that is a serious piece of machinery!

The Business.

We piled into our vans and headed off to the circuit. These guys were busy trying to show off that they had a convertible, and they froze their asses off for it while everyone was stuck in the long lines leading up to the circuit entrances. The temperature varied quite a bit over the weekend, typically going from very cold in the mornings to pleasant, balmy even, in the afternoons. By evening, it would get chilly again, necessitating sweatshirts and beanies. While we were in Southern Spain, Andalucia, it wasn't nearly as warm and sunny as I would have liked. The people were typically dark skinned, with dark hair and eyes. It was nice, if a little windy.

Playing around with my little camera's settings, I took this shot walking towards the paddock from our parking lot.

Same location, showing how dark it really was!

Morning warm up came, and it's always great to hit the pit wall and check out the practice starts that everyone is allowed to make this season. After their out lap, the riders will line up and take a launch, sometimes alone, sometimes in twos or threes. This year it's especially interesting to listen and watch the Yamaha's and HRC machines, because they've been working on a WOT, full throttle launch control system. The sounds of these beautiful machines is amazing, RPM's bouncing off the rev-limiters, engines blasting their full song, burning that precious, precious fuel - and when the riders dump the clutch - ZOOOOOOOoommmm. They're just gone. It's incredible to see, much like watching a top fuel drag race. Front wheels skipping the payment, sensors reacting and adjusting before the machine's lift and momentum carry the bike up past two inches. Some scoff, because the rider seems to be hanging on for dear life, but the reality is that there are no other racing bikes out there that are getting off the line as quickly and effectively. It is the poetry of engineering in motion.

After the rider's check their starts, they'll usually come in and swap bikes, making sure that both machines and engines are working right in the event that they have to switch before or during the race. Typically, engines are changed in the evenings, but you never want a brand new anything to be used in a race, it always needs to be run in and checked. The riders will run a few laps with each machine, and then the warm up becomes a defacto short practice session, because everyone continues to fine tune the bikes for the main event.

This being the first race of the season back in Europe, it's a really big deal. Before the race started, the King of Spain, Juan Carlos, came by the garages and wished all the Spanish riders good luck. His entourage was impressive, and the Spanish security detail was professional and inobtrusive.

This race also marked something new and cool for me, as I was finally given a coveted "grid-pass". Yes!

Here I am with my old Corse guy, Luigi. New for this race, and for the remainder of the season, we have to put up these small barriers around the riders and mechanics before they sit on the grid for about 15 minutes before the start of the race. I think this is to keep the cameramen and media at a distance, so the riders can focus on their tasks ahead. Either way, it means that I managed to sunburn the top of my skull. Again.

I'm definitely going to need to get my hands on one of our Team hats at some point, hahaha. Three minutes before the race starts, everyone clears off the grid and rushes back to the box. Two of the mechanics stay near the track/grid entrance, in case they need to run out and work on the bike if there's an emergency on the starting line. I always hightail it back to our chrono-box on pit wall to watch the rider's launch when the lights go out. Then I run back inside the garage to watch the bikes make it through the first corner, always the most dangerous part of the race in my mind.

This sound is something I live for.

Huge mention about how great it is to see Nicky back in the hunt. He put in a very solid race, complete with a magic save, and brought it home in fourth. The race itself was everything it was hyped to be, with two Spanish riders battling for the podium and VR on the pace and looking to score yet another win at this circuit. The four Ducati's had some difficulties during the race, but bottom line is that it's only one battle in the war, and knowing everyone behind the project, the rest of the year should be better. My motivation remains the same and is as strong as ever - to go out and win races. To do whatever it takes to win races and fight in the World Championship. It's the same for everyone on my Team, and we are not going to let ourselves get down. I won't let that happen. Whether it's a tough race, or a tough season, I'm a fighter and at some point, we'll be able to show what we're capable of. It takes a lot of faith at moments like this, but with a strong heart, anything is possible. Hearts are small things in the grand scheme of things, unfortunately, and when people are spending literally millions of Euros to make this project happen, when they ask questions, they want answers. It always rolls downhill. What's important is that we all band together stronger, because once people start questioning themselves it breeds a lack of trust and this can be devastating to the morale of the Team and the riders. It's easy to say, "Hey, it's just racing," but racing is our lives and it's in our blood.

Besides, we still know how to have a good time, right? My Basque mechanic shows how it's done, haha.


And later that night, after the race, a few of us settled down for a beer. Felix, ex-GP 250 rider and multi-time Spanish Champion of various categories poses with Beata, our Czech hospitality specialist. Bonus point for anyone who can name the ex-GP rider pictured with them . . . . Hint: there's a drink with the same name . . .

Perhaps the funniest moment of the entire weekend came that night, when (blurried to protect their identities) these two guys told us their story of how they made it to the races and into the paddock. On Sunday morning they asked themselves, should we go to the race? Sure! But we don't have passes. No problem, said the older one. They walked up towards the entrance and quickly surveyed the scene. They each grabbed a pillar/entry gate post and started carrying them as though they needed to deliver them to some other point of access in the paddock. They were waved right on through, hahaha. Then again, these are the same guys who manage to gate-crash massive Futbol matches by walking through the gates carrying bags of ice for the beer vendors . . . .

We had a test on Monday, which meant another full 8 hours on the track. Like Valencia and Laguna Seca, there's a small lake built into the grounds. After the session was over in the early evening, we packed up our racetrucks and headed off to Venta Esteban's once again. It took a little longer than normal, because it was our first time packing up with these custom trailers, but everything fit and then the trucks got ready to head north to Madrid the following day. And Estoril would come far sooner than expected. To say we're on the limit isn't right, nor is it wrong. Everyone is working well together, the bike and tires are working well, and we just need something to click. Whether it's a modified riding style, or some small changes to the machine, I'm sure it'll happen. No one likes being in the back and fighting for "nothing". There's too much pride and respect on the line, and we're all professionals. During these recent events, we've been under a lot of pressure to succeed, and it's led to raised voices and a general feeling of tension at times. What's good is that we're able to talk about it, work around it, and come out stronger and closer together than we were before. It's clear that in order to be an effective Team we need to stay strong and positive. We must develop into the threat that I know we are.

Special shout out to my friends at Puma, who not only sponsor the Team this season, but who also collaborate with Ducati and make these awesome kicks. It's funny to say I wear these shoes with pride, but you know what? I do! I mean, How Cool Is This?!?!

We'll be in Lisbon, Portugal in a few days, getting ready for another race, another chance to fight. I'll be bringing my heart and my smile, and I can't wait to get it on!

Bonus picture of the weekend comes in the form of Toni carrying his spare leather suit back to his motorhome. How he managed to un-attach it, I'll never know, hahahaha.