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!
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.