Today’s airline travel is a watered-down version of warfare, which is said to be “long periods of boredom,
punctuated by moments of sheer terror.” There you sit in Row 37, knowing that after the third movie ends
and the breakfast banana has been served, the plane will land in Madrid and you will have one hour to
shuffle out of this long, aluminum tube, clear customs, find a bus to another terminal, appear calm passing through security again and walk quickly, awkwardly (laptop banging against your leg) to faraway Gate 55 to find…nobody. The bus to the airplane, which is parked out on the tarmac somewhere, has, naturally, left.
It’s great to be off to the races! But wait. A slender, businesslike young woman sees my plight, tags my
luggage Ultimo Minuto and phones for a special bus. I’m saved.
This little Air Europa turboprop commuter to Valencia is my intro to Spain’s 25 percent unemployment:
seventy-two seats, 14 passengers. To add to the unreality, the flight attendant is dressed in the formal style of 1950’s Pan Am—red lipstick, Audrey Hepburn pillbox hat and uniform suit with jacket.
Colleague Matthew Miles and I are guests of photographer Andrew Wheeler, who enjoys driving fast in
traffic. As we arrived on the track’s access road, I remember being here in 2004 and ’06, when fields on
both sides were smoking gypsy camps full of people milling, talking, cooking food. Now, there is just
grass—no people. No buses hung with ROSSI #46 banners. Hard times.
On the way into the paddock, I hold my pass out to someone holding a barcode reader, which says “Bleeple” and I’m in.
The media center is what you would expect—row after row of photographers and journalists at their laptops,
with monitors overhead. One wall is glass, overlooking pit lane. The other is racks, now almost empty, for
all the time sheets and other documents soon to be generated.
Half the reason for coming to the races is the people in this room. Here comes Michael Scott, who has
put together the “Motocourse” annual for 20 years. Over there is Neil Spalding, author of “MotoGP
Technology,” the man who can tell you if a certain weld on the Yamaha M1’s swingarm has been moved
a quarter-inch since August. And walking purposefully is Dennis Noyes, who has spent much of his adult
life in Spain, is a long-time associate of Dorna CEO Carmelo Ezpeleta and is fascinated by the contrasts in cultures. And here is Julian Ryder, who recruited me to write “The Grand Prix Motorcycle” back in 2007.
These rows of journalists are in a sense his “garden,” and he cultivates us with bits of conversation. All of these men know fascinating things that I wish I knew. In the course of this weekend, there will be many
conversations. Oh, and here is Mark Wernham, intently uploading images to clients. Photographers are
assumed to be deaf because photographs are. Because of this, they hear interesting things.
I remember the machines and walk down the hall. There they are, two of them, clever cross-cultural machines that make five different kinds of coffee—without charge. I put a plastic cup in place and hit “cappuccino.” The cycle takes some time but the result is an important antidote to jet-lag.
I deploy my heavy laptop and plug in. Matthew and I are sharing the 50-euro wireless charge. Every few
minutes, a gentleman two rows down, facing us, makes a live broadcast in Spanish, artificial tension and
excitement cleverly integrated into his delivery. I see the small woman who is NGM’s press officer (she
speaks four languages) expertly and kindly refuse her second would-be frog prince of the day. Many
attractive women wear large hats and unbecoming baggy clothing in hope of going unnoticed.
There is a rider press conference every day—one at the beginning, another at the end, with practice and
qualifying press conferences in between. There also are “scrums,” scheduled minutes when particular riders appear in one of the hospitalities and are surrounded by solid journalists holding out their digital recorders. A “minder” stands in the background, looking at his or her watch, ready to cut off the affair. Then, the rider departs by scooter, whisked away to TV lights. Scrums generate a lot of words, but they are shared with every other journalist present. Better are one-on-one interviews, sometimes possible by scheduling, sometimes not. Nobody gets time with Valentino Rossi, it seems.
We are lucky to get time with experienced engineers Jeremy Burgess and Tom Houseworth. Burgess mentions in passing “the 20 large freezers that the teams have to carry with them.” They are to chill the fuel,
shrinking it so that more will fit into the 21-liter tank volume each prototype bike is allowed. Hydrocarbons shrink at a rate of about one cc per liter, per degree Centigrade, so cooling the fuel from room temperature to the freezing point of water lets a team put 440 extra cc of fuel into the tank.
This takes us back to the late 1980s, when F1 teams burned high-density fuels based on toluene for the same reason. (There is a lot of toluene in no-lead pump gas, as well, so this is not “rocket fuel.”) To get that heavy stuff to evaporate at the injectors, it had to be passed through a heat exchanger to heat it back up. Surely such heat exchangers are being used in MotoGP now. Cool the fuel to make more fit in the tank then heat it back up to make it evaporate. The fiction is that the “fuel rule”—limiting prototypes to 21 liters from 2007-2012 and to 20 liters next year—drives development of fuel-conserving technologies. It does not. It just drives up costs.
Let’s think of another aspect of that fuel rule: It essentially forbids tire sliding and spinning, both of which waste energy. Reducing the fuel allowance to 20 liters for 2013 underlines this, making the most efficient way around the track still a single-line procession, all riding a corner-speed style.
The Valencia MotoGP was in effect rained out. Bikes were smashed up by crashes caused by running in
mixed conditions—a narrow dry line with dramatically less grip three inches to either side. Poohbah! What a disappointment. No racing, just stupid accidents.
Two days ahead of the Spanish general strike, we flew to Milan for the EICMA Show. Why would this city build vast and elegant exhibition halls in which to display and promote the world’s goods then provide a tiny press room with only 10 positions for laptops? There were 20 times more than that at Valencia. How do reporters report? By runner, as in ancient Rome? The first two days of the show were “working press only,” but such were the crowds that we couldn’t get near new BMW and Piaggio offerings. So, up and down we trudged, carrying useless laptops.
How about using our phone cameras to report by text or voice? Sorry, thousands of callers swamped the
local cell, making connections slow and unreliable. So, it was 40 minutes back through Milan’s subway
system to our hotel, pay the wireless charge there and then write up what we’d seen and send it off. News at 11, so to speak.
As at Valencia, conversations were the best thing about being there. With whom? With ourselves! At dinner, it seemed we all talked more freely about motorcycles, our magazine and our business than we ever could back at the office. At the office, every thought comes with a procedure, a framework—how it has to be in business. Here in Milan, anything seemed possible, and the discussion was sharp and free-wheeling.
Next day was better, as I left my laptop holding down the desk in my hotel room. Now, I could write in my
notebook (what our colleague, Libby Vevers, calls “MyPad”). I stood looking at the new Honda parallel-
Twin CBR500R, “engineered for emerging economies,” and compared it with the air-cooled CB450 Twin of 1965. Honda designed that 450 on its way up the market, having become the world’s largest motorcycle producer in 1964. Now, with Ezpeleta saying “the 1000s may never come back,” here is Honda designing a quite different Twin as displacement comes back down.
Fifty-cc step-throughs, anyone?