There is a purity and a simplicity to motorcycle racing. Once the lights go out, and the bikes roar off the line, there's nowhere left for the truth to hide. No more sandbagging, no more hiding behind excuses about testing new parts or trying out different tires. It becomes a straight, honest fight to the finish, and once the checkered flag is waved, the matter is settled, and the truth is out.
So the relief at the season arriving in earnest is palpable among MotoGP followers. With a new engine capacity, new tire restrictions and a new fuel limit, speculation and rumor had spread through the press, paddock and fans like a forest fire, raging out of control. Would Honda dominate the new series, the same way they did the last time new engine configurations were introduced? Would restricting tire choice make the racing more dangerous, with riders forced to use second choice tires on race day? Would the bikes even make the finish, or would they run out of fuel before crossing the line? And just how much difference would the reduction in capacity make to speeds and to lap times? Now, finally, the racing has started, the speculation has ended and these questions can be answered.
The original reason given for consigning the old fire-breathing 990s to the dustbin of history was that they were just too powerful, and too fast. Reducing engine capacity by 190 cc was the best way of slowing the bikes down, and making racing safer for all concerned it was thought. It only took a few winter tests to blow this myth out of the water, for by the time we reached Sepang in February, records were being smashed both on race tires and on qualifiers. It's not just that the bikes are lapping quicker, but the place where they are making up the time is in the corners, where crashes tend to happen, and where they are some 5 mph faster than the 990s. For to compensate for the lack of power and the slower speeds on the straights, riders are carrying more speed into and through the corners, and this is taking big chunks out of lap times.
So by the time we got to Qatar, it was obvious records would be broken, the only question was by how much. The free practice sessions on Thursday and Friday gave us a glimpse of what was to come, with Colin Edwards and Valentino Rossi setting laps well into the 1'56s on race tires. Then, when qualifying came, Valentino Rossi shattered Casey Stoner's pole record from 2006 by nearly 7/10ths of a second. The only question left was how much quicker would the laps be in the race. We did not have long to wait for an answer.
The Waiting Is Over
As the red lights dimmed, and the deafening shriek of 130dB racing motorcycles heralded the start of racing for the 2007 MotoGP season, it was Valentino Rossi who confirmed the Yamaha's form during testing, getting the drag off the line and into Turn 1 first, ahead of Casey Stoner on the Ducati. Behind them, the Honda riders were doing their best to dispel any doubts about whether the new RC212V was fast enough to compete, with Hanspree Gresini's Toni Elias bashing fairings with Repsol's Dani Pedrosa through the first set of turns, ahead of Elias' team mate Marco Melandri. John Hopkins followed Melandri on the Rizla Suzuki, leading Fiat Yamaha's Colin Edwards and Stoner's team mate Loris Capirossi. The one Honda which didn't join the party at the front was that of reigning World Champion Nicky Hayden. The Kentucky Kid had struggled all week with his Honda, still trying to find a way to ride it, and desperately looking for some more wind protection on the tiny bike. Down in 9th position at the end of the first lap, though he had not lost any places, this is not how Hayden had hoped to open the defense of his title.
As the pack rounded Turn 16 to come back onto the main straight, Valentino Rossi led the way, his quest to regain the title he lost so painfully at Valencia going exactly as planned. Then, Casey Stoner opened the Ducati up, and made clear that the leopard had not changed its spots. Of all the former 990 cc monsters, the Ducati was perhaps the most monstrous of all. Never short of horsepower, in a straight line, the Duck was virtually unbeatable. And we now know that in the new 800 cc era, things are no different. In an awe-inspiring display of straight-line speed, Stoner slipstreamed past Valentino Rossi over the finish line, pulling away as if the Yamaha's brakes were stuck on. By the time the bikes reached Turn 1, the Ducati was nearly 10 bike lengths ahead, and threatening to provide a repeat performance of Valencia, where an Australian on a Ducati walked away from the field to take the win.
Behind Rossi, Spanish prodigy Dani Pedrosa had followed Stoner's lead, getting a strong run out of Turn 16 to pull out of Toni Elias' slipstream over the finish line and fit into 3rd place. Pedrosa proceeded to close down Rossi, while Elias was left to deal with team mate Marco Melandri, who had followed in Pedrosa's wake. The battle for supremacy within the Gresini team was fierce, Elias and Melandri swapping paint and places for corner after corner, but within a couple of laps, Melandri had settled the fight in his favor, and was left to focus on chasing down the leaders.
Back at the front, two strategies were becoming apparent. It was obvious that the Ducati had more speed than the Yamaha, as Stoner pulled away from Rossi on even pretty short straights. But The Doctor had set up his M1 to be more agile and carry more corner speed, as through the complex set of flicks from Turn 7 to Turn 10, and especially round the long series of right-handers of Turns 12 through 14, Rossi closed Stoner down, negating the Ducati's pure horsepower advantage. Then, back over the finish line at the end of lap 2, Dani Pedrosa tried the same trick that worked for Stoner, drafting past Rossi along the long front straight. But unlike Stoner, Pedrosa did not have the wild ponies of the Ducati to rely on, and with some outstanding braking, and a firm closing of the door, Rossi was back past Pedrosa into Turn 1.
By the start of lap 3, a leading group was starting to form. Stoner led, with Rossi and Pedrosa close behind. Half a second behind, Marco Melandri was dispatching his team mate Toni Elias, with John Hopkins joining in the festivities. A little way behind Hopper, Stoner's team mate Loris Capirossi was on a charge, carrying Colin Edwards on his coat tails. Toni Elias' early exertions then started to take their toll, as Elias started a backward slide which would last all race.
Behind Edwards, and already off the pace, Nicky Hayden was in the middle of a long day, holding off the satellite Hondas of Carlos Checa and Shinya Nakano, the Kawasaki of Randy de Puniet and Suzuki's Chris Vermeulen. By the time the pack crossed the line at the end of lap 3, Hayden was over a second behind, and permanently out of touch with the leaders.
With Elias gone, the leading group were down to five: Stoner still led, setting a new lap record on lap 3, only for it to last less than a quarter of a second, as Valentino Rossi set an even faster time creeping closer to the Australian Ducatista. Right with Rossi was Dani Pedrosa, and behind Pedrosa, Marco Melandri was doing his best to hold off a storming John Hopkins. Nearly two laps later, Rossi used the speed he had through the tricky rear section of the track to tuck in behind Stoner, finally making his move into Turn 14, before they rejoined the front straight. His triumph was to be short lived, however, as once again, Stoner unleashed the beast, and the Ducati was back past the Yamaha before the bikes had reached the finish line again. Once again, Pedrosa tried to take advantage of Stoner's slipstream to pull ahead of Rossi and into 2nd, but once again he found his advances very firmly rebuffed, as The Doctor outbraked him into Turn 1 yet again.
Behind Pedrosa, John Hopkins' move met with more success, outbraking Marco Melandri to pass him into Turn 1. Outbraking Marco Melandri is in itself an exceptional feat, as Melandri is possibly the toughest braker on the grid. But Hopkins was doing it with a fractured wrist, and to withstand such enormous forces on a cracked scaphoid is an achievement of almost Herculean proportions.
Making It Stick
As we embarked upon lap 6, a familiar pattern was emerging: Valentino Rossi was back past Casey Stoner into the hairpin at Turn 6, and set about trying to build a gap. But at any stretch of straight tarmac, The Doctor would see his hard work through the corners undone, as Stoner's horses reeled him in. And while the straight sections around the rear of the track are short enough for Rossi to be able to hold Stoner off, once they hit the long start and finish straight, the Ducati's horsepower and superior aerodynamics left the Yamaha totally outclassed.
One lap later, the lead group was reduced to just four. Marco Melandri had been previously dropped, as his front tire started to go after dicing with first Hopper and then Loris Capirossi. Then, Capirossi's charge came to a premature end in the gravel traps at track side. That left Casey Stoner leading Valentino Rossi, with Dani Pedrosa following hot on his heels, and John Hopkins biding his time for an attack.
As the race progressed, the pattern repeated again and again: Valentino Rossi would eat away at Casey Stoner's advantage round the rear of the circuit, while simultaneously holding off Dani Pedrosa. Then, down the front straight, Stoner would unleash the Bolognese ponies, leaving the Yamaha, Honda and Suzuki for dead. Down the same front straight, Dani Pedrosa would use his light weight to advantage, getting a strong drive out of the final right-hander of Turn 16 to pass Rossi along the straight. In his turn, Rossi would not stand this nonsense, and at the end of the straight, would pass Pedrosa on the brakes, exploiting the confidence he had in his front end to slam the door into Turn 1.
But Rossi wasn't the only rider to slam the door so rudely in Pedrosa's face. The diminutive Spaniard ran wide trying to get close enough to Rossi through the last corner, in his habitual attempt to draft past The Doctor on the straight. This was exactly the chance that Hopper had been waiting for, and he was past Pedrosa in an instant. Pedrosa then merely switched targets: if he was unable to draft past Rossi, he was perfectly happy to settle for drafting past Hopkins. But Hopkins had seen the treatment which Rossi had meted out to Pedrosa, and followed suit, outbraking and then slamming the door on Pedrosa going into Turn 1 once again. His advantage was not to last, however, as Pedrosa was back past again by the time they exited Turn 5.
This little altercation gave the leading pair a breathing space, and by the end of the next lap, Stoner and Rossi had nearly a 2 second advantage over Pedrosa and Hopkins. Freed of the interference of the Honda and Suzuki, the cycle of two halves of the track played itself out for lap after lap: Rossi closing down Stoner through the twisty sections, and Stoner pulling away on sheer speed along the straights. It was becoming increasingly evident that Valentino Rossi had only one course of action open to him if he wanted to win this race: He had to get past Stoner as early as possible in the lap, and try to build enough of a gap down to be able to hold Stoner off along the front straight. If Stoner was too close behind Rossi going through the final turn, Rossi would be toast.
With 4 laps to go, Rossi decided to make a move. Coming over the finish line he was less than one hundredth of a second behind Stoner, and looked like he would be close enough to get past through the first few turns. But Stoner parried beautifully: by the time Rossi got past him, they were into Turn 10, with only a third of a lap before hitting the punishing, long, fast straight. And true to form, his efforts were for nothing, as Stoner steamed past again by the time the pair crossed the finish line. The next lap, Rossi has one last look at Stoner, before admitting defeat. His last efforts lost a couple of tenths of a second, a gap just too big to close. Stoner had ridden a perfect race, had kept his composure when passed, and used his top speed advantage to devastating effect, smashing the lap record by over three quarters of a second on his final lap. At a track like Qatar, there was no way of preventing a formidable Casey Stoner from taking his maiden win in the premier class, and fulfilling the promise he showed all last year. He had answered his critics, who complained that he crashed too easily, by taking a fantastic victory over Valentino Rossi, a victory that Rossi could do nothing about.
The fight for the last podium place was a similar war of nerves. Almost every lap, Hopkins closed on Pedrosa, but each time, Pedrosa answered and pulled away. On the last lap, Hopkins was closer than ever, but not close enough: Pedrosa crossed the line to take 3rd, Hopkins coming very close to taking his very first podium. But here's something to consider: If this is what John Hopkins is capable of with a broken wrist, just imagine what he will be like once his wrist is fully healed.
Behind Hopkins, Marco Melandri had dropped back to fight for 5th with Colin Edwards for a few laps, before tire wear decided the battle in Melandri's favor. Edwards had gotten a poor start, and never really recovered enough to ride as he had done during the practice sessions.
Champion Of The World
Behind Edwards, a battle had been raging. All race long, Suzuki's Chris Vermeulen, reigning champ Nicky Hayden, Konica Minolta rider Shinya Nakano and Stoner's replacement at LCR, Carlos Checa had gone back and forth, squabbling over 7th. They lost Checa on the way, the Spaniard crashing out on lap 9, and had been joined by Alex Barros on the Pramac Ducati in the second half of the race. Vermeulen had led the group for much of the race, occasionally being spelled by Nicky Hayden and Alex Barros. Though places were swapped right to the line, eventually it was Vermeulen who took the coveted 9 points, with Nicky Hayden a disappointing and disappointed 8th, ahead of Alex Barros in 9th. Barros and his team were pretty pleased afterwards, as Barros' 9th and Hofmann's 11th spot saw the Pramac d'Antin bikes well up the order, instead of languishing in the tail scrabbling for points, as was so often the case last year.
Shinya Nakano was the filling in the d'Antin sandwich, and he will surely also be disappointed with a 10th position. History is repeating itself for the Konica Minolta team, as yet another rider who was brilliant on Bridgestones is struggling for front-end feel with the Michelins. Olivier Jacque just pipped Kenny Roberts Jr to 12th, taking the only points for Kawasaki after Randy de Puniet crashed out from the group fighting for 8th spot. Kenny Jr's 13th spot points toward Team KR still having plenty of work to do, though they were spared the embarrassment of finishing last Honda-powered bike, Toni Elias taking that honor. The Dunlop-shod Tech 3 Yamahas took the last two positions, Sylvain Guintoli taking a point on his MotoGP debut, leaving Makoto Tamada, who had had such a torrid time at Konica Minolta, to take 16th, his fortunes evidently not improved by his switch away from Michelins and Honda.
All in all, the first 800cc MotoGP race turned out to be an interesting spectacle, if not necessarily a great race. Some questions were answered, while others remain open, but some conclusions can already be drawn. Firstly, the race finished with four different makes of motorcycle taking the top 4 places, a pointer to the parity of the bikes. Gone are the days when a ride on a Honda was a guarantee of a top spot, with only Valentino Rossi capable of consistently putting up a fight. In fact, Honda seemed to have made a serious mistake with the 800 cc. It is widely suggested that the switch from the 990s was made at Honda's behest, with Big Red hoping to capitalize on a new format as they had done so often in the past. But if anything, Honda seem to be among the weaker half of the grid, and sorting out the new engine is proving to be a much trickier task than HRC had bargained upon. Where the remaining manufacturers just removed capacity from their existing bikes, Honda switched from a V5 to a V4. And setting up the new bike is much more complicated than they thought: by dropping the middle cylinder from the front bank of the old V5, both the weight distribution and the gyroscopic effect of the engine has changed. Combine this with a shifting of the fuel further back along the bike, and it seems that the front end of the new bike carries less weight than the 990, leading poor Nicky Hayden for one to complain about a lack of feel from the front end.
The fact that no one ran out of fuel also seems to show that the current generation of engine management systems are getting better at coping with the complex problem of conserving fuel without interfering with the rider's ability to slug it out in a duel. Not only did everyone finish the race (at least, those who didn't crash out or suffer mechanical failure), but the remaining riders also managed to finish the parade lap as well.
The main target of the rumors about failing fuel efficiency were Ducati, but Casey Stoner answered that criticism quite emphatically at Losail on Saturday. Indeed, anyone looking at the lap sheet would think that Ducati ran away with the race, as Stoner led every single lap of the race over the start and finish line. But that is a distorted picture, as Stoner had to tolerate being passed by Rossi round the rear of the track for much of the race, only to unleash the fearsome power of the Ducati down the main straight. That bodes well for Ducati at tracks with long, fast straights such as Mugello, Motegi and Barcelona, and possibly at Shanghai and Sepang as well. But the Yamaha, the Suzuki and the Honda all made time good on the Ducati round the more difficult parts of the circuit, which means that Ducati face a much tougher task at more technical tracks.
But this is yet more speculation, of the type we have had to listen to all winter long. The truth of the matter will be unveiled in two weeks time, at Jerez, a slower, more difficult, twisty track. Whatever the truth may turn out to be, the new era of 800 cc MotoGP racing motorcycles has dawned with some great racing, and the promise of much more to come.