Archive - 2011 - Race Story
After two weeks away from racing, the MotoGP assembles again in Barcelona, and tragically, we're once talking about what's going on off-track rather than the prospect of some racing after a two-week hiatus. Marco Simoncelli has been called to Race Direction for further questioning about his crash with Dani Pedrosa at Le Mans. He will likely also be receiving some extra personal protection at the Barcelona circuit, after threats had been made against him via the Gresini website. The good news is that the threats came over the internet, meaning they are most likely the work of an idiot stuck in is bedroom who is all keyboard and no trousers (after all, if every threat of violence posted on the internet was actually followed through, the population of the world would be 7 rather than 7 billion). It still completely spoils the atmosphere though.
There are many spectacular settings for racetracks around the world, but Miller Motorsports Park in Utah is undeniably one of the finest. Set on an undulating plain against the backdrop of the Oquirrh mountains, the track guarantees stunning images and wonderful scenery. And along with the fantastic scenery, the track also boasts some of the best names for corners on any track around the world: From Dreamboat, through Work-Out to the fast kink of Scream; from Right Hook to Knock Out and then on to Witchcraft; then the Attitudes, First, Second, and Bad; before the final flick right through Wind Up and out Release - the most appropriately named corner in the world - along the front straight.
Despite the interesting layout - good for some outstanding battles in the World Supersport class, who will not be joining the World Superbike riders in Utah as a way of containing costs for the junior class - Miller has a history of allowing a single rider to dominate proceedings. In the three visits that WSBK has paid to the circuit, each of the weekends has ended in a double win for one rider: Carlos Checa in 2008, Ben Spies in 2009 and Max Biaggi in 2010. The number of winners should really be fewer: Checa was leading both 2010 races comfortably before sidelined by a simple mechanical issue, twice denying him victory.
Pity the poor Portuguese MotoGP round. While so many other races sit ostentatiously in fixed slots in the calendar - Qatar as the season opener in March or April, Assen on the last Saturday in June, Laguna Seca as the last race in July before the summer break, Valencia as the last race of the season in November - the Estoril round of MotoGP is constantly being shoved back and forth in the calendar, from early to late and back to early again. Race fans planning a visit to the Portuguese Grand Prix are forced to wait for the calendar to be finalized before deciding whether to book a trip to the track on the edge of the Atlantic.
That vast body of water is part of the problem: the reason for shifting the Estoril MotoGP race back and forth in the calendar - apart from fitting it in among the more solid fixtures in the season - is to avoid the wet and windy conditions that so often prevail whenever the series visits the track. It is hard to blame the weather entirely on the circuit, however; MotoGP only ever visits the track in either early spring or late autumn, times of year when the nearby Atlantic plays a more active role in the weather, bringing wind and rain to the circuit on a regular basis.
After just two rounds of the World Superbike championship, the Althea Ducati juggernaut looks just about unstoppable. Four races, three wins, and a worst result of 3rd puts Carlos Checa very much in the driving seat of the 2011 championship.
There is good reason to believe that Checa will continue as he has started, with the Spaniard and his Italian team running like a well-oiled machine. Accusations that the team is actually Ducati's factory effort have been strenuously denied, though Ernesto Marinelli - head of Ducati's Superbike project - added some nuance to the situation in an interview with Italian website GPOne.com. The Althea squad is not a factory team, Marinelli explained, but rather a private team who buy a package from Ducati Corse. That package includes a 2011 Ducati 1198R, with a very large amount of support from the Bologna factory. Enough, hopefully, to secure a championship, though there is still a very long way to go in the season.
There is something unreal about the first race of the year at Qatar. The combination of the dazzling lights illuminating the desert, the strange, vampire-like day-night rhythm imposed by the night race, and the absence of crowds at the track makes the whole affair feel like it must have been a dream.
How different, then, is the event at Jerez? Hot Spanish sunshine, a paddock full of trucks, teams and hospitality, and 120,000 screaming, passionate fans. It is a heady mix, and feels like the real start to the season. MotoGP truly gets kickstarted at Jerez.
Which is rather ironic, as in this part of Spain, April spells the end of the riding season, rather than the start. The mild winters make it possible to go riding during the day, but once the summer heat arrives - daytime temperatures in Seville, just north of Jerez, are usually well over 40 degrees throughout the summer months - venturing out on a motorcycle in anything resembling protective gear becomes a sweaty, draining business.
So Jerez marks a double festival: The end of the local riding season and the return to home soil of MotoGP, and the Spaniards celebrate it in style, with wine, wheelies and song. The atmosphere is never anything less than frantic, wild, exuberant; if there is a party the night before the world ends, then this is what it will be like.
The 800cc MotoGP era has been a terrible one for satellite teams. Since the drop in capacity at the start of the 2007 season, a satellite rider has not won a single race, and even podiums have been scored only very sparingly. The smaller capacity has placed a greater emphasis on technology; technology costs money, and money is a commodity that is (still) in short supply among the satellite squads.
The technology wars have had another deleterious effect on the satellite teams. As the technology of the MotoGP machines has become more important, the factories have taken away more and more control over the bikes. Each satellite MotoGP bike comes with at least one factory engineer, leaving the satellite pit crew with less and less to do. The mechanics are becoming exactly that, mechanics, and not allowed the heart of a modern MotoGP machine, the electronics.
But 2011 could be the year that we finally see a satellite rider take a win in the class. After four years of not winning a championship in the capacity class that came about because they asked for it, Honda have pulled out all of the stops for the class' final year. And although their efforts are aimed mainly at securing a title for Casey Stoner or Dani Pedrosa, the repercussions of their hard work should also pay off for the Honda satellite riders as well.
Seldom has a MotoGP season been more eagerly awaited than the 2011 season. We seem to say this every year, but this year it is almost certainly true. The 2010 season gave a foretaste of what MotoGP can do sometimes, with moments such as Jorge Lorenzo catching and then passing Dani Pedrosa at the Jerez Grand Prix, and Valentino Rossi's bitter battle with Lorenzo at Motegi engraved firmly in our memories. With another year of development on the bikes and experience for the riders, this season promises the closest racing ever seen in the 800cc class.
The ingredients for this explosive mix are varied. They include an engine capacity coming to the end of its lifecycle (the 800cc MotoGP bikes are to make way for 1000cc machines at the end of this year); a newly-crowned world champion who ended up dominating 2010; a fierce rival, in the shape of Dani Pedrosa, whose title challenge was finally broken by an injury caused by a mechanical failure; two former world champions switch manufacturers, facing new challenges and a shot at the history books; the potential for myth-making of epic proportions, with the iconic Italian motorcycle racer paired up with the iconic Italian motorcycle brand; a rising American star who showed his potential on a satellite machine and now has a factory bike and a year of experience to take to the competition; and a couple of former 250 riders looking capable of causing an upset or two along the way.