Changing the way that Qualifying works is apparently the latest fashion in motorcycle racing. The World Superbike series did it by dropping the old single-lap Superpole format, and adopting a series of three knockout sessions, shameless copied from Formula One. MotoGP would protest that it has changed its qualifying format - though cost-cutting measures have reduced the length of qualifying from an hour to just 45 minutes - but the adoption of the single tire rule and the disappearance of full-on one-lap qualifying tires left MotoGP followers wondering just how this would affect the way the teams and riders approached Qualifying.
As the session started, at least one thing remained unchanged. Within a few minutes of the green lights, and on his first couple of laps out of the pits, Casey Stoner was laying down a blistering pace. The 2007 World Champion had cracked into the 1'56 bracket, and by his fourth lap, came within 0.009 of equaling the fastest time of the weekend, set by none other than Casey Stoner. The Marlboro Ducati rider was setting the bar for the rest of the field.
Though no one could directly challenge Stoner, he did not enjoy his huge (over a second) advantage for long. Within a few minutes, Valentino Rossi had jumped up to second fastest, just over 3/10ths of a second behind the Australian. Stoner did not wait long to respond: Six minutes later, the Australian was back out on track and cracking another barrier, into the 1'55s, extending his lead to over a second again with a lap of 1'55.504.
Behind Rossi, the fight for third was hotting up, with first Loris Capirossi taking the last front row spot, then Colin Edwards, before Andrea Dovizioso also got involved. Dovi held the spot for five more minutes, before Jorge Lorenzo confirmed his strong form at Qatar by blitzing a lap just short of Rossi's second place time.
As you have surely already noticed, MotoGPMatters.com photographer Scott Jones is at Qatar (funded in part by your generous donations and the support of our carefully selected advertisers), sending back interviews and the fantastic photos which make him our favorite shooter. He's starting to send us some of his fantastic photos, which we have shared with you below. All images should link to high-res versions of the photos. Enjoy!
The waiting really is over for MotoGP fans, as the MotoGP bikes finally took to the track at Qatar to compete in earnest. First blood in the 2009 campaign went to Casey Stoner on the Marlboro (and at Qatar, it really is a Marlboro) Ducati, a fact that shocked absolutely nobody. As ever, Stoner was fast from the moment he rolled out onto the track, getting down into 1'57 territory within ten minutes, and slashing a further 0.8 seconds off his time with 12 minutes of the session left.
For a long time, Stoner's advantage seemed insurmountable, but in his final run, Valentino Rossi closed the gap from a second to get to within 0.4 of a second, with the potential for more if he hadn't run into traffic on a very fast lap. Though four tenths is a sizable gap, Rossi will feel he is at least in touch with Stoner, and with two more sessions to go, and no qualifying tires to distort the grid, the reigning world champion will be confident of staying with Stoner away from the line.
Third fastest man in the opening session of 2009 was Colin Edwards, the only other rider capable of getting within a second of Stoner, and looking as strong here as he looked last year during practice. Rossi's Fiat Yamaha team mate Jorge Lorenzo makes it three Yamahas in the top four, Lorenzo 1.2 seconds behind but with more likely to come.
The session threw up plenty of surprises. Such as Alex de Angelis in 5th, for example, but de Angelis also showed his Mr Hyde by running wide into the gravel during the session, a harbinger of what is to come, perhaps. An even bigger suprise was Mika Kallio finishing 7th, after having been as high as 5th earlier in the session. Though we've only had one 45 minute session of practice to judge him by, Kallio's single fast lap at the IRTA test at Jerez could possible be the rule rather than the exception.
This is the final, official version of the 2009 MotoGP calendar. After being in doubt for a long time, the Hungarian Grand Prix was eventually canceled over problems with the track. It will now make its debut on the calendar in the spring of 2010.
|May 17th||France||Le Mans|
|July 5th***||United States||Laguna Seca|
|July 26th||Great Britain||Donington Park|
|August 16th||Czech Republic||Brno|
|September 6th||San Marino & Riviera di Rimini||Misano|
|October 18th||Australia||Phillip Island|
|November 8th||Valencia||Ricardo Tormo - Valencia|
* Evening race
** Saturday race
*** Only MotoGP class
The provisional entry list for the 2009 MotoGP season, as released by the FIM earlier this month:
|3||DANI PEDROSA||SPA||REPSOL HONDA TEAM||HONDA|
|4||ANDREA DOVIZIOSO||ITA||REPSOL HONDA TEAM||HONDA|
|5||COLIN EDWARDS||USA||MONSTER YAMAHA TECH 3||YAMAHA|
|7||CHRIS VERMEULEN||AUS||RIZLA SUZUKI MOTOGP||SUZUKI|
|14||RANDY DE PUNIET||FRA||LCR HONDA MOTOGP||HONDA|
|15||ALEX DE ANGELIS||RSM||SAN CARLO HONDA GRESINI||HONDA|
|24||TONI ELIAS||SPA||SAN CARLO HONDA GRESINI||HONDA|
|27||CASEY STONER||AUS||DUCATI MARLBORO TEAM||DUCATI|
|33||MARCO MELANDRI||ITA||HAYATE RACING TEAM||KAWASAKI|
|36||MIKA KALLIO||FIN||PRAMAC RACING||DUCATI|
|46||VALENTINO ROSSI||ITA||FIAT YAMAHA TEAM||YAMAHA|
|52||JAMES TOSELAND||GBR||MONSTER YAMAHA TECH 3||YAMAHA|
|59||SETE GIBERNAU||SPA||GUINEA ECUATORIAL TEAM||DUCATI|
|65||LORIS CAPIROSSI||ITA||RIZLA SUZUKI MOTOGP||SUZUKI|
|69||NICKY HAYDEN||USA||DUCATI MARLBORO TEAM||DUCATI|
|72||YUKI TAKAHASHI||JPN||SCOT RACING TEAM MOTOGP||HONDA|
|88||NICCOLO CANEPA||ITA||PRAMAC RACING||DUCATI|
|99||JORGE LORENZO||SPA||FIAT YAMAHA TEAM||YAMAHA|
Marco Melandri knew when he signed the contract with Hayate that Kawasaki would only be doing limited development on the bike in 2009. Just how limited that development will be was revealed today by Matthew Birt on the Motorcycle News website. According to Birt, Kawasaki will cease development of the 2009 ZX-RR at the end of March, shortly after the IRTA test concludes at Jerez. From then on, the factory will provide a maintenance service only, with no more upgrades.
This will leave Melandri to contest the season basically on the same bike that he starts the season on. And given that at the Qatar test, the Hayate - one internet wag has taken to referring to it as the Hai-Karate bike, after a brand of cheap after shave popular in the 1970's - was three seconds off the pace, it looks like being a long and grim season for the Italian. So far, Melandri's impressions of the improvements made to the engine have been positive, but his biggest complaint was a lack of rear grip. As this problem has plagued the Kawasaki for the past two seasons, especially in 2008, the chances of Kawasaki finding a solution at Jerez look slim.
Melandri's best hope must be that the team can find a source of sponsorship, and use the funds to collaborate with a third-party company on developing the machine. Former GP factory Ilmor have expressed their interest in helping with development, and a French engineering firm has also been linked with the effort. As it stands, though, the Hai-Karate bike looks doomed to start at the rear of the field, and go backwards. It's going to be a long season for Marco Melandri.
The Marco Melandri saga is finally at an end. Today, Melandri confirmed that he has signed a contract with Hayate Racing to contest the MotoGP championship for one season, after being forced to tear up his two-year deal with Kawasaki.
The deal is a costly one for Melandri, both financially and in terms of his ability to compete. "I had to make a big financial sacrifice, but the most important thing that I wanted was to find trust," he told MotoGP.com.
He will certainly need some trust. Throughout the last test at Qatar, Melandri complained of issues with rear grip, and he expressed his hope that these problems could be fixed quickly. But as rear grip is a problem that the Kawasaki has had for the past two seasons, that sounds more like the voice of a Candide-like hope, rather than a realistic expectation.
Melandri may feel he has no choice but to live in hope, however. "I have nothing to lose," he told MotoGP.com. "One month ago I had one foot outside the World Championship, and now I have a team that is working solely for me. My motivation is this, and to show Kawasaki that they made a mistake in choosing to pull out their factory support." In another month's time, at the season opener at Qatar, we shall see whether Melandri's hope as justified.
He said he would wait until the Qatar tests to make a decision, and that's exactly what he's done. According to MCN's Matthew Birt, Marco Melandri has decided to sign to ride the Kawasaki / Dornasaki / Hayate in 2009. Melandri's manager Alberto Vergani told MCN that riding the bike under the lights at Qatar had convinced Melandri that the better option would be to ride, and hope to secure a better seat for 2010, rather than sit out a year, and risk being overlooked for 2010.
The conundrum Melandri finds himself facing concerns whether it is better to ride round at the back on an obviously inferior bike, or hope that people remember what he was capable of when he was on competitive machinery. His fear is that what people - and more importantly, team managers and factory bosses - will regard the 2008 Ducati Desmosedici GP8 as competitive machinery, a bike which Melandri deeply feared, and which he had a miserable season on. And so he would appear to be pinning his hopes on the Hayate team being able to fix the Kawasaki enough to at least allow him to score points regularly, and compete for top 10 finishes.
The portents for such an outcome are not good, however. It is clear that the Kawasaki will receive little or no upgrades during the season, which would not be so bad if the Kawasaki was a competently handling motorcycle. The trouble is, the Kawasaki is something very far from that, and its problems have a very familiar ring to them. Melandri was complaining of a lack of rear grip on the bike, and Vergani told MCN that the Italian felt the bike could be competitive if they could just fix this issue.
Testing resumed under rather better conditions at Qatar today, yesterday's rain fortunately not making a reappearance. And so all of the riders took to the track, with no reason to sit it out. One rider came to regret that decision, Dani Pedrosa suffering a big highside, and fracturing his wrist and leg (full story here), a bitter irony after the Spaniard chose to sit out yesterday's session for fear of aggravating his already injured knee.
Fastest of the day was - how could it be otherwise? - Casey Stoner. The Australian put in relatively few laps, but according to Livio Suppo, his wrist was holding up better than it had been previously, the surgery on his injured scaphoid slowly starting to heal. Stoner was testing a carbon fiber swingarm to go along with the carbon fiber frame, and from the times he set, it would appear to be working.
Valentino Rossi was second fastest, though still 6/10ths behind Stoner, a big gap. But his arrears to Stoner had not left him without a sense of humor: Rossi appeared at the track with a comedy high-visibility yellow helmet, in the colors used by the emergency services in a number of countries.
Colin Edwards was third fastest, the Tech 3 Yamaha man clearly settling in with his new crew chief, while Andrea Dovizioso was left to salvage Repsol Honda's honor, taking the 4th fastest time in the dying minutes of the session, ahead of the Suzukis of Chris Vermeulen and Loris Capirossi.
The night test at Qatar got off to a frankly bizarre start on Sunday night. The test, which was due to run from 6pm to midnight local time, got off to a difficult start, after rain in the morning left the track greasy, and then rain at around 7pm called proceedings to a halt for a while, with riders sitting in the pits for an hour or so, before going out again. But it wasn't just rain that was causing the problems: Sand had been blowing onto the track and both reducing grip while paradoxically increasing tire wear, making the whole exercise of rather dubious value.
That was certainly the opinion of a number of riders: Casey Stoner and Dani Pedrosa decided to sit out the evening, not wanting to risk further injury to their recovering wrist and knee respectively. Loris Capirossi did not even bother to start, while Valentino Rossi came straight in after an out lap. Jorge Lorenzo recording a single lap before coming back in again.
The two riders who recorded the most laps were the two riders who need the work the most: Nicky Hayden is still battling to come to terms with the Ducati, and find a solution to the rear wheel pump that everyone except Casey Stoner seems to struggle with. Stoner suffers it just as much as all the other Ducati riders, he just seems to cope with it better, perhaps by ignoring it completely.
Marco Melandri is still to sign his contract to ride the "Hayate", or The-Bike-Formerly-Know-As-The-2009-Kawasaki. But he put in a fair stint of testing, to try and get a feel for what the bike is like. According to GPOne.com, Melandri said that TBFKAT2K is better than the 2008 Kawasaki, which must come as a relief. The team is to be run by technical guru Ichiro Yoda, with former team boss Michael Bartholemy having been pushed aside.
How could we be so naive as to think the on-again-off-again saga of Kawasaki's withdrawal from MotoGP had reached its final conclusion? The official announcement from The Team Formerly Known As Kawasaki (and now to be called Hayate, according to Motorcycle News) that they would be fielding a single bike in MotoGP next year, came as news to Marco Melandri, the man supposed to be riding it. Speaking to the Italian press, Melandri claimed that nobody had spoken to him about it. "It was a surprise to me too!" Melandri told Sportmediaset.it. "I wasn't expecting it, because until yesterday, I knew they were looking for a new name for the team, and that's all ... I need some time to examine the situation, and to get confirmation from Japan, because nobody has called me about this."
As reported yesterday, Marco Melandri will be on the grid at Qatar for the start of the 2009 season. Melandri will be riding a Kawasaki, with support provided by the Akashi factory. The company issued a statement earlier today, stating that the agreement to provide support for the team had come because of "the necessity to come to constructive solutions for all related parties."
Given the amount of public pressure Dorna had placed on Kawasaki, it seems reasonable to interpret this to mean that Dorna had placed severe pressure on Kawasaki to honor the contract which the Akashi factory had with MotoGP's organizers, after Carmelo Ezpeleta had made veiled - and not-so-veiled - threats to take Kawasaki to court for breach of contract. Although this seems to have solved Dorna's problem in the short term, Kawasaki are likely to be very wary of ever returning to the series once the economy recovers, afraid of finding themselves once more stuck in a series they cannot get out of without spending a lot of money.
Meanwhile, Dorna's own legal difficulties with the FIM look to have been solved, as the minimum quota of 18 riders has been met, which it is believed is stipulated by the private contracts between the FIM and Dorna. MotoGP remains a world championship. Just.
Episode 673 in the Kawasaki saga, as Marco Melandri used his Facebook profile once again to announce his intentions to the world. According to the Italian press, Melandri wrote "for the moment, we will test the bike at Losail, we will see whether it's going to be worth racing the bike after the test: if the bike's a disaster, we will all go home."
More interesting news about just which bike Melandri will be testing. GPOne.com is reporting that the Italian will be riding the updated 2008 version of the bike at Qatar, which was tested at Valencia and Phillip Island earlier. Melandri had previously rejected trying to race this bike, but the prospect of a year on the sidelines may have persuaded him to give the bike one more chance.
Whether this is just idle speculation or a genuine plan, we will see soon enough. The Qatar tests take place this weekend, and if Melandri is there on a Kawasaki, we will finally get an inkling of how this story is to end.
It is looking ever more likely that there will be 18 bikes on the MotoGP grid after all. Marco Melandri - currently in Qatar racing in the SpeedCar Series - has told the Italian media outlet SportMediaset.it that he is ready to ride the private Kawasaki after all. There is still no absolute word that the Kawasaki project has been given the go ahead, but Melandri is sounding increasingly convinced it will happen.
The project - if it does happen - will likely be financed in part by Dorna, and the Spanish organizing body has been one of the main forces trying to ensure that at least one Kawasaki makes it onto the grid, as reputedly agreed in private contracts between Dorna and the FIM. The withdrawal of the factory Kawasaki team was a huge blow for Dorna, and Carmelo Ezpeleta, the company's CEO, has seemingly spent every waking moment trying to ensure that at least one of the abandoned bikes make it on to the grid.
Melandri's decision to push ahead with the project directly contradicts his earlier statements that he would not race "just to make up the numbers". Asked directly about this by SportMediaset.it, Melandri replied "I'm not going to be able to win, but I'm sure I won't be in for a season like 2008. Because I'll be on a bike that has a character I like, even if it is not super competitive, and I will have a team that will do everything to make me comfortable on the bike, so I can do the maximum, and so I will have nothing to lose." Melandri was also clear about his aims for the year: "I just have to show that I can still want to fight, and then I can find a good situation for 2010."
Sources in the mainstream sports media in Italy are reporting that the on-again-off-again saga that is Kawasaki is sort of on again. According to both Tuttosport and Sportmediaset, Marco Melandri will be riding a privately run Kawasaki, in a team led by Michael Bartholemy. The deal is said to have been put together by Dorna, in the person of CEO Carmelo Ezpeleta, who has been in constant negotiation with Kawasaki since the news broke.
Details of the deal are somewhere between sketchy and nonexistent, but the deal seems to be that Kawasaki will make all of the 2009-spec bikes available to Michael Bartholemy, and the Belgian team manager will field a single rider in the person of Marco Melandri. Shortly after the news broke that Kawasaki would be withdrawing from MotoGP, the factory said that it had enough bikes and parts to last approximately a quarter of a season, and so presumably, this would be enough to run a single rider for at least half a season, perhaps a little longer if the practice restrictions are pushed through as expected.
Finance for the project will most likely come from Dorna - presumably in fear of breaching their own contract with the FIM to field at least 18 riders for a world championship - possibly with some seed money from Kawasaki, to buy out their remaining contract, which committed them to race in MotoGP until 2011. Melandri would presumably be riding the 2009-spec bikes tested by Olivier Jacque in Australia during January, despite reports of poor reliability. And maintenance and - speculatively - engine development could be done by the French company Solution F, as reported by GPOne.com in January.