Rain changes everything in motorcycle racing. It changes small things, such as the color of a rider's visor, with most of them switching to clear visors. This offers the television viewer the fantastic spectacle of watching the rider's face and eyes, seeing where they are looking, and what they are thinking. Rain changes bigger things, like the dominant tyre manufacturer. All of a sudden, of the top 8 riders, 6 are on Bridgestones. And it changes the most important thing: the relationship of the rider to their bike. Middle order racers no longer believe that they don't stand a chance, because of the 10 or 20 horsepower they know they are short of, so they start to ride the bike they were cursing (or worse) at the last race like it was a championship bike. And champions start riding like tail-enders, because they can't find the confidence which they had in their machine just a few weeks previously, or because the rain has turned their natural advantage into a disadvantage. Rain unmarks the cards and redeals the hands.
As a rule, riders don't like the recently built circuits. Not so much because it means they have a new track to learn, but more because of the nature of the newer circuits: designed to equalise the greater speed disparities of Formula 1, and to maximise the spectator view by fitting inside a limited chunk of real estate, they tend to feature a lot of slow corners, with shapes that look good on the screen of a computer modelling program.
Istanbul, however, is different. The track has been designed to make the best use of the natural rolling landscape, with, for example, turn one flowing downhill, then uphill again, loading up the front before you start braking for turn two. The track flows up and down the hillsides, with corners at every speed, including the fastest corner of the season, turn 11, a banked, uphill, flat-out-in-fifth 270 km/h right-hander, which Nicky Hayden summed up as "sorting the men from the boys", followed by the super-slow uber-chicane combination of turns 12, 13, and 14, which saw spectacular place-swapping action on every lap during the 125 race. To be fast, you need to get your bike perfectly set up, and set up to be both stable at very high speed, and also to turn quickly enough through the slow chicane. It is a rider's track, rewarding every aspect of their craft, from set up, to high speed chases, to heavy braking and quick changes of direction.
After the surprises and upsets of Jerez, everyone was wondering how realistic the picture was which had emerged, and how Rossi's 14th place would affect the standings. Qatar was Rossi's chance to set the record straight.
The trouble was, that the new generation of riders, which had elbowed their way to the front at Jerez, was showing signs of repeating this performance at Qatar. Although Pedrosa, who had shone at Jerez, was having a much harder time at Qatar, Stoner, the other newcomer who'd done so well in Spain, had led qualifying all weekend, and was the second youngest pole sitter since a certain Fast Freddie Spencer. Rossi, who had been battling chatter in Jerez, and during qualifying, was only 6th on the grid, not far enough ahead to be sure of avoiding getting caught in first corner tangles, like the one which had cost him so dearly two weeks ago. Then there was the small matter of Loris Capirossi, the winner in Spain and championship leader, on the Ducati, looking more and more like a championship winning machine all the time.
Anyone looking for clues as to what will happen in the second MotoGP race of this season, will not find much inspiration from last year. Last year was different in many ways: the second race of the year took place just a week after the opener at Jerez, in the tempestuous spring weather of Estoril, on Portugal's Atlantic coast, whereas the venue for this year's second round, Qatar took place on October 1st, at the end of a long hot Arabian summer. Last year, Rossi went into the second round having established his superiority, and having broken his main rival's spirit in the gravel trap in the last bend at Jerez. This year, we travel to Qatar, to race in balmy conditions (with 28 C, or 82F forecasted), with only the sand to threaten grip instead of a series of rain fronts, and the reigning champion starts the race with a 23 point deficit, rather than a 5 point lead.
At Jerez in 2005, the season was settled in the last corner of the last lap, when Rossi knocked Gibernau physically into the gravel trap, and mentally into a losing state of mind. At Jerez in 2006, the season was shaken up, stirred round and messed up in the first corner of the first lap by, of all things, technology.
In 2006, for the first time, all of the bikes on the grid are using some form of launch control. The down side of this is that everyone arrives at the first corner at the same time. I reckon the Spanish fans felt that Rossi deserved to suffer the consequences of this mass arrival, as Elias tagged Rossi's back wheel, knocking Rossi off his bike.
Rossi looked like he'd got a great start, moving through to about 5th place going into the first corner, but Elias braked just a fraction too late, touched Rossi's back wheel, and down went Rossi. It was a double blow for Yamaha, as Edwards was forced of the track by Rossi's bike, and rejoined the race in 18th place. Rossi, after gesticulating to try and get the race stopped, then showed that his luck had not entirely run out (the bike was still running), and that he understands what it takes to become a champion, as he got back on the bike, despite having lost most of his right footpeg, the tip of his front brake lever, and having twisted his right clip on, and ended the first lap 43 seconds behind the leader Capirossi.
And Capirossi had gotten off to a fantastic start, taking the lead from the outset, followed closely by Gibernau, Melandri, Hayden and Pedrosa. Checa and Stoner both got blinding starts, shooting into top 8 positions from a long way down the grid. Gibernau couldn't quite hold on to his 2nd place, as Melandri inched past him before the end of the first lap, but there were a group of some 8 or 9 riders all very close together in the first few laps, consisting of the two Ducatis, Melandri, Hayden, Pedrosa, Nakano, Checa, and Stoner.
It was a strange start to qualifying, as Cardoso blew up the engine on his Pramac Ducati during the first out lap, and spewed oil all over the track. Next thing we know, Rossi is crashing out, followed 20 seconds later by the almost comical spectacle of multiple flying motorcycles. Comical to me, at least, as it wasn't my ass sliding over the tarmac as million dollar machines fly overhead. In the end, Elias, both Kawasakis, KRJR and possibly Cardoso ended up together in the gravel trap. The organisers were arguably a little slow, and should probably have red-flagged qualifying after Rossi went down, but as soon as the big group went, qualifying was stopped.
10 minutes or so later, qualifying restarted. The first 30 minutes or so tend to get used to try out race tyres, so times were frankly pretty slow for a while, until Nakano set a pretty fast time, a low 1'40. Then, at the 30 minute mark, out of nowhere Capirossi sets out a 1'39.2, taking advantage of the track having gone quiet.
For the next 20-odd minutes, no one got anywhere near Capirossi's time, and even after all the riders were out on their best qualifying tyres, there were several people who were faster at the first two intermediate timing points, but Capirossi must have been blindingly fast in the third section, as everyone was losing around half a second or more round that part of the track, and where they'd been a tenth, or at least several hundredths of a second faster at intermediate 2, at intermediate 3 they were over half a second behind again. Gibernau was very fast in the first half of the track, but kept losing out in the second half. Eventually, Capirossi put in an astonishingly fast time, just missing out on a 1:38.