HRC's on-again-off-again testing of their pneumatic valve engine is about to shift up a gear. After electing not to test the air valve engine for the RC212V at Estoril, the new powerplant could make an appearance at Shanghai in China. The Spanish weekly magazine Solomoto interviewed both Dani Pedrosa and team manager Kazuhika Yamano after the Estoril Grand Prix in Portugal, and Italian site GPOne.com is carrying a summary and translation into Italian of those interviews.
By far the most interesting fact to come out of that interview is that HRC will be shipping the new pneumatic valve engines to China, and allowing the riders to choose whether they want to run the bikes or not. The current plan is that both Dani Pedrosa and Nicky Hayden will be able to try the pneumatic engine during Friday free practice, and if they think it is good enough, use it in the race on Sunday. With Shanghai having two straights, one long one and one absolutely enormous one, the extra top end and acceleration could be a big help for the Hondas. For although the conventional spring engine is by no means slow, there is very little that the engineers can eke out of it.
There are, of course, several dangers to the "test on Friday, decide on Sunday" strategy, as the season opener at Qatar so aptly demonstrated. Although the FIM regulations allow teams to run as many bikes as they wish, as long as they all pass technical inspection before practice starts, in reality, teams don't like to deal with more than 2 bikes, for reasons of space, and because of the sheer amount of work which three or more bikes bring with them. Not to mention the problem of having enough time to find a decent setup on each type of machine. And so the most likely scenario is that both Nicky Hayden and Dani Pedrosa will have one bike with the new pneumatic valve engine fitted, and one with the current evolution of the spring valve engine with the new chassis which Repsol ran at both Jerez and Estoril, and Pedrosa used to win the Spanish Grand Prix at Jerez.
The problem with that strategy comes on Friday night, when the riders choose which bike they want to run for qualifying and the race. The most likely scenario, based on the events of Qatar, is that Dani Pedrosa will elect to use either one type of bike or the other, and take the two machines of the same spec, leaving Nicky Hayden with the remaining two machines. So if Pedrosa likes the air valve engine, and believes it is sufficiently reliable, then he will take both of the bikes fitted with the pneumatic valves, leaving Nicky Hayden with the conventional steel spring valve bikes, or vice versa, depending on Pedrosa's preference. This would leave Hayden holding the short straw very publicly once again, possibly precipitating a move to Ducati - who are rumored to be chasing Hayden very hard - sooner rather than later.
Although the simple solution would seem to be to just swap the air valve engine out and replace it with the spring valve lump, it isn't that easy. Honda tried to do this at Qatar, but the bike just didn't work. The pneumatic valves mean that the cylinder head is constructed differently, altering both the stiffness and the center of gravity of the engine. Using the frame tailored to the spring valve engine left the bike not feeling as it should, and for Jerez, HRC brought a new chassis, based on the frame for the pneumatic engine, but with revised stiffness. In reality, the only solution would be to supply both riders with 4 bikes, two of each type. But as stated before, that would make things so complex for both riders and teams that it is probably not a practical solution.
Reliability, or the perception of it, is likely to be the decisive factor. Both Pedrosa and Hayden are keenly aware of Valentino Rossi's experience at Misano, when Yamaha decided to field a new, relatively untested engine in an attempt to keep up with the rampant Ducati. Rossi was forced to retire after 5 laps, his engine having suffered a terminal failure. With Pedrosa standing joint top of the championship table, and Hayden keen to make amends for a disastrous title defense, neither man is likely to risk a smoky blow up on race day.
Marco Melandri has something of a reputation for speaking out whenever he's not happy. Melandri's outburst about the weakness of the Honda RC212V, and HRC's reneging on promises of full factory support for the Gresini Honda team are still ringing in the ears of both Honda officials and journalists, and now Melandri is at it again.
Melandri has posted a diary entry on his personal website speaking about the despair he feels at his current situation. "Whenever I think I've hit rock bottom, things just keep on getting worse," the Italian ex-250 champion wrote. Things are so bad that Melandri can't even bear to watch the races on TV, as the pain of seeing just how stiff and uncertain he is on the bike, the very opposite of his natural style: "I look like someone who's never ridden before," the Italian wrote. He confidence is at such a low ebb, he describes himself as being "a luxury spectator," rather than actually doing any racing, "but only at the start, for after the first two corners, I can't see anyone else."
Melandri's predicament is hardly new, for as anyone who saw the fear and anguish on Melandri's face after the Qualifying Practice at Jerez could see, the Italian looks more like a teenager facing the executioner's noose, rather than the mature and experienced racer that he is. Neither racing nor testing at Estoril made much difference to Macio's situation, and only radical improvements at Shanghai will be able to lift the former champion's mood.
The one remarkable thing about Melandri's post is that it is not a fulmination against Ducati. Last year's rant was aimed fairly and squarely at HRC, and the way they treated him and his team. This weekend's entry is more like a cry of despair than a roar of anger, a fact which is itself deeply telling. Melandri has clearly lost all confidence in his own ability, not just in the bike, and it may take more than just some chassis modifications to get him back on the right track.
In a sport where confidence is crucial, Melandri is a long way down a very slippery slope, one from which it is incredibly difficult to return. Even after just 3 races, it's almost inconceivable that Melandri will stay at Ducati for 2009. But if things don't improve even a little soon, you have to wonder whether Melandri isn't thinking the unthinkable: will Melandri find the fortitude to carry on putting his body on the line every weekend? Or could he possibly decide that discretion is the better part of valor, and to get out while he still can?
Conflicting reports are emerging from Italy about the future of Nicky Hayden in MotoGP. On the one hand, we have MotoGrandPrix.it, who are reporting that Hayden is close to signing a new 2-year contract with Repsol Honda. According to Alessio Piana, HRC is determined to avoid the fiascos of the last two years, during which both Nicky Hayden and Dani Pedrosa didn't sign their new contracts with Honda until the very last minute, leaving HRC with few other alternatives should the negotiations with the riders fail. As a consquence Honda wants to sign contracts early, and keep control of the situation in its own hands. In this view, Honda would want to close the negotiations with Hayden as early as possible, and try and keep the last man to win them a world title a Honda man for life.
The authoritative site GPOne.com sees it differently. Alberto Cani is claiming that the most likely scenario is that Hayden will make way for either Andrea Dovizioso or Marco Melandri. Dovi has made a huge impact on the Team Scot satellite Honda, and has a clause in his contract allowing him to leave the team at the end of the year if he gets the call from HRC. But another option could well be Marco Melandri, who, on the strength of his performance at Ducati during the first few races, is unlikely to want to exercise the option he has to stay with Ducati for 2009. Melandri's first port of call would be Repsol Honda, the Italian already having proved his mettle aboard the Honda. But Gresini Honda could be another option for Macio, as he is still on good terms wtih Fausto Gresini.
By this theory, Hayden could then take Melandri's place on the vacant Ducati seat. Ducati are known to be very keen on the American, and the theory runs that Hayden's background in dirt track could help the Kentucky Kid tame the Ducati where Italian riders have failed. Casey Stoner came originally from a dirt track background, and is known to use a lot of back brake to keep the bike stable through corners. Alex Hofmann, who saw Stoner's data during his year riding at the D'Antin Ducati team, was astonished at just how much rear brake Stoner uses, sometimes generating huge forces through the pedal.
Naturally, all this is only speculation so far, perhaps prompted by the fact that there is a three week gap to fill until the next race in China. But picking over the speculation could yet reveal a few grains of truth. As yet, it's too early to tell.
The excellent and amusing Dutch newspaper columnist Bert Wagendorp wrote recently of the 2008 Beijing Olympics "If you really hate a country, you should let them organize the Olympic games." Ever since the announcement that China was to organize the olympics, there has been a growing movement of protest about the human rights situation in the Chinese heartland and in Tibet. The pressure is not just coming from outside the country, internally, groups are making use of the increased attention from the outside world to voice their discontent and get themselves heard. Instead of turning out to be the propaganda coup the Chinese government had hoped for, presenting the face of a new and dynamic country to the world, the Olympics are increasingly focusing attention on the fact that China remains a closed society presided over by an authoritarian regime, with scant regard for freedom of expression or political organization.
The Chinese government's reaction to this growing dissent has been to crack down even harder on anything that smacks even vaguely of dissent. And in its zeal to control information both inside and outside the country, the regime is now tightening its restrictions on any major sporting event which could attract public attention, and as result, public protest.
Now, even the normally carefully neutral world of MotoGP has been caught in the Chinese governments web. Rumors abound that the Shanghai Grand Prix, to be held on May 4th, will be heavily affected by Chinese censorship, with some rumors even claiming that the Chinese Round of MotoGP could even be canceled. The Chinese authorities cannot have been put at ease by Loris Capirossi and Valentino Rossi - both of whom have spoken out in the past on contentious political issues - telling the press that they felt they should put on some kind of public show of support for the people of Tibet at the Chinese race. Capirex even threatened to roll up to the starting line displaying a Tibetan flag, an act which would be deeply provocative to the Chinese authorities.
The commotion has caused the rumors to become ever more feverish: One rumor had the Chinese government asking KTM to run in different colors, as the company's trademark orange could be associated with the traditional garb of Tibetan Monks, the orange robe. The authorities would have wanted KTM not just to repaint its bikes, but the hospitality units, corporate clothing for all 27 members of KTM's teams, and any form of promotional material using the color orange. "I haven't heard anything official," KTM's International Motorsports Director Winfried Kerschhaggl told Motorsport Aktuell, "but it's inconceivable that we would be presented with such a radical demand just a few days before the race."
But the wildest rumor concerns the canceling of the Chinese MotoGP round. On Wednesday afternoon, the MotoGP grapevine started humming with talk that the Chinese had called the race altogether. This later turned out to be a misunderstanding based on the Chinese authorities canceling some support races, with some journalists leaping to conclusions that weren't yet there.
Yet the cancellation of the Shanghai round of MotoGP would not be beyond the realms of possibility. The Chinese race has always been a problematic affair, with interest from both local spectators and Chinese interest being minimal at best, and huge bureaucratic obstacles to overcome getting the vast quantities of highly specialized equipment required by MotoGP into and out of the country. And with China already having been dropped from the MotoGP calendar for next year, the authorities are unlikely to be inclined to be overly helpful towards the series. If a number of riders and/or teams threaten to put on some very public protests, the Chinese government may just decide that the entire event won't be worth the hassle, and call it off before it starts. This story isn't over yet.
That 200 mph racing motorcycles with carbon disk brakes capable of braking at close to 2G of force place demands on the human body is self evident. The repeated effort of bearing the equivalent of twice your own bodyweight on your forearms several times a lap can cause enormous pain in a condition known as Chronic exertional compartment syndrome (CECS), more colloquially referred to as arm pump. It is a truly democratic condition, striking everybody from lowly motocrossers to world champions, as long as you are prepared to race hard enough.
With his win at Estoril on Sunday, Jorge Lorenzo certainly proved that he isn't afraid to race hard, despite complaining of arm pump at the previous two races. And this afternoon, Lorenzo is to undergo surgery to fix the problem. He is scheduled to be go under the knife at 4pm Monday afternoon, at the Institut Dexeus in Barcelona, Spain.
With a three-week break before the next MotoGP round at Shanghai in China, Lorenzo hopes to be able to make a full recovery before racing resumes.
Saturday afternoon's qualifying practice session started warm and dry, conditions better than on Friday afternoon, when the session had started with a cool track. The riders had also had the benefit of a dry practice session in the morning, in which they had all improved their Friday times, and race setups were starting to materialize.
Within 10 minutes of the session starting, times were down to the pace set in the morning, with Valentino Rossi leading the way. The Doctor had set a lap time of 1'37.540, just a fraction off Nicky Hayden's record race lap from 2007, and the kind of lap time which is likely to be race pace. Rossi had a small advantage over the man who then stood second, Loris Capirossi, but the Suzuki man had a bunch of riders all very close behind, including Colin Edwards, James Toseland, Dani Pedrosa and Jorge Lorenzo. This early in the session, the riders were working on getting the bikes into race trim, and the battle for grid positions had not yet begun. It was just a matter of waiting for the first qualifying tires to appear.
A betting man would place money on Randy de Puniet being the first rider out on qualifiers, and the French LCR Honda rider did not disappoint. Just over 20 minutes into the session, de Puniet put his first set of soft rubber on, and snatched provisional pole with a 1'37.358. Considering this was only 2/10ths faster than Rossi's time on race tires, it was pretty obvious that this was never going to be good enough to take pole, but a marker had been set.
The first man to respond was Jorge Lorenzo. As the session approached halfway, the Spanish rookie was making an imposing run while perfecting his race setup. For lap after lap, Lorenzo ran times in the low 1'37s, eventually taking provisional pole from de Puniet with a lap of 1'37.346. But where de Puniet had required special soft rubber, Lorenzo had set his time in the middle of a run of 8 laps, 7 of which had been 1'37s. Jorge Lorenzo had just set the mark for race pace. Come Sunday, if you can't run mid 1'37s, you're out of contention.
With 25 minutes to go, the qualifying tires started coming out in earnest. First up was James Toseland, who cracked Lorenzo's lap with a time of 1'37.120, also not good enough to take pole for keeps, but very impressive considering this is Toseland's first visit to the Estoril circuit. But Toseland was just the first of a series of riders all pushing for pole, and over the next 5 minutes, the action became incredibly hectic.
The first to beat Toseland's time, and the first man to get into the 1'36 bracket was Repsol Honda's Dani Pedrosa. But Pedrosa's lead was to last for only a minute, as Colin Edwards took nearly 3/10ths off Pedrosa's time, with a lap of 1'36.678, with Nicky Hayden then taking 2nd place from his team mate Pedrosa another minute later. Edwards time was good, but we were still nearly half a second off the pole record, set in 2006 by Valentino Rossi. At a track like Estoril, with a mixture of slow and fast sections, the 800s should be able to beat that.
Jorge Lorenzo took a shot with his first qualifier, and was quick enough to take the pole, with a 1.36.273, but still outside Rossi's record. Valentino Rossi's attempt was also fated to fall short, The Doctor only managing the 3rd time at that point, while just seconds later, Dani Pedrosa pushed Rossi down the order by taking 2nd with a 1'36.384.
But what followed in the remaining 12 minutes of the session was one of the most astonishing displays of qualifying ever seen at a MotoGP round. With his next qualifying tire, Jorge Lorenzo was on target to smash his own time, but was balked by Chris Vermeulen through the fast kink on the back straight. But instead of sitting up and waving his fist (as he had done during earlier exchanges with Casey Stoner), he flicked his bike around the Australian, and proceeded to make up the time he'd lost through corner after corner. Despite being balked, Lorenzo crossed the line in a pole record time of 1'36.127, leaving those watching wondering what would have been possible if Vermeulen's Suzuki hadn't gotten in the way.
Lorenzo answered that question next lap out. The reigning 250 world champion went out on his last qualifying tire and set the world alight, firing round the circuit in a time of 1'35.713, half a second faster than Rossi's previous pole record, and half a second faster than anyone else on the track at the time. He then proceeded to get another fast lap out of what must have been a worn and protesting qualifying tire, and ran a lap quick enough to have landed him 6th on the grid. Lorenzo had shown once again just why Yamaha have chosen him as the future of the marque, once Valentino Rossi retires. The Spaniard has now taken the pole position in the first three races of the year, a feat never before achieved. After just 3 MotoGP events Lorenzo's place in MotoGP history is already assured.
The only man who could even remotely follow Lorenzo was Dani Pedrosa, who was also the only man to break 1'35, with a 1'35.948. Valentino Rossi took the final place on the front row, an impressive feat on Bridgestone qualifiers, and the only Bridgestone runner in the top 8.
Nicky Hayden heads up the second row of the grid, as he did at Jerez. The American sits ahead of the Tech 3 team, with Colin Edwards in 5th ahead of a very impressive James Toseland taking 6th at a track he's never visited before. There were question marks as to how quick Toseland could learn a new track, but those questions have been fairly definitively answered.
The Honda rookie Andrea Dovizioso took 7th with another strong showing, ahead of Randy de Puniet, who was unable to significantly improve on his first qualifying tire, in 8th. But beside de Puniet stands one of the most disappointed men on the grid. Casey Stoner struggled all session, never really managing to get into the top 10, and visibly struggling to contain the Ducati. Qualifying tires disguised some of Stoner's problems, but the world champion's times on race tires were over a second off being competitive. Nicky Hayden found out last year just how heavy a #1 plate can be, and Casey Stoner is learning a similar lesson. If Stoner wants to run with the leaders on Sunday, he will have to get the start of his life, and ride the race of his life.
Although Bridgestone's inferior qualifying tires are exaggerating the problem somewhat, it's pretty clear that Michelin have done their homework over the winter. The only rider capable of matching the pace of the Bridgestones is Valentino Rossi, and you can never discount Rossi's talent in overcoming poor equipment. Even so, Valentino Rossi looks like being one of only two Bridgestone runners with a competitive race pace, the other being Suzuki's Loris Capirossi. This is perhaps not so much of a surprise, as the Italian veteran had a good race at Jerez, and his form seems to be holding.
Of the Michelin runners, the hot favorite has to be Jorge Lorenzo, whose times were simply awe-inspiring. But as at Jerez, he may find himself a little weaker in the race. And the man most likely to capitalize is Dani Pedrosa, who is clearly in the form of his life. Considering Pedrosa's last outing in Spain, he will surely threaten to walk away with the race again.
To do that, Pedrosa will have to contend with Colin Edwards, who has the pace, but may not have the stamina, and possibly with Nicky Hayden and James Toseland as well. Hayden and Toseland are a little off of the pace of the fastest riders, but cannot be discounted, as they just keep getting quicker.
The race looks like being fascinating. It should be a close fought affair, with plenty of potential winners.
Full results of Estoril MotoGP Qualifying Practice
Ever since the start of Kawasaki's MotoGP project, one of its main problems has been the lack of a rider capable of winning championships, to help push the development of the bike forward. Their signing of John Hopkins in a multi-million dollar deal went some way to address that issue, but Team Green's ambitions are obviously much higher.
Just how much higher was obvious from an interview which Kawasaki's manager Michael Bartholemy had with the Italian sports daily Gazzetta dello Sport. Bartholemy announced his attention to approach 7 time world champion Valentino Rossi, and attempt to persuade The Doctor to join the team. The Belgian team boss has not yet spoken to either Rossi or his manager yet, but by making a very public approach, will hope to tempt the Italian into talks.
Of course, it's hardly a surprise that Kawasaki are interested in signing Valentino Rossi. After all, there isn't a team in the MotoGP paddock who wouldn't sign Rossi, given the opportunity and the finances. And as Rossi's contract with Yamaha expires at the end of the season, it makes good business sense to start putting out feelers to gauge the ex-champion's interest. There is some reason for hope, too, as Rossi made his dissatisfaction with Yamaha exquisitely and very publicly clear at the end of 2007, a season he regards as absolutely disastrous.
But the chances of Kawasaki actually signing Valentino Rossi must be exceedingly slim. Rossi demanded two things at the end of the 2007 season: Bridgestone tires and a much better Yamaha M1. His request for Bridgestones was granted within weeks, although the big advances which Michelin has made over the winter must call the wisdom of that decision into question. And Rossi's demand for an improved Yamaha seems to have borne fruit as well, witness the fact that at least one Yamaha has been on the podium at the two opening rounds of the season, and have dominated all of the three qualifying sessions run so far this year.
Perhaps more interesting in the story is that Kawasaki may be persuaded to run a third machine next season, increasing the rather threadbare grid. Bartholemy expressed an interest in rising 250 star Alvaro Bautista last year, and is likely to pursue the chirpy young Spaniard even harder for 2009, putting Kawasaki on a collision course with Jorge Martinez of Aspar, Bautista's current boss. The Kawasaki boss has also spoken warmly of Andrea Dovizioso, making a very strong debut on the JiR Scot Honda, and if Dovizioso can't get either a factory ride with Honda, or more direct factory support, then a move to Kawasaki could be a very shrewd move.
British MotoGP fans can finally breathe a collective sigh of relief. There had been much speculation (and a great deal of fear) that Yamaha would hold back the air spring engines after both Colin Edwards and James Toseland had put in outstanding performances at Qatar and Jerez, to ensure that the Tech 3 riders didn't get in Valentino Rossi's way in his fight to reclaim the MotoGP title. But the conspiracy theorists have been confounded, with Autosport reporting that the pneumatic valve M1s have made it through technical inspection in Portugal.
This is excellent news for both Edwards and Toseland, as the pair were down over 7 km/h on top speed down Qatar's massive straight. And with Estoril having a similarly epic straight, it would have meant the Tech 3 boys having to give their all just to try and keep up round the slow rear section of the track to make up for their lack of top end speed. Now, Toseland and Edwards stand a fair chance of staying with the leaders down the front straight, allowing them to choose their moment round the tortuous back section.
The conspiracy theorists' speculation never really held water. After all, if Toseland and Edwards are able to run with the front group, it won't just be Rossi's progress they will be impeding. They will also be getting in the way of Dani Pedrosa and Casey Stoner, Rossi's main rivals for the title. So Tech 3 having faster engines may well work in Rossi's favor, instead of against him. We shall see how it works on Sunday afternoon.
It's been no secret that Marco Melandri has had a terrible time adapting to the GP8 since hist switch to Ducati at the end of the year. And Melandri is not the only rider to suffer: both Toni Elias and Sylvain Guintoli have struggled aboard the Ducati for the satellite Alice team. Yet reigning world champion Casey Stoner continues to dominate the MotoGP class, despite his recent setbacks at Jerez.
Now, Ducati has recognized that they will have to make some changes to their title-winning bike if anyone other than Stoner is to be competitive aboard it. According to the Italian motorcycle magazine Motosprint, Ducati engineering supremo Filippo Preziosi will be making some changes to soften the bike up for Melandri, to make it easier for the Italian to adapt to the bike. According to Preziosi, the problem is that the current bike is too harsh, in terms of both power delivery and frame stiffness. This suits Casey Stoner down to the ground, as it gives him the intense feedback that he is looking from in a motorcycle, and being able to feel exactly what the bike is doing allows him to exploit its potential in full.
"To help him (Melandri - Ed.) we must make the bike less rigid in the chassis and less aggressive in power output. We need to improve the rideability," Preziosi told Motosprint. No mention was made of when these changes would be available to Melandri, or how quickly they could be made.
Preziosi's remarks raise a number of questions, the first of which is whether a factory as small as Ducati has the resources to develop what in effect will be two separate version of the GP8, being developed in opposing directions. The only way to keep costs in check and not overload the Bologna factory's limited manpower would be to keep the divergence to a minimum, making the fewest changes necessary to allow Melandri to at least be competitive.
The other question is whether Ducati will make the bike they will be developing for Melandri available to the satellite Alice team. If Guintoli and Elias continue to circulate at the back of the field, Ducati may want to help them out, to spare the factory its blushes.
More details from the interview over on Autosport.com.
Although we are not much given to rehashing race team press releases here at MotoGPMatters.com, much preferring to go searching for actual news, from time to time, we get sent something which captures our imagination. Anthony Murphy, A reader of the site sent us a link to the Kawasaki Racing website, with a video of Kawasaki's new screamer engine.
As you can hear, it sounds completely different to the old big bang engine Kawasaki are currently using in their ZX-RR race bike. Below are a couple of videos of the old bike for comparison, which we found on Youtube:
Kawasaki's new screamer engine is not yet ready to make its official debut, but Team Green are hard at work trying to get the bike ready. Kawasaki hope the engine will provide both more top end power, as well as better drive, but getting the engine to work will rely on setting up the electronics to work. The team is believed to be looking to race the screamer engine towards the end of the season.