As expected, the Chinese round of MotoGP at Shanghai is off the calendar, and as predicted earlier this week, the Hungarian Grand Prix will take place in late summer. But the calendar has a lot of significant shakeups: Motegi moves from late September to the spring, June is a lot less busy, with only 2 lots of back-to-back races in 2009, rather than three pairs which we saw this year. The British Grand Prix moves from June to late July, and Estoril switches back to October.
|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
Dorna officially announced today that MotoGP is likely to be returning to Hungary for the 2009 season. The proposed race will be held at the Balatonring, a circuit currently being built near Lake Balaton in Hungary. The series has visited Hungary twice before, in 1990 and 1992, and MotoGP has a huge following in the country, in part due to the phenomenal success of Gabor Talmacsi in the 125 cc class.
The announcement is not a confirmation that the race will actually take place. Dorna merely proposed to the FIM, the official sanctioning body, that the race be included on the calendar. The FIM is not obliged to accept the proposal - though they generally tend to - and the track will need to be approved before racing can take place.
This is likely to mean a shakeup in the rest of the calendar. The track, which is still under construction, has to be approved two months before the race is to take place, which would be cutting it very close if the race is to replace the Chinese Grand Prix, which took place at the beginning of May. A more likely scenario is that Misano will be brought forward to early May, the weather on Italy's Adriatic coast allowing such a move, and the Hungarian Grand Prix could take place in early September, giving the consortium currently building the facility plenty of time to finish construction.
Since the end of last season, Honda has been in a quandary about what to do with its pneumatic valve engine. Despite the vast amounts of time and money being poured into the lump, the air valve RC212V remains a powerplant with non-trivial problems. Only Nicky Hayden's loud and public demands to be allowed to use the engine have caused HRC to relent, and to give the American what he wants.
Meanwhile, Honda has been forced to continue development on the steel-spring valve engine as well, just to allow Dani Pedrosa to keep up with the Ducati and the Yamaha. Having two engines being developed in parallel is a time-consuming and expensive exercise.
Pedrosa had every reason to stay with the steel spring engine: Despite the small power deficit, the bike suited Pedrosa's style perfectly, and helped keep him either near or at the front of the 2008 MotoGP championship race. Until the Spaniard crashed out of the lead at the Sachsenring, that is. A DNF in Germany, followed by another blank at Laguna Seca, where Pedrosa failed to start due to the injuries he sustained in the crash, means that Pedrosa has seen a 4 point lead be replaced by a 41 point deficit.
So now, the rationale for playing it safe and sticking with the steel spring engine is rapidly disappearing. Underlining this point is the report from Crash.net saying that Dani Pedrosa will test the pneumatic valve engine at the post-race test at Brno, in 4 weeks time. If the air valve engine provides a significant power advantage, then Pedrosa could elect to switch to new engine sooner rather than later.
This does not mean that development will be ceasing on the existing steel spring engine. On the contrary, GPOne is reporting that Shinya Nakano of the Gresini Honda team will be given a factory RC212V to ride from the Czech Grand Prix in Brno. With Nicky Hayden on the air valve engine, and Hayden's style so radically different from Pedrosa's, cooperation - if it ever existed - has ceased completely between the halves of the Repsol Honda garage. By having Hayden continue to ride the pneumatic valve bike, while providing a factory steel spring engine to Nakano, HRC can bet on two horses and hopefully help Pedrosa get back within striking distance of Stoner and Rossi in the title race.
The reason for choosing Nakano, officially, is to reward Gresini Honda for keeping the Japanese rider in MotoGP, after he looked set to be forced out of the series after a long series of poor results. Of course, it helps that Nakano's style is much more akin to Pedrosa's smooth style learnt on board a 250. And it helps even more that Nakano is no threat whatsoever in the championship race, and unlikely to get in Pedrosa's way in the races. If Nakano does start mixing it up at the front aboard the more capable 2008 RC212V, then we can expect to see Honda stepping in to prevent that again very quickly.
How quickly Pedrosa makes the switch to the air valve engine still remains to be seen. But it's now crystal clear that Honda are taking Pedrosa's title challenge deadly seriously.
Wow, what a race! Rossi was all business on the grid.
Stoner was focused.
The front row prepared for battle...
And what a battle!
Vermeulen rode to a lonely third...
On the podium, Rossi broke the ice.
But there seemed a difference of opinions about some of the passes.
The podium was tense during the Italian anthem.
Rossi was happy.
You could even tell by his wheelie...he was happy.
There have been requests for high resolution versions of the fantastic photos which Scott Jones has been taking at Laguna Seca, made possible in part by your generous donations. Currently, all of the pictures are in a smaller format, but after the race weekend is finished, we will be selecting some of the best pictures, and making them available in resolutions high enough for use as desktop backgrounds, and for printing at a reasonable size. The resolution probably won't be good enough to print up a life-size wall poster of Valentino Rossi, but it should be good enough to hang on your wall. So stay tuned.
A quick reminder to all MotoGPMatters.com's American and Canadian readers. The US Grand Prix at Laguna Seca is being broadcast by CBS, instead of Speed. The race is due to be broadcast at 5pm Eastern, though you'll need to check your local CBS affiliate for the schedule in your area. You can also check the TVRacer.com website for more information on the US GP, and other racing broadcast on Sunday. Make sure you check your DVRs and switch to the right channel before the race.
The second day of practice at Laguna Seca revealed a terrifying truth: Michelin have still not learned all the lessons from their disastrous 2007 season. The day dawned cool and foggy, though with a dry track, but what Michelin did next was shocking: They sent their riders out on full intermediate tires, on a dry track. The intermediates were the only tires with a sufficiently soft compound to provide grip in the cool conditions, as Michelin had gambled on the weather being hot and sunny. The French tire maker is obviously unaware of the apocryphal Mark Twain quote, having been fooled by the scorching weekend here in 2006.
So Michelin, and the riders that use their tires, have a huge problem. The tires the French company had shipped over to the track are perfect for hot, sunny conditions, but far, far too hard for the pleasant, but more temperate conditions currently at the track. To illustrate, Randy de Puniet did 52 laps on a tire on Friday, and it still had rubber left on it. That's 165% of race distance.
Bridgestone, on the other hand, are doing just fine. In every session so far, Casey Stoner took the fastest lap within 5 or 6 laps, and never relinquished the spot at the top of the timesheets. And qualifying practice was no different. On his 4th lap out of the pits, and his 3rd flying lap, Stoner was already under last year's pole record, and was just getting warmed up.
After a brief sojourn to the pits, Stoner was back out, and flying. This time, it took him 2 flying laps to smash the pole record, although whether "smash" is a strong enough word to describe taking 7/10ths of a second off last year's pole time is questionable. But if anyone thought that lap was something special, the Australian set them straight. In one of the most intimidating displays of pure, unadulterated speed, Casey Stoner set a run of 7 straight laps of low to mid 1'21 seconds, keeping most of the field well over a second behind him. This was just working at race setup. Stoner wasn't even thinking of taking a qualifying tire yet, and the paddock held its breath at the thought of what would happen once Stoner put soft rubber on his Ducati.
It was pretty clear that the battle in qualifying would be the same as the battle in the race. It was just a fight for 2nd place, the pole sitter and race winner - barring the arrival of the four horsemen of the apocalypse - already set in stone.
Valentino Rossi was the obvious candidate for the runner-up spot, and was quick right off the mark, but sadly for Rossi, only Greatest-Of-All-Time-quick, not Stoner-quick. Rossi's string of laps chasing a race setup was in itself deeply impressive. A run of 17 laps, 12 of which were low to mid 1'22s. Rossi clearly had race pace, but the question was, would he be able to improve on the mediocre qualifying positions he's had recently.
The other man to be fast was Suzuki's Chris Vermeulen, though the Australian started the session slowly. Once he got into a groove, however, he was soon running low 1'22s, and even dipping into the 1'21s on race tires.
The weekend's other standouts have been the Gresini Honda team, with Shinya Nakano and Alex de Angelis taking it in turns to feature at the sharp end of the timesheets. But shortly after the halfway mark of the session, things started going horribly wrong for the satellite Honda team. With 25 minutes to go, Shinya Nakano lost the front going into Turn 3, the bike utterly destroying itself in the gravel, though Nakano walked away relatively unscathed. Some 4 minutes later, his team mate was not so lucky. De Angelis hit a bump and highsided off coming out of Turn 10, landing nastily on his hands, and injuring his wrist. From the grimace of pain on his face as his team took off the San Marinese rider's gloves, he must be doubtful for the race tomorrow.
As the session started to wind down, and the qualifiers came out, some questions about whether Michelin's qualifying tires would work here were being answered in the affirmative. With 20 minutes to go, Randy de Puniet took 4th spot on his Michelin-shod LCR Honda, while shortly after, the Michelin-shod Yamaha's of James Toseland and Jorge Lorenzo rocketed to 7th and 8th, only to be knocked down a place by Toseland's team mate Colin Edwards shortly after.
The pack stepped up a gear, and 5 minutes later, de Puniet set another faster lap, taking 3rd spot, before Jorge Lorenzo and Ben Spies both got into the top 5. But de Puniet's time wasn't safe yet. A few moments later, Nicky Hayden took 3rd from de Puniet with his first lap in the 1'21 bracket.
In the last 5 minutes of the session, all hell broke loose, as usual, as everyone was out trying for their final crack at a front row start. Casey Stoner set the benchmark, as always, with a blistering lap of 1'21.296. Nicky Hayden followed suit, taking 2nd spot with a 1'21.849, though still nearly 6/10ths off the pace. But Hayden's 2nd spot would not last long, as Valentino Rossi took just over a tenth off Hayden's time. Staying out for a 2nd lap on his Bridgestone qualifier, Rossi took advantage of the short lap, and demonstrated his consistency, by shaving 0.001 off his previous best time with a 1.21.739.
But there was not to much wrong with the Michelin qualifiers either, as James Toseland fired round the track to take 3rd spot from Nicky Hayden. But only by the narrowest of margins: the British rookie was just 1/1000th of a second quicker than the American, who has won here twice before.
The last minute of qualifying saw the customary all-out charge, with Casey Stoner leading the way once again. This time, the Australian set as close to a perfect lap as it is humanly possible to do, taking the pole with a lap of 1'20.700, a time 1.592 seconds than his pole record from last year. Words cannot convey how impressive that achievement is, at a track which is so short, and so twisty.
Nicky Hayden looked like taking the 2nd place on the grid, setting a lap of 1'21.430, but the American lost out to Valentino Rossi in the dying seconds of the session, the Italian setting a blistering lap of 1'21.147. Rossi is clearly very fast at Laguna, but his times tend to pale a little when held up against Stoner's.
Nicky Hayden's 3rd place on the grid is an indication of that though Michelin may have got their race tires horribly wrong here at Laguna, the qualifiers are pretty good. Hayden leads a bunch of other Michelin shod riders, with the Yamahas of Jorge Lorenzo and James Toseland in 4th and 5th, while Randy de Puniet's Honda closes out the 2nd row. Colin Edwards is in 7th spot, ahead of Chris Vermeulen, who is the 3rd Bridgestone runner after Stoner and Rossi. Vermeulen is unfortunate to be on the 3rd row of the grid, as he is undoubtedly one of the fastest men on race tires.
Andrea Dovizioso and Toni Elias close out the top 10. Ben Spies won the battle of the American riders, though it wasn't really a fair fight, with the Kawasakis struggling badly at Laguna Seca.
This is Casey Stoner's 5th pole in a row, and coming off 3 wins in a row, it's hard to see how he can be stopped from taking his 4th straight win. Valentino Rossi's only hope is that he can get in Stoner's way early in the race, and hope the Australian makes a mistake. At least Rossi is in with a chance of being able to get close to Stoner, starting on the front row.
The only other man capable of running Rossi's pace, though not Stoner's, is Chris Vermeulen, but starting from the 3rd row, he'll have to fight his way through a pack of struggling Michelin men first. For as impressive as Nicky Hayden's qualifying time is, on race tires, the American is a long way off the pace, as are all the other Michelin runners. All they can hope is for an unexpected heatwave rolling in tomorrow afternoon. The forecast is not good.
10th on the Grid
4th--Great Result for Lorenzo's First Visit to Laguna
A Foggy Start
Corkscrew as fog clears
They Don't Call Him Elbows For Nothing
The Corkscrew Drop
Red Bull Bridge
Rossi In Garage
Toseland's Custom Tire
Spies Shifting from MotoGP to Superbike