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2006 Qatar MotoGP Warmup - An Oil Spectacular

MotoGP warm-ups are generally fairly uneventful, and unspectacular affairs. The only time they are of any real interest is if it's been dry during practice, and it's raining on race day. Today's warmup at Qatar was, if not meaningful, at least spectacular.

Stoner was fastest (again) during the 20 minute session, though with a much slower 1:58, and it looked like being a fairly typical session, with people riding around looking for last minute adjustments, when, with 5 minutes to go, Vermeulen's Suzuki blew up in a most spectacular way, halfway down the main straight, clouds of oil streaming out from behind him, made worse by the very strong headwind blowing almost directly down the straight.

Hopkins was the first victim, running straight into the gravel trap as he lost grip and couldn't brake in time for the first right-hander at the end of the straight. The problem was exacerbated by the fact that the bikes are doing around 325 kph at the end of the straight, and have to brake very hard to get into the first corner. Vermeulen immediately came rushing back along the gravel trap, towards the straight, waving his arms wildly, whilst Hopkins, stuck on his Suzuki in the gravel, joined in the Oil Flag Dance. The officials, unfortunately, were not so quick, and seconds later, Nakano joined the Bridgestone party in the gravel. Eventually, after what seemed like about a minute, the organisation got it together, and the officials red-flagged the session.

It was a rather comical, and worrying spectacle: the officials all rushed out to grab Hopkins bike in the gravel, but had no idea that there was a bunch of oil on the track, despite the vast cloud of oil which had emerged from Vermeulen's bike. Hopkins could later be heard commenting to his pit crew "they're asleep".

The clean up operation was hampered by the strong wind. Imagine trying to spread concrete dust on a particular spot with a 35 kph head wind, and I'm sure you'll see the problem. Plenty of dust was being used, but it was refusing to stay in place.

20 minutes later, the session resumed, with Stoner just improving his time, and staying fastest. The concrete dust seems to have worked, as there were no incidents, and the start of the 125 cc race seemed untroubled by any oil contamination.

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2006 Qatar Qualifying Practice - A Study in Dominance

Throughout all three Free Practice sessions, it was clear that Qatar was about two men: One, Kenny Roberts Jr, a seasoned veteran returning to form; The other, Casey Stoner, a young upstart who came within spitting distance of winning the 250cc championship last year. At the end of qualifying, only one name remained.

Stoner started the session impressively, setting a time just 7 hundredths outside of Capirossi's pole record from last year after just 5 minutes. If he was this fast after just 5 minutes, the odds looked good for Stoner, at least, to break the 1:56 barrier. Capirossi, looking for a repeat of last year, and the last GP, was the only rider to occasionally break Stoner's hegemony, dropping the time after 10 minutes had elapsed to 1:56.6, but 10 minutes later, Stoner took nearly half a second off Capirossi's time again.

The other fast rider in practice, Kenny Jr, didn't seem able to match his speed in the previous sessions, and never really made an impression. Meanwhile, the riders on the 2006 Hondas, Hayden and Melandri, were visibly struggling. Hayden fought manfully, but was obviously having to wrestle his Repsol Honda round the track, constantly searching for rear-end grip.

By the half way mark, after Edwards had moved up, slipping into second spot, it was clear that Qatar is a Michelin track. Only the Ducatis were in the top 9, with only Tamada on Michelins following the Bridgestone shod bikes, and Dunlop, with the honourable exception of Checa, trailing the field.

With 15 minutes to go, Capirossi took back pole, with a 1:56.102, showing that a 1:55 should be possible, and a couple of minutes later, just about everyone got back on the track to see how far their qualifiers would take them. With 10 minutes to go, Stoner shattered the 1:56 barrier, setting the time that would give him pole position: an astonishing 1:55.683.

After that, all hell broke loose, as Rossi put in a fast lap 1:56.433 to take him to 4th, while Elias rocketed to second with another sub-1:56 time: 1:55.938. Gibernau, on a hot lap, improved his time to 1:56.177, but couldn't improve on his fourth spot.

Everyone went back in for one last set of tyres, and the last 2 minutes were a mad dash. Capirossi came close to regaining pole, eventually stranding on 1:55.721, and second place on the grid. Hayden put in an almost superhuman effort to take 3rd, only to be dropped to the second row by Elias, with a 1:55.735. At the end, Roberts, who had dropped down to 13th, salvaged some pride with a 10th spot, but will surely be disappointed with his spot, despite taking 7/10ths of his previous fastest time. Gibernau, tellingly, came in to the pits for a new rear qualifier, but couldn't get out again in time, leaving the pits with just 1:15 on the clock, nowhere near long enough to get round the track to start a new qualifying lap.

But the most telling statistic of this qualifying session is Stoner's consistency: from the outset, Casey was riding 1:56s, looking beautifully smooth and effortless. The onboard camera allowed glimpses of one of the reasons for his smoothness: on downshifts, he operates the clutch with just two fingers, the second and third (middle and ring finger), using his index finger to keep hold of the bars, giving better control of the bike. His pole time is nearly 1.3 seconds faster than Capirossi's pole last year.

Stoner's dominance was in stark contrast to Pedrosa's performance. Pedrosa doesn't really like Qatar, he has said that he has to push too hard to go fast, and this opinion can only have been reinforced by a lowsider during Friday morning's free practice session. He never looked comfortable, and never seemed to find the smoothness which marked his performance in Jerez.

One wonders what HRC makes of the grid. On the front row, are Stoner and Elias, on what are basically tweaked 2005 client Hondas, with Hayden a creditable (though, surely in HRC's eyes, disappointing) 4th, his team mate Pedrosa beside him.

Rossi looked annoyed after setting his fastest lap, his body language speaking volumes, and Yamaha won't be pleased, as both Edwards and Rossi had looked much stronger during free practice.

As I said before, Qatar is obviously a Michelin track. If you take Capirossi's 2nd place away, the next Bridgestone-shod bike is Gibernau on 7th spot, followed by Nakano in 9th. Nakano will be disappointed after starting from the front row at Jerez. Roberts in 10th will at least be pleased that he is ahead of both the Suzukis, with Vermeulen 11th ahead of Hopkins in 13th spot.

The big disappointment is Melandri, with a very poor 12th place. I have no idea what went wrong for him, but it seems likely that he's on the 2006 Honda as well as Hayden, but is having even more problems than Nicky.

Checa is in a creditable 14th spot, heading up de Puniet, with Tamada in 16th. Considering Tamada is on a proven bike and Michelin tyres, this is a shockingly bad display. If Tamada doesn't start getting some top 10 results (at the very least) soon, then it wouldn't surprise me to see Tamada going, possibly before the end of the summer.

Results:

 1       27      Casey   Stoner   AUS     HONDA   1'55.683                329.6
2 65 Loris Capirossi ITA Ducati 1'55.721 0.038 0.038 324.6
3 24 Toni Elias SPA HONDA 1'55.735 0.052 0.014 326.5
4 69 Nicky Hayden USA HONDA 1'55.793 0.110 0.058 323.2
5 26 Dani Pedrosa SPA HONDA 1'56.008 0.325 0.215 330.2
6 46 Valentino Rossi ITA Yamaha 1'56.076 0.393 0.068 323.2
7 15 Sete Gibernau SPA Ducati 1'56.177 0.494 0.101 326.5
8 5 Colin Edwards USA Yamaha 1'56.230 0.547 0.053 322.8
9 56 Shinya Nakano JPN Kawasaki 1'56.237 0.554 0.007 319.2
10 10 Kenny ROBERTS KR211V 1'56.272 0.589 0.035 324.7
11 71 Chris Vermeulen AUS Suzuki 1'56.356 0.673 0.084 317.4
12 33 Marco Melandri ITA HONDA 1'56.822 1.139 0.466 325.1
13 21 John Hopkins USA Suzuki 1'56.981 1.298 0.159 323.9
14 7 Carlos Checa SPA Yamaha 1'57.299 1.616 0.318 321.7
15 17 Randy DE-PUNIET FRA Kawasaki 1'57.822 2.139 0.523 319.0
16 6 Makoto Tamada JPN HONDA 1'57.891 2.208 0.069 328.5
17 77 James Ellison GBR Yamaha 1'58.674 2.991 0.783 321.0
18 66 Alex HOFMANN GER Ducati 1'59.591 3.908 0.917 321.2
19 30 Jose Luis CARDOSO SPA Ducati 1'59.733 4.050 0.142 317.1

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MotoGP Season 2006 Tracks in Google Earth

I've created a Google Earth file of the tracks used for this season's MotoGP races. You'll need to download Google Earth to use these files, which sadly only runs under Windows and OS X. However, if you have any other software which accepts longitude and latitude coordinates, you can change the file name from MotoGPTracks.kmz to MotoGPTracks.zip, and use your favourite compression tool to unzip the file, which will unpack a file in XML format called doc.kml. You can open this file in either a web browser or a text editor, and you will find the coordinates for all of the tracks in there.

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Tyres, and Grip, and Which Class Future MotoGP Riders Will Come From

At the start of the MotoGP era, speculation was rife that the entry class for the senior class was no longer the 250s, as it had been for years, but rather the Superbikes, where experience of big torquey four strokes was felt to be a possible advantage in the new class. Tyres with too little grip for the power output helped reinforce this impression.

But as grip increases, with tyres and engine management learning to sing in perfect harmony, the route to MotoGP is shifting back to the 250s, just like during the 500cc period. Back in the days of the 500s, few riders tried to make the switch from Superbike to 500cc, because they were such totally different beasts, requiring wildly different riding styles. The only successful route to 500s in the 90's was through the "Stroker School" of 125s and 250s.

The coming of the four strokes to MotoGP changed all that. All of a sudden, riders needed to be able to muscle a heavy, torquey (well, relatively) bike around the track, and a horde of Superbike riders made the switch. Only the very best made a successful transition (Bayliss and Edwards), but the nature of the bikes at least made it possible (Bayliss' fantastic showing in the early Superbike races this season demonstrated his vast talent). The only way to ride the first generations of MotoGP bikes was to brake late, stuff it through the corner, and stand it up as soon as possible, so you can open the throttle without the thing spitting you off.

Now, the tyres have caught up with the power (an extra 50+ horses) and weight (an extra 20+ kg) jump, electronics have become more important, grip has increased, and the bikes have become a fraction lighter and much more controllable. You don't need to stand the bike up before opening the throttle, as the traction control will harness the excess horses, limiting the slide before it throws you off, and the increased grip and strength of the tyres allows you to brake harder and deeper into the corner than previously, so the differentiator becomes how much speed you can maintain through the corner, as opposed to how quickly you can get on the gas. Any speed you don't have to lose in braking is speed you don't have to regain by accelerating. I've said it before, but check out the lean angles, in particular look at how much space their is between the inside of the knee and the tank as the riders corner: The bikes are now leant over so far that as the rider's knee sliders kiss the tarmac, there is still only a couple of inches between the tank and the knee. 5 years ago, there was a lot more air there.

And we are back full circle to the Stroker School: riding a small capacity, limited power (well, relatively, after all, a 250cc race bike "only" makes 100+hp) racer requires you to hold on to as much speed as possible. Gaining speed is a lot harder on a bike with less power and not much torque than holding on to it. The best example of this are the 125s: It's amazing watching those kids (most of them are still teenagers) wring the necks of the bikes all the way round the track. The ideal lap seems to consist of assuming a racing crouch, holding the gas open, and maintaining that position for as much of the lap as possible, without being spat off. You really can't afford to scrub any speed off, 'cos those tiny engines, geared high to allow decent top speeds, really struggle to gain any speed at all.

So, over the next few years, expect to see this year's pattern repeated: new riders entering the MotoGP class will come from the 250 cc class, rather than the Superbikes. (This year's exception, Chris Vermeulen, also spent several years racing Supersport 600s, which again require you to hold a higher corner speed than the big Superbikes).

Now, the MotoGP class is a prototype class, but engineering from this class is starting to find its way into ordinary road bikes (such as the rear suspension on Honda's CBR 600 and 1000 RR bikes), and ordinary road bikes (well, the hypersports, anyway) form the basis for the Superbike class. This raises an interesting question: currently, traction control isn't very prominent in Superbikes because it isn't available in fully developed form on the road bikes which the Superbikes are based on. But as engine management becomes more sophisticated, and more ubiquitous (and, frankly, cheap enough) on road bikes, so it will become more important in Superbikes. This year's Yamaha R1 already has electronics limiting the amount of power in the lower gears to counter wheelying, and this is just the start of a long development process. Arguably, traction control is more useful on the road, where road surface grip conditions can change vastly from metre to metre, than in the controlled conditions of a racetrack.

And the improved engine management and traction control of the hypersport bikes will mean that corner speed will become a crucial factor in the Superbike racing they have spawned. And it may once again be possible for riders to move from Superbikes into MotoGP again. Whatever happens, the way the two series interact is going to be fascinating to watch.

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MotoGP Jerez 2006 Qualifying

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.

Capirossi remains a fantastic rider to watch, always spectacular, taking over Garry McCoy's King of Slide crown. But what is obvious about the Ducati is that it's a real muscle bike: it's incredibly quick, but you have to bully it around the track. This is great for qualifying, but demands a lot from riders during a full race.

First conclusion to draw is that Bridgestone have built a fantastic qualifier, dominating the front row. And I'm really impressed with Nakano, he's certainly living up to my expectations. Of course, the race is yet to come, but things are looking promising. In the post-qualifying interview, Capirossi was confident that the Bridgestone tyres could perform for a full race. Gibernau emphasised that he was still in a learning process, and that he hoped to keep up with the front group tomorrow. But he looked happy and relaxed, and as Sete's performance is so dependent on his mental state, you have to say that's a good omen. I believe that Gibernau's 2005 season ended in the gravel pit at the last corner of the first race (Jerez) last year. Rossi, by dumping Gibernau in the gravel, effectively finished Sete off as a competitive force. So a happy Sete (or an otherwise emotionally motivated Sete) is a force to be reckoned with.

And we have four Hondas from 3rd to 7th on the grid. Nicky saved face by taking top Honda spot, but he didn't look very happy at all. You could see he was struggling with grip at the rear throughout the session. Rossi has said about Hayden that he is a very very fast rider, with great talent, but is not as good at developing a bike. Interesting also to see that Elias finished ahead of team mate Melandri.

Pedrosa was impressive, but you could see that he was occasionally having problems physically managing the bike. His foot slipped off the footrest a couple of times, from sheer exertion, it looked like. But a promising start.

The Yamahas were very disappointing. Randy de Puniet on the Kawasaki probably can't believe the fact that he's ahead of Rossi on the grid, and might be worth a side bet to qualify ahead of Rossi over the next few Grand Prix, if Yamaha keep struggling. What was interesting was to see Rossi spending a lot of time talking to the man from Michelin. Normally, just about the only person you see Rossi talking to in the pits is Jeremy Burgess, but this time, the tyre man was getting a lot of Rossi's time. Colin looked workmanlike, did his job, and qualified very close to Rossi, so there is obviously a problem with the bike. I'm going to say "chatter", just so I sound like I know what I'm on about.

The Suzukis look gorgeous, except for the powder blue paint job, but still don't look like challenging for the podium. Interesting to see that Vermeulen is ahead of Hopper on the grid.

KRJR is in more or less the same position that he would have been last year, only this time on a bike with a tiny budget, as opposed to a full factory Suzuki, so he must be pleased. I reckon the TeamKR bike could have a couple of good showings, maybe even a couple of top 5 places with a bit of luck later in the season. Especially if it rains some place.

A quick word on Makoto Tamada. Tamada was incredibly impressive in 2004, winning a couple of races, but since breaking a bone in his hand early in 2005, he can't seem to find his feet again. Qualifying 16th is pretty disappointing.

What does all this tell us about the race tomorrow? It makes it a fascinating prospect. Rossi is going to have to pull out all the stops to get close to the front. The Ducatis will start quickly, but will they be able to keep up the pace for a full race? Nakano said in the post-qualifying interview that he was pleased with the test results during the winter, but he didn't know how much stock to put in those results. He has reason to be cautiously optimistic, but he will have a horde of Honda riders breathing down his neck tomorrow. And will Yamaha sort their chatter out in the warm up tomorrow, to put Edwards and Rossi in with a chance? And how will Pedrosa handle a full race? It looks like there could be more than just two riders fighting for the win going into the last corner. I can't wait.

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A followup, based on the comments of the folks over at Advrider.com

This was originally a reply to a post over at Adventure Rider, so there are references in here which may seem strange:

Secondly, for those of you who'd care to see the Jerez track, here it is on Google Maps.

Thirdly, a few comments on stuff I forgot to mention, and responses to points made:

Saddest part of the season for me is the absence of WCM. They are my personal favourite team, but then I'm a sucker for an underdog, and proved, before the demise of the two strokes, that they could successfully manage and run a winning team, given the right material, with McCoy coming within a gnat's whisker of taking the 500cc title in 2000 riding a WCM-run Yamaha. And they showed incredible fortitude in running several seasons on nothing more than the million or so bucks provided by Dorna to pad out the field, whilst developing their own machine. For that money, you get Valentino Rossi's left lower leg, and you still have to find a bike for him to ride.

Weirdest note of the season is the demise of the sponsor-powered rider. No one would take Camel's 15 million bucks while it was attached to Max Biaggi. Telefonica Movistar pulled out after they lost the tug of war with Repsol for HRC sponsorship. Checa lost his cigarette money, after Marlboro picked up his tab (British Joke) for several years. Money has drained out of MotoGP recently, even as viewing figures have increased. If I had a company looking for big exposure in the southern European market, I'd put a couple of million in MotoGP like a shot. Formula 1, tennis, golf and soccer are all way too expensive to sponsor nowadays, MotoGP seems like outstanding bang for the buck. But we cannot rule out my judgement being clouded ...

Several of you mentioned Nicky, so just to reiterate my point: Nicky is extremely talented. But he has not shown a huge amount of talent at developing the bike this off-season, jeopardising his position as number 1 rider. But this, as Pantah so rightly points out, is not necessarily a bad thing: Hayden does best when someone just hands him a bike and tells him to go ride the thing. So relieving Hayden of his testing duties might just free his mind up to concentrate on actually winning races. Which would mean Honda would put him back on development work, ruining a perfectly good season. I reckon Hayden may be a prime candidate to move to Yamaha next year if Rossi goes to F1 / WRC / Wherever. Though having two Americans in the same team is not the preferred option, as it doesn't help sell 125cc scooters in Italy and Spain.

But I'm not being down on Nicky here, the problem really is HRC. They still haven't learnt the lesson from Rossi leaving to go to Yamaha: It's about the rider, not the bike. HRC believe religiously that the most important part of a Honda Racing team is the Honda Racing Motorcycle. If things aren't going according to plan, HRC don't send the bike back to the engineers, they regard the test rider as being defective, and switch riders. All of Honda's riders past and present complain about the focus being around the motorcycle, instead of the rider and the team. The problem is that they were fooled into believing this was the correct approach by having first Doohan and then Rossi win championships for them. The problem is, that both Doohan and Rossi have incredibly strong personalities capable of dealing with the pressure placed upon them. There are very, very few human beings capable of functioning within the strictures of the HRC discipline. But here's an interesting twist: There are currently three riders on the grid who have the discipline and the will to cope with that kind of pressure. Rossi isn't going back, but the other two are Dani Pedrosa and Chris Vermeulen. Vermeulen is unlikely to be given a chance for a couple of years, as punishment for stepping out of Honda's pre-planned career plan (1 more year of Superbikes, then a place in a satellite team), but Pedrosa has what it takes mentally.

Another point made by others is the importance of tyres. Tyres have improved by huge amounts over the past 5 years, and each season sees greater improvements. And as grip improves, so corner speed increases, and power can be applied earlier and earlier in the corner. If you want to see proof, check the lean angles below:

KRJR on a Suzuki 500 (probably 1999 or 2000):
KRJR on a Suzuki 500 in 2000

Shinya Nakano on the Kawasaki last year:
Shinya Nakano on the Kawasaki 990 in 2005

Knees are being slung out less and less, as bikes reach ever greater angles of lean. Previously, the way you rode a 500 (in particular), and the early MotoGP bikes was to brake as late as possible, chuck it into the corner, stand it up as soon as possible, and hammer the throttle. As grip has improved, and engine management software has become more sophisticated, stressing tyres less, it's been possible to ride bike round the corner, getting on the gas earlier whilst the bike is still leant over. Smoothness, and maintaining speed into the corners has become crucial. And the most interesting thing about this is that this is exactly how you ride a 250. Edwards spent the latter half of last season complaining of how he had to learn to ride the bike like a 250. So, whereas previously, 250cc riders moving up to the premier class had to relearn how to ride a race bike completely, nowadays they just have to get used to a lot more power and weight, and can maintain their style. I think this is going to become an even more obvious factor when the 800s appear.

Now, mikeyb mentioned that Suzuki may have an advantage when the class moves to 800cc, possible benefiting from the higher revs which hydraulic valve technology allow. Although this is a good point, it encapsulates exactly what is wrong with the Suzuki. It has plenty of power. Think back to the Aprilia Cube, another bike with buckets and buckets of power. But the secret to a winning MotoGP bike is rideability. The reason that the Hondas dominated initially, and the Yamahas are dominating now, is not because they made the most horses, but because they had the flattest torque curves. Smooth power delivery means you can get on the power earlier, as you can control the bike more easily. The Suzuki is still too much like an old 500: loads of power, but if you're not careful, it'll spit you off. So no, my money is on the Honda when the rules change, as they'll just perform a cylinderectomy, and have a winning race bike from the get go. Sadly, unless they change their approach to team management, having the winning bike isn't going to give them the championship.

And TeamKR: My other favourite team. I have so much admiration for KR SR, just for his approach to competing at this level. He knew that he could not build a 4-cylinder 500 capable of winning GPs, so he looked for the optimum balance between power and weight, and built the 500cc triple, which even managed to push the 990 cc bikes when they first appeared, if only briefly. Now, what TeamKR have proven is that they can build an outstanding chassis, and they can run a well-managed team capable of punching well above their weight (and that you can't compete in engine design against the near bottomless pockets of Honda and Yamaha). With a decent engine in their proven chassis, and with KR JR out to prove that it wasn't his fault the Suzuki couldn't win, they could provide a few upsets.

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