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2006 Shanghai Free Practice - Day 1

Well, as expected, it rained all day Friday, providing another day of wet practice. And as expected, Bridgestone showed it has good rain tyres. What was less expected was that Yamaha seems to have found some kind of a solution to their problems this year, with Valentino Rossi topping both qualifying sessions.

Results Free Practice 1:

 

 1. Valentino Rossi ITA Camel Yamaha Team 2min 12.060 secs
2. Casey Stoner AUS Honda LCR 2min 12.062 secs
3. Kenny Roberts USA Team Roberts 2min 12.112 secs
4. Loris Capirossi ITA Ducati Marlboro Team 2min 13.034 secs
5. Sete Gibernau SPA Ducati Marlboro Team 2min 13.221 secs
6. Nicky Hayden USA Repsol Honda Team 2min 13.445 secs
7. Randy de Puniet FRA Kawasaki Racing Team 2min 13.770 secs
8. Marco Melandri ITA Fortuna Honda 2min 14.238 secs
9. Chris Vermulen AUS Rizla Suzuki MotoGP 2min 15.006 secs
10. Colin Edwards USA Camel Yamaha Team 2min 15.196 secs
11. Toni Elias SPA Fortuna Honda 2min 15.264 secs
12. John Hopkins USA Rizla Suzuki MotoGP 2min 15.316 secs
13. Makoto Tamada JPN Konica Minolta Honda 2min 15.348 secs
14. Shinya Nakano JPN Kawasaki Racing Team 2min 15.363 secs
15. Dani Pedrosa SPA Repsol Honda Team 2min 15.399 secs
16. Alex Hofmann GER Pramac d'Antin MotoGP 2min 19.398 secs
17. Carlos Checa SPA Tech 3 Yamaha 2min 19.539 secs
18. James Ellison GBR Tech 3 Yamaha 2min 22.140 secs
19. Jose Luis Cardoso SPA Pramac d'Antin MotoGP 2min 22.236 secs

Results Free Practice 1:

 

  1. Valentino Rossi ITA Camel Yamaha Team 2min 9.393 secs
2. Loris Capirossi ITA Ducati Marlboro Team 2min 9.748 secs
3. John Hopkins USA Rizla Suzuki MotoGP 2min 10.007 secs
4. Sete Gibernau SPA Ducati Marlboro Team 2min 10.187 secs
5. Nicky Hayden USA Repsol Honda Team 2min 10.247 secs
6. Marco Melandri ITA Fortuna Honda 2min 10.411 secs
7. Dani Pedrosa SPA Repsol Honda Team 2min 10.815 secs
8. Casey Stoner AUS Honda LCR 2min 11.016 secs
9. Makoto Tamada JPN Konica Minolta Honda 2min 11.313 secs
10. Randy de Puniet FRA Kawasaki Racing Team 2min 11.425 secs
11. Chris Vermulen AUS Rizla Suzuki MotoGP 2min 11.438 secs
12. Kenny Roberts USA Team Roberts 2min 11.615 secs
13. Colin Edwards USA Camel Yamaha Team 2min 11.838 secs
14. Shinya Nakano JPN Kawasaki Racing Team 2min 12.496 secs
15. Toni Elias SPA Fortuna Honda 2min 12.807 secs
16. Carlos Checa SPA Tech 3 Yamaha 2min 14.914 secs
17. James Ellison GBR Tech 3 Yamaha 2min 15.880 secs
18. Alex Hofmann GER Pramac d'Antin MotoGP 2min 15.897 secs
19. Jose Luis Cardoso SPA Pramac d'Antin MotoGP 2min 19.416 secs

 

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2006 Istanbul Race - Plus ca Change

Last year, the Istanbul Park Circuit provided a thrilling spectacle, as Rossi and Melandri slugged it out at the front of the field. In just its second year, the track laid claim to a place in motorcycling history, providing some of the closest and most exciting racing imaginable. After an astonishing 250 race, in which any one of four riders could have won, the MotoGP race turned into one of the best races that MotoGP has seen for a very long time. The track challenges bike and rider, rewards risk, and offers plenty of places to attack the opposition. The fast Turn 11, before the heavy braking for the Turn 12 - 13 - 14 combination, nicknamed the "Tilke Twiddles" after the track designer, the last turns before the finish line, means that if you can stay within spitting distance on the last lap, you are in with a chance of the win.

With the track dry, and no sign of rain, everyone expected the Suzukis to get swamped quickly, and start dropping off the back from the get-go. Vermeulen's fantastic display in qualifying, taking pole, together with Hopkins in a season's best 5th spot certainly made up for the dismal showing at Qatar, but without rain, they weren't expected to use the advantage the Bridgestone rain tires so obviously afforded during qualifying. As it happened, tires were indeed to play a crucial role, but manufacturers than the seasoned heads were saying.

As the red lights extinguished, the Suzukis surprised everyone, with Vermeulen getting a fantastic start from pole to lead the race, with Gibernau hot on his heels, and Hopkins improving on his grid position to take third spot, followed by Hayden, Stoner and Melandri. Gibernau sneaked past Vermeulen round the back of the circuit, but Vermeulen took Gibernau back in a spectacular braking maneuver into Turn 12, the first of many such moves we would see today. But Vermeulen couldn't hold on to the lead. On the next lap, first Gibernau and then a fired-up Hopkins went past Vermeulen, pushing him back into third.

Further down the field, Valentino Rossi had started to improve upon his poor grid position, moving up into 9th, behind team mate Colin Edwards, and pushing on to try to regain a grip on the championship. But he pushed too hard, running wide and off the track, dropping to 14th before rejoining the race. At least this time, his bike wasn't damaged as it was at Jerez, but he still had a lot of catching up to do.

Up at the front, a battle royal was developing. Gibernau managed to grab a small lead, fluctuating between 0.5 and 1 second, while behind him, Hopkins, Stoner, Hayden, Melandri, and Vermeulen duked it out, constantly swapping positions, with Vermeulen slowly dropping off the back of the group. On one lap, Hayden would pass Melandri going into the downhill drop of Turn 2, but be back behind Melandri on the brakes going into Turn 12.

Behind this group sat Capirossi, with Edwards slowly closing him down, and a hard charging Dani Pedrosa moving very quickly through the field from his dire 16th spot on the starting grid on the factory Honda, with Rossi desparately trying to recover lost ground from his runoff.

Then, from lap 7, the lack of practise on a dry track started taking its toll. Hopkins, who had made a strong impression, running in second place up till then, first let Stoner past, then, on the next lap, lost nearly a second as his tires started to go off, from running too soft a tire. By the end of lap 9, he had slipped from 2nd to 9th. And Hopkins wasn't the only Bridgestone rider to be struggling. Gibernau, who had led since lap 2, lapped half a second slower on lap 9 and 10, losing entirely the margin he'd acquired on the following group. By 11, the Ducati rider had slipped from 1st to 5th.

This left the front group, which by then had been caught by Pedrosa, to slug it out for the lead. The Hondas of Melandri, Pedrosa, Hayden and Stoner were all evenly matched, and the positions they held depended on who got through Turn 1 fastest, and who could brake into Turn 12 hardest. As Gibernau slipped down the order, he held up Vermeulen just long enough for the Suzuki rider to lose touch with the leading group. Still, the Australian Suzuki rider was faring better than his team mate Hopkins, who by this time had been forced to pit for a new rear tire.

Capirossi must have chosen a different tyre to Gibernau, as the other Ducati rider managed to maintain his position a couple of seconds off the leading group, but could not close them down. Valentino Rossi, meanwhile, was having fewer problems gaining on the leaders, trailing Melandri's Honda team mate Toni Elias in his wake. By lap 13, both Rossi and Elias were past Colin Edwards, and within 6 seconds of the leader Dani Pedrosa. Behind Edwards came the two Kawasakis of Nakano and de Puniet, the Frenchman not being able to capitalize on his excellent grid position. An improved Makoto Tamada followed close behind the Kawasakis, leaving a gap of over 10 seconds to a steady Kenny Roberts Jr. Kenny Jr rode an incredibly consistent race, lapping constantly in the low 1:56s and high 1:55s. Unfortunately, the leaders were riding 1:54s. And to demonstrate that it wasn't just the Bridgestone riders who were having tire problems, British rider James Ellison was also in the pits collecting a new rear Dunlop for his Tech 3 Yamaha.

Working in Rossi's favour was the continuing battle up front. For the next 5 laps, Nicky Hayden, Dani Pedrosa, Marco Melandri and Casey Stoner were engaged in an epic battle for the lead. Although Pedrosa led for much of this time, he could never get away, as each time he managed to get a small gap, he would be chased down by Hayden, and lose time having to block his HRC team mate, giving Melandri and Stoner a chance to catch back up, and get in each other's way as they swapped places out of Turn 11 and into Turn 12. But by lap 18, this epic struggle was taking its toll on Hayden's tire, as he started to lose touch after running wide as he was passed by Melandri.

And then there were three. After passing Hayden, Melandri got a great run out of the blazingly fast Turn 11, allowing him to out-brake Pedrosa into the Turn 12 to 14 Tilke Twiddles. This move also allowed Stoner to close up on Pedrosa, and pass him on the finish straight at the start of lap 18. By the end of the lap, the young Australian had passed Melandri as well to take the lead.

For the next 3 laps, it looked as if Stoner was going to equal Freddie Spencer's record as the youngest GP winner ever, being exactly the same age, to the day, as Spencer was when he won in Spa Francorchamps in 1983. Stoner on the LCR Honda had gained a little gap on Melandri and Pedrosa bogged themselves down in the scrap for second place. But this dispute was settled over the course of the penultimate lap. Pedrosa attempted to force his Repsol HRC Honda in front of Melandri going into Turn 12, but almost out-braked himself, running wide and letting Melandri get a gap. In a last ditch attempt to catch the Italian, Pedrosa flung his Honda into the downhill Turn 1, losing the front end and sliding off into the gravel.

This freed Melandri to concentrate on catching Stoner over less than the lap that was left. He looked like he wasn't close enough into Turn 9 and 10, and hadn't gained significantly through Turn 11, but in a masterful display of gutsy braking, he nudged his Honda ahead of Stoner's braking into Turn 12, while keeping the door firmly closed through the "Tilke Twiddles", and taking a hard-fought but richly deserved win. Stoner took second just a fraction behind, while Hayden hung on to his sliding bike to clinch a crucial third place, making it an impressive three podiums in a row for the Kentucky Kid.

He was lucky the race wasn't one lap longer though, as Rossi had closed to fourth, just 8/10ths behind Hayden, and lapping a lot faster, with Toni Elias in his wake. Ten seconds adrift, Vermeulen was unlucky to have sixth taken from him by Capirossi on the last lap, marking an impressive race by the other Australian rookie. Five seconds behind Vermeulen, Nakano had passed Colin Edwards to take 8th, the Texan not being able to make much headway so far this season. Tamada followed Edwards at a distance, the Japanese Honda rider's tenth place surely coming as a relief after his previous disastrous outing at Qatar.

Behind Tamada came another rider whom Lady Luck does not appear to favor. One-time race leader Sete Gibernau had slipped to a lowly 11th spot, nursing his tires 30 seconds behind the winner. The other Kawasaki rider Randy de Puniet led home Kenny Roberts Jr on the Honda V5-powered Team KR machine. Although 13th will not be what Kenny Jr would have hoped for, it's a long way ahead of where Kenny Sr's bikes were finishing last year.

Dani Pedrosa had bravely remounted to finish the race, grabbing two points which may turn out to be crucial by the end of the season. Spanish Yamaha rider Carlos Checa took the last point, with the Dunlop-shod Ducati of Alex Hoffman finishing ahead of John Hopkins, after Hopper returned to the pits for a new rear tire. James Ellison, the other rider to pit for tires, was the last official finisher.

Melandri's victory means that we have only ever had one winner at Istanbul. To be fair, that's in only two races, but the Italian has shown that the track really suits him. Stoner made clear that he is destined to win a race sometime very soon indeed, and it can't be long before Dani Pedrosa decides he wants the big cup too.

Nicky Hayden was careful not to try to apportion blame after the race, even though it was obvious deteriorating tires had robbed him of the chance to go for broke on the last lap. But you can't keep finishing on the podium without getting on that top step at some point, and the way that Nicky is riding, it looks like being sooner rather than later.

Valentino Rossi rode another outstanding race, after almost putting himself out of contention. No one can doubt the champion's determination and skill after his display, but if he had managed to get a decent spot on the grid in qualifying, there would have been no need to push so hard that he ran off track during the race.

This leaves the title race wide open, with three race winners so far, and the top five riders separated by 12 points. There is everything to play for, and the riders know it.

Istanbul Race Results

 

Marco Melandri

ITA

Fortuna Honda

41min 54.065 secs

Casey Stoner

AUS

Honda LCR

41min 54.265 secs

Nicky Hayden

USA

Repsol Honda Team

41min 59.523 secs

Valentino Rossi

ITA

Camel Yamaha Team

42min 0.274 secs

Toni Elias

SPA

Fortuna Honda

42min 0.652 secs

Loris Capirossi

ITA

Ducati Marlboro Team

42min 10.747 secs

Chris Vermulen

AUS

Rizla Suzuki MotoGP

42min 10.842 secs

Shinya Nakano

JPN

Kawasaki Racing Team

42min 15.602 secs

Colin Edwards

USA

Camel Yamaha Team

42min 16.912 secs

Makoto Tamada

JPN

Konica Minolta Honda

42min 24.548 secs

Sete Gibernau

SPA

Ducati Marlboro Team

42min 24.608 secs

Randy de Puniet

FRA

Kawasaki Racing Team

42min 28.349 secs

Kenny Roberts

USA

Team Roberts

42min 39.177 secs

Dani Pedrosa

SPA

Repsol Honda Team

42min 47.590 secs

Carlos Checa

SPA

Tech 3 Yamaha

42min 53.920 secs

Alex Hofmann

GER

Pramac d'Antin MotoGP

42min 55.306 secs

John Hopkins

USA

Rizla Suzuki MotoGP

43min 32.693 secs

James Ellison

GBR

Tech 3 Yamaha

43min 27.080 secs

DNF:
Jose Luis Cardoso SPA Pramac d'Antin MotoGP 42min 25.898 secs

Championship Standings

 

1

Nicky HAYDEN

USA

52

2

Loris CAPIROSSI

ITA

51

3

Marco MELANDRI

ITA

45

4

Casey STONER

AUS

41

5

Valentino ROSSI

ITA

40

6

Dani PEDROSA

SPA

32

7

Toni ELIAS

SPA

32

8

Shinya NAKANO

JPN

22

9

Colin EDWARDS

USA

19

10

Sete GIBERNAU

SPA

18

11

Kenny ROBERTS JR

USA

17

12

Makoto TAMADA

JPN

14

13

Chris VERMEULEN

AUS

13

14

Carlos CHECA

SPA

8

15

John HOPKINS

USA

7

16

Randy DE PUNIET

FRA

4

17

James ELLISON

GBR

3

18

Alex HOFMANN

GER

2

 

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2006 Istanbul Warmup

The grid was out in force this morning, to get some track time on a drying track. The damp spots which were still present early in the session had dried up by the end, and times dropped fairly dramatically. Interestingly, even though the track was dry, the top of the timesheet is still heavily populated with Bridgestone riders. Both the Ducatis looked very fast, with Gibernau looking very impressive. Vermeulen, who dominated yesterday's qualifying, was anonymous today, finishing 16th behind James Ellison; fortunately for Suzuki team mate Hopkins took over the reins, leading the times for much of the session, to finish 4th. The only Michelin rider in the top 3 was Stoner, who was good yesterday and looks good today.

Yesterday's losers made good a lot of the ground they had given up, with Pedrosa 5th, Melandri 6th, and Rossi 7th. Edwards is said to be suffering from a painful shoulder after a fall yesterday morning, but still managed a respectable 11th. Two minor surprises are Kenny Roberts Jr, who seems to be consolidating his grip on 9th, and Makoto Tamada's fine 8th. Whether Tamada can maintain this form into the race remains to be seen. Of the Kawasaki riders, Randy de Puniet put in another good performance, to finish 10th, but team mate Nakano was a little off the pace in 14th.

Another big winner yesterday was way down the sheets today: Nicky Hayden didn't look convincing all session, and finished in lowly 13th spot, behind Elias.

With the skies looking overcast, and spots of rains appearing sporadically on camera lenses, this afternoon's race looks like being a gamble. There is a very strong possibility that we could see the first spectacle of riders coming in to change bikes, under the red and white flag rule. The riders will be in a quandary as to which bike to start on, the wet or the dry. We shall see.

Times (Source, motogp.com)

 

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2006 Istanbul Qualifying - Rain Dance

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.

And this afternoon, rain brought us the spectacle of a class rookie once again dominating qualifying. It was a different rookie, and it was only the one session, unlike Qatar, where Stoner dominated all four sessions, but it was a heartening spectacle to see Vermeulen ride the wheels off the Suzuki, backing it in to corners and sliding the front all session long, as if it was the last race of the season, and he had a title to clinch. And he really did dominate from the start: except for a period of 8 minutes mid-session, and 15 or so seconds when he was on the same lap as Hayden or Capirossi, Vermeulen was top of the charts throughout, often with leads of well over a second.

But Vermeulen wasn't the only rider to push so hard: Nicky Hayden came within 5 yards of taking the pole. That's the distance he left braking too late into what Michael Scott has called the "Tilke Twiddles", the tight left-right-left turns 12, 13 and 14, after the fastest section of the track, and before the main straight. Carrying too much speed, with a miniscule time advantage over Vermeulen, he couldn't control a stuttering rear end to get into turn 12 cleanly, and overshot, returning to the track visibly upset with himself, for what he later called "a club racer's mistake". Hayden was strong all session, one of the few riders not to brake into the very high-speed right-hander of turn 11.

That's where the difference was most visible: the riders most comfortable with their set-up were backing off a little before the turn, not quite keeping it pinned like they would when it's dry, but the strugglers were sitting up and braking, losing maybe 10 or 15 mph on the fast guys. The sweeping sections of turns 2 through 4 were another place where the difference between those who were pushing and those who were hanging on for grim death were plain for all to see.

The top of the grid shows a pleasing mix of classic rain riders (Gibernau), surprising (Vermeulen, de Puniet) and unsurprising (Stoner) rookies, and the usual fast suspects (Capirossi and Hayden). The Ducatis were obviously sorted from the start, with Capirossi constantly challenging for top spot, and Gibernau pleased to get a spot on the front row, though hoping that it doesn't end in the electrical tears it did in Jerez. Suzuki must be delighted, after the trauma of Qatar, where they suffered six destroyed engines in six sessions. With Vermeulen on pole, and Hopkins behind him in fifth, they can feel they have made a fresh start, with only the engine problem of the second Free Practice session as the spectre at the feast reminding them of what may happen. Hopkins looked comfortable, putting in a long 9 lap run at the start before stepping up the pace in his second and third runs.

The real disappointment will be for the two champions of the series. Valentino Rossi never looked at ease with the Yamaha in the rain, while Dani Pedrosa's performance was almost painful to watch. Weighing 51 kilos, or 105 pounds, gives you a huge advantage when it's dry: you can brake later, and you accelerate faster, as the bike has less to carry. But when it's wet, it works against you: you have less weight to control the bike, and more importantly, the back wheel. Pedrosa fought and cursed his way through the session, his back wheel stepping out almost every time he exited turn 14 onto the start and finish straight, and at just about every other corner of the track. His dislike of riding in the rain can only have been magnified by the problems caused by twice the horsepower he had in the 250s. Rossi, after having sorted the chatter the Yamahas suffered at Jerez, only to struggle with a lack of grip here at Istanbul, is facing the toughest defence of his title so far. With Capirossi and Hayden at the front of the grid, and Rossi down in 11th, the chances of Valentino gaining some more ground on the leaders look very slight. We might just have a championship which is settled in the last race of the year, rather than by halfway.

Though the contrast between Pedrosa in 16th and Hayden in 2nd was not as pronounced for Rossi (11th) and Edwards (9th), Edwards certainly looked more like he was enjoying himself. Where Rossi seemed to brake uncharacteristically gingerly, Edwards was much more forceful and committed, riding the bike less like a 250, as he'd been trying to teach himself, and more like his old superbike, a habit he's been trying to get out of. It paid off, but not as much as he would have liked.

Rossi and Pedrosa were in good company. Sandwiched between the two champions were the rest of the Honda riders, including last year's winner Melandri in 14th. Yet it can't be down to the bike, as the blazing performance of Hayden, the solid showing for Stoner, and even the fine showing by Kenny Roberts JR show that the Honda (or in Kenny Jr's case, the Honda engine) does well in the right hands.

Kenny Junior won't be the only rider hoping for rain tomorrow. Half the grid, including all of the Bridgestone riders, will hope for a decent soaking tomorrow. The other half will be praying for a dry track: during practice, you can sit in your pit and ponder every few laps; in a wet race, you have no choice but to ride. The weather forecasts are as evenly divided as the riders, with half promising cloudy, but dry skies, and the other half threatening rain.

As for me, I'm on the side of the rain dancers. It will keep the excitement in the series, and maybe even throw up a new and unexpected winners. Now, I wonder what odds I'd get on de Puniet to win?

Results:

 

 1       71      Chris VERMEULEN SUZUKI          2'04.617                286.9 2       69      Nicky HAYDEN    HONDA           2'04.823        0.206   284.0 3       15      Sete GIBERNAU   DUCATI          2'05.003        0.386   284.9 4       65      Loris CAPIROSSI DUCATI          2'05.540        0.923   286.2 5       21      John HOPKINS    SUZUKI          2'05.700        1.083   288.9 6       17      Randy DE PUNIET KAWASAKI        2'06.102        1.485   285.8 7       27      Casey STONER    HONDA           2'07.277        2.660   287.0 8       56      Shinya NAKANO   KAWASAKI        2'07.294        2.677   285.5 9       5       Colin EDWARDS   YAMAHA          2'07.344        2.727   278.8 10      10      Kenny ROBERTS   KR211V          2'07.345        2.728   269.7 11      46      Valentino ROSSI YAMAHA          2'07.552        2.935   280.2 12      24      Toni ELIAS      HONDA           2'07.763        3.146   278.2 13      6       Makoto TAMADA   HONDA           2'08.143        3.526   284.1 14      33      Marco MELANDRI  HONDA           2'08.393        3.776   279.1 15      7       Carlos CHECA    YAMAHA          2'10.322        5.705   280.3 16      26      Dani PEDROSA    HONDA           2'10.956        6.339   265.0 17      66      Alex HOFMANN    DUCATI          2'11.241        6.624   269.7 18      30      J-L CARDOSO     DUCATI          2'11.456        6.839   273.5 19      77      James ELLISON   YAMAHA          2'12.298        7.681   268.0 

 

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Personal Announcement - Reports Will Be Late

Yesterday I learnt that a dear friend is terminally ill in hospital. I will be visiting her later today. As a result, my report on today's MotoGP Qualifying Practice from Istanbul will be posted later than I normally hope to post them.

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2006 Qatar MotoGP Race - A Champion's Masterclass

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.

The wind, which was still very gusty, had dropped a little since the morning session, and the oil spill caused by Vermeulen's exploding Suzuki was not giving any problems, as the bikes lined up for the start. As the red lights dimmed, Stoner confirmed his form, getting a fantastic start, and the hole shot for the first corner. Rossi, in a determined attempt to avoid low-flying Eliases, had also got a fantastic start, and was close behind Capirossi and Hayden, following Stoner into the first corner, with a rocket-launched Nakano in his wake. Everyone seemed to get through the first corner safely, though a couple of corners later, Randy de Puniet and one of the d'Antin Ducatis ran wide and into the gravel. Round the back of the circuit, Rossi squeezed past Capirossi into 3rd, and Gibernau and Melandri passed Nakano, forcing the fast-starting Kawasaki rider back into 7th.

Along the main straight at the end of the first lap, Capirossi tried to take Rossi back, the Ducati's higher top speed reeling the Yamaha in, but some late braking kept Rossi in third. Stoner had built up an impressive gap at the front, but fellow rookie Pedrosa was struggling back in 11th. As the second lap progressed, Nakano slipped another place, as Edwards moved forward into 7th, the pair followed by Hopper, Elias, Pedrosa and Vermeulen.

The race then started to settle into a rhythm, with Stoner leading the way, and Hayden chasing him down, with Rossi, Capirossi and Gibernau in his wake. Kenny Jr, who had also been so fast in practice, was in a rather dismal 15th place, and Nakano slipped a couple more places, getting caught up in the battle between Elias and Pedrosa, the first of the fights Pedrosa found himself in with the Fortuna Hondas.

As Stoner led the pack onto the main straight for the start of lap 5, it was obvious that Rossi, who had set a new lap record of 1:57.305 on lap 3, was starting to catch Hayden, closing up at the end of the long straight. Then, in a repeat performance of Vermeulen's explosive morning display during the warm-up, Hopkins Suzuki blew, fortunately less spectacularly, and without dumping large quantities of oil on the track. Hopper's frustration with the Suzuki was clear, as he gave the bike a good kicking after parking it against a crash wall.

Rossi caught Hayden on lap 6, and they spent four corners swapping places, until Valentino finally settled the thrilling duel in his favour. This little contretemps allowed Capirossi and Gibernau to close the gap with Vale and Nicky, forming a close group just a fraction behind the storming Stoner. Behind this group, Edwards slipped a place, letting Melandri into 6th, with Elias and Pedrosa closing in behind the number 2 Yamaha rider.

After passing Hayden, Rossi set his sights on Stoner, and slowly started reeling him in over the next couple of laps, catching him on lap 8, but unable to pass him on the straight at the start of lap 9. Then, in a serious blow to Suzuki, Vermeulen entered the pits with a technical fault and retired. This was a very bleak result for Paul Denning's team, and the frustration is clearly starting to show.

On lap 10, Rossi finally got past Stoner, though Casey put on a brave show of resistance, finally running wide, and allowing Hayden, who was still within a second of the leading pair, to catch him. Before the race, Stoner had said that the key to being fast at Qatar was to keep the corner speed up, and not put too much pressure on the rear tyre on exit, to keep down wear, but at this stage, it was Hayden who seemed to be doing this, rather than Stoner. Hayden was clearly fighting the Repsol Honda less, whereas Stoner seemed to be tiring, or perhaps his tyres were wearing, but his lines were a lot less smooth, and he was sliding the bike a lot more than he had in practice.

At the start of lap 12, Hayden passed Stoner at the end of the main straight, but ran wide, allowing Stoner back up the inside, then corrected his line and retook Stoner to take second. Stoner lost touch with Hayden, as Capirossi started to close behind him, taking 3rd on the next lap.

Pedrosa, in the meantime, had got past Elias and was closing down Edwards, passing him on lap 11, and catching Melandri. This turned into just the start of an epic battle with Melandri, which lasted until the last lap of the race. Pedrosa got ahead of Melandri on lap 16, but only emerged the victor as they crossed the finishing line.

The situation stayed unchanged on paper until lap 19, but this belies the closeness of the race. Rossi had a clear lead, but never had more than half a second on Hayden, with Capirossi a second behind Hayden, Stoner a little over a second behind Loris, and Gibernau within half a second of Stoner. By this time, Hayden had closed in on Rossi, and passed him in what looked like a picture-perfect overtaking manoeuvre at the end of the straight.

As Hayden passed Rossi, Valentino did something strange. Something which can only be interpreted as a sign of supreme dominance, and confidence in his abilities. He sat up, and looked behind him, to see where Capirossi was. As he turned and crouched over the clip-ons again, he had lost virtually no ground on Hayden. It looked as if Rossi was deciding whether the pair had enough time on Capirossi to let Hayden lead for a while, to spare his own tyres and see where the best place was to take Nicky back again, or whether Loris would complicate matters. It seemed that Loris was too close, as at the end of the straight, at the start of lap 20, Rossi was back past Hayden with apparent ease.

Rossi proceeded to pull away for the win, a true champion's demonstration of prowess, and a worthy display to push his number of GP victories past Mick Doohan's 54. He crossed the line 0.9 of a second ahead of Hayden, very happy, and visibly relieved to have got back to winning form. Capirossi followed half a second behind Nicky to take the last podium spot.

Sadly for Stoner, Gibernau got past him on the penultimate lap, to take fourth. Pedrosa won his slugging match with Melandri for 6th, Melandri's team mate Elias finishing 8th. Edwards had slipped to 9th in a lacklustre show, followed by compatriot Kenny Roberts Jr in 10th, who had recovered from a poor start. Nakano's race had been a mirror image of KR JR's, slipping from a fantastic start to finish 11th. Checa came in a creditable 12th, with James Ellison an excellent 13th, ahead of Makoto Tamada's disastrous 14th, followed by the d'Antin Ducatis of Hofmann and Cardoso, who had complained bitterly all weekend that they had not had enough tyres from Dunlop.

The Qatar race provided a number of fascinating lessons. Firstly, that you should never, ever discount Valentino Rossi. He is still the best rider at managing a race, conserving his tyres, and pushing when he needs to. He is still the champion, despite the coming of the young pretenders. He was obviously relieved to have broken the jinx of Jerez, and it was an obvious confidence-boost to the man who barely needs it. But it was also a display of mastery: at the post-race interview, he said they were still having problems when grip is 100%, but "when tyres start to slide, I have good control".

HRC seemed to have found some improvements, as Nicky looked much smoother and more comfortable than at Jerez, or even during qualifying. It looks like they are starting to find their way, and Nicky is starting to look like he can develop the bike after all. Pedrosa's strong showing on a track he doesn't like is also a positive sign for the Repsol Honda team. In contrast to Jerez, Pedrosa was strong all the way to the end of the race, so once he's back on tracks he likes, he's going to be challenging very hard.

Capirossi was happy with the result, describing this as the worst track for the Bridgestone-shod Ducatis all year, giving them confidence for the coming races. Gibernau also looked relaxed after the race, and this result will have boosted his confidence, strengthening his rather fragile mental state, a good omen for the next few races.

Melandri will be relieved to finish ahead of Elias, though I think the team will be disappointed not to have been further ahead, especially with Elias starting from the front row of the grid.

Edwards was disappointing, and will have to do better if he wants to renew his contract at the end of the year. But if Yamaha find a solution to the chatter problems, then he should return to the front of the pack again.

Roberts put on another dependable display, despite a poor start, and the bike is definitely showing promise. I think KR JR will also be bolstered by his good showing in practice, and it's going to be interesting to see what happens as they improve the chassis.

Kawasaki will be glad to leave Qatar, after a mildly disastrous weekend. Nakano started brilliantly, but slipped a long way. His lap times are amazingly consistent, lapping at 1:59 for 19 of the 22 laps. Unfortunately, the front runners were putting in 1:57s and 1:58s.

But Kawasaki's weekend is nowhere near as disastrous as Suzuki's. Both bikes out of the race with mechanical problems, and 6 engines destroyed is not a good score by anyone's standards, and hard questions are going to have to be asked about the direction of the project.

The Tech 3 Yamaha did well, performing better than one might expect of them, but it's obvious that Dunlop still have a long way to go to build a winning race tyre. And a long way to go to be able to even provide a decent level of race support, if the d'Antin Ducati team is to be believed.

The biggest disappointment to me, though, is Makoto Tamada. He had a difficult season last year because of injury, recovering well in the second half, and an outstanding season before that on Bridgestones, but he has been dire this season, without an obvious reason. He will have to improve radically if he does not want to be looking for work.

 

 1       46      Valentino    Rossi        ITA     Yamaha        43'22.229       163.742         
2 69 Nicky Hayden USA HONDA 43'23.129 163.686 0.900
3 65 Loris Capirossi ITA Ducati 43'23.723 163.648 1.494
4 15 Sete Gibernau SPA Ducati 43'26.867 163.451 4.638
5 27 Casey Stoner AUS HONDA 43'29.804 163.267 7.575
6 26 Dani Pedrosa SPA HONDA 43'33.049 163.064 10.820
7 33 Marco Melandri ITA HONDA 43'34.013 163.004 11.784
8 24 Toni Elias SPA HONDA 43'41.710 162.525 19.481
9 5 Colin Edwards USA Yamaha 43'45.149 162.313 22.920
10 10 Kenny ROBERTS USA KR211V 43'56.515 161.613 34.286
11 56 Shinya Nakano JPN Kawasaki 43'57.545 161.550 35.316
12 7 Carlos Checa SPA Yamaha 44'11.474 160.701 49.245
13 77 James Ellison GBR Yamaha 44'23.698 159.964 1'01.469
14 6 Makoto Tamada JPN HONDA 44'33.007 159.406 1'10.778
15 66 Alex HOFMANN GER Ducati 44'44.280 158.737 1'22.051
16 30 Jose Luis CARDOSO SPA Ducati 44'56.047 158.044 1'33.818
Not Classified
71 Chris Vermeulen AUS Suzuki 14'08.367 159.808 15 laps
21 John Hopkins USA Suzuki 8'04.022 160.058 18 laps
Not finished first lap
17 Randy de Puniet FRA Kawasaki

 

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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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