2011 MotoGP Qatar Day 1 Round Up - The Drama Returns

So we're finally racing again, after what seemed like an eternity. Even though we were here just a couple of days ago for the final test of the year, walking through the paddock on Thursday was like being in another world. If a racetrack during a test on is a cold, desolate place, come race weekend, there's a completely different vibe.

There was of course much focus and talk about the ongoing disaster in Japan, everyone enquiring of Japanese friends and colleagues how things were in their hometown. As a mark of respect and to show their (and our) concern for Japan, Dorna announced there would be a minute's silence before the MotoGP race, and just about all of the MotoGP teams are carrying some form of Kanji text wishing everyone in Japan well on their bikes or leathers somewhere.

Despite the obvious concern about Japan, the overwhelming feeling in the paddock was a buzz of excitement, everyone glad to have the long wait over and to be racing again. All those hours of hard, tiring but necessary work busting out laps to prepare for the season are finally over, and now those laps actually mean something.

The weird four-day schedule - more of which later - has left riders a little befuddled as to how to deal with having one session of practice on one day, two on another, and for the Moto2 and 125 classes, no warmup on race day. Qualifying, Casey Stoner said, would be a little odd. "We get straight out of bed and go qualifying," he said, not the only rider to express his exasperation at the schedule.

The four-day schedule was instituted to compress the amount of practice into the limited hours between nightfall and the point at which the temperatures drop low enough for dew to form on the track, turning the surface treacherous. Riding after 11pm proved to be very tricky in previous years, with several riders being caught out by the conditions, especially during testing.

The biggest concern was for the 125cc and Moto2 riders, whose warmup session happens on Saturday night, leaving the riders no track time on Sunday before the race. On Sunday, the riders will get one (or possibly two) sighting laps, a warmup lap and then they go race. Given the already chaotic first-corner scenes in an ordinary Moto2 race, sending 39 riders barreling into the first corner without any track time is positively perilous.

On track, the most unsurprising event of the day was Casey Stoner blitzing FP1 in exactly the same style he blitzed preseason testing. Once the flag dropped for the end of the session, Stoner had put six tenths of a second on the rest of the field, and was making the other riders look markedly mediocre. Stoner continues to look like a Cheshire cat who has found his way into a fishmonger's, but is playing down the pressure of being the odds-on favorite to win here at Qatar and the rest of the season. He told the press he didn't really feel any outside pressure, as other people could never put the same kind of pressure on him that he puts upon himself. If he doesn't win the championship this season - like any other season - he'll be very disappointed, and nothing anybody else says will make much difference to him.

The mark of Stoner's speed was in his lap times, cracking into the 1'55s at will whenever he put his mind to it. He was especially pleased as he had used the hard tire, and felt he had a strong race pace. Just to scare the competition, perhaps, he added that the bike was still only "maybe 80%" and that with a bit more rear edge grip there was plenty more to come.

The mark of the Honda's speed was the fact that 2nd fastest man of the day was Dani Pedrosa. Stoner's Repsol Honda teammate was the best of the rest, but the fact that he was just a few hundredths ahead of the chasing pack was rather deceptive. Pedrosa said he had had a problem with a rear tire, which had not responded as it should have at all. The tire was exactly the same as he had used without problems during testing, and the team suspected that this was just a one-off case of receiving a tire which a minor defect, a rarity thanks to Bridgestone's rigorous QA process.

As a side note, rumors abound in the paddock that Bridgestone have extended their agreement with Dorna as sole tire supplier for MotoGP for 2012 through 2014, though nobody could confirm this. The renewal had long been uncertain, with credible rumors doing the rounds that Pirelli would be awarded the new tire contract, strengthened by a suspiciously large contingent of Pirelli bigwigs turning up for the Valencia MotoGP round last season. Any chance of a deal with Pirelli was probably lost over the winter, once Formula One started testing the new Pirelli tires. Supplying F1, World Superbikes and MotoGP would have stressed Pirelli's capacity far beyond its limits.

Getting back to the riders, Stoner's rivals seemed surprisingly unfazed by the pace of the Australian. Yes he is fast, Jorge Lorenzo, Ben Spies, Valentino Rossi, Dani Pedrosa and Nicky Hayden admitted, but they felt they would be able to find enough to keep Stoner within sight.

The two most interesting transformations were in the fortunes of two former teammates and now bitter rivals. Jorge Lorenzo was a frustrated man on Monday evening after the test, seething at the setup the team had been testing in the high winds. On Thursday - despite being only 7th, behind his new teammate Ben Spies, he was much happier, the team having reverted to a setup they had used in 2010. He felt that with a couple of tweaks to that setup, he should be able to drop his laptimes to a consistent 1'56.0, which is likely to be somewhere in the vicinity of race pace, at least for anyone not Australian and riding a Repsol.

The other metamorphosis was that of Valentino Rossi. The team had had been expecting to end practice crying, Rossi joked, but instead they were laughing. A final camera shot of the Marlboro Ducati garage at the end of practice confirmed his affirmation, Jerry Burgess all grinning almost as much as Casey Stoner would be later.

The change in Rossi's demeanor was a result of a setup change to the rear of the bike. That had helped the bike to turn, and given him enough extra pace to end the session in 5th. It was a setting they had tried during the test but discarded early, he said, and in hindsight, he was annoyed they had given up on the setup so early on in the test. He might still be three quarters of a second off the pace of Stoner, but he clearly believed he had a handle on the situation, and would be able to make significant progress in the coming days.

Nicky Hayden was a good deal less happy, managing only the 11th fastest time, not where he had hoped to be. The American had been closer to the front early on, but while the rest got quicker, Hayden never really found much more pace.

We finally also got to the bottom of the mystery "flexi-package" that Ducati have been testing. Marlboro team manager Vito Guareschi explained that what it entailed was just a revised front subframe (what Ducati uses as a chassis, in their design with the engine as a stressed member) which was "one step" softer than the standard chassis which they had tested at Valencia at the end of the year, though Guareschi could not be specific as to exactly how much "one step" was. The rest of the package was the same as the standard bike, using 48mm 2011 Ohlins forks, the new slotted top yoke of the triple clamps, and the medium stiffness swingarm of the three that Ducati has available.

Guareschi also revealed that this package had not been discarded as had been thought. Only two of the softer frames had been produced so far, and both had been taken to Sepang, one each for both Rossi and Hayden. Rossi and his crew had decided to focus on finding a base setup rather than testing a new package, passing the chassis over to Hayden for the American to test.

After the test, Filippo Preziosi had decided that this softer chassis was the direction the GP11 would go in the future, but given that a carbon fiber chassis takes three weeks to cure the chassis in the autoclave, the team would have to wait until Estoril at the earliest for the new chassis to be ready. For the time being, Nicky Hayden is using the two softer chassis, while Valentino Rossi continues to work on the standard GP11 from Valencia.

The man who took Valentino Rossi's place - as if such a thing was possible - at the factory Yamaha team was another rider who was very satisfied despite his finishing position. Ben Spies had spent the session on the tires he didn't like, using them to work on setup before pushing for a time on the tires he felt most comfortable on. Spies had tried a couple of setup changes, one of which worked, one of which didn't, but he believed he had a few tenths more he could extract out of the bike. Though that would still leave him slower than Stoner, it would at least mean being able to keep him in sight.

The biggest surprise of the day came from Mapfre Aspar's Hector Barbera. The Spaniard rocketed to the 3rd fastest time of the day at the end of the session, causing quite a few shocked faces. The truth of the matter was that Barbera's speed was entirely borrowed, the Spaniard employing his usual modus operandi of catching a tow to set a fast time. This time the victim was Nicky Hayden, and he showed his gratitude to the American by backing off in turn 2, and blocking any chance Hayden had of improving his own lap time. Barbera is not endearing himself to anyone with this behavior, and should perhaps be awarded the soubriquet of The Trailer.

While the real drama was out on the track, the melodrama was all off the track, created by the weird four-day schedule and by a change to the press code. The night race is bad enough for the riders, but for the media, it completely destroys your natural day-night rhythm. My friend and colleague Jensen Beeler from Asphalt & Rubber summed it up best: "Going to bed as the sun comes up, and getting up just when it gets dark: now I know what a vampire feels like." For once the riders finish and head back to the hotel, the work of the media begins: writing up the day's events for the consumption of eager fans.

The four-day schedule has made things even worse. Every day is different, with FP1 on Thursday, FP2 & FP3 on Friday, QP on Saturday, and then the warmup and race on Sunday night. Scheduling rider debriefs has become a nightmare of the first order for the already stressed press officers, with even the best of them looking close to cardiac arrest. There is some coordination between the teams, but even that is not completely possible, and that led to a rather wry scheduling conflict: The word went out that Jorge Lorenzo would be speaking at 10pm, then only moments later, journalists' phones all buzzed with a text message to say that Valentino Rossi would also be speaking at 10pm. Wisely, Yamaha decided that there was no point in putting up a fight, moving Lorenzo five minutes earlier, meaning that the media got to speak to both men with virtually no overlap.

The real drama came during the official press conference, and I am sorry to say I missed it, as I was out in the paddock enjoying catching up with various people I hadn't seen for a while. The format of the press conferences has been changed: last year, there would be an official part of the press conference, the media all sat politely in their seats and asking questions, and a "media scrum" afterwards, where the journalists would descend upon the riders like vultures on a rotting carcass and pound them with questions in their own languages.

The media scrum had caused some extremely uncomfortable situations for both riders and journalists, with people being almost crushed in the masses surrounding a rider. And so Dorna decided that it would be better to scrap the scrums, and allow the press to ask questions in their own language during the official press conference (where the working language is English). The trouble was that the first question to be asked was addressed to Dani Pedrosa, and was made in Catalan. There was an immediate uproar, with journalists accusing each other of being "unprofessional" - the worst accusation one journalist can make to another, for some reason - and a lot of huffing and puffing ensued. A petition circulated throughout the media center, and was duly submitted to Dorna. Reverting to the old format is out of the question, but perhaps Dorna will find a different way to accommodate the questions. Mostly, though, journalists, like everyone else in the world, hate to change their ways. This may be a sport which is predicated on technological advance and constant progress, but that doesn't mean that the media actually embraces change.

Tomorrow we return, for two more sessions of MotoGP, and one each of Moto2 and 125cc. It promises to be just as confusing as today was.

Total votes: 303
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Comments

writeup entwines our minds from the wonderful prose you present us with. It's sure looking to be an interesting weekend with several interesting things to be scrutinized over the next few days.

I must say that I got hearty chuckle about the media folks letting their egos get the better of themselves. While I've not dealt with the journalists, I have many of the photographers and they can also have quite a chip on their shoulder at times. I've had to intervene twice so that the defecation didn't get to be more than was needed, especially when there's a hot track.

Thanks again David for your great work and effort, it's truly appreciated.

Total votes: 323

I particularly enjoyed Ian Wheeler these last few years, but during motogp.com's streaming coverage of gp FP1, he was not present, and there was a young australian voice coming from pit-lane.

Does anyone know if Ian Wheeler is still on the motogp.com commentary staff???

Total votes: 334

He seems to be entirely focusing on his job as Marc VDS press officer this season.

Total votes: 324

Write-up as usual David. I'm actually feeling like Casey has very little to gain but a massive amount to lose if he does anything bar win the race by 10 seconds. He's been awesomely fast, yet everyone is confident of catching him up between now and the race. If they do, then all his preseason dominance will amount to very little. Even less if he doesn't win. If he falls off, well...there are quite a few people who I believe are hoping and praying for exactly that to happen...and some who believe it is a dead set certainty. Rossi and Burgess seem to have found the cure for the GP11 to make it turn, so it's surely a matter of tweaking it slightly to get it closer to the pointy end at which point all the Rossi fans will be ecstatic.

I hope he does do well, I just think that everyone has set the bar really high with Stoner.

Total votes: 335

It was at Sepang 1 (or was it Valencia?) going on a white line.
To be compared with ALL the Ducati riders falling at least once (twice for Rossi and De Puniet) at the 2-days Qatar test, not counting the earlier tests...

Total votes: 279

David for the great inside scoop. You always fill in that little gap that I have always felt was missing from this sport. I always find myself constantly checking up on your site waiting for the "round up." Keep up the great work!

Total votes: 321

I've always wondered about the saneness of Ducati going with the carbon fibre subframe, but the comment about having to allow the frames to cure for 3 weeks in the autoclave was the clincher for insanity. 3 weeks is a lifetime in MotoGP, and to be harnessed to having to wait to test a new setup waiting for a frame to cure is simply unbelievable. What the hell is Ducati thinking, or trying to prove?

Hopefully going back to an easily-modifiable/constructable frame material will be one of the first changes that Burgess and crew are able to implement.

Total votes: 328

". . . . but the comment about having to allow the frames to cure for 3 weeks in the autoclave was the clincher for insanity. 3 weeks is a lifetime in MotoGP, . . . ."

Three weeks is a lifetime, but the situation is no different in F1. If an entire tub is trashed, it takes that amount of time or longer to build up a brand new one. Where F1 differs is that the tub remains constant, but the appendages are regularly modified. If Ducati insist on staying with a CF chassis (which I think is a good idea), then they need to be able to spit out different front ends and swingarms quickly. Overnighting those different setups should not be that difficult for the factories.

Total votes: 312

3 weeks of curing the part in an autoclave?
That does *not* happen.

I worked in an aerospace composite facility for several years, no parts stayed in the autoclave for more than maybe 10 hours.

I double checked with a local composites house, they laughed at "3 weeks in the autoclave".

3 weeks between when they order a new frame and it arrives at Borgo Panigale, that I can believe.

Total votes: 303

That was what I understood from Vito Guareschi, maybe I misunderstood.

Total votes: 349

I think Vito's translation in his head didn't quite get the English phrasing out as he intended.

His English is a lot better than my Italian. LOL.

Total votes: 339

As always, thanks heaps for the write up mate.

Please don't stop doing what you're doing. It fills the weekend(s) out with so much more detail and information from the paddock, I really don't know how I managed without it!

:)

Total votes: 341

So happy that the duke is coming good, I think they need a more time especially Rossi, I think Julian Rider was spot on when he said Rossi may struggle with race distance stamina, but last night has to be a massive boost to the teams, they look to still have massive potential. But worried about Nicky though, he's gone backwards from last year when the rest seem to be going forwards. Come on Nicky sort that bike. We need you up there with Vale and the little elephant??

As for the schedule, it' not orthodox, but nothing about Qatar is, the more time the riders can get in the unusual conditions they will face in the race, should help them in the long run. But warm up on a different day to the race?? .....

Total votes: 312

If anyone suggested F1 went back to building their tubs from "an easily-modifiable/constructable" material, they'd be laughed out of the industry. But that sort of comment has been going around since people started brazing up frames out of the brittle, hard to bend T45 steel tube in the 1930's. Aluminium frames were of course completely out of the question, since it work hardens, doesn't have a well-defined fatigue threshold, is hard to weld... and they will all have to be thrown away at the end of a season.

BTW, you know that 7020 aluminium takes a couple of weeks to get back to its best strength after being welded? Not to mention that forming and welding an alloy beam frame is not the work of a lazy afternoon... think of the tooling to press those curved sections out of sheet.

I suspect that in 10 years, metal frames in MotoGP will be as rare as they are now in the Tour de France. That doesn't mean Ducati have got the implementation right, but the problem is not just the bit of CF between steering head and engine.

Total votes: 333

Why are some surprised that Rossi and Barbera are in the top 5?
The Ducati has won 3 of the last four Qatar races, was fastest in the race in 2010 and is being riddden by the rider that won in 2010. Haydon came fourth in 2010. At some stage they were going to get it to work at Qatar if necessary by emulating last year's bike and settings.
Based on Stoner's results I see the following tracks as being more of a test (though Haydon was getting fourths regularly early in the season)

Total votes: 324

Ha Ha Graham, yes you are correct, but the dies would be whipped up easily with a 5 axis CNC and there is the option (as with the BSL 500 and a Roberts 990) to have the main spars hewn from solid billet no welding required. Alumiunium frames can be artificialy aged in a salt solution 7075 comes back to 90 odd % of it's original strength.

Total votes: 323

Your Ducati discussion makes me wonder if there problem is not the material used for the subframe but the fact that as the rigid engine is used for much of the frame there is little length in which to induce the necessary amount of flex. It would be the similar to having very short suspension travel.

Total votes: 332

Looks to me like the best battle we may see will be for 3rd. I think the first 2 spots will be taken off in the distence.

Total votes: 341