From Phillip Island To Coalisland: Putting Northern Ireland On The WorldSBK Map

There have been few projects as ambitious as the £30m development for the Lake Torrent circuit but the foundations seem solid

Ireland is a land of legends and tales. Many of these relate to finding paradise, but few are actually about creating paradise. That's the goal for David Henderson, the man behind the project to take WorldSBK to Northern Ireland. Yesterday's announcement of a three year deal to host a WorldSBK has put Henderson on the clock, but having spent 15 years working on the project he's keen to get started.

“I've wanted this for a long time,” said Henderson. “I've been involved in motorcycle racing for 40 years and unfortunately some of my dearest friends were killed road racing. I always felt that there had to be a safer way to go racing in Northern Ireland. When Joey Dunlop died in 2000 I was given an extra incentive to develop this circuit.

“Road Racing is special and unique but you would look at the circuit and think what lamp post can we remove? What cats eye can we take off the road? What changes can we make to improve safety? As a civil engineer I could see all the dangers, but I also knew that you couldn't remove most of them. I wanted to build a circuit with the feel of the roads but the safety of a closed circuit.

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Numbers Don't Lie: 2017 vs 2018 MotoGP Tests Prove You're Better Off On A Ducati

Normally, when comparing times from a test, it makes the most sense to stick to a single year. But sometimes, there are good reasons to look back at past years, in search of a larger and more universal pattern. Comparing the best laps of riders who were in the championship last year and this year proves to be a highly instructive exercise.

Doing that, there is one thing that immediately leaps out at you. The two riders who improved the most between the two seasons are the two who switched between a Honda and a Ducati. Honda riders will freely tell you that the RC213V is very physical to ride, and the fate of rookies who have come into the championship on a Honda has not been great. Tito Rabat came to MotoGP as Moto2 champion, but struggled to make an impression on the Honda. On a Ducati, he finished the test ahead of factory riders Aleix Espargaro and Andrea Iannone, and just seven tenths behind Lorenzo on the Ducati.

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2018 Sepang MotoGP Test: Tuesday's Quick Takes

Three days in the tropical heat of Sepang always generates so much information, and so much to think about, that it is impossible to encapsulate it all in just a few short hours immediately after the test. It takes time to digest, analyze, and separate the wheat from the chaff. That will happen over the coming days here on MotoMatters.com.

Yet there are clear lines emerging from the murk of testing. Avenues worth investigating, trains of thought worth pursuing. So here is the short version of what I think we have learned from three days of testing in Sepang. The long version – or more likely, versions – are still to come.

Honda – cautiously hopeful

After the Valencia test, Marc Márquez and Dani Pedrosa were happy about the new Honda RC213V motor. The electronics were roughly in the right place, and it sounded like the only work left was in refining it to turn it into a capable weapon. They were so happy they decided to skip the Jerez test, and left the donkey work to Cal Crutchlow.

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2018 Sepang MotoGP Test Monday Round Up: Motor Monday, Miller Monday

The second day of MotoGP testing at Sepang turned out to be Motor Monday. Four of MotoGP's six manufacturers dedicated their day to gathering the data to make a decision on their 2018 engine. All of them have the lessons of 2017 in mind, when the rule on sealed engines caught Suzuki out completely, and Honda to a lesser extent. Make the wrong choice in testing, and you have nineteen races to spend regretting it, much as Suzuki did last year.

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2018 Sepang MotoGP Test Sunday Round Up: Deceptive Pace, And New Engines, New Frames, New Hopes

The first day of testing after the winter break is always tough, and often deceptive. Riders spend the day trying to get their heads around mind-warping speed which simply can't be replicated by time on an MX or Supermoto bike. They have to deal with cramp in muscles they had forgotten existed, and which are only taxed by the very specific task of wrangling a 157kg MotoGP around Sepang's serpentine tarmac at speeds of over 320 km/h. They have to do all this in tropical heat, temperatures in the mid 30s °C and humidity of over 70% or more. The fresh-faced youngsters who spoke to us the day before are looking about 20 years older at their debriefs.

So sure, we have a timesheet, with names ranked in order of fastest lap. But that ranking should be regarded with a certain amount of caution. The first day of the test is a day of acclimatizing to riding the fastest racing motorcycles in the world again, and preparing for what is to come before the season starts. "The target today is just ride," Andrea Iannone said on Sunday night. "Ride, recover the feeling and arrive ready for tomorrow to start the plan we have."

Some recover that feeling faster than others, of course, and some aim to put in a fast lap and establish themselves, while others prefer to focus on getting back into a race rhythm, and working on all that entails. But in the end, the results should be taken with a grain or two of salt, at the very least.

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2018 Sepang MotoGP Test Preview: A Comprehensive Look At Who Is Doing What, And Who Will Succeed

The Sepang MotoGP test is always a key moment in the MotoGP season. It is the first time the riders get a look at all the hard work that has gone on over the winter. It is the first time the engineers get to see if the ideas they extracted from the data from the November tests have any value, or were just wasted effort. The Sepang MotoGP test is the place where the dreams of riders and engineers careen headlong towards the iron wall of reality. It is where they learn if they will destroy the wall, or the wall will destroy them.

This year, the Sepang test is even more important. With so many riders out of contract this year, the outcome of the test will heavily influence any decision about their future. The lucky ones will get to make a decision on their own future based on their results, and the result of the bike. The unlucky ones – the reader should regard "unlucky" as a synonym for "slow" here – will end up having decisions made about them, whether the fault lies with them or elsewhere.

Why are the first three of nine full days of testing, and still months away from the first actual race, so important? Silly Season grows ever more precocious, starting earlier and earlier, factories now regarding it as normal to make a decision before the season proper has even got underway.

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Silly Season Kicks Off: Petrucci To Leave Pramac - But Where To, And What About The Rest?

There were signs that the MotoGP Silly Season could be wrapped up early last week in Bologna, at the launch Ducati's MotoGP team. Ducati Sporting Director Paolo Ciabatti said he expected to sign the riders for the factory team 'quite early'. "Quite early probably means the second half of February or the first half of March," he clarified. So before the lights have gone out for the first race of the 2018 MotoGP season, Ducati hope to have two factory riders wrapped up, and they are unlikely to be the only factory to have done so.

It is apparent that the riders have taken note of this, and are adjusting their strategy accordingly. After Italian sports daily Gazzetta dello Sport ran a story suggesting that Ducati were about to sign Pecco Bagnaia to the Pramac team, Danilo Petrucci has told the same paper that 2018 will be his last year with Pramac. "[Team boss] Paolo Campinoti and I both know this. He pulled me out of the gutter, but we know this is our last year together. The cycle is complete."

Poetry aside, Petrucci's announcement is significant. The Italian has a contract with Ducati which promises him a seat in the factory team if one becomes available, in much the same way that Andrea Iannone did previously. But the question is, will there be a seat there for Petrucci to take?

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Ducati MotoGP Launch Part 2: Dovizioso And Lorenzo On Distractions, Contracts, Money, And Life Lessons

The difference in perspective between team managers and riders is always fascinating. Team bosses always have an eye to the big picture, to the coming year and beyond. Riders are usually looking no further ahead than the next session or the next race. Anything beyond that is out of their control, and not worth wasting valuable energy worrying about. The future is a bridge they will cross when they come to it.

That difference was all too evident at the Ducati launch in Bologna on Monday. While the people in charge of Ducati – Paolo Ciabatti, Davide Tardozzi, and Gigi Dall'Igna – were already thinking of managing rider signings and sponsorship deals for 2019 and beyond, Andrea Dovizioso and Jorge Lorenzo were mostly concerned about the Sepang test and about being competitive in the 2018 season. New contracts for 2019 were on their horizons, but compared to their bosses, it was little more than a blip. First, there is a championship to win.

Andrea Dovizioso had spent the winter relaxing, and preparing for the new season. He starts the year as one of the title favorites, not a position he has been accustomed to. "A great sensation, and one I had lost in the last few years" is how the Italian described it. He did not feel the pressure of that sensation, but rather saw it as a challenge. Sure, he was one of the favorites, but there were a lot of competitive bikes with riders capable of winning. "The level of competitiveness has become very high in MotoGP in the last three years," he said. "There are many riders who can win races. It wasn't like this in the past."

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Ducati MotoGP Launch Part 1: Management On More Power, Fixing Turning, Sponsorship, And Silly Season Starting Early

MotoGP team launches are always the triumph of hope over experience. Each year, the bosses of every factory in the series tell the media that their objective is to win races and fight for the championship. Sometimes, they even believe it.

At last year's launch of the Ducati MotoGP team, Ducati Corse boss Gigi Dall'Igna said they hoped to be fighting for the championship. That, after all, is why they signed Jorge Lorenzo to what is reported to be a very lucrative contract. The assembled press were skeptical, despite the clear progress which Ducati had made in the past couple of seasons, their first wins coming in 2016.

Such skepticism was unwarranted, though you get the distinct feeling that even Ducati were surprised at how close Andrea Dovizioso came to clinching the 2017 MotoGP title. Ducati were delighted by the Italian's first win at Mugello, amazed at his victory in Barcelona a week later, and impressed by the way he beat Marc Márquez at Austria. By the end of the season, Ducati had come to expect to win races, and realized just how far they had come on their journey since the dark days of 2013, when they didn't score a single podium all year.

So on Monday, when Dall'Igna echoed the words of Ducati CEO Claudio Domenicali in Bologna, that Ducati's objective was to win races and challenge for the championship in MotoGP, they were deadly serious. There is no doubt that Ducati is capable of doing just that – Dovizioso's results and Lorenzo's improvement in 2017 demonstrate that – and though they are all too aware of the dangers of complacency, Ducati start the 2018 season with both a firm expectation and belief that they are candidates for the 2018 MotoGP title.

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MotoMatters.com Travel Guide – Race 01, Qatar, Jewel Of The Night

As I will be writing my MotoGP travel guides in the same order as the calendar, I will start it in the same place that MotoGP kicks off every year: in Qatar. Why does it start in the middle of the desert so very far away from the vast bulk of MotoGP fans? The answer is simple: money. Qatar pays a lot of money to be the first race of the MotoGP season (and the last race of the WorldSBK season). So if you want to see the MotoGP season opener, you have to travel out to a sandy peninsula in the Persian Gulf.

MotoMatters.com Travel Guide Rating:

Atmosphere factor: 6
Exotic factor: 7
Cost factor: 8
Non-racing factor: 3

Explanation of this table

Where is it?

The Losail International Circuit is located some 30 kilometers north of the center of Doha, the capital of Qatar. It is situated just off the Al Khor Coastal Road. It is clearly visible from the plane when you fly into Doha, and visible as you drive to the track because of the floodlight system, which appears after the bulbous blue-and-white Lusail Multipurpose Hall, a sports facility.

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