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?
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