For several years now, MotoGP grids have looked worryingly empty. The causes are well-known, and have been debated for years, but basically it boils down to the expense of fielding competitive machinery. The situation was exacerbated by the switch to 800cc: Just as all of the factories looked like getting a handle on the formula, the formula changed, requiring another vast sum of money to develop the new bikes.
Dorna have relied very heavily on Honda to help fill out the grids, while putting pressure on the other manufacturers to start pulling their weight. Kawasaki and Suzuki have been particular targets, the two teams only field two bikes since they entered the class in 2002. It seemed as if 2009 would be the year the two factories finally relented, and fielded extra machinery.
It now appears this is is not going to be the case. With the current season going well below expectations for both Kawasaki and Suzuki, both teams have decided to field only two bikes for the 2009 season, according to the Italian website MotoGrandPrix.it. Instead, both manufacturers will be focusing all their resources on improving their competitiveness.
Kawasaki, who are having very much the worst of the season, have taken an even more drastic step: The team had originally planned to field Roger Lee Hayden as a wildcard rider at the USGP at Laguna Seca, and after Hayden was injured in a nasty incident at Barber, had been considering running Chaz Davies instead. But now, all plans for wildcards have been withdrawn until further notice, the team desperate to start producing the results they looked capable of last year.
This could leave the American Ben Spies with a problem: The reigning AMA Superbike champion is heavily tipped to move to MotoGP next year, the original plan being that Spies would join fellow Texan Kevin Schwantz in a new team with factory support. But that plan started to run into problems when Jorge Martinez of the Aspar team, who Spies and Schwantz were originally intending to work with in setting up the team, started talking up the prospects of taking the Spanish 250 star Alvaro Bautista into the class instead of Spies.
There could still be hope for Spies. Chris Vermeulen is having a very mediocre season so far, and unless his results start to improve, the Australian could well find himself out of a contract at the end of the year, opening up a seat for Spies. With contract discussions likely to be at their most intense as the summer break approaches at Laguna Seca, the Texan could well secure a 2009 ride with a strong wildcard performance at the USGP.
A break with Suzuki might not mean the end of Vermeulen's MotoGP career, however. The Australian could find himself reunited with his former team mate John Hopkins over at Kawasaki, replacing the struggling Ant West.
Any discussion of rider career options at this moment is almost entirely speculation. But with the summer approaching, the silly season for the 2009 MotoGP season is starting to gain steam.
After yesterday's torrential rain, which even managed to influence this morning's final free practice session, the MotoGP regulars were delighted to be rolling out of the pits onto hot tarmac in warm sunshine. The weather had almost completely cleared up, the clouds hanging back in the Tuscan hills, granting the MotoGP riders a reprieve from the rain - at least for the moment.
With so much time already lost to the conditions, the pack rolled out almost as one to set about the tricky business of finding a dry weather setup which will work. With hot sunshine forecast for the race tomorrow, and three sessions either blighted or at least impeded by rain, there was much to do.
The pace was very fast right from the off, with Colin Edwards taking just over 6 minutes to drop into the 1'50s, and start approaching what looked likely to be race pace. Just a couple of minutes later, a group of riders had all set times well within the 1'50 bracket, and a realistic pace for tomorrow's race started to become clear. Dani Pedrosa, Colin Edwards, Valentino Rossi, Casey Stoner, and - the big surprise - Loris Capirossi were all running low to mid 1'50s, Pedrosa holding provisional pole with a time of 1'50.003. Pedrosa's time, set on race tires, was already 1/10th of a second inside the record set during the 2006 race. If Sunday is as warm as the forecasters predict, the lap record looks certain to go.
With the teams running several short runs in search of a race tire, the man who looked strongest was Valentino Rossi. Although the Misano circuit is closer to Rossi's home in Tavullia, The Doctor regards Mugello as his spiritual home, and it showed. His first run of laps were all in the 1'50s, and after a brief stop in the pits, Rossi was back out, and going even faster. With 36 minutes to go, Rossi redefined what race pace would be: The Italian fired across the line in 1'49.579 to set the fastest time so far.
He did not hold provisional pole for long, however: just 0.4 seconds later, and having sat in Rossi's draft all the way round the track, Loris Capirossi took a tenth of a second off Rossi's time, setting a 1'49.476. But while both men were on race tires, the difference soon showed. Capirossi was on a strong run, riding consistent 1'50 laps on the Rizla Suzuki, while Rossi was banging in lap after lap in the 1'49s. Rossi had found a Bridgestone that worked here, and no mistake.
Capirossi's time at the top of the timesheets was also to be short lived. Some 50 seconds after Capirex had fired across the line, Colin Edwards gambled on putting a qualifying Michelin in early, and his gamble paid off handsomely. With well over half of the session remaining, Edwards smashed Sete Gibernau's previous pole record by a couple of tenths, setting a lap of 1'48.785. A marker had been set.
As the riders entered the second half of the session, some interesting names started to bubble towards the top of the standings. Alex de Angelis, the rookie who has been almost invisible for much of this season, was consistently in the top 8, even briefly holding 5th with the first of his qualifiers. He was joined at the top end of the table by Randy de Puniet on the LCR Honda, and Chris Vermeulen, who finally seemed to be getting a handle on qualifying, an acknowledged weakness of the Australian Suzuki man.
With 20 minutes to go, the focus switched from race tires to qualifiers in earnest. Almost everyone was now out on soft rubber, with a couple of interesting exceptions. The most impressive of these was Casey Stoner, taking 5th spot with a mid 1'49 on race tires, following that with a faster 1'49. The other man out on race tires was Colin Edwards. The Texas Tornado was still sitting pretty after taking an early qualifying tire, and was now back hard at work on a race setup for his Tech 3 Yamaha. Times in the low 1'50s said that Edwards had most probably found one.
But Edwards was about to have his provisional pole taken from him, by his former team mate Valentino Rossi. The Doctor was flying, and as he shot across the line, provisional pole was once again his. Where Edwards had beaten Gibernau's pole record, Rossi positively trampled upon, lapping in 1'48.371, an astonishing lap on a bike with nearly 20% less capacity than the 990cc Ducati which Gibernau rode in 2006. A remarkable time, but with 15 minutes of the session left, it looked unlikely to hold for the pole.
And there were plenty of challengers. Loris Capirossi had once again trailed Rossi round the track to take 2nd spot, only to see Casey Stoner get close, then Colin Edwards take 2nd back from Capirex. It looked like there were 5 men capable of taking Rossi's pole from him, but The Doctor was not about to let it go without a fight.
With 7 minutes of the session left, Rossi threw down the glove once again, improving his time by 2/10ths of a second to 1'48.130. Loris Capirossi was the first to respond, beating Rossi's old pole time, but still 2/10ths off the new pole time. Dani Pedrosa was the next to have a go, only managing to clinch 3rd. As the session started to wind down, Rossi's pole was starting to look more and more secure.
With just a few minutes to go, Casey Stoner's chances seemed to have disappeared. Entering the pits for a final qualifying tire with under 3 minutes left, the question was, could Stoner get out of the pits again in time to start a final qualifying lap, without ruining the tire before the lap even started? At best, it would be close.
Rossi took one final shot at improving his own pole time, but The Doctor came up just short, and had to hope his time would be good enough. The first to challenge would be Colin Edwards, who once again came close, but was still a quarter of a second down. Next up was Dani Pedrosa. Pedrosa's lap started well, but by the 2nd checkpoint, he started to lose time. It looked like Pedrosa's attempt at pole was done too. But through the 3rd section, the Spanish Repsol Honda rider clawed back over a tenth, and was back in contention once again. The final section, from the exit of Correntaio through Bucine to the finish line was not enough. Pedrosa came up just 0.167 short, with a time of 1'48.297. Valentino Rossi put an end to a long, long pole drought, taking his first pole position since June 2007, at Barcelona in Catalunya. Nearly a year had passed, but at Mugello, The Doctor was very much back.
Pedrosa stands beside Rossi on the grid in 2nd, just a bit short of top speed to catch the Italian. And rounding out the front row is Loris Capirossi, with Suzuki's best qualifying performance of the year. Capirex is strong at Mugello, and maybe he is starting to get a handle on the Suzuki GSV-R.
Casey Stoner heads up the 2nd row, and will start from 4th, Colin Edwards, despite his early lead, eventually ended up in 5th. Nicky Hayden, on the other Repsol Honda, managed to disguise the problems he is having on race tires with a strong lap on qualifiers once again, and sits in 6th.
Jorge Lorenzo is a little off the pace in 7th, a surprise after his strong qualifying earlier in the season. Lorenzo was down the order for most of the session, only finding some speed towards the end. Edwards' Tech 3 team mate James Toseland is in 8th, Toseland glad to be back at a track he has at least seen, if not raced at.
In 9th and 10th, the Gresini Hondas of Shinya Nakano and Alex de Angelis have their strongest starting positions of the season. The Gresinis are obviously in form at Mugello, despite Nakano's hairy crash during the soaking second free practice session yesterday.
Though qualifying times are interesting, this may mean little once it comes to the race. Nobody has been able to collect enough data to select a race tire, with time too short to test everything they would like to. Nobody, that is, except Valentino Rossi. Rossi looked relentless at Mugello on Saturday, clearly a step above the rest of the field. He looks capable of running 1'49s in the race tomorrow, a pace not very many can follow. The only man who could possibly be capable of following in Rossi's wheel tracks is Casey Stoner, though the reigning world champion only managed two 1'49 laps on race tires on his Ducati GP8.
Behind Rossi and Stoner, there are a big crowd all running low 1'50 laps. Chief among the protagonists is Dani Pedrosa, along with Colin Edwards, but there are a few others who could match the speed. The biggest surprises are the Suzukis of Loris Capirossi and Chris Vermeulen, though Vermeulen is once again handicapped by having to start down in 11th. But they will also have company from Jorge Lorenzo, who has gotten off to a slow start, and is only now improving.
On the strength of qualifying, it is hard to rule out Valentino Rossi taking a 7th win in a row at Mugello on Sunday. Rossi is strong, fast and consistent, and if the weather holds, then he looks virtually unbeatable. The only man capable of following could be Casey Stoner. If Stoner wants to get back in touch for the title chase, he'll have to do just that. Mugello has all the makings of yet another scintillating race on Sunday.
It's been a long time coming, but it looks like the Repsol Honda riders will finally get their hands on the new Honda RC212V engine with pneumatic valve actuation. Toby Moody over at Autosport.com is reporting that Nicky Hayden and Dani Pedrosa will have the option of using the air valve engine at the Catalunya round of MotoGP. Despite the atrocious conditions for free practice today, and a minor crash late in FP2, HRC's engineers have pronounced themselves happy with the new engine's comportment so far. Tady Okada told the HRC crew that both power delivery and handling are good, and their optimism means that they have decided to make the new engine available to both official factory Honda riders at the Grand Prix de Catalunya next weekend.
That will be very welcome news to both Pedrosa and Hayden. Like Mugello, the Montmelo track near Barcelona has a long and fast front straights, where top speeds will once again hover round the 200mph mark. The 1000 extra revs the new RC212V produces will generate a welcome power boost, but perhaps more importantly, the reduced friction generated by the pneumatic valves should also provide better fuel economy, leaving more of the precious liquid to be turned into horsepower. Unless Okada's bike disintegrates during Sunday's race, Pedrosa and Hayden are likely to jump at the chance to use the new power plant. HRC also revealed they could have used the bike earlier, but the strong performance of the steel spring valve engine under Dani Pedrosa raised the bar for the air valve engine, and Honda decided it would only start racing the machine once the engine was producing a significant advantage. Give Pedrosa's competitiveness so far this season, that's likely to fill the Valentino Rossi, Jorge Lorenzo and Casey Stoner with dread.
That Ben Spies will be moving to MotoGP in 2009 is common knowledge. For over a year now, Spies has talked openly of wanting to make the switch to the premier class of motorcycle racing, and has always spoken of doing so with Suzuki. A logical choice, given Spies' (relatively) long association with the marque. But lately, progress towards this goal has stalled, as problems have arisen over the price of leasing a GSV-R from Suzuki. Jorge Martinez, boss of the Aspar team which dominates both the 125 and 250 classes, has already complained in private of the amount of money which Suzuki wants for a bike, and is currently in talks with Ducati for a bike to run rising 250 star Alvaro Bautista on in MotoGP next season.
Now, it is starting to become apparent just how determined Spies is to get into MotoGP. Motorcycle News is reporting that Spies' manager Doug Gonda has approached Ducati about a ride in 2009. With both factory seats ostensibly taken for next year, Casey Stoner's contract running through 2010 and Marco Melandri still under contract to ride for 2009, Spies' only hope would be a ride with the Alice Ducati satellite team run by Luis d'Antin. That is not currently such an attractive prospect, with the Alice team consistently at the rear of the field, though Toni Elias' results have started to show some promise. But with speculation rampant that Marco Melandri could try and get out of his contract with Ducati as early as possible - with some talk of Melandri leaving even before the season ends - that could open up avenues for Spies to move straight into the factory Ducati team.
After a positively febrile silly season in 2007, we had expected that 2008 would be a little bit quieter on the riders front. So far, the facts are proving us wrong.
The proposed changes to the 250 class - with the 250 cc two-stroke twins likely to be replaced with rev-limited, spec ECU 625cc four-stroke inline fours - is having an unexpected effect on the MotoGP class. With KTM and Aprilia currently mainstay of the 250 class, the Japanese manufacturers having withdrawn factory support some time ago, the two European factories are extremely displeased with the new proposed measures. But unless they can persuade all of the manufacturers gathered in the MSMA to vote against the proposals, the two strokes are doomed.
Aprilia now seems to have decided that, with no experience of building engines in the proposed new format, it would be better to focus its attention elsewhere. The Noale factory has already announced plans to enter the World Superbike series in 2009 with a new 1000cc V4, and now, according to MCN, Aprilia are working on a new engine for entry in the MotoGP class. The engine will also be in a V4 layout, and is expected to start dyno testing later in the year.
One interesting detail is that Aprilia will be developing the engine entirely in-house, after their experience with the fantastic sounding, but difficult to ride RS3 Cube bike in the first years of MotoGP. That engine was built by Cosworth, the highly successful car engine builders. But both the Cosworth Cube and the Ilmor project demonstrated that building a motorcycle engine is a completely different kettle of fish to making engines for racing cars. Whether Aprilia can muster the resources and engineering skills to build a MotoGP winning bike is yet to be seen, but small Italian factories building V4s have been remarkably successful in recent years.
MotoGP, like all forms of motorcycle racing, generates a great deal of passion among its followers. And passion is an emotion which always has a need to find expression in one form or another. That passion is what prompted me to set up this website, and prompts me to keep it running.
The passion that MotoGP evokes is also evident in the responses posted here to news stories, race reports and race items. Some stories just seem to generate a lot of debate, and unfortunately, the software this site is currently running on makes full and frank discussions very difficult to achieve.
To respond to this demand, we have now set up our own forum, as a place to continue the intelligent and insightful debate that this site is fortunate to generate. There are of course many other forums about motorcycle racing on the internet, such as the excellent RideOnTwo.com forums, or the Autosport forums, as well as racing forums on other boards, such as Adventure Rider, Performance Bikes Magazine forum, the Bay Area Riders Forum BARF, Sport-Touring.net, or Visordown. All and more of those are great places to talk about motorcycle racing. But at MotoGPMatters.com, we have a well-informed audience who are keen to debate. And now they can over at the MotoGPMatters.com forum.
This is just the first of many changes which will be coming over the next few weeks. A new site (looking very much like the old site, but working a lot better) will be up and running soon, offering more functionality, and making the site significantly easier to navigate. So to get in the mode for the new, improved MotoGPMatters.com, head on over to http://www.motogpmatters.com/forum/, sign up and start the debate!
The Eurosport commentators Toby Moody and Julian Ryder mentioned it during the broadcast of the race, and now several other sources are confirming it. HRC will be wheeling out its pneumatic valve engine earlier than expected. After Honda decided not to bring the engine to Le Mans for the tests which are currently under way, it seemed the first place the air valve engine could make an appearance might be the test after the Catalunya round of MotoGP in Barcelona.
Now, though, Honda has changed its mind. HRC's test rider Tady Okada has been entered as a wildcard ride for the race at Mugello on June 1st, and he will be riding the new version of the RC212V complete with pneumatic valve engine. Both Dani Pedrosa and Nicky Hayden have commented that the throttle response of the new engine is too nervous, and there have been persistent rumors about reliability. With the memories of what happened to Valentino Rossi when Yamaha debuted their pneumatic valve engine in race conditions still fresh in their minds, neither the Repsol Honda team, nor their two riders want to risk a DNF due to a failed engine, Pedrosa having told the press on numerous occasions that he "won't race the bike until it's ready". Enter Okada as a wildcard is an ideal way of testing the engine under race conditions, something which is almost impossible to achieve on a test track.
The decision also makes sense in terms of the calendar. Mugello has a long, fast front straight, which should demonstrate the air valve (or "wind-driven" as one wag labeled it) engine's top speed potential, and a successful test would prove its reliability. This in turn could leave the option open for Pedrosa and Hayden to use the new engine at Barcelona, which also has a very long front straight, and is a track at which fuel consumption can be an issue. Two races after Barcelona, MotoGP visits Assen for the Dutch TT, another track which sees high speeds and high fuel consumption. Running a race at Mugello is a good way to find out just how ready the engine really is.
|9||Alex de Angelis||Honda||1'34.926|
Times courtesy of GPOne.com
The second day of MotoGP practice at Le Mans had started in spectacular fashion. At the start of the morning FP3 session, Jorge Lorenzo had a nasty crash, ending up tumbling through the gravel trap at the end of the straight for the Chemin aux Boeufs chicane. A visit to the Clinica Mobile revealed that Lorenzo had been incredibly lucky: the Spanish champion, riding with two fractured ankles and fractured bones in his feet, had not injured himself any further.
The morning's session was dominated by Colin Edwards, the Tech 3 Yamaha man managing a frighteningly consistent run of laps in the 1'33 bracket, several tenths faster than Valentino Rossi, who ended the session 2nd fastest. But morning practice is one thing: the question was, could Edwards maintain his pace in the afternoon?
Once Qualifying Practice got underway, under mixed skies and a threat of rain, Edwards answered that question in the affirmative. The Texan was not the quickest rider out of the gate, but from the start, Edwards was near the top of the timesheets.
The man at the very top of the timesheets was Dani Pedrosa on the Repsol Honda RC212V. Pedrosa had been quickest on day 1, and was clearly out to consolidate his lead in the championship. A pole at Le Mans would give the Spaniard a good chance of getting away from the start, and getting his second win. Pedrosa led throughout the first half of the session, with Colin Edwards, Casey Stoner, Valentino Rossi and a surprising Chris Vermeulen close to the Spaniard's pace, but not close enough. With just under half the session gone, Pedrosa was the first rider to crank out a lap of 1'33 during QP, and only the second man to do it all weekend.
With dark clouds bearing curtains of rain rapidly approaching, the qualifying tires came out early. Randy de Puniet was, as always, the first man to run a set of qualifiers, but others were very quick to follow. The Frenchman had already been setting quick laps, but soft rubber did little to improve his grid position.
Just before the halfway mark, as we started to settle in for the battle royal for pole, our concentration was broken by another incident for Jorge Lorenzo. The Spanish Yamaha man ran wide at turn 1, taking a fast and bumpy ride through the gravel before leaping his bike back onto and over the track through the chicane. Lorenzo was lucky: losing his footing on the pegs, his legs dangled loose, but he kept the bike upright. But his mistake did not go unpunished, as he rejoined the track, with no support from his legs to soak up the bumps, he had to absorb the shock with a much more delicate part of the male anatomy.
As we entered the second half of qualifying, Chris Vermeulen was the next man out on soft rubber. Impressive on race tires, he put his first qualifier to good use, taking provisional pole with a lap of 1'33.859. But with Colin Edwards already having set a lap of 1'33.765 on race tires, Vermeulen's time was never going to last for long.
Vermeulen's time looked like going almost immediately, with Casey Stoner on a fast lap, but the reigning champion ran wide at the newly altered Garage Vert corner, and ruined his lap. The alterations were minor, and had shortened the track by only a handful of meters, but the bumps which had appeared had been catching riders out all weekend, so Stoner was in good company.
Eventually, it was Dani Pedrosa who beat Vermeulen's time, but by the 2nd smallest margin conceivable, just 0.002 seconds. But 30 seconds after Pedrosa beat the Suzuki man's time, Valentino Rossi went quicker too, taking nearly a tenth of a second off. With the skies looking ever more threatening, activity in pit lane had swelled to a crescendo. Just 20 seconds after Rossi had snatched pole from Pedrosa, Colin Edwards was on a fast lap. And now, his time was a serious contender for pole. By the time he crossed the line, the Texan had taken nearly 3/4s of a second off Rossi's lap, hammering his Tech 3 Yamaha round the track to a lap of 1'33.065, and unlucky not to crack into the 1'32s.
As the clock ticked down, no one could get close to Edwards' time, though competition was fierce. Chris Vermeulen improved his time again to take 2nd spot, only to be pushed down the order by Dani Pedrosa, and Valentino Rossi, before reclaiming 2nd a few moments later. It seemed the only man capable of beating Colin Edwards' time was Edwards himself, as with 11 minutes to go, the American took another 0.3 seconds off his own time, and cracked into the 1'32 bracket.
The minutes ticked away, and Edwards looked ever more sure of securing his second pole position in a row. But he reckoned without Dani Pedrosa. In the final minute of the session, the Spaniard found the speed he needed, and finally snatched back the pole from Edwards, with a remarkable time of 1'32.647. Edwards came close to getting pole back, but on his final lap, came across Marco Melandri on the racing line, and lost out in the last section.
So Yamaha's run of poles is at an end, and Dani Pedrosa is sitting pretty in pole position for the race on Sunday. Besides him sits Colin Edwards, who was running very promising times on race tires, and is sure to be competitive. Casey Stoner rounds out the front row, the reigning champion pleased with his progress. He told reporters afterwards that they'd found a solution to some of the problems they'd been having with the Ducati, and his last couple of laps on race tires were much more competitive, in the low 1'34s.
Valentino Rossi starts from the head of the 2nd row, ahead of Fiat Yamaha team mate Jorge Lorenzo. Rossi's form is good, but Lorenzo has made several mistakes this weekend, crashing and running off the track. It seems that Lorenzo is lacking just a fraction in concentration, which makes a podium look out of the question. Nicky Hayden rounds out the 2nd row, but his 6th place on qualifiers bears no relation to his times on race rubber, only able to run around in 12th place. He could be in for a long day tomorrow.
Another strong performance by James Toseland sees him start from 7th position, very good at a track he hasn't visited yet. Besides Toseland sits Chris Vermeulen, whose times on race tires were significantly better than his times on race rubber, while John Hopkins had a decent qualifying, lining up in 9th. Andrea Dovizioso rounds out the top 10.
Saturday's qualifying may prove not to have too much bearing on the race, if the weather forecasters are right. Sunday looks like being very wet and rainy, which would make Chris Vermeulen a strong candidate to win. But the race looks like being among the top 3 title contenders, with Dani Pedrosa, Casey Stoner and Valentino Rossi all fast, though not perhaps as fast as Colin Edwards. Whether Edwards can maintain his pace under race conditions remains to be seen, but he has proved that he is fast round this French track. A win at Le Mans for the French-based Tech 3 Yamaha team would be very welcome indeed.
The first day of free practice took place under cool, overcast but mostly dry conditions, with rain spotting the track only during the final moments of FP2. During both sessions it was Dani Pedrosa who was setting up his stall as the man to beat. Pedrosa was there or thereabouts almost from the moment they rolled onto the track, and it's clear that he means business.
Pedrosa's lap times have been almost Stoner-esque, but that would be the Stoner of 2007, not 2008. The Australian champ had a mixed day today, running a way off the top in the morning, but finding some speed in the latter part of the afternoon. Stoner was losing most of his time in the second half of the track, losing any advantage he could gain in the first part of the circuit, but in the last 20 minutes of FP2, he came up with a solution, ending the session in 2nd spot, just a few hundredths behind Pedrosa.
Valentino Rossi's story was rather the reverse of Stoner's: Rossi was quicker in the morning, but could not quite match his time in the afternoon, as some experimentation with settings and tires on his Yamaha left The Doctor off the pace. His team mate Jorge Lorenzo fared better, being fast in both sessions. Unfortunately, Lorenzo had a crash in the dying moments of FP2, running into the gravel at the chicane. The way he hobbled around at the side of the track showed that although he was still in obvious pain from the injuries he sustained in China, the crash did not appear to have made them much worse. Lorenzo is looking pretty formidable.
Colin Edwards was a bit of a surprise, taking the 3rd fastest time of the day, and showing a good turn of speed. The Texan took pole here last year, and if it stays dry, he could repeat that feat on Saturday. The other surprises were the Suzukis, with both Chris Vermeulen and Loris Capirossi much closer to the sharp end than they have been in previous practice sessions. Vermeulen is looking particularly strong, and could be up the front come rain or shine on Sunday.
After a revival at Shanghai, both Alice Ducatis are firmly ensconced at the back of the field in France. Elias looks nonplussed, and Guintoli looks saddened. They had hoped for more, but they don't look like getting it. Marco Melandri, the final Ducati rider, is a bit of an enigma. This morning he was skulking at the back of the field, while this afternoon, the Italian found a spot of pace, taking him up to 14th. It's not much, but it's not last place either.
The other big disappointment is Nicky Hayden. The Kentucky Kid is languishing in the bottom 3rd of the table, while his team mate sits at the top of the timesheets. Hayden must be frustrated, and possibly unnerved as a result of all the talk about Andrea Dovizioso getting the factory Honda ride next year which would be Hayden's seat. Hayden is possibly also disappointed about the failure of the pneumatic valve engine to make an appearance at Le Mans. The Repsol Honda team was due to test the new unit on the Monday after the race, but HRC has held the engine back again, without stating a reason. With Pedrosa leading the championship, and with a win already under his belt, Honda is probably playing it safe. The next opportunity the air valve engine could make an appearance will be the tests after the Barcelona Grand Prix in three weeks time. But after so many delays, MotoGP followers are taking any dates given by Honda with a few pounds of salt.
The weather in France is looking decidedly British - a comparison I hope both my British and French readers will forgive me for - and the chances of rain are high. Qualifying practice looks likely to be held in showery conditions, and the chances of rain are 80-90% for race day. The search for evidence of rites being performed for the rain gods inside Chris Vermeulen's and Ant West's trailers has yet to turn up any conclusive evidence, but the suspicion lingers.