Eighteen months after the MotoGP class reduced its capacity from 990 to 800cc, ostensibly in the name of safety, the number of worried faces at Dorna is increasing. It's been 29 races since a race was won thanks to a pass made on the last lap, and complaints have been growing that MotoGP has lost much of its former shine.
As always, whenever there's a problem, the search starts for a culprit - or at least a scapegoat - and the current favorite explanation is the growth in scope and power of electronics, with special scorn reserved for the role of traction control in MotoGP. The increased sophistication of electronics is almost universally blamed for the dearth of close racing over the past season and a half.
The complaints have Dorna rattled. Just how worried they are by this development was made clear by an interview which Dorna CEO Carmelo Ezpeleta had with Mela Chércoles of the Spanish sports' daily AS.com. Ezpeleta acknowledged that the racing had lost much of its excitement since the regulation changes, but said there was nothing he could do about it. "There's nothing we can do, because the five manufacturers have all agreed a common set of regulations," Ezpeleta told AS.com. The situation could not be solved in the same way that the tire regulations were dealt with at the end of last year, Ezpeleta said. "With the tires, I do not need to make any compromises, and could decide to go to a single tire make if I wanted to, but I cannot tell the bike manufacturers that all of the research and development they have done was for nothing."
Ezpeleta made no secret of his desire for a single, standardized engine management system, or ECU: "I would prefer to go to a single ECU if I could, but I need to get the agreement of the entire (MotoGP) world ... Ducati wouldn't want it, nor would any of the other manufacturers. The manufacturers are using the competitiveness of the series for their R&D efforts."
Though there is nothing he can do about it at the moment, the Dorna CEO is quite clear about the task he sees for himself. "It's up to me to try and convince the manufacturers that a spec ECU would be better. It's obvious that this would be a solution, but I have to convince the manufacturers ... We have to see if this could interest the constructors, but it's not something we can do today, nor something we can do for next season, as they've already built these bikes. I have to persuade the manufacturers a little bit at a time."
Setting aside the question of whether producing a spec ECU for the wildly differing engine configurations used in MotoGP is feasible or not, the question remains over whether such a move would improve the racing. The new regulations in Formula 1, where a spec ECU has been introduced and traction control has been banned, has had little effect on the closeness of the racing, the only big difference being that races in the rain have become much more of a lottery than they were previously. The F1 experience hardly points to a bright new future of wheel-to-wheel racing if traction control was banned.
The other question is whether the lack of close racing really is down to electronics, or whether other factors have come into play. The restrictions in fuel capacity have certainly had a big effect, limiting power, and stopping riders from chasing in the second half of the race, as the bikes are leaned out to ensure they actually finish the race, leaving little excess power for overtaking maneuvers.
But the issue usually glossed over entirely is the fact that these bikes are so new. The regulations changed just 18 months ago, and the disastrous start to the 2007 season made by Yamaha and Honda showed just how badly you could misjudge the new class. All of the manufacturers - even the mighty Ducati, who still have the fastest bike on the grid - are still learning an awful lot about the new bikes, and just how much power they can squeeze out of the reduced capacity. Power has already increased greatly, from an estimated 210 horsepower when the bikes first rolled out, to something around 230 hp in their current guise. Power increases are getting harder to find, and each incremental increase is both smaller and more expensive than the last one.
Inevitably, the performance of the bikes will get closer and closer as the years progress. If the best racing ever was in 2006, after five years of the 990s, then maybe we will have to wait until 2011 to see racing just as close as that magical year. By then, the bikes should be completely developed, and both satellite and factory machinery should offer similar performance. The real disaster would be for Dorna to start changing the rules about again, as they did with the 990s. If there's one thing the manufacturers crave most, it's a stable rules package. And a stable rules package is the one thing that is most likely to generate close racing once again. Let us hope that wisdom will prevail.
As always prior to many MotoGP events around the world, the outstanding charity Riders for Health, set up by Randy Mamola and Andrea and Barry Coleman, will be holding an auction of some extremely desirable items before the US Grand Prix at Laguna Seca. Some of the items up for grabs include Nicky Hayden-signed memorabilia, VIP passes to the Yamaha party at the Monterey Aquarium, Red Bull U.S. Grand Prix poster autographed by the Yamaha Weekend of Champions and VIP passes to the Legends of Laguna Seca induction party honoring Eddie Lawson and Kenny Roberts. All things and experiences to covet, and with the proceeds going to Riders for Health, your money will be going to actively save lives, and help leverage motorcycles at what they do best: provide access under difficult circumstances.
If the thought of all that memorabilia isn't enough to persuade you, several big names from the MotoGP paddock, past and present, will be appearing to talk about life in the paddock. Guests are likely to include Randy Mamola, Wayne Rainey, Marco Melandri, James Toseland, Colin Edwards, Ben Spies, Randy de Puniet, Toni Elias, Sylvain Guintoli, Kevin Schwantz, Dean Miller and Herve Poncheral.
The auction is on Thursday, and is scheduled to start at 4:00 P.M. at the Riders for Health Turn 4 Hospitality Suite near the paddock. If you're going to attend the Laguna Seca Grand Prix, don't miss this great event.
Don Emde / Riders for Health
Dani Pedrosa's crash at the Sachsenring could have more serious consequences than he feared. After examination by Doctor Mir at the Dexeus Institute in Barcelona, the Spaniard's injuries, especially to his left hand, are fairly serious, and will require more treatment and observation before a decision can be made on whether Pedrosa will be able to take part in the US Grand Prix at Laguna Seca next weekend. Dr Mir told reporters that a decision would be made within 32 hours, but that inflamed tendons were adding to Pedrosa's broken finger, making riding a motorcycle extremely difficult.
Pedrosa's crash meant that he went from a 4 point championship lead to being 16 points behind Valentino Rossi. If the Repsol Honda rider is forced to miss Laguna Seca as well, he could find himself up to 41 points behind the Italian 7 time World Champion, leaving Pedrosa with an almost insurmountable mountain to climb if he is to claim his first MotoGP title this year. We'll know whether he will participate very soon.
Just a quick reminder for all our US-based readers. The German round of MotoGP from the Sachsenring will NOT be broadcast by Speed TV, the usual broadcaster. Instead, the Sachsenring MotoGP race will be broadcast by CBS, in a time-delayed broadcast. Fans wanting to watch the 125cc and 250cc races, those races will be shown in Speed TV.
For details, head over to http://www.tvracer.com/ where they have a complete schedule of racing broadcasts on all US networks.
The Sachsenring isn't the only race to be shown by CBS. The US network will be showing the two US rounds of MotoGP from Laguna Seca and Indianapolis live, and the Czech Grand Prix from Brno time delayed.
After the damp morning practice, during which Dani Pedrosa finally pipped Casey Stoner to the post setting the fastest time in the dying seconds of the session, the big question in the afternoon was whether the Pedrosa could repeat this during qualifying, or whether Stoner would dominate as he had on Friday. It was a question Stoner seemed determined to answer in a hurry. He went straight to the top of the timesheets on his 2nd lap, and by lap 4, he was close to the previous pole record pace, with a time of 1'22.082, less than 7 minutes into the session.
Under normal circumstances, that time would have stood for most of qualifying, while the riders worked on their race setup, before breaking out the soft qualifiying rubber. But the possibility of showers disrupting practice meant that a number of riders took a very early qualifier, gambling that such a move could pay off if the rain started to fall for real. Alex de Angelis, Randy de Puniet and Colin Edwards all took a very early qualifier, with Edwards taking provisional pole well before the halfway mark, with a lap of 1'21.794.
Worryingly for Edwards, that time was only 0.2 seconds faster than the 1'21.996 set by Casey Stoner, in the middle of a long run on race tires. Qualifiers can generally be relied on to take close to a second off of your best time, so Edwards' 0.2 second advantage was looking more like a 0.8 second deficit, once Stoner got serious.
With 20 minutes to go, Casey Stoner did just that. His first outing on qualifiers netted provisional pole with a lap of 1'21.666, but there was a great deal more to come. Stoner had already gone quicker than this on race tires on Friday, and so qualifiers should see him even quicker.
While Stoner was back in the pits for fresh rubber, the first assaults were staged on his supremacy. Valentino Rossi was the first to take a shot, being fast round the first half of the track, before losing out in the latter parts, forced to settle for the 3rd fastest time with a 1'21.845. He was followed by Nicky Hayden, who suffered a similar fate. Quick through the first three sectors, Hayden lost a lot of time in the last part of the track, only managing the 4th fastest time. After a brief visit to the pits, Rossi was out once more, and once more, his lap followed the same pattern: quick in the first part of the track, the Fiat Yamaha man was considerably slower through the section climbing up the hill, then sweeping back down it towards the two final left handers, finishing off the pace.
Once Stoner rolled back out on the track, he left no doubt about his intentions. Where others slowed through each of the sections, Stoner just got faster, from a small advantage in section 1, the Australian building speed through each section to end the lap over 3/10ths faster, at 1'21.330.
Dani Pedrosa was the first man to get close to Stoner's time, but unfortunately, he was only close to Stoner's 2nd fastest lap, the Spaniard taking 2nd place with a lap of 1'21.692. But Stoner had more to come. With 3 minutes left in the session, the reigning World Champion laid down the law with his final qualifier. Another lap took another 3/10ths off his time, and a lap of 1'21.067, just short of breaking into the 1'20s. The rest of the field knew what they had to do.
And plenty of people were trying. In the dying seconds of the session, there were large numbers of riders out on hot laps, giving the grid a final shake out. But the bar had been set high. Rider after rider improved their time, but it wasn't pole swapping hands all the time, it was 2nd place on the grid. As the clock ticked down, first Andrea Dovizioso, then Colin Edwards, and finally Dani Pedrosa shot across the line with fast times, each claiming 2nd place from their successor, with Pedrosa once again the victor in that fight.
As good as Pedrosa's time was, it was still over 3/10ths behind Stoner, at 1'21.420. But at least Dani Pedrosa will start on the front row, and as the best starter of the field, he has a very good chance to get the run into the first corner, and at least having a chance to try and repeat his runaway race from the front of last year. With Stoner on pole and Pedrosa beside him, it could get very crowded going into the first turn.
Colin Edwards took the final spot on the front row. Edwards has been fairly quick all weekend, and has decent race pace. But the Yamahas are not as good off the line as the Hondas and the Ducatis - or at least, the Ducati of Casey Stoner, and Edwards will have to hope that Stoner and Pedrosa can get in each others' way for the first lap, giving him a chance to catch up.
Andrea Dovizioso heads up the 2nd row, the Italian Honda rider always good at the Sachsenring. His race pace doesn't look as good as Stoner's or Pedrosa's, however, and he may struggle to stay with the front two. Besides Dovizioso is Jorge Lorenzo, who has been improving throughout the weekend. It's hard to say what Lorenzo will do, as he gets faster each session, we just don't know by how much. Lorenzo is very much a dark horse at the moment.
Randy de Puniet fills out the 2nd row, the French LCR Honda rider starting from 6th. De Puniet, like Alex de Angelis, who is starting from down in 10th, has been surprisingly quick, and could well be competitive. However, like de Angelis, he will have to stay on board. Both men have a reputation for crashing, and that's very easy to do at this highly technical Sachsenring circuit.
Valentino Rossi looks to be in trouble. Last year, Rossi was forced to start from 6th, and crashed out while trying to force his way past Randy de Puniet, and chase Casey Stoner and Dani Pedrosa. This year, he starts a position lower, and again, behind de Puniet. He will have to keep his nerve, and try and edge his way through the field, hoping that Stoner and Pedrosa can hold each other up. Rossi's race pace is good, but still behind that of Stoner and Pedrosa, and the Italian will need to find some improvements during warmup tomorrow.
Nicky Hayden sits beside Valentino Rossi, the Kentucky Kid not getting the improvements he needs from the pneumatic valved Honda RC212V. Hayden's pace on race tires is not good enough to stick with the front runners, and he will need something extra tomorrow.
The Gresini Hondas are in 9th and 10th, Shinya Nakano filling out the 3rd row, while Alex de Angelis heads up the 4th. This is particularly tough on Alex de Angelis, as the San Marino rider has consistently been the 2nd fastest rider in free practice. But de Angelis could not get the extra pace he needed from his qualifying tires, and slipped a long way down the grid. On race tires, de Angelis is very fast, and if he can cut through the field quickly, could well be in the running for a podium. But he has a lot of work to do.
At first glance, tomorrow's race looks like just another walkover for Casey Stoner. But the times on race tires tell a slightly different story. If Dani Pedrosa can get a good start, and get ahead of Stoner on the first lap, Stoner could have a fight on his hands to get past the Spaniard. And if takes too much time to get past, then there are lots of people coming through from behind who could challenge for the lead. And even if he does get through, Pedrosa could certainly challenge the Australian for a few laps, and make his life difficult. The race could be closer than we might think.
And that's just if it stays dry. There's still a chance of rain tomorrow, with a weather front sitting within a few miles of the track, and passing mostly to the South. But if the weather front drifts just a little bit further North, then the race could be soaked, and then it's all open again. We'll know for sure by this time tomorrow.
That Marco Melandri is unlikely to sit out the 2nd year of his contract with Ducati in 2009 was an open secret. But now, that open secret has become something akin to a public announcement. Alberto Vergani, Melandri's manager, told GPOne.com's Alberto Cani that Melandri will not be with Ducati for 2009. The Italian's contract with Ducati allows the contract to be dissolved by mutual consent with no financial penalty, despite rumors to the contrary. And with Melandri in his current form, there can be no doubt that the consent will be very much mutual.
Vergani had other interesting things to say to Cani. When asked about Melandri's future, Vergani stated that the most likely option for the Italian is a return to Fausto Gresini's satellite Honda squad, where Gresini continues to be a great admirer of Melandri. He confirmed that Kawasaki has also expressed an interest in Melandri, but denied that Melandri could end up on a Kawasaki before the 2008 season is over.
On the question of whether Melandri could quit Ducati before the season is out, Vergani was clear: "Our intention remains to finish the season with Ducati. Marco wants to tackle the problems he's been having, it's a question of saving his honor," Melandri's manager said. This does not mean that Melandri will not leave before the season is out: "That is, if Ducati doesn't have other ideas."
The first day of practice at the Sachsenring brought the scenario that the fans of close racing feared most. Within 7 minutes of the first session of free practice starting, on his 4th lap out of the pits, Casey Stoner had already broken the race lap record. Then, in the afternoon, Stoner took all of 10 minutes and 6 laps to shatter Dani Pedrosa's pole record from 2006. Set on soft qualifying tires, which would only last a lap. Aboard a 990cc Honda RC212V.
Stoner has so far been devastatingly effective, running long sequences of 1'22 second laps in the morning, and 1'21s in the afternoon, generally running at least half to three quarters of a second faster than the rest of the field, and looking quite simply invincible. In this form, it's hard to imagine how the Australian might be stopped, and will be worrying the rest of the field. After all, there's still 8 races to go, and a very strong chance that Stoner could win every single one of them.
Behind Stoner, things are a good deal more interesting. Biggest surprise so far is Alex de Angelis, who set the 2nd fastest time, and was the only other man to break into the 1'21 bracket. De Angelis was fast in both sessions, and clearly demonstrated his potential, as he did at Mugello. If he can avoid flinging his Gresini Honda into the scenery, he may just get his first MotoGP podium.
Behind de Angelis, it's a mixed picture. Valentino Rossi struggled with setup in the afternoon, after being quick in the morning, while Dani Pedrosa had similar problems. Colin Edwards is quick on the Tech 3 Yamaha, setting the 3rd quickest time of the day, and consistently sitting near the top of the timesheets. Jorge Lorenzo has also pleasantly surprised his fans, being much further forward than he has been on the first day at previous meetings, the Spaniard obviously regaining the confidence he lost in the big crashes that marred his early season.
More surprises came from Kawasaki's Ant West and Alice Ducati's Sylvain Guintoli. Both men featured regularly in the top 10, though Guintoli slipped down to 11th, and West down to 15th by the end of the session. West had injured his back in a crash during the morning session, and the pain made it difficult to get the bike to change direction at a few key points round the track. But the bike was definitely showing signs of improvement, and if treatment to West's back is successful, he could possibly put in a respectable finish.
West was just one of many people to crash. Dani Pedrosa, Colin Edwards, Andrea Dovizioso and even Casey Stoner all took tumbles with varying degrees of damage. Though nobody was particularly badly hurt, the machines of Pedrosa, Stoner, West and Dovizioso were all sufficiently damaged to leave them with just a single bike. The problem seems to be tires, with both Michelin and Bridgestone riders saying that the tires were wearing much faster than they did last year, and the tires they were expecting to work were not providing the grip they had hoped for. The bikes appear to have changed so significantly in the last 12 months that last year's tire data is not proving a useful enough guide to what to do now.
At the back of the field, James Toseland is still learning his way around a very technical track, but getting quicker in every session, as he should be. Ahead of Toseland, Marco Melandri continues to struggle around at the back, as rumors continue to grow that this is the Italian's penultimate race aboard the Ducati. Melandri also has his father present at the Sachsenring, which is a serious break with tradition. Ordinarily, Melandri likes to keep family and friends separate from racing, and never turns up at the track with any kind of entourage. Bringing his father along just seems to underline Melandri's need for support in the difficult situation he finds himself.
And as predicted, the Suzuki's are struggling in Germany. Loris Capirossi is obviously still in pain, and not really in any condition to be muscling a 230+ horsepower racing motorcycle around a track. But even the fit Chris Vermeulen is struggling, only managing the 14th fastest time. The Suzuki suffers particularly with edge grip, and the Sachsenring is all about edge grip.
The weather stayed warm for today's sessions, but worse weather could be on the way. The region around Chemnitz, the closest big city to the Sachsenring, is right on the edge of a weather front which is moving across Northern Europe. So far, the front has stayed to the North of the circuit, but there are no guarantees that it will stay this way. It could go either way, and so Saturday's qualifying and Sunday's race could be an interesting prospect. We shall see.
News coming in thick and fast prior to the Grand Prix of Germany at the Sachsenring, as the MotoGP paddock assembles once again for the final leg of the summer slog.
First up comes official confirmation from Kawasaki that Jamie Hacking will replace John Hopkins at the US GP at Laguna Seca. The American - though British fan will claim him as their own, having been born in England - is currently the only man in the AMA Superbike series capable of taking the fight to Ben Spies and Mat Mladin. Hacking has already tested the Kawasaki in Japan for two days, but will have a lot of work to do once he gets to Laguna Seca. Roger Lee Hayden set the benchmark last year, finishing in 10th while running as a wildcard at Laguna, but with this year's Kawasaki not looking anywhere near as good as the 2007 bike, a top 10 finish looks out of the question.
Chaz Davies looked like a strong favorite to be given the ride initially, as the young British rider already has experience with both the Bridgestone tires and in MotoGP, having ridden the Pramac Ducati for the injured, and then fired, Alex Hofmann. But with Hacking doing so well in AMA Superbike, the MotoGP ride is likely to have been a fitting award for the 37 year old.
The next news is that Colin Edwards is getting close to signing a new deal with Tech 3 Yamaha. The Texan confirmed that discussions were near to a conclusion at the pre-race press conference in Germany. The sticking point so far has been money, with Herve Poncharal still so far unable to clinch a substantial sponsorship deal. But both Yamaha and Michelin are very keen on Edwards, and both companies are likely to offer the Tech 3 team some form of financial support to keep the Texan at the team. Yamaha are already picking up Edwards' tab this season, although the Tech 3 Yamaha paint scheme, which bears an almost eerie resemblance to Michelin's corporate colors, hint at the involvement of other parties as well.
Finally, Dean Adams of Superbikeplanet.com is reporting that Nicky Hayden is looking a very strong candidate to take Marco Melandri's seat at Ducati at the end of the year. Hayden has been with Honda for most of his racing career, but fell out of favor with the Japanese factory after the arrival of his Spanish team mate Dani Pedrosa. With Hayden's riding style very similar to the reigning world champion, Casey Stoner's, it is widely felt that Hayden is one of the few men who could be capable of taming the Ducati. Although Melandri is only halfway through the first year of a two-year deal with Ducati, it is inconceivable that Ducati would stand in Melandri's way if he wanted to leave, which he surely must. Indeed, Melandri is widely rumored to be quitting after Laguna Seca, with Sete Gibernau being lined up as a possible replacement.
After Casey Stoner's devastation of the competition last year, conventional wisdom held that the Ducati was the bike to have. This claim was asserted in spite of all the evidence to the contrary: Loris Capirossi's 7th place in the championship, his worst finish since the 2004 season, and neither Alex Barrros nor Alex Hofmann managed to set the world on fire on board the Bologna Bullet.
If anything, the situation has got even worse in 2008. Casey Stoner is once again almost unbeatable on the Ducati, but everyone else who tries to ride the bike falls terrifyingly short, with Marco Melandri, the man who was runner up to Valentino Rossi in the 2005 title race, and an unquestionably talented rider, forced to cruise round at the back of the pack, and likely to lose his job at the start of the summer break.
And so the Ducati has claimed its first victim. In a shock announcement, Luis d'Antin has resigned as team manager of the Alice satellite Ducati team. The team, which once bore his name, has struggled almost since its inception, despite obtaining strong sponsorship from both Pramac and Alice. The support went so far that Pramac even bought the team from d'Antin at the end of the 2006 season, injecting vital funds which allowed the team to obtain Bridgestone tires and better support from Ducati.
Now, the Pramac chief Paolo Campinoti has gone one step further, taking the team over entirely, after Luis d'Antin's resignation from the team. No reasons have been given for the resignation, although Motorcycle News' Matthew Birt, who broke the story, has implied that financial considerations underlied the move. Results must surely have played a role, though with the Alice Team failing to live up to the expectations set at the start of the season.
There are many good reasons for working as a marshal or corner worker at motorcycle racing events. You get free access to the track, you get closer to the action than almost everyone except the riders themselves, and you often get a chance to meet the riders and teams in person. Though the pay is usually nothing more than an expense allowance, it's still the best chance most people will have to meet their personal heroes.
When riders crash, there's the double whammy of meeting the riders face to face, and getting to handle some of the most exotic motorcycles in the world. Your job, after all, is to ensure that racing can proceed safely, and part of that job is to retrieve the gorgeous, if now somewhat damaged, MotoGP bikes from the gravel and wheel it off to safety, to be retrieved at a later date. Another fringe benefit which nobody likes to mention is that you occasionally pick up souvenirs from those outings, with parts of crashed bikes taking pride of place on many a corner worker's mantlepiece around the globe.
It appears that the trophy cabinets of some trackside assistants are already rather full. That's one possible explanation for the items which appeared on the Dutch auction site Marktplaats.nl, where somebody is offering parts from the Kawasaki ZXRR which John Hopkins crashed at Assen. The parts include the nose of Hopper's Kawasaki, including his race number, and parts of the fairing side panels with the M for Monster Energy decal showing prominently, all produced from carbon fiber. The parts can only come from someone who worked the corners at Assen, as the place where Hopkins crashed, the Ramshoek, is not accessible to the general public during MotoGP events.
The items are surely a fantastic souvenir, as fairings from MotoGP bikes are not the kind of thing you can normally buy over the shelf. But they also come with a slightly unpleasant aftertaste. The crash these parts came from was very nasty indeed, John Hopkins sliding into the gravel at very high speed, and breaking his ankle against a tire wall (ironically) in front of the marshal's station. So though the price is very reasonable indeed (current asking price is 110 euros), you may not be keen to be reminded of one of the season's nastiest crashes every time you run your fingers over the exquisitely fabricated carbon fiber.