As the winter test ban draws to an end, and the teams start heading out towards Sepang for the start of the MotoGP pre-season, it's time to gaze into our crystal ball and see what the future holds for MotoGP in 2007. But this is not yet the time for balanced discussion, calm comment and objective analysis of what has happened and what is to come. It's too early for that. So instead, here's some wild and unreliable guesswork, based on pure speculation and gut feeling. It's time for my
2007 MotoGP Predictions:
Pedrosa To Fail
It is said that 2007 will be the year of Dani Pedrosa. Most commentators believe that if he does not win the championship outright, then at the very least, he will push Rossi all the way to the wire. However, regarding Pedrosa's ascendancy as a foregone conclusion is to neglect a few very important points:
- With Sete Gibernau retired, and Max Biaggi over in World Superbikes, Valentino Rossi will be able to focus the full power of his mind games on little Dani. We already got a foretaste of this during 2006. Rossi's monster burnout celebration in the winner's circle at Donington, for example, after Pedrosa had romped home to his second win of the season. And I won't even mention "the chair" at Sepang. Anyone doubting the power of Rossi's voodoo need only take a close look at the careers of Gibernau and Biaggi, once they started getting in The Doctor's way. Things are about to get very tough for Pedrosa.
- Honda are the only manufacturer to try a completely new engine configuration for 2007. Everyone else will be using the same engine layout they used last season. Although it seems a fairly trivial exercise to trim one of the cylinders from a 990cc V5 and turn it into a V4, it's really not that simple. Everything you've learnt about firing order, firing intervals and engine balance is lost, and you have to start all over again. That this affects even the Mighty HRC is apparent from the timesheets: So far, the Hondas have been much further down the time sheets than any had thought possible, and almost every rider to test the RC212V has complained about the lack of power. HRC have much further to go than anyone expected.
- Pedrosa has set fast times during testing so far. But these times have always been on qualifying tires, his times on race tires have been significantly less impressive. With the advent of the new tire regulations, qualifiers will be less of a factor in 2007. Don't be fooled by Pedrosa's times.
The New Tire Regulations Will Change Everything
As I alluded to above, the new tire regulations are going to have a major impact. If there's one field where huge strides have been made over the past few years, it has been tires. Arguably, the improvements in traction control have been driven by the developments which have taken place in tires. The changes mean that each rider will have to select 14 front and 17 rear tires on Thursday evening, to use over the course of 5 practice sessions and 1 race during the weekend. Considering that last season, riders would regularly use as many as 60 tires in a weekend, choice is being severely limited. Add in the possible combinations of compound mixes, with different compounds possible on the left and right hand edges of the tires, as well as in the middle, and you begin to understand just how drastic the limits are.
In practice what this means is that a qualifying tire has just lost an awful lot of value. Where in previous seasons, riders might use 3 or 4 qualifiers in a weekend, reducing the choice of rears even just by one may be too big a gamble, if you limit your options for race tires. You stand a better chance of fighting your way through the field from a poor grid position on a good race tire, than you do defending a front row position on a race tire which isn't working. This will turn out to be the most underestimated factor in MotoGP for 2007.
Here's a bold prediction (well, not that bold): The 800s will start breaking lap records almost from the word go. The race record won't fall at the second round at Jerez, but it will be very, very close. By the time we get to the Sachsenring in Germany, it will be all over. I predict that the lap record at the Sachsenring will be shattered in July, and broken at 5 of the remaining 7 tracks with an existing record. So much for being slower.
More Winners In 2007
The switch to 800cc will reduce the disparity between the bikes. It will be easier for good riders to stay close to the front, and harder for good riders to drop other good riders just on sheer horsepower. If the 800s are more like the 250s, as everyone says, then a glance at 2006 should tell you all you need to know. In 2006, 5 different riders won a Grand Prix in the MotoGP class. In the 250 class, 6 different riders won.
Suzuki Finally Delivers
At every test held so far, the Suzukis have been very close to the front. And when you disregard the times set on qualifiers, the Suzukis top every time sheet so far. Suzuki followed an interesting strategy for 2006: they basically spent all year developing the 800. Obviously, the bike was a 990, but each modification to the bike was made with the 800 in mind. The same could be said of Hayden's Honda, of course, but the difference between Hayden's RC211V and the Suzukis is that Hayden was a lone development rider, caught up in the middle of a title race. Hopkins and Vermeulen both put in significant effort to getting the GSV-R ready to go once they dropped the 800 V4 in. I predict that one of the Suzukis will end the year in the top 3, at least one of the Suzukis will win a Grand Prix, and both riders will be podium regulars. What's more, the top position in the team is at stake. Neither Hopkins nor Vermeulen will want to finish behind the other, despite the fact they work quite well as a team, so the internal team rivalry will be intense.
Barros Will Podium
The Pramac d'Antin team had a dismal 2006. Permanent tail enders, they looked like so much grid filling last season. 2007 will be different though. First of all, the team will be using bikes which are very near to being works Ducatis, for the simple fact that there are no 2006 Ducati 800s available. Combined with this is the fact that d'Antin will no longer be running the still (sadly) uncompetitive Dunlops, but will have access to Bridgestone rubber, making it possible for the riders to get, and stay, in the thick of the battle at the front. Then, of course, there's Alex Barros. Barros had a tough year in World Superbikes in 2006, but if you consider that for most of the year, he was on 2nd rate material, and spent the first half of each race fighting his way up through the field, his performance was actually pretty good. He will be as motivated as Carlos Checa was last season, and on decent material. And once Barros gets the Pramac bike on the podium, riders will be lining up to ride for D'Antin in 2008.
The Resurrection Of Makoto Tamada
Once HRC's Golden Boy, and thought to be the Japanese rider capable of winning the title for Honda after the sad demise of Dajiro Katoh, Tamada failed utterly on Michelins. He complained constantly of a lack of confidence in the front end, after switching to Michelins, and was constantly the final Michelin finisher in 2006. But here's a little food for thought: Carlos Checa settled on a front Dunlop tire early on in the season, and was happy enough with it not to bother changing it, concentrating his efforts on developing rear tires instead. With Tamada now using Checa's front Dunlop, expect him to regain confidence in the front end, and to start flying again in 2007. Tamada will finish further up the standings in 2007 than he did in 2006.
Stoner Will Crash
Predicting that Casey Stoner will crash in 2007 is about as difficult as predicting it might be quite hot out in Sepang. But of Stoner's 5 race crashes in 2006, all 5 of them were due to Stoner losing the front end. With the Bridgestone generally accepted as a better front tire than the Michelin he used last season, Stoner will fall off less, finish more, and become a more regular sight on the podium.
Rookie Of The Year: Sylvain Guintoli
This is actually cheating. Guintoli will be the only rookie in MotoGP. All the other "new" riders in the class have already ridden. Still, you might be able to find a bookie to take the bet...
Hayden To Be Top Honda
There has been concerted criticism of Nicky Hayden since winning the world title. The statistic most often quoted is the fact that Troy Bayliss, who rode one race in MotoGP in 2006, led for more laps (30) than Hayden did all year. But this neat little number misses the fact that Hayden spent much of the year defending his championship lead, rather than going for wins, while at the same time trying to develop the bike which was to become the Honda 800cc RC212V. In 2007, Hayden will have fewer development duties, and a freer hand just to race. What's more, he'll have the Number One plate on his machine, and that means more to Hayden than many people think. He will want to defend the Number One plate with dignity, which means going out and riding the wheels off the bike, preferring to risk it all for the win, rather than stay on board and podium. Hayden's title defense will remove any question marks about the way he won the championship.
Repsol Honda: The War Continues
Though Dani Pedrosa made up for his Estoril Error at Valencia, by letting Hayden past and attempting to hold up the field behind him, there's still the small matter of Number One Honda Rider to settle. Alberto Puig will continue to pull strings and apply pressure, despite the number on Hayden's RC212V. The power struggle behind the scenes will get vicious, and occasionally spill over into the public arena, magnifying every on-track incident. As Pedrosa struggles, and Hayden charges, the situation will get rapidly worse. By the end of the year, Puig may find his position within HRC greatly weakened.
And The Winner Is ...
This is easy. Valentino Rossi is out for revenge. His father, Graziano, has already said that Rossi is more motivated than ever. And with no more Formula 1 excursions to distract him, Rossi can concentrate on getting the new Yamaha 800 ready to regain the title in 2007. That doesn't mean that it will be easy. Last year's class rookies have all had a year in the top class, Capirossi will be out to obliterate the memory of his crash at Barcelona, the Suzukis will be competitive, and Hayden will put up a fierce defense of his title. But Rossi will prevail. He'll never dominate, winning 11 races as he did in 2001 and 2005, but he'll still win enough to take the title. 7 races will be sufficient.
At the end of 2007, Rossi will then announce that ... He's signing with Yamaha for another year. Rossi will stay in MotoGP for 2007 and 2008, and probably for 2009 as well. After that, he will have broken a few more records, taking Giacomo Agostini's record for the most 500/MotoGP wins, passing Angel Nieto for the record of all class wins to take second place behind Ago, and will leave to go and race in WRC Rallying. He will be sorely missed, but will leave us with a vibrant class, a handful of contenders to take his place, and some fantastic racing to come.