That outstanding source of MotoGP news, MotoGrandPrix.it, is reporting that Team KR's KR212V will debut at Sepang, during the tests to be held there from 22nd to 24th of January. Kenny Roberts Senior's team was the last of the teams competing in the 2007 MotoGP championship to present the bike, and the KR212V has been the subject of some speculation. The bike has been built with the direct input of two HRC engineers, to the specifications provided by Honda for their V4 800cc power plant, and it faces a trip to Japan on January 10th for validation by Honda's technicians at HRC headquarters. The bike will be ridden by Kenny Roberts Jr, as it was last year.
MotoGrandPrix.it and Motorfreaks.nl are reporting that Ilmor will not be present at the next two MotoGP pre-season tests, to be held at Sepang in Malaysia and Phillip Island in Australia. The reasons that Ilmor give are that testing so far away from their base at Northampton in England makes it very difficult to make changes to the bikes when they are so far from home. Ilmor have chosen instead to spend more time developing the engine on the dyno and test bench, to try and improve the reliability of the bike. The electrical failure at Estoril and the problems during testing have highlighted severe shortcomings in this area, rather unsurprisingly for a new motorcycle. However, Ilmor may also spend their time trying to get more power out of the X3's V4 powerplant, as the bike has shown a rather alarming deficit at its outings so far.
Ilmor's withdrawal from the tests also highlights one of the biggest problems facing MotoGP teams: Cold hard cash. The arrival of the four strokes also heralded the necessity of big budgets for engine development, four strokes being inherently more complex than the old 500 cc two stroke engines. The cost of leasing a 500 cc two stroke was around the $1 million mark, where the cost of leasing a Honda RC211V was reputed to be over three times as much, a figure which surely reflects the increased cost factor of engine development. Add to this the cost of shipping a team of engineers, riders, several motorcycles and a veritable treasure trove of racing motorcycle parts halfway around the globe to several venues for extensive testing, at events with little media exposure, and you start to get an idea of the very large sums of money involved in modern MotoGP racing. Despite MotoGP's growing popularity, even outside of its core markets in Southern Europe, and despite some of the best MotoGP racing for years, indeed, some of the most exciting motorsports racing on the planet in any category, it has proved hard to attract sponsors. The big tobacco firms are leaving, and their places are being filled very slowly. It is entirely possible that the team of Valentino Rossi, one of the highest profile figures in professional sports, may be left without a title sponsor next year (though he still has a number of personal sponsors).
If it's difficult for Yamaha and Valentino Rossi to find sponsorship, it is proving nigh on impossible for Ilmor. Rumors abound that one reason for Ilmor pulling out the Sepang and Phillip Island tests is avoiding the embarrassment of having engines blow up in front of potential sponsors. Ilmor will be hoping to iron out most of the engine and electronics bugs before taking part in the Qatar and Jerez IRTA tests. Let us hope that the work they do over the winter break will move them closer to a situation where finding a sponsor becomes a little easier.
I would like to express my deep gratitude to everyone who reads this blog. Reading your comments, either posted here or sent to me by e-mail, gives me great pleasure, and seeing visitor numbers grow over the past year has been hugely rewarding.
So I would like to wish you all, rather belatedly, a very happy, healthy and successful 2007, and hope it brings us all another fantastic season of motorcycle racing. May all your plans go better than you expect and some of your more unreasonable wishes come true.
About 10 minutes after I posted this reply, I received the official press release. You can find my take on it here:
Ilmor have finally made up their minds about who will be riding the Ilmor SRT X3 next year. On Monday, they announced that Jeremy McWilliams (42) and Andrew Pitt (30) will be joining the team for 2007. The line-up is as expected, after McWilliams and Pitt spent a lot of time testing the bike at Valencia and Jerez. However, it is a little surprising for someone of McWilliams' age to be given the ride. Most riders are a long way past their sell by date by the time they hit 40, and McWilliams is 42. The reason that Ilmor give is McWilliams' experience, a fact which cannot be denied. However, the last MotoGP project that McWilliams was involved in was the ill-fated Proton V5, developed by Team KR, which was just never competitive, and blew itself apart with some regularity. Andrew Pitt, on the other hand, makes a little more sense. At 30, he is much younger than McWilliams (though still one of the older riders in the paddock), and spent a year developing the Kawasaki when they first returned to MotoGP. He has shown that he can be competitive, after putting in a good season in World Superbikes aboard the Yamaha YZF-R1, even winning a race.
This leaves poor Garry McCoy out in the cold. The press release does not mention him, but reading between the lines, it seems that Ilmor believed that he did not have the development skills which they require. I'm sure it won't come as a huge shock, however, as McCoy was not involved in the Jerez tests at all.
The full text of the press release is shown below:
Northampton 18.12.06: Ending months of speculation, Mario Illien, Ilmor GP Team Owner today announced that Jeremy McWilliams and Andrew Pitt will make up the Ilmor 2007 MotoGP line up.
Despite his crash in Jerez back in November where he suffered a fractured left femur McWilliams is well on the way to recovery, both he and ex-Kawasaki rider Pitt spent time today at the teams engineering facility in Northampton discussing plans for 2007.
Both riders are familiar with the Ilmor XÂ³ SRT having tested the bike in Jerez and in Valencia after the final of the MotoGP World Championship. The riders were selected for not only their proven riding skills but the invaluable experience they will bring to the team.
At 42 Irishman McWilliams is one of the sports most experienced riders and his team mate 30 year old Australian Pitt has clocked up a decent amount of miles with Kawasaki back in 2004. At this early stage in the XÂ³'s development, the team believe it's essential to have riders who have the ability to assist with perfecting the ultimate race set-up of the bike.
Jeremy McWilliams: "I'm very pleased to be part of a new team and obviously I'm delighted to be back in MotoGP. Now, with Mario and Ilmor it's a very different situation - having spent some time with him and the team his passion and dedication is evident everywhere, especially at the facility in Northampton - you can see that he's not a man who's used to coming second. He takes his racing incredibly seriously, he's a legend and whilst I know his expectations in terms of hard work are high he's realistic about what we can achieve over the next year.
"We have a brand new bike and very little testing time - I think we have a very good product to work with but there is a lot of developing that needs to be done. It's going to take time and it's going to be hard but I'm really looking forward to it, at the end of the day, that's what MotoGP is all about - it's hard work - if it was easy, everyone would be doing it!"
Andrew Pitt: "I'm delighted that everything is confirmed now - I can't wait to get back out on the track - I really feel like I wasn't able to reach my potential before and now I'm lucky enough to get another opportunity with a new team on what promises to be a great bike. You only need to take a quick look around the Ilmor headquarters to see how seriously these guys take things, it dwarves everything I've ever seen before."
Mario Illien, Team Owner: "As a fledgling team, the main reason behind signing McWilliams and Pitt was for their skills in further developing the overall bike package and making us more competitive as a team. Both riders come well equipped with a huge amount of experience to bring to the team as we start out. I've said since the beginning of this project that we are on a steep learning curve and I believe that McWilliams and Pitt will really help us begin to make our mark on the grid."
Steve Miller, Ilmor, Managing Director: "Both riders are team players which is vital to us as a relatively new team - everyone needs to work together if we are to achieve our goals. I'm glad that they're both on board and I'm looking forward to working with them - I think they both realise the potential of the project and they're very keen to get back out there and find some more speed from the bike."
As the dust settles on a long and arduous MotoGP season, you would think that the teams and riders would be ready for a long and well-deserved break. But there is no such luck for the paddock: the riders had the grand total of two days to get away from the bike, while the mechanics and engineers were back hard at work the day after the race, fettling the 2006 bikes to get ready for a procession of journalists, sponsors, camp followers, and even Valentino Rossi's assistant Uccio, who reportedly put in the slowest lap ever achieved on a MotoGP bike. On the Wednesday, they were joined once again by the riders, and the 2007 season started in earnest.
And the return to testing has not been so keenly anticipated since the return of the four-strokes to the premier class in 2001. The motorcycle racing world held its collective breath, awaiting the first formal outing of the 800s, eager to see what the future holds for MotoGP. But their tension and curiosity was to be only partly relieved and assuaged over the days and weeks that were to come. For the winter testing schedule is a complicated and intricate affair. What it is not is a straight contest of strength, with all the teams turning up with their best bikes and their best riders, running head-to-head with the competition, with transponders recording and publishing official times for each and every lap. What testing entails is an ever-changing mixture of teams and riders, fielding racing motorcycles in unknown states of development, on a range of tires, in a drive to go faster. At each event, times are released, but sometimes there is a full timesheet available, while at others the teams themselves choose to release lap times for their riders, which may or may not include their fastest lap, and may or may not even be accurate (if the rumors about Biaggi's fastest World Superbike test time at Valencia are to be believed), and may have been set on either race tires or qualifiers.
So, while the excitement was great at Valencia, it was colored by frustration. Valentino Rossi was first to ruin the party, by spending part of the first day of testing riding the 990cc Yamaha M1, in an attempt to try and identify where the team had gone wrong on race day. Other 990s joined him, most of them not by choice, but by lack of available 800s. Marco Melandri, Toni Elias and Alex Barros were all out on old bikes on new tires, able at least to get some data on the Bridgestones both teams are switching to.
The team most conspicuous by their absence was Kawasaki. The Team Green bike was the only 800 yet to make a public appearance, but Valencia was not the stage which Kawasaki had chosen to make its debut. Of course, this absence did nothing to staunch the flow of rumors that the Kawasaki 800 was a long way from being either competitive or reliable, or possibly both. We would have to wait until Sepang to learn the truth.
What we did learn at Valencia was that the 800s were very, very fast. The only 800 we'd seen at Valencia so far was the Ilmor X3, which was running a couple of seconds a lap behind the 990s. On the first day of testing, Valentino Rossi demonstrated just how far behind Ilmor is, by lapping the track faster on the 800 than he had during the race on the 990, setting a stunning time of 1:32.7, fast enough to beat Loris Capirossi's lap record set on Sunday. The only people capable of following Rossi's time were the Gresini men on their Bridgestone-shod 990 cc Hondas, both Elias and Melandri setting times faster than Capirossi's race lap. Behind the 990s, Hopkins and Vermeulen on the Suzukis, Capirossi on the Ducati, and Pedrosa on the Honda 800 all finished within 0.1 seconds of each other. Freshly crowned MotoGP World Champion Nicky Hayden was a couple of tenths behind, but the reason for this would only appear later.
The next day, Pedrosa set an even faster time, shaving a couple of hundredths off Rossi's time from Wednesday. Vermeulen and Hopkins followed close behind again, with Casey Stoner quickly getting accustomed to the Ducati just behind the Suzuki men, and fractionally ahead of team mate Loris Capirossi. The Doctor could not match his time from the previous day, the changes to the bike he tried out not working to plan.
Two weeks later, the circus transferred to Sepang. The Malaysian race weekend in September had been full of meteorological surprises, and it put on a repeat performance during the tests. In case we had forgotten about the rain canceling qualifying in September, the first day of testing ended with a downpour to remind us. In the tropics, when it rains, it really, really rains, and the track flooded within minutes, staying wet long enough to curtail the second day's testing as well. And though the third and final day started dry, the rains returned to finish up the last session, not hard enough to flood the track again, but enough to chase off everyone except Nicky Hayden and Toni Elias, who seized the opportunity to run a few wet weather tests. A choice which may pay off next year, if the 2006 run of rainy race weekends is anything to go by.
The patchwork principle was at work again in Sepang, with Ducati absent in all their guises, Marco Melandri and Dani Pedrosa missing due to surgery for arm pump, and Valentino Rossi competing on four wheels instead of two in the WRC New Zealand rally. In their place, Kawasaki turned up with their test rider-turned-racer Olivier Jacque, though his first outing was aboard the old 990, rather than the 800.
Of those present, it was the Suzuki's turn to take the speed honors: Though Colin Edwards finished the first day with the fastest time, the Suzukis were close behind, split only by OJ on the 990 Kawasaki. But over the next two days, the Suzukis dominated, with Hopkins and Vermeulen consistently faster than everyone else at the track. Jacque's appearance at Sepang was brief, trading the Kawasaki 990 in for the 800 on the second day, before retiring with mechanical problems, and going home early. But Kawasaki weren't the only team with problems. Throughout the test, the Hondas seemed to struggle, never really getting on the pace. After the test was over, both Hayden and Elias complained of a lack of power from the RC212V, which helped to explain their deficit of nearly 1.3 seconds to the Suzukis, which had broken the lap record, and come within a second of the pole record at the Malaysian track.
After the tropical Malay heat, it was time to return to the more temperate climes of southern Spain, for the final test session before the official winter testing ban set in on December 1st. At Jerez the patchwork changed again, with Kawasaki disappearing, preferring to test in Japan, away from the prying eyes of the international press, Ducati and Ilmor returning to the fray, and Nicky Hayden taking his turn on the injury list, taking time off to have surgery on a shoulder injury exacerbated by the torpedoing administered at the hands of his team mate Dani Pedrosa in Estoril, and which had caused him problems in previous tests.
And rubbing salt into Hayden's surgical wounds, it was Pedrosa who set the pace at Jerez, breaking into the 1:39s on a qualifier on the last day of the test. Earlier, it had been Valentino Rossi who had led the way, leading on a cold and damp first day, and holding onto that advantage during the much better weather on day two. But on the last day, Rossi could only get within a quarter of a second of Pedrosa, with Marco Melandri 4/10ths behind Rossi. Judged solely by the timesheet, the Suzukis seemed to have lost their edge, finishing in 4th and 5th at Jerez. But the times set by Hopkins and Vermeulen were set on race tires, not qualifiers, unlike the three ahead of them, and put them in front of Shinya Nakano on the Michelin-shod Konica Minolta Honda, Colin Edwards on the other Yamaha, and Alex Barros on the d'Antin Ducati, transformed by the Bridgestones from grid filler to competitive tool. Behind Barros, it was the factory Ducati team's turn to struggle, as both Stoner and Capirossi battled with engine management software problems on the Ducati GP7.
So, now that testing has ended, what conclusions can we draw, most tentatively, from what we have seen so far?
The most striking thing has been the instant speed of the Suzukis. The GSV-R's handling has always been exceptional, but it seemed that Suzuki just couldn't make the 990's engine competitive. Like Aprilia, they started off on the wrong foot, throwing technology at the engine, instead of trying to make it ridable first and foremost, then worrying about power. With this history, few people were expecting Suzuki's 800 to be competitive from the off, if at all, Suzuki's prior approach being to make their solution overly complex, and then spend years trying to fix the problems they had built for themselves. So what many feared would be another season of midfield grind is starting to look like a year of genuine contention. Both Hopkins and Vermeulen are highly rated as riders, both have excellent corner speed, thought to be the key to 800 cc success, and both will be hungry. On current form, Suzuki looks like a real threat.
The other big surprise is that the Honda is looking pretty mediocre. It was Honda who pushed hardest for the switch to 800 cc, which the conspiracy theorists claimed was a plot by HRC, for all they had to do was lose a cylinder, and continue to race the bike they already had. But the times set so far have mostly put the Honda riders firmly in mid-pack, and Hayden, Elias and Melandri have all complained of a lack of power. Nicky Hayden, starting on the defense of his title, will really needs more out of the Honda if he is to retain his crown, but the bike just doesn't seem to want to work for him. Hayden's injured shoulder hasn't helped, but he is not setting the times on the RC212V he was hoping for.
To add yet more grist to the tinfoil hat brigade, there has been only one exception to the massed ranks of midfield Hondas, and that's the man said to be HRC's favorite son: Dani Pedrosa. Pedrosa has been impressively fast on the RC212V from the word go, heading the timesheets at both Valencia and Jerez, the only two sessions he's attended this winter. From the moment an eager public first laid eyes on the Honda 800, vicious tongues were whispering that the pint-sized bike had been designed solely and specifically for the equally pint-sized Pedrosa. The RC212V's 990cc predecessor was hardly the largest bike in the world, but the 800 looks as if it's been shoehorned into a 250 chassis. Pedrosa, at 5'3" and 112 lbs, sits perfectly aboard the RC212V, the tank fitting sweetly between his knees, where he seemed slightly dwarfed, having to stretch on the old 990. And with so little weight to carry, the extra drive Pedrosa gets out of corners is paying dividends. Already, both Rossi and Hayden have pronounced that the tiny Spaniard will be their main obstacle in the title race. Some of it is mind games, putting pressure on Pedrosa early, but the testing so far has demonstrated that they may need to use anything and everything they can to try and stop little Dani.
Of course, Honda isn't the only team which has failed to live up to expectations. MotoGP followers all thought that the Ducati 800cc GP7 bike's early appearance meant that Ducati could give them a serious advantage heading in to 2007. However, after starting the postseason in good form at Valencia, the Bologna-based team seem to have headed off in the wrong direction, with the software updates applied in Jerez turning out to be what are known in programming as "bug-for-bug releases", where the solution for a particular problem causes 15 other problems to spring up in its stead, like dragon's teeth. Based on the sound of the engine and the design of the exhaust system, Ducati seems to have switched back to a "screamer" engine configuration from a "big bang".
The advantage of the big bang is that the wider spaced power pulses allow the tire to recover and give better drive out of corners. But the big bang needs beefier crankshafts and primary gears to deal with so much power being unleashed in a fraction of a second, sapping top end power.
Enter the screamer. With power pulses more evenly spaced, power outputs can be higher, at the expense of drive. Fortunately for Ducati, engine management and traction control has come on in leaps and bounds over the past few years, meaning that electronics are getting better and better at compensating for the lost traction. With the GP7 already down 40-odd horsepower on the 990 bike, the screamer's increased top end must look very attractive to Ducati.
The problem is, they are running into the point where software theory runs into the solid brick wall of buggy practice, making finding a set-up that works an elusive and ever-shifting target. At Jerez, Alex Barros was faster on the d'Antin satellite Ducati than Stoner and Capirossi on the factory bikes, which could very well be down to Barros being on an older, less experimental bike than Stoner and Capirex. With the d'Antin bikes now on competitive Bridgestone rubber, rather than the Dunlops which left them languishing at the back of the field, and with a proven winner like Barros aboard, good times could be coming for d'Antin, and it could even get embarrassing for the factory bikes.
But pity poor Kawasaki. Where Honda and Ducati are ironing out niggles, Team Green are wandering in the wilderness. So far, slow lap times have been combined with technical problems, giving the impression of a team which is a very, very long way behind in their bike development. Possibly, Shinya Nakano had an inkling that this was happening, which is why he jumped ship to join Konica Minolta Honda, preferring a ride on a satellite Honda to a year among the back markers, fighting the Kawasaki.
At least the Kawasakis will be ahead of the Ilmor. The excitement of a new entry to MotoGP is starting to ebb, and the Ilmor SRT X3's deficit is getting more difficult to conceal. Consistently at least a second behind the nearest competition, Ilmor's woes were made worse at Jerez, with test rider Jeremy McWilliams crashing heavily and breaking a leg. And the riders have yet to be officially named, despite the list of candidates being pretty short, hinting at big problems behind the scenes. Perhaps the newly-appointed team manager, Mike Janes, will solve the problems, but observers are saying that bringing someone with experience in four wheel racing into a team coming from four wheel racing could see Ilmor falling into the trap that Aprilia and John Barnard fell into before them: Forgetting that bikes really are different.
And then, of course, there's The Doctor. So far, Valentino Rossi has run very near the front during testing, and is putting in monster numbers of laps on the new Yamaha 800. Rossi is determined not to repeat last year's mistake, where a lack of commitment during preseason testing (possibly resulting from his flirtation with Ferrari and F1) meant that Yamaha arrived at the first race of the season with major chatter problems, and spent the first half of the season trying to fix it, rather than concentrating on defending Rossi's title. That is not a mistake he would like to make again, but already rumors are rife that Rossi will switch to the WRC world rally championship at the end of the 2007 season, after he's wrapped up the MotoGP title. The rumors have some authority, as Rally racing is Rossi's second passion, and he did reasonably well in the New Zealand WRC rally. But no matter what his long term plans are, it seems unlikely that Rossi won't focus on two wheels over the winter, as he wants the title back. Badly.
To underline his determination to regain his title, Rossi has found an entertaining artistic and pseudo-historical device: Excalibur appears on the front of his Yamaha, an allusion to the legendary sword of King Arthur. Unfortunately, The Doctor is no Doctor of old English myth and legend: The image of Excalibur is a reference to the story of the young Arthur pulling the sword from the stone, and earning the title of King of the Britons. But in most versions of the tale, Excalibur is the sword given to Arthur by the Lady in the Lake, after the sword taken from the stone, the one which made Arthur king, is broken in a fight with King Pellinore. I'm sure that Valentino Rossi won't let a little literary inaccuracy get in his way, but I can't see anyone giving The Doctor anything this year. But we know his mettle; he has shown it time and again. Sword or no sword, Valentino Rossi intends to be crowned king once again.
For the fans of Bob Hayes' great motorcycle racing podcast MotoGPOD, the podcast is back again! The podcast fell into neglect earlier this year after Bob, a military reservist, was called to active service. However, thanks to the valiant efforts of Jules Cisek (the driving force behind the RideOnTwo.com blog and forum) and Liam Shubert (a member of the Pramac d'Antin team, whose adventures you can read about on http://www.motoliam.com), MotoGPOD has been resurrected and is back on the internet. Jules and Liam are hoping to get the show back on a more regular basis, and keep it running until Bob returns from service and can start making the show again.
If you don't know the show, it's an informative discussion about all the stuff that's happening in MotoGP, and elsewhere in racing, with all sorts of background info and other tidbits thrown in for good measure. The latest episode features Liam Shubert giving us the lowdown on some of the testing that's being going on, and his thoughts on the new Honda RC212V.
And if you're a fan of motorcycle racing podcasts, there are two other shows you really want to catch: Rumblestrip Radio, an entertaining ramble around the world of motorcycling brought to you by "The Duke"; and the Soupkast</>, Superbikeplanet.com's inside dirt on all things related to motorcycle racing. If you have any other motorcycle racing or motorcycle-related podcast favorites, let me know, and we'll post them here.
In an interview with German Eurosport's MotorMagazin, KTM boss Stefan Pierer has stated categorically that they won't be returning to MotoGP any time soon. KTM had been linked with the Ilmor team, with rumors saying that KTM would take over the project from Mario Illien. However, after the disappointment of KTM's involvement with the Proton KR team, KTM are a lot more cautious about participation in premier class racing, conscious as they are of the very high costs involved.
Pierer admitted that there had been a brief conversation with Ilmor, but was dismissive of Ilmor's chances of success in MotoGP: "Without factory support, Ilmor don't stand a chance." He underlined his position by referring to the Ilmor X3's performance at the last two GPs and the winter tests conducted so far. "Their performance so far has failed to convince me", he said, expressing surprise that Ilmor's efforts have received such high praise elsewhere.
Pierer emphasized his committment to the smaller capacity classes, but also hinted at participation in World Superbikes, an option which will be viable with the launch of the RC8 sports bike, due some time next year: "At the end of the day, we want to present our products to our customers in competition", the KTM chief said.
Although MotoGP followers will have to wait for the news they are awaiting most eagerly, the Ilmor SRT rider line up for next year, one more piece of the Ilmor puzzle has been put in place today, with the announcement of Mike Janes as the Ilmor SRT Team Manager. Janes has a long background in motor racing, but all of it of the four-wheeled variety, having previously worked predominantly in Formula 1, including stints with Cosworth, Williams, Jaguar and Red Bull. The move comes as a surprise, as it was widely expected that Harald Eckl, who was fired by Kawasaki last month after rumors of Eckl spending too much time advising the Ilmor team, would be first in line for the Ilmor job.
According to the press release, the Ilmor rider line up will be announced later this week. Stay tuned.
Italian site MotoGrandPrix.it is carrying an official Camel press release stating that they are withdrawing from MotoGP sponsorship, leaving the official Yamaha factory team without a name sponsor. After earlier tobacco withdrawals (such as Fortuna and Winston in World Superbikes), it seems that big tobacco is abandoning motorcycle racing as advertising bans become ever stricter around the world. The press release gives no reason for the withdrawal, merely stating their gratitude to all concerned.
This begs the question of who will be sponsoring Yamaha next year. With Valentino Rossi, one of the biggest names in professional sports, you would expect potential sponsors to be lining up in droves to fund Yamaha. But so far, few names have been thronging for the hand of Rossi, Burgess and Edwards. Should any names surface, I'll post them here.
~~~ UPDATE ~~~
Racesport.nl is reporting that Yamaha stated that there is a strong chance that Yamaha may run the factory team under their own flag, without an external sponsor.