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MotoGP Jerez 2006 Qualifying

It was a strange start to qualifying, as Cardoso blew up the engine on his Pramac Ducati during the first out lap, and spewed oil all over the track. Next thing we know, Rossi is crashing out, followed 20 seconds later by the almost comical spectacle of multiple flying motorcycles. Comical to me, at least, as it wasn't my ass sliding over the tarmac as million dollar machines fly overhead. In the end, Elias, both Kawasakis, KRJR and possibly Cardoso ended up together in the gravel trap. The organisers were arguably a little slow, and should probably have red-flagged qualifying after Rossi went down, but as soon as the big group went, qualifying was stopped.

10 minutes or so later, qualifying restarted. The first 30 minutes or so tend to get used to try out race tyres, so times were frankly pretty slow for a while, until Nakano set a pretty fast time, a low 1'40. Then, at the 30 minute mark, out of nowhere Capirossi sets out a 1'39.2, taking advantage of the track having gone quiet.

For the next 20-odd minutes, no one got anywhere near Capirossi's time, and even after all the riders were out on their best qualifying tyres, there were several people who were faster at the first two intermediate timing points, but Capirossi must have been blindingly fast in the third section, as everyone was losing around half a second or more round that part of the track, and where they'd been a tenth, or at least several hundredths of a second faster at intermediate 2, at intermediate 3 they were over half a second behind again. Gibernau was very fast in the first half of the track, but kept losing out in the second half. Eventually, Capirossi put in an astonishingly fast time, just missing out on a 1:38.

Capirossi remains a fantastic rider to watch, always spectacular, taking over Garry McCoy's King of Slide crown. But what is obvious about the Ducati is that it's a real muscle bike: it's incredibly quick, but you have to bully it around the track. This is great for qualifying, but demands a lot from riders during a full race.

First conclusion to draw is that Bridgestone have built a fantastic qualifier, dominating the front row. And I'm really impressed with Nakano, he's certainly living up to my expectations. Of course, the race is yet to come, but things are looking promising. In the post-qualifying interview, Capirossi was confident that the Bridgestone tyres could perform for a full race. Gibernau emphasised that he was still in a learning process, and that he hoped to keep up with the front group tomorrow. But he looked happy and relaxed, and as Sete's performance is so dependent on his mental state, you have to say that's a good omen. I believe that Gibernau's 2005 season ended in the gravel pit at the last corner of the first race (Jerez) last year. Rossi, by dumping Gibernau in the gravel, effectively finished Sete off as a competitive force. So a happy Sete (or an otherwise emotionally motivated Sete) is a force to be reckoned with.

And we have four Hondas from 3rd to 7th on the grid. Nicky saved face by taking top Honda spot, but he didn't look very happy at all. You could see he was struggling with grip at the rear throughout the session. Rossi has said about Hayden that he is a very very fast rider, with great talent, but is not as good at developing a bike. Interesting also to see that Elias finished ahead of team mate Melandri.

Pedrosa was impressive, but you could see that he was occasionally having problems physically managing the bike. His foot slipped off the footrest a couple of times, from sheer exertion, it looked like. But a promising start.

The Yamahas were very disappointing. Randy de Puniet on the Kawasaki probably can't believe the fact that he's ahead of Rossi on the grid, and might be worth a side bet to qualify ahead of Rossi over the next few Grand Prix, if Yamaha keep struggling. What was interesting was to see Rossi spending a lot of time talking to the man from Michelin. Normally, just about the only person you see Rossi talking to in the pits is Jeremy Burgess, but this time, the tyre man was getting a lot of Rossi's time. Colin looked workmanlike, did his job, and qualified very close to Rossi, so there is obviously a problem with the bike. I'm going to say "chatter", just so I sound like I know what I'm on about.

The Suzukis look gorgeous, except for the powder blue paint job, but still don't look like challenging for the podium. Interesting to see that Vermeulen is ahead of Hopper on the grid.

KRJR is in more or less the same position that he would have been last year, only this time on a bike with a tiny budget, as opposed to a full factory Suzuki, so he must be pleased. I reckon the TeamKR bike could have a couple of good showings, maybe even a couple of top 5 places with a bit of luck later in the season. Especially if it rains some place.

A quick word on Makoto Tamada. Tamada was incredibly impressive in 2004, winning a couple of races, but since breaking a bone in his hand early in 2005, he can't seem to find his feet again. Qualifying 16th is pretty disappointing.

What does all this tell us about the race tomorrow? It makes it a fascinating prospect. Rossi is going to have to pull out all the stops to get close to the front. The Ducatis will start quickly, but will they be able to keep up the pace for a full race? Nakano said in the post-qualifying interview that he was pleased with the test results during the winter, but he didn't know how much stock to put in those results. He has reason to be cautiously optimistic, but he will have a horde of Honda riders breathing down his neck tomorrow. And will Yamaha sort their chatter out in the warm up tomorrow, to put Edwards and Rossi in with a chance? And how will Pedrosa handle a full race? It looks like there could be more than just two riders fighting for the win going into the last corner. I can't wait.

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A followup, based on the comments of the folks over at Advrider.com

This was originally a reply to a post over at Adventure Rider, so there are references in here which may seem strange:

Secondly, for those of you who'd care to see the Jerez track, here it is on Google Maps.

Thirdly, a few comments on stuff I forgot to mention, and responses to points made:

Saddest part of the season for me is the absence of WCM. They are my personal favourite team, but then I'm a sucker for an underdog, and proved, before the demise of the two strokes, that they could successfully manage and run a winning team, given the right material, with McCoy coming within a gnat's whisker of taking the 500cc title in 2000 riding a WCM-run Yamaha. And they showed incredible fortitude in running several seasons on nothing more than the million or so bucks provided by Dorna to pad out the field, whilst developing their own machine. For that money, you get Valentino Rossi's left lower leg, and you still have to find a bike for him to ride.

Weirdest note of the season is the demise of the sponsor-powered rider. No one would take Camel's 15 million bucks while it was attached to Max Biaggi. Telefonica Movistar pulled out after they lost the tug of war with Repsol for HRC sponsorship. Checa lost his cigarette money, after Marlboro picked up his tab (British Joke) for several years. Money has drained out of MotoGP recently, even as viewing figures have increased. If I had a company looking for big exposure in the southern European market, I'd put a couple of million in MotoGP like a shot. Formula 1, tennis, golf and soccer are all way too expensive to sponsor nowadays, MotoGP seems like outstanding bang for the buck. But we cannot rule out my judgement being clouded ...

Several of you mentioned Nicky, so just to reiterate my point: Nicky is extremely talented. But he has not shown a huge amount of talent at developing the bike this off-season, jeopardising his position as number 1 rider. But this, as Pantah so rightly points out, is not necessarily a bad thing: Hayden does best when someone just hands him a bike and tells him to go ride the thing. So relieving Hayden of his testing duties might just free his mind up to concentrate on actually winning races. Which would mean Honda would put him back on development work, ruining a perfectly good season. I reckon Hayden may be a prime candidate to move to Yamaha next year if Rossi goes to F1 / WRC / Wherever. Though having two Americans in the same team is not the preferred option, as it doesn't help sell 125cc scooters in Italy and Spain.

But I'm not being down on Nicky here, the problem really is HRC. They still haven't learnt the lesson from Rossi leaving to go to Yamaha: It's about the rider, not the bike. HRC believe religiously that the most important part of a Honda Racing team is the Honda Racing Motorcycle. If things aren't going according to plan, HRC don't send the bike back to the engineers, they regard the test rider as being defective, and switch riders. All of Honda's riders past and present complain about the focus being around the motorcycle, instead of the rider and the team. The problem is that they were fooled into believing this was the correct approach by having first Doohan and then Rossi win championships for them. The problem is, that both Doohan and Rossi have incredibly strong personalities capable of dealing with the pressure placed upon them. There are very, very few human beings capable of functioning within the strictures of the HRC discipline. But here's an interesting twist: There are currently three riders on the grid who have the discipline and the will to cope with that kind of pressure. Rossi isn't going back, but the other two are Dani Pedrosa and Chris Vermeulen. Vermeulen is unlikely to be given a chance for a couple of years, as punishment for stepping out of Honda's pre-planned career plan (1 more year of Superbikes, then a place in a satellite team), but Pedrosa has what it takes mentally.

Another point made by others is the importance of tyres. Tyres have improved by huge amounts over the past 5 years, and each season sees greater improvements. And as grip improves, so corner speed increases, and power can be applied earlier and earlier in the corner. If you want to see proof, check the lean angles below:

KRJR on a Suzuki 500 (probably 1999 or 2000):
KRJR on a Suzuki 500 in 2000

Shinya Nakano on the Kawasaki last year:
Shinya Nakano on the Kawasaki 990 in 2005

Knees are being slung out less and less, as bikes reach ever greater angles of lean. Previously, the way you rode a 500 (in particular), and the early MotoGP bikes was to brake as late as possible, chuck it into the corner, stand it up as soon as possible, and hammer the throttle. As grip has improved, and engine management software has become more sophisticated, stressing tyres less, it's been possible to ride bike round the corner, getting on the gas earlier whilst the bike is still leant over. Smoothness, and maintaining speed into the corners has become crucial. And the most interesting thing about this is that this is exactly how you ride a 250. Edwards spent the latter half of last season complaining of how he had to learn to ride the bike like a 250. So, whereas previously, 250cc riders moving up to the premier class had to relearn how to ride a race bike completely, nowadays they just have to get used to a lot more power and weight, and can maintain their style. I think this is going to become an even more obvious factor when the 800s appear.

Now, mikeyb mentioned that Suzuki may have an advantage when the class moves to 800cc, possible benefiting from the higher revs which hydraulic valve technology allow. Although this is a good point, it encapsulates exactly what is wrong with the Suzuki. It has plenty of power. Think back to the Aprilia Cube, another bike with buckets and buckets of power. But the secret to a winning MotoGP bike is rideability. The reason that the Hondas dominated initially, and the Yamahas are dominating now, is not because they made the most horses, but because they had the flattest torque curves. Smooth power delivery means you can get on the power earlier, as you can control the bike more easily. The Suzuki is still too much like an old 500: loads of power, but if you're not careful, it'll spit you off. So no, my money is on the Honda when the rules change, as they'll just perform a cylinderectomy, and have a winning race bike from the get go. Sadly, unless they change their approach to team management, having the winning bike isn't going to give them the championship.

And TeamKR: My other favourite team. I have so much admiration for KR SR, just for his approach to competing at this level. He knew that he could not build a 4-cylinder 500 capable of winning GPs, so he looked for the optimum balance between power and weight, and built the 500cc triple, which even managed to push the 990 cc bikes when they first appeared, if only briefly. Now, what TeamKR have proven is that they can build an outstanding chassis, and they can run a well-managed team capable of punching well above their weight (and that you can't compete in engine design against the near bottomless pockets of Honda and Yamaha). With a decent engine in their proven chassis, and with KR JR out to prove that it wasn't his fault the Suzuki couldn't win, they could provide a few upsets.

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