Motorcycle racing, like life, is full of little ironies. One such irony is that despite the fact that three of the five favorites for this year's MotoGP title, the current five-time World Champion and one of the leading factories taking part are Italian, this weekend's Italian Grand Prix at Mugello is the only MotoGP race in Italy this year. And this in spite of the fact that Italy has so many glorious circuits with a long and rich history: Monza, with its majestic and insanely fast Parabolica, the tree-lined Imola, Misano's sweeping Curvone Veloce, and this weekend's venue, Mugello.
The 2006 MotoGP season is certain to go down in history as one of the most memorable, and most surprising, for a very, very long time. Added to an electric mix of new young talent come up from 250s and over from Superbikes, and capable of immediately running at the front, have been a series of racing incidents and mechanical failures which have totally reshaped the face of MotoGP.
The rain clouds which had caused problems during this morning's free practice session had disappeared by this afternoon, allowing the track to dry out and warm up a little. The strong winds, which had earlier blown a temporary commentary unit over, complete with worried journalists, remained, however. With everyone worried about the possibility of the rain returning later in the session, all 19 riders took off as soon as the green flag dropped, reasoning that a half-decent time might turn into a pole if the track got wet. After the first ten minutes, John Hopkins topped the timesheets with a respectable 1:36.22, with Sete Gibernau in second.
As expected, the last free practice session before this afternoon's official qualifying practice was dogged by rain and difficult conditions. With the rain expected to continue this afternoon, the result looks interesting. Accomplished rain riders had a mixed morning, some doing well, others doing surprisingly dismally. Kenny Roberts Junior, after starting the session slowly, shot to the top of the standings with 10 minutes to go, putting in a series of consistently fast laps, over a second ahead of the rest, only to have his time beaten by a great lap by Casey Stoner aboard the LCR Honda.
I'm sure many of you will have seen the fantastic film Faster, the story of the last year of the 500 cc two-strokes, and the first year of the MotoGP bikes. It's a sumptuously filmed and directed documentary, the restrained style of the commentary beautifully juxtaposing the white-knuckle action of onboard and trackside footage. For those of you who haven't seen it, you really are missing one of the best sports documentaries ever made.
Now the director of that great movie has made another film about MotoGP:
The Doctor, The Tornado And The Kentucky Kid
This film is about the 2005 US MotoGP round at Laguna Seca, a fantastic race won in a superb showing by Nicky Hayden, the race which turned Nicky, who had been struggling to be consistent until then, into a contender. Laguna is a fantastic track, with one of the most demanding and frightening sections in the world, as the riders crest a blind left-hander, travelling fast, before swooping down into the sweeping Corkscrew, heeled hard over with the suspension gone light from the crest, riding a fine line between glory and disaster. If Faster is anything to go by, this can only be a great movie. Check it out.
Either Yamaha have found a solution to their problems, or the cold weather is reducing grip enough for the Yamaha not to suffer its usual chatter. This afternoon's session was another Yamaha 1-2, this time with Texan Tornado Colin Edwards taking top spot after leading throughout the session, followed closely by team mate Valentino Rossi. 2/10ths behind Rossi we have Nakano on the Kawasaki and Hopkins on the Rizla Suzuki. Le Mans is the Kawasaki's home test track, so it's no real surprise to see Harald Eckl's Green Machine doing well here. Hopkins is obviously on a roll, from his excellent fourth place in Shanghai.
In my race preview, I ventured that poor weather would favor rain riders, the Yamahas and the Suzukis. I was part right, as today's first Free Practice session, held in cold and cloudy conditions, were dominated by the Yamahas, Valentino Rossi being over a second quicker than everyone else for most of the session. With Edwards second fastest, it's still unclear whether these fast times are down to the new Yamaha M1 chassis, or the reduced grip induced by the cool conditions.
After struggling to cure the chronic chatter problems which have plagued the 2006 Yamaha M1, it looks like the engineers have finally admitted defeat. Valentino Rossi will be riding a bike fitted with a new chassis, based on the chassis of his championship winning 2005 Yamaha. It's a big gamble to take, as Rossi's pit crew, led by Jeremy Burgess, will have to work flat out to find a setup which works with the new frame, but with The Doctor trailing by 32 points in the championship, they cannot afford to lose any more points, especially after chatter helped to destroy his front Michelin in Shanghai.
Le Mans, The Legend
Luck Be A Lady
Yellow is Valentino Rossi's lucky color, and as such, he always tried to incorporate some yellow in his riding gear somewhere. So when Camel, whose corporate color is yellow, announced that they would be sponsoring the works Yamaha team this year, a cry of despair could be heard throughout the MotoGP paddock. Valentino Rossi had already proven to be the world's luckiest motorcycle racer, staying on board highsiders which threw other riders off, keeping engines running after crashes where others had stalled. If there was one thing that no one felt Rossi needed more of, it was luck. But since the start of the season, luck is what Rossi has had, by the bucket load.
However, as anyone who has tried their hand at cards or dice is surely aware, luck comes in two flavors: the kind you want, and the kind you wish on your competitors. Where in previous years, Rossi seemed to have a virtual monopoly on good fortune, this season, Lady Luck has shown Valentino an aspect he hasn't seen before, the kind of bad luck which causes chronic chatter to appear during the first race of the year, after having dominated during pre-season testing. And so it was at Shanghai this weekend, where it looked like Rossi's luck had returned, only for his hopes to be shattered in a shower of tire debris.
Due to poor holiday planning, I shall be away this weekend, and will not be able to provide a race report for the Shanghai MotoGP race until Monday evening (European time). I apologise for the inconvenience.
Well, as expected, it rained all day Friday, providing another day of wet practice. And as expected, Bridgestone showed it has good rain tyres. What was less expected was that Yamaha seems to have found some kind of a solution to their problems this year, with Valentino Rossi topping both qualifying sessions.
Results Free Practice 1:
Under The Weather
Last year, the Istanbul Park Circuit provided a thrilling spectacle, as Rossi and Melandri slugged it out at the front of the field. In just its second year, the track laid claim to a place in motorcycling history, providing some of the closest and most exciting racing imaginable. After an astonishing 250 race, in which any one of four riders could have won, the MotoGP race turned into one of the best races that MotoGP has seen for a very long time. The track challenges bike and rider, rewards risk, and offers plenty of places to attack the opposition. The fast Turn 11, before the heavy braking for the Turn 12 - 13 - 14 combination, nicknamed the "Tilke Twiddles" after the track designer, the last turns before the finish line, means that if you can stay within spitting distance on the last lap, you are in with a chance of the win.
With the track dry, and no sign of rain, everyone expected the Suzukis to get swamped quickly, and start dropping off the back from the get-go. Vermeulen's fantastic display in qualifying, taking pole, together with Hopkins in a season's best 5th spot certainly made up for the dismal showing at Qatar, but without rain, they weren't expected to use the advantage the Bridgestone rain tires so obviously afforded during qualifying. As it happened, tires were indeed to play a crucial role, but manufacturers than the seasoned heads were saying.