Throughout all three Free Practice sessions, it was clear that Qatar was about two men: One, Kenny Roberts Jr, a seasoned veteran returning to form; The other, Casey Stoner, a young upstart who came within spitting distance of winning the 250cc championship last year. At the end of qualifying, only one name remained.
One of the interesting things to do when looking at times set in practice is to look at the full sequence of times set. A rider can end up at the top of the list by putting in a single fast lap on qualifying tyres, whilst struggling with race tyres. Other riders tend to concentrate on finding a decent race set up, and you can see that in their times: they'll go out and set consistent sequences of laps, all within a few 10ths of a second.
So, in the light of this, how are we to interpret Thursday's practice times? Here are the times set:
I've created a Google Earth file of the tracks used for this season's MotoGP races. You'll need to download Google Earth to use these files, which sadly only runs under Windows and OS X. However, if you have any other software which accepts longitude and latitude coordinates, you can change the file name from MotoGPTracks.kmz to MotoGPTracks.zip, and use your favourite compression tool to unzip the file, which will unpack a file in XML format called doc.kml.
Anyone looking for clues as to what will happen in the second MotoGP race of this season, will not find much inspiration from last year. Last year was different in many ways: the second race of the year took place just a week after the opener at Jerez, in the tempestuous spring weather of Estoril, on Portugal's Atlantic coast, whereas the venue for this year's second round, Qatar took place on October 1st, at the end of a long hot Arabian summer.
At the start of the MotoGP era, speculation was rife that the entry class for the senior class was no longer the 250s, as it had been for years, but rather the Superbikes, where experience of big torquey four strokes was felt to be a possible advantage in the new class. Tyres with too little grip for the power output helped reinforce this impression.
But as grip increases, with tyres and engine management learning to sing in perfect harmony, the route to MotoGP is shifting back to the 250s, just like during the 500cc period. Back in the days of the 500s, few riders tried to make the switch from Superbike to 500cc, because they were such totally different beasts, requiring wildly different riding styles. The only successful route to 500s in the 90's was through the "Stroker School" of 125s and 250s.
The coming of the four strokes to MotoGP changed all that. All of a sudden, riders needed to be able to muscle a heavy, torquey (well, relatively) bike around the track, and a horde of Superbike riders made the switch. Only the very best made a successful transition (Bayliss and Edwards), but the nature of the bikes at least made it possible (Bayliss' fantastic showing in the early Superbike races this season demonstrated his vast talent). The only way to ride the first generations of MotoGP bikes was to brake late, stuff it through the corner, and stand it up as soon as possible, so you can open the throttle without the thing spitting you off.
At Jerez in 2005, the season was settled in the last corner of the last lap, when Rossi knocked Gibernau physically into the gravel trap, and mentally into a losing state of mind. At Jerez in 2006, the season was shaken up, stirred round and messed up in the first corner of the first lap by, of all things, technology.
In 2006, for the first time, all of the bikes on the grid are using some form of launch control. The down side of this is that everyone arrives at the first corner at the same time. I reckon the Spanish fans felt that Rossi deserved to suffer the consequences of this mass arrival, as Elias tagged Rossi's back wheel, knocking Rossi off his bike.
Rossi looked like he'd got a great start, moving through to about 5th place going into the first corner, but Elias braked just a fraction too late, touched Rossi's back wheel, and down went Rossi. It was a double blow for Yamaha, as Edwards was forced of the track by Rossi's bike, and rejoined the race in 18th place. Rossi, after gesticulating to try and get the race stopped, then showed that his luck had not entirely run out (the bike was still running), and that he understands what it takes to become a champion, as he got back on the bike, despite having lost most of his right footpeg, the tip of his front brake lever, and having twisted his right clip on, and ended the first lap 43 seconds behind the leader Capirossi.
And Capirossi had gotten off to a fantastic start, taking the lead from the outset, followed closely by Gibernau, Melandri, Hayden and Pedrosa. Checa and Stoner both got blinding starts, shooting into top 8 positions from a long way down the grid. Gibernau couldn't quite hold on to his 2nd place, as Melandri inched past him before the end of the first lap, but there were a group of some 8 or 9 riders all very close together in the first few laps, consisting of the two Ducatis, Melandri, Hayden, Pedrosa, Nakano, Checa, and Stoner.
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.
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 ...
Here's a phrase you'll have heard about a million times this preseason: "The 2006 MotoGP season sees a changing of the guard." Of course, the point about commonplaces is that they are commonly used because they are, to great or lesser extent, true.