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.
The grid was out in force this morning, to get some track time on a drying track. The damp spots which were still present early in the session had dried up by the end, and times dropped fairly dramatically. Interestingly, even though the track was dry, the top of the timesheet is still heavily populated with Bridgestone riders. Both the Ducatis looked very fast, with Gibernau looking very impressive.
Rain changes everything in motorcycle racing. It changes small things, such as the color of a rider's visor, with most of them switching to clear visors. This offers the television viewer the fantastic spectacle of watching the rider's face and eyes, seeing where they are looking, and what they are thinking. Rain changes bigger things, like the dominant tyre manufacturer. All of a sudden, of the top 8 riders, 6 are on Bridgestones. And it changes the most important thing: the relationship of the rider to their bike. Middle order racers no longer believe that they don't stand a chance, because of the 10 or 20 horsepower they know they are short of, so they start to ride the bike they were cursing (or worse) at the last race like it was a championship bike. And champions start riding like tail-enders, because they can't find the confidence which they had in their machine just a few weeks previously, or because the rain has turned their natural advantage into a disadvantage.
Yesterday I learnt that a dear friend is terminally ill in hospital. I will be visiting her later today. As a result, my report on today's MotoGP Qualifying Practice from Istanbul will be posted later than I normally hope to post them.
A few surprises in the second free practice session. Nicky makes it to the top of the list with some to spare, but still a way off of last year's pole. Stoner and Melandri are fast again, but Pedrosa has taken a leap forward. Conversely, Rossi has taken a bit of a nosedive. I suspect they were playing with settings. Hopkins has put on a good show, with 8th place, and Tamada is more or less where you might expect him, though the Kawaskis are a long way down the order. A special mention for Ellison, who took nearly a second and a half off his time this morning.
The two winners from last year lead the first session, with Rossi close on their tails. Capirossi is adapting quickly, but needs more time on the track. Nicky Hayden is where he should be, and Colin Edwards has decided to show up. Good showing by the American. Pedrosa down in 8th is slightly disappointing, though I don't think anyone would have called it that before the season started.
Most of the rest are were you might expect them, though Tamada has made a jump forward. But can he keep it up through the next session?
As a rule, riders don't like the recently built circuits. Not so much because it means they have a new track to learn, but more because of the nature of the newer circuits: designed to equalise the greater speed disparities of Formula 1, and to maximise the spectator view by fitting inside a limited chunk of real estate, they tend to feature a lot of slow corners, with shapes that look good on the screen of a computer modelling program.
Istanbul, however, is different. The track has been designed to make the best use of the natural rolling landscape, with, for example, turn one flowing downhill, then uphill again, loading up the front before you start braking for turn two. The track flows up and down the hillsides, with corners at every speed, including the fastest corner of the season, turn 11, a banked, uphill, flat-out-in-fifth 270 km/h right-hander, which Nicky Hayden summed up as "sorting the men from the boys", followed by the super-slow uber-chicane combination of turns 12, 13, and 14, which saw spectacular place-swapping action on every lap during the 125 race. To be fast, you need to get your bike perfectly set up, and set up to be both stable at very high speed, and also to turn quickly enough through the slow chicane. It is a rider's track, rewarding every aspect of their craft, from set up, to high speed chases, to heavy braking and quick changes of direction.