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. Rain unmarks the cards and redeals the hands.
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.
After Saturday's race, a few teams stayed on to do some testing on Sunday. Here's the times released:
After the surprises and upsets of Jerez, everyone was wondering how realistic the picture was which had emerged, and how Rossi's 14th place would affect the standings. Qatar was Rossi's chance to set the record straight.
The trouble was, that the new generation of riders, which had elbowed their way to the front at Jerez, was showing signs of repeating this performance at Qatar. Although Pedrosa, who had shone at Jerez, was having a much harder time at Qatar, Stoner, the other newcomer who'd done so well in Spain, had led qualifying all weekend, and was the second youngest pole sitter since a certain Fast Freddie Spencer. Rossi, who had been battling chatter in Jerez, and during qualifying, was only 6th on the grid, not far enough ahead to be sure of avoiding getting caught in first corner tangles, like the one which had cost him so dearly two weeks ago. Then there was the small matter of Loris Capirossi, the winner in Spain and championship leader, on the Ducati, looking more and more like a championship winning machine all the time.
MotoGP warm-ups are generally fairly uneventful, and unspectacular affairs. The only time they are of any real interest is if it's been dry during practice, and it's raining on race day. Today's warmup at Qatar was, if not meaningful, at least spectacular.
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.