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. Vermeulen, who dominated yesterday's qualifying, was anonymous today, finishing 16th behind James Ellison; fortunately for Suzuki team mate Hopkins took over the reins, leading the times for much of the session, to finish 4th. The only Michelin rider in the top 3 was Stoner, who was good yesterday and looks good today.
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.