2011 MotoGP Season Preview - The Satellite Riders

The 800cc MotoGP era has been a terrible one for satellite teams. Since the drop in capacity at the start of the 2007 season, a satellite rider has not won a single race, and even podiums have been scored only very sparingly. The smaller capacity has placed a greater emphasis on technology; technology costs money, and money is a commodity that is (still) in short supply among the satellite squads.

The technology wars have had another deleterious effect on the satellite teams. As the technology of the MotoGP machines has become more important, the factories have taken away more and more control over the bikes. Each satellite MotoGP bike comes with at least one factory engineer, leaving the satellite pit crew with less and less to do. The mechanics are becoming exactly that, mechanics, and not allowed the heart of a modern MotoGP machine, the electronics.

But 2011 could be the year that we finally see a satellite rider take a win in the class. After four years of not winning a championship in the capacity class that came about because they asked for it, Honda have pulled out all of the stops for the class' final year. And although their efforts are aimed mainly at securing a title for Casey Stoner or Dani Pedrosa, the repercussions of their hard work should also pay off for the Honda satellite riders as well.

The Fabulous Furry Freak Brother

The one satellite team rider that everyone expects to cash in on Honda's progress is San Carlo Gresini's Marco Simoncelli. Simoncelli made an immediate impact when he joined MotoGP, and seems ready, like Ben Spies, to make the next step towards racing with the front group. During preseason testing, Simoncelli looked like he had taken that step, posting times that put him in the top four, and even leaving the first Sepang test as the fastest rider.

While it would be foolish to cast doubt on Simoncelli's talent and speed, it would be a misnomer to call him a satellite rider. Simoncelli is under contract to HRC, he has HRC engineers in his garage including two electronics guys, and if Casey Stoner hadn't joined the Repsol Honda team, Simoncelli would have been the first in line to take that spot. Simoncelli is, to all intents and purposes, a factory rider.

With the blisteringly fast RC212V underneath him, Sideshow Bob (as he has been affectionately nicknamed, after the wild-haired character in The Simpsons cartoon) is a prime candidate to be the first satellite rider to win an 800cc MotoGP race. He is unlikely to win the championship, though: HRC simply will not stand for Simoncelli getting in the way of their plan to win this final 800cc title, and with Casey Stoner and Dani Pedrosa on the books, Simoncelli will have to wait his turn. Which may well come in the not too distant future.

The Quiet One

Like Simoncelli, Hiroshi Aoyama has also been boosted by the pace of the Honda RC212V. Unlike Simoncelli, Aoyama does not have the same backing from Honda, though the Japanese firm is helping him to stay in MotoGP, as they want a Japanese rider in the series. Aoyama has shown an excellent turn of pace during testing, justifying the backing that HRC and Dorna have given to the last ever 250cc champion.

His success follows a very tough rookie year. At Silverstone, just the fifth round of last season, Aoyama suffered a huge crash on cold tires, in which he fractured a vertebra and missed the next six races, only returning at Indianapolis. Even that was rather early, Aoyama still suffering with some stiffness in his back, but in the end he found some of the speed he had lost, though being on the least supported satellite Honda on the grid did his performance no good.

On a much better machine, and with a much richer team - though Fausto Gresini would protest at such a claim - Aoyama has gained a lot of pace. He has a year of experience with the bike and the electronics, and a year's knowledge of setup. His modus operandi as a 250 rider was to work quietly and methodically, almost sneaking up on podiums and wins without being noticed. Off track, Aoyama is the politest young man in the paddock; on track, he could throw up a few surprises this year. A podium is not beyond the bounds of possibility.

Blowin' Down The House

One man who has already had a podium on a satellite machine is Monster Tech 3 Yamaha's Colin Edwards. Every season, Edwards threatens to retire, and every season, he hangs on for just one more year. His longevity is remarkable, though his consistency is rather less so. The Texan's fortunes swing like a pendulum, back one year, forth the next, scoring podiums one season, and finishing invisibly mid-pack the following year.

Fortunately for Edwards, 2010 was a mediocre year, ending up just 11th in the championship. He is due a revival, and given that the 2011 Yamaha M1 is a pretty solid package, there is every chance to expect he will do well. Edwards' biggest challenge for this season is the rest of the competition: while in previous years, he has finished inside the top 5, there are 6 or even 7 riders capable of winning a race this year, and likely to finish ahead of him in the championship.

But Edwards has been strong during preseason testing, often getting close to the pace of the factory Yamahas, though still a little way behind the Hondas. Edwards was often the first of the chasing group during 2009 and 2010, and he should be able to secure that spot again in 2011. He could be fighting off a few more riders for that position this season - the names of Hiroshi Aoyama, Randy de Puniet, and Alvaro Bautista spring to mind, but there's still a good chance he'll come out on top of that battle.

True Brit

Edwards is joined in the Monster Tech 3 Yamaha garage by another British rider. Former World Supersport champion Cal Crutchlow has made the switch to MotoGP after a year in World Superbikes in which he put on a strong showing, winning three races along the way. Crutchlow had wanted to move to the MotoGP paddock in 2010, spending time talking to a number of Moto2 teams. But contractual obligations with Yamaha finally brought him back into the fold, and he ran the year in World Superbikes he had agreed with the Japanese factory.

Now, Yamaha have brought him across to MotoGP, slotting him alongside Edwards at Tech 3. The last time Edwards had a British teammate, things did not go well, the relationship between Edwards and James Toseland turning acrimonious after Toseland poached Edwards' crew chief. Crutchlow, though, is a different kettle of fish, a much tougher, cannier youngster more focused on his own job rather than worrying about anyone else.

So far, Crutchlow has not set the world on fire in testing, but the Englishman has a much tougher hill to climb than most other transferees from World Superbikes, especially as Crutchlow is still recovering from shoulder surgery. The transition from Pirellis to Bridgestones is the biggest change, the tires requiring a completely different riding style. The Bridgestones require loading to get them to work properly, but at Qatar, Crutchlow told the press that he'd spent his time on a Superbike trying to avoid loading the tire at all costs. Add in the difference between steel and carbon brakes, and you have a very tough hill to climb.

Crutchlow's transition will not be helped by comparisons with the man whose seat he takes inside the Tech 3 team. Crutchlow takes the ride vacated by Ben Spies, who moves up to the factory Yamaha team. Spies success in MotoGP says more about Ben Spies than any failure by Crutchlow to be an instant hit. Crutchlow faces a very tough first half of the year on the Yamaha M1, but he should be aiming for top tens by the end of the year.

Never Give Up

If fans wonder at the longevity of Colin Edwards in MotoGP, they are positively astounded at the career of Loris Capirossi. A former 250cc champion, Capirossi is entering his 22nd season of Grand Prix racing at the tender age of 37. If Colin Edwards is MotoGP's Energizer Bunny, Loris Capirossi is surely its Terminator T1000.

After three years at Suzuki, Capirossi finally makes a return to Ducati, signing with the Pramac satellite team. A rather ironic move, as this is the ride that Ducati offered Capirossi in the summer of 2007, after signing Marco Melandri for what would prove to be a disastrous year. Capirossi declined, went to Suzuki, but leaves disillusioned after three years of waiting for development that never came.

The question of how long Capirossi will stay with Ducati is likely to be answered by the middle of this year. So far, Capirossi has shown little affinity for the Ducati, posting times in testing putting him well outside the top 10. Rumors persist that Capirossi was brought in at the behest of Valentino Rossi to act as a test mule, but if that is true, it is questionable as to how much value Rossi has had from Capirossi. This season is likely to be the Italian veteran's swansong, with Capirossi fading away, rather than going out with a bang.


By contrast, his teammate has been pretty impressive, Randy de Puniet being the fastest Ducati during testing on a number of occasions. The Frenchman's style seems rather suited to the Ducati, De Puniet being known for the kind of spectacular riding that helps load the front tire and allows it to grip.

De Puniet's arrival on a Ducati was more accidental than the consequence of strategy, the Frenchman holding out for a pay rise from Suzuki which never materialized once the factory decided to run just a single bike. Having burned his bridges with the LCR Honda team he had spent the last three years with, the Pramac Ducati team was the only place left.

That may prove to be rather serendipitous. De Puniet was often spectacular, sometimes outstanding on the Honda, and his transition to the Ducati has been almost seamless. The Frenchman's reputation as a crasher is likely to remain intact, as all of the Ducatis have displayed the same front end problem. But if you're looking for a dark horse to bag the occasional podium, and finish ahead of the factory bikes from time to time, then Randy de Puniet is your man.

Calmer Now

Much the same could be said of Hector Barbera. Formerly the craziest man in 250s, the Mapfre Aspar rider has been the very model of restraint since moving to MotoGP - at least by Hector Barbera standards. That craziness has stood him in good stead on the Ducati, for like Randy de Puniet, Barbera can load the front end to get the tire to work.

Last season, Barbera put in a solid rookie year, learning his way around the bike and the electronics. Over the course of testing, Barbera has shown some progression since 2010, finishing among the faster of the Ducati riders. The trouble is, the faster of the Ducati riders is still some way down the field, and the Spaniard is in for a year of battling on the edge of the top 10. But as a Valencian rider on a Valencian team, that will probably be good enough.

Sugar Daddy

The last of the Ducati satellite riders is also the rider who has had the most criticism leveled at him. Karel Abraham, the critics say, only got his Ducati ride because his father bought it for him, Abraham Sr owning the Cardion medical equipment firm which sponsors both the team and the Czech Grand Prix at Brno. There were many other riders who deserved the ride ahead of Abraham, the critics say.

There is some truth in the accusation that Abraham's father is paying for his ride, but it is untrue that the 21-year-old Czech is undeserving. Abraham won the final Moto2 race of the year in 2010, as well as scoring a podium and a 4th to add to his tally. Look beyond the rich father, and you see a rider who has enough talent to at least deserve a shot at the premier class.

Abraham is not about to set the world on fire, however. During testing, the young Czech has made solid progress, gradually closing in on the riders ahead of him, such as Loris Capirossi and Alvaro Bautista. He has regularly beaten Toni Elias, and is on the pace with the battle for the final few points. As the rookie makes progress in the class, he could end up with a sniff of the top 10.

New Dawn Fades

The last of the satellite riders is perhaps the biggest anomaly on the grid. Anyone who remembers the 2006 season remember just how well Toni Elias can ride. And anyone who watched the Moto2 class was convinced of the class of the Spaniard. But his return to MotoGP during testing has been nothing short of a disaster. Elias has been lapping 2 to 3 seconds off the pace of the fast guys, and resolutely committed to last place.

Elias' dismal performance so far in MotoGP begs two questions. The first is the obvious one, why can't the man they used to call Tiger Toni get the LCR Honda to work, especially given the rest of the Hondas are well towards the front? The answer is the combination of Elias' peculiar riding style and the Bridgestone tires, which are a complete mismatch. The spec Bridgestone has a very stiff carcass, which needs loading to get heat into the rubber. Elias' weird hanging-right-off-the-side style simply doesn't do that, and so without any grip, Elias simply can't get the tires to work for him.

The second question that you would have to ask is what Elias is doing in MotoGP. Given his dominance in Moto2, he would have been favorite for a repeat of his championship in 2011 had he stayed in the class. Ambition plays a part, of course; every rider believes that given the proper equipment, he too could be world champion, and they head into the premier class hoping that a strong showing on an inferior bike will give them a shot at a factory ride later on.

But Elias was pushed just as much as he jumped. For the prestige of the Moto2 class, it was imperative that the first Moto2 champion gain promotion to MotoGP, both to series organizer Dorna and to single engine supplier Honda. Once Elias was crowned Moto2 champion, negotiations began to find him a ride in the premier class. A seat with LCR Honda seemed a safe bet, after Elias turned down the offer to return at Pramac Ducati, a team he does not harbor fond memories of.

The problem is that Elias' promotion to MotoGP has backfired rather badly. His performance so far has shown both Moto2 and MotoGP in a bad light. There is some hope that Elias might find some speed again on the Honda, after all, he finished 7th in the championship aboard an RC212V in 2009. But it would not be wise to hold out any hope of a quick fix; though Bridgestone and Ohlins work to get Elias tires to work properly, it will take some time to figure out. Until then, meet the backmarker.


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2011 MotoGP Season Preview - The Factory Riders

Seldom has a MotoGP season been more eagerly awaited than the 2011 season. We seem to say this every year, but this year it is almost certainly true. The 2010 season gave a foretaste of what MotoGP can do sometimes, with moments such as Jorge Lorenzo catching and then passing Dani Pedrosa at the Jerez Grand Prix, and Valentino Rossi's bitter battle with Lorenzo at Motegi engraved firmly in our memories. With another year of development on the bikes and experience for the riders, this season promises the closest racing ever seen in the 800cc class.

The ingredients for this explosive mix are varied. They include an engine capacity coming to the end of its lifecycle (the 800cc MotoGP bikes are to make way for 1000cc machines at the end of this year); a newly-crowned world champion who ended up dominating 2010; a fierce rival, in the shape of Dani Pedrosa, whose title challenge was finally broken by an injury caused by a mechanical failure; two former world champions switch manufacturers, facing new challenges and a shot at the history books; the potential for myth-making of epic proportions, with the iconic Italian motorcycle racer paired up with the iconic Italian motorcycle brand; a rising American star who showed his potential on a satellite machine and now has a factory bike and a year of experience to take to the competition; and a couple of former 250 riders looking capable of causing an upset or two along the way.

Shifting Perspectives

There is one fly in the ointment, however, adding a little trepidation to the lure of a great season of racing. Throughout preseason testing, the Hondas have gone virtually unchallenged, with Repsol Honda riders Casey Stoner and Dani Pedrosa taking it in turns to top the timesheets. They were gracious enough to deign to allow Marco Simoncelli and Jorge Lorenzo top spot at Sepang and Valencia, but those times looked more like an aberration than a pattern.

The secret of the RC212V's speed was a mystery for a while, but the intrigue started at Sepang. The Italian TV broadcaster Mediaset suggested that Honda might be using some kind of double clutch, but that idea was soon dismissed, given that the dual clutches such as used in Honda's DCT system on their VFR1200F are clearly outlawed under the Grand Prix regulations.

Speculation then switched to the gearbox, and the use of some kind of seamless shift system, such as Xtrac's Instantaneous Gearshift System. Honda has yet to confirm they are using such a system, but at Qatar, the riders tacitly acknowledged that the magic was all in the gearbox. Standing at trackside, you can hear the system working; gearshifts are almost instantaneous, more like an automatic gearbox than a manual, the bike remaining perfectly smooth and in control as riders shift through the gears while still banked over.

The Anointed

Honda's preseason testing dominance has made Casey Stoner's ascent to the 2011 MotoGP championship look almost inevitable. At the presentation of the team in Malaysia, Stoner paid homage to his idol Mick Doohan, and spoke of his pride at being an Australian bearing Repsol colors. Stoner's speed has never been in doubt, and with what is clearly the fastest bike under him, the 2007 World Champion looks just about unstoppable.

Yet it is a little too early to start engraving the plate to add to the MotoGP trophy just yet. In the past couple of seasons, Stoner has revived his reputation as a loose cannon, crashing out of 5 of last year's 18 races. The 2010 season brought back memories of Stoner's spectacular - in both the positive and negative sense of that word - debut year in 2006, when the Australian always appeared to be flinging the LCR Honda into the scenery in an incredibly telegenic way. Stoner may be fast, critics point out, but can he keep it upright all the way to the finish?

There is good reason to believe he can. Stoner was not the only Ducati rider to have the front end wash out on him in 2010; Nicky Hayden described it as the worst season in his career for crashes. Stoner pushes the bikes to the very limit, that much we know for sure, but 2010 seemed to demonstrate that identifying where the limit lay on the Ducati was a tricky prospect at best. Stoner's season was turned around at Aragon, when the Australian and his crew changed his position on the bike, altering the position of his wrists with respect to the bike. He went on to win the next two races, and another one before the season ended.

On the Honda, Stoner has shown no propensity for crashing. Other than a solitary tumble at Sepang, he has been rock steady in the saddle. He has also been blisteringly fast, not just in single-lap speed, but also in consistency. Even when Stoner's name has not been at the top of the timesheets, he has almost always been the rider with the most fast laps. Although distilling the data from testing into something resembling race pace is difficult, it is Casey Stoner who looks the most like having the situation under control in 2011.

Tag Team

Dani Pedrosa, Stoner's Repsol Honda teammate, has shared much of the limelight during testing, the Spaniard building on his form from last year. With the problems the Honda had largely fixed, and a nice power boost thrown into the bargain, Pedrosa, too has been devastatingly quick during testing. The difference, though, is that where Stoner has been capable of stringing long runs of fast laps, Pedrosa's fast times have been one-offs, a single fast lap followed by a sequence at a more ordinary pace. Under normal circumstances, even that slower pace would be enough to be competitive, but his teammate appears to have moved the goalposts by a significant margin.

It would be unwise to write off Pedrosa, however, and label him as Honda's second fastest rider. Riders follow a plan when testing, trying out new parts according to schedules drawn up at the factory. Test times - even the times showing every lap a rider put in - can be deceptive, as there is no way of mapping those times to the work being undertaken.

There is another factor which may have an impact on Pedrosa's ability to put in long consistent runs. The Spaniard is still recovering from surgery to fix his collarbone, and though he has no more pain in his shoulder, the muscles in his neck have tightened up, leaving his shoulder stiff and hard to move. Over the course of a test, that has hampered the Spaniard a little, and could explain his lack of long fast runs.

There has been much debate over just how compatible Casey Stoner and Dani Pedrosa are as teammates, especially given the known antipathy between Livio Suppo - who brought Stoner to HRC - and Alberto Puig, Pedrosa's manager. On a personal level, the two get on reasonably well, and there's little animosity visible between the two. But as the situation in the Yamaha garage demonstrated last year, having two of the strongest riders in the world on the same team can give rise to an awful lot of tension.

So far, there are few signs of strain, though the pairing is already causing HRC a few headaches. Casey Stoner has already decided on the chassis he will be using for 2011: what is being labeled the 2011 standard chassis, the stiffer of the two options that Honda was testing during the preseason. Pedrosa is yet to be convinced, however, and has spent his time vacillating between the new 2011 chassis and the 2010 chassis he did so well with. The question remains whether HRC is willing or able to allow Pedrosa to put off a decision much longer, and whether he will be allowed to keep the 2010 chassis if he decides he prefers it.

Three's A Crowd

The third man in the Repsol Honda team did not have the luxury of choice as far as chassis were concerned, but had the decision thrust upon him. Andrea Dovizioso understands what his position is in the Repsol Honda team, though he is plainly far from happy with it. Negotiations went on for a long time with Dovizioso before he finally saw his contract honored and a position in the Repsol team secured. When Stoner joined, Honda looked at options of placing him in a satellite team with full factory support, and keeping Stoner and Pedrosa in the same team. But Dovizioso stuck to his guns, and ensured he stayed inside the factory structure.

Dovizioso's problem - if you can call it that - is that he is undoubtedly a very fast and competitive rider. A Grand Prix winner and a former 125cc champion, Dovi secured 7 podiums in 2010, but he never really managed to turn those into regular wins. 2011 looks like being more of the same, with podiums coming with a pleasing regularity, but the victory always just a little bit too far off. His only win so far has come in the strange circumstances of Donington Park in 2009, when greasy, drying conditions saw the leaders all crash out. Dovizioso seized his opportunity, but though he is fast, he still has work to do if he is start standing on the top step regularly.

Meet The New Boss

Last year's top-step regular should be a pretty frequent visitor again this season. He will have to be, if Jorge Lorenzo has any ambition of defending his championship and scoring back-to-back titles. Given that his former teammate and now archrival Valentino Rossi is the only rider to have managed that feat in the past 12 years, Lorenzo's motivation could not be greater to match that. By repeating as champion, he would kill two birds with one stone: match one of the achievements that marks Rossi out as unique, while also beating the Italian in the process.

Looking at the data from testing, that looks well within the bounds of possibility. The 2010 World Champion has been the only rider to match the pace of the Hondas, and the consistency of Casey Stoner, and has looked impressively fast and smooth at Valencia, Sepang and Qatar. Up until the final day of testing at Qatar, that is: when the wind picked up, Lorenzo struggled, fighting to find a setup that would allow him to use his usual high-corner-speed style without getting buffeted by the wind. He failed, going slower on Monday than he had on Sunday, and leaving the test frustrated, despite his outstanding performance the day before.

The wind is clearly Lorenzo's weak spot, and with high winds expected for the season opener on Sunday night, Lorenzo's title defense might get off to a rocky start. Given the number of tracks that winds can be a real problem at, however, he should soon quickly be back on track. The Yamaha retains its trademark sweet-handling characteristics, though as ever, the bike remains just a little bit down on power. Yamaha's departing project leader Masao Furusawa said that the power differential with Honda was his biggest concern, most especially the bottom end drive that the RC212V seems to get out of corners.

Work is already going on on a seamless shift system to match the Honda's, but most of all, what Furusawa and the Yamaha riders would like is just a little bit more motor. The engines for the next six races are now sealed, and so a power boost is unlikely to come much before either Barcelona - fittingly, Lorenzo's home Grand Prix - or Silverstone. But the Yamaha still changes direction better than the Honda, though there's not much in it, so at tracks which place less of a premium on horsepower, the Yamaha's should do just fine.

Right now, Jorge Lorenzo is fit, healthy, happy and extremely motivated. He is on an outstanding package, and has an outstanding crew chief in Ramon Forcada and a canny team manager in Wilco Zeelenberg, managing machine and man respectively. The bike is plenty fast, if not quite up to the Hondas, and the rider has both the positive of a burning desire to bag another title, and the negative of beating his former teammate to push him to the very limit. The only reason Casey Stoner has not be handed the trophy already is because Jorge Lorenzo will be standing in his way. Picking a winner between those two will be a coin toss, and could provide some of the best racing we have seen in years.

From Outer Space?

Jorge Lorenzo may have not have Valentino Rossi to worry about as a teammate, but that does not mean that his troubles are over in that department. Taking the Italian's place is Ben Spies, the Texan moving up from the Monster Tech 3 squad, after an outstanding debut year in MotoGP. So strong was Spies' rookie year, in fact, that Valentino Rossi joked that Lorenzo was getting his own Jorge in the garage now, when Spies' signing was announced.

The question throughout his first year in MotoGP - promoted after winning the World Superbike title at the first attempt - was whether he would be able to make the switch to a Grand Prix bike after spending so many years on a Superbike. The two are very different beasts: a Superbike is a much softer, more flexible machine, with less adjustment in the chassis to solve particular problems.

But the hardest thing to get used to was the tires, the Bridgestones requiring a very specific approach to get the very best out of them. Spies learned fast, scoring his first podium in the 5th round of the season at Silverstone, and his next podium three months later at Indianapolis. By the end of the year, it was clear that the difference between Spies' results and those of Jorge Lorenzo and Valentino Rossi were down in large part to the difference between the satellite Tech 3 machine and the factory bikes of the Fiat Yamaha team.

Now with factory equipment underneath him, the Texan gets a chance to confirm his status as the fifth so-called alien. Spies has been his typical self throughout testing: quiet, unflappable, and blazingly fast, his speed going almost unnoticed. This ability to fly almost under the radar has seen him post impressive times in testing without attracting a lot of attention to himself, but this is the year that Spies will break into the big time. Given the pressure from on his shoulders from his American fan base, he has no choice; given his obvious level of talent, it should not be a problem.

I Am Legend

But of course the biggest story of 2011 - and 2010 for that matter - was Valentino Rossi's move to Ducati. There was an air of inevitability about the move that seemed to grow throughout last year, and by the time the announcement was made officially - at the Brno Grand Prix - Ducati's CEO Gabriele del Torchio was telling a room full of journalists something they had already known for months.

The official story behind the move was simple, the linking of the two great icons of Italian motorcycling, Valentino Rossi and Ducati. It was a move that had been predicted for years by bike fans, though for most of that period it was merely a product of wishful thinking. To link Rossi and Ducati was a no-brainer, an instant marking powerhouse and the embodiment of the word synergy.

The unofficial story was a little different, and rather less edifying. Rossi had been upset with Yamaha for a while, ever since they had signed Jorge Lorenzo against his express wishes. His ire was further raised by Yamaha offering Lorenzo a one-year contract, a luxury that had never been offered to Rossi. An alleged dispute over money - Yamaha cutting Rossi's pay in the name of cost-cutting, while at the same time offering Lorenzo a big pay rise - was the final straw, and Rossi reportedly issued Yamaha an ultimatum: It's him or me. Yamaha refused to choose, sticking to the line they had repeated throughout the process, that they felt there was room in the team for both men. Seeing his requests rebuffed, Rossi walked, and with Casey Stoner already signed to Honda, Ducati was his only serious option.

Since the announcement - and especially since Rossi's contract with Yamaha expired on December 31st 2010 - the Rossi-Ducati marketing machine has been in overdrive. The merchandise is already being churned out in large quantities, and Ducati already have the first of what is sure to be many replicas on sale, a kit for the Monster 696 and 796 featuring a giant yellow 46, and with styling clues taken from the GP bike. After Rossi tested in January on an 1198 superbike, a replica 1198 cannot be far behind.

Under Pressure

So the pressure for Rossi to succeed on the Ducati is already at unbelievable levels, a fact emphasized by the 38,000 fans that came to Bologna's central square in the freezing cold to see off Rossi and teammate Nicky Hayden before they flew over to Qatar for the final test. Rossi, or perhaps Ducati, simply cannot afford to fail.

Ratcheting up the pressure further is the fact that Rossi is taking on the bike that Casey Stoner won three of the last six races on at the end of 2010. Throughout his rivalry with the Australian, Rossi's fans have always pointed to a disadvantage in equipment: in 2007 it was the Ducati, in 2008 it was the Bridgestones. Now, Rossi takes over The Bike That Casey Won On, and his fans expect him to be faster than the Australian.

The problem is that it's just not that easy. The Ducati is a fickle beast to tame, and requires a totally different riding style to the Yamaha. Staying smooth and carrying corner speed - the best way to get the Yamaha round the track - simply does not cut it on the Desmosedici GP11, as Marco Melandri demonstrated so alarmingly back in 2008. The bike instead has to be muscled round the track, or, as Rossi repeatedly puts it, "ridden more like a 500". The Doctor built his reputation on the fickle 500cc two-stroke machines, but it's been 10 years since he actually rode one.

The problem Rossi has with the bike is down to a number of factors. First, the way the Ducati has been designed is to get the best out of the spec Bridgestone tires by putting load into them. The rider is meant to load the tire as much as possible to generate heat, and allow them to work. The problem is that this is not the way that Rossi has been riding for the past 4 years, and he is having to relearn his habits.

Shouldering The Burden

It is hard physical work riding the Ducati, and therein lies another problem for the Italian. Rossi is still recovering from shoulder surgery, to fix the injuries he sustained in a motocross training accident after the Qatar MotoGP round last year. He is still working on building strength and especially endurance into his shoulder, but testing places a heavy burden on the joint.

The combination of his shoulder and the GP11 has not been a happy one so far. Rossi and his crew have restricted themselves in what they've been testing so far, focusing almost exclusively on finding a base setup that works. Back in Bologna, a special flexi-package - featuring a revised sub-frame, headstock, swingarm, triple clamps and forks - has been designed and then tested by the test team of Franco Battaini and Vito Guareschi, in the hope of getting more feel in the front end of the machine. Rossi passed that package over to Nicky Hayden to try, discarding it when Hayden reported the package as not providing any improvement.

Rossi's crew, led by legendary crew chief Jeremy Burgess, has gone back and forth and up and down, trying to find a setup that works. The state of the crew is illustrated rather fetchingly by the Alex Brigg's posts on Twitter. The team are finding the work extremely satisfying, he writes, and enjoying the feeling of actually having a problem to tackle and fix. This is of course an engineer's dream, and the reason they became engineers in the first place, because problem-solving is what engineers do.

It does not bode well for the situation at Ducati, however. Rossi's crew had much less to do at Yamaha, because the bike was basically sorted and the challenges they faced were much more minor. At Ducati, they have a mountain of work to do, and are loving the challenges laid out on their way. The moral of the story so far appears to be that the one thing a rider should fear is a happy engineer.

Rossi himself remains positive, though realistic about his chances, especially in the early races. The team will have no new parts to test until the Estoril test in May, and until then, all Rossi can do is work on finding a setup, and keep pounding out the laps.

The results from testing so far have not been too encouraging, but here too, times can be deceptive. Rossi finishes rather too many tests outside of the top 10. But looking at his lap times, he appears to have the pace to run around 5th or 6th. A repeat of his stunning victory at Welkom in South Africa in 2004, in his first race after switching from Honda to Yamaha, is unlikely, though of course not beyond the realms of possibility. A podium is more likely but even that will be a bit of an ask. With a little luck, and generous use of his wiles and racecraft built up over the years, and he could yet end up going home with a podium.

Long term, his prospects are a little better, with time on the bike and a chance to find a setup that works. Ducati took a huge risk in signing Rossi, and both parties understand the risks to Ducati if Rossi fails. The Doctor's talent is beyond question, and if he cannot be competitive, the blame will be laid squarely - if not entirely fairly - on the shoulders of Filippo Preziosi, Ducati's MotoGP engineer. If Rossi isn't fighting for the win at Mugello, at the start of July, there is likely to be a lynching. But being Rossi, and being Mugello, Ducati staff are probably safe. Rossi's chances do not look good for 2011, but you can never, ever count him out.


The arrival of Valentino Rossi is both good news and bad news for Nicky Hayden. If anyone can be expected to turn the Ducati Desmosedici GP11 into an easier bike to ride, it surely has to be Valentino Rossi, together with his crew chief Jeremy Burgess. The downside is that Burgess and Rossi have a reputation for pushing experimental parts into the other garage to allow Rossi's teammate to test them first.

Hayden has already got his first taste of this: It was Hayden who took the new "flexi" package out at Sepang, rather than Rossi. Hayden told the engineers that he didn't think the package helped, and so Rossi didn't even try it.

The Kentucky Kid has had a tough preseason of testing so far, as it seems like the Ducati has gone backwards since the 2010 season ended. Hayden has seen his name stuck stubbornly in middle of the timesheets, which is not what the American had been hoping for, nor where he believes he should be. But Hayden, like all of the Ducati riders, looks to be in for a long year.

The front end of the Ducati is the real problem. The bike is still very hard to turn, and this difficulty in turning is also causing a lot of front end washouts. At the final test in Qatar, every single Ducati rider crashed, most of them at least twice. Ducati have been trying everything to fix the problem, but none of the solutions tried so far has worked.

Nicky Hayden called 2010 his worst ever season for crashing, and so far, 2011 looks like being a repeat. Maybe once Ducati get the GP11's problems fixed, or at least under control, the results will start to come for Nicky Hayden. His style suits the bike, now the bike just has to stay upright.

Elegy In Blue

The last of the factory riders is also the least. Not necessarily because of Alvaro Bautista's talent, but mainly because of his decision at the end of 2009 to sign with Suzuki, the smallest and least well-funded of the factory efforts. Bautista had a tough rookie year in 2010, suffering a couple big crashes and getting himself banged up quite badly. But he learned quickly, and by the end of the season was starting to show some promise.

At Sepang, that promise continued, the Suzuki getting surprisingly close to the top of the timesheets. But perhaps not so surprisingly: Suzuki's problem has always been getting heat into the tires, a problem that the tropical heat of Sepang solves where the chassis and suspension design falls short. In the cooler temperatures of Qatar, Bautista could not match the pace, dropping out of the top 10 to end as 12th fastest overall.

The problem for Bautista is that Suzuki has shown a startling lack of commitment to the series over the past few years. At one point during last year, Suzuki looked like pulling out of the series altogether, and a series of meetings between the Hamamatsu bosses and Dorna CEO Carmelo Ezpeleta kept being postponed. In the end, Suzuki cut its involvement for 2011 to just a single bike, leaving the MotoGP grid at 17 riders once again, but with promises of increased involvement for the 2012 season onwards.

The advantage for Bautista is that Suzuki will now develop the bike exactly as he wants. Last year, there were complaints that Bautista's erstwhile teammate Loris Capirossi had given up on the bike, after spending the past three seasons waiting for it to make a big step forward. With the development focus only on Bautista, interpreting data should be easier. Whether Suzuki chooses to do something with that data is another question; Bautista's fate for the 2011 season hangs to a great extent on the answer to that question.


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The Heart Of Racing: The 2010 Indy Mile

There is something beautiful to be found in a form of racing that's less about technology and TV rights than it is about simply trying to beat the other fellah with whatever you can afford to bring to the track. Sometimes the other fellah isn't a fellah at all, and sometimes he or she has better gear than you. But you do the best you can with what you brought and even if it takes a quick wrap of duct tape or a tie of bailing wire, you do your damnedest to make it to the next heat.

You don't lounge in a fancy RV between races, and your bike doesn't arrive in a shiny tractor-trailer and it doesn't plug into a computer. You drive yourself, or your dad or your cousin takes a turn, with your bike in the back of the van or on a flat bed trailer, and you sleep in a well-used sleeping bag that smells of solvent and dust.

If your bike gets stuck in third gear on the far side of the track, you may very well watch the next heat from that spot before anyone comes to help you out of the way.  And if you come around Turn 2 at full stick and there's Jimmy pulled over off the racing line, you pretty much just get on with it.

You wonder how they old guys managed without tear offs, which fly around the track like ghosts of the legends of American motorcycle racing, men who tamed unholy machines that aren't really all that different from what you're riding when you get right down to it. And just like they did, you ignore the aches and pains born from the last time the machine got the upper hand and tossed you off and you bring the best you got at that moment.

Do you do it because it might lead to fame and fortune? Some of those legends rode a metal shoe right off the dirt and onto the world stage. Is that going to be you? Probably not. But you keep on loading up the van and heading out, season after season, not to state of the art facilities in exotic locations with spacious run off areas and umbrella girls, but to fairgrounds, where people just like you can back their own trucks up to the fence and watch you go round.

You keep on racing flat track because it's thrilling, it's fun, and there's no traction control or engine limits or testing bans. There's no place for the racing to get lost among the demands of profit. As the sun sets, there's just you, you bike and the other fellahs. Even if they aren't all fellahs, they sure as hell are all there for a race, and that's exactly what you give 'em. 


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WSBK: Brno Race Notes -- The Emperor Tightens His Grip

The WSBK circus reconvened last weekend at the Automotodrom Brno, in the rolling hills of the southeast part of the Czech Republic. The nearby city of of the same name is located on the confluence of ancient trade routes, which is fitting, because the Roman Emperor, Max Biaggi, erstwhile buccaneer and master of all he surveys, certainly did the business at the hilly circuit, taking a second place and and a win on the day to boost his points lead to 68 over his nearest challenger, Alstare Suzuki's  Leon Haslam.

Race 1 -- Rea of Hope

After a frankly terrifying start where Jakob Smrz lost the front on his new-to-him Aprilia RSV4 into turn 1, skittling a hapless Max Neukirchner and Chris Vermuelen off track and out of the race, Ten Kate Honda's Jonny Rea took the lead with a pass on  at  turn 11 and settled into a fairly boring groove with Rea leading all 20 laps en route to his first victory since his double win at Assen more than two months ago.  After a miserable outing at Misano, where he finished 13th and 12th, the win was a much-needed boost to both Rea's and the Dutch team's morale.  The on-again off-again chattering problem that has plagued the Honda was held in abeyance, at least temporarily at Brno, enabling Rea do no wrong

Max Biaggi, who got shuffled back in the pack behind Rea, Cal Crutchlow and a newly resurgent Ruben Xaus, clawed his way up the order to catch Crutchlow with about 5 laps to go and the two had a tussle for the final steps on the podium, swapping the lead to and fro until Biaggi got the better of the Englishman and cruised to a second place finish. Crutchlow cited grip issues with the new Pirelli spec tires as the reason for his decaying performance in the race.

Series runner-up Leon Haslam also blamed tire woes  for his eighth place finish (and tenth in race two), claiming that while the new tire had more grip the team was unable to find a set-up to work with the new rubber compound.  The situation was reportedly so dire that teammate and 4th place finisher Sylvain Guintoli's settings were transferred to Haslam's bike in an effort to find a base. Alstare intends to go back to using the old tires at the next round in an attempt to keep Haslam's foundering title hopes from taking on anymore water.

Race 2  -- The Emperor Strikes Back

The second race started out much like the first, with Jonny Rea going to the front in short order. Unlike race one, however, Max Biaggi was able to slot into second position and begin to run down Rea fairly early. On lap seven Biaggi manged to get by Rea and set fast lap after fast lap en route to a 5 second gap at the finish that earned the ageless pirate his tenth win at the Czech circuit.

Xerox Ducati's Michel Fabrizio inherited third after a determined Ruben Xaus crashed out late in the race. Sterilgarda Yamah's James Toseland, who was battling a debilitating respiratory infection,  overcame a horrible start that saw him drop back to 15th to pass Noriyuki Haga 2 laps from the end to take fourth position.

Sick Call

The crash in race one that aggravated the knee injury that Chris Vermeulen has been nursing since the opening round caused the Austrailian to retire after two laps in on the second race. Prior to the race it was reported that Vermeulen was going to consult with a Spanish doctor and would determine whether further surgery on the injured joint would be necessary that would put the former MotoGP pilot out for the rest of the season. That decision has been mooted, however, with yesterday's announcement that Vermuelen will sit out the remainder of the season.


FIM SBK Technical Direction further reduced the minimum weight of twin cylinder motorcycles (Mr. Subliminal: Ducati) another 3 kg after the Brno race to bring the minimum weight to 162 kg, the same as the four cylinder machines. One has to wonder how long this trend will continue or if the FIM will give serious thought to a modification of the twin's fuel delivery restrictor plates to restore competitiveness.



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WSBK: MMP Race Notes -- Monday, Monday

There's just something odd about having a race on Monday. Perhaps it's just habit formed from over thirty years of following motorcycle racing, but Sunday just seems to this commentator like the natural day to worship the gods (small G) of speed. Not that there weren't excellent rationalizations for having this year's US round of the World Superbike series on a Monday. May 31st is Memorial Day in the US --  a "Monday holiday", which is a peculiarly American way of making sure that we have a long weekend every now and then. The race is held in Utah, which has a high percentage of "religiously active" (PC speak for Mormon) folks and the promoters thought that having the race on a Monday would boost attendance (rightly so, apparently, attendance was the highest ever in the event's 3 year history). Infront, the organization that holds the rights to the series, supported the Monday running because they thought that European telecast viewership might increase due to the lack of competition by other sporting events.

Still, the phrase "race Monday" feels a little strange rolling off the tongue. Max Biaggi, double winner on the day,  would probably love to have all the other races rescheduled if they would have the same outcome. Heavy favorite Carlos Checa and the series leader going into this round, Leon Haslam, however, left Utah with a bad case of the Mondays.

Race 1 -- Die By Wire

Max Biaggi got the holeshot, using the Alitalia Aprilia's superior power to out-drag Carlos Checa to the first corner. Biaggi's lead was short-lived, however, and Checa soon passed him, using his Althea  Ducati's stability on the brakes to select his line with surgical precision. Biaggi harried Checa but the Spaniard was able to pull a tenth of a second on Biaggi nearly every lap until about two-thirds through, when he gained nearly a second over the space of two laps. It looked like that was the way the race would play out when Checa lost power, his 1098 dying a sudden death three laps shy of victory.

Checa slowly rolled to a stop and the pole-sitter leaned the Ducati against the Armco with a beseeching look rather like an old west cowboy whose favorite quarter horse had come to the end of the trail. Speculation abounded that a revised electronics package furnished to the team prior to Miller had failed but team sources indicate that a connection for the "fly-by wire" throttle had come awry. Biaggi, suddenly gifted with the lead, eventually crossed the line nearly 6 seconds in front of the second place finisher.

Series leader Leon Haslam had gotten a horrid start because 4th place qualifier Jacob Smrz' PATA Ducati started spewing smoke and fluids in it's wake nearly from the start, causing Haslam to have to hold up to avoid crashing. Haslam eventually worked his way up through the field via series of deft passes on the brakes, Xerox Ducati's Noriyuki Haga in tow, until he got to the other Leon, Camier. Camier kept Haslam behind his Aprilia for 6 laps, but the Alstare Suzuki rider was able to eventually get by, followed shortly by Haga.

Race 2 -- Gift Horses

Race 2 saw Checa jump out to a lead from the flag, gapping Biaggi by .7 seconds in the first lap. It looked like Checa, or rather his Ducati,  would atone for for his first race misfortune, when he again sputtered to a stop on lap 7. Checa said that the DNF was caused by a mysterious mechanical problem that "felt different" than the first race, but with the same result.

Leon Haslam got another miserable start and was putting on another braking clinic when he high-sided out of the race, his first DNF of the year. Birthday boy Haslam left Utah with a rather unwelcome gift; 17 stitches in his elbow and a chipped bone. Biaggi cruised to his second lonely win of the day ahead of teammate Camier and Sterilgarda Yamaha's Cal Crutchlow. Aprilia's 1-2 finish was their first double podium in World Superbikes.

Misano Madness

Biaggi's double win puts him 15 points ahead of Haslam in the title chase, the first time that the Alstare rider has relinquished the points lead this season. Haslam expects to be able to ride at the upcoming Misano test and should be nearly fully healed by the time of the Misano round at the end of June. Half-way through the season, the points battle  looks to be a two rider race with third place man, Jonny Rea, who had truly miserable weekend at Miller, lying 106 points adrift of Biaggi.

Max Biaggi is riding as well as he ever has and is in peak physical condition (this commentator saw him effortlessly vault over a three and a half foot tall gate at Miller, even after crashing in practice that morning). The Italian fans will be out in force at Misano, eager to see the Emperor ride like the pirate whose flag he displays on the podium. Max will be happy to oblige, even if it's on a Sunday.


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WSBK: MMP Day 2 Notes -- Taking the Bull by the Horns

Carlos Checa's public persona is that of a pretty low-key individual. So, it was completely in character for the Spanish veteran to say that the stunning 1:47.081 lap that he started the last Superpole session with was fantastic but the way that he accomplished it was "nothing special". Nothing special it might have been for the 37 year-old Checa, but for the rest of the pack it might have been as attainable as walking on the moon. Checa's hot lap earned him his second pole position in World Superbike and displaced the lap record he set here in 2008, which was his first. 

Second place man Max Biaggi almost had a day to forget when he crashed his RSV4 Aprilia in the afternoon warm-up session. Biaggi, unhurt in the incident, went out on track almost immediately on his back-up machine, but returned to the box after only a couple laps and stoically watched his Alitalia crew swab out the fine, silty, Utah dust that permeated nearly every nook and cranny of the RSV4. Biaggi's crew must have done a good clean-up job, because he trailed Checa by a mere .056 seconds in the first Superpole go-round and led the second over the Spaniard by .179.

The third session was red-flagged when Jakub Smrz and Johnny Rea high-sided their respective machines in rapid succession about midway through. Smrz didn't return to the track but his time held up so  the young Czech will start on the outside of the front row. Rea wasn't quite as lucky, as his Ten Kate Honda flipped back over the prone Ulsterman and left him with deep bruising on his leg and tire burns on his chest and neck that required that the rubber be literally scraped out of the wounds to his neck. Series leader Leon Haslam was also caught out by the red flag because he was on a flying lap on his final qualifying tire which didn't have enough life left in it to mount another attempt on the time sheets after the session resumed.

Barring catastrophe, tomorrow's races look to be a contest between the sheer speed of Biaggi and Checa's affinity for the 3.048 mile Miller circuit. Checa acknowleges that the key to a victory will be to get a good start to nullify the Aprilia's power advantage. The other riders on the front row agree. At the post-Superpole  meet and greet with the front-row finishers, Jakob Smrz was asked by a fan what kind of strategy it would take to beat Checa and Biaggi. To a roar of laughter from the crowd, Smrz said that all he had to do was get in front and not let either of them by. Third place qualifier Cal Crutchlow allowed that Smrz' strategy sounded pretty good to him. They may just have something there.


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WSBK: Kyalami Race Notes -- Baby Steps

In racing time, Leon Haslam is about a million years old.  Born into a racing family, the 26 year-old Englishman has competed on everything from motocross to 500 GP bikes and he has the resume of a much older rider. It seems like the "Pocket Rocket" has been on the scene forever. Since starting his Superbike career in 2003, the one thing that Haslam has lacked has been the Really Good Ride. This year, after a 2009 season spent punching way above his weight on the privateer Stiggy Honda team,  Haslam has that good ride with the factory backed Alstare Suzuki team and he's taking maximum advantage of the opportunity.

Aboard what WSBK commentator Steve Martin characterizes as a kinder, gentler version of the GSXR1000 superbike, Haslam has led the championship since the thrilling photo-finish that decided race one at Phillip Island. Last weekend, at what might be the last Superbike race at Kyalami ever, Haslam's third in race one and exciting win in race two put him 15 points ahead of his nearest rival, Alitalia Aprilia's Max Biaggi, and brought him a couple of small steps closer to the 2010 World Superbike title

Race 1 -- Ducks In A Row

Michel Fabrizio got a rabbit start to take the lead, got out in front and stayed there for the rest of the race. Ho hum. What a difference a week makes. Carlos Checa, currently the leading Ducati rider in the standings, slotted into second early with James Toseland and Leon Haslam fighting it out for fourth until Toseland ran wide at the Westland turn on lap 12. The real excitement in race one came near the end,  Jonny Rea, who was mired near the bottom of the top ten for most of the race, made a late charge, dispatching Toseland and Leon Camier from the outside in one fell swoop with 4 laps to go to take fifth.

Race 2 -- Rule Britania

Race two was as different in character from race one as it is possible to be. Jonny Rea, who had his Ten Kate Honda team slap a slightly harder rear spring on his CBR1000RR in betwixt races, came within a lap and a half of winning, but was denied by a hard-charging Leon Haslam who had battled with the Ulsterman for nearly the entire race with Max Biaggi and Cal Crutchlow in tow.

You Can Never Be Too Rich Or Too Thin

In spite of Fabrizio's win in race one, as a result of their, for the most part, abysmal showing in the first five rounds, Ducatis twins will get a 3 kilo weight break starting at the next round in Salt Lake City. As math has never been this commentator's strong suit, an explanation by me would probably confuse all of us. You can read an excellent summation on this site, authored by our own Mr. Emmett.

All sorts of rumors have been swirling about the paddock concerning Ducati, the juiciest being that Troy Bayliss will make a comeback. Ducati will test at Misano in mid-June with the three-time WSBK champion in attendance and the Misano round is a scant two weeks hence so it wouldn't be overly surprising to see the Aussie back in the saddle then. Carlos Checa is expecting to get help from Ducati on the parts front, most likely an improved electronics package.

See The USA

The circus will make the trek across the pond to Miller Motorsports Park in two weeks. For our readers not conversant in American holidays, The race will be run on a Monday -- May 31st -- which is Memorial Day in the US. This commentator hopes to see some of you there.


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WSBK: Monza Race Notes -- Roman Holiday

Back in the days of the Roman Empire,  the ruling class would stage contests whereby gladiators would fight to the death for the entertainment of the unwashed classes. The citizenry would typically get the day off from their labors for these "holidays" and these rituals of blood and death became extremely popular, so much so that the term "Roman Holiday" became a metaphor for the concept of deriving entertainment from the suffering of others.

Yesterday at Monza, a modern-day Roman, Max Biaggi, made his fellow competitors suffer and there's no doubt that the man called the Emperor and his paisanos in the audience, Italian or otherwise, enjoyed every second of his double win at the venerable northern Italy track.

Monza. It's a name that fairly quivers with racing history. There has been organized road-racing on this site since the early twentieth century and the bones of the old banked track still linger in the shadow of the modern cicuit, covered in vegetation, redolent with the vibrations of bygone triumph and tragedy. Italian is a musical language and names like the Curva Parabolica , Curva di Lesmos and the Variante Ascari are like the lyrics of a song whose accompaniment is the staccato rise and fall of finely tuned internal combustion engines.

The Autodromo Nazionale Monza is one of the longest circuits on the calendar and its long straights, wide curves and fast chicanes demand copious top end power. Indeed, statistics show that the machines are at full song for over half the track length. The track has undergone a significant modification to the Prima Variante chicane, to prevent it being the bottleneck that claimed Max Neukirchner, Makoto Tamada and Brendan Roberts in 2009's first race.

The asphalt alterations have shortened the circuit by 16 meters  and made the area faster and more flowing, an arrangement that is more in keeping with the rest of the track layout. The V-4 Aprilia RSV4, with its miniscule frontal drag area and prodigious horsepower output, seems to have been tailor-made for just such an application and during practice and qualifying, Biaggi coaxed his stunning florescent orange and green Alitalia liveried machine to the fastest top speeds ever seen in World Superbike competition and captured his first ever Superpole.

Race 1 -- Render Unto Caesar

Biaggi jumped out to an early lead from his position on pole and was never really headed, except briefly by points leader Leon Haslam. The Yamahas of James Toseland and Cal Crutchlow caught up to the lead pair with Ten Kate Honda's Jonny Rea in hot pursuit. Rea's day in the saddle ended abruptly on lap six, his CBR1000RR catapulting itself atop the tire wall that flanks the Parabolica after the Ulsterman attempted a pass on the Sterilgarda duo that asked for a bit too much from his Pirelli front tire. 

Toseland and Crutchlow relegated Leon Haslam to fourth and proceeded to natter at each other, which allowed Biaggi to pull slightly away. By time Toseland had dispensed with his teammate and set out after the Emperor with the same grim determination that got him on the box twice at Assen, it was a little too little, a little too late and Biaggi took his third win of the season by a quarter of a second over the former 2-time world champion.

Race 2 -- For the Want of a Nail

Biaggi again jumped out to an early lead at the start, but back in the pack the sort of accident that the revisions to the Prima Variante chicane were supposed to prevent happened. It's hard to tell exactly what caused the wreck from replays of race footage, but it looks like Haga clipped James Toseland's brake lever, causing the Sterilgarda Yamaha rider to go down, "skittling" (as Rea put it) Ruben Xaus and Jonny Rea and forcing a number of other riders to go straight on the run-off road exiting the chicane.

As in race one, the lead pack became Biaggi, Haslam and Crutchlow, with Biaggi and Crutchlow eventually dropping the Alstare Suzuki rider, who was busily fending off the unwelcome attentions of BMW mounted Troy Corser. Crutchlow hounded and harried Biaggi looking for just the right opening until a rock kicked up by the RSV4 holed the Sterilgarda R1's oil cooler, which lubricated it's rear Pirelli and caused the 2009 World Supersport champion to crash in the Prima Variante run-off lane.  With no one else left within challenging distance, Biaggi cruised to his second victory of the day. Haslam crossed the line 5 seconds behind the Roman, followed closely by Corser, who gave BMW its first podium.

Into Africa

Biaggi's double victory allowed him to take 17 points off series leader Haslam, putting the Emperor a mere three points behind in the title standings. Jonny Rea's disastrous double DNF leaves him in third, tied with Althea Ducati's Carlos Checa at 71 points adrift. The Ducati Doldrums continued with Fabrizio's 3rd in Superpole and Haga's 6th in race two the only relatively bright spot in an otherwise grim weekend. Whether the cause of the lack of results is a rules disadvantage against the four cylinder machines, or a platform that has neared the end of its development life, as Davide Tardozzi claimed in 2009, something has to be done to stem the tide and soon, before Haga, already 85 points behind in the championship, loses all hope of contesting for the title.

That hope may lie in Kyalami, where Haga doubled in 2009. Assuming that the team is able to make the trip, of course -- the DFX Corse team has already announced that they will not appear in South Africa or Salt Lake City, citing travel difficulties caused by a "force majeur" Whether that force was the Icelandic Death Cloud Redux or a lack of funding is unclear.

If there is a race (and there's no reason to believe at this point  there won't), one thing is for certain -- there'll be a certain Roman looking to make his rivals suffer -- and loving every minute of it.


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WSBK: Assen Race Notes – Dutch Treat

Assen has always been one of those special tracks where the event transcends mere pavement and landscape. Although in recent times purists have decried that the TT circuit was emasculated by the excision of the “Northern Loop”, the track has always lent itself to great spectacles of speed, even in truncated form. The critics were mollified somewhat this year by a revised layout that saw the entry to the Ruskenhoek section straightened somewhat, eliminating the much-reviled “Crochet Hook” and restoring some of the fast, flowing character to the venerable cathedral.

As for spectacles of speed, there was absolutely no shortage of the fairing-bashing, take no prisoners type of contest that has been drawing motorcycle racing fans to the Dutch TT since 1949. Although this commentator isn’t much of a statistics wonk, one figure in particular  captures the flavor of the event perfectly -- 15 laps into race 2, a mere 0.997 seconds separated first through sixth place. That’s close racing in anyone’s book.


Rea of Sunshine

Prior to the race, Ten Kate Honda’s Jonny Rea said that it was going to take “big balls” to exploit the increased potential afforded by the track’s revised layout. Much as one hesitates to posit on what just exactly lurks beneath a Scotsman’s kilt, we’ll take it on a faith based on the young Ulsterman’s results, that, whatever it took, they fit beneath his Alpinestars leathers.

From the first practice, The 2007 British Superbike runner-up was at or near the top of the time sheets in every session, culminating in a staggering Superpole effort that saw him lop 2.7 seconds off Ben Spies 2009 time. Race one saw Rea take the lead halfway through and withstand spirited challenges from 2-time WSBK champions Troy Corser and James Toseland to take the win. Race two was more of the same, with Rea able to pull a small gap on the field with 2 laps to go after an Assen-typical race-long tussle in a lead pack that included Corser, Toseland, the two Leons and Max Biaggi. 

Whether it was a revised set-up that Rea said made the bike more comfortable to ride, the newly-installed HRC electronics package or simply the attitude that allowed the Ten Kate pilot to ride the  "smartest I've ever ridden",  his double win at Assen that moved him up to third in the championship standings has put the paddock on notice that Jonny Rea intends to be a serious contender for the title run.


Play Us a Song, Piano Man

No one could argue that James Toseland has had a rocky return to World Superbikes. A broken hand suffered the series opener at Phillip Island, coupled with a Yamaha that perhaps wasn't as good as a certain American made it look in 2009, have conspired to frustrate the normally upbeat Yorkshireman. A podium in race one at Valencia was a rare highlight in a season of struggle. Things didn't look much better after Superpole at Assen, where a 180mph wheelie 3 turns from the end of a fast lap left Toseland languishing in tenth position on the grid.

Come Sunday, both races played out similarly with the Sterilgarda Yamaha rider advancing briskly through the field to the front  and managing to land on the box with a second in Race 1 and a third in Race 2. Whether the improved results came from a ubiquitous "something" found in a revised rear suspension linkage or from Toseland's evident intention to beat the R1 into submission by sheer force of will is a moot point -- JT's back.


Round, Rubber and Rolls

Not long into race one, it was clear that something was wrong in Leon Haslam's world. This year's points leader had dropped like a rock thrown into a pond from his fourth place qualifying position down to a low of 16th. Turned out the trouble was a slight puncture on the Alstare GSXR1000's front Pirelli that allowed half the air pressure to escape out into the atmosphere from whence it came. Race tires run considerably less air pressure than those used on the street but keeping up with the best superbike riders in the world requires more than a dozen pounds per square inch in the front doughnut. All things considered, however, Haslam's 11th place was a very creditable finish, given the circumstances. Normal service resumed in Race 2 with the Pocket Rocket and eventual race winner Rea dueling until the last couple laps when Rea was able to pull a half second gap.


Crocodile Rock

When Troy Corser left Yamaha at the end of the 2008 season, the word in the paddock was that the Australian 2-time World Superbike champion had lost the ability to seal the deal and win a race, something he hadn't been able to do during his tenure aboard the Yamaha Italia R1. When the fledgling BMW superbike effort signed Corser, wags speculated that a development role on the way to the old rider's home was in store for the aging ex-champion, not that any of those wags would have said it to his face. 2009 was a frustrating year for Corser with mostly mid and rear of the pack finishes and 6 DNF's. The sole highlight was a 5th in race one at Brno. 

Such is to be expected for a rider past his prime on a team that had zero experience on the world roadracing stage, said the pundits. One of the perceived problems of the team, the lack of experienced race team management, was rectified when Davide Tardozzi, on the rebound from an inglorious exit from his long-time job with the factory Ducati team, was signed to manage the squad. 

Tardozzi's influence wasn't readily apparent early in the 2010 season, with mid-pack finishes for Corser and with co-rider Ruben Xaus reportedly afraid to ride the S1000RR in the wake of  four pre-race crashes at the opening round at Phillip Island. At Valencia, however, things had improved, as evidenced by Corser's fourth place qualifying position and 5th place finish in race one.

At Assen, it was quickly evident that Corser had become comfortable on the BMW with top 3 positions in practice and qualifying, and a front row starting position after placing third in Superpole. Come race day, it was the Troy Corser of old who lined up on the grid. Jumping out to the lead in both races, Corser led a total of 15 laps between the two sessions until rear grip issues shuffled him back to a pair of 5th place finishes.


Whither Thou, Ducati?

With 13 rider's championships and 16 manufacturer's championships, the name Ducati is virtually synonymous with World Superbike racing. With such a proud tradition, failure is not suffered lightly by the factory or by the marque's fans. After last year's loss of the world championship to Yamaha, where team management was roundly criticized -- fairly or unfairly -- for it's failure to reign in Michel Fabrizio so that Haga could score a few more points, heads rolled at Xerox Ducati. Long-time multi world  championship winning team manager Davide Tardozzi left the team by his own accord, or at least that's what he told the press.

In his place, Ernest Marinelli, long-time Ducati employee and crew chief to the stars, took over the management role. Although there have been bright spots, such as Haga and Fabrizio's podiums at Phillip Island and Haga's win at Valencia, this year has, by and large, been an embarrassment for the factory team, not the least of which is  being in the ignominious position of being regularly beaten by the Althea satellite team.

At Assen, with the team's hopes buoyed by Haga's victory at the previous round, the wheels really fell off the red wagon. To illustrate how pitiful the team's performance was, Haga's battle in race one for his eventual tenth place was the highlight of the weekend. After Haga's retirement with mechanical issues in race two, a TV camera caught the Japanese rider communicating with team management in sign language  with a gesture that either looked like a tachometer needle with it's revs waning or something formerly erect going limp.

With finishes of 12th and 13th, limp is as apt a term as any to describe Michel Fabrizio's performance on the weekend. Always a streaky kind of rider, Fabrizio was thought to have finally made the leap to the upper tier of riders in 2009 with  three wins and 13 podiums. This year, Mr Fabulous isn't looking so fabulous with two podiums at Phillip Island being the highlights of his year so far. Since the oiland, Fabrizio's season has gone right into the toilet with nary a top ten finish and a couple of DNFs during an execrable weekend in Valencia. Watch out Michel, there's a Czech kid on a privateer Ducati that a lot of people think is way overdue for a a shot at a factory ride.


Mambo Italiano

Going into Monza, the season is unfolding as a lot of fans had hoped -- multiple winners on multiple marques with close, exciting racing being the rule, not the exception. Leon Haslam, pneumatic failures notwithstanding, managed to pad his points lead to 20 over Max Biaggi. British fans are well chuffed, dreams of limey world domination dancing in their heads, in the aftermath Assen's all Brit podiums.  With so many able riders piloting so many able machines, one hesitates to make predictions but one thing's for sure -- if Xerox Ducati can't break out of their slump on home soil, tomato sauce isn't the only red fluid that the passionate paisanos will be calling for.



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WSBK: Valencia Race Notes -- Normal Service

Before the 20210 World Superbike season began, pundits (including yours truly) took great relish in playing  the prognostication game. In this fantasy world, the Xerox Ducati teammates of Noriyuki Haga and Michel Fabrizio were the odds-on pre-season favorites. Some, however, conjectured that Haga was so psychologically devastated from flinging away the 2009 championship at the last round at Portimao that he wouldn't be able to go through the same excruciating process this year, but most thought that when push came to shove, Nitro Nori would summon his inner warrior and make yet another serious quest for his first World Superbike championship.

Other sure contenders were thought to be Max Biaggi, aboard an Aprilia RSV4 that would benefit from a year of development, Jonny Rea, also in his sophomore year on the Ten Kate Honda, James Toseland and Chris Vermeulen, who both had something to prove after their demotion from MotoGP. And, oh yeah, Leon Haslam was doing good things in testing on the Alstare Suzuki and was clearly a man to be watched.

The first two rounds showed why the pundits write about motorcycle racing instead of living off earnings gained by picking the ponies. Championship leader Haslam has indeed been a force to be reckoned with, with one race win and three second place finishes. Biaggi, with his recent double win at Portimao, has shown that he hasn't lost anything and is still the Roman Emperor of old. Vermeulen and Toseland have gotten hurt and haven't really made the impact that they were predicted.

Most disappointing, however have been the Dynamic Ducati duo at the factory Xerox team. Although they started out the season creditably well at Phillip Island with two podiums for Fabrizio and one for Haga, they fell off the the edge of the Earth at Portimao. If Haga was to regain the form necessary to fight for the title, he needed to make a statement of intent and he needed to make it soon.  The Ricardo Tomo Circuit near Valencia, with it's tight, twisty layout that theoretically favored the torquey Ducati twins was thought to be a near-perfect spot for a season turn-around. Superpole wasn't that statement with both Haga and Fabrizio failing to make the cut for the final session.

Race 1 -- Neon Leon

Troy Corser, who claims that he has finally gotten "comfortable' on the BMW S1000RR after extensive electronics modifications to the German machine, got a rocket start from his fifth-place grid position ahead of the ageless duo of Carlos Checa and Max Biaggi. Polesitter Cal Crutchlow didn't fare nearly as well and was shuffled back to seventh position. Checa nosed ahead of Corser near the end of the first lap, and after a bit of scuffling between the pair, edged out to a short-lived lead.

On lap three, Checa turned a miracle save into a gravel nap a scant turn later, giving the lead back to Corser. Corser's lead lasted a brief  two laps when series leader Haslam went by the Australian on the brakes going into turn one. From then on out, the Pocket Rocket maintained a comfortable lead en route to his second race win of the 2010 season.

Behind Haslam, Corser, Max Biaggi and James Toseland, who had made an admirable run to the front from his 9th place staring position, settled into a lead pack that included Biaggi's Alitalia Aprilia teammate Leon Camier as the tail gunner on a tight 4-rider formation. Camier crashed out on lap eight and Toseland got by Biaggi and Corser to slot into second.  Corser slipped to fourth on lap ten and Toseland and Biaggi commenced a tussle for the second spot on the podium that saw Biaggi gain the upper hand with 4 laps to go.

Race 2 -- Return of the Samurai

Carlos Checa jumped out to an early lead from the start, then the race was red-flagged when a luckless Simon Andrews, who had replaced an injured Chris Vermeulen on the Paul Bird Kawasaki team, came together with Vittorio Iannuzzo on lap three. BSB stalwart Andrews, who claimed that the accident was the Italian's fault, suffered a broken foot in the scary-looking collision.

On the re-start, the pair of flourescent orange and green Alitalia Aprilias quickly went to the lead, with the other Leon, Camier, ahead of Max Biaggi.  Camier was the leader on the track, but Carlos Checa was in front on aggregate time, having carved out a .6 second advantage before the stoppage of the race. Camier maintained his physical lead until about half-way through the race, when he suffered his second crash of the day in turn 12.

After Camier retired, Haga, who had made his way up from his starting position of 11th to join the lead pack, went into the lead, with Biaggi and Checa trailing behind, with neither having to actually pass the Xerox Ducati rider to win the race. The last few laps were a combination of tactics and mathematics (a combination that always makes this commentator's head hurt) that saw Haga nip Checa for his first win of the 2010 season by .025 seconds.

Dutch Treat?

Leon Haslam continues to lead the series going into Assen, padding his lead over Max Biaggi to 18 points. Haslam, who podiumed twice at the Dutch track in 2009 on the privateer Stiggy Honda, will again be the rider to watch. All eyes will also be on Haga, who won one race and finished second in 2009. The question that begs answering is whether Haga can back up the statement he made on Sunday in Spain.


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