2009 MotoGP Motegi Race Report - Less Is More

The point of the single tire rule, adopted for the 2009 season here at Motegi last year, was to make the racing safer by stemming the breakneck increase in corner speed. At least, that was the reason given officially, but it was an open secret - one accidentally admitted by Carmelo Ezpeleta from time to time - that the real driving force behind the rule was the hope that putting everyone on the same tire would level the playing field, reduce the differences between the riders and make the racing closer.

At Qatar, the first race to be run under the new rule, the official rationale for having a single tire was vindicated, with lap times lower than last year despite warmer temperatures. But the race made a mockery of the unofficial reasoning: The gaps between the riders were huge, with 16 seconds between first and third, and sixth place man Alex de Angelis almost half a minute behind the runaway winner Casey Stoner. So far, it looked like putting riders on equal equipment actually accentuated the differences between them, variations in individual skill now allowing the best of them to build up a huge margin over lesser men.

The season opener had been a rather bizarre affair, though, with the race postponed until Monday after a rainstorm made racing under the floodlights impossible on Sunday, and an extra warm up session had left the riders with limited tire choice. So at Motegi, the place where the single tire rule was formally adopted last year, its proponents hoped that we would get to see a more realistic view of how the rule was working.

The Weathermen

It wasn't the tire rule that everyone was talking about at Motegi, however. Instead, the the reduction in practice time was the target of the teams' and riders' ire: A typical Motegi spring downpour on Saturday afternoon had made the track unrideable and forced qualifying to be canceled, and with Friday morning practice already scrapped under the new rules, the riders entered the race with scarcely any dry track time under their belts, forced to guess both at tire choice and setup.

The loss of qualifying also meant that the grid had been drawn up based on the combined practice times, and as Saturday's morning free practice session had taken place in the rain, this effectively meant that grid position was determined by the outcome of FP1 on Friday. The trouble with that was that everyone had been using the Friday session to work on setup and finding a race tire, rather than going all out for speed, and so the grid suffered some notable losers. Dani Pedrosa, his fitness improved from Qatar, was one, forced to start from 11th, while Randy de Puniet, now resplendent in his Playboy livery, was another, shuffled down to 16th while his team was working on race setup.

But all that was spilt milk as the riders sat on the grid, holding the bike on the rev limiter while they waited for the red lights to dim. With the conditions sunnier and track temperatures warmer than they had been on Friday, there was nothing that the riders could do but hope the guesses made by their crew and tire technicians were correct, and watch the lights.

As the bikes were unleashed off the line, all eyes switched from the extinguished red of the starting lights to the bright red of Casey Stoner's Ducati. The Australian is a fearsome starter, usually so fast off the line that he hits the first corner already several bike lengths ahead. But Motegi would be different, in many respects. The bike heading into the first corner with room to spare behind it was Valentino Rossi's Fiat Yamaha. Normally Rossi's starts are his weakest point, but at Motegi, the reigning World Champion had got a flyer off the line to lead into Turn 1, ahead of a similarly storming Chris Vermeulen on the Rizla Suzuki.

As impressive as Valentino Rossi's start was, it was as nothing compared to Dani Pedrosa's. Starting from 11th, the Spaniard had fired off the line, weaving his way to the outside of the track and heading into Turn 1 after passing half the field. Holding the outside line, Pedrosa muscled his way past Casey Stoner to end up 3rd, behind Vermeulen and ahead of the Ducati of the 2007 World Champion. Three corners later, as the pack braked hard for the sharp right hander of Turn 5, Pedrosa grabbed the inside line from Vermeulen, and was up into 2nd and ready to chase leader Valentino Rossi.

Behind Pedrosa, fellow Spaniard and bitter rival Jorge Lorenzo was on a similar charge. Lorenzo had lost a couple of places off the line, but on the run into Turn 5, Lorenzo used the drive of his Fiat Yamaha to close down Stoner and was well ahead by the time they peeled off into the tight right hander. Two corners later, Lorenzo was stuffing his blue and white bike up the inside of Vermeulen's powder blue Rizla Suzuki to snatch 3rd.

Snakes ...

If Lorenzo and Pedrosa were going forwards, Casey Stoner was going backward. Normally one of the very best brakers in the paddock, Stoner was having trouble getting the nose of his Ducati ahead of Chris Vermeulen's Suzuki into both the hairpin and the 90 Degree Corner at the end of the back straight. Adding insult to injury, just as Stoner was forced to back off and let Vermeulen enter Turn 11 first, Andrea Dovizioso shoved his Repsol Honda underneath him and up into 5th. Further humiliation came half a lap later, as former team mate Marco Melandri came past at the fast flick of 130R, the Italian clearly much more at home on the Hayate than he ever was on the wild beast that was the Ducati.

At the front, it was the Fiat Yamahas that were making all the running. Valentino Rossi was pulling away from Dani Pedrosa's Repsol Honda, while Pedrosa was under attack from behind by Rossi's team mate Jorge Lorenzo. Lorenzo was on Pedrosa as they braked for the Hairpin, and ahead on the exit of that tight turn. But his pass had left him with less drive down the following straight and by the end of it, Pedrosa had retaken 2nd, getting the better line into Turn 11.

... And Ladders

Lorenzo would not be denied for long, though. On the next lap, the Yamaha rider concentrated on his line through the first two corners, and getting the better drive out of Turn 2 set himself up to slide gracefully past Pedrosa into 2nd place as they rolled the bikes into the first of the double left handers at Turns 3 and 4. Lorenzo was on a charge, and was not ready to let anything get in his way.

That included his team mate. Over the next four laps, Lorenzo hunted Rossi down, arriving on his tail halfway through lap 7. But catching Valentino Rossi is one thing, passing him is another. Rossi knows how to make his bike as wide as the transporter that brought it to the track, and for two laps, Lorenzo simply couldn't find a way around. Until lap 9, when Lorenzo stepped up his attack.

The Spaniard tracked Rossi closely out of Turn 5 and through the S Curve, before lunging inside at Turn 9, the V Curve. Rossi, wily old veteran that he was, had been expecting him, and cutting back early held the tighter line, demoting Lorenzo back into 2nd. But Lorenzo would not be deterred. Tucking in behind Rossi down the back straight, Lorenzo used the Italian's draft to slingshot him forward and alongside Rossi, jamming his Fiat Yamaha right where The Doctor would have to turn in. The perfectly executed block pass left Rossi with no option but to hand over the lead and try to get back at Lorenzo further on.

But there was no getting back at Lorenzo. It was all Valentino Rossi could do to hang with his team mate for the next four laps, but on lap 15 Lorenzo turned up the wick a notch. With a lap time over a second faster than Rossi's, Lorenzo broke The Doctor's resistance, and the Spaniard was off to the races. Within two laps, the Spaniard's lead was over two seconds, a comfortable lead with two thirds of the race already gone.

Yes He Can

Comfortable, but not insurmountable. With 8 laps left, Rossi should have had plenty of time to close Lorenzo down, but instead, he found himself fending off a resurgent Dani Pedrosa. The Repsol Honda rider had slipped back after being passed by Lorenzo, but the battle between the two Fiat Yamahas had given him time to regroup and get back on to the leaders. With Rossi struggling after Lorenzo upped the pace, Pedrosa saw his chance, and started hounding the World Champion, waiting for a chance to pounce.

His chance came on lap 17. Often accused of not being able to outbrake other riders, Pedrosa attempted to dispel that myth by diving up the inside of Rossi into Turn 11. Unfortunately for Pedrosa, he failed, running a fraction wide and allowing Rossi back past on the exit of the turn. Smelling blood, Pedrosa tried again at the end of the home straight, trying again up the inside of Rossi into Turn 1. But again, the Spaniard ran wide, and Rossi cut in early for Turn 2 to snatch back 2nd place.

Knee injury or not, Pedrosa would not be denied. At the end of the back straight, the tiny Spaniard sliced inside again into Turn 11, and this time, Pedrosa made it stick. Demoted to 3rd, Rossi was left mulling over his options. Within a handful of corners, he had a plan. Getting the run out of Turn 4, Valentino Rossi slammed his Fiat Yamaha inside the Repsol Honda of Dani Pedrosa, leaving the Spaniard with nowhere left to go. Now back in 2nd, Rossi decided that enough was enough, and put his head down to start building a lead over Pedrosa again.

With a clear track ahead of him, Rossi picked up speed and started closing on Lorenzo. He gained back half a second of the 2 seconds deficit he had to his team mate, but as Rossi went faster, so Lorenzo picked up his pace. As the laps ticked down, Jorge Lorenzo managed the lead perfectly, crossing the line with over a second to spare to take his second victory in MotoGP, to add to the win he took in Portugal last year.

Coming Of Age

What was most impressive about this victory was how Lorenzo had taken it. Moving easily forward through the pack, then seeing off Valentino Rossi in a straight braking duel, and finally managing the gap he had back to Rossi all the way to the end, Jorge Lorenzo had done everything right and demonstrated every aspect of the skills that go to make a MotoGP champion. But Lorenzo immediately dismissed any talk of a championship push this year. "I am the leader in the championship but I still think that Stoner, Valentino and Pedrosa are stronger than us," he said after the race. "They are more experienced with the Bridgestone tires but we are still learning about them and improving."

Lorenzo's words should be taken with a sizable pinch of salt, though. Throughout the preseason, Lorenzo has insisted that he is not capable of winning the championship, but he always added a little twist to his words, telling reporters, "They have to win, I don't." It would be foolish to believe that the Lorenzoland flag which Jorge Lorenzo planted in Motegi was the only piece of territory the Spanish prodigy intended to claim this year.

Having seen off Pedrosa and unable to catch Lorenzo - despite setting his fastest lap of the race on the penultimate lap - Valentino Rossi was once again forced to settle for 2nd. Unlike Qatar, however, at least Rossi felt that he had stood a chance of winning here. Setup problems from a lack of practice had left the Italian to find a way around a handling issue he faced, but he had only lost a little ground to Lorenzo, and a Yamaha one-two showed the potential of the bike. Rossi may be 2nd in the championship after two races, but the single point that separates him from the leader Lorenzo must be regarded as an excellent start to his title defense.

Little Big Man

The final spot on the podium was both a surprise and not a surprise. Certainly, the sight of Dani Pedrosa on the podium is hardly a shock - he has stood on the box 28 times since entering the series in 2006. But Pedrosa is still recovering from very serious knee surgery, and has neither the strength or the range of motion in his knee that would allow him to race freely. Even more impressive was the fact that Pedrosa's front Bridgestone chunked so badly that the Japanese firm whisked it off to their R&D labs to investigate what happened to it.

Afterwards, he said he had been surprised at how well he had managed with the pain, expecting to start dropping back through the field. But he had held on, even seriously challenging Valentino Rossi for 2nd during the race. For Dani Pedrosa, Motegi was yet another gutsy display from an obviously talented rider. If this is how good Pedrosa is riding injured on a bike that he continues to complain has serious grip issues and with a defective front tire, imagine where he'll finish when he's fit and HRC have improved the RC212V.

If there were only ever three real candidates for victory at Motegi, the situation was a good deal messier behind the leading trio. Chris Vermeulen had started the race at the front, but had slipped back through the field with a quickshifter problem, and forced - horror of horrors! - to change gear using the clutch and throttle, rather than just relying on the quickshifter to cut the power when changing up. With Vermeulen gone, Andrea Dovizioso then forced his way forward, closing on the back of Dani Pedrosa all race, and at one point looking like he might even be able to challenge his Repsol Honda team mate for 3rd. But the Italian lost touch with Pedrosa in the second half of the race, and was forced to abandon any aspirations of a podium.

Bad Vibes

Like Vermeulen, Casey Stoner had started the race going backwards. The Australian's Ducati had developed a serious brake vibration problem, and it took Stoner a few laps to figure out how to ride around it. By that time, Stoner had dropped back to 7th, but once he had a feeling for how hard he could brake, he started to claw his way back through the field. Assisted by a mistake by Marco Melandri, who ran wide and handed Stoner a position, the Marlboro Ducati rider first passed Vermeulen, then chased down Andrea Dovizioso, chipping away at the Italian's lead lap by lap.

With just under two laps to go, Stoner finally caught the Repsol Honda and outwitted Dovizioso through the double apex left handers of Turns 3 and 4, holding a tighter line out of 3 to cut inside ahead through 4. Once past, Dovi was no match for him, and Casey Stoner came home in 4th disappointed that the brake problem had robbed him of a potentially better result, but pleased to have scored solid points towards the championship. Just three points separate championship leader Jorge Lorenzo and Casey Stoner in 3rd, so there's everything still all to play for.

Being passed by Stoner left Andrea Dovizioso to settle for 5th, but there was no shame in that. In his first year aboard the factory Repsol Honda, Dovizioso has rewarded the faith shown in him so far, and his race at Motegi was another solid showing, displaying maturity and the potential for more. As Dovi gets the hang of the Bridgestones, and as HRC start to sort out the problems with the RC212V - spurred on by the highly vocal criticism of Dani Pedrosa - Dovizioso could start to feature even further towards the front.

The Dark Knight

If Dani Pedrosa's 3rd place was impressive, Marco Melandri's 6th was downright awe-inspiring. Written off prior to the season's start, and on a bike which is at a developmental dead end, with Kawasaki having pulled out at the beginning of the season, Marco Melandri is starting to show the talent we last saw from him back in 2006. Taking 6th in Motegi ahead of two factory Suzukis and just behind a factory Honda will be both a huge boost to Melandri and the Hayate team, but also an important result in Kawasaki's home Grand Prix. Rest assured that the Kawasaki bosses were watching, and that Melandri's result is generating some intense discussions behind the scenes. Whether those discussions result in more money and development being poured into the subject remains to be seen, however.

Loris Capirossi was the first of the Rizla Suzukis home in 7th place, riding a relatively lonely race as he battled the same setup problems that everyone faced due to a lack of practice time. Though Capirossi would have hoped for more - the Italian has won at this track 3 times, and always goes well here - 7th is a solid result for the Suzuki, and shows that the improvements the bike showed during the preseason are genuine.

Behind Capirossi, Mika Kallio was the second Ducati home, the Finn having another impressive race on the Pramac Ducati. Kallio had been engaged in a battle with James Toseland and Randy de Puniet for the first half of the race, eventually breaking free of them to bring the Pramac Ducati across the line in 8th. Kallio's two 8th places are not just important for the Finnish rookie, they are cause for relief at Ducati's Borgo Panigale base as well. For two years now, it has appeared as if only Casey Stoner is capable of taming the Bologna Beast, Ducati's fickle and difficult Desmosedici. But two good results at different tracks from Kallio in his rookie year in MotoGP suggest that that may not be an impossible task after all. As long as the bike is ridden by someone with no prior experience of a MotoGP bike, it seems.

The loser in the duel for 8th was James Toseland, but the Tech 3 Monster Yamaha man was pleased nonetheless. After two huge crashes in the preseason and a 16th place finish at Qatar after the Yorkshireman ran off the track, a top 10 finish is a first step on the road back to form for Toseland. But the double World Superbike champion will need to show a lot more than just a 9th spot if he is to keep his job at the end of the season.

The problems with his quickshifter left Chris Vermeulen struggling, and finally finishing in 10th place. Vermeulen had qualified 4th, and without the technical difficulties would have been capable of more. But whether that would have been enough to stay with the front runners is open to debate.

Mr Consistency

The one thing that Randy de Puniet has lacked has been consistency, and the Frenchman has corrected that problem so far this season. However, that consistency only got de Puniet to 11th at Motegi, after a 10th spot at Qatar. The only remarkable thing about de Puniet's weekend was the arrival of the Playboy sponsorship, which had been taboo at Qatar. De Puniet's team boss must be hoping that that won't be the only reason for public interest at Jerez.

A seething Colin Edwards finished in 12th place. Toseland's Tech 3 team mate had had a great race at Qatar and had showed strongly in practice at Motegi, topping the wet practice session on Saturday morning. But a technical snafu left the Texan riding the dry Motegi circuit with the engine management stuck on a rain setting. "Mid-corner I was wide open and nothing would happen," Edwards said later. But with Edwards in sparkling form, he will be a factor once we get back to Europe.

After his brilliant if controversial 6th place at Qatar, Alex de Angelis had an anonymous race at the back of the field, eventually coming home 13th. Like de Puniet, de Angelis needs to stop crashing and finish races, something both men have achieved so far this year. But Fausto Gresini will expect de Angelis to do better than 13th. The man from San Marino has his work cut out for him.

Niccolo Canepa was pleased with his first MotoGP championship points, but that was all. Once again, the Italian rookie was a backmarker from the start, and only Toni Elias' crash stopped Canepa from being in last place.


After losing the front and sliding out at Turn 10, Toni Elias remounted to ride a lonely race and finish in the points. Elias was upset at being forced to ride the 2009 RC212V chassis, which has caused Dovizioso and Pedrosa such grief, the two other men on factory Hondas. Losing the front will not have improved Elias' mood. He must have been hoping for a good deal more when he signed a deal to ride a factory Honda with Fausto Gresini's top-notch satellite squad.

Though Elias was the last of the official finishers, Sete Gibernau was circulating at the end as well. And like Elias, Gibernau had crashed, the Spanish veteran sliding out on lap 13, then returning to the pits for repairs. But in need of valuable practice time, Gibernau had gone back on the track, to eventually finish 7 laps behind the winner, and officially not classified.

At least Gibernau had been able to return to the track. Nicky Hayden's run of terrible luck aboard the Ducati continued at Motegi, after he was broadsided by an overenthusiastic Yuki Takahashi, hoping to make an impression at his home Grand Prix. He made an impression alright: On Hayden's fairing with his tire. Poor Hayden came down on exactly the same part of his back that he injured in Qatar in a highside, and though he did not injure himself further, he was bitterly disappointed at losing even more track time, time that he feels he desperately needs.

Is Less More?

After the processional opening round at Qatar, MotoGP fans' hopes of more excitement were answered at Motegi. Multiple passes for the lead, and multiple passing and repassing on the same lap is just what the doctor - or in this case, The Doctor - ordered. The single tire rule, aimed at making the racing more exciting, had worked. Or had it?

A more likely explanation can be gleaned from the litany of complaints that just about every single rider had at the end of the race. The loss of qualifying due to bad weather, combined with the scrapping of Friday morning practice and the reduction in the length of the sessions from 1 hour to 45 minutes left everyone guessing as to setup. The riders had had just a single dry session on Friday, leaving them with no other option than to use what they had and hope for the best. Everyone had got it wrong to some extent or other, leaving the riders to struggle with unwilling bikes that would not do what they wanted.

And the racing was all the better for it. Ordinarily, MotoGP is about getting the setup as near to perfect as you can, and then making as few mistakes as possible for the 45 minutes of the race. The rider with the best setup and the fewest mistakes wins, and usually by a comfortable margin. But Motegi was different: It was a battle of improvisation, of riding around problems, and of coping with what the conditions had thrown at you.

The lack of practice rewarded the teams with the best basic setup, and the riders best able to adapt to a bike that wouldn't do exactly what they wanted. And as they struggled, so they made mistakes, allowing other riders past, and offering opportunities to regain positions too. The lack of practice actually made for a pretty exciting race.

The teams and the riders must be hoping that Dorna don't make this same connection. If they do, then it would be a good time to put a sizable sum on Friday being scrapped altogether. And if it did make the racing more exciting, how many fans would be willing to sacrifice a day of watching practice for closer racing?

Total votes: 139
Total votes: 38

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2009 Assen WSBK And WSS Race Report - Classic Dutch Track Produces Classic Races

With the World Superbike series turning into more and more of a two-horse race, Ben Spies and Noriyuki Haga sharing all of the series wins between them, the Superbike circus headed to Assen with the hope that a few of the British riders could disrupt the Spies and Haga show. The Assen WSBK round is regarded almost as a home race for the Brits, as UK fans cross the North Sea in large numbers to cheer their local heroes on. They arrived in Assen full of hope, as Cal Crutchlow and Eugene Laverty had both taken wins in World Supersport, and Leon Haslam had had one podium and a streak of strong finishes in the previous three rounds.

Haslam had received a huge cheer in the public superpole press conference on Saturday afternoon, after getting a front row start, but the Stiggy Racing rider faced some pretty formidable opposition. Ben Spies had taken a record fourth pole in a row, an incredible feat for a rookie rider facing new tracks on new tires and a new bike, and with 3 wins from 6 races, was proving that he was capable of more than just a fast lap.

As the lights faded in the first race, the Texan took full advantage of his pole position, rocketing into the first corner in the lead, and opening enough of a gap over 2nd place man Max Neukirchner not to have to worry about an immediate attack. Behind Neukirchner, Noriyuki Haga had closed back the gap that he had lost to the German after being held up by Jakub Smrz on the first lap. Once past Smrz, the Xerox Ducati man closed Neukirchner down and got ready to make his move.

In the event, Haga didn't need to attack, as Neukirchner did Haga's work for him. A mistake in the GT chicane saw the Alstare Suzuki rider thrown from his bike, but that is one of the slowest parts of the track, Neukirchner could rejoin, eventually finishing 13th. With nothing between himself and Spies, Haga quickly closed the Yamaha down, and sat on the Texan's tail. 

But Haga wasn't the only rider closing. Leon Haslam was setting a series of blistering laps to chase the two leaders down. As the race entered its second half, the race turned into a thrilling three-way battle between Spies, Haga and Haslam. Haga had been pushing Spies through the Ramshoek and into the final GT chicane for several laps, but Spies kept holding the Japanese rider off. So on lap 13, Haga switched tactics, diving underneath Spies into the Strubben hairpin, and taking the lead.

Haga's pass clearly disrupted Spies' rhythm, as the next corner, Haslam was past as well. Haslam had soon gapped Spies and closed on Haga, but push as he may, he could not find a way past the Xerox Ducati. As the laps started to click off, Spies started to reel Haga and Haslam back in, and with three laps to go, Spies tried a brave move past Haslam into the Ruskenhoek. He was close, but not close enough to get completely past. But he was also determined not to back off, and as they flicked the bikes back left for the long left-hander, Spies held his line, keeping next to Haslam round the outside of the fast part of the Ruskenhoek. Then as they entered the Stekkenwal, Spies was finally past, but only just. Haslam had not given up his position easily, but he couldn't quite hold the storming Texan off.

Once past Haslam, Spies chased Haga down, catching him as they started the final lap. He made his final move in the final section of the track, another brave move through terrifyingly fast Meeuwenmeer, and holding off Haga's final challenge into the GT chicane to take the win. Haga was forced to settle for 2nd, with Haslam finishing third.

Spies' Yamaha team mate Tom Sykes rode his strongest race of the season to take 4th place, while Max Biaggi put on a brilliant display to fight his way through the field to finish 5th, after starting from 10th on the grid.

World Superbike race 1 result

Piqued by his loss of race one, Noriyuki Haga got off the line fastest in race two, keeping Ben Spies behind him into the first corner, Haarbocht. But by the time the pack had rounded the emasculated Northern Loop, Spies was on Haga, and then up inside him into the Strubben hairpin. 

The Texan put the hammer down once again. Spies pulled a gap of a quarter of a second by the end of the first lap, but at the start of lap 2, it all went wrong for the American. Clinging to the outside of the Madijk in the Northern Loop, preparing for the long right hander on the approach to the hairpin, Spies touched the astroturf with his back wheel, and highsided out of the race. The bike cartwheeled dangerously against the fence, and Spies rolled through the gravel, emerging miraculously unhurt.

Noriyuki Haga was not going to look a gift horse of this magnitude in the mouth. Haga set off on a mission, and within 6 laps had built a cushion of nearly 3 seconds. Once Spies crashed out, the race for the win as effectively over, Haga taking the win comfortably and imperiously. Haga's victory brought his win total back level with Spies, but while Haga keeps taking 2nd places when he can't win, Spies has crashed out twice now, giving up valuable points. Haga's championship lead is now up to 60 points, and while Spies looks like a man in a hurry, Haga's brilliance combined with consistency is giving him a firm grasp on his very first championship.

Spies' crash also seemed to end the battle behind Haga as well. Leon Haslam and Max Neukirchner briefly scrapped over 2nd, but when Michel Fabrizio forced Neukirchner off at the Ruskenhoek, Neukirchner rejoining safely after giving up two places, the fight went out of the German, and he dropped back through the field to eventually finish 9th.

Leon Haslam had also been caught out by Fabrizio's pass, dropping down to 3rd behind the Italian. The Stiggy Racing rider was right on the tail of the Xerox Ducati, but it took Haslam 9 laps to get back past, with a courageous pass through the Meeuwenmeer on the final section of the track. Behind Fabrizio, Jakub Smrz had closed on the fight for 2nd place, but the three men maintained such a fast pace that none of them could pass.

The podium seemed settled, but on the final lap, Fabrizio's Ducati developed gearbox problems, allowing Smrz to get past and claim the first podium for both him and his Guandalini Ducati team. Fabrizio lost four seconds on that final lap along with third place, but the gap to the fight for 5th left room for error. Johnny Rea eventually won the battle for 5th, the Ten Kate Honda rider having held off challenges from Tom Sykes, Carlos Checa and Shane Byrne.

World Superbike race 2 result

In between the two Superbike races, the eagerly awaited World Supersport race had a lot to live up to. The 2008 race had been a classic, with 8 riders entering the final lap with a realistic chance of victory, and the 2009 race did not disappoint. Only the most churlish of spectators would complain that the race featured only 5 men battling at the front, but what a battle it was.

Ten Kate's Kenan Sofuoglu made the early running, but his team mate Andrew Pitt was past him on lap 3, with Motocard Kawasaki rider Joan Lascorz, Parkalgar Honda's Eugene Laverty, and the Yamaha men Cal Crutchlow and Fabien Foret quickly following in Pitt's footsteps. 

That Crutchlow was with the front runners was impressive indeed, for despite being on the pole, a bunch of false neutrals off the line left Crutchlow down in 9th at the end of the first lap. But after a superb charge through the field, Crutchlow was quickly snapping at the leaders' heels.

Lascorz and Laverty swapped the lead for most of the race, while behind them, Andrew Pitt mixed it with the Yamaha team mates of Crutchlow and Foret. Foret attempted a lunge inside Crutchlow, into the Strubben hairpin, but his attempt was a little too enthusiastic, and Foret ran wide, forcing Crutchlow wide with him. Pitt saw his chance to pass both Yamahas in one fell swoop, but like Foret, he seized it a little too enthusiastically, losing the front and sliding off. Pitt slid across the track in front of Crutchlow and Foret, Crutchlow not quite missing the Australian, running over his wrist, though fortunately without any serious consequences.

In the end, the race was decided on the last lap. Lascorz led Laverty and Crutchlow into the first corner, but Crutchlow passed Laverty to take 3rd into the Ruskenhoek, Laverty coming straight back at him. The outcome was settled in good Assen tradition on the run into the GT chicane, with Eugene Laverty outbraking Lascorz in a place where the Spaniard had been faster all race, catching Lascorz off-guard to take the win, and allowing Crutchlow through into 2nd. Lascorz was left with the final spot on the podium, but after a disaster at his home race in Valencia two weeks ago, the Spaniard was more than happy to be back on the podium. Frenchman Fabien Foret finished 4th, while Kenan Sofuoglu save a little of Ten Kate's honor by coming home in 5th.

Laverty's second win was more hard fought than his first, but it leaves the Supersport rider with an impressive 50% win record this season. But the field is so strong and so evenly matched in World Supersport this year that a tally such as that is likely to be hard to maintain. Even then, Laverty has established himself as a strong contender for the title. The Supersport Championship is no longer the Ten Kate cup, an achievement that the Parkalgar Honda team is inordinately proud of, their hard work really starting to pay off. 

World Supersport race result

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Total votes: 59

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2009 MotoGP Motegi Preview - Splendid Isolation

There are many things that fans love about MotoGP: The banshee wail of the worlds fastest racing motorcycles; The thrill of watching the best motorcycle racers in the world scrap it out in tough, race-long battles; The extraordinary levels of skill required to put in an inch-perfect lap, and knowing that nobody could have ridden a motorcycle faster. But there's more than just the on-track action which attracts the fans. There's the exhilaration of being caught up in the massed emotions of thousands upon thousands of people who all share the same passion that you do, and celebrate that passion by partying for days on end. That giant group experience is a big part of the pull of MotoGP, that sense of belonging.

Which is why it's strange that the 2009 MotoGP season starts with not one, but two races at tracks which are both a long way from MotoGP's main fan base in Europe, and have a strangely sterile atmosphere. The season opener - when it finally ran on Monday, after rain prevented the race from taking place under the ironically named floodlights on Sunday night - took place at the Losail circuit in Qatar, a vast complex in the middle of the desert, located in a country with a tiny population, very few of whom are particularly interested in motorcycle racing. At night, with the floodlights on, the grandstands at least look full, as these are about the only place where the fans can actually sit. Losail feels a very long way from anywhere.

And the venue for the second race of the season is only a little better. At least Motegi is in Japan, a country with a long history of motorcycle racing, but even then the remarkable facility - which boasts one of the finest racing museums on the planet - is a long way from anything resembling civilization. The only accommodation nearby is the on-site hotel, and links to the outside world are limited.

The Cheap Seats

Once at the circuit, the fact that it is really two tracks in one make it feel even more remote for spectators; The Twin Ring layout, with a short oval and a longer road course, mean that the main grandstands are on the outside of the oval creating a sense of separation from the action. The crowd is a long way from the main straight, which runs on the inside of the oval, the road course sharing no part of the track with the oval.

The reason for this rather strange layout is because the facility was built as a test track by Honda as part of their assault on the US-based IndyCar series, which they later went on to dominate, becoming the single engine supplier - with a little help from Ilmor. This genesis also finds expression in the nature of the track, with the layout designed in such a way to test a range of specific vehicle behaviors under controlled conditions.

The clinically-designed track layout has created a stop-and-go circuit which simply refuses to flow. The track starts with a double right hander which brings the track back on itself, followed by two more left handers, reversing direction again. A sharp right follows, leading onto the only part of the track which really flows. The riders head into the tunnel under the track - a tunnel so dark the bikes should be fitted with lights, according to Nicky Hayden - before hitting a fast right kink and a short straight setting them up for the nearest thing Motegi has to a set of Esses.

Once out of the left-right combination, a sharp left takes the riders up to the hairpin which leads onto the long back straight. At the end of the straight lies another sharp right hander, but there's a twist. The straight dips towards the end, right as the riders are hardest on the brakes, all of the weight over the front wheel. Get it wrong, and the downhill slope is enough to make the difference between making the corner and losing the front as you tip it in, and many a rider has had his race end in the gravel here.

Get through it safely, though, and the riders head back under the oval and off towards the main straight. There's a left-hand kink and a left-right chicane to negotiate, but get through that, and they're back across the straight, and ready to head into the corner at close to 160mph.

The Thirsty Traveler

The stop-and-go nature of the track causes a couple of huge problems for the riders and the teams. The biggest concern for the teams is fuel consumption, as the bikes spend a lot of time with the throttle wide open, accelerating from low speed. Burn through your fuel too quickly, and you risk either running dry, or losing places after the fueling system reduces the amount of power to ensure you make it to the finish line.

The riders face a different problem: The track is very hard on injuries, with four places on the track where the riders are braking at over 1.5g for extended periods. Anyone with wrist, shoulder, neck or back injuries has a tough time at Motegi, as they spend a lot of time bearing one and a half times their body weight mainly through their wrists.

It was this that finally ended Casey Stoner's valiant defense of his championship last year. For over half the race, Stoner looked like holding off Valentino Rossi and at least ceding his title dearly. But his injured scaphoid had forced Stoner to change his style, and this had exhausted him, clearing the way for Valentino Rossi to regain the title he lost two years previously with a win.

This year, Casey Stoner arrives at Motegi after surgery to fix his scaphoid, which is healing well but still limiting his movement. But the carbon-fiber chassis of the Ducati GP9 has solved the rear wheel pumping which plagued the Ducati, and the combination of a much fitter Casey Stoner and a seriously improved Desmosedici proved impossible to beat at Qatar, and offers the prospect of more of the same at Motegi.

Ducati's electronics engineers have fuel consumption for the bike down to a fine art, and Ducati's desmodromic valve actuation helps here too. The system generates much less resistance than conventional or pneumatic valve springs, and so less power is wasted in opening valves against a spring. And Ducati has an outstanding record here, too, Valentino Rossi's 2008 victory ending a run of three Ducati wins in a row at Motegi. Casey Stoner is in unstoppable form, and there is little reason to believe this will change at Motegi.

Not So Fast

The one man capable of preventing a victory at Motegi is the man who won here last year. The roles are reversed in 2009, and Valentino Rossi comes to Motegi with a title to defend. But unlike last season, the MotoGP circus arrives in Japan at the very beginning of the season, rather than near the end, so there is all still to play for. Rossi has had an unhappy relationship with the Twin Ring, having won here just twice in the premier class, in 2001 and 2008, but with a long string of 2nd places. This is not a track Rossi likes at all, and The Doctor will be concentrating on staying as close to Casey Stoner as he possibly can, rather than challenging him outright. That can wait until we return to Europe.

Though Casey Stoner and Valentino Rossi demonstrated they were in a class of their own at Qatar - a situation unlikely to change for a while yet - there are riders waiting in the wings for their chance to join them. Foremost of those are the other Yamaha riders, the 2009 M1 proving to be the best machine on the grid so far. And foremost of the Yamaha men is most definitely Jorge Lorenzo.

Lorenzo's 3rd place at Qatar was proof, if it were needed, that Lorenzo is the best of the rest. But that is simply not good enough for the young Spaniard and he is hungry for more. Lorenzo is still getting used to the Bridgestone tires, and his progress so far suggests there could be more to come for the Fiat Yamaha man. If Lorenzo and his team can find another couple of tenths a lap - not easy, but hardly a Herculean task either - then the Mallorcan can start on his task to usurp Dani Pedrosa as Spain's prime candidate to take the country's first premier class title since Alex Criville in 1999.

If Lorenzo took a little while to adapt to the Bridgestones, Colin Edwards took to them like a duck to water. Edwards has always been a front end man, and the phenomenal grip and stability of Bridgestone's front tire suits his style down to the ground. The Texan has been uniformly quick aboard his Monster Tech 3 Yamaha, but Edwards has a mediocre record at Motegi, suggesting he may not be a factor for victory here. But with so many of his rivals handicapped by a multitude of problems, Edwards could record his best result here for years.

One of those rivals facing problems is Edwards' own Tech 3 team mate, James Toseland. Toseland has had a miserable preseason, facing difficulties adapting to the Bridgestones, and then two huge highsides, damaging both his body and his confidence. Toseland knows he is riding for his job this year and is off to a very inauspicious start, running off track and finishing out of the points at Qatar. The Yorkshireman needs to start rebuilding his confidence, and get his season back on track. JT needs a top 10 finish as a start to being competitive once again.

No Place Like Home

If Toseland is the only Yamaha rider with problems, the same cannot be said for the Honda riders. Ironically, as Honda built the Twin Ring Motegi and still own it, the marque hasn't won a race here since Makoto Tamada won - on Bridgestones - in 2004. Their fortunes are unlikely to change in 2009, ironically again because all their bikes are on Bridgestone tires.

Despite Dani Pedrosa making the switch from Michelin to Bridgestone with five races to go in the 2008 season, HRC have still not managed to set the RC212V up for the Japanese rubber. Better grip from the front end means that weight needs to be shifted rearward, but shift too far, and you end up losing the front, something even the greatest of riders have difficulty coping with. And so the slow process of adapting the RC212V continues, but it is far from complete.

Part of Honda's problem is that their lead rider, Repsol Honda man Dani Pedrosa, missed so much of winter testing with a knee injury. The Spaniard returned to action at Qatar but was only barely fit. Despite his physical problems, Pedrosa showed real grit in getting through the race, even looking competitive until he was nearly knocked off the track by Alex de Angelis. With another two weeks to recover, Pedrosa will arrive at Motegi stronger and fitter, and with more range of motion in his knee. He is unlikely to be fit enough to be a contender, but he should be able to score solid points which he will hope will come in useful at the end of the season.

Pedrosa's Repsol Honda team mate showed plenty of promise at Qatar, just as he did last year on the satellite Team Scot bike. With a 5th place at the last race, Andrea Dovizioso justified the faith that HRC bosses have placed in him. But Dovi's inexperience with factory equipment is working against him a little: Previously, the Italian has excelled at getting the last ounce of performance out of underperforming equipment; Now, though, Dovizioso has more freedom to make changes, a process which is also more time-consuming and carries the risk of going in completely the wrong direction. Add to this having to adapt to the Bridgestone tires, and the Italian has a lot of learning to do. If he can repeat last race's 5th place at Motegi, he will have done well.

Special Case

The other Honda riders are far less fortunate. Toni Elias on the factory-spec Gresini Honda is having the most problems with the tires. The flyweight (despite his stocky appearance) Spaniard is struggling to get heat into the front tire, and can no longer rely on the special soft construction Bridgestone built for him last year. Until Elias either finds a way around this problem, or his team find a setting which solves it for him, Elias will continue to struggle.

For the riders on the satellite spec RC212V, things are not looking much better. Despite Alex de Angelis' outstanding 6th place at Qatar, the fact that his Gresini Honda ran out of fuel on the cooldown lap is a harbinger of ill fortune and empty fuel tanks at Motegi. Fuel consumption will be screwed right back on the satellite bikes to deal with Motegi's stop-and-go layout, leaving de Angelis, LCR Honda's Randy de Puniet and Team Scot's Yuki Takahashi out in the cold. At least de Puniet will have the shoulders of a few Playboy Bunnies to cry on, as the Italian edition of the Magazine will be sponsoring the LCR Honda at Motegi, and then at Jerez a week later.

The team which stands to benefit most from Honda's misfortune is Rizla Suzuki. And they could benefit very richly indeed: The 2009 version of the Suzuki GSV-R is vastly improved, and as Loris Capirossi won the race here for three years in a row, from 2005 through 2007, there's every reason to believe he will be a factor at Motegi. If Capirex gets a good start, and can match the pace of Rossi and Stoner, he may even do battle for the podium, or perhaps victory here on Sunday. The work which Suzuki has done on acceleration could be richly rewarded at Motegi.

And Capirossi isn't Suzuki's only threat. The weather for Motegi is looking decidedly unsettled, with rain almost certain on Saturday, and a good chance of rain for the race. And when it rains, Chris Vermeulen comes into his own. As much as he detests the label of a wet-weather rider, he has earned his reputation as a master of wet conditions, taking a win and several strong finishes in the rain. A wet Saturday would offer Vermeulen a shot at pole, and rain on Sunday could see the Australian causing quite an upset. The Rizla Suzuki team are likely to be happy come rain or shine at Motegi.

Red Mystery

While Casey Stoner continues to destroy all that oppose him on the Ducati Desmosedici GP9, he remains an anomaly. The rest of the Ducati riders face a much more difficult task than the Australian, and nobody has been able to offer an explanation for why this should be so. The burden of this fact is heaviest to bear for Stoner's Marlboro Ducati team mate, Nicky Hayden. Though Hayden continues to make small steps forward with the Ducati, he is still having problems getting to grips with the way the bike adjusts its fueling from corner to corner, and the fact that it is so incredibly sensitive to setup changes.

Add to this Hayden's horrible hundredth MotoGP race at Qatar, his debut on the Ducati despoiled by mechanical issues, electrical issues, a blown engine and then a monster highside, and it seems unlikely that the Kentucky Kid will be troubling the scorers much this weekend. Hayden's main focus will be on recovering his fitness and learning what he can about the Ducati's fickle nature, so that he might tame it better once the team returns to Europe, and Hayden returns to fitness.

Hayden's woes are not helped by Mika Kallio's strong result on the Ducati at Qatar. The Finnish rookie finished 8th in the desert, and has shown signs that he could also have mastered the knack of riding the GP9. Kallio's 8th place prompted speculation that the bike best suits riders who have never ridden a MotoGP machine before, their blank slate approach removing any expectations of how the bike should behave, and consequently allowing them to deal with the bike, rather than how they think the bike should be. It is still early days for Kallio, but the light at the end of the tunnel may not turn out to be an oncoming train after all.

For Kallio's team mate Niccolo Canepa, it's definitely a train. The Italian rookie is grappling not just with the GP9, but also with his first year in the MotoGP paddock, having to learn new tracks, and trying not to be too overawed by the situation. He has gone from student to MotoGP star, and that's a huge transition for anyone to make. He has a lot of learning left before judgment can be felled on him.

Left Field

The real dark horse at Motegi must be Marco Melandri. After the Hayate team announced they would continue with Kawasaki's disbanded MotoGP program, few people thought the bike would be little more than a grid filler. But after the Hayate team managed to solve the rear grip problems that Kawasaki failed to crack in an entire year, the bike has looked surprisingly competitive. Add to this a strangely rejuvenated Marco Melandri, happy because now he is riding a bike that he at least understands, and quite literally anything could happen.

The one thing that we can be sure of is that Melandri and the Hayate team will be hoping for a strong result in Japan. Senior figures from inside Kawasaki are likely to be attending the race, and if Melandri can finish well there, the team may be able to persuade the factory to pour just a little bit more development into the bike, giving them a fighting chance to remain competitive for the rest of the season.

Motegi may not be the ideal place for the kind of MotoGP fiesta which we see at Jerez, Mugello or Brno. The atmosphere may be a little strained, the track is strangely unsatisfactory, and the track's isolation may prevent large numbers of fans from heading to the event. But still there is the prospect of some interesting racing in Japan. The race is likely to be a two-man battle between Casey Stoner and Valentino Rossi, but the outcome of that duel is far from certain; Loris Capirossi and Jorge Lorenzo could prove unwelcome guests at the Stoner-Rossi feast, and disrupt the plans either man may have; And if it rains, as well it could, all bets are off, and the podium could turn out to be completely different from what we anticipated.

After the Qatar race, there was much complaining that the racing had become processional, and the results predictable after just a few laps. Motegi might just throw a curve ball at those complaints, and bring back some interest, and maybe even some excitement. We'll know for sure come Sunday.

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2009 World Superbikes Assen Preview - Double Dutch

The World Superbike series completes its spring migration this weekend, reaching the most northerly point of the season, after starting at its most southerly point just three races ago. For the teams and riders of the series are gathering at Assen, to do battle on the emasculated version of what was once called the Cathedral of Racing.

But as they gather in the paddock, there are plenty of new faces all round. After the Stiggy Racing team set a trend for dumping one rider (Roberto Rolfo) when another, bigger name rider (John Hopkins) became available - prompting rumblings from WSBK regulars that the atmosphere is changing, and this kind of thing belongs more in the MotoGP paddock than in World Superbikes. But needs must when the devil - or rather, Mammon - drives, and so up and down the paddock, riders are disappearing, some to be replaced by others bringing sponsorship, or the hope of better results, while others go to save money and cut costs.

Ayrton Badovini from the PSG-1 Kawasaki World Superbike squad and Shaun Geronimi from the Hoegee Suzuki World Supersport team are two of the names leaving the paddock, Badovini forced out due to a lack of funds, while Geronimi - himself a last-minute draftee to fill the gap in the Hoegee lineup - is being dropped for a lack of results. Not undeservedly, as the former Australian Supersport rider was a little out of his depth on the world stage, persistently finishing last.

Geronimi is to be replaced by a rider who lost out in earlier cost-cutting: Alessandro Polita was due to partner Shane Byrne at Sterilgarda Ducati, but a lack of funding left Polita out in the cold. Polita has extensive experience in the paddock, having won one Superstock 1000 championship and regularly challenged for others, while he has also contested the World Supersport championship, though with less success.

Two new faces will be joining the regulars, though their final destinations are not yet known. Lorenzo Lanzi and Gregorio Lavilla are expected to be present at Assen, and rumors surround where they will be going and who they will be joining. Lanzi was released from his contract to race in the Italian Superbike Championship with KTM Scuderia Corse, and has already announced that he has a World Superbike ride. It's just that he hasn't announced who that is with.

Rumors suggest Lanzi could join Regis Laconi aboard a second DFX Corse Ducati, after a benefactor provided two 2008 Ducati 1098RS' to race. But Lanzi could also replace Brendan Roberts at Guandalini Ducati, the reigning Superstock 1000 champion failing to impress after stepping up to the World Superbike series.

Then again, Roberts could be replaced by Gregorio Lavilla instead. The Spaniard - a former BSB champion who lost his ride when the ProRide Honda team folded before the season started - had been drafted in by the Guandalini team to race their Ducatis in the Italian Championship, to assess the state of the bikes. However, a mixture of severe rain and oil on the track at Misano meant that the race was canceled, raising speculation that Lavilla could replace Roberts as early as Monza, the round after Assen. Lavilla's name has already been linked with the Sterilgarda team, but nothing more has been heard of that suggestions.

But all such speculation is enough to make your head spin, and frankly, there's more than enough racing in the World Superbike series to be able to disregard any financial and contractual shenanigans which may be afoot. For the series is rapidly turning into a two-horse race, with a Japanese veteran aboard an Italian thoroughbred facing off against a Texan riding a Japanese machine with an impeccable racing pedigree.

Both Noriyuki Haga and Ben Spies have taken three wins apiece so far, but Haga has come out on top, as the Xerox Ducati man has three second places to add to his wins, while Spies has put the Yamaha Italia R1 on the podium only once, getting forced off the track in his first race and crashing out of the first race at Valencia two weeks ago.

The two men seemed to have reversed their roles: Ben Spies crashing out of a superbike race for the first time in four years, while Haga has shown uncharacteristic poise and calm to keep posting regular results, more Steady Eddie than Nitro Nori. Haga has always been fast, but his tendency to either crash or have an off day have previously prevented the Japanese rider from getting close to a title. It's looking like it could be Haga's year, but he faces his first big test at Assen, a track he has historically always struggled with, with four DNFs out of the last 6 races at the Dutch circuit.

Spies, on the other hand, faces getting to learn the fast and treacherous track, after turning down the opportunity to ride the Rizla Suzuki MotoGP bike after Loris Capirossi injured himself in practice last year in difficult weather conditions. But Spies has already proved he is a fast learner, and if he treats the fast left hander of the Ramshoek with respect - one of only three fast lefts on the circuit, leaving tires cold and unprepared for the violence of the high-speed turn - he should be in with a shout at a podium, if not more, this weekend.

Though Haga and Spies are dominating, there is a host of candidates aiming to depose them from their throne. Chief among these is Max Biaggi, the Roman Emperor taking the brand new Aprilia RSV4 to outstanding results in the first three rounds of the series. So good has the Aprilia's debut that some team managers - most notably Alstare Suzuki's Francis Batta - have complained that the RSV4 is a prototype and using illegal parts. With Aprilia launching its new superbike a couple of weeks ago, those complaints should start to subside.

Shinya Nakano has not scored the podiums that his team mate Biaggi has aboard the Aprilia, but Assen is a track the Japanese rider has historically done well at, and which suits his style. The bike is fast enough, and Nakano is quickly adapting to his switch to World Superbikes, and could be a factor in Holland.

The Aprilia has some way to go before it is as competitive as the Ducati 1098R, though. Nori Haga's Xerox Ducati team mate Michel Fabrizio and Regis Laconi on the privateer DFX Corse bike demonstrated the quality of the Ducati at the previous round in Valencia, Laconi taking a brace of fourth places, while Fabrizio podiumed twice. Fabrizio will be hoping for a better outing at Assen than he had here last year, posting two DNFs, but on his current form, he should be a contender.

With Haga, Fabrizio, Laconi and even Guandalini's Jakub Smrz posting respectable results, Shane Byrne's form on the Sterilgarda Ducati is rather mystifying. The reigning BSB champion is no stranger to the tracks, having ridden them in MotoGP several years ago, and much more was expected of him after being very impressive in preseason testing. Only time will tell whether Byrne will find his feet quickly, but as always a large contingent of British fans will be on hand to cheer Shakey on, and hope that Assen will be the point at which the season swings back in his favor.

If Ducati has only one underperforming rider, Honda has a whole gaggle of them. Before the season started, both Johnny Rea and Carlos Checa were being tipped as possible title candidates. But an indifferent start to the season has seen the Ten Kate boys floundering firmly in mid-pack, with no obvious reason for their misfortune. The '09 CBR1000RR is not hugely different from the '08 bike, which Carlos Checa and Ryuichi Kiyonari managed to book multiple wins on. The team needs to find some answers if they are to get back to the front of the field again.

The only Hondas that have looked remotely competitive have been the Stiggy Racing bikes. Leon Haslam had a strong start to the season, getting on the box at Phillip Island, and has consistently been the best Honda. At Valencia, he was joined by a new team mate after Roby Rolfo had been unceremoniously dumped, and great things are to be expected of John Hopkins. But Hopper has unhappy memories of Assen, being caught out by a cold tire at the Ramshoek, and smashing his ankle. There's no doubting the American's quality, but he may be just a fraction more cautious at the track which bit him so badly last time he was here.

With all the media attention being focused at newcomers, poor Max Neukirchner is getting a raw deal. The German has had an outstanding start to the new season, consistently running at the front of the field, and putting the Alstare Suzuki on the podium twice so far. Neukirchner had a strong showing at Assen last year, taking a third and a fifth in 2008, so the chances of the German getting on the podium are very good indeed.

While the Hondas have had a miserable time in the World Superbike class, they are faring considerably better in World Supersport. Ten Kate continue to feature prominently, with Kenan Sofuoglu winning the first race at Phillip Island, and reigning champion Andrew Pitt finishing in second place twice. But new boy Eugene Laverty has made an impressive entry into the class, putting his Parkalgar Honda on the top of the box at Qatar, after a fourth place in Australia. And Ant West continues his impressive run on the Stiggy Honda, having finished on the podium in 5 of the 6 World Supersport races he has competed in so far.

But Honda are not having it all their own way. Another rookie, British rider Cal Crutchlow, took a win for Yamaha at Valencia, after judging the damp circumstances to perfection, and blasting past West on the last lap in Spain. And Kawasaki's Joan Lascorz has proved to be a strong contender so far, though a failing rear tire saw his hopes of home glory retire at Valencia.

There will be a gaggle of local wildcards at Assen as well, but a couple of the WSS regulars could throw up a surprise. Suzuki's Barry Veneman was incredibly competitive at the end of last season, but has had a poor start to 2009, currently down in 10th in the championship. His results have improved every race, however, and he will be keen to put on a show in front of his home fans. The other dark horse at Assen could prove to be RES Veidec's Arie Vos. The reigning Dutch Superbike champion has had a very modest start to the season, failing to score points so far, but improving at every race. The man who has dominated the Dutch championship as utterly as Mladin and Spies dominated the AMA will be keen to score his first points at his home race, and with local knowledge - and a round of the Dutch championship here under his belt just two weeks ago - he could well finish well up the order.

The depth of talent in the World Supersport promises a close and exciting race, and they have plenty to live up to. The 2008 race here was one of the most thrilling we have seen in a long time, with eight to ten men battling for victory until the final lap, and the first five across the line covered by just over a quarter of a second. With the sun due to shine for most of the event, and warm Dutch spring weather on offer, the conditions are right for another great weekend of racing. Assen is a track that can throw up some close racing, with the final GT chicane the deciding factor in so many races here. The World Superbike series visit here should see several more thrilling finishes decided at that final corner.

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2009 MotoGP Qatar Race Report - Rain Of Terror

It's been a long winter. It's been five and a half months since the MotoGP bikes burnt rubber in anger on a race track, with only the amuse-bouche of the official IRTA Test at Jerez two weeks ago to still MotoGP fans' hunger. And with the winter test schedule curtailed as part of the extensive package of cost-cutting measures introduced after the global economic crisis blindsided MotoGP - along with the rest of the world, so it seems - even the scraps gleaned from testing were fewer and further between.

So the sense of excitement at the MotoGP season finally getting underway at Qatar was palpable, and the buzz of interest echoed around the internet, in bike clubs, on rideouts, and in workshops. Further encouraging the chatter were the myriad changes to the series: New riders had entered the class, as well as an old one, in the shape of Sete Gibernau, making his return to racing after a two-year layoff; New tire rules had been introduced - for the third year running - with Bridgestone now the sole supplier, only 20 tires and two compounds available for each rider, and no more special, sticky qualifying tires; Other rules had also been changed, with the Friday morning practice dropped, and the remaining sessions cut from 60 minutes to just 45, effectively halving practice time, and a minimum engine life to be enforced in the second half of the season.

Anyone wondering how the changes would affect the weekend saw their question answered immediately. Within seconds of the pit lane opening, a whole gaggle of riders took to the track, eager to maximize every second of setup time available to them. It looked a lot less like MotoGP practice and more like a 125 session, where the short practice sessions - and large grids - guarantee that there is always some action on track somewhere. But after the two free practice sessions, MotoGP looked remarkably familiar: Casey Stoner had shot to the top of the timesheets from his first full lap out of the pits, and barely relinquished his spot there. Valentino Rossi was the only rider capable of getting close to Stoner's times, while the Yamahas of Jorge Lorenzo and Colin Edwards were the best of the rest.

The only person missing from the front was the man who had swapped last year's #2 plate for #3, Dani Pedrosa. The diminutive Spaniard had fractured his wrist and reopened an old knee injury in a monster highside testing at Qatar in February. Since then, his knee had been immobilized, and Pedrosa himself estimated his fitness at "70, maybe 80%". But he had not come to Qatar to win, just to limit the damage in what promises to be a very tough championship race indeed. After two sessions, Pedrosa was gaining strength and speed, and looking more competitive than expected.

Sticky Substitute

Qualifying was the next big mystery. Before the super-sticky qualifying tires were scrapped, the qualifying practice always played out to a set script. The first half hour would be spent on setup, then the first qualifiers would start to go on, until the final 10 minutes turned into a hectic dash to set a single hot lap. With only race tires available, that would surely change, right?

Not quite. Bridgestone had brought two different compounds to Qatar: a medium and a softer one. From early in the first practice session, it became clear that the harder tire would be the one to use in the race, so after spending the first half of practice on race setup, teams starting throwing in the softer tires to try and move their way up the grid.

Though the script was the same, the outcome as subtly different. On a qualifying tire a brave - or perhaps, foolhardy - rider could push right to the limit, and snatch grid positions ahead of riders less willing to risk it all ahead of race day. On the softer race tires, everyone went faster, but the differences were smaller. The grid ended up as a reflection of the fastest riders in practice - Casey Stoner on pole, with Valentino Rossi and Jorge Lorenzo beside him on the first row, while Andrea Dovizioso headed up the second row, with MotoGP veterans Loris Capirossi and Colin Edwards alongside.

False Start

On Sunday night, as the bikes lined up on the grid, MotoGP's long winter of discontent was nearly at an end. The time for talking was over, and the time for racing had arrived. Unfortunately, it had arrived at literally the same time as an unusually rare desert rainstorm: The grid cleared for the start of the warm up lap just as the heavens opened, the pit crews rushing back onto the grid as fast as they had deserted it for the start of the race.

Under normal circumstances, this would only be a minor inconvenience. The bikes would be rolled into the pits, fitted with full wet tires, and the race would be restarted as a wet race 10 minutes later. TV schedules would remain unchanged, and the fans appetites would be sated, though the race might turn out a little different than they expected. But Qatar is a night race, and the penalty for staging what is truly a technological marvel is that even a relatively small amount of rain can leave the track surface shiny enough to make racing impossible.

The floodlights which illuminate the track have been ingeniously position to avoid dazzling the riders as they pass, based on lighting specialist Musco's years of experience in North America. When it rains, all that work goes to naught, as the lights reflect off the water on the track, blinding the riders and making it impossible to see where the track ends and trouble begins.

Mirror, Mirror

This had already happened to the 125 class. The evening had started with drops of rain disrupting the start of the first support race, growing in intensity until the race was red-flagged after the 4th lap, as racing became outright dangerous. After an enforced period of inactivity, until the skies and the track cleared, the 250s then ran a severely shortened race, in an attempt to get the MotoGP race back on schedule, and ready to hit the TV window so carefully prepared for it by a swathe of European broadcasters.

It was not to be. The rain came just as the commentators were warming up for the start. Race direction's "race delayed" signed chased the teams and riders to the shelter of the garage, and the ensuing downpour made it clear that no racing would be taking place in the next hour or so, if not longer. A series of meetings followed, between Dorna, the teams, the manufacturers, the QMMF (who run the event), the FIM, and the rumors about the race flew. The first rumor was that it was to be canceled, and then postponed. Loris Capirossi suggested it be moved to the slot vacated by the cancellation of the Hungarian Grand Prix, in mid-September, whilst others were for a quicker attempt, at 6am the following morning.

Debate, sometimes heated, rumbled on, and facing a logistical nightmare - an army of trucks stood by, ready to take the freight containers off to a cargo plane, to be flown to Japan for the next round at Motegi - it was agreed to race the next day. But what time? Arguments now broke out about whether to race during the day (the riders' preference) at the same time, or earlier in the evening. In the end, it was decided to run the race two hours earlier on Monday night, and in the wee hours of the morning, everyone headed off to bed.

As the rain fell, the cameras continued to run, showing the growing pools of water on the track. The sight, shown live on the video feed of the official MotoGP.com website prompted one internet wit to comment, "Motogp.com feed still running, I can only hear 2 guys speaking Arabic about the weather machine sent from World Superbike working perfectly." With the World Superbike season off to a thrilling start while MotoGP was yet to begin, such a conspiracy seemed almost conceivable.

This Time For Real

And so, 22 hour later, the riders finally lined up on the grid, ready to race, and with no sign of the rain that could put a permanent end to the event. Much to the relief of the riders, it has to be said. The riders had been left fired up and frustrated at being pulled off the grid at the last moment. Valentino Rossi summed it up best: "It was like making out with your girlfriend, then having your mother walk in on you." On Monday, the coitus was not to be interruptus.

As the red lights dimmed, and the eighteen-strong grid released two days of pent-up energy through the last of their Bridgestone tires, MotoGP's winter finally came to an end. The 2009 season started the way that the 2008 season ended, with Casey Stoner howling his Ducati GP9 off the line and leading the pack into Turn 1.

Having followed Stoner's progress at first hand during testing, Valentino Rossi knew he couldn't afford to let the Australian out of his sight if he wanted to have a chance of beating him. Fortunately for the Doctor, the loss of the qualifying tires have improved his chances of starting from the front row, with no one-hot-lap specialists to get between him and Casey Stoner.

Blocking Motion

Unfortunately for Rossi, he is still not the world's best starter. As the pack headed into Turn 1, the Italian found the powder blue of Loris Capirossi's Rizla Suzuki blocking his way, and the Fiat Yamaha of his team mate Jorge Lorenzo snapping at his heels. Coming out of Turn 3, Lorenzo was even closer, and as the two team mates entered Turn 4, it was Lorenzo who had the inside line. Rossi may have been ahead, but he could not close the door on Lorenzo: the Spaniard already had his foot firmly wedged there. Stuck with the outside line, Rossi then had to watch Lorenzo lever the door open, and pass in the second of the double right handers, taking third and forcing Rossi down into fourth.

Rossi didn't need this. He may have counted on his team mate putting up some resistance later in the year, once Lorenzo was fully comfortable with the new tires, but not yet. To make things worse, both Casey Stoner and Loris Capirossi were considerably quicker than Lorenzo, Stoner streaking ahead while Capirex chased as hard as he could. With Stoner leading, Rossi could waste no time. Pushing the Spaniard all the way round the second of the Losail circuit's three "fingers", he lined Lorenzo up on the exit of the tight left of Turn 10, then ran hot and wide through Turn 11 ready to snatch the inside line into Turn 12. Lorenzo had no answer, and Rossi was free to chase the leaders.

He had a lot of work on his hands. Rossi was already over 2 seconds down on Casey Stoner, and had Loris Capirossi between him and his main rival. The Doctor set about his disposing of this first obstacle, chasing his veteran compatriot down on lap 2, arriving on Capirossi's tail as they reached the start of the straight. Though the Suzuki has been vastly improved over the winter, its one weakness remains top speed, and down Qatar's kilometer-long straight Capirossi's chances were minimal. Into Turn 1, Rossi was out of the draft and off chasing Stoner.

I'm Coming To Get You

The delay had proved costly. Just three laps in, and Rossi was already 2.8 seconds down to the man who had proven he was the fastest man on a motorcycle race after race for the past two years. That was a very big gap, but not impossible to overcome, and Rossi set about chipping away at Stoner's lead. Over the next six laps Rossi gained a tenth here, a tenth there, slowly clawing the gap back to under 2 seconds. On lap 10, Rossi's forward progress ceased and the gap stabilized.

It would not stay that way for long. Seeing Rossi too close for comfort, Stoner cranked up the pace, taking back the time lost since lap 3 in just two laps. A couple of laps later, and the difference was up to 3.5 seconds, the largest it had been all race. With the three quarter mark approaching, Rossi had to react now if he was to catch Stoner. Pushing hard, he took back two tenths in one lap, but next lap, he could only hold station. Time was running out.

Behind Rossi and Stoner, another duel with a history was playing itself out. After being passed by Rossi, Loris Capirossi quickly fell back into the clutches of Andrea Dovizioso and Jorge Lorenzo. Dovizioso had already wormed his way past Lorenzo on lap 4, and was quickly gaining ground on Capirossi. A lap later, Dovi was past, and another lap on, Lorenzo had joined him. Little was left of Capirex' fast start, the Rizla Suzuki man now going backwards quickly. Two laps later, just as Capirossi fell back into the clutches of Colin Edwards, Dani Pedrosa and Chris Vermeulen, the Italian crashed out, losing the front pushing to keep the chasing trio behind.

After getting past the unfortunate Rizla Suzuki man, Lorenzo had set about chasing down Andrea Dovizioso. The Italian had used the opportunity presented by passing Capirossi to put some space between himself and Lorenzo, and by the time the Spaniard got through, Dovi had a second and a half on him. But Lorenzo was warming to his task, and was right on the tail of the Repsol Honda within two laps, and past going into Turn 1 at the start of lap 8. The Fiat Yamaha man was now in his stride, and was clearly quicker than Dovizioso, putting 7/10ths a lap on the Italian almost every time he crossed the line.

In The Court Of The Crimson King

As fast as he was, his pace was no match for the two men at the front. Casey Stoner and Valentino Rossi were on a different planet, half a second and more faster than the rocketship Lorenzo. Out at the front, the battle-at-a-distance had seesawed to and fro between Stoner and Rossi, but after the Italian had closed the gap on Stoner, the Australian shifted from another planet to another galaxy. From lap 16, Casey Stoner dropped the hammer, holding his pace while Rossi dropped back, his tires starting to cry halt.

Stoner's advantage started to increase by half a second, then a second a lap, and by the time he crossed the line to take the win, Casey Stoner had nearly 8 seconds over Valentino Rossi, including a celebratory stand-up wheelie out of the final corner and across the line. Stoner had dominated the weekend from start to finish, with only a very few minutes when he hadn't been the fastest man on track. He had capped the practice performance by leading from the moment the bikes left the line, his lead only ever briefly under two seconds after the end of the first lap.

After the race was over, Stoner revealed just how utter his domination had been. The bike had had a fuel consumption problem in the early laps, Stoner told the press, and he'd had to use a different style to compensate. Once sure he was going to make it, Stoner reverted to his natural style, and crushed all before - or rather, behind - him. This is now the third race in a row that Casey Stoner has won here at Losail, and though the track certainly suits the Ducati, the way Stoner attacks the track is awe-inspiring. The opposition has been warned.

Valentino Rossi understood that warning all too clearly. Though he, too, managed a wheelie across the line, it was a very half-hearted attempt, Rossi obviously unhappy at having been forced to settle for second. And throughout the TV interviews in parc ferme, as well as the podium ceremony and the official post-race interviews, it was clear that Rossi was putting on a brave face, and underneath his expressions of joy was a deeply worried man.

Rossi had suffered tire problems at the end of the race, which left him unable to match Stoner's pace at the end, but realistically, he had lost the race in the very first yards. Getting caught behind Loris Capirossi going into the first corner had allowed Stoner to build an unbridgeable lead by the time Rossi could start to chase the Australian. Last year, Rossi learned that he needed to be on the front row of the grid if he was to challenge Stoner for the win. At Qatar, Rossi learned that he needs to get into the first corner together with Stoner if he is to stand a chance of beating him.

The Apprentice

To an extent, the same could be said of Jorge Lorenzo. Once past Dovizioso, the Spaniard was too far behind the leaders to offer any kind of opposition, and rode a lonely race to come home third. But even if Lorenzo had not been held up by Dovi, it is unlikely that he would have been able to match the pace of Stoner and Rossi. Lorenzo has made a huge step forward in adapting to the Bridgestone tires, but is still coming up just short in comparison to the two favorites for the title. As the season progresses, Lorenzo will close that gap, and his rapid progress so far suggests that moment will come sooner rather than later.

Being passed by Lorenzo would not be the last of Dovizioso's woes. As the Italian's pace began to drop, he fell back into the clutches of Colin Edwards, the Monster Tech 3 Yamaha man cementing his practice form with a rock solid race. Edwards had been crowded down to 9th place at the end of lap 1, but had fought his way forward, dispatching first de Puniet and Vermeulen and finally Dovizioso to take 4th place. Like Rossi, if it hadn't been for that poor start, Edwards could have conceivably had a chance of a podium, if only a slim one. The crew chief debacle which played out over the winter in the Tech 3 garage has worked out well for the Texan, and as the third Yamaha in the top four, he certainly has the equipment to get the job done.

A mixture of equipment and a lack of experience left Andrea Dovizioso to finish in 5th. With Dani Pedrosa missing much of testing due to injury, and this the first time Dovizioso has been on a factory team, development on the Repsol Honda RC212V is definitely lagging. At Qatar, it showed, and the Honda continues to struggle with rear grip just as Valentino Rossi's Yamaha did when he made the switch to Bridgestones for 2008. As the bike improves - which it surely must, given the might and ingenuity of HRC - so will Dovizioso's fortunes. First, though, his patience will be tested waiting for those improvements.

Downfield Thrills

If the race had been rather processional at the front, the battle for 6th had been far more interesting. Colin Edwards had been the first candidate, but soon checked out to chase Dovizioso. This left Dani Pedrosa, Chris Vermeulen and Alex de Angelis in prime position, with Pramac Ducati's Mika Kallio closing from behind. Pedrosa, only just recovered from serious knee surgery which saw him immobilized for four weeks and barely able to bend his left knee, put up a valiant attempt at hanging on to 6th spot, but by lap 10 his position was looking precarious indeed.

Next time round, Chris Vermeulen came though into the hairpin at Turn 6, forcing Pedrosa wide. As the Spaniard ran on to the rumblestrip, de Angelis seized the sliver of a chance to squeeze past too, ramming into Pedrosa's already injured knee as he used all the track, including the part occupied by Pedrosa's Repsol Honda. Miraculously, Pedrosa managed to stay on board, but the incident knocked his confidence and saw him go backwards from that point on.

Seemingly oblivious to the incident, Alex de Angelis set off after Vermeulen, and a couple of laps later was past the Australian too. The man from San Marino held a comfortable lead to the line to take a creditable 6th place. Worthy of mention here is that he did so on a standard satellite RC212V, beating the other two factory-spec bikes belonging to Pedrosa and de Angelis' Gresini Honda team mate Toni Elias. His 6th place finish proved once again that on his day, Alex de Angelis is fast. But the incident with Pedrosa proved that he is also still reckless.

Unable to stay with de Angelis, Chris Vermeulen took the #7 Rizla Suzuki home to 7th. Still lacking in outright power, 7th is respectable finish on the Suzuki, and Capirossi's early pace and Vermeulen's decent finish show there's plenty of potential both in the bike and in the riders. At circuits where top speed is less of a necessity, the Rizla Suzuki could prove to be a formidable factor.

Beast Of Burden

Behind Vermeulen, there were signs of hope for Ducati. Ever since the 800cc Ducati Desmosedici hit the track, it's been a complete mystery why extremely capable riders such as Loris Capirossi, Alex Barros and Marco Melandri should have struggled so badly on it, while Casey Stoner has destroyed the field on the same bike. During winter testing, the 2006 World Champion Nicky Hayden has been mid-pack at best. But at Qatar, class rookie Mika Kallio put on a convincing display of fighting through the field from 12th at the end of the first lap, to finish the race in 8th place. Kallio has also set the occasional fast time in practice and in testing, and so far, looks like he might just be getting a handle on the bike. Ducati may not have to rely on just one man for their results in the medium term any more.

Another rider to get a poor start was Toni Elias, slipping from 12th on the grid to 15th at the end of lap 1. But Elias pushed his way forward, to end the race in 9th place. Elias is having the same problems with an overly aggressive engine response that the other factory riders are suffering with, and has the added problem with the spec Bridgestones. Because of his size - barely larger than Dani Pedrosa - the smiling Spaniard is finding it hard to get heat into the front tires. Previously, Bridgestone used to make a special tire with a softer carcass for Elias, which would deform and heat more easily. But the single tire rule put an end to that, with the two different tires available both having the stiffer construction favored by Rossi and Stoner. Elias will have to find a solution to these problems, and find it quickly: His fight through the field may have been valiant, more will be expected of Elias now that he has a factory spec RC212V at his disposal.

In 10th place, Randy de Puniet rode an unremarkable race on the LCR Honda - not sponsored by Playboy, as the bike will be for the next two rounds, much to the chagrin of much of the male-dominated paddock. On the same bike as Alex de Angelis, and starting from 7th on the grid, the Frenchman should have been capable of more.

Fortune Favors The Brave

After coming close to being knocked off by de Angelis, Dani Pedrosa slipped back through the field, finally to finish in 11th spot. Taken at face value, an 11th place finish for HRC's #1 rider is not good at all, but considering the condition in which Pedrosa entered the weekend, it was a gutsy and clever performance. Pedrosa had got gradually quicker over the weekend, slowly building up speed, and until the incident with de Angelis had been running pretty well. Having a bike slam into his bad knee and nearly knocking him into the dirt must have shaken Pedrosa's confidence, as well as causing him a great deal of pain. Bringing the bike home in one piece to score some valuable points despite serious injury, while not the ideal start to the season in which he is under pressure to deliver the title, was a strong exercise in damage limitation.

Pedrosa was lucky to hang on to 11th, though. After an utterly disastrous weekend - electrical and clutch problems in FP1, a blown engine in FP2, followed by a huge highside during qualifying - Nicky Hayden ended the race better than he started. While the pace of the rest of the field tailed off throughout the race, Hayden - battered and bruised, and with a cut on his chest - got faster, setting his fastest lap in the final lap of the race. In the process, he almost caught Pedrosa, a sight which surely spurred him on to that final fast lap, but eventually came up just a third of a second short.

Hayden is still struggling to comprehend the Ducati, and has been among the most vocal critics of the reduction in practice and testing. The jury is still very much out on whether Hayden will actually manage to tame the GP9, but even if he doesn't, it won't be for want of trying.

At least Hayden finished ahead of two of the other Ducatis. Sete Gibernau was the next man home, finishing 13th, after struggling with his fitness. The shoulder Gibernau injured in the huge crash at the start of the 2006 Catalunya Grand Prix continues to cause him problems, and after the race, the Spanish superstar confessed he was pleased at just having been able to complete the race. With this many problems still so early in the season, it is entirely possible that Gibernau won't be able to see the year out. Though you have to admire Gibernau's determination in wanting to make a comeback, you may well doubt the wisdom of it.

Dark Horse

From one questionable return to another. Many people wondered what Marco Melandri had to gain from coming back to ride a bike which was universally considered pretty awful. But at the tests here a month ago, the Hayate team found some solutions to the rear traction problems which have plagued the Kawasaki for years, and at both the IRTA test at Jerez and the practice sessions, Melandri looked entirely capable of finishing well inside the top ten.

And if it hadn't been for an overly optimistic entrance into Turn 1 at the beginning of the second lap, that might well have happened. After running off into the gravel, and losing 23 seconds on the leader Casey Stoner, Melandri rode a strong race, fighting his way back past three riders who had a 10 or more second advantage over him, to finish the race in 14th place, and score points. Most importantly, Melandri is cheerful about the whole affair, and comfortable on the bike. Marco Melandri is going to cause one or two upsets this year.

The same can't be said for Yuki Takahashi. The Team Scot Honda rider came up to the MotoGP class after a strong season aboard the underpowered Honda in the 250 class. But unlike Andrea Dovizioso, the man whose footsteps he is following, Takahashi is having a good deal more difficulty adapting to the MotoGP bikes. Losing the extra time in testing and practice isn't helping, but the single point Takahashi scored for his 15th spot may be one of just a handful the Japanese rider will accumulate this year.

Of James Toseland, surely much more can be expected than 16th. The Englishman has had a nightmare start to the season, suffering a huge crash at Sepang in early February, then putting in a repeat performance with a massive highside at the IRTA test at Jerez. Little has gone Toseland's way so far, and the race was little different. The Monster Tech 3 Yamaha rider ran into the gravel on lap 7, and was left chasing the rest of the pack. Toseland's team boss Herve Poncharal has already made it clear that he expects results from the Briton this year. A 16th place finish simply won't be good enough.

Last across the line was Pramac Ducati's Niccolo Canepa, a position the Italian is likely to fill for the rest of the season. The Italian youngster is making a massive leap this year, from student and Ducati test rider to competing in MotoGP, and so far, Canepa has been overawed by the experience. A little familiarity with the series, and a return to the tracks he knows a little better may help the Italian's confidence.

Look On My Works, Ye Mighty

At least the fans - the few who were left in Qatar, and the millions who saw the race on TV - saw some racing, something which looked highly unlikely on Sunday night. The rain exposed the weakness of the night race setup, and though the lighting scheme is truly a technological marvel, if racing can be stopped in its tracks by even relatively light rain - though the rain on Sunday night was much heavier - then all that technology goes completely to waste, leaving the teams, riders and fans to twiddle their thumbs waiting for something to happen.

And this single point of failure in a MotoGP weekend is the result of decisions made to address two problems. The race itself is at night, to allow the teams, bikes and fans to escape the searing heat of the Qatari desert, a perfectly laudable aim. But because Qatar has a contract to be the opening round of the season, the race has to be held in the nearest thing the country has to a wet season, and the period when rain could and did cause the event to be postponed.

Because of this contract, and after the experience of last year when cold temperatures saw dew forming on the track during practice, making conditions treacherous, the Qatar Grand Prix was pushed back a month, compressing the season and making an already punishing schedule even more difficult.

The solution to this situation is remarkably simple: Either run the race during the day in March, when daytime temperatures are bearable, even pleasant, and rain wouldn't delay the start of the race, or drop the guarantee of being the season opener, and run the race at night in August or September. At that time of year, night time temperatures are perfect for bike racing, and in the middle of the dry season, the chances of rain are approximately zero rather than just rather small. It's hardly rocket science, but contracts and hubris will leave the opening round of MotoGP at the mercy of the elements for the foreseeable future.

The More That Things Change

Apart from fascinating facts about the weather in Doha, the biggest lesson from the season opener at Qatar was about the effect the new tire rules had on the racing. The loss of the qualifying tire meant that the result of the race bore an uncanny resemblance to the positions riders qualified, with the top three the same, and only minor differences further down the grid. On the one hand, this could be said to be fairer, as the grid is no longer distorted by riders capable of running a single fast lap, but not able to maintain that pace for the entire race. But on the other hand, the element of chance has been removed, and with no obstacles placed in their way, the best riders start at the front and stay at the front.

This is the area which is most likely to see a change, to try and reintroduce some of the excitement - though the qualifying session itself was more exciting than expected. No doubt the powers that be are watching the new Superpole format currently being used in World Superbikes, with an eye to its applicability to MotoGP.

And the single tire rule has had another major effect on racing, and one which its proponents probably didn't expect. Those who hoped that a single tire would make the racing closer have been disappointed, as the race was as processional as last year. But thinking logically about it, this is exactly what you would expect to happen. The argument for putting everyone on equal equipment is that rider skill will be become the sole determining factor in the outcome of the race, rather than the abilities of the engineers.

But what happens when everyone is on the same equipment is that it is easier for the best riders to beat lesser men, and the emphasis on rider skill means the gaps will grow larger, not smaller. After all, a less skillful rider cannot compensate by using the better equipment to his advantage. In effect, you make another Welkom 2004 - where Valentino Rossi beat Max Biaggi on his first time out on the Yamaha M1, a vastly inferior machine to the Honda RC211V - a complete impossibility.

Two Men Enter, One Man Leaves

Most of all, what we learnt from Qatar 2009 was that there are two riders who are streets ahead of the rest of the field. The title battle will come down to Valentino Rossi and Casey Stoner in 2009, and it could get very close indeed. But if Rossi is to be able to beat Stoner on a regular basis, he will have to work on his rather poor starts. If Rossi can get in the way of Stoner and disrupt his rhythm, then Valentino Rossi stands a chance. But if the Italian keeps getting swamped going into the first corner, then in his current form, Casey Stoner could quite easily win every race of the season.

Next stop is Motegi. We shall see just how much has changed there.

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2009 MotoGP Season Preview - Everything In The Balance

MotoGP faces the 2009 season assailed from all sides. On the sporting front, they face a rejuvenated and growing World Superbike series, as well as a Formula One season full of intrigue and - gasp - overtaking; On the financial front, budgets are shrinking as sponsors tighten their purse strings to deal with the global economic crisis; On the technical front, rule changes are being hastily introduced in the hope of cutting costs, to loud protest from fans and press alike; And on the manufacturing front, the series lost a major manufacturer and gained a private team, after Kawasaki decided that spending over 50 million euros a year to circulate at the back of the pack was not a wise investment. With criticism rising at emptying grids and a lack of overtaking, and the prospect of MotoGP's Sun King retiring in the not too distant future, the sense of crisis that pervades the series is almost palpable.

And yet there is so much to be optimistic about this year. The series fields arguably the greatest motorcycle racer of all time, still at the height of his powers and being pushed to the limits of his exceptional talent by the fastest motorcycle racer on the planet. It features a brace of Spaniards with the talent to usurp the two men who dominated the series last year. A veteran star returns to the grid bringing the promise of excitement, to add to the improved chances of series veterans switching to more competitive equipment. In their third year, development on the 800cc machines is starting to plateau, the performance differences between the machines now less painfully obvious. The single tire rule introduced for this season looks like confounding the naysayers - including your humble correspondent - by proving to be perfectly workable and as fair as can be expected. 

So despite the crisis, and the complaints that MotoGP is growing boring, there is every reason to hope that the racing will be closer this year, and some of the excitement that has been mostly absent for the past two seasons could make a welcome return to the series. For as much as the series looks familiar this season, there have been some radical changes since the teams last packed away their bikes at the end of the Valencia Grand Prix in October.

All Change

First and foremost of these is the switch to a single tire supplier. The move was made in an attempt to cut costs and reign in the relentless pace of tire development, to stop the bikes from smashing lap records year on year, and to level the playing field. Drawing up the balance of preseason testing, it has only been partially successful. 

Costs have definitely been cut, but only for the teams. With Bridgestone now paying for development and production out of its own pocket, the series now acting more as a marketing opportunity rather than a development test bed. So far, lap times have been anything but cut, with lap records falling over the winter on the new tires, but this is hardly a surprise, given the strength of Bridgestone's tires at the end of last season. 

An unintended consequence of having everyone on the same tires is that the level playing field only accentuates the differences in rider skill, meaning Casey Stoner and Valentino Rossi are leading the rest by an even bigger margin than before. Ironically, the more you emphasize rider skill, the bigger the gaps between the great riders and the merely good, and the less close the racing gets.

If there is one lesson that could be taken from the history of single tire rules, it is that the rules are only really successful in making the racing closer when a new entrant or a weak competitor is awarded the contract. When Pirelli was given the World Superbike deal, they were the worst of the tire manufacturers providing tires to the series, and being comprehensively beaten by Dunlop and Michelin. It took many years for the lap records from before the rule change to be beaten, and development has been slow indeed, making luck and tire management important factors, and keeping the racing exciting. Perhaps Dunlop should have been awarded MotoGP contract after all...

Not On Track

The most visible change will be the reduction of practice time, and the loss of Friday morning. A boon to the fans - who will be given better access to the previously hermetically sealed MotoGP paddock and a chance to get up close and personal with their heroes and idols. But the loss of an hour of track time makes it harder for rookies to get up to speed in the class, and is likely to be used by potential sponsors as an argument for reducing the sums they pay, in proportion to the amount of possible exposure available to them. In reality, the amount of exposure lost will be fairly minimal, as the morning practices were never televised anyway. Unfortunately, business deals - and especially sponsorship deals - rarely reflect reality, but rather the ability of one side to outmaneuver the other. Just ask Rizla Suzuki.

So in this Brave New World, who can we expect to prosper, and who will end up as the Epsilon Minuses? Who will adapt to the new rules, and who will find themselves swept aside by the tide of history, to linger forgotten like a child's toy in a drawer? Let us review the prospects for each rider, and how the manufacturers will cope.

Hayate - The Fallen Hero

After it was announced that the moribund Kawasaki would return as the Hayate team, the bike was expected to be more like Frankenstein's monster, rather than a Phoenix rising from the flames, an impression reinforced at the dismal Qatar test in March. But at the IRTA test at Jerez, Marco Melandri put the Hai-Karate bike, as wags have labeled it, firmly mid-pack. Solutions had been found to the lack of rear traction which had troubled the bike at Qatar and all last season, and suddenly, Melandri was 12th fastest on the weekend, instead of 18th. 

More significantly, Melandri looked happier than he ever did at Ducati, and for a rider as sensitive as Macio is, this is a big deal. After the tests, the Italian told the press that his situation was totally different than it had been at Ducati, that he understood the limited support the team would get from Kawasaki, and that he felt more comfortable on the bike than he had for years. In the right frame of mind, Melandri is capable of working wonders, even on inferior equipment, and we just might get to see that Melandri once again this year.

The question mark over the entire project is the support that Kawasaki will provide over the season. Development of the bike stopped after the tests at Jerez, as the factory had previously announced. But it is still uncertain for how long they will continue to provide parts. When the Kawasaki pullout was announced, Michel Bartholemy said that the factory had enough parts to run a two-bike team for 4 - 6 races, which would leave Hayate just short of enough engines to last the year fielding just a single rider. With the reduction in practice times, and a little help from the factory, Hayate should just be able to see out the season. Though with no development on the bike, Melandri is likely to find himself slipping back through the field as the season progresses. He can only hope that he impresses someone enough to get another chance at a seat for 2010.

Suzuki - The Dragon Awakes

Over at Suzuki, the team are back in pendulum mode. Suzuki seem to have a strange internal biorhythm which sees them improving one year, only to fall back again the next. 2009 finds Suzuki back on the upswing again, the team showing very strongly in preseason testing. Most notable of all, though, is where Suzuki have been strong: Everywhere. In previous years, Suzuki showed well at Qatar, only to be well down the field at Phillip Island. This preseason, though, Suzuki have been in or close to the top 5 at every track they've visited, including the bogey Phillip Island, where they have never been able to perform. The Suzuki looks like a genuine threat this season.

Which will come as a relief to their riders. No longer the veteran of the paddock, Loris Capirossi is still capable of competing. Though winless last year, Capirex is a podium regular, even on inferior equipment. The Italian was hampered last year by an under-performing Suzuki, but still managed to take a third at Brno. Capirossi has also managed to avoid injury, traditionally his weak spot, and a healthy Capirex on competitive equipment is a force to be reckoned with, as he showed in 2006, before the big crash at Catalunya ended his title chances. The Italian won't be winning the championship this year, but he should feature regularly on the podium.

He could be joined there by team mate Chris Vermeulen. The Australian is a proven winner in the wet, though he loathes the label, and if it rains, Vermeulen automatically becomes a candidate for victory. But it's not just in the wet that Vermeulen is capable. His record at Laguna Seca, for example, is outstanding, a podium regular and unlucky to have coolant problems ruin his chances of a win in 2006. But at Misano, too, Vermeulen is extremely capable, and at a number of tracks, the Australian is going to be the man to watch.

Yamaha - The New Boss

As strong as Suzuki are, they still have a long way to go to match the might of Yamaha. Since the beginning of last season, the Yamaha has become what the Honda used to be: Fast, reliable, and the bike that anyone can ride quickly. Three of Yamaha's four riders got on the box last year, and the M1 won ten of the eighteen MotoGP rounds. Though the bike is still down a little on top speed, its previous weakness on drive out of corners has been addressed, and the M1 now loses little or nothing to the Ducati and Honda on corner exit. This year, like last year, the Yamaha is going to be the bike to beat.

And that's not just because of the riders Yamaha has. Of course, put Valentino Rossi on anything, and he will be competitive, at the very least. But on an improved version of the bike he took the championship with last year, Rossi will be almost impossible to beat. It's not just the bike, though: Valentino Rossi just seems to go from strength to strength, getting better almost every year, gaining maturity and racecraft to more than compensate for any loss of youthful reflexes.  

The one question hanging over Rossi is his motivation. Rossi lost his first championship to Nicky Hayden after losing his focus in the off season of 2006, and only recovered the title in 2008 after seething at the loss of two titles in a row. Having regained his crown, Rossi has openly spoken of his need to find new goals to help him keep his focus, and has mentioned both the possibility of a wildcard in World Superbikes and his regret at not having joined Ferrari in Formula One, indicating that his mind could well once again be wandering. If Rossi is beaten in 2009, there have to be doubts over whether he will hang around for the second year of his contract.

Fortunately for racing fans, Rossi could find just the motivation he needs facing Casey Stoner, the only man realistically capable of taking the title from Rossi. There is nothing Rossi responds to like a challenge, and the challenge from Stoner is likely to be stronger than ever this year. The Doctor has work cut out for him.

We'll get to the challenge posed by Stoner later, but Rossi could face a threat from much closer to home as well. Jorge Lorenzo, Rossi's Fiat Yamaha team mate, took a little time to adapt to the Bridgestone tires, but at Jerez, it appeared his apprenticeship was complete. The Spaniard set the fastest time on the first day of the Irta test, and was consistently among the front runners. With a win, a string of poles and a handful of podiums last season, Lorenzo's talent is undeniable.

What was more interesting was his attitude at Jerez. Whenever he was asked by journalists what his chances for the championship were in 2009, he always demurred, saying he could hope at best to finish third. But his modesty was purposeful, if not quite contrived, and he never failed to mention that the pressure was on Rossi, Stoner and Dani Pedrosa, rather than himself. "They have to win," he kept repeating, "not me." The look in his eyes, however, said that though he didn't have to win, he surely wanted to. Lorenzo is content to serve as a good team mate to Valentino Rossi, knowing he is Yamaha's future, while Rossi is their present. His chance of a title will come later, but if he gets a whiff of a win, he will take it.

Tantrum Town

Over in the Monster Tech 3 Yamaha garage, the team mate situation is reversed. Last year they were one big happy family, but after the crew chief affair - one is tempted to call it Reyndersgate, as the -gate suffix seems to be back in vogue in racing again - turned the cozy atmosphere sour. In a spat worthy of a preschool playground, Colin Edwards has had a wall put up in the Tech 3 garage, to underline his indignation with James Toseland, after Toseland "kidnapped" his crew chief Garry Reynders at the end of last season. The situation has gotten so far out of hand that Tech 3 boss Herve Poncharal has stepped in, taking Colin aside for a quiet word to ask him to tone down the personal attacks.

The spat seems to have invigorated Edwards. The Texan has quickly adapted to the Bridgestones, the outstanding front tire suiting his 250 style perfectly. As a consequence, Edwards has been strong all throughout testing, and looking competitive. Though we say this every year, this could be the year that Colin Edwards finally gets his first win in MotoGP. But if Edwards leaves Le Mans, Assen and Laguna Seca empty handed, we will have to wait for 2010 to make the same prediction once again.

While Edwards prospers, James Toseland has suffered. The Briton, who started the season so promisingly at Qatar last year, has not coped with the switch to Bridgestones well at all. His times have been mediocre at best during testing, but worse than that, he has suffered a couple of huge crashes, breaking bones and denting his confidence. At Jerez, Toseland was just starting to regain the confidence he lost after his crash at Sepang, when another huge highside saw him knocked briefly unconscious, and broke a bone in his foot. Toseland's contract is up at the end of this year, and unless he gets the podium he probably deserved last year, he could find himself a candidate to return to World Superbikes in 2010. Which may be no bad thing.

Ducati - The Fickle Mistress

While the Yamaha has been the bike to suit any rider, the Ducati continues to be incredibly fast for those who master its idiosyncrasies, and utterly terrifying for those who don't. Though the new carbon-fiber swing arm seems to have cured the rear-wheel pumping the Ducati suffers from, making it marginally less intimidating on corner exit, the electronics and the sensitivity to setup changes provide a set of challenges all of their own. The use of specific fuel mapping for different parts of the track means that the bike responds differently at different corners, making it a confusing and difficult bike to ride to the limit.

Difficult for everyone except one man, that is. The 2007 World Champion Casey Stoner has mastered the Ducati Desmosedici like no one else, and can bend the GP9 to his will, exploiting its incredible power and fantastic drive out of corners to completely slay the field. Stoner is fast from the moment the bike rolls off the truck and onto the track, to the moment he enters parc ferme at the end of the race, all too often to stand on the top step of the podium. There truly is no faster man on the face of the planet.

With the GP9's carbon fiber frame providing another step up in performance, Casey Stoner could well turn out to be as unstoppable in 2009 as he was in 2007. Though Stoner has many detractors - his simple, straightforward demeanor rubs fans of the flamboyant Rossi up the wrong way - his return to form sets up the most mouthwatering clash in motorcycle racing. Stoner's incredible pace will push Valentino Rossi to the very limit if Rossi wants to be the immovable object blocking the Australian's unstoppable force, and the season offers the prospect of the breathtaking knife fight of Laguna Seca '08 being played out several more times this season. It will take every weapon in Valentino Rossi has in his armory to beat Casey Stoner, and even then, victory is far from assured. This year, the two best motorcycle racers on the planet will face each other on comparable equipment, both with their sights set on victory. It's going to be a spectacle worth waiting for.

If we had a foretaste of the racing that we could be seeing at the Laguna Seca round last year, two rounds later, we had a foretaste of the thing that could ruin any chance of seeing a repeat. Casey Stoner reopened an old scaphoid fracture at Misano, and rode the rest of the season in pain, before having an operation to fix the problem in November. 

Since Stoner has returned to testing, all eyes have been eagerly examining the timesheets, to gauge whether the Australian is capable of running race distance yet. So far, Stoner has been very cagey about the subject, retorting to any questions on the subject with the phrase "I don't need an endurance test." For the sake of the series, MotoGP needs Casey Stoner to be racing with a healthy wrist. For if he is fit, then the epic match-up between the 2007 and 2008 World Champions will be on.

As for the 2006 World Champion, he is at least glad to be out of the hornet's nest that is the Repsol Honda garage. But that doesn't make the Marlboro Ducati garage a much easier place. At least the atmosphere is more to Nicky Hayden's liking, a family environment suiting the family man that Hayden is at heart. 

It's not the team that is the problem, though. Like almost every other mortal on the planet, Nicky Hayden is finding the Ducati GP9 a hard beast to tame. At Jerez, Hayden looked downcast, as he struggled to understand how to get the best out of the machine, but he keeps scratching away at the problem, trying to get some leverage on the issues he has. Though Hayden may not be able to ride the bike like Stoner does, he will find a way to at least make a decent stab at it. He won't be winning the title this year, but he should be closer to the pointy end than he has been for the past couple of years.

Junior High

The Pramac Ducati team - in reality, more of a junior factory team than a satellite operation - faces exactly the same issues. Apart from a single fast lap during the dash for the car at Jerez, Mika Kallio has struggled with the Ducati as much, if not more, than Nicky Hayden. A lot has been made of that single fast lap, but so far, the rest of Kallio's times have not been anywhere near the rest of the field. The step up from 250s may still be bigger leap than we think, especially if you are leaping on to the Ducati.

His team mate Niccolo Canepa at least has had plenty of time on the bike. Employed as one of Ducati's test riders last year, the 20 year-old Italian has not so much struggled with the bike, as with the transition from part-time student to full-time MotoGP rider. Ducati have said that only Canepa, Stoner and test rider Vito Guareschi are capable of riding the GP9 the way that its designer, Filippo Preziosi meant it to be ridden. So far, Canepa has not shown much sign of that in testing, but the year is still young yet.

The same cannot be said of Sete Gibernau. The 36 year-old Spaniard makes a return to racing after two years away from MotoGP, after a shoulder injury forced him into retirement. But a divorce and enough time for his injury to heal has seen Gibernau make a return to MotoGP, much to the excitement of the Spanish press and Gibernau's still large fan base. 

Testing has shown that Gibernau is still capable of riding fast - though more mid-pack rather than podium pace - but two questions hang over the Spaniard. The first is whether his shoulder will hold up to a full season of racing. Problems have already emerged, and Gibernau said during testing that it wasn't yet strong enough to run a full race. Even a relatively minor crash could damage Gibernau's shoulder enough to rule him out for a number of races, and a big crash could end his career. Given Gibernau's history of taking a tumble - ironically, often through no fault of his own - there are very good odds that he won't see out the season. 

The other question for the Spaniard is why he would want to be associated with a brutal dictator. After the bikes were unveiled at Jerez, all mention of Equatorial Guinea (a country run by Teodoro Obiang Nguema Mbasogo, one of the most corrupt dictators in Africa and a man with a reputation for murdering any opposition he faces) had been removed, the bike instead bearing a rather fetching color scheme. Many - including this commentator - were fooled, until someone pointed out that the paint scheme neatly matched the flag of Equatorial Guinea, the country where Francisco Hernando - of the eponymous Grupo, and a man with a reputation for dubious business practice himself - is building a luxury resort for unwitting Spanish tourists. Gibernau needs neither the money nor the stain on his character which comes from being associated with such misdeeds.

Honda - The Crumbling Giant

Perhaps the most surprising conclusion to be drawn from the off season is that the Honda suffers from the same ailment as the Ducati. Just as at Ducati, there has been only one rider to make a dent in the timesheets. While Dani Pedrosa has been able to match the pace of Stoner and Rossi, the rest of the Honda riders, including Andrea Dovizioso and Toni Elias who are both on factory-spec RC212Vs, have been a significant chunk of time off the leaders. For the factory bikes, the problem seems to be one of power delivery: the Honda makes plenty of horsepower, but it comes in abruptly and aggressively, making it hard to control. While for the satellite machines, the rev-limited machines leave the bikes down on power compared to the rest of the field, though the softer power delivery makes it easier to keep up.

As is the case at Ducati, the Honda's aggressive power delivery doesn't seem to affect Dani Pedrosa. The diminutive Spaniard has been fast at every session he has attended. Which is not as many as he would have liked to: Pedrosa was forced to miss the IRTA Test at Jerez in March, after a huge highside at the night tests at Qatar saw him fracture his wrist and reopen a knee injury, requiring surgery to close it back up again. Though his recovery is proceeding as expected, Dani Pedrosa's condition is still far from certain. Indeed, as I write this, less than 24 hours before the first free practice session is due to start, it remains uncertain whether Pedrosa will actually ride. The Spaniard has limited motion in his knee, and even if he does race, he will be far from fully fit.

Pedrosa's crash also highlights the problems Honda are still having adapting the bike to the Bridgestones. Compared to the Michelins, the Bridgestones have a much better front but a slightly worse rear tire, meaning that the weight distribution of the bike needs to be completely reworked. Because the front tire has so much more grip, it needs less weight on it, while the rear needs more to compensate for the reduced grip of the rear Bridgestone tire. Pedrosa's highside suggests that HRC still haven't found the correct balance yet, and too little rear grip caused the bike to catapult Pedrosa out of the saddle and into the hospital.

This is exactly the kind of start that Pedrosa doesn't need. Pedrosa was recruited by Repsol and Honda to bring a championship to Spain, and so far he has failed to deliver. He enters his fourth season under heavy rumors that this will be his last with the factory Honda team if he doesn't take the title, a very heavy burden to place on such slight shoulders. Adding insult to injury, it was in Nicky Hayden's fourth season that he won Honda's last championship. If Pedrosa should fail where the man that he and his mentor have accused of being unable to set up a bike succeeded, he will be given his marching orders.

The question of whether or not this is fair is reasonable, but irrelevant. Repsol put a very substantial amount of money into the Honda team, with the goal of maximizing exposure in their home market in Spain. Fairness and reason simply do not enter into the equation: If Pedrosa cannot get the job done, another Spanish rider will be found to tackle the task.

The main thing that Repsol refuses to take into consideration here is the competition that Pedrosa faces. Casey Stoner and Valentino Rossi are the best riders of their respective generations, and as talented as Pedrosa is, on a bike that still isn't matching the pace of the Ducati and the Yamaha, the task of beating them may be too great. Pedrosa is being called upon to fight Muhammad Ali and Sugar Ray Robinson with one hand tied behind his back.

Howdy Partner!

In previous years, Pedrosa at least had an experienced rider at his side to help with development - leaving aside the aspersions cast by Pedrosa and his mentor Alberto Puig on Nicky Hayden's abilities in that area. This season, Pedrosa has a man who, despite his obvious talent, has never had the chance to develop a bike in a full fat factory team. So far, Andrea Dovizioso's talent has been to take an under-performing satellite bike (or in his 250 days, a bike on which development had effectively ceased) and squeeze the last drop of speed out of it to make it surprisingly competitive. He has had astounding results with this approach, giving Jorge Lorenzo a run for his money in the 250s aboard a vastly underpowered Honda, and then putting the Scot Honda on the podium at Sepang, a place where the most standard of the satellite Hondas had no business to be.

The question is, do those same skills translate into the ability to develop a bike in a factory team? As a satellite rider, Dovizioso has shown himself a master of tweaking a fixed set of parameters to get the best out of a bike. But in a factory role, Dovi now has the opportunity to alter the parameters themselves, before trying to tweak the new setup they provide. 

So far, Dovizioso has been perhaps a little disappointing, but only because of the very high expectations he raised with his 2008 performance. Dovi has been firmly mid-pack, sometimes a little better, but he has not been running at the front, where it would be reasonable to expect to see the Repsol Hondas. And with Pedrosa injured, a lot of the development work has fallen on Dovizioso's still young shoulders. 

To his credit, Dovi has remained calm and unflustered. His quiet intelligence and rather introverted nature are assets in the role he has taken upon himself as a factory Honda rider. We shall see how he copes as the season progresses.

The other rider who could help with bike development is Toni Elias at Gresini Honda. The Spaniard is undeniably fast, and has on occasion featured near the top of the timesheets during testing, but Elias faces a serious problem with the new tire rules. Because he is so small and light - only a fraction taller and heavier than the diminutive Dani Pedrosa - Elias is having enormous problems getting heat into the front Bridgestone. Before the single tire rule came out, Elias was having a special front made for him with a softer carcass, which heated more quickly by deforming more. But as all the tires are the same now - only one construction and two compounds will be available at each race - Elias no longer has that option. And as the tires being used are based on the tires developed for Casey Stoner and Valentino Rossi, both of whom favor a much stiffer construction, Elias faces a problem.

Ever cheerful even in the face of adversity, Toni Elias will have to find a way to deal with these problems. The fact that he has managed to get close to the fastest riders during testing on occasion suggests that though Elias is unlikely to mount a consistent title challenge, he should be capable of getting on a few podiums this year. The man may lack consistency, but he surely has talent.

Off The Beaten Track

The same could be said of his team mate Alex de Angelis. The man from San Marino is mercurial indeed, capable of getting close to the podium one race, whilst crashing out first lap the next. The key task for De Angelis this year will be to finish more races, and only then try and improve his results. No one doubts his speed, they just doubt his ability to stay aboard the bike every race. De Angelis badly needs to improve in this area, if he is to stay in MotoGP. Fausto Gresini, manager of the Gresini team, has a great deal of faith in the young Italian, but is all too aware of de Angelis' limitations. 

What Alex de Angelis can do, Randy de Puniet can do better. The Frenchman has shown both on the Kawasaki and on the LCR Honda that he is more than capable of running at the front of races, but de Puniet has two problems: Endurance and consistency. All too often, de Puniet qualifies well or finishes well up the order during practice, but examine the times, and you see that his fast time was a single fast lap, or one of just a couple. In races, too, the same pattern appears: De Puniet runs fast for the first part of a race, before fading. Whether this is a matter of fitness or of motivation is unknown, but if he could fix this problem, it would be a big step on the way to fulfilling his potential.

De Puniet's other problem is his consistency - though a cynic may say that he is all too consistent. As anyone taking part in a fantasy league which requires you to pick the first rider not to finish knows, Randy de Puniet (along with Alex de Angelis) are money in the bank. De Puniet's strike rate is improving, finishing more races this year than last, but he still manages to crash far too often. This point is illustrated by an interesting statistic: Randy de Puniet has yet to complete a single full race lap at Misano. So far, both times MotoGP has visited the track, de Puniet has crashed out on the first lap. He will have to do something about that if he is to ever be competitive.

Of course, one factor keeping de Puniet in MotoGP is his nationality - though his talent also plays an immensely greater role. For Yuki Takahashi, this is even more the case, as the Japanese factories - and especially Honda - want a Japanese rider on the MotoGP grid. Unfortunately, their record has not been good in the series, and the same looks to be true for Takahashi. While he was impressive in the 250s, he has seemed out of his depth on a MotoGP bike, and has so far been a firm fixture at the bottom of the timesheets, along with Pramac's Niccolo Canepa. Takahashi needs a lot more time to adapt to the bike, but will at least have some support from Honda while he acclimatizes. 

The irony is that while the factories have struggled to find a competitive Japanese rider in MotoGP, World Superbikes seems to have plenty. Both Noriyuki Haga and Yukio Kagayama have proven to be extremely competitive in the production-based series, with Haga the hot favorite for the WSBK title this year. Meanwhile, a string of riders coming up through 125s and 250s has failed completely to make a mark in MotoGP, with Makoto Tamada the last Japanese winner in the series.

Que Sera?

MotoGP was already having problems raising the money to field a full grid when the economy was doing well, and the global economic crisis has left the series in a very precarious situation indeed. Looking ahead to the 2009 season, there are reasons to hope and reasons to despair, with no way yet of telling which way the dice will fall.

The reasons for despair are obvious, and have been discussed at length here and elsewhere. The change to the 800cc formula raised costs almost exponentially, whilst simultaneously ruining the racing and failing to fix the safety issues they were meant to address. The increased expense has focused minds back at the factories on the rationale for MotoGP, which basically only serves as a marketing showcase for their technological prowess. Other factories may decide, as Kawasaki has, that spending upwards of 60 million dollars a year to be lose in the must public of arenas may not represent a sensible investment of their marketing budget, and pull out of the series as well.

There is every reason to fear this could happen. Over the winter, rumors emerged that both Suzuki and Honda would withdraw from MotoGP, with both factories eventually making public statements that they decided to stay in the series because their racing heritage obliged them to be in MotoGP. With sales of motorcycles continuing to fall, and the Japanese economy in long-term trouble, the racing heritage line will start carrying less and less weight. While MotoGP could probably survive the withdrawal of Suzuki, if Honda went, the blow would be fatal.

And the omens are not good. Honda's CEO, Takeo Fukui, is due to step down in June, to make way for Takanobu Ito. Fukui worked his way up the company through years spent in HRC, and had motorcycle racing almost in his blood. Ito comes to the helm of Honda from Honda's car R&D department, and has never spent time in the motorcycle racing division. Ito's view of motorcycle racing is likely to be very, very different indeed. If Honda fails to secure a title once again this season - and with Dani Pedrosa starting the season still seriously injured, that is an entirely realistic scenario - then Honda may decide that their investment in MotoGP is not giving them the return they require, and pull out. There is a palpable fear in the MotoGP paddock that it would be all too easy for HRC to take this step, leaving the series with only 11 bikes on the grid next year, with the Hayate gone too.

In the short term, this would be disastrous for MotoGP, but in the long term, it could be the saving of the system. The more manufacturers there are in the series, the more competitive it becomes, and the more the teams have to spend to win. The more they spend, the more imperative it becomes to win, and costs spiral out of control in a vicious circle, whatever the regulator - in the shape of the FIM - tries to do. With Honda, one of the biggest spending of the factories, out of the equation, the remaining factories could slow the vertiginous pace of development, bringing the costs back under control. Out of the ashes, a new series could rise, hopefully cheaper and more stable.

Reasons To Be Cheerful

Of course, none of this is a foregone conclusion. An exciting year with close battles could once again raise the profile and the adrenaline levels in the series, and money could start flooding into MotoGP. Despite the developments of the bikes - almost every rider has described racing an 800cc MotoGP bike as like "playing a video game on fast forward" - the 2009 season shows plenty of promise. 

The Yamaha has improved enough to get close to matching the pace of the Ducati, helping to level the playing field. Valentino Rossi has found the tools he needs to beat Casey Stoner, whilst showing Casey Stoner exactly what those tools are. Stoner is anticipating all of Rossi's moves, and is ready to counter them. The two men are at the height of their powers, and neither is willing to give a nanometer to the other. There is every reason to expect that this year, more races will turn into the kind of heart-stopping knife-edge battles we saw at Laguna Seca last year. Stoner is fractionally faster than Rossi, but Rossi is the marginally better racer. They will be pushing each other beyond the limits of endurance right to the end of the season. Barring accident and injury, the title chase could go down to the wire.

Though there appear to be only two genuine title candidates, there are plenty of exciting developments going on behind Rossi and Stoner as well. Jorge Lorenzo had a stellar rookie year, and this year will be even better, and could be capable of matching the title duo's pace, stealing valuable points and making the championship a complicated and tricky affair. Dani Pedrosa is a proven talent who is riding for his contract, if not for his career. And with Alvaro Bautista and Marco Simoncelli poised to enter the class next year, there are a host of riders fighting to keep their places in MotoGP. 

If MotoGP is to survive, it needs a season of fireworks. There is very good reason to expect just that. 

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2009 World Superbikes Round Valencia Report - Red vs Blue

World Superbikes, Race 1

With three poles and three wins in a row, all eyes were on Ben Spies at the start of the first Superbike race, but they would have been better focusing everywhere. Spies fluffed the start, diving into the first corner in fifth place, behind a gaggle of Ducatis. Regis Laconi led the way, ahead of Noriyuki Haga, Max Neukirchner and Troy Corser.

Laconi was not to lead for long, Haga deking out the Frenchman after just a couple of corners, Neukirchner following in his wake. The German waited for the front straight to pounce, unleashing the speed of his Suzuki to take the lead over the line. But Haga had been expecting him, and dived back inside into Turn 1 to take back the lead, and was off.

At one of Noriyuki Haga's strongest tracks, Ben Spies knew that he couldn't afford to let the Japanese Ducati man get way. Gifted one position when Troy Corser crashed out from a promising 4rh place, Spies started to chase Regis Laconi down. The Frenchman was fast losing ground to Haga, but still fast enough to be troublesome, as it took Spies until lap 5 get past the DFX Corse Ducati. 

By this time, Haga's lead was up to 2 seconds over Max Neukirchner,  and 2.7 over Spies. The Texan turned his attention to the next obstacle in his path, Neukirchner's Alstare Brux Suzuki. Over the course of four laps, he hunted the German down, but as he entered Turn 1 right on the German's tail, he pushed the front a fraction too hard, sliding down gracefully into the gravel and out of the race. Next time around, Haga's pit board read "19 OUT", and the Xerox Ducati rider knew the race was in the bag. He put his head down, and ran fast, smooth laps to take a comfortable win.

While first place was quickly settled, the race for second was much closer. For most of the race, Max Neukirchner looked to have a firm hold on the second step of the podium, but Haga's Ducati team mate Michel Fabrizio was charging hard through the field. Crossing the line in 8th place on the first lap, the Italian fought his way forward, then closed steadily on Neukirchner as the race reached its conclusion. 

With three laps to go, Fabrizio was close enough to pull  out of Neukirchner's draft at the end of the straight, passing the German into Turn 1. Neukirchner did not just lie down and roll over, but try as he might, he could not get close enough to repass the Italian, and had to settle for third, ceding the top two steps to the Xerox Ducati riders.

Regis Laconi finished just off the podium to make it three Ducatis in the top four, while Leon Haslam, perhaps spurred on by the attention his brand new Stiggy Racing team mate John Hopkins was receiving, took his Honda to finish fifth. Hopkins himself finished 11th on his first World Superbike outing, the second Honda across the line, and ahead of Ryuichi Kiyonari on the Ten Kate Racing machine. The other Ten Kate riders had a nightmare of a race, Johnny Rea crashing out on the first lap, Carlos Checa running off twice, before finally pulling into the pits.

Of the new manufacturers to enter the series, Max Biaggi finished best, fighting his way forward from 18th on the grid to take 8th place on the Aprilia, while Ruben Xaus was the sole BMW to finish, climbing from 19th on the grid to take a couple of points in 13th.

Results of race 1

World Superbikes, Race 2

After his poor start in the first race, Spies tried to get off the line better in race two, but the pole position was still not translating into the holeshot for the Yamaha man. Instead, it was Regis Laconi who once again launched into the lead from the line, but the Frenchman ran wide into the first turn, allowing Max Neukirchner and Michel Fabrizio to get by. 

To make matters worse, Laconi had a charging Noriyuki Haga behind him, and pushing hard. So hard that the Japanese rider was past before the lap was over. Seeing Haga past Laconi, Spies followed, diving underneath the DFX Corse Ducati into Turn 6 to take fourth place. But try as he might the Texan couldn't follow Haga, who was on another planet at Valencia. Another lap, and Haga was past team mate Fabrizio, and a lap later, Spies followed Haga's example once again, passing the Italian into Turn 1, just as Haga had. As the front runners entered the long and spectacular left hander of Turn 13, Haga was pushing Neukirchner hard for the lead, finally taking it into Turn 1.

Haga was flying, and immediately started to gap the German. Behind Neukirchner, Spies was following Haga's example again, and pushing the Suzuki rider hard. A lap later, the Texan was by Neukirchner, into Turn 6 once again, and off to chase the race and championship leader.

That effort was in vain. Noriyuki Haga was unstoppable at Valencia, and there was nothing Spies could do to stop him. Haga increased his lead lap by lap, to take his second win and a glorious double by over 5 seconds, which included time lost in a big standup wheelie across the line. 

Spies was lucky the race was not longer. After giving up on chasing Haga, the Texan spent the last few laps nervously watching Michel Fabrizio and Regis Laconi approach. The two Ducatis had gotten past Neukirchner early on, and set about chasing Spies, Laconi stalking Fabrizio all the while. But their charge came too late, Fabrizio narrowing the gap from 3 seconds to just over 1, holding off Laconi to take the final podium spot.

Behind Laconi, Leon Haslam completed a brace of 5th places on the Stiggy Honda, confirming his standing as the best Honda rider so far, and finishing ahead of local hero Carlos Checa on the nearest thing the World Superbike paddock has to a factory Honda, a Ten Kate machine. After a blistering start, Max Neukirchner had gone steadily backwards to finish the race in seventh.

If the race had been three laps shorter, MotoGP refugee John Hopkins would have taken a very respectable eighth place finish, on a new bike and new tires, with only practice and qualifying to understand the quirks of the machine. But Hopper had used up his tires in the early running, and was forced to allow first Max Biaggi, then Ryuichi Kiyonari, Tom Sykes, and finally even Shakey Byrne past, finishing the race in twelfth. However, given the weakness of last year's Kawasaki, the American must be hopeful of a much better season this year than he had in 2008.

If the Qatar race had seen Ben Spies dominate the races, passing riders at will and winning almost effortlessly, Noriyuki Haga struck back in the same vein at Valencia. Haga and Spies both have three wins to their name this season, and are clear favorites for the 2009 World Superbike crown. But Haga has had three second places to go along with those three wins, and his consistency is starting to pay off.

Results of race 2

World Supersport Race

If the World Superbike races were cut-and-dried affairs, the World Supersport event was a good deal more messy. A light drizzle delayed the start by 8 minutes, turning the track damp enough to make the going tricky but not wet enough for rain tires, while the returning sun dried the track surprisingly quickly.

The difficult conditions favored courage over experience, and the Supersport field has both in abundance. Though Ant West led into the first corner, by the time the field was halfway round the track, the lead had swapped at least four times, with Michele Pirro crossing the line on the Lorenzini Yamaha, ahead of Matthieu Lagrive, Ant West and local hero Joan Lascorz.

Lascorz had dominated practice at Valencia, only pipped to pole by Yamaha's Cal Crutchlow in the last few minutes of qualifying. And in the early laps, the Motocard Kawasaki man looked to have the situation under control. But by lap 7, the Spaniard started to struggle, and spent the rest of the race going backwards through the field.

By the time Lascorz started going backwards, the situation at the front of the field had settled down. Early runners Lagrive and Pirro had been dropped off the back of the leaders, while Cal Crutchlow, Ant West and Kenan Sofuoglu started to pull away. It was clear that the winner of the race was one of these three men, but the question of who was far from settled.

The lead swapped regularly at the front, with Crutchlow leading at first, then West hitting the front, repassing the Yamaha when Crutchlow got ahead. Though Sofuoglu threatened in the first half of the race, he faded slowly in the latter half, giving up ground to the Stiggy Honda and factory Yamaha. 

With Sofuoglu gone, West slowly started to eke out an advantage, but it was never enough to escape fully. But Crutchlow was biding his time, the British newcomer chasing the Australian down, before pouncing as the bikes screamed down the front straight to start the final lap. Once past, Crutchlow was gone. West had used up his tires holding the Yamaha off, and was forced to settle for second, giving Crutchlow his maiden win. 

The Briton's victory was impressive, and capped a mature and intelligent performance for the weekend. Crutchlow had built slowly, improving session by session, capping the surprise pole with a convincing win. And after a disappointing outing at Qatar, West will not have been too sad to only finish second at Valencia. The Australian is continuing his remarkable streak of results in World Supersport, only ever having been off the podium once in six races.

Kenan Sofuoglu finished third, nearly 8.5 seconds behind the leading pair, to equal Crutchlow on points, and put his attempt to recapture the title he left behind for a poor year in Superbikes back on a strong footing. Mark Aitchison added a strong finish to a good start to take fourth, ahead of early leaders Michele Pirro and Matthieu Lagrive. 

Barry Veneman improved his results on the Suzuki to finish 8th, while the winner at Qatar, Eugene Laverty, could only manage 9th. Laverty was well on the pace with his Parkalgar Honda, his lap times consistently in the top 3, but the Irishman had been caught out by the damp conditions in early running, and was left with too much to do when the going improved. Andrew Pitt was the biggest loser at Valencia, struggling with a lack of grip to finish just 13th, and slipping from first in the championship to fourth.

The three World Supersport races have given us three different winners, from three different teams and two different bikes. For the past 7 years, Ten Kate have dominated the World Supersport series, earning it the disparaging title of the Ten Kate cup. This year, though, it's different, and while Ten Kate are still very much the team to beat, there are plenty of teams capable of beating them. Once again, the World Supersport series is shaping up to be the most exciting racing series in the world.

World Supersport race results

Total votes: 128
Total votes: 42

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2009 Valencia World Superbikes Preview - WSBK Comes Home

There is a long and healthy history of international rivalries in motorcycle racing, and these rivalries change with each generation. In the 1960s and 1970s, there was a clash of East vs West, as the Japanese manufacturers entered, then dominated the world championship series, forcing out the European makes. In the 1970s and 1980s came the clash of the Americans versus the British, which culminated - and was exemplified by - the Transatlantic Challenge.

In the 21st Century, the chief rivalry has been more provincial. It is a rivalry between two countries separated not by a continent or an ocean, but just a few hundred miles of scenic coastal road. But it is a rivalry perhaps more intense than ever, as it encompasses not just riders or manufacturers, but entire World Championships.

The MotoGP series is a strongly Spanish, or perhaps even strongly Catalan affair, the organizer being based in Barcelona and the series full of Catalan teams and riders. The World Superbike series, on the other hand, is an almost entirely Italian affair, the organizers, the teams, the riders, even the dominant bikes to a large extent Italian. A walk through the World Superbike paddock is like taking a stroll through a small Italian village, with groups of men gathered in small groups talking and gesticulating furiously in that unmistakably Italian style.

So inevitably, there is friction when World Superbikes encroaches on Spanish territory. The Spanish national TV broadcaster, TVE, barely rates the series worth a mention, having splashed a considerable portion of its outside broadcast budget on MotoGP - though the fact that a rival broadcaster has the rights to the series may also have something to do with the lack of interest from TVE.

And Italians in one form or another are likely to feature heavily at the Valencia round of World Superbikes. Now back in Europe, very much the home of the series, the championship is rapidly developing into a battle between two Italian teams. The irony, though, is that one of those Italian teams was set up to race a Japanese bike, to be ridden by an American rider, while the other team may also be fielding an Italian bike, the rider is instead very Japanese indeed.

For so far, the World Superbikes can be summed up in a single rivalry: Haga vs Spies. Noriyuki Haga inherited the Ducati that belonged to Troy Bayliss, arguably the best rider ever to sling a leg over a World Superbike machine. While Haga is no slouch - the Japanese rider has already achieved legendary status, despite never having won a world title - merely inheriting last year's title-winning bike has failed to turn out to be the sinecure predicted by so many in the press. After winning the first race, Haga has put in an impressive runs of consistent second place finishes, and so far this season has only finished on the top two steps of the podium.

Haga's  problem is that he keeps coming second to the same rider. When Ben Spies finally joined Yamaha in World Superbikes, the general tone of reaction in Europe was rather patronizing. This did not improve after Spies scored zero in the first race at Phillip Island, despite being punted off the track twice. But after winning the next three races, the tone has changed, especially after the second race at Qatar where Spies controlled the race behind Haga, made his move, then went on to win comfortably, the result never really in doubt. 

Indeed, the most eagerly anticipated World Superbike season is fast developing into something of a disappointment. Ben Spies looks virtually unstoppable, while Nori Haga is the only rider so far to look capable of putting up any resistance. Prior to the season, many commentators were predicting there would be an unprecedented number of winners in World Superbikes this year. After Qatar, it is quite conceivable there will be only two.

But not if Max Biaggi has his way. If World Superbikes is an Italian series, then Biaggi is the very epitome. An Italian rider on an Italian bike run by an Italian team is exactly what the Flammini brothers who run the series want to see. And an Italian rider on a competitive Italian bike is even better. The Aprilia RSV4 has been the surprise package so far this year, on the podium at just the second round of the season, and unlucky to miss out on a podium two weeks before. With the Aprilia at the beginning of its development cycle, and Biaggi determined to win another world title to go with his previous 250 cc crown, Biaggi will be pushing hard to do better than third at Valencia.

While Ducati, Yamaha and Aprilia have monopolized the series so far, Valencia could see Honda return to the front of the fray. For a start, they have a highly-motivated Spaniard keen to put on a show for his home crowd, and make amends for his last-lap error here last year, when he threw away a certain podium by trying to dive up the inside of Suzuki's Max Neukirchner, taking both himself and Neukirchner out in the attempt. A podium in race two was gratifying, but not the result Checa was after, and he will be out for a home win at Valencia, if at all possible.

But Checa will be joined by other strong Honda riders, as well as a fascinating series debutant. Stiggy Racing's Leon Haslam has already had one podium this year, and the Swedish team is looking seriously competitive so far, with more podiums doubtless to come. And Haslam is joined by a remarkable team mate at Valencia, the injured Roby Rolfo making way for new boy and MotoGP refugee John Hopkins. After seeing his factory Kawasaki MotoGP ride go up in smoke over the winter when the Japanese factory pulled out of the MotoGP series in a desperate attempt to save money, Hopper was left without a ride until he was saved by a Scandinavian, with former 250 star Johan Stigefelt sacrificing the underperforming Rolfo for the undoubted class of John Hopkins. 

Having been given his chance, Hopper now has to seize it roughly with both hands, and make a proper fist of his World Superbike career. Only if he succeeds will Hopkins be offered a way back into MotoGP. But then again, if he succeeds, he may not feel the need to return, preferring to stay in the Italian series whose star is rising, rather than the Spanish series whose star is waning.

Over in the World Supersport series, the class once referred to disparagingly as the "Ten Kate Cup" is rapidly losing that tag, becoming instead the Honda Cup. For though Kenan Sofuoglo narrowly beat his team mate Andrew Pitt at Phillip Island, the Ten Kate pair only barely finished ahead of third place man - and another Kawasaki MotoGP refugee - Ant West. And at Qatar, they went one better, or perhaps one worse, being beaten by a storming Eugene Laverty on the Parkalgar Honda. The Parkalgar team has been improving race by race, their hard work finally paying off in the desert of Qatar.

So with four Hondas sure to be the bikes to beat, the other manufacturers have their work cut out. Though the results don't necessarily show it, the Yamaha R6s have been very close behind, with Cal Crutchlow so far being the stronger of the Yamaha pair of Crutchlow and Fabien Foret. But the surprise package could come in the shape of the Glaner Motocard Kawasaki, ridden by local hero Joan Lascorz. Lascorz looked strong here last year, and the Kawasaki has been surprisingly competitive, given that every other road racing series the factory has entered has seen performances which could most kindly be described as mediocre. 

If there's a wildcard at Valencia, it is surely Joan Lascorz, and with several tens of thousands of Spanish fans screaming him on, Lascorz could well break the Honda monopoly. The Italian series could well get a Spanish winner here after all. The Italian - Spanish rivalry looks set to run for quite a while yet. 

Total votes: 120
Total votes: 53

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Interview with Michael Laverty

As we waited for the Daytona 200 on Friday afternoon, I caught up with Michael Laverty in the pit lane. He was good enough to talk for a few minutes about his introduction to Daytona and the current versions of American Superbike racing.

SJ: You had a great qualifying result yesterday, surprising a lot of people here at Daytona.

ML: It was my first time ever doing SuperPole, and I managed to jump up to eighth, ahead of Ben Bostrom and Geoff May. I was pretty happy with that. It wasn’t a special lap, just comfortable and consistent, didn’t make any mistakes. I came in from the lap thinking, ah, it should’ve been so much better, but it was good enough for the second row, which was good.

Then in the race, I got not too bad of a start and was kind of hanging in there with the group for fifth place, but I had a problem with my brakes on the second lap and overshot turn one. I got them adjusted while I was coming back on the track, and I think I got back on about fifteenth or sixteenth. As I chipped back through I got back up to ninth in the end. But I could’ve been eighth. I passed Josh Hayes on the second to last lap, but he got me back on the last lap. The motor in the factory Yamaha was a little bit stronger and I couldn’t out drag him to the line and he got me by less than a tenth of a second. So it was good racing. I was pretty happy, considering we’re a private team and it’s a very stock motorbike. We’re down about eight or nine miles per hour on Pegram’s Ducati and the factory Suzukis.

To finish up in ninth doesn’t sound great, but I think there were a lot of positives to take from it. My best lap when I was catching back up was only three tenths slower than Mladin’s best lap. So to come here for the first time on a private bike and lap within .3 of Mat Mladin, I’m pretty chuffed with that.

SJ: What exactly happened with the brake?

ML: We were having problems with the brakes and I crashed in the first practice session while learning the infield section. It was a little crash but I damaged the brake. We didn’t have much track time after putting a new brake system on. It needed to be bedded in for maybe three or four laps, but I didn’t have the opportunity to do that. I did the sighting lap and the warm up lap, and on the grid I thought the brakes were coming good. But after the first two laps they really faded back and came into the handle bar. I was on the back brake into turn one and I just couldn’t stop.  I had no remote adjuster because it broke in the crash. If that had been on I could’ve adjusted the brake on the straight. But as it was I had to reach over the front of the level and screw it out three or four turns. The next lap was a little funny, but then it came good and was fine. It was just unfortunate, because if we’d had maybe a ten minute free practice we’d have been fine. But hindsight’s 20-20 and we made the choice to go with the new brake for the race, and that kind of ruined my chance for a top five or six result. But it was good to show the lap times I could do.

SJ: That was very impressive. If not for that brake problem, it might’ve been much different.

ML: Yes, I definitely had the pace, looking at the lap times, to hang with that group for fifth place, which was Blake Young on the Yoshi Suzuki, Aaron Yates on the Jordan Suzuki, and Ben Bostom on the factory Yamaha. So I had the speed to be with those guys and dice for fifth, sixth and seventh. I’m disappointed that I wasn’t there to show that I could’ve done that, but I know that if I come back I can definitely fight with the factory guys.

I’m just hoping that Barry can find the budget and I can do some more races. He plans to do as many of the east coast ones as possible. But at the minute, we’re going to miss Fontana; he doesn’t have the budget to travel all the way to California. So I’ll not be here for round two. But hopefully I’ll be back for Atlanta, or else Barber, for rounds three and four. It’s just one of those things. The economy isn’t so strong at the moment so it’s hard to pick up money.

SJ: Qualifying eighth, then having the problem, getting it sorted and bringing the bike back onto the track at that pace your first time here, it’s remarkable. What do you think about the banking here at Daytona?

ML: It was definitely a bit daunting at first. I did the CCS (Championship Cup Series) here last weekend, and we were running the long course on the 1000s. It’s not scary as such, but the bike is moving and spinning, going up around the banking. The first few laps you go, How am I going to take this full throttle? But once you do it, it’s okay. You just get used to it, do it every time without thinking about it. It becomes normal, but at first it is a bit different from anything I’ve ever done with the wall that close. You’re reaching 180 odd miles per hour here down by the finish line. Pegram’s Ducati was hitting 200 mph, so it’s a fast little course.

SJ: I’m sure we’ll be seeing more of you in 2009, and I hope Celtic Racing can get the money together to do more events this season.

ML: I hope so. I hope to do as many as possible and just race wherever I can this year.


Total votes: 54
Total votes: 141

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2009 World Superbikes Round Qatar Report - Rookie Rules

For European veterans of World Superbikes, Ben Spies debut pole at Phillip Island was viewed with cautious interest but some scepticism. After Spies went on to win race 2 in Australia in convincing fashion, much of that had disappeared. But there was still some lingering doubt over whether Australia was a one-off, or whether Noriyuki Haga would build on commanding championship lead he took away from Phillip Island and reassert his authority in the process.

After all, Haga had taken a win and a second place in Australia starting from the fourth row of the grid, but in Qatar had put his Xerox Ducati on the front row. With a much better starting position, surely Haga would be able to go one better during the races at Losail?

It certainly looked that way from the start. As the bikes roared into Turn 1, Haga followed Max Biaggi on the Aprilia RSV4, the Italian taking the lead and lapping fast, smooth, and looking hard to pass. For the first three laps, Biaggi and Haga were joined by Biaggi's Aprilia team mate Shinya Nakano, the Guandalini Ducati of Jakub Smrz, and Ben Spies on the Yamaha Motor Italia bike, the front five building a comfortable lead over the chasing pack. But while Nakano and Smrz swapped places for third, Biaggi and Haga started to slip away, pulling a gap over the scrap for third.


At this point, Spies decided enough was enough. The Tennessee-born Texan swiftly passed both Nakano and Smrz and chased down the leading duo, closing a 1 second gap in just a couple of laps. Neither Nakano nor Smrz could follow, and the leading trio quickly dropped the Japanese rider and the Czech.

Over the next seven laps, the three leaders fought a close, tense battle, consisting mainly of feints aimed at sizing up the opposition whilst preserving their own tires. Haga snapped insistently at Biaggi's heels, but the Xerox Ducati never quite had the legs to whip out of the draft and pass the Aprilia to take the lead. Spies, meanwhile, shadowed the leading pair, studying their moves and waiting for the right moment to pounce. 

That moment turned out to be at the start of lap 12: As the three men thundered down the straight, almost level crossing the line, Haga finally pulled out of Biaggi's draft with a chance of passing. He may have been close enough, but he had not counted on Spies being even closer, the American pulling out of the double draft and jamming his Yamaha into Turn 1 to take over the lead.

Enough Is Enough

What followed was a demonstration of just how in control of the situation Spies had been. Two laps later, Spies had a lead of over a second, and he finished the race with a cushion of nearly two seconds over the following pair, to take his second win in a row, a strike rate of 66%. Impressive by anyone's standards.

Behind Spies, Haga finally managed to get past Biaggi with two laps to go, and held the Italian off at the line. A solid performance by Haga, whose Ducati was obviously down on top speed down Qatar's endless straight, while Biaggi took the podium he had deserved to get at Phillip Island, but which a close encounter with Leon Haslam had robbed him of.

Behind the front three, Smrz had crashed out early, leaving Nakano to race on his own. The Aprilia rookie was eventually joined by Carlos Checa, but by the time the Ten Kate Honda man caught Nakano, it was too late for him to attempt a pass. Shakey Byrne finally scored precious points in 6th, after his double DNF in Australia. Troy Corser was the first of the BMWs to finish, a respectable 9th and having shown evidence that the German team were quickly catching up with the other manufacturers. Max Neukirchner crashed out early in the race, dropping from 2nd to 4th in the championship race.

World Superbike race 1 results

Same Again?

Race two started out as a repeat of the first race, with Biaggi leading Haga into the first corner, but the difference was that this time, Spies was with them from the start. Within a couple of laps, the race one podium party had a gap to the pack behind, which was itself starting to splinter. This time, though, it was Haga's turn to lead the dance, instead of Max Biaggi's, and once again, the front three were inseparable. 

Until the end of lap 5, that is. As Haga, Spies and Biaggi hared down Losail's long front straight, the drafting battle saw Spies pull out from behind Haga and fire into Turn 1 in the lead. He would not relinquish it again, quickly pulling ahead. Two laps on, and Spies had a gap of a second; Another two laps and the gap was up to two seconds. With nothing ahead of him, the Texan settled down into his brutally fast rhythm, pulling away in a manner most reminiscent of one Casey Stoner: Fast, flowing, unstoppable. The race was essentially over, and Spies went on to take not only his first double in World Superbikes, but also the first ever double at the Losail circuit.

The win might have been out of reach, but behind Spies, there was plenty to fight for. While Biaggi and Haga squabbled over 2nd place - the Aprilia faster down the front straight and into Turn 1, the Ducati nimbler through the back section of the track, Haga slyly stuffing the Xerox bike up inside Biaggi through the long left of Turn 11 and into the triple right of 12, 13 and 14 - Ryuichi Kiyonari crept closer on the HRC Ten Kate Honda. But though Kiyo eventually arrived at Biaggi's back wheel, he had asked the best of his tires just to get there, and could do nothing more than sit and hope for a mistake from the two fighting it out ahead of him.

Alley Cats

That was a realistic prospect. The sniping continued until the last lap, when the gloves came off in earnest. Knowing that his best chance of taking 2nd was to use the horsepower of the Aprilia down the front straight, Biaggi ripped past Haga on the way into Turn 1. But Haga knew this as well, and spent the rest of the lap lining Biaggi up, to pounce through Turn 11 once again and take back 2nd. Biaggi was forced to concede defeat, crossing the line to take 3rd behind Haga, the podium in the second race a carbon copy of race one.

Kiyonari was forced to settle for 4th, some 4 seconds ahead of Ben Spies' team mate Tom Sykes, who had had a much better start and ridden a solid race to score valuable points. If it weren't for Ben Spies, the fans would be very impressed with Tom Sykes' performance, the young Briton making a very solid start to the season, with clear potential for plenty more to come.

After the disaster of race 1, Max Neukirchner ran a steady race to finish 6th, scoring enough points to keep himself in the title hunt, climbing back up to 3rd in the table, just ahead of a gaggle of other riders. The BMWs both finished in the top 10, but only just, Troy Corser in 9th just edging his team mate Ruben Xaus in a four way dash to the line, which Johnny Rea won and Leon Haslam lost, the two Brits sandwiching the German machines. The lone Kawasaki of Broc Parkes - Makoto Tamada unable to start after a huge crash in the warm up - fell just short of the points this time, finishing 16th. 

But the most remarkable ride of the race has to go to Jakub Smrz. The Guandalini Ducati rider was forced to start from the pit lane, and ended lap 1 in 27th place and 12 seconds down. The battling Czech battered his way forward up to finish the race in 17th position in an unseen, but outstanding ride.

No Doubt

If there were any doubts about Ben Spies heading into the Qatar round of World Superbikes, his dominant double in the desert should have crushed them like a tank crushes a poppy. Spies is a serious candidate for the title now, so much so that he is the bookies favorite, beating Noriyuki Haga's odds by over double. And considering his strike rate, that's hardly surprising: Spies has now won 75% of all the World Superbike races he has ever contested. And that record doesn't look like declining significantly any time soon. 

And yet the way Noriyuki Haga rode at Qatar betrayed a maturity and a sensibility which we have not seen from the Samurai of Slide for a long time. Knowing that his Xerox Ducati was outgunned, Haga rode a conservative yet wily race, limiting his losses to an absolute minimum. He used the strengths of his bike to full advantage, whilst simultaneously making it hard for his opponents to capitalize on his weaknesses. Spies may well be the favorite, but it's going to be a tough battle down the line. 

Meanwhile, Max Biaggi is clearly at home on the Aprilia, and for a brand new bike, the RSV4 is showing astonishing performance. There's still plenty more to come from the Noale powerplant, and once it gets to Monza, there will be no holding it back.

The World Superbike season may well still be young, but the outlines of the championship are already starting to appear. There's still plenty to race for.

World Superbike Race 2 Results and Championship Standings

Over Before It Begins

If the World Superbike season looked difficult to predict at the beginning of the year, the same was not true for World Supersport. With the return of Kenan Sofuoglu to the class, to race alongside reigning champion Andrew Pitt at the Ten Kate Honda squad, the season had all the makings of yet another round of the Ten Kate cup. But after the opening race at Phillip Island, Supersport looked like it could be a little more open than expected.

Compared to that race, Qatar could be regarded as a disappointment. After all, when there's only five men battling for the lead instead of eight or twelve, the racing goes from the heart-stopping to the merely exhilarating. The Ten Kate men were involved of course, as was Yamaha's Cal Crutchlow, and the privateer Hondas of Robbin Harms, Mark Aitchison and Matthieu Lagrive. But it was Parkalgar Honda's Eugene Laverty who led the race, almost from the off.

The Irishman sat at the front of the field for the first half of the race, while behind him, all hell broke loose. Sofuoglu, Crutchlow and Pitt swapped places, while Harms, Aitchison and Lagrive were just far enough behind not to be able to get involved, though by two thirds distance, the gap became permanent, and started to grow.

But by lap 8, things started getting messy at the front. The three Hondas swapped the lead continuously, while Crutchlow on the Yamaha intervened, but could never quite make an impression. Most striking of all was the front straight. Not only was the Yamaha clearly outgunned, the Ten Kate bikes were also down on power on the Parkalgar bike. Laverty was not exactly rocketing past the Hannspree Hondas, but he never seemed to have any difficulty getting past along the straight.

To Lead Or Not To Lead?

This was to prove crucial in the final phase of the race. With two to go, Laverty led while Sofuoglu closed, waiting to strike. But the young Turk struck too early, running wide and allowing both Laverty and Pitt back past. Pitt chased the Irishman round the first half of the track, lining him up for a beautiful pass up the inside into Turn 12, the first turn in the triple right hander. But Laverty had a Parkalgar Honda ace up his sleeve: Coming onto the straight, the Irishman was fast out of the turn and onto the straight, and already ahead as they crossed the line to start the final lap. 

Pitt was left with a dilemma: his best chance of a pass was in the run in to Turn 12 where he was obviously quicker. However, that would leave the door open for Laverty to use the draft and his drive out of the final corner to pass Pitt on the straight. But if Pitt let Laverty lead, then there was no guarantee the Australian would be able to beat the Irishman at his own game, and pull out of the draft to take the win.

Pitt gambled on leading, once again executing a picture perfect pass to move into 1st at Turn 12. But his gamble didn't pay off. As Laverty had done several times before, the Irishman used the superior squirt of his Parkalgar Honda to power past Pitt and take his maiden victory at only the second time of asking. 

Keeping Up With Jones

Laverty dedicated his win to the man who got a podium for Parkalgar Honda here last year, the late lamented Craig Jones, who died in a tragic accident at Brands Hatch last year. Jones got the bike to where it was capable of victory, Laverty said afterwards. He also revealed a rather bizarre pit board mix up, which explained his lack of evident joy at victory. All race long, he had been misreading the position on his pit board. He thought it said 7 instead of 1 …

Behind Pitt, the battle for 3rd was even more dramatic. After running off onto the edge of the dirt in the penultimate corner, Cal Crutchlow looked like his chances of running down Sofuoglu for the podium were gone. But Sofuoglu was pushing just as hard as Crutchlow, and the Ten Kate man ran wide into the final corner, allowing the Yamaha past, and giving Crutchlow his debut podium.

Robbin Harms held off Lagrive's Hannspree Althea Honda to take his Veidec RES Honda to 5th place. Behind Lagrive, Garry McCoy capped a sensational charge through the field to come from 20th on the first lap to finish 7th on the BE1 Triumph, ahead of Massimo Roccoli and Ant West. West's 9th place brought his magical run of podium-only finishes in World Supersport to an end, but the Australian is still 5th in the championship and well in contention. Barry Veneman was the first of the Suzuki's home in 10th, after dropping from a promising start, while Joan Lascorz could manage only 13th on the Motocard Kawasaki.

At the start of the season, the Ten Kate Hondas looked like the bikes to beat, and after two races, they still are. But what both Qatar and Phillip Island have made clear is that they can be beaten, and there's a host of riders capable of doing so. There's still a very good chance that a Ten Kate Honda will take the championship this year, but the one thing the 2009 World Supersport season won't be is another running of the Ten Kate cup.

World Supersport Race Results and Championship Standings

Total votes: 126
Total votes: 32

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