Here's a phrase you'll have heard about a million times this preseason: "The 2006 MotoGP season sees a changing of the guard." Of course, the point about commonplaces is that they are commonly used because they are, to great or lesser extent, true. Several of the big names of the past few seasons have left, Barros, Xaus, Bayliss and Rolfo have moved to World Superbikes, where Bayliss is already having an outstanding season and is looking like a serious championship contender, and Biaggi has moved off into, well, Biaggi-land, a place where people pay huge sums of money to a talented racer to shout at them and blame them for everything that goes wrong. Hopefully he'll get a ride again next season, most probably in World SBK, but that'll only happen once he realises that you only get to act like the whole world revolves around you after you've won 3 or 4 titles in a row.
And a whole raft of new names have joined, mostly from the 250 class: Dani Pedrosa, Casey Stoner, Randy de Puniet, and from World Superbikes, Chris Vermeulen. So, does the retreat of the crowd of old losers and the coming of the new challengers mean that Rossi's days as Champion are numbered? The short answer to that question is: No. And the long answer is: No. Not this season. Does this mean that Rossi will be champion again? Well, duh, to use a popular phrase.
But does the championship being a foregone conclusion mean that this is going to be a boring season? Well, there are lots of reasons to think that it won't, as long as your idea of excitement isn't the title being settled in the last lap of the last race. Because with Rossi widely rumoured to be leaving to join Ferrari in F1 next year (heaven forfend), this season will see the motorcycling equivalent of primary season during a second-term presidency. Everyone will be attempting to position themselves as The Doctor's heir apparent (making them The Nurse, presumably), fighting to win the favour of Jeremy Burgess and his crew (arguably one of the greatest technical crew chiefs ever seen), and angling for the best ride in what looks like being one of the most interesting and exciting seasons for many years: The 2007 MotoGP season. Indeed, this season feels strangely like foreplay, although a more apt simile might be some complicated and intricate 18th Century courting ritual. After all, next year, the 990cc bikes make way for 800cc bikes, and so most of the manufacturers will be focussing much of their development efforts this season getting the new bike ready for next year. The odd man out here being Honda, who only need to drop a cylinder from their well-tested 990cc V5 to comply with next year's regulations, a fairly simple option for the manufacturer with the most money, and the greatest motivation to win after Rossi leaves.
Because Honda are going to be really pissed off next season, after they fail miserably again this season. Expect to see very senior people in the race department be moved on by the end of this year, for displaying a dismaying lack of direction again. During testing, the Hondas have performed terribly (considering that, for three seasons, they were the undisputed best bike on the grid), with the best Honda rider often being around 4th or 5th place, and Nicky Hayden, Honda's designated Works development rider (at least, this week), spending more time on the 2005 bike than on the new 2006 bike.
With Biaggi and Gibernau leaving, Hayden has been promoted to the main Honda rider. And after the many disputes last year about who was the number 1 Honda rider, and who got the new parts, with the riders' pecking order changing seemingly every other race, Honda are going with a single number 1 rider this year. But Nicky has shown little aptitude for bike development so far during preseason testing, and if he doesn't finish on the podium during the first few races, expect to see Honda lose their nerve and start the old switcheroo, with either everyone getting new parts, or a different rider being promoted every race.
The most obvious candidate to take Hayden's place will be the young Dani Pedrosa. Pedrosa has already beaten Rossi's record in the 125 and 250cc classes (though arguably, Rossi rode against tougher competition), and all eyes will be on him this year to push Rossi for the title. But Pedrosa faces significant problems: for a start (and it's plenty to be going on with), he is very small and light. He doesn't have the physical strength required to manhandle a 250+ hp four stroke around the track for a full race distance, and he has said that he will be spending a lot of time this year just on beefing up, and increasing his strength. But he is undoubtedly immensely talented, and has proved to be fast in testing. I would definitely put money on Pedrosa to clinch a few poles and lap records. And towards the end of the season, we may start to get a glimpse of what Pedrosa is really going to be like, as he builds up his strength and experience. Ironically, the races at the end of the season, long after the title has been settled, could be some of the best races of the season. It will also prove what a terrible loss it will be if Rossi leaves MotoGP at the end of this season, when next season he could potentially face a genuine fight for the title.
The other name on everyone's lips will be Marco Melandri, who looked like he could finally be the challenger to threaten Rossi last year, winning two Grand Prix towards the end of the season. The bad news for Melandri is that Honda has decided to appoint Hayden as their number 1 rider, meaning that Melandri is left with inferior material (or what passes as inferior in the stratospheric confines of MotoGP machinery). But Melandri is going to be the obvious candidate to take over development work if Honda feels Hayden isn't getting the job done. Melandri's team mate Elias looks promising, but is yet to show that he has what it takes at this level.
Another exciting new Honda rider is Casey Stoner. He is obviously a very talented rider, but the most exciting aspect about him is his tendency to chuck it up the road under pressure. He reminds me a little of the great Yoichi Ui, whose greatest talent was to crash out while leading two laps before the end. Now, Stoner learnt from previous seasons that you can't fall off all the time and win championships, and last year pushed Pedrosa for the title almost to the end of the season. However, the most memorable moment in last year's 250 season came at Stoner's home Grand Prix. Stoner was leading for a lot of the race, and needed the win to keep a shot at the title, but he crashed out in the second half of the race, and Pedrosa pipped Porto at the line to win the race and clinch the championship.
Ironically, Honda's best chance of showing decent progress is likely to be with washed-up old has-been, Kenny Roberts Junior, on the Honda-powered TeamKR bike, built by his dad. KRJR has been running well, way above previous showings by the TeamKR bikes, and putting a reliable, proven Honda V5 into TeamKR's excellent chassis looks like a great move. You'd almost suspect that TeamKR tried to build their own V5 with the intention of dropping it and buying in Honda power plants from the outset.
The rider looking most promising to take the runner up position this season is Colin Edwards. Yamaha have really got their bike sorted this season, though both Edwards and Rossi complained of chatter during late testing at Barcelona and Jerez, and for Edwards, this will be the first year he starts with the same bike and the same team for several seasons. After a low key start last year, he proved to be highly consistent, though he never came really close to a win. All that could change this season. And Yamaha would dearly love to take the two top championship spots, as well as the manufacturer's crown.
With the Yamahas performing so well, the Tech 3 team, Carlos Checa and James Ellison, on 2006 Yamahas, could cause a few upsets. It seems that the best thing that happened to Carlos Checa was being fired by Ducati, as he has shown little appetite for competition over the past few seasons, but he has been blazingly fast in testing, taking third fastest time at a couple of tests. The fact that the Tech 3 bikes are using Dunlops throws a little spice into the mix, as the Dunlops have been on unimpressive bikes for the last few seasons, so no one has any idea as to whether they are any good or not. Ellison is highly rated by paddock insiders, winning favourable comparisons to Fogarty and Toseland, but has failed to impress on the Yamaha so far. He has, however, made consistent improvement, and his lap times are starting to approach competitive.
Speaking of sacked riders, the other revelation has been Sete Gibernau. He has been really impressive during preseason testing, and looks like he's found his competitive fire again. Of course, whether that lasts beyond the first race if Rossi stuffs him into the gravel again remains to be seen. But it's encouraging to see him performing at the level one expects of a former runner up. So second place looks like being a three-way toss up this year between Edwards, Gibernau and lovable imp Loris Capirossi. I like Capirossi a lot, he combines pure joy at being able to race with huge talent. If it wasn't for his compatriot, Capirossi would have been World Champion a couple of times already.
Another big surprise during testing has been the progress made by the Kawasakis. They've changed the firing order, and added a balance shaft, and the bike has been transformed. It's a lot more controllable in and out of corners, meaning that the riders can get in to corners quicker, and on the gas out of corners earlier. And in my opinion, Shinya Nakano is the second most talented rider on the grid. If Nakano had been on the Honda, Rossi would have had a much harder time of his championship defences over the last couple of years. So far during testing, Nakano has consistently taken top 5 times. The key word here being "consistently", he's been at the front at nearly every test session. Even his team mate, Randy de Puniet, about whom everyone said "why him?" when they heard that Kawasaki had signed him, has run close to the front a couple of times. As de Puniet is coming up from the 250 division, he can't be expected to have a great season, but having a good bike is certainly going to help.
And so to another talented rider, and his promising newcomer team mate. I believe that John Hopkins is the best US rider on the grid. Unfortunately, he's on the worst works bike. Although the Suzuki has been improved over the winter closed season, it's still nowhere near as good as the other bikes, and it hasn't made the leap forward which the Kawasaki appears to have done. So Hopper's fortunes are at the whim of Suzuki's engineers, and the Great Mystery: If Suzuki can consistently build a class-beating (by a long way) 1000cc road bike, how come their MotoGP bikes suck so badly? Do they start their engineers off on the MotoGP bikes, and only let them progress on to the GSX-R 1000 when they've made a lot of huge blunders on the MotoGP bike? Chris Vermeulen's choice of going with full works support, rather than a client Honda, is not necessarily looking like a winning move. Vermeulen has shown immense promise in World SuperSport and World Superbikes, and has also proven he can help develop a bike with the Honda CBR 600s and 1000s. So he may be able to move the Suzuki forward, especially as he's also ridden the Honda RC 211V at the end of last season. Indeed, one of the criticisms levelled at Hopkins is that he's only ever ridden the Suzuki, and that makes it difficult for him to provide development input, as he has no comparison material to help frame a direction to move in.
So, let the season begin, and let's look forward to possibly the last season we will get to enjoy the greatest motorcyclist ever: Valentino Rossi. And whilst we are enjoying the sheer depth and beauty of his skill, we can all look be secretly be looking forward to 2007, when the excitement will return to MotoGP, with new bikes, young riders with a season of experience under their belt, and, most importantly of all, no clear favourite.