Anyone looking for clues as to what will happen in the second MotoGP race of this season, will not find much inspiration from last year. Last year was different in many ways: the second race of the year took place just a week after the opener at Jerez, in the tempestuous spring weather of Estoril, on Portugal's Atlantic coast, whereas the venue for this year's second round, Qatar took place on October 1st, at the end of a long hot Arabian summer. Last year, Rossi went into the second round having established his superiority, and having broken his main rival's spirit in the gravel trap in the last bend at Jerez. This year, we travel to Qatar, to race in balmy conditions (with 28 C, or 82F forecasted), with only the sand to threaten grip instead of a series of rain fronts, and the reigning champion starts the race with a 23 point deficit, rather than a 5 point lead.
Some things, however, do not seem to change: in 2005, Sete Gibernau went to Estoril nursing a sore shoulder, some bruised pride, and broken ambitions, after being robbed of a great result at Jerez. This year Sete goes to Losail nursing some bruised pride and suspected broken ambitions, after being robbed of a potentially good result at Jerez. Of course, the causes are different, with an electrical failure sealing Sete's fate at Jerez this year, rather than a "racing incident", but taking his tendency to make fatal mistakes as a result of the self-inflicted pressure of his frustration into consideration, his prospects are not good. Both Estoril and Losail 2005 are prime examples: At Estoril, Gibernau was 1.2 seconds clear of Barros as he crashed out when it started raining, while at Losail, he ran off the track in an attempt to regain the lead from his erstwhile team mate Melandri. So, even though the season has just begun, if anything goes wrong for Sete, this could once again be the beginning of the end of his season.
So where can we look for clues to this weeks race? Well, during the off-season, the Yamaha and Suzuki teams tested at Qatar, along with Ducati's test rider, Shinichi Itoh, and Kawasaki's test rider Olivier Jacque, and the Michelin-shod Yamahas were blindingly fast, with Rossi setting a lap time nearly half a second quicker than Capirossi's 2005 pole time. Checa was also fast during testing, proving that Dunlop at least have a good qualifying tyre, though the race tyre may still need much development work, as it's still uncertain whether the Dunlop will allow Checa to challenge all race long. With Rossi likely to be incredibly fired up about getting his championship defence back on track, look for him to be at the front all weekend. By the same token, Edwards should be pushing hard, to regain the points lost thanks to Elias' enthusiastic first corner antics. The question remains as to whether Yamaha have found an answer to the chatter which plagued them at Jerez. But this may not be as much as a factor, as there were few complaints when they tested at Qatar in February.
If any of the Camel Yamahas' fast testing lap times can be put down to the Michelins (a not unreasonable hypothesis), then Hondas are also likely to be at the front. All eyes will be on Pedrosa, to see if his 2nd place was beginner's luck, or a sign of a season-long challenge for the title. How this affects Hayden is difficult to tell: on the one hand, the press interest in Dani will take some of the pressure off of Nicky, leaving him to concentrate on making the 2006 RC211V a more competitive package. But on the other hand, Pedrosa taking second ups the pressure on Hayden to score a result. As the two senior riders in the Honda teams seemed to be on the development bikes, it will be interesting to see how much progress has been made during the tests at Jerez directly after the race a fortnight ago. Hayden took the fastest time on the Monday after the race, but Melandri was 3/10ths of a second behind Elias.
But the Honda in the spotlight will not be the #69, but the #26 of Pedrosa. His second spot in Jerez raises expectations for this season, if that's possible, and one of the most interesting aspects of this season will be whether Dani's slight shoulders can bear the weight of the Spanish frenzy which will be unleashed if he can run close to Rossi throughout the year. That is mostly a question of maturity, and Dani Pedrosa is one of the most frighteningly mature people in racing. He is always serious, and incredibly dedicated. It makes you want to slip a large shot of vodka in his fruit juice, and take him round the red light district, just to see if he is capable of having a good time.
Rossi has said that Pedrosa has a major advantage due to his weight: he can brake later, and gets more acceleration, as he is carrying less weight, 51kg to Rossi's 67 kg. That's around 35 pounds, or a couple of kilos shy of the 22 litres of fuel which the bikes start the race with. Even the next lightest rider (Toni Elias) weighs in 6 kgs heavier. That lightness brings a disadvantage, one which was clear during the race at Jerez, and which will be the key to Pedrosa's season: he doesn't yet have the physical strength to last a whole race at full intensity. But he's spending a lot of time on building his strength, so this will become less and less of a factor. He lasted until 5 laps before the end at Jerez. Watch to see if he lasts any longer this weekend.
The other great performance at Jerez was Elias (and I don't mean him knocking out both works Yamahas), who climbed to 4th place after ending the first lap in 13th place after the incident at the first corner. If Elias manages to get a decent start this weekend, and not get entangled with other riders, he could very well be challenging for the podium, at the very least. And let's not forget the other Honda rookie, Stoner. Coming back to finish 6th after being out of circulation for over a month recovering from a shoulder injury. With three young riders challenging, and the two main riders showing relatively poorly (for a company which demands victories), Honda could find itself tempted to get up to its old tricks again, switching parts around from rider to rider, losing its way in the process.
And speaking of Elias, one crucial question this race, indeed the whole season, will be the role of launch control. As all the bikes now have a half-decent version of launch control, they are all ending up at the first corner more or less at the same time. This vastly increases the risk of first corner pile ups, and consequently, inflates the value of pole position. If you can't get on the front row, and into the first corner early, then your chances of being knocked off in a multi-bike pile up increase. The last 10 minutes of qualifying practice are going to be more and more important. And as pole position increases in importance, so qualifying increases in importance, and so a good qualifying tyre becomes more and more significant. And Bridgestone has already proved that they really know how to build qualifiers.
But there are some questions about how the Bridgestone-shod bikes will do at Qatar. Winter testing showed good progress, with both Vermeulen and Hopkins going faster during testing than the lap record set by Hayden. But last year, the Ducatis finished midfield, even though Capirossi started from pole. Capirex will definitely be pumped after his win two weeks ago, especially when viewed in the context of his big push at the end of last season, but the question will be whether the Bridgestones will provide sufficient grip from start to finish, or whether the Ducatis will be struggling for rear grip like last year. For Gibernau, as I mentioned before, this weekend could be crucial for the rest of his season. He struggled with frustration last year, and this year has seen a similarly poor start. If he doesn't get a decent result here, he could end up following the same fruitless path as last year.
Keep an eye on the Kawasakis. Nakano showed that the bike has improved since last year, and he is running ever closer to the front.
Another potentially entertaining duel will be Kenny Jr versus his former employers. The TeamKR bike had a superb outing at Jerez, finishing 8th, ahead of the Suzukis, and there can be no doubt that this is his personal goal for the season: to try and beat the Suzukis at every round. The TeamKR bike is looking very competitive: they already had an excellent-handling chassis package, and were really only missing a decent propulsion unit, and if the RC211V is anything, it's a great power plant.
The Suzukis will push hard again, but I'm still not convinced that they have a rounded package. The bike handles well, has a halfway decent top speed, has proven (by Ducati) tyres, and the team has two very talented riders in Hopkins and Vermeulen. Yet they still seem to struggle with power characteristics. If the Suzuki needs anything, it's more rideability.
For the other riders, it's a matter of personal battles: Tamada needs to show some serious improvement, though he seems to have struggled ever since the team switched from Bridgestones to Michelins; Ellison will have to prove that he is adapting to the bike and gaining on Checa; and the Pramac Ducatis will be fighting to keep up with Ellison and stay out of dead last.
The one thing that Jerez has shown is that this season is more open than any since Rossi moved to Yamaha, and it may even be the closest since Rossi's debut year in the premier class. With a bit of luck, Saturday will bring more excitement, and more challengers for the MotoGP crown.