As a rule, riders don't like the recently built circuits. Not so much because it means they have a new track to learn, but more because of the nature of the newer circuits: designed to equalise the greater speed disparities of Formula 1, and to maximise the spectator view by fitting inside a limited chunk of real estate, they tend to feature a lot of slow corners, with shapes that look good on the screen of a computer modelling program.
Istanbul, however, is different. The track has been designed to make the best use of the natural rolling landscape, with, for example, turn one flowing downhill, then uphill again, loading up the front before you start braking for turn two. The track flows up and down the hillsides, with corners at every speed, including the fastest corner of the season, turn 11, a banked, uphill, flat-out-in-fifth 270 km/h right-hander, which Nicky Hayden summed up as "sorting the men from the boys", followed by the super-slow uber-chicane combination of turns 12, 13, and 14, which saw spectacular place-swapping action on every lap during the 125 race. To be fast, you need to get your bike perfectly set up, and set up to be both stable at very high speed, and also to turn quickly enough through the slow chicane. It is a rider's track, rewarding every aspect of their craft, from set up, to high speed chases, to heavy braking and quick changes of direction.
And last year's race gave us plenty to look forward to this year: Stoner rode a magnificent race, holding off a chasing Pedrosa to the line. That, of course, was in the 250 race, and in the MotoGP race, Melandri beat Rossi in a straight contest. This year, they're all together in one race.
So, what can we expect? Capirossi missed last year's race due to an injury sustained at Phillip Island, so as championship leader, he starts at a disadvantage. Added to that is the fact that last year, Michelin riders took most of the top spots, with only Checa on the Bridgestone-shod Ducati at 5th, and Nakano at 10th. So Loris is a long way short of being a dead cert to extend his lead. Fellow Ducati rider Gibernau harbours unhappy memories of last year's race, as he ran off the track whilst leading, finishing a disappointing fourth.
The main candidate for the win would normally be Melandri, after his dominant showing last year. But last year's race came at the end of the season, just as Melandri was really starting to push for wins. So far this year, Melandri has failed to repeat this form, finishing 5th and 7th in the two previous races. His team mate Elias has had the better start to the season, and had a reasonable run last year, so he could be a threat.
Fresh off a win at Qatar, all eyes will, as always, be on Valentino Rossi. But there are good reasons to think that winning at Istanbul is not going to be easy. Firstly, Rossi doesn't really like the track, and they had setup problems last year. Secondly, because the track is so new, it's still very grippy, which will exacerbate the chatter problems which have plagued the Yamaha team from the start of the season. But Rossi can't afford to lose too many points, when there are so many young guns snapping at his heels, so he'll be pushing.
Those young guns include Casey Stoner and Dani Pedrosa. Stoner has had two great outings, with his domination of practice at Qatar proving he is adapting to the top class very quickly. Not as quickly as the man Stoner beat at Istanbul last year, though. Confounding doubts about his physical capacity to control a MotoGP bike to the end of a race, the pint-sized Pedrosa has made incredible headway in just two races. At Jerez, he faded with four laps to go, but at Qatar, he pushed hard all the way to the end.
Pedrosa's Repsol team mate, Nicky Hayden, also seems to have found some improvement. Having fought the bike to the line at Jerez, Qatar showed a smoother, more in control Hayden. And third last year at Istanbul shows promise for Sunday's race. I think that Hayden and Capirossi will be the two men Rossi will be watching closest.
Istanbul can hardly be as catastrophic for Suzuki as Qatar proved to be. Six engine failures, including two in the race, is very bad news for the team, and has frustrated both Vermeulen and Hopkins, though only Hopper resorted to physical violence to express his frustration. If at least one bike doesn't finish, then heads may start to roll in the project. Paul Denning, the team manager, has already made some half-veiled threats to the engineers back in Japan, and another bad weekend may leave those threats less than half-veiled.
The other second-rung team, Kawasaki, have been making slow and steady progress, and hope to start pushing their way up the finishing order. But the fresh influx of talent has made this an uphill task.
Old talent, reinvigorated and reinvented, is one of the problems which Nakano and de Puniet face. Old talent comes in two, different but interesting forms: Kenny Roberts Junior on the Team KR bike, and Carlos Checa, on the Dunlop-shod Tech 3 Yamaha. Kenny has been excellent so far this year, and has rediscovered his racing drive, now that he is no longer struggling with the Suzuki. Team KR are constantly working on the chassis for the Honda-powered bike, so they have room for improvement, and the bike is already better than most people expected. Checa is another old rider who has found new inspiration in getting sacked, though he is at a distinct disadvantage with the Dunlops, which, though showing promise, have a long way to go before they are truly competitive. Checa's team mate Ellison has also made major leaps forward, his real problem being that he started from such a long way back, his previous experience being on the brave, but woefully underpowered WCM machine.
Luis d'Antin was vitriolic about Dunlop after Qatar, accusing the tyre company of not providing enough tyres, but his riders, Cardoso and Hoffman, have not shown any signs of challenging for top ten positions, so I'm not sure how much weight his words will carry.
Then, of course, there is poor old Makoto Tamada. A previous podium candidate, he is languishing at the bottom of the standings, pointless, even though he is on a Michelin-shod Honda. Another poor performance will do nothing for his chances of staying with the team.
All in all, there is a lot at stake this weekend, and no clear favourite. It looks like being another corker.
And if you want to see just how spectacular motorcycle racing can be, be sure to catch the 125 race. Last year's was an epic battle, with 5 or more riders entering the chicane at turn 12, and no way of knowing who would be leading just a few metres further, out of turn 14, nor how many would make it through. Racing at its best.