Under The Weather
This weekend, the MotoGP circus descends on the third new MotoGP track in a row, in Shanghai, China. The last of the new tracks, and, many say, the least. Where Istanbul has its fantastic rolling layout, and do-or-die last chicane before the finish straight, and Qatar has its great combinations of fast and slow bends, though hampered by the flatness of the Losail topography, Shanghai suffers from being designed to fit an idea. Or rather, an ideogram, as the track layout is loosely modeled on the Chinese character "Shang", meaning high, or above, part of Shanghai's name. The result is a strange combination of the fastest straight of the season, where speeds reach nearly 215 mph, followed by the slowest corner (though the remodeled Strubben at Assen may also be a contender for that honor), making for one of the slowest average speeds all year. The long, slow corners are great for Formula 1 cars, but a good deal less fun on a racing motorcycle, and it shows.
In its defense, the track has not yet had a chance to show its true potential, as last year's race was held in a downpour. The rain was so bad on race day last year that the 125 race was delayed by half an hour due to flooding. When the MotoGP race did get underway, it turned into a showcase for replacement riders, with Olivier Jacque piloting Alex Hoffman's Kawasaki to a superb second place, the Green Machine's best result in the top class, and Makoto Tamada's stand-in Jurgen van den Goorbergh finishing a fine sixth on his first outing on a four-stroke MotoGP bike. The underpowered Suzukis also showed that there was nothing wrong with the riders, John Hopkins ending up seventh, and Kenny Roberts Jr leading the race for the first five laps in a masterful display of wet-weather riding before his Suzuki blew a big end.
And the weather looks set to play a role this year, as well. Last year's complaints of not enough dry track time are likely to be repeated, with rain forecast for Friday, and possibly Saturday as well. Setup is absolutely key at Shanghai, precisely because of its mixture of high speed straights and low speed corners, and finding a setting which suits both requires lots of time and a consistent surface. If the forecasters are right, and we have a wet track on Friday and a drying track on Saturday, the only dry setup time the riders could see could be the warm up on Sunday morning, leaving tire choice and suspension settings a bit of a lottery.
It is Yamaha who will suffer the most from this lack of dry track time. The manufacturer of last year's best bike have bounced back and forth between chatter from too much grip and a lack of traction so far this season. After every race so far this year, Valentino Rossi has ridden the 2005 bike in a bid to find out how where the 2006 machine is going wrong. Rossi summed up the results so far by saying that they have the first bike in history to be better on worn tires. And while Rossi has the self-restraint to limit his criticism to cutting comments, Yamaha team mate Colin Edwards is finding it harder to control his temper. In a post-race interview at Istanbul, Edwards looked ready to start shooting somebody, and used the ominous phrase "we'd better pull it around". Even the riders at the Tech 3 Yamaha team are getting in on the act, after British rider James Ellison bumped into Rossi one evening in Turkey and reportedly swapped tales of woe over the Yamaha's handling. A repeat win for Rossi is highly unlikely.
A Wealth Of Opportunity
All this plays into the hands of Honda and HRC. The problem Honda have this year is an embarrassment of riches. Nicky Hayden is off to a great start to the season, finishing on the podium every race so far, and shows every sign of winning one some time very, very soon. Hayden's diminutive Spanish team mate Dani Pedrosa has been unlucky to only be on the podium once this year, after pushing too hard in Istanbul. LCR Honda's Casey Stoner came within three corners of winning in Turkey, beaten by an outstanding braking maneuver by Fortuna Honda's Marco Melandri. Even fellow Fortuna rider Toni Elias is threatening to break in to the winner's circle. But all these riders taking turns on the podium, and taking points off each other have allowed Valentino Rossi to stay in contention in the championship rankings, thwarting Honda's main goal of deposing the champion who turned his back on them to go to Yamaha.
The other "Honda" rider to be doing well is Kenny Roberts Jr on the Team KR bike. Kenny Junior is riding like a racer reborn, with the combination of the proven and powerful Honda engine in the fine Team KR chassis. The bike is still in the middle of development, and Kenny is getting more competitive every race, and after leading last year, he'll be hungry in Shanghai. But the real fun will start when the MotoGP circus returns to Europe, allowing the England-based team to get frames to races quicker.
Makoto Tamada is the odd Honda rider out so far this season. With a very lackluster showing in the three races to date, and no experience at the technical Shanghai track, few will be betting on Tamada to be at the front on race day.
Kings of Speed
All eyes will be on the Ducati riders this weekend. With the fastest bike of the bunch on the fastest straight of the season, the question on everyone's lips is will we see a red machine break 220 mph through the speed traps down the back straight? Loris Capirossi will be looking to avenge his bad result at last year's race, and repeat his win at Jerez, while team mate Sete Gibernau will be hoping for an end to the run of indifferent luck that has dogged his season so far. No one doubts that the Ducati is fast, but the question is will it be fast enough?
It could turn out to be a tough weekend for the two teams which are down on speed compared to the Hondas, Ducatis and Yamahas. Although both Suzuki and Kawasaki had a good race last year, if the track stays dry on Sunday, they'll be struggling to keep up. The Suzuki's superb handling will certainly help round the slower sections of the track, but the question remains whether John Hopkins and Chris Vermeulen will be able to stay with the rest down the back straight. Vermeulen comes off a strong result in Turkey, but is another newcomer to the track, and Hopper ran well at the start of the last race, before being forced to pit for a rear tire. But Hopkins ran well last year, and must fancy his chances.
Kawasaki will hope to equal their result of last year, though more in hope than in expectation. The bike is definitely getting faster, and Shinya Nakano and Randy de Puniet have both proven to be fast, but the two straights at Shanghai will show whether they are fast enough. Though neither Nakano nor de Puniet are wet weather champions, expect to see Kawasaki crew doing rain dances in the pits this weekend.
So, Shanghai is, like the character the track is modeled on, up in the air. There are too many imponderables to be able to predict what will happen, so we'll just have to sit back and enjoy the action.