If Spain is the heart of motorcycle racing, Catalonia is its soul. The separatist region along Spain's Northeastern coast positively pulsates with racers and racing history. Of the five Spanish riders contesting the GP de Catalunya, four of them are Catalan natives, all of them born within a GP's distance of the Barcelona race track. But it's not just the riders: Dani Pedrosa's mentor, former GP star Alberto Puig, current MotoGP team manager Luis d'Antin, and Spain's only 500cc world champion Alex Criville are all Catalan. Everywhere you go in Catalonia you see billboards of Pedrosa, Checa and Gibernau peering down at you, posted along swooping mountain roads to die for. A day's riding through Catalonia and you understand why the MotoGP paddock is simply awash with Catalans. So while there was plenty of atmosphere at the Italian Grand Prix at Mugello, the Grand Prix de Catalunya will be simply electric. The question is, of course, with so much to choose from, who will the Catalan crowd be backing?
Pride and Prejudice
The obvious answer would seem to be Ducati's Sete Gibernau. Last year saw Gibernau ride a perfect race, smashing his own pole record, then taking 1.3 seconds off his own lap record from 2004. It was a truly great performance in an otherwise lackluster year. And yet this was the race at which Gibernau's title ambitions were snuffed out: Gibernau's perfect race was outshone by Valentino Rossi's devastating final laps. Having followed in Gibernau's wake for most of the race, The Doctor made his move on lap 23, taking the lead and the lap record, to finally finish over a second ahead of the Catalan, shattering Sete's title hopes, and the fans' faith in their former favorite. So although Gibernau will still have plenty of fans at the track side, most of them will be living in hope, rather than expectation.
But this could be the race that the Catalan fans see the Gibernau they longed for last year. At the last race at Mugello, Gibernau ran a great race, only losing places after a bizarre incident which saw the Spaniard lose his toe slider, wearing a hole through his boot to his toes. Even then, he recovered his composure, and after having found a way to ride the bike without grinding any more off his little toes, he finished the race lapping as fast or faster than the lead group. He finally seems to have found his feet on the Ducati, and found a setup which will work for him. And as a rider for whom confidence is everything, Mugello's great result is going to make Sete Gibernau a force to be reckoned with.
Luckily for the Catalan fans, they have another local hero in Dani Pedrosa. The Repsol Honda rider won last year's 250cc race in a convincing display last year, incidentally becoming the first Spaniard to do so, continuing his run of standing on one of the top two steps at his home Grand Prix. With a win and two poles already under his belt this year, there's every chance he can continue this tradition at the track less than 10 miles from where he was born. But the success of Dani's move to MotoGP also means that the tiny Spaniard will face his first real mental test: The win at Shanghai has raised the fans and Spanish media's expectations, and Pedrosa will be under enormous pressure to deliver the goods this weekend. The popularity of motorcycle racing in Spain brings with it an influx of money and sponsorship, but with that money comes responsibility, which can weigh heavy on young shoulders. Yet it is Pedrosa's maturity which characterizes him: he rarely shows signs of nerves or pressure, and has in the past done exactly what was required of him when the chips were down. You only need to think back to the 250 cc race at Phillip Island last year, where Dani just squeezed his front wheel in front of Sebastian Porto to clinch the title, despite carrying a shoulder injury. He has been accused of being dull, but put some of that down to his ice-cold killer instinct.
Fellow Catalan, Fortuna Honda's Toni Elias, is having a very mixed season. After showing great promise at the end of last season, and a strong outing at the season opener in Jerez, Elias' progress has stalled, with a string of results in the middle of the pack. Elias doesn't seem to have made the transfer from the Yamaha well, the Honda not being as easy to ride as last year's M1. But the pressure of a home race is sure to bring out the best in him, especially as he missed last year's race due to an injury.
A Tiring Affair
The last Catalan taking part is also the least likely to win. Although Tech 3 Yamaha's Carlos Checa put in some impressive times at the IRTA tests in March, setting top 3 lap times for all three of the dry practice sessions, when the flag dropped on real racing, the Dunlops have failed to produce the goods. The Barcelona-born Checa has squeezed the last drop of performance out of his British tires, finishing ahead of both Michelin and Bridgestone-shod opponents, but even that last drop leaves him a couple of glasses short of riders on established rubber.
And the track at Montmelo, just outside of Barcelona, is notoriously tough on tires. The bikes spend a lot of time on the edge of the tires, through long second and third gear corners, such as the Curvone Renault and the Curva La Caixa, producing spectacular tire-smoking action as the riders exit the final fast corner onto the main straight. Last year, Bridgestone suffered at Catalunya, Shinya Nakano their best-placed rider in ninth. Yet at the IRTA tests, Bridgestone riders consistently ran at the front of the field, Suzuki's John Hopkins even taking top spot in one session. But testing isn't racing, as so many riders have found to their cost, and tires that hold up in the cool of a March spring may suffer in the heat of a Spanish summer.
The Fast and the Furious
So, what can we expect from Catalunya? It's hard not to view the race with some trepidation: After the heart-stopping epic at Mugello, it's difficult to believe that Sunday's race could match that classic Tuscan Tussle. And yet the Catalunya GP holds every prospect of producing yet another fantastic race. Reigning champion Valentino Rossi has solved the worst of his problems, proved that he is factor to contend with every weekend, and stated that he has to get on the podium every race if he is to retain his crown. Pitted against him is the home pair of Gibernau and Pedrosa, determined to win in front of family and friends, one set on regaining his honor, the other on confirming his claim to the title. Added to this duo are the pair currently leading the championship points table. With Pedrosa's team mate Nicky Hayden on the podium at every race this season save Le Mans, Repsol Honda will be in a quandary: Do they get behind their title challenger, and keep him at the head of the championship race; or do they please their Spanish sponsor, and try to get an immensely important local winner? Hayden's hard work and dedication certainly deserves the support, but HRC's heart, and wallet, may yet rule the head, and a Pedrosa podium prove to be too tempting a prospect. Ducati's Loris Capirossi will be determined to go one better than last week, as a win here would strengthen his grip on the championship, and set him up for a clean sweep of all three Spanish Grand Prix, with only Valencia to go. Fortuna Honda's Marco Melandri already has two wins this year, and is hungry for a third. His results have been up and down this season, and having scored a "down" at Mugello, he is due for an "up" again this weekend. And then of course there's the man who came second last year behind Pedrosa, the other astonishing rookie Casey Stoner. The young Australian had a horrific-looking crash in Italy, seemingly escaping with only a stiff neck and a sore hand, but he is a very tough young man, and is sure to be running at the front. And to cloud the picture even further, Yamaha's objective this weekend is to get Colin Edwards on the podium along with Rossi. With Edwards having the new chassis available for both bikes, and a good setting from the Mugello tests, if he isn't beating his team mate this weekend, there's every chance he'll be getting in everyone else's way.
Then of course there's the outsiders: Suzuki's Chris Vermeulen is back at a track he knows for the first time in four races, and team mate John Hopkins was fast here during the IRTA tests. Kawasaki's Shinya Nakano was best Bridgestone rider last year, and best Bridgestone this year could mean a podium. As for Team KR, now that Kenny Roberts Jr has a chassis for his KR211V that works, the former world champion is proving he can still run with the leaders on the right machinery. And Makoto Tamada is finally getting to grips with his Michelins, and starting to get results more in line with his equipment, and his talent.
The Spaniards with the toughest jobs this weekend are the Dunlop-shod pairing of Carlos Checa and Jose Luis Cardoso. Cardoso's plight is doubly harsh, as he also rides for a Spanish team, Luis d'Antin's Pramac D'Antin Ducati. Both will be pleased just to score points in front of their home crowds, handicapped as they are by development-stage Dunlops.
In a charming display of synchronicity, this Sunday's race coincides with a referendum on Catalonia's new Statute, a constitution in which Catalonia defines itself for the first time as a nation. Whether the result will be affected by the 100,000 or so missing votes from Catalans opting for MotoGP over democracy remains to be seen. But you can bet your bottom dollar that many a Catalan will be dreaming of the double on Sunday: A yes vote, and a Catalan on the top step of the podium.