The Power Of Numbers
Numerologists, and others who seek deeper meaning in numbers, of which there are many inside the MotoGP paddock, will be delighted this weekend. For, after a 3 week break, MotoGP returns for 3 races in 3 weekends, traveling 9000 miles to do so, in a series of races spread around the Pacific, calling at Sepang in Malaysia, Phillip Island in Australia, and Motegi in Japan.
The first stop is the track which riders both love and hate. Sepang is a well-laid out track, with excellent facilities, not far from the Malaysian capital Kuala Lumpur. But being just a couple of degrees from the Equator, the climate at Sepang always plays a role. The heat is usually intense, which combined with high humidity, saps riders of their strength, weakening their concentration, and making mistakes ever more likely as the race goes on. And if it's not hot, then it must be raining, a tropical downpour robbing the riders of visibility and making the track more treacherous than ever.
And it's not just the riders that suffer. Sepang is a killer of both tires and bikes. With air temperatures well into the hundreds, it's almost impossible to cool a 250 horsepower engine already running at its very limit. And with track temperatures pushing 130 degrees, tires soften to mush and dissolve like ice cream. Just to add insult to injury, Sepang also has some of the fastest straights of the season, reaching speeds close to 200 mph at three places round the track.
Added to the rich and varied opportunities for mechanical failure is the great racing layout: a wide track, a good range of corners, and a final hairpin after a long straight, the ideal location for do-or-die tussles before the drag up to the finish line, perfect for deciding races on courage, braking skill, and wily lines through the turn. The irony is that, while the riders fear the race, they love the track. It's a track they all know well, as they ride hundreds of laps over a three day winter test during the off season.
Hot, Wet And Fast
Loris Capirossi is among Sepang's admirers. He loves the layout, and won the 2005 race convincingly, leading almost from start to finish, Valentino Rossi the only rider to briefly challenge Capirossi's hegemony two-thirds of the way along. Coming fresh off his win in Brno, and with a lucrative new contract under his belt, Capirex is the man to beat come Sunday. But it's not just the tiny Italian, it's the Bridgestone tires as well. Bridgestone riders took 4 of the top 5 places in qualifying last year, as well as 2 of the 3 steps on the podium. If Bridgestone can find a good race tire at Sepang, the race result could throw a spanner in the works of everyone's championship prospects, with Chris Vermeulen, John Hopkins, Shinya Nakano and Sete Gibernau, fresh back from injury, all capable of finishing at the front of the field.
As for the Michelin runners, Valentino Rossi and Colin Edwards must be viewing this race with a some trepidation. The Yamahas have had so many problems with the Michelins disintegrating this season, that a visit to a track notorious for eating tires must be way down on their list of fun things to do, despite Rossi's affection for the Sepang circuit. Nicky Hayden, on the other hand, will feel quietly confident about Sepang. The Kentucky Kid's results at Sepang are as predictable as the rest of his performances this season: When Hayden goes to Malaysia, he comes 4th. Not the place Hayden would choose for himself, but with Capirossi the favorite to win, and trailing by 50 points, and Bridgestone runners expected at the front, Hayden should be able to keep a comfortable points advantage over his closest rivals.
Hayden's team mate Dani Pedrosa will see things otherwise. He has a lot of reasons to want to do well in Malaysia, not least to make up for last year's fiasco, where he slid off after only a few laps, after winning the previous year's race. Pedrosa's eternal 250 rival Casey Stoner will be keen to repeat his performance of last year by taking the win, as it would strengthen his team's bargaining position in finding sponsors, something they've found very hard to do this year, and, more importantly, strengthen his own position in looking for a ride for next year. Many believe his talent deserves a ride, but a string of unnecessary crashes have made the young Australian look like a risky investment.
The Race Of The Season
The middle of the three races is at probably the finest race track of the season, and arguably the finest motorcycle racing track in the world. Phillip Island is a track which you cannot help but love. Despite the hopelessly antiquated facilities and the amateurish race organization, the track is sublime. With the old Assen track killed in the name of commerce, Phillip Island remains alone as the cathedral of motorcycle racing. For Phillip Island has everything you could ask of a racing track, and a little bit more. It has a 200 mph front straight, where top speed counts, but which you can slipstream down if you get behind a faster rider; It has 150 mph sweepers, which are more about rider courage than pure horsepower; It has elevation changes combined with difficult turn sequences, where you run downhill with the front loaded up before cutting back to run uphill again, cutting across the slope, at the very limits of grip.
But there's more: Phillip Island also has spectacular scenery, perched as it is on a hill overlooking the Bass Strait, with nothing beside it but 150 miles of sea to Tasmania, and beyond that the Great Southern Ocean. It's location also brings some peculiarities of its own: With nothing to tame it, the wind can come blasting in all the way from Tasmania, making the 200 mph straight a matter of clinging on like grim death. And with the winds can come the rain, but they also bring yet another hazard: Seabirds soar their way around the circuit, blissfully unaware of the motorized mayhem unfolding below them, occasionally settling on the track or floating across the path of an onrushing racing motorcycle, only to perish in an explosion of seagull entrails and racing plastics.
The Man To Beat
As a rider's favorite, it's also a track that everyone wants to win at. A victory at Phillip Island is a proud addition to any rider's trophy cabinet, a mark that the rider has arrived. So the racing will be fierce. Nicky Hayden will want to avenge last year's race, where he came close to beating Valentino Rossi, but just got dropped over the last few laps. But beating The Doctor at Phillip Island is one of the toughest tasks in MotoGP. Rossi has won every race at Phillip Island since 1998, with a brief lapse in 2000, his first season in 500s, where he "only" finished third. This is the track at which his genius shines brightest: Rossi can pass people at places which see other riders heading for the gravel. He is most deadly coming down from Lukey Heights, cutting inside into the MG turn, and holding his line to power out through 11 and back round towards turn 12 and the front straight. Many have tried to emulate his passes through there, but most end up in an ignominious low side, or worse, a high side, and across the grass.
This will not stop the Australian rookies from trying, though. Both Chris Vermeulen and Casey Stoner will be determined to do well at their home GP. Stoner will want to expunge the memory of his premature departure from the 250 race last year, ending his title hopes, and handing Dani Pedrosa the title almost on a plate. Chris Vermeulen's last win at Phillip Island dates back to 2003, when he won the World Supersport race here. He would love to repeat, but the Suzukis have suffered at the Island over the past few years, their lack of top speed making it hard for them to compete.
The man who took advantage of Stoner's misfortune last year, the diminutive Dani Pedrosa, would love another win in Australia. His gritty display last year, slipping out from behind Sebastian Porto to take the win by a few thousandths of a second, earned him a lot of respect, admitting after the race that he'd been riding with a fractured shoulder for the past few races, and still managing to clinch the title. A repeat in the top class would both seal his reputation, and put a lot of pressure on his team mate and championship leader Nicky Hayden.
Pedrosa isn't Hayden's only worry. With Rossi's near perfect record, Ducati's impressive score sheet, and a brace of outstanding home riders, the Kentucky Kid will have his work cut out in Australia. He is always good at Phillip Island, but faces challenges on all sides. If he can't manage to stay ahead of Pedrosa at Sepang, winning, or coming very close, could become an urgent priority at the Island.
At Home With Mr Honda
So after two races capable of shaking up the championship standings, the MotoGP circus heads to the Twin Ring at Motegi, a strange track-within-a-track layout, with the road track nestling partially within a giant oval Honda designed to learn more about Indy Car racing. With the track being designed, owned and built by Honda, you would expect the Hondas to do well here. But the irony is that historically, the Bridgestone-shod non-Hondas have an outstanding record here, taking wins and podiums, forcing the Hondas a humiliatingly long way down the result sheet.
But there are worries here for everyone, as Motegi has seen more than its fair share of mayhem. Last year's race started well enough, with everyone getting through the first corner without incident, in stark contrast to the preceding two years, but it soon developed into a war of attrition. When the checkered flag fell for the end of the race, the final tally of finishers was a shocking 11 out of 21. With this season's litany of injuries already a concern for many teams, a visit to the track infamous for catching out, and casting off the unwary will be one more headache.
Quite why Motegi should cause such carnage is hard to discern. That problems arise as the whole pack tries to dive into the first tight U-turn is hardly surprising. But elsewhere the explanations are less obvious. The track layout is best described as a deformed tuning fork, in itself a rather pleasing irony, crossed tuning forks being the logo of Honda's bitterest rival, Yamaha. The circuit consists of several medium length straights, connected by wide U-turns, with a handful of turns of varying angle and difficulty spread around the track. But there are no strange cambers, steep uphill or downhill sections, or flying blind bends to catch riders out. Perhaps the track's lack of surprises is what catches the riders out, their guards being dropped.
As you might imagine, the track is unloved by everyone. Well, nearly everyone, for the track holds happy memories for Kenny Roberts Jr. Motegi is the place Kenny Jr won his last race, and he returns here capable of mounting a serious threat for the first time in many years. The Honda-powered KR211V is likely also Honda's best chance of winning here, the other Honda riders not having had a great history here. Championship leader Nicky Hayden has two 7th places and a DNF, and Marco Melandri came 5th on a Yamaha two years ago, then was skittled off into the gravel by Valentino Rossi last year. The last Honda winner here was Makoto Tamada in 2004, the last year Tamada was on Bridgestones, and a feat he is unlikely to repeat. But a repeat for the Bridgestones is a very real possibility: Loris Capirossi won here last year, after winning at Brno. If Capirossi and the Bridgestones are in the same form they showed at Brno this year, the competition has much to fear.
Dani Pedrosa's record at Motegi is perhaps the best of the Honda bunch, but Motegi is also the place Pedrosa came close to wrecking his title defense last year. He fell three times during practice, fracturing his shoulder in the process, a prelude to a run of poor results for the young Spaniard. If the layout of the track suits anyone, its combination of heavy braking before 180 degree turns, followed by long straights where acceleration is key, will surely suit the flyweight Spaniard, who at just a smidgeon over 100 pounds has a big advantage in both losing and gaining momentum.
The Die Is Set
After three weekends of long hours aboard planes, difficult climatic conditions, and challenging tracks, the MotoGP circus will take a well-deserved three week break, before heading towards Estoril for the penultimate round. By that time, the championship race should be down to just a couple of names. The great thing about writing this now, before three tough races in the most exciting and topsy-turvy season we've seen for years, is that I can honestly say, with my hand on my heart, that I wouldn't dare place bets on what those names will be. Nicky Hayden heads into this weekend with a 25 point lead. Three weeks from now, things could be so very different. Bring it on.