In the 18th century, the cream of London society would entertain themselves by taking a jaunt up towards Moorfields, pay a penny to the warden, and stroll through the wards of the Bethlem Royal Hospital to gawp at the antics of those who had the misfortune to suffer from mental illness in less enlightened times. The spectators would titter and gasp at what was known as the Freak Show, the spectacle of the poor lunatics screaming, howling, fighting, gesticulating and gibbering in a world of their own. As a result, the name of the hospital passed into common usage to represent any scene of uncontrolled madness, where noise, smell and spectacle do battle to subdue your senses.
Modern fun seekers can no longer turn to the mental hospitals to provide our entertainment, but they need not despair. For to experience bedlam in its fullest and most glorious sense, they need only make their way down to Jerez for the weekend of the MotoGP Gran Premio de Espana. For on that weekend, the first weekend that the MotoGP series returns to European soil, it is as if a contemporary Hieronymus Bosch had cast up in Southern Spain and unleashed his fevered imagination creating an orgy of surreal motorized mayhem. In the evenings, over 100,000 motorcycle racing fans take over the streets of the city of Jerez, and hold informal, alcohol-fueled stunt competitions deep into the night: modern scooters, brand new sports bikes, 80's muscle bikes and 70's motocross bikes all compete with each other to perform the most insane wheelies, stoppies, endos, and burnouts. All the while, the onlooking fans rev engines, honk horns and ignite skull-splittingly loud "firecrackers" which would be classified as weapons of mass destruction in any other country. The police stand forlornly by, secretly enjoying the spectacle while keeping the very worst of the excesses under control. But there is no guarding of public order or public safety, as the public is so very obviously not interested in either order or safety, and likely to turn violent should either be enforced. It is not uncommon for people to be seriously injured or even die during the evening's entertainment, but that's accepted as just being the risk you run to be part of the show. The spectacle is an assault on every sense imaginable, and a couple you didn't know you had. It truly is something to you have to see before you die. The problem is, it could well be the last thing you see before you die.
After the insanity of Saturday night, joining 130,000 screaming Spanish race fans to watch a bunch of 130 decibel racing motorcycles chasing round a track as fast as physically possible seems like a nice quiet way to recover from the previous evening's bacchanalia. The setting of the race is idyllic: the track nestles in the foothills of the Sierra de Grazalema mountains, in a surprisingly green part of Andalucia, and sweeps up and down the rolling terrain. The track itself is quite tight and technical, with few places to overtake, the best of which being the sharp Ducados hairpin before the start and finish straight, the place where Valentino Rossi dumped Sete Gibernau into the gravel on the final corner of the race in 2005, sealing Sete's fate before the season had even properly started. And with Rossi able to pass Casey Stoner into the final turn at Qatar, before being blitzed on the straight, the scene is set for another mighty battle at the second stop of the MotoGP season.
And what a battle it promises to be. The state of play in MotoGP seemed fairly clear after the Jerez IRTA tests, with the Yamahas' dominance threatened only by the Honda of Dani Pedrosa, with the rest a little way behind. But then, two weeks ago in Qatar, reality intervened, and the sheer brutal power of Casey Stoner's Ducati made Rossi's seemingly invincible Yamaha look silly down Qatar's long front straight. Lap after lap, Rossi reeled Stoner in round the rear turns of the circuit, and lap after lap, Stoner would unleash the Beast From Bologna down the back straight, devouring anything in its path.
Casey Stoner's win bodes well for Ducati: Last year Ducati dominated at Jerez, with Loris Capirossi and Sete Gibernau taking the first two spots on the grid. Then, in the race, both men got excellent starts, though bad luck struck Gibernau on the second lap, bringing his race to an end, and casting a cloud of ill fate over his season which never lifted. But luck smiled on Capirex, allowing him to go on to take a convincing win after disposing with Dani Pedrosa's challenge. With Stoner in such glittering form, Capirossi out to avenge his DNF in Qatar, and the Ducati the fastest bike on the grid by a country mile, the chances of Ducati winning their third Grand Prix in a row must be pretty considerable.
The Pramac d'Antin Ducati team will also be hoping to benefit from the Ducati's power supremacy. Although The Two Alex' (Barros and Hofmann) first outing at Qatar only resulted in 9th and 11th places, those are spots that Pramac would have killed for last year. The Bridgestone tires, better machinery and swapping the very mediocre Jose Luis Cardoso for the brilliant Alex Barros has transformed the teams fortunes. Stoner's display at Qatar will have heartened the Pramac team, and Barros is sure to try and tag along on the front runners' coat tails, and once there, could be very dangerous company indeed.
Need For Speed
The prospect of another Ducati-dominated weekend would not please Yamaha at all. All throughout the pre-season, it looked like Valentino Rossi and Colin Edwards had already shared the championship honors between them, with the Yamaha team topping the timesheets at test after test. Qatar was a very harsh lesson indeed for Yamaha. What was clear was that Yamaha have decided that corner speed is going to be key for the new 800s, and have turned the already highly maneuverable M1 into an astonishingly agile beast. The way that Valentino Rossi could sail at will past both Casey Stoner and Dani Pedrosa on the brakes proved conclusively that the M1 is a finely balanced weapon, and with the Jerez track being tighter and twistier than Qatar, stopping Rossi will be a formidable task. After 5 races in a row without a win, The Doctor is currently suffering his longest dry spell since his rookie season in MotoGP, and will be fiercely determined to call it to a halt.
Colin Edwards' dry spell has lasted a good deal longer, and after coming so tantalizingly close at Assen last year, he has a lot to prove. His 6th spot at Losail was not at all where he expected to be, and not where he was during pre-season testing. At Jerez, he will want to be much closer to the front indeed.
Home Of The Brave
Probably the bravest performance at Qatar was by Suzuki's John Hopkins, riding with badly-injured wrist, hurt in a crash during testing there several weeks previously. The Anglo-American was unlucky not to get on the podium, pushing Honda's Dani Pedrosa hard until the final lap. Now back to something approaching full fitness, he has every chance of finally getting on the podium. The Suzukis have shone throughout pre-season testing, and Hopkins' 4th spot in Losail was proof that the improvements in top end are working well with the already excellent-handling chassis to turn the GSV-R into a genuine threat this year. And if Chris Vermeulen can get to grips with the new qualifying tire rules, then he should be able of running at the front too.
The biggest surprise of the off-season have been the Hondas. Their expected domination has proven to be an illusion, and the removal of one of the front cylinders to turn the V5 990 cc RC 211V into the V4 800 cc RC212V seems to have completely destroyed the balance of the bike. Where previously, the Honda was the bike to be on to have a chance at winning, now it seems as if the only person capable of getting anywhere on the Honda is tiny Spaniard Dani Pedrosa, the man the bike is rumored to have been built for. His 3rd place in Qatar showed the Honda had sufficient horsepower, but the Ducati, Yamaha and the Suzuki all seemed capable of passing the Honda quite effortlessly, either into the turns or on the straights. It was a testament to Pedrosa's talent that he managed to finish on the podium at all, the only other Honda anywhere near the front being Marco Melandri on the Bridgestone-shod Hannspree Gresini Honda. But the weight of expectation hangs very heavily indeed on Dani Pedrosa. At the first of his home Grand Prix, the fans will almost demand that he win. But with the Honda in the state that it is currently, that could be a very tall order for the statuesque Spaniard.
Pedrosa's team mate, and reigning world champion Nicky Hayden is having a very torrid time in the new 800 cc era. He has so far failed to get to grips with the new RC212V, complaining of a lack of power, a lack of wind protection, a lack of physical space on the bike, and a lack of confidence in the front end. Hayden's difficulty was painfully apparent at Qatar: the Kentucky Kid was visibly trying to bully the bike into submission, to make it do what he wanted, and failing. He wants to defend his title with pride and honor, but to be able to do that, he will have to find a way to ride the Honda 800, and he will have to find it quickly.
Of the other Honda riders, Marco Melandri seems to have come to terms with the new Honda best. But Melandri's problem is that he not just to adapt to the new 800, but also to the Bridgestone tires. The Ducati's performance at Jerez last year showed that the Bridgestones work well at the track in Southern Spain, so that could work to his advantage, but the question marks remain over just how competitive the Hondas are.
Question marks also remain over Melandri's team mate Toni Elias. If Melandri is inconsistent on occasion, Elias is completely unpredictable. Brilliant one day, and nowhere the next, it is hard to make any sense of the Spaniard's form. On any given day, he can either be a factor to be reckoned with or a factor to be disregarded, with no seeming pattern to his performance.
The mystery factor for Honda is Kenny Roberts Jr and Team KR. With the new Honda 800 engine housed in their own chassis, it should be possible for Team KR to validate whether the problems with the Honda RC212V is in the frame or the engine. Kenny Roberts Jr's first outing has been inconclusive, mostly because he was almost entirely invisible at Qatar. So far, neither the engine nor the frame of the KR212V seem to be working for the former world champion. They can only hope that Jerez brings them some relief.
The real losers in the Honda camp are Carlos Checa on the LCR Honda and Shinya Nakano on the Konica Minolta machine. Both left seemingly doomed projects last year to take rides on what they thought would be race-winning material. But fate has so far seen fit to do otherwise. Checa is struggling with much the same problems that plague Hayden, while Nakano seems to be suffering from the Bridgestone syndrome: once you've learnt to trust the feel of a Bridgestone front tire, it's hard to get the same level of confidence in the distinctly different feel of the Michelins. It's still early in the season, but the omens are not good for Super Shinya: his experience so far is eerily similar to the man he replaced, Makoto Tamada.
Young, Gifted And French
But those front Bridgestones are not infallible, as the gravel excursions of Kawasaki's Randy de Puniet prove. After qualifying in a creditable 8th position, De Puniet managed to crash out before 7 laps were over, starting the new season as he finished the previous season. De Puniet has shown flashes of great talent during the pre-season, including leading the final session at the IRTA test in Jerez in February. But unless he fixes his tendency to head off into the scenery, all that talent will keep going to waste. Sadly for Kawasaki, de Puniet's team mate will do little to help Team Green save face. Olivier Jacque is clearly having problems making the transition from test rider to racer, and that is badly hurting Kawasaki's competitiveness. De Puniet's fast laps have shown that the bike is fundamentally sound, but they just keep failing to convert those times into concrete results.
The Long Goodbye
The other team which have so far failed to convert is the Tech 3 Yamaha team. Makoto Tamada seems to be continuing his slow but inevitable slide into obscurity, and for the second season running, you have to wonder whether he will be able to hold onto his seat until the season's end. It already seems clear after just one race, in which he was beaten by his rookie team mate Sylvain Guintoli, that Tamada will not be in MotoGP in 2008. The question is, will he even be last for much of 2007. The problem of losing Tamada would be finding a replacement. Guintoli is in his first season in MotoGP, and is very much living up to expectations, meaning that he is learning quickly and is getting up to speed, but he lacks experience to be able to push the development of the Dunlop tires, which is the very reason the Tech 3 Yamaha team exists. If Tamada goes, his replacement will have to be someone with plenty of experience.
The Very, Very Short Goodbye
And as it happens, a couple of experienced riders have just been released on to the market. With Ilmor's shameful and allegedly temporary withdrawal from MotoGP, both Jeremy McWilliams and Andrew Pitt have become unexpectedly available. Both are experienced, and Pitt at least has experience with the Dunlops.
All To Play For
With the second race of the season upon us, there are still a whole heap of questions left to be answered: Can the agile Yamaha's compensate for the Ducati's raw horsepower at tighter tracks? Can Suzuki move up to compete for the podium every race? And will Honda finally start finding answers for their troubled 800, or will it all come down to Dani Pedrosa's size and weight advantage? So many questions, and only a few days to wait for answers. Let the racing begin.