To those of us in the West, the Orient has always been an exotic place, shrouded in mystery. Throughout history, the East represented aromatic spices, spectacular colors and an unfathomable and alien world. Most of all, the East stood for adventure, a place where anything was possible, and reputations and riches could be made or lost.
And now, MotoGP heads out to the Orient for two rounds which are very much shrouded in mystery. With both Istanbul in Turkey and Shanghai in China on the schedule, we head into truly uncharted territory, with new engines, new fuel limits and new tire regulations all unknown quantities at tracks the MotoGP circus did not visit during the winter. With weather conditions notoriously changeable at this time of year in Istanbul, and Shanghai being perhaps the ultimate gas-guzzling track, both weekends promise to be highly unpredictable. The only thing we can be sure of is that reputations will be both made and broken, at both circuits.
Twist And Turn
The first stop is by far the most exciting. New racetracks, especially racetracks which have been designed and built for Formula 1, are notoriously bad for motorcycle racing, with lots of long straights and slow corners going against the grain of motorcycling, which loves long, fast flowing turns at the limit of adhesion. Shanghai is a prime exponent of the Formula 1 principle, but astonishingly, the Istanbul Park circuit is the opposite, despite being designed by Herman Tilke, the man also responsible for Shanghai's dire layout.
The Istanbul track has just about everything you want in a racetrack: elevation changes, off-camber turns, fast sweepers, tight chicanes, downhill turns, uphill turns, the whole nine yards. It has sections where the bike spends what seems like forever heeled over at speed, and then it has The Eliminator: a flat-out, 170 mph, off-camber right-hander. Istanbul's Turn 11 is a test of mettle, and truly the measure of a racer. The winner will take this turn flat out in 5th gear, where the 12th place rider will back off a fraction. The track finishes with a flourish, a slow tight, left-right-left combination, allowing slower, more agile bikes to catch the faster bikes on the brakes, and out-maneuver them through the twiddles.
On the evidence of the first two races of the 800 era, that's exactly how the race is likely to play out. At Qatar, we saw how the awe-inspiring horsepower of the Ducati blew everyone away down the front straight, while the more agile Yamaha gained back the advantage round the twistier rear section. At Jerez, the roles were reversed, with the Ducati struggling to make up for the Yamaha's agility. This weekend, at Istanbul, we are likely to see the best of both worlds, with the faster Ducatis and, to a lesser extent the Hondas, pulling away from the slower Yamahas and Suzukis, with the more agile bikes closing up the gap through the slower sections.
The Conditions Conundrum
But the Orient is nothing without an air of mystery, and there are two huge question marks hanging over the Turkish Grand Prix. First and foremost is the small matter of tires. The 800s haven't run at Istanbul during the winter tests, and we have only visited the track twice, so tire data is thin on the ground. Then there's the weather: We arrive in Turkey during the spring, a season which is mostly warm and pleasant. Except when it's cold and wet, which, spring being a very changeable affair, can happen, as last year's sodden qualifying practice so ably demonstrated. And let us not forget the daily temperature difference. Spring mornings usually start out cool, only warming up later, with temperatures reaching the 70s and 80s by the afternoon. Which coincidentally are the times the two daily practice sessions for MotoGP are run. We had the same situation in Jerez, and the teams complained bitterly that the cool morning sessions were virtually useless for finding a race setup, due to be run in the warmth of the afternoon. Istanbul looks set to repeat the experience.
The problem this causes is that the tires the teams use all have to be selected and bar coded on the Thursday afternoon, before the race starts. Each rider has to pick out 14 fronts and 17 rears, which will have to serve them both during the cool mornings and the warm afternoons. At least at Jerez, the teams had plenty of data from testing; At Istanbul, they will be left guessing. There will be a certain amount of gambling come Thursday, with the chance of a big payout, or a serious failure, on Sunday.
Added to the tire conundrum is the problem of fuel. Though the 800s are down on power, they spend more time at full throttle, and Istanbul's fast, full-throttle corners just make things worse. Engineers and data technicians have been working overtime running race simulations on dynos and computers, trying to ensure that the bikes have just enough fuel to make it through the race. But no matter how good your simulations, with a liter less fuel than last year and unpredictable conditions on the day, the unexpected and unforeseeable uncertainties of the real world mean that there is a very real chance that one or more bikes won't quite make it.
One name keeps popping up whenever bikes running out of fuel are mentioned: The accepted wisdom is that the Ducati's fearsome horsepower must come from somewhere, and that source is most likely to be the burning of hydrocarbons in prodigious quantities. As MotoGP starts out on its tour of high-speed, high fuel-consumption tracks, those hydrocarbons could well start to become an issue. No one doubts the Ducati's speed, as Casey Stoner's outstanding display at Losail demonstrated, but the question is, will they be able to last the race?
If they do, then Stoner has to be the top favorite to win in Istanbul. He has already won here in the 250 class 2 years ago, he finished 2nd here last year in MotoGP, and he runs really well at the track. With the back straight and Turn 11 rewarding fearless riding and all out top end, and Stoner's history in Turkey, the young Australian seems almost a shoo-in for the win. The only fly in the ointment are the Bridgestone tires: The Japanese tire maker has a very checkered history at Istanbul, producing fantastic qualifying tires, but with the performance of the race tires dropping off drastically during the race. If Bridgestone have the race tire, the race could be Stoner's to lose.
And if Stoner does well here, there's every chance the other Ducatis will fly too. Loris Capirossi will be desperate to regain his form after his disastrous start to 2007, first crashing out at Qatar, and then riding around Jerez distracted by the imminent arrival of his first-born child. Before the season started, Capirossi's name was on just about everybody's list as a bona fide title candidate, but he has so far failed to come to terms with the new 800s. This has come as quite a surprise, as Capirossi has come up through what conventional wisdom holds to be the best training ground for the 800s, the 125 and 250 classes. His problem has been that the old 990 Desmosedici needed to be bullied into submission, and Capirex had learned to square off the corners like that old dirt track hand, Nicky Hayden. The diminutive Italian is having to unlearn those old bad habits, and so far, he's not been very successful.
With top speed at a premium, Istanbul could also reward the other Ducati team. Compared with last year, Pramac d'Antin have put in some astounding results, but with better bikes and, more importantly, better tires for '07, they should be closer to the front. Istanbul will be their first chance to shine. Veteran Alex Barros' return to MotoGP was expected to produce better results than the 9th and 11th spots he's scored so far. And team mate Alex Hofmann will want to make amends for the pit lane foul-up which saw him excluded from the Jerez race, after switching bikes after just two laps because of a technical problem. With the right equipment, and an astute choice of tires before the race, the Pramac Ducatis could be much closer to the front in Turkey.
The bikes which suffered most blatantly at the hands of the fearsome Ducatis in Qatar were the Yamahas of Valentino Rossi and Colin Edwards. Lap after lap, Rossi caught Stoner round the turns at the back of the circuit, only to see Stoner blast past on the long, fast front straight. It's flagrantly obvious that Yamaha need more horsepower to avoid further humiliation at the hands of the Beasts From Bologna. Yamaha have said they've found a bit more power, but any substantial addition of ponies will only be ready for the Mugello round in June, as you can't trade speed off against fragility.
If one man can hold his own against those odds, it's The Doctor. Rossi proved that he could make up for a lack of horses at Losail, but Istanbul could be more difficult. Though the turns favor a maneuverable bike, there's still the long back straight with the fast kink to negotiate, where the Yamahas will be at a disadvantage. Rossi doesn't really like the Turkish track, but he will be extremely motivated to win here, as Istanbul Park is one of only three tracks that he hasn't won at yet. With 2008 looking like being his final year in MotoGP, he will be determined to make the best of every opportunity.
And Fiat Yamaha team mate Colin Edwards will want to do the same. Already, rumors are flying that Jorge Lorenzo will take the Texas Tornado's job next year, so Edwards has a point to prove. He will be hoping that his podium in Jerez is an augury of many more visits to the box, in the hope of securing a winning ride for 2008. But down on horsepower, he may find that pulling that trick at Istanbul is just a little too hard.
The other bikes with less power but plenty of maneuverability are the Rizla Suzukis. Though not as badly outclassed by the Ducatis as the Yamahas, it was clear at Qatar they don't have the horses that the Ducatis do, nor the ponies possessed by the Honda. But what they do have is form at Istanbul. Australian Chris Vermeulen put in a brilliant performance in the rain last year to take a stunning pole, in just his 3rd MotoGP race. Sadly, he could not hold his own in the drier conditions that prevailed on race day, and both Vermeulen and Hopkins suffered the same general malaise that afflicted all Bridgestone runners, fading towards the end of the race.
But this year could be different. If the tires are right, the Suzukis could be much more competitive this weekend, as they have shown during the off-season. Last year's huge power deficit has been turned around, with the Suzukis now in the same ballpark as the other Japanese manufacturers. And they still have the fantastic handling that kept them in contention despite the horsepower shortage. This, combined with John Hopkins' phenomenal corner speed, could turn out to be Suzuki's secret weapon in Istanbul, despite the fact that Hopper is riding with an excruciatingly painful wrist injury. Hopkins is close to his first MotoGP podium, and he knows it. Unfortunately, though, he is so close he has been pushing too hard to clinch it, as his fall at Jerez 3 weeks ago showed. If he can stay calm in the face of a possible podium, then he should do very well on Sunday. The problem is, staying calm is not Hopper's strongest point.
Contrast that to his team mate Chris Vermeulen: The young Australian is extremely mature and analytical, and never gets over-excited. So far, his results have failed to live up to his pre-season promise, and he will be dead set on getting his season back on track with a result that he is obviously capable of. He proved he is good at Istanbul with his pole last year, so he has to be a factor in Turkey.
Lost At The Front
And what of Honda? The bike everyone expected to dominate the new class has failed to make an impression so far this year. Only Dani Pedrosa has managed to stay at the front so far, managing a respectable 3rd and 2nd in the first two races. The problems the Honda have are not huge, but they are many: Nicky Hayden and Marco Melandri are complaining of a lack of feel from the front end, imperative if you want to carry the corner speed demanded by the little bikes; Dani Pedrosa has complained of a lack of rear-end grip; Hayden and Carlos Checa have complained about the lack of wind protection on the tiny Honda; and just about everybody has complained about a lack of horsepower from the RC212V.
The rider coping the best so far is Dani Pedrosa. The young Spaniard's riding style suits the 800 cc Honda, but even the man being touted as a future world champion has been suffering. At Qatar, Valentino Rossi sailed past Pedrosa several times on the brakes, and The Doctor compounded the insult by keeping Pedrosa firmly in his place at the Spaniard's home race in Jerez. If anyone can get the RC212V to work in his favor, it has to be Pedrosa, but Istanbul might not be the track to do it at. Pedrosa desperately wants to put an end to his longest winless streak since 2002, but he might have to wait another couple of weeks until Shanghai, the track that gave him his first MotoGP win last year.
In contrast, Pedrosa's Repsol Honda team mate, and reigning world champion, Nicky Hayden is not coping at all well with the 800 cc Honda. Hayden's square-it-off-and-stand-it-up style is far from ideal for the super-smooth 800s, and a lack of front-end feel just compounds the problem, preventing Hayden from switching to carrying more corner speed. Hayden spent some time with Freddie Spencer over the last couple of weeks, trying to re-program his style, and hopefully, that investment will pay off. The Kentucky Kid's level of effort has been beyond reproach, but he is still a long way from managing a successful title defense.
The other rider suffering with the front end has taken some drastic steps to try and remedy the situation: Marco Melandri is fitting the forks from last year's bike to his RC212V to try and regain some confidence in the front tire. Melandri is the only man to have won at Istanbul Park, but his form so far this year has been very mediocre. If the old forks work out, and the Bridgestones last the race, then Melandri could make it three in a row, but in light of the problems he has had so far this year, it is not looking hopeful.
The Wild One
Melandri's Hannspree Honda team mate defies explanation. To go fast on the 800s, you're supposed to be smooth, keep the wheels in line, and maintain your momentum through the turns. Toni Elias, on the other hand, gets everything crossed up through the turn, has the rear hanging out, and is generally a bundle of uncontrolled intensity on the bike. And yet he seems to make it work, taking a solid 4th place at Jerez. And Elias is another rider who does well in Turkey, taking a 5th and a 6th there in the last two races. Highly unpredictable, you have to fancy Elias' chances at Istanbul Park, but, being Elias, you can't afford to bet the farm on him. Though if you had a small outbuilding, you might just fancy a wager on Mad Toni.
Elias' compatriot Carlos Checa has done surprisingly well on the LCR Honda this year. His year of hard work at Tech 3 Yamaha in 2006 paid off with a Honda ride for this year, but unfortunately for Checa, it was just as Honda lost their way with the RC212V. It's obvious that Checa still has the drive to try to win races, but he may have to wait for more power and better wind protection for his Honda before being a feature at the front.
When Shinya Nakano left Kawasaki to join the Konica Minolta team to ride a Honda, the consensus was that he would finally be able to contend for race wins. But Nakano seems to be suffering exactly the same problems that dogged Makoto Tamada while he was on the same bike: It's hard to switch from Bridgestones to Michelins, as the front end just feels so different. This problem is compounded by the RC212V's front-end weakness, and has left Nakano way down the grid, in places he thought he'd left behind when he left Kawasaki. Time will tell whether Nakano can gain confidence in the front end, and once he achieves that, we will see his true potential. But Istanbul is too early for that. Nakano needs more changes to the bike before being able to compete.
The one Honda-powered bike which hasn't suffered with front-end feel has been the Team KR KR212V bike ridden by Kenny Roberts Jr. The season started inauspiciously, with Kenny Sr threatening to withdraw if the team could not come up with more sponsorship. Fortunately, funds are starting to pour in to the KR coffers, and Team KR is back on track. The first couple of races did not go well for Kenny Jr, especially the race at Jerez, where he was foiled by gearchange problems. But last year's results showed that Team KR know how to build a bike, they just need to get it back on track. Whether Istanbul is that track is another matter altogether.
Green With Envy
And so to the team which showed so much promise during the pre-season, and has disappointed so badly during the race season. During the winter testing, Randy de Puniet consistently put in some very fast times on his Kawasaki ZX-RR. But at Qatar, he put on a display of his greatest weakness by crashing out. That's a tendency he will have to dispose of very quickly, if he wants to keep his ride for next year.
If de Puniet is in danger of losing his ride at the end of the year, team mate Olivier Jacque may not even last that long. OJ has worked hard behind the scenes to develop the Kawasaki, but as a racer, he is badly out of practice, regularly lapping over a second behind the rest of the field. If he doesn't find a good chunk of speed, then he may well be out of a job before the season is over. He needs to kickstart his season, and Istanbul is the best place to start.
Joining OJ among the ranks of the unemployed could be Tech 3 Yamaha rider Makoto Tamada. The Dunlop tires are still a way behind the Bridgestones and Michelins in terms of development, but Tamada is being beaten by his rookie team mate Sylvain Guintoli, not just the riders on better tires. Tamada's long slide into mediocrity started a couple of seasons ago, and so far, he has done nothing to halt it. Istanbul is unlikely to be any different. Guintoli, on the other hand, is doing remarkably well. Though he will win the Rookie of the Year award by default, being the only rookie riding this year, it will not be entirely undeserved. If he can consistently beat his much more experienced team mate, he will do very well indeed. Istanbul is his next opportunity.
Departing In Style
This weekend will be one full of incident and mystery. No one knows if they have tires that work at Istanbul Park. No one knows if they have enough fuel to last the race. No one's sure what the weather will be like for race day, and whether the strategy they thought up on Thursday when they picked their tires will still hold up on Sunday afternoon. The Orient will indeed be filled with mystery, and Istanbul Park could throw up some really great surprises. Riders you expect to do well could be nowhere, and some team could get lucky with tire choice and podium, or even win, thanks to some shrewd tire selection on Thursday. It's going to be a fascinating race weekend.
But the sad news is that this is likely to be MotoGP's last visit to the spectacular Istanbul Park circuit for the foreseeable future. A shortage of funds (despite good spectator numbers) and customs difficulties are making it very hard for the Turkish Motorcycling Federation to keep organizing the event. If it goes, we will lose the best of the new racetracks, and one of the finest events on the calendar. So savor this weekend's racing like a fine wine. Looking back at the two years we have been racing in Turkey, the track gave us a great battle all the way to the last lap in MotoGP last year, and it also gave us one of the best motorcycle races ever with last year's 250 race. That's not to mention the sight of the 125s going into the Turn 12-13-14 twiddles five abreast for lap after lap. If we do leave here, I for one will be very sad to go. I intend to enjoy every minute of what is left of racing at Istanbul.