The Orient Express
And so, after the excitement of the Turkish Grand Prix, we head eastwards, from the Orient Express to the Trans-Siberian Express, leaving Istanbul to head off to Shanghai in China. Though some 5,000 miles apart, the two circuits are remarkably similar: They are both new facilities, completed only a couple of years ago; They were both designed by Herman Tilke, the German architect, and both were designed to be primarily Formula 1 tracks; They are also both on the nomination list to be dropped from the MotoGP calendar for next year, as the ever-increasing likelihood of a MotoGP round at Indianapolis means that something will have to give in the already crowded schedule.
But there, the similarities end. Where Turkey has a flowing layout, mixing fast turns with slow turns, and plenty of elevation changes, and always good for some of the best racing of the year, Shanghai is a series of long, high-speed straights linked by tight, slow turns, allowing the fastest bikes to escape and putting an end to the prospect of fairing-bashing action. Much of the problem is down to the design brief: The track layout has been chosen to resemble the Chinese character "Shang", meaning "High" or "Above", which forms part of Shanghai's name. As beautiful as Chinese ideograms are, their boxy, convoluted nature translate very badly into race tracks.
And this year, the track layout looks like having a very profound outcome on the race indeed. Where the Ducatis had a clear advantage on the long front straight at Qatar, and reaffirmed their high-speed credentials at Istanbul, Shanghai looks like being a massacre. Boasting two of the longest straights on the calendar, as well as the highest top speed, the track looks made for Ducati. In fact, after the Ducati's awe-inspiring display at season opener at Qatar, some people calculated that the Bologna Bullets could gain around a second a lap down the two long straights at Shanghai.
Fortunately for the rest of the field, the long back straight is followed by a hairpin, and the shorter finish straight is followed by the seemingly endless curl of Turns 1 and 2. This is really a single, long, decreasing radius right-hander, which is almost impossible to find a single line through, as Turn 2 is then followed by a tight left-hander, before the track opens up again, and the bikes can get back into their stride. With these nasty, tight sections favoring agility, it should be possible for a more maneuverable bike to regain some of the ground lost to the faster machines down the long straights.
That horsepower is not entirely paramount was demonstrated during last year's race, when John Hopkins used the superior handling of his underpowered Suzuki GSV-R 990 to keep in touch with Dani Pedrosa, Nicky Hayden and Colin Edwards on their much more powerful Hondas and Yamaha. And this is the paradox of the Shanghai International Circuit: It boasts the highest top speeds and the longest straight of the year, but also one of the lowest average speeds. The fast straights and slow turns make it one of the most difficult tracks to set up the bike for.
Part of that difficulty is related to tires. Those fast straights, followed by heavy braking into slow turns, mean that Shanghai just eats front tires, something which Valentino Rossi can attest to. During last year's race, Rossi's front Michelin lost a huge chunk of tread coming down the long back straight. The exact cause of the tire's demise was never satisfactorily determined, but the abuse it had taken under hard braking, coupled with the terrible chatter the 2006 Yamaha M1 was suffering at the time seem to have combined to literally tear the tire apart.
Michelin will not want a repeat of that experience this year. What's more, they will be out to avenge the thrashing they received at the hands of Bridgestone in Turkey two weekends ago. Where previously, Michelin had dominated at Istanbul Park, they only managed to get 2 of their riders into the top 10 this year, with Nicky Hayden the best finisher in 7th place. Istanbul was the first track where the new tire regulations had an impact, as it was the first track none of the teams had tested at during the winter. The lesson it taught was that Bridgestone was much better at selecting the allowance of 14 front and 17 rear tires on the Thursday than Michelin. But this is something Bridgestone has always had to do, as having its factory in Japan meant they could not manufacture and ship new tires in overnight for the European races, as Michelin could from its plant in Clermont Ferrand in France. Consequently, Bridgestone already had the required forward-looking mindset, whereas Michelin got caught out by their reliance on their highly flexible manufacturing process, a process which is of limited value now that all the tires to be used have to be selected and in Parc FermÃ© by Thursday evening.
But there is one more factor that will complicate tire selection on Thursday. Apart from Shanghai being another track that the 800s have yet to lay a tire on, the weather along the East China Sea coast can be extremely changeable, and both previous visits have been plagued by rain. The 2005 race took place in a genuine downpour, while during the 2006 weekend, almost every practice session saw some kind of rain. The prospects for this year are not much different. The two free practice sessions on Friday will take place in variable conditions, with a good chance of rain, and Saturday's practice and qualifying sessions look like being run entirely in the wet. On the other hand, the forecast for race day is for perfect racing weather, warm and sunny.
These unpredictable conditions are going to play havoc. The tire regulations state that each rider has to select their tire allocation on Thursday, and no more tires may be selected after that. But that only applies to dry conditions: Riders are allowed as many rain tires as they want, as a safety measure. In addition, the Race Director may allow a tire manufacturer to provide 3 tires to each tire if they suffer a specific problem which compromises safety. During a changeable weekend, the arguments over what constitutes a problem which could compromise safety could rage for a very long time. And in the mean time, with each practice session which is sullied by rain, the riders lose yet more time in trying to find a tire and a setup which will work on race day.
Young, Gifted, And Australian
If the track is dry, and conditions don't cause tire selection problems, it would be a foolish person who would bet against a Ducati winning on Sunday. On current form, the race organizers can start engraving Casey Stoner's name into the winner's trophy already. Stoner has been outstanding so far this year, taking a great win at Qatar, and an almost perfect race in Istanbul. Stoner's switch to the Bridgestone-shod Ducati has been an unmitigated success, and the man who looked like being out of a job mid-way through last season has been transformed into a bona fide championship contender.
This metamorphosis must have surprised, and possibly annoyed, the man considered to be the main title threat at Marlboro Ducati, Stoner's team mate Loris Capirossi. Many people tipped Capirossi for the championship, believing that 2007 would be Capirex' year. But so far, Capirossi has struggled to come to terms with the new 800, partly as a result of being distracted by the arrival of his first child. If Capirossi wants to get his title aspirations back on track, he will need to beat his team mate at Shanghai.
Roll Out The Barros
But Marlboro Ducati aren't the only team fielding the Beasts from Bologna: Pramac d'Antin showed their potential at Istanbul, the combination of better equipment, top-flight tires and a competitive rider in Alex Barros coming tantalizingly close to getting the team's first podium in a very, very long time. If there is one track where Barros is likely to get on the podium, then surely it will be Shanghai. And if the weather turns, then that podium could even be a win, as Barros is still one of the finest wet weather riders of the field.
As for Barros' team mate, though a podium is a little too much to hope for, the other Alex, Alex Hofmann, has every chance of taking his best result ever in MotoGP at Shanghai. In fact it is entirely conceivable that the Ducatis could take a clean sweep in China, taking the top four places. The other teams have an awful lot to be afraid of.
You've Lost That Feeling
That fear must be felt most strongly at Honda. So far, the Honda RC212V, the machine which everyone expected to dominate the new class, has been a serious disappointment. The litany of complaints has been long and sometimes bizarre. Almost everyone has complained of a lack of front end feel, and several riders have simultaneously complained of a lack of rear-end traction. Then there's the lack of horsepower, plus the lack of wind protection for the taller riders, Honda electing to favor agility over top speed aerodynamics. The problems seem to center on Honda's dogma of mass centralization. So much of the bike's mass has now been centralized that it is now virtually impossible to shift weight forwards or backwards to influence grip at either end. With little weight to act as a counterbalance, moving the engine fractionally forward or backwards radically alters the balance of the bike, making finding a setup a knife edge affair.
So far, the only riders capable of compensating for this imbalance have been the shorter riders, their smaller frames fitting more closely within the mass centralization scheme. And the shortest of these, Dani Pedrosa, is also the man who won at Shanghai last year, becoming the second-youngest MotoGP winner of all time. But despite Pedrosa's excellent outings at both Qatar and Jerez, the Spanish wunderkind arrives in China with some serious handicaps. First and foremost, Pedrosa is suffering the aftermath of being shunted into the gravel by Olivier Jacque in Turkey, badly bruising his chest. And secondly, braking is going to be a problem. Any benefit Pedrosa gets from his light weight is annulled by the RC212V's lack of front end feel. The site of Stoner, Rossi, and Hopkins sailing past at the end of the long straight in Qatar is surely a taste of things to come in China. Pedrosa, no mean braker, was almost embarrassingly out-braked going into Turn 1, and the many extremely hard braking zones on the Shanghai circuit do not bode well for the Spaniard's prospects.
But still, Pedrosa's prospects must seem better than those of the current world champion, Nicky Hayden. Hayden has failed to get to grips with the RC212V, his dirt track riding style totally at odds with the high corner speeds required to move the 800 round the track at a competitive pace. Combine this with Hayden's total lack of confidence in the front end, and you have a recipe for disaster. Yet despite the miserable results, the Kentucky Kid's gritty determination has shone through, putting in better and better rides and creeping up the standings. Hayden is making progress, the only question being whether that progress is fast enough to score meaningful points in China.
The Wild Bunch
Hannspree Honda's Toni Elias presents Nicky Hayden with a paradox. No one rides more raggedly than Elias, hanging the rear out dirt-track style, in total contravention of the accepted wisdom of 800 cc riding. Yet Elias has continued to thrive, his results improving race on race. But a style so ragged will inevitably cause casualties along the way, Valentino Rossi believing himself to be the latest victim of Elias' tempestuous approach to motorcycle racing, as The Doctor was pushed wide by Terrible Toni going into Turn 12 at Istanbul, almost falling in what Elias later dismissed as "a racing incident". Elias keeps getting better and better, and has shown none of the fickleness of form which characterized him last year.
This fickleness is exactly what is plaguing his team mate, and theoretical lead Hannspree Honda rider, Marco Melandri. Melandri is in the same boat as Capirossi, having difficulty getting to grips with the new 800, while watching his younger team mate race effortlessly at the front. His problems even produced an outburst on his personal website after the Jerez round, railing against a lack of support from Honda, which he later retracted. Whether Honda helped, or Melandri helped himself, it made a difference, as Melandri finished 5th at Istanbul, riding his strongest race so far. But 5th is not where a man who sees himself as a title candidate should be finishing, and in China, Melandri must be hoping to be nearer the front.
The tale of the other two Honda riders, Konica Minolta's Shinya Nakano and LCR Honda's Carlos Checa, is one of almost unmitigated woe. Both switched to Honda last year in the hope of getting a much more competitive ride, only to find that Honda had forgotten to make the RC212V competitive. In addition, Nakano is suffering the fate of everyone who switches from Bridgestones to Michelins: A lack of confidence in the front end, a feeling which is exacerbated by the Honda's lack of feel at the front. As for Checa, the rewards he was hoping for after a year of sterling work on the Dunlop Yamaha continue to elude him, the tall Checa suffering the with the same lack of wind protection as Hayden. With the Dunlops slowly gaining ground on the big two tire manufacturers, Checa must be questioning the wisdom of his switch.
As if to prove that the problems with the Honda are not just down to the chassis, Kenny Roberts Jr has been having a very torrid time with the new Honda-powered KR212V. Where last year's bike just got better as the season wore on, this year, Team KR seem to have started at the bottom of the pile again. The team have a few new parts to test, most notably a new swing arm, but after Kenny Jr's terrible 16th place at Istanbul, they still have a long way to go. In 2006, the turnaround came at Shanghai, when the team got some advice from Honda about the chassis, and all of Team KR must be hoping that China will hold the same result for them this year.
One man who will not be hoping to see a repeat of last year's experience is Valentino Rossi. The Doctor was forced to retire at three quarters race distance, after his front tire delaminated, slinging a large chunk of rubber into his mudguard, making racing impossible. His problems at Istanbul, where one side of the rear tire seemed to have self-destructed, were a cruel reminder of the 2006 Shanghai race. Add to this the embarrassing power deficit the Yamaha is conceding to the Ducatis, and it is hard to imagine that Rossi is looking forward to visiting the Chinese track. Fortunately for The Doctor, Yamaha have already found some extra speed to counter Ducati's threat, but the question is, will it be enough? With the tire trauma he suffered at Istanbul, the specter of last year's nightmare season must be haunting Rossi's dreams already.
His Fiat Yamaha team mate, on the other hand, must be looking forward to visiting China. Colin Edwards managed a podium last year, on a bike plagued with chatter, and so must fancy his chances to repeat. He is hoping to receive the power boost which Rossi had at Istanbul, and he will also be hoping that this is enough to allow him to stay close to the Ducatis. If Edwards can manage that, then another podium is surely possible.
A Small Step For A Man
One man desperate to get on the podium is Rizla Suzuki's John Hopkins. He came close at Shanghai last year, finishing 4th behind Edwards, and has looked like being close again this year, taking another 4th at Qatar and crashing out of 4th spot in Jerez. Two things stand in his way in China: The first is the problem that everyone except Ducati has, which is that the Ducatis are just plain faster than everyone else. The second is the wrist injury Hopper suffered in pre-season testing. The Shanghai International Circuit demands some of the hardest braking of the year, braking from close to190 mph to under 40 for the hairpin at the end of the long back straight, and braking at around 1.6G places a lot of pressure on a rider's wrists. Wherever Hopkins finishes on Sunday, it will surely involve a great deal of pain.
Hopkins' team mate Chris Vermeulen was probably the best rider on the track at Istanbul Park two weekends ago. Unfortunately, his fantastic performance only gained him an 11th place, having been punted off by Olivier Jacque on the first lap. Vermeulen will be keen to maintain his form from Turkey, and avoid low flying Kawasakis. If he can do that, and keep up with the Ducati's, there's no reason why he can't finish on a par with his team mate, and close to the podium.
The man who caused Vermeulen's problems, as well as ruining the race for Colin Edwards and Dani Pedrosa, injuring Pedrosa in the process, will have a very fine line to walk in China. Kawasaki's Olivier Jacque has great memories of the Shanghai circuit, having come 2nd here in the rain, on a wildcard ride 2 years ago. But his season so far has been pretty awful, being a long way off the pace, and showing no signs of making a successful transition from test rider to MotoGP racer. Prior to Istanbul, stern words had been spoken to OJ, telling him to get his act together, or else find himself alternative employment. After causing the Turn 12 pile up on the first lap at Istanbul, those words can only have been sterner. OJ has to perform in China, but he can't let the pressure get to him, and crash out again like he did in Turkey. If he doesn't start living up to expectations, he may have to start looking for work.
His team mate, meanwhile, is starting to find his feet. Randy de Puniet had his best ever finish in MotoGP in Turkey, and with Kawasaki finding extra horsepower, the young Frenchman is starting to live up to the promise he showed during the off season. His one weakness is a tendency to crash, but if he can stay aboard, he could surprise a few riders.
The other young Frenchman in the paddock is also doing very well. Dunlop technicians have been extremely complimentary about Sylvain Guintoli's work on the Tech 3 Yamaha so far this year, and he continues to exceed expectations thanks to hard work and an underestimated talent. If he can move the Dunlops forward, he will improve his own chances of scoring points, and as the Dunlops get better, so will Sylvain.
Guintoli's team mate Makoto Tamada is in the same company as Olivier Jacque. The former GP winner has continued his long slide down the MotoGP rankings, and towards an early exit. The series veteran is only just managing to beat his rookie team mate, and is clearly on short notice to leave. Tamada needs a result in China, but on present form, is unlikely to get it.
Forgotten, But Not Gone
The Shanghai International Circuit is almost universally unloved by the riders. Riders and teams shower its facilities in compliments, and the buildings and open spaces are a delight. But the race track is thoroughly dull, its only memorable features those two long straights. Shanghai, like Istanbul, is shortlisted to be dropped for next season, and if it is, then frankly, it will not be missed.
Except, perhaps, by the Ducatis, if they can turn their blistering straight line speed into domination of the race weekend. On current form, you wouldn't bet against them, but with Shanghai's unpredictable climate capable of turning from sunshine to downpour and back again in very short order, it's far from a foregone conclusion. If the previous two visits to China are anything to go by, anything could happen over the race weekend. And with a bit of luck, it probably will.