2007 Catalunya MotoGP Preview - Fear And Loathing In La Caixa

From the soul of motorcycle racing, to it's nerve center. While Mugello, the scene of last week's MotoGP round, is close to Ducati, Montmelo, where the Barcelona track is located, is close to Dorna, the organization which runs MotoGP. But there is much more than just Dorna: many of the riders live in and around Barcelona, including Carlos Checa and Dani Pedrosa, but also Troy Bayliss and Hiroshi Aoyama. Kenny Roberts Sr has a place near Sitges, just down the coast from Barcelona, as does the famous US journalist Dennis Noyes. Then there's the medical profession: with so many racers of all disciplines in the area, the region's hospitals have also become specialists in racing-related injuries. Barcelona is the center the motorcycle racing world revolves around.

As a result, the circuit at Barcelona is deeply familiar to most of the MotoGP paddock. The track, shaped like a pair of bull's horns, flows up and down the hillsides just outside of Barcelona, and is a frequent venue for testing of all kinds of racing motorcycles. But the irony is that this year, the MotoGP circus has yet to visit the Montmelo circuit, having done all their pre-season testing down in Jerez instead. So neither the 800 cc bikes, nor the new tire regulations, have been tested at Barcelona, and frankly, that's making some of the teams a little nervous. The track has a long front straight with a fast turn at the beginning of it, meaning that although it's not the longest straight on the calendar, it does tend to produce the highest speeds: The riders enter it already traveling at close to 100 mph, before rocketing down the kilometer-long tarmac ribbon past the finish line. And that means that the huge injectors are spewing forth fuel into the thirsty, high-revving engines as fast as they can for a very long time. So far this year, we've seen the new tire regulations affect the race at both Istanbul and Shanghai, at Barcelona, we could see the new fuel limit of 21 liters cause problems, leaving some riders down on power, if not out of fuel, during some part of the race on Sunday.

Unlucky For Some

While some of the teams are a little nervous, Ducati must arrive at the Montmelo circuit with a great deal of trepidation. Their last visit here, the ill-fated 2006 MotoGP race, was about as disastrous an affair as you could ever imagine. Both their riders got caught up in the first corner chaos when the race as started for the first time, leaving Loris Capirossi with a very badly bruised chest, effectively ending his championship hopes, and Sete Gibernau with a broken collarbone, exacerbating an old injury, and presaging the end of Gibernau's racing career. With their last outing a catastrophe, there should be plenty of jitters in the Ducati garage this weekend.

But they have plenty of reasons for optimism to help wash those jitters away. The long straight at the Circuit de Catalunya should in theory allow the Ducatis to turn on the top speed advantage once again, but Barcelona could be like Mugello: Speculation is rife that Ducati turned down the power a little at the high-speed Italian track, to conserve fuel at the end of the race, as the speed differential with the rest of the field was markedly less than at previous races.

Fortunately for Ducati, Casey Stoner is so good at getting out of corners and onto straights, it's likely to be hard keeping up with the championship leader at Barcelona. Stoner again showed his maturity at Mugello, riding a steady race once he realized that he couldn't stay with Dani Pedrosa and Valentino Rossi, and scored some important points. But with Rossi taking a win, and closing the points gap down to just 9 points, the pressure will be on the young Australian. So far, he has borne that burden extraordinarily well, but Barcelona could be his first real test.

Loris Capirossi has less reason to be cheerful. Last year, Barcelona saw the accident that wrecked possibly the best shot the Italian ever had at winning the world title, and this year, he has singularly failed to get on with the 800cc GP7. Capirex used new engine parts at Mugello, aimed at providing a less peaky power delivery, which he claims have helped a little, but he really needs to find his feet again soon.

The other man with unhappy memories of Barcelona is Marco Melandri. He ended up in hospital in Barcelona with Capirossi and Gibernau, after lying motionless in the gravel. Almost miraculously, he returned to racing just a few days later at Assen, after suffering some bruising and a concussion. He will be hoping for revenge, but despite the fact that the Honda RC212V is steadily improving, it still has a number of issues, including chatter and a lack of feel at the front. Melandri has appeared on the podium twice at Catalunya, but a third time could be a very difficult prospect indeed.

Keeping The Streak Alive

All of Honda's hopes rest on the slight shoulders of Dani Pedrosa. But even Pedrosa had a torrid time here last year. The Spaniard, or to be more precise, the Catalonian, crashed a grand total of three times during last year's race, getting caught up in the first corner crash on the first start, then tumbling into the gravel shortly after remounting, only to crash out during the restarted race while sitting in 5th position. Up to that point, however, Pedrosa had looked very strong, barging his way through the field from 11th place. He always went well at Barcelona in the 250 class, winning once and taking second as well, and his race at Mugello last week was very strong indeed. Pedrosa has been just about the only Honda rider capable of getting anything out of the RC212V, and as the bike continues to improve, Pedrosa will get ever closer to a win. It's now been nearly a year since Pedrosa's last win, his longest losing streak since he started racing in the 125 class back in 2001.

And if Pedrosa or another Honda rider doesn't win at Barcelona, it will also be Honda's longest losing streak since Mick Doohan started off the 1992 season by breaking the string of 8 wins by Suzuki and Yamaha at the end of 1991. Honda have now been seven races without a win, their last victory being the race Toni Elias beat Valentino Rossi by the narrowest of margins at Estoril in Portugal. The MotoGP giant is unaccustomed to losing, and heads will surely start rolling if they don't return to winning ways soon.

If Dani Pedrosa will be hard pressed to win at Catalunya, the remainder of the Honda men will find it even more difficult. Nicky Hayden, Pedrosa's Repsol Honda team mate and the reigning world champion, is still battling to come to terms with the new, smaller Honda. Despite finally getting some new parts at Mugello, including a fairing which now provides a modicum of protection down long straights, The Kentucky Kid still can't get comfortable with lack of front end feel from the Honda, and without that feel, Hayden doesn't have the confidence in the bike to just go out and push the bike to its limits.

Two other Honda riders will be dreaming of an improbable victory come Sunday: Barcelona is the local track for Gresini Honda's Toni Elias and LCR Honda's Carlos Checa, both of whom live not far from the circuit. If anyone could pull the cat out of the bag, it would have to be wild man Elias, whose spectacular sliding style has won him many fans in the stands, but also many enemies in the paddock. With the memory of what happened in the first corner last year, many a rider will have a wary eye on Elias, hoping that the Spaniard can keep himself at least a little in check until the pack has siphoned through the first few turns.

His Way

After his spectacular victory at Mugello, Valentino Rossi must be relishing the prospect of the race at Barcelona. Like Mugello, the track at Montmelo has several places which really reward agility, and as Yamaha eke out a few more horses from Rossi's M1, he is losing less and less down the long straights as well. Rossi has won the last three races here, and in his current form, he is a very strong bet to extend that winning streak as well.

The Tech 3 team will also be looking forward to visiting Barcelona: this was the track that the Dunlops started showing real progress at last year, and as the gap between Dunlop and the big two tire manufacturers narrows, Sylvain Guintoli and Makoto Tamada get closer to running with the pack. Guintoli continues to impress, the most underestimated rider going into the season quickly becoming a favorite with both the fans and the paddock. With the transfer market seemingly in full swing, Guintoli looks like being a much hotter property than you might have guess just 6 months ago.

Hot To Trot

The hottest properties in the riders' market are to be found at Suzuki. Both Chris Vermeulen and John Hopkins have been linked with just about every other team in the paddock, after the Suzuki's vastly improved performance this year has allowed them both to show their true potential. And Barcelona is a track they both went well at last year, Hopkins coming tantalizingly close to his first podium here, finally being beaten by the horsepower of Kenny Roberts Jr's Honda-powered KR211V, while Vermeulen finished 6th. This year's Suzuki is if not light years, then at least astronomical units ahead of last year's bike, and so a podium for Hopkins looks very likely indeed.

The Kawasaki is also a bike that is hugely improved over last year. Unfortunately, however, the riders have been anything but an improved. The official Kawasaki press release spoke of the main challenge for Randy de Puniet and Olivier Jacque being not to crash. Kawasaki is one of the players making the most noise in the market, trying to attract a big name to finally release the potential of the ZX-RR, something the two Frenchmen have so clearly failed to do. Unless either OJ or de Puniet step up soon, they are likely to be looking for work at the end of the season. And with both of them injured, OJ still suffering with an injured arm from a crash in China, and de Puniet with a badly swollen knee from his fall in Mugello, that turnaround is unlikely to come in Spain.

At least the Kawasakis can be sure of beating the Team KR bikes. A repeat of Kenny Roberts Jr's podium of last year is almost unthinkable, unless the rest of the field crash out. Team Roberts has struggled badly so far this year, suffering both from the Honda engine's lack of horsepower, plus the centralized mass of the engine, which has made it difficult to balance the bike. Added to the team only having one rider, developing the KR212V has been very difficult. Luckily for the team, Kenny Senior's other son, Kurtis Roberts, joined the team at Mugello, and helped find the direction the bike needs to go in to become competitive. Kurtis is back for Barcelona, providing more input, and hopefully getting the underdog of the paddock, the team which is perhaps most admired for its gritty determination, back on track.

Affairs Of The Heart

If anywhere in the world deserves a MotoGP race, it is Barcelona. Catalonia, the autonomous region which has Barcelona at its heart, has done so much for motorcycle racing over the years, throwing up a seemingly endless supply of great racers, and adding the passion for racing which keeps MotoGP close to the hearts of all Spaniards. If the race at Mugello was anything to go by, the Gran Premi de Catalunya should be a classic.

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