The Shanghai International Circuit is a strange place. It is, to paraphrase Dickens, the best of tracks and the worst of tracks. For like so much of the building going on due to China's rise as a global superpower, the facilities are quite simply remarkable. The pit garages are spacious and clean, the paddock buildings are beautifully laid out, complete with garden and water village, and the press room looks like it could be used by NASA to monitor space shuttle flights. The trackside facilities truly are second to none.
Before they can enter this oasis of luxury, however, they must first wrestle through the Great Wall of red tape required to ensure that their bikes and supporting equipment actually get into the country and to the racetrack on time. The problem is worse this year, with the Chinese authorities tightening up security for the Olympics, especially after the Olympic torch relay turned into a mass protest against China's active role in Tibet and her passive role in Darfur in Sudan. Beijing's fear of protests inside the country has turned what used to be a bureaucratic headache into a complete nightmare.
Once through China's Kafkaesque customs procedures, things don't improve much. The layout of the track is absolutely dire: Two vast straights, 1.2 kilometers and 1 kilometer in length, with a few squiggles to join the straights together, all meant to resemble the Chinese character "Shang", meaning "High" or "Above", which forms part of Shanghai's name. The problem is that the simple strokes of the Shang character, resembling an upside-down capital T with a short stroke to the right halfway up the stem of the T, plus small serif-like embellishments on the top and the right of the character, do not translate at all easily to the requirements of a racetrack, which is to all intents and purposes a circle which has been deformed in any number of interesting ways.
Four Wheels Good, Two Wheels Bad
Added to the uncooperative nature of its basic shape was the fact that the track was designed to host Formula 1 in China. The requirements of Formula 1 and motorcycle racing are mostly diametrically opposed: Formula 1 cars require wide tracks with long straights for passing at speed, with sharp turns at the end to allow cars to outbrake each other. Motorcycles, on the other hand, are much narrow and more agile, and as a result it's possible to pass through the middle of corners, as well as along the straights or in the braking zone. The best motorcycle tracks, such as Assen and Mugello, feature combinations of bends with several lines through them, giving riders a choice of places to attack, and to make their pass, while simultaneously opening themselves up to counterattack once they've made their move. Shanghai is not one of those tracks.
And yet there are places which offer some entertainment. At the end of the start and finish straight, Turns 1 and 2 are basically a single right hander closing up through almost 270 degrees. Turn 3 follows, a left-hand hairpin, offering a chance to dive up the inside if you can hold the wider line out of Turn 2. The left-right combination of Turns 7 and 8 also flows more naturally, leading on to the double left of Turns 9 and 10, the first real chance to attack. But if you get past here, you can often find yourself getting off the corner more slowly for the short drag up to Turn 11, and will see the rider you just passed coming back past you as you brake for the tight left of Turn 11, before the long right hander of Turns 12 and 13. This is perhaps the best corner on the circuit, with the track wide enough to offer a number of lines onto the back straight.
The interest awakened at Turn 13 quickly peters out, however, as the riders then hammer down the interminable straight, where racing comes back to its most primitive form, horsepower and aerodynamics. Differences in bike speed are doubly emphasized here, as not only do the bikes reach their top speeds, but they spend longer at them, so a faster bike is not just faster, it's also faster for longer, gaining valuable tenths of a second on every lap. At the end of the straight is another very sharp hairpin, where little ground can be gained, before a short hop back to the final corner, a fast left hander taking you back onto the front straight, this one nearly as fast as the back straight.
The Lessons Of History
Just how important those straights are was demonstrated last year. Valentino Rossi proved his mastery of the Shanghai track by setting a pole time 6/10ths faster than the previous record set on the old 990cc bikes, and nearly a second faster than John Hopkins, the next man on the grid. But in the race, any advantage the Italian managed to pull out through the slow and tortuous section between the two long straights using the sweet handling of his Yamaha M1 would be obliterated down the front and back straights by the sheer top speed of Casey Stoner's Ducati. No slipstreaming involved, Stoner could simply open up the taps on his fearsome GP7 and literally blow by Rossi on his underpowered Yamaha. The 2007 MotoGP race at Shanghai made it painfully clear that Yamaha and Honda had got the new 800 class painfully wrong, and that the team at Ducati had got it just right.
This year, though, Casey Stoner won't have it so easy. Last year, the magical combination of Stoner's unrelenting talent, the Ducati's terrifying speed, and the brilliance of Bridgestone's tires meant that Stoner was almost impossible to beat in China. This year, though the Ducati is as fast as ever and Stoner's talent is undeniably still intact, the rest of the field has caught up. The Ducati is still the fastest bike on the grid, but now, both Honda and Yamaha are within a couple of kilometers an hour, rather than the dozen or so their deficit was last year.
Horses For Courses
So Stoner will have to overcome the Ducati's weak point at Shanghai, and bully the Bologna Bullet through the slow sections in a position to get onto the straights ahead of his competition. If he can keep up with the Yamahas and Hondas from Turn 2 to Turn 13, then he can still exploit the Ducati's top speed down the straights to pull off a victory. Currently just 4th in the championship, he needs a win to get his title defense back on track.
And Shanghai may just be kind to the other Ducatis as well. Marco Melandri, Toni Elias and Sylvain Guintoli are all suffering their worst seasons in the class and are a constant fixture at the back of the field. But with a couple of long straights to aid their cause, they could add a couple of satellite Hondas to the Kawasaki of Ant West they usually manage to keep behind them, and start scoring some substantial points.
For Melandri in particular, this weekend could be crucial. He has already written on his personal website that he feels like a "luxury spectator" aboard the Ducati. If he feels he is able to fight for positions in China, it might just give him the confidence boost he needs to step up his game again.
The fate of the Ducati provides an interesting counterpoint to the development of the Yamaha M1. The philosophy behind the Ducati was to make the bike as fast as possible, and let the rider figure out the corners. Yamaha, on the other hand, believed agility was the key, and focused on making the bike as maneuverable as possible. In 2007, they were short of top speed, but in 2008, they've got plenty, which complements the bike's handling to make it the best bike currently on the grid, as witnessed by the Yamahas consistently managing to get 3 bikes into the top 6 at every round of racing so far.
Be Careful What You Ask For
While this is just what Valentino Rossi asked for, he is currently still being hampered by the other thing he asked for, the switch to Bridgestone tires. Rossi and his crew are still working out how to get the best out of the Japanese rubber, and being the only Yamaha on Bridgestones isn't making their job any easier. But coming off two podiums in a row, and at a track he is incredibly strong at, The Doctor has got to be the hot favorite for victory in China.
If it wasn't for an operation to fix a problem with arm pump, that honor would probably go to Rossi's ostensible team mate, Jorge Lorenzo. Lorenzo's entry into MotoGP has been nothing short of meteoric, taking three poles and three podiums in his first three races. As if that wasn't impressive enough, the flamboyant Spaniard backed it up with a win at the last race in Portugal, taken in deeply impressive style. In a recent interview, Lorenzo told AS.com that he wasn't yet 100% fit. The closer he is to full fitness, the higher up the podium that Porfuera is likely to finish.
The one thing that may interfere with Lorenzo's podium hopes could be the Yamaha Tech 3 team. Now that both Colin Edwards and James Toseland have the pneumatic valve engine, the Tech 3 riders have plenty of speed along the straights. And with Edwards already having been on the podium here in 2006, the Texan could easily feature at the front on Sunday. Now liberated from his role as testing workhorse for his former team mate Valentino Rossi, Edwards is starting to enjoy racing again, and it shows. Colin Edwards is starting to look like the former World Superbike Champion that he is.
Being pushed by the reigning World Superbike Champion is helping Edwards. If it wasn't for Jorge Lorenzo, James Toseland is the rookie we would all be talking about. Many people doubted Toseland's decision to leave Honda and Superbikes and join the Tech 3 Yamaha MotoGP team, but so far, it has turned out to be a stroke of brilliance. The British hopeful has been extremely impressive aboard the Yamaha so far, hampered mostly by his lack of track knowledge at Estoril, and to a lesser extent, Jerez. With Shanghai another circuit that Toseland hasn't seen before, he will have to learn quickly once again. Currently 5th in the championship, he's proved he is up to that task.
The Honda Lane
Where Yamaha have already solved their top speed problem, Honda are still struggling. Extra horsepower is proving very hard to find from the current conventional steel spring valve version of the Honda RC212V powerplant, and both Dani Pedrosa and Nicky Hayden are desperate to start running the pneumatic valve engine which HRC are still in the midst of developing. After telling the press that the air valve engine wouldn't make an appearance until the Le Mans MotoGP race in two weeks' time, rumors have surfaced that Honda will be bringing a set of pneumatic engines to the Shanghai race, to address the speed deficit down the Chinese track's endless straights.
If this turns out to be true, and the new bike proves to be both fast and reliable enough during the early practice sessions, it could make the already tense atmosphere inside the Repsol Honda garage even more difficult. Unless HRC supply both Nicky Hayden and Dani Pedrosa with enough engines and frames to field two bikes during the race, the Repsol team could once again be forced to choose which of the riders to favor with the new bikes. This is precisely what happened at Qatar, where Pedrosa raced the new 2008 steel spring bike, while Hayden was forced to make do with the 2007/2008 hybrid they had been using up to that point.
Whether Dani Pedrosa can defend his joint lead in the championship is likely to depend on whether he gets the new engine or not. Although the 2008 RC212V is no slouch, the Honda keeps coming up just a little bit short on top speed. With two long straights to contend with, the engine will be pushed to its limit to keep up, creating problems with both speed and reliability. Pedrosa has already won here, getting his maiden victory in MotoGP back in 2006, and if his bike is fast enough and stays in one piece, he is sure to be a candidate for the podium.
Pedrosa's team mate, Nicky Hayden, will be even more grimly determined to get back on the podium in China. The American has been getting faster at every event, partly through sheer willpower. The risks inherent in such a strategy were demonstrated by Hayden's crash at Estoril, where the American lost the front by pushing too hard to try and catch the leading group. The Kentucky Kid is likely to be pushing at least as hard in China, but he could perhaps be a little more wary this weekend. At the last two AMA Superbike events, his brothers Roger Lee and Tommy Hayden have both suffered serious crashes, with Roger Lee losing part of a finger, and Tommy badly dislocating his ankle, requiring surgery to relocate it. While Hayden may be tempted to adopt a "rostrum or hospital" attitude, the fate of his brothers may make him fear the hospital a little more than usual.
Second Class Ticket
While the promise of extra speed is on offer for the factory Honda riders, the satellite men are left to grin and bear their horsepower shortage. Only the 2007 spec Honda's outstanding agility is keeping the satellite bikes from the bottom of the results sheet, while they await uprated chassis and engines with more power. The most impressive of the satellite Hondas has been Andrea Dovizioso, well used to pushing an underpowered Honda against superior machinery from racing 250s last year. He battled hard with Alvaro Bautista to take 2nd in the 250 race last year, despite his woefully underpowered bike. Although another 2nd place is unlikely in the extreme given the level of competition, if any of the satellite Hondas can manage to run with the front 5 or 6 at Shanghai, it will be Andrea Dovizioso.
The Honda riders aren't the only people waiting for a new engine. The Kawasaki men are also hoping that the new screamer engine will be available soon, as the screamer should give them more acceleration out of corners, and a little more top speed. But sadly for John Hopkins and Ant West, the bike doesn't look like it will make an appearance until much later in the year, as the engine is still a long way from being race ready.
That leaves John Hopkins to fall back on his considerable racing skills. Shanghai is the place where Hopper finally scored his first podium, taking a 3rd place here last year, after a 6 year wait. Hopper's podium came on top of his 4th place here in 2006, so if there is one track where Hopkins can do well, this is definitely it. Now almost fully recovered from his groin injury from preseason testing, and about to start his 100th Grand Prix, there can be no doubting Hopkins motivation to be as near the front as possible in China.
Of course, Hopper's excellent results at Shanghai were set aboard a Suzuki, rather than the Kawasaki he is now on, and Suzuki will be keen to prove they were at least partly responsible for the American's success in China. But Chris Vermeulen and Loris Capirossi come to Shanghai with a rather fractious history. Last year, Vermeulen and Capirossi came together during qualifying, badly injuring Vermeulen's foot. Then, the two men battled it out for 6th place all race long. With 6th the best result of Suzuki's year so far, the 2008 bike yet to deliver on the 2007 machine's promise, Suzuki would be glad of a repeat performance this year.
There may yet be an answer to Suzuki's prayers. The weather forecast for the weekend at Shanghai shows a 40% chance of rain on Sunday, which could shake the entire field up. Vermeulen has already won one race in the rain, taking the French Grand Prix at Le Mans in a downpour last year, and Ant West, who has had such a dreadful time in the dry, could show some of his wet-weather genius to run at the front. And with rain making horsepower less important, the Hondas then also come into contention. Even the Ducatis could benefit, with rain allowing the satellite men to run a softer engine mapping making the bike much easier to ride. Although a dry race would allow the race to be a true measure of strength between Stoner, Rossi, Lorenzo and Pedrosa, a wet race could turn up a few very interesting and entertaining surprises.
But before the race can commence, there are a few more potentially fatal hurdles to leap. Several riders mentioned the situation in Tibet at the Estoril race, with Loris Capirossi commenting that he'd like to show his support for the Tibetan cause at the race in Shanghai. With the Chinese authorities currently at a high state of alert over any signs of dissent, and promises of a harsh crackdown on anyone displaying the Tibetan flag during the Olympics, the race could be fraught with peril. If any of the riders wear Tibetan flags or Tibet's traditional orange on the grid before the race - the logical time and place to do so, with the eyes of the world upon them - the question is whether the authorities will step in and act.
With this year almost certain to be the final visit that MotoGP pays to Shanghai, thanks to a lack of interest from either local business or local spectators, the Chinese government may feel they have nothing to lose by making an example of the MotoGP athletes, and either hauling them off the grid or even canceling the race altogether, to discourage any athletes tempted to do the same thing at the Beijing Olympics in the summer. However unlikely the scenario, we won't know whether the race will actually be run until the bikes roar off the line on Sunday. While the track may lack excitement, the 2008 Grand Prix of China certainly won't.