There is a distinct element of deja vu to Sunday's Catalunya Grand Prix at Barcelona. Just last week, the MotoGP circus was in a bike-mad country, at a circuit sure to attract some 100,000 fans on race day, all clamoring for their local heroes. Once again, the local boys will be unable to take a step outside their mobile homes without being mobbed, and will face a barrage of media coverage from the moment they enter the country. Expectations will be high, and failing to win will not be looked upon kindly.
As at last week's race, the track features a long straight where horsepower matters, as well as a tight, technical section where agile machines can make good any horsepower deficits. And like last weekend, the weather is looking decidedly changeable, with a strong chance of rain during at least one of the practice sessions.
But it's not just last week that Barcelona evokes memories of. This time last year, we were in almost exactly the same situation: Valentino Rossi came to Barcelona off an emphatic home victory, Casey Stoner was looking to improve on his performance in Italy, and hopes were high that Dani Pedrosa would take a win in front of his home crowd. The race proved pivotal for all three men, and foreshadowed what was to come for the rest of the season. In a thrilling three-way fight, Casey Stoner held off Valentino Rossi, after a dogfight which lasted all race long, with Dani Pedrosa poised just yards behind, ready to strike if either of the two main protagonists should falter. After a run of processional races in 2007, the Barcelona round provided the welcome sight of close quarters racing, and a race that went down almost to the line.
Attack Of The Clones
It is therefore hardly surprising that the 2008 Grand Prix de Catalunya at Montmelo, near Barcelona, looks like being a replica of last year. Once again Casey Stoner, Valentino Rossi and Dani Pedrosa will be at the sharp end, and once again, there is little to choose between the three of them. The race could quite easily come down to the last lap once again.
But this year's race looks less like being 2007's identical twin, and more like that race's first cousin. For despite all the similarities, a huge amount has changed in just 12 months. In early June last year, Valentino Rossi may have been coming off a win at Mugello going into the Barcelona race, but that win was if anything an aberration. For the Fiat Yamaha team were in the middle of discovering that both Yamaha and Michelin had gotten their targets and estimates for the 2007 season horribly wrong.
Neither Yamaha nor Michelin have made that mistake again this year. With Valentino Rossi leading the riders championship, Yamaha on top of the manufacturer's standings, and both the Fiat Yamaha and Tech 3 Yamaha teams in the top 3 of the team championship, the 2008 targets are clearly being hit right smack in the middle. And this year, Rossi's win at Mugello was not an aberration, but the third win in a row during a period when Rossi has just got stronger and stronger. The Yamaha is no longer giving away up to 10 mph down the long straights, but is now only a fraction slower than the Ducati, which remains the fastest bike on the grid.
What's more, Rossi has played it safe with his tires. Having lost confidence in Michelin early in 2007 - after a history of problems throughout the 2006 season as well - The Doctor engineered a switch to Bridgestones during the latter part of 2007. After a couple of races to get up to speed with the Japanese rubber, Rossi is back on top of his game, and on top of the field. He feels capable of competing with everyone on equal, or near equal terms, and so far this year, Valentino Rossi's version of competing has looked a lot like crushing to the rest of the grid. At a track that Rossi loves, and a place where he has won 5 times, a crushing victory looks like a safe bet.
Luctor Et Emergo
As for Casey Stoner, the reigning world champion may have a little more trouble holding off the challengers here than he did last year. In 2007, everything came together perfectly for the Australian, the Ducati and the Bridgestones providing a perfect platform for his talent. This year, the Ducati seems to have been "improved" a little too far. Stoner is already - and ironically - 46 points behind Valentino Rossi in the championship, and has run into problems with the bike, some predictable, others verging on the bizarre.
That most of Stoner's problems have been down to the Ducati is evidenced by the dire state of the other Ducati riders. Toni Elias, Sylvain Guintoli, and Marco Melandri, the man who finished 2nd in the championship in 2005, have looked more like motorcycle herders than racers, running round at the back of the field ensuring that everyone is still ahead of them. All three men are talented riders, and capable of far more than just chasing the final points.
This week, Ducati's Technical Director Filippo Preziosi acknowledged that there were problems with the 2008 Ducati, by admitting that the factory is reverting to using some parts from the 2007 bike, though he was not specific about which parts those were. Despite Stoner's win at Qatar, and his two other podiums, the Ducati is not the same bike it was last year.
But there is hope for the young Australian. Stoner looked fairly pleased after his 2nd place at Mugello, and looking happy when he isn't winning is not part of his usual repertoire. At Mugello, the Ducati team found some solutions to the champion's problems, and that could herald a return to form for Stoner. Whether that will be enough to beat an unleashed Valentino Rossi remains to be seen.
Same Old Same Old
The third protagonist at last year's race could well see himself playing the same role once again in 2008. Dani Pedrosa spent nearly all of his home Grand Prix staring up the tailpipe of either Casey Stoner or Valentino Rossi in 2007. His RC212V was just short of top speed on the straights, and a little short of agility round the technical back half of the circuit, meaning all he could do was follow the two men in front, and hope for a mistake.
This year, the Honda RC212V is once again just short of top speed, and still lacking that last little bit of finesse that would make it more nimble than the Yamaha or Ducati. Though the Honda is a vast improvement over the 2007 bike, it has not improved as much as the Yamaha has, nor is it yet good enough to match the combination of Casey Stoner and Ducati when the Australo-Italian match up is on top form.
Honda had initially talked about running the new pneumatic valve engine at Barcelona, after Tady Okada had tested the bike at Mugello. But the results from the Italian Grand Prix were not as promising as HRC had hoped for, and the Japanese giant decided to wait until Monday's post-race test to give the bike to the factory riders for the first time. Though the extra revs, and extra horsepower may have given Pedrosa the extra edge he needs down Barcelona's long straight, the lack of edge grip and uneven power delivery would have held him up through the twisty rear section. The air valve engine will have to wait yet again.
Pedrosa's main objective at Barcelona will most likely be ensuring he finishes ahead of his archrival, Jorge Lorenzo. The Mallorcan has made a huge impact on MotoGP since his entry into the class this year, taking three poles on the trot and a record win. The way he carried on through the pain at Shanghai and Le Mans, after fracturing his ankles in China, impressed people even more than his win. Lorenzo was starting to look positively superhuman, and to the relief of the rest of the paddock, the Spaniard displayed feet of clay in Italy. Running mid-pack during practice, and crashing out during the race after pushing too hard to catch the front runners, Lorenzo showed that he, too, is only human, and a return to a pattern he showed in the 250 class too.
During his 250 years, Lorenzo could dominate completely one weekend, being fastest from the moment the bikes rolled onto the tarmac to when he crossed the line at the end of the race, many seconds ahead of those chasing. Yet the weekend after, he would be barely above 8th or 9th place, struggling to score points, or even crashing. His good weekends vastly outnumbered his bad weekends, but it was a little odd for a rider who could otherwise crush the field so effectively.
Of course, now that Lorenzo has had his bad weekend, the odds are that the golden child will return once again. As he regains the strength in his injured limbs, Lorenzo will be able to ride more naturally, and stands a good chance of being back up with the front runners again. Nothing would please him more than to beat Dani Pedrosa at Pedrosa's home circuit. Nothing, that is, except taking the win. That is a very real possibility.
Alex de Angelis' story is almost the inverse of Jorge Lorenzo's. The Italian rookie has been mostly invisible on the Gresini Honda, only making brief appearances as he is picked up out of the gravel trap. But at Mugello, de Angelis was on fire. Fast during practice, and one of the four fastest men during the race, if the man from San Marino had not had such a dire start, entering the first corner in equal last place, he could have been capable of taking a podium.
So de Angelis comes to Barcelona with what in political circles is referred to as "The Big Mo'". Such momentum can help riders turn a corner, and recover the form they have shown in the past. But de Angelis' momentum is as nothing compared to that of Valentino Rossi, and Rossi will be a very tough nut to crack at Barcelona.
Like Alex de Angelis, the Tech 3 Yamaha team will be hoping their momentum from Mugello will carry over into Sunday's race. A 5th and a 6th in Italy was an outstanding result for the team which had struggled last year, and with Colin Edwards looking more like the double World Superbike champion that he is, rather than the test mule for his former team mate that he was, the Texan is likely to get back on the podium very soon.
For his team mate James Toseland - another double World Superbike champion - Barcelona marks the last of a long sequence of tracks Toseland has never raced at before, and not even ridden at. Fortunately, the Montmelo track, though technical, is not hard to learn, and JT should quickly be up to speed. But for a measure of his true worth, he will have to wait another two weeks. Back in familiar territory, at his home Grand Prix, Toseland could well be a genuine threat. But this weekend, he will just have to do what he's been doing all year: learn quickly, and race hard.
The Rizla Suzuki team could also step up a gear at Barcelona. The Spanish track is another circuit that suits the Suzuki, with few corners which require a lot of speed and a heavy throttle hand. John Hopkins finished 4th here last year, with Chris Vermeulen not far behind. This year, Loris Capirossi has taken Hopper's place, and is settling in well with the Rizla Suzuki team.
But Barcelona has some unhappy memories for Loris Capirossi. In 2006, Capirossi was badly injured in a horrific first corner pile up right after the start. His erstwhile team mate Sete Gibernau drifted off his line and into Loris Capirossi, locking the front brake and being flung over the handlebars, taking out several of the field with him. That crash effectively ended the best chance Capirossi had of taking the world championship, and marked the end of Gibernau's MotoGP career. Tragically, the accident could have been easily avoided if MotoGP bikes were fitted with simple lever guards on the handlebars, to prevent the brake lever from being applied when bikes run into each other. The chances of a repeat of that crash are still high. The riders have a long run from the start line, gaining serious speed before having to brake very hard for the tight right hander, followed in turn by a sharp left hander. Last year, Rossi suggested that all the riders brake half a meter earlier, rather than half a meter later at the first corner, and all of them did. It remains to be seen whether the lesson of 2006 is still imprinted on as many minds as last year.
If Honda are still slightly short of their targets, and Ducati are struggling, this is nothing compared to the Kawasaki team. Last year, the bike had no problems getting out of corners, the difficulty was always trying to get into turns. In trying to address that issue, Kawasaki have shot themselves in the foot: Although the bike is slightly better into corners, it's lost all its pace coming out of them, and both John Hopkins and Ant West are struggling to ride the thing.
Hopkins' problems - and his mood - have been made worse by suffering mechanical problems in two consecutive races. After Mugello, team chief Michael Bartholemy ate a public portion of humble pie, promising extra support for both his riders, but that may provide much help on Sunday. The race looks like being something West and Hopkins will just have to muddle through, and hope that Kawasaki can find some fixes during the two days of testing which follow.
There is one ray of sunshine for Ant West at Barcelona, though. The weather in Catalunya has been frankly bizarre all year, starting off extremely dry, causing water restrictions to be put in place for the region after reservoirs ran dry. Things got so bad that the city was even shipping in drinking water in cargo ships, to ensure that water supplies would not run out.
All that changed in May though. It started to rain, producing the wettest May on record, and has not stopped since. The reservoirs are back almost to full capacity, and even on sunny days, the rain seems always to intrude, the atmosphere over the Northeastern corner of the Iberian peninsula remaining stubbornly turbulent. The weather forecasters are predicting a 40% chance of rain on Sunday, with some rain for both days of practice. If it does rain, that might provide West with just the boost he needs. The Australian is a genius in the wet, and one day, the weather will turn his way.
There is one person who could well rain on West's parade. So far this year, there have been several mixed sessions, where the rain has come and gone, leaving the track damp and treacherous, rather than just plain wet. At almost every one of those sessions, Casey Stoner has completely dominated proceedings, often faster than his nearest rivals by a matter of seconds. Those kind of conditions are exactly the kind of thing likely to result from Sunday's mixed weather forecast. That could help get Stoner's title defense right back on track.
Normally, the last thing that audiences want is a repeat of something they've already seen. TV viewers are always on the lookout for something fresh, new and exciting. But for every rule, there's an exception, and a repeat of the 2007 Catalunya MotoGP race would be welcomed with open arms by MotoGP fans. It may not be fresh, it may not be new, but it would sure as hell be exciting. We may just get what we want on Sunday.