The Catalunya Grand Prix, to be held at Barcelona's Montmelo circuit, is one of the most anticipated events on the MotoGP calendar. The circuit, just a few kilometers outside Barcelona, Spain's second largest city, lies in the heart of Catalunya, the most industrious of Spain's autonomous regions and the heart of Spanish motorcycling. Three of the four Spanish riders currently in the MotoGP class are from within a thirty minute drive from the Montmelo circuit, Dani Pedrosa almost able to see the track from the window of his apartment.
And it's not just the riders. Dorna - or at least, the part of Dorna that concerns itself with MotoGP - has its offices in Barcelona. Spain's motorcycle industry, such as it is, is still based around Barcelona, as were the historic brands such as Ossa and Bultaco which were once produced not far from the city. The city is home to several of the country's major motorcycle magazines, and the surrounding region is studded with the homes of racers old and new.
So for a huge section of Spain's multitude of race fans, the Catalunya Grand Prix is their nearest race. Last year over 110,000 turned out on race day, and this year is likely to be the same, recession or no recession. All of Spain has been hit incredibly hard by the economic crisis, though the problem has been the bursting of the housing bubble rather than problems in the financial sector. But while the Catalonians have a reputation for being more serious and more dour than the rest of Spain, the fans at Barcelona still know how to throw a party. The atmosphere may not reach the levels of abandon that you see at Jerez, where the Andalusian fans party as if there's no tomorrow; at the Montmelo circuit, the fans are prepared to accept the possible existence of tomorrow, though more in theory than in practice.
The fans may be looking forward to the MotoGP round at Barcelona, and a chance to forget about their problems, however briefly, but even their anticipation cannot match that of the riders and teams. The irony is, though, that while the teams are looking forward to race day on Sunday, the riders cannot wait until the Monday after the race. Not to relax after having survived the second of the three Spanish Grand Prix, but rather so that they can get to work testing.
For the Monday after the race sees the first day of MotoGP's very limited testing program, most testing having been scrapped in an attempt to save money. Together with the reduction in practice from four sessions to just three, all of the teams have been crying out for a chance to spend some time seriously evaluating new parts for the factory teams, or just running through setup options trying to find the best setup for the satellite teams.
Of all the riders desperate for test time, none has longed for a chance to do some uninterrupted testing more than Nicky Hayden. The 2006 World Champion has been suffering with the Ducati curse, an affliction which struck down Marco Melandri last year. For the Ducati Desmosedici continues to be impossible to ride fast for everyone but Hayden's Marlboro Ducati team mate Casey Stoner, it seems. Just like last year, the bikes regularly split the field, Casey Stoner leading at the front, while Hayden, Sete Gibernau and the Pramac Ducatis bring up the rear.
Hayden has made no secret of his need to spend more time on the bike. Bad luck has prevented the American from getting the track time he feels he needs to figure out the key to riding the Ducati GP9 fast so far this year, a combination of blown engines at Qatar, crashes at Qatar and Motegi, and bad weather in Japan and France conspiring to keep Hayden off the bike. The weather forecast for Barcelona is extremely favorable, with four days of sunshine and barely a cloud in the sky offering Hayden a chance to finally spend the time he needs on the GP9 and the prospect of an end to his woes.
Honda, too, are keen to start testing new parts. HRC has a new chassis lined up for testing, and the extra day of testing will be a boon in their search for more rear grip. But like Nicky Hayden at Ducati, Honda have suffered setback after setback during testing, most of which have been related to injuries suffered by Dani Pedrosa.
And so it will be at Barcelona. Just as the Spaniard was almost fully recovered from the preseason surgery on his left knee, a bizarre near-highside saw Pedrosa suffer further injury, this time fracturing a bone at the top of his right thigh. Pedrosa, who lives little more than a stone's throw away from the Montmelo circuit, has just spent the last 10 days flat on his back while his hip healed. He has been given the go ahead to race, but will only be able to do so thanks to carefully targeted painkilling injections for his fractured femur. Though Pedrosa should be able to race, he seems unlikely to be able to test on Monday.
Pedrosa is just glad that he will be able to race. This is his home Grand Prix, and the Repsol Honda rider still cherishes the memory of his victory here last year, escaping on the first lap and leading the race unchallenged the rest of the way. A repeat victory here at Barcelona seems improbable at best, and Pedrosa will be hoping just to score points and limit his losses to the front three again.
With Pedrosa hampered by injuries again, development duties will once again be thrust on the shoulders of Andrea Dovizioso. The quiet Italian is having a very solid season so far, always close to the podium but somehow just out of reach. Dovizioso has been most critical of the Honda RC212V's throttle response, complaining it has been too aggressive, and three full days of practice and racing followed by a full day of testing could help Dovizioso find some fixes to Honda's problems. There is nothing wrong with the top speed of the bike, as Dani Pedrosa's speed record of 349.7 km/h at Mugello demonstrated. If Dovi can harness the Honda's speed, he could challenge for the podium once again.
The other team desperate for testing is Suzuki. The development done over the winter has helped fix the problems with edge grip which have plagued the bike, making it much more stable in long fast corners, of which the Barcelona track has a few. But now Suzuki is left to confront the one problem it has struggled with since the birth of the four-stroke GSV-R: A lack of top end power.
At the Montmelo track, with its fast final corner leading on to a huge front straight, that lack of top end will be punished mercilessly. The Rizla Suzuki team is scheduled to receive a new engine this weekend, but unfortunately for Chris Vermeulen and Loris Capirossi, the team isn't sure the engine will be ready to race on Sunday. Though the team may try the new engine during practice, the test on Monday is likely to be the first outing for the new power plant, in preparation for the rest of the season.
Loris Capirossi will suffer the most from the lack of top end. The Italian rode brilliantly at Mugello, and was unlucky to miss out on a podium in the final laps. If Capirossi can take the lessons learned at the Italian track with him to Catalunya, he may at least be able to hang with the leaders. But given Capirossi's luck over the past few years at the Barcelona track - two huge crashes in the past three years, one ending his 2006 title charge at the first corner, the other causing hand and leg damage that prevented him from racing at Donington and Assen in 2008 - he would be glad to settle just for a result in the top ten as long as he's still in one piece.
As for Chris Vermeulen, 2009 is looking increasingly like his final season in MotoGP. The Australian remains probably the finest wet weather rider the series has, and will most likely get on the podium at Laguna Seca once again, but there are a host of young riders waiting to take his place at Suzuki. Vermeulen needs to start showing his face at the sharp end every race, not just when it rains, and Barcelona is as good a place as any to start.
Despite its lack of factory support, even the Hayate team have parts to test at Barcelona. The lack of testing has left the former Kawasaki team with a backlog of new parts that they have not been able to test so far this year, and so Marco Melandri will have plenty to do on Monday. But even without support from Kawasaki, Melandri has worked miracles on the bike. The podium at Le Mans equaled Kawasaki's best ever results in MotoGP, and Melandri even led the race in the wet at Mugello. When the track dried, even the talent of Melandri couldn't disguise the Kawasaki's problems, and the Italian quickly went backwards. At a sunny Barcelona, Melandri can only hope to get into the top 10 once again, and keep up the pressure on Kawasaki to start reinvesting in the project they had walked away from.
Shiny Happy People
While Ducati, Honda, Kawasaki and Suzuki are all desperate to get back to testing, Yamaha are a lot less concerned. They too have new parts to test - mostly some new electronics - but with the YZR M1 winning three out of five Grand Prix this season, having been on the podium with at least one bike every race this year, and comfortably leading both the team and the constructors championship, their needs are more modest than the other manufacturers.
So strong is the 2009 Yamaha M1 that the factory Fiat Yamaha team boasts not one but two riders capable of winning the title this year, much to Valentino Rossi's chagrin. In the paddock, Jorge Lorenzo has been telling reporters that he isn't interested in the championship and he doesn't believe he has a chance of winning this season. But out on track, his actions bear no relation to his words whatsoever. Lorenzo has taken a step up from last year, where he showed flashes of brilliance, to become a full time threat to Rossi's supremacy and match Casey Stoner and Dani Pedrosa as a worthy title contender.
With Pedrosa injured, Lorenzo has fast become Spain's best hope for their next World Champion, following in the footsteps of Alex Criville. And the Barcelona race could be the measure of Lorenzo's challenge: If Lorenzo can beat his team mate here, in a straight fight with no weather issues to cloud the picture, then his transformation from talented upstart to fully-fledged champion-in-waiting will be complete.
There can be no doubting Lorenzo's motivation: Last year saw the Spanish youngster taken to hospital after a horrific crash in which he lost consciousness and injured his hand, the latest in a long line of painful accidents. But unlike previous incidents in 2008, Lorenzo was forced to miss the race, staying in hospital under observation for concussion. So Lorenzo has a score to settle here, and prior to the event, he has already made his intentions plain. Lorenzo has turned up with a special FC Barcelona paint scheme, for his helmet, part of his leathers and sections of the bike. The world famous soccer club have just managed the triple - winning the Spanish League, the Europe-wide Champions League, and the Spanish Copa del Rey cup - and Lorenzo will be looking for his third trophy of the season at Barcelona.
The Catalunya Grand Prix is crunch time for Lorenzo's team mate as well. Valentino Rossi may only have been off the podium once this season, but that is also the number of races Rossi has won. This puts him behind both Lorenzo and Casey Stoner, the two men challenging for his title, a title that took all his efforts to reclaim. Lorenzo and Stoner are pushing Rossi harder than ever before, and Rossi really needs a win at Barcelona to regain the momentum of his title defense.
A win at Barcelona would also be revenge for Mugello. Rossi's winning streak of seven straight victories at his home track came to an end two weeks ago, and Rossi took the defeat hard. Finishing behind his Spanish team mate added insult to injury, and Rossi will want to avenge that affront at Barcelona. If a victory should prove impossible, then Rossi will make sure that he at least beats his team mate at Lorenzo's home race.
The war in the Fiat Yamaha may be hotting up, over in the Monster Tech 3 Yamaha garage, it's already at boiling point. So far this year, Colin Edwards has had the best of the fight, the Texan veteran finishing well inside the top ten almost every race. Edwards is chasing his first podium of the year, and though it may not come at Catalunya, where the Texan's record is rather mixed, it should come soon.
Edwards' first priority will be to beat his team mate again. Since James Toseland stole Edwards' crew chief - in Edwards words - at the end of last season, the Texan has managed that without breaking a sweat. But last time out at Mugello, it took Edwards until the last lap to get past his team mate and secure 6th place. Toseland finally started to look comfortable on the Bridgestone spec tires, being competitive for the first time this year. Toseland desperately needs to hold on to that form and improve if he is to stay in MotoGP in 2010: Just like Chris Vermeulen, James Toseland's seat at Tech 3 Yamaha is one of the most coveted seats on the grid, and is widely rumored to have been offered to Marco Simoncelli for next season. If Toseland is to keep his ride, he needs to build on his Mugello results and pick up his assault on the top five where he left off last year.
Like the Yamaha riders, Casey Stoner is more concerned about the race than the test on Monday. If anything, Stoner is faster on the Ducati this year than he was last year. The Australian was on the podium at Jerez and scored solid points at Le Mans, two tracks that Ducati has previously suffered badly at. He capped this off by beating Valentino Rossi at his home track at Mugello, and leads the championship. The 2007 World Champion is fast almost despite what the Ducati does, and is well-placed for the run of summer races which form the belly of the MotoGP title race, and where the foundations are laid for world titles.
Going into the Catalunya round, Stoner must be feeling supremely confident. The Australian won here in 2007, and was the only man able to stay in the same zip code with Pedrosa in 2008, so the Ducati is more than capable of delivering the goods in Barcelona. Stoner will be looking to consolidate his position going into the summer the only way he knows how: by winning.
Tragically for Ducati, Casey Stoner remains an anomaly. In the satellite Ducati teams, the only reason for hope is the appearance of the carbon fiber swingarm and some electronics update in the Pramac garage. After a decent start to the season, scoring a pair of 8th places, former 250cc star Mika Kallio has been in the doldrums. A combination of bad luck, bad weather and that pesky GP9 has seen the Finn stuck at the back of the field, with little hope of reprieve. Barcelona is a track that has not brought much luck to Kallio in the past, and for the moment, he will be looking just to survive.
Pramac team mate Niccolo Canepa has a little more reason for optimism. The Italian started the season dismally, but came away with a 9th place finish at Mugello. Admittedly, it is a track that he knows like the back of his hand, having ridden thousands of laps there as a Ducati test rider, but the result will have helped Canepa build his confidence. He will be carrying that confidence into Catalunya, and a track that the Italian also tested at last year, setting some competitive times. Another finish near the top ten might help give Canepa the final confidence boost he has been missing, and help reignite the season which got off to such a difficult start.
Sete Gibernau will be making an emotional return, to both racing and to the Montmelo circuit. The last time Gibernau raced here in 2006, he found himself tumbling through the gravel at the first corner after a terrifying crash which effectively ended his career the first time round. The collarbone which Gibernau broke meant he never returned to full fitness, and after breaking it again at Estoril, the Spaniard announced his retirement.
Last year, Gibernau was back in the paddock, and laying down the first shoots of a plan which saw him return to racing, and this year, the Spanish veteran comes to the Montmelo circuit only just recovered from another broken collarbone, this time sustained at Le Mans. The scion of the Bultaco dynasty still lacks both physical and race fitness, and will be looking just for a solid result in front of his home crowd. But doubts remain over the wisdom of Gibernau 's return to racing, and whether he will ever be fit enough to make a return to his former glory as the man who challenged Valentino Rossi for the title. No doubt, though, over Gibernau's will to try.
The story for the satellite Hondas is similar to the story for the satellite Ducatis, with one honorable exception. The formerly crash-happy Frenchman Randy de Puniet has shown maturity and calmness in recent races, scoring in every single race of the season so far, and equaling his longest streak of point-scoring races in a season. In fact, taken from the end of the season last year, Randy de Puniet has finished in the points for the last ten races in a row. Formerly regarded as a one-man carbon fiber disposal device, de Puniet is looking more and more consistent. If the LCR Honda rider can continue the upward trend, he may well earn himself better machinery for 2010.
Book Of The Dead
Toni Elias had secured just that at the end of the 2008 season, being awarded a factory-spec Honda RC212V in the Gresini Honda team for this year. But so far, his results have not reflected this advantage. Part of that is down to the less than stellar performance of the 2009 Honda, and part of that is down to the combination of Elias' idiosyncratic riding style and the stiff construction spec Bridgestone tires. But part of it is undoubtedly down to Toni Elias, and his lack of confidence in both machine and tires. Under normal circumstances, a factory-spec Gresini Honda is the most desirable ride in the paddock. But these are clearly not normal circumstances.
Just ask Alex de Angelis. The San Marinese rider who impressed and frustrated so many MotoGP fans last year in equal measure has been mostly just disappointing in 2009. After a strong start to the season, finishing 6th at Qatar, though nearly sending Dani Pedrosa tumbling in the process, it's all been downhill for de Angelis ever since. The Gresini team's post-race press releases have read more like funeral elegies than the usual upbeat spin that press officers usually find to put on poor results. Apparently, there are some things that even experienced PR professionals cannot put a brave face on.
Last, and very much least, comes Yuki Takahashi and the Team Scot Honda. Last year, the team ran close to the front of the pack with Andrea Dovizioso, but despite his decent results in the 250 class, Yuki Takahashi has proved in 2009 that he is no Andrea Dovizioso. The Japanese rider remains cheerful though, awaiting his likely replacement by Hiroshi Aoyama at the end of this season, and has actually improved his results recently. Takahashi is no longer the man fighting over last place with the Pramac Ducatis, but has managed to finish ahead of them on a regular basis. There is hope for Takahashi yet, but not a great deal.
Return To Glory?
The Catalonian MotoGP fans will be hopeful, though, hopeful of a close race at Barcelona. The signs are actually quite good: The previous race at Mugello came incredibly close to being the first for over a year to be decided by less than a second, Casey Stoner's margin of victory eventually 1.001 seconds over Jorge Lorenzo. And the 2007 race turned into a three-way thriller, with Casey Stoner just edging Valentino Rossi and Dani Pedrosa on the final lap.
This year shows all the signs of being another three-way dogfight, though with Jorge Lorenzo taking the place of the injured Dani Pedrosa. It also offers the intriguing possibility of a three-way tie at the top of the standings, if Valentino Rossi can beat Jorge Lorenzo into 2nd, and Casey Stoner into 3rd. In that case, all three men would end up on 106 points, and Rossi and Lorenzo having exactly the results, Rossi taking the lead based on being the last rider to win. But whatever happens on Sunday, the riders are likely to leave Barcelona with the championship as tight as when they arrived. This title is a very long way from being over.
How the title fight continues could be sorted out on Monday. If the new chassis for the Honda RC212V gives Dani Pedrosa the performance boost he's looking for, he could easily close back in on the leading trio. And if Casey Stoner can iron out the remaining bugs with the Ducati's rear swingarm, and Valentino Rossi can regain some of the confidence he has lost in the front end of his Yamaha M1, and Jorge Lorenzo can extract a little bit more from the electronics upgrades due for the Yamaha, then the title chase could get even tighter, and the racing could get closer, and we could end up with the spectacle we have been longing for since the introduction of the 800cc formula: Close, tightly-fought races between the greatest riders on the planet. Sunday's race may be important, but there's much, much more riding on the test on Monday.