2009 MotoGP Indianapolis Preview - History In The Making

There is a firmly ingrained belief in Europe that the United States, as a young country, has neither history nor any sense of it. The view back in the Old World is formed almost entirely - and almost entirely incorrectly - from Hollywood and the TV studios, of gleaming glass-fronted buildings, huge and hugely complicated freeway interchanges, and gated communities consisting of a vast sprawl of identikit houses, in the words of the Malvina Reynolds song, little boxes made of ticky tacky.

While it is true that Americans tend to treat their history with a little less respect than Europeans - many a fine 18th or 19th century building has been torn down and replaced with something modern without a second thought, where in Europe zoning regulations and building preservation orders would have made such destruction incredibly difficult, if not outright impossible - the US does have plenty of physical history and a deep understanding and respect for the markers of that history.

The Indianapolis Motor Speedway is a prime example of this European misapprehension. Europe, with its long history and tradition of motorsports, boasts such classic tracks as Monza, Assen and Brooklands. But Brooklands fell into disrepair after the Second World War, the last piece of the original Assen track was pulled up in the changes in 2006, and while both Monza and Assen have a long history, they "only" date back to the 1920s. The Indianapolis Motor Speedway, on the other hand, hosted its first race in 1909, some 13 years before Monza and 18 years before racing first took place on the roads south of Assen.

As if celebrating 100 years of racing at the Speedway was not enough, the whole weekend at Indy will be packed with history. On Saturday night, at the Indiana State fairground, the Indy Mile, perhaps the most legendary flat track race of all is to be held. Flat track is a discipline which is itself steeped in history, and the Indy Mile sits at the pinnacle of the sport. Just to add even more texture to the event's rich tapestry, three-time 500cc World Champion Kenny Roberts will be wheeling out perhaps the most feared motorcycle in racing history, his TZ750-powered dirt tracker. After racing the four-cylinder two stroke - a bizarre configuration in a sport dominated by the endless torque of pushrod V-twins - Roberts uttered the immortal words "They don't pay me enough to ride that thing."

Modern History

Though the facility itself has a long history, the association between the Indianapolis Motor Speedway and MotoGP is still very new, as the series visits the Speedway for only the second time. But history will still be written here, as a series of announcements are due to change the face and determine the course of MotoGP for the foreseeable future.

Perhaps the most significant announcement will come at the meeting of the Grand Prix Commission. The MSMA is due to formally submit a proposal aimed at putting more bikes on the grid. The proposal is expected to allow for engines to be leased to teams on their own, rather than as part of a complete bike, but Honda has already signaled that it is opposed to such a plan. However, as part of the MSMA, Honda will be forced to find some kind of workable compromise which expands the grid at a more affordable cost.

More off-track announcements will come in the form of contract signings. The biggest announcement has already been made: On Monday, Jorge Lorenzo issued a press statement putting an end to ten days of intense speculation, declaring that he would be staying with Yamaha for another year, and not making a shock switch to Ducati, despite an extraordinarily generous pay packet.

With Lorenzo's future now secured, the rider shuffle is likely to continue on its merry way. Loris Capirossi has already told the press that he expects to stay with Suzuki for 2010 as partner to newcomer Alvaro Bautista, and a formal announcement is expected this weekend. Nicky Hayden is likely to follow, as with Lorenzo out of the equation and promising signals of a Casey Stoner return coming from Australia, Ducati will probably exercise the option to retain the American for 2010. Elsewhere, news is likely to come out of the Tech 3 camp, with James Toseland close to hearing his future from team boss Herve Poncharal, and Randy de Puniet could sign an extension with LCR Honda this weekend, despite the Frenchman still being in talks elsewhere.

But the focus of the weekend will truly be on the track. Last year's debut race at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway was universally acclaimed as a success, despite the remnants of Hurricane Ike hitting the area just as the racing was about to get underway. Indeed, some of the success of the event was down to the way the extreme weather conditions were handled, with European viewers being treated to the spectacle of a jet dryer - basically a jet turbine engine strapped to the back of a flatbed truck, it's exhaust blast angled to dry and disperse the water from the track - sent round to clean the circuit. Almost every circuit operator watched that spectacle green with envy, and determined to look into the cost.

In Control

Last year's winner will be looking to repeat his success here, as Valentino Rossi's victory at Indianapolis helped the Italian get within a few points of clinching the title, and added the last missing piece to his clean sweep, having had a victory at every track the MotoGP series visited that season. There now isn't a track on the calendar that Rossi hasn't won at, a record which will only change next year, when the series visits the new Balatonring circuit in Hungary. If it is finished, that is.

But Rossi will face a formidable opponent in his team mate, Jorge Lorenzo. Now back with Fiat Yamaha for another year, Lorenzo will want to expunge the memory of two crashes and a string of defeats at the hands of The Doctor with a victory at Indy. The 50 points Lorenzo trails Rossi by in the championship mean that the Spaniard has written off his chances of taking the title, but Lorenzo has stated that he intends to make amends by concentrating on winning. Arguably, trying to win is what caused Lorenzo to crash out at Donington and Brno, but he has proven that he learns fast. He may still make mistakes, but he doesn't often make the same mistake.

Lorenzo's chances must be considered good. The Fiat Yamaha man finished 3rd here last year, but only because the race was red-flagged shortly after Lorenzo passed Nicky Hayden for 2nd. Hayden scored his first podium of the year at Indy last year, at the event which he considers to be his home race, as the Indianapolis Motor Speedway is just 170 miles from the Kentucky Kid's native Owensboro. Hayden - like so many Ducati riders before him - has struggled with the Ducati's fickle and unpredictable nature, sometimes finishing in the top 6, often winding up well down the order. But the American will be going that extra mile on Sunday, both to do his many fans proud, and to underline that he deserves to stay at Ducati, and perhaps back up the contract extension which could be signed this weekend.

Like Hayden, fellow American Colin Edwards will be hoping to be at least close to the podium on Sunday. The Texan has been impressive on the Tech 3 Yamaha, underlining the dominance of the Yamaha M1 this season with his 5th place in the championship, ahead of a factory Honda rider, a factory Ducati rider and both factory Suzukis. As a Texan, Indianapolis is more of a home race than Laguna, and Edwards has a special relationship with the circuit, writing a column for the Speedway's excellent website and performing a number of PR duties for the track and the event. Edwards had a miserable race here last year in the rain, the Texas Tornado finishing just 15th in the Indianapolis Hurricane. With the weather expected to hold this weekend, the Texan should be much further up the field on Sunday.

Small Obstacle

Of course, any hope of a podium for the American riders leaves them with an enormous challenge to overcome. The only time the Untouchables - Valentino Rossi, Jorge Lorenzo, Dani Pedrosa and Casey Stoner - have swept the podium is through illness or accident, or a very rare mistake. With Rossi focused on the title, and Lorenzo bent on winning, the third member of the Fantastic Four still racing, Dani Pedrosa, is almost certain to claim a podium spot here at Indy. The Repsol Honda rider has already won once in the US this season, taking victory at the US Grand Prix at Laguna Seca. The new parts which are filtering through from Japan are starting to pay dividends, and the Honda is looking increasingly competitive. They still have a way to go, though, as Valentino Rossi's nearly 12 second margin of victory at Brno so amply demonstrates.

Pedrosa's team mate Andrea Dovizioso will also be hoping to challenge for a podium. After his maiden win, taken in characteristically cool and calculated fashion at a damp Donington, Dovizioso found himself back scrapping for the final podium spot with the jobless Toni Elias on the Gresini Honda. Dovi needs to find the spark of magic that allowed him to take the win at Donington again, and perhaps Indy can be the catalyst. Last year, the Italian was fighting for 4th place here at Indianapolis, losing out to Casey Stoner but beating Ben Spies. The chances of Dovi being nearer the front must surely be better.

Things are pretty tough for Toni Elias. The stocky little Spaniard took a podium last time out, crashed out while running with the leaders at Donington, has been remarkably competitive over the past few races, and is almost certain to be out of a job in MotoGP next season. For once, his nationality and that of his Italian team mate Alex de Angelis are playing against them: With an influx of fresh Spanish and Italian talent into the series next season, Dorna is looking to preserve the (relative) diversity of nationalities in the series, and not reduce it to a solely Mediterranean affair. With neither Elias nor Gresini Honda team mate de Angelis bringing significant sponsorship to the table, both men look to be forced out into either Moto2 or World Superbikes. Neither man is likely to go quietly, and both are likely to finish well inside the top 10 for the rest of the season, and end up in the championship well ahead of a number of riders who will remain in the series next year.

Of all the riders who will be remaining despite a relatively modest points total, Marco Melandri is probably the rider who deserves it most. The Italian - who will be taking a Gresini from Elias and de Angelis - has had a remarkable season on the Hayate-run Kawasaki, a bike that was nowhere last season. The team has even received a few updates for the bike at the test which took place on Monday after Brno, holding out hope of further improvements to come for Melandri. As the Indianapolis circuit has few of the long, fast corners which expose the Hayate's lack of edge grip, Melandri could well post a respectable result on Sunday. A podium is probably a bridge too far, but the Italian could easily be among the best of the rest.

High Hopes

Like Melandri, Frenchman Randy de Puniet is certain to stay in MotoGP next season, helped by his nationality but most of all his excellent results on a second-string machine. Despite the fact that the LCR Honda is a very basic satellite-spec machine, de Puniet has visited the podium once and been a top 10 regular all season long. De Puniet is still recovering from the broken ankle he suffered in a motocross accident during training, but is growing stronger with every week. Whether he is recovered enough to cope with the fast changes of direction the Indy track demands remains to be seen, but de Puniet's motivation is beyond question. After all, he is holding out on contract negotiations in the hope of securing better equipment for next year. Those kind of commitments are not the type that money can buy; to get a better bike, only results count.

Results are just what are missing from Gabor Talmacsi scoresheet. The Hungarian rider moved up to the MotoGP class with a third of the season gone, after a dispute with the Aspar team over media rights. Talmacsi brought a much-needed influx of cash into the Scot Honda team from the Hungarian oil giant MOL, but so far, the former 125cc World Champion is still a couple of seconds off the pace in the class. Talmacsi needs to pick up a second on the leaders, and he needs to do it quite soon, if MOL are to continue to fund his presence in MotoGP. Given that the Hungarian fell during practice and fractured his wrist here at Indianapolis last year, that is unlikely to happen on this weekend.

Hopes are high in the Suzuki camp, as the GSV-R received some important updates over the past few weeks. A new engine appeared at Brno, and here at the Speedway, both Loris Capirossi and Chris Vermeulen will be racing with a new frame. The new engine helped, as witnessed by Capirossi's 5th place finish at Brno two weeks ago. The improvements have persuaded Capirossi to sign with Suzuki for another year, a deal likely to be announced officially this weekend. If the new chassis helps as much as the engine, Capirossi could well be a challenger at Indy, hoping to expunge the memory of his inglorious 16th place finish here last year.

His Rizla Suzuki team mate Chris Vermeulen will be even more motivated than Capirossi. The Australian looks to be out of MotoGP next season, despite having offered his services to the Tech 3 Yamaha squad, reportedly for no charge. Vermeulen recently criticized Suzuki for the lack of progress the factory has shown with the bike, and he will be hoping the new parts he will be receiving will allow him to prove he deserves to stay in the series. To do so, he will have to improve on the 9th place he scored here at Indy last season.

Hot Seat

The job that Vermeulen is after is one of the most desirable seats available in the series. James Toseland's seat at the Monster Tech 3 Yamaha squad is being chased by a host of riders, and the Briton will have to drastically improve his results if he is to hang on to his seat at the team. Toseland is a living witness to the saying that you should be careful what you ask for, as at the end of last season, Toseland wanted Bridgestone tires and the services of Colin Edwards' crew chief, Gary Reynders. He now has both, but instead of improving, the Briton's results have gone badly downhill. Toseland's salvation may yet come from his nationality, as Dorna may decide they need to keep the Briton in the series to keep the BBC happy. That will not please the Englishman, as he entered the series on merit, as a double World Superbike Champion, and would like to stay here on merit rather than as a sop to a TV rights holder.

Pramac Ducati's Mika Kallio will be back next year, not just because his Finnish nationality guarantees the international flavor that Dorna is keen to ensure, but also because he has posted strong - if occasionally erratic - results in his rookie season. At times Kallio has seemed capable of taming the Desmosedici almost as well as Casey Stoner has, while at others the Finn has ended up well down the order. Kallio is replacing Casey Stoner on the factory Ducati again this weekend but the Australian must be starting to have some concerns about the Finn. Two big crashes at Brno may potentially have trashed 2 of Stoner's allowance of 5 engines for the rest of the season, and may result in the Australian accepting a 10 point forfeit later on in the season, if he is forced to use an extra engine beyond his allowance once he returns from illness. Kallio will be keeping his head down and his bike upright at Indianapolis, rather than risking any win-it-or-bin-it tactics. Meanwhile, his crashes may well cause the Grand Prix Commission to re-examine the engine limit rules, to find a way to deal with engines suffering with crash damage, rather than just the ordinary wear and tear of racing.

The History Man

The Pramac team sees a couple of riders with contrasting fortunes. Niccolo Canepa is riding for a place in World Superbikes, knowing that he has no future in MotoGP, but the Italian rookie may score rather better here at Indianapolis, as he has plenty of experience at the track, having both raced here and tested here during the tire test. His temporary team mate Aleix Espargaro makes his debut in the MotoGP class, as well as making history as the youngest Spanish rider to race in the class, at just 20 years and 1 month. The former 250cc rider is extremely talented, but has tended to be erratic in his short career. He will have his work cut out for him getting to grips with the Ducati Desmosedici GP9 at Indianapolis this weekend.

If you are going to make a historic debut, then there is no better venue than the legend that is the Brickyard, the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. Though the road course built inside the giant oval is not the greatest track for racing motorcycles, it is still challenging and interesting enough and capable of providing some great racing. Last year, the Speedway's chance to prove that was thwarted by Hurricane Ike choosing to blow through town just as the racing was about to start. This weekend, there'll be sun, high clouds and rather cool temperatures, and so this year, we should see the race which we deserve, a piece of history at a truly historic location.

round_number: 
12
2009

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Comments

... the jet dryer!  Something we 'Muricans take for granted from a young age... ;-)

Also, make note:  cold temperatures (over the nights) and hard compound tires will be the story of the weekend. 

With Hard being the softer of the rears and the harder of the fronts, look for the infield sections to be as slippery as wet... or maybe dirt.  Whether this will be somehow advantageous to the otherwise abusive Hondas will be interesting to watch.