Seldom has a MotoGP season been more eagerly awaited than the 2011 season. We seem to say this every year, but this year it is almost certainly true. The 2010 season gave a foretaste of what MotoGP can do sometimes, with moments such as Jorge Lorenzo catching and then passing Dani Pedrosa at the Jerez Grand Prix, and Valentino Rossi's bitter battle with Lorenzo at Motegi engraved firmly in our memories. With another year of development on the bikes and experience for the riders, this season promises the closest racing ever seen in the 800cc class.
The ingredients for this explosive mix are varied. They include an engine capacity coming to the end of its lifecycle (the 800cc MotoGP bikes are to make way for 1000cc machines at the end of this year); a newly-crowned world champion who ended up dominating 2010; a fierce rival, in the shape of Dani Pedrosa, whose title challenge was finally broken by an injury caused by a mechanical failure; two former world champions switch manufacturers, facing new challenges and a shot at the history books; the potential for myth-making of epic proportions, with the iconic Italian motorcycle racer paired up with the iconic Italian motorcycle brand; a rising American star who showed his potential on a satellite machine and now has a factory bike and a year of experience to take to the competition; and a couple of former 250 riders looking capable of causing an upset or two along the way.
There is one fly in the ointment, however, adding a little trepidation to the lure of a great season of racing. Throughout preseason testing, the Hondas have gone virtually unchallenged, with Repsol Honda riders Casey Stoner and Dani Pedrosa taking it in turns to top the timesheets. They were gracious enough to deign to allow Marco Simoncelli and Jorge Lorenzo top spot at Sepang and Valencia, but those times looked more like an aberration than a pattern.
The secret of the RC212V's speed was a mystery for a while, but the intrigue started at Sepang. The Italian TV broadcaster Mediaset suggested that Honda might be using some kind of double clutch, but that idea was soon dismissed, given that the dual clutches such as used in Honda's DCT system on their VFR1200F are clearly outlawed under the Grand Prix regulations.
Speculation then switched to the gearbox, and the use of some kind of seamless shift system, such as Xtrac's Instantaneous Gearshift System. Honda has yet to confirm they are using such a system, but at Qatar, the riders tacitly acknowledged that the magic was all in the gearbox. Standing at trackside, you can hear the system working; gearshifts are almost instantaneous, more like an automatic gearbox than a manual, the bike remaining perfectly smooth and in control as riders shift through the gears while still banked over.
Honda's preseason testing dominance has made Casey Stoner's ascent to the 2011 MotoGP championship look almost inevitable. At the presentation of the team in Malaysia, Stoner paid homage to his idol Mick Doohan, and spoke of his pride at being an Australian bearing Repsol colors. Stoner's speed has never been in doubt, and with what is clearly the fastest bike under him, the 2007 World Champion looks just about unstoppable.
Yet it is a little too early to start engraving the plate to add to the MotoGP trophy just yet. In the past couple of seasons, Stoner has revived his reputation as a loose cannon, crashing out of 5 of last year's 18 races. The 2010 season brought back memories of Stoner's spectacular - in both the positive and negative sense of that word - debut year in 2006, when the Australian always appeared to be flinging the LCR Honda into the scenery in an incredibly telegenic way. Stoner may be fast, critics point out, but can he keep it upright all the way to the finish?
There is good reason to believe he can. Stoner was not the only Ducati rider to have the front end wash out on him in 2010; Nicky Hayden described it as the worst season in his career for crashes. Stoner pushes the bikes to the very limit, that much we know for sure, but 2010 seemed to demonstrate that identifying where the limit lay on the Ducati was a tricky prospect at best. Stoner's season was turned around at Aragon, when the Australian and his crew changed his position on the bike, altering the position of his wrists with respect to the bike. He went on to win the next two races, and another one before the season ended.
On the Honda, Stoner has shown no propensity for crashing. Other than a solitary tumble at Sepang, he has been rock steady in the saddle. He has also been blisteringly fast, not just in single-lap speed, but also in consistency. Even when Stoner's name has not been at the top of the timesheets, he has almost always been the rider with the most fast laps. Although distilling the data from testing into something resembling race pace is difficult, it is Casey Stoner who looks the most like having the situation under control in 2011.
Dani Pedrosa, Stoner's Repsol Honda teammate, has shared much of the limelight during testing, the Spaniard building on his form from last year. With the problems the Honda had largely fixed, and a nice power boost thrown into the bargain, Pedrosa, too has been devastatingly quick during testing. The difference, though, is that where Stoner has been capable of stringing long runs of fast laps, Pedrosa's fast times have been one-offs, a single fast lap followed by a sequence at a more ordinary pace. Under normal circumstances, even that slower pace would be enough to be competitive, but his teammate appears to have moved the goalposts by a significant margin.
It would be unwise to write off Pedrosa, however, and label him as Honda's second fastest rider. Riders follow a plan when testing, trying out new parts according to schedules drawn up at the factory. Test times - even the times showing every lap a rider put in - can be deceptive, as there is no way of mapping those times to the work being undertaken.
There is another factor which may have an impact on Pedrosa's ability to put in long consistent runs. The Spaniard is still recovering from surgery to fix his collarbone, and though he has no more pain in his shoulder, the muscles in his neck have tightened up, leaving his shoulder stiff and hard to move. Over the course of a test, that has hampered the Spaniard a little, and could explain his lack of long fast runs.
There has been much debate over just how compatible Casey Stoner and Dani Pedrosa are as teammates, especially given the known antipathy between Livio Suppo - who brought Stoner to HRC - and Alberto Puig, Pedrosa's manager. On a personal level, the two get on reasonably well, and there's little animosity visible between the two. But as the situation in the Yamaha garage demonstrated last year, having two of the strongest riders in the world on the same team can give rise to an awful lot of tension.
So far, there are few signs of strain, though the pairing is already causing HRC a few headaches. Casey Stoner has already decided on the chassis he will be using for 2011: what is being labeled the 2011 standard chassis, the stiffer of the two options that Honda was testing during the preseason. Pedrosa is yet to be convinced, however, and has spent his time vacillating between the new 2011 chassis and the 2010 chassis he did so well with. The question remains whether HRC is willing or able to allow Pedrosa to put off a decision much longer, and whether he will be allowed to keep the 2010 chassis if he decides he prefers it.
Three's A Crowd
The third man in the Repsol Honda team did not have the luxury of choice as far as chassis were concerned, but had the decision thrust upon him. Andrea Dovizioso understands what his position is in the Repsol Honda team, though he is plainly far from happy with it. Negotiations went on for a long time with Dovizioso before he finally saw his contract honored and a position in the Repsol team secured. When Stoner joined, Honda looked at options of placing him in a satellite team with full factory support, and keeping Stoner and Pedrosa in the same team. But Dovizioso stuck to his guns, and ensured he stayed inside the factory structure.
Dovizioso's problem - if you can call it that - is that he is undoubtedly a very fast and competitive rider. A Grand Prix winner and a former 125cc champion, Dovi secured 7 podiums in 2010, but he never really managed to turn those into regular wins. 2011 looks like being more of the same, with podiums coming with a pleasing regularity, but the victory always just a little bit too far off. His only win so far has come in the strange circumstances of Donington Park in 2009, when greasy, drying conditions saw the leaders all crash out. Dovizioso seized his opportunity, but though he is fast, he still has work to do if he is start standing on the top step regularly.
Meet The New Boss
Last year's top-step regular should be a pretty frequent visitor again this season. He will have to be, if Jorge Lorenzo has any ambition of defending his championship and scoring back-to-back titles. Given that his former teammate and now archrival Valentino Rossi is the only rider to have managed that feat in the past 12 years, Lorenzo's motivation could not be greater to match that. By repeating as champion, he would kill two birds with one stone: match one of the achievements that marks Rossi out as unique, while also beating the Italian in the process.
Looking at the data from testing, that looks well within the bounds of possibility. The 2010 World Champion has been the only rider to match the pace of the Hondas, and the consistency of Casey Stoner, and has looked impressively fast and smooth at Valencia, Sepang and Qatar. Up until the final day of testing at Qatar, that is: when the wind picked up, Lorenzo struggled, fighting to find a setup that would allow him to use his usual high-corner-speed style without getting buffeted by the wind. He failed, going slower on Monday than he had on Sunday, and leaving the test frustrated, despite his outstanding performance the day before.
The wind is clearly Lorenzo's weak spot, and with high winds expected for the season opener on Sunday night, Lorenzo's title defense might get off to a rocky start. Given the number of tracks that winds can be a real problem at, however, he should soon quickly be back on track. The Yamaha retains its trademark sweet-handling characteristics, though as ever, the bike remains just a little bit down on power. Yamaha's departing project leader Masao Furusawa said that the power differential with Honda was his biggest concern, most especially the bottom end drive that the RC212V seems to get out of corners.
Work is already going on on a seamless shift system to match the Honda's, but most of all, what Furusawa and the Yamaha riders would like is just a little bit more motor. The engines for the next six races are now sealed, and so a power boost is unlikely to come much before either Barcelona - fittingly, Lorenzo's home Grand Prix - or Silverstone. But the Yamaha still changes direction better than the Honda, though there's not much in it, so at tracks which place less of a premium on horsepower, the Yamaha's should do just fine.
Right now, Jorge Lorenzo is fit, healthy, happy and extremely motivated. He is on an outstanding package, and has an outstanding crew chief in Ramon Forcada and a canny team manager in Wilco Zeelenberg, managing machine and man respectively. The bike is plenty fast, if not quite up to the Hondas, and the rider has both the positive of a burning desire to bag another title, and the negative of beating his former teammate to push him to the very limit. The only reason Casey Stoner has not be handed the trophy already is because Jorge Lorenzo will be standing in his way. Picking a winner between those two will be a coin toss, and could provide some of the best racing we have seen in years.
From Outer Space?
Jorge Lorenzo may have not have Valentino Rossi to worry about as a teammate, but that does not mean that his troubles are over in that department. Taking the Italian's place is Ben Spies, the Texan moving up from the Monster Tech 3 squad, after an outstanding debut year in MotoGP. So strong was Spies' rookie year, in fact, that Valentino Rossi joked that Lorenzo was getting his own Jorge in the garage now, when Spies' signing was announced.
The question throughout his first year in MotoGP - promoted after winning the World Superbike title at the first attempt - was whether he would be able to make the switch to a Grand Prix bike after spending so many years on a Superbike. The two are very different beasts: a Superbike is a much softer, more flexible machine, with less adjustment in the chassis to solve particular problems.
But the hardest thing to get used to was the tires, the Bridgestones requiring a very specific approach to get the very best out of them. Spies learned fast, scoring his first podium in the 5th round of the season at Silverstone, and his next podium three months later at Indianapolis. By the end of the year, it was clear that the difference between Spies' results and those of Jorge Lorenzo and Valentino Rossi were down in large part to the difference between the satellite Tech 3 machine and the factory bikes of the Fiat Yamaha team.
Now with factory equipment underneath him, the Texan gets a chance to confirm his status as the fifth so-called alien. Spies has been his typical self throughout testing: quiet, unflappable, and blazingly fast, his speed going almost unnoticed. This ability to fly almost under the radar has seen him post impressive times in testing without attracting a lot of attention to himself, but this is the year that Spies will break into the big time. Given the pressure from on his shoulders from his American fan base, he has no choice; given his obvious level of talent, it should not be a problem.
I Am Legend
But of course the biggest story of 2011 - and 2010 for that matter - was Valentino Rossi's move to Ducati. There was an air of inevitability about the move that seemed to grow throughout last year, and by the time the announcement was made officially - at the Brno Grand Prix - Ducati's CEO Gabriele del Torchio was telling a room full of journalists something they had already known for months.
The official story behind the move was simple, the linking of the two great icons of Italian motorcycling, Valentino Rossi and Ducati. It was a move that had been predicted for years by bike fans, though for most of that period it was merely a product of wishful thinking. To link Rossi and Ducati was a no-brainer, an instant marking powerhouse and the embodiment of the word synergy.
The unofficial story was a little different, and rather less edifying. Rossi had been upset with Yamaha for a while, ever since they had signed Jorge Lorenzo against his express wishes. His ire was further raised by Yamaha offering Lorenzo a one-year contract, a luxury that had never been offered to Rossi. An alleged dispute over money - Yamaha cutting Rossi's pay in the name of cost-cutting, while at the same time offering Lorenzo a big pay rise - was the final straw, and Rossi reportedly issued Yamaha an ultimatum: It's him or me. Yamaha refused to choose, sticking to the line they had repeated throughout the process, that they felt there was room in the team for both men. Seeing his requests rebuffed, Rossi walked, and with Casey Stoner already signed to Honda, Ducati was his only serious option.
Since the announcement - and especially since Rossi's contract with Yamaha expired on December 31st 2010 - the Rossi-Ducati marketing machine has been in overdrive. The merchandise is already being churned out in large quantities, and Ducati already have the first of what is sure to be many replicas on sale, a kit for the Monster 696 and 796 featuring a giant yellow 46, and with styling clues taken from the GP bike. After Rossi tested in January on an 1198 superbike, a replica 1198 cannot be far behind.
So the pressure for Rossi to succeed on the Ducati is already at unbelievable levels, a fact emphasized by the 38,000 fans that came to Bologna's central square in the freezing cold to see off Rossi and teammate Nicky Hayden before they flew over to Qatar for the final test. Rossi, or perhaps Ducati, simply cannot afford to fail.
Ratcheting up the pressure further is the fact that Rossi is taking on the bike that Casey Stoner won three of the last six races on at the end of 2010. Throughout his rivalry with the Australian, Rossi's fans have always pointed to a disadvantage in equipment: in 2007 it was the Ducati, in 2008 it was the Bridgestones. Now, Rossi takes over The Bike That Casey Won On, and his fans expect him to be faster than the Australian.
The problem is that it's just not that easy. The Ducati is a fickle beast to tame, and requires a totally different riding style to the Yamaha. Staying smooth and carrying corner speed - the best way to get the Yamaha round the track - simply does not cut it on the Desmosedici GP11, as Marco Melandri demonstrated so alarmingly back in 2008. The bike instead has to be muscled round the track, or, as Rossi repeatedly puts it, "ridden more like a 500". The Doctor built his reputation on the fickle 500cc two-stroke machines, but it's been 10 years since he actually rode one.
The problem Rossi has with the bike is down to a number of factors. First, the way the Ducati has been designed is to get the best out of the spec Bridgestone tires by putting load into them. The rider is meant to load the tire as much as possible to generate heat, and allow them to work. The problem is that this is not the way that Rossi has been riding for the past 4 years, and he is having to relearn his habits.
Shouldering The Burden
It is hard physical work riding the Ducati, and therein lies another problem for the Italian. Rossi is still recovering from shoulder surgery, to fix the injuries he sustained in a motocross training accident after the Qatar MotoGP round last year. He is still working on building strength and especially endurance into his shoulder, but testing places a heavy burden on the joint.
The combination of his shoulder and the GP11 has not been a happy one so far. Rossi and his crew have restricted themselves in what they've been testing so far, focusing almost exclusively on finding a base setup that works. Back in Bologna, a special flexi-package - featuring a revised sub-frame, headstock, swingarm, triple clamps and forks - has been designed and then tested by the test team of Franco Battaini and Vito Guareschi, in the hope of getting more feel in the front end of the machine. Rossi passed that package over to Nicky Hayden to try, discarding it when Hayden reported the package as not providing any improvement.
Rossi's crew, led by legendary crew chief Jeremy Burgess, has gone back and forth and up and down, trying to find a setup that works. The state of the crew is illustrated rather fetchingly by the Alex Brigg's posts on Twitter. The team are finding the work extremely satisfying, he writes, and enjoying the feeling of actually having a problem to tackle and fix. This is of course an engineer's dream, and the reason they became engineers in the first place, because problem-solving is what engineers do.
It does not bode well for the situation at Ducati, however. Rossi's crew had much less to do at Yamaha, because the bike was basically sorted and the challenges they faced were much more minor. At Ducati, they have a mountain of work to do, and are loving the challenges laid out on their way. The moral of the story so far appears to be that the one thing a rider should fear is a happy engineer.
Rossi himself remains positive, though realistic about his chances, especially in the early races. The team will have no new parts to test until the Estoril test in May, and until then, all Rossi can do is work on finding a setup, and keep pounding out the laps.
The results from testing so far have not been too encouraging, but here too, times can be deceptive. Rossi finishes rather too many tests outside of the top 10. But looking at his lap times, he appears to have the pace to run around 5th or 6th. A repeat of his stunning victory at Welkom in South Africa in 2004, in his first race after switching from Honda to Yamaha, is unlikely, though of course not beyond the realms of possibility. A podium is more likely but even that will be a bit of an ask. With a little luck, and generous use of his wiles and racecraft built up over the years, and he could yet end up going home with a podium.
Long term, his prospects are a little better, with time on the bike and a chance to find a setup that works. Ducati took a huge risk in signing Rossi, and both parties understand the risks to Ducati if Rossi fails. The Doctor's talent is beyond question, and if he cannot be competitive, the blame will be laid squarely - if not entirely fairly - on the shoulders of Filippo Preziosi, Ducati's MotoGP engineer. If Rossi isn't fighting for the win at Mugello, at the start of July, there is likely to be a lynching. But being Rossi, and being Mugello, Ducati staff are probably safe. Rossi's chances do not look good for 2011, but you can never, ever count him out.
The arrival of Valentino Rossi is both good news and bad news for Nicky Hayden. If anyone can be expected to turn the Ducati Desmosedici GP11 into an easier bike to ride, it surely has to be Valentino Rossi, together with his crew chief Jeremy Burgess. The downside is that Burgess and Rossi have a reputation for pushing experimental parts into the other garage to allow Rossi's teammate to test them first.
Hayden has already got his first taste of this: It was Hayden who took the new "flexi" package out at Sepang, rather than Rossi. Hayden told the engineers that he didn't think the package helped, and so Rossi didn't even try it.
The Kentucky Kid has had a tough preseason of testing so far, as it seems like the Ducati has gone backwards since the 2010 season ended. Hayden has seen his name stuck stubbornly in middle of the timesheets, which is not what the American had been hoping for, nor where he believes he should be. But Hayden, like all of the Ducati riders, looks to be in for a long year.
The front end of the Ducati is the real problem. The bike is still very hard to turn, and this difficulty in turning is also causing a lot of front end washouts. At the final test in Qatar, every single Ducati rider crashed, most of them at least twice. Ducati have been trying everything to fix the problem, but none of the solutions tried so far has worked.
Nicky Hayden called 2010 his worst ever season for crashing, and so far, 2011 looks like being a repeat. Maybe once Ducati get the GP11's problems fixed, or at least under control, the results will start to come for Nicky Hayden. His style suits the bike, now the bike just has to stay upright.
Elegy In Blue
The last of the factory riders is also the least. Not necessarily because of Alvaro Bautista's talent, but mainly because of his decision at the end of 2009 to sign with Suzuki, the smallest and least well-funded of the factory efforts. Bautista had a tough rookie year in 2010, suffering a couple big crashes and getting himself banged up quite badly. But he learned quickly, and by the end of the season was starting to show some promise.
At Sepang, that promise continued, the Suzuki getting surprisingly close to the top of the timesheets. But perhaps not so surprisingly: Suzuki's problem has always been getting heat into the tires, a problem that the tropical heat of Sepang solves where the chassis and suspension design falls short. In the cooler temperatures of Qatar, Bautista could not match the pace, dropping out of the top 10 to end as 12th fastest overall.
The problem for Bautista is that Suzuki has shown a startling lack of commitment to the series over the past few years. At one point during last year, Suzuki looked like pulling out of the series altogether, and a series of meetings between the Hamamatsu bosses and Dorna CEO Carmelo Ezpeleta kept being postponed. In the end, Suzuki cut its involvement for 2011 to just a single bike, leaving the MotoGP grid at 17 riders once again, but with promises of increased involvement for the 2012 season onwards.
The advantage for Bautista is that Suzuki will now develop the bike exactly as he wants. Last year, there were complaints that Bautista's erstwhile teammate Loris Capirossi had given up on the bike, after spending the past three seasons waiting for it to make a big step forward. With the development focus only on Bautista, interpreting data should be easier. Whether Suzuki chooses to do something with that data is another question; Bautista's fate for the 2011 season hangs to a great extent on the answer to that question.