2011 MotoGP Catalunya Preview - The Season Starts Here

After two weeks away from racing, the MotoGP assembles again in Barcelona, and tragically, we're once talking about what's going on off-track rather than the prospect of some racing after a two-week hiatus. Marco Simoncelli has been called to Race Direction for further questioning about his crash with Dani Pedrosa at Le Mans. He will likely also be receiving some extra personal protection at the Barcelona circuit, after threats had been made against him via the Gresini website. The good news is that the threats came over the internet, meaning they are most likely the work of an idiot stuck in is bedroom who is all keyboard and no trousers (after all, if every threat of violence posted on the internet was actually followed through, the population of the world would be 7 rather than 7 billion). It still completely spoils the atmosphere though.

The reason there is so much talk of the off-track chin-wagging and not so much of the on-track action is twofold. Firstly, there hasn't been much on-track action: it's June, and we're only on the 5th race of the year, and a quarter of the way through the season. Secondly, with all of the major riders tied up contractually for 2012, there is no room for speculating about who might be shifting where for next season, for everyone who is anyone - with the exception of Andrea Dovizioso and Marco Simoncelli - will be staying exactly where they are.

Fortunately, the next eight weeks sees six races, and by the end of it, we should have a clearer idea of who is in the running for the title. There will be so much going on on-track that the riders, media and fans simply will not have the energy left to talk about the off-track distractions, and after July, the run into 2012 and the new MotoGP era begins.

There are few places to begin a long run of races than in Barcelona. The track has many things going for it: a strong layout with a lot of passing opportunities; a pleasant setting nestling in the crook of a some low hills; but most of all, just a few miles away from one of the great cities of the world. The Montmelo circuit has been the scene of some epic battles and spectacular events: Rossi vs Lorenzo in 2009, Rossi vs Stoner in 2008, the massive first-corner pile-up in 2006 which effectively ended Loris Capirossi's title challenge, Alex Criville vs Tady Okada in 1999, Wayne Rainey vs Mick Doohan in 1992, to name but a few.

But with four Gps in Spain and its contract running out at the end of this year, it is the obvious candidate to be dropped from the calendar, as the other Spanish rounds all have multi-year deals with Dorna. Given that Dorna's offices are based just south of Barcelona, and many of the teams and riders come from the surrounding area, there is still hope that it might be retained, fortunately.

Picking a favorite to win at Barcelona is hard: All of the riders seem to love the track, and all of them perform well here. Given that Montmelo has a 200mph front straight, the Honda lane has been reopened this year, and Casey Stoner is coming off a dominant weekend topped with a terrifyingly convincing victory at Le Mans, it would be a brave man who would bet against the Australian at Barcelona. The Honda is still a rocketship, its only weakness a tendency to hop on corner entry, and Stoner is fitter, happier and more motivated than ever. The only chink in Stoner's armor at Barcelona is the fact that he has had the flu for the past couple of weeks, and may not be at 100% fitness. With conditions due to vary between wet and dry at Barcelona, that may help in reducing the amount of effort required to ride a MotoGP race, but it may also hinder Stoner, if he spends too much time drenched from racing in the wet.

Under normal circumstances, the main threat to Stoner would come from his Repsol Honda teammate, Dani Pedrosa, but the Spaniard has been forced to miss this year's race as a result of that incident with Simoncelli. The collarbone that Pedrosa broke at Le Mans is healing more slowly than expected, and after months of misery with his left collarbone, Pedrosa has decided to give his injury time to heal, and return only when he is much closer to full fitness, a rare sensible decision from a motorcycle racer. With Silverstone just a week away, the chances are that Pedrosa will be out for that race as well, his most probable return date at Assen.

The man most determined to win at Barcelona probably faces the biggest challenge. Jorge Lorenzo has faced a heap of pressure since the start of the 2011 MotoGP season, the #1 plate proving a heavy load once again. But the problems which Lorenzo has faced have been due not so much to any failing on the part of the Spaniard, nor even really of Yamaha, but more due to the huge leap forward that the Hondas have made. With Stoner, Pedrosa, Simoncelli and Andrea Dovizioso all on superior machinery, just scoring podiums has become a pretty big ask for the reigning champion. Yet he has a win and two 2nd places under his belt, Le Mans being the first race that he fell short of expectations.

Yamaha is struggling especially in acceleration off the corners, a point where the Honda has become a rocketship. Yamaha is working on a solution with a new engine, but it is not certain whether it will be ready in time for this weekend's race. This would be the perfect time to take the new engine, as Lorenzo lost a motor when his last one blew itself up during the morning warm up at Le Mans. Whether Yamaha judges it ready to race or not will be the decisive factor.

If it were just acceleration, then Lorenzo might not be facing such an uphill battle. But the bike is also suffering in braking as well. The problem surfaced at Estoril, and was not much better at Le Mans, and the factory Yamaha squad have yet to find a solution. Rumors persist that Lorenzo has switched back to the 2010 Yamaha chassis, on which he was so successful, though Lorenzo claims all he is using are the settings from last season.

Lorenzo's difficulties have brought joy to the heart of his mortal enemy and former teammate Valentino Rossi. Rossi was clearly overjoyed to take his first podium on the Ducati at Le Mans, though it seemed that beating Lorenzo for the first time had pleased him more than getting on the podium, a consequence as it was of the crash between Pedrosa and Simoncelli and Simoncelli's subsequent ride-through penalty.

The good news for Rossi is that his shoulder is now more or less back to full strength. With strength and endurance back in his shoulder, he can focus on working on the Ducati. The bad news for Rossi is that despite the revised chassis and new electronics package tested at Estoril, the bike remains as stubbornly fickle as ever. During the Estoril test, Rossi and his crew felt that the new chassis allowed them to get the bike to respond as expected to setup changes. At Le Mans, the new chassis was behaving as the old one had, with little comprehensible feedback. The next step for Rossi and his crew is a revised engine - also tested at Estoril - but with just 6 engines to last all 18 races, taking a new engine at Catalunya could be risking just a little too much.

However, with Pedrosa out, and rain likely on Sunday, Rossi has a good shot at another podium at Barcelona. He is still - tentatively - targeting Mugello for his first win on the Ducati, but even that, he admits, is optimistic.

Marco Simoncelli faces a weekend of intense media scrutiny, which will backed up with open hostility from the crowd. He kicks off his weekend with a visit to Race Direction at 4pm on Thursday, before facing a likely torrent of boos and wolf whistles when taking to the track on Friday for practice. The Gresini press release quoted Simoncelli as being contrite about the injuries caused to Pedrosa, and promising to be a little more cautious in future. Given that that is precisely what separates Simoncelli from genuine success - backing off just that tenth of a percent may actually mean he goes faster, or at least gets to finish a race - it will be interesting to see how he responds. Dealing with pressure - especially this kind of negative pressure from such intense scrutiny - is the real test of a rider, and Barcelona will be a trial by fire for Simoncelli.

Another rider under pressure is Ben Spies. The Texan has had a tough time in his first few races as a factory rider in MotoGP, especially after the scare he had at Estoril when a clamp remained on his bike, worrying Spies that he could potentially have a problem with his brakes. Spies is struggling with the same issues that Lorenzo is - being dramatically underpowered when compared to the Hondas - and seems to have lost a little of his composure. At a track that he also loves and feels comfortable at, Barcelona could be the breakthrough point.

At Barcelona, we finally get into the guts of the season. Six races in eight weeks, in criss-crossing Spain, Italy, the UK, Germany, Holland and crossing the Atlantic to Laguna Seca barely leaves the riders, teams and press time to breathe. This is the part of the season when the championship starts in earnest, and the rider who can score regular points and, more importantly, stay healthy, is the rider who has the best hope of lifting the MotoGP trophy in Valencia at the end of the year. The smallest mistake - crashing and breaking a collarbone, or a scaphoid, or an ankle - will be punished mercilessly, with no time to recover and rest for the next race. By the time we next get a chance to relax, at the end of July, we will be 10 races into the season, and the championship will be in full swing. It's going to be an exciting, exhausting and fascinating period.

2011

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Comments

Maybe now we can get back to racing, and maybe leave some of the off track nonsense behind. It is true what they say about idle hands, y'know.

I still have the feeling the season is yet to start. Let the good times roll.

I have a feeling that we may end-up enjoying another epic battle between JLo and Rossi. And I hope Sic will not be affected but all the talks around. Those should call for a great race to watch.
Pity Dani will not be in the mix.

My mood quickly improves every year at this time as my racing fix is satisfied. I would pay $1000 a year to Dorna if we could have Motogp on 30 weekends throughout the year. What are the chances? F1 in the off weekends is not doing it for me and I don't get WSBK on my TV.

...Whether due to mistakes, bad luck or circumstances and thus his sluggish start of the season, Ben is not on many peoples radar at the moment. With Dani out for a race or two Spies has the perfect opportunity to flirt with the podium and get some mojo working for him again. Hopefully Yamaha can deliver with some improvements soon that allows for their riders to get a better sniff of the currently almighty HRC machines...

I haven't heard any talk of anyone actually subbing for Dani... I guess it's just too difficult to find someone to ride the 800 on short notice?

Honda don't need to replace a rider for Barcelona. Under the rules, they must make "every reasonable effort" to replace him if he misses Silverstone, but there's a very severe shortage of riders capable of doing anything with a MotoGP bike.

>>but there's a very severe shortage of riders capable of doing anything with a MotoGP bike.

First off, nobody is expecting a replacement rider to podium on his single outing and nobody will say the Honda is a dog if he does not do well. We'd just like to see a decent sized grid at the starting line and maybe give Elias someone to race with.

Secondly, seeing how Cal Crutchlow went from 3rd place in the WSB to doing well on a GP bike I don't agree with that statement. There are plenty of talented riders who would give their left nut for a replacement GP ride. It used to be that wildcard and injured rider replacements with national riders were everyday happenings in the top level of GP but since the 4 stroke era and more specifically the 800 era both practices seem to have ended.

I think the issue is not finding a rider that is capable of doing 'something' with a GP bike but saving as much money as possible as there is no benefit to the factory from using replacement riders except for when they have to to comply with the Dorna contract. Another factor is that the factories do not anyone that is not contractually tied to them to experience the feedback of their top GP bikes. I'm sure just riding these machines gives you some insight into the how and why of what they are doing. With how secretive the teams are today, welcoming an outsider into the inner sanctum would essentially reveal their secrets to a rider that may soon end up as the competition.

I would suggest the lack of wildcard and replacement riders is really just an outgrowth of the hostile/sterile GP paddock environment, not a result of a dearth of appropriate riders.

Chris
http://moto2-usa.blogspot.com/

The complexity of the 800's allied to the very foreign nature of the Bridgestone DOES preclude anyone doing anything half decent without a fair bit of track time on one of the things. Crutchlow took all of the off season and the early part of the racing to get his head around an 800. They are a fickle beast and a long way removed in behaviour to any other racing motorcycle.

The only relevant examples that come to mind are the American wildcards at Laguna Seca.
While RL Hayden ride on the LCR Honda was somewhat forgettable last year (11th out of 12, 1 min 12 from Lorenzo, only beating De Angelis who was also some sort of wildcard), in 2008 Jamie Hacking finished the race 11th of 17 finishers on the not-so-good Kawasaki, 46 seconds from the winner Valentino.

So I would say that a highly talented wildcard with good track knowledge has a chance to perform decently indeed.

After the 2nd day of the Valencia test Cal was 1.4 off the fast time and 13th out of 17 and Karel was 1.7 off the fast time. Not too bad from either rider for 2 days on the bike, about the same overall track time as a race weekend.

That said, yes the 800s are fickle, but who cares- we are not expecting a replacement rider to win or podium, just please try to keep the grid from looking anorexic. And once a rider is a wildcard he then has some motogp experience and can be wildcarded again with hopefully better results.

Chris
http://moto2-usa.blogspot.com/

I hope everyone catches up to Honda some. A runaway because of sheer lopsided bike superiority is going to make what should be a great season mediocre.

With Stoner, Pedrosa, Simoncelli and Andrea Dovizioso all on superior machinery, just scoring podiums has become a pretty big ask for the reigning champion.

In 2007 Rossi and many journalists claimed that the Yamaha was the slower bike compared to the Duke because it had less max horse powers.

Fast forward to 2011 and the same Rossi talks about his (much tamed compared to 2007) Duke that raw power just gives high max speed but it's useless for lap times and to make the Duke competitive again it has to be better balanced/more rideable/faster in the corners.

In 2010 basically the same people that disrespected Stoner in 2007 took away the credit from Lorenzo when claiming that the M1 was the best balanced bike and he just won the title because he had the Yam (suddenly nobody was reiterating the stupid MAX engine power = fastest bike from 2007)

And now 2011 we are again at the same point as 2007, again the bike that is fastest on a straight line is the superior machinery. And again racers like Stoner, Pedrosa and Sic are disrespected.
Yes JLo has the slower bike on a long straight line, but if Yamaha didn't fuck up everything over the winter he still should have the ultimate equipment in the corners, it's that trump card that Yamaha played successfully to secure 3 World titles in the last 3 years. And as reported many times already, the Honda is not "superior" in the corner entry and centre.

Maybe it shouldn't be forgotten, that Lorenzo won a GP this year (the same number as Pedrosa and 1 more than Sic on the "superior" machinery) and is leading the overall standings, so to judge that the M1 is inferior is ... to be questioned.

Catalunya has the nasty habit of setting the tone for the season hence.
Well said.The season starts now.
Lopsided towards Honda,I don't think so. Dani out.
Now,if Ducati win Catalunya without weather being an issue...well !!!...Game on !!!
Failing which,they don't have the riders that HRC and Yamaha have at their disposal.
I personally love this pivotal round of the Championship. Loris winning Catalunya on the 990 L-4 D16 back then. Disaster 2006, cost him and Sete big time.
Indeed,the season does start now.

What may solve a number of issues for Ducati would be to revert to a trellis chassis, something they know well.
Riders for Dani's Honda? What about the factory test riders? They have the skills and the race experience can be very useful to fine-tuning a testers ability to evaluate race bikes. Keeps them sharp and motivated too.
What a contrast between the views of MotoGP and F1 pilots about the Montmelo circuit. Catalunya usually produces a processional race in F1 with the drivers saying it's impossible to overtake, while MotoGP is exciting and the riders all love it!
It's wringing to complain about superior machines, there is always a superior machine, that's competition and we all have seen that the "superior' machine doesn't always win... course, put Stoner on a Honda and I wouldn't bet against him!