It has been a while since Valentino Rossi’s name has topped the timesheets in MotoGP: once during the test at Jerez back in March, before that at a wet Silverstone almost exactly a year ago. Since that time, he’s been close on occasion, but never fastest. Until today.
The Italian set out on a hot final run to set the best time of the day, and take over the top spot from his Yamaha Factory Racing teammate Jorge Lorenzo, to the delight of the assembled crowd, so many of whom wear his colors. (On a side note, I often wonder what colors will adorn the racetracks of the world once Rossi retires. Right now, you do not need a GPS to guide you to the circuit, you just follow the sea of yellow to the gates.)
Rossi was delighted, but he was also relieved, having confirmed to himself that he can still be at the front. “Today I am very happy about the result,” Rossi told the press, saying that to be at the front was a great feeling. But Rossi was also realistic: it is only Friday, he pointed out to the media, and he had been fast on Friday at previous races.
This is going to be a big weekend in MotoGP, perhaps one of the most significant in a long while. The outcome of Sunday’s race is unlikely to be earth-shattering – the chance of the top three being entirely Spanish, and composed of two Repsol Hondas and a Factory Yamaha is pretty large – and the championship will look much the same on Sunday night as it does now. Yet this weekend will be key.
Much of the interest – and intrigue – revolves around the test on Monday. The most visible piece of the MotoGP puzzle will be in the Suzuki garage, where their brand new MotoGP machine is due to make its first real public debut.
The bike has had a number of private tests, some more secretive than others, the latest being last week at Motegi with Randy de Puniet. The times that were leaked from that test were respectable, though with only test riders for competition, it is hard to put them into context.
At Barcelona, a public test, with official timing, and up against the full MotoGP field, there will be nowhere to hide. Will the Suzuki be able to match the times of the Hondas and Yamahas? Unlikely, the bike is still at an early stage of development.
But it should be faster than the CRT machines, and close to the Ducati satellite bikes. De Puniet’s first target will be himself, and the time he sets during practice and the race on the Aprilia CRT he rides for Aspar.
Suzuki’s MotoGP return is drawing closer. Speaking to Crash.net‘s Peter McLaren, Suzuki test rider Nobuatsu Aoki confirmed that testing on the brand new bike – an inline-four with a big-bang firing order – was progressing well and that the bike would make its first public outing at the post-race test at Barcelona, after the MotoGP round there in mid-June. Aoki himself would be riding at the test, he said, alongside ‘one European rider’. That is widely expected to be Randy de Puniet, though Aoki refused to name the rider.
Yes, this is a shameless plug, but every time I visit Scott at his office, I admire this print of Casey Stoner that he has hanging on his wall. I am obviously a bit biased when it comes to Scott’s work, as any Asphalt & Rubber reader probably already knows, but his photos have classed-up more than a few MotoGP-related articles here on A&R. I have stared at my fair share of Scott’s photography, but this photo of Casey has always struck me though. If you had to summarize Stoner’s dominance in the 2011 season, and maybe his career in MotoGP overall, I think it can be done in this single-instance that Scott has captured.
People will always have their opinions about Casey Stoner, and many of his detractors put an asterisk next to his MotoGP Championship victory in 2007. Whether Casey was on the right tires, or Rossi was on the wrong ones, the fact remains that Stoner won a championship on a machine that spoke a language that Capirossi, Bayliss, Checa, Gibernau, Melandri, Hayden, and Rossi could not understand. A polarizing figure, sure, but any person capable of truly appreciating the art of riding a MotoGP machine to the limit will recognize the mastery in Stoner’s 2011 season, and possibly his career as a whole.
Finishing off the podium only once, when Rossi’s “ambition exceeded his talent,” Stoner didn’t just ride a consistent Championship, he rode a dominant one. Dragging elbows at will, spinning the rear-wheel down impossible racing lines, and decimating his competition in turn, it is hard to go from Casey’s masterful 2011 season, to the beginning of 2012 where he stunned the paddock and announced his retirement.
Looking at Scott’s photo of Casey at Catalunya, it is hard to imagine that we will soon be running out of examples of this kind of performance on two-wheels. Thankfully we do have moments like this in the public record, and for a fortunate few, the capturing of Casey at his finest can be held everlasting. I was with Scott at Laguna Seca when Stoner signed these prints earlier this season, and even the reigning-World Champion seemed impressed with Scott’s photo — maybe even a bit reminiscent. I think the lucky few who happen to buy one of these limited edition prints will be equally impressed with them as well. Some words from Scott after the jump.
Barcelona looks set to remain on the MotoGP calendar for the foreseeable future, despite concerns over the financial viability of the round. In an interview with the Spanish newspaper Mundo Deportivo, Dorna CEO Carmelo Ezpeleta has confirmed that the contract, signed for five years in 2011, will be honored by both Dorna and the regional government of Catalonya, which helps fund the race.
Back in March, at the presentation of the Jerez round, Ezpeleta had stated that he expected there to be three Spanish rounds of MotoGP in 2013, with both Aragon and Jerez confirmed, and Barcelona and Valencia alternating. However, in the interview with Mundo Deportivo, Ezpeleta was less certain of the continuation of Jerez, as the agreement he had signed had been with the previous mayor of Jerez of the socialist PSOE party, and he had not yet spoken to the new mayor from the conservative PP party. However, Jerez, like Barcelona, has a five-year contract with Dorna to organize a MotoGP round, and Ezpeleta expect the race to go ahead.
Race day at Barcelona saw three different races in each of the three classes, and each with a particular lesson to teach. In Moto3, Maverick Vinales was the only rider to understand that it is better to escape from a battling group than get caught up in all the excitement. Vinales eventually won with a massively comfortable lead, but while there is no doubt that the Spaniard’s pace was particularly tough, those in the group behind him gave him a big helping hand by turning on each other instead of banding together to hunt down Vinales for the win. Even 2nd place went to the smartest rider, rather than the most fierce: Sandro Cortese had been forced to ride more carefully due to a very painful right hand he suffered in a crash during qualifying, and by conserving his forces for when he needed them most, he bagged second spot and did very well in the Championship race. Brave, mature, and above all intelligent riding by the young German.
Moto2 deserves a chapter apart, and one which will surely be forthcoming later in the week, probably entitled “The Multitudinous Sins of Marc Marquez”. Marquez was initially punished after a collision with Pol Espargaro which saw Espargaro crash heavily. The Catalunya Caixa rider was given a one minute penalty, but his appeal was upheld, and the penalty was canceled. But the penalty was more about what had happened at Qatar than the incident at Barcelona. After the move on Thomas Luthi, Marquez was given a yellow card by Race Direction, and warned to take care in future. Race Direction appeared to have decided that this move was worthy of a second yellow card, and had therefore decided to apply a penalty. While there is merit to their argument – especially in punishing riders at the front, talk to mid-pack riders and they will tell you that it is a proper killing field further back – this particular incident seems a poor one to pick. As this incident is being viewed by the fans in isolation, rather than as part of the bigger picture, including Marquez’ prior form. Viewed separately, this pass looks too much like an ordinary racing incident to be worthy of such severe punishment.
Up front, Andrea Iannone had one of his days. When the Italian is good, he is utterly unbeatable, showing the style, ability, intelligence and ruthlessness to seal the win. Unfortunately for Iannone, those days are few and far between, with too many days where the Italian ends up miles off the pace.
The MotoGP lesson was perhaps the most interesting of all, because of what it told us of the relative strengths of the Hondas and Yamahas, and how they use the tires. In both practice and race, the Hondas went with the harder rear tire while the Yamaha riders preferred the softer option, because of the way the bike uses the tires. The difference was visible in the stunning 2000 fps video that Dorna provided from some of the corners, proving once again that though Dorna may have a bunch of stuff horribly wrong, their TV coverage is absolutely top notch. Shots of the Hondas showed the rear spinning, and sliding around the corner to get more drive, while the Yamahas looked to be wheels in line, driving out of the corner with less power, but getting it down earlier in the corner.
Despite a drizzle in the morning, the weather held for MotoGP’s race session in Catalunya. With Casey Stoner sitting on pole, the reigning-World Champion knew he had a bevy of Yamahas to content with come race day, with the big question being whether the softer tire option would prove to be a calculated gamble for the riders running it. With a number of Spaniards calling the greater Barcelona area home though, Stoner’s pole-position advantage was anything but a guarantee of a good result.
It has been great to have some consistent weather, Casey Stoner said at the qualifying press conference at Barcelona, a sentiment that was shared by everyone at the Montmelo circuit, riders, teams, fans and media. Apart from the anomaly that is Qatar (a night race with practice in cooling temperatures) all of the MotoGP rounds held so far have featured massive changes in weather almost from session to session. With four session all with comparable temperatures – a little cooler in the mornings, a little warmer in the afternoons – the riders have been able to actually spend some time working on a consistent set up.
What they have learned is that the tires are going to be a huge part in Sunday’s race. The 2012 Bridgestones are built to a new specification and a new philosophy, softer to get up to temperature more quickly and to provide better feedback. This the Japanese tire company has succeeded in spectacularly well, the only downside (though that is debatable) is that the tires wear more quickly. This makes tire management critical for the race, with both hard and soft tires dropping off rapidly after 7 laps, and then needing managing to get them home.
In light of the tire management issues, Casey Stoner expressed his surprise that so many riders had spent time on the soft tire, but a quick survey of the paddock says that the soft tire is a viable race option. While Stoner is convinced that the hard tire will be the race compound, others are less certain. The Yamahas especially seem to prefer the soft tire, Andrea Dovizioso saying that the hard drops off more than the soft. Nicky Hayden found something similar: the hard spins too much, he told the press, and so the soft tire is easier to manage as the tires wear. Both are capable of lasting the distance, it will just be about which tire is in better shape at the end.
With the sun shining on the Spanish track outside of Barcelona, MotoGP returns to the Iberian Peninsula for the Catalan GP this weekend. Despite seeing the factory Repsol Honda’s of Stoner and Pedrosa top the time sheets previously all week, it was the Yamahas that stole the show during qualifying*.
Note that asterisks though, which stands for Casey Stoner, who continues to show the top pace, despite his retirement coming closer with every day. With the satellite Tech 3 Yamaha’s able to roll just as well as the factory units, it comes as no surprise then that all four Yamaha’s are in the Top 6, with Lorenzo and Crutchlow rounding out the front row for tomorrow’s race (in that order).
With Spies fourth, Hayden seventh, and Rossi nineth, the order of things could be shaken up tomorrow, as rain hasn’t been ruled out of the forecast. Full qualifying results after the jump.