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Catalan GP

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From Mugello to Barcelona, or from the heart of Italian motorcycle racing to the heart of Spanish motorcycling. Or rather, Catalan motorcycling, as any of the many Catalans which fill the paddock will happily point out. Then again, Catalunya is – ironically – at the heart of Spanish motorcycling itself.

If MotoGP had a home race, it would be here. Series organizer Dorna has its offices just south of Barcelona, and the working language of the organization is Catalan. Just east of the circuit lies the old factory of Derbi, once a mainstay of the 125cc class.

Check the birthplaces of any one of the riders racing on a Spanish license, and most of them hail from one of the towns and villages within an hour or two’s drive of the Montmeló circuit.

Most riders still have a house in the area, though many elect to live in the tiny mountainous tax haven of Andorra, because of the opportunities it affords for training, so they tell us.

With so much support, can the Spaniards – or Catalans, or Mallorcans – lock out the podium at home? It would be a crowd pleaser for sure, but getting three Spanish riders to fill out the MotoGP podium at Barcelona will be far from easy.

That there will be one, perhaps two Spaniards on the box is a given. But filling all three places? That is going to be tough.

All signs are pointing to the Honda RC213V-S road bike debuting the Thursday ahead of the Catalan GP; and if you believe the rumors, Casey Stoner himself will parade the MotoGP-inspired hyperbike around the Spanish track.

Shown above, with Honda test ride Hiroshi Aoyama at the controls, the Honda RC213V-S has been seen on the road, in its final trim. The bike has also been on display in Thailand this past week, helping fuel its official launch in Spain.

This means that in just a week’s time, we should finally know all the details about the RC213V-s. Expected to cost north of €100,000, the hand-built street bikes will be very special machines, with production likely limited to how quickly Honda can make the motorcycles.

Sitting down to write about Catalunya has proven difficult. As far as Grand Prix weekends go, it went without a hitch.

I did have a minor problem with the GPS when I arrived in Barcelona. I entered the coordinates to my hotel and it came up with an address in Zaragoza 5 hours away. After a brief moment of panic, I came up with an ingenious idea. Why not try inputting the address, that did the trick.

For most of the grand prix I’ve covered this year, I’ve been fortunate enough to get a photographers vest. Having a vest gets me on the grid on race day, which provides a good opportunity for portraits of the riders, particularly as the tension starts to build.

Shooting the grid does however pose the question of where to shoot the race. If you have a scooter it’s not an issue. As I don’t have one, I have to plan ahead and either shoot around the start area or take my chances with the shuttle bus.

At Catalunya I didn’t have a vest, which therefore gave me a little more freedom to pick my location for the race. Also the layout of the track enabled me to go to several locations and get back for the podium without having to rely on the shuttle or cover too much ground on foot.

Testing alongside the rest of the MotoGP paddock, Suzuki Racing was present again at the Catalunya test, with Randy de Puniet once again turning laps on the Suzuki XRH-1. Now using the Magneti Marelli electronics, Suzuki has the long process of dialing-in the XRH-1’s full potential.

Also a priority at Catalunya was Suzuki’s more powerful iteration of its inline-four engine, which the Japanese OEM hoped would close its gap to the other OEMs. In the hands of Randy de Puniet, the Suzuki XRH-1 was 2.499 seconds off the pace of test-leader Marc Marquez, though that margin comes with an asterisk.

While the rest of the paddock has had since Friday to hone their machines and bodies to the Circuit de Catalunya, Suzuki and RdP did not have that luxury going into Monday’s test. One can also argue De Puniet’s pace to the other GP riders, as with all due respect to the Frechman, Marc Marquez he is not.

With a thousand variables at play (we can even question the validity of test times in general, as teams are testing not qualifying/racing), it is easy to make excuses for RdP and Suzuki as to why the gap remains so far from the other factories, but the end result is that the XRH-1 is a tough character to judge. That makes Suzuki’s return to the GP paddock a bit of a wild card.

With Both of Ducati Corse’s riders praying for a miracle, or a better option, Suzuki could be that salvation. One also has to consider Dani Pedrosa’s rumored $8 million price tag, and the bevy of other contracts that expire at the end of the season. Suzuki’s impending presence is a considerable factor in MotoGP’s game of musical chairs..

Being a difficult factor to judge though has made Suzuki, the Suzuki XRH-1, and Randy de Puniet’s role in all this is very speculative and uncertain. The only thing we can say for sure then is that it will be interesting to watch the limited number of “factory” seats sort themselves out.

It should hardly come as a surprise that Marc Marquez should be fastest man on the day at the post-race test at Barcelona. The Spaniard has been the standout of the season, and for him to be fastest, even at a track where he has not dominated like at others, is starting to become par for the course. More of a surprise is the name of the man in second.

Bradley Smith came up just four hundredths short of Marquez, making up for a mediocre race on Sunday, caused by a tire which was not performing as expected. The first thing Smith did when he started testing in earnest this morning was to try the same tire he used in the race.

Whenever I have the pleasure of running across MotoGP’s official statistician and number cruncher Dr. Martin Raines, he likes to point out to me exactly why we are living through a golden age of racing.

His arguments are backed with a battery of indisputable facts and figures, which boil down to a single fact: the races have never been closer. Not in terms of gap between the podium finishers, not in terms of gap between first and last, nor between all points finishers. This is an era of truly great racing.

As if to underline his point, the Barcelona Grand Prix served up a veritable smorgasbord of fantastic races: a strong win and thrilling podium battle in Moto3, a surprisingly hard-fought Moto2 race, and to top it off, perhaps the most exciting MotoGP race we have had since 2006, with four riders slugging it out and swapping places right to the final lap.

The winner of the MotoGP race may have been predictable – any bet against Marc Marquez looks more and more foolish each week – but in Barcelona, Marquez’s victory looked in doubt all the way to the final couple of corners.

His streak had to come to an end one day, and it turned out to be at Barcelona. Marc Marquez’s run of pole positions stopped at seven – Valencia last year, plus the first six races of this season – after he was forced to concede the place to his Repsol Honda teammate Dani Pedrosa.

For a change, the front row press conference on Friday afternoon did not feature a jubilant Marquez (well, actually, it did, but more that later) and a couple of dejected rivals, wondering what they can do about the Repsol Honda man. Both pole sitter Pedrosa and runner up Jorge Lorenzo were, if not exactly buoyant, at least rather perky. Hope has returned.