Alanf’s blog…
Scattered thoughts

Wednesday, February 22, 2006

2006 road race calendar…

Author: site admin
Category: AMA Superbikes, AMA Supermoto, MRA, MotoGP, Other Forms Of Racing, WSBK

The 2005 MotoGP field streams through

Last year I built a combined road race calendar for 2005 (with race dates for AMA Superbike, AMA Supermoto, World Superbike and MotoGP, as well as local races like the MRA, the local round of the AMA Supermoto series, the local round of the AHRMA series and the Pikes Peak International Hill Climb). I found it really useful so I decided to do it again for 2006. Here is the current road race calendar for this year:


25 - WSBK @ Losail International Circuit; Doha, Qatar


5 - WSBK @ Phillip Island Grand Prix Circuit; Phillip Island, Australia

11 - AMA SBK @ Daytona International Speedway; Daytona Beach, FL

26 - MotoGP @ Circuit de Jerez de la Frontera; Jerez, Spain


8 - MotoGP @ Losail International Circuit; Doha, Qatar

23 - WSBK @ Circuit de la Comunitat Valenciana Ricardo Tormo; Valencia, Spain

23 - AMA SBK @ Barber Motorsports Park; Birmingham, AL

29 - AMA Supermoto @ California Speedway; Fontana, CA

30 - MotoGP @ Istanbul Park; Istanbul, Turkey

30 - AMA SBK @ California Speedway; Fontana, CA

30 - MRA @ Pueblo Motorsports Park; Pueblo, CO


7 - WSBK @ Autodromo Nazionale Monza; Monza, Italy

14 - MotoGP @ Shanghai Circuit; Shanghai, China

21 - MotoGP @ Bugatti Le Mans Circuit; Le Mans, France

21 - AMA SBK @ Infineon Raceway; Sonoma, CA

28 - WSBK @ Silverstone; Silverstone, UK


3 - AMA Supermoto @ Road America; Elkhart Lake, WI

4 - MotoGP @ Circuito del Mugello; Mugello, Italy

4 - AMA SBK @ Road America; Elkhart Lake, WI

4 - MRA @ La Junta Raceway; La Junta, CO

10 - AMA Supermoto @ USA International Raceway; Shawano, WI

17 - AMA Supermoto @ Miller Motorsports Park; Salt Lake City, UT

18 - MotoGP @ Circuit de Catalunya; Catalunya, Spain

18 - AMA SBK @ Miller Motorsports Park; Salt Lake City, UT

24 - MotoGP @ TT Circuit Assen; Assen, Netherlands

25 - WSBK @ Circuito Internazionale Santa Monica; Misano, San Marino

25 - PPIHC @ Pikes Peak Hill Climb; Colorado Springs, CO


2 - MotoGP @ Donnington Park; Donnington Park, Great Britain

8 - AMA Supermoto @ The Palace of Auburn Hills; Detroit, MI

9 - MRA @ Miller Motorsports Park; Salt Lake City, UT

16 - MotoGP @ Sachsenring Circuit; Sachsenring, Germany

23 - MotoGP @ Mazda Raceway Laguna Seca; Monterrey, CA

23 - WSBK @ Brno; Brno, Czech Republic

23 - AMA SBK @ Mazda Raceway Laguna Seca; Monterey, CA

30 - MRA @ Motorsport Park Hastings; Hastings, NE


6 - WSBK @ Brands Hatch; Brands Hatch, UK

6 - AMA SBK @ Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course; Lexington, OH

13 - MRA @ Pueblo Motorsports Park; Pueblo, CO

20 - MotoGP @ Automotodrom Brno; Brno, Czech Republic

20 - AMA SBK @ Virginia International Raceway; Alton, VA

27 - MRA @ La Junta Raceway; La Junta, CO

27 - AMA Supermoto @ TBA; TBA, CO


3 - WSBK @ TT Circuit Assen; Assen, Netherlands

3 - AMA SBK @ Road Atlanta; Braselton, GA.

10 - MotoGP @ Sepang International Circuit; Sepang, Malaysia

10 - WSBK @ Eurospeedway Lausitz; Lausitzring, Germany

10 - MRA @ Motorsport Park Hastings; Hastings, NE

17 - MotoGP @ Phillip Island Grand Prix Circuit; Phillip Island, Australia

17 - AHRMA @ Miller Motorsports Park; Salt Lake City, Utah

24 - MotoGP @ Twin Ring Motegi; Motegi, Japan

24 - MRA @ Pueblo Motorsports Park; Pueblo, CO


1 - WSBK @ Autodromo Enzo e Dino Ferrari Imola; Imola, Italy

1 - AMA SBK @ Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course; Lexington, OH

8 - WSBK @ Circuit de Nevers Magny-Cours; Magny-Cours, France

14 - AMA Supermoto @ Music City Motorplex; Nashville, TN

15 - MotoGP @ Circuito do Estoril; Estoril, Portugal

22 - WSBK @ TBA; TBA, South Africa

29 - MotoGP @ Circuit de la Comunitat Valenciana Ricardo Tormo; Valencia, Spain


4 - AMA Supermoto @ Queen Mary; Long Beach, CA

Well, it looks like I’ll be making a few trips to Utah in ‘06 since both the AMA has moved from the now deceased Pikes Peak International Raceway to the new Miller Motorsports Park near Salt Lake City. They have even thrown in a Supermoto event to make the event even more enticing despite the long drive. Then AHRMA moved their Fall event from the Pueblo Motorsports Park to Miller Motorsports Park as well. I already have my tickets for the combined MotoGP/AMA races at Laguna Seca in July so I will definitely be out there this summer. Finally, I’d like to catch some MRA races, since I try to support the local racers, but that will be pretty challenging this year since all of the races are so far away from the Denver metro area. Naturally, I will continue to watch everything on TV and do my best to provide some coverage here on the blog for all the races and in my WSBKPod podcast for the World Superbike races. Make sure to mark these dates on your calendar and watch some racing this year, preferably in person but if not then at least on the tube.

[image from the web site.]

Friday, January 27, 2006

The devil is in the details…

Author: site admin
Category: MotoGP

There is an old proverb that says “The devil is in the details”. The idea is that no matter how good the overall plan the minor things are what make or break any project. Well, this past week the Sepang track held the first tests of the year for the MotoGP teams and for many the success or failure of their upcoming race season will be determined in these next couple of tests. For today’s blog entry I’ll be talking about the teams and what some of those devilish details may be for each of them.

First up, lets look at the various Honda teams. The factory Repsol Honda team had a busy test program for Sepang. Primarily, they have to realign the development of their 2006 RC211V behind their new lead rider, Nicky Hayden, after focusing on Max Biaggi last season. Since Max and Nicky have dramatically different riding styles this means that the Honda engineers may have had to make dramatic changes to their bike between ‘05 and ‘06. This will be Hayden’s first time developing a MotoGP bike so he will have to learn quickly how to hone in on problems so that he can provide accurate feedback to the engineers after just a few laps. He will have to quickly and efficiently go through all the myriad options for the new bike to find the best base configuration. Then he can start the fine adjustments necessary to optimize the package. If he picks the wrong path this week he will probably be chasing his tail on setup all season long.

Next on the Repsol team’s list was the continuing effort to get MotoGP rookie Dani Pedrosa up to speed on the bigger four stroke after he spent the past two seasons dominating the 250GP series. The Spaniard’s small physical stature, as well as his lower muscular strength, means that the bike has to be adapted to fit him and Pedrosa has to develop the endurance needed to ride the bigger bike. Dani’s crew has to get the bike adjusted to match the rider, then get the rider up to speed on the bike and only then can they start to develop the combination of the two to get ready for the upcoming season.

The satellite Honda teams have their own challenges. The Konica Minolta Team has the biggest challenge because they haven’t made either of the official MotoGP tests since the last race of ‘05 and have thus not even started their development program. Their absence is probably due to the costs required to travel to and take part in these tests but their chance of being competitive in ‘06 are dramatically reduced by missing these tests. This is a real pity because rider Makoto Tamada seems capable of running up front but will likely be unable to do so until the team has had a chance to find the correct setup for his new model RC211V…something that is particularly difficult to do during the race season.

On the opposite end of that spectrum is Team Gresini rider Marco Melandri. Like Hayden, Melandri is leading development of his team’s bikes and is returning to a team as the top rider. He’ll have the support of his team but will also have the added pressure of stepping into a lead development role after being the “B” rider behind Sete Gibernau in ‘05. Its unclear how soon Melandri will get an ‘06 RC211V so he could be doing his Sepang test work with a final model of the ‘05 bike or maybe he is already working with an ‘06 model. His new teammate, Toni Elias, on the other hand is having to learn a new bike having moved from Yamaha to Honda this year. In Elias’ favor is that he’s working with the same sponsor, Fortuna, from ‘05 while the rest of Team Gresini have to learn the responsibilities that come with representing a new company.

Finally, there is the smallest and newest Honda satellite team, Lucio Cechinello’s new MotoGP squad with rider Casey Stoner. Stoner has the advantage of having ridden a RC211V at the test last November but at that time it was with the now defunct Pons team. Now Stoner has to work out the kinks with a different team while also adapting to the big MotoGP bikes after a few seasons racing with Pedrosa in the 250 two stroke class. Fortunately, he raced for Cechinello’s team in 250s so he already knows his crew but it appears sponsor Carrera isn’t making the leap to the premier class so who knows who much money the team will have to support their ‘06 effort.

Kenny Roberts Jr testing at Sepang

As long as I’m talking about Honda, I should also talk about Kenny Roberts, Sr’s TeamKR. After nearly withdrawing from MotoGP at the end of last year they are back for this season with a Honda motor in their custom made frame. Kenny Roberts, Jr was finally confirmed as their rider and was riding the new KR211V at Sepang. The big devil for them is adapting their chassis to the Honda motor in the short amount of time between the end of the previous season and the start of the next one. Based on their comments after this week’s test it appear their current frame is too stiff and this means the bike isn’t handling as well when leaned over as will be required to be competitive. They will have a new frame for the next test but it won’t have any alterations based on their Sepang tests, just an alternate geometry based on their initial designs from last Fall. Time is working against the TeamKR folks to get in enough testing to fully develop their new bike before the first race of the season. Worse yet, they can’t really test tires or suspension or engine electronics until they have the frame dialed in.

In this same boat is the Suzuki team. John Hopkins as been tasked with leading the GSV-R development which appears to be all, or at least mostly, new for ‘06. This means he’ll have to find the direction needed to guide development of a new bike, as opposed to working off an iterative design like Hayden is doing with the Honda. On the positive side, the old Suzuki seemed to have serious power problems so hopefully Hopper is working with a better motor this time around. Rumors have it that Suzuki may be trying out pneumatic valves and enhanced electronics, in addition to the normal chassis adjustments, exhaust configurations, suspension components and tires so there will be plenty of options to work through. On the negative side, he’ll be somewhat alone in this engineering work since his teammate Chris Vermeulen is a MotoGP rookie who is still trying to come up to speed on riding such a powerful bike. Fortunately, Suzuki test rider Kousuke Akiyoshi was on hand at Sepang to help out the two factory riders.

Kawasaki is a step ahead of Suzuki by working with an evolutionary design of their ZX-RR Ninja and also by having returning rider Shinya Nakano as their lead rider. On the other hand, they appear to be trying out another variation of the big bang firing order for their motor which means less peak power and more stress on the motor. Based on Kawasaki’s improvement the past two seasons it would appear that Nakano is an excellent development rider so they are probably in good hands in this regard. His teammate, on the other hand, is MotoGP rookie Randy de Puniet who will be learning to ride the big Kwack at these initial tests. Like Suzuki, this means that all the testing is dependent on a single rider. They are racing to speed up their development with the front running manufacturers while being hampered with the smallest R&D budget of the bunch and only minor sponsorship. Money is definitely the detail they have to overcome.

Even further down the testing path is the factory Yamaha team. They have two returning riders, a championship winning bike with only evolutionary improvements, an experienced crew and a big money sponsor behind them. The only things waiting to trip up this team will be of their own making. For Valentino Rossi, this is likely to be over confidence. It seems unlikely that Rossi would underestimate his opponents but given his apparent focus on testing Formula One cars in ‘06 it is possible that he’ll lose some of his focus. The only reason I think he would undertake these driving tests are because he feels certain that he can win in MotoGP while also learning a new form of racing. It is possible, however improbable, that this could finally be the chink his armor that his rivals have needed for the past five years. For his teammate, Colin Edwards, it will be finding the confidence to perform at his peak while being in the shadow of his spectacular teammate. The path to gaining this confidence took a small hit at Sepang when Edwards crashed during testing and his M1 burst into flames. The other impediment to gaining this confidence is knowing that development is based primarily on Rossi’s, rather than Edwards’ feedback, so the Texan will effectively be riding someone else’s bike. The claim as always been that Edwards and Rossi have similar riding styles so perhaps this year’s test results will finally prove or disprove that assertion. The only other trap waiting to catch the Yamaha team is the impending legal battle with Altadis over the claimed breech of the Gauloises agreement. if the litigation goes bad for the Japanese company they may end up paying significant penalties to their ex-sponsor. This is money badly needed to pay Rossi’s extravagant salary, development costs of the 800cc bike for ‘07 and to keep the current M1 successful in 2006.

Unlike the factory team, the only satellite Yamaha team this season is starting out with a lot of obvious pre-season challenges to overcome. First, the Herve Poncharal lead Tech 3 team is still working out how many riders they will have. At the moment, Brit James Ellison is confirmed but rumors are swirling about that Carlos Checa may be added before the next test at Phillip Island. Second, if Checa is added it is likely that they will then have to deal with having two different tire manufacturers supplying their team since Ellison is sponsored by Dunlop while Checa has a long standing association with Michelin. Third, the team is still looking for sponsorship after being abandoned by Fortuna during the Rossi-Gauloises fiasco. So with a new rider, new tires and no money the team will have to develop their bike for the upcoming season while also being distracted with rider, tire and sponsorship negotiations. It is not even the little details that will hamper these guys it is the overall chaos of their big plan.

With that depressing situation out of the way lets cheer up a bit by looking at the Ducati team. Lead rider Loris Capirossi is back and helping develop this sixth generation of the Desmosedici MotoGP bike. In addition, he has been teamed with star rider Sete Gibernau who has previous experience at developing bikes from his ‘05 stint with Team Gresini. Both racers have been turning fast lap times and both ended the Sepang test with bragging rights as the top two riders. The modifications to last year’s GP5 model seem to have again improved the Duck’s handling while maintaining it’s class leading power output. It also appears that Ducati learned from their ‘05 pre-season tests mistakes where a dramatically new slipper clutch/engine management system was forced on the riders and resulted in crashes and injuries. These in turn reduced testing time and eroded rider confidence in the bikes. Perhaps Ducati’s devil’s were washed out last year and they have a solid plan in place for this one.

Or perhaps they have just shoved those vexing details down to their satellite team D’Antin Ducati. Where the factory team is set with experienced riders and a strong sponsor, the D’Antin team is struggling. They recently signed ex-Kawasaki rider Alex Hoffman and recent World Superbike racer Jose Luis Cardoso as riders but both missed the first test back in November. Neither have raced a Ducati before, though Cardoso has raced for D’Antin in the past and Hoffman did race in MotoGP last year. The two riders will have to come up to speed on the customer GP6 Duc before they can begin to adjust the bike to try to improve their lap times. What the team does have going for it is an even closer level of cooperation with the Ducati factory compared to last year and a current version of the bike, rather than the one generation old version they have raced in the past. What they are going to be hampered by is the lack of sponsorship and thus the costs associated with both testing and racing.

Finally, the underdog of the season is the WCM-Bimota team who, like the Konica Minolta team, didn’t have the funding to run the pre-season tests. They are, in fact, at an even greater disadvantage because they are only a couple of months away from the first race and don’t yet have any signed riders or a running motorcycle. The current rumors are the Brit veteran Jeremy McWilliams and American GP rookie Jason Perez will be riding their bike and it is assumed they will be running a KTM powered bike that is somehow badged as a Bimota. However, until they show up for the first race of the year I think that their participation, as well as certainly their competitiveness, will be very much in question.

Let me say one more word about how the devil is in the details during testing. It is always risky to make assumptions about a team or rider’s preparedness based on the lap times given for a test. On the one hand, you never know when the rider is testing components and when they are focusing on a fast lap. Likewise, you never know when they are or aren’t throwing down fast laps with super sticky qualifying tires as opposed to testing at race pace on harder tires. However, there are two bits of data that are very useful and that is seeing all the lap times and the number of consecutive laps run throughout the entire test. Unfortunately, this data isn’t generally available and, if it is, it may come from the teams rather than an unbiased third party like the FIM and thus be of questionable accuracy. Only if we could see the times that riders have run consistently and the average lap times over a simulation of race distance would we be able to make some real predictions about the upcoming season.

However, the one abstraction of this that is available is to at least see who consistently shows up at the top of the lap charts that are released since those riders are the ones most likely to be doing their test and development work at a fast enough pace to be helpful. For example, the Ducati riders were fast the second and third days of the test. It is possible that this was due to their access to the spectacular Bridgestone qualifying tires but it is also likely that they wouldn’t have wasted the time on qualifying tires unless they felt their setup was pretty solid. If not, they would likely have continued to focus on their development work by running race simulations on race compound tires.

In contrast, a rider like Kenny Roberts Jr is consistently near the bottom of the lap time charts because he is currently running about three seconds off the pace of the front runners. Any development he does on the bike right now, aside from collecting data on their frame stiffness issue, is unlikely to be useful later because the frame, suspension and tires will all react differently when dealing with the stresses created when running a faster pace. The sooner the frame is fixed, and no longer holding KRJR back, the sooner he can push up the lap times and start developing the bike at the speed it needs to run to be at the front.

Like the past few seasons, at this stage of testing it looks like the factory Ducati, Honda and Yamaha teams have done the best job of exorcising their pre-season demons. It looks like Gresini Honda are well positioned and that Kawasaki is again well placed to improve. Less clear is the situation at Suzuki though it does appear they are putting forth their strongest effort yet. Finally, it looks like the others are going to be struggling throughout pre-season testing and probably into the early part of the ‘06 season.

[image from the Yahoo Sports UK web site.]

Monday, January 23, 2006

Aged like fine wine…

Author: site admin
Category: AMA MX/SX, AMA Superbikes, AMA Supermoto, MotoGP, Other Forms Of Racing, WSBK

So I, like most of the official motorcycle press, spent a lot of time last year heralding the new guys that were joining the sport of bike racing. Guys like James Stewart, Ben Spies, Max Neukirchner, and Marco Melandri got more than their fair share of bits and bytes at the beginning of the season. However, as it turns out, 2005 was a good year to be one of the old folks. Despite many current racers being considered near retirement age, the old guys generally stuck it to the youngsters last year. What is really amazing is that this trend was pretty consistent across all disciplines of motorcycle racing.

First off, the sports of Supercross and Motocross have always been considered a young man’s sport. They are two of the most physically intensive sports in the world and the combination of jumps, ruts and crashes can exact a harsh toll on the body. The top news story at the beginning of the 2005 AMA Supercross season was the 19 year old sensation James Stewart. However, at the end of the season, it was the seasoned veteran Ricky Carmichael, at 25 years old, who swept both premier AMA Supercross and Motocross classes. In SX, 23 year old Chad Reed was second overall but the runner-up in the outdoor series was Kevin Windham who is two years older than Carmichael. Impressive stuff for guys on the second half of their twenties but the real surprises are found just a little further down the championship points listing.

As I pointed out in a blog posting last season, old timer Mike Larocco embarrassed most of the factory teams by bringing his privateer Honda home in 5th place in championship. Not bad for a then 33 year old. Even 34 year old Jeremy McGrath turned in some strong riders in his one-off appearances in ‘05, showing that the King of Supercross can still teach the youngsters a thing or two.

John Dowd at Washougal

Want to really blow your mind? Take a look at the AMA Motocross points table for 2005. Despite competing in the most physically demanding form of dirt bike racing, 40 year old John Dowd managed to snag 7th overall in the AMA Motocross division aboard his privateer Suzuki! This guy was born in 1965, turned pro in 1988 and was the 1998 West Coast 125cc Supercross Championship…the year Dowd start racing in the Pro ranks James Bubba Stewart was two years old and Chad Reed had just turned six. For a little perspective, remember that Reed finished the ‘05 season in 8th, 15 points *behind* Dowd, while Stewart finished up in 12th a staggering 135 points down on the vet. Lets all say it together now…”JD is the man!”

Alright, so the more experienced riders did well in the premier class. Surely the young guys made their mark in the entry level 125 classes. I mean, there has to be a whole hoard of teenagers out there just waiting for their chance to race with the twenty-somethings, right? Well, sorry to disappoint but the stats don’t bare that out either. The 125 champs, Grant Langton (1st in 125 SX East and 4th in 125 MX) and Ivan Tedesco (1st in SX West and 1st in 125 MX), are both already in their twenties. Langston was 23 last year and and Tedesco a year older. Not exactly ready to hand up their riding boots but not representative of a youth movement either.

Fortunately, things in the dirt world aren’t totally bleak. James Stewart looks to have turned around a miserable ‘05 and is riding strong this year and starting to live up to the hype. The teenage Alessi brothers seemed to have knocked the edge off their egos and are steadily improving as riders. Ryan Sipes, who had some strong showings in the 125 class last season, is just barely breaking the twenty mark. The two Ryans, Villopoto and Mills, are still in their teens and both are riding well so far in this year’s Supercross Lites class. Hopefully these are the guys that can step it up and run with the grey hairs. Frankly, I think they will have to if they want to justify their getting a factory ride in the year couple of years.

Okay, lets shift gears now and look at my personal favorite: Road racing. Its generally understood that road racing is an environment where older and more experienced riders can be competitive against the young up-and-comers. Still, the stats for 2005 have to be a little disappointing for the folks that are looking to the younger generation for the next big thing. Of the four championships crowned in the AMA series, three of them went to riders who are in their thirties. Matt Mladin won his *sixth* AMA Superbike title while at the same time celebrating birthday number 33. His 32 year old teammate Aaron Yates topped the ultra-competitive Superstock class to put a third championship trophy on his mantle. Miguel Duhamel, the elder statesman of the AMA series, brought home his seventh AMA title by winning the Formula Xtreme class despite being just a couple years shy of forty. Even Tommy Hayden, the relative spring chicken of the 2005 AMA champions, isn’t exactly representing the youth movement since he was 27 when he sewed up his second straight AMA Supersport title. This trend towards old riders is generally true across the entire AMA Superbike paddock with only a handful of riders under the drinking age and all of them eligible to vote.

Okay, lets look a little further afield. 2005 World Superbike Champ Troy Corser was 34 when he lofted the title trophy last summer. In fact, the WSBK paddock has more riders over the age of 25 than they have riders under that age and the series appear to be skewing their average even higher in 2006 with ex-GP castaways like Alex Barros, Troy Bayliss and Max Biaggi rumored to be racing there. It is nearing the point where WSBK teams should drop sponsorship from youth oriented companies like Corona or Koji and switch over to old foggie brands like Geritol and Metamucil.

Alright, since I mentioned the topic of MotoGP up there I’ll admit that things are looking better in the Grand Prix paddock. While seven time World Champ and 2005 title winner Valentino Rossi isn’t exactly a rookie at 26 he’s also a decade years younger than some of his competitors were in ‘05. Things really start to look up when checking the stats of second place Marco Melandri (23) and third place Nicky Hayden (24). The outlook is even brighter when checking the age of the new comers to MotoGP for ‘06 as Dani Pedrosa, Casey Stoner and Chris Vermeulen are all under 25. Finally, things are downright heartening in the 250 and 125 classes were the average age on the podium is regularly under 20.

Alright, how about a couple more quick examples of how old age and experience is overcoming the exuberance of youth? In the world of AMA Flat track racing, it has been Chris Carr who has dominated for the past half decade. The younger riders in series look up to him as a mentor and, at 37, its a good thing they do because he is old enough to be their father.

Finally, as a sign of respect, I’ve saved the oldest for last. Logic would dictate that a rider that is 44 years of age shouldn’t be able to win at anything in competitive motorcycle racing. Yet the legendary Jeff Ward did just that in 2004 by tying up the premier class in the AMA Supermoto series and it was only a stalled bike in the final round that prevented him from winning it in 2005 as well. In fact, the past three seasons have netted Ward one Supermoto championship and two second place finishes…not bad for a guy who won seven AMA Motocross championships in the 80s.

I want to see the various forms of motorcycle racing grow and thus I’m always looking at the young guys to see who will be the next big thing. However, for 2006, I have to say “Viva la Veterans!”.

[image from the web site.]

Monday, January 16, 2006

Feed me, Seymour…

Author: site admin
Category: MotoGP, WSBK

So, it has been over a month since I posted my last entry. I guess I took a longer break than I’d anticipated after hitting the one year milestone on the blog. Well, all that time off hasn’t been completely wasted though it will take awhile for the full impact the break to actually bear any fruit here. On a more personal note, I also used that time off to take a relaxing holiday vacation to Savannah, GA, to catch up on some other aspects of my website that needed attending, to make a small dent in the large stack of books that had built up on my night stand and to watch quite a few movies that had been on my “must see” list. I’m now recharged and very excited about resuming the blog here in the new year. I hope all the readers had a good holiday and that you are excited about the upcoming year of motorcycling. Now, on to one of the backlog of topics I’ve been wanting to write up…

When the MotoGP class introduced 990cc four strokes in 2002 (after having been dominated by 500cc two strokes since 1975) it brought Grand Prix bikes to a new level of performance. It also opened the door for speculation that the racers of four stroke production based Superbikes could be the future stars of MotoGP rather than the two stroke 250cc GP riders which made up the traditional training ground of world champs. The most logical feeder series for MotoGP was seen to be the World Superbike series and by 2003 two of the biggest stars of World Superbike were sitting astride MotoGP bikes: Colin Edwards and Troy Bayliss .

However, a funny thing happened on the way to the 2003 MotoGP championship…the old guard continued to dominate aboard the new four strokes. Rossi won the title in ‘03 with Gibernau and Biaggi rounding out the top three. Young American Superbike champ Nicky Hayden was the top guy with previous production bike experience finishing out his freshman year in fifth just behind Loris Capirossi.

Despite other Superbike pilots like Neil Hodgson, Noriyuki Haga, John Hopkins, Ruben Xaus, Shane Byrne, James Ellison and Kurtis Roberts all giving the MotoGP bikes a go over the past few years, none have had much success against the more experienced Grand Prix racers in general and Valentino Rossi in particular. For 2005 there appear to be only two riders on the MotoGP who came up through the World Superbike ranks: Colin Edwards and Chris Vermeulen.

Max Biaggi at the Bologna Motorcycle Show

In contrast, half of the riders currently confirmed for the ‘06 World Superbike season have prior Grand Prix experience: Norick Abe, Alex Barros, Franco Battaini, Troy Bayliss, Max Biaggi, Pier Francesco Chili, Troy Corser, Michel Fabrizio, Noriyuki Haga, Regis Laconi, Fonzi Nieto, Andrew Pitt, Roberto Rolfo, Chris Walker and Ruben Xaus. Of these riders, eight are guys who came up through the GP ranks (Abe, Barros, Battaini, Biaggi, Chili, Laconi, Nieto, Rolfo) before moving into World Superbikes. This leads to the question of which is really the feeder series for which?

Granted, most of the riders moving from MotoGP to World Superbike are generally regarded as being in the twilight of their careers but that doesn’t make the depth of the field any shallower. In fact, given the number of riders over the age of 30 who have won titles in the past few years the whole idea that someone is beyond winning at age 35 is being seriously challenged. The MotoGP series is banking on younger riders, primarily those from the 250cc class, to carry their torch into the future and of the current MotoGP riders only six have previous world championships (Rossi, Edwards, Pedrosa, Melandri, Vermeulen, Capirossi). World Superbike, on the other hand, seems to have built a hugely competitive roster made up primarily of experienced riders of which ten have prior world championships (Corser, Bayliss, Biaggi, Iannuzzo, Foret, Gimbert, Fabrizio, Muggeridge, Alfonsi and Pitt). Clearly World Superbike holds the edge when it comes to bragging rights about their riders.

Now, I don’t think that any current rider would pass over a decent MotoGP ride for a World Superbike ride but I do think that the World Superbike series has taken a huge step forward in the past year towards becoming the premier world class motorcycle road race series. Depending on what happens with riders and teams in ‘07 when MotoGP switches to the 800cc bikes (and costs again take a big jump) there is still a chance for World Superbikes to surpass MotoGP in power, popularity and perhaps even prestige. In the meantime, MotoGP needs to hope some of their young riders can finally beat Valentino Rossi so they will deserve the reputation afforded GP racers.

[image from the Max Biaggi web site.]

Wednesday, November 23, 2005

Who is humping who…

Author: site admin
Category: MotoGP

The past few weeks have really pulled back the curtains on the ugly inner workings of the MotoGP paddock. There has been a shake up in the bizarre love triangle that is the factory-rider-sponsor relationship and the fall out has given us a glimpse at exactly who calls the shots when it comes to racing at the highest level of the sport.

I’m going to use three different examples to illuminate this situation:

Max when he still had a Honda ride

First up is a tale of riches to rags with one Max Biaggi as the star of the show. One year ago the word came down from the people on high at Honda that Biaggi was finally being given the opportunity of his lifetime. A ride on the factory Repsol RC211V with famed tuner Erv Kanemoto at his side. All of Honda’s development effort would be resting squarely on the shoulders of the veteran Italian rider and he was expected to wrest the MotoGP title away from rival Valentino Rossi and his Yamaha. That dreamy state lasted until the first race at Jerez and then quickly slipped into a nightmare season for the Roman.

As the races wound down Biaggi started making more and more negative comments to the press about the state of the bike and support he felt he was (or perhaps more accurately wasn’t) receiving from Honda. When the big bosses back in Tokyo heard about this they were less than impressed. In fact, they tried to keep him from racing at the final race at Valencia and promptly thereafter sent out a mandate to all the Honda teams saying that Biaggi would not be given a Honda for 2006. When Camel, Biaggi’s personal sponsor, heard this they threatened to pull their millions from Sito Pons satellite team. This set up a show down between Honda, Sito Pons, Biaggi and Camel. If there was ever a situation that would show who calls the shots in MotoGP, this would be it. And the result? Biaggi won’t be riding red next year and Pons won’t be getting any financial support from Camel for this team. Clearly Honda has shown that for next year they intend to be completely in charge of their MotoGP teams, even at the risk of ruining a faithful partner’s funding and maybe even threatening the team’s ability to exist. It also shows that Honda has no problem telling a major backer to go stuff themselves if the sponsor disagrees with corporate policy. Interesting.

Next up, is the state of affairs just down pit row in the factory Yamaha pits. There is a huge lawsuit brewing between Yamaha and Altadis who was their primary sponsor for the past year. Altadis signed a contract with Yamaha to sponsor the factory team under the Gauloises banner for the upcoming season. At the time the contract was signed there was not commitment from Rossi to ride the factory bikes and once that contract was signed it was with the understanding that Rossi would not run branding from a cigarette company on his bike, presumably to clear the way for future work with Ferrari and their primary sponsor Marlboro. (Why, exactly, Rossi didn’t sign with the Ducati team for 2006 since they already have Marlboro sponsorship is unknown).

When Yamaha told Altadis that Rossi would not be on the factory team Altadis deemed this a breech of the sponsorship agreement. As a warning shot Altadis pulled their Fortuna sponsorship from the Tech 3 satellite team for next season which has put them in a serious money crunch. However, Yamaha hasn’t backed down and now look likely to run without Altadis sponsorship in ‘06. What is surprising is that Yamaha approached Telefonica Movistar with an offer of having Rossi run under their colors but were turned down. In this case, Rossi laid down the law about the terms of having him ride with a tuning fork on his tank and the factory followed suit even at the risk of having to pay the full tab for both their factory and satellite team’s costs next year. In this case, the seven time world champ is the one in the cat bird seat and both the team and the sponsor have to play by his rules.

Finally, there is another conflict which also involves Honda but in this case it is with the Gresini satellite team. Gresini’s primary sponsor for 2005 was the Spanish telecom giant Telefonica Movistar. In addition to putting huge amounts of money into the Honda team they also had 250GP star Dani Pedrosa under personal contract and had brought up the Spanish youngster through the GP ranks. In fact, the company spends huge amounts of money in GP sponsoring not only individual teams but also paying for title sponsorship of some rounds of the series and also to sponsor some European feeder classes which development future talent. Telefonica is the dream partner for both the MotoGP series and the Honda teams.

At the end of this last season Dani Pedrosa’s contract with Telefonica expired and before it could be renewed Honda offered the 250 World Champion a direct contract and a chance to ride on the factory Repsol team as replacement for the departing Max Biaggi. Telefonica was furious that their star rider had been scooped out from under them and that he was put on the Repsol sponsored team rather than the Telefonica sponsored Gresini team. As reprisal, the telecom giant pulled their money from MotoGP altogether (even refusing the Yamaha/Rossi offer…something any other company would have begged to get) and brought their big fat check book to the Formula One cage racing series instead. Fortunately for Honda, they were able to sign Spanish star Toni Elias to Team Gresini and Altadis decided to spend their Fortuna backed support to the Honda team after pulling it away from the Tech 3 Yamaha squad. Honda set the tune and both Gresini, Pedrosa and Telefonica had to dance to it.

So what does all this mean? Well, I think it means that ultimately the entire GP paddock is following the lead of Valentino Rossi. Yamaha needs Rossi and had very little say in the terms. Honda has gone into desperation mode and will do whatever is necessary to build a rider line-up capable of challenging Rossi even if it means losing long time sponsors or pissing off faithful team owners. It seems clear that the factories have become tired of sponsors, particularly cigarette companies, being the ones that call the shots and have completely reshuffled the power pyramid in MotoGP. Whether the riders or the factories are in contol depends on the rider’s last name but there is no doubt that both are playing alpha dog over the sponsors right now.

[image from Moto Forum web page.]

Thursday, November 10, 2005

Unveiling the new look…

Author: site admin
Category: MotoGP

With the echos of the thundering MotoGP bikes still echoing off the grandstands in Valencia from last weekend’s last race and the trophies still warm from the hands of the championship winners it was immediately time to roll up the shirt sleeves and start work for the 2006 season. On Monday, the day after the final race, much of the MotoGP paddock was back in action testing bike parts and new tires. The main reason for such a prompt turn around from racing to testing is because there are only three weeks before the mandatory test ban which starts in December.

As I mentioned last year, I think the test ban is particularly difficult on the smaller teams and that was true again this year as neither TeamKR nor WCM were in attendance this week. However, the big dogs of Honda, Yamaha, Kawasaki, Suzuki and Ducati were all present and accounted for as soon as the track was available.

The first order of business was giving the press a chance to sample the bikes. In the past only the top one or two bikes from a given year were handed over to the hoards of crazed journalists for a flogging but over the past three years it has become a tradition for nearly all the bikes to be ridden back-to-back in the same day by the scribes. Honda is the only standout as they prefer for their bike not to be directly compared to the other bikes so a separate press outing on the RC211V is always scheduled after the end of the season. For the other manufacturers their 2005 bikes are put through their paces by the pen pushers and then the smoking ruins which are left behind are hastily rebuilt so that proper testing for the factory teams can begin the next day.

In the past it was always the run of the mill press hacks which were set loose on the GP bikes but that has changed over the past few years as professional riders have been brought in by some magazines to test the bikes a little closer to their limits. The big names riding the bikes for the press this year were current 250GP racer Jakub Smrz and ex-500GP winner Luca Cadalora. Presumably the magazines running reports from these guys may actually contain accurate information about the bike’s performance and the feedback from these riders may actually be useful for the teams. A real win-win…

When the scribes were done it was time for the company big wigs to give out some complimentary rides as a year end bonus. For Honda, this mean handing the key to a RC211V over to 2005 125GP champion Thomas Luthi, 250GP rider Andrea Dovizioso who finished third this year and World Superbike rookie Max Neukirchner. All three were being rewarded for their hard work on Honda’s behalf this year but their test ride also shows that Honda is looking to them as possible future MotoGP racers. Meanwhile, Yamaha and Honda both looked to the past as well by offering rides on their bikes to past Grand Prix greats Giacomo Agostini and Fausto Gresini. Yamaha let 15 time World Champ Agostini out for a spin on Rossi’s M1 while Honda allowed Fortuna Honda manager Gresini take one of his teams’ bikes out for a few laps. (As an aside, a certifiable motorcycle racing geek like myself would give up a kidney to watch someone like Agostini or Gresini ride so this was really an pretty rare and amazing event. Anyone that got to watch it should consider themselves very lucky.)

Next up was the task of testing prospective riders for near season. This year a few of the second string teams were in a position to scope out new talent so a few racers suited up in an effort to earn a job. First up were ex-WCM rider James Ellison and ex-GP and current WSBK rider Jose Luis Cardoso who both went out on the D’Antin Ducati. It looks as if the D’Antin team will have access to near factory spec 2006 Desmosedici bikes and may also have the funding to run a two rider team next year. While it seems likely that Roby Rolfo will be one of the riders there may still be an open seat alongside him. Ellison would seem the more obvious choice of the two new testers, given is age and recent GP experience. However, Cardoso has a long history of racing with D’Antin and, like nearly any rider with a Spanish passport, probably brings wads of sponsorship bucks with him.

A less obvious try out was Kurtis Roberts who stuck around after racing his father’s bike last weekend to turn a few laps on the Suzuki GSV-R that was recently vacated by his older brother. It would seem that Suzuki is already full up for next season with Hopkins and Vermeulen on their bikes but appeared to be checking out Kurtis nonetheless. It seems unlikely that this test would progress to anything further with Suzuki but the experience on the V4 will probably be helpful if Kurtis races his father’s Honda powered Proton in ‘06.

Speaking of which, Kenny Roberts Jr was scheduled to test a Honda this week but his wrist injury from the Phillip Island crash prevented this. Like his bro’s test ride on the Suzi, having KRJr test a Honda probably wouldn’t have been for a ride (though there my still be a Pons seat available) but would likely have been arranged to give TeamKR’s prospective lead rider some time to get acquainted with the Honda motor. Too bad that KRJr was unable to make the ride and given Kurtis’ rocky relationship with Honda of late it wasn’t bloody likely that Big Red was going to let him try out the bike…

Pedrosa on a four stroke

Finally, it was time to get down to the business of testing bikes. The most exciting part of this was getting a first glance at the riders who are new to the series or at least on a new team for next season. Unfortunately, the weather didn’t cooperate so relatively little testing was actually done over the three days available but each of the riders did get a little time aboard their new bikes.

Honda had a few fresh faces in the garage with two time 250GP title holder Dani Pedrosa making his debut on the Repsol Honda and ex-Yamaha rider Toni Elias throwing his leg over the Gresini Fortuna Honda. In the next garage over, ex-Ducati pilot Carlos Checa (unofficially the second Pons rider) and his new teamate 250GP runner up Casey Stoner were giving their now unsponsored Honda a run down. Checa went a little further by also testing the crash-worthiness of the bike on lap three of his inagural ride. Ouch! Just down the paddock row ex-Honda racer Sete Gibernau was able to get his first laps aboard the Marlboro Ducati. Finally, two MotoGP rookies were becoming acquainted with their slower bikes as WSBK runner-up Chris Vermeulen checked to see if the Suzuki is faster than his old Ten Kate Honda World Superbike and 250GP front runner Randy De Puniet stretched the Kawasaki’s throttle cables trying to keep his old rivals Stoner and Pedrosa in sight.

In addition to the newcomers, most of the old guard were back in action starting their serious testing for next year. MotoGP runner ups Marco Melandri and Nicky Hayden were both testing suspension, frame and tire improvements for Honda. Ducati brought out their test rider Vittoriano Guareschi to help sift through new parts for the Duc. Kawasaki test rider Olivier Jacque was doing the same testing of evolutionary changes to the ZX-RR. Under the Suzuki tent, both John Hopkins and test rider Nobuatsu Aoki were punching the clock to start their winter test program with the hopes of finding some more power for their bikes.

There were a few notable absentees, in addition to TeamKR and WCM. First and most interesting was World Champion Valentino Rossi who skipped out on the week of testing to go off and drive a Ferrari F1 car for a few days. Likewise, his teammate Colin Edwards was a no-show leaving Yamaha with no testing during this first window of opportunity. Kawasaki’s Shinya Nakano was scheduled to test but instead flew back to Japan to have the hand that was injured in his pre-race Valencia highside looked at by a doctor. Another Japanese disappearance was Monitron Konica Minolta’s Makoto Tamada who had apparently flown back to Japan after last weekend’s race.

In the end cold weather and rain washed out most of the three days of testing though a few determined riders like Nicky Hayden did venture out to test rain tires today. Many of the teams will be back in action over the next three weeks, most of them at Sepang this coming weekend, as they try to put new parts through their final paces before being integrated into the 2006 bikes. Laps times this early in the year are generally meaningless but as would be expected it was the two young Honda riders who topped the time sheets this week at Valencia. Of the class rookies, Casey Stoner was the fastest just a second or so off Hayden’s fastest times during the test. Of those testing or getting guest rides it looks like James Ellison was the fastest, just 1.5 seconds down on Hayden’s high water mark. In fact, of the times that were reported, the young racers were all clustered in a 10 second window with elders Agostini and Gresini another 10 or so seconds off the slowest times of the other riders. (Still for a 44 year old team owner like Gresini to turn in laps just 20 seconds off the fastest time of the test after having not ridden a bike in 10 years is pretty impressive stuff!).

This was just our first glimpse of the new teams, the new sponsors and the new riders. Expect their potential to shake out at the tests this month and then to really start to shine when they start testing the 2006 bikes early next year.

[image from the Official MotoGP web site.]

Wednesday, November 9, 2005

Thorns, poison and camouflage…

Author: site admin
Category: MotoGP

With the ‘05 MotoGP season finally over I have a lot of thoughts about the season that I’ll be posting over the next week. Here is one of them…

Nature is a fascinating thing. Millions of years of evolution have created an amazing amount of biological diversity. Plants, in particular, illuminate this spectacular variation. There is a ruthless war happening in the taxonomical landscape that is your back yard: insects, bacteria, UV rays and even other plants are making a constant assault on the flora and fauna. For its own defense the vegetation has adapted to these attacks with the full spectrum of biological weaponry. Some plants have thorns or spines, others secrete toxic chemicals, others hide or mimic other varieties and some others grow armour. Every species reacts differently but they all react. But this blog is about motorcycles not botany so what’s the point you might ask?

Well, there has been a ruthless assault taking place in the MotoGP paddock this year and the aggressor has been one Valentino Rossi. What has been intriguing to watch is how the other riders have developed their own unique defense mechanisms to protect their egos. Here is my take on a few of the racers and their strategies for protecting their self image.

First up is the most obvious example of a Rossi target: Honda’s Sete Gibernau. The history of the champs’ psychological barrage on the Spaniard has been well documented in the motorcycle press since it started at the 2004 Qatar GP. What hasn’t really been highlighted as been the public response from Sete. Reading back through the post race interviews with Gibernau this season I regularly hear the Honda rider talking about his races in the first person plural grammatical form. For example, he might say “We had some bad luck.”. As my co-worker Jeff once said “We? What, does he race with a mouse in his pocket?” It seems to me like this is a pretty straight forward attempt to avoid taking personal responsibility for bad results. By talking about “we” rather than “I” there is an implication that the team was also to blame. In some cases this may be true but in others, like Gibernau’s tour of so many of the gravel traps at this season’s circuits, it is just case of outright rider mistakes.

A mad Max Biaggi

The second rider to view the MotoGP Rorschach ink blot and see a menacing Vale is Honda’s Max Biaggi. The veteran Italian has been squarely in the sights of Rossi since 2000 when Valentino joined the premier class. Max has always struggled to develop an effective shield but his most common method of defense is to blame the bike. In fact, he was so adamant about problems with his RC211V this year that he has talked himself right out of a coveted Honda ride in 2006. One of the first rules of a motorcycle racer is to promote the company and that means when you win, it is because of the bike and when you lose, it is because of a mistake by the rider. Thus racers have to possess a particularly thick skin so they can take the blame for problems while still promoting the bike. Clearly Biaggi has fallen down in this regard. What’s more, he is complaining about what is probably the best bike in the world while he is the star rider for the best organized team in MotoGP and while he has one of the most experienced GP tuners as his adviser. Everyone else on the grid would love to have those kinds of bike issues. Nope, I think the truth is that Max failed to lead development of the 2005 RC211V in a positive direction and that is why he has struggled. The finger needs to point back at the rider. Sometimes the truth hurts…

Less clear is the case of Honda mounted youngster Marco Melandri. After a weak 2004 season on the Yamaha M1, the Italian moved to the Gresini Honda team this year. He quickly came of age as a MotoGP rider in 2005 and was a serious threat to Rossi as early in the season as Assen. The two Italians had been friends at the beginning of the season but that didn’t stop Rossi from leveling some strong criticism at Melandri as soon as he accomplished a confidence sapping defeat of the younger rider at the Dutch circuit. Melandri then went into a mid-season slump that was characterized by successive crashes at Laguna Seca and Donnington then two results outside the top five at Sachsenring and Brno. It was only after the accident and resulting injury in Japan that he regained his mojo and finished the season strong. What’s more, Melandri’s response to the mind games was to basically quit talking. His comments in Honda press releases were short and somewhat robotic. It is as if he was just trying to disappear off Rossi’s radar rather than submit himself to the whithering glare of his friend. Clearly Melandri has shaken off those concerns the last five races of the year and is now the strongest contender for the champ going into 2006. What’s more, he has also found a way to maintain his friendship with his rival, something Gibernau was unable to do in 2004.

Another rider with an interesting reaction to suddenly being considered a championship contender is Honda’s Nicky Hayden. The Kentucky Kid said early in his MotoGP career that he wasn’t intimidated by the GP regulars because he had grown up being schooled by AMA dirt track riders like Scotty Parker, Jay Springsteen and Chris Carr (not to mention in roadracing by the master Matt Mladin). Nonetheless, it seems that Hayden’s advancement as a MotoGP front runner took a definite side track in the middle of the 2004 season and then started out slow in 2005. Being beaten by Rossi can really rock a rider’s self-image and while Hayden rarely talks trash he does sometimes appear to defer to his ex-teammate in press releases. I think that for awhile Nicky honestly doubted whether he could beat the Italian superstar and it was only his competitive ride at Assen, followed by his break through win at Laguna, that finally erased those doubts. Perhaps Nicky has shrugged the doubt demon off his back and will start next year with his head eld high and his eye on the prize.

Finally, lets look at Rossi’s current teammate at Yamaha, Colin Edwards. It is bad enough to be racing during the reign of a dominant rider like Rossi without having the additional pressure of sharing a garage with the guy. If anyone can pull it off the laid back Texan could be the one. Nonetheless, I think even Edwards has wrestled with the psychological effects of being soundly beaten by Valentino while riding what is basically the same bike. The biggest outward sign of this is that Edwards basically abandoned his previous Superbike inspired form of riding that relies on squaring off corners for strong acceleration and has tried to re-develop a riding style more like that used by 250GP riders who rely on high mid-corner speed for a good lap time. I think that Colin, no matter how talented he may be, is groping for an answer as to why Rossi is winning while Edwards is fighting at the tail end of the top ten. This is especially baffling since the pre-season talk centered around how similar Edwards’ setup is to that used by Rossi. Same bike, same setup but different lap times. Ouch. To his credit at least the American has reacted by knuckling down to the hard task of becoming a better rider rather than just shrugging it off as a bike or team problem.

Alright, so I’m hardly an arm chair psychologist. Outside of a few classes in college (a *long* time ago) I have no training whatsoever in the study of the mind. What I am is a racing enthusiast and someone that listens when riders talk. Rossi is phenomenal and I think every rider has to find a way to protect their self-image when racing against the master. I don’t blame the riders, in fact I think it is a necessary form of mental self-preservation. However, I also think their are productive ways to respond and non-productive. What’s more, I think the results of these non-productive defense mechanisms can be plainly seen in the results turned in by Gibernau and Biaggi during the 2005 season while the more productive methods are reflected by the other rider’s clustering in the second through fourth places in the championship standings.

Perhaps in 2006 we’ll get a chance to see what Rossi’s defense mechanism will be if he finds himself being pressured for a change.

[image from the Max Biaggi web site.]

Tuesday, November 8, 2005

Money makes the world go around…

Author: site admin
Category: MotoGP

We would all like to think that MotoGP is all about the best riders on the best bikes and that those two factors alone would guide the sport.. Well, not so…

Marco Melandri at Valencia

One of the big surprises for the ‘06 season is that with Sete Gibernau leaving Team Gresini Honda for Ducati and with rising Spanish superstar Dani Pedrosa being moved to the official factory Repsol Honda team Spanish company Telefonica Movistar is pulling their money out of MotoGP and heading to Formula One. Altadis, who is mad at Yamaha, is then moving their Fortuna brand (and the associated sponsorship bucks) to follow Spaniard Toni Elias in his move to the Gresini team as Marco Melandri’s teammate. This leads to the chicken and egg question of whether Fortuna is following Elias or whether Fortuna moved to Gresini and bringing Elias with them. In other words, who is calling the shots out there? The factory? The team owner? The sponsor? The rider?

The answer to those questions becomes even more clouded when you look further down the paddock. First, there is the whole Honda-Camel-Biaggi deal going on where Honda is upset with Biaggi because of some comments he made in the press and are refusing him a ride in 2006. Camel, a major personal sponsor of Mad Max, got involved and in a huff pulled their sponsorship of Sito Pons’ team. It is likely that if someone can find a seat for Max next year they will also get a big fat check from Camel in return. Who knows who will step up to stick their logo on the side of the Pons bike.

Then there is the Yamaha-Rossi-Altadis legal battle which really clouds the issue of exactly how important sponsorship is in the high dollar (or perhaps high Euro or high Yen) world of motorcycle racing. One would assume that Yamaha would want all the financial help they can get in order to offset the monsterous cost of Rossi’s salary (rumored to be somewhere north of $15 million for one year!). However, Rossi doesn’t want to run in Gauloises colors next year since that could complicate his hopes of testing Ferrari’s F1 car in 2006 (since Ferrari is sponsored by Marlboro). As a result, Yamaha plans to run Rossi with his own private sponsors and that has really pissed off Altadis, the owner of the Gauloises brand. A lot of lawyers have been seen walking in and out of the Yamaha HQ of late. Apparently money isn’t the only thing guiding policy in the Yamaha garages.

But back to the original issue which is Telefonica leaving MotoGP and being replaced by Fortuna as main sponsor of the Gresini Honda squad. This change up could end up being very important to Marco Melandri. Honda’s contract with major sponsor Repsol has for years stated that only the official factory Repsol bikes could get the latest development parts from HRC. This has always meant that the “best” Hondas were the Repsol Hondas and parts only trickled down to the other Honda teams after the mid-point of the season. Well, last year Movistar (a telecommunications giant) and Respol (a multi-national oil empire) started doing business together. As a result of that corporate intermingling it appears that Repsol was willing to loosen the contractual leash on HRC which allowed Sete Gibernau to have a “third” factory bike starting at the beginning of the year.

The assumption for ‘06 was that the good stuff would be given to Melandri who, along with Repsol rider Nicky Hayden, would develop the RC211V in ‘06. But now Movistar is no longer in the picture. While none of us, outside of a few Japanese lawyers, will ever really know what is or isn’t in the Repsol contract, it is possible that Gresini will not be eligiable for the fancy parts since Respol may not be obligated to share their HRC access with Fortuna. This could mean could shake up both Melandri and HRC’s plans.

However, sponsorship isn’t the be all, end all of the MotoGP story. Some teams, most notably Suzuki, have been running without any outside money for a few years. Then again, it seems like Suzuki could have a few extra pennies in their bank account to fund engine development so maybe they aren’t the best example. Two other teams, WCM and Kawasaki, have gotten by with relatively little additional funding. Then again, I suspect their rider salaries aren’t anywhere near the dosh being spilled out by Honda and Yamaha so again this may not tell us much.

It will be facinating to watch all these stories lines shake themselves out over the next few months. For now the only answer to any of these questions is that money is always going to be a major issue as the costs of competing in MotoGP continue to spiral.

[image from the Roadracing World & Motorcycle Technology web site.]

Monday, November 7, 2005

Waiting till the last moment…

Author: site admin
Category: MotoGP

It is a well known saying that you shouldn’t wait till the last minute to do something. Well, that was the theme for this weekend’s MotoGP finale at the Valencia Circuit in Spain.

The first person to wait a little too long to take care of business was the 2006 MotoGP champ, Valentino Rossi. When qualifying got underway Rossi was one of the first to show he had the pace to win at Valencia. He was consistently running laps at the anticipated race pace and was turning in laps early in the session that indicated he had what it would take to start from the front row. This being particularly important at Valencia because passing is so difficult. Unfortunately, he waited until late in the session to put on his first Q tire and then had an uncharacteristic crash which destroyed his number one bike. Vale was uninjured but wasn’t able to get things together in time to improve his qualifying time. The result was an atrocious 15th place starting position which meant he would be lining up on the fifth row.

While Rossi waited too long, the Movistar Honda riders did everything right to end up with Gibernau on pole with a new lap record followed by his young teammate Melandri. Hayden finished out the session in third to create the second successive all Honda front row of this year. While Gibernau hasn’t done any winning this season he has put in exceptional qualifying performances at each round. This consistency was good enough to win him a new BMW M5 car because of a contest the German company was sponsoring to reward the best qualifier of the year. The second row of the grid was a mix of brands with Checa on the Duc, Biaggi on the Honda and Edwards on the Yamaha. Capirossi headed up row three with Barros separating him from Nakano…this being important because the two came together in practice which resulted in both crashing. Shinya was okay but then had a nasty highside later in the day which beat up his left hand pretty well. Loris is riding with tender lungs after his crash at Phillip Island but fortunately wasn’t further hurt in his crash.

Biaggi, perhaps not wanting Nakano, Capirossi and Hoffmann (who is still recovering from a broken foot) to feel bad, crashed his bike in the morning practice before the race and banged up his side. Clearly the Honda rider was waiting until the last minute to throw his RC211V into the kitty litter so he would have a better excuse for a poor ride than a mysterious front end chatter. However, his team put in a super human effort to get the A bike put back together before the race erasing that possible defense. Still, Mad Max’s accident meant three guys out the top 10 were riding with help from Dr. Costa.

Honda riders at Valencia

Some 124,000 fans packed into the Valencia circuit to watch the last race of the 2005 season. Stop and let that sink in for a second as that is over twice the crowd that showed up on Sunday this year at Laguna Seca. Clearly, all eyes would be on Rossi to see what he would do with his fifteenth place starting position. Perhaps the crowd should have watched that all Honda front row instead, because all three riders got off to a great start. Then again, had the fan’s focus been slightly further back they would have seen Rolfo bump with Nakano in the first turn which resulted in the Ducati rider getting punted into the gravel.

Melandri decided not to delay punching the clock and instantly started throwing down lap record laps back-to-back. This opened up a small gap over his teammate Gibernau and Hayden who were holding down 2nd and 3rd. On lap four ominous smoke started pouring from the Spaniard’s motor and he pulled off with a frag’ed motor giving Hayden an open invitation to run down Melandri. While the intra-Honda scrap was going on Rossi was busy making the rest of the grid look like chumps by charging from 15th to 3rd in just four laps. Vale could basically pass anyone, anywhere.

Next came the laps of shame for some of the back markers as first Aoki pulled out with a mysterious electrical failure on the Suzuki. Then Kurtis Roberts wheeled the TeamKR V5 into the garage on lap 17. Finally, Ellison dropped out on the WCM. Lessee, if one considers WCM, TeamKR, D’Antin Ducati and Suzuki are all racing to not finish a race in last place then it seems clear that their 50% failure rate ruined their competition this weekend. (Battaini eventually earned the highly coveted “back of the pack” award when the racing was done for the day.)

Back at the sharp end of the pack, Hayden shadowed Melandri for the entire race. Rossi worked his way up to third pretty easily but by lap four he was six seconds down on the leading pair and was unable to close the gap once he had clear track ahead of him. At various times during the race both Melandri and Hayden turned in laps faster than Rossi’s best time for the day though on average Rossi was slightly quicker which meant he slowly whittled down the gap. Ultimately, the champ just didn’t have time to overcome the advantage he gifted to the two youngsters during those first four laps and crossed the line around two seconds behind the leaders.

With two laps to go and with the Kentucky Kid parked on his rear wheel Melandri uped the pace. Hayden was able to match the Italian’s speed and closed up again for a last lap pass. Unfortunately, Nicky left it too late to make his move. Melandri got the rear tire spinning on the entrance to the last left hand turn but that threw Hayden off as he was bearing down for a pass at the exit of the turn. Hayden hesitated for a moment to see whether he should go inside or outside and that was all it took for Marco to close the door. The American couldn’t go around the outside and didn’t get a good enough drive for a draft pass. Melandri won with Hayden second and Rossi third. Next came the Geritol brigade with Checa, Barros, Biaggi and Capirossi all in a parade across the stripe. Further back Edwards lead Tamada with Elias, Nakano, Kiyonari, Hopkins, Hofmann, Xaus and Battaini rounding out the finishers.

Clearly Melandri and Hayden both showed they have stepped up to become the new challengers for Rossi’s crown. It was too little, too late, in terms of stopping the juggernaut that was Rossi in 2005 but their performance at Valencia is bound to leave every MotoGP team chomping at the bit for the ‘06 season to get underway. Having the season end in such an exciting way is perhaps the best thing Dorna and the FIM could have hoped for in terms of keeping interest in the series going over the winter. Now the governing body just has to figure out how to manage costs so that they can keep the smaller players in the game for another year.

When the bean counters finished with the math Melandri earned second in the championship by 14 points over Hayden in third. Proving consistency beats race wins, fourth went to Edwards and fifth to Biaggi despite neither winning a race. Two time winner Capirossi held on to sixth despite missing races with his lung injury. Gibernau somehow got seventh despite spending a much time in the gravel traps as on the track. Barros may have won in Portugal but he could only manage eighth in the overall championship followed by Checa and Nakano to close out the top ten.

Elias got the rookie of the year award due to his 12th place overall but really there were no other rookies for competition except some wild card rides and the guys on the back-o-tha-pack gang.

Finally, there was a whole slew of of silly season news most of which centered around Honda. Gibernau confirmed his plans with Ducati which freed up a spot at Gresini Honda which was then taken by Toni Elias. Next Honda implied that they would not be resigning Biaggi for ‘06 because of some negative comments he made about Big Red in an interview. This suddenly opened the door for Casey Stoner to get a surprise offer to ride for Sito Pons. Biaggi’s dismissal ticked off Camel, Pons’ sponsor, who promptly yanked their considerable dollars away from the Honda team. (I suspect WCM, D’Antin, TeamKR, Suzuki and Kawasaki all burned up the speed dial on their cell phones calling Camel once that news leaked out!) Without someone holding the corporate money bags for next year, Pons then stalled on his offer to Carlos Checa who, coming full circle, was let go from Ducati to make room for Gibernau. Who will get the Pons seat? Biaggi? Checa? Barros? Either way, you can be sure the rider will be closer to an AARP membership than any of the other racers currently signed with Honda for next year.

Finally, TeamKR confirmed their plans to run a Honda motor in 2006 and hope to have a modified version of their frame available for winter testing by early December. They may find it cold when they do go testing because, as I mentioned in an earlier posting, Hell has undoubtedly frozen over if Roberts and Honda are working together.

The off season officially starts now with just four and a half months until the first green flag of the ‘06 season…but don’t wait till the last minute to start following the season as the first testing starts his week at Valencia.

[image from the Honda Racing web site.]

Friday, November 4, 2005

Hasta Luego…

Author: site admin
Category: MotoGP

It is last act, last scene and the curtain fallin’ down on the 2005 MotoGP season. This weekend marks the final race of the year and it takes place in the fireworks capital of Spain. Its the Comunitat Valenciana Moto GP at the now traditional season finale at the historic Ricardo Tormo Circuit of Comunitat Valenciana. Expect the racing to be explosive as every rider tries to close out the season with a strong result. This is particularly true for Nicky Hayden and Marco Melandri who are both still trying to settle the issue of who will be runner up in the championship this year. The Italian holds an 8 point advantage but the door is still narrowly open for the Yank to pull this one out of the bag. Additionally, Gibernau and Rossi still have some things to resolve, particularly with Gibernau leaving Honda for Ducati next year. Given that the season started with the last lap, last turn bang-up at Jerez I wouldn’t be surprised to see the year book-ended with some more sparks flying between the two riders in Valencia. Rumor also has it that Biaggi may not be with Honda next year after he voiced strong questions about the quality bike he is getting. (This is particularly ironic since Honda dragged their feet earlier about offering Vermeulen a MotoGP ride under the assumption Biaggi and Checa would be riding for Sito Pons next year). This may have once again breathed life into the twitching corpse that has been Barros’ MotoGP career over the past three seasons…the guy is like a mummy always coming back from the brink. Likewise, Colin Edwards really needs to show Yamaha he deserves to be Rossi’s teammate next year so he better find that elusive “fast” gear on the M1. Nakano, Elias, Tamada are all locked up for next year and will probably resume their regular battle at the back half of the top ten. Nakano is held back by the bike but what about the other two?

Other riders hoping to impress this weekend are Kawasaki’s Alex Hoffman who is back after breaking his ankle at Motegi. He is without a ride in 2006 and will want to convince team bosses that he is worth a look. Checa seems to have locked up a Honda ride so he may return to his lackluster results until silly season of ‘06 cranks up. Capirossi is back from his Phillip Island injury but will probably be struggling with his health this weekend. Since he has a Duc contract signed and delivered for next season he can be forgiven if he turns in an usually bad performance. Hopkins is also signed for ‘06 but with riding the Suzuki he will always have lackluster results even if he turns in extraordinary displays of riding.

Yamaha hasn’t announced its’ plans for the satellite team next year so Xaus needs to show a flash of brilliance in front of the home crowd. Rolfo should be a shoe-in for D’Antin’s rumored two rider Ducati squad next seasaon but can’t afford to slack off less Ducati’s favored son Xaus steal his seat. Naturally the WCM guys are always hoping for a faster ride and Ellison may actually deserve one. If Dorna is still pressuring the MotoGP squads to hire an English rider then Ellison, along with ex-KTM rider Byrne, may actually be a hot commodity for ‘06.

The final group of riders hoping to impress this weekend are the wild card and replacement riders. Suzuki’s Nobuatsu Aoki is standing in for the injured Kenny Roberts, Jr. He has spent the past year as a test rider and would love to be back in the big show. Likewise, Kawasaki’s test rider Olivier Jacque will be a wild card this weekend and will hope for another China result (as opposed to another Sepang-like DNF) if he is going to raise any eyebrows. British Superbike superstar Ryuichi Kiyonari is standing in for the still-injured Bayliss (following the path blazed this season by Ukawa, Byrne and Vermeulen as Camel Honda stand-ins). He needs a top 10 finish to better Vermeulen’s results for Camel Honda and seems to be adapting well to the big MotoGP bikes. Finally, TeamKR are back in the paddock with their old V5 motor and their old 2003 rider Kurtis Roberts. The youngest Roberts is looking for a ride and the oldest Roberts is looking for sponsorship for next year. Both will be fighting an uphill battle for the weekend…


The racing circuit offers its own challenges. In some respects it is a mini-Motegi as it is primarily defined by a stop-and-start flow. The track is relatively short at 2.49 miles in length and is very tight since it crams 14 turns into that small space. The track is reasonably wide and has a very abrasive surface so stable, hard braking may be the trait most needed by the bikes with strong acceleration a close second. This is especially true in the first and final corners. Turn 1 is a 90 degree left taken in the mid-80 mph range but with eye-popping breaking after the riders have hit 180+ on the preceeding straight. Expect lots of late braking here which means bikes the bikes will be set up with super stiff front forks. The final turn is equally tricky since it is a relatively slow, off-camber hairpin left taken after flying through a sweeping left hand kink at 125+. Expect some riders to wash out the front end here and take a tour of the Valencia gravel traps on the outside of the turn. The final turn worth mentioning is the “where men are men” left hand kink at turn seven taken over a buck fifty. Lets see, fast left hand bends in turns 3, 7 and 13…who is it that likes fast left hand turns? Oh yeah, Nicky Hayden. Nicky has been fast in the past at the Spanish circuit but always seems to find the limit of front tire adhesion the bad way. Lets hope he can keep it on two wheels this time.

Alright, lots of hard braking. Lots of hard acceleration. A few fast left hand sweepers. An abrasive track surface. Sounds like tires may again be a factor. The Michelins have traditionally ruled at Valencia but Bridgestone made up some serious ground this season as evidenced by Capirossi and Checa’s podiums over the last five races. Keep a close eye on the tire war, especially because a strong Bridgestone performance could move perennial mid-pack guys like the Suzukis and Kawasakis up into the top five while a strong Michelin showing will increase the excitement of the Hayden-Melandri and Rossi-Gibernau issues.

The fuse gets lit this Sunday and should make for a grand finale for the MotoGP series.

[image from the Ricardo Tormo Circuit web site.]