The first and last 2 months of the year are the dullest phase in any racing enthusiast’s calendar, which marks the longest spell of racing inactivity in any perceivable form. This intentional lull looms large for as long as 4 harrowing months thanks to ridiculously low amount of testing being imposed, which grinds the usually speed filled weekend to almost a screeching halt.
Everything is forgiven when March turns the red lights green, with the prototypes machineries taking to the tracks with a monstrous roar that just wouldn’t wane for the next 8 months. Point at any ensuing weekend and you could see yourself mostly glued to the TV seats witnessing MotoGP Aliens slugging it out and showcasing some serious aggression with fever pitch sometimes reaching fairing bashing levels.
There cannot be a single racing fan, regardless of the no. of wheels he’s obsessed with, without predicting how the season would pan out once it gets underway. Rooting for their track idol, betting on his victory chances, weighing in his strengths and weaknesses against their adversaries, locking horns with like-minded folks at numerous racing sites and automotive fora identify a racing enthusiast in unmistakable fashion. This is the very reason I beat around the bush till now only to start my rant on this season that’s piping hot, yearning to be served before it turns cold.
Ignite the MotoGP discussion with any fanatic and the subject on Aliens barges in with brute force, thanks to Colin “Texas Tornado” Edwards for coining such a term, which would get used a zillion times in a million sites by a gazillion people as if it’s a technical term that has been existing in the MotoGP lexicon since time immemorial.
Even though the concept of “Aliens” had gained unrivalled popularity in an incredibly short span of time, the meaning seems to have been redefined this time courtesy riders switching teams that either boosts or mars their chances of having a shot at the title. This year, though, the preseason testing and the subsequent 2 rounds have vouched for 3 young guns that can fight head-and-shoulders above the rest for the ultimate laurels. The names Stoner, Lorenzo and Pedrosa should not come as a surprise for anyone who’d kept regular tabs on pre-season happenings and the opening 2 races.
2011 witnessed one of the major revamps in recent past as regards rider line-up, with the shuffling of pack hitting the crest when 2 Italian giants tied the contractual knot. Ever since the fallout between the Italian legend and Spanish upstart came to the fore in the Yamaha garage, it was only a matter of when Rossi would make the switch. With Stoner defecting to Honda, the MotoGP field only evened out in terms of rider presence across factories with The Doctor filling in Stoner’s boots. Spies’ graduation to factory colours was a no-brainer and everyone is counting on Spies to reap success aboard factory machinery thanks to his storming ride to WSBK title in his first ever effort and his rookie exploits on a supposedly second-rate satellite machine shaming some factory riders in the process.
Even though Rossi’s Ducati deal was greeted with rapturous applause, his lingering shoulder woes and limited testing convinced people not to expect Rossi to re-enact his 2004 Welkom victory. But knowing the pedigree of the man in question, people never dared to rule him out. But come race day under the Qatar flood lights, his modest 7th place proved he wasn’t sandbagging during testing, something which remained Rossi’s trait. He needs time to renew his Alien license, but he’s obviously going to do it. With the genius Burgess around, he can certainly get his Desmosedici in front of the M1s and RCVs this season. Wish his shoulder comes back to 100% or something close sooner than we expect.
On paper, it is Lorenzo, who’ll, again, be the cynosure of all eyes. Having waved Rossi goodbye, he’s now assumed the no.1 role and looks promising to handle it with aplomb. After seeing what happened in preseason, the sheer pace of the Hondas were all set to lock the podium, but that Sunday night, Lorenzo displayed what “riding at the limit” was. His convention defying ride to 2nd position was treated as more than a win by the man himself. Let’s also not forget his imposing win in Jerez by not losing out to rain at all. With the hunger for wins remaining unabated, he’s sure to give the Hondas a run for their money this season.
The fact that Stoner notched a win in both his debut races aboard Ducati and Honda speaks volumes about his raw speed and talent, which Rossi himself acknowledged by giving a 10/10. Even though Lorenzo sports no.1 plate on the M1 and Pedrosa looking equally menacing, it’s Stoner who is strongly being touted to win the 800cc crown for Honda. And everyone seems to be unanimously in consensus with this. Gone are the days when he used to muscle the Ducati around the track; now he’s in possession of one of the quickest accelerating machines, which handles far better with smoothness being the hallmark. He’s cool and composed astride the Honda and most importantly, happiness personified.
The man supposedly mounted by maximum pressure to perform is undoubtedly Dani Pedrosa. Honda had long pinned its hopes on this diminutive Spaniard to bring the trophy back home; rather it was won convincingly by his arch-rival and compatriot Lorenzo who’s 2 full seasons younger to him. He’s already been relegated from being a clear no. 1 at Repsol Honda thanks to Stoner’s riotous entry into the same team. Honda explicitly states it has hired Stoner to accomplish one mission – to win the trophy for Honda. Need we say who Repsol and Honda treat the no. 1 as? However, it’s a shame the arm issue resurfaced in both Qatar and Jerez that ruled him out of victory contention without which he could’ve gone hammer and tongs with Stoner and Lorenzo taking the action down to the wire. Wish he parts ways with the arm issue soon.
Along with Aliens, Spies is one rider who’s closely watched by fans and critics alike. He might not be tagged as an Alien right away. He has shown he has what it takes to break into the aliens’ territory, but has yet to prove it convincingly. But it’d take a brave man to bet against Spies’ prospects this year, after all, he was comfortably the top rookie last year getting the better of a patrol of 250 superstars, who had an upper hand in terms of track knowledge – one of the fundamental elements to run up front. He also holds the psychological edge by being the only rookie and satellite rider to claim a pole and climb on to the podium more than once last season. His MotoGP success is also paramount in shattering the conventional wisdom of “Superbike riders just can’t stamp their authority in MotoGP”.
Dovizioso has been an epitome of consistency, always coming tantalizingly close to podium and at times to win but stopping short due to some reason every single time. This kid has talent but lacks power to thrust into Aliens’ turf. It’s an open secret that Dovi’s donning Repsol colours only because of the contractual clause with HRC. If he ain’t riding like a Repsol Honda guy this season, he’s sure to be relegated to Satellite colours next season, with or without Honda.
Simoncelli has showed flashes of front running pace and if consistency mates with speed, he’d, for sure, be a force to reckon with. But I love the maniacal passes he makes on others at positions you’d least expect, which might not be in the right all the time, but good enough to inject us with doses of thrill. His prime targets would be Spies and Dovizioso, who are in the run along with him for the Alien tag.
Just like riders raring to make their mark, manufacturers, too, want to show who the boss is and their pride are equally at stake. Just like Pedrosa, it is Honda under maximum pressure to win the 800cc crown. I wouldn’t have believed if someone had told 800cc crown would elude them till the very last season. Honda might not have a wall like the Yam did, but the situation is a lot more grim that it seems with none of the riders having a good rapport with one another. Add the Suppo-Puig cold war that’s been silently running at the backdrop. They have the bike to beat and the RCV is a rocket in a straight line. 2 insanely fast riders pilot them and have every chance of trouncing their opposition on race day. But still, would they succeed in realizing Honda’s evasive dream still remains a mystery.
Yamaha is, undoubtedly, the most successful manufacturer in the 800cc history with no less than 3 consecutive triple crowns to their credit. They might not be the fastest, but are the sweetest around the corners with stability and adaptability to different tracks being their main forte. In Jorge and Ben they have 2 calculating geniuses, who have the wherewithal to find a solution to issues beleaguering them. They are equally fast and have the potential to exploit what the bike has on offer to the fullest. While riding is one side of the equation, developing the steed to keep pace with opponents’ development is another. Having lost master developer Rossi to rivals, they have their work cut out. Jorge has proved last season amid the Yamaha wall, he’s got the sleight of hand in not just riding but also in setting the bike up and fine tuning to suit different tracks, of course by capitalizing on the already excellent base architected by Rossi and Burgess. Tech 3 boss Herve Poncharal has indeed vouched for Spies and certified his ability in tuning and setting as first rate. While these guys may not be Rossi of development, they sure got the proficiency in doing the task at hand.
Ducati is under no illusions about their immediate prospects and will be under the watchful eyes of everyone for a simple reason – no. 46 is adorned in one of their bikes. Having lost their talisman rider Stoner to Honda, Ducati are under immense pressure to deliver the goods. Ditto for Rossi as Stoner has already shown the Ducati’s a race winning bike. Now, it’s up to Rossi and co. to design a victory plot and make the bike more ride able so even the satellite Ducatis, that’d been perennially running as back-markers, could reap some benefit. One thing is for sure; Rossi-Ducati duo will not be a debacle.
Suzuki has had a torrid season and global recession has only opened Pandora’s Box for them. Having gotten closer to pulling out completely from the series, Suzuki is fielding a one-rider team with minimal development only due to contractual obligations. Bautista’s potential is universally known from his 250cc days but every possible thing has contrived to blight Suzuki’s fortunes with Bautista’s injury dealing a severe blow. MotoGP exile Hopkins has been roped in to stand in for Bautista but how much of an impact can he make on the leagues-behind Suzuki that too after 2 year GP absence remains a puzzle, but his Jerez show portrays him in decent light.
Not so long ago did the riders opine the euphoric ambience, Spanish sun and the deafening cheer of the fans made Jerez feel more like a curtain raiser. But rain gods stole the characteristic sunshine and sprayed shower instead. What should have been a sun-splashed race day was drenched with rain eventually throwing 2 days of tyre choice and bike settings out of order. All the riders had at their disposal was 20 minutes of warm up to jump to haphazard yet educated conclusions.
Again, Honda wasted no time in proving their RCV was no one hit wonder with the HRC riders residing at the pointy end of Jerez timesheets all through practice. Surprisingly, Simoncelli ran with both Stoner and Pedrosa with Dovizioso struggling to make an impression.
Stoner, Pedrosa and Lorenzo were, as usual, the men to watch out as they swept the first row in qualifying and also ran competitive lap times throughout the practice. Rossi’s race pace looked decent and was tad better than at Qatar.
When the lights went out almost all of them got off to a good start. But Pedrosa, who usually gets a rocket start, lost pace and started fading towards the mid-pack. Stoner and Lorenzo still remained in the lead group, looking on course to providing another spectacular scrap for first place.
Rossi made full use of the erratic nature of the weekend by making inroads into the lead group and dispatching people as if they were standstill. His electric pace ensured he was already in the hunt for the lead in as early as the 3rd lap. His rhythm looked strong. With a string of Rossi-esque passes, he had already pasted ear-to-ear grin on every folk’s face at the Ducati garage. Not known for committing amateurish mistakes, this time he fell prey to the slippery conditions. In what could be named as an over-optimistic move by any standards, Rossi dived inside Stoner, lost his front, and hit the deck abducting Stoner along committing one of the costliest mistakes one could think of. Perhaps this move on a completely sorted and mastered machine on a dry track would have been successful but not on the Ducati that too when the track’s just as slippery.
Having made a not-so-good start, Pedrosa started making amends by shaving few tenths in almost every intermediate thereby breathing down Lorenzo’s neck. But the arm issue again overpowered Pedrosa from mounting a serious challenge to his countryman. He also fell into the clutches of a charging Ben Spies who would later out-accelerate the Honda to take 2nd. Ben Spies’ costly error would mean Pedrosa would hold on to 2nd position just like he did in Qatar.
Jerez, traditionally known for dishing out sensational racing action, did the same this time around too, but in a slightly different way. The already painful situation of running fewer bikes just got aggravated with attrition running very high as majority of the field lost control and slid off to gravel. But some did manage to remount their steeds and come home fetching valuable points.
Simoncelli, too, looked set to repay HRC’s faith by clinching his first ever after he breathtakingly overtook Stoner and started leading the race. Blame it on the inexperience in top class or the treacherous conditions, his lead didn’t last long as the conditions sent him down spiraling into gravel.
In the midst of all this drama, one person kept his head down and rode like a man possessed for achieving one goal – stand atop the podium in front of home fans. He thoroughly deserved the win especially given how others fell victim to the wet conditions. He, again, took a plunge into the track-side pool to mark his Jerez acquisition, something he did last year too after romping to victory. This result records his first ever wet race win till date and also positions him on par with Alex Criville for maximum number of victories possessed by any Spaniard.
At the end of the day, it was lost opportunities for many. Simoncelli blew this opportunity of taking his maiden win albeit under abnormal conditions and retired early when leading. Crutchlow could have climbed on to the podium in only his 2nd appearance had he remained aboard the M1. Rossi could have joined hands with Stoner in becoming the 2nd rider to win 800cc races with 2 different manufacturers. Spies’ deliberate measure to shed some speed and take the race a little easier cost Yamaha’s chance to record first 1-2 finish without Rossi. Stoner could have dropped Jerez from his minimal list of bogey circuits had he stormed to a win just like in Qatar. But in any wet race, it’s hard to expect one’s desired outcome translate into reality.
Hopkins, riding a GP machine after 2 long years, already expressed his awe seeing the quantum leap made by Suzuki in terms of electronics. Praise need to heaped on Hopkins, too, as he steered the GSV-R home in one piece opening Suzuki’s account with 6 points.
With this win, Lorenzo has leapt to the top of the c’ship standings with Pedrosa further 9 points adrift. With Lorenzo’s new found consistency still intact, Stoner’s DNF could potentially cost him the c’ship, which will not at all be good news for Honda.
After the race ended, Rossi, still with the helmet donned, stepped into Repsol garage to apologise to Stoner for bringing his race to a premature end. Stoner did accept Rossi’s apologies and shrugged it off as a racing incident, but could not hide his disappointment and blasted the marshals for not lending required support to help him remount the RCV at the time of need.
Having said everything I said, all we can see is this season is unprecedented in terms of intensity of competition and is one of the highly unpredictable seasons. Honda looks strong and has pulled out at all stops to etch their name in the annals of 800cc. It’s now or never for them. Yamaha wants to cling onto the winner tag like it did in this class and they look extremely balanced in terms of bike and rider lineup. Ducati’s intention could easily be felt – making the Desmosedici easier to ride and launch the 2012 990cc title offensive with The Doctor on the right foot. Qatar and Jerez might not be a clear indicator of what’s in the pipeline from others who didn’t shine. But Stoner looks immensely strong and it remains to be seen if Honda’s got a rounded package to shine in Portugal just like it did in Qatar. As always, look forward to another nail-biting round in Portugal.