As the final few days count down before the first MotoGP race of 2008, and the tension and excitement starts to swell inside the breast of motorcycle racing fans, it's hard not to get carried away at the prospect of a brand new season. And there is much to get excited about: the entry of some of the most exciting young rookies into motorcycle racing's premier class; the first title defense for another new champion; and a slew of riders and, more importantly, manufacturers out to avenge themselves for last year.
But with that thrill of excitement comes the painful memories of that very same feeling of excitement from last year, and the way it was so brutally crushed by the total dominance of one man and one machine in 2007. It started well, at the nail-biting opener at Qatar, with Valentino Rossi and Dani Pedrosa harrying Casey Stoner all the way to the finish. But that same race highlighted the relative weaknesses which would emerge to squeeze the excitement out of the championship in just a few short races: while Rossi was fast through turns, once the bikes hit the front straight, the Yamaha was just plain embarrassed down the drag to the first turn, both the Ducati and the Honda being considerably faster than Rossi's nimble M1. The Honda, though managing a reasonable turn of speed, was absolutely no match for the Ducati, and what's worse, Honda's overeager pursuit of agility had pushed the engine up too high, putting too much weight over the front wheel under braking, leaving all of the Honda riders to complain about a lack of front end feel and stability on the brakes. The Ducati, on the other hand, was nimble enough to stay with the others round the twists and turns of the rear of the circuit, while destroying all-comers on drag race to the finish line.
Or rather, one Ducati was capable of staying with the others, as the other Ducatis were stuck firmly mid-pack, floundering with the rest of the clearly underdeveloped 800 cc contenders. Add to this the introduction of a tire quota, which Michelin got humiliatingly wrong for much of the season, and a reduction in fuel limits, leaving engineers guessing just how much gas they could use over the course of a race, and the interest had been slowly drained from the series by the time the summer break ended.
So along with the excitement at the imminent arrival of the 2008 season, there's also some trepidation. With Casey Stoner still so fast, are we in for another year of disappointment, of processional races where the only unknown is in what order the usual suspects will fill places 5 through 10?
On the evidence of the 2008 preseason, these fears, if not entirely unjustified, are at least a little inflated. For this winter's testing has thrown up some remarkable results, some interesting news, and a host of fresh faces to spice up the year's racing. The 2008 MotoGP season is a very long way from being a foregone conclusion.
The most obvious source of hope for 2008 is the influx of fresh young - and not quite so young - blood into the MotoGP class. If the 2007 grid consisted of mostly mature riders, that trend has been reversed this year. Out go the Thirtysomething crowd of Alex Barros, Carlos Checa, and Kenny Roberts Jr, to be replaced by a group of young men barely out of their teens. Experience has been replaced by impetuosity, and that is sure to be good for the show.
And the show is definitely safe in the hands of one particular newcomer: Jorge Lorenzo is the most ostentatious entry into the MotoGP paddock since Valentino Rossi, the man he is destined to share a garage with. The two-time 250 world champion made a name for himself with his flamboyant post-victory race celebrations, similar in style to Rossi's grandstanding, but with a little less humor and a little more bombast. Those celebrations have made him both loved and hated, endearing him to his fans, while infuriating those already annoyed at Lorenzo's arrogance.
Perhaps the reason that Lorenzo's celebrations upset so many people is their frequency: the Spaniard won 8 races in 2006, and 9 in 2007, a strike rate of 50% or better over the past two seasons. Those two years were the culmination of his upbringing. His father, a prominent Spanish journalist, had written a book on how to raise a world champion, and used his son Jorge to prove his point. As a consequence, Lorenzo is doing exactly what he's been brought up to do: to race motorcycles, and to win.
Critics of Lorenzo say that his championships are not all they seem. They claim that much of the Mallorcan's domination was down to the relative paucity of the competition. Both Casey Stoner and Dani Pedrosa had left the 250 class in 2006, but Andrea Dovizioso ran Lorenzo close despite Lorenzo being on a much faster Aprilia. And, they say, Lorenzo's 2007 result was even more inflated, as Honda had just about ceased development on the 250 bike by this time, leaving Dovizioso fighting with one arm tied behind his back.
Despite the criticism, the fact remains that Jorge Lorenzo is a double 250 world champion. And the mark of his talent is that Yamaha were willing to risk the wrath of Rossi just to sign the Spaniard. Yamaha are all too aware that Rossi cannot race forever, and they need a high profile, talented replacement. Such was their eagerness to sign Lorenzo that they even promised him equal treatment and equal material with Rossi, a promise since breached in both letter and spirit by Rossi's switch to Bridgestone tires, and the installation of a divider wall between the two garages, turning the Fiat Yamaha team into two separate entities.
So Lorenzo has a lot to live up to, not just from his surroundings, but from himself. In preseason interviews, he has denied there is any pressure on him to perform this year, but given the rookies entering the class with him, Lorenzo must at least beat his former 250 rivals. So far in testing, Lorenzo has been surprisingly quick, even setting the fastest time at the final test in Qatar. Lorenzo may not win a championship this season, but so far, Yamaha's gamble looks like paying off.
Making Haste Slowly
The one man who Jorge Lorenzo cannot afford to finish behind is his archrival Andrea Dovizioso. The Italian suffered through a very long and hard year on a severely underpowered Honda 250 last season, in the expectation that HRC would reward his loyalty with a MotoGP ride in 2008. And HRC kept their word, providing Dovizioso with a satellite Honda RC212V for the 2008 season.
Unfortunately for Dovizioso, the satellite Honda he was allocated was in the JiR team, formerly Konica Minolta Honda. That team, run by Luca Montiron, has had a shockingly poor record in MotoGP, turning the once-promising MotoGP race winner Makoto Tamada into an also ran, now demoted to riding in World Superbikes, and then going on to take much of the shine off of Shinya Nakano's career, who went from promising lead rider at Kawasaki, to permanent backmarker with Konica Minolta.
But Dovi may yet avoid the same fate as his Japanese predecessors. After losing the Konica Minolta sponsorship, most of Dovizioso's the Kopron Team Scot group which ran his 250 effort moved up to MotoGP with him, leaving Montiron as the figurehead of the team, manager in name only, while the remnants of his extremely successful 250 team get on with the actual work of running the race effort on a day-to-day basis.
Like Lorenzo, Dovizioso has been very rapid in preseason testing. But his speed is perhaps not such a surprise after all. Dovi spent two long years racing at the front on woefully underpowered machinery. Now, on more equal equipment, Dovizioso is poised to put the lessons he learned about braking later and carrying more corner speed than his rivals into effect. Dovizioso could be a very serious threat in 2008.
While Lorenzo and Dovizioso were obvious candidate to be promoted to the MotoGP class, the announcement of the third rider to leave 250s raised a number of eyebrows. At the start of every season he's raced, the name Alex de Angelis has been bandied about as a potential candidate for a title, but every year, he's fallen short. Not usually by very much, but still de Angelis has never seemed able to make the necessary step from Nearly Man to winner. Indeed, despite a respectable 22 visits to the podium, only one of those trips was to stand on the top step. A solitary victory in the 250 class seems a rather fragile basis for a seat in MotoGP.
But despite his lack of results, de Angelis is yet another rookie to have impressed insiders during preseason testing. Stepping in to replace Toni Elias at Gresini Honda, de Angelis has been a top ten regular at the tests, often finishing ahead of the other rookies as well. So far, the satellite Hondas have been extremely strong in testing, the bike being based on Pedrosa's race winning bike at the final 2007 Valencia MotoGP round, while the factory Repsol Hondas have struggled a little, as HRC has dithered about whether to use the engine with pneumatic valve, or the steel spring valves. On a stable, proven platform, de Angelis could yet raise a few eyebrows in 2008, and pull a few surprising results out of the bag.
Odd Man Out
Of the four rookies to enter MotoGP in 2008, there is one who just does not fit the mold. He is not Spanish or Italian, he did not serve his apprenticeship in 125s and 250s, and at 27, he is generally thought to be way too old to be entering the premier class of motorcycle racing. He even left the secure place he had in the Honda hierarchy, a guarantee of winning in most classes, and made a leap of faith to join Yamaha. Conventional wisdom says that with all these things stacked against him, James Toseland's switch to MotoGP is doomed to disappointment, and will likely be as brief and inauspicious as those of the many British riders who have gone before him.
Toseland's first few outings aboard a MotoGP bike seemed to confirm those suspicions: At his first test on the bike at Sepang, the double World Superbike champion had a firm grip on the bottom of the timesheets. Two weeks later, JT improved some, starting outside the top ten, but finishing the test 8th fastest. Since then, Toseland has found more speed at each new test, to the point where he led the final test under the lights at Qatar for much of the session, only pipped at the post by a final fast lap put in by Jorge Lorenzo.
With improving results comes increased expectations. Despite the popularity of motorcycle racing in Britain, the country has not had a world champion since Barry Sheene in 1977. Now, for the first time in probably a generation, a British rider looks like having the magic combination of talent and equipment that could put him in with a chance of bringing the trophy back home to the UK. The pressure of expectation on James Toseland is enormous, but so far, Toseland has stood up admirably to that pressure.
The danger for Toseland is perhaps too much early success. On his present form, and with a bit of luck, Toseland could easily pinch a top 5 finish at some of the tracks which suit him. But if the British public gets used to seeing JT in the top 5 too early, then they may not have the patience to sit out the long slog that it takes to learn the bikes, the new tracks, and the series, which every rider entering MotoGP from Superbikes must face. There is reason for hope for Toseland, for despite the current thinking that the only route into MotoGP is through the smaller support classes, the last rider to enter from World Superbikes won a race last season, and finished 6th for the year. Chris Vermeulen has certainly made his mark on the series, and Ronald ten Kate, who managed both Toseland and Vermeulen in World Superbikes, believes Toseland is the better rider to work with.
Realistically, Toseland must be aiming for a place in the top ten at the end of the year, the question is, will the British press be willing to accept that, or will they turn on JT as quickly as they turn on their national soccer coaches?
The rookies may be a welcome injection of fresh blood into the series, but frankly, there's not much wrong with the blood already pumping around the arteries of MotoGP. In previous years, previews for the MotoGP series consisted of a great deal of scratching around looking for some interest to insert into the title race, as the winner was thought to already be a foregone conclusion, with only the podium places left to share out. More recently, though the previews came to much the same conclusions, the racing threw up a picture which completely confounded the pundits' predictions.
This year, however, for the first time in many years we have the prospect of a genuinely unpredictable three-way fight for the title, with any of the main candidates capable of carrying off the crown. And what a cast they provide: the former king, the heir apparent, and the usurper.
The Return Of The King
In any other year, there would be only one clear favorite for the MotoGP title, and that man would be Valentino Rossi. The Doctor ruled the series almost from the moment he stepped up from 250s back in 2000, taking second in his first year, and dominating from 2001 on. Rossi was the MotoGP Midas, and luck was seemingly always on his side: when he fell, the bike would keep on running, and he could remount; if he chose the wrong tire, his rivals would choose an even worse one; if he crashed out terminally, so would the men he was vying for the title with.
Then, in 2006, everything started to go wrong. For the first time since entering the class, Rossi got to ride a bike bearing a color scheme predominantly painted his lucky yellow, and ironically, Rossi suffered his worst run of luck ever, with tires disintegrating and bikes breaking down seemingly every week. In a thrilling race at the end of the season, Rossi's luck turned against him one more time, crashing out while chasing Nicky Hayden, and handing the American the world championship on a plate.
Putting down much of his bad luck to a lapse in concentration, after a brief flirt with Formula 1 came to an abrupt end, Rossi signed early with the factory Yamaha squad for 2007, and focused on winning back the title he regarded as his by right. But in 2007, Rossi's luck was no closer to returning, as the 7-time world champion hit the combination of Yamaha misjudging what was needed to win the new 800 cc formula, Michelin failing to cope with the new tire quota system, and Casey Stoner gelling with the Bridgestones and the Ducati to put in a perfect season reminiscent of Rossi in his better days.
For 2008, Rossi has tried to force the hand of Lady Luck once again. His first move was to engineer a switch to Bridgestone tires, handily also denying his rival Dani Pedrosa, and significantly, his team mate Jorge Lorenzo access to the Japanese rubber. The next maneuver was to utter veiled threats of leaving MotoGP early, or at least leaving Yamaha, if the bike didn't improve. And to ensure that Yamaha would focus on getting the M1 right, Rossi secured a guarantee from the Japanese factory that Masao Furusawa, general manager of Engineering Operations, would be directly and actively involved in the MotoGP project.
So far, Rossi's machinations seem to be paying off: the Yamaha is faster, especially on race tires, and The Doctor is improving with every test that passes, as he learns his way around the Bridgestone rubber. In an emphatic statement of his intent for 2008, Rossi cut off his soft, curly locks, and appeared at the launch of the 2008 Yamaha M1 sporting a severe, military crew cut. Be in no doubt about it, Valentino Rossi is taking his title assault in 2008 very, very seriously.
The Anointed One
The first hurdle in Rossi's way is the man who HRC drafted as heir to his empire. Like Jorge Lorenzo, Dani Pedrosa has been groomed for success since before his entry into the GP circus. Pedrosa's talent was spotted and nurtured by Alberto Puig, the man who has mentored many of the most promising riders now rising up through the MotoGP ranks. After taking one 125 and two 250 world titles, Pedrosa's entry into the Repsol Honda team was regarded as the first step on the way to deposing Rossi from his throne atop MotoGP, and returning the crown to what HRC regarded as its rightful home.
The first step in the Pedrosa plan was derailed somewhat after Nicky Hayden took the world championship at the end of Pedrosa's first and highly promising season in MotoGP. This now meant that Honda's original plan to focus development entirely around Dani Pedrosa, whilst ignoring any requests to make the bike more usable for Hayden, might look a little churlish. The Pedrosa plan then went even further astray, when HRC got their calculation of what it would take to win in the new 800cc MotoGP era so horribly wrong with the first iteration of the RC212V. By mid-season, Pedrosa's chances were gone.
Both Dani Pedrosa and Honda are determined not to make the same mistakes in 2008. As the 2007 season neared its climax, Pedrosa was ratcheting up the pressure on HRC by holding out on signing a new contract. There were rumors of various hard guarantees being demanded, in exchange for signing for longer than just a single year. And by the final race of 2007, Honda had just about caught up with Ducati, Pedrosa passing Casey Stoner on Valencia's long front straight on outright horsepower. By November 2007, Honda and Pedrosa seemed to be in perfect shape to claim the title they feel they deserve.
But then, at the first test of 2008, Dani Pedrosa crashed heavily, breaking a bone in his hand. Pedrosa was forced to miss the remainder of the preseason testing, only returning to testing proper at the final night tests at Qatar, shortly before the season started. This left Pedrosa complaining that the development work on the RC212V was being left to his team mate Nicky Hayden, something that tends to work against Pedrosa, as the two have such totally different riding styles. And complicating matters further are the continued problems with the pneumatic valve engine which Honda is developing in the pursuit of the horsepower to beat Ducati. On the track, the engine is no faster than the conventional spring valve unit, while it is rumored that the more powerful engines being tested in Japan keep destroying themselves on the dyno.
So the 2008 season has not gotten off to the start that Dani Pedrosa had hoped for, or planned. But despite these setbacks, Pedrosa is blisteringly fast, and capable of winning. Perhaps the most impressive thing about Pedrosa's 2007 season was the huge steps he made in improving on his weaknesses. Where once, Pedrosa was relatively simple to pass on the brakes, by the end of last year, it was Pedrosa diving up the inside of people into turns. And Pedrosa's aversion to rain and wet weather was put almost definitively to rest by his strong showing at Le Mans. Pedrosa was already good enough to steal 2nd place from Valentino Rossi in 2007. If Pedrosa keeps improving at the same pace in 2008, the highest step on the podium will be well within his reach.
But to get there, he'll first have to shove aside the man currently holding the crown. Casey Stoner owned 2007, completely annihilating the opposition and wrapping up the title with three rounds to go, and by the equivalent of five race wins. And yet at the start of the season, he had barely been regarded as a threat. He had spent 2006 on a customer Honda, often surprising with his speed, but just as often, disappointing by crashing out during the race, and was only signed by Ducati after they'd been turned down by both Marco Melandri and Nicky Hayden. For 2007, Stoner was expected to podium occasionally, but mostly to drive up Ducati's bill for carbon fiber bodywork.
How wrong they, or should I say we, all were. In 2006, all of Casey Stoner's crashes had come from losing the front wheel, usually early in the race. The switch to Bridgestone tires, which give better feedback and more warning than the second string Michelins Stoner was running on, meant the Australian could have complete confidence in his front end, and push as hard as wanted without suddenly launching into the scenery. Allied to this was Filippo Preziosi's astute guess that what was needed to win in the new 800 cc era was as much horsepower as possible, held in check by a decent electronics package, which also made sure that the engine used as much of the 21 liters of fuel as possible. During the early races in the season, Stoner easily made up the little ground he lost in the corners by ripping open the throttle down the straights.
Throughout the season, Stoner grew increasingly irritated, as MotoGP followers looked for a reason for his success. The Ducati was so much better than the rest, they said, ignoring the fact that the other factory Ducati, ridden by Loris Capirossi, was floundering in mid-pack. Bridgestone had an unfair advantage, the press and fans cried, conveniently overlooking the fact that second and third places in the championship were firmly in the hands of Michelin riders. And throughout the season, Ducati team boss Livio Suppo kept telling journalists "It's Casey."
So why is Casey Stoner so much faster than everyone else? It all seems to come down to confidence. Stoner is a very confident young man, as anyone who's ever seen him interviewed will agree. But that confidence needs to be rewarded and reciprocated for Stoner to shine, and that's exactly what happened in 2007. He came to a new team, who treated him like family, and he now trusts them implicitly, knowing that his feedback will be listened to, but perhaps more importantly, that they'll listen to him. He got married to his childhood sweetheart, removing another complication from the equation. He found tires he understood and could trust, so that he could stand the bike on his nose on the brakes, then pitch it into a turn, knowing that he would come out the other side without any nasty surprises. He knows and understands both the power of the bike and the electronics package, so that he is capable of dialing in exactly the right amount of throttle exiting a turn, and then holding the throttle there while the traction control smoothes out the bumps, and not backing off and confusing the electronics, as every instinct in his body is crying out to do.
These factors all came together in 2007 for Casey Stoner, to deliver him an almost perfect season. And so far throughout testing, Mr Perfect has been even better than last year, if anything. At the official IRTA qualifying session in Jerez, Stoner laid out the yardstick, the benchmark the others must measure themselves against, by winning the BMW Z4 on offer in just six laps. Of those six, five were faster than anyone else on track. Casey Stoner really is the man to beat in 2008.
It's Not The Bike
Anyone left doubting that Stoner is the major part of the equation need only take a look at where the other Ducatis are. Throughout the preseason testing, the phrase most often used to describe the Ducatis was "bookending the timesheets." For while Casey Stoner was consistently the fastest man on the track, the Alice Ducati team of Toni Elias and Sylvain Guintoli were invariably the slowest, with Stoner's team mate Marco Melandri faring not much better.
This is bad news for Melandri. After a brilliant year in 2005, and a year which could have been almost as good in 2006, if it hadn't been for a big crash at Barcelona, Melandri struggled during 2007. The Italian's problems were mainly down to the fact that he was on a satellite Honda RC212V. Once HRC realized that they had got the bike so wrong, all of their development efforts went into fixing the factory bikes, with new parts filtering down to the satellite bikes only very slowly. Melandri, who had been given guarantees about the level of factory support he would enjoy, and feeling betrayed by Honda's failure to make good on those guarantees, jumped ship early, exercising an option to sign for Ducati after he met their stipulation that he be in the top 6 of the championship standings after Laguna Seca.
Melandri's move generated a huge wave of excitement. Reunited with Livio Suppo, the team manager who had been close to Melandri almost since Macio had entered the paddock as a youngster, great things were expected of the partnership of Melandri in an Italian team on an Italian bike.
But then, testing began, and Melandri's results worryingly resembled those of Loris Capirossi last year. So far, Melandri has completely failed to make an impact, not getting on with the bike at all, and searching for any kind of setup that will work. The results post in testing say that he is yet to find one. Melandri looks like being in for another long year of suffering with a machine that won't do what he wants. But unlike last year, he won't be able to blame the factory, for only a radical change to the laws of physics will keep his team mate, on exactly the same bike, from being at the front of the pack.
And it's not just Melandri who will suffer. Both Toni Elias and Sylvain Guintoli look set to follow the same path. Both were recruited by Luis d'Antin at the end of last season, as part of Ducati's strategy to build the Pramac d'Antin team into a factory junior team. So it was out with the veterans of Alex Barros and Alex Hofmann, and in with the young talent, as a possible step up into a future factory ride.
Alice Doesn't Live Here Anymore
Toni Elias seemed the most likely candidate for a step up to the big time. Elias is a huge favorite with the fans for his out-of-control riding style, although less so with some of the other riders, who have complained bitterly about his aggressive, physical passing. After his first win at the thriller in Estoril 2006, Elias looked capable of making another step forward in his progress as a rider, but his development stalled a little during 2007, despite scoring a couple of podiums. In 2008, he needs to make progress once again, but his test outings on the Ducati have not given much room for hope.
His team mate, and rookie of the year 2007, made quite an impact on the series. Signed to ride for the Dunlop-shod Tech 3 Yamaha team, Sylvain Guintoli was almost universally ignored on his entry into the MotoGP class, but that didn't last for long. By Le Mans, where Guintoli battled at the front of the field, and even led the race for a while, it was obvious that the world had seriously underestimated the young Frenchman. Guintoli, like Ant West, was a fast privateer from the 250 class, but there were few clues as to how Guintoli would work out on more competitive machinery. By the end of the year, the Frenchman had come tantalizingly close to a podium in Japan, and impressed everyone with his speed, and the way he helped the development of the Dunlops.
Now, though, Guintoli seems to be in the same boat as Elias and Melandri, bringing up the tail end of the test times. Things may change once the flag drops, and racing starts in earnest, but so far, it looks like being Australian is a prerequisite for making the Ducati go fast. This is not just a problem for Elias, Guintoli and Melandri; it's also a pointer to serious problems for Ducati. If there's only one rider who can make their bike fly, then what will Ducati do if Stoner is injured, or gets an offer he can't refuse from Honda or Yamaha? The design philosophy for Ducati Corse has so far been to make the bike as fast as possible in a straight line, and let the rider sort out the corners. But with Casey Stoner the only rider able to put that strategy into effect, Ducati needs to either find answers for everyone else, or another rider who can do what Stoner can just as well.
Green vs Blue
Ducati's plight is illustrated by the man who gave them their first win in MotoGP, and had been a cornerstone of the program since the beginning. Loris Capirossi went from title candidate in 2006 to 7th place straggler in 2007 in a one fell swoop. The only real difference in that year was the new bike, which Capirex just could not get on with. By mid-season, it was clear that Capirossi's role at Ducati was played out, and after the summer, the Italian veteran announced he would be moving to Suzuki.
The moved was greeted with much interest, as once a rider has spent a long time with a single marque, the questions start to come: is his success down to the bike, or the rider? Can he adapt to a bike which is completely different to anything he's ridden before? That speculation was piqued further by the big step forward which Suzuki had made during 2007. The team had gone from mid-pack at best in 2005 to race winner and podium regular in 2007. A veteran like Capirossi could be the final piece in the puzzle, making the difference between being close to Honda, Ducati and Yamaha, and competing with them on an equal footing.
But while the Suzukis surprised with their speed during the 2007 preseason, this winter, they've been far less of a threat. The powder blue brigade seem to have slumped from around 5th fastest down to 10th fastest, with no obvious explanation. That the problem is with the bike is obvious, as at almost every track the Suzukis have visited, Capirossi and Vermeulen have set very similar times. But so far, neither man has looked capable of shooting for the title.
A Trouble Shared
The aim, for both Vermeulen and for Capirossi, will be race wins. Chris Vermeulen scored his maiden win in MotoGP last year, in difficult, changeable conditions at Le Mans, consolidating his reputation as possibly the best wet weather rider in the paddock. But an impressive podium at Laguna Seca, and another at Misano, both in warm sunny weather, are pointers to Vermeulen's further potential. On his day, Vermeulen is a tough customer to beat, but he still has a couple of weakness he needs to overcome.
The first is qualifying. If you look at Chris Vermeulen's race times throughout the year, disregarding the first lap or so, Vermeulen is one of the fastest riders on the track. His problem is that all too often, he's having to start from the third and fourth row of the grid, after failing to put in a fast time during qualifying. Improvement here will put Vermeulen in with a chance on a weekly basis.
Vermeulen's other weakness is more worrying, especially as it is shared by his team mate. At Laguna Seca, Vermeulen is transformed from top 10 candidate to certain podium. Similarly, when the MotoGP circus pitches its tent at Motegi, you can safely pencil in the name of Loris Capirossi as the winner. But take Vermeulen to Mugello or Capirex to Le Mans, and the roles are reversed: suddenly they are invisible. To contend for a championship, you need to be close to the front every weekend, whether you like the racetrack or not. Neither man is there just yet.
Capirossi's departure from Ducati mirrored that of the man he replaced. Like Capirex, John Hopkins had spent almost his entire time in MotoGP with one team, Suzuki, and questions were starting to be asked of how good Hopper would be on more competitive machinery. The first hints that Hopkins was about to move came early in the season, when the American announced that he was parting ways with his previous personal sponsor, Red Bull, and joining forces with another energy drinks manufacturer, Monster Energy. With Monster already heavily involved with Kawasaki in all forms of racing in the US, it was painfully obvious that Hopkins was about to move to join Team Green, and bring his sponsor with him. When the deal was officially announced, it barely made a ripple in the news.
But Hopkins' move was intriguing: Kawasaki, although rapidly improving throughout 2007, were hardly the leap forward which Hopkins needed if he wanted to start winning. Moving to Kawasaki would mean more development work, more testing, and more working out the bugs in the hope of striking it lucky. With Suzuki apparently a few steps ahead of Kawasaki in this area, why would Hopper risk it? The answer is twofold: one is undoubtedly money, with Hopkins reputedly being paid 4 million Euros for 2008, but the other is less prosaic.
After waiting for Suzuki to come good for so long, Hopkins may have just run out of patience, and decided to take a chance. And when you examined the Kawasaki's performance last year, the leap of faith may not have been as large as it appears at first glance. Throughout 2007, the Kawasakis were getting better almost every race, and by the end of the year, there was nothing wrong with the straight line speed, even putting the Ducati to shame on occasion. All the Kawasakis needed was someone who could help them get the bike to go around corners properly, and the riders they started the season with just didn't seem up to the task. As the preseason tests have progressed, so has the Kawasaki, Hopper providing valuable input on making corner entry smoother and easier. Only a groin injury, caused by a crash at Phillip Island, put a halt to the progress Hopkins has made so far. Kawasaki and Hopkins could very well turn out to be the surprise package of 2008. The Monster Millions could be a very wise investment indeed.
Last Chance Saloon
It wasn't just John Hopkins that Kawasaki took a gamble with. But Ant West, their other rider, is a gamble for entirely different reasons. West has always shown promise, and was usually the fastest privateer in the 250 class, but he never seemed to get a chance on a factory team to show what he was actually capable of. The Australian started 2007 on a privateer 250, quitting the team prematurely citing a complete lack of faith in the setup of the team. His luck then turned, as an injury to Kevin Curtain meant that West was drafted in as a replacement on the factory Yamaha World Supersport bike. He made a devastating impression, getting two wins and a third in just three races which he rode for Yamaha. After being offered the factory Supersport ride for the rest of the season, West's luck got even better, when he was drafted in to replace the injured Olivier Jacque, who finally gave up on racing after one crash too many.
Since then, West has been mercurial, to put it kindly. Brilliant on occasion, especially in the wet, but often mediocre, and sometimes just downright disappointing, West was given an ultimatum by Kawasaki at the end of 2007: Improve your fitness for 2008, or get ready to pack your bags. West has already worked hard to improve his situation, but so far, this has yet to show in testing.
Ant West presents teams with one of the biggest quandaries in racing. If it rains, West is almost certain to get on the podium, and would have to be a strong bet to take a wet weather win before the season is out. And yet that win is unlikely to translate into a strong result in the championship standings, as West struggles at tracks where he isn't comfortable. Racing insiders in Australia often tip West as the most talented rider to come out of the country, but as probably the weakest racer. An excess of natural ability has allowed West to get away with doing the minimum in terms of training and race craft. But now, West has hit the big time, and talent alone will only get you so far. If Ant West wants to stay in MotoGP, he is going to have to really work for it. 2008 will either be the start of a long career, or West's final year in MotoGP.
Leaving On A Jet Plane
One man who can be certain this is his last year in MotoGP is Colin Edwards. The Texan, demoted from the Fiat Yamaha team to Tech 3 Yamaha to make way for Jorge Lorenzo, has made it fairly clear that he expects to leave MotoGP at the end of the season. Having just turned 34, and with two children approaching school age, Edwards is starting to think about returning home to the US, and is rumored to have been offered an attractive package to ride a Yamaha R1 in AMA Superbikes. He may not exactly be in the twilight of his career, but the light is definitely taking on a warmer, more orange tinge.
That does not mean he'll be taking it easy. Edwards still has a score to settle: the double World Superbike champion is yet to win a race in MotoGP, a fact made even more frustrating by crashing out in the final corner at Assen in 2006, thereby handing Nicky Hayden the win on a plate. And his departure from the factory Yamaha team is not the handicap it may at first seem, as Edwards' role as team mate to Valentino Rossi meant he spent much of his time helping out with The Doctor's title fights, by either testing new tires, or new parts, or holding Rossi's opponents up. Now, Edwards is free to ride as he pleases, and has the added benefit of being an important link in Michelin's tire testing and development chain. If Michelin have a new tire they think might work, there's a very good chance Colin Edwards will be the first rider to get a shot at racing on it.
While last year, having Michelin tires was usually a distinct disadvantage, that's unlikely to be the case in 2008. The French tire maker lost the championship for the first time since 1991, and that is not a situation they intend to accept. Michelin has spent the off-season working on tires which will work in a much greater range of temperatures, much like the Bridgestones do, and early test results look promising. One thing is certain: Michelin have no intention of getting as viciously mugged by Bridgestone as they were in 2007.
The Price Of Loyalty
A Michelin revival is exactly what Nicky Hayden needs. After taking the title with a year of sheer hard work, consistent podiums, and occasional brilliance, Hayden had to suffer the humiliation of attempting to defend his #1 plate on a motorcycle designed specifically for his team mate, a bike which was too small, offered too little wind protection, and was also underpowered and poorly balanced. His defense was star-crossed from the start.
But Hayden earned the respect of many of the people who had decried his 2006 championship as he labored on through 2007. The Kentucky Kid kept working, kept trying, never complained, and barely spoke an ill word against Honda and the inadequate machine they had provided him to ride, whilst his fellow RC212V jockeys were pouring vitriol on HRC's efforts. As always, Hayden was invariably the rider who put in the most laps at post-race testing session, hoping to find some kind of improvement. Shortly after Catalunya, they found something, as Hayden and Pete Benson, his crew chief, finally persuaded HRC to allow them to turn the traction control down, so Hayden could ride with something approaching his natural style. A spate of podiums was his reward, before slipping back into mid-pack again by the end of the season.
So far, Hayden has gotten along a great deal better with the 2008 Honda than with the 2007 bike. The new version of the RC212V is physically bigger, so it suits average sized riders better, and it delivers more power than the old bike, and both factors have helped Hayden put in significantly better results in testing than a year ago. To Hayden's great relief, 2008 does not look like being a repeat of 2007. For the one thing that Nicky Hayden cannot afford is another disaster like last year. On the final year of his contract with Repsol Honda, Hayden need be under no illusion that he will need an exceptional season if he is to remain where he is. His team mate - although Repsol Honda has not been a real team for a very long time - has made it eminently clear that he would prefer to share the garage with someone other than the American. And with some justification, as Pedrosa's and Hayden's riding styles are so radically different that it is almost impossible to develop a bike that suits them both equally.
The bad news for Hayden is that a horde of young 250 riders have just entered MotoGP gunning for his seat, nearly all of whom would be a better match with Pedrosa's style. So unless Nicky Hayden has another year like 2006, he could find his admirable loyalty to Honda being studiously ignored at the end of the year, and be forced to look around at other options. In previous years, Yamaha and Ducati have shown interest in The Kentucky Kid, but with those seats sewn up for the foreseeable future, Hayden may not have the luxury of much choice. This year really will determine the former champion's future.
Another man fighting for his future is Shinya Nakano. Once Kawasaki's golden boy, and tipped by many to be a future star, Nakano had a nightmare year on the Konica Minolta Honda. Unable to get on with the Michelin tires, and not helped by being on the weakest team in the paddock, Nakano spent all year struggling just to get into the points, where a year earlier, he looked capable of battling for a podium most weekends. It looked increasingly like we had seen the last of Super Shinya as the 2007 season neared its end.
But Nakano had luck, and a spot of favoritism on his side. With the disappointing Makoto Tamada obviously headed out of MotoGP, Dorna and the Japanese factories faced the prospect of a season without a single Japanese rider. And so Nakano was give one last chance, partnering Alex de Angelis on a Gresini Honda. A move which is fortuitous in another way as well, as Nakano will be back on Bridgestone tires, and has once again found the confidence in the front end of his machine that he was missing. In preseason testing so far, Nakano has been overshadowed by the attention paid to his young team mate, but Nakano has matched de Angelis' times very closely at most sessions. Shinya Nakano may be fighting for his future in MotoGP this season, but with everyone looking no further than his disastrous 2007 season, the Japanese star could well turn up a few surprises this year.
The Surprise Package
If Nakano might be expected to surprise a few people, Frenchman Randy de Puniet could prove to be positively startling. De Puniet had an offer to extend his contract from Kawasaki last year, and to the surprise of most people in the paddock, he turned it down. Instead, he signed with LCR Honda, reunited once again with Lucio Cecchinello, who'd been his team manager when the Frenchman had ridden in 250s.
Given the fortunes of the other Bridgestone riders who switched to Michelins, including his former team mate Nakano, the decision seems almost incomprehensible. De Puniet is already one of MotoGP's most prolific crashers, and to move to the team where Casey Stoner earned his reputation for hitting the gravel seems almost an act of insanity. However, a little closer examination throws up some interesting parallels with the Australian.
Casey Stoner's reputation as a crasher was earned through a series of crashes where he lost the front due to a sudden loss of grip. His fortunes improved drastically after the move to Bridgestones, as the Japanese front tire is justly famed for its predictability and its feedback. Randy de Puniet, on the other hand, tends to crash out either through acts of irrational exuberance, or through losing the rear. Although tires can do little to help with de Puniet's overly optimistic approach to passing, the Michelins are generally considered to have superior rear tires, and this could reduce de Puniet's propensity to crash.
If de Puniet can manage to keep it on two wheels, he could well turn a few heads this year. The Frenchman has surprised a lot of people during testing by consistently finishing very close to the front. If he can hold on to that pace, and cut down on his crashes, Randy de Puniet could turn out to be the revelation of 2008.
In The Beginning
And so, the clock is ticking down towards the moment MotoGP fans have been waiting for over the long, dark winter: the moment the lights go out, and the air is filled with the screech of 220 horsepower engines tearing off the line and into the first turn; the moment when racing has well and truly resumed again. The season is close, and looking at the names lining up on the grid, the racing should be closer. This year, MotoGP can justly claim to be the premier class of motorcycle racing, as the 18 riders who will line up on the grid at Qatar include 11 world champions, with 24 world titles between them, from 125s, 250s, World Supersport, World Superbikes, and MotoGP.
What is even better for the fans is that the thorough humiliation handed out by Casey Stoner, Ducati and Bridgestone has spurred the others into action, and the bikes, the tires and the riders are all much closer than they were a year ago. Honda has spent every waking hour building a new RC212V, capable of matching the Ducati in top speed and agility, while Valentino Rossi has brought extraordinary pressure to bear on Yamaha, to up their game and provide him with a bike which will be competitive. Kawasaki has finally roped in a big name rider, and Suzuki has a veteran and a maturing rider to push their effort forward. The class has been filled with young, and not so young, rookies, all eager and hungry for glory. And to help with the tire situation, the quota has been extended, from 14 fronts and 17 rears last year to 18 fronts and 22 rears for this season. Although Casey Stoner remains very much the man to beat, the Australian world champion will face a great deal more resistance in 2008 than he did last year. The prospects for MotoGP look excellent.
The Missing Link
There is only one small cloud on the horizon, in the shape of a hole on the grid. For the first time since 1978, there will not be a Roberts in the MotoGP paddock. King Kenny has spent the last few months working on a major sponsorship deal with a big American casino chain, involving various disciplines of motorsport, and providing the kind of money that could make Team KR competitive. It's a deal Team KR have been working on for a long time, and rumors of an imminent breakthrough have been rife almost from the start. So far, though, no announcement has come. If Roberts cannot sort out a deal, the paddock will be a very different place, and his absence points to MotoGP's weakness. With only 18 riders on the grid, and the costs of competing rise year on year, the grid is starting to look pretty thin. MotoGP needs an injection of cash to keep it running, and that money will only come from an increase in exposure, and in public interest.
The best way to generate public interest is to ensure close, exciting racing. And from all we've seen so far, the omens are good. There are a lot of people with an awful lot at stake, and the racing could be bloody, brutal and very thrilling indeed. I can hardly wait.