At last. The long winter break is over, and a new day dawns on MotoGP with the season opener at the Losail circuit in Qatar. Although it's not so much a new day as a new night, as MotoGP, in its continuing struggle to win fans over from other forms of motorsport, has scooped Formula 1 to stage the very first night race in motorsports. The fact that racing has been running under the lights for years in the US is being conveniently overlooked, as most Europeans remain blissfully unaware of NASCAR and other forms of stock car racing, and so to Dorna, it's the very first night race.
As pleasing as outwitting Bernie Ecclestone must have been to Dorna's wily CEO Carmelo Ezpeleta, beating Formula 1 into the history books was not the main motivation behind the move to run under the lights. For the Qatar circuit is a bit of a paradox: on the one hand, it is perfectly situated for motorcycle racing, out in the wilds and far away from any neighbors who may be inclined to complain; but on the other hand, being stuck in the desert, and in one of the hottest and driest regions on the planet, with nary a hint of cloud cover to check the power of the sun, the sand and soaring track temperatures conspire to ravage tires and wreck grip, making tire selection almost impossible, and baking overworked engines. The lack of neighbors may be great, but the destroyed tires, overheating motors and slippery surface are the very opposite.
Dorna's answer to Qatar's conundrum is to run the race at night. With the heat of the sun gone and the offshore breeze dying back as the land cools, conditions should be much more suited for racing. That's the theory. And as with all theory, there's plenty of practical problems to complicate what would otherwise be a simple and elegant idea, some of which were foreseen, and some of which weren't; some of which can and have been solved, some of which haven't.
For a start, there's the most obvious problem with a night race: it tends to be dark. Now that's not usually a problem for the heroes of endurance racing, but MotoGP is run at a much higher pace, and the bikes are all way too compact to find a spot to fit headlamps. But as the Qatar Motor and Motorcycle Federation are richer than Croesus on $100-a-barrel oil, they naturally have a better solution. The Losail circuit hired the US company Musco to erect a multi-million dollar, and multi-million watt lighting installation, similar to the systems they have installed at US Speedways, including Daytona. The lighting is a remarkable feat of engineering, winning near unanimous praise from the riders.
But while Losail has plenty of local midnight oil to burn to light up the track, there remain a few significant problems. The first, which only reared its head at the night tests a week ago, is the problem of temperature. As anyone who's been out in the desert knows, once the sun drops behind the horizon, the mercury heads in the same direction, and fast. Losail's location not far from the Persian Gulf makes the temperature difference less extreme than would have been the case if the racetrack had been built further inland, but the one thing that few people had taking into account was the track temperature.
Normally, even on an overcast day, the track temperature will be several degrees warmer than the ambient air temperature, as the sun's rays, however feeble, are absorbed by the dark tarmac. When you run at night, however, there is no sun at all to warm the asphalt, and consequently, track temperatures are generally identical to the ambient air temperatures, in the mid to low teens centigrade, or high fifties fahrenheit. That is colder than most dry races are ever run at, and much closer to the track temperatures you'd expect at a rain-soaked race in Donington or Assen, rather than a dry race in the middle of the desert.
Of course, if it does rain, then all bets are off. The signals are confused about exactly what they would do, with Carmelo Ezpeleta telling Spanish journalists that they would have to ride the next day, and the Losail circuit saying that the race would be brought forward to Sunday afternoon if there was the slightest chance of rain in the evening. For if it does rain, the lights, which have been especially designed to avoid shining into the riders' eyes, and allowing them to ride normally, would then start to reflect viciously off the water on the track, blinding the riders, and making racing impossibly dangerous.
Both situations will cause the tire companies a great deal of grief. In the more likely scenario of the race going ahead in the evening, Michelin seems to have the upper hand, the riders on French rubber complaining less about a lack of grip than the riders with Bridgestones. But everyone is worried, the only small mercy being the expansion of the tire quotas from 31 to 40 for this year.
Back To The Future
Repsol Honda seem to be having the worst problems, however, as they have shipped in several of the bikes they finished the 2007 season on, with the 2008 chassis apparently suffering an appalling lack of grip in the very cold conditions. The last time Honda used bikes from the previous year was at the Nurburgring back in 1984, when Freddie Spencer opted to use the "old" V3 engine, instead of the radical new V4, back in the old 500 two-stroke days. It didn't work out too badly, then, with Spencer taking both the pole and the win on the outdated bike, an outcome HRC must surely be hoping to repeat on Sunday.
Whether history repeats itself for Honda remains to be seen, but now that the preseason testing is over, the Qatar race certainly looks like being a case of deja vu. Last year's race started with three men slugging it out, hot favorite Valentino Rossi swapping blows with the man who would be champion, Dani Pedrosa, and the man who actually did become champion, Casey Stoner. Pedrosa soon had to let Stoner and Rossi go, as he struggled with a lack of front end feel from his dismal Honda. But at the front, a thrilling duel was fought out, illustrating perfectly the two different approaches taken by Yamaha and Ducati. Around Qatar's intricate and difficult back section, Valentino Rossi took maximum advantage of the Yamaha's extraordinary handling, but as the bikes hit the front straight, Casey Stoner opened the taps on his Ducati GP7 and blew by everything in his path. Looking at the lapchart, Stoner led every single lap of the race, but that does not tell the whole story. Rossi was ahead of Stoner for perhaps half of the race, but only around the back of the track, and not where it counts.
Same Old Same Old?
This year's race is likely to be very similar. Casey Stoner has gotten better and better, been the fastest when the chips are down in testing, and perhaps far more disturbingly, has usually been the first rider to pack up shop and go back to the hotel every day, a sure sign that Stoner and Ducati have gotten through their test work and having nothing left to do. Stoner is ready, and if you thought Mr Perfect was perfect last year, just wait till this season.
The man who is determined to get in his way isn't doing so badly either. Valentino Rossi hasn't dominated the published timesheets during testing, preferring instead to spend time working on racing setup for his new Bridgestone tires. And when it comes to race times, Rossi has been very strong indeed. The Yamaha is still obviously down on top end power compared to the Ducati, although they have definitely closed the gap. But by the same token, Ducati have been working on getting extra drive out of corners, and on some stability and maneurerability issues, making the bike handle a little better.
All will be revealed on Sunday, probably on the first lap, as the Ducati fires down the front straight and the Yamaha and Honda try to hang on. If Rossi can get in the Ducati's draft, and not lose too much ground to Stoner, then The Doctor could be in with a chance at a track he got pole on last year.
Of course, it's not just a two-horse race. The Hondas will be chasing hard too, with a host of riders looking capable of competing. Both Repsol Hondas should be competitive, and both Hayden and Pedrosa have been very fast on qualifiers, though less fast on race tires. Their competitiveness could come down to which bike they elect to run, and how well Pedrosa's broken hand holds up. But there are more Hondas than just Repsol, and one man could just throw up a surprise. Randy de Puniet has astounded everyone in the preseason, having been blisteringly fast on the LCR Honda during testing. We have long known that de Puniet can be fast, but that's never been his problem: his problem is staying on the bike. If de Puniet can cease throwing the machinery at the scenery, then the young Frenchman could cause quite an upset.
The Young Ones
But what the crowds really want to see are the rookies. MotoGP has received a welcome injection of young blood this year, and all of the rookies have been fast. The first question we hoped to see answered is the duel between Jorge Lorenzo and Andrea Dovizioso. Last year, Dovi managed to make Lorenzo's life very difficult, despite being on vastly inferior machinery. This year, the Italian is only on slightly inferior equipment, and will be hungry for revenge. Lorenzo, for his part, will want to make his mark on the series, and get a good finish to establish his place in the hierarchy, which he feels is really at the very pinnacle.
Meanwhile, there's James Toseland. Toseland will be under a lot of pressure from the British press and fans to do well, and judging by testing, and the steady improvement he's shown, we can expect a solid year from the British two-time World Superbike champion. Ironically, while all the focus will be on JT, Britain has its best chance of seeing a world champion in the support classes, with young Bradley Smith dominating the 125 series during preseason testing. Smith is serious, level-headed and very, very talented. What's more he's on one of the fastest bikes in the 125 paddock. Bradley could well be joining Toseland in the premier class in a few short years' time.
The opening round of MotoGP at Qatar is always a strange affair, poorly attended, and at a circuit miles from anywhere. Lighting the whole track up and running it at night can hardly make the event any more other worldly than it already is. But as surreal as the event feels, there is one cold, hard fact that remains: this is the MotoGP season opener. At Qatar, the talking stops as the flag drops, and speculation will be left blowing in the desert wind like tumbleweed. Racing's here again, and it's about time.