The march of the seasons may well be Mother Nature's way of bringing balance to our hurried and stressful modern lives, but to motorcycle racing fans, it is a maddening annoyance. The onset of wet and windy fall, and the long, dark night of winter, calls an aggravating and nigh-on interminable halt to racing for month upon month.
As recompense for such cruel and unnatural punishment, we are given preseason testing. Riders and teams rack up enough frequent flyer miles to qualify for the next Apollo mission as they jet around the warmer parts of the world in their relentless quest for more speed, better bikes and the upper hand once racing resumes. This generates a flurry of news stories, lap times and above all, speculation about the relative pecking order on the MotoGP grid. But, like diet foods and low alcohol beer, it is a very poor substitute for the real thing.
Thankfully, one day in March, all that empty talk and hot air comes to an end, and we finally get back to the thing we all love so much: the best riders in the world harrying the world's most sophisticated racing motorcycles around a racetrack. In 2007, that hot air of speculation dissolved in the hot, desert air of Losail, the desolate Qatari track kicking off what was to be a remarkable season. For 2008, in an attempt to avoid the scorching Arabian sun, the race was switched to run at night, under a technological marvel of modern lighting.
Lights! Camera! Action!
This single change had a bigger change on the event than many had expected. While testing had shown Michelin had narrowed much of the gap between themselves and Bridgestone during the winter, the difference in test times more down to machinery and talent rather than tire make, the strange night time conditions in the desert threw all that up in the air. In the early evening, when track and air temperatures were warmer, the Bridgestones held their ground, evenly matched with the Michelins, which had been built especially for the race using data collected at the tests the previous week. But in the late night sessions, run at the same time the race was due to be held, it was Michelin which ruled the roost, adapting far better to the cold night temperatures than the Bridgestones.
The exception to the rule was of course Casey Stoner. Apparently still in possession of the get-out-of-the-laws-of-physics-free card he had picked up last year, the young Australian world champion continued his relentless domination of the timesheets, all the way into qualifying. Were we on the way to yet another whitewash by Mr Perfect? Judging from the timesheets, that possibility was very much on the cards.
Fortunately for the spectacle, Stoner wasn't getting it all his own way. The entrance of four rookies - including three world champions - into the top class had generated a lot of excitement at the start of the season, and testing had shown that they were quick to get up to speed. During the first sessions that really counted, they proved that the excitement had not been premature.
Foremost among the rookies was Jorge Lorenzo. The reigning 250 champion was fast in every session of practice, running Stoner close every time. And during qualifying, the Spaniard stamped his authority very firmly on proceedings, smashing his Fiat Yamaha team mate's previous pole record by over a second. For a rookie to grab the pole on his first attempt struck a chord: the last time that happened was 1998, and another 250 world champion in the shape of Max Biaggi then went on to win the race, and finish 2nd in the championship.
Lorenzo's pole confirmed not only the strength of the new entrants, but also the speed of the Yamahas, a point underlined by the Tech 3 Yamaha team of James Toseland and Colin Edwards filling out the front row. Casey Stoner was the first non-Yamaha man, putting his Ducati on the front of the second row, with the Hondas of Randy de Puniet and Nicky Hayden alongside him, the Michelins providing a clearly superior qualifying tire.
Valentino Rossi, who had used up a lot of his political capital procuring a switch to Bridgestones over the winter, could only manage 7th, and last of the Yamahas, ahead of Honda's Dani Pedrosa, still in pain from a broken hand he'd picked up at the first test of 2008 in Sepang. If anyone can stop Casey Stoner from sweeping the series like last year, it will be Pedrosa and Rossi, but starting from the third row of the grid was a poor start to preventing that.
Shot In The Dark
As the red lights dimmed, and 4,000 horsepower roared off the line and into the night, Dani Pedrosa demonstrated that a third row start need not be such a disadvantage. While Casey Stoner had got his usual rocketship launch, Pedrosa had left the line like the Starship Enterprise, threading his way past the constellation of MotoGP stars and into Turn 1 at the head of the pack, ahead of Colin Edwards and Casey Stoner.
Jorge Lorenzo, who'd got away from the line well enough, was left watching James Toseland slip up the inside and into 4th, while Stoner ran a little wide, allowing Toseland and Lorenzo back ahead of him, nullifying the gains the reigning champ had made off the line. Into Turn 4, Stoner suffered the further ignominy of seeing Valentino Rossi slide up the inside, and into 5th. They rounded the track as a bunch, Pedrosa barely able to pull a gap on the rest of the field, and headed back towards the front straight, heading for the line for the first time.
The watching crowd held its breath as the riders fired out of the last corner and along the straight, memories of last year's Ducati demolition job fresh in their minds. But Honda and Yamaha had learnt a thing or two since their humiliation here at the hands of the tiny Bologna factory in 2007. Casey Stoner pulled out of Valentino Rossi's draft at the end of the straight, but was a far cry off being able to motor past on horsepower alone. He could almost draw equal with Rossi, but he could not get past.
You Win Some, You Lose Some
The losers down the straights were Edwards and Toseland, aboard the conventional Yamaha engine. Both Tech 3 men were forced to sit idly by as the raw power of Jorge Lorenzo's pneumatic valve engine flew past their coil spring version, and into 2nd place just ahead of them. Hammering into Turn 1, Toseland took advantage of Lorenzo's move to dive underneath his team mate Edwards, to take over 3rd.
The World Superbike champion's move was a good one, giving him the outside line around Turn 2. This lined him up nicely for Turn 3, where JT spotted the merest sliver of floodlights underneath Lorenzo's Fiat Yamaha. In a rather optimistic move indicative of Toseland's newness in the category, the Tech 3 man dived up the inside into Turn 3, but found Lorenzo already turning in to slam the door in his face. The pair bashed fairings, but stayed on board, Toseland getting the better of the brutal action and pinching 2nd.
While Toseland was beating up Lorenzo, behind them, their team mates were reversing the situation, with Valentino Rossi slicing smoothly inside Edwards, putting his former team mate between himself and Casey Stoner. With Edwards behind him, The Doctor could concentrate on his new team mate, and started to close on Jorge Lorenzo. He pushed through the tight loop for Turns 5 through 10, before stuffing his Yamaha up inside Lorenzo going into Turn 12, to take over 3rd spot.
Rossi's forward charge was a wise move on his part, as he had the reigning champ breathing hard down his neck. Casey Stoner had followed Rossi past Edwards, and was latching on to the former champion, only to see his intentions thwarted by Rossi's move on Lorenzo. As the second lap neared its end, Stoner knew he had a fight on his hands.
The melee behind him had allowed Dani Pedrosa to pull out the start of a lead. The Spaniard crossed the line over a second ahead, with three Yamahas and a Ducati chasing. Riding with a painful hand, the lead meant that Pedrosa could concentrate on being smooth and fast, and spare his hand a fraction, giving him a better chance of lasting the race. For the question surely was, how well would his battered hand hold up?
Down the front straight, James Toseland was the big loser once again, his satellite Yamaha clearly short on steam. From 2nd at the start of the straight, JT was almost down to 5th a kilometer later, as the more powerful bikes flew by. But the Englishman was not to be so easily outdone, and breaking hard into Turn 1, snuck back ahead of Stoner, and kept on Lorenzo's tail.
This left Casey Stoner with a problem. Now past Lorenzo, Valentino Rossi was flying and off to chase down Pedrosa. Stoner was stuck with two determined Yamahas ahead of him, and was being joined by another determined rookie, Andrea Dovizioso on the Team Scot Honda, from behind. Stoner needed to move, and he started to push Toseland, getting close enough to dive up the inside into Turn 12 and get on to start chasing Lorenzo. Toseland tried to come back on Stoner at Turn 13, but the champion held his line, and kept JT at bay.
This time, as the bikes hammered down the straight and towards Turn 1, Stoner finally got his Ducati launched out of Lorenzo's draft, and into 3rd place. But the right-left-right combination of Turns 1, 2 and 3 meant that Lorenzo could hold his outside line at Turn 1, and cut across back ahead of Stoner into 2, leaving the champion back where he started, with his main rivals for the title checking out at the front, and Rossi's team mate blocking his chase.
For the next lap, Valentino Rossi hunted Dani Pedrosa down, taking back half a second a lap. By the time they hit the tight hairpin on lap 5, Rossi was right on Pedrosa's tail, with Lorenzo and Stoner closing from behind. The Doctor lined Pedrosa up through the long shallow left hander of Turn 11, to dive up the inside at Turn 12 once again, and into the lead.
More Than This
As Pedrosa had found out, leading was nowhere near enough. The front four were still tightly bunched, and after flashing across the line in close order, they fanned out nearly four abreast for Turn 1. Unlike last year, however, the four bikes and riders were pretty evenly matched, and nobody could gain enough advantage to shuffle the deck. Rossi, Pedrosa, Lorenzo and Stoner left the straight as they had entered, in tight formation.
On lap 6 and lap 7, the four men railed around the track as if chained together. Each pushed the man in front, but none could gain enough purchase to force his way ahead. The ensuing dogfight allowed Andrea Dovizioso to catch the leaders and join the fray, while behind Dovizioso, James Toseland drew closer, with Colin Edwards not far behind.
The front pack pushed and jostled, feinting one way, then trying again on the other side, but no man could gain an advantage. Then, as they headed into the last turn on lap 7, Jorge Lorenzo finally made his move, swiping inside Dani Pedrosa, almost hitting the Repsol Honda as he forced his way past. Onto the straight they flew, and Pedrosa was sworn to revenge. Tucked behind Lorenzo, he whipped out of the draft as they crossed the line, dragging Casey Stoner along in his wake.
Three abreast, they hit the braking zone for Turn 1. Lorenzo hit the apex first, with Stoner and Pedrosa side by side. But Stoner had the inside line and held the advantage. As they peeled into Turn 1, there was no room for Pedrosa, and the Spanish title hopeful was forced wide, losing 3rd place to Stoner, and almost conceding 4th to Dovizioso, who had craftily drafted the bickering threesome down the straight.
Once clear of Pedrosa, the reigning world champion decided it was time to make his move. He bore down on Lorenzo throughout the lap, until the group reached the tight left at Turn 10. Then, in a carbon copy of the move Rossi had put on Pedrosa, Stoner dived up the inside into Turn 12, to take over 2nd.
The Doctor was in trouble, and he knew it. He had been unable to drop Pedrosa or Lorenzo, despite leading for the past two laps. As the group entered the final turn onto the home straight, Casey Stoner hit the apexes just right, got drive out of the turn, and swept past Valentino Rossi along the straight. It could have been 2007 all over again.
Into The Night
Now, free of any obstacles, Mr Perfect could work his magic. Stoner put his head down, and started to charge, starting on a long series of blistering laps. But Stoner was not alone. Behind the Australian, Jorge Lorenzo had dispensed with his Fiat Yamaha team mate, cheekily diving up the inside into the hairpin of Turn 6, and was matching Stoner almost lap for lap. On lap 9, Lorenzo was a few hundredths faster than Stoner, and on the following lap, a few hundredths slower. There was nothing between the pair of them, as Lorenzo stalked Stoner for the next couple of laps.
On lap 13, Stoner pushed on once, suddenly taking a tenth of a second from Lorenzo, and opening up the merest smidgeon of twilight between them. Then, on lap 14, Stoner really put the hammer down, setting a new lap record nearly 1.4 seconds faster than his own record from last year, and Lorenzo was done. At first, the Spaniard conceded only a tenth or so a lap, but soon those single tenths became multiple tenths, and then half a second, then almost a second a lap. The race was run.
Casey Stoner crossed the line to start his 2008 MotoGP season in similar style to the way he started 2007. The margin of victory was greater, and no less emphatic. Once past the men in front, he had ridden another signature race, lapping smoothly and consistently to tear the field apart. It was another awesome display of what this young champion is capable of.
Yet despite his dominance, there was hope for those behind. Unlike many of the races last season, Stoner had not just disappeared the moment the flag had dropped and settled the race within a few corners. For the first half of the race, Stoner had been forced to fight for every yard, facing considerable resistance all the way. It was only once he had a clear track in front of him that he came into his own. Stoner is still very clearly the man to beat, but on the evidence of Qatar, there is a chance that he can at least be beaten.
My Boy Lollipop
Behind Stoner, Jorge Lorenzo cruised home alone to a magnificent 2nd. Unable to match Mr Perfect's string of mid 1'55 laps to the end, Lorenzo's own pace was a paragon of consistency, running high 1'55s, then low 1'56s to the line. His dream of matching Max Biaggi's astonishing debut achievement of taking both pole and the race win on his first outing may have fallen just short of reality, but it wasn't a long way short. Considering the opposition Lorenzo faced, it was truly an awe-inspiring accomplishment.
After both Stoner and Lorenzo had passed Rossi, he was clearly starting to struggle. The 7-time world champion was backing up traffic behind, collecting an entourage consisting of Dani Pedrosa on the Repsol Honda, Andrea Dovizioso on the Team Scot Honda, and James Toseland on the Tech 3 Yamaha. Toseland's team mate Colin Edwards hung close behind, but was the first to fade, unable to follow the pace of the men fighting for 3rd.
Dani Pedrosa had not yet given up on chasing Lorenzo and Stoner. But he had a Doctor-sized obstacle in his path, and found his attempts to pass being thwarted at every turn. By now Valentino Rossi's Bridgestone tires were past their prime, and Rossi's lines were starting to widen. At every corner, there was the merest hint of a gap up the inside, but each time Pedrosa poked his nose inside, Rossi repelled him. Along the front straight, Pedrosa attempt to draw level and pass, but despite Pedrosa's vastly improved braking ability, Rossi would be back in front on the brakes going into Turn 1.
But if at first you don't succeed, try and try again. For 3 laps, Pedrosa tried and failed. As they exited the final turn to head towards the finish line for the 14th time, Pedrosa finally succeeded, getting better drive out of the corner, and firing ahead of Rossi across the line. By the time they reached the braking area, Pedrosa was too far ahead, and out of Rossi's reach.
No Pain, No Gain
Although he was now past Rossi, it had taken Pedrosa too long to get there. By now, Stoner and Lorenzo were over 5 seconds ahead, out of reach, and too fast to catch. Dani Pedrosa had ridden a remarkable race through a great deal of pain, and swapped back and forth between the '07 Honda and the '08 Honda in the pursuit of a bike good enough to win, but come up just short. A 3rd place was all Pedrosa could manage, but it was an outstanding result under the circumstances, and a warning that once he is healthy, the Spaniard is taking his title fight deadly serious in 2008.
Forced to let first Lorenzo, then Stoner, and now Pedrosa past, Valentino Rossi was determined not to concede any more places in the season opener. With his tires having given their best, The Doctor was left to fight off two class rookies for 4th place. Less than a second covered the three men for the rest of the race, with Rossi leading, parrying every attack that came from Andrea Dovizioso behind, while James Toseland prodded away at Dovizioso, in the hope of stealing 5th.
On lap 20, Dovizioso finally got close enough to Rossi to stuff his satellite Honda up the inside of Rossi into Turn 6, and snatch 4th away. But the Italian veteran would not be denied so easily, and once again, Rossi waited for the long left hander at Turn 11, before cutting off the pass for Dovi at Turn 12, and taking back 4th spot.
Dovizioso, though, had the wild recklessness of youth, the excitement of his first race in the MotoGP class, and a lack of title aspirations on his side. The Italian rookie, having sniffed the delights of 4th place, went on a do-or-die mission, flinging his bike into the turns in an attempt to get close to or ahead of Rossi absolutely everywhere. Dovi ran wide at Turn 1 on the last lap, then had a big slide a couple of turns later, before finally risking it all by slamming his Honda up the inside of The Doctor into the tight left of Turn 10. Rossi, livid at losing another place, tried the outside line through Turn 11 to steal back up the inside at Turn 12, but this time, he'd asked too much of his tires. Rossi ran wide, allowing Dovizioso to cut back underneath and into 4th place.
Revenge Of The Rookies
Rossi chased again through the final turns, but his attempt to nip out of Dovizioso's draft and ahead came just a few yards short, and Andrea Dovizioso held on to 4th position by less than two hundredths of a second, forcing Valentino Rossi down into 5th, and costing The Doctor a couple of valuable championship points. Dovizioso was elated, never having dreamed that he could dice with Valentino Rossi to the end in his first MotoGP race, but a remarkable showing, and his experience chasing round the dog-slow Honda 250 last year, stood the rookie in good stead.
James Toseland crossed the line just a few tenths behind Rossi, to make it 3 rookies in the top 6. The reigning World Superbike champion had struggled on the straights, his conventional, spring valve engine Yamaha obviously short of outright top speed compared with the newer Yamahas and the Hondas. But a barnstorming ride round the twisty back section of the circuit had always kept him in contention. In the end, and despite showing both Dovizioso and Rossi a wheel every now and again, JT decided to play safe, and take 6th place, an excellent result for the man coming from World Superbikes, the series which is supposed to be a blind alley for those wishing to move to MotoGP.
Toseland's Tech 3 Yamaha team mate Colin Edwards came home 7th, just a second behind, after being unable to close the gap to the three men running ahead of him. Edwards' fortunes have definitely improved, now he is free of the burden of doing the donkey work as Valentino Rossi's team mate, and once the Tech 3 team get the new Yamaha engines at Estoril in two races time, both Edwards and Toseland could be a much more serious threat.
The next man home was Suzuki's Loris Capirossi in 8th, just managing to fend off LCR Honda's Randy de Puniet after a battle which had lasted for most of the second half of the race.
The pair had had company from Repsol Honda's Nicky Hayden for much of the race, who had never managed to hit his stride on race tires, despite a good qualifying performance on the '07 RC212V. Speculation and conjecture had surrounded the Repsol garage from Thursday afternoon, when the '07 bikes were seen being unpacked and prepared for the race. Both Dani Pedrosa and Nicky Hayden swapped back and forth between the '07 and '08 bikes, trying to get a feel for which bike would work better. Pedrosa had elected to ride the new bike, while Hayden stayed with the old bike, which turned out to be the wrong decision, after finishing 7 places behind his team mate, in 10th spot.
Casey Stoner's team mate Marco Melandri came home in 11th, not a place the Italian would have expected to finish when he signed to join the team which dominated last year. But Melandri, like Capirossi before him, is finding out that it isn't the bike that's doing all that winning, it really is Casey Stoner. Melandri was mildly relieved, however, as during practice, he had been running round in 14th spot, while in the race, he had fought his way up through the field from 15th, offering at least a hint of progress.
John Hopkins was one of the men Melandri had passed, the American fighting a losing battle against the pain in his injured leg. His first outing on the otherwise promising Kawasaki was never destined to be glorious after Hopper suffered a nasty groin injury in preseason testing, and we won't get to see his potential until after his injury heals.
Hopkins managed to hold off Shinya Nakano, forcing the Gresini Honda rider down into 13th. Nakano is still fighting to come to terms with the Honda, but at least is doing better on the Bridgestones than the Michelins he had under him last year.
Behind Nakano, the duel of the Alice Ducati satellite team was won by Toni Elias, who had retaken 14th spot from Sylvain Guintoli two laps from the end. Neither man has adapted well to the Ducati, and their places in the race reflected their places in testing.
The same is true for Ant West. So much was expected of West when he joined Kawasaki, but ever since testing started, the Australian has run around at the back of the field. At Qatar, that's pretty much where he stayed.
He did manage to stay ahead of his compatriot Chris Vermeulen, but that was more down to a destroyed front tire on Vermeulen's Rizla Suzuki, which forced Vermeulen to pit for a new tire, than any strength on West's part. Vermeulen's poor start to the season was more down to bad luck, than anything else.
Vermeulen's destroyed tire was part of a bigger pattern, though. After Bridgestone did so well last year, taking the title, and most of the top 10 championship places, the Japanese tire company were expected to dominate again this year. Not so at Qatar, however. Seven out of the top ten riders were on Michelins, the exceptions being Casey Stoner, who is seemingly impervious to any tire problems, Valentino Rossi, who is still getting used to the Japanese tires, and remains one of the very best riders in the world, and Loris Capirossi, who in 8th kept only two Michelin riders behind him. The cold and damp conditions and Michelin's specially built tires poured cold water on all and any previous expectations. Whether Michelin have turned their operation around so much as to regain their grip over the MotoGP class, or whether the Qatar race was an aberration based on the strange conditions remains to be seen. But on the results so far, the score is 1-0 for Michelin.
Michelin's resurgence also pointed to another hopeful trend. Despite Mr Perfect having won the race with a bigger margin this year than last, Stoner really had to work for this victory. By lap 6, Stoner's win was looking anything but inevitable, with the rookies showing no deference to world champions new or old. As the gaps in performance between the bikes continue to narrow, the races will continue to get closer. And Casey Stoner will go from unbeatable to fair game.
For the running battles Stoner was forced to engage in point to the way to beat the young Australian. Once Casey Stoner gets ahead and can concentrate on his own riding, without fear of finding someone slamming into the side of him, he is probably the fastest rider in the world at the moment. But get in Stoner's way and hold him up, forcing him to slug it out with the rest, and he is a lot less comfortable, and not nearly as fast.
Of course, the problem with this thesis is that Casey Stoner still managed to fight his way from 6th through to the lead, including dispatching Jorge Lorenzo, Dani Pedrosa and Valentino Rossi in a single lap. Just because Stoner is at his best when he's running on his own, it doesn't mean he isn't brilliant when he's forced to elbow his way to the front.
The Times, They Are a-Changing?
With the exception of Casey Stoner, each of the new riders in a team managed to beat their established team mates. In the case of Jorge Lorenzo and James Toseland, they managed to beat their team mates in their first race in MotoGP. With Alex de Angelis ahead of Shinya Nakano until he crashed out of the race, the young guns have clearly swaggered into town, and are sitting in people's chairs.
If you look at the result of the race at Qatar in isolation, the picture of MotoGP looks pretty much the same as last year, with Casey Stoner getting yet another runaway victory. But scratch beneath the surface, and there's plenty of change afoot. Both Stoner's and Pedrosa's bikes ran out of fuel on their way back into pit lane, suggesting that Ducati and Honda are using pretty much every drop of the 21 liters of fuel available to them, and that their machines are closer to being on equal terms. The rookies showed the veterans no respect, and barged and charged their way to the front, making the regulars work for their results. And Casey Stoner's 5 second victory may look easy on paper, but the world champion had to work a lot harder than he has had to in recent races.
What's more, just behind Stoner was a howling pack all banging fairings and racing their hearts out. The spectacle is back in MotoGP, at least in part, and it looks like getting better. Our Christmas wishes may yet come true.