The Qatar round of MotoGP always makes me think of my grandfather. During the first few months of the Second World War, he was sent to Belgium to fight the Germans. Luckily for him, the Germans were otherwise engaged, steamrollering across Poland and subduing Denmark and Norway, leaving my grandfather to trundle around the Low Countries on the back of a truck, wondering if this was what war was supposed to be like.
His question was soon to be answered: In May 1940, the Germans unleashed the Blitzkrieg, and advanced across The Netherlands, Belgium and France in the space of a few days, pushing the Allied forces, with my grandfather among them, onto the beach at Dunkirk to await their turn to be whisked to safety by the ragtag flotilla that evacuated the beach during those difficult days. The Phoney War was over; for my grandfather, the war had started for real.
While it is preposterous to regard motorcycle racing - even MotoGP - as even remotely serious global warfare, I still find myself thinking of my grandfather in the period between Qatar and Jerez. At Qatar, battle commenced officially for the MotoGP riders, with the first on-track skirmishes for points taking place. But with the race held in the dead of night, in the computer-game atmosphere of the artificial lighting, under the gaze of just a handful of people, it feels far too surreal to take seriously.
That Way Madness Lies
If Qatar is the Phoney War, Jerez is the Blitzkrieg of Fall Gelb. The deserted stands and silent night of the season opener makes way for the cacophony and chaos of the world's wildest motorcycling weekend. The Jerez round of MotoGP is louder, more dangerous, and probably involves more gunpowder and smoke than the entire German push through France and Belgium ever produced. At night, the streets of the medieval city are filled with scenes of sheer madness: helmetless and often drunk bikers attempt to wheely the length of the main thoroughfares, or if they are less inclined to monowheel action, will bounce their sportsbikes off the rev limiter, sometimes filling the skies with the acrid smoke of burning rubber, sometimes happy just to deafen onlookers with the sound of bouncing valves, and lighting up the surrounding faces with the warm glow of hot exhaust pipes. Hundreds of thousands of motorcycling fans invade the streets of the town and the surrounding area in an orgy of booze, bikes and burnouts. It is two-wheeled shock and awe at its most extreme.
Of course, the combination of large crowds, unconstrained alcohol consumption, and motorized mayhem will inevitably result in physical harm to someone somewhere, but despite the dozen or so deaths and untold injuries, the authorities positively encourage the festivities, understanding and fostering the Spanish national obsession with speed on two wheels. Spain's more enlightened attitude towards danger is perhaps explained by the extensive opportunities the nation affords for participating in the three activities Ernest Hemingway cited as the only sports, with race tracks, bull rings and mountains dotted all around the country.
This Spanish obsession with motorcycle racing places a heavy burden on their home riders. With some 120,000 paying fans, not to mention the tens of thousands of gatecrashers inside the track and fee dodgers lining the hillsides above the circuit all baying for a Spanish victory, Spanish riders arrive at the Andalucian track with a crushing weight of expectation bearing down upon them. And much to the joy of the local fans, for the first time in many years the chances of a home win look very good indeed.
Hot favorite must surely be Dani Pedrosa. The Repsol Honda man's hand injury is largely healed now, and his deeply impressive ride at Qatar has shown that HRC's favorite son is very much in form. Pedrosa was the only man capable of challenging Valentino Rossi at Jerez last year, and this year, he has an added advantage: Jerez seems to favor the Michelins over the Bridgestones, with the French tire maker traditionally outperforming their Japanese rivals here.
But it's not just about tires: Nicky Hayden's outstanding times during the official IRTA test at Jerez in mid February proved that, despite its shortcomings, the Honda RC212V is plenty fast around a track which doesn't favor all-out top speed. Pedrosa's times in February were not too much to write home about, but he was only just starting to recover from his broken hand. Now almost back to full health, Pedrosa is a very strong candidate for the win at Jerez.
He won't get the win without a fight, though, and one man he will have to fend off is his compatriot and bitter rival Jorge Lorenzo. The Fiat Yamaha rookie already showed his mettle in an outstanding display at Qatar, taking pole and finishing on the podium on his very first MotoGP race. Lorenzo's performance surprised a lot of people, although probably not himself. For the reigning 250 champion is not short of self-confidence, as the fact that he will be presenting his biography at Jerez, at the tender age of just 20 years old, attests.
Jorge Lorenzo won the 250 race at Jerez for the last two years, and will be hoping to make it number three here on Sunday. With an all-Yamaha front row at Qatar, and two Yamahas on the podium at Jerez last year, Lorenzo's chances are very good. And with Lorenzo still angry at having been snubbed by Pedrosa on the podium at Qatar, we can surely expect some fireworks from the fiery Mallorcan champion at Jerez.
The Slow Train
The final Spaniard on the MotoGP grid is unlikely to be able to live up to the expectations of the vast crowds. The disappointment of the Spanish fans will only be made worse by the fact that Toni Elias is very much a crowd favorite, his wild, impetuous style providing exactly the spectacle they came to see. But Elias is yet another rider who has made the switch to Ducati and failed to cope. The former race winner at Estoril now finds himself running around at the back of the pack, rather than in with a shout at a podium as in previous years.
Elias is not alone: Sylvain Guintoli and Marco Melandri are in very much the same situation. Guintoli impressed everyone last year by punching far above his weight on a second string bike and third string tires, and Marco Melandri is a former 250 world champion and MotoGP title candidate, yet neither Guintoli, Melandri or Elias seem capable of going fast on the Ducati, the bike that won the world title last year. Ducati team manager Livio Suppo has even hinted at dropping Melandri from the factory squad and just continuing with a single rider if things don't improve. For the three Ducati riders who aren't world champion, little improvement can be expected at Jerez.
The same can also be said of Casey Stoner, but in the world champion's case, that is because it's impossible to improve on perfection. To the surprise of absolutely nobody at all, Mr Perfect won his last race out on tires which weren't suited to the conditions, after dominating much of practice. After blitzing the official IRTA tests in February, Jerez looks like being more of the same for the Australian. The only ray of hope for the opposition is that Jerez was one of Stoner's weakest races last year, the track not suiting the nature of the Ducati particularly well. The bad news is that since that race, Casey Stoner has gotten better and better, and has utterly destroyed the opposition at other tracks which weren't supposed to suit the Ducati, such as Laguna Seca. Mr Perfect has promised to atone for his mistakes at Jerez last year, a prospect which cannot inspire a lot of confidence in the people who must try to beat him.
The Comeback Kid?
If there is one man who feels he really must beat Casey Stoner, it's the seven-times world champion Valentino Rossi. So disillusioned was Rossi with his bike and tires last year that he engineered a switch from Michelins to Bridgestones and threatened to leave Yamaha at the end of his contract if the bike didn't show major improvement. His threats and machinations have worked, as Rossi is happy once again, and feels capable of competing. He certainly proved competitive during the early laps of the Qatar race, before fading as his tires started to lose grip. But up till then, he'd be able to battle for places and hold off the Ducati, one of his preseason demands.
And Rossi has an outstanding record to defend at Jerez: The Doctor has won 5 of the 8 premier class races at the Spanish track, including an important win here last year. Rossi will need to repeat that accomplishment again this year, as he finds himself in exactly the same situation as in 2007, entering the race at Jerez on his joint longest losing streak since his first win in the senior class at Donington. Last year's start-to-finish victory put an end to that streak, but with Rossi and his crew chief Jerry Burgess still learning their way around the Bridgestone tires, the job which faces them is significantly tougher than in 2007.
They have a lot of work to do. Although Rossi's Fiat Yamaha team have plenty of data from the IRTA test at Jerez in February, the weather on race day is expected to be quite different. February's test was cool and damp, with rain and wind making conditions far from ideal. But the forecast for this weekend is for warm, dry spring weather, with only a few clouds to cool the track on Saturday. Valentino Rossi faces an uphill struggle on Sunday, but you can never, ever write The Doctor off.
The one thing that Rossi will be hoping to avoid is another drubbing by the class rookies. Being beaten by his team mate Jorge Lorenzo was one thing, the Michelins obviously working well at Qatar, but being mugged on the last lap by Andrea Dovizioso on the Scot Honda is quite another. What's more, Rossi was also lucky not to lose out to the storming James Toseland as well.
For the class rookies were the revelation of Qatar. Lorenzo's pole was fantastic, but Dovizioso taking 4th on a satellite Honda was possibly even more impressive. Dovi has obviously learned a lot from his time spent on the underpowered Honda 250, and is putting those lessons to good use. With Jerez being a track requiring more corner speed than pure top end, it should favor the Italian, who was impressive during the IRTA test in February. Dovizioso has finished 3rd at his last two 250 cc races at Jerez, and another visit to the podium in Spain is not beyond the bounds of possibility. The veterans have been warned.
Something Old, Something New
Once such veteran is Colin Edwards. Now probably in his last year of MotoGP before returning home to the USA, and relieved of the burden of being Valentino Rossi's team mate, the Texan is positively unleashed. A front row qualifying performance in Qatar only resulted in 7th during the race, but both Edwards and team mate James Toseland were obviously down on top speed along Qatar's long and very fast straight. Jerez is a track where outright horsepower counts for a lot less, and last year, Edwards converted 4th on the grid into a spot on the podium. There is a very good chance that the Texas Tornado could repeat that achievement this year.
First, he will have to fend off his rookie team mate. There were a lot of question marks hanging over James Toseland, as the history of World Superbike champions entering MotoGP has not been a particularly happy one of late. Both Colin Edwards and Troy Bayliss were the last actual champions to make the jump, and neither of them managed to translate their Superbike titles into MotoGP crowns. So Toseland's outstanding 6th in his first race aboard the underpowered Tech 3 Yamaha turned an awful lot of heads. Toseland has shown progression in almost every session he has ridden on a MotoGP bike, and his willingness to mix it up was abundantly apparent in the thrilling scrap over the first few laps at Qatar. A victory is a bit much to hope for, but you have to expect the young Brit to be slugging it out near the front.
Hope And Despair
With the newcomers increasingly taking over the class, how about the MotoGP veterans? Former world champion Nicky Hayden will be both worried and hopeful at Jerez. Worried, because he is still trying to find a rapport with the RC212V, and his 10th place finish at Qatar did not give much reason for optimism. But there may be some light at the end of the tunnel for Hayden, as the Kentuckian should have the latest version of Honda's RC212V at his disposal, after Repsol didn't have enough bikes to go round at the season opener. What's more, Hayden was also the fastest rider on the final day of the IRTA test, as well as being very quick in qualifying at Qatar. Whether the combination of the new bike and familiar territory will mean that Hayden's fortunes aboard the 800 have finally turned the corner remains to be seen.
Like his compatriot, John Hopkins will also be both worried and hopeful. Hopper is still suffering the after-effects of a nasty groin injury he picked up in testing, but he is slowly regaining his fitness. He may also have the screamer version of the Kawasaki to ride at Jerez, as Kawasaki test rider Olivier Jacque has spent a lot of time testing the bike over the past weeks. The new bike kicks out more power than the long bang version Kawasaki is currently using, and as the electronics are refined, that power is being produced more manageably. But until Hopkins is back to full fitness, any hopes of running at the front will have to take a back seat.
The Suzuki riders are also unlikely to be fighting for the podium. Somewhere at the end of 2007, the Suzuki project seemed to lose its way, and since then, both Chris Vermeulen and Loris Capirossi have struggled to make an impression. Capirossi at least is pleased to be off the Ducati, the 800 cc version of which he never did get to grips with, despite his customary victory at Motegi. The Italian veteran is full of praise for the Suzuki, saying it is much easier to ride than the Ducati. Having won here back in 2006, Capirex will be hoping for a turnaround in his fortunes at Jerez.
Let Battle Commence!
And so, after the cold, alien, nighttime skirmishes at Qatar, hostilities are about to commence in earnest under the warm springtime Spanish sun. What's more, instead of only the 4 cylinder bark of MotoGP bikes filling the grandstands, the heaving crowd of Spanish race fans will drown out the sound of 130dB motorcycles in a deafening roar of enthusiasm and thirst for action. Jerez truly is what motorcycle racing is all about: off-track mayhem and on-track action, all under a hot southern sun. The Phoney War is over, and battle is about to be joined in full force. Roll on Sunday.