The way the year is shaping up
It’s been another turbulent few days in bike racing, with all three of the main series that we cover here at MCN throwing up more than a few interesting stories, and some huge underlining issues bubbling to the surface too. It’s a great time to be writing about bike racing.
Everywhere you look right now in the three main series MCN covers – MotoGP, WSB, and BSB – there is ongoing talk about problems teams are facing in the job of winning races and titles in the here and now, and also of problems they are facing in winning races next year, and beyond. It’s hard for teams and manufacturers to keep their eye on the task of winning races at the best of times, but rarely more so than now.
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In MotoGP, the season has started spectacularly for the fans, with four different winners of the opening four races, on three makes of bike. A month before the start of the season, it looked like it would be a battle for second again, with Rossi way out front, Honda not quite getting its act together, and the rest scrapping over the small prizes.
But as we know the once faultless Yamaha operation seems to be in meltdown, the Honda rookies we expected would spend 2006 learning are up there fighting for wins, Suzuki are at the sharp end of GPs for the first time in years, and Honda’s two works RCVs – Hayden and Pedrosa’s – have shown they are the class of the pack, despite being quite different bikes. All change from last year.
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It’s all change in WSB too. Last year four-cylinder bikes had it all their own way, and Ducati looked like a fading force – perhaps now just facing too much of a job to make their bikes fast against the fours. Well, how wrong that assumption was: Bayliss is making everyone else look a little silly on a bike that is a good 20bhp down on some of the best fours.
And in BSB, it’s all change but with more of the same – Honda are relying on Karl Harris, the class rookie, to show that the wheels haven’t well and truly come off the HRC BSB effort already, while Suzuki have found whatever they were missing and now look again like a team that could win things. It’s just a shame that GSE and Gregorio Lavilla has already built up a significant points lead.
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Behind all this, massive issues are being debated regarding the future of all three series, and I can’t help but think that they are having a significant effect on what is happening in the racing right now.
In MotoGP, Yamaha and Valentino Rossi’s attention was without doubt diverted in the off-season by the intense interest in the will-he-won’t-he saga of Rossi’s potential move to Formula One. Before the year had even started, Rossi and Yamaha management were being carpet bombed with questions about 2007 and beyond, as if 2006 was an irrelevant detail. It is easy to believe that Yamaha spent too much strategic thinking time thinking about how to prepare for the post-Rossi era, at the cost of preparing for 2006. The irony is, it seems he won’t be going now after all.
Also, Yamaha are distinctly aware that next year sees the introduction of 800cc racers in the class. This year’s models will be obsolete. For Yamaha this is fast becoming a nightmare scenario, especially if Rossi does leave. Aside from the Italian, none of their current three remaining riders can really be expected to have a radically improved display of form on the smaller bikes, which will demand a neater riding style closer to that of a super 250. Of all Yamaha’s men, only Rossi has shone in 250 GPs, and only the Italian appears to have the ability to surpass the limitations of the current bike for a win.
If they do lose him, and he leaves before he is able to develop a decent bike as a parting gift, it is back to square one for Yamaha – and in 2002, the first four-stroke year, that meant seeing Honda win nearly every race. So, just as it needs to be working at top speed to make the current M1 a better race bike, it is also throwing huge time and resources at creating an all-new 800. Is it any wonder the existing bike is proving so hard to fix?
Against this backdrop, Honda has also been gearing up for the 800cc era. It is likely there are two or even three variants of an 800cc Honda racer whanging round tracks in Japan already, with some pretty unusual engine configurations. The paddock expects the next generation Honda racebike to be as close to the finished article as the original RCV was, as it is HRC’s style to have around a year of development under the belt of any ‘new’ bike before it races. This was the case of the RCV, but also of the SP-1, which spent over a year in testing before its WSB winning debut. No other manufacturer can throw this kind of resource at new projects.
And it is no coincidence that Honda has hoovered up all the best young talent in GPs too – much of it with strong 250 backgrounds. It has Dani Pedrosa and Casey Stoner this season, who dominated 250s last year, and of course managed to snaffle Marco Melandri and Toni Elias from Yamaha for this season too – Melandri another 250 word title winner. All have lengthy careers ahead of them.
So for the rest of this year in MotoGP, we can expect the battles off-track to be as hard fought as those on track, with an increasing volume of news regarding the development of new 800cc bikes, and rider signings for 2007 getting especially ugly as the year goes on. We know that Yamaha have already approached Casey Stoner for 2007, while the rumours are the current three top 250 men are already being tapped up by MotoGP teams of all colours – Jorge Lorenzo and Hector Barbera proving tempting propositions for their skill and the sponsorship cash they could bring from Spain.
Yamaha’s case for wooing Stoner is made a little stronger by the surge in form of Nicky Hayden. His Repsol ride would have been in doubt if he had misfired this year, and teaming Stoner up with Dani looked like an obvious match for 2007 for Honda if Nicky had had a nightmare year. However, as we have seen Hayden is taking the fight to the front and leads the series – and a welcome sight too: he’s a great bloke, a great rider, and is responding well to being Honda’s top man.
Speaking of the new 800s, a hint at how fast they will be came from Olivier Jacque who tested his ZX-RR 990cc bike at Mugello at the same time as Ducati’s new 800cc Desmosedici Mini-Me was out. OJ said the new bike was already matching his Kawasaki’s top speed down the Mugello straight, despite giving away nearly 200cc. While this was merely food for thought for Honda, it must have sent shock through the Kawasaki 800cc development team.
Away from MotoGP, there is just as much going on off-track regarding next season and beyond as there is at the races now – and it’s potentially just as distracting to the competitors.
While Bayliss and Lavilla are walking away with superbike races, their management are hearing of moves to ban the very things that help their bikes punch above their weight so well: electronic rider aids. Even though the works 999s put out a smidgeon under 200bhp, compared to over 225bhp for say the Winston Hondas, the advanced electronics Ducati have attached to the works 999s allow them to access more of their horsepower more of the time, which is the real secret of racing these days. That and superb aerodynamics mask the battle Ducati face.
Don’t get me wrong, what Bayliss is doing is remarkable – you only have to watch him from trackside to see he has raised the game in the entire series this year – but it comes at remarkable cost, both in technology, and in Ducati throwing engines at his bikes like they are basic consumables. Is this what superbike racing was ever meant to be about?
Meanwhile, the change to allow 1200cc V-twins in WSB is all-but finalised, and again for the average fan this is a confusing change. The typical question we get at MCN goes: The current rules are the same for all and easily understandable, so why change them? Well, you need to remember this: the current rules are NOT the same for everyone – V-twins are allowed to be tuned far higher than four-cylinder bikes.
A move to have identical tuning rules, with only a 200cc gap in capacity, is actually one that most teams welcome. They understand fine well that a twin and four of identical tune and capacity will never be a match. At present, it looks like air restrictors are the preferred means of balancing out the bikes in the future.
An added benefit of this would be the cutting of costs. If Ducati have the same tuning regs as the others, they wouldn’t be forced/allowed (depending on how you see it) to spend their way to lap times. And nor would ‘works’ teams with the deepest pockets pull 1s a lap or more out of their customer team rivals just by the fitment of better electronics.
And us? Fingers crossed we get better road bikes, smoke off the rear tyres, riders doing the work again, and – best of all – closer racing.
With all this politics going on, it’s of course worth reiterating that there is some racing going on right now that is pretty damn good. See you in Le Mans, Mondello, Silverstone…
We had to feel sorry for the poor German 250 GP privateer Dirk Heidolf, who racked up twice as many air miles as necessary getting to China for last weekend’s Shanghai race.
One of the unseen problems which faces every racer, and all their team, and anyone who follows the season from race to race – including the media – is getting the right working visas for every country you go to. There’s plenty of room for error, it seems.
Heidolf managed to get his passport stolen just before flying out to Shanghai, but still sorted an emergency set of one-off immigration documents from German officials before boarding a plane with the words “You’ll be fine…” ringing in his ears. In German, clearly.
Alas, the Chinese officials saw it differently, and no sooner had they scanned Heidolf’s paperwork than he was slapped in cuffs, escorted to a jail cell for the night, and bundled on the first available plane back to Germany the next day.
You’d think that might be the end of his race weekend, but it transpired on his arrival back in Germany that the police had recovered his original stolen passport – meaning Heidolf got back on the next flight to China, and crossed his fingers all would be well second time around. It was, and he took a solitary point in the race. That’s dedication.
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