2011 MotoGP Qatar Day 2 Roundup: A Few Thoughts

What a difference a day makes. On Sunday, the desert was calm, temperate, really quite pleasant overall, at least until the temperatures started to drop and the dew came. Monday was a different proposition altogether; Twitter was ablaze with reports of a sandstorm blowing over the Losail circuit.

As we drove to the circuit ourselves, it turned out that "sandstorm" was a bit of an exaggeration. But not by too much: winds were very strong, with plenty of gusts, and the air was laden with dust. We didn't expect to see too much action tonight, but when the horn sounded for the start of the five-hour session, bikes started to trickle out onto the track, despite the wind.

The wind would be a key player, and expose the weakness of a champion. In his daily media debrief, Jorge Lorenzo fulminated against his bike, complaining that they couldn't get a setup for the bike, they'd gone backwards, and that if they had had to race tonight, he would have been running 1'57.2s and watching the Hondas disappear doing 1'56.0s. "Even my grandmother would have been faster than me on a bike with a good setup," Lorenzo quipped.

Speaking to Lorenzo's team manager, Wilco Zeelenberg, added some nuance to Lorenzo's bleak assessment. Lorenzo's strength, and much of his speed, came from his smoothness and his ability to carry very high corner speed. When the winds are like they were tonight - powerful, blustery and unpredictable - carrying high corner speed is much harder to do: being precise is almost impossible when being buffeted by 50mph gusts of wind.

The difference was apparent in the timesheets. Early in the evening, when the buffeting was worst, Lorenzo's times were fast but inconsistent. As the winds dropped slightly, and more importantly, evened out, the gusting stopping, Lorenzo's times took on their usual, regular appearance. Lorenzo was cranking out laps like clockwork, admittedly slower than he might have wished for, but at least he was consistent once more.

High winds are Lorenzo's weakness, but that is no bad weakness to have. Through the 18 races that MotoGP goes to over the course of the year, the only race that is reliably blustery is Phillip Island; the rest are a little more sheltered and usually easier to handle. If the winds drop over the weekend, Lorenzo will be just fine; unfortunately for the 2010 World Champion, the weather is expected to be much as it was this evening: relatively cold, and with fairly strong winds.

Where Lorenzo was seething, factory Yamaha teammate Ben Spies was happy, and pleased with what they have achieved. Coming from a World Superbike may have helped the Texan, giving him an edge in muscling around a bike struggling with the wind. The question of the hour has been whether Spies will be elevated to Alien status this season, now that he has a year's experience and a factory machine at his disposal. The results of testing suggest he may have been awarded his provisional Alien license, and granted permission to operate a MotoGP bike at the very front of the pack. That status remains provisional though, and Spies may have to exercise that permission under the watchful eye of one or more fully-qualified Aliens, at least for the first third of the season.

The winners on Monday - and the winners of the test - were clearly Honda, with Casey Stoner and Dani Pedrosa lapping half a second quicker than the rest of the pack. Both men got into the 1'55s, their nearest pursuer Ben Spies in 3rd, with a lap of 1'56.294. They were, as Valentino Rossi so tellingly put it, "from another planet" and beyond the reach of anyone just at the moment.

Here too, appearances are deceptive, though. Both Pedrosa and Stoner cranked out a whole series of 1'56s, but the Spaniard only made a single foray into the 1'55s. Casey Stoner, on the other hand, put in a full 7 laps of 1'55s, in addition to his 1'56s. If Pedrosa and Stoner are from another planet, as Rossi says, then Pedrosa's planet still lies on the very far edges of the solar system. Planet Stoner, on the other hand, seems to be on the other side of the galaxy altogether.

You can tell all you need to know about Casey Stoner from his demeanor. While at Ducati, Stoner often looked frustrated and uptight, and if prompted in the correct way, could be set off to produce a string of quote-worthy lines on a whole range of subjects. To his credit, none of those subjects were ever his satisfaction with Ducati, though his signing with HRC at just the 2nd race of the season should tell you all you need to on that score. At Honda, Stoner looks different, exuding an almost serene calm, an excitement about what is to come, almost free from care.

At Ducati, meanwhile, the mood is different, and considerably blacker. Nicky Hayden put on a superb performance tonight, going round and round in circles and not really saying very much. Hayden, ever the loyal company man, would not lay the blame on anything in particular, saying merely that they needed to fix the front end, and that he was hopeful that they would find a solution soon.

The sooner the better. That front end problem was demonstrated by the fact that every Ducati rider suffered at least one crash over the course of the two-day test. All of them were related to the front end one way or another, though the riders were happy to accept at least part of the blame. Rossi's crash on Monday was due to hitting a white line, he said, while Hayden admitted to just pushing hard for a fast time on the last lap of practice, and pushing the front just a little bit too far in his eagerness for a time.

A solution is still nowhere in sight, however. Rossi reverted to the setup used by Casey Stoner at last year's race, the setup which Stoner secured pole with, set the fastest lap with, and was leading the race with. Right up until he lost the front and crashed out, that is, losing the front to a lack of grip. Stoner himself pointed out that he and his crew did not get their front end issues ironed out until after the race at Aragon, two-thirds of the way into the season. Though Stoner had a couple of crashes after that, he put those down to himself, not down to the bike.

One thing hampering development was the state of Rossi's shoulder. It was still slightly painful and week, Rossi estimating it to be at about 70% of what it ought to be. But the biggest problem, Rossi explained was just plain physical endurance. He could ride hard for a while, but the harder he rode, the quicker his shoulder would give up the ghost, and that would be the end of the day.

The problem for Rossi is that the Ducati has to be ridden with a more physical style, "more like a 500". The bike won't turn without being muscled about, and with a weakened and painful shoulder, that's too much to ask. Rossi acknowledged that he had to change his riding style, but he also added that the bike still had plenty of problems. They still don't have a setup which works, and race day is getting nearer.

Rossi may take some small comfort from the fact that race weekend has an entirely different complexion to testing. The test consisted of two five-hour days, with riders free to do as many laps as they could. The four-day schedule sees four sessions of 45 minute practice, but the really good news for the Italian is that the MotoGP class takes to the track just once on Thursday and Saturday, and twice on Friday and Sunday, with plenty of time to recuperate in between sessions. It won't be Welkom all over again, but there is a credible chance that Rossi will get a sniff of the podium on Sunday. If he doesn't suffer a front-end crash, as so many Ducatis have done during testing, that is.

Venturing out to trackside to see the bikes with my own eyes - and hear them with my own ears - I was struck by a few things. Here's what I noticed at the two days of the test:

  • The relative volumes of the bikes have changed since the end of 2010. The Yamaha has become a tad louder, perhaps reflecting Valentino Rossi's penchant for a quieter bike. Rossi certainly hasn't received one from Ducati, though, the Italian machines still being by far the loudest of the bikes. The bellowing boom of the Desmosedici can be heard all the way from the other side of the track. But the biggest surprise is the Honda: the RC212V sounds significantly quieter than 2010, very much the quietest of the bunch. Horsepower, quite clearly, is not directly proportional to decibels.
  • The bikes look smoother once again, the MotoGP machines looking very tight on the way into corners, and tipping in completely under control. Huge advances have clearly been made in electronics over the past few years, almost all of which have been in the area of engine braking and the slipper clutches, allowing riders to enter the corner with the wheels almost perfectly inline. Traction Control - cutting power on corner exit - is still a significant factor, but corner entry is where the voodoo magic is, where tenths are still to be gained.
  • The Hondas are clearly the fastest bikes on the grid, but the hopping or chatter the bikes suffer is clear for all to see. The bike is stable on the brakes and going into the corners, but as the riders transition to full lean, the rear of the machine starts to wallow like an old 70s roadbike, reminding me for all the world of the old Suzuki GT380 I once owned. I could set wallowing off at the rear end by hitting a bump at speed while leaned over, and it felt much like the condition the Hondas seemed to be suffering. But, as Casey Stoner pointed out, if the Hondas are this quick with that problem, then there is nothing much to worry about.

Testing is done. On Sunday we race. The season starts for real on Thursday. At last.

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...that reduced decibel level from the HRC bikes means they found a very attractive compromise on the mid-range torque vs. high-end (fuel sucking) power scale.

Whose bikes are getting off the corners the best?

"Planet Stoner, on the other hand, seems to be on the other side of the galaxy altogether."

....the alien's alien.

great racing this season - with HRC so far ahead I am not confident of this... (but I will still watch;-).

I hear the voices in my head telling me this is "just" testing... but it seems a bit more ominous than that right now.... Looks like I better save my $$ to buy that steak for my buddy that said stoner will take it all..

But in the words of Chris Berman (america foot ball sports caster) ' That's why they play the game" Let's race already.

yeah I hear ya. i hope the classic season we were promised doesnt disappear in a cloud of Honda dust

We will have to wait for a few races to reveal Bens home planet. The difference between the current 4 & the rest is the ability to do the target lap time for the whole race. The distance from the sun is where you live.

do the target lap time for the whole race

And they're doing their voodoo every race in the whole season. Another mandatory quality of an alien.

great observations David. Just a couple more days, I can almost taste it. Glad VR could get his taste of the Sh*tty Ducati front end before the racing starts. Better get used that buddy, you'll be tasting that fine wine regularly unless things take a drastic turn for the better.

There's a couple of dynamics I'm really looking forward to observing this season. The dynamic between Stoner and Dani as the season wears on if they are both still neck and neck. And if Spies continues to outperform Jorge (and if the Honda outperform Jorge), if Wilco's favourite little Spaniard start throwing his toys out the pram.

What Rossi said at Indianapolis GP 2010 finally comes true..., of course it is only temporary, there should be more to come to judge that it is really true, that time He said that Jorge has already had his own Jorge next to his garage next season, if I am not mistaken It was actually an italian interview done by gpone translated by many websites or presses, including MTM, I only hope that Jorge can be better than Hayden 2007 and Stoner 2008, the last two riders experiencing how hard it is to have a Motogp world champion title. Hayden won no race that season while stoner was better by taking 5. I exclude Rossi since he has many titles not a single, and when he became world champion in 2001 he succeeded to defend it right in 2002 season. How many will Jorge manage to this season??? Let us just see. If Jlo could win 5 races then I am brave to say that he is well better than Hayden and Stoner in terms of riding as a defending word champion.

Seems to be a lot more fast riders this year and certainly more factory bikes. This is probably one of the hardest years to predict a winner ...... bugger of a year to have to defend the title!

has anyone actually set eyes on Livio Suppo? Or can't anybody get near him for the heat of the smile? He must be looking like a Cheshire cat with a free lifetime supply of eccies...

Track conditions not optimum with Stoner 0.3 secs slower on the Honda than the Duke at the equivalent test 2010. Hayden as a constant was 0.7 secs slower than the 2010 test. To my mind this indicates that Stoner is still riding (relatively) well within himself - plenty more to come from him should he need it.

Those RCV's certainly sound like they have Lorenzo somewhat flustered. It may have been lost in translation but has he not in essence stated already that he wants to win at least the same number of races as in 2010? How hard is he willing to push (take risks) in order to try and achieve this? Lorenzo was up until this test my title favourite (not personal preference) for 2011. I'm not so sure now, the facts as they stand after all the testing to date certainly puts Pedrosa and Stoner in the box seat.

I like your style of writing, I'm converted.

Fulminated ... sheez, we’re talking bonies here ...! Sorry, bonies refers to motorbikes where I came from - Germiston, to the east of Johannesburg. And I thought I knew words ... must be the combination of Fume – and something else with a "...minate” behind it ... who says I write for a living?

Anyways, I digress ... Lorentho’s grandmother faster ... hell, now that’s one hell of a gran. But nice in a strange way to see him have problems – and sounding a bit like Biaggi – and we all know where that gets you.

Spies and Alien status – Stoner on a different planet – man did you get your inspiration from Jack Daniel’s - no offence of course, he gives me my best ideas as well.

I like the “ride the Ducati with a more physical 500 style” ... yes please, Rossi tapping into that muscle memory that’s there.

Honda with chatter ... mmm, gonna be interesting.

Nice article guy ..!

Nobody mentioning De Puniet is 6th with a satellite Duke? I really have the feeling at this point that the Duke needs to be rode recklessly, madly crazy, trusting it beyond levels you use for more traditional frames. The shoulder could be a hindering factor but Rossi should be able to get at least one fast lap.

If my understanding is correct, Rossi's position in the time sheets is a bit misleading, as he didn't go out to play on the soft tyres when everyone else was jostling for position.

I'm not suggesting he would have been up there with Stoner/Pedrosa if he had, but it may be a shrewd move on the Doctor's part to have not even started playing a game he knew he would lose.

As has been said numerous times, testing doesn't count for a lot, and Rossi will be heavily relying on his racecraft to make up for the bike's current lack of turning, at least in the first part of the season.

... Rossi will be heavily relying on his racecraft to make up for the bike's current lack of turning

By all the bashing of the Duke maybe one should not forget that Stoner demolished the competition in Philip Island in October 2010 and got only 2nd in the last race in Valencia because of a wrong tyre choice.
So by all the justified compassion towards Rossi's situation, let's not forget that this bike can win races if a capable rider sits in the saddle.

in the last 6 races in 2010. This bike has handling issues but is certainly not a dog.

Look more carefully at what Casey has achieved on the duke the last couple of years. Looking at 2009. Finished very strongly, bike sorted etc etc., Only to have huge issues at the start of the 2010. End of 2008 and start of 2009 exactly the same.
2010 start - 2 x 5th, 1 x 4th, 2 x DNF Casey out of championship after a handful of races. Casey has shown consistantly that there is no correlation between the duke going well at the end of the year and being a good season long package.

1. The Ducati engineers "improve" the bike in the off season.
2. Stoner takes half a season to sort out a setup he can win on.
3. Stoner/Ducati grabs a handful of wins and looks as good as ever, too late for the title.
4. Rinse, repeat.

(Qatar spoils the pattern each year but I'm willing to ignore facts in the interests of a better story)

Not a pretty pattern. Now Rossi gets to play the Stoner role at the same time Honda have finally gotten it all together. Ouch.

summary Armco !! A very succinct ( unfortunately ) " history " of Ducati from 2008 on............

If it was just trust with madly crazy, then I'm guessing we'll see quite a few front-end washes and circus high-sides. Trusting an unstable girl friend, though at times may lead to a good time, will eventually end badly. I wonder how different the Bridgestone compound is from 2010?

There's a pole sticking up on the left side of the Ducati plane.

... at this point that the Duke needs to be rode recklessly.

Has this every been different in the past?

Crash.net paints a good picture...
"Looking at the number of sub-1min 57sec laps, Stoner recorded 23 (out of 46), compared with 12 (out of 39) for Pedrosa, nine (out of 70) for Simoncelli, eight (out of 45) for Spies, just five (out of 58) for Dovizioso and 4 (out of 48) for Lorenzo, then 3 (out of 67) for de Puniet. "
stoner seems to have quite an edge over dani and even more over the rest of the field...

Who would of pegged a satellite Ducati being a match for the factory yams.??

I don't think you can read much into the number of fast laps a rider does. Dp in a race weekend rarely shows his true pace till late qualifying. Doesn't mean he didn't have till then. I suspect it just means Casey was pushing harder in testing which he is known for... Many of the fastest times where done on softies which wont go the distance at qatar due to the sand I believe. But as ever, without the full agenda it's just guess work..

Testing is just testing...we'll see where everyone truly sits on Saturday. HRC is going to be very, very tough; obviously...but can Stoner keep it on two wheels? He's been quite clearly the "fastest" rider on the grid for years, but he's inconsistent when challenged. Pedrosa should be able to stick with him, it will be very interesting to see if he can stay focused with that kind of pressure on him.

Lorenzo really seems to be flying under the radar...and Spies is going to turn some heads, even more than he already has. I think he makes a serious run for the title this year.

Cannot WAIT!

...of Stoner's inconsistency was purely Ducati? After two days of testing we've just seen every single Ducati rider off the bike, some multiple times, while Stoner happily lapped like clockwork at the top of the timesheets.

Stoner has shown a willingness to push past safe limits looking for wins rather than settle for 5th but its getting harder to deny that the Ducati really is horribly unpredictable.

Based on the lap charts Stoner/Pedrosa is starting to look a lot like Doohan/Criville - Pedrosa can match or better Stoner's pace in short spurts but Stoner can just keep churning out those fast laps and grind him down. I just hope someone else can get up there with them so it isn't a complete '90s flashback.

says a lot.
Some people thought it was only due to Casey riding style but all the Ducati riders fell a lot in 2010 (a lot more than Honda or Yamaha riders). The same people dismissed this fact because Espargaro and Kallio were supposedly not up to the task.
But if you pay attention to Nicky, he's never been the crashing kind of guy, very regular (the very same regularity earned him a world championship that few can forget...or sometimes forgive), as soon as he upped the rhythm and got into top6, he would lose the front repeatedly without warning, as much as he stated "never have fallen so often in one season in his entire career".
Nothing really surprising in these crashes, the positive is that some fans could slowly start seeing Stoner in a different light...

Dear David,

Some more interesting stuff from the depths of the French Internet :)
Randy made his best time at the end of a series of 8 laps, we know it, but according to the interview on this page (http://moto.caradisiac.com/Moto-GP-Test-Qatar-Randy-De-Puniet-Pret-pour-...) he was on hard tyres, and reckons that few guys were at this pace on hard tyres.

"J’ai réussi à faire un long run et à enregistrer mon meilleur chrono sur pneu dur, et je pense qu’il n’y a pas beaucoup de pilotes qui aient réussi à faire d’aussi bons chronos sur pneu dur. C’est donc de bon augure pour dimanche."

Just sayin', food for thought ;)

It's a tastement to your great articles that people get excited and passionate and offer all these opinions, most of them informed, thanks no less to words like yours, David.
So thanx for carrying us to Losail and anywhere else you go, we almost hear the engines and people talking through your lines.
So. Did we miss the exasperation of Lorenzo the 2nd day in Qatar? "My grandmother would be faster...?" Not Something to Go Well with Japanese pride. They will remember it 4 ever.
Lorenzo has supposedly matured this last year, controlling Latin emotions and taking charge of his impulses. Did he "loose it" for a while in Losail, or is it my imagination? And what will happen, when he takes over the task of developing the new MotoGP M1? Until now Rossi did the job... Now it rests on his shoulders. Is he capable of both tasks --developing the 1.000cc And defending the title? Some reservations there...