This is going to be an exciting week in the wonderful world of motorcycling. On Wednesday, the motorcycling world gathers to find out what the future of biking holds as the Intermot, the first of the major motorcycle shows, opens in Munich, Germany. Meanwhile, at the other end of continental Europe, the motorcycle racing world gathers to discover what the future of MotoGP holds, as the MotoGP circus gathers at Estoril for the Portuguese GP. At both venues, the focus will be on shiny new motorcycles, kept a closely-guarded secret until now. The difference is that in Munich, most of the attention will be on the world's biggest manufacturers, and what they have in store for us. At Estoril, all eyes will be on the racing world's newest, and arguably smallest, racing manufacturer.
New Kid On The Block
For on Thursday, Ilmor, the British-based factory with a long history in Formula 1, will roll their V4 800 out to be ridden in anger for the very first time. Ex-GP star Garry McCoy will be racing Mario Illien and Eskil Suter's brainchild, and even the most jaded of MotoGP followers can barely contain their curiosity at how this new addition to the field will compare. Perhaps the most salacious detail is the fact that this is an 800, and by running against the 990s, due to pass into MotoGP history at the end of the season, the Ilmor will be setting the benchmark against which all other 800s will be measured. Already, rumors are rife that Ducati will be racing their 800 at Valencia, but by turning up at Estoril, Ilmor have captured the attention of the world.
Choosing to debut their bike at Estoril may be a smart move for another reason as well. As a track, Estoril has a bit of everything: One of the fastest straights of the year, one of the slowest chicanes of the year, a tight, technical infield section, and a fast, sweeping corner back onto the main straight. Setting up the bike is hard, as it needs to be stable in the high-speed sections, yet still be nimble enough to change direction easily in the tight turns. Get the suspension wrong, and you trash your tires before the race is over; Get it right, and you take home the trophy.
Estoril has a bit of everything climate-wise as well: located just behind Portugal's Atlantic seaboard, and hosting a Grand Prix at the start of the fall, as the westerly winds sweep the tail end of the hurricane season across the wooded hills, the weather at the Portuguese Grand Prix can be unpredictable at best. And if the weather that the MotoGP circus has suffered all year is anything to go by, then the chances of a quiet, dry weekend are very slim indeed.
A dry weekend is something we certainly didn't see last year. Sete Gibernau, fresh from the humiliation of being dumped in the gravel in the last corner fracas at Jerez, took off into the distance at Estoril in 2005. Gibernau, then on a Movistar Honda, seemed to have the race, and his revenge on Rossi, in the bag, until the weather turned, the white flags signifying a flag-to-flag race came out for the first time, and Sete got caught out in the treacherous conditions going into the first corner. His race was over. Though the rain flag came out, it never rained hard enough to make it worthwhile losing the 50-odd seconds to change bikes. The front runners stayed out, cautiously, on slicks, forewarned by Gibernau's cruel fate.
Eventually, the podium consisted of Alex Barros, who went to World Superbikes, Valentino Rossi, who became world champion, and Max Biaggi, who went off to cool his heels for a year, to return in 2007, riding, well, something somewhere, but most likely a Suzuki Superbike. With two of last year's podium (in-)active elsewhere this year, the top step should be different this weekend.
Nowhere To Hide
That leaves us with one favorite from last year's race. But last year's form isn't the only reason to think that Valentino Rossi has the best shot at taking home 25 Portuguese points this weekend: Rossi has been consistently strong at Estoril since he entered MotoGP. Add to this the fact that the Yamaha M1 has been turned around from a bucking bronco to a surgeon's scalpel since the early part of the season. Where the Yamaha suffered in the opening rounds with Michelin's wider profile tires, since the French tire maker reintroduced the narrower profile, things have really come together for The Doctor. He has reduced the 51 point deficit he had leaving Laguna Seca in July, and cut it by 39 points in just 4 races. Needing just 12 points more than Nicky Hayden from the last two races, it would be a brave fan who would bet against Rossi taking his 6th world title in succession.
Rossi's rise has not just been down to the Yamaha coming good: Nicky Hayden's RC211V has helped Valentino as well. The Kentucky Kid has suffered serious problems over the last few races with a fragile clutch. In preparation for next year's 800cc bike, Honda have been experimenting with moving the clutch inboard, making the bike narrower, and centralizing rotating mass. The benefit is better turn in, but the problem is that the clutch gets a lot hotter, as it has little airflow to cool it, causing clutch slip, especially at the start, meaning that Hayden has had to spend the early laps of races fighting to take back the places lost getting off the line.
Added to Nicky's woes is his history at Estoril. He had his best year in Portugal in 2005, a mediocre 7th place. Estoril has not been good to him, and he looks like losing even more momentum this weekend, just as Rossi has been gaining it. As the title chase goes down to the wire, momentum is becoming increasingly important.
Flies In The Ointment
Just to spice up the mix, as if it needed spicing up this season, there are a couple of people who could wreck meticulously laid plans in Portugal. Loris Capirossi, Marco Melandri, and Dani Pedrosa have revived their fortunes since the summer break, and have been getting in the way and taking points from both Rossi and Hayden over the past four races. Capirossi has been the most consistent challenger, taking two wins and a 2nd. He has also looked the most threatening rider, the Ducati going extremely well, and a constant force at the front. It was only the wet conditions at Phillip Island that really slowed Capirossi down, which could bode badly if the weather refuses to play ball on Sunday.
Marco Melandri has had more mixed fortunes, being brilliant one week, and mediocre the next. His glorious win at Phillip Island showed that he knows how to ride in the rain, and his 3rd place at Motegi was a typically impressive showing. But the flip side of Melandri was his anonymous showing at Sepang, making it hard to predict just how the Italian will perform on any one weekend. He was strong at Estoril last year, so you can expect him to give it a go.
The other joker in the pack is young Dani Pedrosa. The squat Spaniard has been a revelation this year, but, like Melandri, has not quite been consistent enough to challenge for the title. The injury he sustained in Sepang is partly to blame, but Pedrosa is especially fragile in wet conditions. He hates the rain, which may explain why he has historically done so badly at Estoril, his best result being a 4th, even in the years he so utterly dominated 250s.
Fellow rookies from the 250 class, Casey Stoner and Randy de Puniet, have had much better luck at Estoril. Stoner won last year's 250 race, with de Puniet narrowly edged out of 2nd by Andrea Dovizioso, so both of the new boys do well at the track. But they have also proved to share another, less desirable trait in common this year: a penchant for launching expensive machinery into the gravel and out of the race. With de Puniet unsigned for next year, and Stoner still not confirmed at LCR, both will be trying their hardest to improve their profile, looking for the fine line between brilliance and calamity.
Ride On The Line
They're not the only ones. As the season nears its climax, there are a host of riders fighting to stay in MotoGP. The biggest name is probably Colin Edwards. The Texas Tornado is likely to learn whether he will stay with the works Yamaha team for next year after the Portuguese GP, and a strong result may help his chances a little, though the general feeling is that it's a little too late. But as Rossi's bike improves, so does Edwards', and so you can't rule him out, on sheer willpower alone.
The other big name as yet unsigned is Sete Gibernau. But in contrast to Edwards, Gibernau has the reins firmly in his own hands, with Ducati keen to sign the Catalan rider after missing out on Melandri. His name is also being linked with Kawasaki, and a good performance at Estoril will up his asking price considerably. He showed last year that he's fast at Estoril, but he paid the price for pushing too hard when it was raining. If the race starts out wet, though, Gibernau is a safe bet to run at the front.
Carlos Checa is another name looking to better his fortunes for next year. Having demonstrated that he is supremely capable of developing tires, dragging the Dunlops up to near the standards set by Michelin and Bridgestone almost single-handedly, he is looking for a more competitive ride for next season. He is already being linked with Pramac d'Antin, who, though regular back markers this year, have been promised Bridgestones for next season, and a good race at Estoril would strengthen Checa's bargaining position a good deal. He will be doing his best to shine, though he still has the Dunlops to contend with, before he can start on the competition.
At the tail end of the grid, are a number of riders all desperate to hold on to their seats: Alex Hofmann will be keen to stay with d'Antin, especially now that the team will be running competitive tires; Makoto Tamada has two more races to secure his very tenuous future in MotoGP, after a very poor year (and he will be particularly annoyed to have learned that the Konica Minolta will be shod with his beloved Bridgestones next year); and James Ellison will hope to prove that he should still be in MotoGP, even if it is only as the token Englishman.
Finger Lickin' Good
So, what's the recipe for this weekend? Take two great riders taking the title race down to the wire, a bevy of jokers capable of upsetting the apple cart, and a whole heap of riders fighting for their livelihoods, throw in a glimpse of the future in the form of an eagerly awaited debutant, and a generous shaking of fickle climatic conditions, and you have all the makings of a fantastic weekend of racing. After all, so far this season, each time we've thought it can't get any better, it does. Bring it on!