If there was one thing that commentators, fans and team managers alike could agree on prior to the 2007 MotoGP season, it was that this was to be the year of the former 250 riders. The season that we switched from the point-and-squirt 990s to the smooth, high corner speed 800s would be the second season for the phenomenal class of former 250 rookies, and the year that they would demonstrate exactly what they were made of. The weight of expectation lay heavily on Randy de Puniet, Casey Stoner and Dani Pedrosa.
That weight lays heaviest on the slim shoulders of Dani Pedrosa. Not just a triple world champion, and the protegÃ© of Alberto Puig, the man with the world's keenest nose for racing talent, but also Honda Racing Corporation's golden boy, and the man who would be riding the machine that must surely be the safest bet for the first season of a new class, the Honda RC212V. The entire population of Spain had invested their hopes in seeing this quiet young man ascend to the MotoGP throne this season.
But fate is a very cruel mistress indeed, and she knows no greater pleasure than to dash hopes and expectations against the cold, harsh rocks of reality. Firstly, what should have been the envy of the paddock, the Honda RC212V, is lagging badly behind the other factories in terms of development. Secondly, despite finishing on the podium in the first two races, Pedrosa was suffering his longest winless streak since he first won in 125s back in June, 2002. And as if to add insult to injury, the achievements of the man anointed future world champion have been eclipsed by that other rising young star, Pedrosa's former 250 arch-rival Casey Stoner.
Reign Of Terror
The young Australian had won the season opener at Qatar utterly convincingly, the horsepower of the Ducati striking fear into the hearts of the other manufacturers. And though he only managed a 5th place in Jerez, the domination shown at the fast Qatar circuit made it clear that unless everyone else found a herd more horsepower, Casey Stoner could be the biggest threat for the championship this year.
The Free Practice sessions at Istanbul Park did nothing to allay those fears. Casey Stoner was the fastest rider during all three sessions, and by a considerable margin. The only straw which his rivals had to clutch at was Stoner's crash during the damp first Free Practice session, which they hoped signaled a return to the Australian's carbon-fiber destroying ways. Qualifying offered another glimmer of hope, with Stoner dropping to 4th place on the grid, behind the two Yamahas of Valentino Rossi and Colin Edwards, and the Honda of Great Spanish Hope Dani Pedrosa.
So the riders lined up on the grid knowing that they had to get away ahead of Stoner if they wanted to be sure of withstanding the Australian's electric race pace. The morning warm up had brought solace to some, including reigning world champion Nicky Hayden, suddenly nearly a second quicker than his previous fastest time on race tires, but worry for most, as Stoner was yet again nearly half a second quicker than everyone else. The dash from the starting line to Turn 1 could prove to be very important indeed, and consequently, very dangerous: Turn 1 is a sharp, off-camber left-hander that rolls downhill that unweights the front just when you need it most, and as Marco Melandri made clear during practice, an easy place to crash, especially when pushing hard to stay ahead of everyone else.
So once the lights dimmed, and the bikes thundered off the line into Turn 1, the paddock's collective breath was only released once the whole show had rolled safely out and into the long uphill Turn 2. And it looked like the most important part of the plan to contain Casey Stoner had succeeded as well, as the two Fiat Yamahas had gotten great starts off the line to lead the first few corners. With Rossi leading the way, Colin Edwards was left to defend against the unwelcome advances of the Ducati pairing of Casey Stoner and Loris Capirossi. Behind Capirossi, Nicky Hayden had consolidated his grid position to take 5th, with John Hopkins stuck on his tail, and the quick-fire starter Toni Elias rocketing into 7th from 10th on the grid. The big loser from the start line was Dani Pedrosa, who saw his front row grid position go to waste, rounding the first few turns down in 8th.
Edwards' Ducati defense was to be short lived. By Turn 7, Stoner was past and as they entered the long, multi-apex left-hander of Turn 8, Capirossi followed, and set about chasing the only man that many felt could stand between the Ducatis and victory. Edwards' woes were not yet over, as the pack took the Ducatis passing of the Texas Tornado as a signal to wash over Edwards' Yamaha like a tidal wave, with Hopkins, now past Hayden's Repsol Honda, leading Hayden and Elias towards the front.
As Valentino Rossi exited the back chicane of Turns 9 and 10, it became clear just how fearful the Yamaha team were of the Ducatis' top speed. In an attempt to maintain some distance between himself and the red bikes behind, Rossi pinned the throttle through the blistering but treacherous Turn 11, running wide and onto the astroturf at over 180 mph in the most terrifying part of the track. Fortunately for The Doctor, he was already fairly upright, and managed to return to the track having lost nothing more serious than 4 places, gifting the lead to Stoner.
Rossi's mistake was a portent of things to come at the next turn, however, for the following group had all bunched up in the heavy braking zone going into Turn 12. The riders entered the turn almost 9 abreast, and something had to give. What gave was Olivier Jacque's front wheel, unable to brake hard enough to avoid the hapless Colin Edwards, who had cut across in front of the Kawasaki man. The Frenchman's Kawasaki clipped Edwards rear wheel, skittling Edwards down and out, and tossing Jacque high and onto his back, injuring his coccyx in the fall. As his Kawasaki tumbled, it also hit Dani Pedrosa's front wheel, swiping the young Spaniard's bike out from under him, which in turn slid across the track in front of Chris Vermeulen, leaving him nowhere to go, Vermeulen's Rizla Suzuki hitting and landing on top of Pedrosa's Honda, and forcing Sylvain Guintoli to run his Tech 3 Yamaha wide and off the track, losing him valuable seconds. Of the felled riders, only Vermeulen was able to remount, his bike still intact and running, losing 22 seconds to the rest of the field. Edwards was the luckiest of the fallers, walking away without serious injury, but Pedrosa suffered a severe blow to the chest, and Jacque was taken to the hospital to check on his damaged coccyx.
Back at the front, Ducati's dream scenario looked well on the way to becoming reality, Casey Stoner leading across the line at the end of the first lap, trailing team mate Loris Capirossi in his wake. With a clear track ahead of them, there was nothing to stop Stoner and Capirossi from building on the lead of just less than a second they already over 3rd place man Hopkins. The race was starting to look decided after just one lap.
The following bunch had other ideas, however. Behind Capirossi, a scrap was developing for the right to chase down the Ducatis. What looked at first like a straight fight between John Hopkins and a storming Toni Elias soon developed into a three-way tussle, Valentino Rossi seeking to make amends for his mistake as quickly as possible. Elias made the first move, taking a look inside Hopkins into Turn 1, but was not yet close enough. Chasing Hopper all the way round the track, the Hannspree Honda man tried again at the end of the straight, trying to outbrake the American into Turn 12, and then two short turns later into Turn 14, but still Hopkins held on.
The next lap round, they entered Turn 12 three abreast, but John Hopkins is not a man to be outbraked. The Suzuki man entered the twiddles section of Turns 12, 13 and 14 first, Elias and Rossi close behind. But Elias had plotted a different attack vector this time round, diving up the inside of Hopkins through the final Turn 14 and onto the straight. Though cunning, he could not carry it off, running wide and letting Hopkins back, and then losing out to Rossi on the drive on the front straight.
One lap later, it was Rossi's turn to attack Hopkins into Turn 12. The braking succeeded, but The Doctor couldn't get his Fiat Yamaha turned in time, and ran wide to let Hopkins back past. But Valentino Rossi is nothing if not resourceful, and once he had his Yamaha back under control, he threaded a line through Turn 13 that put him underneath Hopper into Turn 14, almost banging fairings to push the Suzuki man wide. As Hopkins clawed his way back onto the track, Elias, who had been patiently following Rossi through the twiddles, slipped up inside Hopper to push the American back into 5th.
Follow My Leader?
Whilst all this was going on, the three combatants for 3rd place had been slowly catching Loris Capirossi. Where his team mate Casey Stoner was inching away and building a gap, Capirex had been unable to follow. After taking over 3rd, Rossi set his sights on the next step up on the podium, Capirossi's 2nd position. Within a couple of laps, The Doctor was on Capirex, and then past through the long, long left-hander. And where the Doctor went, there Elias followed, the wild Spaniard outbraking the Ducati into everyone's favorite passing spot, Turn 12.
Elias was not content to follow for long, though. After passing Capirossi, Terrible Toni chased The Doctor down, edging ever closer to his back wheel. At the end of the fast back section, Elias made his move, slamming on the brakes just a fraction later than Rossi to draw level with the Italian as they lined up for the Turn 12 left-hander. As he braked, Elias drifted right, touching Rossi, then pushing him wide as they entered the turn. Rossi wobbled, and ran wide, nearly falling as he fought to regain control of his Yamaha at full lean through the corner.
The Doctor was furious, complaining bitterly after the race about Elias' dangerous riding. For this was not the first time Rossi and Elias had tangled: at the first race of the 2006 season at Jerez, it was Toni Elias who had punted Rossi off into the gravel going into the first turn. And it was Toni Elias who had snatched a wild victory from Rossi by just 2/1000ths of a second, leaving The Doctor the crucial 5 points short of taking the 2006 title. None of that bothered Elias in the slightest, however, and Toni was off to chase Stoner and try to win the race.
Join The Fray
While Elias, Rossi, Hopper and Capirossi had been doing their best to trip each other up, behind them, a chasing group had formed. Nicky Hayden was slugging it out with Marco Melandri and Alex Barros for the right to take on John Hopkins. At first, Kawasaki's Randy de Puniet tagged on the back of this group, but could not quite hold the pace, dropping off the back as the race progressed. World Champion Nicky Hayden was doing his best to salvage a poor start to the season, and though still struggling with his Honda, was putting it to much more effective use, as he fought tooth and nail for every place he lost, only conceding the place after swapping back and forth a number of times.
By lap 12, the chasing group had caught John Hopkins, who sat at the back of the group comprising Valentino Rossi, Loris Capirossi and himself. At first, it looked like Valentino Rossi was leaving the group from the front, but a couple of laps later, his times started to slow. In a cruel echo of last year, Rossi's rear tire was starting to slide badly, with grip starting to fade, especially on the right side of the tire, the part you really need to have confidence in through the petrifying right-hander of Turn 11. It was the start of a long and painful descent through the field from which he would not recover.
But before Rossi's decline started in earnest, the group still had precedence to establish, and braking for Turn 12 soon became the favored spot for establishing who would lead. On lap 13, Hopkins passed Capirossi there, to take 4th behind Rossi, while Marco Melandri took advantage of the Ducati being off line to push past through Turn 13. On the next lap, Rossi, Hopkins, and Melandri decided to hold a straight braking competition there, which Rossi won with some difficulty. But on lap 15, Rossi's tire woes began to bite in earnest, and the next time the group entered Turn 12, Hopkins was already past, and pulling Marco Melandri with him, with Capirossi following close behind, pushing Rossi down to 6th.
Once More Into The Breach
As Rossi left the group going backwards, Alex Barros moved in to make up the numbers, only to be joined shortly afterwards by Nicky Hayden. The battle raged all the more fiercely for having some fresh blood added. Loris Capirossi barged his way past John Hopkins and Marco Melandri to move into 3rd, while behind him, Hopkins, Melandri and Alex Barros on the Pramac d'Antin Ducati banged fairings for 4th. Melandri let Barros past through the long left-hander, and Barros immediately took advantage to pass Hopper into Turn 12. But it's hard to make a pass stick through the twiddles, and by the time they got back onto the front straight, Hopper was back in front, with Melandri behind him.
On the next lap, they all went at it again, once again choosing Turn 12 as the battle ground, and this time, Hopper came off worst, going from 4th down to 7th after Melandri pushed him wide, and the whole group streamed past, including Nicky Hayden. On the final lap, after passing and re-passing each other, Barros finally bested Melandri, and went on to try to take Capirossi in a daring move through the Monster, Turn 11, but Capirossi was back on the brakes to take 3rd, pushing Barros just off the podium. Marco Melandri had to settle for 5th, while behind him, John Hopkins passed Nicky Hayden to take 6th, too far out of touch to get involved in the battle for the podium.
By this time, Casey Stoner had long since sealed victory, riding a perfect race once again, leading every lap. But unlike Qatar, where he led every lap only over the finish line, the young Australian had dominated the race from the moment Valentino Rossi ran wide at Turn 11 on the first lap, and the result had never really been in danger. Behind Stoner, Toni Elias rode his Hannspree Gresini Honda to an excellent 2nd place, his wild and reckless style proving highly effective, despite being totally at odds with the received wisdom that a smooth and controlled style is the only way to make the 800s go fast.
Loris Capirossi's 3rd place merely underlined the Ducati's dominance, putting two of the Beasts From Bologna on the podium. And to rub salt into the wounds, Alex Barros' 4th place made it 3 of the top 4. Barros' Pramac d'Antin team were absolutely ecstatic, finally finishing at the front after having spent a long time in the wilderness as the paddock's slowest team.
Marco Melandri's 5th place made it a strong weekend for the Gresini team, and John Hopkins once again looked like coming close to the podium for a very large part of the race. He must now almost be able to taste his first podium, and it can't be long before he finally gets to stand on the box.
Nicky Hayden was disappointed to finish 7th, but looked capable of battling for positions for the first time this season. And after finishing so close to the bottom of the standings during the practice sessions, few would have predicted he could have done so well during the race. The Kentucky Kid may have turned the corner here at Istanbul Park, and must be hoping he can start to defend his title with the fervor it deserves.
Frenchman Randy de Puniet hadn't been able to stay with Hayden, and crossed the line in 8th, entirely in accordance with the instructions issued by his Kawasaki team prior to the race. Along the fast section through Turn 11, it was very clear that Kawasaki had found some more horsepower, and the green bikes took a big step forward in Turkey.
Barros' team mate Alex Hofmann finished 9th, a position he could only dream about last year. The Pramac team have made huge strides this year, and though unlikely to win races, look like being in contention for the top 10 almost every week.
The angriest man at Istanbul Park finished 10th, though Valentino Rossi may have to share that honor with team mate Colin Edwards. From a promising start, Rossi had been banged about by Elias, and suffered a frustrating slide down the standings with tire problems to take a paltry 6 points, ceding a very expensive 10 point lead in the championship to Casey Stoner. With 3 of the next 4 races featuring very fast straights, Stoner could have a substantial lead in the title race by the time we go to Donington, and Rossi could be once again be faced with a long battle from behind to regain the title he regards as his own.
In 11th place came the man who put in perhaps the most impressive performance of the weekend, if also the least visible. Chris Vermeulen was consistently the fastest rider on the track, and set the fastest lap of the race on the penultimate lap. Unfortunately for Vermeulen, he started with a 22 second disadvantage, having been taken down in the melee caused by Olivier Jacque on lap 1. Subtract those 22 seconds from the time he finished behind Casey Stoner, and that puts him in 2nd place. Vermeulen's strength is his mental toughness, in dealing with the situation as it presents itself. His weakness is his qualifying, which puts him in harm's way on the early laps, right where the mid-pack pile ups happen. If he can get closer to the front of the grid during qualifying, he must be a prime candidate for a podium.
Behind Vermeulen, the Honda stragglers finished, Carlos Checa in 12th, 7 seconds ahead of Shinya Nakano. Both Checa and Nakano have had a hard time adapting to the RC212V, and their weekend at Istanbul Park can't have helped matters. Until Honda sort out the front end feel, and find more horsepower, they will both continue to suffer.
The pill must be especially bitter for Carlos Checa, for he finished just 2 places ahead of Makoto Tamada, the man on the Dunlop Tech 3 Yamaha, the bike Checa was so keen to see the back of at the end of last year. And Tamada had ridden a very mediocre race, only managing to best his team mate Sylvain Guintoli by less than a second, despite Guintoli losing several seconds after being forced off the track by the first lap pile up.
But the big losers at Istanbul were Team KR. At no time did Kenny Roberts Jr look comfortable on the Honda-powered KR212V, and Roberts was never far from the bottom of the standings throughout practice. Team KR had tried a new swing arm in Turkey, and they felt that it had helped. But it looks like they need far more than just a new swing arm before they can get anywhere near the form which put Kenny Jr in contention, and on the podium twice, during last year.
Before this weekend started, the Istanbul MotoGP round was expected to be the first place the new tire regulations might start to bite, and bite they did. But what was fascinating about Istanbul was that the tire regulations did not bite in the way anticipated, with one team getting spectacularly lucky, or horribly unlucky. Instead, Istanbul showed that what was Michelin's strength is now its weakness. At a track where Michelin dominated last year, it only managed to get two of its riders in the top 10 on Sunday, the best being Nicky Hayden in 7th position. Some of that may be down to bad luck, Olivier Jacque taking out two Michelin men who could reasonably have been expected to run at the front. But much of the problem may be down to the secret of Michelin's success in former years: Their ability to design and produce race tires overnight, shipping them to the race track by the next day. Because of this agility, Michelin could work through a weekend, changing compounds and construction each night until they had the perfect tire for race day, delivered to the garage of their riders bright and early on Sunday morning.
Now, though, all tires have to be delivered to Parc FermÃ© by Thursday afternoon, with riders having to select all the tires they will use over the weekend by 5pm on the day before practice commences. Michelin aren't used to doing this, but Bridgestone, whose plants in Japan were too far away to be able to fly their tires in overnight, had to plan ahead, and make better and more careful predictions about what tires might work on Sunday a couple of days beforehand. So the switch to having all your tires ready by Thursday is not such a big step for Bridgestone, merely an extension of their existing process. But for Michelin, it's all completely new. All of a sudden, thanks to the new tire regulations, Michelin are no longer the dominant MotoGP tire manufacturer. Jerez and Qatar had obscured this development, as the extensive winter testing that had taken place there meant the teams already knew what tires worked there and what didn't. But at a track without such prior experience, weaknesses in the process have been exposed. Things just got an awful lot more interesting.
A Painful Parting
And so we say farewell to the Istanbul Park circuit, perhaps for a long time, if the Turkish Motorcycling Federation cannot raise the funds to run the event, despite a strong attendance of 40,000 spectators. It would be a terrible shame to leave here, for many reasons. The track has excellent facilities, for both teams and fans. The circuit has a bit of everything in it, fast sweepers, undulating turns and the testing tight twiddles. But most of all, Istanbul Park produces some of the best racing of the year, as it requires both bravery and skill to run here, and places where one may successfully neutralize the other. Istanbul Park proved that it is not the new 800s that had produced the rather processional first two races, but rather the nature of Qatar and Jerez. There's still more than one way around a track on an 800, providing the track allows it, and the races at Mugello and Sachsenring should be as epic as ever.
As a parting gift, Istanbul Park leaves us with one final lesson: If people were afraid of the Ducatis coming into the Turkey round, at Shanghai, with its two long straights, one over 3/4 of a mile long, they will be invincible. It is not inconceivable that the little factory from Bologna may see the bikes it produces take the top four spots on race day. For the rest of the manufacturers, the search for horsepower is on. They have two weeks, and no stable in Japan will be left untouched. They really have no other options.