Kropotkin's Wildly Inaccurate 2006 MotoGP Season Preview
Here's a phrase you'll have heard about a million times this preseason: "The 2006 MotoGP season sees a changing of the guard." Of course, the point about commonplaces is that they are commonly used because they are, to great or lesser extent, true. Several of the big names of the past few seasons have left, Barros, Xaus, Bayliss and Rolfo have moved to World Superbikes, where Bayliss is already having an outstanding season and is looking like a serious championship contender, and Biaggi has moved off into, well, Biaggi-land, a place where people pay huge sums of money to a talented racer to shout at them and blame them for everything that goes wrong. Hopefully he'll get a ride again next season, most probably in World SBK, but that'll only happen once he realises that you only get to act like the whole world revolves around you after you've won 3 or 4 titles in a row.
And a whole raft of new names have joined, mostly from the 250 class: Dani Pedrosa, Casey Stoner, Randy de Puniet, and from World Superbikes, Chris Vermeulen. So, does the retreat of the crowd of old losers and the coming of the new challengers mean that Rossi's days as Champion are numbered? The short answer to that question is: No. And the long answer is: No. Not this season. Does this mean that Rossi will be champion again? Well, duh, to use a popular phrase.
But does the championship being a foregone conclusion mean that this is going to be a boring season? Well, there are lots of reasons to think that it won't, as long as your idea of excitement isn't the title being settled in the last lap of the last race. Because with Rossi widely rumoured to be leaving to join Ferrari in F1 next year (heaven forfend), this season will see the motorcycling equivalent of primary season during a second-term presidency. Everyone will be attempting to position themselves as The Doctor's heir apparent (making them The Nurse, presumably), fighting to win the favour of Jeremy Burgess and his crew (arguably one of the greatest technical crew chiefs ever seen), and angling for the best ride in what looks like being one of the most interesting and exciting seasons for many years: The 2007 MotoGP season.
Indeed, this season feels strangely like foreplay, although a more apt simile might be some complicated and intricate 18th Century courting ritual. After all, next year, the 990cc bikes make way for 800cc bikes, and so most of the manufacturers will be focussing much of their development efforts this season getting the new bike ready for next year. The odd man out here being Honda, who only need to drop a cylinder from their well-tested 990cc V5 to comply with next year's regulations, a fairly simple option for the manufacturer with the most money, and the greatest motivation to win after Rossi leaves.
Because Honda are going to be really pissed off next season, after they fail miserably again this season. Expect to see very senior people in the race department be moved on by the end of this year, for displaying a dismaying lack of direction again. During testing, the Hondas have performed terribly (considering that, for three seasons, they were the undisputed best bike on the grid), with the best Honda rider often being around 4th or 5th place, and Nicky Hayden, Honda's designated Works development rider (at least, this week), spending more time on the 2005 bike than on the new 2006 bike.
With Biaggi and Gibernau leaving, Hayden has been promoted to the main Honda rider. And after the many disputes last year about who was the number 1 Honda rider, and who got the new parts, with the riders' pecking order changing seemingly every other race, Honda are going with a single number 1 rider this year. But Nicky has shown little aptitude for bike development so far during preseason testing, and if he doesn't finish on the podium during the first few races, expect to see Honda lose their nerve and start the old switcheroo, with either everyone getting new parts, or a different rider being promoted every race.
The most obvious candidate to take Hayden's place will be the young Dani Pedrosa. Pedrosa has already beaten Rossi's record in the 125 and 250cc classes (though arguably, Rossi rode against tougher competition), and all eyes will be on him this year to push Rossi for the title. But Pedrosa faces significant problems: for a start (and it's plenty to be going on with), he is very small and light. He doesn't have the physical strength required to manhandle a 250+ hp four stroke around the track for a full race distance, and he has said that he will be spending a lot of time this year just on beefing up, and increasing his strength. But he is undoubtedly immensely talented, and has proved to be fast in testing. I would definitely put money on Pedrosa to clinch a few poles and lap records. And towards the end of the season, we may start to get a glimpse of what Pedrosa is really going to be like, as he builds up his strength and experience. Ironically, the races at the end of the season, long after the title has been settled, could be some of the best races of the season. It will also prove what a terrible loss it will be if Rossi leaves MotoGP at the end of this season, when next season he could potentially face a genuine fight for the title.
The other name on everyone's lips will be Marco Melandri, who looked like he could finally be the challenger to threaten Rossi last year, winning two Grand Prix towards the end of the season. The bad news for Melandri is that Honda has decided to appoint Hayden as their number 1 rider, meaning that Melandri is left with inferior material (or what passes as inferior in the stratospheric confines of MotoGP machinery). But Melandri is going to be the obvious candidate to take over development work if Honda feels Hayden isn't getting the job done. Melandri's team mate Elias looks promising, but is yet to show that he has what it takes at this level.
Another exciting new Honda rider is Casey Stoner. He is obviously a very talented rider, but the most exciting aspect about him is his tendency to chuck it up the road under pressure. He reminds me a little of the great Yoichi Ui, whose greatest talent was to crash out while leading two laps before the end. Now, Stoner learnt from previous seasons that you can't fall off all the time and win championships, and last year pushed Pedrosa for the title almost to the end of the season. However, the most memorable moment in last year's 250 season came at Stoner's home Grand Prix. Stoner was leading for a lot of the race, and needed the win to keep a shot at the title, but he crashed out in the second half of the race, and Pedrosa pipped Porto at the line to win the race and clinch the championship.
Ironically, Honda's best chance of showing decent progress is likely to be with washed-up old has-been, Kenny Roberts Junior, on the Honda-powered TeamKR bike, built by his dad. KRJR has been running well, way above previous showings by the TeamKR bikes, and putting a reliable, proven Honda V5 into TeamKR's excellent chassis looks like a great move. You'd almost suspect that TeamKR tried to build their own V5 with the intention of dropping it and buying in Honda power plants from the outset.
The rider looking most promising to take the runner up position this season is Colin Edwards. Yamaha have really got their bike sorted this season, though both Edwards and Rossi complained of chatter during late testing at Barcelona and Jerez, and for Edwards, this will be the first year he starts with the same bike and the same team for several seasons. After a low key start last year, he proved to be highly consistent, though he never came really close to a win. All that could change this season. And Yamaha would dearly love to take the two top championship spots, as well as the manufacturer's crown.
With the Yamahas performing so well, the Tech 3 team, Carlos Checa and James Ellison, on 2006 Yamahas, could cause a few upsets. It seems that the best thing that happened to Carlos Checa was being fired by Ducati, as he has shown little appetite for competition over the past few seasons, but he has been blazingly fast in testing, taking third fastest time at a couple of tests. The fact that the Tech 3 bikes are using Dunlops throws a little spice into the mix, as the Dunlops have been on unimpressive bikes for the last few seasons, so no one has any idea as to whether they are any good or not. Ellison is highly rated by paddock insiders, winning favourable comparisons to Fogarty and Toseland, but has failed to impress on the Yamaha so far. He has, however, made consistent improvement, and his lap times are starting to approach competitive.
Speaking of sacked riders, the other revelation has been Sete Gibernau. He has been really impressive during preseason testing, and looks like he's found his competitive fire again. Of course, whether that lasts beyond the first race if Rossi stuffs him into the gravel again remains to be seen. But it's encouraging to see him performing at the level one expects of a former runner up. So second place looks like being a three-way toss up this year between Edwards, Gibernau and lovable imp Loris Capirossi. I like Capirossi a lot, he combines pure joy at being able to race with huge talent. If it wasn't for his compatriot, Capirossi would have been World Champion a couple of times already.
Another big surprise during testing has been the progress made by the Kawasakis. They've changed the firing order, and added a balance shaft, and the bike has been transformed. It's a lot more controllable in and out of corners, meaning that the riders can get in to corners quicker, and on the gas out of corners earlier. And in my opinion, Shinya Nakano is the second most talented rider on the grid. If Nakano had been on the Honda, Rossi would have had a much harder time of his championship defences over the last couple of years. So far during testing, Nakano has consistently taken top 5 times. The key word here being "consistently", he's been at the front at nearly every test session. Even his team mate, Randy de Puniet, about whom everyone said "why him?" when they heard that Kawasaki had signed him, has run close to the front a couple of times. As de Puniet is coming up from the 250 division, he can't be expected to have a great season, but having a good bike is certainly going to help.
And so to another talented rider, and his promising newcomer team mate. I believe that John Hopkins is the best US rider on the grid. Unfortunately, he's on the worst works bike. Although the Suzuki has been improved over the winter closed season, it's still nowhere near as good as the other bikes, and it hasn't made the leap forward which the Kawasaki appears to have done. So Hopper's fortunes are at the whim of Suzuki's engineers, and the Great Mystery: If Suzuki can consistently build a class-beating (by a long way) 1000cc road bike, how come their MotoGP bikes suck so badly? Do they start their engineers off on the MotoGP bikes, and only let them progress on to the GSX-R 1000 when they've made a lot of huge blunders on the MotoGP bike? Chris Vermeulen's choice of going with full works support, rather than a client Honda, is not necessarily looking like a winning move. Vermeulen has shown immense promise in World SuperSport and World Superbikes, and has also proven he can help develop a bike with the Honda CBR 600s and 1000s. So he may be able to move the Suzuki forward, especially as he's also ridden the Honda RC 211V at the end of last season. Indeed, one of the criticisms levelled at Hopkins is that he's only ever ridden the Suzuki, and that makes it difficult for him to provide development input, as he has no comparison material to help frame a direction to move in.
So, let the season begin, and let's look forward to possibly the last season we will get to enjoy the greatest motorcyclist ever: Valentino Rossi. And whilst we are enjoying the sheer depth and beauty of his skill, we can all look be secretly be looking forward to 2007, when the excitement will return to MotoGP, with new bikes, young riders with a season of experience under their belt, and, most importantly of all, no clear favourite.
There's a lot of interesting things going on in MotoGP besides just who's going to win the title.
Some that I'm going to be watching for:
How well can the KR bike do with a good engine and a good rider?
Is Dunlop going become a competitive tire?( Been hearing good things from testing. Apparently Checa is a very good test rider and has helped out a lot.)
Will Suzuki be good when they switch to 800cc? ( They've been running the pneumatic valve system on the 990 where it's not really needed, but should pay off when they switch to the higher revving 800s)
While speculation on how the new kids on the motogp block will do has been getting the majority of press coverage, I think the "old guard" , or what's left of them, will be tough to beat. Rossi will take the title, maybe not as easily as in years past, but easily enough. What has been somewhat surprising to me has been the near-universal lack of regard for Nicky Hayden as a contender. Some of the Euro press don't even mention him (Other than, "oh. yeah, the second rider on the Repsol team is...) in their articles. The American press hasn't been much kinder. What some people fail to remember is that Nicky didn't exactly set the track on fire his first couple of years in AMA Superbike. I think that the Nickster got taken to school a couple of times last season (Phillip Island comes readliy to mind) when he could have done better. I look for Nicky to be a force this year, at least for the "Mamola Cup".
Kropotkin, that's a really well-done op/ed piece. :thumb
Here's Toby Hirst's season opener.
Kropotkin - Nice work but not wierd enough....:deal I predict Rossi loses because he doesn't finish all the reaces and too many others take his points. The Bridgestone teams will win many races and maybe even sweep a few podiums. Meanwhile, Michelin will be caught out and slow to recover. Melandri will be the best Honda man again and win some, but he'll go missing a few too. Meanwhile, Honda will give up on having Hayden ride their test mules so he'll be in it at the end and win at least two. None of the 250 guys will be consistant enough to threaten (but will win two), and Chris the V. will be closer to 10th then 1st. My absolute fav is Edwards (for his historic SBK season), but he rides like he's retired already. You can see it in his lap times late in a race. He's earned that right, though.
So where does that leave it? Nakano will win a few. Hopkins will podium a few. The Marlboro bikes both win more then once each, and of course Rossi will get his share. In the end, though, the crown will go to the man with the most points and I say he'll be riding a red machine from a tiny company struggling to stay alive. He'll be fluent in spanish too. :chace -P
:thumb Good to have you back Kropotkin was about to release the hounds :patch
How is it that being the lead rider on (arguably) the most prestigious bike on the grid is an unenviable position? I have a sick feeling Honda is going to run Nicky through the wringer if he doesn't produce miracles. And I don't think he is going to produce miracles.
I'm excited to see how KRJR fares. His old man is my hero: finishes conquering the world on the bike, then sets out to best various Goliath's building the bike. And Team KR (Honda PR machine notwithstanding) never issues those goddamn, smug, Onanistic press releases before each and every testing session/race/poster signing/baby shower. I'm going to be rooting for Junior to beat at least the Suzukis every race.
And speaking of Suzukis, maybe Chris the V's decision wasn't so bad. He will have little pressure to produce great results this year, being new to GPs and on an uncompetitive bike, he can learn the tracks and the competition, and next year is a whole new game. If a Suzuki does finish ahead of KRJR, I hope it's his.
The drought is over...
First of all, my thanks for your kind words ...
Secondly, for those of you who'd care to see the Jerez track, here it is on Google Maps.
Thirdly, a few comments on stuff I forgot to mention, and responses to points made:
Saddest part of the season for me is the absence of WCM. They are my personal favourite team, but then I'm a sucker for an underdog, and proved, before the demise of the two strokes, that they could successfully manage and run a winning team, given the right material, with McCoy coming within a gnat's whisker of taking the 500cc title in 2000 riding a WCM-run Yamaha. And they showed incredible fortitude in running several seasons on nothing more than the million or so bucks provided by Dorna to pad out the field, whilst developing their own machine. For that money, you get Valentino Rossi's left lower leg, and you still have to find a bike for him to ride.
Weirdest note of the season is the demise of the sponsor-powered rider. No one would take Camel's 15 million bucks while it was attached to Max Biaggi. Telefonica Movistar pulled out after they lost the tug of war with Repsol for HRC sponsorship. Checa lost his cigarette money, after Marlboro picked up his tab (British Joke) for several years. Money has drained out of MotoGP recently, even as viewing figures have increased. If I had a company looking for big exposure in the southern European market, I'd put a couple of million in MotoGP like a shot. Formula 1, tennis, golf and soccer are all way too expensive to sponsor nowadays, MotoGP seems like outstanding bang for the buck. But we cannot rule out my judgement being clouded ...
Several of you mentioned Nicky, so just to reiterate my point: Nicky is extremely talented. But he has not shown a huge amount of talent at developing the bike this off-season, jeopardising his position as number 1 rider. But this, as Pantah so rightly points out, is not necessarily a bad thing: Hayden does best when someone just hands him a bike and tells him to go ride the thing. So relieving Hayden of his testing duties might just free his mind up to concentrate on actually winning races. Which would mean Honda would put him back on development work, ruining a perfectly good season. I reckon Hayden may be a prime candidate to move to Yamaha next year if Rossi goes to F1 / WRC / Wherever. Though having two Americans in the same team is not the preferred option, as it doesn't help sell 125cc scooters in Italy and Spain.
But I'm not being down on Nicky here, the problem really is HRC. They still haven't learnt the lesson from Rossi leaving to go to Yamaha: It's about the rider, not the bike. HRC believe religiously that the most important part of a Honda Racing team is the Honda Racing Motorcycle. If things aren't going according to plan, HRC don't send the bike back to the engineers, they regard the test rider as being defective, and switch riders. All of Honda's riders past and present complain about the focus being around the motorcycle, instead of the rider and the team. The problem is that they were fooled into believing this was the correct approach by having first Doohan and then Rossi win championships for them. The problem is, that both Doohan and Rossi have incredibly strong personalities capable of dealing with the pressure placed upon them. There are very, very few human beings capable of functioning within the strictures of the HRC discipline. But here's an interesting twist: There are currently three riders on the grid who have the discipline and the will to cope with that kind of pressure. Rossi isn't going back, but the other two are Dani Pedrosa and Chris Vermeulen. Vermeulen is unlikely to be given a chance for a couple of years, as punishment for stepping out of Honda's pre-planned career plan (1 more year of Superbikes, then a place in a satellite team), but Pedrosa has what it takes mentally.
Another point made by others is the importance of tyres. Tyres have improved by huge amounts over the past 5 years, and each season sees greater improvements. And as grip improves, so corner speed increases, and power can be applied earlier and earlier in the corner. If you want to see proof, check the lean angles below:
KRJR on a Suzuki 500 (probably 1999 or 2000):
Shinya Nakano on the Kawasaki last year:
Knees are being slung out less and less, as bikes reach ever greater angles of lean. Previously, the way you rode a 500 (in particular), and the early MotoGP bikes was to brake as late as possible, chuck it into the corner, stand it up as soon as possible, and hammer the throttle. As grip has improved, and engine management software has become more sophisticated, stressing tyres less, it's been possible to ride bike round the corner, getting on the gas earlier whilst the bike is still leant over. Smoothness, and maintaining speed into the corners has become crucial. And the most interesting thing about this is that this is exactly how you ride a 250. Edwards spent the latter half of last season complaining of how he had to learn to ride the bike like a 250. So, whereas
previously, 250cc riders moving up to the premier class had to relearn how to ride a race bike completely, nowadays they just have to get used to a lot more power and weight, and can maintain their style. I think this is going to become an even more obvious factor when the 800s appear.
Now, mikeyb mentioned that Suzuki may have an advantage when the class moves to 800cc, possible benefiting from the higher revs which hydraulic valve technology allow. Although this is a good point, it encapsulates exactly what is wrong with the Suzuki. It has plenty of power. Think back to the Aprilia Cube, another bike with buckets and buckets of power. But the secret to a winning MotoGP bike is rideability. The reason that the Hondas dominated initially, and the Yamahas are dominating now, is not because they made the most horses, but because they had the flattest torque curves. Smooth power delivery means you can get on the power earlier, as you can control the bike more easily. The Suzuki is still too much like an old 500: loads of power, but
if you're not careful, it'll spit you off. So no, my money is on the Honda when the rules change, as they'll just perform a cylinderectomy, and have a winning race bike from the get go. Sadly, unless they change their approach to team management, having the winning bike isn't going to give them the championship.
And TeamKR: My other favourite team. I have so much admiration for KR SR, just for his approach to competing at this level. He knew that he could not build a 4-cylinder 500 capable of winning GPs, so he looked for the optimum balance between power and weight, and built the 500cc triple, which even managed to push the 990 cc bikes when they first appeared, if only briefly. Now, what TeamKR have proven is that they can build an outstanding chassis, and they can run a well-managed team capable of punching well above their weight (and that you can't compete in engine design against the near bottomless pockets of Honda and Yamaha). With a decent engine in their proven chassis, and with KR JR out to prove that it wasn't his fault the Suzuki couldn't win, they could provide a few upsets.
very well written. but i do not subscribe to your theory that rossi has this in the bag and we should just watch the battle for second. i think the season did not end for him the way he would have liked it and there are to many dogs barking at the door. he is his own worst enemy right now and i think there are so many riders hungry and with a lot to prove that it will take his toll on him. besides, now w/ his sights set on form 1, why risk anything when you are already going down in the books as the best?
of course i say rossi cannot possibly win another season and every season he does. this is my roll call for the season.
rossi 5 he crashes in one of the early races and loses his nerve but not his ride for 2007
nicki 1/2 has a banner year w/ more podiums than ever. if he can keep from crashing and marco cant he wins 1
marco 2/1 same as nicki's
edwards 4 good and consistant but not what it takes to run w/ the top dogs
sete 3 sete is good but he has never realized his potential, and now i think he never will
hopper 6 he will have a good season if he does not crash. he could even challenge sete for third but i think we are going to see more of the same.
as for all the new riders in this group? they are all good, and the future is wide open. but for 2006 season i do not see any of them in serious contention for the crown. it will be a learning season for some and a day of reckoning for most.
thats my story and i am sticking to it....
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