Wednesday, May 23, 2007

MotoGP: A New World Order?

For the last few years there has been a pattern to MotoGP: Japanese bikes, Mediterranean riders.
The Japanese have utterly dominated the manufacturers' standings, with Honda steamrollering the opposition to win championship after championship until their bitter rivals Yamaha managed to poach The Doctor and get in on the action.
Contenders for titles have been from the Latin parts of Europe. Valentino Rossi is clearly the best rider of his generation, and his main rivals have been Max Biaggi and Sete Gibernau, with others such as Capirossi and Melandri sniffing around for wins here and there.
Things changed a bit last year, when Nicky Hayden managed to grind out 5 more points than Rossi, in a year when Toni Elias alone stole somewhere between 5 and 30 points from the Italian, not to mention the hideous Yamaha/Michelin reliability problems.
Many people still grumble that the Kentucky Kid didn't really deserve the title, but the points don't lie. Sure, you need a bit of luck to win the title, but you don't get that by qualifying mid-pack with Elias in the vicinity. However, it is true that Hayden did not challenge Rossi for victories. Valentino's only real mistake in 2006 was hopping off in the last race at Valencia. (Unless you count not reaching over and giving Toni Elias's brake lever a tweak at Estoril!)
We didn't know it at the time, but the Gods gave us a glimpse of the future in that last race of 2006 in Valencia. The winner was Troy Bayliss on a Ducati.
An Australian winning a MotoGP race was sensational at the time, but it looks a lot more familiar now. Including Valencia, 5 of the last 6 races have been won by Aussies, and 3 of the last 4 winners are from the land Down Under.
Valencia is the tightest, twistiest track on the calendar, and Ducati won by a mile. Lately all the talk has been of Ducati building an incredibly quick bike that doesn't go round corners. Wait a minute though, the 990cc Ducati was the quickest thing in a straight line too, and it won at Valencia so it must have made a fair attempt at changing direction. Why would Ducati suddenly build an 800cc machine that didn't handle? The simple answer is, they didn't.
Ducati's first 990cc MotoGP bikes were bucking broncos that scared the Bejaysus out of Capirossi, who's a hard nut indeed. The little Italian factory has constantly learned and improved its machinery to the point where you wouldn't choose anything else. (I hope Nicky and Marco have switched to different astrologers and tarot card readers). At Qatar and China, Casey Stoner's Ducati was very nearly as fast as Rossi's Yamaha around the twisty bits, then when it came to a long straight it just made its excuses and left.
Le Mans was a strange race due to the rain, but Stoner qualified on the front row, and with a little help from Bridgestone he grabbed a podium.
A lot of people think the Yamaha is the best bike in MotoGP. I don't. Sure, if you bolt on super-sticky tyres it goes around corners like nothing else, but it's less impressive on race tyres where it can't exploit its corner speed. The Ducati is the best bike overall, helped by the stellar performance of the Bridgestone engineers this year.
Is Stoner the best rider this year? He has certainly blown the other 3 Ducati riders into the weeds, but what about Rossi? The Doctor had a miserable time at Le Mans, outqualified by his team-mate and struggling for a setup. Only time will tell if the cocky young Aussie is one of the greats, but he has been devastatingly quick this year, and he hasn't missed an apex under pressure, never mind chucked the bike down the street. Last year, taking a pole position on the 4th-rate LCR Honda with whatever tyres Michelin had lying around was a stunning achievement for a rookie, but we didn't take the hint, did we?
The season is less than one third over, but already the old order is looking shaky. The championship being led by an Australian on an Italian bike with Japanese tyres? Rossi trailing in 2nd because the other guy keeps beating him fair and square? If this is a new world order, then bring it on!

No comments: