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GP Week : Issue 109
MOTO FEATURE >> The championship seemed to take a long time to start. For Rossi, it appears to have finished rather quickly. His grim plod to seventh compared so unfavourably with Stoner’s fluent surge to a clear-cut victory that even the Italian himself acknowledged inevitable overall defeat. Championship hopes were canned – the team talking instead of looking for race wins only at the end of the year. Is this sandbagging? Will Rossi be in winning form in a race or two, when his shoulder gets up to full strength? Or just realistic? It certainly triggered what might be more luridly described as crisis talks when Rossi and the guys got back to Bologna. Rossi finished more than 16 seconds behind Stoner; almost three quarters of a second per lap. A yawning chasm. There were few surprises at the opening round under a gigantic desert moon (plus a few thousand spotlights). Most of what happened had been clearly foretold in the short but busy testing season. The Hondas were rampant, with new boy Casey Stoner leading the way and Dani Pedrosa lagging, with an unexpected lingering injury; the Yamahas are not too far behind, with Jorge Lorenzo inspired, but new team-mate Spies again losing too much in the early laps; Suzuki not there because their single rider got hurt – Alvaro Bautista broke his femur in practice. And Ducati was ... all over the shop. Fastest of the Desmosedicis in qualifying was the satellite bike of Hector Barbera, and though Rossi and factory team-mate Nicky Hayden did manage to be the first Dukes home in the race, it was in seventh and ninth places, with Hayden fully ten seconds adrift of Rossi. Now comes the biggest test for the smallest factory. They’ve got the best rider in the world. Can they measure up? And can they do it in time? Having built the bike that won hands down in 2006, the first season for the unloved 800s, they appear to have been left behind for the final year, before the full litre bikes coming in 2012. This was happening before Rossi joined. Ducati has not been short on bright ideas, with the unique carbon-fibre chassis and swing-arm; but the result last year was a bike on which only Stoner could win races ... but only when he didn’t suffer a sudden front- end wash-out. Rossi’s comments on the latest Duke also focus on understeer. “We can’t fix it with the settings,” he said: presaging more radical experiments with ride heights and weight distribution. But his greatest problem is the savage engine response. This worked for Stoner’s style, but Rossi requires a more neutral tool to work with, which is why bikes he develops work so well for so many other riders. This has prompted rumours of a major motor rethink, ready for testing as soon as the start of May. By then, the season will only be three races old – the postponement for a second year running of the Japanese GP has given Ducati most of the preceding month to work things out. “Compared with the other bikes, the Ducati is more of a ... prototype,” said Rossi tellingly, early in his programme. The important question is how quickly Ducati’s race department can respond to his request for changes. Yamaha’s engineers will also be working hard. “If I have to ride so hard at every race, for sure I will crash,” said Lorenzo, after securing second in spite of an obvious disadvantage in both acceleration and speed to the Hondas that came first, then from third to fifth, with the exciting Marco Simoncelli dropping away from Dovizioso’s Repsol factory bike only in the closing stages. The Yamaha’s sweet handling will help him more at circuits without Losail’s ultra-long straight, but the point remains valid. The problem for all is that Honda’s engineers will also be hard at work, seeking still more improvement to their 800cc RC212V that has at last come good, after four downbeat years: “I don’t think any bike every gets to more than about 90 percent of its full potential. This one now is still at about 80 percent,” opined Stoner ominously, after a race which he had been able to win more or less at his leisure. Observers struck by the latest Honda’s ability to make seamless up-shifts have credited this new gearbox trick (not a twin clutch, for they are banned) with a leap forward in performance. It’s partly true, but in fact an intensive development programme had got the bike to the top of the class at the end of last year, and only injury to Pedrosa cut short his late title challenge. It didn’t happen by mistake. New HRC vice-president Shuhei Nakamoto, back from Honda’s abandoned F1 team, has personally overseen a typically engineering-led effort to break the spell that has denied the company success in the 800cc era. And this year they’ve got Stoner. There’s still going to be some racing in it. Spies will have to cast off his modesty in the early laps; Simoncelli his tendency to run out of tyres at the end, but both are interesting components of the front group. The midfield is likewise lively: Randy de Puniet fast out of the box after switching to Ducati ... though rather typically he did crash on the first lap; Hector Barbera showing yet more surprising maturity. And a blazing start for Cal Crutchlow, qualifying ahead of Rossi. The lessons from the desert don’t tell the whole story. There are 17 rounds to go, and plenty of racing in it. At the same time, would anyone bet against Stoner winning the last 800cc championship? It would sit rather well alongside the first one, that he won in 2006. 41