The MotoGP circus arrives in Spain this coming weekend for Round Six of the 2005 F.I.M. Grand Prix Motorcycling World Championship, and the second Spanish event of the season has a hard act to follow after last weekend's Italian thriller at Mugello.
The Gran Premi Gauloises de Catalunya follows hot on the heels of what is already being called a modern classic in some quarters. The battle fought out deep in the Tuscan valleys certainly gave the MotoGP race fans what they wanted and for Valentino Rossi, well, the man is in sublime form and seemingly unbeatable.
A Spanish fever of fanaticism will be reverberating around the grandstands at the Montmelo track and Barcelona city center will be buzzing with anticipation as the high-speed action beckons. Fans from all over Europe will descend upon the gloriously cosmopolitan venue to soak up the atmosphere provided by the Grand Prix weekend, the streets awash with color and Spanish fervor.
The main hope of the home crowd will, of course, be to see their national heroes victorious over the rest of the class of 2005 while making as much noise as is humanly possible--assisted by the specially designed fireworks sure to be on hand.
A huge television audience will join those fans present, and everyone concerned will again have high expectations as the premier-class pilots look to take the series to new heights. Can the world's two-wheeled elite rise to the challenge and "do a Mugello" once again?
Following the stunning Italian Grand Prix, Valentino Rossi has a commanding lead in the rider's world championship, 120 points the total for Vale. That is some 49 points clear of Marco Melandri with 71 points, the Gresini man finishing in the top four at every round of the season so far. Max Biaggi has now climbed to third spot in the standings after a hard-fought second place behind the "Doctor" on home soil. Biaggi now has 67 points.
The 2.9-mile "Montmelo" circuit is situated on the Northeastern outskirts of the city of Barcelona and was opened in 1991 after a two-year design-and-build project, and the facility staged its first motorcycle Grand Prix in 1992.
The infrastructure is of Formula One standard, and the track, which was modified in 1995, has staged a two-wheeled Grand Prix every year since that inaugural 1992 race meeting. The title of the Grand Prix of Catalunya has been in place since 1996 after the event changed its name from the Grand Prix of Europe.
There are 13 turns--8 right-handers and 5 lefts--and the circuit incorporates one of the longest straights on the calendar at 2/3-mile in length. We saw a top speed of over 215 mph during the pre-season IRTA test at this track back in 2004, however that recorded velocity was due, in part, to a strong tail wind.
The layout of the circuit is an interesting one for the Grand Prix bikes, more so than for the Formula One cars that race here over a slightly different layout. The motorcycles also have plenty of opportunity for overtaking--something the cars struggle with.
Setup, as we say so often, is a question of balance but not as extreme as at some circuits, and baseline settings won't be too far from those used at Mugello for certain riders. I say certain riders, as a few are clearly suffering. Some are inconsistent and some have commented this week that they are "lost" as to why they are struggling. A couple of the racers have used clever PR releases to make it seem like their woes are but a mere blip when clearly the pattern is a repetitive one in a few of the garages.
As previously mentioned, the track has a little of everything. From fast-sweeping turns to tighter hairpins, it has camber changes a-plenty and both uphill and downhill sections that are certainly challenging. The camber changes and heavy braking will be easier to navigate after the track was re-surfaced prior to this season, but the riders will still need to articulate as much detail as possible to those patient folks at Ohlins, Showa and Brembo, among others.
The undulating nature of the track means that being able to load up the front-end and still carry corner speed and then punch the power hard on corner exit is all-important. The engine mapping needs to be spot-on to get a stable level of torque and acceleration from the 990cc machines and make use of the technologically advanced MotoGP tires.
There will be much communication with the tire technicians as the right compound choice will be essential for longevity over the race distance of 25 laps. The level of grip and traction available from the tires will need to be matched to usable linear power from the motor.
That power application and the possible hot Spanish weather will mean that much of the testing of race rubber for race distance will be completed during the afternoon sessions, free practice two on Friday and the official qualifying hour on Saturday.
Those two sessions are run at a time of day closest to resembling the race start time, and the teams will get a better analysis of which race tire to use during those sessions than if they ran the tire simulations during the morning sessions--which are run in the cooler morning temperatures. A balance of setup time for the chassis/geometry settings, and in turn for the tires, will be where the teams earn their money this weekend.
With Valentino Rossi in command of the title chase, another factory bike meeting gravel was not what Sete Gibernau needed last weekend. Unfortunately, the double vice-champion threw it all away early on at Mugello and, along with it, his title push, too, if we are being candid. If Gibernau is to mount any form of comeback on Rossi, he needs not only race wins but for Rossi's luck to run out--not something that Rossi has ever faced since entering the premier class.
He has a sublime level of both natural skill and mental awareness that means that for anybody to dethrone the six-time Grand Prix champion they would need to start pouring it on now and make Rossi's life a misery. Sadly, I can't see that happening this year and we have to hope there isn't a runaway title-win for the Doctor leaving the final quarter of the season a relative damp squid.
A fine line exists between trying too hard and failing and settling for what you know you can better achieve. It's in the make-up of these guys to always want a tenth more--it's second nature. However, that said, points mean prizes and no fuzzy logic press release can hide the fact that you've self-destructed on some personal level and dumped your bike in the gravel traps of the world far more than you should have.
The revelation of the season is Team Movistar man Marco Melandri. The youngest-ever 250cc world title holder has shown supreme confidence and kept a cool head so far and seems to be one of the only riders on track who is capable of taking his customer-spec bike to the limits without pushing that one step too far-and he's comfortable doing it, too. Confidence-building with the steady arm of Fausto Gresini round the Italian's shoulder is paying dividends.
Max Biaggi is fighting back after a disastrous start to the season, and the old Max was back in Italy, looking inspired again. He'll need to keep that level of consistency running through the remainder of the season if he is to stay aboard a competitive bike for 2006. The engine mapping and balance woes looked to be something Biaggi had figured out in Italy and the chatter being perpetuated from the rear set-up through to the front of the works bike looked "eased", but will that remain the case?
Ducati pilot Carlos Checa had a steady Mugello meeting without setting the place on fire, and Loris Capirossi's podium was the highlight of the Ducatisti's season so far. It was a gutsy display from Loris, and the pair will be hoping the new parts they tested at Mugello on Monday and the latest Bridgestone product can help them be competitive again with the Yamahas and Hondas.
Kawasaki riders Shinya Nakano and Alex Hofmann will want an improvement of drive and traction out of the corners and a top speed tweak to be able to stay in touch in race-trim. The "Q" tire run will again leave them with a shot at a decent grid position on-board the factory Ninja machines but you have to ask that, if qualifying rubber were abolished, where would the Bridgestone runners be on the grid to give them any hope in the dry on race tires?
Suzuki men Kenny Roberts and John Hopkins will be looking for power and performance improvement if they are to threaten the established order at the front. And, again, as with the Kawasaki racers, the GSV-R pilots look set to be relying on the 'Stones' sticky rubber to be in with a chance of an early dice at the front as race pace looks beyond the Japanese V4 bikes.
The one shining light for Suzuki right now is the form of "Hopper" who looks to be one of the hardest-working MotoGP riders at present behind Biaggi. Hopkins is on a shopping list or two for 2006 already.
Konica Minolta's Makoto Tamada will be looking to improve on his eighth-place finish in Italy, his injured wrist hopefully healed further with the aid of physiotherapy this week.
Troy Bayliss needs a hand from the man upstairs and a solid dose of luck to get with the RCV program, and Camel Honda teammate Alex Barros will want to qualify better if he is to put his stellar race pace to better use.
Nick Hayden (Repsol Honda) and Colin Edwards (Gauloises Yamaha) need to put Mugello inconsistencies behind them, and Ruben Xaus (again expected to be partnered with David Checa for an injured Toni Elias) could do with repeating his form from this time last year and make a splash at home in Spain.
Roberto Rolfo (D'Antin Pramac), Franco Battaini and James Ellison (Blata WCM) are again expected to fill the role of hard-trying back markers, while Shane Byrne will be looking for another solid finish for Team Roberts to further cement recent hopes for the slowly improving KTM-engined hybrid bike.
So, Sete Gibernau, who is 67 points behind Rossi will be seeing this race as a must-win at his home track, and Max Biaggi and Marco Melandri will want to make it a Honda podium washout. Ducati and Kawasaki need to score impressively, Suzuki need to make leaps forward again and all of this goes on with Valentino Rossi looking to leave Spain for Holland having rubbed the opposition's nose in it once more.
With Rossi having a base setting for the factory M1 sorted and with the new engine having given the bike a top-speed improvement, and with Rossi's guile and never-say-die attitude, can anyone really stop the modern-era Lawson from utterly dominating the 2005 season?
Valentino goes for his fifth win from six race starts this weekend, and his seventh win in total at Barcelona, and into the bargain the legendary Italian could equal Wayne Rainey's record of nine consecutive podiums for Yamaha in the premier class on Sunday. The records keep tumbling, and we are running out of superlatives for the 26-year-old Rossi.
Silly season will, no doubt, begin in earnest during the course of the next two Grand Prix race meetings with officials from the factories, notable luminaries and sponsors normally keen to be at Barcelona and especially Assen.
Early markers appear to be an approach to Capirossi from Suzuki; Troy Bayliss returning to World Superbike this time with Honda and even Nick Hayden is mentioned in silly- season whisper dispatches.
Will Nick, after possibly having yet another mediocre season in MotoGP, be "placed" on a Honda Fireblade in the WSC for 2006 by HRC who are looking to run a fully backed (by Japan) works team?
And so, the rumor mill turns...
First practice for the Catalan Grand Prix takes place at 10:00 AM local time on Friday, and we hope you'll tune in this coming Sunday for 25 laps of MotoGP action from Spain. All times and related news, together with press releases and notes, will appear here during the course of the weekend.
Gentlemen, start your engines!