MotoGP: 2010 Qatar Preview

It's Anyone's Title This Year - If Your Name is Rossi, or Stoner

Our MotoGP correspondent Bruce Allen is back for the 2010 season. Check back on Monday for the full report of the Grand Prix of Qatar.

Any of you gearheads who can remember all the way back to 2009 will recall Fiat Yamaha’s Valentino Rossi, whose (yawn) domination of the premier class, like Old Man River, just kept rolling along. Now entering his 10th season on the big bikes, he’s only failed to win the title twice, in 2006 and 2007, when Nicky Hayden and then Casey Stoner took home the trophy. Otherwise, the premier class has been all Rossi, all the time. With 2010 shaping up to be more of the same, Ducati Marlboro’s Stoner appears to be the one guy who may be able to do something about it.

Last year, Rossi’s hyperactive teammate and uber-rival Jorge Lorenzo looked ready to take on the champ. Turned out he wasn’t, as his three overly-aggressive DNF’s ultimately relegated him to second place for the season. Stoner, meanwhile, battled a mysterious season-long tummyache, ultimately sitting out three rounds and eschewing any chance he might have otherwise had to challenge for the title. Repsol Honda’s rabid Chihuahua Dani Pedrosa started the season injured and never seriously threatened Rossi, despite winning twice. Pedrosa finished the year ahead of Stoner in third position, a gift he received when Stoner, incredibly, crashed on the sighting lap in Valencia.

Valentino Rossi remains the man to beat in 2010.

2009, then, was another Big Four, Little Thirteen season. Nicky Hayden was a complete non-factor in his first season with Ducati after several strong years with Repsol Honda. Pedrosa’s new teammate Andrea Dovizioso showed flashes of brilliance and enjoyed his first premier class win at Donington Park. Yamaha Tech 3 rider Colin Edwards was, by far, the strongest of the satellite team riders, finishing fifth for the season despite starting to resemble Kevin Schwantz. The rest of the field pretty much engaged in a season-long battle for eighth place (eventually won by now former premier class rider Alex De Angelis, for those of you keeping score at home.)

Casey Stoner has won three straight Qatar Grand Prix races and will look to win his fourth Sunday night.

At season’s end, MotoGP’s annual out-with-the-slow, in-with-the-go ritual commenced, with few surprises. Gone, but not forgotten, were de Angelis, his former teammate Toni Elias, Pokey Canepa, Gabor Talmacsi, and the previously deposed Crash Takahashi, all of whom landed rides in the new Moto2 class. Chris Vermeulen and James Toseland were shown the door and are currently underachieving in World SuperBike. And I hear that former world champion Sete Gibernau is now doing exhibition Segway riding for a small circus in southern Bavaria.

Meanwhile, Marco Melandri abandoned the bucket of bolts that was Hayate Racing in favor of the satellite San Carlo Gresini Honda team. Aleix Espargaro graduated from 2009 pinch hitter to 2010 everyday player on the Pramac Racing Ducati squad, alongside My Favorite Finn, Mika Kallio. Four dominant 250cc riders got promoted to the bigs – Hector Barbera, Marco Simoncelli, Hiroshi Aoyama and Alvaro Bautista. And in the move with the most immediate potential to disrupt the Big Four, Ben Spies jilted WSBK in favor of Yamaha Tech 3, teaming up with Edwards for what promises to become a highly competitive all-American team.

MotoGP’s 2010 Food Chain

Based upon a cursory examination of the pre-season testing, it looks as if the premier class divides pretty cleanly into three divisions:

Division I Division II Division II
Valentino Rossi Dani Pedrosa Loris Capirossi
Casey Stoner Ben Spies Hector Barbera
Jorge Lorenzo Mika Kallio Hiroshi Aoyama
Andrea Dovizioso Marco Melandri Alvaro Bautista
Colin Edwards Randy De Puniet Marco Simoncelli
Nicky Hayden Aleix Espargaro  

Although I expect my predictive powers will improve as the season progresses, I want to discuss the obvious anomalies in these rankings. Such as placing Nicky Hayden in Division I. Such as placing Dani Pedrosa and Ben Spies in Division 2. Such as placing Loris Capirossi in Division 3. Oddly enough, the exact same mental process applies to all four of these apparent contradictions:

I felt like it.

Ben Spies heads an impressive rookie class that includes the top four finishers of the 2009 250cc Grand Prix season, Hiroshi Aoyama, Hector Barbera, Marco Simoncelli and Alvaro Bautista.

Actually, my “reasoning”, which may be a little too strong of a term, goes something like this. Nicky Hayden seems to have finally figured out the Desmosedici, not to the extent that Casey Stoner has, but well enough to finish in the top six in most races, and certainly at Losail. I think Ben Spies may end up in the first division, perhaps WAY up, once he gets a little more familiar with the tracks. There are six or eight circuits on the calendar where he’s never raced, and the limited amount of practice time available in 2010 won’t soon fix that. Dani Pedrosa seems to be having MAJOR problems with the new suspension Honda has introduced this season, while teammate Dovizioso is apparently having no such problems. Plus, I just don’t like Dani Pedrosa and his tiresome “little man” complex. And, sadly, I think Loris Capirossi will be increasingly unable to coax anything at all out of his still seriously underpowered Suzuki.

Qatar will be Loris Capirossi's 300th career Grand Prix, the most of any racer in history.

I expect the four rookies moving up from the 250 class will discover that Dorothy was right – they’re not in Kansas anymore.

Sunday Night Under the Lights at Losail

Recent history suggests that Round 1 will go to Stoner again in 2010, just as it did in 2007, 2008 and 2009, once again proving nothing. I’ll be shocked if he isn’t joined on the podium by the Fiat Yamaha boys, with Dovi and Edwards lurking, waiting for someone to make a mistake. Personally, I’d love to see Hayden make a statement; the Doha circuit must be considered Ducati-friendly. And I fully expect the post-race press conference to feature Hector Barbera expressing incredulity at finishing 14th on his yellow Desmosedici. Better get used to it, Hector.

Last year's Qatar race was postponed due to rain. Let's hope that doesn't happen again this year.

About the New Six Engine Rule

The editors asked me for my take on the new FIM rule limiting riders to six engines for the entire season. If my recollection is correct, a number of riders were grinding their teeth last year when a mid-season rule went into effect limiting riders to five engines for the last seven races of the year. And this year they’re being limited to six engines for 18 races? Rumblings in cyberspace include: it will help the satellite teams; it is dumb to impose additional limits on the best riders on earth; it would be better to put limits on the electronics, etc.

My concern is that the rule may have at least two unintended consequences. A top tier rider finding himself in 10th position two thirds of the way through a race may ease off the throttle in an effort to conserve his engine for the next round. Carried to its logical extreme, such reasoning could result in having only a handful of riders on the lead lap in many races, with the “holding back” effect becoming more pronounced as the season progresses. Worse yet, imagine a Jorge Lorenzo, for example, blowing his sixth engine in practice at Valencia, needing only eight points to clinch the title, and being unable to run at all. Such a scenario might bring some extra excitement to MotoGP – the prospect of Jorge kidnapping a Monster Tech 3 rider and stealing his ride, for example. Probably not the kind of added excitement the Powers That Be had in mind when they wrote the rule.

What About Moto2?

MotoGP’s new poor cousin is intriguing for several reasons. One, these are big bikes, big enough to have convinced the premier class to revert to their 990cc machines for 2012. Two, the budget restrictions, with everyone riding the same engines on the same tires, have a decided NASCAR flavor to them, and can be expected to draw criticism if the races turn out to be parades. But the main thing that has me interested in Moto2 is the sheer number of riders, somewhere in the neighborhood of 40. The premier class can’t fill its 18-hole grid, while Moto2 tilts figure to look like Michigan Avenue in Chicago at rush hour on a Friday.

Even actor Antonio Banderas has his own Moto2 entry, Team Jack & Jones

The bookies ought to come up with a new wager this year – the number of riders going down for the count in Turn One of Lap One at each race. Could be a dozen at Estoril alone. I’ll try to pay a little more attention to Moto2 this season than I did to the 250’s last year, which was zero. My expectation is that the refugees from the premier class, notably Elias and de Angelis, will spend a lot of time on the Moto2 podium.

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