MotoGP Season Preview
April 2, 2005 The MotoGP season starts again next weekend with Valentino Rossi and his Yamaha YZR M1 a raging hot favourite to take the title again. Rossi appears likely to face increased competition this year though, with at least ten riders looking capable of taking a race win during the season and with his most likely rival, Honda-mounted Sete Gibernau, already in fine form. Read our extensive 2005 season preview with in-dpeth coverage of the pre-season testing, bookies odds, links and background.
Sete Gibernau came out stronger than ever from the official three day MotoGP test at the Circuit de Catalunya on March 20. The MoviStar Honda rider posted the best lap time of the three days and was accordingly presented a BMW 1 Series car for his efforts, with Max Biaggi second and Rossi third in the times. Significantly, arch-rivals Biaggi and Rossi were just one hundredth of a second apart, but both languished over four tenths of a second behind Gibernau.
Motorcycle madness in Spain
It is a measure of the motorcycle madness that envelopes Spain that the final 40 minute mock qualifying session of the three day test was televised live throughout Spain, and when the flag drops on April 10 to begin the MotoGP season, an estimated 250,000 spectators will be present at the Jerez circuit. It is little wonder that the season begins and ends (Valencia, November 6) in Spain with a third Grand Prix held mid-season (under the auspices of the Catalan Autonomous Government , June 12) making three Spanish events in the 17 race series which visits no other country twice.
Given that Gibernau is motorcycling royalty in Spain (his Grandfather is Don Paco Bulto, founder of the famous Spanish motorcycle marque Bultaco), it’s not surprising he found the extra to take the BMW award.
Gibernau is the most likely of Valentino Rossi’s challengers to threaten his crown in 2005. Honda want the title it considers its own back, and has thrown its not inconsiderable racing weight behind the development of the RC211V and Gibernau has shown in the last two seasons that he can mix it with and sometimes beat the otherwise all-conquering Rossi. In both 2003 and 2004, Gibernau reached the half way point of the season in a position to take the crown, but both times Rossi made his customary finish to the season, winning six of the last seven races in 2003 and five of the last eight in 2004.
What this means for Gibernau is that unless he reaches the half way mark of the season well in front of Rossi on points, he’s unlikely to withstand Rossi’s late season charge and unlike last season where Rossi did not even begin development work on the Yamaha YZR M1 until his Honda contract expired at the end of December 2003, Gauloises Yamaha team boss Jeremy Burgess has a whole season of race and test data to begin the 2005 season with and Rossi has been near the front of every timed session so far this year.
Rossi challenging for best ever
Last year Rossi raised the bar considerably. He went from being “one of the best riders of all time” to, barring mishap, almost certain to challenge Giacomo Agostini for the mantle of “greatest ever” thanks to taking a bike that was simply uncompetitive (the Yamaha M1) and simultaneously developing and riding it to a World title against the might of Honda. The M1 had scored ONE podium in the 2003 season – one place in the top three finishers across 16 races with six topline professional riders (including Checa and Barros) aboard an M1 in every one of those races.
Rossi got on board and won nine times in 16 races with two second places for good measure. The three other Yamaha works riders contributed three podiums between them. Conversely, Honda riders scored 32 podiums, Ducati three and Kawasaki one.
With 42 victories in the class in just five seasons, Rossi has already surpassed all other riders in history bar Michael Doohan (54 wins) and Giacomo Agostini (68 wins). He’s still 12 wins shy of Doohan’s record and 26 wins short of Agostini, but he’s only just turned 26 years of age and his career is yet to run its full course. Unless he decides to seek further challenges elsewhere, such as contesting WRC or F1 (he has test-driven the Ferrari F1 car and driven ina round of the World Rally Championship), Rossi will almost certainly eclipse the brightest stars in motorcycle racing history before his thirtieth birthday.
Giacomo Agostini - The Best Ever
Just a short note on the "greatest of all time" front - Agostini has won a lot more Grands Prix than the aforementioned 68. That's just the number of MotoGP (then 500cc) events he won. Rossi may well turn out to be the greatest rider of all-time, but he has enormous shoes to fill.
Giacomo Agostini won 15 world titles – they no longer have a 350 title these days but he won seven of them on top of his eight MotoGP titles. He also won another 12 Isle of Man TT titles – the annual race on public roads which eventually became so dangerous due to increasing speed of the motorcycles that it lost its World Championship status. The Isle of Man Tourist Trophy was at least as important as a series World title in those days and had full World Championship status – and riders required industrial-sized gonads to be competitive given the close proximity of stone walls, culverts, gutters and a course so long that it could be sunny and dry at one end of the circuit and foggy and wet up on the mountain.
Like Rossi, Agostini won on both two and four stroke machinery, and although he spent the best years of his career with a machinery advantage, when machines were equal, he generally prevailed. As a youngster making his mark, the tussles he had with established number one rider and Agostini mentor Mike Hailwood are still spoken of in hushed tones. The master and the pupil - no holds barred. It is ironic that Rossi's mentor should be Michael Doohan. He won the 350-500 title double in 1968, 1969, 1970, 1971 and 1972 and in total won a staggering 122 Grands Prix.
Jeremy Burgess - the finest motorcycle tuner in history?
The team Rossi has assembled to support him should no doubt be credited with huge part of the 2004 Championship, as the variables of a race winning rider-bike equation are now incredibly numerous and complex and crew chief Burgess clearly understands the game – he was previously responsible for the bikes of Mick Doohan (54 premier class wins) and Wayne Gardiner, (18 premier class wins) giving Burgess a total of more than 100 victories in the world’s most competitive class – surely a record that will stand forever and one that should make his services as valuable as those of Rossi. Burgess surely holds at least part of the key to winning a world championship, having prepared the machinery that has won ten of the last 18 riders titles.
But for all the wiles and engineering knowledge of the team, Rossi is the star and the missing ingredient – the person who seems capable of adding whatever it takes to greet the chequered flag first. Though he entered the premier class later than his major contemporary rivals (in 2000), he has amassed 42 race wins in five years – all the riders on the rest of the grid have won 43 between them. Indeed, only one of the current competitors, Kenny Roberts Junior, has ever won a premier title and that was in Rossi’s first year.
The main challenger - Sete Gibernau and the Honda RC211V
Gibernau entered the (then 500cc) class in 1997 and was considered way back then to be a rising star, putting in some fantastic rides on the Honda factory 500 V-twin. Gibernau inherited Mick Doohan’s bike when Doohan was injured in 1999. Though he showed promise at that point, he was dropped by Honda and acquired by Suzuki as part of a deal with Telefonica Movistar the following year, winning his first race on the 500 Suzuki in 2001. An uneventful season in 2002 on the RGV Suzuki saw him follow the Telefonica MoviStar sponsorship to Honda and from the get-go in 2003, he has been on the pace.
Since then he has won eight races, placed second nine times and third three times and is alongside the “Roman Emperor”, Max Biaggi, the only credible threat to another Rossi title.
Bookmakers are quoting Gibernau at 4/1 for the title, with Biaggi at 11/2. No other rider is in single figure odds.
Biaggi - in need of an image makeover
That Biaggi is still considered a viable world champion is intriguing.
After four straight 250 titles, Biaggi won his first 500 class race in 1998 and seemed the “heir apparent” to Doohan’s crown. With just four races to run in 1998, Biaggi actually lead Doohan by 13 points but as we have seen so many times since then, Biaggi failed to deliver on his promise and talent when it counted and finished second in the title.
Since then, from 110 starts, he has finished on the podium on 54 occassions – a record that puts him in stellar company. But only 13 of Biaggi’s podiums have been on the top step, and his seven seasons of top level racing have seen him finish the championship tables with three second places, three third places and a fourth place. He has certainly lost the aura of a winner and though the season has not yet started his explanation of any misfortunes already has an all-too-familiar ring– though he now rides the number one Honda for the powerful Honda Racing Corporation, it is illustrative that when he finished the time charts in 15th spot on Good Friday, he commented, "at this point it all depends on engine management, power output and electronic controls. It’s not up to me. I hope the answer will come soon.”
By Sunday evening, he was in eleventh spot and once again he was pointing the finger. "This was a really hard weekend,” he said. “The good bike I had in Barcelona disappeared.”
“Since Friday I carried on new problems until Sunday evening. The settings that were working on all the other tracks here didn't respond and it's difficult to know why. I have chattering troubles entering the corners and traction troubles going out like. Anyhow I don't give up. In this moment, more than ever, I must be strong and work with my team to move towards the best solution."
Biaggi’s team-mate Nicky Hayden shared the same garage, an identical motorcycle and topped the time sheets, with a time more than two seconds faster than Biaggi. Needless to say, we won’t be giving the bookies any money at those odds.
Marco Melandri and the Honda RC211V
Marco Melandri, having swapped from Yamaha to Honda at the end of last season, has been one of the greatest surprises of pre-season testing. Melandri was fourth fastest at the Catalunya test (March 18, 19, 20), and second fastest at the Jerez tests a week later (March 25, 26, 27).
Melandri is now 22 yet has been on the Grand Prix circuit for seven years, always having great expectations thrust upon him for his prodigious talent. In that time he has won just one world title, despite contending the championship to the final rounds almost every year in the 125 and 250 champions. Since moving to the premier class in 2003, he has shown flashes of speed but has had dogged luck with injuries. In his third year at this level, Melandri will be expected to earn his ride and anything less than regular podiums will be selling his abilities short. The RC211V is a small motorcycle and responds well to smooth riding - Melandri comes from the smaller classes and will like the machine.
Nick y Hayden - groomed for success
Fastest in the latest and final pre-season tests at Jerez was Repsol Honda’s Nicky Hayden who was the only rider to lap under 1'40. Beginning his third year on the championship trail, Honda has been very patient with Hayden – he finished fifth in the title as Valentino Rossi’s teammate in the factory team in 2003 but scored fewer points and finished fewer races in 2004.
Hayden has scored just four podium positions (all third places) from two seasons riding the wickedly fast Honda factory five cylinder machine and will return to the Spanish Jerez circuit next week hoping he can make a contest when it counts.
The pre-season has been particularly hectic this year as Honda is working hard to ensure it has the machinery in place to wrest the title back from Rossi.
“This has been the last of twenty-six preseason test days”, said Hayden after posting the best time at Jerez, “and everybody has done a great job.”
“Now I'm really looking forward to the start of the Championship." In total, across the three days, Hayden completed 230 laps to record a lap time nearly a full second faster than second-fastest Melandri and MUCH faster than anyone else. Understandably, he described the tests as “fantastic.”
“What we did is very important, especially considering that we're only two weeks away from the first Grand Prix, and that it's going to be raced here. Then I'll have to do it again. It's been fantastic to see the guys in the box laughing again.”
With Hondas first and second at the final test, it was refreshing to see four different manufacturers in the five fastest times.
John Hopkins and the Suzuki GSV-R990
John Hopkins posted third fastest time on Suzuki's GSV-R990 prototype racer. On Sunday afternoon, Hopkins improved on his quickest lap from Friday by nearly half a second to record a time of 1min40.418. His lap was over 2.5-seconds faster than his qualifying time during the 2004 Jerez race and comfortably faster than the pole position set for that race by Valentino Rossi at 1min40.818.
Hopkins has been handicapped by an uncompetitive machine for his entire MotoGP career, first on a two-stroke Yamaha after the four-strokes arrived, and then on the Suzuki GSV-R for the last two years. But the 2005 GSV-R appears to have some speed, and Hopkins finished sixth on the time sheets at Catalunya the week prior to his third place here.
Hopkins was clearly chuffed and happy to tell the media about it. “I proved that I can go as fast as anybody on race tyres and we have also showed that we were able to step it up in the rain and run in the top places, said Hopkins. “The biggest achievement for me this weekend was showing that I could ride as fast as any other rider in the wet. I am now looking forward to racing, I can't wait!”
Rossi’s Yamaha was fourth fastest with the 2005 Ducati Marlboro Team Desmosedici GP5 of Loris Capirossi in fifth. In the final three-day test session at Jerez, the Ducati Marlboro Team fielded Loris Capirossi and test-rider Vittoriano Guareschi as new signing Carlos Checa is recovering from a dislocated left shoulder he sustained at Catalunya.
Carlos Checa - ten years in MotoGP
Checa’s career has been, err, chequered! He has often shown flashes of blinding speed, but generally on a circuit somewhere in Spain, and he has consistently nurtured his reputation as a crasher. After ten years at the highest level, almost always on first class machinery, he has just 22 podiums to his credit, and only two of them wins. His best year in the championship was 1998 when he finished fourth, behind Alex Criville, Biaggi and Doohan.
It’s hard to understand what attracted Ducati to draft Checa into the team, as it’s unlikely he will find the same speed from the Marlboro GP5 Ducati as Loris Capirossi and his star seems on the wane. Whatsmore, an almost certain good showing at Jerez (one of Checa’s favourite circuits) seems certain to go begging now he has missed the test session at that circuit just a fortnight before the event.
Checa’s teammate Loris Capirossi is one of the more colourful riders in the paddock, having begun riding his first full Grand Prix season at 16 years of age in the 125 class in 1991, taking the title and backing it up with another championship the second year. Since then Capirossi’s career has been both spectacular and controversial.
He was a championship contender in 250s but eventually moved up to the 500 class in 1995 without winning a title in the quarter litre class. Two seasons, one on Honda and one on Yamaha at the 500 level resulted in a win in his final race before he returned to the 250s and in 1998 he finally won that title. It was also his most inglorious moment as he won the title in what most people saw as the most unsportsmanlike fashion. In the final corner of the final race of the season, with no chance of beating his teammate Tetsuya Harada for the title but ahead of him on points, Capirossi crashed into Harada, knocking him off the track. In a controversial decision, Capirossi was awarded the title though Italian factory Aprilia fired him for conduct unbecoming. In 2000 he returned to the 500 class and after a solid year of relearning the beasties, he put in his best year ever in 2001 on the West Honda Pons machine, finishing third in the title just nine points behind Biaggi’s second place.
His most glorious moment came in 2003 when he gave Ducati its debut MotoGP win.
Capirossi as always has the speed to be a contender, and a lot will depend on how the Ducati GP5 turns out this year. Already it seems much faster than the bike the factory rolled out at the beginning of 2004, which was a step backwards from the spectacularly successful debut machine of 2003. At the Catalunya tests Capriossi beat his qualifying time from last year's Catalan GP by 0.6 seconds and at Jerez, despite having to do the bulk of the development work due to the absence of Checa, he was right on the pace with the fifth fastest time, just two hundredths of a second slower than Valentino Rossi’s best lap. As in previous years, the GP5 appears to be the horsepower king again, topping the trap speeds.
Barros - 20 years on the Grand Prix trail
Sixth in the final tests at Jerez was the Team Pons Camel Honda of veteran Brazilian Alex Barros, who will be starting his 16th year in the premier class and his 20th year in world championship racing, having lied about his age to get a start in the Spanish 80cc Grand Prix at Jarama in 1986. In 1990 he was the youngest ever starter in a 500cc race when he raced the Cagiva 500 and along the way he has certainly had his chance at glory, though he has never taken it.
In 1993 he was drafted as the second rider to Kevin Schwanz on the Lucky Strike Suzuki Team and finished sixth in the title (Schwanz was champion that year). After another year at Lucky Strike, he began a long association with Honda in 1995 on board a Team Kanemoto NSR 500. Several times during his long career he has finished fourth in the title, though expectations were never greater than when he was given a late chance to ride a Honda factory RC211V in 2002 after a series of promising rides on the outdated NSR500 two-stroke machine. His last four races on board the four-stroke were spectacular with some terrific tussles with Rossi ensuing and two wins, a second and a third from four starts making him the prize signature to be had for 2003. On board equal machinery he appeared to have Rossi’s measure.
Unfortunately for Barros, Yamaha won the quest for his signature and Barros had a wretched run with injury on a machine that was down on power and scored just one podium for the entire year. Although Yamaha fielded three teams in 2003, Barros’visit to the podium was Yamaha’s sole top three position for the entire season.
Barros moved back to the Repsol Honda team in 2004 and still struggling with fitness, failed to recapture his form of 2002 on the same machine – one second place and three thirds were his best results for the season. Barros is regarded as a significant contender by the bookmakers – he is just behind Hayden (20/1) and shares the same betting line (25/1) as Makota Tamada , another of Honda’s young chargers. Barros is fitter than he has been for several years and at his best is capable of matching Gibernau, Rossi and Biaggi. If he doesn’t find a vein of rich form this year, you can expect it to be his last on the circuit.
Tamada - the first Japanese MotoGP champion?
Makoto Tamada made his mark on the world motorcycle stage in the 2001 and 2002 Japanese rounds of the World Superbike Championships as a wildcard entry. On home territory, riding a Honda factory bike, Tamada scored two emphatic wins and set the stage for Honda to promote him into MotoGP in 2003. Initially slow to come to grips with the RC211V, Tamada scored two wins in 2004 and looks the best bet for a long time for a Japanese rider to win the premiere motorcycle title. When that day arrives, as it inevitably will, the celebrity afforded the winner will be immense given Japan’s domination of global motorcycle sport. Tamada will ride this year for the KonicaMinolta Team - a new team with lofty ambitions and all the boxes ticked - rider, machinery, management and sound backing. Watch this space!!
Colin Edwards - Rossi's Gauloises Yamaha Team-mate
One of the quiet achievers of the off-season has been former World Superbike Champ Colin Edwards. Edwards spent his first year in MotoGP (2003) riding the uncompetitive Aprilia “cube”, moving to a Honda machine in 2004 and finishing fifth in the championship with two podiums to his credit and a grounding solid enough for him to be snapped up by Gauloises Yamaha as second rider to Rossi. The bookmakers have Edwards as equal fourth favourite for the championship (behind Rossi, Biaggi and Gibernau), equal with Ducati’s Loris Capirossi.
Beyond Edwards, the chances of a rider featuring as a significant player in the world championship begin to thin, with the most likely contender with race-winning speed being Aussie Troy Bayliss, the man whom he fought two fantastic year-long battles with in the Superbike Championships of 2001 and 2002.
Bayliss piloted the Ducati Desmosedicci to its best finish in the last race of 2004 but had already been replaced by Checa for 2005. He was picked up by Camel Honda and has had great difficulty adapting to the Honda in pre-season testing, even contemplating quitting at one point. Bayliss has the speed of a winner and the mindset of a streetfighter. The 2001 World Superbike Champion might just yet surprise everyone if he can modify his alligator-wrestling style to the Honda, which likes a smooth and precise rider.
Kenny Roberts Junior
Just why Kenny Roberts Junior is running at the back of the pack is hard to understand. He has not shown the pre-season speed of team-mate Hopkins, comes from a family where winning is almost second-nature and already has a world title to his name. The Suzuki appears to have enough pace to be in contention but the bookies consider him to be a long odds prospect - like 500/1.
Though unlikely to be in outright contention for a win in 2005, three more marques exist which will all be fascinating to watch for different reasons.
Kawasaki and the big-bang ZX-RR
The first is the official Kawasaki team which returned to topline competition towards the end of the 2002 season and for most of the time since, has been very uncompetitive . The high point on the long road back to competitiveness was the Japanese Grand Prix of 2004 where Shinya Nakano rode through the field to the team’s first 500 podium by a Kawasaki since Kork Ballington in 1981.
The Kawasaki has been improving in competitiveness since then and a new engine with a “big-bang” firing order was introduced in February, improving power delivery but apparently creating engine-braking problems which are still to be overcome.
Perhaps the most significant new signing at Kawasaki in many years is that of revered former Yamaha race engineer Ichiro Yoda. Yoda will bring important experience and expertise to Kawasaki and believes the Kawasaki can win at least one race this year.
There’s a great interview with Yoda on the official MotoGP site.
Nakano has again been fast in testing and despite a series of electrical and mechanical mishaps in the final three days session, he finished ninth in the times and clearly expected to have been much higher up the order. Speaking on Sunday evening after the tests concluded on March 27, Nakano said, "Today was definitely not my day, but despite the problems, I'm positive because it is better to have learnt these things in testing than to only find out next week when we are here for the first race.”
“After the engine problem in my number one bike I had to switch to the spare, but I didn't have the same feeling with this set-up. I tried a qualifying tyre at the end and did a good time. Overall the test was a good outcome, and I'm much more confident than after the Barcelona test."
With team mate Alex Hoffman in 12th on the time sheets at Jerez, the Kawasaki team is clearly not that far off the pace. Hoffman said on Sunday night, “"I put a soft tyre in for my final quick time, but I didn't get the best out of that lap. I was a little disappointed with the time because I had done a 1.41.7 on race tyres. It was a difficult day until the team got the electrical problems sorted, so I never got into a good rhythm. But we are not far off, and I think we can look to the Jerez race with some confidence. I'm happy to finish testing, now I just want to go racing."
The Team Roberts KTM-powered Proton
The second team of interest is Team Roberts – run by one of the all-time motorcycle greats, Kenny Roberts (the father of Suzuki rider Kenny Roberts Junior), for much of the team’s history, it has produced the entire bike at its British headquarters. Last year the team ran a five cylinder engine of its own design but in the latter half of 2004 began working with Austrian motorcycle manufacturer KTM. The new V4 engine from KTM is still under development and the three-day IRTA test at Jerez (March 25-27) was only the third outing for the KTM-powered Proton KR machine.
The project is still in its infancy and going through the time-consuming prototype development stage of matching KTM’s Austrian manufactured V4, 990cc motor with the British built TeamKR chassis. Rider Shane Byrne ran under the Aprilia banner in MotoGP last year, but hopes for far better results this year. Byrne completed 152 laps over three days and was able to slice almost four seconds from his lap times as he worked through a program of chassis and suspension set-up and engine evaluation.
Byrne stayed within a narrow range of the available Michelin tyre choice as he concentrated on improving front-end feel. He also ran only on race tyres and did not try for a fast, single lap using soft compound qualifying tyres unlike every other rider at the test.
“I made a lot of progress with the front end settings on the final day,” said Byrne, and we are now heading in the right direction.”
“On race tyres I did 1’44.2 which was almost four seconds quicker than the times I started with on the first day. On day one I didn’t have a lot of confidence in the front end on corner entry. The main changes were to chassis geometry and fork settings.
“There is definitely more to come. On the final day he lap times came much easier. On day one I was busting my balls to do 1’47s but on day three the 1’44.2 was really comfortable.
“With the KTM engine we tried some different mapping and other adjustments. I would like a bit more push off the turns from the motor and hopefully we can achieve that while keeping the smooth power delivery and throttle connection. It’s a pity we had to stop early on the final day with a problem.
“I didn’t really get time to test some of the new and better tyres available from Michelin. I didn’t even bother having a run on soft qualifier, we weren’t ready for that.
“The 1’42s needs to be our target at Jerez and I think everyone now knows what the things are that we need to improve on the bike. Everyone from KTM and Team KR are very keen and motivated.”
So the Team Roberts Proton KTM is promising – all the Roberts machines have handled well, and at last it looks like they might also get some competitive horsepower. It’d be great to see the expertise of Team Roberts compete successfully against the mega-budget Japanese teams and Byrne is clearly impressed with the immense knowledge of team owner Kenny Roberts, a three-time winner of the MotoGP (then 500cc) crown. “Kenny Roberts has been unbelievable”, said Byrne. “He goes out on the track and watches the bike and then comes back to the garage and understands what we need to do to improve.”
“It’s almost like riding an automatic, a twist and go bike, with such a smooth power delivery.” Fingers crossed.
The WCM Blata V6
Last and hopefully not least is the WCM team that has now been running since 1992 and evolved into the highly successful Red Bull Yamaha team. With the move to four-stroke machinery, the team lost its engines and competitiveness and has been languishing at the rear of the field developing its own four cylinder engines that are clearly well down on horsepower. Last year the team made a great leap forward by announcing a technical partnership with Czech mini-bike manufacturer Blata to build a V6 machine for 2005.
Though the machine is yet to make its appearance, it will be one of the highlights of the season when it does appear – a liquid-cooled, across the frame 'V' configuration 6-cylinder, 4-stroke with24-valves and gear driven double overhead camshaft will no doubt make an awesome sound. It’s to be hoped that the team can become competitive with the new machine though realistically the project is a very ambitious one.
In summary, it’d be great to see the wins shared around this year. Rossi, Gibernau and Biaggi will all win races. Tamada can be reasonably expected to improve and he won twice last year for Honda, and Nicky hayden is now due for a win unless he wishes to see his career shortened. With a year of development, the M1 of Colin Edwards might get close and Ducati and Suzuki appear almost there, so that puts Capirossi and Hopkins in contention.
Our money is on Rossi again. He rarely crashes and his consistent speed will serve him well in a season with so many potential race winners.