By Dan Moakes
March 11 2008
The Motorcycle Grand Prix World Championship was back for the 2008 season, and it began with a new innovation - the Qatar GP at Losail was the first race to be held at night under floodlights. Australian rider Casey Stoner was literally in the spotlight as he began his title defence.
For the 2008 season there are the inevitable changes. These include rider moves, technology, venues, and new partnerships. For instance, former Yamaha and Honda rider Marco Melandri becomes the resident Italian rider at Ducati, teaming up with the reigning champion Stoner. 267-time GP racer Loris Capirossi therefore moves on for his first taste of racing with Suzuki, replacing Kawasaki-bound John Hopkins. And multi-champion Valentino Rossi gets the benefit of Bridgestone tyres on his works Yamaha, despite the fact that all their other machines are to compete on Michelins. There are also four rookie riders in the series.
27-year-old James Toseland is a double champion in Superbikes, following in the footsteps of Colin Edwards and Chris Vermeulen with his switch to MotoGP. Given his success to date, James is the big hope for Britain in Grands Prix. The last champion from the UK was a certain Barry Sheene, way back in 1977; and the Londoner’s 500cc win in the 1981 Swedish race is the last for Britain in the top class. Since then, the only other riders from these Isles to have won races are Alan Carter (250cc in 1983), Ian McConnachie (80cc in 1986) and Jeremy McWilliams (250cc in 2001). James will aim to fill that gap, racing for Tech 3 Yamaha; but of course his SBK years have not taken him to the GP circuits in Spain, Catalunya, Portugal, France, Italy, Germany, China, Japan and Malaysia.
Andrea Dovizioso (21) won the 125cc GP title in 2004, in a dominant display with five race wins. He has spent the last three years on a 250cc Honda, racing the likes of Stoner and Dani Pedrosa in 2005. He won a total of four races to finish runner-up in both of the last two seasons, and races a JiR Scot Honda this year. The man who beat him each time also moves up, with former Aprilia rider Jorge Lorenzo (20) joining Rossi’s Fiat Yamaha team. He has won four races on a 125 Derbi, and took 17 victories as he secured his two 250 titles. The final rookie has been a GP regular since 2000, with four 125 years and four 250 years. Alex de Angelis (24) has 32 GP podiums behind him, but went as many as 113 races before taking his one and only victory. He joins the Gresini Honda team.
A team that is missing is that of Kenny Roberts. The three-time 500cc World Champion went on to run Yamaha GP teams after his retirement, including the Marlboro works team from 1990 to 1996. The following year he used Marlboro money again, but moved away from the Japanese to set up as a private manufacturer. The three-cylinder Modenas 500 (later Proton) was raced for six seasons, improving all the time and taking a pole position at the end of its final year, with a best race result of sixth. Then came the 990cc machine, with Team KR’s own V5 engine, replaced by KTM and then Honda. After a good 2006, last year was a struggle with the Honda 800 powerplant, which did not help where financial worries were concerned - the reason for their current absence.
Stoner takes on the number 1 plate as the champion, dropping his usual 27 to keep Ducati happy. Honda’s Pedrosa, the 2007 runner-up, moves to number 2 from the usual 26, and team-mate Nicky Hayden goes back to 69 after his year as number 1. In the absence of Carlos Checa, Vermeulen goes to number 7 in honour of his mentor Sheene. 15 for de Angelis, 48 for Lorenzo and 52 for Toseland are familiar numbers. Dovizioso usually races with number 34, but that number was retired from the top class with the retirement of Kevin Schwantz in 1995, so the Italian takes the number 4 previously used by Alex Barros.
Technically, the teams have of course developed their machinery. The works Yamaha and Honda bikes have had changes to their engines, which for the former particularly means the use of pneumatic valves. The customer Tech 3 team do not get these as yet; and in the Honda camp, the various customer teams start out with the 2007 model RC212V. Another change for 2008 is that the GP of Turkey, and therefore the impressive Ístanbul Otodrom circuit, is off the calendar. There is a famous replacement venue, in the shape of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, which will perhaps aim to run a race to rival the major US event at Daytona.
Qualifying for the race brought about a phenomenon not seen for ten years - a rookie rider taking pole position. Max Biaggi was the man in question at Suzuka in 1998, and he went on to win the race. This time, Lorenzo was the man on top with his Michelin-shod works Yamaha, and he was followed by GP newcomer Toseland on the Tech 3 machine. Yamaha and Michelin got the clean sweep, with the Yorkshireman’s team-mate, Edwards, taking third on the grid. The other Yamaha M1 was that of Rossi, back in P7 with his Bridgestone tyres.
Stoner had the lead Marlboro Ducati in fourth, but partner Melandri was way back in P16. The first Honda was the LCR machine of Randy de Puniet, in fifth. The Repsol works bikes were either side of Rossi, with Hayden sixth and Pedrosa eighth, despite an injury to his hand and wrist. Nicky opted for the 2007 RCV for the race. Another customer Honda was the JiR (formerly Konica Minolta) machine of Dovizioso, in ninth.
The fourth and fifth makes of bike led row four, with Hopkins tenth on the Kawasaki, and Vermeulen next on the Rizla Suzuki. The San Carlo-sponsored Gresini Hondas of de Angelis (12th) and Shin’ya Nakano (15th) were split by Capirossi on the other Suzuki and Toní Elías on the Alice Ducati (the Pramac d’Antín team). After Melandri came Sylvain Guintoli (Alice) and Anthony West (Kawasaki).
Yamaha may have started from the top three positions, but it was a Honda rider that had the best start to the race. Pedrosa shot forward and found his way to the inside to go into the first right-hander ahead. Edwards, Toseland, Lorenzo, Stoner, Rossi, Hayden, Dovizioso and Hopkins followed, but with both Valentino and Andrea making up a place each on the first lap. Pedrosa had some good pace as he started to edge clear, leaving the next group jostling for positions.
Toseland passed Edwards on the inside at turn one, but Lorenzo went to the outside and passed them both to go second. Colin would then lose out to both Rossi and Stoner, while James clattered Jorge to go through into second on the inside of a right-hander, for an impressive start to his Grand Prix career. Pedrosa was in control for now, and the fastest on the track. The next moves saw Rossi pass Lorenzo for third, and the pair of them overtook Toseland at turn one. Stoner and Dovizioso followed, with Edwards in touch. Hayden and Hopkins led the next group.
Stoner was about to show his 2007 form as he passed Toseland on the inside at a right-hander, then went to the inside of Lorenzo along the main straight, to be ahead for turn one. Rossi now broke the lap record to start homing in on Pedrosa, with Stoner attacking Lorenzo for third. Dovizioso had also passed Toseland, and now he set fastest lap as he left the Tech 3 pair behind, with James leading Colin.
Rossi took the lead from Pedrosa with a late lunge on the inside for a right-hander, and now Lorenzo, Stoner and Dovizioso were also close. Pedrosa lost second place to Lorenzo, who made his move on the inside at the final turn 16 right-hander. Dani tried to get back through on the outside along the straight, but Stoner was trying the inside of Jorge and the Australian passed the Honda man when Dani went wide. Rossi now led Lorenzo, Stoner, Pedrosa, Dovizioso, Toseland and Edwards, but then Casey passed Jorge on the inside at a right-hander.
Stoner’s progress from fifth at the start had brought him up to challenge leader Rossi. The Ducati got the tow from his Yamaha rival along the straight, going to the outside for turn one to complete the pass. This set up a tussle between the unfriendly Fiat Yamaha team-mates, on their different tyre brands. Lorenzo went by on the inside through a left-hander, squeezing Rossi out wide. At one-third distance, Stoner led Lorenzo, Rossi, Pedrosa, Dovizioso and Toseland, with seventh man Edwards not quite in touch. Capirossi was the next man now, but a way back, from Hopkins, de Puniet, Hayden, de Angelis, Nakano, Melandri, Vermeulen, Elías, Guintoli and West.
Bar one, the Bridgestone riders were all using the medium compound tyres in the cooler night time conditions in Qatar, which has always been a hot race in daylight. These didn’t work out for Vermeulen, as the Suzuki rider had to stop just before half-distance to get his front changed. Rossi was the man who had gone for a harder front, and now he was under pressure from Michelin’s lead man, Pedrosa.
Gaps started to develop within the leading group of seven, and in particular Stoner and Lorenzo were getting away from the rest. Rossi and Pedrosa had stretched the margin over Dovizioso, Toseland and Edwards, but Colin lost touch as the other pair pulled in again. Pedrosa was attacking Rossi for third, first on the inside at turn one, and then on the outside, as the Italian’s pace now seemed to be suffering. Meanwhile, Stoner set some new fastest laps and started to ease clear of Lorenzo and the entire field.
Pedrosa used the slipstream effect along the main start-finish straight, but still failed to get past Rossi. By now, Dovizioso and Toseland were right with them, and Dani needed to get through to avoid any trouble. He made it work when he pulled ahead of Valentino on the inside coming out of turn 16. From here he would move into a secure third, just as Stoner suddenly took his lead over Lorenzo from 0.9s to 1.8s and beyond. Further back, Hopkins (with a groin injury) lost out to both de Puniet and de Angelis, with the San Marino rider having already relegated Hayden. Towards the rear, Guintoli had passed Elías.
Stoner showed everything that we’d come to expect from him, together with Ducati and Bridgestone, powering to victory with a comfortable margin. In his MotoGP début, Lorenzo was similarly clear of Pedrosa at the chequered flag, and the older Spaniard’s third was also safe. The late stages saw a battle for fourth, with Michelin runners Dovizioso and Toseland right behind Rossi. James’ bike was visibly slower in a straight line, but Andrea was fully able to challenge ‘the Doctor’.
With three laps remaining, Dovizioso passed Rossi on the inside at a left-hander, but the 29-year-old did the same thing to recover at the following right. On the last lap, Andrea was still attacking his famous compatriot, and the same place-swapping move occurred. But this time, in the right-hander, Rossi went a bit wide after re-passing, and this let the youngster go through again. He just remained ahead at the line, with sixth man Toseland right behind Rossi.
Edwards took a lonely seventh, and Capirossi held off de Puniet for eighth. Gresini Honda rider de Angelis had been next until he managed a spectacular crash in the late stages. Hayden recovered ground to take tenth, with Melandri having made some progress to finish next, from Hopkins, Nakano, Elías, Guintoli and West. Vermeulen was last home, but a lap down, with only the one non-finisher.
The night race was a definite success. Casey Stoner started his title defence in the same way he’d started the 800cc era, with a decisive win for Ducati and Bridgestone in Qatar. It was mostly Michelin tyre runners in the next few places, with rookie riders making good in particular. Jorge Lorenzo was second, Andrea Dovizioso was fourth, and James Toseland was sixth. The last time that a British rider had scored a result as good was on 25th May 2003, when Jeremy McWilliams did so in France with the Proton KR3.
Potential title challenger Dani Pedrosa emulated his 2007 opener with third, which was encouraging given his wrist injury, but Valentino Rossi was not so well off. It’s early, but the Italian might start to question his determined switch to Bridgestone, as he saw the other works Yamaha maintain better pace to the finish on the rival tyres. Similarly, Nicky Hayden might wonder about his use of the 2007 Honda, as tenth place was worse that his 2007 start, and seven places back from Pedrosa on the new RCV.
For the Tech 3 Yamaha outfit, 2008 kicked off with a range of positives. The team under Hervé Poncharal had run Honda 250s in the 1990s, then switched to Yamaha for two years and taken a one-two in the 2000 series. After that, it was into the top class with Yamahas, but the qualifying and race performance from Toseland and Edwards here show that they have the potential for their best season in at least five years, if not longer. Find out how they all do in the Spanish race next time out.
Standings after one race: Stoner 25; Lorenzo 20; Pedrosa 16; Dovizioso 13; Rossi 11; Toseland 10; Edwards 9; Capirossi 8; de Puniet 7; Hayden 6.
Ducati 25; Yamaha 20; Honda 16; Suzuki 8; Kawasaki 4.