After a three week hiatus, The World Superbike series returns to action at the Enzo e Dino Ferrari circuit at Imola, the third race of the year on Italian soil. The Ferrari circuit is a veritable roller coaster ride, with near-constant elevation changes and a plethora of challenging corners, both fast and slow. On the line this weekend is no less than the whole ball of wax; the championship itself. Imola has been the site of deciding battles for the title in World Superbikes before, the most notable being the epic two-race slugfest in 2002 between Colin Edwards and Troy Bayliss, but this year's race(s) will be a different kind of struggle.
Points leader Max Biaggi won't have the perverse luxury of being able to let it all hang out like Edwards and Bayliss and must keep an eye on the leaderboard and still ride hard enough to make a good showing on the day. In order to take the crown at Imola, Biaggi doesn't have to necessarily beat the only other rider with a shot at the title, Alstare Suzuki's Leon Haslam, but he does have to keep him from taking 8 points away from the Roman Emperor's 58 point cushion. Most importantly, Biaggi can't crash or finish very far down the order, thereby giving Haslam a shot at the final race of the year at Magny-Cours.
When the Grand Prix Commission met at Brno to officially confirm the replacement of the 125cc class - an 81mm 250cc four-stroke single, provisionally being named Moto3 - it was clear that keeping costs down was right at the top of their agenda. Instead of a spec engine as used in Moto2, the proposal included measures to prevent a horsepower war driving spending on the engines out of control, by requiring that any manufacturer wanting to produce engines for the class must sell the engines for a maximum of 10,000 euros and be prepared to supply at least 15 riders with bikes.
The good news in that announcement is that the Grand Prix Commission is thinking seriously about how to prevent the class once again being dominated by a single manufacturer charging monopoly prices to selected teams for the best bikes. That, at least, is progress, as so many of the recent rule changes have been so clearly open to manipulation, and a first step has been taken to prevent that. The bad news is that as they stand, the suggested solutions are so woefully inadequate for their intended aim that they more likely to encourage manipulation rather than reduce it.
The Ducati Desmosedici MotoGP bike has always been famous for its top speed, a characteristic which is generally put down to two things: the first is the 16-valve V4 desmodromic engine, the brainchild of Ducati Corse director Filippo Preziosi, which has long been the most powerful engine on the grid. The second factor is the Bologna company's focus on aerodynamics, an area that other factories have spent much less time and attention on. The extremely slippery nature of the Ducati Desmosedici is in large part due to Ducati Corse's use of former F1 engineer Alan Jenkins as an aerodynamics consultant.
Jenkins has worked ceaselessly with Ducati over the years to improve the aerodynamics of the Desmosedici, and the German Grand Prix at the Sachsenring saw a new innovation appear on the fairing of the bike. The Ducati had sprouted a pair of "winglets" (shown below) - protruberances sticking both forward and out of the side of the fairing, at about the height of bottom of the fork outer. Naturally, these strange additions aroused the curisoity of the assembled media, who set about trying to fathom their purpose.
There are many who hope and believe that admitting production engines in prototype chassis into the MotoGP will be the saving of the series. Finally, there could be a way for privateer outfits to build and race machinery on a more or less equitable footing with the factory teams.
To ensure that a balance is kept between the manufacturers and the privateer teams, the inclusion of so-called Claiming Rule Teams has been announced from 2012. Under the new rules, engine capacity rises to 1000cc, but but bore size is limited to 81mm, and the number of cylinders restricted to a maximum of four for both factory and CRT teams.
The big difference, though, is in the amount of fuel and the number of engines the factory and CRT teams will be allowed. While factory teams will still be restricted to 21 liters of fuel for each race and six engines per season, as is the case with the current regulations, CRT teams will be allowed 24 liters of fuel per race, and twelve engines to last the season.
The thinking behind both of these rules is sensible, and aimed at keeping costs low. By allowing the CRT teams three extra liters of fuel, the teams will not have to spend so much time and money on eking out the maximum performance from the allotted gasoline. And by giving the CRT teams twice as many engines, the privateer efforts will neither need to spend huge amounts on R&D in order to get the mileage from the engines, nor feel required to throw a new engine at every race weekend, to maximize performance.
When the days grow long and hot and summer is in it's shank, a race fan's thoughts naturally turn to...next year! All sorts of juicy rumors have been floating about who might be doing what for whom in 2011.
The most visible drama is in the Yamaha camp. The scenario goes like this: If Valentino Rossi accepts an offer from Ducati to see how he looks in red leathers, then Ben Spies would take his seat at the factory team, neatly leaving a seat open at the Tech 3 team for 2009 World Supersport champion Cal Crutchlow. Never mind that Crutchlow, although undeniably promising, probably isn't ready for prime time (oooh, I'm going to get hate mail) -- he's under contract to Yamaha, he's British, which would please the BBC and, well, who else is there in the pipeline? Assuming that all the above happens, Crutchlow's current employer, Sterilgarda Yamaha, would be left in the lurch. There have been rumors, expressly denied by team management, that if Crutchlow moves on, Yamaha will yank the plug on the WSBK team, much as they did in WSS after the 2009 season.
Within minutes of Valentino Rossi's terrible crash at Mugello, once it became apparent that the Italian's leg was broken, speculation began on who would replace the Italian. During the first update the assembled press received in a hushed media center at Mugello, one journalist, with blatant disregard for taste and decency (mea maxima culpa), pressed the Fiat Yamaha PR spokesperson on whether the team was working on a replacement. The spokesperson rightly pointed out that as the incident had happened less than an hour previously, it was perhaps a little too early to be thinking about this.
Once the dust Rossi's crash had settled, though, and it became clear that The Doctor will be out for the next three to four months, the debate began in earnest. The list of possible replacements was already surprisingly long by Saturday night, and has only grown since then. Disregarding wishful thinking (Troy Bayliss and Garry McCoy) and the downright impossible (Max Biaggi, Toni Elias and Alex de Angelis, all under contract), the two options most commonly named are moving a rider up from the Monster Tech 3 Yamaha team (Ben Spies being most frequently named in this regard) or bringing in one of Yamaha's test riders to take Rossi's place.
It is no secret that the atmosphere among the riders in the Repsol Honda garage is, to say the least, a little strained. The wall which divides the garages of Andrea Dovizioso and Dani Pedrosa is, more than any other garage dividing wall, a symbol of the problems which wrack the team. The wall divides the riders, but also the technicians and the data, with virtually nothing shared between the two sides of the garage.
The blame for this split has mainly been put on Dani Pedrosa's side of the garage, but that belies the history of problems that the Repsol team has had. Ever since Valentino Rossi took himself and his crew to Yamaha, the team has struggled, and often been riven by strife. Alex Barros was the first replacement for Rossi, but neither the Brazilian nor his teammate Nicky Hayden won a single race in 2004, something that non-factory riders Sete Gibernau, Max Biaggi and Makoto Tamada managed to do repeatedly.
Lucio Cecchinello, the team boss behind the LCR Honda, is renowned for his ingenious approach to raising sponsorship for his team, as he explained to us in an interview last year. But as innovative as Cecchinello is, MotoMatters.com reader Chris Hough felt he was missing a trick. After all, if you are sponsored by motorcycle luggage manufacturer GIVI, why not do it properly?
One thing that loyal readers may have noticed is that MotoMatters.com does not usually carry press releases. This is a conscious choice, as most press releases are a little too bland to be of much great interest, albeit for a number of very good reasons.
There are always exceptions, however, and the outspoken Parkalgar Honda World Supersport team manager Simon Buckmaster is very much one of them. In his latest Simon Says column, which the team sends out as a press release, Buckmaster covers a number of extremely interesting points. He discusses the reasons the World Supersport grid is so thin this year, the options the Parkalgar team is considering for 2011, and the strange qualifying schedule that has been foisted upon the World Supersport class. A very interesting read indeed.
Two unrelated themes dominated the 2009 MotoGP season: Cost-cutting and the Rise of the Aliens. Drastic reductions in testing, a limited number of engines and the dropping of Friday morning practice were all aimed at turning the Niagara Falls of cash the series consumes into a more manageable torrent. Meanwhile Jorge Lorenzo, Dani Pedrosa, Valentino Rossi and Casey Stoner took a near whitewash of podiums, cleaning up 44 of the 51 rostrum spots available during the year.
2010 is likely to continue where 2009 left off, but these two different aspects are on a collision course, due for impact around midsummer this year. For though the manufacturers and teams continue to meet in the Grand Prix Commission, to discuss further ways of trimming the costs of racing, the fact that the contracts of the four finest riders of their generation all expire at the end of the season will unleash a bidding war unlike anything ever seen in MotoGP.
The Aliens, as Loris Capirossi has dubbed them, already command the lion's share of rider salaries in the series. Numbers are hard - if not impossible - to come by, but Valentino Rossi alone probably earns more than all of the riders except the Aliens combined, and Pedrosa, Lorenzo and Stoner will each earn many times the salary of any of the other Mortals. It may not be fair, but given that the Aliens won every race but one and hogged 86% of podiums this year, it is the only guarantee of getting your bike and your sponsors onto TV. Success sells, and without an Alien on your bike, success is a very scarce commodity indeed.