“It's kind of an even field”
Round three of the 2008 MotoGP World Championship takes place at Estoril this weekend and will see the premier class teams gather on Sunday for a demanding, 28-lap race.
After the historic night race at Qatar, followed by the recent battle
at Jerez, the Portuguese Grand Prix should prove another thrilling event, held at the notoriously difficult 4.182km circuit.
Kawasaki's John Hopkins is looking forward to it. With his fitness steadily approaching 100% after his crash at Phillip Island in January, the Anglo-American is looking stronger than ever and feels he can tackle Estoril with relish after finishing a healthy seventh in Spain last month.
Furthermore, an extra day's testing at Jerez, after the race, proved highly productive as the 24-year-old continues to perfect adjustments to the Ninja ZX-RR to suit his fast, aggressive riding style. With his engineers concentrating on gearing and suspension settings to accommodate Estoril's numerous, tough corners, heavy braking will be the order of the day and the crew has been aiming to maximise stability to deal with the arduous race.
"I'm feeling really positive for the weekend. I like Estoril. The tight corners require a lot of heavy braking, which should really suit my riding style as well as suiting the Kawasaki machine. It's good because nobody's had much testing time there, so it's kind of an even field, and I enjoy the atmosphere there too”, said Hopper. “I felt a lot better after Jerez than I did after Qatar. We got a positive result and made some good improvements to the bike so hopefully we can utilise those in Portugal. So, I'm excited about going there and I'm really looking forward to the race."
Hopkins' team mate, Anthony West, looked stronger at Jerez than he has for a while and his raised confidence, both in himself and the ZX-RR, showed his fighting spirit is far from on the wane.
The 27-year old Australian fought hard and is now keen to see what he can pull out of the hat at Estoril.
Last year, West's first MotoGP outing at the circuit proved tricky. The track is notoriously hard on tyres and his traction suffered. However, he still managed to finish 12th after qualifying in 16th.
"I'm feeling a bit more upbeat now. My result at Jerez, and my feeling on the bike, were much better than at Qatar so I'm feeling better prepared now to tackle the next race with a bit more confidence. Also, my fitness levels are still going up and I'm finding it much easier to go the full race distance without backing off. I'm more consistent now and that's reflected in my lap times”, commented West. “Estoril is a good track to ride. It's got a very long straight and the rest is made up of tighter sections; some of them really tight. It's always going to be hard getting a MotoGP bike around there and last year, rear grip was a problem for me. Mind you, we played around with the ZX-RR's settings at Jerez, after the recent Spanish GP, and made some real improvements. Overall it was much better so I'm looking forward to seeing what we can do at the weekend."
Estoril is one of the slowest tracks in the MotoGP calendar but it nonetheless represents a huge challenge to the premier class riders as it snakes its way through 13 corners, including numerous hairpins and a very nasty chicane near its northern parameters. Then there's the famous long, stretched-out, tyre-eating Parabolica, which sees the bikes at maximum lean for what must seem like an eternity before they get on the gas for the 986m start finish straight. There, spectators can regularly see the bikes reach speeds of up to 320kmh so there's plenty of guaranteed entertainment value.
Built in 1972, the circuit, close to Portugal's Atlantic coast and not far from capital city, Lisbon, hosted its first MotoGP round in 2000 and has witnessed some of the closest racing in the championship's history.
Last year's race was won by Valentino Rossi, who provided edge-of-your-seat action with Spaniard, Dani Pedrosa, as the two diced for the front. Rossi's victory was particularly significant for Casey Stoner, whose crowning as the 2007 MotoGP World Champion had to wait another week, until after the Japanese Grand Prix at Motegi.
With both Kawasaki Racing Team riders so evidently raring to go, and the ZX-RR looking even better than ever, who knows what Sunday will bring…