In the heat and dust of Qatar
The testing and the talking are over and now its time for the racing to reveal just who is at the top of their game for this, the opening race of what promises to be a gruelling 18-round series.
World Champion Nicky Hayden (Repsol Honda
RC212V), who will be riding with the number one plate for the first time here at Losail, finished second here in 2006. The genial American will be looking to go one better here and get his title defence off to a winning start. The shoulder injury he carries towards the end of last season has been operated on and Nicky is in top shape for the challenge ahead.
His team-mate Dani Pedrosa (Repsol Honda RC212V) who has looked very comfortable on the diminutive new machine in 2007 will be aiming for nothing less than victory now he has had a season's experience in the big class. He has finished in the top two places in all but one of the pre-season tests.
Add a hungry former World Champion in Valentino Rossi (Yamaha) into the mix, put veteran Loris Capirossi (Ducati) in the frame, reckon on Marco Melandri (Fortuna Honda RC212V) being at the front and you have all the ingredients for a firecracker of an opening race here.
There are major changes in place for 2007. First, MotoGP machines are reduced in capacity from 990cc to 800cc and second riders are limited to 14 front tyres and 17 rears per Grand Prix. These must be chosen and marked on Thursday (Wednesday in Qatar) evening prior to the first free training session.
And a certain amount of unease exists among teams over this cost-saving measure because weather conditions can change dramatically over the course of three days and in the case of Australia and Malaysia can change hugely in the space of an hour perhaps leaving riders without enough of the right type of tyre for a Grand Prix. But at least Qatar, where the weather tends to be consistent, is where this new rule will be first tested.
The Losail International circuit lies ten kilometres from Qatar's capital of Doha and the 5.4km track is now a known quantity for most riders across the classes. Built in 2004, it features more turns than any other track on the calendar, six lefts and ten right-handers in all. Nor is there a chicane of any description. This puts a high premium on machine agility and it also brings tyre wear issues into sharp focus. But the artificial grass placed along the track to allay riders' fears of sand being blown onto the surface is only partially successful. Sand tends to collect on anywhere other than the racing line, making overtaking tricky, although this is less of a problem than when the track was new.
The heat will not be quite as relentless as in high summer with track temperatures of up to 35 degrees expected. Ambient temperatures will be around 25 degrees. Set-up will be directed at making the machines manageable with a minimum of physical input from the pilots.
There is a 1068m straight, 20m longer even than that of Catalunya. This puts power and top speed among the primary requirements and also braking at the end of a 320km/h blast flat out in top gear.
Nicky said, I'm fired up to go racing again. It's going to be a proud moment lining up with that number one plate on the front of my bike it's something I've dreamed of since I was a kid. It's a track I quite like and I had a pretty good race here last season. There are a couple of long right-handers that are fun to ride and I really like the sequence of turns one, two and three with the banking. I've had a third place here and was second last year so we'll be aiming to go one better on Saturday. I'm feeling ready for the lights to go out and to go toe-to-toe with the boys again.
His team-mate Dani said, It seems like the start of the season has come round very quickly and I'm really looking forward to racing again after all the tests we've done over the winter. It will be interesting to finally see how the new 800s feel during a race. I've enjoyed riding the RC212V in testing and the smaller size allows me to move around the bike more easily than on the 990. We had a positive test here in February and found a good setting for the bike so I hope that the conditions will be similar this weekend. I feel like I'm ready for the season but there have been many teams going fast during testing through the winter so I expect the racing to be very close.
I'm really fired up for the start of the new season, said Marco Melandri. We've done a lot of preparation during the winter, working methodically, focusing on race pace as opposed to a single fast lap. I like the bike a lot, especially the cycle parts, I've got a good feeling with it and I'm having fun again. I've got a lot of confidence in the Honda-Bridgestone package and I'm happy even though there is still work to do. The race will be particularly demanding because the Losail circuit has a long straight and you need horsepower. At least in the test we completed there in February we worked out which way we want to go with the race tyre.
His team-mate Toni Elias (Fortuna Honda RC212V) said, I can't wait to get back on track for the first race. I'm really happy to be back with Fausto Gresini, my chief mechanic Cecchini and all the guys in the team. I really believe in continuity and I feel comfortable and well supported here. We're working to find a base that has the best possible balance between the bike and the new tyres that Bridgestone brought to Jerez to suit my riding style. Losail is a tough track because the conditions mean there is no room for error. We tested here in the middle of February but this time I want to get more out of the bike's potential with these new tyres.
New Honda recruit Carlos Checa (LCR Honda RC212V) said, I feel very excited about this first Grand Prix of the season. Lucio and his team made a great job during the winter and now we are ready to start. The winter tests have been very productive for us as we gathered important data for the World Championship. Honestly at the beginning it was not easy to adapt to the new bike but thanks to some changes (we moved the seat back and changed the height of the bars) now I feel more comfortable. We still have a few things to fix including the engine power (especially on this track which is pretty fast!) but I am confident for the future.
Another man drafted into the Honda ranks, Shinya Nakano (Konica Minolta Honda RC212V), said, I'm looking forward to the first race of the season at Qatar. I have a new Team and a new package with the Honda RC212V and Michelin tyres. We have completed four tests over the winter and we're maybe 80% there so I'm looking at making the other 20% up during the race weekend. I enjoy the Losail track, although it isn't one of my favourites, but testing here showed that our bike suited the track perhaps more than Phillip Island or Sepang, so let's hope that is the case come the race on Saturday.
Kenny Roberts (Roberts KR212V) said, The main thing is that we're ahead of where we were last year in terms of work done and base set-ups. Once we've got the chassis settings where we need them we'll concentrate on tyres again and then refine the front-end and rear settings for the conditions on Saturday. It'll be good to get racing again and see just how far we've come since 2006.
Honda Motor Company