Rossi was showing Fiat Yamaha teammate Jorge Lorenzo what it means to not sweat the competition at the Jerez Test.
Valentino Rossi and Casey Stoner will continue their MotoGP duel this weekend under the lights in Qatar. With a new season underway, the main question is: will the Doctor repeat his 2008 championship success, or will Stoner return to his near perfect 2007 form? But the expected front-runners will not be alone, as 16 other riders are ready to challenge for the ultimate road-racing crown. To help you get up to speed for 2009, enjoy Motorcycle USA’s MotoGP season preview.
This season begins after one of the most tumultuous off-seasons in recent memory. First was the announcement of a spec tire in a series which prides itself on its prototype status. Bridgestone claims the coveted spec tire position after a 2007 and 2008 season which saw the Stones dominate MotoGP. The Japanese tire firm’s performance edge was such that Rossi’s controversial pre-season move to Bridgestone in 2008 was followed by a similar mid-season swap by Repsol Honda’s Dani Pedrosa. Now that all riders will race the same rubber, one of the plot lines for 2009 will be if long-time Michelin riders, like Americans Nicky Hayden and Colin Edwards, will benefit from the new tire rule. Will they be able to adapt to the new tire quick enough to make the most of it?
Last year’s MotoGP runner-up Casey Stoner is seen here shining-on the rain at Losail. He seems to have weathered his off-season wrist surgery, bouncing back to form in testing.
MotoGP rule changes have also been implemented for 2009, with the rationale of lowering costs. Electronic suspension and launch control are out and rule changes include restriction to a total of five engines in the final eight races of the season. The track time format has been altered too, with officials nixing the morning Friday practice session altogether and shortening the remaining three sessions from 1 hour to 45 minutes. Other proposed changes for 2010 include limiting teams to a single bike per rider, significant as teams would have to fix crashed practice bikes rather than switch to the backup machine, causing any rider who falls to miss a great deal of track time. The teams claim this will not cut costs as they will need to have a complete bike in spare parts on hand anyway, so all it does is penalize riders who fall.
The reasoning behind the rule changes, lowering costs, is another major story of the off-season. Prototype racing costs big money and the global economic crisis has seen motorcycle manufacturers reeling. Most notable is Honda, which eliminated its F1 racing project along with some of its motorcycle racing programs, like its AMA Road Racing team. Fortunately, HRC is still fielding a full roster in Grand Prix. The same cannot be said of Kawasaki, which had the most notorious MotoGP offseason, attempting to pull out completely before being forced back in by Dorna. The team is now part-owned by the series promoter (seems unfair, right?) and will run under an all-new name – Hayate Racing and will have no connections to Kawasaki other than getting last year’s bikes. The new project is only operating at 50% of its 2008 level, with Dorna (and Kawasaki) cutting ties with long-time GP rider John Hopkins and supporting a lone pilot in the form of Marco Melandri.
While the top contenders and majority of GP rides are relatively unchanged, the paddock has undergone its usual off-season shuffle. Highlights include new rides for former champ Nicky Hayden (Ducati) and the return of Rossi’s one-time nemesis Sete Gibernau, also on a strangely-funded Ducati. Here is a rundown of the 2009 roster.
The “Doctor” Valentino Rossi was rounding corners at the Qatar Test with the characteristic precision of a surgeon.
Valentino Rossi – Fiat Yamaha – 2008 MotoGP Champion
The Doctor enters 2009 as the defending MotoGP champ, a feat the GP G.O.A.T. hasn’t been able to claim since the 2006 season, when he lost it first to Nicky Hayden and then Casey Stoner. The Yamaha M1-mounted Rossi is the presumptive favorite, in particular now that his leading rival, Stoner, is dealing with a bum wrist. Regarded as the most talented racer in the paddock, if Vale jumps out to an early point advantage with a typical Rossi-like winning streak, the title hunt could get mighty boring, mighty quick. Either way, expect the Fiat Yamaha ace to be on the podium and battling for the win each and every round of the 2009 season. I mean, he’s Rossi – it’s like betting against Michael Jordan in his heyday.
Jorge Lorenzo, like all things Spanish, is full of zest and a little bit dangerous. Count on him to shakeup the standings.
Jorge Lorenzo – Fiat Yamaha – 4th MotoGP
The charismatic but sometimes arrogant Lorenzo stormed into the premier Grand Prix series last season after a stellar career in the 125 and 150 classes. The Spaniard was an immediate success in MotoGP, claiming a number of pole positions and six podiums on the year, not to mention winning his third-ever GP at Jerez. Lorenzo’s rookie highs also came with his fair share of lows, the second factory Yamaha rider proving reckless on the track. Injuries sustained from some viscous high-sides spoiled a promising 2008, though he still managed Rookie of the Year. But if the 22-year-old tempers his talent with the experience of his rookie season, Lorenzo will be strong.
The old dog Colin Edwards might perform some new tricks now that he switched to Bridgestone’s faster spec tire.
Colin Edwards – Monster Yamaha Tech 3 – 7th MotoGP
A former World Superbike champ, Edwards continues to gather points and get podium finishes in the premier roadracing series each year, but the Texas Tornado has never tasted victory. The Yamaha rider found some success in 2008, after being dropped off the Fiat squad to the satellite Tech 3 team, with a pair of finishes on the box. During the off-season, rumors put Edwards back in the US on a Superbike, but the long-time Michelin rider will now source Bridgestones in his seventh MotoGP campaign. Perhaps the 35-year-old veteran will scratch that seven-year itch by scoring that first career GP win.
Toseland’s aggressive riding brought about two nasty highsides in pre-season testing. One resulted in a concussion.
James Toseland – Monster Yamaha Tech 3 – 11th MotoGP
A former World Superbike champ, just like his teammate, James Toseland is the sole Englishman competing in MotoGP. King James’ rookie campaign yielded no podiums, his best finish being sixth-place, which he scored six times in 2008. Netting an 11th-place overall was not the expected result and the pressure will be on for the talented Brit to find his pace in the most talented paddock in roadracing. Toseland has had a rough offseason, marred by two massive highsides, the latest coming at the final Jerez test. The big question will be the Brit’s health this coming weekend.
Casey Stoner – Ducati Marlboro – 2nd MotoGP
The only rider on the current roster to claim the status of true Rossi rival, Casey Stoner had to settle for second in 2008 after dominating GPs in 2007. Stoner was near perfect in his title-winning ’07 campaign but 2008 saw the Ducati ace make some mistakes and lose the crown to Rossi. Stoner tended to crack under pressure and in the lead, crashing several times. For the 2009 season Stoner should be dicing with the Doctor once again, but the Aussie is riding with the lingering aftereffects of offseason wrist surgery. While the 23-year-old has put up fast laps during pre-season testing, including winning a BMW in the recent Jerez special session, his ability to turn those laps for an entire race-length is yet unproven. In fact, there were some off-season rumors saying Stoner may actually miss the opening rounds. MotoGP fans hope there is no truth to the speculation, as Rossi vs. Stoner promises to be the main attraction in 2009.
Hayden replaces Marco Melandri for the second spot on the Ducati Marlboro Team. He was lighting up the track on his new ride during the pre-season Qatar Test.
Nicky Hayden – Ducati Marlboro – 6th MotoGP
Nicky Hayden is only two seasons removed from his MotoGP title-winning campaign, but the Kentucky Kid has experienced hard years on the factory Honda. The toxic situation on the factory Repsol Honda team is over, as Hayden switches to Ducati and gets a fresh start to find his GP-winning mojo. Now Nick the Quick has an opportunity on what has been proven by Stoner to be one of, if not the, best machine on the grid, though equally tough to get set-up. Of course, Hayden witnessed another possibility on the Ducati when last year Marco Melandri’s switch from Honda to the factory Ducati was a resounding and utter failure… Many Americans will be rooting for their boy to find his way back up to the front of the GP pack, fighting for race wins and the consistent podiums that brought his 2006 success.
Sete Gibernau’s return to MotoGP is being funded by a Spanish construction group that is building a resort in Equatorial Guinea.
Sete Gibernau – Grupo Francisco Hernando – DNR 2008
Twice runner up to Rossi, Sete Gibernau is back after a two-year retirement from MotoGP. It seems the Catalan rider could not resist returning after an injury-plagued 2006 season prompted Sete to hang up the leathers. Rumor has it his ex-wife made him retire and now that they are no longer together he decided to come back. The 37-year-old has always been a superb qualifier and has a total of 30 podiums and 9 wins on his Grand Prix resume. Contending on a satellite Ducati may prove a challenge, but Gibbers will be looking for solid results and perhaps lift Rossi’s famous 2004 curse that he would never win another Grand Prix race. Also interesting is the funding for his team. While the name doesn’t spell it all out, credible GP sources say much of the cash flow to the team comes from a small and controversial African nation called Equatorial Guinea. It appears to be no coincidence that the colors of the country’s flag are the same red/white/green/blue as Gibernau’s Ducati!
Niccolo Canepa – Pramac Racing – Rookie
A long-time Desmosedici test rider for Bridgestone, Canepa is getting a satellite ride for 2009 aboard the Pramac Racing Ducati. The 20-year-old has garnered race wins in various European championships, but Canepa will be up against the world’s best. Keeping the traditionally back-marking Pramacs off the bottom of the result sheet and gaining valuable experience will be a successful rookie campaign for Canepa.
Mika Kallio made his first splash in a big pond with a sixth-placed finish at the timed special session in Jerez.
Mika Kallio – Pramac Racing – Rookie
Another rookie for the satellite Pramac squad, Mika Kallio has scored numerous victories in the 250 and 125 support classes. Although never winning a title in 125 and 250, the Finnish rider will get a chance to prove himself in the premier class. The 26-year-old has turned some impressive laps in preseason tests, including sixth in the timed special session at Jerez recently, and will seek more of the same when he sees the green light at Qatar.
Pedrosa worked methodically as ever in the Jerez Test, devoting the first day to trying different engine settings and the second day to working with chassis set-up.
Dani Pedrosa – Repsol Honda – 3rd MotoGP
Anointed the successor to Rossi and ruler of the 800cc era when he came up from the 250GP ranks, Dani Pedrosa’s career hasn’t quite panned out that way. First there was his 2006 rookie season, where the soft-spoken Spaniard almost derailed his teammate’s championship when he lowsided both riders on the penultimate round. Then in 2007 the sudden emergence of his old 250 rival, Casey Stoner, further removed Pedrosa from his perceived destiny. The 2008 season saw more drama around Pedrosa when his manager, Alberto Puig, strong-armed a mid-season switch from Michelin to Bridgestone. A series of injuries has also plagued Pedrosa throughout his MotoGP career and he will start the season less than 100% once again, with a recent knee and arm operation. Having finished second and third in the last two seasons, behind Stoner both times, Pedrosa is primed to pace the Honda ahead of the two favorites.
Andrea Dovizioso tested the 2009 prototype RC212V at Jerez and was impressed by it’s overall performance.
Andrea Dovizioso – Repsol Honda – 5th MotoGP
Finishing behind fellow rookie Lorenzo, Andrea Dovizioso capped off his inaugural MotoGP fifth overall aboard a satellite Honda. The impressive results scored the Italian the second seat on the factory Repsol Honda squad. During his 250 career, Dovi was consistently second-best to his rival Lorenzo, but as Stoner has proved – the way rivals square in 250 doesn’t necessarily transfer to MotoGP. With a positive rookie campaign to build off, which included a podium result and remarkable consistency, Dovizioso upgrades to full factory and legitimate contender status in 2009.
The San Carlo Gresini Honda Team sees promise in the talented, yet inconsistent, Alex de Angelis and Toni Elias.
Alex de Angelis – San Carlo Gresini Honda – 14th MotoGP
A crash-filled rookie season hasn’t deterred the satellite Gresini Honda squad from retaining Alex de Angelis for another year. The reason, no doubt, is the San Marino rider’s flashes of promise, which included a pair of near podium results in 2008. The new season is an opportunity for the 24-year-old to step up or get relegated to back-marker status.
Toni Elias – San Carlo Gresini Honda – 12th MotoGP
Elias epitomizes the word wildcard. Just when it seems the Spanish rider is doomed to GP insignificance, he blazes his way forward with an unexpected podium finish, or even victory. This was best exemplified in 2006 when Elias scored his sole win at Portugal in an inspired ride that saw him sliding his way past Rossi himself. After a brief one-year stint with Pramac Ducati, Elias is back with the Gresini Honda squad on which he found his greatest success. Elias doesn’t figure to be a consistent threat, but any race on his home Iberian Peninsula brings out the Spaniard’s best.
Randy de Puniet’s wild riding antics have earned him the support of Playboy Italy and their risky, go-fast girls.
Randy de Puniet – LCR Honda – 15th MotoGP
The lone Frenchman in the MotoGP paddock, De Puniet has the notorious title of most crashed rider from the 2008 season, hitting the deck 22 times last year. The destructive capabilities of the 29-year-old have overshadowed his occasional successes, which include a second-place finish in 2007. Breaking into MotoGP with Kawasaki, last season was De Puniet’s first with Honda and he will try to improve on his lowly 15th overall in his second year with the LCR team. The team should also attract a great deal of attention due to one of their new title sponsors – Playboy! It’s actually Playboy.it, the Italian division of the media mogul. Some very provocative photos have already hit the Internet and the meaning of “umbrella girl” has just been taken to a whole new level.
Yuki Takahashi – Scot Racing – Rookie
A promising talent in the 250 class, Takahashi has ridden for Honda his entire career. Now the 24-year-old jumps into the premier series racing the Honda satellite Scot Racing RC212V. A two-time 250 Grand Prix victor, Takahashi will pit his burgeoning talents against the elite. He’s Japan’s new great hope for GP success.
Vermeulen’s GSV-R will be easy to spot on the track, but whether he makes it to the podium remains to be seen.
Chris Vermeulen – Rizla Suzuki – 8th MotoGP
Riding for the Rizla Suzuki squad since he entered Grand Prix in 2006, Chris Vermeulen is looking to elevate the GSV-R to legitimate title status. Chris V has multiple podiums and a GP win to his credit, but 2008 represented an overall step backward as the Suzuki struggled at select rounds. Still, the Aussie rider managed a pair of podiums and was a consistent points gatherer. Provided the Suzuki project continues to develop in the right direction, Vermeulen has proven he has the talent to pilot the baby blue ride to the top of the steps. Considering their impressive performances in offseason testing, we could be seeing some blue up front.
Veteran rider Loris Capirossi will have to liven up his pace if he expects to compete with this year’s young field.
Loris Capirossi – Rizla Suzuki – 10th MotoGP
Although at 36 Loris Capirossi is technically younger than his old Ducati teammate, Sete Gibernau, the Italian remains the elder statesman of MotoGP. Capirex has been the model of consistency, finishing inside the top 10 for each of his 11 MotoGP campaigns. The former 125 and 250 champ completed his first season with the Rizla Suzuki team 10th overall in 2008, his season marred by three DNFs and injury. It would seem the old vet still has some gas left in the tank, but experience will have to master the fast young talent, many of whom were in still in grade school when Capirossi first cut his teeth in the premier class back in 1995 – he finished sixth behind champion Mick Doohan. Having ridden in the 500 2-stroke, 990 and now 800 eras, Capirossi will be looking to cap his career with a flourish.
Hayate Racing’s Marco Melandri will try to emerge from the ashes of Kawasaki Racing to rebuild his career.
Marco Melandri – Hayate Racing – 17th MotoGP
No one was a bigger disappointment in 2008 than Marco Melandri. The Italian appeared to be one of the very few capable of challenging Rossi in seasons prior. It was assumed that upgrading from satellite Honda to factory Ducati in 2008 would see Melandri vault into top contender status, not to mention he was the holy grail of an Italian rider on a Italian team. Instead, the result was unmitigated disaster. Now Melandri is stuck on the former Kawasaki ZX-RR, riding for a manufacturer competing in MotoGP only because it was forced to after attempting to pull out completely in the off-season. The situation does not bode well for Melandri, who coasted through the end of 2008 with rampant rumors that he was about to be dismissed from Ducati before season’s end. Melandri’s 2009 campaign will attempt to salvage a once-promising career.