Catalunya MotoGP Preview

Yamaha’s Jorge Lorenzo leads the world championship after four rounds of racing, but the Hondas of Casey Stoner and Dani Pedrosa are always strong in Spain.

Repsol Honda rider Casey Stoner

Repsol Honda rider Casey Stoner

MotoGP moves this weekend to Catalunya, just north of Barcelona, in Spain. This “fast and flowing” track is 2.892 miles long, and the event will be 25 laps. Depending on just how you count them, there are eight right-hand turns and five lefts, including a downhill hairpin and several sustained high-speed turns. The main straight is one of the longest on the calendar, with a maximum speed of 205 mph reached there last year. Catalunya is also known for its bumpiness and generally hard-to-find grip.

This presents directly conflicting needs: To find grip over bumps requires softer springing and damping (allowing easier wheel movement and transmitting less upset to the chassis), but sustaining the force of hard braking from high speeds on the two big straights requires firm springing at the front. The need to preserve ride height through fast, sustained turning likewise calls for firmness. Pick your unsatisfactory compromise!

Braking instability was the major issue in MotoGP at the beginning of the modern four-stroke era (2002-03). The combination of carbon brakes and strong engine braking from big four-stroke engines resulted in a) loss of stabilizing trail at the front, as chassis pitched forward on the brakes; and b) loss of grip and direction at the rear as weight transferred forward (yet the rear tire had to retain enough grip not to slip, then wag from side-to-side, possibly initiating a dangerous oscillation). Slipper clutches and computer application of throttle to cancel engine braking are wonderful tools, but the problem awaits the unwary any time a poor setting is made!

The front tire is also an ingredient in braking stability. At maximum braking, a softer-construction (more bump-absorbent) front tire loses some direction as its carcass “squidges” from side-to-side under heavy force. Another choice.

A look at Catalunya race results over the past five years reveals familiar names: Casey Stoner, Valentino Rossi, Jorge Lorenzo, Dani Pedrosa, with Ben Spies, Andrea Dovizioso and Randy De Puniet as lively possibilities. Last year—the first combination of Stoner with the fully revived Honda—Stoner simply rode away from Lorenzo on the comparatively R&D-starved Yamaha. Lorenzo won the 2010 event, and 2009 saw a Rossi/Lorenzo battle that is still regarded as a classic (Rossi on the final lap had to pass Lorenzo where it was impossible—and he did). If Ducati can give Rossi a better tool this weekend, surprises are possible.

There are no MotoGP fans like the Spanish; until the current recession hit, more than 110,000 of them attended Catalunya every year (last year, there were “only” 81,838). Spanish riders Pedrosa and Lorenzo can be relied upon to reward them for coming.

Although the weather is usually “Mediterranean,” the wind direction is famously variable, and it has been known to rain.

Spec-tire-supplier Bridgestone says “Catalunya is one of the most technical circuits,” and “the right-hand turns on this circuit are generally fast and create very high temperatures on the right shoulder of the rear tires, while the left-handers are slow.

“For this reason, asymmetric rear tires are a must at…Catalunya with the rubber compound used on the right shoulder being two grades harder than that on the left.”

The Honda men, Pedrosa and Stoner, will combine their skill with the most powerful engine in the paddock in a chassis slightly less stable and agile than that of the Yamaha. Lorenzo’s strength is his intense concentration, his ability to operate with deceptive smoothness very close to the limit. This requires powerful mental discipline, as the rider’s most dangerous temptation is to try to make up for a bike that is almost fast enough.

Will Stoner cruise away as last year? Or will a small change in conditions increase Lorenzo’s opportunities?

Yamaha's Jorge Lorenzo

Yamaha's Jorge Lorenzo