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A Case of Ominous Pace: Stoner’s Dominance in Qatar MotoGP Opener Bodes Well for His 2011 Title Prospects

March 25, 2011

In the MotoGP season-opening race in Qatar last weekend, Casey Stoner laid down an ominous marker to his rivals, dominating practice and qualifying before near-enough coasting to victory in the race. Here’s our take on why 2011 looks like being a profitable year for the 2007 World Champion…

Half the art of being a successful bike racer is making sure you are on the right bike at the right time. Having made the move from the perennially-troublesome Ducati to Honda over the winter, Stoner appears to have landed on the jackpot, with his Honda RC212V bike clearly looking like the class of the 2011 field. With rivals Yamaha trailing relatively closely and the Ducati considerably off the pace, Stoner has the machinery at his disposal to mount a very serious charge to a second MotoGP crown, as demonstrated in Qatar last weekend.

Honda have made great strides with their 2011 bike, introducing to the paddock a Formula One-esque quickshift gearbox that gives Honda riders seamless gear changes whilst keeping the revs and power flow both smooth and steady. With several other electronic, engine, chassis and clutch advances made to complement the introduction of this field-leading technology, the bike now turns in and handles like a successful Yamaha of recent seasons, but with more power. Honda’s progress prompted Valentino Rossi to state (in the MCN season preview): ‘We are speaking about the perfect bike, the dream bike that handles and is very fast.’ Consequently, it was little surprise to see the Hondas dominating the pre-season tests this winter.

The Sepang test, for instance, saw Honda’s three factory riders (Stoner, Dani Pedrosa and Andrea Dovizioso) and satellite Honda rider Marco Simoncelli all comfortably ahead of their rivals, with Stoner a second-a-lap ahead of nearest non-Honda rider, Yamaha’s Ben Spies. Furthermore, the dominance of the Honda RC212V allowed Stoner to finish in the top two of pretty much every pre-season testing session; consistency to go with outright pace… frightening for his rivals.

So whilst the Hondas (and Stoner in particular) have been blazing a trail of speed at the front, reigning champion Jorge Lorenzo has been left contemplating a Yamaha that isn’t quite up to scratch: ‘there is still room for improvement,’ he remarked understatedly prior to Qatar. It is safe to say that Lorenzo is yet to get the bike he needs to consistently challenge Stoner this season; even Yamaha Team Manager Wilco Zeelenberg admitting that the team were ‘worried about the level of the competition.’

Whilst this certainly does not rule Lorenzo – or his team-mate Ben Spies – out of claiming the title (let us not forget that the Spaniard is renowned for his consistency, whilst Stoner has had a habit of throwing the bike down the road in the past), it certainly makes his job a lot harder. Whilst Lorenzo will fight tooth-and-nail to retain his title, as it stands he is slightly too far back to mount consistent race-winning challenges and is likely to have a number of Hondas between him and Stoner at most races; as far as the Mallorcan is concerned, for now at least, Stoner looks near-enough uncatchable.

Indeed, aside from the opening moments of the Qatar race, Lorenzo was never close enough to challenge Stoner, particularly after both riders had settled into their race-pace strides. The fervour with which Lorenzo celebrated sneaking second place from a debilitated Dani Pedrosa spoke volumes for where his Yamaha and his title prospects are right now. ‘I think maybe I am more proud of that podium than a race victory,’ commented Lorenzo somewhat tellingly afterwards. In no uncertain terms: advantage Casey.

Importantly for Stoner, he looks unlikely to face much of a challenge this season from Ducati’s newly-signed former-champion, perennial front-runner and arch rival Valentino Rossi. Although Stoner wisely refuses to rule Rossi out entirely, the legendary Italian rider has endured a difficult start to his Ducati career, having to nurse a troublesome shoulder and nurture an even more troublesome and uncooperative bike. Whilst Stoner is quite correct in asserting he doesn’t ‘believe Valentino will be running at this [slow] pace forever,’ a tardy and unprofitable start to the season for Rossi plays considerably into Stoner’s hands as far as the title is concerned.

Alas, with Yamaha just off the pace and Ducati (and Rossi in particular) even further back, it will come down to Honda to provide consistently close rivals for Stoner this season. Whilst Marco Simoncelli could mix it up (he topped the Kuala Lumpur pre-season test after all), he is relatively inexperienced in the elite class and is likely to be inhibited later on in the season by not being in Honda’s factory team, although he does at least get a full factory bike.

In the factory Honda team, with Andrea Dovizioso yet to be quick enough consistently to mount a serious challenge to Stoner, it appears the onus would fall on Dani Pedrosa to be Casey’s biggest rival this season. However, all-too-often the diminutive Spaniard goes missing at race weekends. When Pedrosa is eventually quick, he is a mile off in the distance, but that only occurs three or four times a season – not nearly regularly enough to mount an authentic title challenge, especially when coupled with his on-going injury worries.

Pace-wise, Stoner’s closest challenger should be Pedrosa, but the Spaniard is a rider who rarely battles in the corners and relies on his light-weight to give better acceleration and straight-line speed for overtaking (think NASCAR drafting), which is a shame for fans because it hardly endears the sport to a season of nerve-jangling, edge-of-your-seat racing which we all crave. Titanic encounters such as Stoner versus Rossi at Laguna Seca in 2008 and Rossi-Lorenzo at Catalunya in 2009 look rather unlikely as it stands.

So at the sharp end of the grid, it is shaping to be a relatively bland season with little on-track action and Casey Stoner dominating, providing he doesn’t revert to his old days persona with penchant for throwing it down the road every other race of course. In all fairness though, Honda must be congratulated on building such a fine racing bike, and Casey likewise for being so goddamn quick. However, expect the pack and places three-to-eight to provide much of the action in terms of excitement and overtaking this year. For Stoner at least, his 2011 title charge looks mightily promising; for his rivals, it looks rather ominous…

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