As the countdown to the second Grand Prix of China begins, there can be little doubt that Honda’s brave decision to let youthful talent shine is paying dividends. Going into the fourth Grand Prix of the year, five Honda riders are among the top seven points scorers so far in the premier MotoGP class.
Nicky Hayden (Repsol Honda RC211V), the ‘veteran’ among them at 24 years of age, heads the overall points table. Now in his fourth season on an RC211V, the American is showing enough consistency to head the standings by one point from Loris Capirossi (Ducati), even though he is yet to win a race in 2006.
His three podiums so far in 2006 have netted him 52 points and if his current riding form is anything to go by, the Kentucky Kid must be an early favourite for the top step of the rostrum here in Shanghai.
But he is being pressed hard by Honda’s ‘middle-ranking’ riders (in terms of seniority). At just 23 Marco Melandri (Fortuna Honda RC211V) has recaptured the form that saw him win the final two races of 2005 and his win two weeks ago in Turkey will have boosted his confidence coming here.
Marco finished third in China last season and the Italian, who currently lies third overall in the points tally, knows that a win here could potentially catapult him to the top of the table. His 23-year-old team-mate Toni Elias (Fortuna Honda RC211V) rode brilliantly here in the wet last year and will be a man to watch.
Which leaves the two 20-year-old rookies Dani Pedrosa (Repsol Honda RC211V) and Casey Stoner (LCR Honda RC211V) who have set the grid alight this year.
Both graduated from the 250cc class and neither wasted any time in getting down to business at the sharp end of the field.
Triple World Champion Dani (125cc in 2003 and two 250 titles, 2004 and
2005) finished second in his first ever MotoGP contest and but for a late race tumble in Turkey might have finished on the podium again. The Spanish star will surely figure at the front here too.
His rookie rival Stoner has shown precocious form too. The young Australian qualified on pole in only his second MotoGP race and then finished second to Melandri in Turkey. He also won here on a 250 machine last year and knows how to tackle this track.
The Shanghai International Circuit is situated 40km outside Shanghai and was designed by Hermann Tilke, also responsible for Istanbul Park in Turkey. Shanghai may not be quite as challenging as Istanbul Park, but it makes its own particular set of demands on riders.
At 5.281km in length it is among the longer tracks and at 14.4m wide the tarmac leaves plenty of room for imagination when taking racing lines on entry and exit to the 14 turns, seven of which are lefts and seven right-hand corners.
The main straight is the longest in MotoGP at 1175m and this puts a premium on top speed. But acceleration out of the many tight turns is equally vital, as well as stability under the exceptionally heavy braking on the entries. Couple this with two turns that double back on themselves at almost 360 degrees and here is a track that requires the utmost work in set-up.
Nicky, who finished ninth here last year, said, “The last race at Turkey was fun but it’s no secret that I want to be winning races. The surface at Shanghai is pretty good and the long right-hander heading onto the back straightaway is probably my favourite part. And that straight goes on for days, even at 200mph. Then you hit the hardest braking zone on the circuit for the slow corner at the end of the back straight. It’s a pretty weak corner on a MotoGP bike – you just have to brake, brake, brake and brake a bit more.”
Nicky’s team-mate Dani said, “Last year in China I didn’t enjoy it so much because I don’t really like the track. I was quick in the dry and was second on the grid, but the race was wet and it was not great result for me. This year with the Honda MotoGP bike it will be different, and I will once again be learning how to ride the track on this bike.”
For Marco Melandri, this race is a great opportunity. “I’m going to China feeling fully charged after that great win in Istanbul,” he said. “In 2005 I was fast here in the dry during practice and also in the wet during the race. So I’m feeling relaxed, I feel good and I know that we’ll be starting out with a good base set-up. I’m ready for another evenly contested race.
The front straight is really long and it should be good fun to watch.”
His team-mate Tony Elias said, “In 2005 Shanghai was completely new but this time I’m approaching it in a different way. I really like the bike, I know we have a good base set-up and I hope I can put the experience I have gained over these first few races into good use and come out with a good result.”
Stoner said, “I really enjoyed Shanghai last year but I’m told that on a MotoGP bike the track feels quite tight and twisty. I think I can have a good race in Shanghai because we now have a good base to work with on the Honda RCV, and my team is doing a very good job setting-up the bike. It would be nice to have a result similar to Turkey where I was one of the fastest riders on worn tyres at the end of the race. But I have to be realistic and just keep working hard.”
Makoto Tamada (Konica Minolta Honda RC211V) is typically making every effort to find the form that made him such a force in 2004 and the doughty Japanese said, “We are still working as hard as ever to improve grip and the team will give everything to help me here, as they always do.”
Kenny Roberts (Roberts KR211V) will use this race to make more progress with the team’s Honda-engined project and the former World Champion believes the RC211V power-plant gives him an edge he has not previously enjoyed in the class. “We’ll be able to make more chassis changes at Le Mans which should really let us exploit the power we have. And we’ll do what we can here too for now.”
In the 250cc class Andrea Dovizioso (Humangest Racing Honda RS250RW) is the man to catch as he leads World Championship rival Jorge Lorenzo (Aprilia) by two points going into this round. But he has yet to win a race in this class and he’ll be looking to go one better than his second place here last year.
Dovi said, “I’m happy in China. I like the Shanghai circuit and it suits my riding style. Last year I was second in wet conditions. This circuit has a long straight that makes a real difference in terms of engine performance with my rivals. Anyway, after three podiums my goal now is a victory. I just need to be able to take full advantage of my bike during the last three laps to make the difference.”
His team-mate Yuki Takahashi (Humangest Racing Honda RS250RW) said, “Last year it was my debut in the World Championship and I struggled a bit to get the right feeling with the bike and I had problems with the rain. This year, though, I feel much better on my Honda and now I am able to push harder and take full advantage of the machine. Now, I have found the right set-up I know I can take more steps forward and maybe finish on the podium at Shanghai.”
Sebastian Porto (Repsol Honda RS250RW) said, “It’s a complicated circuit, just like the one in Turkey. There’s still a lot to improve with the bike, but this circuit is a bit slower than Turkey so I think that’ll be better for the Hondas. When there are long straights we always lose some ground to the Aprilias. We have to work to see if we can have a more competitive bike.”
Porto’s team-mate Shuhei Aoyama (Repsol Honda RS250RW) is still punishing himself for his mistake in Turkey when he skittle Lorenzo. “I can’t stop thinking about what happened in Turkey. I know that I made a big mistake and I’m really sorry for what happened, especially for Lorenzo because I threw him off the bike with my crash. I’m really looking forward to the start of the Chinese Grand Prix in order to leave the Istanbul incident behind.”
Honda’s 125cc contenders include reigning World Champion Thomas Luthi (Elit Grand Prix Honda RS125R) who was fourth here last year and is doing his utmost to get his 2006 title defence on track. "We are improving, the bike is getting better at each race and now we go to China hoping we have made another step forward.”
Gabor Talmacsi (Humangest Honda RS125R) was third here in 2006. He said, “I’m very happy as we’ve been able to fix the settings of the bike so I can lap at a steady pace. I am positive about China, because in Turkey I finished only 10 seconds down on the winner with a rear suspension problem.
And I have good memories of Shanghai from finishing third here last year!”
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