Thursday, March 29

ROSSI STRUGGLES, STONER SHINES

By MICHAEL ESDAILE

THROUGH almost all the pre-season MotoGP testing, reigning World MotoGP Champion Casey Stoner has turned the fastest lap times in the test sessions. However, a single fast lap is one thing, turning consistently fast lap times lap-after-lap is what wins races, and eventually, championships.

We had been reading that Yamaha's Jorge Lorenzo, along with team-mate Ben Spies, had run several race simulations and that the times they set in these gave Yamaha plenty of reason to feel confident.

However, Spain-based American Dennis Noyes, who has been covering Grand Prix racing for more than three decades, has more insight into this than most as he has been privvy to all the lap times recorded by all the MotoGP riders in all the official tests. And what he reports makes for very interesting reading.

We already know that since Stoner's departure to Honda, Ducati has struggled to get any decent results. In fact, the more its super-star rider, Valentino Rossi, has changes made to the Ducati's chassis, the worse it seems his results have become. Many in the European motorcycle press, and elsewhere, have spent years describing Rossi as having a great understanding of motorcycle chassis set-up and others have described his crew chief, Australian Jeremy Burgess, as a 'guru'.

Neither man has made these claims for himself, although Rossi never gave much praise to the Honda engineers who provided him with the most successful bike in MotoGP history, the RC211V - the 990cc V5 he raced in 2002 and 2003.

And when Rossi went to Yamaha and won right away, the press and his fans - and sometimes it is very hard to tell them apart - credited the Italian with having turned Yamaha's fortunes around. No one bothered to point out it was the Yamaha engineers who made the breakthrough and that Rossi merely confirmed the direction to proceed.

Perhaps Rossi read so much of this praise that he came to believe it himself.

Could that be the reason for his claim in the latter half of 2010 that Stoner was "not trying hard enough" on the Ducati.

If ever a comment has come home to bite anyone on the arse, this is the one.

Stoner won 23 races for Ducati.

Rossi, who has commanded a salary many, many times higher than Stoner did at Bologna, has not won a single race for Ducati. None. Zero. Nada. Zilch.

The legendary skills in motorcycle set-up ascribed to Rossi have been torn to shreads as Stoner went on to win race after race on the Honda, and gave the Japanese factory the MotoGP championship it craved in the 800cc era: a championship neither Dani Pedrosa or Nicky Hayden had been able to provide on the 800cc V4 Honda.

But over at Ducati, not only did Rossi flounder on the bike Stoner won races on, he called for a series of changes in the chassis through last year to the point it became difficult to keep up with exactly what he was riding any one week.

Now here's the real killer.

In 2010 Casey Stoner won the inaugural MotoGP race at Aragon. This was a track none of the riders had raced on before. Up to that stage in the 2010 season, Stoner had not won a race on that year's incarnation of 800cc V4 Ducati. So rather than trifle around the edges in terms of chassis set-up, after the first practice session at Aragon, Stoner and his Ducati crew decided to make big changes. They pushed the rear wheel as far forward as it would go in the swing-arm, changed the steering geometry and voila! The carbon-fibre framed Ducati was on the pace.

From fourth fastest, almost seven tenths of a second off the front-running pace in free practice one, Stoner and the Ducati jumped to the top of the time sheets in FP2, then topped qualifying to put the Ducati on pole, three tenths of a second ahead of Lorenzo on the Yamaha.

Rossi, Lorenzo's Yamaha team-mate that year, was seventh fastest in qualifying at Aragon.

In the race, Stoner took control and went on to win by more than five seconds from Dani Pedrosa (Honda) with Nicky Hayden getting the better of Lorenzo to take the final podium spot. So we had both factory Ducatis on the podium at Aragon in 2010.

In 2011, Stoner was riding for Honda, and Rossi was on the Ducati. By the time they all got back to Aragon, Ducati had made a bewildering series of changes to the chassis of Rossi's bike, with Nicky Hayden getting the upgrades later.

One would have expected that the Ducati engineers may have taken a look at the data they had gathered at Aragon in 2010 when it came to the 2011 race. After all, in 2010, that was their first race win. But they had gone so far away from the chassis that Stoner used to take pole in 2010 that Rossi was just over one second a lap slower in 2011.

It got worse.

Stoner once again went on to win the race from Dani Pedrosa while Lorenzo took the third place he had been denied the year before by Hayden on the Ducati.

Where was Hayden on the new, Rossi-improved chassis in 2011?

Seventh.

Not only that, his race time of 42 minutes 51.715 seconds was a staggering 25.689 seconds slower than what he had recorded in 2010, on the bike that Rossi was later to say was unrideable. That is more than a second a lap slower than what he had recorded in 2010.

And what of Rossi at Aragon last year?

The Italian struggled home in tenth place with a race time 13.4 seconds slower than what he had achieved on the Yamaha the previous year.

Yet Stoner's race time from 2010, set on the carbon-fibre framed V4 Ducati that Rossi said was unrideable, still stands as the race record.

Yes, that's right, Stoner did not better the race time he set on the Ducati in 2010 when he won the same race for Honda last year.

In light of that, and the fact Hayden was so much slower in the 2011 race compared with what he had recorded in 2010, it is very hard to define the chassis changes Rossi has demanded from Ducati as being 'progress'. In fact, the results indicate that Rossi may well be taking Ducati down a dead-end street.

Australian photographer and keen grand prix follower Peter Geran has charted the lap times of Rossi and Stoner across 2011 and added the best lap times Stoner did on the Ducati in 2010 to the table. It makes for very interesting reading. At most of the 18 rounds of last year's championship (where comparisons are valid due to similar weather and track conditions) Rossi did not match the lap times Stoner achieved on the carbon-fibre framed Ducati in 2010. Sometimes he was not even within a second of Stoner's 2010 lap times.

There were exceptions. At Mugello, round eight in the series, Rossi finally managed to record a faster lap time than Stoner had in 2010. That came in the race when Rossi managed a 1m 49.301 compared to Stoner's 1m 50.996s in 2010.

But at the very next race, at Germany's Sachsenring, in both free practice one and free practice two, Rossi's best lap times were slower than any of the best times Stoner had recorded there in the equivalent sessions in all the years he rode for Ducati (2007 to 2010). The track conditions in 2007 were closest to those of 2011 in FP1 and FP2, but if we look at Rossi's best lap in FP1 last year, he was 1.454 seconds off Stoner's 2007 FP1 pace. And in qualifying last year, Rossi was 1.48 seconds off Stoner's 2010 Ducati pace while Stoner (on the Honda) was almost two tenths of a second faster than what he had done on the Ducati the year before.

There was some relief at Brno. After lapping slower than Stoner's 2010 pace in FP1, FP2 and Qualifying, in the race, Rossi managed a best lap almost three tenths faster than Stoner's from the year before. At Indianapolis, Rossi was slower in FP1, FP2 and Qualifying compared with Stoner in 2010, but in the race his best lap was a little quicker. Then at Misano, Rossi was quicker in FP1, slower in FP2 and Qualifying, but a little faster in the race. Trouble was, Stoner's best on the Honda was a full second quicker!

That was the problem for Ducati. Last year their star rider was not matching the times Stoner had set on the Italian bike the year before - but at the same time the young Aussie had gone even faster on the Honda.

Now, for Dennis Noyes' insight into what the pre-season MotoGP testing may mean, go to:

http://moto-racing.speedtv.com/article/motogp-noyes-notebook-stoner-even-faster-than-he-looks