April 6, 2004
Jerez, usually the first European race on the MotoGP calendar, is now the curtain raiser for this truly global 17-race series. After months of testing, some of it here in Jerez, the true measure of the early-season pecking order will only be established here in southern Andalucia on Sunday.
And what an opening race it should be. Jerez regularly packs in crowds of more than 150,000 for MotoGP races and as the sport's popularity skyrockets, this natural amphitheatre will resound to the shriek of 990cc four-stroke MotoGP machines, the baying crowd, and of course ear-shattering Spanish fireworks.
Intensive pre-season testing has shown no single rider to be dominant at more than one track at any given time. But for what it's worth Nicky Hayden (Repsol Honda RC211V) has been the fastest man around this demanding 4.423km track so far this year.
The track is a challenge in two main areas, rider rhythm is vital and front tyre grip at a premium. Laid out among natural contours, Jerez was built in 1986 and hosted its first Grand Prix the following year. It has never been off the Grand Prix calendar since - a measure of the quality of racing it provides.
Jerez makes demands in all areas of machine set-up with short, medium and long straights, uphill and downhill braking areas, and two second gear hairpins. But the biggest test is whether a rider can make a series of consistent, flowing laps in race conditions when the ideal lines through turns may be occupied by rivals.
Bikes have to be stable to cope with bumps on the entries to key turns. Under hard braking, the undulations into turn one at the end of the start-finish straight can pose problems and another tight right-hander at the end of the back straight is a challenge too - especially as these are recognised 'passing places'.
Jerez also boasts one of the most spectacular run-ins to the finish line - two 100mph right turns, with rear wheels spinning-up, and then desperate braking into the final tight left - where many a race has been won and lost, often amid fierce controversy.
Hayden goes into this race with the advantage of knowing he was fastest in testing. And although 'testing is testing and racing is racing' the session was held only two weeks ago. Conditions, which can often reduce lap times markedly here, are likely to be closer to prevailing race conditions than they have been in previous pre-season tests here.
Nicky cannot wait to get his third season in MotoGP underway and the engaging American knows he must do better than the third row qualifying performance and seventh place finish he put up last season. Hayden needs a strong start in 2005.
"I'm glad testing is over and it's now time for the real thing," he said. "It was satisfying to be in such good shape here over the last test weekend of the year - and at the track we'll be racing at for the opening Grand Prix. I know we don't get any points for testing but it was good to give my team something to smile about. I feel we've got a competitive package.We've all worked real hard to understand the bike and each other. With only one qualifying session we need to be in good shape."
His teammate Max Biaggi (Repsol Honda RC211V) struggled in testing here recently, but has the pedigree to put himself in contention come race day. The Roman ace finished third in the 2004 World Championship and this season with the Repsol Honda Team represents a great chance for title glory. Injured at the beginning of pre-season testing Biaggi is now fully fit. He finished second here last year.
"The injury to my left ankle put my career at risk, but I recovered in time for this challenge," he said. "An HRC factory ride means two things at the same time: great value and huge responsibility. We've got to put ourselves back on top of the world, but to achieve that we cannot take anything for granted 17-races are tough and competitors are sharpening their blades. But Honda and me, together, can make it."
For Sete Gibernau (Team MoviStar Honda RC211V) this race is pivotal in many ways. It's a 'home' race for the Spanish 2004 World Championship runner-up, and he needs to get his challenge underway with a strong performance - just like in 2004 when he won here.
"Jerez has always been an incredible place," he said. "This year it will be even more incredible as it is the first race of a challenging and amazing Championship season. During the winter testing we all worked together, focusing in one direction and I am very pleased with the results we have made. There is more work to be done but the single lap times and race pace has been very satisfying and has confirmed that we have a very strong base to work with."
His new running-mate Marco Melandri (Team MoviStar Honda RC211V) looks equally at home with this experienced crew and the Italian has surprised a few rivals with his speed on the mighty Honda RC211V. Melandri was second fastest here in testing after a torrid season in 2004 on a Yamaha.
"The work in Jerez has been very important as I have been able to better my race pace," he said. "Every day I did about 90 laps and on the third day I dedicated myself to a race simulation. I have been able to try the bike in wet conditions and I have had very positive feedback. Now I feel as though I am a more complete rider and I am ready for the 2005 challenge. I have finally found the desire to ride again."
Alex Barros (Camel Honda RC211V) is new to the Camel team this year, but no stranger to the demands of premier class racing - this is the Brazilian's 15th consecutive year in the toughest motorcycle series in the world - and he's as ready to race as ever.
"We have worked hard during winter, especially at Jerez," he said. "On the last test day I did over a hundred laps, testing everything both on the bike and with the tyres. By the end we found a good set-up and I think we are ready for the race, which will be hard fought. There was hardly anything to choose between so many riders in the winter tests and this season will be very tough and extremely competitive."
Hard-charging Australian Troy Bayliss joins Barros in the Camel outfit this year and the former Ducati rider who has a reputation as a man who saves his best performances for races is itching to get his RC211V on track when it really counts.
"Finally the tests have come to an end, and the World Championship begins," he said. "During winter not everything was rosy for me, but despite a few difficulties, we have made a lot of progress. In Jerez I wasn't as quick as in the December tests and frankly I still don't know why, but the effort we put in has been enormous. This Sunday we'll see if we are able to capitalise on the hard work we have done up to now. I simply can't wait for the race to come around."
Makoto Tamada (Konica Minolta Honda RC211V) has twice topped the pre-season test times; at Sepang in Malaysia and Losail in Qatar. And the Japanese rider, who won twice in 2004, is ready for a full tilt at the title this year.
"After the Jerez tests I feel very confident with the RC211V," he said. "We tested everything we needed to test and I even ran a race simulation with consistently fast lap times. The only things I didn't have time to test to my satisfaction were the Michelin qualifying tyres. I'm not entirely comfortable with them yet - but that will come. I'm really looking forward to this race."
Spanish superstar Dani Pedrosa (Team MoviStar Honda RS250RW) defends his 250cc World Championship title - and what better place to begin his attempt to retain it than here 'at home' in Jerez.
The double World Champion elected to stay and defend his title while two of his rivals graduated to the MotoGP class (Tony Elias and Roberto Rolfo).But a clutch of hungry former 125cc arrivals, including reigning World 125cc Champion Andrea Dovizioso (Team Scot Honda RS250RW) could make life tough for him.
"We've had a really good pre-season," said Dani. "And that's something I didn't have last year, so we've moved forward in every way. I'm defending the number one plate and I'm very motivated by that. I know it will be a difficult season and I'll be under the spotlight, but I'm ready. It'll be strange to start the season at Jerez, but the atmosphere should be incredible."
His teammate Hiroshi Aoyama (Team MoviStar Honda RS250RW) embarks on his second year of World 250cc competition after a strong debut season and the Japanese could well figure strongly in the title chase. He was sixth overall in his debut season last year.
"I had my best test of the pre-season at Jerez," he said. "So I'm hoping things go well. I like the track and I'm highly motivated. Everything was new for me last season but now I've got the references I need from tracks that were new to me. It will be tough this year with a lot of riders who are experienced and determined, but I have confidence in myself and the team."
Dovizioso, as a newcomer to the class, albeit a 125cc World Champion debutant in the class, expects life to be tough. "I haven't gone well at Jerez in the past," he said.
"But testing has taught me a lot about the Honda RS250RW and I'll learn a lot about my rivals at this first European race of the season."
All Japan 250cc Champion Yuki Takahashi joins Dovizioso in the Kopron Scot 250 team for the 2005 season. Takahashi is the second rider to secure the prestigious Honda Racing Scholarship, awarded to the most promising young Japanese rider of the year.
Takahashi will now lock horns with his great rival Hiroshi Aoyama again after a one-year break. Aoyama won the inaugural Honda scholarship in 2003, narrowly beating Takahashi in the All Japan 250 Championship that year.
"Jerez will be my debut at a GP outside Japan. Everything in Europe is new for me but racing is racing. We have learned a lot about the new RS250RW during testing and I will do my best on Sunday for my new team." Said Takahashi.
Much can be expected from the hungry Fortuna Honda pairing of Jorge Lorenzo and Hector Barbera who have been flying in testing. Both will ride Honda RS250RWs and have adapted quickly to the demands of the 250cc machine after winning on 125s.
With Dovizioso now riding in the 250cc class, the 125cc races are likely to feature any number of front runners, but Alvaro Bautista (Seedorf RC3 Racing Honda RS125RW), who finished sixth overall in 2004, is sure to figure on the leaderboard.
"I didn't have the best pre-season," he said. "But I'm enjoying making up lost ground and of course anything can happen in the race. But I'll just aim for Friday practice and then by Saturday I'll have some idea of what I'll be able to achieve in Jerez. I'll be doing my best - and we'll see what that is on Sunday."
Source: Honda Pro Image