Simoncelli/Pedrosa crash still the main story ahead of Catalan Grand Prix

It is amazing that it is the first week of June and yet this is only the fifth race of the MotoGP season. At this time of year the championships have firmly taken shape and the form patterns are set in place. This year however is slightly different and with six races in eight weeks it is clear that MotoGP 2011 will be fought and won in the coming two months.

The Circuit de Catalunya

This circuit is one of the favourites amongst riders. With a one kilometre long front straight which sees riders brake into the opening corner from 200 m/ph before climbing the deceptively steep hill that is turn three that ends the opening sector of the lap. Turn four opens up for the riders before they tackle the downhill turn five hairpin, one of the key overtaking opportunities.

The fast turns seven and eight lead the riders into one of the most challenging corners of the lap. Turn nine is a fearsomely fast right hander where the true commitment of these riders is on display for all to see before heading down the back straight.

Turn 10 begins the final sector of the lap; the stadium section. It was here that Terol crashed last year before riders enter the area of the track with the most feverish fans. Turn 11 is a slow corner which leads into the devilishly fast turn 12, where Jorge Lorenzo crashed heavily in 2008. The Spaniard famously said that if you lead into turn 11 that you know that you will win the race. In 2009 he was very much mistaken. At the final corner, a downhill left hander with an exceptionally narrow racing line, Valentino Rossi dived down the inside of his then FIAT Yamaha team-mate to take the lead on the last lap and win what was one of the best races of the 800cc era.

With the fast front straight, a good blend of slow and fast corners and numerous overtaking opportunities it is clear why the Circuit de Catalunya is such a favourite for riders and fans alike.

Simoncelli still the main talking point

MotoGP returns this weekend after a three week break and while Marco Simoncelli would have hoped that that time would have healed the wounds from his mid-race crash with Dani Pedrosa at the last round in France the news that Pedrosa will not take part this weekend will only serve to vilify the Italian further with the home fans.

In the aftermath to the crash Spanish newspapers were dominated by analysis of the Le Mans crash. Unsurprisingly Simoncelli came off in a bad light in the Spanish daily press with numerous daily papers openly writing about the danger that the Italian presents on the track. As a result of such analysis it came as little surprise to see that Simoncelli received death threats in the aftermath of the race. Thankfully it appears that the threats have come from a web-user who sent his message with no intention of making any follow up to his threats.

With the action on track set to be cut throat once again at the front it is interesting to see that the majority of the MotoGP riders sided with Pedrosa in the aftermath of the crash. Even Simoncelli’s closest ally Valentino Rossi came out against his compatriot. This could be the first signs of their relationship deteriorating, just as Rossi’s relationships with Marco Melandri and Sete Gibernau did once they started to become competition at the front of the field. Rossi has always focused on winning races and beating his rivals, he breeds off the thrill of a battle and as a result it would come as little surprise that he is now starting to create tension in their relationship.

Simoncelli also feeds off of the aggression of a fight and he will be relishing the chance to get back on track and fight once again at the front of the field. It is clear that this crash has further enhanced the Gresini Honda rider’s reputation as a hard charging, unwieldy rider who will stop at nothing to get ahead or stay ahead of a rival.

Even though race control would have hoped that penalising Simoncelli would lead to the former 250cc champion changing his on-track tactics it will come as no surprise if this does nothing but enhance Simoncelli’s reputation and cause riders to give him an even wider berth when he attacks them into a corner.

The French penalty cost him a debut podium but the Gresini, aided by Honda’s top speed advantage, should be exceptionally fast this weekend and in a position to finally break his duck in the premier class.

Wednesday’s news that Pedrosa will sit this race out has been the biggest story of the pre-race build-up. The Repsol Honda rider had enjoyed a positive start to the season even though he was still feeling the effects of his late 2010 collarbone fracture. His Estoril victory was superb and showed just how promising his season was to be.

It was terribly unfortunate that Pedrosa received such injuries in his clash with Simoncelli but it was heartening to see him go wheel to wheel with another rider in such circumstances. Until mid-way through last season there had been question marks over the triple world champion’s mental strength and race craft. Those question marks are no longer an issue for him after a series of superb races last year and this year. It is just bad luck for Pedrosa that even with his evolution he will still have to wait until at least 2012 for his first premier class title.

The news of Pedrosa’s absence means that his team-mate, Casey Stoner, will have a clear run at collecting another victory in 2011. The Honda will have a significant speed advantage this weekend and Stoner will start as the firm favourite when practice begins tomorrow morning.

The Australian has been in great form throughout the season so far, and is the only rider to have more than one victory, and should be in a position to win once again on Spanish soil, just as he did in his championship winning season of 2007 when just 0.4s separated the top three with Stoner leading home Rossi and Pedrosa in a thrilling race. Amazingly since 2005 Stoner has finished on the podium five times in Barcelona including finishing third for the last three years. He will feel that he finally has a bike at his disposal to return to the top step of the rostrum at a circuit that he clearly loves.

Stoner’s toughest competition should once again come in the shape of reigning world champion Jorge Lorenzo.

The Yamaha rider was at the centre of attention in Barcelona yesterday with a publicity stunt that saw him make a full bore start outside the Sagrada Familia. It remains to be seen how he will perform this weekend but even though the Honda will have an edge in Catalunya Lorenzo will be fired up after a below par weekend in France.

Reigning Moto2 champion, Toni Elias, has struggled since returning to the premier class but the Honda rider will have a 2011 chassis at his disposal for the first time this weekend. The Spaniard has never finished a race in Barcelona in the MotoGP class and amazingly has only had a brace of podiums at his home Grand Prix and if he can finish inside the top ten he will have shown that he is making progress readapting to riding a MotoGP bike.

Andrea Dovizioso had his strongest finish of the season in France. The Italian finished third at Le Mans and enjoyed a race long battle with Rossi and Lorenzo. This weekend with Pedrosa absent the onus will fall on the former 125cc world champion to stand up and be counted. Anything less than another rostrum finish would be a disaster for the factory Honda rider as he looks to give HRC reason to keep him in Repsol colours next season instead of Simoncelli.

Valentino Rossi heads to Spain fresh from the first podium of his Ducati career. The team has made progress with the red machine but there is little hope of another rostrum this weekend such is the difference in class between the Ducati and the leading Honda and Yamaha machinery.

The Italian superstar has tasted success nine times in Barcelona but just being competitive would be an achievement this weekend. It is clear that the Ducati is still a “work in progress” but fans of Rossi will not tolerate their hero being uncompetitive for much longer. The gap between the Ducati and the pacesetters is somewhere in the region of 0.5s and if they can show that their developments are closing that gap then maybe sometime soon, Assen for instance, Rossi’s talent can find the performance difference and turn this bike into a race winner.

With rain forecast for this weekend though a wildcard could be added to the mix and as Rossi showed at Jerez there is little wrong with the Ducati when conditions deteriorate.

While Rossi’s troubles were not unexpected in 2011 the plight of Ben Spies has been a shock to many. The American has a best finish of sixth and is yet to qualify on the front row as a factory rider. Spies has such mental strength that it is hard to imagine that he is having any issues dealing with having Lorenzo as his team-mate but until he gets to grips with his new bike question marks will remain. Last season he qualified well in Barcelona, fifth on the grid, and finished sixth in a close battle for fourth. Spies was within touching distance of a podium in Jerez and while Silverstone next weekend should suit him better than Catalunya this is a very important race for him because the next eight races are the meat of the 2011 season with six races taking place. If Spies can get some momentum this weekend it could be instrumental in having a great year.

Alvaro Bautista fought with Spies at this race last season and eventually finished fifth after qualifying in the top ten. This was one of his best weekends of his rookie MotoGP campaign and though he is still recovering from his leg fracture suffered in Qatar another top ten qualifying effort is not out of the question for the former 125cc and 250cc Barcelona winner.

Marquez looks to build on first victory

Marc Marquez will undoubtedly get a heroes welcome this weekend. The reigning 125cc champion is clearly a young Spaniard in the mould of Pedrosa and Lorenzo. Backed by Repsol his face adorns billboards all over the city and after taking a superb victory in France he will be eager to replicate that form in front of 100,000 compatriots.

Last season’s Catalan Grand Prix played a crucial role in Marquez’ title success. The tiny Marquez was victorious, comfortably ahead of Bradley Smith and Pol Espargaro but the main news story featured Nico Terol. The Aspar rider crashed in the stadium sector and his injuries forced Terol to miss the next race in Germany giving Marquez a sizeable championship advantage that Terol was unable to recover from.

This weekend Marquez will look to build on his French victory and while it is almost impossible to predict winners in Moto2 it is clear that Marquez will challenge for the podium on a regular basis in 2011.

Stefan Bradl became the first man since Lorenzo in 2006 to take four consecutive pole positions in the intermediate class and his strong start to the season continued in France with his third podium of the campaign, the bead weather in Jerez relegated him to fifth at the flag. The German is not adept in the rain and this could be his outdoing this weekend.

The Kalex looks to be the most competitive bike on the grid but the main difference between Bradl and the rest of the field thus far in the season has been the confidence that he has in his abilities right from the start of the weekend. The 21 year old will return to the scene of his Grand Prix debut and though he is yet to finish on the podium at Barcelona there is no doubt that he will arrive at the circuit confident of another strong weekend.

Last season Andrea Iannone, the victor at Jerez, was clearly the fastest man on track in Barcelona. He opened a commanding lead before being black flagged for overtaking under yellow flags. He trails Bradl by 28 points, more than the points for a race victory, but the Italian should not be underestimated this weekend and with Silverstone, Assen, Mugello and the Sachsenring upcoming he will surely make his championship stand in the next two months.

Julian Simon is one point ahead of Iannone but the Spaniard, yet to win in Moto2, does not show the hallmarks of a rider ready to challenge for the Moto2 title. As a former 125cc champion Simon should not be underestimated but it is hard not to think that his title, while thoroughly deserved, owed more to the Aspar squad than his talents.

Simon has shown great consistency in Moto2 but his speed has plateaued and while he will generally be in a competitive position he hasn’t looked likely to win a race. Until Simon can win a race in the ultra competitive intermediate class question marks will hang over just how far he can progress in the coming years.

Yuki Takahashi and Thomas Luthi have both been very consistent so far this season. It was only at Jerez, when Takahashi qualified seventh, that they have not shared the front row with Bradl. Takahashi has taken a brace of rostrums in the last two races and is clearly fired by a desire to win races for his late brother who died in the lead up to the Portuguese Grand Prix. This weekend the Japanese rider will return Barcelona where he was victorious last year for Tech 3. The Tech 3 was clearly a poor bike last season, it has improved for 2011, but Takahashi was inspired aboard it last year en route to winning by 5s from Luthi.

The Swiss rider took the first podium of his career in Barcelona and he would dearly love to take his first intermediate class victory this weekend. The consistency that he has shown in the opening four races have always been one of the defining characteristics of Luthi but now that he has discovered the knack of qualifying at the front of the field he has shown his true speed aboard the Suter. He is one not to be underestimated this weekend.

Alex de Angelis has finished on the rostrum in Barcelona on both 125cc and 250cc machinery and while he has struggled at times in 2011 he looks primed and ready for another good race. Lying seventh in the title chase the San Marino native knows that his season, like so many other riders, is hinging on the coming races. The speed and consistency that he showed at the tail end of last season is still there but a variety of factors have kept it from allowing him to finish races in a competitive position. If he can have a trouble free race this weekend he should be in contention for a top five placing.

It may seem amazing but Scott Redding, one of the pre-season title favourites, is still to register his first points of the season. The Englishman looked in fine form in testing but such has been the inability of the Marc VDS team to show their speed in the opening races that there was much talk of changing chassis manufacturers. There is no doubting Redding’s, or indeed team-mate Mika Kallio’s, speed but unless they can turn things around their season is running the risk of being a disaster.

It is very easy to see why this weekend’s race is taking on such importance amongst the teams; this truly is make or break time in Moto2.

 Le Mans shows Terol can be beaten

The same cannot really be said in the 125cc class, at least in championship terms. Even though Maverick Vinales took victory last time out Nico Terol is still comfortably ahead in the title chase and looks set to effortlessly cruise to the world championship this season.

The Aspar rider has more experience than any of his rivals, is exceptionally fast and has huge amounts of knowledge and intelligence on how to race in the smallest class. It all points to the domination that we have seen thus far in 2011.

Terol enjoys a mammoth 36 point lead over Sandro Cortese but with only a solitary podium finish in Barcelona, combined with last year’s crash, this could be a circuit that shows a chink in his armour. Cortese always goes well at Barcelona and this could be a legitimate chance for a first victory for the Aprilia Germany rider.

Jonas Folger, fourth in the championship, figures to be very competitive aboard the Ajo Aprilia this weekend. The German qualified on the front on his first visit to Catalunya and is in fine form this year. Folger, and team-mate Danny Kent, look to be two of the most impressive young riders in the class and with Ajo’s superb record at the circuit, two wins in the last three years; they should be very competitive once again.

Vinales, the reigning Spanish 125cc champion, took pole position at this track in his title year and with his confidence sky high following his victory he should be competitive again this weekend. Vinales success saw him become the youngest ever Spanish winner and he is clearly incredibly talented. It will be interesting to see how he performs this weekend. How he handles the pressure of expectation from the home crowd will show if he is ready to battle consistently at the front of the field. Personally I have little doubt about his speed and maturity and think that he will be competitive this weekend once again. Whether he can challenge Terol at the very sharp end remains to be seen but anyone who can outfox Terol like Vinales did at Le Mans deserves to be highly respected.

Frenchman Johan Zarco has four top six finishes in the opening four races, including two podiums, and the Derbi rider will be competitive once again this weekend. The first ever Red Bull rookies champion has come on leaps and bounds in the last year and is clearly ready to take his first victory. As a former Spanish champion he knows the Barcelona track as well as anywhere and riding Marquez’ bike from last year he should start as a true contender to challenge Terol.

The interesting thing in the smallest class is that even though Terol is almost certain to take a comfortable title victory there are numerous riders who can compete with him on any given weekend. As a result it should not be surprising if anyone of the above riders, or indeed Hector Faubel or Sergio Gadea, were to win this weekend. Terol had an aura of invincibility but Vinales showed that he can be beaten. Will anyone be able to land a knock out blow on Sunday?

 Weather for this weekend

Rain looks set to affect this weekends on track action with the forecast calling for a few showers on Friday. Thankfully it looks set to improve over the course of the weekend but with clouds likely to hang in the sky rain could have an impact on qualifying the races.

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