Tomorrow at the Losail Circuit in Qatar will mark the season opener of the 2007 Moto GP championship. It will also mark the first race of yet another era in Moto GP as this will be the debut of the all new 800 cc race bikes.
The switch from 990 cc engines to 800 cc engines was conceived several years ago with the intent of slowing the bikes down. The 990's were tickling 220 mph at some tracks and after the death of Daijiro Katoh some in the paddock felt the bikes were getting too fast.
In a classic case of the law of unintended consequences the 800 cc bikes have proven to be faster at several tracks in the 2007 preseason. The reason for this is that the 800 cc bikes put less torque to the ground and don't break traction as easily which allows them to carry greater corner speed. At the season qualifying session in Qatar Valentino Rossi's pole position lap was over 1 second faster than the pole at the same track last year.
In 2006 Nicky Hayden of the Repsol Honda team won the championship on a 'Evo' version of the RC211V. Nicky's bike was significantly different than the other 4 RC211V's as it featured a revised, more compact frame, a more compact engine, a different swingarm, and a different clutch. HRC's goal with this machine was to develop concepts that could then be applied to the 800 cc RC212V.
Many in the Moto GP press assumed that the RC212V would just be the Evo RC211V minus one cylinder (the RC211V was a 5 cylinder, each cylinder displacing roughly 200 cc). However, HRC opted to build a brand new bike from the ground up. The only carry overs are the engine internals.
By going radical instead of evolutionary HRC has taken on a steeper learning curve and a bigger risk than their rivals. The upside is that the RC212V probably has more ultimate potential than the other bikes. The story of the season will be whether there really is that much performance potential in Honda's concept and, whether or not they can realize enough of it to win.
Last season all of Honda's teams were on Michelin tires. Michelin has won all of the championships for some time now and has been HRC's technical partner for most of that time.
However, last season saw the Bridgestone-shod Ducatis emerge as a significant title threat. At a few tracks the Bridgestones had a clear advantage over the Michelin runners, the most notable being Brno where Ducati's Loris Capirossi ran away with a margin of victory of 5 seconds. Quite a big gap by Moto GP standards.
This year Honda is hedging its bets by having the Gresini Honda team switch to Bridgestones. This way they can limit the potential points damage done by the Ducatis on tracks where Bridgestones have a big advantage. Also, in the outside chance that the Bridgestones are the superior tire over the course of the season, Honda will still have a strong rider [Melandri] to lead the way.
Unlike in the 2002 preseason where the then new RC211V was clearly the bike to beat, this preseason the RC212V hasn't led the way at most of the tests. The two Repsol Hondas have typically finished in the top ten but the other 4 Hondas have struggled somewhat.
From all appearances the factory Yamahas of Valentino Rossi and Colin Edwards are the quickest thus far, with Ducati and Honda on a similar level. The dark horse this season is the Suzuki Moto GP team, whom have stunned the paddock with some convincingly fast test times at Malaysia and Qatar.