By Bryan Harley
The MotoGP paddock travels to Portugal for the third round of racing competition, and for the first time in a long time a rider other than Casey Stoner sits atop the championship points leaderboard. Granted, we're only heading into Race 3 of the season, but the young Australian has been so dominant in the last year, it's big news when he isn't perched on top looking down.
That honor goes to Repsol Honda's Dani Pedrosa, who scored a wire-to-wire victory at Jerez in front of a raucous home crowd. Team that with his third-place finish in the season opener at Qatar and you've got Dani P with a five point lead over the talented rookie Jorge Lorenzo.
"At Estoril, you need a bike that performs well on the brakes and maintains optimum rear grip throughout the race," Pedrosa said. "It's a tough track from a riding point of view, because you need to be very strong to handle the braking and the bumps and you also need excellent physical endurance."
Looking back to the end of last season, Pedrosa has been the hottest rider as of late, winning two out of the last three races. The young Spaniard stayed in Jerez after the race for two days of testing and is set to sample a new version of Honda's pneumatic valve engine for the RC211V after Estoril.
The only other racer maybe even hotter than Pedrosa is rookie sensation Lorenzo. The 20-year-old Fiat Yamaha pilot has two podiums and two pole positions to his credit in two races. But the former 250cc World Champion has not had good success at Estoril in the past. It is one of only four courses he has not won at in any Grand Prix class during his young career, and he has never ridden an 800cc machine on the challenging circuit.
This is quite a contrast from his Yamaha Fiat teammate, Valentino Rossi. The Doctor has shown a penchant for winning in Portugal and has never finished off the podium there. This includes five victories, including last season's nail biter over Pedrosa. But Rossi hasn't seen the checkers since his last visit to Estoril, a span of six races. It is the longest gap between wins for The Doctor since his first MotoGP victory in 2000.
Defending MotoGP World Champion Casey Stoner is coming off his toughest outing since joining the Marlboro Ducati team. Stoner ran off track twice and finished down in 11th place, the worst results he's had since the 2006 season, which dropped him from first to fourth as a consequence.
But Estoril is a much different track than Jerez. Average speeds on the Portugal circuit are the lowest out of all the MotoGP courses. It does have a fast, 986 meter-long straight that allows riders to open up the throttle, but time gained on the straight is lost in one of the slowest chicanes the paddock will encounter this season. And this doesn't even take the challenge of the never-ending Parabolica into consideration. Estoril will require a different strategy from MotoGP teams as they juggle bike set-ups for its hard-braking demands.
"Estoril is a bit of a strange track, with a nice flowing section and some twisty slow parts. One of my favorite sections is Turn 2, which is downhill and off-camber," Stoner said.
Lorenzo isn't the only rookie that has shown promise this young season. JiR Scott's Andrea Dovizioso is fifth in the championship point standings after two solid showings. Dovizioso snuck past Rossi on the final lap of the opening night race in Qatar and backed up those results with a respectable eighth-place finish at Jerez. Not bad for a rookie who's not even on a factory team.
Yamaha Tech 3's rookie hasn't looked bad either. James Toseland, the 2007 World Superbike champion, has demonstrated that he has the skills to compete for the podium in the premier motorcycle roadracing league. Toseland has tallied a pair of sixth-place finishes so far this season, even more impressive considering he was battling a chest and throat infection at Jerez. He and Tech 3 teammate Colin Edwards will race with Yamaha's latest version of the pneumatic valve engine this weekend, so we'll see if the updated mill moves the young Brit even further up the timesheet.
The Rizla Suzuki team of Loris Capirossi and Chris Vermeulen head to the Portuguese circuit confidently after putting a dismal start in Qatar behind them with positive results at Jerez. Capirossi finished in fifth place, which helped earn him the seventh-place slot in the overall championship point standings. Chris V. cracked the top ten, albeit in tenth place, but it was a much better showing for the young Australian who was the caboose of the MotoGP train in Qatar. The Rizla team also stayed on in Spain for an additional two days of testing, which should help them be ever more competitive come Sunday.
"We certainly made some progress at the test after the race at Jerez. We worked hard on tires and we learned a lot from the test that will help us in the future. I cannot wait to get back on the bike and start getting the results that I expect of myself this year," Vermeulen said.
Another team to watch as they make a run at the top spots is the Kawasaki Racing duo of John Hopkins and Anthony West. Hopper is finally close to being back to full riding strength after a painful groin injury hampered his efforts in the earlier races. Hopkins still managed a seventh-place finish in Jerez and stayed on for an extra day of testing after the race. The Kawasaki Racing crew has been working hard to dial in the ZX-RR's gearing and suspension settings to accomodate Estoril's thirteen tough corners.
West, who had a respectable rookie run after joining the Kawasaki team midseason last year, has yet to show the flashes of brilliance that earned him a permanent position on the team in 2008. West said that his feeling on the Ninja was much better at Jerez than Qatar and is confident that recent testing should equate to better results.
The Alice Team is looking for redemption after a forgettable first two rounds. Riders Toni Elias and Sylvain Guintoli haven't had the best of luck aboard the Ducati Desmosedici GP8 so far, but race fans remember Elias' thrilling victory over Rossi at Estoril in 2006. Guintoli just celebrated the birth of his second daughter and should be able to focus his energies now on the task at hand, winning races.
Estoril Lap Record -
Kenny Roberts Jr. (Honda) 2006, 1'37.914
Estoril Best Lap -
Valentino Rossi (Yamaha) 2006 1'36.200
Estoril 2007 Race Results -
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