The enchanting city of Istanbul opens its gates to the MotoGP World Championship for the third time next weekend as the new 800cc era enters a third chapter shrouded in mystery. Unlike the opening two rounds at Losail and Jerez, the Fiat Yamaha Team and their rivals will be racing at a circuit where they have no pre-season testing experience with this year's machines. Not only will they have to set the bikes up from scratch but new regulations limiting the number of tyres each rider can use over the course of the weekend also come thundering into the equation.
Valentino Rossi and Colin Edwards will each have just seventeen rear tyres and fourteen fronts at their disposal throughout the four hour-long official practice sessions, 25-minute warm-up and 22-lap race. A variety of different compounds will be available, based on Michelin's assessment of the characteristics of the spectacular 5.378 kilometre track and data gathered during tests following the Grand Prix at Jerez, but the rubber manufacturers will not be allowed to alter each rider's allocation after 5pm on Thursday evening.
The battle against the clock will start on Friday morning, when the riders and their engineers will work methodically through the available tyre options and adjust their bike set-up to the best available choice. Their job will not be made any easier by the demanding nature of the circuit, which features fourteen turns - eight lefts and six rights - several of which are based on famous bends at other circuits, such as the 'Senna Esses' at Sao Paolo, the 'Spoon Curve' at Suzuka and the 'Eau Rouge' at Spa. Like Phillip Island and Laguna Seca, it also has the unusual characteristic of running anti-clockwise.
The challenge is further enhanced by dramatic changes in elevation, with the track built on four different ground levels, and the fastest corner in MotoGP - a 270km/h bend that the riders may even take with the throttle wide open in sixth gear on the new 800cc machines. That hair-raising turn eleven is followed by three ultra-slow chicanes, calling for a balanced set-up that provides front-end confidence as well as the rear-end stability required to cope with the high-speed changes of direction.
A run of six different winners from the last six MotoGP races makes this weekend's proceedings even harder to predict but both Rossi and Edwards are confident of maintaining their strong early season form. After two rounds Rossi defends a World Championship lead of nine points over Casey Stoner and Dani Pedrosa, with Edwards another ten points further back in fourth place. The Italian's victory at Jerez was his 46th of the four-stroke MotoGP era and made him the first man to win on three different capacity machines in the premier-class; 500cc, 990cc and 800cc.
Valentino Rossi - "Putting the record straight";
Istanbul Park is one of only three circuits on the current calendar where Valentino Rossi has yet to take victory in the premier-class of MotoGP, the others being Laguna Seca in the USA and Misano in Italy, which will this year host a Grand Prix for the first time since 1993. It is a figure the 28-year-old is looking to reduce as he aims for his first back-to-back victories since Mugello and Catalunya last year."
"The next two races, Turkey and China, are ones that I don't like so much and I have never won at Istanbul, but it's a great circuit with some very fast corners," says Rossi. "If the bike works well then it will be great fun I think. Last year I made an error early in the race and it cost me the chance for a podium, but I won't be making the same mistake this year! We are leading the championship but it's a long season and we have to aim to get on the podium at every race."
"The difficult thing over the next two races is going to be horsepower, because both Istanbul and Shanghai have very long straights. We tried some new things at the Jerez test to improve this and I know that Yamaha have been working very hard in Japan so hopefully we will have a little bit of improvement in this area when we get to Turkey. The other question is for the tyres, because it's the first time this season that we're going to be racing at a track that we haven't tested at. With the new restrictions it's going to be very important to make the right choices and also we don't know what the weather will do."
Colin Edwards - "We're counting on Michelin";
Colin Edwards heads to Turkey brimming with confidence after his return to the podium in Spain three weeks ago. Third place at Jerez was the Texan's first rostrum finish since the Grand Prix of China almost one year ago and, after relaxing at home during the extended Easter break, Edwards is determined to make sure the team don't have to wait that long for his next visit to those hallowed steps.
"It's been good to have some time at home, relaxing and in the knowledge that we did well in Jerez," reflects Edwards. "Now it's time to get back to work and prove that wasn't a fluke by getting amongst the champagne again in Turkey. It's definitely not one of my favourite tracks and it was a really hard race for us last year, but we had a lot of problems then and things are very different this year. We know we're going to lack a bit on the straights but we also know that our bike is working pretty well and hopefully we can make up time in other parts.
"Obviously everyone's going to be talking about the tyre factor in Istanbul but we're all in the same boat. Nobody has tested there so everyone's going to have to take some risks with their tyre choices. Basically we've just got to trust Michelin - we thought we were in trouble in Jerez but they were confident they had 'the' tyre and they were right. They know what they're doing so hopefully everything will be ok!"
Davide Brivio - "Let's stay on the attack";
With the Fiat Yamaha Team leading both the individual and team World Championship standings after two rounds, Team Manager Davide Brivio is backing his team to keep on the front foot in Turkey. With the long straights of Shanghai sure to provide a stern challenge for the nimble YZR-M1, Brivio has highlighted the need to get another solid pair of results in the bag before the long trip East."
"We head to Turkey looking to attack because China might be difficult for us and we may have to defend more," conceded Brivio. "Of course the big challenge for everybody this weekend is about finding a set-up quickly and making the right choice with the tyres. Istanbul has not been a good track for Yamaha and the cold conditions won't help either, but we have a team of very shrewd engineers and a fantastic relationship with Michelin so we are in a good position to make the difference."
"Even though we haven't tested at Istanbul we have gathered data at a lot of varied tracks during the winter and the bike has worked fairly well everywhere, which is crucially important when it comes to making a consistent challenge for a World Championship. It is still early in the season but the new M1 seems to have a solid base, so we'll see on the Friday what we need to work on. Both our riders are very motivated after their excellent results in Jerez so we are looking forward to another strong challenge from them this weekend."