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Five Things To Look For At MotoGP Test Feb. 1-3

The 2011 MotoGP World Championship starts March 20 under the floodlights at the Grand Prix of Qatar, but the initial clues about this season may be uncovered at the first official test of the year, Feb. 1-3, at the Sepang Circuit in Malaysia.

This season arrives after a major shuffle of the rider lineup following the 2010 championship, won by Jorge Lorenzo of Yamaha. Lorenzo and Repsol Honda’s Dani Pedrosa and Andrea Dovizioso were the only three of the top six riders in the final 2010 standings who stayed put for 2011.

The most seismic move came when seven-time MotoGP World Champion Valentino Rossi left Yamaha after seven seasons and four world titles to join Ducati in an all-Italian dream pairing. His teammate is American 2006 World Champion Nicky Hayden, entering his third season with the iconic Italian manufacturer.

2007 World Champion Casey Stoner left Ducati for Repsol Honda, joining Pedrosa and Dovizioso in a three-bike attack.

American 2010 Rookie of the Year Ben Spies stayed within the Yamaha family but shifted from the Monster Tech 3 satellite team to the factory team in arguably the toughest job in MotoGP – trying to keep pace with the blistering Lorenzo as a teammate.

These moves all set the table beautifully for one of the most compelling seasons in recent memory. The 2011 season includes the Red Bull Indianapolis GP on Aug. 26-28 at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway.
Here are five things to look for in the suffocating heat, humidity and afternoon thunderstorms at Sepang:

1. The Doctor's health. Seven-time MotoGP World Champion Valentino Rossi will not be at full fitness for his first official MotoGP test with Ducati following offseason shoulder surgery. The big question will be just how far off the pace of the leaders he will be as he tests the strength of his rebuilt joint, injured in a motocross training accident early in the 2010 season.

Sepang has long straightaways, which allows Rossi’s shoulder to rest. But the 3.447-mile circuit also features a mix of tight, slow corners and high-speed turns, which will stress Rossi’s shoulder. 

Rossi admitted in a recent video at motogp.com that he doesn’t expect to regain full strength and pace until early summer.

Is “The Doctor” being coy, or will he really be that far off the pace? Will teammate Nicky Hayden become the fastest rider in the Ducati garage due to Rossi’s injury and Hayden’s greater familiarity with the team?

2. Stoner vs. Pedrosa, round one. All three factory teams – Yamaha, Repsol Honda and Ducati – have new rider lineups for 2011.

Defending World Champion Jorge Lorenzo and Ben Spies became friends as the 2010 season progressed, a bond that grew tighter once they knew in the late summer Spies was moving up to the factory team in 2011. Rossi and Hayden were teammates at Honda in 2003 and get along well, so expect no drama at Ducati.

But the Repsol Honda garage may be a powder keg.

Pedrosa has been a polarizing figure since his arrival in the premier class in 2006. He and Hayden were at outright war in the Repsol Honda garage that year after Pedrosa took out teammate Hayden at Portugal while Hayden battled Rossi for the World Championship. Lorenzo and Pedrosa, longtime rivals since childhood, also have conducted the two-wheeled version of the Spanish Civil War since Lorenzo climbed to MotoGP in 2008.

So it’s expected that Pedrosa will try to play politics and use his familiarity with Repsol Honda – this is his sixth consecutive season with the team – to put the mental squeeze on Stoner. But Stoner is a typical Aussie; he has a take-no-prisoners’ mentality and doesn’t care about currying favor by talk. He prefers to let his natural speed build loyalty within the team.

It will be fascinating to see how this shakes out, starting at Sepang.

3. Spies steps up. American Ben Spies has been on an incredible ride since 2006. He either has won a season championship or a major award within the series in which he competed for the last five years, capturing the AMA Superbike title from 2006-08, the Superbike World Championship as a rookie in 2009 and MotoGP Rookie of the Year honors in 2010.

But the price of poker has gone up for Spies in 2011. Way up.

Spies will face the greatest challenge of his career trying to keep pace with defending World Champion Lorenzo, who is arguably the fastest rider in the world and made almost no mistakes last year.

It’s a safe bet that Yamaha doesn’t expect Spies to beat Lorenzo this season. But the MotoGP community, media and fans worldwide expect Spies to fulfill the promise of a pole at the Red Bull Indianapolis GP and two podium finishes from 2010 into at least one victory this year on the factory Yamaha, which was the dominant bike of last season.

4. A new tornado warning? American Colin Edwards suffered through a dismal 2010 season, finishing 11th for the Monster Yamaha Tech 3 team after placing fifth in 2009.

Many observers thought Edwards, 36, was done with the premier class midway through last season and possibly headed for retirement or a return to World Superbike, where he won championships in 2000 and 2002.

But the amiable Edwards is one of the most popular riders in the MotoGP paddock for his free-spirited approach and great technical feedback, so Tech 3 re-signed him to a one-year deal for 2011.

This is a pivotal season for “The Texas Tornado.” Either he finds the consistent, smooth speed that carried him to a podium finish and a strong season in 2009, or his MotoGP career may come to an unfortunate end.

Edwards should face an easier challenge within the Tech 3 garage than in 2010. His teammate last year was Spies. While they are great friends, Edwards couldn’t match Spies’ blinding pace.

His new teammate this year is Great Britain’s Cal Crutchlow, moving up to MotoGP after a stint in World Superbike. Crutchlow had offseason shoulder surgery similar to Rossi’s procedure, so the Sepang test should offer no true indicator if Crutchlow can cope with Edwards’ experience and speed.

5. Will familiarity breed parity? This is the fifth and final season of MotoGP’s 800cc engine era, as the class will use 1000cc engines starting in 2012. Teams and veteran riders are very familiar with the technical package, so there should be few magic breakthroughs.

Will this tighten the competition, or will factory teams Yamaha, Honda and Ducati continue to dominate the top step of the podium? Spies was the only non-factory rider to earn a podium finish in 2010, placing third at Donington and second at Indianapolis.

Can a satellite rider bridge the gap to the factory riders in 2011? Primary candidates for a breakthrough include Edwards, Marco Simoncelli, a hard racer who earned four of his five top-six finishes in the second half of his rookie season in 2010, and Toni Elias, a veteran who returns to MotoGP after winning the inaugural Moto2 title last season. Elias won the Moto2 race at the Red Bull Indianapolis GP.

***

2011 tickets: 2011 Red Bull Indianapolis GP tickets are on sale now.

To buy tickets, visit www.imstix.com, call the IMS ticket office at (317) 492-6700 or (800) 822-INDY outside the Indianapolis area or visit the ticket office at the IMS Administration Building at the corner of Georgetown Road and 16th Street. Ticket office and phone hours are 8 a.m.-5 p.m. (ET) Monday-Friday.

The 2011 Red Bull Indianapolis GP is scheduled for Aug. 26-28 a

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Five Things To Look For At MotoGP Test Feb. 1-3
 
Five Things To Look For At MotoGP Test Feb. 1-3
The 2011 MotoGP World Championship starts March 20 under the floodlights at the Grand Prix of Qatar, but the initial clues about this season may be uncovered at the first official test of the year, Feb. 1-3, at the Sepang Circuit in Malaysia. Here are five things to look for in the suffocating heat, humidity and afternoon thunderstorms at Sepang.
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