Archive - 2008 - Race Story
There are lots of reasons to go to a MotoGP race. If your aim is to see the best riders in the world test their skill, bravery and machines to the limit on a technical track, then you go to Mugello in Italy, or Phillip Island in Australia. If your reason for going is to try and meet the riders, or at least stand a chance of getting as close to them as possible, then you head to Qatar, where the lack of crowds mean the paddock is more relaxed and less stressful, or you visit Laguna Seca, where the AMA's policy of selling paddock tickets means that for part of the weekend, you stand a chance of actually talking to your heroes.
If you're looking for a party, a chance to celebrate the joys of motorcycle racing with like-minded individuals, then you have several options. Mugello combines spectacular scenery with crowd insanity, Assen offers well-organized and efficient celebration, while the extremely low prices of beer, tickets and lodging at Brno make it an excellent choice for bike fans on a budget.
But the two MotoGP rounds which traditionally offer the most frantic partying are the two Spanish races which top and tail the season. The Jerez race, which opens the season in Europe, is sheer bedlam, as hordes of crazed Spanish motorcycle fans unleash a long winter's worth of pent-up frustration in an orgy of wine, wheelies and wanton abandon.
24 Hour Party People
At the other end of the year, the MotoGP season finale at Valencia is almost a mirror image: Vast legions of bike fans gather from all around the world to mark the end of motorcycle racing for another year. Fittingly, they party as if there were no tomorrow, and to an extent, they are right. It will be 5 long months before the MotoGP field lock horns on the track once again, and so the fans amassed at the Circuito Ricardo Tormo do their utmost to squeeze half a year's worth of partying into just three short days. So frenetic is the pace at the Valencia track and in downtown Cheste, the small town nearest to the circuit, that sometimes it can actually feel like quite hard work.
On the first two days of the race weekend, it wasn't so much the frenetic pace which took its toll on Valencia's partygoers as enduring the weather. The torrential and continuous rain turned the campsites and parking areas around the track into a mud bath, and a damp chill seeped its way into the very bones of everyone attending. On Friday and Saturday, the fans had to work a good deal harder at having a good time than they had bargained for.
It wasn't just the fans the rain had had an effect on. The MotoGP paddock, freshly disembarked off a long-haul flight from the sweltering tropics, was stupefied with shock at the change in conditions. From getting off the bike drenched with sweat and close to heat exhaustion, the riders were now dismounting drenched by the rain, and approaching hypothermia.
It seemed like Nicky Hayden was the only rider to enjoy the conditions, leading all three rain-drenched free practice sessions by a comfortable margin. Valencia would be the Kentucky Kid's last race with Honda, and he clearly had his heart set on leaving with a good result as a thank you to his team. But more than this, he was determined to beat his team mate, after getting drawn into an ugly slanging match with Dani Pedrosa's manager, Alberto Puig.
Things Can Only Get Better
As qualifying started, things started looking up, for both fans and riders. On a mostly dry track, Nicky Hayden was once again quickest, until a very gentle rain returned. Hayden looked like he would end his 9-year stint with Honda with a pole position, but it was not to be. The weather gods had only been jesting when they sent a rain shower to taunt racing fans, and the track continued to dry.
As the qualifying session entered the final 15 minutes, Casey Stoner put on his usual demonstration of high-speed riding, snatching pole from Hayden with a lap the Kentuckian had no answer for. To make matters worse, Hayden's team mate Dani Pedrosa was the only rider capable of getting close, taking 2nd place on the grid by just 5/100ths of a second. Nicky Hayden would have to make do with starting 3rd.
There is always something bittersweet about the Valencia round of MotoGP. The final race is at once both apogee and perigee, zenith and nadir, as befits the culmination of any experience which marks its fans as deeply as MotoGP does. The last chance to party with fellow fans, and the last chance to watch, hear and feel the awe-inspiring sights and sounds of the 18 fastest, loudest, most technologically advanced motorcycles in the world tear around a racetrack at dizzying speeds. Valencia is always part birthday celebration, part funeral wake, as fans and followers celebrate the passing of another astounding season.
For many people, this year's end-of-season party at Valencia will be more like a wake than at any time in recent history. Sure, there were tears of nostalgia when the two strokes went, to be shed once again at the demise of the 990s. But on each of those occasions, there was also hope and curiosity, waiting to see what the new bikes that replaced them would bring.
2009, though, will be different. For once the bikes pull into the pit lane after the race on Sunday, MotoGP will cease to be a purely prototype series and will open the door to spec equipment and standardization. The imposition of a single tire manufacturer with the authority to dictate which tires the teams will use marks the end of an era. Once, anyone with the desire, the ability and the funds could manufacture whole motorcycles or individual components, and as long as they complied with certain basic rules and specifications, any team sensing an advantage could use them. But that is now gone.
Waving The Flag
Supporters of the change quite rightly point out that tires, while incredibly important, are the least interesting part of a racing motorcycle to the vast majority of fans. They say that merely instituting a single tire rule can hardly be construed as an assault on the principle of prototype engineering, and that the tires are the part of the racing machine which the motorcycle manufacturers are least associated with. Nobody was ever a fan of a tire company, they say, a claim which Bridgestone and Michelin might publicly decry, while privately admitting.
But concerns over safety and cost have prevailed, and in an attempt to at least slow up the ever-increasing speeds the 800cc bikes were capable of, Dorna felt it had to act. The deal was done at Motegi, Bridgestone were awarded the contract at Sepang, and at Valencia, after 20 years of dominance, Michelin tires will roll out onto a MotoGP race track for the last time, never to return.
At least they will be in with a chance of bowing out in style. The Valencia track has always been kind to Michelin, and Bridgestone have only beaten them here once, when Troy Bayliss romped to victory on a wildcard Ducati after taking his 2nd World Superbike championship in 2006. Even last year, the year in which Michelin had their worst season for decades, Dani Pedrosa took a resounding win on French rubber, showing that Michelin could be competitive when they wanted to, and helping rekindle faith in the company.
This Looks Familiar
Pedrosa's win was in part down to the experience the tire companies have at the track. The Ricardo Tormo circuit always kicks off the winter test season on the day after the final race, and being situated near Spain's temperate Mediterranean coast, has a climate which is mild and dry enough to allow testing to take place in early spring.
While the climate makes it perfect for testing, the location makes the Circuito Ricardo Tormo perfect for racing. Just half an hour from Valencia, Spain's third largest city, and three hours from Madrid and Barcelona, the numbers 1 and 2 in that league, the circuit is a Mecca for the crazed Spanish racing fans.
And the physical geography of the track makes it a fantastic spot for those fans to spectate at. The track sits in a bowl of low hills which form a natural amphitheater where MotoGP's gladiators gather to do battle. Seated upon the slopes of the hills overlooking the circuit, spectators can see almost the entire track, and follow all of the action no matter where it takes place.
The first point of engagement is Turn 1, at the end of the surprisingly long front straight. If you've been hearing the roar of another bike behind as you race down the straight, this is the place they will pull out of your draft and try to bump past you on the brakes. But passing here is risky: Turn 1 is not quite 90 degrees and very wide, and as a consequence, pretty fast. Carry too much speed into the corner trying to get past somebody and you risk a very fast and very painful tumble, as you run wide and hit the gravel at high speed.
Too Cool For School
After a short straight, the first hairpin looms, followed by a left kink, the third left hander in a row. But more danger lurks at Turn 4, the first right hander since halfway round the track on the previous lap. By the time you turn in for the corner here, the right-hand side of your tire is starting to cool and grip levels can be deceptively low. Coming off a series of turns which have gotten the left side of your tire nice and sticky, it's all too easy to go in too hot expecting grip, only to contemplate your miscalculation in the gravel trap after lowsiding off.
Another slow right brings you up to Turn 6, and on towards the most technical and most interesting section of the Valencia circuit. Out of 6, you enter the short back straight, short-shifting up to 150 mph, before leaning the bike over for the left hand kink and getting hard on the brakes for Turn 8.
After the tight right-hand hairpin, the track doubles back on itself, and you flick the bike left and right, ready to enter the slowest corner on the track and a place where those brave enough will try to come underneath you on the brakes. If you get through Turn 11 unscathed, then it's on to the most spectacular part of the circuit.
Motorcycle racing - in case you hadn't noticed - is an outdoor activity. And despite the Herculean efforts of the organizers to attempt to control as many aspects of the sport as possible in the name of safety, cost and spectacle, that still leaves motorcycle racing at the mercy of the elements.
That does not prevent them from trying. At Qatar, a vast forest of lighting masts lit up the night, turning night into something not far from being day, and allowing the race to be held in the cool of the evening, rather than under the blistering heat of the Arabian sun.
That dazzling display of technological hubris did not go unpunished, however. Though MotoGP escaped the heat of the day, the exceptional chill of the desert night made racing a difficult and dangerous task with no sun to warm the track. And since then, there has barely been a date on the calendar in which the elements have not had a major role to play. From cold to rain to the tail of a hurricane, the weather has been a factor at just about every weekend of the season.
Same Ol' Same Ol'
As the MotoGP circus arrived at Sepang, this weekend looked like being no different. Dark clouds pregnant with rain threatened from the Malacca Strait, and every day would dump their contents onto the circuit whenever the fancy took them. The weather would play its part, no matter what we thought of it.
The consequences of that interference were felt most during Qualifying. While a light drizzle had disrupted practice on Friday, a proper downpour threatened on Saturday. It broke just as the morning's sessions ended, justifying the Kawasaki riders' decision to go out on qualifiers in the hope of bagging a decent grid position if the afternoon's official qualifying session should be canceled. As qualifying practice approached, though, the skies lightened and the threat of cancellation receded.
But with overcast skies and high humidity, the track took a long time to dry, compressing the usual frantic last half hour into just 15 minutes. The last few minutes of the session turned even more manic than normal, adding an extra helping of chance into the job of securing a decent grid position.
Some were luckier - and cannier - than others. Valentino Rossi looked to have timed his final run perfectly, crossing the line to start his final flying lap with a minute to go. But he was outfoxed by Dani Pedrosa, who started his pole lap with just seconds in the session remaining. Though Rossi crossed the line just a tenth off Pedrosa's pole time from last year, the Spaniard struck back, snatching pole by nearly half a second.
Where Pedrosa had got it right, Casey Stoner - or rather, his crew - had gambled and lost. A mix-up in pit lane over tires saw Stoner leave the pits with just under two minutes to the flag. Too late to make it round in time for a flying lap, Stoner was forced to settle for 7th, and a place on the 3rd row of the grid.
The Same, But Different
After two days of damp practice, the MotoGP paddock awoke fearing what the vagaries of the elements might bring for them on race day. Their worries were justified: As the teams arrived at the track, it was clear that once again, the weather would play a role, but not quite the one they had been expecting.
As the MotoGP circus wings its way across the Strait of Malacca towards Kuala Lumpur, it will be as if they were also traveling back in time. For at last year's Malaysian Grand Prix at Sepang, there was only one subject of discussion, and that was the possible consequences of introducing a single tire rule. This year, there will once again be only one subject of discussion, the possible consequences of introducing a single tire rule.
The difference between this year and last is that in 2007, the single tire rule was just a proposal, a bargaining ploy to get Bridgestone to supply Valentino Rossi with tires for 2008. This year, the single tire rule is a done deal, confirmed at Motegi, and with Bridgestone the only company to have submitted a bid by the October 3rd deadline, the Japanese tire maker is certain of the contract. While last year at Sepang, the paddock waited for details of a deal to be announced, this year, they will be waiting for details of the contract, and how it will work.
But the same sense of trepidation will hang in the air. In comments to the press, Bridgestone's Motorcycle Sport Manager Hiroshi Yamada has already hinted that the number of tires available for riders will be drastically reduced, and that the construction of special tires for riders with specific needs - riders such as Toni Elias and Dani Pedrosa - will cease, with everyone left to cope with a limited choice of compounds and constructions. An announcement will be made on October 18th, but until then, fear, rumor and hearsay will fill the paddock.
Through The Looking Glass
Which is a shame, for the Sepang track actually offers the possibility of a good race. Viewed in isolation, the raw track specification fills the hearts of right-minded motorcycle racing enthusiasts with dread. The circuit was designed by that bane of motorcycle racers, Hermann Tilke, and is a very wide track featuring long straights, tight hairpins and slow chicanes, designed to help make for close racing in Formula 1.
But unlike its counterpart in Shanghai, designed to the same brief, the way the Sepang circuit joins those F1-based features is infinitely more imaginative, and flows from one corner to the next in a way quite alien to the Chinese track. If anything, the long straights and tight corners actually enrich the experience of the track, offering riders a chance to catch up in one area what they lose in sections where their machines are less capable.
The track starts with an almost interminable front straight, the bikes appearing to be cast adrift in a sea of tarmac, getting close to 190mph as they hit the braking zone for the first corner. That first corner is a tight buttonhook of a right hander, forcing the rider to dump 125mph as quickly as possible, before flicking the bike back hard left for Turn 2. Though you may have plenty of opportunity to outbrake people going into Turn 1, in doing so, you can easily open yourself up to give back what you just gained in that hard flick left.
Slow, Slow, Quick-Quick, Slow
A long, fast right hander then opens up, leading you on to another tight right, offering another opportunity to dive up the inside on the brakes. From this point, the track begins to flow, with a fast left followed by a faster right, before a short straight takes you into a double apex right. Like many double apex turns, the brave, the devious and the foolhardy can attempt alternate lines, braking later to dive up the inside into the first corner, carrying more speed into the turn to pass on the short section connecting the two turns, or turn into the second corner earlier, blocking the apex for the man head of you and stealing his position.
But once again, care is needed. Any pass through the double apex right leaves you badly short of drive on the short straight leading up to Turn 9, and if you do not defend your line, you end up with people flying past on the way into the left hand hairpin.
The hairpin at Turn 9 is another favorite passing spot, a chance to outbrake other riders, but like Turn 1, the corner is followed by another flick, right this time, before braking hard while leaned hard over for Turn 11, and off towards Turn 12. Brake too hard to pass at Turn 9, and your rivals will carry more speed out of 9 and into 10, and be on you and past going into 11.
Once out of Turn 11, you have two more chances to pass. The first is the section from Turn 12 through Turn 14, which starts with a fast left, followed by a long right which closes up into an almost hairpin at Turn 14. The mirror image of the final sequence of turns at Valencia, once again you are hard on the brakes at full lean, and bravery and cunning can get you ahead into Turn 14 and onto the straight.
Ever since the long-lamented 990cc bikes roared into the sunset at the end of 2006 to be replaced by the 800cc machines, MotoGP has suffered a crisis of confidence. That final year of competition with the large capacity bikes produced some of the most exhilarating racing ever seen, yet after the introduction of the new formula, the racing changed overnight, suddenly becoming processional and rather too often, positively dull.
Having been spoilt by a year of thrills and spills, and with the big name stars being left for dead by a relatively unknown Australian on a Bridgestone-shod Ducati, TV audiences switched off in droves, the viewing figures tumbling. MotoGP was starting to lose ground to other motorsports, and with teams already finding it difficult to raise the necessary sponsorship to fund their efforts, neither Dorna nor the teams could afford for the series to decline in popularity further. Something had to be done.
Whenever a group of people - be it organizations, governments or even families - decide that "something has to be done" the first step is usually to try and pinpoint a culprit. Throughout 2007, the finger of blame was pointed squarely at tires, Bridgestone prospering as Michelin failed to adapt to the new rules limiting tire numbers. This regularly left half the field unable to compete, and most painfully, saw Valentino Rossi and Dani Pedrosa, key figures in Dorna's target markets, floundering and off the pace. The current tire situation could not be allowed to stand.
I Know I'm Unlovable
An appropriate culprit - or perhaps scapegoat - found, the rules were tweaked at the end of the season in the hope of reintroducing competition. And as extra insurance, Valentino Rossi was allowed to switch tire brands, with the hope of putting motorcycle racing's media phenomenon back on equal footing with the implacably unlovable Casey Stoner.
The first few races showed at least some improvement, with four different winners in the first four races, and Valentino Rossi then going on to win three races in a row. But the underlying problem remained: The margin of victory was never less than 1.8 seconds, and most races were still being decided by half way. And after Ducati found some fixes to the problems that plagued Casey Stoner's early season, the situation got worse. Once again, the reigning World Champion was humiliating the field, winning race after race, sometimes by as much as 11 seconds.
The changes to the tire rules hadn't changed anything. The little-known and even less liked Australian was winning races by the end of the first lap again, and the field was spread out seconds apart. Down in 6th place, huge multiple rider battles were raging, but these were going on off-camera, and for the consolation prizes. When Michelin ran all of their riders on hard rain tires in Germany, gambling on a drying track which never arrived, we were back at square one. Once again, conversations about MotoGP were all about tires, and not about riders.
Then came Laguna Seca. At Laguna, two things happened. First, Michelin turned up with tires that were completely inadequate to cope with the conditions, leaving all of the Michelin runners completely out of contention once again. The heat under the tire discussion got turned up another notch, and the first rumblings of more rule changes started to appear.
Secondly, as the race got underway, one of the most nail-biting battles MotoGP has seen for a long time unfolded, with Valentino Rossi and Casey Stoner knocking chunks out of each other for 23 long laps. For half an hour, the crowd and TV viewers around the world held their breath, as the death-defying spectacle went on for lap after lap. And for 45 minutes, no one mentioned tires, wrapped up in the glorious duel of two racers at the very top of their ability.
The respite was to be only brief, as another Michelin failure at Brno after the summer break saw the riders, fans and paddock all talking tires once again, only briefly diverging to talk about the racing, before returning to the subject at the forefront of everybody's minds.
Lessons From The Lake
But all the talk of tires disguised a much more important lesson from Laguna Seca: There was plenty of racing to be had in MotoGP, if the track would only allow it. Laguna Seca, with a few fast corners mixed with tight and tortuous sections, but more importantly, the track layout following the lie of the land and flowing from corner to corner, proved an ideal stage for MotoGP. The combinations of corners placed the emphasis on rider skill once again, and gave Valentino Rossi, his Yamaha clearly outclassed, a chance to match Casey Stoner's terrifying pace around the Californian circuit.
There can hardly be a greater contrast between Motegi, the track where MotoGP spent last weekend, and Phillip Island, where they are headed next. Motegi is pretty much a state-of-the-art facility, with spacious pit garages, excellent spectator facilities and an air-conditioned press area. Phillip Island, on the other hand, is like a trip back to the 1950s: The pit garages are about as sturdy as your average garden shed, the spectator seating consists mostly of grass, and the commentary positions sway gently in the winds which sweep across the Bass Strait and buffet the circuit.
But despite the ramshackle pits, cramped press room and spartan spectator facilities, the riders, teams, press and fans all love Phillip Island, and would choose the Australian circuit over Motegi every time. For the track layouts are just as much a reflection of the philosophy and history of each circuit as the facilities are. The Motegi circuit is a purpose-built testing facility, and consequently, each turn is precisely engineered to test a particular aspect of vehicle dynamics, and connected to the following corner by the shortest means possible.
Nature Versus Nurture
Phillip Island, on the other hand, is an ancient road course which has grown and mutated organically over time to become a flowing, rolling ribbon of tarmac sweeping over the hills and dales of the terrain. None of the corners were really designed, and apart from the front straight hosting the start and finish line, there's hardly a straight line on the track. It is a testament to the genius of nature, rather than the human intellect, and shows just what can be done when track designers submit to the landscape, rather than dictate to it from behind a CAD station.
The rightness of this approach is made very forcefully straight from the first corner. As you cross the line to start the lap, the Gardner Straight drops away ahead of you, before you start braking for Doohan Corner. The corner does its venerable name perfect justice: it is big, fast, and very, very scary. It's then up and over the Southern Loop, the first of the many long left handers, followed by another fast left flick before the first opportunity to pass on the brakes.
Honda Corner is - by the standards of Phillip Island - a painfully slow right, with plenty of chances to outbrake your rivals into the turn. Naturally, this is likely leave you at a disadvantage on the exit, heeled over for the curve of Turn 5, before hitting another aptly named corner. Turn 6 sits at the very edge of the Island, not very far from the rocky shores which are lashed by the wind and weather coming in from the Bass Strait. Climbing up to Turn 6 with nothing ahead of you but sky, and a solitary tree, it feels like you are approaching the end of the world. They could have called this cold, wind-blown and lonely corner Finis Terra, but found a better name instead: Siberia.
Stairway To Heaven
Once out of Siberia, the track twists and turns, rolling downhill again past Hayshed, before climbing, gently at first, then steeply up to the most important part of the track, and one of the most spectacular spots in motorcycle racing. Laguna Seca has the Corkscrew, Donington Park has the Craner Curves, but Phillip Island has Lukey Heights. As you start to turn in, the climb gets steeper, taking you up, and off to the left. Then, just as you hit the apex of the corner, the turn starts to fall away from under you, gradually at first, then ever more precipitously, casting you down into the tight right hander of MG.
In the flat, two-dimensional simplicity of a paper track map, it looks simple enough. But in all three glorious dimensions, it is both a thing of beauty and big-time trouble rolled into one. For a start, there's the difficulty of the corners themselves. Gravity is pushing the weight of the bike backward as you push up the hill, yet you are heeled hard over to get through the turn. Then you hit the brow of the hill, the balance of the bike shifting as the ground starts to drop away, just as you start to think about sitting the bike up for the approach to MG.
As if that weren't bad enough, you are now pitched forward, both by the force of being hard on the brakes and the downhill drop to the bottom of the hill. The front tire is squashed flat, loaded to the limit, yet now you have to fling the bike over again right to get the tight line into the hairpin, ready for the fast and long lefts which follow. The whole section is crucial to a fast lap, yet danger beckons at almost every yard. Go too slow, and you lose many tenths of a second. Go too fast, and you can wash out at the top of the hill, or at the bottom, and your race, or even your weekend, is over.
Standing on the cusp of a championship is a strangely perilous position. You see the title within your grasp, you can almost touch it, taste it, but you know you have just a little bit more work to do before it is finally yours. It should be relatively easy. All you need to do is to stay out of trouble, and score enough points to get the job done.
The problem is that it grates to do just what is needed and no more. The very ambition, the need to win that drove you on to chase the championship leaves you unhappy at just rolling over the line somewhere in the top 10, your pride bridles at the thought of safely playing the numbers game.
All those long hours of hard work; riding through the pain of injuries, major or minor; staying home and getting up early to go training instead of sleeping late after a night out; you didn't do all those things just to be the guy who comes in 7th. You want to clinch the title the same way you got within reach of it: by standing on the podium, and preferably on the top step.
Add to this the peril of trying to ride slowly. It is in the nature of motorcycle racers to try to go as fast as possible, and you have spent years honing your fitness and concentration levels to perform as close to 100% as you can. But back off a little, try riding at 95%, and your ability to focus tends to lapse, and you start to make mistakes. Mistakes which can be costly, leaving you with more work to do at the next race, or worse, robbing you of the title altogether through an unlucky crash.
This is the paradox of being within striking distance of a championship. The final effort required is minimal, but the pressure you are under is greater than anything you have ever known before. The rewards may be priceless, and long cherished, but the price of failure rises to match the price of success.
Valentino Rossi knows all about the price of failure. The last time he was in a position to win a title, at Valencia in 2006, it all went horribly wrong for him. With an 8 point lead, all he had to was finish a couple of places behind Nicky Hayden, but it wasn't to be. On the day, Rossi cracked under the pressure and crashed early on, rejoining too far behind to make up the places he had lost, handing the American the title on a plate.
So despite arriving at Motegi 87 points ahead of Casey Stoner in the championship, with only 100 points left from the remaining 4 races, pressure was building on Rossi like a descending bathysphere. And making the situation a little bleaker was his history here at Motegi: Of the 8 visits he'd paid in the premier class, he'd managed to win only once. What's more, the last time he had a chance of settling the title at Motegi - back in 2005 - he crashed out, taking Marco Melandri with him in a dubious move that could have easily seen him banned for a race, as happened to his future team mate Jorge Lorenzo in the 250 class.
Best Served Cold
Despite his poor record at Motegi, Rossi was under even more pressure to win here. Honda, his former employer, owns the Japanese track, and even though Rossi had taken two more titles since leaving Big Red, Honda's attitude - that the bike was paramount, and the rider merely part of the team that helped Honda win - had always rankled, and provided an added motivation for wanting to take victory at Motegi.
During free practice, little of that pressure showed. Rossi had been in the top three in all of the sessions on Friday and Saturday morning, and as qualifying started, Rossi was clearly on the pace to get the front row spot he needed if he was to keep Casey Stoner in sight. But by the time the flag fell for the end of the session, some miscalculation and a little bit of bad luck saw Rossi off the front of grid, and down onto the second row.
The pressure was now really on. With Jorge Lorenzo and Casey Stoner on the front row, and Dani Pedrosa, a lightning starter, beside him, the odds of Rossi wrapping the title up at Motegi were dwindling. His only hope was that someone such as Nicky Hayden, who had the final spot on the front row, could get up with Stoner, Lorenzo and Pedrosa and hold them up, giving Rossi a chance to slug it out with them before Stoner could do his usual disappearing act. After flying his friends and family halfway around the world for a special title celebration, he could not afford to fail.
Billed as the AMA Superbike Finale at Laguna Seca, the last event of the season had an ominous feeling from its beginning early Saturday Morning. As I walked through the paddock I kept thinking of that Doors song, The End, as it plays over the beginning of Apocalypse Now; the dominant theme there in Monterey was that we were seeing not only the final race of the season, but the final appearance of AMA Superbike as we know it.
An end to Suzuki’s domination of the Superbike class might be a good thing for American road racing, only time will tell. But without a clear picture of what, exactly, we’re going to have instead, the paddock was noticeably on edge due to the fact that so many people do not yet have jobs for next season. It seemed that nearly every rider who got on the PA system for an interview made some comment that revealed the general frustration of still having no rules or class details, and no idea which, if any, manufacturers are going to be participating in 2009.
One positive step in the right direction was a press conference held by Roger Edmondson of the Daytona Motorsports Group, the man in charge of putting the future of AMA road racing together. Edmonson released a list of next year’s schedule, which includes all of last year’s tracks plus two new facilities, saying he had commitments from each venue for the 2009 season. He wouldn’t comment on what the new classes would be, or on the level of factory involvement, but apparently the rules will be revealed soon. If we’re going to go racing in March, and do any testing before then, some rules would certainly be useful.
For the past few years, Suzuki has been using the slogan "Own The Racetrack" to market its legendary and long-running GSX-R sports bikes line. Of course, when they use the phrase "own the racetrack" they mean it in a metaphorical sense, of being the best bike out on the circuit, rather than the literal sense of actually paying money to own and operate a racing facility for your own personal use.
Yet that is exactly what a number of manufacturers have chosen to do. Literally owning your own racetrack offers a whole swathe of advantages if you design and produce any kind of vehicle, and so this is a path that several bike makers have elected to follow. Yamaha owns the Sportsland Sugo track, for example, and Kawasaki owns the Autopolis International Racing Course near Hita in Japan.
As befits the largest motorcycle manufacturer in the world, Honda owns more racetracks than the others, holding the deeds for both the Twin Ring Motegi circuit, site of Sunday's Japanese MotoGP round, and its former location, the Suzuka International Race Course. And Honda's pair of race tracks could hardly be more different: where Motegi is a straightforward stop-and-go track with little to commend it, Suzuka is fast, flowing and challenging, presenting the rider with a series of problems to overcome. Sadly, since Dajiro Katoh's tragic death there in 2003 - the incident which sparked the initial discussions on reducing engine capacity to 800cc - the Japanese Grand Prix is no longer held at Suzuka, and has been switched to Motegi instead.
A Tale Of Two Circuits
Like Suzuka, Motegi was originally built as a test track for developing Honda's range of vehicles. And like Suzuka, Motegi features a mixture of turns, from tight hairpins to long sweepers, taken at a range of speeds. But where John Hugenholtz managed to imbue Suzuka with character and charm, and connect the corners in such a way as to create a kind of racing narrative, Motegi's designers created a track where a series of turns of a given specification were simply connected by the most straightforward means possible.
Even the corner names are uninspiring, simple descriptions of the type of corner involved. Turns such as S Curve, Hairpin, 90 Corner all speak for themselves, with only the merest sliver of imagination going into Victory Corner, the final turn before heading back down the front straight. For the most part, though, the track consists of a series of medium-length straights, most of which are connected by varying radius hairpins.
Fortunately, in addition to the selection of about-face turns, there's a flowing section to add some appeal. After zigzagging back along the 3rd short straight from the starting line, a sharp right leads on to the most interesting part of the track. The fast 130R gives riders a chance to line rivals up through the S Curve, and that left-right flick and the V Curve gives them a chance to pass and get re-passed before the harsh braking for the Hairpin turn, a tight 180 leading on to the long back straight.
The end of the straight sees another opportunity for a pass - though it is all too easy to end in the gravel, as the end of the straight dips slightly downhill just as the riders are hardest on the brakes - before heading back to the final chicane, and then across the line.
Must Try Harder
Ironically, owning Motegi has not allowed Honda to own the racetrack very often in recent years. The Japanese giant has been forced to watch the tiny Italian usurpers Ducati and Loris Capirossi take the glory of victory for the past three years. Even before Capirossi started dominating at Motegi, it was usually the satellite teams who managed to win at Motegi, rather than the factory riders, with 2001 the last time a rider on a full factory Honda won here.
The biggest problem for Honda has been that the track has favored Bridgestones, with bikes on the Japanese tires taking the last 4 races, while the Repsol Honda team have been left to struggle on Michelins. So overwhelming was the Bridgestone domination last year that the first man home on Michelins was Nicky Hayden in 9th, beaten even by Sylvain Guintoli on the Dunlop shod Tech 3 Yamaha.
A New Hope
HRC don't want to have to go through that again, and this weekend, they could finally have the answer. Four weeks ago, after the Misano Grand Prix, Dani Pedrosa made a shock switch to Bridgestone tires, HRC and Bridgestone finally relenting to the pressure put on them by the Spaniard, his mentor Alberto Puig, and Repsol, the Spanish company which has poured a lot of resources into the program over the years, and is desperate for another Spanish champion.
America's Cathedral of Speed:
It is said the Indy 500 is the most recognized race title in the World. Owing primarily to its lengthy history, it manages to capture at least a small amount of interest from even the most passing of race fans. The home of the Indy 500 is, of course, the Indianapolis Motor Speedway (IMS), whose history goes back slightly further than the 500 mile race that has made it so famous. It is a national treasure, planted at the Eastern edge of what Americans call "The Heartland"; the great, mostly flat, middle of the country where farming and large scale industrial manufacturing have been the norm for decades. Indianapolis is the capitol city of the State of Indiana; a place not typically given over to the glitz and excess of the more fashionable racing cities of the World. It is a place where work ethic and national pride are quite obvious, even to other Americans.
Everybody loves a story. A story can capture our imagination, and transport us beyond the realms of our daily lives. A story can move us and put us in touch with our deepest feelings. And a story can teach us, by allowing us to walk a mile in another person's shoes and understand their point of view. Stories help us organize and explain the world around us, and make sense of the endless stream of seemingly random events which fill it.
For stories are at the heart of what makes us human: Every culture, every creed, every people has its tales, myths and legends to help it make sense of the world. It is how we keep track of our history, both on the global scale, and at the level of the personal narrative which we construct from our lives.
So deep-seated is this instinct that we also tell stories that may not even be there. We draw together isolated incidents, related only by their proximity in time or in geographical location, add our own correlations and interpretations, and build a logical and coherent story that sounds completely plausible. That such stories do not necessarily bear any resemblance to reality, present or future, tends to be completely disregarded.
Tell Me A Story
The Misano MotoGP round, or the Gran Premio Cinzano di San Marino e della Riviera di Rimini, to give it its full, keyboard-eroding name, was a case in point. So many separate possibilities came together at this race that the fairy tale was being written before anyone had turned a wheel on the track.
As so often in motorcycle racing fairy tales, the character at the heart of the story was Valentino Rossi. Rossi's story, already embroidered so broadly across the rich tapestry of MotoGP, was poised to see more chapters added at Misano.
For Misano was the very first track that the Italian had ever raced at as a teenager aboard a 125, yet at the same time, it was the only track that he had not yet won a MotoGP race at. The Doctor had already scratched Laguna Seca from that ever-dwindling list six weeks ago, and had announced his attention that Misano should go the same way.
The History Man
Added to this was the fact that a win here would bring Rossi's total of premier class wins up to 68, equal with the legendary Giacomo Agostini. Agostini had dominated the sport in the 1960s and early 1970s, making a habit of winning every race until he secured a title, then taking the rest of the season off. To draw level with Agostini in an era of much more closely fought competition would brighten Rossi's star still further beyond it's already blazing brilliance.
As if this were not enough, Rossi would have the opportunity of achieving this incredible milestone less than 10 miles from his home town of Tavullia. In fact, almost the entire population of Tavullia had turned up at the track to cheer Rossi on, and watch him enter the history books. They had even gone so far as to hold a town council meeting at the track, with one of the items of business the appointment of Valentino Rossi as honorary mayor for a day.
The scene was set, the actors had taken the stage, all that was needed was a deft storyteller to allow the tale to unfurl as the fans and followers had scripted it in their minds. A thrilling race-long battle with his archrival Casey Stoner, followed by a final pass for the lead at the final hairpin, with Rossi courageously holding the Australian champion off for the win over the line. Everything was in place for a repeat of the Laguna Seca race, with the same intended outcome. They just needed to roll the film, and let it all play out.
In most countries, the place you put a race track is somewhere nice and quiet, a long way from civilization - or at least neighbors who might complain. You may, like the Ricardo Tormo circuit in Valencia, locate it a couple of miles from the nearest town, and well out of earshot of the local residents. Alternatively, like Donington, you may choose to situate it under the flight path of a regional airport, to ensure that any noise problems are rendered irrelevant by the air traffic overhead.
But not in Italy. To say that Italians are keen on motorsports is like saying squirrels are not averse to the odd nut or two. Take a trip around Italy and you won't be able to avoid the sights and sounds of motorized racing of one form or another. Posters and photographs of racers on both two wheels and four adorn the walls of bars the length and breadth of the country, and almost every village has someone riding around on an immaculate example of race-bred exotica.
This love of motor racing results in some remarkable locations for race tracks. Perhaps the most remarkable of all is Monza, which sits in a spacious and beautiful town park, right in the middle of a large suburb of Milan. One minute, you're watching a young couple jog past, and enjoying the rhythmical clip-clop as a horse and rider trots by, the next the shriek of a four-cylinder superbike shatters the sylvan serenity, closely followed by the rabid bark of a 90 degree twin being thrashed within an inch of its life.
Sun, Sea, And Strokers
Having seen Monza, Misano is barely a surprise. Located just a few hundred yards from one of the busiest and most glamorous resorts along Italy's Adriatic riviera, in any other country, the circuit's location would be utterly insane. In motorcycle-crazy Italy, it is just the opposite. After all, what could be better than to spend the morning lounging on the beach, head off to the track to watch some world-class racing in the afternoon, to return for a quick dip in the sea to cool off, and finish up the evening with some outstanding Italian food and wine at a restaurant overlooking the beautiful Adriatic sea. To the Italians, it makes perfect sense, and frankly, it's hard to fault their logic.
If the surroundings of the Misano circuit approach perfection, the track itself is a little bit of a letdown. The location itself plays a part here: built at the edge of wide, flat expanse of the Po valley, the track is pretty well flat, with no elevation changes to speak of. What's more, since the direction of the track was reversed in an attempt to improve safety - a concession to get MotoGP to return after a crash there in 1993 left Wayne Rainey in a wheelchair - the circuit has lost many of the other features that gave it its character and made it special.
Before the changes, the Curvone was the final part of a sequence of fast left handers opening up and getting ever faster, before braking hard for the long hairpin of Tramonto. Since 2006, with the track running in the opposite direction, those fast lefts have become a series of ever slower rights, as the riders scrub off speed all the way into the very tight right hander at Carro. No longer does the Curvone demand the utmost of a rider's courage, instead, it taxes their ability to brake while leaned hard over, and still maintaining corner speed.
Reversing the track has had an even bigger effect on the final turn. Before the track was reversed, the Variante del Parco was the final corner, a right-left chicane leaving room for braking before heading off to the line. But now the last has become first, and the Variante is the first obstacle the riders have to tackle after rocketing away from the line.
The wisdom of having a chicane as the first corner was thrown into doubt during last year's race at Misano, when an overly enthusiastic Randy de Puniet entered the Variante far too hot to make it through safely, and took out himself and Dani Pedrosa, while at the same time forcing Nicky Hayden off the track and out of contention. Like the first corner at Le Mans, Misano's initial chicane seems destined to take riders out of the race right from the start.
But Misano is not a boring track, by any stretch of the imagination. The fast back straight provides an ideal opportunity for passing into the Quercia hairpin, and the difficult sequence of rights after Curvone can provide opportunities to the brave for passing as they enter the Carro hairpin. Add to this the chicane and the combinations round the Curva del Rio, and the track has a few spots that can offer some interesting racing.
The History Man
If the track layout lacks that certain special something, Sunday's race could more than make up for it. For Misano could be on the brink of seeing history being made this weekend, with a record which has stood for a 32 years being equaled. If Valentino Rossi wins on Sunday, it will be his 68th win in motorcycle racing's premier class, equaling his fellow Italian Giacomo Agostini's record, set way back in 1976.
Meeting such a milestone would, on its own, be a memorable achievement, but to do so at Misano would make it unforgettable, for a number of reasons. First of all, the Misano circuit is less than 10 miles from Valentino Rossi's home town of Tavullia in Italy, a town he has returned to live in after a period in London. The entire population of the town will be at the track, joining thousands of other Rossi fans to cheer their hero on.
Secondly, Misano is the one track that Rossi hasn't won at yet, a fact that stings a man so deeply aware of his record and his place in history. After taking victory at Laguna Seca in July, Misano is the only track left where Rossi has ridden, but not won. That is a blemish he feels he needs to remove from his record.
Strictly speaking, all races are equal. Every race scores 25 points for the winner, 20 points for 2nd place, 16 points for 3rd, so in purely mathematical terms, they are all of equal importance.
Of course, some mathematicians would probably refute that, pointing out that 25 points in the first race of the season count for a whole lot less than 25 points in the final race of the season. After all, a win in the first race is usually little more than a sign that you've got your season off to a good start, while 25 points - or less - at the last race can be the difference between going down in the history books as World Champion and the chump who came up short. Taking these factors into account, you can be pretty sure that someone, somewhere has created a mathematical formula which perfectly encapsulates the relative importance of the points scored in each race.
But the MotoGP championship, like all motorcycle racing, is more than just a statistical exercise. Though the number of points scored may not change from one race to the next, the impact one race can have be worth double or even triple the points on offer. For example, though the difference between 1st and 2nd at the season opener is only 5 points, the race can sometimes set the tone for the rest of the season. Take 2007, when Casey Stoner and the Ducati turned up at Qatar and showed the world that what Honda and Yamaha had pinpointed as key factors in building an 800cc MotoGP bike were completely wrong, and that horsepower was still king.
The Numbers Game
It's not just early races which are important, though. Races at the end of the season can be important too. Nicky Hayden was leading the 2006 championship comfortably, until his team mate crashed into him at the penultimate round in Portugal, and seemed to gift the title to Valentino Rossi. The next race, the last of the season, Rossi returned the favor, succumbing to the pressure of a poor start and the accumulated woes of a troubled season.
The 2006 season also shows that races in mid-season can have a huge impact, far beyond the actual points available. At Laguna Seca, the final race before the summer break, Rossi suffered a broken engine, putting him out of the race which Hayden went on to win. His title hopes looked over, but 4 weeks later at Brno, the first race after the summer break, Rossi was back on the podium and back in contention, after Hayden finished off the podium for the first time in what was to become a string of difficult races.
The Agony And The Ecstacy
And some races become pivotal, the point at which a season, sometimes even an entire career, can change. Sete Gibernau, grandson of the man who founded the famous Spanish motorcycle manufacturer Bultaco, had a racing career littered with such moments. Gibernau's transformation from fancied outsider to title challenger began after the death of his team mate, Daijiro Katoh from injuries sustained in a crash in Japan. At the next race, which Gibernau won, he was a changed man, with no sign of the erratic nature which had held him back. That season, Gibernau became a focused, dedicated racer, and pushed Rossi hard for the title.
Two years later, another race changed Gibernau's season, this time for the worse. At the 2005 season opener at Jerez, after a tense battle throughout the race, Valentino Rossi dived up the inside of Gibernau into the final corner. Gibernau tried to slam the door, but it was too late. The Spaniard clashed fairings with the Italian, and ran off into the gravel. Robbed of victory in front of his home fans, and despite finishing with just 5 points fewer than Rossi, Gibernau became bitter and obsessed and was never competitive again. Sete Gibernau lost not just the race that day, he also lost the title, and started on the downhill slide which ended with his retirement.
The previous race of the 2008 season seemed to be one of those pivotal moments. It certainly had all the key ingredients: Casey Stoner had been on an intimidating run of poles and victories, and slowly gaining ground on championship leader Valentino Rossi; and Laguna Seca was the last race before the summer break, meaning that whoever came out victorious there would carry momentum into the summer, and have the advantage once the racing resumed.
The race delivered. Casey Stoner may only have given away 5 points to Valentino Rossi, but the manner of Rossi's victory, forcing Stoner into an error after a scintillating duel for 23 laps of mortal combat, swung the season back around again. Suddenly, the unstoppable Stoner had been stopped in his tracks, and Mr Perfect had been shown to be fallible. Stoner's outburst about Rossi's tactics in parc ferme, in the press conference, and in the press afterwards all contributed to the impression that the US Grand Prix had been worth a lot more to Valentino Rossi than just the 5 points he extended his lead by.
The gloves are off. Neither Valentino Rossi nor Casey Stoner were taking any prisoners during their enthralling and almost terrifying battle at Laguna Seca, and since leaving the track, the atmosphere has only gotten worse.
It started with complaints in parc ferme by Casey Stoner that some of Rossi's passes were too hard and too dangerous. The complaints continued in the post-race press conference and in the media immediately after the race. Valentino Rossi then poured oil onto the fire by dismissing the incidents as the kind of thing that happens during a close race, and nothing to get particularly upset about. He summed it up in two words which are well on their way to achieving legendary status: "That's racing!"
Stoner parried swiftly. "That's racing, is it? We'll see...." Part threat, part promise, it was clear the young Australian was not about to let it lie. In the weeks that followed the race, he stepped up the war of words, telling the Spanish press that he had lost all respect for Rossi, a man he once regarded as a hero. He even suggested that Rossi's fears that he couldn't match Stoner's pace had forced him to overreach himself, saying "I believe that I can be faster than Rossi. He knows that too and it worries to him. I probably shouldn't say it but I think that it was because of that in Laguna he let his ambition to win take control over his technique."
In turn, Valentino Rossi has made no secret of the fact that he intends to pursue the same tactics for the rest of the season. In the run up to the Brno race, Rossi set out his stall quite bluntly: "We have seven races left and I am dreaming of them all being as fun as Laguna Seca!" The message could not be clearer: If Casey Stoner didn't like the passes Rossi put on him in the US, then that's exactly what Rossi is going to serve up for Stoner at every race to come.
All In The Mind
The war of words reveals a deeper truth about motorcycle racing: Though the focus is almost always on the physical aspects of the sport, the speed of the machines, and the delicate balance, subtle throttle control and sheer skill of the riders, a very large part of racing takes place between the ears.
It's not hard to understand why. Roaring towards a corner at close to 200mph, waiting for the very last inch to go from full throttle to full brake while getting ready to find the exact fastest speed you can pitch the bike through without crashing requires incredible concentration. The slightest distraction means braking a foot later, which means carrying a fraction more corner speed, which is so often the difference between exiting the corner ready to fire off towards the next turn, and exiting the corner in a jumble of gravel, tumbling limbs, and expensively destroyed motorcycle parts.
So it's unsurprising to find that mental tactics can be just as effective as extra horsepower. If you can get your opponent to spend a few percentage points of his attention on worrying about you, where you are on the track and what you are likely to do, that's less focus on getting the most out of the bike. A little intimidation can get you a few fractions of a second, time you won't find as easily through suspension adjustments and traction control settings.
Valentino Rossi is an acknowledged master of this trade. Rossi broke both Max Biaggi and Sete Gibernau with his mental pressure, turning them from championship contenders to also-rans, forcing them both out of MotoGP. His modus operandi was simple: get in behind his rivals, and breathe down their neck until their concentration broke and they made a mistake. All Rossi had to so was to show them a wheel now and again, and bide his time until they ran off the track, or ran wide, or crashed out. It worked often enough to make Rossi's 5 premier class titles if not a walk in the park, then at least a jog around the block.
Are You Talking To Me?
Then, two young riders came up from the 250 class, and to Rossi's horror, they were impervious to his pressure. Both Dani Pedrosa and Casey Stoner were perfectly happy to let Rossi sit on their tail, as it allowed them to get on with the job at hand: pushing the bike to its absolute maximum every lap of the race. That strategy gave Pedrosa 6 race wins, and handed Casey Stoner a world title. Clearly, another tactic was required.
In theory, motorcycle racing is simple. A bunch of riders line up at the start, and the fastest rider and bike combination wins. But theory has a way of falling so disappointingly short when faced with reality, and this is no exception. After all, it isn't the fastest rider who wins, but the first rider to cross the line. Examples are legion of riders who are incredibly fast, but who have a tendency to find a way to end in the gravel, rather than the winner's circle.
And there is more than one way of ensuring you are first across the line. Every rider has their own approach, a way of leveraging their own strengths to beat the opposition, bending the race to follow the direction which will play into their hands, and away from their rivals. Their tactics and strategy are almost a signature, a little piece of racing DNA, and speaks both of their ability and of their racing heritage.
Dani Pedrosa, for example, wants to get an early lead then settle into a fast rhythm, lapping as precisely and perfectly as he can, each corner taken at the fastest speed possible. He treats each race more like a time trial than a group race, and can push the bike hard from the start of the race all the way to the end, his concentration never lapsing, his speed only flagging in the final laps as the engine management systems start leaning out the bike to conserve fuel. Ironically, Dani Pedrosa has the perfect mindset and strategy to win the Isle of Man TT, and the worst possible physical stature to deal with the rough, uneven conditions encountered when racing on public roads. But on the relatively smooth, manicured asphalt of a short circuit, Pedrosa is almost unbeatable.
Casey Stoner most resembles his fellow Australian and five-time World Champion Mick Doohan. Like Pedrosa, Stoner likes to run fast, perfect laps, but where Pedrosa lets his concentration be disrupted when battling with other riders, Stoner relishes the opposition. Just as Mick Doohan did before him, it merely increases his determination step up the pressure another notch, pushing harder still until his opponents cry mercy, and capitulate. Stoner lays his rivals out on the rack, and stretches them and stretches them until they can take no more.
Other riders require the challenge of rivals to be at their best. Kevin Schwantz was at his best in a brawl, when wile, cunning and brute force could overcome the speed of his opponents. If you went into the last lap with Schwantz on your tail, you were in real trouble, as the American racing legend would surely find a way around you before the lap was over, and steal the win you'd worked so hard to secure. Left to run on his own, however, Schwantz would let his concentration lapse, and start to sag. The measure of Schwantz' motivation was made clear after the crash that broke Wayne Rainey's spine. Without the pressure of Rainey chasing him every foot of the way, Kevin Schwantz started losing interest, and retired shortly afterwards.
Like his hero Schwantz, Valentino Rossi is another rider who prefers the challenge of competition. Rossi rides best when he has others to push him, and is forced to up his game to match their attacks. But though the Italian enjoys close battles, that isn't the way that he wins races. Valentino Rossi's tactics have much less to do with bikes, or tires, or passing, and much more to do with pressure.
Like Casey Stoner, Rossi wins by mercilessly applying pressure on his rivals until they crack. But while Stoner applies pressure by just going faster and faster until the opposition can no longer keep up, Rossi does so by finding his opponents' weak spots, and like a practiced master of martial arts, exerting just enough force to incapacitate them, waiting until they make a mistake.
But the tactics which proved to be so deadly when dealing with Max Biaggi and Sete Gibernau have been useless when confronted with Casey Stoner. When Rossi raced Biaggi and Gibernau, all he needed to do was sit snapping at their heels for long enough, and at some point, distracted by the pressure from behind, both Biaggi and Gibernau could be counted upon to make a mistake and hand Rossi the win.
Neither Casey Stoner nor Dani Pedrosa are particularly susceptible to this. Stoner, especially, is oblivious to anything happening behind him, and once he gets a clear track ahead, he changes gear and takes off. However hard Rossi pushes, Casey Stoner just doesn't seem to notice, and gets on with the job of putting in lap after scorching lap until even the seven-time World Champion cries enough. Mr Perfect is not just fast, he is also impervious to pressure.