Archive - Sep 2008 - Race Story
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.