Archive - May 2009 - Race Story
Both MotoGP and World Superbikes are in action this weekend, and both in spectacular locations. While Mugello nestles in a valley tucked tightly between the Tuscan hills, Miller Motorsports Park, not far from Salt Lake City, Utah, sits on a plain, surrounded by a ring of mountains, all part of the mighty Rocky Mountains, the barrier that splits the American continent in two. That spectacular location also has a downside: Like Kyalami, Miller is several thousand feet above sea level, and the lack of oxygen leaves both bikes and riders gasping for breath.
For Ben Spies, the US round of the World Superbikes at Miller Motorsports Park will be a breath of fresh, if somewhat thin, air. So far this season, every track the series has visited has been a relative unknown for the American rookie having at best tested there, at worst never seen the track before in his life. For the first time this year, Spies will have the psychological advantage of being both at a track he is familiar with and a race in his home country.
Spies will be hoping to exploit this advantage as much as possible. Though much of the public focus may be on breaking Doug Polen's impressive streak of 6 poles in a row, which Spies matched in South Africa two weeks ago, for Spies, there's only one thing that counts, and that's getting points back from the runaway series leader Noriyuki Haga. Spies' 88 point deficit is partly his own fault, and partly the fault of the Yamaha team, the Texan crashing out at Valencia and Assen, but technical problems robbing Spies of potential victory at both Monza and Kyalami. If Spies is to keep his title hopes alive - and an 88 point deficit is a big gap - he can no longer afford to suffer those kinds of mistakes. Spies really needs a double at Miller this weekend.
It's hard to overstate just how important motorcycling is both to Italian culture and the Italian economy. Originally adopted as cheap transport, Italians almost literally grow up on two wheels, transported about as children on Vespas before graduating to small-capacity Aprilias, Piaggios, Vespas, Derbis, Gileras and even Yamahas, Suzukis and Hondas when they hit their mid-teens. Eventually, as Italians grow older, they end up with either a Piaggio or a Suzuki Burgman to commute on, or a Ducati Monster, or perhaps a Triumph Speed Triple to cruise the country's city streets and beautiful beachfronts.
This passion has produced hundreds of businesses scattered around the north of the country. The old centers of boot and saddlemaking turned their skills with leather to gloves, boots and protective clothing, while the dozens of motorcycle manufacturers - now reduced to just a handful - spawned a vibrant industry building parts and accessories for every conceivable shape or form of two-wheeled vehicle. The chances are that if you own or ride a motorcycle, you have something Italian either attached to or associated with it, be it Brembo brakes, Marchesini wheels, Alpinestars leathers, Sidi boots, Nolan helmets, Arrow or Termignoni exhausts, or Pirelli tires. Or perhaps you just own a Moto Guzzi, an Aprilia, a Moto Morini or a Ducati. Motorcycling without Italy is simply inconceivable.
It should come as no surprise, then, that the Italian Grand Prix at Mugello is an event that captivates both the hearts and the minds of the Italian people. Mugello and the Italian Grand Prix are at the heart of Italy, both physically and metaphorically. The breathtaking track, surrounded by the beautiful, bucolic Tuscan hills, lies in a fold of Italy's Apennine mountains, just north of Florence. Glorious winding roads thread through the surrounding mountains, and at each mountain pass or major crossroads, there's a cafe where you can stop for a coffee and a bite to eat. In every one of these establishments hangs a shrine to motorcycling: helmets, leathers, signed photos of Italian motorcycling legends - Valentino Rossi, Giacomo Agostini, Marco Lucchinelli, Luca Cadalora - cards, folders, maps, gloves; All the regalia of motorcycling hang here. And as you sit nursing your espresso, your reverie is interrupted every couple of minutes by the rumble, roar or shriek of bikes as they chase that perfect zen moment of motorcycling, dancing to the rhythm of the Passo Sambuca, or the Passo di Raticosa, or the legendary Passo di Futa.
On The Road
It is no coincidence that this latter pass leads from Borgo Panigale, a nondescript outer suburb of Bologna, through the outskirts of the city, then south towards Florence, up and over some of the most magnificent motorcycling roads on the planet, before arriving some 80 kilometers later in the village of Scarperia, past that town's beautiful bell tower, and then down winding, tiny local roads until a giant red crash helmet marks the entrance to the Mugello circuit. In Borgo Panigale, Ducati builds the motorcycles it sells to support its racing habit, then tests those bikes on that illustrious pass, on the grounds that if a motorcycle performs well on the Passo di Futa, it will perform well on any road on the planet.
The one motorcycle which Ducati has not tested over the Passo di Futa - or at least, not that they will admit to - is the Desmosedici GP9. Instead, the weapon that won the 2007 championship for Casey Stoner and the Bologna factory is tested mainly just over the other side of the Passo di Futa, at the Mugello circuit. But the Mugello track has all the elements you will find on the Futa pass and more: The 320 km/h front straight kinks, then dips right at the point you need to get hard on the brakes to slow the bike up for the double apex right hander at San Donato. The track then climbs up through a series of left-right flicks before heading over the blind crest into Casanova, and down towards the double right of Arrabbiata 1 and 2.
Motorcycle racing fans are deeply divided on the question of racing in the rain. One faction believes that rain makes motorcycle racing more exciting, because the smallest error is punished so mercilessly; Their opponents counter that this is exactly the problem: because the rain makes the track so difficult, riders making a mistake crash straight out of the race, with no chance to recover from their mistakes. Both sides agree on one thing, though: the rain turns racing into a lottery, and chance plays a much greater role than in the dry.
That point was illustrated most forcefully in the two races that preceded the MotoGP race at Le Mans on Sunday. In the 250cc race, only 14 of the 24 riders who started made it to the finish, and some surprising names were in the points: Toby Markham, who usually struggles just to qualify, came away with 2 precious points, while Russian rookie Vladimir Leonov scored his first top 10 finish. The 125cc race had been even more of a blood bath: of the 33 riders who sat on the starting grid, just15 had made it to the line, the last of whom was Randy Krummenacher of the De Graaf team 2 laps behind the winner.
As if to demonstrate that there are worse things than racing in the rain, the skies cleared as the 250cc race ended, and the MotoGP riders headed to the grid on wet tires in the knowledge that the track would be drying as the race progressed. If rain races are a lottery, flag-to-flag races - run in changeable conditions where riders are allowed to enter the pits and swap bikes - are more like Russian Roulette, the charge into the pits to leap onto a bike with different tires a lot like spinning the barrel, pulling the trigger and hoping for the best.
With the sun already out as the bikes got ready to head out of the pits, some teams even considered taking the ultimate gamble and going out on slicks. But the sighting lap dismissed any such notions; the track was still soaking and far too dangerous for tires without water-dispersal grooves. There was no other option than to start the race on wet tires, and wait until the track was dry enough to come in for slicks.
Sitting on the starting line waiting for the lights to extinguish is a nerve-wracking enough experience at the best of times, but lining up in damp and changeable conditions knowing you will have to choose the right moment to come in to swap bikes makes the tension almost unbearable. Jorge Lorenzo was the first to show the ill effects of nerves on the line, as the Spaniard threaded his way through the bikes on the grid, only to line up in the wrong position, taking the 2nd spot used by the four-in-a-row 250 and 125 bikes, rather than the three abreast MotoGP machines. The grid official, seeing Lorenzo in the wrong place, soon put the Spaniard right, and the rest of the field was forced to wait a few more agonizing seconds as Lorenzo tiptoed his bike round onto the right starting position.
At last the lights lit up, then dimmed, releasing the riders and their nervousness into the Zen state that is racing, no thoughts or concentration for anything other than the now, any time not spent on the bike, the track and the riders ahead merely a distraction which could cost places at best, a crash at worst. Dani Pedrosa was the best away as ever, his fellow rocket starter Casey Stoner catching him as they heeled over through the fast Dunlop Curve, and lined up for the Chicane, the first major obstacle.
Jorge Lorenzo had gotten off the line a little slowly, briefly fazed by lining up in the wrong place, but only gave up one place to Stoner, slotting in ahead of his Fiat Yamaha team mate Valentino Rossi. Lorenzo soon made up for his slowness off the line. The Spaniard had to allow the smallest of gaps through the Dunlop Chicane, but by the time the leading pair turned in to La Chappelle, Lorenzo was upon them.
The return of the World Superbike series to Kyalami was eagerly awaited by racing fans all around the world, but most especially the fans in South Africa. The track, which had been scheduled to be demolished and have housing built in its place, features vast elevation changes and sweeping bends, and has been much improved since the removal of the chicane at Turn 12. So interest was high in how the racing would turn out on this tight and in places twisty circuit. Would the tightness of the track make passing difficult, or would the bikes all get bunched up, and a close and typically tight Superbike race ensue?
Noriyuki Haga was fastest away from the line in race 1, Max Biaggi following, before getting duffed up by Ben Spies at Turn to take 2nd. Haga's Xerox Ducati team mate soon joined the fun, wresting 2nd from Spies before the lap was over. The three men who dominated last week's race at Monza soon had a gap back to Johnny Rea, Carlos Checa and Max Biaggi, and set about doing at Kyalami what they had done at Monza.
Haga's lead was not long-lived, Michel Fabrizio taking over first place on the second lap, while Ben Spies hung behind the Xerox Ducatis, assessing his options. Fabrizio tried to forge off on his own, but the Italian could not shake off his team mate, while the blue Yamaha of Spies tailed the pair, the gap slowly starting to grow between Haga and Spies. Haga patiently awaited his chance for the next 10 laps, seizing the opportunity when it presented itself on lap 12, taking back the lead.
Graves Yamaha rider Josh Hayes won Race 1 at Infineon Raceway yesterday, ending the factory Suzuki team’s incredible run of 55 consecutive wins. Top Rockstar Makita Suzuki rider Mat Mladin finished fifth, almost 25 seconds behind the winner, but still has a 69-point lead over Suzuki teammate Tommy Hayden. Mladin commented after the race that due to the heat here in Sonoma, California, his team had struggled to find a good setup for Saturday’s race.
Josh Hayes was pleased with his first Superbike win since joining the Graves Yamaha factory team at the beginning of this season. Hayes is a former AMA champion in both the Superstock and Formula Xtreme classes. After qualifying second behind Mladin, Hayes finished over six seconds ahead of second place rider Tommy Hayden, though he had a lead of over eight seconds at one point. Ducati rider Larry Pegram finished third.
The weather here today should be just as warm if not more so, so Rockstar Makita Suzuki will have to make some improvements to Mladin’s package if the championship leader hopes to get on the podium today.
This weekend, MotoGP moves from the site of one great motorcycle racing party to the location of another. But while MotoGP is at the center of the party at Jerez, in Le Mans, the party was over four weeks ago and lasted the entire duration of the race. The contrast illustrates the difference between France and its more southerly neighbor: both countries are mad about motorsport and motorcycle racing, but the Spanish love sprint racing, while for the French, if the race lasts less than 8 hours it's barely worthy of the name.
France is truly the home of endurance racing. Two of the two-wheeled discipline's greatest events take place here, the Bol d'Or, a 24 hour race currently held at Magny-Cours, and the Le Mans 24 hour race, as well as the biggest car endurance race in the world, the 24 Heures du Mans. The cars use the glorious 13.6 kilometer long Circuit de la Sarthe - including the once terrifying Mulsanne Straight, to which two chicanes have been added to slow the cars down - but that vast track is considered unsuitable for motorcycles, the bikes unlikely to last being thrashed down the Mulsanne Straight at full throttle too many times.
So the bikes run the shortened 4.2 kilometer Bugatti Circuit, a much more restrained, some might even say boring, affair. The track layout vaguely resembles a giant clothes peg, with the two prongs of the Chappelle and Garage Vert corners separated by the Musee hairpin, and a simpler section leading through Garage Bleu to the final turn at Raccordement, before hitting the front straight again.
Stop And Go
Like Motegi, which it also resembles, the track is mostly about stability under braking and hard acceleration out of corners. The front straight leads into the Dunlop Curve, and then the Dunlop Chicane, the Curve being the brave part, while the Chicane is the corner where the first lap pile ups tend to occur. It's then a matter of hard-on-the-gas, hard-on-the-brakes through La Chappelle, Musee, Garage Vert and the straights that connect them, before the long back straight down to Chemin aux Boeufs, a faster chicane which caught Nicky Hayden out so badly in 2007.
The World Superbike series returns to Kyalami in South Africa for the first time since 2002, and through no particular fault of Infront Motor Sport, the series couldn't have chosen a worse time to visit such a physical and technical track. A large part of the field is either injured or has been replaced due to injury, leaving the injured and unfamiliar to struggle to get the bike round the difficult circuit. What's more, Kyalami is located on the high plain of South Africa's eastern plateau, and the elevation takes its toll on both bikes and riders. At Monza, an injured rider could rest a little down the long straights. At Kyalami, that's virtually impossible.
The track is new to some, and all too familiar to others. The manufacturers designated teams tested here back in December last year, and a number of the veterans have raced at Kyalami in the past. Perhaps half the riders on the World Superbike grid will have ridden here previously, while a far smaller proportion of the World Supersport grid will have seen the South African track before.
With little previous form to go on, this leaves the race a rather unpredictable affair, apart from the pattern which has dominated the season so far. The races are likely to be shared between Ben Spies and Noriyuki Haga again, Spies so far managing to maintain his 50% win ratio, while Haga continues to finish either 1st or 2nd. But Haga's mask of reliability slipped at Monza, if through no fault of his own.
So far this year, the World Superbike races have followed an almost clockwork pattern: If Noriyuki Haga doesn't win the race, then the man chosen as Troy Bayliss' heir apparent at Xerox Ducati comes second to Ben Spies. And if the Yamaha Motor Italia rider doesn't win, then he either comes second to Haga or is involved in some bizarre incident which sees the American crash out or finish out of the points. With Haga and Spies having dominated the races so completely so far this year, the World Superbike paddock arrived at Monza expecting little to change.
Haga's team mate Michel Fabrizio had other ideas, though. The Italian was quickest in every session of practice and qualifying on Friday and Saturday and was clearly the man to beat. Only another masterful qualifying performance during Superpole saw Ben Spies take his 5th pole in a row, a feat never before equaled in any form of motorcycle racing. With Haga only qualifying on the second row, the Japanese/American stranglehold on race wins looked like being broken for the first time at Monza.
Monza's notorious first chicane wreaked havoc at the start of the first Superbike race. Someone, most probably Makoto Tamada, clipped the back of Brendan Roberts' Guandalini Ducati as the bikes braked for the chicane, pushing the Australian off track and onto the grass, which flung him off the bike. His bike then slid onto the track and into the Suzuki of Max Neukirchner, breaking the German's femur and dislocating his foot, and putting the likable Neukirchner out of action for at least four weeks. Elsewhere in the mayhem, Troy Corser and Tommy Hill came together, flipping both Hill's Honda and Corser's BMW up in the air, causing Hill's CBR1000RR to catch fire.
If Assen is the Cathedral of motorcycle racing, then Monza is its Hoover Dam - a track built with a grand purpose, steeped in history, and as impressive today as it was when it was first conceived and completed. The circuit is located on the outskirts of Milan, Italy's industrial capital, in a huge park that was once part of the Villa Reale, a palace that belonged to the Habsburg dynasty. And so the casual visitor can find themselves wandering through the Arcadian beauty of the heavily wooded park only to find the peace abruptly shattered by the bark of a Ducati Superbike, or the shriek of a Ferrari Formula One car, or the massed howl of Monza track day.
Originally built in 1922 as a test track for testing for prolonged periods at high speeds, the circuit is still renowned for its very fast nature. It is basically series of high speed corners interrupted by a handful of chicanes, and topped off by the Parabolica, one of the great and frightening spectacles of racing, the corner opening up as the bikes head back onto the front straight. The brave just pin the throttle and change up through the gears, but the corner is so fast that you can draft the rider ahead of you, pulling out just before you cross the line to take a spectacular last lap victory.
As you might expect of a nation which is happy to locate a race track in the middle of a city park without complaining, winning is important for the Italians at Monza, and nothing could make the Italians happier than to see an Italian rider on an Italian bike take victory at the fifth round of the World Superbikes series here this weekend. Luckily for the Italians, they have two real chances of that happening at Monza on Sunday.
Both candidates have their problems, though. Max Biaggi got off to an excellent start aboard the Aprilia RSV4, bagging a pair of podiums at the Qatar round, but since then, he has struggled a little. Biaggi's particular problem is the new Superpole format, where the Italian has been caught out a couple of times and left to start a long way down the grid. But if there's one thing the Aprilia is, it's fast, regularly being the fastest bike through the speed traps. Monza is a track where that could well pay off, as long as Biaggi isn't stuck behind traffic for too long.
As much as Ducati's Michel Fabrizio would like to win at Monza, he still has question marks hanging over his consistency. The Italian is certainly stronger this year than last, and has been on the podium twice and just off it twice more. But he also has a 9th place and a couple of DNFs to his name. Fabrizio had a mostly indifferent weekend at Monza last year, and though he should do better this weekend, he is still more likely to finish in the top 5 rather than on the top step.
The Jerez round of MotoGP is a very Spanish affair. Though fans may flock from all over Europe to attend the opening of the MotoGP season - flyaway rounds notwithstanding, Jerez is where the season starts as far as European fans are concerned - the race retains a deeply Spanish character. At night, the fans flock together in that peculiarly Spanish way, as if averse to more than a few seconds' solitude; the weekend is filled with noise and light, and the deafening roar of Spanish fireworks, designed more around decibel production rather than visual spectacle; and around the grounds, the fans are as likely to drink wine as drink beer, a prospect which fans from more northerly climes would regard as unthinkable, entirely outside their very masculine world view.
And despite the debauchery, the occasion also manages that very Spanish trick of retaining its friendly and unthreatening atmosphere. Where elsewhere around Europe, the quantities of alcohol involved and the level of noise generated would quickly see the mood turn ugly, the crowds at Jerez somehow manage to maintain the festival atmosphere, the event always seeming like one big, long party.
As hosts of the party, it would be impolite to deny the Spanish fans a gift, and there is nothing they desire more than a win by a Spanish rider. Actually, that's incorrect, there is one thing they desire more, and that's a clean sweep of Spanish riders winning every race of the day. Fortunately for the race-mad home crowds, the host nation has both the talent and the funds to ensure that they start the day with a strong chance of one victory at the very least.
Stacking The Odds
The 2009 race weekend was no different. Over a hundred and twenty thousand fans streamed into the circuit on Sunday morning secure in the knowledge that they started the day on the right footing. Local riders sat on pole position for all three classes, and should the polesitters fail, they had a pack of compatriots beside them on the grid poised to take their place. Everything was in place for a proper Spanish fiesta.
But races came and races went, and no fatted calf did the Spanish fans see. In the first race of the day, the 125cc class, British rider Bradley Smith took victory, local boy Julian Simon crashing out while chasing Smith down. At least Smith won on the Bancaja Aspar bike, fielded by Spain's most prominent racing team, and home to many Spanish champions past, present and future.
Then in the 250cc race, darling of the fans Alvaro Bautista, another Aspar star, dived up the inside of Hiroshi Aoyama to lead into the final corner. Unfortunately, the inside line into the final Ducados corner all too often means running wide on the way out, and Bautista found the Japanese Honda man ahead of him on the exit, and crossing the line to snatch another victory from under the noses of the Spanish fans. Aoyama may be a long-time resident of Barcelona and enjoy some popularity in Spain, but once again, this was not what the fans had been hoping for.
It would all come down to the MotoGP race. If anything, the odds looked even better for the home fans in the premier class, with rising superstar Jorge Lorenzo on pole, just five hundredths of a second ahead of his compatriot and bitter rival Dani Pedrosa. More importantly, both Casey Stoner and Valentino Rossi were struggling more than usual at the Andalusian race track. Stoner had failed to find the form which had allowed him to dominate the IRTA test here in March; and Valentino Rossi seemed to have lost his way during qualifying after his display of supremacy on the first day of practice.