Archive - Jun 2009 - Race Story
Numbers are funny things. On their own, they are meaningless, just abstract inventions, a way of keeping track, of measuring and quantifying objects. There is no intrinsic difference between the numbers 1, 4, 7, 12, 666 and 26017 other than their size. Yet stop someone on the street and ask them about those numbers and you will hear a host of opinions on those numbers, their meaning and whether they are good or bad, depending on who and where you happened to have stopped.
In most countries, the number 7 is greeted with enthusiasm, being considered lucky almost everywhere round the world. In Europe and America, the number 4 will barely register, but stay in a hotel in Asia, and you'll notice that there's no 4th floor, nor 14th or 24th for that matter. For the number 4 is considered very bad luck in Asia, as it sounds like the word for "death" in Chinese, Korean and Japanese. The number 666 will be greeted with fear in the more religious parts of the American Deep South, but go unnoticed in Cambodia. As for 26017, it will almost certainly be met with blank stares, unless the person you should stop to ask happens to be a mathematician, and immediately recognizes it as a prime number, a class of numbers math geeks tend to get terrifically excited about.
As these numbers attach themselves to events, their significance is magnified. One cold, dark winter night a few years ago, the entire world got caught up in a fit of festive abandon celebrating one number being replaced with another. Convention dictates that a new year begins on January 1st, and on that day 9 years ago, the most significant digit of the number used to designate years was incremented, increasing from 1999 to 2000. The 48 hour period spanning that moment saw very few major climatic, social or historical changes, yet almost the entire population of the planet attached a huge significance to that change, speaking endlessly of a new century, a new age and a new era.
That sense of anticipation, of foreboding almost, hung over Valentino Rossi at Assen. Thirteen days previously, the Italian had taken the 99th victory of his career, and speculation about the 100th had started literally seconds after he had crossed the line at Barcelona. He was getting used to it, for the storm had been brewing for a while.
Victory at Jerez had put him in line to take his 100th win at Mugello, if he could just win at Le Mans first. But a disastrous flag-to-flag race put paid to that plan. Another flag-to-flag race at Mugello saw his seven-year winning streak there dashed by the rain. Since then, talk of 100 victories abated a little, until Rossi crossed the line to take victory number 99 at Catalunya.
The manner of Rossi's victory at Barcelona helped mitigate some of the pressure. The breathtaking last lap and final corner pass over his team mate and title rival Jorge Lorenzo had the fans and followers full of the excitement of that race, rather than its significance as a stepping stone for Rossi's century. Even the questions at the pre-race press conference focused more on whether Assen would see a repeat of that blood-curdling last lap than on whether Rossi expected to take his 100th win here.
Rossi downplayed both possibilities. When asked about his 100th victory, he said his focus was on the championship, not winning a particular race. And he concurred with Jorge Lorenzo, who pointed out that Barcelona had been the exception rather than the rule, and that this was the first race since the switch to the 800cc formula that had come down to the last lap.
The previous round of World Superbikes at Misano looked to have been a pivotal point in the season. After another dominant win in race 1, Ben Spies lost championship points he could ill afford in race 2, suffering with mechanical problems for the third time this year. For every three steps that Spies took towards Haga, mechanical problems seemed to force him two steps back.
So Ben Spies arrived at Donington with extra help in the garage, in the shape of Greg Wood, his former mechanic with Yoshimura Suzuki, a team where he never suffered a single mechanical DNF in all his time there. The arrival of Woody was meant to put an end to all the costly mistakes that had been sucking the life out of Spies' rookie title challenge.
Spies laid out his statement of intent during qualifying, taking pole for the 8th time in 9 races, and marking Jakub Smrz' pole at Misano out as an aberration rather than a feat likely to be repeated. And off the line in race 1, Spies underlined his determination to turn the title chase around by leaping into Redgate corner first and ahead of the pack, and attempting to make his escape. His plan was only partly successful, in that he left the pack behind him, but he brought Max Biaggi and Noriyuki Haga trailing in his wake.
Like Spies, Biaggi had been vociferous in his complaints about the Aprilia RSV4, the competitiveness of the bike being extremely unpredictable. At Donington, there was no doubt about its performance, Biaggi following Spies early with relative ease.
Behind Biaggi, Haga was having a little more trouble following. The Xerox Ducati rider was on Biaggi in the early laps, and probing for a way past and on towards Spies, but his efforts were not to last, fading after 6 laps and dropping off the back of the leaders.
Ask someone to describe the landscape of Holland, and they won't usually need more than a single word. "Flat" is the adjective most commonly used in relation to The Netherlands, as anyone who has ever made the trek from Amsterdam up to Assen will acknowledge. Heading southeast out of Amsterdam, past the wooded wealth of Hilversum and 't Gooi, then turning northeast at Amersfoort to head through the heart of Holland's bible belt - Putten, Nunspeet, Staphorst - then past Zwolle, and north to Assen, the countryside may vary - the open fields surrounded by canals east of Diemen, the closely-wooded villas of Hilversum, the thin, sandy soil of the pine woods which form the Veluwe national park - but the inclination rarely does.
The irony is that for most of the trip, you are actually traveling uphill. Along the course of the 180 kilometers from Amsterdam to Assen, you will have gained a full 9 meters of elevation. If you picked up a hire car at Amsterdam's Schiphol airport, you can almost double that figure, climbing from 4 meters below sea level to nearly 12 at the TT circuit in Assen. As paltry as that difference may seem, it betrays a fundamental difference between Holland's coastal region and its more ancient northern towns, and the heart of Dutch motorcycle racing.
The area surrounding Amsterdam truly is flat: reclaimed from the sea and inland lakes just a few hundred years ago, the land and will barely trouble a spirit level. But as you head north and east, you leave the reclaimed land behind and venture into The Netherlands' glacial past. To the naked eye the land seems as flat as ever, if a little less neatly ordered, but the soil was dumped here by retreating glaciers many thousands of years ago, and then covered by peat bogs and dissected by a maze of creeks, brooks and channels, trickling water away towards the newly returned North Sea.
The World Is Flat
This long and ancient history has added a richness of texture to the land which is absent further west, a texture which lies at the heart of Assen's TT Circuit. At first glance it too is flat, but as you ride around it, you start to understand, even feel its history. Though the peat bogs and creeks have been drained, they have left their mark indelibly on the landscape. The track rises and falls subtly, sudden dips combining with the harsh camber of certain stretches of the track to generate a synergy aimed at unsettling even the most perfectly setup of bikes and ruining any chance of a smooth line through Assen's many tire-blistering corners.
Those rises and dips are almost entirely absent from the new North Loop, barely just scar tissue over the memory of its former glory, but once out of the horrifically tight Strubben hairpin, you plunge back through time onto the older part of the track, and ancient geology starts nudging and jolting the bike as once it used to. Down the Veenslang (or Peat Snake, though now one pulled taut, its former sinewy course straightened) and into the Ruskenhoek, the track is still smooth, though the camber starts to return. But once through the Stekkenwal and the fast left at De Bult, the old track regains its full vitality and history is made flesh, or rather asphalt again.
The World Superbike circus came to Misano on Italy's Adriatic coast hoping for sun, sea and speed, but this weekend, they got plenty more than that. The heat and humidity was scorching on Friday, turning showery on Saturday, only to start with a downpour on race day.
The rain had fallen heavily all morning, but as the riders headed out at noon for race 1, the rain had just about stopped and the World Superbike series was set to see the first time its flag-to-flag rules would be put into effect. The dash into the pits to swap bikes always guarantees plenty of spectacle, but the action started even before the race had gotten underway. Johnny Rea's Ten Kate Honda developed a fueling glitch on the sighting lap, and the Ulsterman was forced to hitch a lift back to the pits from his team mate, Ryuichi Kiyonari, an act which would cost them both a ride-through penalty later on, and forced Rea to start from pit lane. Then on the warm up lap, an electronics glitch caused Troy Corser to flip his BMW S1000RR, ruling himself out of the race before it had even started.
When the red lights did finally dim it was Shane Byrne who led into Turn 1, taking Jakub Smrz and Ben Spies with him. Byrne, who has had a difficult year so far on the Sterilgarda Ducati, was clearly in his element in the wet, and was rapidly heading off into the distance. By the end of the first lap, the reigning British Superbike champion had a lead of over 2 seconds which had grown to nearly 17 seconds by the halfway mark.
Behind Byrne, Jakub Smrz was also at ease in the wet conditions, not able to match Shakey's blistering pace but faster than those that followed, leaving Ben Spies and Michel Fabrizio trailing in his wake. Spies was clearly less comfortable in the wet conditions, Fabrizio quickly getting past the Texan in the very wet early laps, but as the track started to dry, the Texan picked up his pace and got back on the tail of the Xerox Ducati.
The World Superbike circus heads off to Italy this weekend, to a part of the country which might almost be regarded as "enemy" heartland. For the region around the Misano circuit, the site of this weekends races, is home to a veritable horde of MotoGP, 250cc and 125cc racers - Valentino Rossi, Mattia Pasini, Marco Melandri, Marco Simoncelli, the list goes on and on.
But World Superbikes has a strong history and a strong place at Misano. For a start, it hosts the World Ducati Week, when the Bologna factory organizes that event. As a consequence, it is very much a Ducati track, and over the years, Ducatis have taken the top spot in 26 out of the 34 races run here, with all of the great names of Ducati World Superbikes winning here: Troy Bayliss, Carl Fogarty, Ben Bostrom, Ruben Xaus, Pier Francesco Chili, Regis Laconi.
So normally, you might expect the odds to be stacked in favor of the Xerox Ducati pairing of Noriyuki Haga and Michel Fabrizio. But while Ducati may have an outstanding record here, both Haga and Fabrizio have been pretty dismal at Misano. Of the 18 races that Haga has contested here, he has only been on the podium 3 times, and is yet to win at the circuit. Fabrizio's record is even worse: the Italian has only finished 2 of the World Superbike 6 races he has started in at the track on the Adriatic coast, the only bright spot being the Superstock race he won here in 2003.
The omens are not good for the Xerox Ducati team, and this couldn't come at a worse time for them. Prior to the US round of World Superbikes at Miller Motorsports Park in Utah, Haga had a very comfortable lead of 85 points over team mate Fabrizio, and 88 points over his chief rival for 2009, Yamaha's Ben Spies. But a dire weekend in Utah - a reflection of his 2008 race there - left Haga battered and bruised, and giving up 35 points from his lead.
A motorcycle racer must possess many qualities, both physical and mental, to be successful. They must have instantaneous reflexes; a gyroscope-like sense of balance; and a tough, wiry physique combining strength with low body weight. They must have the endurance of a triathlete combined with the fast-twitch muscle speed of an Olympic sprinter.
Racers also need the intelligence to cope with the huge amounts of data thrown at them, by the track, the bikes, the engineers. They need to be able to memorize a circuit down to the location of every bump in every corner, each of which could unsettle the bike and cause a crash. They need the courage to take to the track despite injury and push to the very limit, facing the knowledge that more pain lies lurking at every corner if ambition should tempt them to violate the laws of physics. And above all, they need the dogged determination and single-mindedness to put in the hours and hours of work needed to achieve all of this, day in and day out, rain or shine, come holidays or high water.
But the prime character trait that all motorcycle racers must have, the one thing they all share, is the will to win. The overwhelming desire to beat your rivals, to prove your superiority, is what drives racers to put in the years of hard work needed to acquire those other vital qualities. The will to win - for some a burning lust for victory, for others a mortal fear of defeat - is fundamental, and is the single most important quality which distinguishes champions from also-rans.
That desire for victory was being flaunted like an aging tycoon's trophy wife on the grid at Barcelona. Dani Pedrosa was attempting to ride in front of his home crowd despite the searing pain from the fractured femur he suffered at Mugello, only risky painkilling injections making his participation possible. Jorge Lorenzo made his intentions clear by turning up with his bike, helmet and leathers covered in FC Barcelona regalia. The Spanish soccer club had just pulled off the "triple", winning the European Champions League and Spanish League titles, as well as the Spanish Copa del Rey cup, and Lorenzo's regalia were an explicit reference to his intention to take a "triple" of his own - victory at his home Grand Prix would make it a trio of wins this season.
Then there was Valentino Rossi. The Italian has been incredibly successful at the Montmelo circuit, finishing on the podium in every race here since 1997. But a podium would not be enough: Rossi came to Barcelona trailing both Jorge Lorenzo and Casey Stoner in the points, but more importantly, having only one win to his rivals' two apiece. The Doctor knows what victory tastes like at Barcelona, having won here 8 times previously, including 5 in the premier class, and another win here was surely possible.
The Catalunya Grand Prix, to be held at Barcelona's Montmelo circuit, is one of the most anticipated events on the MotoGP calendar. The circuit, just a few kilometers outside Barcelona, Spain's second largest city, lies in the heart of Catalunya, the most industrious of Spain's autonomous regions and the heart of Spanish motorcycling. Three of the four Spanish riders currently in the MotoGP class are from within a thirty minute drive from the Montmelo circuit, Dani Pedrosa almost able to see the track from the window of his apartment.
And it's not just the riders. Dorna - or at least, the part of Dorna that concerns itself with MotoGP - has its offices in Barcelona. Spain's motorcycle industry, such as it is, is still based around Barcelona, as were the historic brands such as Ossa and Bultaco which were once produced not far from the city. The city is home to several of the country's major motorcycle magazines, and the surrounding region is studded with the homes of racers old and new.
So for a huge section of Spain's multitude of race fans, the Catalunya Grand Prix is their nearest race. Last year over 110,000 turned out on race day, and this year is likely to be the same, recession or no recession. All of Spain has been hit incredibly hard by the economic crisis, though the problem has been the bursting of the housing bubble rather than problems in the financial sector. But while the Catalonians have a reputation for being more serious and more dour than the rest of Spain, the fans at Barcelona still know how to throw a party. The atmosphere may not reach the levels of abandon that you see at Jerez, where the Andalusian fans party as if there's no tomorrow; at the Montmelo circuit, the fans are prepared to accept the possible existence of tomorrow, though more in theory than in practice.
The fans may be looking forward to the MotoGP round at Barcelona, and a chance to forget about their problems, however briefly, but even their anticipation cannot match that of the riders and teams. The irony is, though, that while the teams are looking forward to race day on Sunday, the riders cannot wait until the Monday after the race. Not to relax after having survived the second of the three Spanish Grand Prix, but rather so that they can get to work testing.
For the Monday after the race sees the first day of MotoGP's very limited testing program, most testing having been scrapped in an attempt to save money. Together with the reduction in practice from four sessions to just three, all of the teams have been crying out for a chance to spend some time seriously evaluating new parts for the factory teams, or just running through setup options trying to find the best setup for the satellite teams.
Of all the riders desperate for test time, none has longed for a chance to do some uninterrupted testing more than Nicky Hayden. The 2006 World Champion has been suffering with the Ducati curse, an affliction which struck down Marco Melandri last year. For the Ducati Desmosedici continues to be impossible to ride fast for everyone but Hayden's Marlboro Ducati team mate Casey Stoner, it seems. Just like last year, the bikes regularly split the field, Casey Stoner leading at the front, while Hayden, Sete Gibernau and the Pramac Ducatis bring up the rear.
By their very nature, human beings are superstitious beings, seeking succor and aid from wherever they believe they can find it. Some seek it in the support of a Supreme Being, who they entrust with clearing obstacles from their path and lending them strength beyond their natural ability. Others seek it in the most mundane objects, believing that a green vest, a pair of socks, or a necklace with pendant will bring them the luck and the success that they seek. Yet others follow a fixed set of actions, putting the left shoe on before the right, touching a mirror or a picture, only speaking to a set person on entering a room, religiously observing the rituals which have always brought them luck so far.
Valentino Rossi is one of the latter, following rituals and patterns in a fixed sequence in the hope of recreating the success which has followed them in the past. So Rossi meticulously applies all his own decals to his bike before a race; stretches to touch his toes before approaching his bike; crouches down to clutch the right foot peg before mounting the bike; and stands up as he rides out of the pits to adjust his leathers caught on film in all too intimate detail a million times by the curiously positioned camera on the back of Rossi's bike. He will always wear something yellow, the color finding its way onto his leathers, his gloves, his helmet and his bike.
At Mugello, Rossi's superstition is heightened, not the least by his incredible success at the circuit. On the 13 previous occasions Rossi raced here in the world championship classes, he came away with victory 9 times, 7 of those wins coming from his last 7 visits. The last time Rossi failed to win at Mugello was in 2001, riding a Nastro Azzurro Honda NSR 500 with a special celebratory paint scheme. Rossi crashed out on the penultimate lap and swore never to race at Mugello again with a special livery. Since making that vow, he has not lost at the Tuscan track.
Rossi's proscription on special paint jobs does not extend to his helmet, however. The Italian has always come to Mugello with something special from friend and legendary designer Aldo Drudi on his head, perhaps the best and most famous of which was the helmet he wore at the last race here in 2008. This featured a picture of Rossi's face, eyes and mouth open wide in terror. It was, he explained, the expression he wore under his helmet every time he came to Mugello, heading into the San Donato turn at the end of the 340 km/h straight.
This weekend, Rossi turned up with a special helmet once again. For the 2009 race, Drudi had painted Rossi's gloved hands holding the top of his head. The Italian said it represented the stress of trying to deal with the Tuscan circuit: stress from both the demanding layout, featuring lots of fast combinations with blind entry; and the demanding crowds, tens of thousands of whom flock to the track expecting to see another Rossi victory. The attendant press added to the pressure, bombarding the Italian with questions about the difficulty of maintaining his winning streak in front of his home crowd, and whether he was disappointed on missing out on the opportunity to take his 100th victory at Mugello, after failing to score his 99th win at Le Mans two weeks previously.
Ben Spies came to his home race - or the nearest thing he has to a home race - at Miller Motorsports in Utah looking to get a double and a bundle of points to get himself back into the World Superbike championship race. So when the lights went out at the start of race 1, the Texan set about the task with a gusto bordering on the insatiable. First off the line and first into Turn 1, Spies had gap by the first corner, streaking away to take a lead of over 2 seconds by the time they crossed the line to end the first lap. Spies was gone.
Behind Spies, Shinya Nakano had gotten an outstanding start, leading from Noriyuki Haga and Ryuichi Kiyonari, with Broc Parkes leading Carlos Checa further back. With Spies already disappeared, Ryuichi Kiyonari worked his way past Nori Haga, then set about passing Nakano, the Honda and the Aprilia getting a gap as they fought over 2nd. The two Japanese riders soon had the company of a Spaniard, as Carlos Checa also worked his way past Haga then went on to challenge Shinya Nakano.
Checa was determined to get past Nakano, and did so pretty forcefully, the Aprilia rider losing his concentration as Checa's Honda appeared underneath him, then losing the front and crashing out. Nakano's crash came just a lap too early, as a lap later, Celani Suzuki rider Karl Muggeridge also crashed out at the esses, leaving both bike and rider laying on the track. The stewards had no option but to red flag the race, so they could get to Muggeridge. The Australian was unhurt, but had just had his bell rung, and later walked to the ambulance under his own steam, and was taken off for further medical inspection.
The restart was frustrating for Spies, as the Texan was left to do it all over again. Spies' one consolation was that the race would be decided on aggregate times, which meant he carried a 4.5 second lead into the second heat, and didn't need to win the race.