MotoGP is the very pinnacle of technological innovation when it comes to motorcycle racing. Whether it be the carbon brakes, advanced engine electronics, trick engine internals or complex chassis design, MotoGP really is pushing the envelope, what's known in computing circles as "the bleeding edge." If you only had a single phrase to sum up the bikes and technologies involved in motorcycle racing's premier class, it would be The Future.
In this light, MotoGP's obsession with history and the past is rather puzzling. The series discards new developments faster than a Hollywood starlet discards last week's accessories, and yet spend five minutes talking to almost anyone in the paddock and you enter a world rich in tradition, pageant and history. Mention Casey Stoner's performance, and you get a lecture on the days of Doohan, and Gardner, and Beattie. Start talking about Nicky Hayden, and the subject turns immediately to the glory days of Kenny Roberts. Senior. And any discussion of the fortunes of Valentino Rossi raises a plethora of names from the mists of motorcycle racing history: Giacomo Agostini, Mike Hailwood, John Surtees, Geoff Duke.
Nowhere is this collision of ancient and modern more appropriate than at Misano. For of the many tracks with a rich history the MotoGP circus visits, Misano can probably lay claim to being the oldest. The track itself was only built in 1969, a mere stripling in terms of race tracks, but locals will tell you that even tracks like Assen, where racing started in the late 1920s, are just Johnny-Come-Latelies. For legend has it that the Misano Circuit is built on top of a site which originally hosted chariot racing back in Roman times, proof that racing has been a deeply entrenched part of human nature ever since the dawn of time.
Something Old, Something New
While the site may be old, the track is just about brand new. The Misano circuit was closed at the end of 2006 for the track to be lengthened and completely resurfaced, while simultaneously reversing the original direction the track is to be raced to clockwise. Most of these changes were done to improve safety so as to lure MotoGP back to Misano, the series having left the circuit on Italy's Adriatic coast in 1993 after Wayne Rainey suffered a seemingly simple crash which changed motorcycle racing history. Rainey, already a three-time world champion at the time, was well on the way to securing his fourth title in a row, when he crashed out of the lead at Misano, breaking his spine, losing the use of his legs, and ending his career. Rainey's crash ended not just his own career, but deprived his arch-rival Kevin Schwantz of much of his own motivation, the Texan having thrived on the bitter enmity between the two.
So what of the track and its changes? The Misano circuit most resembles distorted "T", with the arms bent down and the foot broken. After leaving the line, the first obstacle is the fast right hander of Turn 1, quickly flicking left for the Variante del Parco. Getting on the gas again briefly, the riders face a short blast before facing another fast right hander, followed by a short straight down to the tight double right of Turns 4 and 5. Once out of Turn 5, it's time to pitch the bike over onto the left hand side for Turn 6, leading on to the back straight, containing the left kink of Turn 7, which barely qualifies as a corner. At the end of the back straight, the near-hairpin Quercia left hander is one candidate for braking battles, before the riders get back hard on the gas for another short straight up to the left arm of the T. Turn 9 is a short right hander, making entry into the following Tramonte hairpin very difficult, as riders briefly stand the bikes up a little again to brake hard enough for Turn 10.
The next section saw the most action when the World Superbikes visited here in June of this year. From Turn 10, the riders enter the long, fast section along the top of the T. The first obstacle is Turn 11, the Curvone, a right-hand flick not quite taken at full tilt, carrying speed on towards the next of the right-handers at Turn 12, before braking seriously hard for Turn 13 and the tight Curva del Carro at 14. This series of right handers is just about the only place on the track where passing is possible, with the tightening sequence of corners allowing alternative lines into the final hairpin at Curva del Carro, before a quick burst of throttle takes the riders back left through Turn 15. Another short straight leads on to the final left hander of Turn 16, taking the riders back on to the front straight and over the line.
No Way Through
Though the track is smooth and well-laid out, there is only really one line through most of the corners, with only a few spots around the track offering a place to overtake. The prime passing real estate is the fast Curvone section leading all the way round the right handers to Turn 14, with different possible lines allowing passing through one turn into the next. Other than that, there could be some opportunities for outbraking into Quercia, the acute left-hander in the crook of the T, and there is surely bound to be the odd dive into the final Misano Turn 16, in a last desperate bid for victory.
Of course, as the track is completely new, this should make for a level playing field among the paddock. Should, but won't. For although MotoGP has yet to visit the track, several riders have already visited. By what we shall generously put down to serendipitous coincidence, Ducati organized the World Ducati Weekend at Misano in June, an event which both Loris Capirossi and current championship leader Casey Stoner attended, and at which they both rode a few display laps. But the factory Ducati team are not the only people to have visited already: Toni Elias and Marco Melandri both had fitness tests at Misano aboard Honda CBR600RR road bikes, to see if they were recovered enough from their crashes over the summer.
But there is one rider whose visit here was not some tenuous excuse for a little track time. One man has raced here, and won. Before joining the Kawasaki team as Olivier Jacque's replacement, Ant West rode for the Yamaha World Supersport team for three races, putting in a spectacular display, coming third in his first race, and winning the next two. His last outing was at Misano, where he beat the rest of the field by over 4 seconds. And today, Kawasaki announced that West would be riding for Team Green in 2008 as well, giving the Australian a big psychological boost, so if there's one man to look out for at Misano, it will be Anthony West.
Being in Italy, the track is also home to a couple of the Italian riders. For Valentino Rossi, Misano is just a (admittedly very long) stone's throw away from his home town of Tavullia, up in the hills behind Misano. So close is it to Rossi's home that Misano was the first track that Rossi ever rode a full-sized racing bike at, an Aprilia Futura 125 in November 1992. Since then, of course, The Doctor's career has progressed in leaps and bounds, winning race after race and championship after championship. His progress only faltered last year, when an uncharacteristic mistake saw Rossi throw the championship away in a crash at Valencia, but now, Rossi's progress seems to have stalled altogether. He has won "only" 3 races this year, and is languishing a vast 60 points behind in the title race, conceding the lead to Casey Stoner. If Rossi can't claw back some ground at his home track, in front of his home fans, just a few miles from his home village, The Doctor will have to give up any hope of a 6th MotoGP World Title for this season, and pin all his hopes on 2008.
The man with one hand firmly on the title can tighten his grip a little come Sunday. If Casey Stoner can do as he has done on almost every weekend so far this season, dominate from the first session of free practice onwards, then the engravers can start penciling his name on the trophy already. The young Australian has been virtually untouchable all year, and seemingly incapable of making a mistake. It all started once the MotoGP circus hit Le Mans, and the tracks where the Ducati was supposed to struggle. But instead of having problems at tracks supposedly favoring maneuverability over top speed, Stoner dominated, winning again and again. And now, as we head to the tracks where the slower, more agile bikes are supposed to struggle, Yamaha and Honda can only hope that the reverse logic of mid-season will continue into the last few races, giving them a chance to claw back some points from Casey Stoner. On Stoner's current form, that seems highly unlikely.
But Ducati and Valentino Rossi aren't the only ones local to the track. Ravenna, just an hour up the road from Rimini, is home to Gresini Honda's Marco Melandri. Under normal circumstances, Melandri would be determined to do well at Misano, and redeem something of his season. But these are not normal circumstances: Melandri was forced to pull out of the last Grand Prix at Brno with a herniated disk in his neck, causing him excruciating pain and rendering him incapable of riding. Though injury in his neck is healing rapidly, Melandri will be uncertain of being able to race until he gets on a bike for the first time on Friday morning.
Two riders with better prospects are Nicky Hayden and John Hopkins. After taking each other out at their home race at Laguna Seca, the two Americans were on the podium at Brno. For reigning champion Hayden, it was a return to the podium form he'd shown since the Barcelona Grand Prix, while for Hopper, the second podium of both the season and his career saw the Suzuki rider continue his seemingly inexorable rise towards taking his first win. It may not come at Misano, but it gets closer every race.
One man will be racing not just the rest of the field, but himself. Despite winning in impressive style at the Sachsenring, Dani Pedrosa has had a very difficult season. He started the year as the odds on favorite to challenge Valentino Rossi for the title, but the Honda RC212V's surprising lack of performance coupled with Michelin's failure to adapt to the new tire regulations have meant that the Catalan prodigy has had a deeply frustrating year. His frustration has gone so far that he has held off signing a new contract to ride for the factory Repsol Honda team on HRC's terms, holding out for a one year agreement, rather than the three year term HRC are offering. With Pedrosa traditionally doing worse during the second half of the season, and contract frustrations, the Spaniard will have it all to do in Italy.
Pedrosa's frustrations with the Michelin tires are shared by all of the Michelin runners. Valentino Rossi has gone from being one of the new tire rule's biggest cheerleaders to one of its most vociferous opponents as the season has progressed. The rule, initiated to bring down costs and equal the playing field, removing the French manufacturer's geographical advantage by requiring that all tires to be used be selected on Thursday afternoon, taking away Michelin's ability to fly in their Saturday Night Specials, tires developed based specifically on the data obtained during the practice sessions on Friday and Saturday, and tailored to work perfectly for the exact conditions on race day. Now, with Bridgestone's tires seemingly capable of working over a slightly wider range of conditions, all of the factory teams running Michelins are talking openly of considering the Bridgestones for next year.
And so Michelin will be completely focused on getting the tires right at Misano. They simply cannot afford to get it wrong again, and lose yet more ground to their Japanese competitors. A mistake at Misano could be another nail in the coffin of their MotoGP career, and after having lost the competition for a spec tire to Bridgestone in Formula 1, they won't want to suffer the same fate in MotoGP. Of the last two tracks which had new, grippy tarmac laid, Michelin dominated the Sachsenring, and Bridgestone dominated Laguna Seca. So Michelin have a 50% chance of taking back some points at Misano. Valentino Rossi, Dani Pedrosa, Nicky Hayden, Colin Edwards, and many others will be counting on them.