In theory, motorcycle racing is incredibly simple. Rent a racetrack for a weekend, invite a bunch of riders to bring their bikes with them, lay a set of ground rules to try and ensure fair competition, give the riders a couple of sessions to get to know the track, then come Sunday, drop the flag and see who crosses the line first 28 laps later. The devil, however, is in the detail, for once you embark upon those very first steps of organizing a motorcycle race, you are soon overwhelmed by a veritable tidal wave of minutiae, all demanding an incomprehensibly large amount of time, money and effort to cope with adequately. As a consequence, motorcycle racing is left down to large organizations which have both the money and the resources to cope with doing it properly.
The organizations behind the MotoGP series, Dorna and the FIM, are the largest and most powerful in the entire motorcycling world. The FIM sorts out the rules and regulations under which racing will take place, while Dorna finds locations for the series, and organizes and promotes the races with local, regional and international partners from all over the world. The Dorna operation is an exceedingly well-oiled machine, and almost everything they do runs smoothly, despite tight time pressures, bureaucratic and diplomatic entanglements, and the bottomless money pit that is MotoGP.
So the Cinzano Grand Prix of San Marino and the Rimini Riviera should have been a smooth operation, with racing taking place at an existing, well-known track that the series had visited before, albeit 14 years ago. With the track in Italy, and racing taking place on the final weekend of the Italian summer vacation, both climate and population should have been favorably inclined towards the event. What's more, the Misano track is within just a few miles of the birth places and homes of countless Italian riders, past and present. If there was one place that was ripe for a MotoGP round, it was Misano.
Here Comes The Rain Again
But even the most efficient organization has to admit defeat sometimes. The track being a new addition to the calendar, after an absence of 14 years and racing taking place in the reverse direction to former events, extra practice time was scheduled for Friday, to allow everyone to get acquainted with the circuit, and to gather enough data to start working on a usable set up. The rain overnight on Thursday was a foreboding of worse to come. The first free practice session on Friday took place in the rain, but shortly before the 125s were due to go out for their first official qualifying session, the heavens opened, and a deluge began. So heavy was the rain that the track flooded up to a depth of several feet at the Quercia corner, and a river flowed down pit lane and into the garages. The race directors were left with no option but to cancel practice for the rest of the afternoon, and hope for better weather at the weekend.
It was so bad that the organizers feared for Saturday as well. Overnight Friday a team worked away at the track desperately trying to dry it and remove the mud ready for Saturday's practice. Come Saturday morning, their hard work had paid off, with the track gleaming and ready to go. The first session of free practice, an extended two-hour session to compensate for the lost time on Friday afternoon, made it abundantly clear that normal service had been resumed. For as at almost every practice session over the last few races, Casey Stoner's name stood at the top of the timesheets, with a gap of over half a second back to the second fastest man, Valentino Rossi. The afternoon's qualifying session saw Stoner leading once again, taking pole position from Rossi in the dying seconds of the session. But this time, there was a lot less in it, under 2/10ths of a second, and the sight of Stoner's Ducati getting seriously out of shape over the many bumps at Misano raised a few hopes that the Australian may be a fraction less than invincible at the Rimini track. With five different makes of bike on the first five places on the grid, the host of challengers was starting to grow: Beside Stoner and Rossi on the front row sat a resurgent Nicky Hayden, his season slowly starting to come good after the nightmare of the opening races, with Randy de Puniet joining John Hopkins and Dani Pedrosa on the second row, with little to separate 3rd to 6th spot.
While qualifying had seen Stoner shaken, Sunday morning's warm up left him looking positively vulnerable, the Australian championship leader only managing to set the 5th fastest time, having to endure Chris Vermeulen, Dani Pedrosa, Randy de Puniet and John Hopkins going quicker than him, albeit by less than 2/10ths of a second. But still, there were two men setting times in the 1'34s, neither of those men was Casey Stoner. Perhaps, just perhaps things were starting to change, and the fair wind which has carried Stoner to a virtually flawless season so far was beginning to turn.
As the lights faded, the revs rose and the clutches were dropped, the wind still seemed to be at Stoner's back, the Ducati rider getting yet another strong start, and heading into the right hander of Turn 1 in the lead. But his lead was anything but decisive, as behind him, John Hopkins turned a lightning start into 2nd place, firing past Rossi and the slow-starting Hayden to slot in tight on Stoner's tail. Rossi was 3rd, with Hopkins' team mate Chris Vermeulen firing through the field from 8th to 4th, in an uncharacteristically fast start from the Australian Suzuki rider.
The two Repsol Honda riders had very different starts, Nicky Hayden getting an awful start from the front row of the grid, dropping down to 7th by the time the pack got out of Turn 1, while Dani Pedrosa had got a flyer, sweeping past Hayden to exit Turn 1 right behind Rossi and Vermeulen. Pedrosa had the inside line out of Turn 1, but Randy de Puniet drew level on the faster outside line out, having started from the other side of the track. As they flicked the bikes over from right to left to enter Turn 2, de Puniet looked to be in the best position, now on the inside, and poised to go chase after Vermeulen.
Taking A Tumble
It was not to be. On his day, Randy de Puniet is one of the fastest riders in the MotoGP paddock, a raw talent capable of beating anyone who gets in his way. But the flip side of the Frenchman's talent is his penchant for pushing too hard, and hitting the scenery. Last year, Randy de Puniet was the only rider to have crashed more often than Casey Stoner. But unlike Stoner, who has successfully broken that evil habit, the Frenchman is still terminally hooked, already crashing out of three races so far, much to the frustration of the Kawasaki team.
At Misano, he made it four, getting out of shape on the inside rumble strip and losing the rear. As de Puniet's Kawasaki slid away from under him, it was on its way to ruining Repsol Honda's day. Dani Pedrosa was hit squarely amidships, and sent flying into the gravel trap and out of the race, while Nicky Hayden saw P3 on the grid turn into P16 after just two corners, being forced to run wide and into the gravel to avoid hitting his tumbling team mate, rejoining just ahead of last place with a damaged rear tire, and any hope of another podium disappearing up in smoke.
But though it was bad for Hayden, it was a disaster for Pedrosa. The Spanish prodigy, and the man tipped by many at the beginning of the season as the rider most likely to deny Valentino Rossi the title in 2007, has had a very difficult year. The weight of the Spanish public's expectation lies like a leaden chest upon his shoulders, with each failure to win drawing ever louder criticism of the Spaniard, despite most of Pedrosa's problems being down to Honda's failure to build a truly competitive bike and Michelin's failure to get to grips with the new tire rules. So difficult is Pedrosa's situation that he still has not signed the contract which HRC have had ready for him for over two months, despite constant announcements from Honda that his signature is imminent. Pedrosa has been spooked by the way the season has turned out, and doesn't want to get stuck in the three-year contract HRC want if Honda keep failing to deliver. Unfortunately for Pedrosa, it's very late in the season, and all the good rides elsewhere are gone, leaving the Spaniard with nowhere else to go. Pedrosa's misery isn't over yet.
Three Down, Three To Go
With three contenders taken out of the running, Casey Stoner's job had just gotten easier. But he still had his work cut out for him, as he led John Hopkins, Valentino Rossi and Chris Vermeulen round the first section of the track. Vermeulen, having grabbed 4 places into Turn 1 with a flying start, was not yet satisfied, and dived up the inside of Rossi going into Quercia to take 3rd, and set about chasing his Suzuki team mate. Rossi, now demoted to 4th, then had Loris Capirossi to fend off, followed by Colin Edwards, Carlos Checa on the LCR Honda, Ant West on the remaining Kawasaki, and the Gresini duo of Marco Melandri and Toni Elias.
Not satisfied with having got past Rossi, Chris Vermeulen now set about his team mate. In less than half a lap, the Australian was on Hopper's tail, and pushing to get past. He was close at the Curva del Rio on lap 2, but not close enough to pass. By the time they entered Quercia, he was close enough, and he held the tight line on his Suzuki to get past Hopkins, only to be rebuffed as Hopper got better drive from his wider exit. Thwarted, Vermeulen decided to sit tight behind his team mate, let Hopkins close in on Stoner, and await his chance for a few laps.
Behind Vermeulen, only Valentino Rossi could follow, the front four setting a blistering pace, running low 1'35 second laps, and sometimes dipping into the 1'34s. By lap 3, it was clear that the rest of the field was already outclassed, with 5th place man Loris Capirossi already over 2 seconds adrift of Rossi, and Capirex and the group scrapping for 6th already running a second a lap slower than the front runners. Only Marco Melandri was unconvinced that a podium was out of reach.
The Hard Man
They say that Melandri rides harder the more injured he is, and his astonishing podium at Laguna Seca was testament to that. After being forced to withdraw from Brno with a herniated disk in his neck, Melandri was out for revenge, assisted, perhaps, by the very big off the Gresini rider had had during the second free practice session, which saw Macio sidelined for over an hour. From 12th on the grid, Melandri was up into 9th by the end of the first lap, and in a hurry. On lap 2, he followed Ant West past Carlos Checa, and a lap later, he was past both West and Colin Edwards, taking West into Turn 3, and Edwards just a few turns later, and was off after Loris Capirossi in 5th, taking the Ducati veteran through the first turns of lap 5.
In turn, Carlos Checa set about regaining the places he had lost to Melandri. With West leading Edwards and Checa on lap 3, by the end of the following lap, the order had been reversed, the Spanish veteran taking West into Turn 3, then putting a very brave and brutal pass on Colin Edwards through the fast Curvone turn, heading into the long sequence of ever-tightening rights, Edwards being forced so far off line that he allowed West through as well.
At the front of the field, the blistering pace being set claimed its first victim. The Ducati had surprised everyone from the beginning of the season with its top speed, outpacing the other bikes on Qatar's front straight with laughable ease. Ever since that day, the other manufacturers have been engaged in a desperate race to find more horsepower to compete, with drastic measures being taken and some spectacular failures as a result. Honda engines have blown up during races, something not previously believed possible, so solid is the reputation of Honda's engineering. And Yamaha have been forced to switch to pneumatic valves in a search for more power, conventional steel springs no longer able to cope with the extra revs required. Valentino Rossi tested the pneumatic valve engine at Brno, with mixed results, and then again during practice at Misano.
60 points down in the championship, and with the possibility of more power on tap, Rossi and his crew chief Jeremy Burgess decided to gamble on the new engine, despite not having sufficient data on how the engine would handle a full race, and doubts about the new engine's fuel consumption. On lap 5, they got their answer: As Rossi braked at the end of the front straight for the first corner, the engine seemed to seize, and The Doctor rolled across the tarmac in front of the gravel trap, and back on to the track, the bike still running, but only very slowly. Rossi cruised round the track back into the pits, out of the race, and almost certainly out of contention for the title.
Rossi's only hope now lay in the Suzukis taking points from Casey Stoner, and limiting the Australian's championship lead. It was already clear that although Hopkins could match Stoner's pace, he couldn't catch the Ducati, and so couldn't get close enough to try to pass. His team mate, on the other hand, possibly could. But first, Vermeulen would have to get past Hopkins, to be able to give it a shot. Vermeulen had been snapping at Hopkins' back wheel since lap 2, and on lap 6, he finally made it past, carrying a boatload of extra speed through Turn 1 to enter Turn 2 ahead of Hopkins, leaving the American nowhere to go but behind him.
Now, the chase was on. At Laguna Seca and Brno, Stoner had let Vermeulen and Hopkins follow him, before making a push after 10 laps and disappearing into the distance. At first, that pattern looked like being repeated, with Vermeulen's first advances, gaining a few hundredths to get within a second of Stoner's Ducati over laps 7 and 8, firmly repulsed by Stoner on lap 9. But Vermeulen's challenge was sterner than before. Two more laps saw Vermeulen take 2/10ths more out of Stoner, and close the gap to 9/10ths of a second, almost within striking range. Stoner and Vermeulen were clearly the fastest men on the track, both riding lap after lap in the 1'34s, but something had to give. On lap 12, it was Vermeulen who blinked first. Casey Stoner set a new lap record of 1'34.649, while Vermeulen dropped into the 1'35s, losing 3/10ths, and losing touch. For two more laps, Stoner piled on the pain, growing the gap to nearly two seconds, before even the invincible Australian was forced to slow his pace.
To The Victor The Spoils
But though Stoner slowed, he was beyond the reach of Vermeulen, and beyond the reach of the rest of the field. Once again, Casey Stoner rode his Ducati home to take a resounding win, in yet another display of dominance. Stoner's 8th win, his 3rd in a row, and his 3rd taken from pole position gives the Australian an almost unassailable 85 point lead in the championship with just 5 races and 125 points left to go. If Stoner scores 15 points more than Valentino Rossi, and loses less than 3 points to Dani Pedrosa, he could wrap up the title at the next race in Portugal. Failing that, Stoner seems certain to be crowned at Motegi, securing the title for Ducati in the lion's den, at the home of the Japanese manufacturers. This has been a perfect year for the Australian, and the world championship is sure to crown it.
Once Stoner had pushed, Chris Vermeulen was left to settle for 2nd place, coming close to challenging Stoner, but not close enough. Vermeulen's podium at Misano was his 4th of the year, and a vindication of his decision to join Suzuki at the beginning of last year, instead of waiting for a Honda ride, as HRC had wanted. Vermeulen's performance was all the more impressive by being fast right from the lights. In earlier races, the Australian would take a couple of laps to settle down, before charging through the field to a strong finish. Unfortunately, during those first few laps, Vermeulen would be left way down the field and out of contention for the podium by the time he got going. At Misano, like at Laguna before, Vermeulen showed just what he is capable of when he gets off to a quick start. Already having won in the wet, it's surely just a matter of time before the Australian wins in the dry as well, and shakes his image as a wet weather rider.
Vermeulen's team mate is still waiting for his first win, which has been a very long time coming. But his 3rd podium of the year, and his 2nd in succession, proved that John Hopkins is getting close to a win too. With both Suzukis on the podium, there can be no doubt that the bike is capable of a win, they just have one thing standing in their way. Unfortunately for the powder blue Rizla boys, that thing is Casey Stoner's fire red Ducati.
Beaten and bruised as he was, Marco Melandri still managed an outstanding 4th place, pleasing the fans who came from his home town, Ravenna, just an hour up the road. Melandri had once again proved to be one of the toughest riders in the paddock, ignoring pain to ride to a strong result. Behind Melandri finished the other Italian, Loris Capirossi, finally starting to find his feet on the Ducati, now that he has decided to leave the team. But as he will be joining Suzuki next year, there will be very few regrets.
Spanish veteran Carlos Checa crossed the line in 6th place, putting in a strong performance in the hope of securing one of the dwindling number of seats left for next season. Whether he will succeed is uncertain, but it was a good enough ride to beat one of the men he is competing for a seat with. But beating Toni Elias may not be enough: If Melandri is a tough rider, Gresini Honda team mate Toni Elias could possibly be tougher. Still recovering from a spiral fracture of his femur, a painful and difficult injury, the Spaniard managed to come home in 7th, after dicing with Ant West for much of the race. With Elias a firm favorite with the fans, thanks to his spectacular style and gritty determination, Gresini looks likely to sign him up for another year soon.
Bested by Elias in the last few laps, Ant West was unable to repeat his Supersport victory in MotoGP. But the latest Australian to join the field put in another solid showing, validating the trust Kawasaki placed in him when they signed him to partner John Hopkins for 2008.
Colin Edwards was the first Yamaha home in 9th place, struggling for grip from his Michelin tires, and unable to compensate for Valentino Rossi's exit. The American has had a difficult and unpredictable season, with two podiums not going very far to outweigh the DNFs and finishes outside the top 8 he has had elsewhere.
Shinya Nakano finished in 10th, his best showing since Jerez in March. The Konica Minolta rider has had a nightmare season, leaving what turned out to be a very competitive Kawasaki to join one of the weakest teams in the field. Konica Minolta are likely to withdraw their sponsorship from the team at the end of the year, and Nakano's ride won't have been enough to make them change their minds.
Alex Hofmann returned to racing after badly injuring his hand at Laguna Seca, bringing his Pramac Ducati home in 11th place, despite severe pain, and gratifyingly beating the man who injured him, Sylvain Guintoli. The French rookie was the best of the Dunlop Tech 3 Yamahas again, but still a long way off the rest of the field.
Behind Guintoli, the reigning world champion came home in 13th place, to snatch another couple of points in defense of the title he has already conceded to Stoner. But despite ending up in the gravel and damaging his tires, after being forced off by Pedrosa's crash with de Puniet, Nicky Hayden remounted, and soldiered bravely on. One thing the Kentucky Kid is not short of is determination. Where others might have entered the pits and retired, frustrated by a chance wrecked by the carelessness of others, Hayden just will not quit. His dogged defense of the dignity of the #1 plate makes Hayden a worthy champion indeed.
Makoto Tamada finished in 14th, the Japanese Dunlop Yamaha rider in his final races in the MotoGP series, a huge disappointment after his early brilliance. And 15th and last, a lap down, Kurtis Roberts finished a lap down, Team KR a pale shadow of the glorious form they showed last year. The fact that they could build such an outstanding bike last year is proof that the team is capable of competing, but circumstances have conspired to make this year a complete washout. There is serious doubt as to whether Team KR will be able to find the funds and the equipment to compete next year, and their departure would leave a gaping hole in MotoGP, for many reasons. With the last of the true privateer teams gone, and King Kenny no longer in the paddock, MotoGP will be a completely different world.
Efficiency Isn't Everything
Despite appalling weather conditions conspiring against them to produce some of the worst flooding ever seen at a racetrack, Dorna and the Misano circuit managed to pool their resources and coordinate their efforts to get the crowds in, all 57,000 of them, clean the track and get it ready for racing, and put on a show. They managed to do this at a track which was unknown to the vast majority of riders, and give everyone enough practice to compete safely. As a display of smoothly executed planning, and of a well-handled emergency, it was stunning.
But despite their efficiency, there was one thing they could not plan, and could exercise no control over. Once the starting lights went out and the bikes roared off the line, the race was interesting for only the first 10 laps or so. After that, the racing deteriorated to yet another procession, the 4th race in a row where the race was decided after the first couple of laps. Casey Stoner's dominance has been so absolute in the latter half of the season, leading over 60% of all laps raced, that the spectacle is disappearing from what was once the most exciting form of motorsport on Earth. All the planning in the world hasn't been able to prevent that.
There are some who claim that it was the planning which got us into this state in the first place: Throughout the motorcycling world, among riders, teams, fans and journalists, criticism is growing of both the switch to the 800 cc formula, and much more vociferously, the new tire regulations. Even Carmelo Ezpeleta, the head of Dorna, and the man responsible for the show, has demanded changes to the tire rules, which limit Bridgestone and Michelin runners to 14 front and 17 rear tires, picked on Thursday, to be used over the course of a weekend. Riders on Michelins, such as Valentino Rossi and Colin Edwards, blame the rule change for their failure to compete, stating that only the rule favors the Bridgestones, and is spoiling the show. All over the world, a chorus is growing echoing what they are saying.
But such accusations are both simplistic and disingenuous. While it is true that Bridgestone have done particularly well this year, to blame it all on the tire restrictions is to willfully ignore a number of other factors. Firstly, there is Honda's failure. With 6 bikes on the grid and 4 of them on Michelins, including the world champion and the man expected to be a future world champion, when Honda doesn't deliver a competitive machine, this completely changes the face of racing. Then there is the fact that pointing to Bridgestone's dominance this year ignores Michelin's dominance over the past 15 years, with Michelin deciding races by deciding who would be the recipient of the special overnight tires on Sunday. And then there's the fact that though Casey Stoner is leading the championship on his Bridgestone-shod Ducati, the men in 2nd and 3rd place are Valentino Rossi and Dani Pedrosa on Michelins. Of the top 10 in the championship, 4 riders are on Michelins and 6 on Bridgestones. Hardly a whitewash.
Most of all, though, the accusations of Bridgestone dominance or Ducati dominance are simply an insult to Casey Stoner's ability. Stoner has been at the center of a perfect storm, a serendipitous confluence of man, machine and tires which have allowed him to run away with the championship. The Australian has melded perfectly with his team, found stability in his personal life by getting married at the tender age of 21, gained confidence in both the bike and the Bridgestones, meaning an end to the front-end crashes he suffered last year, and applied his determination to crush and humiliate the opposition into a soul-destroying annihilation of anyone standing in his way, what American race fans call "stinking up the race". It's not just the Bridgestones, as the next Bridgestone runner in the championship is Chris Vermeulen down in 4th, and it's not just the Ducati, as the other Ducati riders have been nowhere this year. It's Casey Stoner, his determination to win, and his ability to use the rules, machinery and tires to maximum advantage.
One Way Out
Changing the rules might help, but if the rule changes already instigated ruined the show, then more changes might make it even worse. The only way to bring back the spectacle of MotoGP is for Honda, Yamaha, Suzuki and Kawasaki to produce bikes capable of matching the Ducati's top speed, for Michelin to start making tires capable of matching the performance of the Bridgestones, and for the other riders in the championship to stop complaining, and start riding. You can't stop Casey Stoner from stinking up the race by talking. You can only stop him by getting out on the track and beating him there.