There is something about the Circuito do Estoril which just exudes drama. Firstly, there's the location: Situated just a few miles from Portugal's wild Atlantic coast, with only a few hills between the track and the ocean, the next stop past the beach is Atlantic City, New Jersey. And being so close to what can be a tempestuous and impetuous body of water means that Estoril's dramatic location is often matched by dramatic climatic conditions, with the weather throwing a curve ball right in the middle of the race.
It's not just the location, however. The track itself is a pretty dramatic affair, boasting the surprising combination of being the track with the slowest average speed, yet having a 200 mph front straight. But what makes the track really dramatic is the way that high top speed is converted into the low average. First of all, at the end of the front straight, the riders have a ton of speed to shed for the tight right hander, which then flicks back left onto the next turn, making both inside and outside passes viable options into Turn 1. Then, there's the section around the back straight: Two 180 degree turns, too wide to be hairpins, connected by a straight with a blindingly fast right-hand kink. If you need to get past the rider in front of you, you can either do it through the first part, Turn 4, the fast kink of Turn 5, or the double left hander of Turn 6.
If that fails, there's the uphill section which follows Turn 7: A quick flick right before one of the toughest chicanes of the series, comprising Turns 9 and 10. If anyone every asks you what a block pass looks like, sit them down overlooking these corners, and lap after lap, you'll see riders blocking out of Turn 8 and into 9, and out of 9 up the steep climb to Turn 10. Anyone you've just passed then has the Esses to try and get back in front, before rolling down the hill and round the seemingly everlasting Parabolica, the right hander which goes on for ever before leading back onto the front straight. The Parabolica is a glorious corner, with plenty of room to try and get round the outside of the person ahead of you, if you're brave or foolish enough to try it. And if you can't get round the outside, then you have time to maximize your drive out of the corner and onto the straight, where the finish line is far enough away to leave you with a chance of pulling out of the slipstream and into the lead.
There's No "I" In Team
With a layout as varied as that, the track lends itself to spectacle. And the spectacle doesn't get any better than last year's Portuguese Grand Prix. Valentino Rossi came into the race trailing Nicky Hayden by 12 points, with just two races to go. If Rossi was to retain his title, then he was going to need some help. At first, that help came from Rossi's team mate Colin Edwards, who gave a masterclass of block passing and defensive riding all throughout the race, first passing Hayden and Pedrosa to take points away from them, then holding them off while Rossi got away at the front. Then, Rossi's help came from Nicky Hayden's Repsol Honda team mate, when Dani Pedrosa attempted an incomprehensibly optimistic pass up the inside of Hayden, taking the then championship leader out of the race, and seemingly out of contention for the title.
But there was more to come. Although The Kentucky Kid was gone, The Doctor wasn't getting it all his own way. First, there was Kenny Roberts Jr riding the wheels off the KR211V, and putting in one of his strongest performances since taking the world title back in 2000. And then, there was the wild spectacle of Toni Elias. Elias looked as if he was doing everything wrong, but was beating everyone else on the track. There was his spectacular motocross-style berm-busting line through the double left handers. There was his braking point into Turn 1, which seemed to be at least 20 yards later than everyone else, and looked like launching the Spaniard into the Atlantic Ocean every time the group hit the end of the straight. And finally, the icing on the cake, there was that dazzling last lap, where Elias led, Rossi laid a brutal block pass through the chicane, and Elias held the outside line through the Parabolica to power out of Rossi's slipstream at the very last moment to take the win by the smallest margin of victory in living memory. The single MotoGP race at Estoril in 2006 had more drama than a library full of Shakespeare plays, and a winner who saved his seat in MotoGP with that ride.
Time For Change?
So the 2007 edition of the Portuguese Grand Prix has a lot to live up to. And for the first time in 3 races, this weekend's event looks like we could see the return of some close racing. For a start, the track has sections which favor both the straight-line speed of the Ducati, the extreme agility of the Yamaha, Honda, and Suzuki, and play into the hands of the balance of the Kawasaki. So although the Ducati will still be hard to stay with down the kilometer-long front straight, the Yamahas, Hondas and Suzukis should be able to make a break through the back of the track, and especially through the chicane and the Esses. The Ducati certainly struggled here last year, with Sete Gibernau the fastest qualifier in 8th, and Loris Capirossi the first Ducati home in 12th place, a fact which will surely cheer the opposition.
And then there's the tire situation: the world of MotoGP has talked of little else since the early summer, and the debate seems to be reaching a crescendo, with the details of modifications to the current restrictions likely to be finalized shortly after the weekend's racing finishes. But Estoril could make a mockery of expectations on Sunday. While Bridgestone has utterly dominated the proceeding so far this year, it was a very different picture at Estoril 11 months ago, with Michelin taking the top 5 spots, and probably more if the Repsol Honda team hadn't imploded so badly. John Hopkins was the first Bridgestone rider home, and right behind Hopper came Carlos Checa, then aboard the Dunlop-shod Tech 3 Yamaha. The question is, can Michelin retain the advantage they had from last year, or will the huge leap forward which Bridgestone has made allow them to dominate the tire wars once again?
Valentino Rossi, for one, has his hopes vested in Michelin. With Yamaha's new pneumatic valve engine closing some of the horsepower gap with the Ducati, Rossi has a chance of at least staying with Casey Stoner down the front straight. But more than that, The Doctor will be hoping that Michelin can provide him with some extra grip to allow him to get away from the Australian round the slow, technical section at the rear of the track, and end his longest streak without a podium ever. Although he is still in with a mathematical chance at the title, an 85 point deficit with 5 races to go is as good as insurmountable, and Valentino Rossi and Jeremy Burgess, Rossi's crew chief, are already focusing on preparing for next year's championship, and less on trying to catch Stoner this year. That doesn't mean that Rossi will go down without a fight, though, and if the tires work at Estoril, Sunday could turn into a genuine scrap.
Making Up Is Hard To Do
The Repsol Honda boys will be looking to mix it up in that scrap, should it appear. Both Dani Pedrosa and Nicky Hayden come to Estoril hoping to exorcise the demons of last year's farce, and both have points to prove. Hayden wants to get back into his podium groove, which saw him get on the box at every race since Assen. Or rather, at every race except the ones he was taken out by other riders, with John Hopkins doing for The Kentucky Kid at Laguna Seca, and Randy de Puniet repeating the deed at Misano. Hayden's fortunes have revived to a great extent since the beginning of the season, and he'll be looking to keep this going in Portugal.
His team mate Dani Pedrosa is going through an even more difficult time than Valentino Rossi. Honda's anointed champion has been able to do little more than follow this year, his and Honda's sole victory coming when the weather conditions played into Michelin's hands, the heat at the Sachsenring confounding the Bridgestone runners. So great is Pedrosa's frustration that he still hasn't signed the contract which HRC have offered him, reputedly holding out for a switch of tire suppliers, putting him at odds with team mate Hayden, who has called upon Honda to remain loyal to Michelin. With all the factory seats taken, realistically, Pedrosa doesn't have any other option but to sign on the dotted line, but he will be battling to gain all the negotiating leverage he can this weekend. The first order of business will be to beat his team mate, something he is finding harder to do every race.
But if the Michelins can't compete, that won't mean that Casey Stoner will have it all his own way. The Suzukis have been getting closer and closer to the Australian, and at a track as tight as Estoril, both John Hopkins and Chris Vermeulen must believe they can challenge for the lead. Hopper is tantalizingly close to taking his first win in MotoGP, after getting on the podium 3 times this year, and will want to win on a Suzuki before he moves to Kawasaki at the end of the year.
As for Rizla Suzuki team mate Chris Vermeulen, the Australian will be looking to stay ahead of his team mate in the championship, to consolidate his position as lead rider for next year, when he'll be joined by the Italian veteran Loris Capirossi. Vermeulen has already strengthened his hand by winning at Le Mans and taking a couple of 2nd places, but he'll be wanting to build on that in Portugal.
And of course there's Toni Elias. Last year's winner must be feeling pretty confident coming into Estoril, despite the fact that he's still recovering from the spiral fracture of the thigh he sustained at Assen. With his superb race from last year as an example, and with tires that have been working all season, Elias could well be right up at the front once again this year.
Although a repeat of last year's drama is unlikely, if not downright impossible, there could still be a few surprises. The team most likely to be providing those surprises is the Tech 3 Yamaha team: Last year, both Carlos Checa and the man who replaced him, Makoto Tamada, put in very strong showings at Estoril, proving that the Dunlops were capable of performing in Portugal. Although Tamada's season has been traumatic so far, Sunday could be the day he regains some of the dignity a former GP winner deserves. But to do that, he'll have to beat his team mate as well. Sylvain Guintoli has impressed a lot of people so far this season, and did well at Estoril last year in the 250 race. If the Dunlops work as well this year as they did 11 months ago, Guintoli could be the surprise of the weekend.
Over at Kawasaki, surprises are less likely, with Randy de Puniet wanting to make amends for crashing out of his 4th race of the season at Misano. His first priority will be to stay on board, and get into the top 5 once again. Ant West's task will be similar, to continue to build on the steady performances he has shown since taking over Olivier Jacque's ride after Catalunya.
For former Kawasaki rider Shinya Nakano, it's crunch time. Not just his future in MotoGP, but the future of the Japan Italy Racing team, the team behind Konica Minolta, rides on how the Japanese star does on Sunday. Nakano has finally received some of the upgrades the other Hondas had earlier in the season, but like Makoto Tamada before him, he has struggled to make the transition from the Bridgestones to the Michelin tires. He has also had the terrible luck to have switched to Honda and Michelin in their worst year in MotoGP history, and has not coped well. Sunday is make or break time, with a result outside the top 10 almost certain to see the demise of the team, and most likely, Nakano's MotoGP career.
An Unstoppable Force
The one man in no danger whatsoever on Sunday is Casey Stoner. Stoner can wrap up the title in Portugal if he scores 15 points more than Rossi, and loses less than 4 points to Pedrosa, with 4 full rounds to go. Scoring 15 points over Rossi is going to be a big ask at a track like Estoril, but it will surely only be postponing the inevitable. For despite the Ducati's advantage being seriously diminished round Estoril's tight and twisty sections, and despite Bridgestone's weak record at the track, it would be high folly indeed to discount the Australian championship leader, the man who has dominated the series so far this season.
A victory at Estoril would also be strangely fitting for Stoner, for last year's Portuguese Grand Prix was pivotal in the young Australian's career. On lap 2 of last year's race, Casey Stoner lost the front end of his LCR Honda, crashing out of the race and taking Sete Gibernau with him. A few hours later, he took Gibernau's ride at Ducati as well, effectively ending the Spaniard's career. At the time, most observers thought that Ducati were mad, bringing in a rider who saw only the volatile Randy de Puniet crash out of more races than him. Today, those observers cannot believe just how wrong they were. Stoner hasn't crashed out of a single race this year, in defiance of the predictions of the naysayers. The chances of him breaking this streak at Estoril are about as great as him not taking the MotoGP championship this year. Stoner's perfect year looks set to continue. But first, there's the small matter of a race on Sunday.