Viewed strictly objectively, MotoGP is an incredibly repetitious exercise. Every other Wednesday, the whole circus rolls into another race paddock, spends a day transforming empty pit boxes into racing garages, erecting luxury hospitality units and getting ready to race. Over the next three days, a bunch of riders spend several hours riding the same short piece of tarmac over and over and over again, trying to brake at exactly the same spot with exactly the same force again and again, and get on the gas at exactly the same point coming out of the corners time after time. On Sunday afternoon, they spend 50 minutes doing the same thing, while vying to stay ahead of everyone else who turned up to race, after which the whole circus takes apart everything they built just a few short days ago and departs, leaving the track as deserted as they found it on the Wednesday, only to repeat the cycle 10 days later, at another racetrack, in another part of the world.
And yet millions upon millions of people love the sport. They have their own rituals, gathering together every other Sunday at someone's home or in a bar, to cheer, and shout, and argue, and speculate, and celebrate or commiserate, depending on how the riders they love, or perhaps the riders they love to hate, have spent those precious 50 minutes of glorious motorcycle racing. The cycle repeats, again and again, race weekend after race weekend.
Plus Ca Change
Recently, however, the cycle had been getting a little too monotonous for even the most hardened lover of MotoGP ritual. For the past 4 races, one man had broken away from the pack, while behind him, individual riders circled at their own pace, unable to catch the man ahead and out of reach of the rider behind. For the past 3 races, even the rider who had broken away at the front was the same, Casey Stoner dominating the proceedings so totally that the clamor to change the tire rules, the engine rules, or just any rules to make the racing exciting again was becoming deafening. Rituals are all well and good, but it's easy to take them too far.
So when the MotoGP circus trundled in to Portugal and over to Estoril, repeats were on everybody's minds. What everyone wanted was a repeat of last year's race, a dazzling display of close racing, passing and riding at, and even beyond the limit, leaving spectators with their hearts in their mouths for lap after breathless lap. What everyone feared was another brutal, Doohanesque display of dominance by Casey Stoner, in which he takes a few laps to establish a rhythm, and then disappears into the distance, trailing a show of processional tedium in his wake.
The early signs during practice were mixed: Stoner was once again fastest during the three free practice sessions, but in the afternoon, when conditions were warmer, the Australian wasn't as far ahead as at earlier races. Then, on Saturday afternoon, after Stoner had put in two spectacular, sizzling qualifying laps, which would surely be good enough for the pole, the reigning world champion Nicky Hayden put together an almost perfect lap on his Michelin qualifiers, to snatch pole by 4/100ths of a second. With Dani Pedrosa and Valentino Rossi running decent times on race tires, it looked like we could avoid another Formula 1 style procession, with Stoner easily leading the way home, but instead be in for a repeat of Qatar, or maybe even Catalunya, with Stoner, Rossi and Pedrosa slugging it out for the win.
It's That Man Again
At 4 pm, an hour later than usual, to avoid clashing with the Formula 1 race at Spa Francorchamps, rather ironically, 19 MotoGP bikes rounded the final turn of the warm up lap and headed down onto their positions on the grid for the start. Seconds later, the red starting lights went on, then flicked off, and the pack bellowed off the line and bowled toward the tight right hander of Turn 1.
In another repeat performance of his rocket-launched starts, Casey Stoner barreled into Turn 1 first. But only just: As the Australian got hard on the brakes for the first turn, Nicky Hayden hove into view beside him, slightly slower off the line than Stoner, but much, much later on the brakes. Edging ahead of Stoner as they entered the turn, The Kentucky Kid was just a fraction too hot, and found himself off line to hold the lead. As the bikes flicked left again as they headed for turn 2, Hayden came up just short, and got balked by Stoner and Repsol Honda team mate Dani Pedrosa, dropping down to 3rd.
Behind Hayden, chaos reigned, and grid positions went for naught. Valentino Rossi saw his 3rd place on the grid turn into 5th, Marco Melandri jamming his Gresini Honda ahead of The Doctor up from 7th. John Hopkins rocketed from 10th up to 6th, ahead of Makoto Tamada, who slipped back to 7th. Behind Tamada, Colin Edwards, Toni Elias and Carlos Checa vied for 8th, three abreast into the first three turns.
As the pack fired down the back straight towards the scary 5th gear right-hand kink of Turn 5, a gap started opening between Nicky Hayden in 3rd and Marco Melandri in 4th. This spurred Rossi into action, as allowing Casey Stoner to escape once more would decide the title race in the Australian's favor right here in Portugal, a prospect Rossi wasn't prepared to accept. As they got on the brakes for Turn 6, the double left hander paddock wags had christened Repsol corner, as the scene of last year's Honda factory team implosion, The Doctor swung inside Melandri, and stuffed it up the inside to take 4th. But Melandri is one of the hardest braking riders in the paddock, and attempting to outbrake him is either very brave or very foolish. This time, Rossi's moved turned out to be on the foolish side of optimistic, and The Doctor ran wide, allowing Melandri back up the inside to regain his position.
If At First You Don't Succeed
But Valentino Rossi is not easily deterred. The very next turn, Turn 7, Rossi was back, up the inside on the brakes once more, and this time, it stuck. Once past Melandri, Rossi was almost immediately with Hayden, and the group were together once again. Stoner still led, but Pedrosa, Hayden, Rossi, Melandri and Hopkins were all very close behind.
The pack powered around the endless Senna Parabolica, onto the back straight, and ready for the first true measure of horsepower along the front straight. The Ducati fired across the finish line first, as expected, but unlike earlier in the year, Stoner's big red beast from Bologna did not pull away. Dani Pedrosa held Stoner in his sights with relative ease on his Honda RC212V, the Honda starting to show the power we have come to expect from the Japanese factory. Hayden followed, and with him came Valentino Rossi, the Yamaha M1's pneumatic valve powerplant clearly a step in the right direction.
The field was starting to splinter, with the merest hint of daylight opening up between Pedrosa and Hayden, while behind Hopkins, clear air was starting to appear back to Makoto Tamada in 7th place, heading up a gaggle of riders battling to take his place. Going into the chicane, the slowest turn on the entire MotoGP calendar, places 3 through 6 concertinaed together, tires nearly touching as the bikes flicked left then right up what most resembles the reverse of Laguna Seca's Corkscrew, climbing uphill steeply, rather than dropping downhill, as if off the edge of the world. The bikes stayed stuck together through the Esses, and then the Parabolica, Valentino Rossi cemented to the pointy tail section of Nicky Hayden's Honda.
That an attack should take place at the end of the long straight was inevitable. Valentino Rossi had sat in Nicky Hayden's slipstream all down the front straight, ready to pounce on the brakes into Turn 1. It didn't turn out that way. Instead, it was The Doctor that was the prey: Hayden braked just as hard as Rossi, leading the Italian into Turn 1, while Marco Melandri launched out of Rossi's draft and alongside, trying to snag the outside line, to be on the inside when the trio flicked left again for the drag up to Turn 2. He was close, but not close enough, and Hayden, Rossi and Melandri headed off round the back of the track in the same order they went in.
With so little between them, this was unlikely to stay this way for long. Hayden, Rossi and Melandri were tight together down the back straight, the initial tussle allowing John Hopkins to join the fray as well. Not close enough going into Turn 6, Rossi used the inner parabolica to get drive along the short straight into Turn 7. By the braking zone, he was almost close enough to pass, stuffing his bike inside Hayden's Honda in a very tough move. But Nicky Hayden's seen a few street brawls in his time, and was not to be intimidated. Holding his line, Hayden refused to back off, fairings almost touching as they ran together through the sharp right hander, but eventually he had to concede.
Rossi may have been past, but he was not away. The four were still bunched together, and losing precious tenths to Stoner and Pedrosa ahead. As they fired off round the back of the track again for lap 4, Stoner led Pedrosa by half a second, with Rossi a second and a half behind Pedrosa. Behind Rossi, Hayden was having trouble holding off Melandri, finally succumbing to the Gresini Honda rider at Turn 7, but not losing any ground to him once the Italian was past. A crafty move, for once they got onto the front straight, Hayden put on a demonstration of just what the difference is between the factory Repsol Hondas and the customer bikes, powering past Melandri to take back 4th.
Though he was back ahead, Hayden couldn't shake the Italian. Melandri passed Hayden into Turn 7 once again, the corner rapidly replacing the chicane as the passing point of choice on the circuit, but Hayden hung tough, holding the left-hand side of the track to take the inside line for the chicane, putting a block pass on Melandri to reclaim 4th again. No quarter would be given here, nor any asked for.
The set-to between Hayden and Melandri had allowed Rossi to escape, and start to close on Stoner and Pedrosa. If Rossi was to have a chance of running with Stoner, he would have to catch him fast, as the race was rapidly approaching the point at which Casey Stoner usually checks out, opening up a serious gap behind him. But not today. Instead, both Dani Pedrosa and Valentino Rossi started closing on the Australian, taking a couple of tenths on lap 5, and more than half a second on lap 6. The front two were rapidly on their way to becoming a threesome.
Three Go Mad In Estoril
Hearing the approaching thunder of The Doctor's M1 behind him, Dani Pedrosa decided it was time to make a move. Harassing Stoner all the way around the back of the circuit, as the duo drove round the Parabolica and on to the front straight, Pedrosa sat tight behind the Ducati, ready to strike. Pulling out of the draft and alongside Stoner, the tiny Spaniard won the battle of the brakes into the first turn, both riders running wide, but Pedrosa less wide than Stoner. But the dice had allowed Rossi to close, the gap now less than second and Rossi almost with Stoner.
Pedrosa was past, but could not pull away. The top three of the championship were starting to bunch together, and the prospect of a proper MotoGP knock-down-drag-out brawl was looming. The fans were ecstatic: This was what they'd been waiting for, almost since Catalunya in June. On lap 8, it was Rossi who landed the first punch. Lining Stoner up through the Parabolica, sitting in the Australian's draft down the straight and pulling out to jam it up the inside into Turn 1. Six months ago, that would have been unthinkable, both the Yamahas and Hondas hopelessly outclassed by the Ducati's horsepower, but the Japanese engineers have been hard at work. Though not on level pegging, the difference is now more of a chink than the yawning chasm it once was, putting Rossi and Pedrosa back into contention.
Next time round, Rossi demonstrated that the difference between the Honda and the Yamaha is minimal, if anything. Once past Stoner, he'd used the rest of the lap to close Pedrosa down, and as they flew across the line, Rossi pulled out of Pedrosa's draft and sailed past the Spaniard on the brakes. For the first time since Assen, 5 races ago, Valentino Rossi was back in the lead.
But he was not getting away. The front three were still covered by less than half a second. Over the next 6 laps, the three were tripping over each other's shadows, but they could not pass. But the battle for supremacy was allowing Nicky Hayden to close them down. Hayden had dropped Melandri and Hopkins once he'd bullied his way past the Gresini Honda, leaving the Italian and the American to slug it out for 5th. With almost every lap, Hayden got closer, running lap after lap of incredible times, culminating in a new lap record of 1'37.493 on lap 13, fully 4/10ths of a second faster than the previous record, set on a bigger, more powerful bike. In just 5 more laps, he was on Stoner, and eyeing the podium.
Although Stoner was still with the Rossi and Pedrosa, he wasn't able to make a move. He could sit tight on Pedrosa's tail, but couldn't find a way past. Pedrosa, in turn, faced a similar predicament. But where Stoner was never close enough to genuinely threaten, Pedrosa was looking very menacing indeed. Wherever the opportunity presented itself, the Repsol Honda rider, showed The Doctor a wheel, but he looked the most dangerous down the front straight, the Honda have an obvious, if slight horsepower advantage over Rossi's Fiat Yamaha.
On lap 14, Pedrosa was close, but not close enough to pull out of the draft. On lap 15, he got out of the draft, but was easily outbraked by Rossi. As the duo headed into the Parabolica at the end of lap 15, Pedrosa was the closest he had been all race. Getting the drive onto the straight, the Spaniard slingshot his Honda out of the Yamaha's draft and ahead, far enough not to lose out again on the brakes into Turn 1. The lead was Pedrosa's once again.
The shoe was now on the other foot, and Rossi was keen to run with it. The pattern was repeated once again, this time with Valentino Rossi in the role of prodding attacker, and Dani Pedrosa playing the staunch defender. Where Rossi thrust, Pedrosa parried, the gap between them always less than a grasshopper's leap. But though the Yamaha and Honda were engaged in deadly combat, their pace was still electric, and too much for Casey Stoner, the Ducati falling back into the clutches of Nicky Hayden. If Hayden got much closer, Stoner would have to turn his attention to fending off the advances of The Kentucky Kid, and be forced to leave a gap too large to bridge to the leaders. By lap 20, it looked like the race would be decided between two men: Valentino Rossi and Dani Pedrosa.
But Lady Luck is a fickle floozy, and having deigned it fitting for Hayden to catch Stoner, she turned her gaze away from Hayden, and as he closed on Stoner, he made a mistake, running wide at Turn 3, ending up on the dirty part of the track, and losing touch. Stoner was once again free to go chase the leaders once again.
Cut And Thrust
Over the next 4 laps, the constant harassing fire of attacks from Rossi and defensive barrage from Pedrosa slowed the pair down. When battle intensified, Stoner took back 6/10ths of a second; when the fight hit a lull, Stoner gained only a few hundredths. But by lap 24, Stoner was within a second, and gaining.
The catalyst for Stoner's gain was the action up front. As Rossi and Pedrosa embarked upon lap 24, Pedrosa seriously overshot Turn 1, running wide and letting Rossi through. At Turn 5, Rossi returned the favor: Getting on to the dirty, outside part of the track and forced to lose speed, Rossi saw Pedrosa motor past on the tight, inside line, and back into the lead. And now, he had Stoner behind him as well.
Rossi took this as his cue for action. He racked up the pressure, pushing Pedrosa all the way round the track, and poking the nose of his Yamaha M1 out of the Honda's slipstream every lap down the front straight. But each attempt looked more like a practice run than an attack in earnest, Rossi always pulling back behind Pedrosa before they entered Turn 1. But as they started the penultimate lap, Rossi stopped practicing, and struck for real. Getting the drag out of Parabolica, he whipped out of Pedrosa's draft, passed the Spaniard, and got hard on the brakes for Turn 1.
Rossi's pass was a little too late. The Doctor found himself barreling into Turn 1 too fast, and had to brake for longer than he thought, running wide and letting Pedrosa straight back. He had it all left to do once again, but he'd proved that it was possible. Now, Rossi had tipped his hand, and Pedrosa tried to push and get a gap. But his defense would not last long, for as the two protagonists fired down the back straight and through the fast right kink, Rossi was closer than ever.
As they ran into Turn 6, The Doctor made his move: Hard on the brakes, rear wheel floating inches above the tarmac and twitching like a terrier's tail, Rossi stuffed his Yamaha inside Pedrosa, and into the lead. He had a lap and a half to hold of the Spaniard, and by the fight he'd already had to put into passing Pedrosa, it would be the longest lap and a half for a very, very long time.
The Boys Are Back In Town
The final three and a half miles were blistering, both Rossi and Pedrosa going all out for the win. Both men knew that the title was effectively out of their reach this year, and their only target left is to garner as many wins as possible before the season ends. Neither man had anything to lose, and it showed. Since the advent of the 800s, people have complained about the bikes being too easy to ride, too smooth, and lacking the spectacle of the old 990 machines. Not today. Not at Estoril. For a lap and a half Valentino Rossi and Dani Pedrosa pushed their machines to the ragged edge and beyond. For corner after corner, they slid their way round the track, sliding the front on corner entry, both tires through the apex, and smoking the rear out of the long left and right handers. It was a dazzling display of rider skill and determination, just the thing that MotoGP fans needed to wash away the processions of previous races.
In the end, it would come down to how close Pedrosa could get through the Parabolica, and whether he could dive out of Rossi's slipstream and over on the line. Pedrosa could not have tried harder, laying thick dark lines of rubber at both ends of the machine as he chased Rossi into the final turn, but to no avail. Valentino Rossi crossed the line to take the win and get back on the podium after an absence of 4 races, his longest dry spell ever in MotoGP.
Rossi was elated. This time, there were no rehearsed vignettes, no funny sketches, but only the antics of a teenager after his first win, with big smoky burnouts, one-legged wheelies and riding sidesaddle most of the way back into the pits. It took forever, but the crowd were delighted to wait. Afterwards, Rossi spoke of how important this win was, dedicating it to former WRC champion Colin McRae, who died in a helicopter accident on Saturday. McRae was one of Rossi's childhood heroes, and the Italian is likely to follow in his footsteps when he finishes his career in MotoGP, making the switch to his second love, rally cars.
For Dani Pedrosa, second was met with mixed emotions. Glad to be back fighting for the win, but disappointed to fall just short, the Spaniard gave his all. Pedrosa was glad to have made amends for his random act of impetuousness last year, but sad to have lost, ironically thanks to a move at the corner where he took out his team mate last year.
Old Young Man
Though Casey Stoner had closed on the leaders, he had been able to challenge them. Afterwards, Stoner complained of a clutch problem, with a slipping clutch robbing the bike of engine braking, making it hard to brake into corners. But his handling of the problem spoke volumes about his maturity: Instead of pushing too hard and risking crashing, the Australian defended his title lead, minimizing his losses to the only two men who are mathematically capable of thwarting his championship run. Facing a 99 point deficit, Pedrosa's chance at the title is purely mathematical, needing to win all 4 remaining races without Stoner scoring a point. Rossi's chances are not quite in such realms of fantasy, but scoring an average of 19 points more than a Casey Stoner in his current form is as near to impossible as you are likely to get.
At Estoril, Stoner rolled with the punches, and kept on course to take the title. If he scores more than Rossi at the next round, next weekend at Motegi, he will lift the championship in Japan, in the lion's den, at a track owned by Honda, the company everyone expected to walk this series. With Ducati's previous form at Motegi, allied to Bridgestones prior results there, it would take a very foolish man to bet against there being a new world champion in 7 days' time.
The current title holder finished in 4th, behind the man likely to take his crown. Nicky Hayden had put in another strong ride, setting a new lap record along the way, but had lost too much time fighting with Melandri to be able to mix it up with the front runners once he'd caught them. Still, after Hayden's disastrous start to the year, The Kentucky Kid is back where a champion belongs, fighting with the lead group.
Marco Melandri held off John Hopkins for 5th spot, the two Bridgestone runners evenly matched, and pushing each other hard all the way to the end. Melandri's Honda came out on top, but Hopkins' Suzuki put up a fight, the American off the podium for the first time in three races.
In 7th, fittingly, came #7, Carlos Checa. Checa had been engaged in close combat with the surprising Makoto Tamada for most of the race, until Tamada crashed out on lap 24. Checa always seems to ride best with some motivation, and the necessity to find a ride for 2008 is providing plenty. Currently the Spanish veteran looks like missing out on a MotoGP ride, and is looking at World Superbikes, flying in to Holland on Monday to meet the Ten Kate Honda team.
The battle for 9th, and then 8th once Tamada disappeared, had, if anything, been fiercer and more spectacular than the fight at the front. Initially contested by 9 riders, before two smoky engine blowups took first the Kawasaki of Randy de Puniet, and then the Ducati of Alex Barros out of contention. Places swapped nearly every lap, but at the finish line, it was Toni Elias who came out on top, taking 8th from Loris Capirossi, with Colin Edwards taking 10th, after struggling with sliding tires all race, and Shinya Nakano at the back of the group in 11th.
Ant West came home in 12th, after losing touch with the group contesting 8th spot, but still ahead of Chris Vermeulen in 13th, who had struggled with setup problems all weekend, a real contrast with his podium at Misano.
Sylvain Guintoli was the last man home, a lap down, after coming in to change tires during the race. He'd initially been mixed up in the scrap for 8th, but his tires went off badly on lap 21, and he was forced to pit.
Play It Again, Sam
We came here fearing a repeat of the last 3 races, a repeat of yet another procession with Stoner leading everyone home. What we got was a repeat of the Catalunya Grand Prix at Barcelona, which the Estoril track resembles a little. We got another dogfight between the best three riders of the year, with Valentino Rossi eventually coming out on top. We got the spectacle of repeated passing on bikes sliding barely in control, and the fans loved it. The fans have been screaming for a return to the thrilling spectacle of close, hard racing, a sight to which they had become utterly addicted, and at Estoril, they got it. It's obvious that the gap in tires, performance and handling are all narrowing. Let's hope that the next repeat we see is a repeat of the close racing of Estoril, whoever comes out on top.