For anyone who enjoyed the host of apocalyptic disaster movies which appeared at the end of the 20th century, most of which seemed to involve asteroids threatening to destroy the Earth, the atmosphere surrounding the final MotoGP round at Valencia will be instantly familiar. For almost everyone involved, either in staging, racing in, or just plain attending the event, there is a sense that the end of the world is imminent and that they'd better try and cram as much as possible into the weekend, before the endless dark of winter falls.
And so the Valencia circuit and the small town of Cheste nearby is home to Breughelian scenes of frenzied partying. Fans crowd the streets on any kind of vehicle which will bear them, filling the night skies with the shriek of engines bouncing off rev limiters and the thick, acrid smoke of burning rubber, as tires are worn down to the cords before exploding to wild cheers. The smoke, the howling engines, the rampaging bacchanalia, and the inevitable human casualties involved paint a picture more reminiscent of Dante's Divine Comedy than a motorcycle race. Truly, this is a picture of humanity grimly determined to have the best possible time before the end comes.
But it's not just the fans who are in a state of feverish hysteria: inside the paddock, the atmosphere is just frenetic. For many, both riders and team members alike, this is their last chance to secure a future in MotoGP. Mechanics, caterers, drivers, public relations officers, journalists, camera crews, few are sure of a job for next season, only finding out after the Valencia race has finished. And riders in almost every class face uncertainty about whether they'll be able to return to their team, their class, or even the MotoGP paddock next year.
The Last Days
And so Valencia catches many paddock insiders in a bind. On the one hand, it is hard not to get swept up in the end-of-season party atmosphere and spend time socializing with people you've seen on and off all year round, but may not see again, as either you or they could be gone next year. But on the other hand, you have one last chance to shine, to push yourself just that little bit harder and sway the wavering decision-makers in your favor. If you fail, however, you've missed out on your final chance to party with your peers. It's a dilemma which everyone in the paddock solves in their own way.
For the riders, it's relatively simple. Few have very much to lose, and so they can do no more than give it their all one final time. The reasons for risking it all are varied: those who have triumphed all year want a final victory to crown their season; those whose contracts have not been renewed want to prove their team managers wrong, and show they still have what it takes to race competitively; and those to be joined by new team mates want to establish their place in the pecking order, to ensure that they get the new parts first next year, and not the Johnny-come-lately on the other side of the garage.
The Ricardo Tormo circuit at Valencia provides a fitting stage for all that drama. Located just outside the small town of Cheste, the Spanish track sits in a natural bowl surrounded by low hills, adding to the cauldron-like atmosphere. One of the joys of the track is that spectators sitting on the hillsides can see the entire track spread out before them, missing nothing of the action. But the downside to being located in a bowl is that options for the track layout are limited, and the two and a half mile circuit is squeezed into a tiny area. Three hairpins force the track back on itself, maximizing use of the floor of the bowl, while turning the Valencia circuit into something of a go-kart track, with a lot of short straights joined by tight turns.
But Valencia has its saving graces as well. The hairpins allow plenty of passing opportunities, and the infield section of turns 9 and 10, and the flick right at turn 12 provide scintillating spectacle. But the finest part of the track is the long left-hander of turn 13, a downhill slightly off-camber affair where the riders spend an awful lot of time on the edge of the tire. Then, just as the tires start overheating and sliding, the riders have to brake hard at close to full lean for the sharp left which ends the lap and takes them back onto the front straight. A rider who is fearless, fast and foolhardy can pass here, getting into the final turn ahead and getting a jump on their opponents, but the line between winning and losing is razor thin: audacity can take you to the head of the field here, or it can leave you sprawled in the gravel.
The Fast Show
Fearless, fast and foolhardy have all been used to describe Casey Stoner. Last season, the latter adjective would have been used most often, but in 2007, just one word has summed up his riding: Casey Stoner is fast. He is fast from the moment he rolls the bike out of pit lane for his first practice laps of the weekend to the second he crosses the line under the checkered flag, usually first, and often by a significant margin. Stoner's season has been phenomenal, and at Valencia, he could add to that by winning his 11th race of the season, equaling the 2nd highest win total held by Valentino Rossi and Giacomo Agostini, behind only fellow Australian Mick Doohan. Frankly, it's hard to see who can stop him.
There will be plenty of people willing to try, though, chief among whom are Valentino Rossi and Dani Pedrosa. Both men are out for one thing: to blot out the memory of a miserable season with a win. Rossi and Pedrosa had expected to spend the year fighting each other for the championship, but instead, the two of them arrive at Valencia disputing 2nd place, having been comprehensively outclassed by Stoner's perfect package of rider, tires and back much earlier in the season.
Of the two, Valentino Rossi has the stronger hand, holding a 24 point lead over Pedrosa. All he has to do is finish better than 15th, and 2nd place is his. But you can bet your bottom dollar that The Doctor will be out for very much more. Rossi will want to go into the postseason on a high, ready to work on coming back stronger next year, and able to reclaim the title that he believes is his by right. Having lost one title to bad luck, and another title to changes in the rules, Rossi is out for vengeance.
As is Dani Pedrosa. He returns to appear in front of his home fans with just a single win this year, which he considers a very poor total indeed. He needs to win to have a chance of taking 2nd place from Rossi, but as slim as that chance is, that isn't the main factor motivating Pedrosa. The Spaniard wants to prove to his home crowd and to Honda that he is still the man most capable of preventing Valentino Rossi - and Casey Stoner - from taking the title. But most of all, he wants to prove that to himself.
The same has to be said for Pedrosa's team mate, Nicky Hayden. After Hayden won the title here at Valencia last year, Valentino Rossi warned him that the number one plate would be a very heavy burden. Though Hayden took that warning seriously, he could never have imagined just how heavy that number would be. Hayden's year started off disastrously, struggling with an underpowered bike built for his tiny team mate, and he only really started to find his feet after a successful test in Barcelona. Back in Spain once again, Hayden will want to hand over his crown with dignity, and try to put the #1 plate where it belongs.
Another man likely to relinquish his number after Sunday's race is Suzuki's Chris Vermeulen. Vermeulen may bid farewell to the number 71 he has used since he entered MotoGP, and claim the number 7, the number used by his mentor and idol Barry Sheene, currently in use by the departing Carlos Checa. So Vermeulen will be trying to give his old number a decent send off before he switches. But the Australian ex Supersport champ has something more to motivate him: Next season, he will be joined by the veteran Loris Capirossi, and the Valencia race will see the start of the battle for supremacy inside the Suzuki garage.
Over at Kawasaki, Ant West will have no such ambitions. The young Australian will be sharing a garage with Vermeulen's current team mate John Hopkins next year, and there can be no doubt who will be top dog in that team. Instead, West will be concentrating on showing some more progression and riding an error-free race, after two ride through penalties in the last three races.
The man who will be joining West at Kawasaki has a point to prove. Unless John Hopkins wins on Sunday, he will leave Suzuki without ever winning on the bike, the only MotoGP victory so far taken by team mate Vermeulen. The American has been with Suzuki since the dawn of the MotoGP project, and taking his first win at his last race for the team would only be fitting.
A Hopkins victory would also suit Loris Capirossi. Capirex is due to take over Hopkins bike at Suzuki after this weekend, and a strong result by the Suzukis would reaffirm the Italian's choice was a good one. But more than confirmation of his future, Capirossi will be looking to win himself, or at least beat his team mate. The Italian veteran is still angry at Ducati for the way he has been cast aside this year, and leaving the team with a win in his pocket would be a very sweet form of revenge.
Marco Melandri is the cause of Capirossi's bitterness, as it was Melandri's signing at Laguna Seca that left Capirossi without a seat at Ducati. Melandri must surely be relishing the chance to take over the factory Ducati seat, arguably the most desirable ride in MotoGP at the moment, especially after such a difficult year on the Gresini Honda. Melandri has complained throughout the season that Honda has not lived up to the promises they made before the season started about supplying him with factory parts, leaving him struggling on the underpowered original version of the RC212V for a long time. Now that his bike is close to competitive, Melandri is sure to try and leave Honda on a high note, to ponder the error of their ways.
Melandri's team mate Toni Elias will also be leaving Gresini to ride a Ducati after Sunday's race. But unlike Melandri, Elias will be joining the young Frenchman Sylvain Guintoli at the Pramac d'Antin satellite squad. Elias will be hoping to build on his strong form of the last 3 races, including a podium in Japan, while Guintoli will want to give the Dunlop tires one final good outing before their probable withdrawal from MotoGP, despite improving results this year.
Taking Guintoli's place at Tech 3 Yamaha next season will be Colin Edwards. The Texas Tornado will want to use his final ride aboard the factory Yamaha to good effect, and stay ahead of Nicky Hayden in the fight for 8th in the championship.
Shinya Nakano will be taking Toni Elias' seat at Gresini Honda, and will be keen to put the nightmare of his year at Konica Minolta Honda behind him. Although the Japanese rider will still be on a Honda next year, at least he will be back on the Bridgestone tires which suit his style so well. Although Nakano would like to end the year on a high, his form on the least supported Honda in arguably the weakest team in the paddock does not leave much room for hope.
While Nakano will be switching from Michelins to Bridgestones, Randy de Puniet will be making the switch the other way, leaving Kawasaki to join the LCR Honda team run by Lucio Cecchinello. With de Puniet already the paddock's most frequent crasher, moving to a tire with less feel at the front seems a strange choice indeed. But before he goes, he will want to show both his old team and his new team just what he is capable of, if he can stay on the bike.
They All Rolled Over, And One Fell Out
The three departing veterans of the MotoGP class will be equally determined to prove that they deserved to stay in the series. Carlos Checa, Makoto Tamada and Alex Barros all leave with greater or lesser degrees of acrimony. Checa's destination is perhaps the best of the bunch, as he will be joining the Ten Kate Honda team in World Superbikes, and is at least guaranteed competitive machinery. But Barros and Tamada face a more uncertain fate. So far, the Brazilian veteran, who has been in the paddock since 1989, looks like being forced to retire, and in a recent interview expressed his disillusionment with the d'Antin team, claiming he was never given the assistance he required to set his bike up properly. Barros was equally displeased with Carlos Checa, claiming the Spaniard took the Ten Kate ride away from him by grossly undercutting his wage demands.
As for Tamada, the former GP winner never really recovered from the decision taken by his team to switch from Bridgestone rubber to Michelins. Since that time, his career has gone slowly downhill, and although Tamada has been linked with a few rides in World Superbike, nothing has been announced yet. Tamada has one final chance on Sunday to earn a ride in a decent team.
The other rider leaving the series is its most recent arrival. Although Chaz Davies has run well since taking over Alex Hofmann's ride at Pramac d'Antin, it has not been enough to secure a permanent ride. So next year, Davies will return to the AMA series, where he will once again contest the Supersport and Formula Xtreme championships. But at just 20 years of age, Davies is still young. There is plenty of time for the Welshman to return to MotoGP in the future. He can take the first step towards that goal with a strong finish on Sunday.
End Of An Era?
The biggest question mark in the paddock hangs over Team KR. After last season's brilliant performance, using only a customer Honda engine and a chassis designed and built in house, 2007 has been an utter disaster. Saddled with the stock, underpowered RC212V engine as supplied at the beginning of the season, the team have struggled to find something in the chassis department to make up for the engine deficiencies. So dispiriting was the task that Kenny Roberts Jr, who started the season, stopped racing halfway through out of sheer desperation at the lack of progress, to be replaced by his brother Kurtis. But without the new engine parts, the team was doomed. Whether they will return for 2008, and how, and with what machinery, is still a complete mystery.
They will, however, be going out in style: the tail of the bike will be covered in messages from fans and supporters of the project, submitted at Team KR's website. Although chronically short of funds and equally short of support from their engine supplier, as the last privateer in the paddock, Team KR have always had a strong following. If the team were forced to leave MotoGP, it would be a huge loss to the paddock, and truly the end of an era.
Goodbye To All That
And so, MotoGP embarks on its final fling of the season, one last weekend of fast and frenzied activity. Some faces will return next season, others will not, but all will be determined to go out with a bang, not a whimper. On Sunday, the 2007 MotoGP season of motorcycle racing ends, much to the disappointment of the fans. Fortunately for them, the 2008 season starts two days later, when the first testing starts. We can hardly wait.