Bittersweet. That, in a word, describes the final MotoGP round at Valencia. Riders, teams, fans and followers, all face the weekend of MotoGP's last race with very mixed feelings. The time and place, Valencia in early November, has a lot going for it. The weather is perfect for racing and spectating alike, not so hot that it melts both bikes and fans, but warm enough that the tires get up to temperature, and fans can sit in the sun all day. The track is fantastic for viewing: located in a natural bowl, you can see most of the track from almost anywhere around the banked seating areas. The atmosphere is electric, as over 130,000 motorcycle racing fans from every country you've ever heard of, plus a few you haven't, pour into the town of Cheste and the Ricardo Tormo circuit. And as it's the last race of the season there is always some kind of spectacle, with so many riders leaving their current teams, and sometimes the series, dead set on going out in style.
But because it is the last race of the season, there is normally little excitement left in the championship. By now, the title is usually already sewn up, as it was this year, and getting excited about the race for 4th place in the championship takes more commitment than most fans have left at the end of a long season. And though the tightness of the track means that it is hard for riders to break away, if they do get a gap, it's very hard for their pursuers to close it back down again. But perhaps worst of all, the Valencia round also means that fans and followers face four long, dark months without MotoGP, leaving them a miserable burden on their friends and families, and forced to entertain themselves.
The final round of the 2007 MotoGP season was met with even more ambiguous feelings than normal. On the one hand, most were glad that the season so utterly dominated by the brilliance of Casey Stoner and the Ducati team was nearly over, such a stark contrast with the exhilarating racing of least year. With Valencia done, maybe next year's new arrivals, such as Jorge Lorenzo and James Toseland, could bring back the close battles that MotoGP fans long to see.
On the other hand, the dominance which Casey Stoner had displayed for most of the season was starting to wane, as the young Australian champion's winning margins declined. It was obvious that the competition, most notably Honda and Michelin, were closing the gap almost every race. Valencia offered the tantalizing prospect of a straight up race, the room for excuses getting smaller.
The first day of practice did little to remove that ambiguity, as Casey Stoner was once again fastest out of the box. But though Stoner topped the timesheets in both sessions, the competition, in the shape of Dani Pedrosa and Marco Melandri, were hot on his heels. A Stoner whitewash still looked the most likely scenario, but there was also the intriguing possibility that if Pedrosa and Melandri could catch the Australian, the race could be a very close affair indeed.
If Friday brought confusion, Saturday brought consternation. Firstly, the morning session saw Sylvain Guintoli set the fastest time on his Dunlop-shod Tech 3 Yamaha, with Pedrosa, Melandri, and now Alex Barros closing right up on Stoner's times. Then, less than 10 minutes into the afternoon's official qualifying practice, Valentino Rossi, who had been struggling with grip all weekend, ran wide at Turn 1, got on the gas too early, and was flung up the road by his viciously shaking Yamaha M1, fracturing three bones in his right hand and hurting his back. With Dani Pedrosa taking pole position ahead of Casey Stoner, it looked like there could be a genuine race for the win, and for 2nd place in the championship.
Despite carrying an injury that would severely hamper most riders, on Sunday afternoon, Valentino Rossi sat on the grid, unwilling to miss a race for the first time in his long career. Though many might consider 2nd place to be merely first loser, The Doctor was not prepared to relinquish it without a fight. But both Rossi and Pedrosa would have to work for that position. Though he sat on pole, Pedrosa still had to win the race to close the 24 point gap to Rossi, while Rossi had to fight his way through the field from 17th on the grid into the points. Rossi had his injury to battle, while Pedrosa had Casey Stoner to beat, and little chance of any help from Melandri and Barros, the other riders with strong race pace, who were stuck down on the 4th row of the grid.
So as the lights faded for the final time of the season, and the earth trembled to the sound of 18 bikes unleashing 4,000 horsepower upon the tarmac, all eyes were on the front of the grid, and the drag race down to Turn 1. As loudly as the Spanish crowd roared Pedrosa on, it was once again Casey Stoner who got his trademark rocket-propelled start, and peeled into the left hander already several bike lengths ahead. Nicky Hayden followed Stoner at a respectful distance, with Dani Pedrosa just inches behind Hayden. Out of Turn 1 and along the short straight, Pedrosa pulled alongside his Repsol Honda team mate, and forced his bike up the inside into Turn 2, and past into 2nd place.
With Pedrosa through, John Hopkins was the next man Hayden had to worry about, the powder blue Rizla Suzuki all over the back of Hayden's Honda. A small gap separated Hopkins and Stoner's Ducati team mate Loris Capirossi, while both Marco Melandri and Alex Barros were already up to 6th and 7th after just a couple of corners, assisted by the terrible starts the entire 2nd row had got, consisting of Kawasaki's Randy de Puniet and the Tech 3 Yamaha pairing of Sylvain Guintoli and Makoto Tamada.
Here We Go Again
By the time the pack rounded Turn 8, and headed back into the midfield complex, the race looked eerily familiar. Casey Stoner led, and had gapped the field already, Dani Pedrosa heading the chase. At previous MotoGP rounds, Stoner getting a half-second lead on the first lap had been a prelude to the Australian walking away with the race, and that pattern looked like repeating itself once again.
Dani Pedrosa had other ideas. Seeing Stoner depart, the pint-sized Spaniard got his head down and chased the Australian through the infield, down the everlasting left of Turn 13, and by the time they crossed the line to finish the first lap, Pedrosa had clawed back over a tenth, cutting Stoner's lead to 0.3 seconds, and was closing.
But Stoner was on his customary charge, and already hitting astonishing speeds. On the next lap, just the second of the race, Casey Stoner smashed the lap record set by team mate Loris Capirossi in last year's race by 0.15 of a second. But as fast as Stoner was, Pedrosa was not far behind, giving away less than a tenth on lap 2, and taking it back on lap 3. This time, the Australian champion-elect was not going to get it all his own way.
With the former 250 rivals setting a scorching pace at the front, Nicky Hayden, in his last race as reigning world champion, was doing all he could to defend the #1 plate with dignity. The Kentucky Kid had John Hopkins and Marco Melandri right behind him, Melandri having passed Capirossi on the first lap. But Hayden had a problem: his front row spot on the grid belied the terrible problems he had had with traction on race tires, his Honda being no trouble at all on soft and sticky qualifiers. In a desperate attempt at fixing the problem, Hayden and his crew chief had even resorted to using a wet weather setup, to at least get some kind of heat in the tires, and find some kind of grip. It helped some, but Hayden had his hands full trying to keep his sliding RC212V in third, with Hopkins and Melandri pushing all the while.
For Hopkins and Melandri, it was imperative to get past as quickly as possible if they were to have a chance of catching the front two, but Hayden was putting up a stupendous fight. At the end of lap 2, Hayden was already one and three quarter seconds down on Stoner, and considerably slower. And though Hayden had too little grip through the corners, down the straight, he had more than enough power to hold off his assailants. Hopkins' Suzuki could only sit in the draft of Hayden's Honda down the front straight, while the extra horsepower of Melandri's Honda allowed him to pull out of Hopkins's slipstream at the end of the straight. It was not enough to get past, though, Hopkins holding Melandri off on the brakes, neither man close enough to get past Hayden.
Next time round, the pattern repeated itself. Hopkins sat in Hayden's draft, while Melandri crawled all over the Suzuki's tail. This time, however, Hopkins had a plan. Knowing he couldn't get past Hayden down the front straight, he sat patiently behind the Honda, and lined Hayden up into Turn 2 instead. Once past, Hopkins was immediately off to try and chase down the front runners.
This left Melandri with a problem. Throughout the practice sessions, the Italian, riding his last race on a Honda, had been as fast as Pedrosa and Stoner on race tires. But here he was, stuck behind Hayden and straining to get past. With Hopkins now out of the way, Melandri tried the same trick into Turn 1, pulling out of Hayden's draft to pass the American at the end of the front straight. Unfortunately for Melandri, Hayden had seen that coming, and cut in later, to slide back ahead of the Italian on the exit of the corner, and back into 4th. Melandri was right back where he started.
The More Things Change
While one Repsol Honda was being chased, another was giving chase at the front. Dani Pedrosa had parried Casey Stoner's new record on lap 2, and was gradually eating away at the Australian's lead. For two laps, the Spaniard took only a few hundredths back, but on lap 5, it was Pedrosa who smashed the lap record, and in doing so, launched his RC212V down the front straight, pulling out of the Ducati's draft to lead easily into Turn 1.
A wave of fans leaping to their feet charted Pedrosa's progress around the track. This is what the Spanish crowd had come to see, hoping rather against hope that Dani Pedrosa could finally find a way to convert his fourth pole in a row into a win. Now past Stoner, the chips were starting to fall in the Spaniard's favor. It was Pedrosa's turn to push, and Stoner's turn to try and follow.
Once over the shock of being passed, Stoner matched Pedrosa on lap 7, but his resistance was only cursory. As lap followed lap, it was Pedrosa who set fast, consistent lap times, extending his lead by a tenth of a second almost every lap. By the time the pair crossed the line at the halfway mark, Dani Pedrosa had built a cushion of 1.8 seconds. Comfortable, but not decisive, the question now was whether his Michelin tires could last the distance, or if he would give his lead away as his tires went off.
At the back of the field, Valentino Rossi could no longer afford to take that chance. Starting from 17th place, Rossi had taken the first 5 laps to work out how to ride around his broken hand, and getting held up by Ant West, the Australian having the worst weekend of his season on the Kawasaki. On lap 6, The Doctor was past, and his lap times started to drop. Two and a half seconds down on Carlos Checa, and the vital point he needed to secure 2nd place in the championship, he started to close in. On the next lap, lap 8, he got nearly half a second back, and by lap 12, Rossi was on Checa's tail, the Spaniard engaged in a four-way battle for 12th place with Makoto Tamada, Shinya Nakano and Colin Edwards.
As the battle raged around him, Rossi picked his way forward, clearly faster than those around him. On lap 14, he forced his way past Nakano, the Japanese rider having been passed previously by Checa, and 2 laps later, he was ahead of Tamada as well. Now in 14th, he had a comfortable margin and was still the fastest rider of the group, and 6th fastest man on the track. With Checa and Edwards within easy reach, a 12th place finish looked the very least Rossi could expect, holding onto his 2nd spot on the title race with points to spare.
Fate, A Fickle Mistress
Under normal circumstances, that's exactly what would have happened. But the 2006 and 2007 seasons have seen anything but normal circumstances. As Rossi entered the braking zone for Turn 1, after chasing Carlos Checa down the front straight, the rear of his Yamaha M1 twitched severely, forcing Rossi to run wide through the first corner. Any speculation that this was Rossi outbraking himself was swiftly quashed, as The Doctor started to coast. Where Rossi had been 6th fastest on lap 17, he was 10 seconds slower on lap 18, and 20 seconds the next lap. On lap 20, Rossi pulled into the pits, a partially seized engine having ended his race.
Two years ago, one of the many things Valentino Rossi was known for was his luck. Whenever he crashed, he could always remount, rejoin the race, and fight his way back up through the field. He only ever suffered engine failure once his chief rivals had already crashed out, and if crashes happened in front of him, the resulting carnage would always take out Max Biaggi, or Sete Gibernau, but never Valentino Rossi.
That was then. Somewhere around the height of Rossi's flirt with Formula 1 at the end of the 2005 season, Rossi's luck disappeared. Since that time, Rossi has suffered engine failures and freak tire failures. He has crashed, and been unable to continue. His Yamaha has developed mysterious bouts of chatter which failed to appear during testing. And he has had been stuck with the Michelin tires which have so signally failed to be competitive this year. Many of these factors have been beyond his control, and down to manufacturing and design failures at remote facilities which Rossi has been unable to sufficiently influence, and some of them are down to Rossi taking his eye off the ball during the development phase.
But some of those failures can only be down to The Doctor's legendary luck having turned. After the race, Rossi was both furious and frank. "If someone put some bad luck on us I would like to know who it is, because for sure he did well. I have to congratulate him..." he told Italian TV reporters, and went on to threaten Yamaha that this streak of failures must not continue into next year. If Valentino Rossi does not get more speed and more reliability for 2008, then he is almost certain to switch to another team for the season after. The Doctor does not like to lose.
Rossi's loss was Pedrosa's gain. At the front of the field, the Spanish prodigy had only to hold on to his lead to clinch 2nd in the title race. His problem was that the man he had to defend against was Casey Stoner, the fastest man of the year. And the comfortable lead that he had built up by half distance was starting to slip. On three consecutive laps, Pedrosa saw Stoner take back fractions of a second, despite Pedrosa going faster on each of those laps. On lap 19, Pedrosa went faster still, and this time, it was Stoner who lost time, giving back some of the lead which he had fought so hard to cut back.
But it was not yet done. For the next 6 laps, the gap vacillated, Dani Pedrosa first building his lead, only to see Casey Stoner pare it back again. But try as Stoner might, Ducati's first world champion could never get close enough to make an attempt on first place, and with 4 laps to go, Stoner finally capitulated. Dani Pedrosa went on to win his second race of the season, to the delight of the Spanish crowd, and the relief of the Repsol Honda garage. He had won the Valencia race in the same way he had won at the Sachsenring, by getting ahead and pushing as hard and long as possible.
Casey Stoner came home in 2nd place, on the receiving end of a dose of his own medicine. Stoner had gotten a dream start, and looked strong for the first few laps, but once Pedrosa was past, there was nothing that Stoner could do. But with 10 wins out 18 races this season, and tying Valentino Rossi's points record, Stoner's 2nd place at Valencia was just a very minor blemish on the closest thing we have seen to a perfect season for a very, very long time.
In his final race for Suzuki, John Hopkins capped his 5 long years with the team with another 3rd place, his 4th podium of the year, in the season when the Suzuki finally started coming good. Hopkins has long been a highly rated rider on a badly underpowered bike, and this year, he finally got a chance to show what he could do on decent equipment. His podium was a fitting parting gift to the team that has supported him for so long. It also meant that he settled the internal battle with team mate Chris Vermeulen for 4th place in the championship, and moved the Rizla Suzuki team up into 3rd place in the team standings. A suitable reward for both rider and team.
Marco Melandri came home in 4th place, the Gresini Honda rider eventually getting past Nicky Hayden in the last few laps. The two men had spent much of the race knocking three bells out of each other, but Melandri had finally gotten the upper hand once Hayden's tires went off.
Loris Capirossi beat Chris Vermeulen to 5th place, the Ducati veteran holding off the man who will be his team mate at Suzuki for next year over the last third of the race. Capirossi had hung off the back of the Melandri / Hayden battle, unable to catch the two Hondas, and with little threat from behind. At least until Vermeulen came charging through the field, once again turning a poor grid position into a decent finish.
Alex Barros eventually finished in 7th, after slipping back from an outstanding start with a tire problem. The Brazilian veteran - and if any rider deserves the term, it is Barros - finished what was probably the last race of his career with dignity, but without the reward he had hoped for. Before his tire started causing problems, he had been in the race for 4th, but under the circumstances, Barros can leave the series with his head held high.
Barros wasn't the only rider forced to nurse his tires home. After putting up a brilliant, and thoroughly entertaining fight with Marco Melandri for 4th for much of the race, Nicky Hayden was forced to settle for 8th place once his tires went off. It was not the result that Hayden had wanted, and the now ex-world champion is bitterly disappointed that he was unable to win a race with the #1 plate on his bike, something he felt the reputation of the title deserved. However, it was also something he could do little about, given the material he had to work with. Hayden will surely be glad that the longest season of his life is finally over, and he can finally look forward to improved equipment, both tires and bike, for 2008.
Randy de Puniet finished his last race on the Kawasaki in 9th place, after fighting with Alex Barros and Chris Vermeulen for much of the race. After his podium in Japan, de Puniet must have wanted to finish the season better than this, but he struggled almost from the start.
Behind de Puniet, Toni Elias came home in 10th, after finally beating his future team mate at Pramac d'Antin, Sylvain Guintoli. The two young guns had slugged it out for the second half of the race, Elias finally getting the upper hand once Guintoli's Dunlop tires, making their final appearance in the premier class, eventually ran out of grip. For Guintoli, 11th place, well ahead of his team mate, is an excellent finish for the French rookie of the year.
The Long Goodbye
Behind Guintoli, the four-way battle which had raged for much of the race was finally settled in Carlos Checa's favor. The Spanish veteran leaves MotoGP to join the Ten Kate team in World Superbikes, hoping to go from what he described as a terrible Honda to the bike that won the championship last year.
Colin Edwards came home in 13th place, finishing an equally torrid final season with Fiat Yamaha, a season which has seen him both on the podium and at the back of the field. Edwards must be praying that both Yamaha and Michelin get the act together for 2008, as he heads to the Tech 3 Yamaha satellite squad on French rubber.
Behind Edwards, Shinya Nakano took 14th place in his final ride for what is almost certainly the worst team in the paddock, and a veritable black hole of talent. Nakano leaves Japan Italy Racing, the team that fielded the Konica Minolta Honda, to ride a Bridgestone-shod Gresini Honda next year. He can only be delighted that he is back on Japanese rubber, and in a team with a proven record of winning races.
In 15th place, the other victim of JIR, Makoto Tamada, took the final point of his MotoGP career. Tamada's career has been in decline ever since the JIR team switched from Bridgestone rubber to Michelins at the beginning of the 2005 season. Now, he must find a way to revitalize it outside of the series.
Last man home was Ant West. West was completely at sea all weekend, and the race was no different. After the race was finished, he said he realized where he had gone wrong with the setup, and how to fix it. With testing taking place starting on Tuesday, he can display what he learned on Sunday then.
Be Careful What You Ask For
The MotoGP circus came to Valencia with mixed feelings, fearing that the season would end as it had progressed all summer: with another processional race featuring a Stoner walkover, his rivals unable to challenge, and the only entertainment to be found in battles down the field. But the race had not dismissed those mixed emotions: the threatened demolition of the opposition by Casey Stoner had failed to appear, but in its place came a similar display by Dani Pedrosa. The fans had seen this race before this season, only the order of the finishers was different.
The processional nature of the race did not prevent the Spanish fans from going berserk, however. They had been waiting a long time to see a Spaniard capable of fighting for a win, and finally they had been given what they came for. Pedrosa chose the last race of the year to reassert his authority, and remind everyone why everyone had expected him to be the man most likely to be champion back in February.
In fact, all pre-season predictions have been entirely confounded so far this year. With the rules changing, Honda was expected to destroy the competition, and dominate the series. Instead, it was a tiny factory from Italy and a man dismissed as a chronic crasher who had dominated, crushing the opposition in their path. Before the season started, the pundits and experts were saying that the key to winning would be corner speed and smoothness, the hallmark of a good 250 rider. But the experts got it wrong. Although a 250 rider won the championship, his style was more ragged than smooth, as he wrung the neck of his ferocious Ducati and hurled it round the track. Then, just to add insult to injury, Dani Pedrosa won the final race of the season in exactly the same style, ignoring smoothness in favor of flinging his Honda into every corner, hanging on to the writhing monster on the way in and on the way out.
Light At The End Of The Tunnel
Now that the race is over, the mixed feelings that the MotoGP followers came here with remain. The winter means 4 months without racing, but it also gives the teams and factories time to regroup. The prospect of the 2008 season is already exciting interest, as testing for next year is due to start this week. Honda surely won't make the same mistake again, and will be back with a much stronger, faster machine for 2008, having already announced that the '08 machine won't be as tightly focused on mass centralization as this year's bike. The satellite Honda teams will get the bike that Dani Pedrosa won Sunday's race on. Michelin have understood that their philosophy of tailoring tires to work perfectly in a very narrow range of conditions has failed under the new tire limits, and are working to build tires which work in a wider range of temperatures.
Yamaha have already officially apologized to Valentino Rossi for failing him this season, and are sure to bring a significantly faster and more reliable bike to the series for next year. Rossi himself will switch to Bridgestones, removing the disparity in tires with the Ducatis. Kawasaki will get a top flight rider to go with the much improved bike they have had this year, and Suzuki get to start the season from position of strength, rather than having to play catch up.
Then there's Marco Melandri joining Casey Stoner at Ducati, sure to create a much closer rivalry within the team. And to cap it all off, there's the arrival of two much-awaited rookies: the reigning World Superbike champion James Toseland; and the man with the largest ego in the paddock - no mean feat in MotoGP - Jorge Lorenzo, in the same pit box, but on different tires, as Valentino Rossi, the man whose post-race celebrations Lorenzo is always trying to outdo.
We may be forced to wait for another 4 months before the racing starts again, but we will have so much to speculate and theorize about during the cold, dark winter nights that March should come round almost before we know it. The speculation starts on Tuesday, once the first official tests start. We can hardly wait.