The Once And Future King
At the beginning of the season, motorcycle racing followers all over the world viewed the arrival of Dani Pedrosa with great anticipation, but also some regret. Finally, it was felt, here was a rider who could challenge the dominance of the MotoGP class by Valentino Rossi. Pedrosa's record in the 125 and 250 classes was superlative, better than Rossi's, winning the 250 championship at the first go, where Rossi took a year to learn. And yet it was feared that we would be robbed of the epic battles which must surely ensue between these two champions, as it would take Pedrosa at least a year to master riding a MotoGP bike, by which time, Rossi would be firmly ensconced in the seat of a Ferrari F1 car.
As the season has progressed, fears that racing fans would be denied the spectacle of Rossi-Pedrosa clashes have been gradually diminished. Pedrosa ran well at the very first race of the season, hinting at things to come, before winning at Shanghai, proving he was progressing much faster than anyone had expected. The matter was put firmly to rest at the beginning of June, when Rossi finally announced that he would be staying in MotoGP for at least another year, and would not enter Formula 1.
Despite Pedrosa's rapid progress, the battles between the two racing greats have failed to materialize. Where Pedrosa has run well, Rossi has been hampered by mechanical problems, and when Rossi has been fast, Pedrosa has struggled with the MotoGP bike. After Rossi fractured his wrist in Assen, it seemed that once again, events were conspiring to deprive racing fans of a straight duel. The nature of the fantastic track at Donington, with the hard braking required for the Esses and the Melbourne Loop, would surely place too much strain on Rossi's wrists, and leave him stranded in mid-pack. This picture was confirmed during practice, where Dani Pedrosa, together with fellow 250 rookie Casey Stoner, dominated all three free sessions, culminating in a blistering display during qualifying, taking 2/10ths of a second off the current pole record. Rossi, on the other hand, saw his problems confirmed, qualifying in a lowly 12th position. And indeed, once again we were deprived of the spectacle of Rossi and Pedrosa slugging it out for the rightful claim to top dog. And yet the story of the British GP at Donington ended up being very much the story of two men: the current reigning champion, and the man who has been anointed his successor.
An Unstoppable Force?
As the bikes lined up for the start of the race, the question was: who could stop Pedrosa? Beside Pedrosa on the front row sat Marco Melandri, who was still suffering with a shoulder and a hand injury, and would surely fade in the latter part of the race, and Chris Vermeulen. Vermeulen's Suzuki was fast, and the Bridgestones are getting better and better, but as happened at Assen last week, it was doubtful that they could be competitive for the full length of a race at a track like Donington. The championship leader, and Mr Consistency of the season, Nicky Hayden, had had a poor qualifying, struggling to make a new chassis provided by HRC work, and was down on the fourth row of the grid, beside Valentino Rossi, the seven-time winner here, and Colin Edwards, the lap record holder.
The only rider to consistently put in fast lap times during qualifying was Casey Stoner, but he hadn't managed to get in the single fast lap on his LCR Honda necessary to get on the front row of the grid. And that meant he would have to fight his way past Loris Capirossi, another injured rider who could be expected to be fast over the first laps of the race on the Ducati, but whose injuries were likely to slow him down in the later stages of the race, meaning that by the time Stoner got to the front of the pack, Pedrosa would be too far gone to catch.
As the lights went out, and the pack shot off the grid with a noise like the thunder of the gods, it was Marco Melandri who beat Pedrosa to the first corner, getting a great start from third spot on the grid. Casey Stoner had escaped being trapped behind others by getting another lightning start, much as he did in Catalunya two weeks ago, to take third position, followed by the two Suzukis of Vermeulen and Hopkins. But the Suzukis soon took the shine off of Stoner's fantastic start, first Vermeulen and then Hopkins passing Stoner down through the Craner curves, with Kenny Roberts Jr just missing out on the pass on Stoner in 6th. Further down the field, Nicky Hayden got away from his main title rival from the line, then quickly put the Kawasaki of Shinya Nakano between himself and Valentino Rossi, concentrating on building his lead in the championship.
Back at the front, once the excitement of the first lap had subsided, the racing was close. Marco Melandri held a narrow lead over a pushy Pedrosa, with Hopkins and Stoner close behind, and a small gap to Roberts Jr, leading the rest of the field. Pedrosa made his displeasure at being stuck behind Melandri glaringly obvious, pushing alongside Melandri into the Esses on the brakes, and taking a peek up the inside every lap. But despite injuries to shoulder and hand, Melandri is an absolute terror on the brakes, and held Dani back each time, holding the line through the Melbourne Loop to keep Pedrosa at bay. On lap 5, Pedrosa decided to make his move. He knew he was faster than Melandri, and that once he got past the Italian, he could start building a lead. So once again, Pedrosa pushed Melandri on the brakes into the Esses, coming through to make a move up the inside at the Melbourne hairpin. But beating Melandri on the brakes is an almost impossible task, as Pedrosa nearly lost control of the bike into the hairpin, running wide and losing out on the lead, as well as second, as Melandri miraculously dodged the bucking Repsol Honda to retain first place.
Down in midfield, the title battle seemed to be shaping up in Nicky Hayden's favor, as the Kentucky Kid added Loris Capirossi to the buffer between himself and Valentino Rossi. Rossi had already dealt with Nakano, and then dispatched Capirossi, fully aware that he could not afford to lose even more points to Hayden in the title race, especially as the Repsol Honda rider has been such a regular visitor to the podium this year. Hayden could hear Rossi coming, as he pushed harder every lap, in an attempt to keep The Doctor behind him, and on lap 7, as he pushed to pass Chris Vermeulen, he did something totally out of character: The man who always played the numbers made an error, running wide and through the gravel trap at the Esses, losing 4 places in the process. This mistake was to prove doubly expensive to Hayden: It allowed Rossi past, and in a lap he was on and then past Vermeulen, with a clear track to close the 2 second gap to Casey Stoner. But it also meant that Hayden rejoined the race behind Rossi's team mate Colin Edwards, and got himself caught up in the battle Edwards was having with Capirossi and Shinya Nakano. Though the pair eventually passed Capirossi, and were aided by Shinya Nakano pulling out with engine problems on lap 14, Hayden was never to get past Edwards, and finished the race losing valuable points down in 7th.
Off To The Races
With Rossi free to start closing down the leading group, it looked like we might just end up with the long-awaited match up of the Old Champion and the Young Pretender, but the Young Pretender had other ideas. Pedrosa corrected his mistake at Melbourne within a few laps, and by lap 7, he was back on Melandri's tail, getting back to his old ritual of taking a look up the inside at the Esses, but being blocked by Melandri's fierce braking to hold the lead. So he tried something different. In a daring, almost Rossi-esque move, Pedrosa slipped up the inside at the McLeans right-hander, holding the line to block Melandri on the exit, a forceful display of bike control. And once past, what everyone had been afraid of came to pass. On the next lap, Pedrosa set a new lap record, a searing 1:28:714, over 1.2 seconds faster than Colin Edwards' record from 2004. He went on to put in a series of blazing low 1:29 second laps, pulling out a lead of nearly 7.5 seconds over the next 13 laps. By lap 26, Pedrosa's second MotoGP victory of the season was no longer in doubt. All he had to do was stay upright, and ride the win home.
The only other rider to match Pedrosa's pace was Valentino Rossi. Unleashed by Hayden's mistake, he matched Pedrosa's lap times to start catching the leading group, passing Hopkins on the way. Melandri's pace had dropped just a fraction after Pedrosa blew by him, and this allowed Kenny Roberts Jr and Casey Stoner to catch Melandri, with Rossi closing in fast. Stoner and Roberts tussled for third, and the right to challenge Melandri, with Stoner coming out on top with a tough move up the inside at Melbourne. As Stoner started to push Melandri hard, Rossi closed on Kenny Jr's tail. Both injured Italians had been holding up well up until this point, no signs that they were having problems from their weakened wrists, but the effort must have been taking its toll. As Stoner pushed Melandri, the Fortuna Honda rider closed the door just a little too vigorously, clipping the kerb at McLeans, causing the bike to slide precariously, looking for all the world as if he'd slide into the gravel. But Melandri put on a display of the mythical "catching it on the knee", forcing his knee into the ground to lever the bike up, maintaining control, but at the expense of running very wide. Stoner, following inches behind, slipped past into 2nd, but Roberts was caught off guard, and forced off his line, allowing Valentino Rossi to slide up the inside past both Roberts and Melandri.
Making Up Is Hard To Do
But Miracle Man Melandri was not finished. Just 2 corners later, Melandri was back past Roberts at the Esses. And one lap later, Melandri was past Rossi, again at the Esses. Back on a mission, the Fortuna Honda rider started to make good the gap he'd left to Stoner by nearly sliding off. It took him just a lap, and Melandri was on Stoner, and then past him, at the Esses yet again. Rossi, who'd been trailing in his wake, took advantage and slipped past Stoner at the next corner, the Melbourne Loop. On the next lap, the seven time world champion showed just how deep his racing skills go. Having watched Melandri round the Esses, he knew where to attack: Rossi passed Melandri on the brakes into the Esses, holding the line as they ran up the hill towards the Melbourne Loop, defending all the way through the hairpin, and down towards Goddards.
Try as he might, Rossi couldn't shake Melandri. With just 4 laps to go, Rossi put in lap after blazing lap, but however fast he rode, Melandri rode just that little bit faster, clinging on to The Doctor's tail like a remora on a shark. On the penultimate lap, Melandri made his intentions clear by trying to line Rossi up for the pass at the Esses and at Melbourne. The problem was, Rossi knew exactly where to expect him, and parried his thrusts with ease. The pair squared off for the battle both knew was coming on the last lap. As they approached the Esses for the last time, Melandri once again put in a do-or-die braking move to pass Rossi at the Esses. Where he had failed on the previous lap, this time he succeeded, but it had cost him momentum, and Rossi was immediately on his tailpipe. Both men knew that Melandri had to defend his line through the Melbourne hairpin, or Rossi would be past. But, in an echo of last week's race at Assen, Melandri's defense was just a little too zealous, running wide at the turn in, allowing Rossi to slide up the inside, slamming the door in Melandri's face on the run back towards Goddards, and holding his place through the last turn to the line, to take 2nd behind the victorious Pedrosa. Melandri crossed in 3rd, just a fraction behind Rossi, disappointed to have lost out to Rossi, but not too disappointed considering his condition.
Casey Stoner crossed the line in 4th a couple of seconds down, unable to follow the pace set by the two Italians, as was Kenny Roberts Jr, four seconds behind the young Australian. Colin Edwards managed to put a few seconds between himself and Nicky Hayden over the latter part of the race, denying Hayden valuable championship points. John Hopkins, who had started so well at the beginning of the race, dropped to 8th by the end of the race, the Bridgestones on his Suzuki losing grip as the race progressed. Loris Capirossi rode another brave race on the Ducati to finish 9th, despite serious pain from his internal injuries, ahead of another fine performance from Carlos Checa on the Dunlop-shod Tech 3 Yamaha. The Dunlops are obviously making progress, as witnessed by the fact that Checa finished ahead of the Michelin-shod Konica Minolta of Makoto Tamada in 11th, the Bridgestone-shod Kawasaki of Randy de Puniet in 12th, and the Bridgestone-shod Ducati of Alex Hofmann, substituting for Sete Gibernau. With Gibernau close to being fit again, 13th place is not good enough for Hofmann to keep the Marlboro Ducati ride at his home Grand Prix at the Sachsenring in two weeks time. James Ellison rode a creditable race to finish 14th, ahead of Jose Luis Cardoso on the Pramac d'Antin Ducati, and Chris Vermeulen, who had pitted for repairs after sliding off on lap 16.
By dominating practice, and winning the race almost without effort, the Young Pretender has proven that he is a credible threat to the championship. On the podium, the Old Champion tacitly acknowledged that threat, in a veiled display of the psychological warfare Rossi employs once rivals start getting too close. Living for much of the year in London, Rossi has a huge following of fans in Britain, and they were already ecstatic at the awe-inspiring display The Doctor had put on to come through from 12th to finish on the podium. So when their names were announced on the podium, though Pedrosa got a good cheer, as befits a winner, Rossi made sure that the cheer produced when his name was called was deafening, by whipping the crowd into a frenzy. The pattern we saw a few years ago with Sete Gibernau, when the Spaniard went from friendly relations with Rossi to almost open warfare, has once again been set in motion. Rossi was undoubtedly delighted at what was, once more this season, one of the best races of his career. But he wanted Pedrosa to know that the crowd were more impressed by Rossi's performance than by Pedrosa's. Pedrosa, imperturbable as ever, seemed totally unaffected.
So with hostilities not so much opened, as in preparation, the long-awaited, and much-anticipated duel between Valentino Rossi and Dani Pedrosa cannot be far off. Pedrosa is getting stronger, finding it easier and easier to manage the MotoGP bike. Rossi's wrist is healing, and the problems his M1 had earlier in the season have now mostly been solved. Not long now, before this is settled, man to man. Motorcycle racing fans all over the world are rubbing their hands with glee at the prospect.