Interviewed on the grid at Valencia, before the start of the final race of 2006, where the championship seemed to have slipped out of his hands, Nicky Hayden said "This is MotoGP, anything can happen. That's why we line up." Every race weekend, countless factors can influence the possible outcome of a race: The weather can turn from dry to wet, or vice versa; a seemingly innocent crash during practice can injure hands, wrists or feet, suddenly making riding a bike a lot more difficult; settings which worked at the previous race can turn out to be useless at the track at hand; or perhaps even a fault with a rider's number 1 bike can leave the riding around uncomfortably on their spare machine, which though ostensibly identical, still feels just that little bit different.
This weekend at Donington was a case in point. The English weather had done its very best to turn proceedings on their head by being dry on Friday, then soaking wet on Saturday. Sunday started dry again, the rain having made way for a fierce wind gusting nastily at some of the crests around the track. Dani Pedrosa and Jorge Lorenzo had turned up still hurting from pre- and post-race crashes at Catalunya, and were circulating well down the order. And American Superbike champion Ben Spies had flown in to ride the injured Loris Capirossi's Suzuki, and impressed the sceptical European fans by qualifying 8th on the grid in a downpour.
Spies' World Superbike counterpart could have done with a good deal less of that unpredictability. Almost from the moment James Toseland rolled up at his home Grand Prix, things just kept on going awry. First, the settings he had found at the post-race test at Catalunya turned out not to work at all at Donington, meaning he was constantly in the bottom half of the field. Then, in an effort to get a decent grid position, he crashed twice in one lap in the dying minutes of qualifying, leaving him stranded down in 16th place. This certainly wasn't part of the plan, and Toseland was left wishing that things would work out as he had imagined them before the event, instead of spinning wildly out of control.
Same Ol' Same Ol'
Some things, though, are as predictable as the motions of the heavens. Once Casey Stoner headed the timesheets within minutes of the first free practice session starting, then repeated the feat during every session, only bested in the dying minutes of a rain-drenched FP3, a palpable sense of fate overtook the paddock. The improvements that Stoner had found at the test after Barcelona left the World Champion looking exactly like the rider who crushed the opposition in 2007. We'd seen this version of Casey Stoner before: arrive at the track and be fastest from Friday morning to Sunday afternoon.
Fortunately, a couple more extremely predictable things happened, which prevented the outcome from being a foregone conclusion. The first was that once again, a Yamaha made it onto the front row of the grid, as they have done so often this year. And this time, it was Valentino Rossi who had qualified next to Casey Stoner, raising the possibility that this could be a dogfight rather than a runaway.
The second thing that we all just knew would happen was that the other Australians on the grid thrived in the wet conditions. Ant West, so far this year positively glued to the back of the grid, qualified 7th in the rain, and was unlucky at that after discovering he didn't have a softer rain tire for the end of the qualifying practice. And Chris Vermeulen did even better, qualifying in 3rd and on the front row of the grid in the wet. It remains a paradox that motorcycle racers from the world's driest inhabited continent are so incredibly quick once the rain begins to fall. You could almost suspect them of trying to get it all over with as quickly as possible so they can get back into their nice, dry pit garages.
Vermeulen and West would not have the elements on their side on race day, as the rain was long gone by the time the bikes rolled up to the starting line for the race. If the Suzuki rider and the Kawasaki man were to run at the front, they'd have to try a different tack. The two Australians would have to find a way to surprise the rest of the field.
Roller Coaster Ride
As the red lights dimmed and 18 highly-strung racing motorcycles howled off the line like demented banshees, Casey Stoner lived up to his billing as one of the fastest starters on the grid, firing off the line and into Redgate, the long, scary first right hander, ahead of the pack. Behind Stoner, the Hondas were also getting their traditional rocket-propelled starts, with Nicky Hayden creeping up round the outside of Valentino Rossi, and team mate Dani Pedrosa positively shooting through the field, from 9th to contend for 5th place.
Entering the turn and rolling down towards Hollywood, Valentino Rossi used his inside line to take back 2nd from Hayden, ahead of Andrea Dovizioso and Chris Vermeulen. Having launched off the line, Dani Pedrosa was not close enough to squeeze between Colin Edwards and Ant West into 6th, and deciding an alternative approach was required, he back off a fraction to settle for 8th, and cut inside.
At the back of the field, James Toseland's luck wasn't getting any better. Wanting to make up places as quickly as possible in front of his home crowd, and possibly further inflamed by the sight of his fellow countryman Scott Redding winning the 125cc Grand Prix, the first Brit to win a GP since Jeremy McWilliams in 2001, Toseland was off the line like a scalded cat and into the first corner as hot as the water that scalded it. The Tech 3 Yamaha man had gone from 17th to challenge for 12th, but that was more than his rear tire could handle. The back came round on Toseland too quickly for him to save it, and the Englishman was dumped unceremoniously on the tarmac, banging his head and his right hand hard in the fall. Obviously hurt, yet stung by his pride even more, Toseland remounted, and rejoined the chase already 30 seconds down.
Unaware of, and unconcerned with the drama at the back, Casey Stoner was pushing fast at the front. Behind Stoner, Valentino Rossi was chasing hard, but was simultaneously forced to contend with an unleashed Andrea Dovizioso. Dovi had started forcefully, stuffing his Team Scot Honda up the inside of Nicky Hayden at the Old Hairpin, before sliding underneath Rossi a couple of corners later at McLeans. But having seen Dani Pedrosa pull a similar trick two weeks ago at Barcelona, The Doctor was not going to allow Stoner to get away easily. Lining up for Coppice, Rossi was back past Dovizioso once again, and off chasing.
Behind Dovizioso, Nicky Hayden had company from his Repsol Honda team mate. After backing out of the pass of Edwards and West at Redgate, the wily Spaniard had cut inside and used the tight line through Hollywood to climb up into 6th. He was onto Vermeulen at Starkey's, and past him going into Coppice. For a man who is accused of not being able to pass, the way he bludgeoned his way forward 4 places on the first lap was deeply impressive.
Further back, another young Spaniard was slashing through the field. Jorge Lorenzo had looked a shadow of his former self throughout the weekend, confessing that his big crash at Catalunya, which had seen him hospitalized with concussion, had shaken him badly. His stated goal at Donington was to recover some of his confidence, and he got a big chunk of that back on the first lap. Starting from a lowly 17th place on the grid, the reigning 250 world champion was up into 10th by the end of lap 1.
As the pack thundered across the line at the end of the first lap, Casey Stoner had already taken over half a second lead, with Valentino Rossi leading the chase behind. As they tumbled down the long flowing turns which make up the Craner Curves section, the first verse in what was to become a repetitive refrain took shape on the track. Stoner ran down fast and smooth, but Rossi stooped like a falcon hunting down its prey, closing in on the Australian's tail. Round Starkey's, and through Schwantz and McLeans, Stoner would inch back the ground he had lost, extending his lead once again.
On the run though Coppice, and up through the Foggy Esses, Rossi would start to close on Stoner once again, only for Stoner to use the acceleration of his Ducati out of the hairpins at Melbourne and Goddards to pull out more of a lead once again. Each lap saw the song repeated, and each time, the end result was the same. Valentino Rossi pushed to close the gap, but everything that Rossi had, Stoner had an answer for it.
The Turn Of The Screw
Rossi and Stoner edged backward and forward, Stoner gradually eking out a lead like a game of long-distance chess. Every time Stoner pushed, and took out a couple of tenths, Rossi would respond, and try to reel the red Ducati back into his grasp. But each time Rossi cut the lead, or at least limited the damage, Stoner would just turn the screw up another notch, and extend his lead again. Though Casey Stoner had the upper hand, he wasn't handing out the kind of beating he had last year, but could only apply a form of Chinese water torture. It was much slower, but potentially equally effective.
Rossi had the added distraction of events behind him. Though his dismissal of Dovizioso's first lap challenge had been sufficiently firm to prevent a repeat, the Team Scot Honda rider was still stuck on The Doctor's tail. Though unable to pass, he settled for playing the waiting game, sticking to Rossi's back tire in anticipation of developments to come.
Unfortunately for Dovizioso, those developments were coming from behind. Dani Pedrosa was on an all out charge. Up to 5th on the first lap, Pedrosa started hunting down his team mate Nicky Hayden ahead. By lap 3, he was right on the tailpipe of Hayden's new pneumatic valve engine. Then on the next lap, the Spaniard demonstrated that at Donington at least, the air valve engine had no advantage over the old steel spring unit, as Pedrosa plunged down Craner ahead of the American, and was off to chase Dovizioso.
Dovi had had a gap to Hayden, but Pedrosa closed it down straight away. On lap 5, Pedrosa was on the Italian, and try as he might, Dovizioso could not resist the inevitable. He postponed it for 3 more laps, bravely holding off the charging Pedrosa through the Esses, into Redgate, down Craner, but eventually, on lap 8, he succumbed to Pedrosa's advances. The Spaniard had lined Dovizioso up from McLeans, getting the drive out of Coppice to pass under the Dunlop Bridge. Rossi would be next.
If it had taken Pedrosa 4 laps to get past Dovizioso, getting past Rossi would prove even tougher. He was with the 7 time world champion within a couple of laps, but the hard part lay ahead of him. Lap by lap, Pedrosa inched closer to Rossi, trying to get into a position to strike. By lap 14, Pedrosa was close enough to show his hand for the first time, poking his wheel up the inside of the Yamaha after Rossi had run a little wide at Goddards. Rossi had been warned, and tried to gap the Spaniard
Next time round, Pedrosa struck again. Getting drive out of Goddards again, this time he was close enough to swoop inside Rossi into the first turn, and into 2nd. But Rossi knows all of Donington's secrets, and dropping down Craner like a stone, he was back on Pedrosa at the bottom of the hill, and jamming his Yamaha inside the Spaniard's Honda into the Old Hairpin, and taking back 2nd.
Now, though, Pedrosa could smell blood. The Spaniard aimed another barb at Rossi through McLeans, then tried to get the run on to the back straight. Rossi was waiting, and left his braking late for the Esses, keeping Pedrosa well behind.
But the Repsol Honda man was just preparing his assault. Once more, Pedrosa closed through the Melbourne Loop, and drove out of Goddards, and once more, he swept inside The Doctor into Redgate. Sensing Rossi closing once again for a pass at the bottom of the hill, Pedrosa was not to be fooled by the same trick twice. Braking a fraction later, and hugging the left of the track, he kept Rossi off through the Old Hairpin, this time holding on to 2nd place.
Not The Only Fruit
Rossi knew that he'd showed his hand on the last lap at the Hairpin, and so bided his time instead. He pressured Pedrosa round the rear half of the track, intimating he would strike again soon, then sprung another surprise. Pedrosa knew that Rossi would attack at the Esses, as the harsh braking for the chicane plays to the Italian's strengths. So the Spaniard slammed the door on the first part of the Esses, to make sure that Rossi could not get inside.
Rossi, however, had other plans. Instead of striking in the first part of the chicane, Rossi carried his speed through the corner and up the inside of the 2nd part. Running wide at the right part of the left-right flick, a consequence of defending the entry into the Esses, Pedrosa was surprised to see The Doctor float past up the inside, and back into 2nd heading up the Melbourne Loop.
This time, Pedrosa was too far back out of Goddard, and had lost his advantage for another run at Rossi through Redgate. Pedrosa had done what he could, but come up short. Put back firmly into 3rd, Pedrosa was forced to wait, and to regroup.
Rossi's battle with Pedrosa had lasted just a handful of laps, but had occupied enough of the pair's attention that by the time it was over, the leader's advantage had grown from just over 2 seconds to nearly 4. And with Rossi still forced to keep one eye on Pedrosa behind, Casey Stoner's advantage was still building, a fraction of a second at a time. His lead was not insuperable with half the race left to go, but Stoner was still faster than the men chasing him.
As the laps ticked off, Stoner's lead continued to grow, his Chinese water torture starting to take its toll. Any hope that either Valentino Rossi or Dani Pedrosa may have cherished that they could catch the Australian gradually seeped away, exposing yet another perfect, dominant display by the reigning World Champion. Crossing the line to take the win, Casey Stoner had built up a maximum lead of nearly six and a half seconds. It was exactly what we had come to expect from Stoner, and exactly the kind of race the Australian loves.
Behind Stoner, Valentino Rossi had submitted to the Australian's will, and concentrated on staying ahead of Dani Pedrosa. Having lost a day to Saturday's rain - a factor which had seemingly had no effect on Casey Stoner - he didn't quite get the setup he needed to get close enough to Stoner to battle for the win. Instead, he focused on the championship, and staying ahead of Pedrosa, and came home comfortably in 2nd.
Dani Pedrosa had started to struggle after his battle with Valentino Rossi, and never quite got close enough again to have a chance at attacking once again. Added to his woes were the Honda's apparent strategy of allowing for plenty of fuel at the start of the race, leaving Pedrosa riding a bike down on power for the last few laps, as the engine management system tries to ensure that he has enough gas in the tank to get home. He managed that alright, but lost 4 more precious points to Valentino Rossi in the title race, his deficit growing once again to 11 points.
Breath Of Fresh Air
The fight for 4th had been closer, and with a much less certain outcome. After being passed by one Repsol Honda, Andrea Dovizioso then had Nicky Hayden come by on the other, which Colin Edwards and Chris Vermeulen closed up from behind. Hayden headed that group for a third of the race, before a warning light came on and distracted him, leaving the Kentuckian worrying whether his new air valve engine would make it home in one piece. Within a couple of laps, Hayden was shuffled back to the rear of the group, until he regained confidence that his engine wasn't on the verge of self-destruction, and he picked his lap times up once again.
Fellow countryman Colin Edwards was moving in the opposite direction. Getting off to a slow start, the Tech 3 Yamaha rider gradually fought his way through the pack until he reached the battle for 4th. Picking off Hayden while the Kentucky Kid was worrying about his warning light, Edwards went on to take Andrea Dovizioso on the next lap, jamming his Yamaha up the inside of Dovizioso's Honda into the Esses.
Within a few laps, the Texan had built a lead over 5th place that would prove unassailable. Colin Edwards proved once again that leaving the safety of the factory Yamaha team can be a step forward, rather than a step back. Another solid 4th place leaves the Texas Tornado with firm grip on 5th place in the championship, with prospect for improvement should either Lorenzo or Stoner falter.
Having conceded 4th to Edwards, Andrea Dovizioso dug in his heels. The Italian could not follow Edwards' pace, but he was faster than the men behind him, and he hung on to 5th place. The Italian rookie continues to impress aboard the Team Scot Honda, and the rumors in the paddock that he will take over Nicky Hayden's seat at the factory Repsol team are growing stronger every weekend. On the evidence of Donington, it would not be undeserved.
In the end, the battle for 6th proved to be one of the toughest fights of the weekend, and something of a minor miracle. Starting from the back of the grid, and frankly looking as if he was just going through the motions during practice, Jorge Lorenzo had gained in confidence and stature almost every lap. As the race went on, his lap times got faster, and after gaining 7 places on the first lap, he slowly set about fighting his way forward. In a show of bravery, but also calm maturity, Jorge Lorenzo made his way all the way into 6th place, passing both Nicky Hayden and Chris Vermeulen with 6 laps to go. If his aim at Donington was just to regain the confidence he had lost in the crashes large, small and humongous which he had suffered almost every race weekend since Shanghai, and not to crash, he succeeded gloriously. The old Jorge Lorenzo could well be very much back in business.
Nicky Hayden finished the day in 7th, the new engine not having destroyed itself, and Hayden much happier with the power delivery. If it is up to the American, he will be using the air valve engine for the rest of the season, and this may well suit Honda as well. Hayden was battling nearer the front again this weekend, and looking more like the Hayden of old. Though he is pretty sure that he will not be offered a new contract with the factory Honda team at the end of the year, he is grabbing every opportunity to audition for another seat. The way the new air valve engine allowed him to bully the RC212V around the track reminded most observers of Casey Stoner, firming up the possibility that he could replace Marco Melandri at Ducati next year.
Starting from the front row, Chris Vermeulen was soon caught up in the scrap for 6th, eventually losing out to finish 8th. Vermeulen had ridden another steady race, finishing exactly where we have come to expect this year. Whether this kind of performance will secure his ride at Suzuki for next season remains to be seen.
Shinya Nakano came home in 9th, the Japanese rider showing slow, if steady progress. Another candidate for replacement, his sole saving grace is currently his nationality, but if Yuki Takahashi continues to impress on his underpowered Honda 250, Nakano's days in MotoGP could well be numbered.
What Are You Doing Here?
In 10th came a surprise almost as big as Lorenzo's 6th position. The testing which Ant West had done in Japan was obviously starting to pay off. Though West is probably not the rider that Casey Stoner is, he is capable of far more than just running around at the rear of the pack, a fate which he has been forced to endure for much of the season. But now that Kawasaki have found some rear traction, West may be a little closer to the sharp end again, and may yet spring a surprise or two on MotoGP followers.
Yet another surprise in 11th. Ant West may have been helped by Kawasaki, but Toni Elias has been helping himself, and is starting to find a way to ride the seemingly unmanageable - unless you're Australian - Ducati. Elias' results are gradually improving, and the Alice team could yet climb out of the basement of MotoGP.
In 12th and 13th finished a pair of Frenchmen, Randy de Puniet finishing ahead of Sylvain Guintoli. De Puniet remains mercurial, incredibly quick in one session, then slow again the next, and entirely unpredictable during the race. The one thing De Puniet did right on Sunday was not to fall off, though he'll have to start setting his sights higher than that.
Compatriot Sylvain Guintoli showed some promise as well, his deficit to the rest of the field continuing to fall. Like Alice Ducati team mate Elias, he continues to make slow progress, the only question being whether it is progress enough.
The reigning AMA Superbike champion Ben Spies did exactly what was expected of him, and perhaps a little bit more. Though 14th position is hardly anything to write home about, Spies was quicker every time he got on the bike, and his lap times were improving throughout the race. He also got to learn the bike and the tires away from the full glare of publicity that the two wildcard appearances in the US will generate, and will have a much better chance of a decent result in front of his home crowd. With Loris Capirossi still not absolutely certain for Assen, the American could gain yet more valuable experience at the Dutch race, if he has to substitute for the Italian veteran once again.
Back in 15th place, Alex de Angelis had done exactly what most people expected of him, too. He'd been fast in places, and managed to crash, remounting to continue the race. De Angelis is undeniably a serious talent, but he can't afford to keep falling off and ruining his chances with silly crashes.
And sadly for Marco Melandri, he was where people have come to expect to see him too. The Italian looks increasingly dispirited, and is certain to seek some way out of the 2nd year of his his 2 year contract with Ducati. That break could come quite early, as various rumors were floating about that Melandri could be replaced as early as Assen or the Sachsenring, with Sete Gibernau enlisted to take his place. Assen may be a little early, but the Sachsenring is entirely plausible, as Melandri is currently not much more than a warm body aboard the Ducati. It would be better for both the Bologna factory and Melandri for them to end the suffering as early as possible. But just when that will be remains to be seen.
In 17th and last place - John Hopkins having been sidelined with his 3rd mechanical problem of the year by his Kawasaki - came the battered and bruised local hero, James Toseland. Toseland's expectations had been set to high, as had the expectations of the crowd around him. Problems with setup and an overeagerness to make up for his poor qualifying meant that Toseland got into the first corner too fast, and crashed out. To his eternal credit, he remounted, despite a bang on the hand and the head, and went on to complete the race, despite being lapped, and despite not having either a back brake, a right footpeg and only half a front brake lever. If his first corner crash can be put down to a fit of exuberance, the rest of his race showed a great deal of character. Many other riders would have trundled back round to the pits, and hid in their motorhome.
We Knew This Would Happen
The British Grand Prix at Donington threw up things both surprising and unsurprising, and gave plenty of food for thought. The winner was never seriously in doubt after the first session of practice, with Casey Stoner looking ominously like his former self. That prospect must seriously worry Valentino Rossi and Dani Pedrosa, as despite being 45 points down to Valentino Rossi in the title chase, in the form Stoner's currently in, he could claw back that difference by the end of the season.
And Dani Pedrosa cast off some of the criticism leveled at him after his similarly dominant win at Catalunya two weeks ago. It was said that Pedrosa could only win if he had a clear track ahead of him, and he was averse to fighting his way through the pack. The way he barged his way forward from 9th to 3rd and took the fight to Valentino Rossi was a fair refutation of any such claims. If he can continue to fight once he reaches the front group, then his reputation will be more firmly established.
The MotoGP circus now has just 6 days before the Dutch TT at Assen on Saturday. No rest, for either riders, teams, or even followers and MotoGP scribes. This truly is the guts of the season, and can make or break a rider's year. For now, the championship and the future of so many MotoGP riders is still completely open.