Standing on the cusp of a championship is a strangely perilous position. You see the title within your grasp, you can almost touch it, taste it, but you know you have just a little bit more work to do before it is finally yours. It should be relatively easy. All you need to do is to stay out of trouble, and score enough points to get the job done.
The problem is that it grates to do just what is needed and no more. The very ambition, the need to win that drove you on to chase the championship leaves you unhappy at just rolling over the line somewhere in the top 10, your pride bridles at the thought of safely playing the numbers game.
All those long hours of hard work; riding through the pain of injuries, major or minor; staying home and getting up early to go training instead of sleeping late after a night out; you didn't do all those things just to be the guy who comes in 7th. You want to clinch the title the same way you got within reach of it: by standing on the podium, and preferably on the top step.
Add to this the peril of trying to ride slowly. It is in the nature of motorcycle racers to try to go as fast as possible, and you have spent years honing your fitness and concentration levels to perform as close to 100% as you can. But back off a little, try riding at 95%, and your ability to focus tends to lapse, and you start to make mistakes. Mistakes which can be costly, leaving you with more work to do at the next race, or worse, robbing you of the title altogether through an unlucky crash.
This is the paradox of being within striking distance of a championship. The final effort required is minimal, but the pressure you are under is greater than anything you have ever known before. The rewards may be priceless, and long cherished, but the price of failure rises to match the price of success.
Valentino Rossi knows all about the price of failure. The last time he was in a position to win a title, at Valencia in 2006, it all went horribly wrong for him. With an 8 point lead, all he had to was finish a couple of places behind Nicky Hayden, but it wasn't to be. On the day, Rossi cracked under the pressure and crashed early on, rejoining too far behind to make up the places he had lost, handing the American the title on a plate.
So despite arriving at Motegi 87 points ahead of Casey Stoner in the championship, with only 100 points left from the remaining 4 races, pressure was building on Rossi like a descending bathysphere. And making the situation a little bleaker was his history here at Motegi: Of the 8 visits he'd paid in the premier class, he'd managed to win only once. What's more, the last time he had a chance of settling the title at Motegi - back in 2005 - he crashed out, taking Marco Melandri with him in a dubious move that could have easily seen him banned for a race, as happened to his future team mate Jorge Lorenzo in the 250 class.
Best Served Cold
Despite his poor record at Motegi, Rossi was under even more pressure to win here. Honda, his former employer, owns the Japanese track, and even though Rossi had taken two more titles since leaving Big Red, Honda's attitude - that the bike was paramount, and the rider merely part of the team that helped Honda win - had always rankled, and provided an added motivation for wanting to take victory at Motegi.
During free practice, little of that pressure showed. Rossi had been in the top three in all of the sessions on Friday and Saturday morning, and as qualifying started, Rossi was clearly on the pace to get the front row spot he needed if he was to keep Casey Stoner in sight. But by the time the flag fell for the end of the session, some miscalculation and a little bit of bad luck saw Rossi off the front of grid, and down onto the second row.
The pressure was now really on. With Jorge Lorenzo and Casey Stoner on the front row, and Dani Pedrosa, a lightning starter, beside him, the odds of Rossi wrapping the title up at Motegi were dwindling. His only hope was that someone such as Nicky Hayden, who had the final spot on the front row, could get up with Stoner, Lorenzo and Pedrosa and hold them up, giving Rossi a chance to slug it out with them before Stoner could do his usual disappearing act. After flying his friends and family halfway around the world for a special title celebration, he could not afford to fail.
Bullet From A Gun
As the lights faded, all that tension could finally be released in the din of howling four-cylinder engines. But with that release came the worst possible outcome for Valentino Rossi. As always, Casey Stoner got his jet-assisted launch off the line, and was away as they headed towards Turn 1. Nicky Hayden matched his future team mate's pace off the line, but by the time they started to turn in for the first corner, his current team mate, Dani Pedrosa, had crossed the track and edged ahead from a row down on the grid.
This left Rossi in 4th, saved by the fact that his Fiat Yamaha team mate got a very poor start, Jorge Lorenzo dropping from pole all the way down to 5th as the bikes flew off the line. But Lorenzo's outside line round Turns 1 and 2 left him in great position as they entered the short straight heading down to Turn 3. Braking for the third corner, Rossi suddenly found his team mate beside him, and moments later, shoving his Yamaha up the inside of Rossi's, Lorenzo was past and into 4th.
This may not have been what Rossi needed, but it was made to order for Casey Stoner. If the Australian was to still retain the slim chance he had of defending his MotoGP title, he had to win the race. His best hope of doing that was by applying the magic formula that had worked so well all year: get to the front, put the hammer down, and do another vanishing trick.
But as the bikes fired out of the painfully slow hairpin onto the back straight, Stoner's plan wasn't working out as he had hoped. Over the past few races, if Casey Stoner got off the line first, then the Ducati rider would have pulled out a lead of half a second by half way through the lap, and be well on his way to gapping the field. At Motegi, however, though Stoner led the race, the diminutive figure of Dani Pedrosa on the Bridgestone-shod Repsol Honda sat sheltering in his wake.
As the pack shot over the line for the end of the first lap, Stoner's lead was not growing, but his troubles were. It wasn't just Pedrosa who was chasing the reigning World Champion down, Nicky Hayden was closing too, and Hayden was bringing Jorge Lorenzo and Valentino Rossi along with him. And of that trio, it was Rossi who was closing fastest.
Closing so quickly that the Italian crossed the line almost level with his team mate, and clearly on a charge. The pair entered Turn 1 almost level, but Lorenzo tried holding Rossi off on the brakes. That move succeeded, but as the Spaniard turned the bike in, he found himself going just a fraction too fast, and ran wide, allowing Rossi through on the inside, taking 4th from Lorenzo.
Rossi was another place closer to the championship, and at the front Dani Pedrosa was about to help The Doctor out. The Repsol Honda man rocketed out of the double left hander and was past Casey Stoner and into the lead before the pair were even halfway along the short straight before Turn 5.
Being passed by Pedrosa was the last thing Stoner needed. All the way through the flowing rear of the track, Stoner poked at Pedrosa's tail. But as they rounded the hairpin to head down the back straight for the second time, Pedrosa used the advantage his light weight affords him to full effect, firing out of the corner as if shot from a cannon. Stoner was left straggling, and forced to tuck tighter and brake later and harder to try and catch him, stressing his broken scaphoid at each attempt.
From Bad To Worse
Worse news for Stoner was occurring behind him. As Stoner lost ground to Pedrosa coming out of the hairpin, Rossi got underneath Nicky Hayden going in to it, and was already up into 3rd. As things stood, The Doctor had the title in the bag, but there was still a very long way to race.
Valentino Rossi certainly wasn't convinced yet. The Fiat Yamaha man was flying, and closing the leading pair down hand over fist. Three quarters of a second faster on lap 2, by the time Pedrosa entered Turn 3, Rossi was on the back of Stoner, and the company had become a crowd.
Over the next two laps, the three leaders chafed at each others' presence. Stoner was the most agitated of the trio, crawling all over the back of Dani Pedrosa like a hyperactive meerkat, flitting from side to side, poking the nose of his Ducati to the left one corner, to the right the next.
To no avail: Despite being the smallest man on the grid, Pedrosa managed to make his RC212V as wide as the trucks that carried his bike to the track, and Stoner could find no way past. Behind Stoner, Rossi sat waiting, poised to take advantage the moment that either of his adversaries faltered, yet unwilling to risk the title he was now sitting on safely in 3rd position by forcing a pass himself.
On lap 5, Stoner's agitation turned to urgency. It was clear that Pedrosa was becoming an impediment rather than a threat, and with Valentino Rossi breathing down his neck, the Australian knew he couldn't afford to hang around. Even if he was dependent on other riders getting in between Rossi and himself if he was to keep the slim chance he still had of retaining his title, the least he could do was to try and win the race, and go down with dignity.
Stoner closed Pedrosa right down through the first of the hairpins, lining Pedrosa up on the exit of the double left hander of Turns 3 and 4. As the three men braked for the sharp right, Stoner flung his Ducati inside of Pedrosa's Honda, in an attempt to snatch back the lead. But the move was a fraction too brusque, and a fraction too late, and the reigning champion couldn't hold his line, running just wide enough to leave a crack of daylight up the inside.
Wait For It
That was all the invitation Pedrosa needed. Finding Stoner on the inside line on the entry to the corner meant Pedrosa was forced to turn in later, exiting earlier, and perfectly positioned to exploit even the tiny gap that Stoner had left him. As the three men shot into the darkness under the bridge bearing the oval ring over the road course, Pedrosa drew alongside Stoner and on the perfect line for the next corner, the fast right 130R. Stoner's lead had lasted all of 100 yards, and now he was back to square one.
Undaunted, he resumed his frantic stalking Pedrosa. With Valentino Rossi now almost kissing Stoner's back wheel, the three leaders roared through the sweeping turns heading out towards the hairpin, their movements synchronized like a swiss watch. The back straight opened up the tiniest of gaps between the threesome, but braking for the downhill 90 degree right heading back towards the finish line, Stoner closed once again, pricking his Ducati under Pedrosa's Honda, still not quite close enough to strike.
It was only a matter of time. Back across the line and onto lap 6, Stoner and Rossi were chasing Pedrosa down like a hare at a greyhound track. And once again, Stoner strung his bow ready for the sharp right before they head under the bridge.
The Gentleman Thief
Only this time, Stoner was even later on the brakes than last lap, if anything, and Dani Pedrosa found a bright red Ducati GP8 stuffed firmly onto the line he was just about to take with his Honda. With nowhere to go, Pedrosa sat his bike up, and ceded the lead to Stoner.
It was a tough pass, though not excessive, but Stoner felt it was perhaps tougher than necessary. As he stood the bike up for the corner exit, hard on the gas, he raised his hand to Pedrosa, signaling an apology, ever the gentleman racer.
Valentino Rossi had no such qualms. Seeing both his rivals off line, he set himself up through 130R to take the inside line into the first left hander of the S Curve. With Pedrosa still focused on Stoner, The Doctor seized his chance to grab 2nd, dropping the Spaniard from 1st to 3rd in the space of 3 corners.
Once past, it was immediately obvious just how much Pedrosa had been holding the title candidates up. By the time Casey Stoner and Valentino Rossi crossed the line to end lap 6, half a lap later, Pedrosa was already half a second behind Rossi. Another lap, and another half a second lost, the gap to Pedrosa growing to 1.2 seconds behind the leader Casey Stoner.
Field Of Honor
With Pedrosa gone, the stage was now set. It was clear than no one else could match the pace of the two best riders of the season, and with the title now firmly within Rossi's grasp, the race had become a battle of honor. Casey Stoner knew that the loss of his title was inevitable, but he was determined not to relinquish it without a fight. And though Valentino Rossi knew that barring calamity, the title was his for the taking, he saw the possibility of lifting the crown with the dignity he felt the championship deserved.
Over the next 6 laps, Stoner pushed while Rossi hounded, lap records tumbling on the way. Rossi stalked Stoner all around the track, never venturing out of the Australian's shadow. Though there was next to nothing separating the bikes, Rossi couldn't get any closer, while Stoner couldn't get away. The two bikes stayed locked together, but not meeting, as if held apart by some invisible force.
On lap 13, that force started to fail. The source of that weakening was a small, cashew-shaped bone in Casey Stoner's hand. Stoner's injured scaphoid, a fracture from a long-forgotten crash reopening at Misano, was starting to play up, and draining the strength from the Australian. Suddenly, Rossi was close enough to start jabbing away at Stoner, showing the reigning champion his front wheel every few corners, just to let him know he was still there.
Sensing his prey weakening, Rossi moved in for the kill. On lap 14, Rossi pounced. Braking as late as possible into Turn 3, his left leg flailing about as it does so often when the Italian is stretching even his considerable ability, he stuffed his Yamaha M1 up the inside of Stoner's Ducati, and into the lead. With nowhere left to go, Stoner was forced to back off, and settle for 2nd.
Once past, Rossi immediately pushed on. At first, Stoner resisted, but within a lap, the Australian was giving up tenths of a second every lap, and Rossi was creeping away. If Rossi could keep up his pace and conserve his tires, the win he craved would be his.
With the top two steps of the podium effectively settled, the race was on for 3rd. After Rossi and Stoner had passed him, Dani Pedrosa had lost touch, rapidly seeing the leaders disappear into the distance. The Spaniard still had a comfortable lead over his team mate Nicky Hayden and was easily matching his pace, but behind Hayden, the threat was growing.
For just as Pedrosa had been holding up Stoner and Rossi, Hayden was getting in the way too. Jorge Lorenzo was caught behind the American's Repsol Honda, and after a couple of laps, he was joined by Loris Capirossi, the winner of the last three races here.
Those races had been won aboard the Ducati, though. The Rizla Suzuki was a different kettle of fish, and Capirossi vacillated between catching Hayden and Lorenzo, and losing large chunks of ground.
Jorge Lorenzo had no such problems. Once he'd recovered from the shock of being passed by his team mate, the Fiat Yamaha man regrouped, and sunk his teeth into Nicky Hayden's tailpipe. By lap 7, Hayden was starting to hold Lorenzo up badly, and so as they started lap 8, the Spaniard closed Hayden down through Turns 1 and 2, before stuffing his Yamaha up the inside of Hayden into Turn 3, and 4th position.
Lorenzo now opened the hunt for Pedrosa, and over the next 6 laps, closed him down a tenth at a time. Seeing his archrival approaching quickly, and remembering the incident in the 250 class here in 2005, which got Lorenzo a one-race ban after a reckless dive up the inside of Alex de Angelis ended in the gravel trap, Pedrosa picked up his pace.
For the rest of the race, Lorenzo and Pedrosa would edge closer, then apart, Lorenzo closing one lap, Pedrosa opening up the next. The two men, deadly rivals in both MotoGP and for the affections of the race-mad Spanish fans, were equally set on taking the last step on the podium, neither man willing to let the other take the glory.
Back at the front of the race, Valentino Rossi continued to set a blistering pace, constantly running close to the previous record pace, set by the old 990cc bikes. At first, it was a pace Stoner found it hard to match, but a few laps after being passed, Stoner recovered a little, and his lap times were starting to drop again.
But each time Stoner got faster, Rossi got faster still. As the race entered the last few laps, it was becoming increasingly clear that the race was over. Stoner closed briefly on lap 22, but it was to be just a temporary blip. On the penultimate lap, Stoner gave back the time he had gained on Rossi, and the gap was too big to be overcome.
Sword From The Stone
Crossing the line to the his 70th victory in the premier class, Valentino Rossi hoisted a huge wheelie to celebrate, his pit crew standing on pit wall and cheering him on. The Doctor had pulled off a remarkable achievement. Not only had he clinched his 6th MotoGP title and his 8th world title in all, he had also won at Motegi for the first time in 7 years, and the first time on a four-stroke. A track which had defeated him regularly over the years had finally been subdued once again, another track vanquished, and another personal milestone.
Even more satisfyingly, Rossi had taken both the victory and the title at Honda's home track. Adding carefully aimed insult to injury, The Doctor's win also clinched the manufacturer's title for Yamaha and the team championship for Fiat Yamaha. It was a double blow for Rossi, but a quadruple blow against HRC.
Though Casey Stoner had had to concede defeat to Valentino Rossi in the race, as well as the championship, the least he could do was outdo the man who had just taken his crown with the wheelie across the line. Casey Stoner crossed the line with a huge stand-up wheelie, his Marlboro Ducati looking as if it was about to spit him off any minute, just as it has looked all season.
Casey Stoner came here to do what he could to retain his title, or at least hand it over with dignity. At Motegi, that's precisely what he did. Hampered by a painful wrist injury, in a sport which is punishing on wrists, the Australian gave it everything he had in his final defense.
And in a show of true sportsmanship, Casey Stoner was the first man to congratulate Rossi on the slow down lap, slapping him firmly on the back, and shaking his hand. Stoner fought courageously all year, and lost his title with the same dignity borne of commitment and determination with which he had earned it.
The final podium place would be decided on the final lap. As the race thundered towards its conclusion, Jorge Lorenzo grasped his last chance at 3rd. He cut the final tenths of the tiny gap which still separated him from Dani Pedrosa and started looking for an opening to attack. But poke and pry as he might, Pedrosa's 3rd spot was as difficult to prise open as a freshly-caught oyster, and there was no place for the Yamaha man to get past.
As the Spanish superstars headed into the hairpin, Lorenzo loosed the last arrow in his quiver. Running a little wider into the slow right hander, the man from Mallorca tried to hold the tighter line, hoping to be past Pedrosa by the time the Honda man cut back inside, Pedrosa treating the corner like a double apex bend as so many riders do.
As brave an attempt as it was, Lorenzo wasn't quite fast enough. When Pedrosa cut back, he was still ahead, clipping the front wheel of Lorenzo's Fiat Yamaha as he found it where he wasn't expecting it. Lorenzo was forced to back off and stand the bike up, his last challenge failed.
With Lorenzo gone, Dani Pedrosa could ride home in relative safety to 3rd and the final spot on the podium. Pedrosa had ridden an outstanding race on only his second outing on the Bridgestones, and taking 3rd at the second time of asking on new tires will surely give his rivals pause for thought. The Gresini team's experience may have helped a little, but Pedrosa's determination and talent saw him finish well ahead of where he would ordinarily expect to be. With Sepang and Valencia coming up, two tracks at which Pedrosa excels, his first win on Bridgestones can't be so very far away.
Jorge Lorenzo was left to cross the line in 4th, just short of the podium. But he did so in style anyway, hoisting a wheelie big enough to those of Rossi's and Stoner's. Once again, Jorge Lorenzo had featured at the sharp end, and once again, Lorenzo looked like he could have been on the podium, had things worked out just a little differently. His mid-season blues are over, and now, he's back.
So far this season, all the action has taken place in the battles for 5th and downwards, the top spots usually settled very rapidly indeed. But at Motegi, the situation was reversed. The battle for the podium was close and varied for much of the race, though the outcome was not in doubt after the two-thirds mark, while behind the top 4, the places were settled quickly and stayed that way.
Nicky Hayden was the first man home after Lorenzo, holding on to 5th place after losing touch with the Spaniard. Hayden has seen his fortunes recover over the past few rounds, and now that his future is settled and the official announcements made, he can get back to just riding for fun. Luckily for MotoGP fans, The Kentucky Kid's idea of fun is highly entertaining to watch, backing the bike into the corners, and sliding it around like a dirt track machine.
Hayden was briefly troubled by Loris Capirossi in the last few laps, but at the checkered flag the Rizla Suzuki man had been forced to give up a second to the American. Though disappointed to lose at a track where he has been unbeatable in the past, 6th place was highly respectable for the Italian veteran.
He'd certainly had to work for it. For most of the race, he'd been hounded by Colin Edwards and Shinya Nakano. But as wide as Motegi may be - and at 15 meters, it is one of the widest tracks on the calendar - it can be a very hard place to pass, and neither the American nor the Japanese rider could get past. Edwards was forced to settle for 7th, while Nakano took 8th.
There was one man who could pass at Motegi, though. Andrea Dovizioso had started from 13th on the grid, and had quickly fought his way up into 9th. But by the time the Italian had got there, the men in front of him were a long way ahead. He caught Nakano on lap 20, but by then, it was too late. He was forced to accept the role of caboose in the Capirossi train, and settle for 9th.
It was a disappointing result for Dovizioso, on the weekend that his signing as Pedrosa's team mate in the factory Honda team had been officially announced. But his fight up through the field will have satisfied the HRC bosses, some consolation at their home Grand Prix.
The most entertaining battle of the race had been for 10th. John Hopkins and James Toseland had slugged it out since lap 9, with Toseland leading much of the way. But not all of it: John Hopkins got by on the last lap, the Kawasaki man finishing in 10th, and pushing Toseland down into 11th.
Not far behind in 12th was Randy de Puniet, the LCR Honda man not having featured much during the weekend. The Frenchman finished ahead of Marco Melandri, the Italian Ducati rider having been up to 11th, before running wide at the 90R turn at the end of the long straight. His off track excursion lost him 4 places, 2 of which he managed to recover in another improving weekend for the man who is leaving Ducati at the end of the year.
Sylvain Guintoli came home in 14th, a place which won't help the Frenchman find a seat for next year, ahead of Ant West in 15th, scoring the final point.
Guintoli's Alice Ducati team mate Toni Elias came home 16th, in a weekend to forget, but his race was nowhere near as ugly as Alex de Angelis' was. The Gresini Honda man never really got going at Motegi, and ended the weekend much where he had been for most of the session, at the bottom of the results in 17th.
Chris Vermeulen had been running anonymously in 13th when a braking problem with his Rizla Suzuki forced the Australian to retire.
Quod Erat Demonstrandum
With this win at Motegi, Valentino Rossi entered the history books as the 2008 MotoGP World Champion. But that was not all he achieved here. This was his 6th premiere class title, moving ahead of Mick Doohan and only 2 behind the legendary Giacomo Agostini. It was also his 8th title in all classes, putting him 6th in the league of all-time champions. And it made him the only man other than Agostini to have recovered the championship after a gap of 2 years.
But perhaps more impressive than that was the way Rossi clinched his title. Rossi has been getting stronger and stronger as the season has progressed, having only been off the podium twice all season: once at Qatar, the season opener and his first race on Bridgestone tires, and once at Assen, after an uncharacteristic mistake saw him crashing on the first lap, and remounting to finish 11th.
Most importantly for Rossi, though, is the fact that he won the title with a victory, and a victory at Motegi, the home of the company that he felt never paid his talent the appropriate respect. Rossi has always said that for Honda, the motorcycle is the key component in their teams, with the rider just part of the puzzle which will help to win titles for the company.
On Sunday, by taking both the win and the title, Valentino Rossi demonstrated that even today, with all the advances in tires, electronics, engine management and a million other factors, it's still the rider that makes the difference, not the bike.