The Aliens. That's what Randy de Puniet calls them. The Frenchman can find no other logical explanation for why Valentino Rossi, Jorge Lorenzo, Dani Pedrosa and Casey Stoner should be so much faster than the rest of the field. Certainly, the Yamaha is the best bike of the field, but in the hands of two-time World Superbike Champion Colin Edwards, it isn't half a second a lap or more faster. The Honda was the best bike of the 990 era, but only Dani Pedrosa has been able to win races on its 800cc cousin, even podiums being a rare event for anyone else riding the bike. And as for the Ducati, it has been the kiss of death for anyone who isn't called Casey Stoner.
Even better than the fact that these four are faster than the rest of the field is the fact that they are all pretty evenly matched. They may be half a second quicker than the 13 other MotoGP riders, but there's only tenths or fractions of tenths separating the four of them. The results reflect this: the margin of victory has been falling, from an average of 4.5 seconds for the first 9 races last year to just over 4 seconds this year, but that includes the monster 17.7 second victory by Jorge Lorenzo at Le Mans this year, where last year the largest gap was just 10 seconds.
As the gaps have closed, so the racing has become tenser. On any given day, any one of the Aliens can win, something they have all done at least once this year. It's clear that the Fantastic Four are on a showdown for the title and that a clash between the four is looming, but each time it looks like the fans might be in for the treat they've been waiting for, something has always conspired to prevent it. At first, it was Dani Pedrosa's recovery from a skin graft on his knee that left the Spaniard out of contention. Then Pedrosa had another crash, fracturing the top of his femur, and leaving him to struggle in races.
As Pedrosa began to recover, Casey Stoner suddenly started to suffer from vomiting and chronic fatigue, and was diagnosed with anemia and gastritis. The effort of racing beyond half distance has become too much for the Australian, taking him out of contention too early. And last time out at Laguna Seca, Jorge Lorenzo threatened to take himself out of the equation, dislocating a collarbone in a giant highside.
And so MotoGP fans have been left wanting, kept hungry at the prospect of the proper four-way battle they know awaits them. Like Tantalus, the race that would sate their appetite seems forever to be just out of their reach.
That did not stop MotoGP fans descending on the steeply wooded valleys of Saxony in their hundreds of thousands. The German track has provided great spectacle before, and the fans hoped it would do so again, and maybe this time, Rossi, Pedrosa, Lorenzo and Stoner would put on a race.
The omens were mixed. Casey Stoner had recovered a little and was saving himself through practice, doing only the laps he needed. Jorge Lorenzo was still smarting from his dislocated collarbone, but the pain was less than two weeks ago. On the bright side, Dani Pedrosa was well on the road to recovery, finally able to train again as his hip healed and inspired after his victory at Laguna Seca. And Valentino Rossi - well, Valentino Rossi was Valentino Rossi, always fast and chasing a new record, the chance to equal Giacomo Agostini's record of 159 podiums, a goal that always adds extra motivation for the Italian.
Then the weather threw preparations for a loop. After the sultry heat of Friday, a rain-lashed qualifying session on Saturday saw the hopes of the Fantastic Four qualifying on the front two rows dashed. Dani Pedrosa, who had been fast when it was dry, only managed to qualify in 8th, back on the 3rd row of the grid.
The weather on race day was equally uncertain. It was definitely going to rain, the only question was, when would that be. The first few showers had come on the first lap of the 250 race, forcing a restart and a radically shortened contest. But the clouds that scudded overhead as the start of the MotoGP race approached looked undecided, threatening rain, but not too seriously.
As the riders climbed up the Sachenring's final hill to take their places on the starting line, they put all such thoughts far from their minds. They would deal with the rain if it came, but right now, their minds were concentrated on the tight, tricky downhill loop of Turn 1, and the red lights that separated them from it.
The red lights dimmed, unleashing 17 pent up bundles of noisy ambition towards that first corner. Valentino Rossi, famed for his indifferent starts, broke with his usual habit and fired into Turn 1 ahead of the pack. Famed for the opposite, Dani Pedrosa had launched himself off the line and through the field, gaining 7 places to slot in behind Rossi, while Randy de Puniet had followed Pedrosa's lead, climbing from 6th to 3rd.
De Puniet was on an early charge, hunting Pedrosa up the hill ready to pounce at the bottom of the waterfall, the long downhill leading down to Turn 12, but he never got the chance. Flicking left for the terrifying blind right-hand kink at the top of the hill, De Puniet's tires, not quite up to temperature, cried enough, flinging the Frenchman off and into the gravel. It was De Puniet's third crash of the weekend, and an unwelcome return to the bad old days, when the Frenchman used to fling his LCR Honda at the scenery with alarming regularity. But after 12 races in a row without single race crash, and only two crashes in practice so far this year, his mistake should probably be put down more to chance than recidivism.
The Frenchman's fall pushed Casey Stoner up the order to take over 3rd, Lorenzo shuffling up into 4th in turn. This put the Fantastic Four at the front of the race, and the fans finally looked like getting the titanic four-way struggle that they had been hoping for for so long.
In fact, they looked like getting even luckier. For while the field broke, it was breaking not at fourth, but at fifth, behind Andrea Dovizioso, Dani Pedrosa's Repsol Honda team mate putting the new engine he had received for the German Grand Prix to good use. Dovizioso was clearly determined to shake off both the two last race crashes and his penchant for finishing fourth, and was pushing to get ahead of Lorenzo.
On lap 3, he succeeded, diving up the inside at the bottom of the hill, but this merely goaded Lorenzo into responding. The Spaniard immediately counterattacked, looking for a way back past Dovizioso, and in less than a lap he was back in 4th. Over the next couple of laps, though, it became painfully clear that the loss of the position had been down to more than just Lorenzo's brilliance. Once Lorenzo had passed him, Dovizioso started going backwards. The young Italian gave up 5th to Alex de Angelis, then on lap 18, he started dropping even further. Eventually, he pulled into the pits, the left-hand side of his front tire completely shot. Dovizioso scored his third DNF in a row, though this time, through no fault of his own.
With Dovizioso out of the picture, Lorenzo had a clear shot at making up the ground he had lost to the front three. He was helped by the squabbling at the front. While Rossi still led, Casey Stoner appeared to have shaken off his earlier illness and was pushing Dani Pedrosa for 2nd. The position was his on lap 5, Turn 12 at the bottom of the hill providing the opportunity. Two laps later, Turn 12 served Casey Stoner once again, this time to pass Valentino Rossi for the lead.
After Stoner had passed him, Pedrosa fell back into the clutches of Lorenzo, but the attentions of what may be his future team mate spurred Pedrosa on, and the Spanish pair were soon back with Stoner and Rossi. But Lorenzo had more in mind than just reuniting the front four: The Fiat Yamaha rider wanted the lead, and started working on a way forward. Pedrosa resisted for a couple of laps, but eventually surrendered at Turn 2. The Repsol Honda man hung on to the back of the group, and plotted his revenge.
While Pedrosa sat analyzing the situation ahead of him, waiting for an opening, Rossi started prying at Stoner, while Lorenzo in turn pushed at Rossi. Rossi's explorations were the most overt: examining his options at the bottom of Turn 12, but finding himself not close enough, The Doctor took another peek at Turn 1, but was similarly rebuffed by Stoner. The front three hared round the tight Saxon track with less than a breath between them, yet each was wily enough not to expose any chinks in their armor.
On lap 17, shortly after half distance, Stoner's efforts at resistance lapsed, if only briefly. The lapse was enough, and at the bottom of the hill, Rossi was past, and back into the lead. He would not be alone: Two corners later, Rossi's Fiat Yamaha team mate was past the Ducati as well, taking over 2nd from Casey Stoner at Turn 1.
Stoner would not let this go unchallenged, and sunk his talons into the tail of Lorenzo, probing for a a way back past. But the effort was starting to tell. Stoner pushed, then dropped back a little, then pushed one more time, setting his fastest lap of the race on lap 22, but in his eagerness he nearly lost the front of his Ducati, losing half a second to the two Fiat Yamahas he had been chasing, and with the blue and white bikes disappearing into the distance, the steam finally went out of Stoner. The adrenalin rush of battling for the lead had carried him further than even he had expected, but once that was gone his fatigue returned, and Stoner dropped away from Rossi and Lorenzo, no longer able to match their scorching pace.
Smelling blood in the water, Pedrosa seized his chance and sprang past the Ducati, firing out of Turn 13 with more drive and leading Stoner across the line. At the same time, Jorge Lorenzo had waited just a fraction later than Valentino Rossi to brake for Turn 1, and the Spaniard passed and took over the lead on lap 26.
This simply would not do, Rossi felt, and The Doctor latched onto the back of his team mate's Yamaha M1. Rossi pressured Lorenzo for two more laps before finally pouncing into Turn 1 on the penultipmate lap, diving up the inside of Lorenzo and leaving him no option but to give up the spot. But Lorenzo was not going to give up so easily. Next time around, Lorenzo tried a move of his own, attempting his trademark "Porfuera" move round the outside of Rossi at Turn 1. He came surprisingly close, but not close enough, and was rapidly running out of time.
Down the hill they went, round the Omega Kurve, then down the hill and up again, climbing to the top of the Waterfall back straight. Lorenzo inched closer on Rossi all the way round, lining the Italian up in Turn 11 ready to strike at the bottom of the hill in Turn 12, but he was not quite close enough. One last corner remained, and Lorenzo focused all his energy on getting out of that final corner with enough speed to pass Rossi as they crossed the line. If the starting line had been where the finish line was, his efforts might have been rewarded, but Rossi judged the race perfectly, crossing the line ahead of Lorenzo to win by just ninety nine thousandths of a second, a cruel irony that the Spaniard should be beaten by an amount containing the new number that Lorenzo had selected for himself at the start of the season.
The numbers added up for Valentino Rossi, though. The Doctor took his fourth win of the season to make it 101 in total, a fitting number given the lesson in both passing and defensive riding he had just given. The win also meant Rossi equaled another of Giacomo Agostini's records, this time for the number of podiums taken, with 159. If Rossi stays in MotoGP for another three years, as he has threatened, then Agostini's victory total is sure to be in danger.
More importantly, Rossi struck a double blow for the championship. He consolidated his lead, now 14 points ahead of his team mate Jorge Lorenzo, but he also won, just when he needed that victory most. Speaking at the press conference afterwards, Lorenzo said he was angry at himself for not winning. "I have to beat him," he said, also inferring he needed the win to reinforce his hand in contract negotiations. Lorenzo has four 2nd places to go with Rossi's 4 wins, and badly needs and wants to change that situation around.
Dani Pedrosa had closed up on the two Fiat Yamaha rivals, but could not place an attack. The pace of the Yamahas had been so furious that the Spaniard was forced to settle for 3rd.
Casey Stoner did well to salvage yet more points after physically collapsing once again to come home 4th. The bright side for the Australian is that he managed his strength for longer, and at a physically demanding track. At Donington, with a couple of straights it is possible to briefly relax on, Stoner is in with a chance of hanging on till the end.
Though the front four were once again in a league of their own, there were a few surprises behind them. Two of the biggest were in 5th and 6th, the Gresini pairing of Alex de Angelis and Toni Elias respectively. The Gresini team have had a tough season so far, but with both riders so close to the front, the team could be on the verge of a turnaround.
Toni Elias was lucky to take 6th, however. The remarkable Marco Melandri with his cast-off Kawasaki came perilously close to taking 6th from Elias, but a bumblebee hit the Italian's visor after he had removed his final tear off, hampering his vision in the crucial final moments and leaving him stuck in 7th. The team continues to hope for support from Kawasaki, though those hopes are almost certain to be in vain. They have proved that in the right circumstances, the team can perform and Melandri is still a deeply talented rider. If only he had the right equipment.
After a fantastic qualifying session, Nicky Hayden's hopes of staying with the front runners were dashed on the starting line. The Kentuckian got a terrible start, dropping from 4th down to 9th, leaving himself out of contention for the weekend. Hayden had to work hard to climb back up into 8th, but he cannot afford to make that kind of mistake too often, especially not when he is getting closer to be able rider the nigh-on untameable Ducati.
In 9th and 10th came another pair of team mates, in the shape of Colin Edwards and James Toseland. The huge gap between them belied the fact that they both struggled to make an impact in Germany, despite both citing an improvement from the new wheelie control they received for the race.
Loris Capirossi came home a disappointing 11th, the Rizla Suzuki rider never really featuring this weekend. Behind Capirex, his compatriot and Ducati rookie Niccolo Canepa finished 12th once again, the Italian seeming like he is making some small progress with the Ducati.
Their team mates reflected the positions ahead of them, Chris Vermeulen finishing 13th while Mika Kallio came home 14th. Vermeulen had been struggling with a huge bruise on his hip all weekend, while Kallio is still getting to grips with his newly-shortened finger. Neither man was expected to feature, but neither were they expecting to be quite so anonymous as they were.
The last man to finish came home surprisingly content, Gabor Talmacsi finally scoring his first points aboard the Scot Honda, and given the short lap at the Sachsenring, Talmacsi was unlucky to be lapped, being caught by Rossi and Lorenzo on the very last lap. The Hungarian continues his progression, slowly but surely narrowing the gap to the rest of the field.
Things are looking up for MotoGP: the racing is getting closer, and once again, we have had a race decided by less than a second. No longer is it just a two-way battle for supremacy, instead now all four of the championship leaders have joined the fray and give no impression of leaving it again. There really are four men capable of winning, something all four of them have already done.
Yet what is troubling is the gap back to the men behind them. Though victory was decided by just 0.099 seconds, the difference between 1st and 5th was 21 seconds, and Casey Stoner's collapse saw him only drop back by 10 seconds, still way ahead of the Gresinis who followed. On any given day, there are four men who can win a race, but the chances of anyone else even getting a podium are slim beyond belief.
Valentino Rossi, Jorge Lorenzo, Casey Stoner and Dani Pedrosa are so far ahead of the rest of the field, Randy de Puniet's nickname for the four of them seems more and more apt. Them being aliens is the only logical explanation for how come they finish such a huge margin ahead. In the words of the immortal Sherlock Holmes: "When you have eliminated the impossible, whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth."