There is always something bittersweet about the Valencia round of MotoGP. The final race is at once both apogee and perigee, zenith and nadir, as befits the culmination of any experience which marks its fans as deeply as MotoGP does. The last chance to party with fellow fans, and the last chance to watch, hear and feel the awe-inspiring sights and sounds of the 18 fastest, loudest, most technologically advanced motorcycles in the world tear around a racetrack at dizzying speeds. Valencia is always part birthday celebration, part funeral wake, as fans and followers celebrate the passing of another astounding season.
For many people, this year's end-of-season party at Valencia will be more like a wake than at any time in recent history. Sure, there were tears of nostalgia when the two strokes went, to be shed once again at the demise of the 990s. But on each of those occasions, there was also hope and curiosity, waiting to see what the new bikes that replaced them would bring.
2009, though, will be different. For once the bikes pull into the pit lane after the race on Sunday, MotoGP will cease to be a purely prototype series and will open the door to spec equipment and standardization. The imposition of a single tire manufacturer with the authority to dictate which tires the teams will use marks the end of an era. Once, anyone with the desire, the ability and the funds could manufacture whole motorcycles or individual components, and as long as they complied with certain basic rules and specifications, any team sensing an advantage could use them. But that is now gone.
Waving The Flag
Supporters of the change quite rightly point out that tires, while incredibly important, are the least interesting part of a racing motorcycle to the vast majority of fans. They say that merely instituting a single tire rule can hardly be construed as an assault on the principle of prototype engineering, and that the tires are the part of the racing machine which the motorcycle manufacturers are least associated with. Nobody was ever a fan of a tire company, they say, a claim which Bridgestone and Michelin might publicly decry, while privately admitting.
But concerns over safety and cost have prevailed, and in an attempt to at least slow up the ever-increasing speeds the 800cc bikes were capable of, Dorna felt it had to act. The deal was done at Motegi, Bridgestone were awarded the contract at Sepang, and at Valencia, after 20 years of dominance, Michelin tires will roll out onto a MotoGP race track for the last time, never to return.
At least they will be in with a chance of bowing out in style. The Valencia track has always been kind to Michelin, and Bridgestone have only beaten them here once, when Troy Bayliss romped to victory on a wildcard Ducati after taking his 2nd World Superbike championship in 2006. Even last year, the year in which Michelin had their worst season for decades, Dani Pedrosa took a resounding win on French rubber, showing that Michelin could be competitive when they wanted to, and helping rekindle faith in the company.
This Looks Familiar
Pedrosa's win was in part down to the experience the tire companies have at the track. The Ricardo Tormo circuit always kicks off the winter test season on the day after the final race, and being situated near Spain's temperate Mediterranean coast, has a climate which is mild and dry enough to allow testing to take place in early spring.
While the climate makes it perfect for testing, the location makes the Circuito Ricardo Tormo perfect for racing. Just half an hour from Valencia, Spain's third largest city, and three hours from Madrid and Barcelona, the numbers 1 and 2 in that league, the circuit is a Mecca for the crazed Spanish racing fans.
And the physical geography of the track makes it a fantastic spot for those fans to spectate at. The track sits in a bowl of low hills which form a natural amphitheater where MotoGP's gladiators gather to do battle. Seated upon the slopes of the hills overlooking the circuit, spectators can see almost the entire track, and follow all of the action no matter where it takes place.
The first point of engagement is Turn 1, at the end of the surprisingly long front straight. If you've been hearing the roar of another bike behind as you race down the straight, this is the place they will pull out of your draft and try to bump past you on the brakes. But passing here is risky: Turn 1 is not quite 90 degrees and very wide, and as a consequence, pretty fast. Carry too much speed into the corner trying to get past somebody and you risk a very fast and very painful tumble, as you run wide and hit the gravel at high speed.
Too Cool For School
After a short straight, the first hairpin looms, followed by a left kink, the third left hander in a row. But more danger lurks at Turn 4, the first right hander since halfway round the track on the previous lap. By the time you turn in for the corner here, the right-hand side of your tire is starting to cool and grip levels can be deceptively low. Coming off a series of turns which have gotten the left side of your tire nice and sticky, it's all too easy to go in too hot expecting grip, only to contemplate your miscalculation in the gravel trap after lowsiding off.
Another slow right brings you up to Turn 6, and on towards the most technical and most interesting section of the Valencia circuit. Out of 6, you enter the short back straight, short-shifting up to 150 mph, before leaning the bike over for the left hand kink and getting hard on the brakes for Turn 8.
After the tight right-hand hairpin, the track doubles back on itself, and you flick the bike left and right, ready to enter the slowest corner on the track and a place where those brave enough will try to come underneath you on the brakes. If you get through Turn 11 unscathed, then it's on to the most spectacular part of the circuit.
The first day of the new MotoGP season traditionally starts on the day after the last day of the current season. On the Monday after the final MotoGP race at Valencia, testing begins for the new season, with new machinery being rolled out, and old riders wandering around looking strange and slightly uncomfortable in different colored leathers. Once the journalists leave the track on Monday afternoon, testing starts in earnest, and continues until evening falls on Wednesday.
It won't quite be happening like that this year, however. For a start, the teams have finally managed to put up a collective front against the horde of journos who come to wobble around the Valencia track, and will be severely limiting the number of motorcycle scribes who will get to lap the circuit. But the other development is a good deal more worrying. Bridgestone has already told the teams that it will not have sufficient tires for all of the teams to test at the Valencia test for the full three days, according to MotoGP veteran reporter and Motocourse stalwart Michael Scott in the free online magazine GPWeek.
This poses a fairly significant problem for both teams and riders. Firstly, everyone swapping to a new bike - including Nicky Hayden, Marco Melandri, Yuki Takahashi, and the Alice Ducati team - will want to get as many miles under their belts on their new mounts as possible. Then there's the pile of new parts and bikes waiting to be tested, including the carbon-fiber framed Ducati GP9, which Casey Stoner is putting off having surgery to test. And last but very much not least there are the former Michelin riders keen to get as many laps as possible on the new rubber to collect data for the teams to digest over the winter.
As expected, the Chinese round of MotoGP at Shanghai is off the calendar, and as predicted earlier this week, the Hungarian Grand Prix will take place in late summer. But the calendar has a lot of significant shakeups: Motegi moves from late September to the spring, June is a lot less busy, with only 2 lots of back-to-back races in 2009, rather than three pairs which we saw this year. The British Grand Prix moves from June to late July, and Estoril switches back to October.
|May 17th||France||Le Mans|
|July 5th***||United States||Laguna Seca|
|July 26th||Great Britain||Donington Park|
|August 16th||Czech Republic||Brno|
|September 6th||San Marino & Riviera di Rimini||Misano|
|October 18th||Australia||Phillip Island|
|November 8th||Valencia||Ricardo Tormo - Valencia|
* Evening race
** Saturday race
*** Only MotoGP class
This will likely appear to be a paid commercial for a video game. Sorry for that, but I assure you, it isn't. Rather, I beg your indulgence to consider one of the best ways to keep your mind racing while the sport is on its long hiatus. As I sit to write this, the game is at least a year-and-a-half old, and it was probably considered outdated when I started playing it just under a year ago. I insist that you trust me: this is much more than simply a video game with which you can avoid reality and otherwise escape being productive.
Tourist Trophy was a product developed, in conjunction with the last generation of Gran Turismo for the PlayStation 2 platform. GT4, like its predecessors, was the best vehicle dynamics simulation available (prior to PS3 and GT5) without a race team contract or a manufacturer's super-computer. This point alone, could be labored over for an entire column, and certainly has been elsewhere, so I will not do that here. Suffice to say, Tourist Trophy picks up in the GT4 world with a physical model for motorcycles that hasn't existed anywhere in the public. Said another way: to be any good at this, you must actually know how to ride and race at a rather cerebral level.
If you are already familiar with Gran Turismo, then I don't have to sell you any more than this. Better yet, if you are familiar with GT4, then you are already prepared for much of the circuits you will see in Tourist Trophy. And, if you are already a veteran - or even a novice - of TT, please read on and consider if there isn't more to do.
Nicky Hayden arrived at Valencia with some new artwork on his bike and his leathers. The left-hand side of his fairing depicted a hand of five cards: the ten, jack, queen and king of diamonds, and one more card face down. Besides the cards was a large pile of poker chips, and the words "All In ...". No clearer indication of Hayden's intent could be imaginable: After the fiasco at Estoril, where Hayden's championship hopes were all but terminated by his team mate, the only course of action the Kentucky Kid had open to him was to gamble everything on getting to the front, and trying to win the race. Conceding an 8-point lead to the 5-time and reigning MotoGP world champion, and the man almost universally acclaimed as the greatest motorcycle racer of all time, reclaiming the lead and taking the title seemed a nigh impossible task. But, as Hayden kept insisting to the press each time he was interviewed: "This is MotoGP, anything can happen. That's why we line up." Anything can happen. And sometimes, it does.
If the atmosphere was tense during practice yesterday, today it was as taut as piano wire. The morning session had already seen the Nicky Hayden and Valentino Rossi square off on qualifying tires, Hayden coming within 4/100ths of Rossi's fastest lap, with both men diving just under Sete Gibernau's qualifying time from last year. Prior to the qualifiers coming out, both men had set long runs of 1:33 laps, proving they both had decent race pace. But neither of these sets of laps were quite as impressive as Loris Capirossi's 19 lap run, 18 laps of which were below 1:34. With Capirex capable of doing 2/3rds race distance on his Ducati at that kind of pace, it no longer looked like a two man fight.
The second Free Practice session at Valencia threw up some interesting, but rather deceptive results. While everyone's focus was on Valentino Rossi and Nicky Hayden, it was Ducati man Loris Capirossi who stole the show. Capirex headed the timesheets for nearly all of the session, only briefly deposed by flying Frenchman Randy de Puniet on the Kawasaki. De Puniet's fast lap was the first obvious sign of qualifying tires being used, though surprisingly, only the top three riders went for an all-out shot with qualifiers on.
We already knew that the Valencia race would be tense, and hard-fought, and the first free practice session has lived up to our expectations. The session saw times staying very close, with the two main protagonists taking it in turns to leapfrog over each others' times. At the end of the session, it was Valentino Rossi who came out ahead, but only just. Rossi set the fastest time of the morning, with a time of 1:33.313, just 6/1000ths ahead of Casey Stoner, and 7/1000ths ahead of Nicky Hayden. Behind Hayden, a couple of Bridgestone runners are showing good form, with Loris Capirossi taking 4th, followed by Chris Vermeulen on the Suzuki. Behind Vermeulen sit the title candidates' team mates: Colin Edwards putting his Yamaha just ahead of Dani Pedrosa. Troy Bayliss needed little time to get used to the Ducati Desmosedici again, putting the bike on 8th spot, while behind him are Randy de Puniet on the Kawasaki and Marco Melandri on the Fortuna Honda. The top 15 runners are covered by less than 3/4 of a second. It's going to be a thriller.
To visitors from the lush north of Europe, their first impression of the Circuit Ricardo Tormo is an overwhelming sense of desolation. As you leave the bustling Spanish coast and the metropolis of Valencia behind you, and head along the highway towards the parched Spanish meseta, the earth turns redder, the low hills turn drier and the palms which line the coast turn to scrub and squat silver-green olive trees. In late October, after the long, searing Spanish summer, and before the winter rains come, this dry, desolate landscape is a fitting backdrop for a good old-fashioned showdown.
And on Sunday, that's what we'll get: two young men face off for the biggest prize in motorcycle racing: The title of MotoGP World Champion. On one side, The Kentucky Kid, whose consistency and hard work throughout the season have paid dividends, putting him at the forefront of the title chase. On the other, The Doctor, the current champion and acknowledged master, on a strong charge after a disastrous start to the year.
In an interview with Spanish sports daily Marca, Dani Pedrosa has promised to help Hayden in Valencia. "I was very upset at what happened in Estoril," the diminutive Spaniard said, "but I'll be the best help possible in Valencia".
Pedrosa was extremely apologetic for the incident at Estoril, which saw the Spaniard take out his American team mate, turning Hayden's 12 point title lead into an 8 point deficit. "I want to win, but not at the cost of my team mate's title race."
Pedrosa was also full of praise for Hayden's attitude after the crash. He said Hayden had "behaved with great professionalism", especially in his interviews with the press. "He didn't say a single bad thing about me," Pedrosa said of Hayden, "and I would have understood completely if he had. He would been totally justified."
After Sete Gibernau was injured in a crash caused by Casey Stoner, ironically the man who will replace him next year at Ducati, speculation was rife as to who would replace Gibernau at Valencia. The name getting the most attention was Troy Bayliss, and Ducati have finally made it official: today they issued a press release stating that Bayliss will ride at Valencia. Bayliss is understandably delighted, and it must give extra satisfaction, after being dropped by the Ducati MotoGP team two years ago.