Race days like Sunday, full of incident and intrigue, leave MotoGP writers such as myself feeling starkly inadequate. So much happened at Jerez, in every single class, both during and after the race that it is impossible to do the weekend justice and give a comprehensive account of events without collapsing from exhaustion at about five in the morning. This weekend also made it clear to me that my fitness is not up to scratch, as I did not make it much past 1:30 am.
Fortunately, there is a four-week gap between the race at Jerez and the following round at Estoril. The riders may not much like it ("too long!" Andrea Dovizioso exclaimed), but that does leave plenty of time to fill out the stories that emerged at Jerez.
Rather unsurprisingly, many of those stories revolve around the incident involving Valentino Rossi and Casey Stoner. Debate on the issue is already extraordinarily heated, as was to be expected given that the riders who were party to the incident are the undisputed lord and master of MotoGP, and the rider who most polarizes opinion among racing fans.
Much of the argument revolves around the claims of both Rossi and Stoner that they were certain they could have fought for victory, or at worst a podium, if it hadn't been for the crash. With both Jorge Lorenzo and Dani Pedrosa having a strong race, a podium, let alone a victory, would not have been a given, yet the evidence would seem to point to Rossi and Stoner being correct in their assumptions.
Just watching the race, Rossi would appear to have the best claim to a podium, the Italian being fast from the off, and the fastest rider on the track from lap 4 onwards. The way Rossi cut through the field from 12th up to 3rd was impressive, and at the point where he crashed, he looked virtually unstoppable, his string of 1'48 laps only broken once he encountered traffic.
Casey Stoner, on the other hand, seemed to have plateaued. The Australian's lap times quickly dropped into the 1'49s, but once he was caught and passed by Marco Simoncelli, Stoner's pace appeared to sag. At the point where he was inadvertently taken out by Rossi, Stoner looked to be going backwards.
But given the conditions on the track and the way the different bikes treated their tires, the mere fact of Rossi going forward and Stoner going backward is not the whole story. Comparing other riders on the same bikes offers an interesting perspective, and provides an insight into just what Rossi and Stoner were doing at the time of the crash.
Look at Nicky Hayden's times on the second Marlboro Ducati bike, and it is clear that the Ducati was fast right out of the gate. Hayden's pace was immediately strong, and on laps 5 and 6, the only man quicker was his teammate Valentino Rossi. Once Rossi crashed out, Hayden was the fastest man on track on laps 7 and 8, before his pace started to wane on the next couple of laps. From lap 11, his pace dropped right off as his tires lost most of their grip. Hayden's podium was helped immensely by mistakes ahead of him, with Marco Simoncelli and Ben Spies crashing out, then Colin Edwards suffering mechanical heartbreak on the final lap putting Hayden on the box.
On a tangential note, Edwards' problem was not as at first thought an engine seizure, team members happy to clarify that the engine itself was just fine. What the problem was they were not allowed to say, but hints including the phrases "fuel starvation," "electro-mechanical system" and "$20 part" point very strongly in the direction of a broken fuel pump. A true tragedy for the Texan to be robbed of a podium spot, opportunities for which are rarer than unicorn spittle for satellite riders.
Returning to Nicky Hayden, it is clear that the Ducati was fast in the early part of the race, but was going to eat up its tires as the race progressed. Ducati clearly knew this, and Valentino Rossi almost certainly decided his tactics would be to gain as much of a lead as possible in the early laps, then defend like a demon as his tires went off later on.
This would explain his impetuous charge to the front, taking no prisoners - but causing one casualty - along the way. With Rossi's shoulder not troubling him in the wet conditions ("this is the first time I can ride at 100% since Qatar last year," Rossi said afterwards), the joy of riding at full pace and the sniff of a podium enticed Rossi into taking risks, a gamble which he - and Stoner - eventually lost.
For the pace of the Hondas, the obvious comparison would be with Stoner's Repsol Honda teammates, but both Dani Pedrosa and Andrea Dovizioso had complicating factors which rule them out of the comparison. Pedrosa's problems are well-documented, and though his shoulder held up much better than expected thanks to the wet conditions, the Spaniard was far from 100% at the end of the race. Dovizioso came in and pitted for a new tire, the old one having been completely destroyed. After the race, the Italian said the problem had been caused by a gamble on using too little traction control, the track not drying up as much as the team had hoped.
Instead, we must look further down the field for an example of how the Hondas would have fared, and the only good example we have of this is Hiroshi Aoyama. The San Carlo Gresini Honda rider got off to a poor start, ending the first lap in 16th place, down from 10th on the grid. During the first half of the race, Aoyama's pace was very middling, posting 1'52 when the leaders were doing 1'50s. But as the race progressed, the Honda came into its own, Aoyama's pace degrading much less than all of the other riders. By the last ten or so laps, Aoyama was matching or beating the rest of the field, and was the fastest man on track on laps 24, 26 and 27.
Extrapolating from Aoyama's lap times, it would appear that the Hondas were much better at conserving their tires for later in the race, but that this meant taking a more cautious approach early on. Stoner's strategy, then, was to nurse his tires in the early part of the race, then pushing on as the race progressed. This accords with Stoner's own words, telling the press debrief after the race "we were taking it easy early on to save our tires."
From the data, what appears to have happened is a collision of strategies as much as riders. Valentino Rossi, keen to gain as much advantage as possible before his grip gave out, was pushing and taking calculated risks to try to get away from the front. Casey Stoner, in turn, was content to let people by, saving his tires for an attack in the latter stages of the race. Rossi going forward met Stoner holding station, and the two hit the gravel after Rossi took one risk too many. That these two riders would meet each other on the way past - probably more than once - was inevitable. That they should both end up on the floor was the result of bad luck and poor judgment.
The real tragedy is that this incident denied us what could very well have turned into a fascinating race, with riders stalking and passing each other as conditions swung in favor of one rider, then back to favor the other. The only upside is that it has made the championship that much more interesting, with Stoner now forced to come from behind, taking more risks to try to grab a title than he had hoped would be necessary. But there are still 16 races of the season left to go. There's plenty more drama left in store.