There's an old racing cliché that says that rain is a great leveler. It turned out to be so in more ways than one at Silverstone, with several key players finding themselves on the floor in the utterly miserable conditions on race day. The most important faller was Jorge Lorenzo, the Spaniard crashing out for the first time since Phillip Island 2009 and gifting the lead in the MotoGP championship to the winner, Casey Stoner. Lorenzo's DNF put an end to an astonishing streak of 25 races in which the reigning World Champion finished in the top 4, most of which have been on the podium, and 10 times on the top step. Consistency won Lorenzo the 2010 title, yet it was his consistency that failed him on Sunday.
So why did Lorenzo take a risk and crash out? Speaking to the press after the race, he explained that he knew he was faster than Dovizioso at that point in the race, and believed he had the pace to run with Casey Stoner. So he pushed hard to get past Dovi, and he paid the price, going down in the first corner.
Dovizioso earned his pay from Repsol on Sunday. Not only did he tempt Lorenzo into making a mistake and crashing, he managed to do the same to Marco Simoncelli as well. Simoncelli had once again shown that he was fast during qualifying, getting perilously close to taking his second pole on the trot at Silverstone, only denied by Stoner's terrifying pace through the final sector. But as the San Carlo Gresini rider dueled with Dovizioso for 2nd, Simoncelli hit a puddle of standing water on the track and went down, despite being particularly careful at that point.
This is the third time in six races that Simoncelli has crashed out of a race, and with a strike rate of 50%, it is starting to look like a habit. Speed is not a problem, but the racing acumen to make the right decision appears to be largely lacking in Simoncelli, as even his friend and defender Valentino Rossi conceded. "He is always very fast, but he makes very many mistakes this year," Rossi said. "So he need to understand from inside what is happening in his head in these crucial moments. He needs to try to understand his problem and improve."
The third faller in the MotoGP class was Ben Spies, the Texan crashing unseen by the TV cameras. He fell heavily, sliding into the wall and hitting it with his back, his back protector destroyed in the crash, but allowing Spies to come away bruised, sore, but largely unhurt. The quality of protective gear is pretty impressive at the moment, though there is always room for improvement.
I managed to snag Jeremy Appleton from Alpinestars for a few moments, and got some interesting background on the subject of rider protection. Appleton firmly believes that active safety - i.e. airbags and similar systems - are the future of rider protection. There are already suggestions that in-suit airbags should be made mandatory, but the problem is that there are currently only two manufacturers producing leathers with airbags (Dainese and Alpinestars), and developing the systems is an enormously expensive and lengthy undertaking.
And airbags cannot prevent injury altogether. Dani Pedrosa's injury at Le Mans was a case in point: Pedrosa's airbag inflated 100 milliseconds before Pedrosa hit the ground, but the force with which Pedrosa hit was much larger than anticipated. The Spaniard had hit at a very steep angle, creating an extremely high energy spike, which the airbag had been only partially capable of dispersing. Appleton said he was convinced that if Pedrosa had not been wearing an airbag suit, his injury would have been very much worse.
The topic is current because of the current paucity of the grid. Just 15 riders started at Silverstone, after Cal Crutchlow broke his collarbone and injured his neck in a crash during qualifying. His Monster Tech 3 Yamaha teammate Colin Edwards had recently had his collarbone plated, though neither this, nor the separated muscle in his ribs which was far more painful, would prevent the Texan from getting his first podium since a strange half-wet-half-dry race at Donington in 2009.
That podium was a delight not just to the Texan's many British fans at Silverstone, but also to both the media corps and even his fellow riders. Edwards' language is politely described as "colorful", though a more accurate estimate would say it was half unprintable expletive, half hilarious turn of phrase, and his performance had the press room pretty much in stitches. Repeating what he said in the press conference would cause MotoMatters.com to be instantly blocked by thousands of work internet filters, so suffice it to say that he was happy with his podium, the team had gambled on a completely different setup, and it had paid off.
While Edwards' podium was deeply impressive, and his press conference highly amusing, the most significant thing to come out of the weekend was Casey Stoner taking over the lead in the championship. Stoner once again rode a faultless race, scoring maximum points while never looking as if he did not have the situation under control. Stoner's win takes him to a total of 27 premier-class victories, but more importantly, it put him at 66.6% for the 2011 season. Stoner has taken two-thirds of the wins (four out of six), two-thirds of the poles, and has topped the timesheets in two out of every three sessions. Stoner has already left Kevin Schwantz behind him for total premier-class wins, and is likely to surpass the legendary Eddie Lawson before the year is out. That would leave just four men ahead of him in the all-time standings: Mike Hailwood with 37, Mick Doohan with 54, Giacomo Agostini with 68, and Valentino Rossi with 79.
And this is precisely what has been dividing MotoGP fans over the past year, since Stoner moved to Honda and Rossi switched to Ducati, and the comparison between the two. Such comparisons are inherently flawed, and so far, most have shown a blatant disregard for either one half or another of the facts. Only an idiot would regard what Casey Stoner has done on the Ducati and is doing on the Honda as being solely attributable to the bike, and only an idiot would write a nine-time World Champion off after just six races on a new (and notoriously difficult) machine. Apparently, though, there is no shortage of idiots, though in my experience, this is the same regardless of the subject at hand.
No doubt that Stoner is fast, and the Honda is outstanding, though its supremacy is slightly overstated. The special quickshift gearbox, for example, helps keep the bike more stable while accelerating at full lean, but it has a downside too. Stoner explained that because the bike does shift so quickly, the bike is much more prone to wheelying than with a standard gearbox. That requires finding a way of keeping the front wheel down, though Stoner was unhappy with the anti-wheelie systems. They work by cutting power - exactly as traditional traction control also works - and that means you get out of corners slower than if you managed the acceleration yourself.
Likewise, much has been made of Rossi's failure to tame the Ducati, a bike that Stoner was clearly capable of winning on. Speculation is rife that Rossi is trying to turn the Ducati into a Yamaha, or at least into a bike that he can use to carry his corner speed through the fast sweepers, and maintain a decent turn of pace. There were even rumors of a new chassis for Rossi at Silverstone, though the Italian denied it strenuously. What Rossi did admit is that Ducati are working hard on some new parts for the rear end of his Desmosedici GP11 to be made available some time around Brno. Rossi himself would like the new parts at Mugello, but he understands that realistically, those parts are simply not ready to race.
The parts which Rossi has coming are all aimed at improving rear traction and stopping the pumping of the rear wheel that so plagued the Ducati last year. Even if they don't work, Rossi is confident for 2012, at least, the new 1000cc bike having no such problems with the rear end. Sadly, that rear will not fit directly on to the GP11, or the Desmosedici might already be closer to the pointy end than they are right now.
Of course, talk of a Rossi Revival ignores the fact that the championship just got a whole lot more interesting. Stoner now has a 17 point lead over Jorge Lorenzo, and does not look like relinquishing that advantage. Up until now, Lorenzo has been happy to defend his position and his lead, but that tactic is no longer sufficient. Lorenzo's team manager, Wilco Zeelenberg, acknowledged that their game plan had now changed, and it was a question whether the new tactics would work or not. Instead of simply defending, and trying to score points while keeping Stoner honest, Lorenzo now has to attack, and try to force Stoner into making a mistake. The problem, Zeelenberg acknowledged, was not that Stoner might be immune to pressure, as much as keeping up with Stoner to apply that pressure in the first place.
Coming tomorrow: a look at Moto2, a discussion of the CRT Teams, and a note on Toni Elias.