Two-thirds of the way through the 2011 season and this is the point where decisive blows are struck in title fights. Indianapolis was no different: though the championships in all three classes are a long way from settled, the three leaders each have a race in hand after Indy. Nico Terol leads the 125cc championship by 26 points, Stefan Bradl has a lead of 28 points in Moto2, and Casey Stoner holds a comfortable 44-point advantage over Jorge Lorenzo in the MotoGP class.
The way the three championship leaders secured their advantage at Indianapolis could well prove to be pivotal. In the 125cc race, Nico Terol dusted the field from the lights, putting a second a lap on everyone else and just disappearing. It was reminiscent of his displays earlier this year, when he won four of the first five races with ease. After a mid-season slump, and especially after the mechanical that saw him DNF at Brno, Terol is back, and has seized the 125 championship by the scruff of the neck again. It is hard not to feel sorry for the sympathetic Frenchman Johann Zarco, the Air Asia Ajo rider having made a huge leap forward this season, but when a rider is in the form that Terol is in, they are incredibly hard to beat. Terol's championship is taking on an air of inevitability, and once that seed is planted in the minds of his rivals, the fight is nearly over.
Moto2 was similarly instructive, only this time, the order of the finishers was reversed. Few words need be wasted on the merit of the winner, Marc Marquez rode another stunning race, his fourth from the last five. He quickly disposed of the opposition, then built a lead he could comfortably defend. The only reason not to classify this as a perfect race is because Marquez started from pole but had to suffer riders in front of him for the first seven laps, but only the severest of critics would judge the young Spaniard for that.
Yet it was not perhaps Marquez who consolidated his position in the Moto2 championship at Indianapolis. More than Marquez, all credit should go to championship leader Stefan Bradl. A big crash in practice saw him struggle in qualifying ending up 22nd on the grid. At a track where getting off line was punished severely - more on Indy's track surface later - the German worked his way forward picking off riders at will. He ended the race in 6th, picking up 10 valuable points, and retaining a 28-point lead over the charging Marquez. They say that championships are won on your worst days, not your best days, and salvaging 10 points from what looked like a disastrous position is a sign of incredible mental fortitude. Marquez can still win the Moto2 title, but he has to win every race from here until Valencia. In his current form, that is not impossible, but Bradl looks capable of finding away to stop him. It's an intriguing battle.
The most decisive blow was struck in the MotoGP class. Casey Stoner was already leading the MotoGP championship coming into Indy, but Jorge Lorenzo's deficit of 32 points with 7 races to go meant that the Spaniard had his fate in his own hands. That is now very much over: losing 12 points to Stoner means that Lorenzo's deficit is now 44 points, and with just 6 races to go, Lorenzo will need some help to beat the Repsol Honda rider. Help from other riders, help from what former British Prime Minister Harold Macmillan termed "events", but most of all, from Yamaha. The M1 is still an outstanding motorcycle, arguably the best-handling bike on the grid, but it is just lacking a little in power and acceleration. The new engine that Lorenzo and Spies got helped a little - "one or two kilometers" according to Lorenzo - but they are still being outclassed by the Honda. At more flowing tracks, that will not be a problem but it was at Indianapolis.
Lorenzo's problem at Indy was the state of the tarmac, the new surface highly abrasive and only really scrubbed in on racing line. Get off that line and it was still treacherous, Lorenzo said, "If you make a mistake it is very dangerous." Unable to either push too hard for fear of using up the tires, or run different lines to try to find a little extra speed, Lorenzo could not take the fight to Stoner and handed his rival a bunch of points.
Even worse for Lorenzo, it wasn't just Stoner the Spaniard couldn't follow, but Dani Pedrosa and even his teammate Ben Spies proved too much for him. The taller, heavier Spies could get the tires to work - and to last, without suffering from graining - and caught and passed Lorenzo taking yet more valuable points from his Yamaha teammate. Indeed, if Spies had got a halfway decent start, instead of getting boxed in at Turn 1, and then nearly coming together with Andrea Dovizioso and getting bumped back to 9th, he could have been much more help to his teammate. Once Spies finally got his race underway, he forced his way forward from 9th to 3rd, running a pace that was very close to Stoner's. If Spies had been with the front runners after the first couple of corners, he might have given Stoner a run for his money, and maybe even taken valuable points from the Australian. However, as Spies said after the race, "There's always wouldas couldas shouldas, but that's racing. If you worry about that kind of thing afterwards, you'd never sleep." The goal had been to get on the podium, and that goal had been achieved. And yet so much more had been possible.
Even if Spies had been at the front, staying in front of Stoner would have been difficult in the extreme. Stoner's biggest problem once he hit the front was maintaining his concentration, running a pace fast enough to keep his lead comfortable, but not push too hard and use up his tires. "We made sure to pull just little gaps," Stoner said after the race, "because we knew as soon as we put the hammer down, the tire destroys itself really quickly. We just had to be really soft with it." If Spies had been with him, he was ready to fight, Stoner said. "I was going to push to win this race today. If it was going to be a fight, I was willing to fight." It hadn't been necessary, Stoner could control the race calmly from the front.
This, Nicky Hayden said, was the big difference from previous years. The Australian was riding with his head as well as his heart. "Stoner's not just riding well, he's riding smart," Hayden told reporters, "He's riding smarter than I've ever seen him." Stoner had said as much after the press conference: "I won't go out and settle unless things aren't going well," Stoner said. "Then I'll settle."
Stoner's win marks a milestone, not just in the 2011 season but also in his career. Victory at Indianapolis took Stoner to 30 victories in the premier class, just one shy of the legendary Eddie Lawson. Taken over all classes, Stoner's win takes him to 37, matching the number scored by Dani Pedrosa and Jorge Lorenzo. Though Stoner refused to be swayed by statistics, that number pleased him, because he had been so far behind his two rivals when he joined the premier class. Both Pedrosa and Lorenzo had been prolific winners in the lower classes, while the bulk of Stoner's victories had come in MotoGP.
On Thursday, Stoner had dismissed comparisons with riders from other eras such as Kevin Schwantz, Eddie Lawson and Mick Doohan. Quoted the statistic that he was two wins ahead of Mick Doohan after the same number of races, Stoner pointed out that comparisons are impossible to make. "I don't believe in statistics," Stoner asserted, "because in different eras, in different forms of racing, different competition, different bikes, there's too many different variables. I think you can only compare riders against each other on the same machine or in the same era." Statistics were fun to look at, Stoner said, "but I don't think you can compare one rider who was racing 40 years ago and someone now. I think it's impossible."
While much of the attention after the race was focused on Casey Stoner and Dani Pedrosa - the Spaniard had been fairly anonymous all weekend, yet on race day, there he was unrivaled in 2nd place - a quiet revolution was continuing behind them. Andrea Dovizioso - the Silent Partner of the Repsol Honda Team - took another 5th place finish, and came close to snatching 4th from Jorge Lorenzo. Dovizioso is just 25 points behind the Spaniard, and is starting to believe that he could take 2nd place in the championship from the Yamaha rider.
While all eyes in the paddock are on the media sensation that is Marco Simoncelli, Dovizioso (as he points out every weekend) finished well ahead of Simoncelli, beating him in the race just as he has done all year. Meanwhile, HRC are looking for ways to retain Simoncelli, while Dovizioso has been locked in talks with Tech 3 boss Herve Poncharal over a possible switch to Yamaha, looking for the best package that he can procure in terms of factory backing. Simoncelli's threats to defect to Ducati if he doesn't get a factory Honda continue, but the Italian did his case no good at all with a dismal 12th place finish. After a brief flurry of excitement in the early laps, Simoncelli's tires gave up on him, and he plummeted rapidly backwards through the field. At Misano, just a few miles from his home, Simoncelli will want to do a good deal better.
If Simoncelli faces Misano with determination, the feelings in the Ducati garage were more like trepidation, after what can only be described as a disastrous weekend. Valentino Rossi and his crew tried a setup change in qualifying which saw the Italian crash, then muddle his way to a 14th spot on the grid. Though Rossi's pace was reasonable during the race, problems with the GP11.1's seamless gearbox meant that Rossi kept finding false neutrals when he changed down through the box. The problem - something which had emerged in testing, and which Ducati thought they had already fixed - forced Rossi to run wide a couple of times, and even left the Italian considering pulling in at several points during the race. He carried on just to take points, but that was all he could achieve.
The real problem for Rossi - for all of the Ducatis, in reality - was dealing with the high temperatures. All of the Ducatis simply ate up their tires, Karel Abraham forced to pull in with a chunk out of his front tire, Nicky Hayden pulling in at the end to have his tire checked, but going back out to secure a couple of points. At the end, Hayden said the tire was down to the carcass, with no racing rubber left on it at all. The tire had been vibrating so badly down the front straight that he was afraid it would not last the race, hence his trip through the pits.
Hayden did not believe the problem was related to him electing to race the softer front tire, the only rider to do so. On Saturday during qualifying, the hard front had been even worse, Hayden opined. "With my first qualifier I used a hard front and I literally only got 4 laps out of it," the American told reporters. "I used the soft front and it pushed a lot less and it lasted longer." In reality, though, the choice of tire was not really that much of a difference maker, Hayden was resigned to believing. "I'm not sure it was going to make a big difference, our bike, we have no front grip anyway, pushing the front everywhere. Obviously we made a mistake but we had to try something."
Despite this, Hayden left his home race - which he described as "a disaster in front of my home fans" - surprisingly optimistic. After mixing it up with the leaders in the early running, Hayden felt he was competitive for the first time in a very long time indeed. "We changed the bike quite a lot this morning, and it was the first time in the dry I was able to put up any kind of fight," Hayden told reporters. "This new gearbox was helping me out of the last corner, I was able to stay in guys' drafts. I seen Casey and Dani were a lot quicker, but Lorenzo wasn't much quicker than me," Hayden said. "I lost a bit of time when Simoncelli came by, and Dovizioso, I had to get by him because he was holding me up in a few places. I can definitely say that was the first time in the dry that I was behind a factory Honda and was thinking 'I gotta get by this guy,'" Hayden said. "I will say that as bad as it turned out, it was the first time I was mixing it up with factory Hondas and in front of Yamahas, stuff like that."
The heat at Indianapolis had become a Ducati killer, not down to engines but down to the way the bike uses the front tire. "It's been that way since I got on it," Hayden explained. "We have a stiff bike, and the hotter and greasier a track is, the worse a stiff bike is." With temperatures of 30ºC expected at Misano this weekend, the prospects for the Ducatis are not looking good.
But it wasn't just the heat that was the problem in Indy, the track resurfacing was also partially to blame. The infield road course barely gets used - 500cc World Champion runs a track day at Indy once a year, but that doesn't make much of a difference - and so the asphalt had no rubber on it at all and was still covered in dust. A lack of rubber wasn't the only issue, for having bikes and cars racing on a surface doesn't just lay down rubber, it also wears down the small stones and gravel that go to make up the tarmac. When new, these have thousands of tiny sharp edges, and this contributed heavily to the tearing and graining of the tires. Hot tarmac, sharp stones and a lack of rubber contributed to turn the Indy surface into a tire killer, and those who were best at tire management came away on top.
The tragedy for Indy is that the surface was relaid to appease criticism from the riders, and as an expression of their intent to keep the MotoGP race at the Speedway for the foreseeable future. Having a bunch of jumped-up European kids coming in and bitching about the new surface was not the reception IMS had intended, and probably added to already difficult negotiations about extending the contract. The biggest problem is not the surface, though, but rather costs and the calendar. Dorna wants to run the two US MotoGP races back-to-back next year, to save shipping the whole circus across the Atlantic twice inside a month. That would mean moving either Laguna Seca or Indianapolis, but the calendars of both circuits are not flexible enough to accommodate them. The Brickyard 400 NASCAR race runs on the same weekend as Laguna Seca, so a MotoGP race the following weekend - the ideal situation - would simply not be possible.
A solution will probably come in 2013, when MotoGP comes to Austin, Texas. That race will either take place in early spring or late autumn, as the searing Texan summer would be a terrible time for a motorcycle race. Indy and Austin back-to-back would make a lot more sense, and allow MotoGP to feature in two key US markets, one of Dorna's biggest targets. How - and when, and if - the problem gets solved for 2012 remains to be seen. MotoGP needs to be at a venue as revered and impressive as the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. But it would be really nice if IMS could build a track to match the level of the facilities.