It was a good weekend for MotoGP at Misano. We had two-and-a-half great races, two championships were opened up again and one took a step closer to the inevitable conclusion it has been moving towards almost since the start of the season. The weather was good - with just a sprinkling of raindrops to keep everyone honest - the crowds were up - on last year at least - and if the home crowd didn't exactly get what they came to see (a Rossi victory), at least they went home with hope in their hearts after a pretty strong race by the Italian, all things considered.
That they were less than happy with Jorge Lorenzo's victory - the third Spanish victory of the day, and the second time the Spaniards had cleaned up at an Italian Grand Prix, a particular thorn in the side of Italian MotoGP fans - as was witnessed by the booing during the podium ceremony, which Lorenzo responded to by cupping his hand to his ear as if he couldn't hear. Lorenzo said afterwards he found it disappointing that fans responded like that, acting more like soccer fans than racing fans, saying that he was sure that Valentino Rossi would disapprove of such behavior. Rossi agreed - up to a point - but after making all the expected noises, he added "This is Italy!" and said that his advice to Lorenzo was not to take any notice of it.
Whatever the reaction of the crowds, nobody could dispute the emphatic nature of Lorenzo's victory. The Spaniard took off like a scalded cat at the start, diving into the lead at Turn 1 very aggressively and pushing hard from the very first lap. Though Casey Stoner tailed him for the first 10 laps, not giving the Yamaha man any quarter, once the fatigue set in - Stoner has been suffering sleep deprivation since arriving back from Indianapolis, a mixture of a hard race in tough conditions at Indy, jetlag and his neck injury preventing him from cycling, which is how he usually tires himself out enough to sleep - Lorenzo took off, upping the pace to pull a gap, forcing the Australian to capitulate.
Lorenzo did not let up all the way to the end of the race, winning in deeply convincing style. "The hammer is back," Yamaha boss Lin Jarvis commented after the race, alluding to the two sides to Lorenzo riding, the hammer being Lorenzo's ability to push hard when he has to, the butter being the silky smoothness that characterizes Lorenzo's riding style. Lorenzo's team manager Wilco Zeelenberg said that his performance had been a joy to watch, dancing over the machine and the track, in perfect harmony with the bike. It was indeed a virtuoso performance.
It also marked a turning point for the Spaniard. Lorenzo's team had reverted to the setup used with great success at Mugello, after losing their way over the past two races. The change had given Lorenzo confidence in the front end of the bike again, and that had allowed him to push to the limit of the bike and his ability. The victory also cut Lorenzo's deficit to Stoner in the championship to 35 points, a much more achievable tally than the 44 points he had coming into the Misano round. Though 35 points from 5 races is a big ask, and will require getting some help from either another rider or from Stoner himself (or both, as Rossi's torpedoing of the Repsol Honda demonstrated at Jerez) it is an entirely achievable total. It will require Lorenzo to win at tracks like Motegi, which should favor the Honda, and Phillip Island, which Stoner has dominated at for the past four years, or at least limit the damage there and dominate at tracks like Sepang where the Yamaha has been traditionally strong. Given that Misano was done on the old, less powerful spec motor, Lorenzo is in with a fighting chance.
Stoner was confident that Misano was just an anomaly. His team had given him a great bike, he said, and he'd been up to speed straight away, which had given him hope, but the lack of sleep - a few hours a night - had proved too much. Once he'd lost touch with Lorenzo, he tried to set a pace that would allow him to stay ahead of Dani Pedrosa. That, too, proved too much, and Stoner was passed by his Repsol Honda teammate on lap 23. From then on, Stoner just concentrated on finishing, and taking what points he could. Asked if he thought team orders would have been better for his championship, Stoner reiterated his opposition to them, though he added what could be an important qualification. If it was him, Stoner explained, and he could help a teammate that he had a good personal relationship with and he liked as a person, then he might try to help that person win the championship. Stoner did not expand on whether this situation applied to himself and Pedrosa.
Amidst all the excitement, Dani Pedrosa scored another podium, and a second-place finish at Misano. But the result - an outstanding one for sure - was as anonymous as most of his weekend had been. Pedrosa did not really have the pace to match the leaders, an overnight modification to the forks not having worked out as he hoped, meaning the front was threatening to fold for the first part of the race, only getting better as the fuel burnt off. But consistency and persistence paid off, Pedrosa consolidating his position in the championship, and closing in on Andrea Dovizioso for 3rd.
Dovizioso himself was proving a healthy dose of entertainment in the scrap over 4th. The third wheel on the Repsol Honda wagon found himself battling with archrival Marco Simoncelli and Ben Spies. Spies had gotten off to a poor start once again, but soon joined the pair of Italians battling over 4th. The fight went all the way to the line, positions swapping several times in the final laps, and the very last lap turning intense, Spies, Dovizioso and Simoncelli entering the Quercia corner three-abreast. Spies got in hottest, forcing Dovizioso a little wide and giving Simoncelli the breathing space he needed to secure 4th, much to the chagrin of Dovizioso. This was the first time that Simoncelli had beaten Dovizioso this year, and caught in the middle of contract negotiations - with Honda mainly, though Dovi has also been linked to both the Tech 3 Yamaha ride and the second Mapfre Aspar Ducati (the team is due to expand to two bikes for 2012) - seeing this run come to an end will have weakened his position with Honda more than he would have wanted. Contracts will have to be signed soon, and Dovizioso will be keen not to have it happen again.
The man the crowd had come to see actually put in a good show in the race, and was pleased with the results afterwards. The team had made a big change to the front of the bike - changing "the position of the front tire," Rossi told the press - and it had improved the feeling at the front that Rossi had been struggling with. If they had had this setting on Saturday, Rossi opined, he could have started from a row further forward; as it was, Rossi could fight with Dovizioso and Simoncelli for the first 18 laps, before the rear started to slide too much and he had to give up.
Rossi's biggest problem was a lack of testing, however, which his crew chief Jerry Burgess had put succinctly to a group of journalists at breakfast. "In the past, we could find something overnight," Burgess said. "At least we knew the rabbit was in there somewhere." Rossi and his crew have yet to locate the Ducati's rabbit, believing that it is still stuck somewhere in CAD drawings on Filippo Preziosi's computer. But with the limited testing allowed under the MotoGP regulations, it is hard to make any progress. The argument that limiting testing helped cut costs did not hold any water for Rossi. "We have test riders running around three to four seconds off the pace, while official riders are being paid to sit at home," Rossi said.
Depending on your point of view, Nicky Hayden either had an excellent or a terrible race at Misano. Going by his recent results at the circuit - he has never completed a full lap of the circuit, having missed one year and been knocked off in the first corner the other two - completing two full laps before crashing out at Turn 15 is something of an achievement. But Nicky Hayden was not in the mood to see it that way, annoyed that he failed to finish again, especially after posting his fastest time of the weekend in the morning warmup. Lifting the front end of the bike to help transfer weight more had helped with the front end feel, but Hayden got caught out by some bumps which put him on the floor. With MotoGP heading to Aragon, a track where Ducati had a double podium last season, Hayden will be hoping the change they made at Misano will continue to work there.
The other classes also saw some great racing, the Moto2 race turning into a positive thriller. In the end, class shone through, with Marc Marquez holding off Stefan Bradl to close the gap in the championship to 23 points. The 125cc race turned into a razor-sharp duel, with Nico Terol leading championship rival Johann Zarco for much of the race, but Zarco taking control in the final laps. Zarco looked to have the race in hand, but after some astounding riding to fend off attacks from Terol, the Frenchman threw it all away in a bizarre move on the run out of the final corner. With a clear gap, Zarco turned physically around on the bike to see where Terol had got to. In doing so, he lost so much of his momentum that Terol could easily power past, robbing Zarco of a victory he had worked so hard for and deserved right up until the last few meters.
Though the look back was one of the stupidest moves we have seen on the track for a long time - although some of Marco Simoncelli's race crashes have been right up there with Zarco's rearward glance - the problem was mainly one of inexperience. The Frenchman had learned a lot this year, he explained after qualifying, and was finding out the hard way what it takes to win a championship. He had not really believed that Terol could be beaten until Le Mans, when Maverick Viñales just got ahead of him at Zarco's home Grand Prix. That had annoyed him, Zarco said, and he realized that if Viñales could beat Terol, then so could he. But a stupid mistake at Barcelona meant he was denied the win for elbowing Terol off the track on the run to the straight, and then Zarco had the victory taken from him at the Sachsenring, when he crossed the line in a dead heat with Hector Faubel, with Faubel awarded the win by virtue of better lap times earlier in the race. Zarco had looked back because he was afraid that Terol would outdrag him to the line at Misano. That became a self-fulfilling prophecy, Zarco losing far too much time looking backwards, instead of facing forwards and going for the win. Zarco should learn from this experience too, and once he does finally get that first win under his belt, he should loosen up and add quite a few more scalps to his belt.