2008 Mugello MotoGP Preview - Physical Poetry

Over the next few days, it is going to be impossible for any MotoGP fan worth their salt to avoid hearing the phrase "nestling in the Tuscan hills." For the MotoGP circus returns once again to Mugello, one of the most beautifully situated race tracks in the world. The Italian track seems to bring out the poetical in even the most hard-nosed and cynical of journalists and press officers, and before you know it, you are awash with press releases and previews sounding more like paeans to the pastoral idyll in which the circuit is located than cool analyses of the race that is to come.

Once you visit Mugello, it's not hard to see how this happens. Mugello sits in a rich green valley, just to the north of Florence, the birthplace of the Renaissance and arguably the modern world, and just south of the imposing peaks of the Apennines. The soil is fertile, the climate is warm without being too hot, the proximity of the Mediterranean both moderating the harsh summer heat and providing a ready supply of cool rain, and everywhere you look, nature supplies a generous and delicious bounty, demanding very little in the way of work in return. Olives, grapes, potatoes, tomatoes, peppers, and artichokes fill the fields; wild mushrooms, berries and fungi line the hedgerows and woods; and game such as wild boar and pheasants fill the forests. Over a plate of pasta with truffles and a bottle of Chianti, it is difficult not to regard Mugello and its surroundings through the very rosiest of spectacles.

And it's not just the scenery which makes visitors wax so lyrical. Even during the dullest years of motorcycle racing's premier class, the Autodromo Internazionale Del Mugello always seems to generate spectacular racing. At some tracks, if a rider can make a break, they can get a way and build up a big lead. But Mugello has such a variation of corners and combinations of corners that riders can make up the ground they might be losing in one section of the track by pushing in parts that they feel stronger at. Mugello demands the utmost of riders, but is as generous in its rewards as it is harsh in its demands.

Rolling Glory

Much of that is down to the layout. The track lines the steep sides of a narrow valley, in the crook of a hillside carved out by the relentless forces of geophysics. It starts with one of the most daunting sections of track on the calendar. The riders fire out of Bucine and down the long front straight, crossing the line before reaching some of the highest top speeds of the year. Then, as the bikes edge past 200 mph, the track snakes right, then subtly left, just as it drops away over a crest towards the first corner, San Donato. As the bikes hit the crest, the front wheel goes light at the exact moment you need to slam on the brakes for the long, open right hander.

Not only do you have to coax the front wheel down to start scrubbing off serious speed for the first corner, but Mugello immediately throws the first of the problems which typify the classic Italian circuit at you. San Donato is basically a long, wide uphill hairpin, with at least three different lines through it before hitting Luco and climbing up the hill to Poggio Seco. Brake as late and as hard as you dare for San Donato, and you could yet see someone cut back underneath you as you exit, having entered earlier to get better drive out of the corner.

Deal with San Donato well, and more trouble awaits. The Southwest side of the track consists of a series of combinations of corners, going uphill, then downhill, most of which have the added bonus of being blind entries. Each turn seems to either climb or fall away, the exit to the corner hidden by the steep hillside. Casanova is especially intimidating, the track falling away steeply as you flick right, with no hint of where to go next, before coming back right at the bottom of the drop. A short section then takes you on to another combination, this time the double right handers of Arrabbiata 1 and Arrabbiata 2, climbing back up the hill towards the fast flick of Scarperia.

Flicking left and dropping down onto a short straight then takes you on to another long, intimidating corner. Correntaio loops downhill to come back on itself, pushing the front all the way from the braking zone to the exit of the corner. Another fast left-right flick takes you back to Bucine, the final long looping left with several lines through it, making defending a lead an incredibly difficult proposition. And if that wasn't hard enough, there's just enough room from the exit of Bucine to the finish line for someone to pull out of your draft and ahead of you across the line down the main straight. Glorious, treacherous and fast, those adjectives sum up Mugello pretty well.

Monsters And Chimeras

Glorious, treacherous and fast also sum up the crowd fairly accurately as well. Though falling just short of Jerez' Breughelian scenes of madness, the fans at Mugello surely know how to put on a show. The most evident element on display is the noise, and lots of it, generally provided by every imaginable object ever fitted with a combustion engine. From the little Piaggio Ape three-wheeler with the open megaphone exhaust (no good for horsepower on a small capacity two-stroke engine, but oh, the noise!) to brand new Honda Fireblades being bounced off the rev limiter, by way of the sawless chainsaw, held against the chain link fence to transmit the shriek of its tiny engine all the way around the track, the sound generated is way beyond deafening. If the Trumpets announcing the Apocalypse sounded during the Mugello race weekend, the first the crowd would know about it would be when the Four Horsemen came galloping down the front straight. If there's one thing the Italians know how to do, it's put on a party.

And it's an Italian who hopes to be the spark that sets the festivities ablaze. Valentino Rossi returns to Mugello with a record rivaled only by Mick Doohan. The Doctor has won the last 6 races in a row here at the Tuscan track, and has not lost on a four-stroke GP bike. The last time Rossi lost here was in 2001, aboard a specially painted Honda NSR 500, and since then, Rossi has refused to run special liveries at Mugello, despite a lot of pressure to do some from  sponsors. Rossi has turned down a lot of money at Mugello because of his belief that a special paint scheme will bring him bad luck. Six straight wins says his decision has been justified.

The chances of Rossi making it 7 in a row are very strong indeed. The bookmakers are barely offering you your money back for a Rossi victory, and when you look at the facts, it's hard to fault them. Rossi has won here when he has been off form and on awful bikes. He won in 2006, when still suffering with terrible chatter in his 990cc M1, and he won in 2007, when at least 10 horsepower down on the mighty Ducatis, and on the weaker the two main tire makes. Aboard what is arguably the best bike on the grid, with outstanding tires, and coming off back-to-back wins, Valentino Rossi will be a nigh-on unstoppable force.

Resistance

The first of the immovable objects to stand in his path is the diminutive figure of Dani Pedrosa. Small though the Spaniard may be, redoubtable he surely is this season. In his third year of premier class racing, Pedrosa has come into his own, and with the Honda RC212V already a vast improvement over last year's bike, he has finally been able to put up a fight for the championship. But the Honda still lacks top end power, and the spring valve engine is down on speed compared to the pneumatic valve and desmodromic motors of the other marques. Fortunately for Pedrosa, Mugello is a track where you can make up for a lack of outright speed by drafting down the front straight and pushing round the fast combinations round the outside of the circuit. Though it may be difficult to stop Rossi, it shouldn't be impossible for Pedrosa.

Rossi's team mate, Jorge Lorenzo, is another man who could be able to stand in Rossi's way. But Lorenzo is still hurt, his broken bones in both ankles and feet slowly healing, the only benefit being that the pain from his ankles masks the pain from the arm pump surgery he had before the Shanghai Grand Prix. It appears that Lorenzo is at the very least impervious to pain, and possibly even inspired by it, as the reigning 250 champion has finished 4th and 2nd since breaking his ankles, his injuries barely slowing him up. As his legs get stronger, so will Lorenzo, and Porfuera looks set to become a more formidable force at every race. With Mugello Lorenzo's 100th race, and the Spaniard already smashing every rookie record in the books, Valentino Rossi could find he has his hands full with his Fiat Yamaha team mate on Sunday.

If it is up to the Italian crowd, then if Rossi cannot win, at least an Italian motorcycle should. With Ducati's home base just 60 miles of glorious sweeping mountain pass roads away in Borgo Panigale, a suburb of Bologna, Mugello is very much a home race for the Italian factory. Many of the factory staff and thousands of Ducatisti from around the world will crowd the scarlet Ducati grandstand at the Correntaio corner, all of them willing the bright red bikes on to a win. Though their best chance probably came last year, when the Ducati was definitely the fastest, and arguably the best bike on the grid at Mugello, the factory bikes fell short, with Casey Stoner, the man who dominated 2007, even ending up bumped off the podium by the satellite d'Antin bike of Alex Barros, a result which, rumor has it, caused an abrupt end to the flow of factory upgrades to the Pramac team.

The chances of a d'Antin bike beating Casey Stoner to a podium place are remote in the extreme this year, but this won't make Stoner's task any easier. The other teams have all caught up with Ducati, and Stoner is facing his toughest few races since his arrival at the Bologna factory. But Stoner's talent, coupled with the top speed advantage, albeit much reduced, which the Ducati still has means that you cannot rule out the reigning world champion. Stoner is still capable of pushing the Ducati to incredible heights, and with a 41 point deficit to Valentino Rossi, may start to take a few more risks in his race to close the gap.

No Fat Lady

Talk of Stoner being out of the championship is premature, though. The Australian may be 41 points down, but that's not as big a deficit as it would be in any other year. Normally, there are two, maybe three candidates for the title each year, making it hard to claw back valuable points. If there are two men chasing win each weekend, then they can realistically only get back 5 points each race, the difference between the 25 points for 1st and 20 points for second. But this year, there are 4 riders who are all capable of winning every Sunday, with 3 of them finishing in the top 4 at every race so far. The difference between 1st place and 4th place is negligible on the race track, with Stoner, Pedrosa, Rossi and Lorenzo capable of sweeping the top 4 in any order. But the difference in points is much bigger, with 12 points difference between 1st and 4th. A couple of desperate last lap maneuvers and a little bit of luck could see Stoner close the gap within 3 races. The title chase has never been so open.

The ideal scenario for the home fans would be an Italian winning aboard an Italian bike, but the chances of Marco Melandri taking victory on the Ducati are slim in the extreme. Melandri has struggled with the GP8, never really getting a feel for the bike. A brief revival at Shanghai only made the Italian's return to the back of the field at Le Mans all the more painful. It looks like Melandri has a long season ahead of him.

The Alice Ducatis have a similarly long and hard road to travel. So far, Toni Elias is the only man besides Casey Stoner who seems to have a handle on riding the Ducati, but Mugello will show just how far Elias has progressed.  A podium seems beyond the realms of the possible, but if Elias keeps improving, then a top 10 should be within his grasp.

For Colin Edwards, another podium is all too real a possibility. After getting on the box at Le Mans, the Texan must feel he is capable of much more. But Mugello has rarely been kind to Edwards, so if his luck runs against him, he will have to rely on his Tech 3 Yamaha. On his and the bike's form so far, that's a pretty comfortable situation to be in.

Edwards' Tech 3 team mate is in the middle of a run of difficult tracks. James Toseland has never raced at Estoril, Shanghai, Le Mans, Mugello or Barcelona, though the reigning World Superbike champion has tested at the Italian track before. After a barnstorming start, his results have started to slip a little, with his crash at Le Mans the current low point. But with his home GP at Donington fast approaching, JT's confidence will be building. He'll need all the confidence he can get at Mugello this weekend.

Hot Air

Confidence is something Nicky Hayden is desperately short of. His misery continues aboard the 800cc RC212V, a situation which started almost the day after he was crowned the last of the 990cc champions. Hayden continues to work as diligently as ever at Repsol Honda, but the new bike remains a little too small and underpowered to allow Hayden to ride freely. The Kentucky Kid is awaiting the new pneumatic valve engine more keenly than any of the other Honda riders, as he hopes the extra power will allow him to steer with the back wheel, as he has done so successfully in the past. At Mugello, it's a case of struggling on.

But hopefully not for long. The surprise appearance at Mugello will be the grizzled veteran Tady Okada, HRC's official test rider, running the Italian Grand Prix as a wild card aboard the new pneumatic valve powered Honda RC212V. Though Okada is a little too old and a little too rusty to be competitive during the race, Honda - and the rest of the MotoGP world with them - will be scrutinizing the new engine very carefully, to see if it delivers power smoothly, uses fuel efficiently, and can hold up under race conditions. If it lasts the distance, and shows a good turn of speed down the long front straight, the Repsol Hondas could get the air valve engine to race at Barcelona, instead of having to wait for the post race tests there to ride the new bike.

The remainder of the Honda satellite bikes will have to wait much longer for the air valve engine, much to the chagrin of Andrea Dovizioso. Another rookie revelation, the Italian rider has made a big impact on the JiR Team Scot Honda, and with talk of a factory Honda for next year, Dovi will be highly motivated to get a decent result at his home race.

For the Gresini Hondas and the LCR of Randy de Puniet, Mugello is a matter of trying to hang on to the tail of the leaders for as long as possible. If they can stay close to the front pack, they are in with a chance of attacking, but on current form, they are down too much on power to get close enough.

As for the Suzukis and the Kawasakis, they are unlikely to feature at Mugello. The track has a lot of long, fast curves, exactly the kind of feature which suits neither bike. This will be a bitter disappointment to Loris Capirossi, who won the race here back in 2000, and would love to do well for his home crowd. The only hope for the blue and green bikes will be the changeable conditions forecast for the weekend. With rain a racing certainty on Friday, and a good chance of showers Saturday, Kawasaki's Ant West and Suzuki's Chris Vermeulen could use their wet weather ability to bag a decent starting place. But their luck runs out on Sunday, with race day forecast to be sunny and dry. In those conditions, it would take a miracle to beat Valentino Rossi, or at the very least, a surprise downpour.

Magic In The Air

Mugello is truly a magical location, hence the poetry in the shape of press releases which rain down on fans from the teams. The track is a jewel, a jet black ribbon of tarmac set in the emerald hills of Tuscany. The fans are just that, fanatical, and leave no stone unturned in their efforts to reinforce the Italian stereotype for exuberant and demonstrative behavior. And the local hero will have his friends, family and followers to cheer him on as he attempts to make history by winning 7 times in a row at the Italian circuit. If there is a place at which magic is possible, Mugello is it. The circuit gives MotoGP fans some of the best racing of the season, and this weekend looks like being no different. With little to choose between the four men leading the championship, and Valentino Rossi on a mission, Mugello promises to be legendary. A fitting tribute to a legendary location.

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2008 Le Mans MotoGP Race Report - -War Of Nerves

The three painted lines marking the spot where MotoGP line up on the grid cram a lot of tension into a tiny space. After rolling out of the pits, and round the track for the sighting lap, the riders are in their element doing something they know and understand, riding a powerful motorcycle around a race track. But that release from pre-race tension is all too brief, for it is the prelude to the worst 15 minutes of a rider's life. Once they round the final corner and roll up to their starting position, they are trapped once again inside those few lines of paint, forced to stand idle while the clock ticks away the endless seconds before the race actually starts.

Then, once the bustle of the grid is brought to an end by the 1 minute board, and the bikes head off round the track for the warm up lap, the riders know that things are about to get worse. As they return to the confinement of those three stripes of paint, that sickening feeling in the pit of their stomach intensifies. For though they know they will only be held in that painted prison for a few seconds, restrained by just a red light, they have just long enough to ponder the fact that what they do next is irreversible. No room for error, no second chances, and no quarter given when the flag drops, but until then, motorcycle racers, people who are fundamentally defined by what they do, can do nothing. Just wait. And worry.

Dealing with this kind of tension week in and week out, requires nerves of steel, or an inner calmness, or preferably both. Those final moments before the race starts can be made so much worse and so much more complicated by the random nature of the events which surround them. As much as getting a MotoGP bike ready to race is about controlling as many variables as precisely as possible, and getting a MotoGP rider ready is about excluding anything which isn't relevant to the task at hand, there are still far too many factors which are completely beyond the control of teams and riders. The weather, track conditions, stray wildlife, erratic riding by competitors: any of these can wreck your race, and none of them are within your sphere of influence.

The Gathering Storm

The grid at Le Mans illustrated this point all too painfully. For a start, there was the weather. While the two days of practice had taken place under largely clear skies with only the merest hint of rain, the late morning saw a heavy shower disrupt the morning's 125cc race, with the track damp but drying while the 250s were out. With no wet weather setup data, the track mostly dry, and patches of bright sunshine interspersed with dark clouds, picking a race tire and setup looked like a complete gamble. Nervous pit crews slaved away both on the grid, making last-minute adjustments to their setup, and in pit lane, laying out everything necessary to get the riders' spare bikes into wet race trim should the heavens open.

And while the weather placed added strain on everyone, some riders had their own individual problems to deal with. Andrea Dovizioso looked worriedly on as his mechanics rushed to change the front wheel on his Team Scot Honda, after the tire vibrated badly on the sighting lap. Jorge Lorenzo nervously contemplated the task ahead of him, and questioned whether he could ride through the pain once again, after adding bangs and bruises to his fractured ankles, after crashing on both Friday and Saturday. The pressure on everyone was immense, the conditions merely adding to their burden.

In Chinese tradition, evil spirits are chased away with loud bangs and the crackle of fireworks. In MotoGP, the evil spirits of prerace nerves are dispatched with the ear-shattering130dB bellow of MotoGP bikes roaring off the line once the lights go out. Pent-up tension now dispelled, the riders chased blessed relief into the fast right of the Dunlop Curve, before lining up for the chicane.

Rocket Sandwich

Colin Edwards, the man who had come so close to taking two poles in a row on Saturday, got away from the line well, but his misfortune was that he had the two quickest starters either side of him. By the time the bikes peeled right for the fast Dunlop Curve, both Casey Stoner and Dani Pedrosa had slipped past Edwards, pushing the Texan down into 3rd. Behind Edwards, Tech 3 Yamaha team mate James Toseland had got a flying start, and had shot from 7th to 4th, ahead of Nicky Hayden. Valentino Rossi, meanwhile, had dropped a couple of places, and held 6th ahead of the dueling Suzukis of Chris Vermeulen and Loris Capirossi.

Braking for the chicane, the first real corner the riders faced after the start, Hayden forced his Repsol Honda round the outside of Toseland, forcing the Brit back into 5th. Most of the rest of the field got through the chicane in one piece, Randy de Puniet the only semi-casualty, running wide and across the tarmac, rejoining ahead of where he entered the chicane, and forced to relinquish the places he had unfairly gained.

Further down the field, Jorge Lorenzo's worries about his injuries seemed to have been confirmed. From 5th on the grid, the Spaniard had dropped down to 10th, as the reigning 250 world champion struggled to get a feeling for his Fiat Yamaha. But the biggest loser at the lights was Marco Melandri, who had been forced to bump start his Ducati Desmosedici after it had stalled on the line. It was a bad start to what was to be a very long day for the Italian.

With his two main rivals leading the pack, Valentino Rossi knew he had to get a move on. The Doctor lined up James Toseland through Musee, before slipping his Yamaha M1 gracefully up the inside of Toseland at Garage Vert, and into 5th. Unfortunately for Toseland, Rossi was trailing the Suzuki of Chris Vermeulen in his wake, and by the time the bikes reached the end of the back straight, the Australian was inside Toseland and past through Chemin des Boeufs.

Fantastic Four

As they crossed the line for the first time, the front four, consisting of Pedrosa, Stoner, Edwards and Hayden, had opened a small gap to the following group, but on the run up towards the Dunlop Curve, The Doctor was closing them down. At the front, Stoner was using the power of his Ducati to try and pull a gap, but Pedrosa was expertly using his draft. As they approached the chicane, the Spaniard pulled out for a look up the inside, but he was too far away to lunge for the lead.

Pedrosa tried a different tactic at the long right of La Chappelle, holding a wide line and conserving his corner speed to get a slingshot down to Musee. He could pass Stoner's back wheel, but not the front, and as they flicked hard left, Stoner held on to the lead. The duel between the two leaders was starting to frustrate Colin Edwards, the Tech 3 Yamaha man glued to the tail of Pedrosa. With Stoner and Pedrosa taking up so much space slugging it out for 1st, Edwards was stuck, unable to pass the Ducati and the Honda in a single move.

The move around La Chapelle may not have worked for Pedrosa, but it was perfectly effective for Rossi. Inside Hayden at Musee, the Italian was ready to chase the front three. It took him exactly a lap, for by the time they braked for Musee once again, Rossi was right on Edwards' back wheel. The three had become four, with little separating them.

Casey Stoner and Dani Pedrosa either didn't know or didn't care about what was going on behind them. The former 250 rivals were as rapt with each other as teenage lovers, and getting almost as physical. Pedrosa had a clear edge on corner speed, gaining through every turn, but Stoner had enough of an advantage in braking to negate any gains the Spaniard made through the corners. But a few feet here and a few feet there made little difference. The two men were almost as one.

Grace And Beauty

As they ran out of La Chappelle for the 4th time, the front four put on a display of synchronized racing. At the front, Dani Pedrosa slipped up the inside of Casey Stoner in an attempt at the lead, at the same time as Valentino Rossi attempted the same maneuver on his former team mate Colin Edwards. The difference was timing. Their moves had been simultaneous, but Pedrosa had fewer yards to get his braking done for the corner, and that space was not quite enough. The Spaniard ran wide into Musee allowing Casey Stoner to take back the lead, and Rossi to draw virtually level. Rossi's move past Edwards had been initiated 20 meters earlier than Pedrosa's, and Rossi had gotten through without a glitch.

Pedrosa's wide line may have failed him against Stoner, but against Rossi, it gave him an advantage. From further out on the track, he was able to get on the gas earlier, and parry Rossi's charge up the inside. But Rossi would not be denied so easily. Into the next corner, at Garage Vert, Rossi was inside Pedrosa once again, and past onto the short back straight.

As clean as Rossi's move had been, he had made it just before the strongest part of the track for Dani Pedrosa. The Repsol Honda man got perfect drive out of the double apex right, as he did almost every lap, and swung out of Rossi's draft to get past and back into 2nd as the group hit Chemin des Boeufs. Pedrosa's lead lasted just one and a half corners. Rossi was right on Pedrosa's tail through Chemin des Boeufs, and stuffed his Yamaha M1 firmly up the inside of Pedrosa on the brakes into the Esses, and was comfortably in 2nd by the time they crossed the line.

The pack had splintered into groups of four by now. Stoner led from Rossi, Pedrosa and Edwards at the front, while a second behind Edwards, Chris Vermeulen was past Nicky Hayden, with Loris Capirossi and John Hopkins right behind. Another second saw the solitary Jorge Lorenzo, who was a second ahead of the next group, composed of Toni Elias on the Alice Ducati and a gaggle of satellite Hondas, the Gresini bike of Shinya Nakano, Randy de Puniet on the LCR Honda and Andrea Dovizioso on the Team Scot RC212V. Dovizioso had been unfortunate, coming together with James Toseland, an incident which saw Toseland crash out and Dovi lose time, but gain a set of fetching black tire marks all over his leathers.

One Down ...

With Rossi past Pedrosa, he turned his attention on Casey Stoner. He gained on the Australian through Dunlop Curve, coming up just short braking at the chicane. Foiled at the chicane, Rossi tried the trick which had succeeded twice before, running fast through La Chappelle and trying to jab his front wheel inside at Musee. But Stoner was harder on the brakes than either Hayden or Edwards had been, and the world champion held The Doctor off, before cutting across his nose to inform him that he would have to do better than that.

For the rest of the lap, Rossi could only follow, while Dani Pedrosa closed up behind. Then on lap 6, the cycle repeated itself again: Rossi closed up through the Dunlop Curve, but could not get close enough to pass at the chicane. He tried again through La Chappelle, but was foiled once again at Musee. If Valentino Rossi was to get past Casey Stoner, he would have to try another approach.

As they front four headed through the fast uphill right of Dunlop Curve, this time, Rossi refrained from his usual attack on Stoner. It was a tactic he nearly came to regret, for as he looked to his inside, he saw the red, orange and blue of Pedrosa's Repsol Honda attempt to sneak past. The Doctor would have none of it, and on the wider, faster line, he held Pedrosa off on the brakes at Dunlop, easily back in charge as they approached the chicane.

Rossi decided he had had enough. With Pedrosa buzzing around his tailpipe like an irate wasp, and Stoner blocking for all he was worth, the seven time world champion altered his strategy. Still fast through La Chappelle, he passed on the overtaking attempt at Musee, and instead, backed his Yamaha M1 into the first apex of the double right of Garage Vert, jamming it up the inside of Stoner's Ducati. But the wily Australian was onto Rossi's game, and cut back inside the Italian at the second part of Garage Vert, and back into the lead. Down the back straight, Rossi was right back where he started, with an Australian ahead and a persistent Pedrosa jabbing at him from behind.

Hammer Time

The next lap, Rossi reverted to his former tactic, running hot and high through La Chappelle, before diving once more unto the breach at Musee. This time, though he was closer, and held his Yamaha tighter through the left hander, and finally made the pass stick. Once past, The Doctor put the hammer down. In half a lap, Rossi pulled out 4/10ths of a second lead, adding another 1/10th on lap 9. But he was only just starting to build speed; on lap 10, Rossi pulled nearly half a second, before taking the lap record on lap 11, with a lap of 1'34.215. Another lap of 1'34.2 on lap 12 saw The Doctor's lead grow to over 2.6 seconds, and by now he was the fastest man on track by a considerable margin. If Casey Stoner or Dani Pedrosa wanted to stop Rossi from running away, they had to act fast.

Neither Stoner nor Pedrosa were close to Rossi's times, though. The only man capable of that feat was a surprise: Jorge Lorenzo had started poorly, dropping back to 11th on lap 2, but finding his - badly injured - feet shortly after. Up to 9th on lap 3, the Fiat Yamaha rookie started a charge through the field. He had caught the group ahead of him, consisting of Nicky Hayden, Loris Capirossi and John Hopkins by lap 5, and on lap 8, he elbowed his way past all three men in one lap. He now set his sights on chasing down the man in 5th place, Chris Vermeulen. At the pace Lorenzo was running, it was looking easy.

Behind Rossi, as the Italian started to stretch away, Casey Stoner and Dani Pedrosa were still squabbling over who would lead the chase. Stoner's tires were starting to lose their freshness, but Pedrosa could not capitalize on this. Every time Pedrosa got close to the Australian, Stoner held him off on the brakes. It was clear that the Spaniard was faster than the Australian, but not by enough to make the difference.

On lap 11, Pedrosa made his move. Keeping hard on Stoner's tail down the back straight, and through Chemin des Boeufs, Pedrosa tried taking the long way round. Holding a tight line through the inside of the first part of the Garage Bleu Esses, he rode round the outside of Stoner as they flicked back left, lining himself to take the tough line through the final turn and back onto the straight. Stoner was left with nowhere to go, and Pedrosa was finally through.

If Pedrosa wanted to catch Rossi, he needed to get a move on. Rossi was the fastest man on the track, and was pulling several tenths of a second every lap. Pedrosa would need to get his head down and charge, and even if he did, there would be no guarantees The Doctor would not respond.

But Rossi did not need any prompting from the men behind him. Now back in his rhythm, and with a clear track ahead of him, The Doctor was back in the groove he had found at Shanghai, and in the kind of form which we haven't seen since 2005. Looking this fast and this composed, the only thing capable of stopping Rossi would be either a mechanical disaster or the random shuffle which a heavy bout of rain might bring about.

Keep The White Flag Flying Here

As if in answer to the supplications of the people chasing Rossi, on lap 16, the first spots of rain began. And it seems to be a law of nature that when it does start to rain at a race track, the first place it starts to fall is a couple of corners ahead of the race leader, ensuring he is the first rider to run across the now damp track, and the first person to test the limits of available grip. The drizzle spotting the visor and the white flags waved with worrying enthusiasm by the corner workers once again test the riders nerve, as he is left to balance the need for caution in unknown grip conditions against the knowledge that those who are chasing can be faster than you, by following the dry line you are carving for them.

Rossi's first wet lap was uneventful, the warm track evaporating the light rain faster than it could fall, but on lap 17, The Doctor eased off his pace, not wanting to risk the lead before he knew what the conditions were doing. For a couple of laps, the conditions were decidedly undecided: dry and sunny round the Dunlop Curve, while at the Garage Bleu esses, the rain was starting to fall properly, with damp patches beginning to form. The rain had triggered another burst of frantic activity in the pits, as teams got wet weather bikes ready to race.

At the front, Rossi concentrated on being smooth, his lap times slowing by a couple of seconds, but his pace still strong. With the track still dry in parts, he focused on keeping his tires hot enough through the dry section to maintain his grip through the wet parts.

Behind him, there were too many distractions to concentrate on lap times. Lorenzo had passed Vermeulen just before it started to rain, and two laps later, he was on Edwards. Once past Stoner, Pedrosa was trying to edge away from the front, but the Australian was hanging on doggedly.

Irresistible Force

But Jorge Lorenzo was on a mission. On lap 20, the Spaniard was on Edwards, then past at Chemin des Boeufs, and was already lining up Casey Stoner. Getting past the reigning champion seemed only a matter of time, and Lorenzo used the drive of his Yamaha M1 to fire across the line and draw level as they approached the first corner, the Dunlop Curve. Perfectly set up for the pass into the chicane, Lorenzo's job was suddenly done for him, as disaster struck for Casey Stoner.

On the run up the hill towards Dunlop, Stoner suddenly slowed and sat up, putting his hand in the air. His bike had developed a problem, and Stoner had no more drive, managing little better than walking pace. Under normal circumstances, the Australian's race would have been over, but the rain threw Stoner a lifeline. If he could make it back to the pits, he could get onto a bike with rain or intermediate tires, and get back out to try and score some points. Cruelly, Stoner's bike had developed a problem at the first corner. He could rejoin the race, but first, he would have to nurse his crippled machine a couple of miles back to the pits. By the time he made it, he was having to push his bike along, already a lap down. His only hope now was that others ahead of him would crash, gifting him a few precious points.

Having 3rd handed him on a plate left Lorenzo with extra energy for his next attack. This was swift, hard and deadly: Lorenzo drove hard out of La Chappelle, and stuffed his Yamaha brutally and surgically inside Pedrosa's Honda. A twitch from fthe ront and rear of Lorenzo's M1 betrayed just how hard that move had been, but he stayed on board, and was ahead and off to chase Rossi.

Pedrosa's misery was not yet done, though. Less than a lap after his archrival had beaten him up through Musee, Edwards jammed his Tech 3 Yamaha inside of Pedrosa into the chicane. From 2nd to 4th in just two laps, and Pedrosa's lead in the championship was starting to look fragile.

Rossi's lead in the race was anything but. While the squabbling went on behind him, The Doctor had woven his magic at the front, and taken a couple of seconds a lap from the chasing group. With 5 laps left to go, Rossi had built an insurmountable 10 second lead. He needed only to stay on, and his victory was assured.

Holding onto a big lead can place a surprising amount of pressure on a rider. It's easy to relax, and if you relax, your concentration lapses, and a lapse of concentration leads to a small mistake, which loses you half a second where you weren't expecting it. So you step up your pace again, but overcompensate, push too hard, and make a big mistake instead of a small mistake. Before you know it, you're languishing in the gravel, contemplating the error of your ways.

One Hundred And Eighty!

If there's one thing Valentino Rossi can handle, though, it's pressure. The Doctor kept his focus, and kept up his pace, content to lose half a second a lap to the following pack. He crossed the line to take the win, elated and relieved. Not only was this Rossi's first back-to-back win since Barcelona in 2006, it was also Rossi's 90th career victory, taking him to second place in overall victories, level with the legendary Angel Nieto, the Spanish rider who dominated the small capacity classes during the 70s and 80s. Many riders have faltered at the threshold of such momentous occasions, but not Rossi. He cleared this hurdle at his first attempt.

To underline just how well he copes with pressure, Rossi had arranged a special celebration. Nieto is present at every Grand Prix, working as a commentator for Spanish TV, and was waiting at the Chicane in a special set of leathers. Rossi stopped, picked up a flag bearing the words "90 + 90" - the sum total of victories between the two men on the bike - and Nieto took over the controls of Rossi's Yamaha to ride back to the paddock carrying The Doctor as a passenger. The whole affair had been meticulously planned, but depended on one thing: Rossi had to win. On the day, Rossi delivered.

Rossi's celebration was also a remarkable insight into the man as a racer. For most motorcycle racers, their sense of history extends back only to the last lap, and the condition of the particular corner they are about to enter at that moment. Anything further back is irrelevant, and barely worth considering.

But not Rossi. The man has a keen sense of motorcycle racing history, and his place in it. Allowing Angel Nieto to ride him around on the parade lap was both a celebration of his own achievement, and a commemoration and tribute to one of the greats of motorcycle history.

Indestructible

Though he was too far behind Rossi to catch him, this didn't stop Jorge Lorenzo from pushing as hard as he could to the finish. By the time he crossed the line, he had taken back nearly 5 seconds from the winner, not enough, but a remarkable achievement nonetheless. His result was made all the more remarkable by his physical limitations. Barely able to walk, even with crutches, and in excruciating pain, Lorenzo had ridden the wheels off his Yamaha to take 2nd place. His ankles may be fractured, his body may be battered and bruised, but there is no doubting the man's heart.

Crossing the line in 3rd was a happy, but still slightly disappointed Colin Edwards. Though he is starting to resemble the Tornado of old, the Texan had been unable to pass Stoner and Pedrosa in the early part of the race, and felt he could have been much further up the podium if he could have gotten away. But disappointment with 3rd place is a good sign. It means that the rider believes there is more to come, and this may not be Edwards' best finish by the end of the year.

Dani Pedrosa came home in 4th, the first of the day's main losers. The Spaniard had had a tough day indeed; he'd been passed by his bitter enemy Jorge Lorenzo, who'd made the pass look easy; he'd not got on the podium for the first time this season; and he'd lost the lead he had in the championship, slipping down to 3rd, 3 points behind Rossi and level with Lorenzo.

Chris Vermeulen came home in 5th, his best result of the season at a track that suits both him and the Suzuki. Vermeulen rode a strong race, and looked like he could have raced with the front runners if he had been able to catch them, but his pace slipped a little at half distance, and left him too far behind to catch him.

Vermeulen was lucky to hold on to 5th, as he was caught on the last lap by Andrea Dovizioso on the Team Scot Honda. The Italian rookie had yet another outstanding ride, finishing 2nd Honda, and complained that if he hadn't been hit by Toseland, he could have caught the front group, and been in with a shot of the podium. Dovizioso's complaints were understandable, if a little unfair, as their coming together seemed to be very much a typical racing incident.

Steady As She Goes

Loris Capirossi came home in 7th, putting in another steady ride at a track which suits the Suzukis. Although he hasn't set the world on fire since making the switch to Suzuki, Capirex is already 6th in the championship, one place better than he finished last season.

After starting strongly, Nicky Hayden had slipped down the field to finish 8th. Hardly a place befitting a former world champion, but not as bad as early practice had suggested he could end up. Hayden is under a great deal of pressure, with his contract up at the end of the season. His form so far suggests the Kentucky Kid could be looking for work.

Randy de Puniet was the first of the French riders home, finishing in 9th, after a race long battle with Shinya Nakano, who took 10th. Both men will have hoped for more, but the satellite Hondas are not up to the job of keeping up with the front runners.

Toni Elias continued to make progress, bringing the Alice Ducati home in 11th, and rather surprisingly, first Ducati. Elias seems to be getting a handle on the difficult Ducati, but he should be capable of much more than this.

Behind Elias, Alex de Angelis came home in 12th, the most disappointing of the rookies so far this season. But he finished ahead of last year's rookie of the year, Sylvain Guintoli, who was devastated to have finished so poorly at a race track where he did so well last year, and in front of his home crowd.

Ant West came home a furious 14th. This time, West's problems weren't a result of his inability to ride the bike, but down to a mistake his crew had made in the setup of the bike. Kawasaki had a tough day at Le Mans, as West's traction problems came on top of a snapped chain for John Hopkins, putting the American out of the race while in a promising 7th position.

Disaster Zone

But Kawasaki's problems were as nothing compared to Ducati. Marco Melandri struggled home in 15th place, and the scant comfort of a single point. Melandri had stalled on the line, and bump-started his factory GP8 to resume the race already 30 seconds down. With little to lose, he'd gambled on the rain getting worse, coming in shortly after the rain started to switch bikes, but the rain never materialized to reward his initiative. Melandri's revival at Shanghai seems to have been all too brief.

The big loser of the day was Casey Stoner, however. Having coaxed his dying Ducati home on lap 21, he too had been forced to use wet tires. But just as for Melandri, the rain never came, and Stoner was left to baby overheating rain tires round in the hope of scoring a point. His hope was in vain, and Casey Stoner failed to score for the first time in 23 races aboard the Ducati. What's worse, he lost a lot of valuable points to his rivals for the championship, and is now 41 points down on Rossi, and 38 behind Lorenzo and Pedrosa. Though there are still 13 races left to go, unless the three men leading the championship suffer a DNF each, Stoner's title defense is starting to look very troubled indeed. The #1 plate seems to be a heavier burden than anyone thought.

History Awaits

The 2008 Le Mans MotoGP turned out to be an incredibly nerve-wracking affair. The conditions and events of the weekend placed a huge strain on all involved, and the tension was unbearable at times. It was a true test of the competitors' ability as a racer, not just as a rider, and the way that they handled the pressure was reflected in the results. Valentino Rossi's ability to handle pressure has not often been doubted, and not just arranging a special celebration, but making good by achieving his 90th victory at the first attempt is the mark of a very special racer.

And as one milestone is passed, the next looms on the horizon. Rossi now has 64 premier class victories, just 4 behind the legendary Giacomo Agostini. The form that Rossi is currently in, that record looks likely to fall before the end of the season, and Rossi will take his place in the record books. With the next round at Mugello, a race track where Rossi has not been beaten since 2001, The Doctor could be taking his first step on the way in just two weeks. It promises to be an amazing occasion.

Full results of the 2008 Le Mans MotoGP race.

MotoGP Championship standings after Round 05, Le Mans

 

round_number: 
5
2008
Total votes: 102
Total votes: 31

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2008 Le Mans MotoGP Race Report - -War Of Nerves

The three painted lines marking the spot where MotoGP line up on the grid cram a lot of tension into a tiny space. After rolling out of the pits, and round the track for the sighting lap, the riders are in their element doing something they know and understand, riding a powerful motorcycle around a race track. But that release from pre-race tension is all too brief, for it is the prelude to the worst 15 minutes of a rider's life. Once they round the final corner and roll up to their starting position, they are trapped once again inside those few lines of paint, forced to stand idle while the clock ticks away the endless seconds before the race actually starts.

Then, once the bustle of the grid is brought to an end by the 1 minute board, and the bikes head off round the track for the warm up lap, the riders know that things are about to get worse. As they return to the confinement of those three stripes of paint, that sickening feeling in the pit of their stomach intensifies. For though they know they will only be held in that painted prison for a few seconds, restrained by just a red light, they have just long enough to ponder the fact that what they do next is irreversible. No room for error, no second chances, and no quarter given when the flag drops, but until then, motorcycle racers, people who are fundamentally defined by what they do, can do nothing. Just wait. And worry.

Dealing with this kind of tension week in and week out, requires nerves of steel, or an inner calmness, or preferably both. Those final moments before the race starts can be made so much worse and so much more complicated by the random nature of the events which surround them. As much as getting a MotoGP bike ready to race is about controlling as many variables as precisely as possible, and getting a MotoGP rider ready is about excluding anything which isn't relevant to the task at hand, there are still far too many factors which are completely beyond the control of teams and riders. The weather, track conditions, stray wildlife, erratic riding by competitors: any of these can wreck your race, and none of them are within your sphere of influence.

The Gathering Storm

The grid at Le Mans illustrated this point all too painfully. For a start, there was the weather. While the two days of practice had taken place under largely clear skies with only the merest hint of rain, the late morning saw a heavy shower disrupt the morning's 125cc race, with the track damp but drying while the 250s were out. With no wet weather setup data, the track mostly dry, and patches of bright sunshine interspersed with dark clouds, picking a race tire and setup looked like a complete gamble. Nervous pit crews slaved away both on the grid, making last-minute adjustments to their setup, and in pit lane, laying out everything necessary to get the riders' spare bikes into wet race trim should the heavens open.

And while the weather placed added strain on everyone, some riders had their own individual problems to deal with. Andrea Dovizioso looked worriedly on as his mechanics rushed to change the front wheel on his Team Scot Honda, after the tire vibrated badly on the sighting lap. Jorge Lorenzo nervously contemplated the task ahead of him, and questioned whether he could ride through the pain once again, after adding bangs and bruises to his fractured ankles, after crashing on both Friday and Saturday. The pressure on everyone was immense, the conditions merely adding to their burden.

In Chinese tradition, evil spirits are chased away with loud bangs and the crackle of fireworks. In MotoGP, the evil spirits of prerace nerves are dispatched with the ear-shattering130dB bellow of MotoGP bikes roaring off the line once the lights go out. Pent-up tension now dispelled, the riders chased blessed relief into the fast right of the Dunlop Curve, before lining up for the chicane.

Rocket Sandwich

Colin Edwards, the man who had come so close to taking two poles in a row on Saturday, got away from the line well, but his misfortune was that he had the two quickest starters either side of him. By the time the bikes peeled right for the fast Dunlop Curve, both Casey Stoner and Dani Pedrosa had slipped past Edwards, pushing the Texan down into 3rd. Behind Edwards, Tech 3 Yamaha team mate James Toseland had got a flying start, and had shot from 7th to 4th, ahead of Nicky Hayden. Valentino Rossi, meanwhile, had dropped a couple of places, and held 6th ahead of the dueling Suzukis of Chris Vermeulen and Loris Capirossi.

Braking for the chicane, the first real corner the riders faced after the start, Hayden forced his Repsol Honda round the outside of Toseland, forcing the Brit back into 5th. Most of the rest of the field got through the chicane in one piece, Randy de Puniet the only semi-casualty, running wide and across the tarmac, rejoining ahead of where he entered the chicane, and forced to relinquish the places he had unfairly gained.

Further down the field, Jorge Lorenzo's worries about his injuries seemed to have been confirmed. From 5th on the grid, the Spaniard had dropped down to 10th, as the reigning 250 world champion struggled to get a feeling for his Fiat Yamaha. But the biggest loser at the lights was Marco Melandri, who had been forced to bump start his Ducati Desmosedici after it had stalled on the line. It was a bad start to what was to be a very long day for the Italian.

With his two main rivals leading the pack, Valentino Rossi knew he had to get a move on. The Doctor lined up James Toseland through Musee, before slipping his Yamaha M1 gracefully up the inside of Toseland at Garage Vert, and into 5th. Unfortunately for Toseland, Rossi was trailing the Suzuki of Chris Vermeulen in his wake, and by the time the bikes reached the end of the back straight, the Australian was inside Toseland and past through Chemin des Boeufs.

Fantastic Four

As they crossed the line for the first time, the front four, consisting of Pedrosa, Stoner, Edwards and Hayden, had opened a small gap to the following group, but on the run up towards the Dunlop Curve, The Doctor was closing them down. At the front, Stoner was using the power of his Ducati to try and pull a gap, but Pedrosa was expertly using his draft. As they approached the chicane, the Spaniard pulled out for a look up the inside, but he was too far away to lunge for the lead.

Pedrosa tried a different tactic at the long right of La Chappelle, holding a wide line and conserving his corner speed to get a slingshot down to Musee. He could pass Stoner's back wheel, but not the front, and as they flicked hard left, Stoner held on to the lead. The duel between the two leaders was starting to frustrate Colin Edwards, the Tech 3 Yamaha man glued to the tail of Pedrosa. With Stoner and Pedrosa taking up so much space slugging it out for 1st, Edwards was stuck, unable to pass the Ducati and the Honda in a single move.

The move around La Chapelle may not have worked for Pedrosa, but it was perfectly effective for Rossi. Inside Hayden at Musee, the Italian was ready to chase the front three. It took him exactly a lap, for by the time they braked for Musee once again, Rossi was right on Edwards' back wheel. The three had become four, with little separating them.

Casey Stoner and Dani Pedrosa either didn't know or didn't care about what was going on behind them. The former 250 rivals were as rapt with each other as teenage lovers, and getting almost as physical. Pedrosa had a clear edge on corner speed, gaining through every turn, but Stoner had enough of an advantage in braking to negate any gains the Spaniard made through the corners. But a few feet here and a few feet there made little difference. The two men were almost as one.

Grace And Beauty

As they ran out of La Chappelle for the 4th time, the front four put on a display of synchronized racing. At the front, Dani Pedrosa slipped up the inside of Casey Stoner in an attempt at the lead, at the same time as Valentino Rossi attempted the same maneuver on his former team mate Colin Edwards. The difference was timing. Their moves had been simultaneous, but Pedrosa had fewer yards to get his braking done for the corner, and that space was not quite enough. The Spaniard ran wide into Musee allowing Casey Stoner to take back the lead, and Rossi to draw virtually level. Rossi's move past Edwards had been initiated 20 meters earlier than Pedrosa's, and Rossi had gotten through without a glitch.

Pedrosa's wide line may have failed him against Stoner, but against Rossi, it gave him an advantage. From further out on the track, he was able to get on the gas earlier, and parry Rossi's charge up the inside. But Rossi would not be denied so easily. Into the next corner, at Garage Vert, Rossi was inside Pedrosa once again, and past onto the short back straight.

As clean as Rossi's move had been, he had made it just before the strongest part of the track for Dani Pedrosa. The Repsol Honda man got perfect drive out of the double apex right, as he did almost every lap, and swung out of Rossi's draft to get past and back into 2nd as the group hit Chemin des Boeufs. Pedrosa's lead lasted just one and a half corners. Rossi was right on Pedrosa's tail through Chemin des Boeufs, and stuffed his Yamaha M1 firmly up the inside of Pedrosa on the brakes into the Esses, and was comfortably in 2nd by the time they crossed the line.

The pack had splintered into groups of four by now. Stoner led from Rossi, Pedrosa and Edwards at the front, while a second behind Edwards, Chris Vermeulen was past Nicky Hayden, with Loris Capirossi and John Hopkins right behind. Another second saw the solitary Jorge Lorenzo, who was a second ahead of the next group, composed of Toni Elias on the Alice Ducati and a gaggle of satellite Hondas, the Gresini bike of Shinya Nakano, Randy de Puniet on the LCR Honda and Andrea Dovizioso on the Team Scot RC212V. Dovizioso had been unfortunate, coming together with James Toseland, an incident which saw Toseland crash out and Dovi lose time, but gain a set of fetching black tire marks all over his leathers.

One Down ...

With Rossi past Pedrosa, he turned his attention on Casey Stoner. He gained on the Australian through Dunlop Curve, coming up just short braking at the chicane. Foiled at the chicane, Rossi tried the trick which had succeeded twice before, running fast through La Chappelle and trying to jab his front wheel inside at Musee. But Stoner was harder on the brakes than either Hayden or Edwards had been, and the world champion held The Doctor off, before cutting across his nose to inform him that he would have to do better than that.

For the rest of the lap, Rossi could only follow, while Dani Pedrosa closed up behind. Then on lap 6, the cycle repeated itself again: Rossi closed up through the Dunlop Curve, but could not get close enough to pass at the chicane. He tried again through La Chappelle, but was foiled once again at Musee. If Valentino Rossi was to get past Casey Stoner, he would have to try another approach.

As they front four headed through the fast uphill right of Dunlop Curve, this time, Rossi refrained from his usual attack on Stoner. It was a tactic he nearly came to regret, for as he looked to his inside, he saw the red, orange and blue of Pedrosa's Repsol Honda attempt to sneak past. The Doctor would have none of it, and on the wider, faster line, he held Pedrosa off on the brakes at Dunlop, easily back in charge as they approached the chicane.

Rossi decided he had had enough. With Pedrosa buzzing around his tailpipe like an irate wasp, and Stoner blocking for all he was worth, the seven time world champion altered his strategy. Still fast through La Chappelle, he passed on the overtaking attempt at Musee, and instead, backed his Yamaha M1 into the first apex of the double right of Garage Vert, jamming it up the inside of Stoner's Ducati. But the wily Australian was onto Rossi's game, and cut back inside the Italian at the second part of Garage Vert, and back into the lead. Down the back straight, Rossi was right back where he started, with an Australian ahead and a persistent Pedrosa jabbing at him from behind.

Hammer Time

The next lap, Rossi reverted to his former tactic, running hot and high through La Chappelle, before diving once more unto the breach at Musee. This time, though he was closer, and held his Yamaha tighter through the left hander, and finally made the pass stick. Once past, The Doctor put the hammer down. In half a lap, Rossi pulled out 4/10ths of a second lead, adding another 1/10th on lap 9. But he was only just starting to build speed; on lap 10, Rossi pulled nearly half a second, before taking the lap record on lap 11, with a lap of 1'34.215. Another lap of 1'34.2 on lap 12 saw The Doctor's lead grow to over 2.6 seconds, and by now he was the fastest man on track by a considerable margin. If Casey Stoner or Dani Pedrosa wanted to stop Rossi from running away, they had to act fast.

Neither Stoner nor Pedrosa were close to Rossi's times, though. The only man capable of that feat was a surprise: Jorge Lorenzo had started poorly, dropping back to 11th on lap 2, but finding his - badly injured - feet shortly after. Up to 9th on lap 3, the Fiat Yamaha rookie started a charge through the field. He had caught the group ahead of him, consisting of Nicky Hayden, Loris Capirossi and John Hopkins by lap 5, and on lap 8, he elbowed his way past all three men in one lap. He now set his sights on chasing down the man in 5th place, Chris Vermeulen. At the pace Lorenzo was running, it was looking easy.

Behind Rossi, as the Italian started to stretch away, Casey Stoner and Dani Pedrosa were still squabbling over who would lead the chase. Stoner's tires were starting to lose their freshness, but Pedrosa could not capitalize on this. Every time Pedrosa got close to the Australian, Stoner held him off on the brakes. It was clear that the Spaniard was faster than the Australian, but not by enough to make the difference.

On lap 11, Pedrosa made his move. Keeping hard on Stoner's tail down the back straight, and through Chemin des Boeufs, Pedrosa tried taking the long way round. Holding a tight line through the inside of the first part of the Garage Bleu Esses, he rode round the outside of Stoner as they flicked back left, lining himself to take the tough line through the final turn and back onto the straight. Stoner was left with nowhere to go, and Pedrosa was finally through.

If Pedrosa wanted to catch Rossi, he needed to get a move on. Rossi was the fastest man on the track, and was pulling several tenths of a second every lap. Pedrosa would need to get his head down and charge, and even if he did, there would be no guarantees The Doctor would not respond.

But Rossi did not need any prompting from the men behind him. Now back in his rhythm, and with a clear track ahead of him, The Doctor was back in the groove he had found at Shanghai, and in the kind of form which we haven't seen since 2005. Looking this fast and this composed, the only thing capable of stopping Rossi would be either a mechanical disaster or the random shuffle which a heavy bout of rain might bring about.

Keep The White Flag Flying Here

As if in answer to the supplications of the people chasing Rossi, on lap 16, the first spots of rain began. And it seems to be a law of nature that when it does start to rain at a race track, the first place it starts to fall is a couple of corners ahead of the race leader, ensuring he is the first rider to run across the now damp track, and the first person to test the limits of available grip. The drizzle spotting the visor and the white flags waved with worrying enthusiasm by the corner workers once again test the riders nerve, as he is left to balance the need for caution in unknown grip conditions against the knowledge that those who are chasing can be faster than you, by following the dry line you are carving for them.

Rossi's first wet lap was uneventful, the warm track evaporating the light rain faster than it could fall, but on lap 17, The Doctor eased off his pace, not wanting to risk the lead before he knew what the conditions were doing. For a couple of laps, the conditions were decidedly undecided: dry and sunny round the Dunlop Curve, while at the Garage Bleu esses, the rain was starting to fall properly, with damp patches beginning to form. The rain had triggered another burst of frantic activity in the pits, as teams got wet weather bikes ready to race.

At the front, Rossi concentrated on being smooth, his lap times slowing by a couple of seconds, but his pace still strong. With the track still dry in parts, he focused on keeping his tires hot enough through the dry section to maintain his grip through the wet parts.

Behind him, there were too many distractions to concentrate on lap times. Lorenzo had passed Vermeulen just before it started to rain, and two laps later, he was on Edwards. Once past Stoner, Pedrosa was trying to edge away from the front, but the Australian was hanging on doggedly.

Irresistible Force

But Jorge Lorenzo was on a mission. On lap 20, the Spaniard was on Edwards, then past at Chemin des Boeufs, and was already lining up Casey Stoner. Getting past the reigning champion seemed only a matter of time, and Lorenzo used the drive of his Yamaha M1 to fire across the line and draw level as they approached the first corner, the Dunlop Curve. Perfectly set up for the pass into the chicane, Lorenzo's job was suddenly done for him, as disaster struck for Casey Stoner.

On the run up the hill towards Dunlop, Stoner suddenly slowed and sat up, putting his hand in the air. His bike had developed a problem, and Stoner had no more drive, managing little better than walking pace. Under normal circumstances, the Australian's race would have been over, but the rain threw Stoner a lifeline. If he could make it back to the pits, he could get onto a bike with rain or intermediate tires, and get back out to try and score some points. Cruelly, Stoner's bike had developed a problem at the first corner. He could rejoin the race, but first, he would have to nurse his crippled machine a couple of miles back to the pits. By the time he made it, he was having to push his bike along, already a lap down. His only hope now was that others ahead of him would crash, gifting him a few precious points.

Having 3rd handed him on a plate left Lorenzo with extra energy for his next attack. This was swift, hard and deadly: Lorenzo drove hard out of La Chappelle, and stuffed his Yamaha brutally and surgically inside Pedrosa's Honda. A twitch from fthe ront and rear of Lorenzo's M1 betrayed just how hard that move had been, but he stayed on board, and was ahead and off to chase Rossi.

Pedrosa's misery was not yet done, though. Less than a lap after his archrival had beaten him up through Musee, Edwards jammed his Tech 3 Yamaha inside of Pedrosa into the chicane. From 2nd to 4th in just two laps, and Pedrosa's lead in the championship was starting to look fragile.

Rossi's lead in the race was anything but. While the squabbling went on behind him, The Doctor had woven his magic at the front, and taken a couple of seconds a lap from the chasing group. With 5 laps left to go, Rossi had built an insurmountable 10 second lead. He needed only to stay on, and his victory was assured.

Holding onto a big lead can place a surprising amount of pressure on a rider. It's easy to relax, and if you relax, your concentration lapses, and a lapse of concentration leads to a small mistake, which loses you half a second where you weren't expecting it. So you step up your pace again, but overcompensate, push too hard, and make a big mistake instead of a small mistake. Before you know it, you're languishing in the gravel, contemplating the error of your ways.

One Hundred And Eighty!

If there's one thing Valentino Rossi can handle, though, it's pressure. The Doctor kept his focus, and kept up his pace, content to lose half a second a lap to the following pack. He crossed the line to take the win, elated and relieved. Not only was this Rossi's first back-to-back win since Barcelona in 2006, it was also Rossi's 90th career victory, taking him to second place in overall victories, level with the legendary Angel Nieto, the Spanish rider who dominated the small capacity classes during the 70s and 80s. Many riders have faltered at the threshold of such momentous occasions, but not Rossi. He cleared this hurdle at his first attempt.

To underline just how well he copes with pressure, Rossi had arranged a special celebration. Nieto is present at every Grand Prix, working as a commentator for Spanish TV, and was waiting at the Chicane in a special set of leathers. Rossi stopped, picked up a flag bearing the words "90 + 90" - the sum total of victories between the two men on the bike - and Nieto took over the controls of Rossi's Yamaha to ride back to the paddock carrying The Doctor as a passenger. The whole affair had been meticulously planned, but depended on one thing: Rossi had to win. On the day, Rossi delivered.

Rossi's celebration was also a remarkable insight into the man as a racer. For most motorcycle racers, their sense of history extends back only to the last lap, and the condition of the particular corner they are about to enter at that moment. Anything further back is irrelevant, and barely worth considering.

But not Rossi. The man has a keen sense of motorcycle racing history, and his place in it. Allowing Angel Nieto to ride him around on the parade lap was both a celebration of his own achievement, and a commemoration and tribute to one of the greats of motorcycle history.

Indestructible

Though he was too far behind Rossi to catch him, this didn't stop Jorge Lorenzo from pushing as hard as he could to the finish. By the time he crossed the line, he had taken back nearly 5 seconds from the winner, not enough, but a remarkable achievement nonetheless. His result was made all the more remarkable by his physical limitations. Barely able to walk, even with crutches, and in excruciating pain, Lorenzo had ridden the wheels off his Yamaha to take 2nd place. His ankles may be fractured, his body may be battered and bruised, but there is no doubting the man's heart.

Crossing the line in 3rd was a happy, but still slightly disappointed Colin Edwards. Though he is starting to resemble the Tornado of old, the Texan had been unable to pass Stoner and Pedrosa in the early part of the race, and felt he could have been much further up the podium if he could have gotten away. But disappointment with 3rd place is a good sign. It means that the rider believes there is more to come, and this may not be Edwards' best finish by the end of the year.

Dani Pedrosa came home in 4th, the first of the day's main losers. The Spaniard had had a tough day indeed; he'd been passed by his bitter enemy Jorge Lorenzo, who'd made the pass look easy; he'd not got on the podium for the first time this season; and he'd lost the lead he had in the championship, slipping down to 3rd, 3 points behind Rossi and level with Lorenzo.

Chris Vermeulen came home in 5th, his best result of the season at a track that suits both him and the Suzuki. Vermeulen rode a strong race, and looked like he could have raced with the front runners if he had been able to catch them, but his pace slipped a little at half distance, and left him too far behind to catch him.

Vermeulen was lucky to hold on to 5th, as he was caught on the last lap by Andrea Dovizioso on the Team Scot Honda. The Italian rookie had yet another outstanding ride, finishing 2nd Honda, and complained that if he hadn't been hit by Toseland, he could have caught the front group, and been in with a shot of the podium. Dovizioso's complaints were understandable, if a little unfair, as their coming together seemed to be very much a typical racing incident.

Steady As She Goes

Loris Capirossi came home in 7th, putting in another steady ride at a track which suits the Suzukis. Although he hasn't set the world on fire since making the switch to Suzuki, Capirex is already 6th in the championship, one place better than he finished last season.

After starting strongly, Nicky Hayden had slipped down the field to finish 8th. Hardly a place befitting a former world champion, but not as bad as early practice had suggested he could end up. Hayden is under a great deal of pressure, with his contract up at the end of the season. His form so far suggests the Kentucky Kid could be looking for work.

Randy de Puniet was the first of the French riders home, finishing in 9th, after a race long battle with Shinya Nakano, who took 10th. Both men will have hoped for more, but the satellite Hondas are not up to the job of keeping up with the front runners.

Toni Elias continued to make progress, bringing the Alice Ducati home in 11th, and rather surprisingly, first Ducati. Elias seems to be getting a handle on the difficult Ducati, but he should be capable of much more than this.

Behind Elias, Alex de Angelis came home in 12th, the most disappointing of the rookies so far this season. But he finished ahead of last year's rookie of the year, Sylvain Guintoli, who was devastated to have finished so poorly at a race track where he did so well last year, and in front of his home crowd.

Ant West came home a furious 14th. This time, West's problems weren't a result of his inability to ride the bike, but down to a mistake his crew had made in the setup of the bike. Kawasaki had a tough day at Le Mans, as West's traction problems came on top of a snapped chain for John Hopkins, putting the American out of the race while in a promising 7th position.

Disaster Zone

But Kawasaki's problems were as nothing compared to Ducati. Marco Melandri struggled home in 15th place, and the scant comfort of a single point. Melandri had stalled on the line, and bump-started his factory GP8 to resume the race already 30 seconds down. With little to lose, he'd gambled on the rain getting worse, coming in shortly after the rain started to switch bikes, but the rain never materialized to reward his initiative. Melandri's revival at Shanghai seems to have been all too brief.

The big loser of the day was Casey Stoner, however. Having coaxed his dying Ducati home on lap 21, he too had been forced to use wet tires. But just as for Melandri, the rain never came, and Stoner was left to baby overheating rain tires round in the hope of scoring a point. His hope was in vain, and Casey Stoner failed to score for the first time in 23 races aboard the Ducati. What's worse, he lost a lot of valuable points to his rivals for the championship, and is now 41 points down on Rossi, and 38 behind Lorenzo and Pedrosa. Though there are still 13 races left to go, unless the three men leading the championship suffer a DNF each, Stoner's title defense is starting to look very troubled indeed. The #1 plate seems to be a heavier burden than anyone thought.

History Awaits

The 2008 Le Mans MotoGP turned out to be an incredibly nerve-wracking affair. The conditions and events of the weekend placed a huge strain on all involved, and the tension was unbearable at times. It was a true test of the competitors' ability as a racer, not just as a rider, and the way that they handled the pressure was reflected in the results. Valentino Rossi's ability to handle pressure has not often been doubted, and not just arranging a special celebration, but making good by achieving his 90th victory at the first attempt is the mark of a very special racer.

And as one milestone is passed, the next looms on the horizon. Rossi now has 64 premier class victories, just 4 behind the legendary Giacomo Agostini. The form that Rossi is currently in, that record looks likely to fall before the end of the season, and Rossi will take his place in the record books. With the next round at Mugello, a race track where Rossi has not been beaten since 2001, The Doctor could be taking his first step on the way in just two weeks. It promises to be an amazing occasion.

Full results of the 2008 Le Mans MotoGP race.

MotoGP Championship standings after Round 05, Le Mans

Total votes: 92
Total votes: 27

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2008 Le Mans MotoGP Preview - The Shadow Of History

The MotoGP series, especially in the shape of Dorna, the marketing body behind MotoGP, loves to compare itself with Formula One and other four-wheeled racing series, the comparisons always coming out in MotoGP's favor. And it is true that there is usually more passing in a single MotoGP race than there is in a season of Formula One. Dorna is always delighted to point out that if it's excitement you're after, then MotoGP is very much the place to be.

But such hubris is not without risk: the irony that the two most famous racetracks the MotoGP circus will be visiting this year are famous as venues for racing on four wheels rather than two is not lost on either MotoGP fans or the car-racing crowd. And to add insult to injury, the MotoGP bikes won't even be running on the track layouts that made these venues famous, but on shorter, neutered versions of the tracks. In the case of Indianapolis, where MotoGP visits for the first time in September, that is probably no bad thing, as a 2.5 mile high-speed oval, with nothing but concrete retaining walls as crash barriers, is no place for motorcycle racing. But at Le Mans, the 8.5 mile Circuit de la Sarthe course, famous for the 24 Hours of Le Mans endurance car race, has some potential as a motorcycle circuit, although heavily favoring top speed over agility.

Short Circuit

But MotoGP won't be using the legendary 24 hour track. Instead, it will be running the short Bugatti circuit - yet another blow to MotoGP's pride, being named after the famous Italian car designer Ettore Bugatti. And where the Circuit de la Sarthe long circuit simply oozes character, the short Bugatti layout is a bit of a mishmash, with only hints left of the larger and grander track.

The first corner is such a reminder: The long right-handed Courbe Dunlop is still a big, fast sweeper, but had its teeth drawn after Alberto Puig had a huge accident there in 1995, a crash which leaves Dani Pedrosa's mentor limping to this day. Speeds through the sweeper are now tempered by the Dunlop Chicane, a slow left-right combination which invariably sees off-track excursions on lap 1, as a crowded pack tries to cram through the tight chicane.

Once through the chicane, the riders head off into a section vaguely reminiscent of Motegi, with a long 180 degree right hander at La Chappelle taking the pack back towards the infield, until the tight left of Musee, which doubles back on itself to head up towards Garage Vert. Once through the squared off double apex right, the bikes get a chance to stretch their legs down the fast back straight, until they start to brake for the rather charmingly named Chemin aux Boeufs, or Oxen Alley. The charm of its name belies its treacherous nature, however, something which Nicky Hayden's huge crash in the rain last year can attest to. Once through these sharp esses, another short straight takes the riders onto the sharp right and sweeping left of the Garage Bleu esses, before hitting the final tight double right at Raccordement, and haring back off towards the line, gathering speed for the entry to Courbe Dunlop once again.

The Le Mans track is a bit of a culture shock coming from the previous race at Shanghai. Where the Chinese track is all vast straights and fast flicks, emphasizing top speed and stable cornering, the French circuit is a succession of tight, first-gear corners connected by short straights. Flat out speed is of little use here; what matters is the ability to brake hard and accelerate quickly. Where Shanghai is the long slog of a heavyweight boxing battle, Le Mans is the quick-punching close-quarters scrap of a welterweight bout.

Home Advantage

Under normal circumstances, the French track heavily favors French tires, though this has little to do with the circuit layout. Michelin's headquarters is just a few hours' drive away, and the French factory tests extensively on the Bugatti circuit, collecting reams of data on every bump and asphalt repair patch around the track.

Despite that, Michelin still managed to get a proper drubbing at last year's French Grand Prix. With rain arriving shortly after the race started, the Michelin technicians gambled on the weather improving and sent all their runners out on hard tires, which proved woefully inadequate for the conditions. Kenny Roberts Jr, Nicky Hayden, Carlos Checa and Shinya Nakano all found that out the hard way, Hayden's crash being particularly nasty, while Fiat Yamaha's Valentino Rossi struggled in mid-pack. His team mate Colin Edwards finished 3 laps down, after his tire choice was exacerbated by a slipper clutch problem, leaving Edwards with a locking rear wheel getting into every corner.

Where Michelin failed, Bridgestone shone. Their rain tires were designed to handle a broader range of conditions, and their investment paid off big time in France. The Japanese firm swept the podium, with Dani Pedrosa the first Michelin rider home in 4th, and Rossi the only other Michelin in the top 8. Bridgestone's testing program, which consisted of riding their rain tires to destruction on a dry track, gave the Japanese tire maker just what they needed to win in mixed conditions, a point they proved several times more during the year.

Repeat Performance

Last year's winner will be hoping that Bridgestone can come through for him again in 2008. Chris Vermeulen rode a superb race in the downpour at Le Mans to take his first victory in MotoGP, and the first ever four stroke victory for Suzuki, their last win dating from 2001, when Sete Gibernau piloted the RG500 two-stroke bike to victory at Valencia. Vermeulen will get help from more than just his tires: The Le Mans track has suited the Suzuki for the past couple of years. John Hopkins was fighting for a podium here in 2006, before crashing out, and Hopper managed a 7th here in 2007, despite struggling with the conditions. Short, tight turns and heavy braking are things the Suzuki does well, and there's plenty of that at Le Mans.

Vermeulen's team mate Loris Capirossi, the man who replaced Hopkins at Suzuki, has fond memories of Le Mans. The Italian veteran put his Ducati on the podium here two years ago, and had his 800 not developed an electronics problem, could have gained a decent finish in 2007. With Capirex starting to find his feet on the Suzuki, and the team back in Europe, and closer to home, the Italian could spring a surprise in France.

The man who sprung perhaps the biggest surprise last year was Sylvain Guintoli. The Frenchman fought his way to the front last year, leading his home Grand Prix for one lap, before a highside ended his ambitions once the rain started to fall. It signaled the start of a remarkable rise for the likable Guintoli, which secured his future in MotoGP and saw him sign for the Alice Ducati team run by Luis d'Antin. Despite being the bike that won the MotoGP title last year, the Ducati GP8 is proving a very difficult beast to tame this year, and so far, Guintoli has been left at the back of the field scrapping over the final points with his team mate Toni Elias and the factory Ducati rider Marco Melandri.

Glimmer Of Hope

At Shanghai, however, the tide showed signs of changing. After a mediocre qualifying session, Marco Melandri found some kind of fix, either in himself or in the bike, and ended up in a pretty exciting battle for 5th, much further up the order than he had appeared all year. And it wasn't just Melandri: Toni Elias broke into the top 10 for the first time this year, and looked something like his old, combative self, the rider the fans love so much. From having been virtually written off this season, the Ducatis - or rather, the Ducatis not ridden by Australian world champions - are starting to look like a more competitive package. The only person not to have benefited so far is Sylvain Guintoli, but at his home race, the Frenchman will be desperate to find something.

Though the reigning champion is less troubled by the Ducati GP8's all-or-nothing character, even Casey Stoner, the man who was nigh-on unbeatable last year, has struggled. Since winning the first race and looking likely to dominate once again, the Australian's season has faltered. After the nadir of Jerez, Stoner has climbed back up the standings, finally getting back onto the podium in China. Last year, Stoner took a sensible and wily podium in the pouring rain, but he will need more than that here. Currently 4th in the championship, 25 points behind the leader, Dani Pedrosa, if Casey Stoner is to get his title defense back on track, he will need to make a start at Le Mans.

For Dani Pedrosa, the championship is going very much to plan. With a podium at every round so far, including a win at Jerez, Pedrosa is living up to the hopes of the Spanish fans. Though the Honda is the slowest bike on the grid in terms of top speed, it makes up for it in the corners, especially at the hands of former 250 champion Pedrosa. The Spaniard just needs to keep scoring podiums, taking wins when possible, and his dreams of bringing the MotoGP title back home to Spain grow nearer every day.

Shine On You Crazy Diamond

But pity poor Pedrosa's luck. Just as he looks in with a realistic chance of taking the MotoGP title, and is starting to win the hearts of Spanish fans, he is eclipsed by the meteoric rise of Jorge Lorenzo. The Spanish rookie has been nothing short of phenomenal this year, taking two podiums and a win in his first three races in the MotoGP class. Even more impressive was his 4th place at Shanghai, gained despite fracturing both ankles and bones in both feet in the biggest highside seen since the days of the 500cc two-strokes. Lorenzo is still hurting from that huge crash, but after China, no one can doubt his toughness. Lorenzo likes Le Mans and always goes well there. Injured ankles or no, the reigning 250 champion is a force to be reckoned with.

Nor can you rule out his Fiat Yamaha team mate. Now that Valentino Rossi has come to terms with his new Bridgestone tires, as witnessed by his victory in China, The Doctor is back in business, and on track to reestablish his place at the top of the MotoGP tree. The Yamaha M1 has been the revelation of the season so far, and having the world's best rider on arguably the best bike shod with what are probably the best tires is a recipe for a 6th MotoGP crown. Rossi is strong at every track on the calendar, and in this form will be the man to watch.

The strength of the Yamahas has only been underlined by the performance of the Tech 3 team. Colin Edwards has already taken one pole this year, and fell just short of a podium at Portugal. His rookie team mate James Toseland has been even more impressive, scoring consistently strong finishes at almost every race, despite having little or no experience at most of the tracks. Le Mans is another track the British rookie has never visited, but he learns tracks quickly and is an obviously gifted rider. He will be getting tips from his manager Roger Burnett, but also from his team mate Edwards. Le Mans is one of the Texan's favorite tracks, and a pole last year and a podium in 2005 bode well for him on Sunday.

Bring Back The Honda Lane

The speed of the Yamahas must grate with the Honda Racing Corporation, who regard the MotoGP class as theirs by right. But the RC212V in both factory guise and in satellite trim is no slouch, as Pedrosa's win and the strong finishes by Nicky Hayden and Andrea Dovizioso show. Hayden has run consistently close to the four title candidates, and is sure to break into the podium positions soon, while Dovizioso has made a stunning impact in his first few races, and is only unfortunate to arrive in the class at the same time as Jorge Lorenzo and James Toseland. Both Hayden and Dovizioso have already had a whiff of the podium, and that scent will be strong in their nostrils at Le Mans as well.

As for the other Hondas, the Gresini bikes of Shinya Nakano and Alex de Angelis and the LCR Honda of Randy de Puniet have had a more turbulent time of it. De Angelis and de Puniet have both shown a worrying tendency to park the bike in the gravel, sending carbon fiber factories all over Europe into overdrive, while Nakano has fared better on the Bridgestones than he did last year on the Michelins. With the satellite Hondas due to receive new parts for the Le Mans race, they will be hoping to be nearer the front this weekend, especially de Puniet, as it is the Frenchman's home Grand Prix.

Pray For Rain

For Kawasaki, the problem has not been the bike, so much as the riders. John Hopkins had only just recovered from a nasty groin injury he suffered during preseason testing, only to receive another nasty leg injury after a collision with Alex de Angelis in Shanghai. It will frustrate Hopper, who has historically gone very well at Le Mans. Depending on his fitness, he could well spring a surprise. And a surprise is exactly what Ant West will have to come up with. The Australian has had a dire season so far aboard the factory Kawasaki, and if he wants to retain his ride until the end of the season, West will have to find a solution to the lack of grip which has plagued him all year.

Ironically, it is a lack of grip which could save West at Le Mans. The weather forecast looks very mixed, with rain a strong possibility on every day of the event. Both Ant West and Chris Vermeulen will surely be hoping for rain, and a chance to shine in France. The weather is still very uncertain, however, so the Australian rain specialists had better step up their offerings to the rain gods, just to make sure.

Starting Over

The Le Mans MotoGP round sees the circus return to Europe, and marks the start of the guts of the season. With 7 rounds in just 10 weeks, the next couple of months will be crucial. Riders face the dual-edged sword of having to push as hard as possible to maximize their haul of points, while avoiding the risk of injury, which could see them sidelined during the busiest period of the year. The basis for the 2008 MotoGP championship will be laid over the next few weeks, and it starts on Sunday, at Le Mans. There's a long hard road ahead, and what better place to take the first step than at a track so steeped in legend?

Total votes: 85
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2008 Shanghai MotoGP Race Report - Resurrection

Throughout the first three races of the 2008 MotoGP season, all the talk has been of the newcomers to the class. And rightly so, as Jorge Lorenzo, Andrea Dovizioso, James Toseland and Alex de Angelis have all made an impact on MotoGP, to a greater or lesser extent. Lorenzo taking three poles in his first three races, and his first win at just the third attempt; Dovizioso punching way above the weight of his underpowered satellite Honda RC212V; Toseland proving that World Superbikes is still a viable entry route into MotoGP by finishing in the top 7 in the first three races of the year; even de Angelis has impressed the public, by pushing his Honda right to the limit, and rather too often, well over it, and into the gravel.

As exciting as this development has been for the fans, it has meant that the attention the established names in MotoGP are getting is a good deal less than they are either accustomed to or care for, and what attention they do get has been of entirely the wrong kind. Nothing flatters the ego more than to be asked your opinion by journalists, but nothing deflates it more than to be asked your opinion of why other riders are doing better than you by those same pressmen. For MotoGP stars used to being the main attraction, this is a bitter pill to swallow.

The trouble is, those same stars have no one to blame but themselves. Valentino Rossi forced a switch from Michelin to Bridgestone tires at the end of 2007, and since then, has struggled to learn his way round the new tires. After being dumped unceremoniously from his ride at Ducati, Loris Capirossi swore revenge aboard the Rizla Suzuki, but finds himself finishing in much the same position as he did on the Ducati GP7. Far from challenging the world champion on equal machinery, Marco Melandri, the man who replaced Capirex at Ducati, has been almost entirely faceless. And only relative newcomer Dani Pedrosa seems able to make the Honda competitive.

Move On

MotoGP's Old Guard is suddenly looking very jaded indeed. There is talk of a wholesale shakeup, with suggestions that Valentino Rossi may be past his prime, that Honda has lost its way, that riders like Toni Elias and John Hopkins, who have shown such promise in the past, are only as good as their results, and no more. And there are widespread rumors that Marco Melandri could be heading for an early split with Ducati, perhaps even to retire.

Such talk eventually begins to grate on MotoGP veterans, and as practice progressed for the Shanghai round of MotoGP, they showed signs of reasserting their authority. The names at the top of the timesheets during practice had a much more familiar ring, and the revenge of the veterans was made complete when the old stalwart Colin Edwards put in a scorching lap in the dying seconds of qualifying to take pole, shattering Valentino Rossi's previous pole record by 3/10ths of a second. Less prominent, but just as remarkable, was the return to form of Marco Melandri and Toni Elias. No longer loitering at the very bottom of the timesheets, the two Ducati men had suddenly made a huge step forward, and moved much further up the field.

The Old Guard's resurgence was not all of their own making. On Friday, Jorge Lorenzo had suffered probably the biggest highside seen at a racetrack since the demise of the 500cc two strokes, chipping a bone in his ankle and fracturing bones in both feet. It was a testament to Lorenzo's courage that he rode at all on Saturday, but the measure of Lorenzo was managing to grab 4th on the grid, despite nearly falling in another spectacular incident, his Yamaha M1 bucking and weaving wildly, throwing the Spaniard up into the air before the bike regained its composure. The way he slammed down onto the tank brought tears to the eye of every man in the paddock, and quite a few of the women too.

Just When You Thought It Was Safe To Go Back In The Water

Then, the weather threw the race a curveball. Practice had taken place under the hot humid smog that hangs perennially over the Chinese city of Shanghai, but race day dawned amidst a downpour. The morning warmup session was all the time the teams had to find a wet setup, and to their relief, the rain disappeared and the track began to dry as 3pm approached.

On the grid, everyone was on slicks, despite the race being declared wet by Race Direction. A gamble, but with a dry line all the way round the track, and no sign of fresh rain visible through the haze of pollution obscuring the clouds, a gamble which the riders were forced to take. The difficulty came for the men on the end of each row, the right-hand side of the track not cleared of water by the preceding 250 race. If there was one place where it was likely to be hard getting off the line, it was from 3rd, 6th and 9th on the grid.

But as the officials waved the riders off for the start of the warmup lap, it was Jorge Lorenzo who was in trouble. Clearly nervous about his race, the Spaniard stalled his Fiat Yamaha pulling way from the line too slowly, and was left paddling his bike forward on his two painfully injured feet. His crew sprinted to his aid though, and once they had bump-started his M1, Lorenzo was underway once more for the final lap before the start.

Magic Roundabout

As the lights dimmed, pole man Colin Edwards led the thundering pack away from the line, before seeing Casey Stoner fire past and into the first corner marginally ahead. Valentino Rossi, who had been 2nd on the grid, was forced to watch Dani Pedrosa fly past him up the inside, Pedrosa putting the electronic launch system fitted to his Repsol Honda to maximum effect. Behind Rossi, his team mate Jorge Lorenzo had gotten over his warmup lap nerves to hit Turn 1 in 5th, but with the Suzukis of Loris Capirossi and Chris Vermeulen inside him on the tight line.

Fortunately for the Yamahas of Edwards, Rossi and Lorenzo, the fact that Turn 1 and then Turn 2 goes on for such a very long time, before flicking back left again for Turn 3, means that the battle is by no means over once you tip the bike in for the first right hander. By the time the pack exited Turn 3, Edwards was back ahead of Stoner, who now had Rossi snapping at his tail, while Pedrosa was left to fend off Lorenzo. Pedrosa's team mate Nicky Hayden had used the outside line round Turns 1 and 2 to nip past the Rizla Suzukis, while Loris Capirossi also had Marco Melandri charge past into 7th.

Round the hairpin, and through the flowing section between Turns 7 and 10, Melandri was forced to surrender first the place he'd taken from Capirossi, and then another spot to James Toseland, racing at yet another track the Brit had never seen before. Ahead of them, Nicky Hayden and Jorge Lorenzo swapped back and forth on the short drag up to Turn 11, before the pack rounded the banked Turn 13, and headed off down the long back straight.

Speed

As a rule, long straights add little interest to motorcycle racing, but this first passage with the pack still closely grouped had been keenly awaited. At last year's race, this was the point that Casey Stoner opened up his Ducati and walked away from the rest, forcing Valentino Rossi to brake at the very limit of his ability for the hairpin at the end of the straight, just to try and stay in touch. This year, the top speeds between the different makes of bike were much closer, but the Ducati was still ahead. The question remained, would Rossi be able to stay with Stoner this year, and not have to rely on his brakes every lap?

Down the straight, Ducati horsepower prevailed once again. But only just: where Stoner romped away from Rossi in 2007, this year, his advantage was just a crawl. And so it came down to a braking showdown once again, but with a tailwind blowing down the long back straight, the pack found themselves going 10 km/h faster than they had during practice. The leading four compacted like a squeezebox, but made it through one of the slowest corners of the year in one piece, their order unchanged.

That was not to last. As the leaders crossed the line for the first time, Casey Stoner blew past Edwards to take the lead, while behind the American, Dani Pedrosa had followed Stoner to pass Rossi. But in his eagerness to lead, Stoner was in too hot, and edging wide and scrubbing speed off, the reigning champ was forced to watch Edwards and Pedrosa slip underneath. Adding insult to injury, Valentino Rossi followed just a couple of turns later, passing on the brakes into the hairpin of Turn 6.

Rossi's move came not a moment too late. At the same corner, Dani Pedrosa had already gotten ahead of Edwards, and was poised to make a break. Shanghai is the track where Pedrosa got his first victory in MotoGP by running away at the front, and with Rossi on his longest winless streak in MotoGP, The Doctor wasn't prepared to lie down and let that happen. As they hared down the back straight for the second time, Rossi crept alongside Edwards ready to pass on the brakes.

No Time To Lose

Rossi's mind was clearly already on Pedrosa. Passing Edwards simply, Rossi's focus switched to the Honda, and thought about killing two birds with one stone. But he was too late, and too far back, and the attempt to make up the ground meant he ran far too deep, losing 2nd to Edwards once again, Pedrosa slipping out of his grasp. Ironically, Stoner was focused on Rossi as Rossi had been on Pedrosa, and as Rossi went wide and late on the brakes, Stoner followed, nearly running off the edge of the track.

Rossi's demotion was short lived. The Italian was already onto Edwards' tail by the final corner, and was up the inside and into 2nd as they entered Turn 1. He now had a clear run at Pedrosa, but the Spaniard had a lead of over a second, and a reputation for winning races by taking off at the front. Rossi had his work cut out.

Not one to shy away from a challenge, The Doctor put his head down and charged. Taking 3/10ths out of Pedrosa on lap 3, then 4/10ths on lap 4, by the time the two men arrived at the double left of Turns 9 and 10, Rossi was upon him. The Italian tailed Pedrosa through the tight left and then long right, biding his time, aware of the power advantage his pneumatic valve Yamaha M1 had. As they ran out onto the back straight, Rossi closed on Pedrosa, then pulled out of his slipstream, passing easily before the two men entered the braking zone for the tight hairpin.

Now past Pedrosa, Rossi's set about the task of pulling away. Having taken several tenths of a second out of the Spaniard on the previous three laps, it should have been a cakewalk, but Pedrosa dug in his heels. With a target to focus on, Pedrosa's lap times dropped to match Rossi's, and though the Italian was still quicker, Pedrosa was now losing just 100ths a lap, keeping The Doctor well within his grasp. Every lap, Rossi pushed, upping the pace, times dropping, and every lap, Pedrosa responded, the Italian never leaving his sight. Shaking off Pedrosa was a much bigger job than Rossi had anticipated.

The Following

Behind Rossi and Pedrosa, a tense battle raged. Colin Edwards led a gaggle of riders, with Casey Stoner and Nicky Hayden close behind. Hayden had a gap on Andrea Dovizioso, who was engaged in close quarters scrapping with Jorge Lorenzo, Loris Capirossi, Marco Melandri, James Toseland, Shinya Nakano and Chris Vermeulen.

Though Edwards was the fastest of the followers, the leaders were too quick for the Texan, and he had to let Rossi and Pedrosa go. Focusing on keeping the rest behind, Edwards ran fast and smooth, until on lap 6, he got caught out on braking at the end of the straight, and was forced to  run wide. He only lost a couple of seconds, but more importantly, he also lost 4 places. Now stuck in traffic, the extra speed he'd had went to waste, dissipated by the struggle to pass and not be passed.

Edwards' mistake left Casey Stoner leading the chase. Nicky Hayden closed on Stoner, but could never match the speed of the Australian's Ducati down the back straight, and faced with attacks from behind, was forced to let Stoner go.

Get Ready To Rumble

Hayden had fallen into the clutches of a ferocious set to for 5th. Jorge Lorenzo had led this group at first, but had dropped back as the fight grew intense in the opening laps. In his place, Andrea Dovizioso was his usual combative self, caught up in the multiple-bike scrap he seems to end up in just about every race. The Team Scot Honda man had Loris Capirossi and Marco Melandri to contend with, Lorenzo following close behind.

At first, Hayden held off the charging group behind him, while Dovizioso and Capirossi fought over 6th. But on lap 5, a problem with the clutch on Capirex' Suzuki dropped the Italian to 12th, and too far down the order to get back into the fight. As it turned out, Capirossi was lucky, for a lap later, his team mate Chris Vermeulen suffered a similar problem, and was forced to pull into the pits.

The most remarkable figure in the battle for 4th was Marco Melandri. Melandri's season so far had consisted of running around just inside the points, and now he was battling it out just behind the podium. The mark of his comeback was that on lap 8, he passed not one, but two riders, taking Dovizioso on the front straight, and Nicky Hayden into the tight hairpin of Turn 14. All of a sudden, Marco Melandri was up in 4th.

Up The Pressure

At the front, the pace was hotting up. Both Rossi and Pedrosa had been running laps of 2'00 flat, but as their bikes began to lighten and the track dried out even more, 1'59 began to beckon. Rossi was the first to crack the 2'00 minute barrier on lap 10, with Pedrosa following two laps later. Still with just a few tenths separating the pair, Rossi cranked up the pressure again, and again Pedrosa responded. Nearly a second a lap faster than the rest of the field, the leaders were beyond reach of the chasing pack, now over 11 seconds down.

Each time Rossi pushed his Fiat Yamaha harder, pulling away in the first part the track, Pedrosa would pick up the pace, inching back the hundredths of a second through sectors 2 and 3. On 17, Rossi pushed again, getting down towards lap record pace, and once more Pedrosa followed, this time losing a tenth of a second. Rossi kicked again with a 1'59.273, breaking Pedrosa's lap record set on the 990cc Honda, and again Pedrosa tried to match him, falling another tenth short. On lap 19, Rossi ran another 1'59.3 lap, but this time, Pedrosa had nothing left. Rossi gained a second on lap 19, and another on lap 20. By the time Valentino Rossi crossed the line to take victory, he had a 4 second lead after just 4 laps. The Doctor was back.

After Rossi bullied his way to get Bridgestones at the end of last season, people started wondering whether the Italian still had his mojo. Rossi's legend was built on being able to compensate for inferior equipment based on sheer riding skill, the last switch Rossi had made being from the utterly dominant Honda RC211V to the ill-fated Yamaha. By demanding Bridgestone tires, it looked like Rossi was tacitly admitting that his talent was waning, and he needed the best equipment to keep on winning. At Shanghai, he'd proved the doubters wrong. The China track favors neither brand of tire, taking rubber out of the equation. But the manner of Rossi's win left no room for questions: passing to get to the front, and pushing until the opposition surrendered.

Cheap Trick

The manner of Rossi's victory also showed the old fox was not too old to learn. In 2007, Rossi had tried to beat Casey Stoner and Dani Pedrosa the way he had beaten Sete Gibernau and Max Biaggi: by sitting on their tail until they got nervous and made a mistake. But Stoner and Pedrosa were entirely impervious to that trick, and just kept their heads down and the throttle open. By the time Rossi realized that they weren't going to make a mistake, his tires were too shot to cope with the extra stress of a hard pass.

At Shanghai, Rossi gave a demonstration of how to beat the likes of Pedrosa and Stoner: get past them early, and push from in front, not behind. Pedrosa eventually capitulated, settling for championship points instead of fighting Rossi for the win. Against Biaggi and Gibernau, Rossi made them afraid of what they couldn't see, and put pressure on from behind. Against Pedrosa today, Rossi made him afraid of what he could see, getting in front of the Spaniard and intimidating him with what he had, putting in a sequence laps each faster than the next. There can be no doubt that The Doctor intends to apply the same treatment to Casey Stoner at the earliest possible opportunity.

Dani Pedrosa crossed the line knowing he'd been beaten, but still satisfied. Pedrosa had scored 20 valuable points in the championship, and pulled out a comfortable lead over his rivals. The Spaniard has a single aim this year: to become world champion, and he conceded the battle, that he might win the war at the end of the season.

But despite being beaten, Pedrosa had put up an almighty fight. He had faced down a Valentino Rossi at the top of his game for 17 laps, and only chosen discretion over valor once it was a safe decision to make. What's more, he'd pushed Rossi hard on a motorcycle which was 8 km/h down on top speed. If he can do that with the steel-spring valve, what will Pedrosa be capable of once the Repsol Honda team get the pneumatic valve engine, which should produce more power and use less fuel? Pedrosa's goal of a world title is looking very realistic indeed.

The Blame Game

The current holder of that crown finished a lonely race 15 seconds behind Rossi. Casey Stoner's 3rd place marked an important upturn after the past two difficult races at Jerez and Estoril, and kept him in contention for the championship. But the Australian's difficulties are starting to take their toll: in Parc Ferme, Stoner was seething, and when interviewed, Stoner immediately complained about his tire, and that he'd been advised to take a different one to the tire he'd used during practice, and that it hadn't worked out. Stoner is known as a frank speaker, but this was a barely concealed public retribution to his team. Even getting on the box couldn't console the Australian: "A podium this far off is just about not worth it," Stoner told the BBC. Casey Stoner needs to start fighting for a win again, for his own peace of mind, if not for his title defense.

The battle for 4th had raged for half the race, with five men battling it out. At first, Marco Melandri looked in control of the position, holding off first Nicky Hayden, then Andrea Dovizioso. But then charging up through the field came the redoubtable Jorge Lorenzo.  From 9th on lap 4, Lorenzo had bided his time, and worked his way forward. By lap 14, he was behind Melandri, and holding 5th ahead of Dovizioso, and on the next lap, he was past and into 4th. With a chipped ankle and fractured bones in his feet, to take 4th in conditions which were far from ideal is a testament to Lorenzo's talent and determination. The Spaniard proved he is talented with the remarkable win at Estoril. At Shanghai, he showed his grit and his mettle. Lorenzo's 4th place in China is possibly even more remarkable than his victory in Portugal.

The Comeback Kid

Marco Melandri had to settle for 5th, but accepting that will not be so hard. So far this season, his time aboard the Ducati has been a vale of tears, with Melandri looking visibly defeated by his inability to ride fast on the bike. But long discussions with Ducati's chief engineer Filippo Preziosi seemed to have helped, and either promises of support, or perhaps just having someone listen to him have turned the situation around for Melandri. Whether this is just an aberration, or whether the Melandri of old really is back and ready to start chasing podiums and wins remains to be seen. But the picture is a lot less bleak today than it was just a few days ago.

Just one position behind, but a good deal less happy, Nicky Hayden came home in 6th. The American is having a far better season than during his ill-fated title defense, the 2008 Honda RC212V a bike much more suited to his style than last year's machine. But Hayden too is frustrated, and feels he should be running closer to the front. Maybe the new engine will give him the final lift he needs.

Colin Edwards came home similarly disappointed in 7th. After his breathtaking pole, and a good start, Edwards was bitter about the braking mistake he'd made on lap 6. If it hadn't been for that, the Texas Tornado could have had a podium, but "if" doesn't count for anything, in sport or in life.

The next man home was another revived Ducati: Toni Elias was finally looking like the Elias of old, and had looked strong all weekend. The changes made in testing after Estoril had worked in China as well. Expect to see more of Elias for the rest of the season.

In 9th, more disappointment for Loris Capirossi. The Italian veteran had been running strong and giving as good as he got in the fight for 5th, until a clutch problem lost him some time. With both Capirossi and Vermeulen suffering the same problem, this is something Suzuki will need to address as soon as possible if they are to get back on the podium.

Shinya Nakano came home in 10th, around the place he's finished in the last two races. Nakano had been much quicker during practice, finishing as high as 4th on Friday afternoon. Practice had showed that Nakano made progress in China, but the rain may have muddied the waters.

Andrea Dovizioso finished a disappointed 11th after losing grip in the latter stages of the race. The Italian put on another great show in the early stages, fighting in the second group, and the points he scored are not at all commensurate with the entertainment he is providing.

James Toseland was less disappointed than his position may suggest, only managing 12th. The reigning World Superbike champion could take a lot of comfort from the weekend. At a track he'd never seen before, Toseland had improved his lap times by at least 0.7 seconds in every session, with the race his weakest performance of the event. At a track which is notoriously difficult to learn, a long lap with a lot of bumpy corners, the Brit stayed on and scored points. In his rookie season, that's all that's expected of him.

The Hollow Men

Randy de Puniet finished an invisible weekend in 13th place. The Frenchman never really got going at Shanghai, and his position showed it.

John Hopkins expected a great deal more from the race at Shanghai. At his 100th Grand Prix, at the track where he scored his first podium, and in front of Kawasaki senior management, Hopper had been optimistic of his chances for the race. But neither of the Kawasakis coped well with the damp conditions, and Hopper made a couple of early mistakes leaving him stranded down the field.

In 15th position, Sylvain Guintoli is at least scoring points, but seeing both Marco Melandri and team mate Toni Elias suddenly finding some pace with the Ducati must be disheartening. The young Frenchman needs to start stealing his team mate's set up, or he may find it hard to find a job next year.

At least Guintoli finished ahead of Alex de Angelis. The Gresini Honda man had a weekend similar to de Puniet's and was as invisible in the race as he was during practice.

Poor Ant West probably wishes he was invisible. The Australian must have prayed for a downpour on Saturday night, and felt cursed that he got it on Sunday morning, only for the track to dry in the afternoon. With rumors abounding that this could be West's last race for the Kawasaki MotoGP team, last place was the last thing he needed.

Resurrection

After being virtually written off from the beginning of the season, in China, the big names of MotoGP showed just why it is that they are such big names. Valentino Rossi stamped his authority on the race in exactly the style we have come to expect of The Doctor, winning with apparent ease. Marco Melandri finally stepped up and was back in the thick of things, rather than trailing round at the back like a spectator. And if Toni Elias had gotten off to a better start, he could have been fighting over 4th place, rather than down in 8th. His lap times were good enough for 6th, once he got going. It just goes to show that 3 races in is way too early to start drawing conclusions.

Yet some conclusions seem obvious: with 4 winners from 4 races, the title seems more open than it has been for a very long time. Casey Stoner, Dani Pedrosa, Jorge Lorenzo and Valentino Rossi all seem capable of winning at will, and there's 3 or 4 other names who could quite easily steal the odd win from the season yet.

But the biggest lesson to be drawn from the Shanghai round of MotoGP is that The Doctor is back in business. He finally had a tire and a setup which lasted all race, and allowed him to push from start to finish. After just 4 races on Bridgestones, he is winning again, and winning convincingly. Just how much the victory meant was clear on the parade lap, as Rossi stopped at almost every corner, to take the congratulations of photographers, corner workers, everyone in MotoGP. More significantly, Rossi got off his bike, and gave it a kiss and a pat, something he last did when he won in South Africa, on his first outing on the Yamaha M1. Rossi is gelling again with his Yamaha, and when The Doctor achieves that unity of man and machine, it is truly a thing of dread and wonder. It's going to be a long, hard and exciting season.

Full result of the Grand Prix of China at Shanghai

MotoGP championship standings after Shanghai

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2008 Shanghai MotoGP Race Report - Resurrection

Throughout the first three races of the 2008 MotoGP season, all the talk has been of the newcomers to the class. And rightly so, as Jorge Lorenzo, Andrea Dovizioso, James Toseland and Alex de Angelis have all made an impact on MotoGP, to a greater or lesser extent. Lorenzo taking three poles in his first three races, and his first win at just the third attempt; Dovizioso punching way above the weight of his underpowered satellite Honda RC212V; Toseland proving that World Superbikes is still a viable entry route into MotoGP by finishing in the top 7 in the first three races of the year; even de Angelis has impressed the public, by pushing his Honda right to the limit, and rather too often, well over it, and into the gravel.

As exciting as this development has been for the fans, it has meant that the attention the established names in MotoGP are getting is a good deal less than they are either accustomed to or care for, and what attention they do get has been of entirely the wrong kind. Nothing flatters the ego more than to be asked your opinion by journalists, but nothing deflates it more than to be asked your opinion of why other riders are doing better than you by those same pressmen. For MotoGP stars used to being the main attraction, this is a bitter pill to swallow.

The trouble is, those same stars have no one to blame but themselves. Valentino Rossi forced a switch from Michelin to Bridgestone tires at the end of 2007, and since then, has struggled to learn his way round the new tires. After being dumped unceremoniously from his ride at Ducati, Loris Capirossi swore revenge aboard the Rizla Suzuki, but finds himself finishing in much the same position as he did on the Ducati GP7. Far from challenging the world champion on equal machinery, Marco Melandri, the man who replaced Capirex at Ducati, has been almost entirely faceless. And only relative newcomer Dani Pedrosa seems able to make the Honda competitive.

Move On

MotoGP's Old Guard is suddenly looking very jaded indeed. There is talk of a wholesale shakeup, with suggestions that Valentino Rossi may be past his prime, that Honda has lost its way, that riders like Toni Elias and John Hopkins, who have shown such promise in the past, are only as good as their results, and no more. And there are widespread rumors that Marco Melandri could be heading for an early split with Ducati, perhaps even to retire.

Such talk eventually begins to grate on MotoGP veterans, and as practice progressed for the Shanghai round of MotoGP, they showed signs of reasserting their authority. The names at the top of the timesheets during practice had a much more familiar ring, and the revenge of the veterans was made complete when the old stalwart Colin Edwards put in a scorching lap in the dying seconds of qualifying to take pole, shattering Valentino Rossi's previous pole record by 3/10ths of a second. Less prominent, but just as remarkable, was the return to form of Marco Melandri and Toni Elias. No longer loitering at the very bottom of the timesheets, the two Ducati men had suddenly made a huge step forward, and moved much further up the field.

The Old Guard's resurgence was not all of their own making. On Friday, Jorge Lorenzo had suffered probably the biggest highside seen at a racetrack since the demise of the 500cc two strokes, chipping a bone in his ankle and fracturing bones in both feet. It was a testament to Lorenzo's courage that he rode at all on Saturday, but the measure of Lorenzo was managing to grab 4th on the grid, despite nearly falling in another spectacular incident, his Yamaha M1 bucking and weaving wildly, throwing the Spaniard up into the air before the bike regained its composure. The way he slammed down onto the tank brought tears to the eye of every man in the paddock, and quite a few of the women too.

Just When You Thought It Was Safe To Go Back In The Water

Then, the weather threw the race a curveball. Practice had taken place under the hot humid smog that hangs perennially over the Chinese city of Shanghai, but race day dawned amidst a downpour. The morning warmup session was all the time the teams had to find a wet setup, and to their relief, the rain disappeared and the track began to dry as 3pm approached.

On the grid, everyone was on slicks, despite the race being declared wet by Race Direction. A gamble, but with a dry line all the way round the track, and no sign of fresh rain visible through the haze of pollution obscuring the clouds, a gamble which the riders were forced to take. The difficulty came for the men on the end of each row, the right-hand side of the track not cleared of water by the preceding 250 race. If there was one place where it was likely to be hard getting off the line, it was from 3rd, 6th and 9th on the grid.

But as the officials waved the riders off for the start of the warmup lap, it was Jorge Lorenzo who was in trouble. Clearly nervous about his race, the Spaniard stalled his Fiat Yamaha pulling way from the line too slowly, and was left paddling his bike forward on his two painfully injured feet. His crew sprinted to his aid though, and once they had bump-started his M1, Lorenzo was underway once more for the final lap before the start.

Magic Roundabout

As the lights dimmed, pole man Colin Edwards led the thundering pack away from the line, before seeing Casey Stoner fire past and into the first corner marginally ahead. Valentino Rossi, who had been 2nd on the grid, was forced to watch Dani Pedrosa fly past him up the inside, Pedrosa putting the electronic launch system fitted to his Repsol Honda to maximum effect. Behind Rossi, his team mate Jorge Lorenzo had gotten over his warmup lap nerves to hit Turn 1 in 5th, but with the Suzukis of Loris Capirossi and Chris Vermeulen inside him on the tight line.

Fortunately for the Yamahas of Edwards, Rossi and Lorenzo, the fact that Turn 1 and then Turn 2 goes on for such a very long time, before flicking back left again for Turn 3, means that the battle is by no means over once you tip the bike in for the first right hander. By the time the pack exited Turn 3, Edwards was back ahead of Stoner, who now had Rossi snapping at his tail, while Pedrosa was left to fend off Lorenzo. Pedrosa's team mate Nicky Hayden had used the outside line round Turns 1 and 2 to nip past the Rizla Suzukis, while Loris Capirossi also had Marco Melandri charge past into 7th.

Round the hairpin, and through the flowing section between Turns 7 and 10, Melandri was forced to surrender first the place he'd taken from Capirossi, and then another spot to James Toseland, racing at yet another track the Brit had never seen before. Ahead of them, Nicky Hayden and Jorge Lorenzo swapped back and forth on the short drag up to Turn 11, before the pack rounded the banked Turn 13, and headed off down the long back straight.

Speed

As a rule, long straights add little interest to motorcycle racing, but this first passage with the pack still closely grouped had been keenly awaited. At last year's race, this was the point that Casey Stoner opened up his Ducati and walked away from the rest, forcing Valentino Rossi to brake at the very limit of his ability for the hairpin at the end of the straight, just to try and stay in touch. This year, the top speeds between the different makes of bike were much closer, but the Ducati was still ahead. The question remained, would Rossi be able to stay with Stoner this year, and not have to rely on his brakes every lap?

Down the straight, Ducati horsepower prevailed once again. But only just: where Stoner romped away from Rossi in 2007, this year, his advantage was just a crawl. And so it came down to a braking showdown once again, but with a tailwind blowing down the long back straight, the pack found themselves going 10 km/h faster than they had during practice. The leading four compacted like a squeezebox, but made it through one of the slowest corners of the year in one piece, their order unchanged.

That was not to last. As the leaders crossed the line for the first time, Casey Stoner blew past Edwards to take the lead, while behind the American, Dani Pedrosa had followed Stoner to pass Rossi. But in his eagerness to lead, Stoner was in too hot, and edging wide and scrubbing speed off, the reigning champ was forced to watch Edwards and Pedrosa slip underneath. Adding insult to injury, Valentino Rossi followed just a couple of turns later, passing on the brakes into the hairpin of Turn 6.

Rossi's move came not a moment too late. At the same corner, Dani Pedrosa had already gotten ahead of Edwards, and was poised to make a break. Shanghai is the track where Pedrosa got his first victory in MotoGP by running away at the front, and with Rossi on his longest winless streak in MotoGP, The Doctor wasn't prepared to lie down and let that happen. As they hared down the back straight for the second time, Rossi crept alongside Edwards ready to pass on the brakes.

No Time To Lose

Rossi's mind was clearly already on Pedrosa. Passing Edwards simply, Rossi's focus switched to the Honda, and thought about killing two birds with one stone. But he was too late, and too far back, and the attempt to make up the ground meant he ran far too deep, losing 2nd to Edwards once again, Pedrosa slipping out of his grasp. Ironically, Stoner was focused on Rossi as Rossi had been on Pedrosa, and as Rossi went wide and late on the brakes, Stoner followed, nearly running off the edge of the track.

Rossi's demotion was short lived. The Italian was already onto Edwards' tail by the final corner, and was up the inside and into 2nd as they entered Turn 1. He now had a clear run at Pedrosa, but the Spaniard had a lead of over a second, and a reputation for winning races by taking off at the front. Rossi had his work cut out.

Not one to shy away from a challenge, The Doctor put his head down and charged. Taking 3/10ths out of Pedrosa on lap 3, then 4/10ths on lap 4, by the time the two men arrived at the double left of Turns 9 and 10, Rossi was upon him. The Italian tailed Pedrosa through the tight left and then long right, biding his time, aware of the power advantage his pneumatic valve Yamaha M1 had. As they ran out onto the back straight, Rossi closed on Pedrosa, then pulled out of his slipstream, passing easily before the two men entered the braking zone for the tight hairpin.

Now past Pedrosa, Rossi's set about the task of pulling away. Having taken several tenths of a second out of the Spaniard on the previous three laps, it should have been a cakewalk, but Pedrosa dug in his heels. With a target to focus on, Pedrosa's lap times dropped to match Rossi's, and though the Italian was still quicker, Pedrosa was now losing just 100ths a lap, keeping The Doctor well within his grasp. Every lap, Rossi pushed, upping the pace, times dropping, and every lap, Pedrosa responded, the Italian never leaving his sight. Shaking off Pedrosa was a much bigger job than Rossi had anticipated.

The Following

Behind Rossi and Pedrosa, a tense battle raged. Colin Edwards led a gaggle of riders, with Casey Stoner and Nicky Hayden close behind. Hayden had a gap on Andrea Dovizioso, who was engaged in close quarters scrapping with Jorge Lorenzo, Loris Capirossi, Marco Melandri, James Toseland, Shinya Nakano and Chris Vermeulen.

Though Edwards was the fastest of the followers, the leaders were too quick for the Texan, and he had to let Rossi and Pedrosa go. Focusing on keeping the rest behind, Edwards ran fast and smooth, until on lap 6, he got caught out on braking at the end of the straight, and was forced to  run wide. He only lost a couple of seconds, but more importantly, he also lost 4 places. Now stuck in traffic, the extra speed he'd had went to waste, dissipated by the struggle to pass and not be passed.

Edwards' mistake left Casey Stoner leading the chase. Nicky Hayden closed on Stoner, but could never match the speed of the Australian's Ducati down the back straight, and faced with attacks from behind, was forced to let Stoner go.

Get Ready To Rumble

Hayden had fallen into the clutches of a ferocious set to for 5th. Jorge Lorenzo had led this group at first, but had dropped back as the fight grew intense in the opening laps. In his place, Andrea Dovizioso was his usual combative self, caught up in the multiple-bike scrap he seems to end up in just about every race. The Team Scot Honda man had Loris Capirossi and Marco Melandri to contend with, Lorenzo following close behind.

At first, Hayden held off the charging group behind him, while Dovizioso and Capirossi fought over 6th. But on lap 5, a problem with the clutch on Capirex' Suzuki dropped the Italian to 12th, and too far down the order to get back into the fight. As it turned out, Capirossi was lucky, for a lap later, his team mate Chris Vermeulen suffered a similar problem, and was forced to pull into the pits.

The most remarkable figure in the battle for 4th was Marco Melandri. Melandri's season so far had consisted of running around just inside the points, and now he was battling it out just behind the podium. The mark of his comeback was that on lap 8, he passed not one, but two riders, taking Dovizioso on the front straight, and Nicky Hayden into the tight hairpin of Turn 14. All of a sudden, Marco Melandri was up in 4th.

Up The Pressure

At the front, the pace was hotting up. Both Rossi and Pedrosa had been running laps of 2'00 flat, but as their bikes began to lighten and the track dried out even more, 1'59 began to beckon. Rossi was the first to crack the 2'00 minute barrier on lap 10, with Pedrosa following two laps later. Still with just a few tenths separating the pair, Rossi cranked up the pressure again, and again Pedrosa responded. Nearly a second a lap faster than the rest of the field, the leaders were beyond reach of the chasing pack, now over 11 seconds down.

Each time Rossi pushed his Fiat Yamaha harder, pulling away in the first part the track, Pedrosa would pick up the pace, inching back the hundredths of a second through sectors 2 and 3. On 17, Rossi pushed again, getting down towards lap record pace, and once more Pedrosa followed, this time losing a tenth of a second. Rossi kicked again with a 1'59.273, breaking Pedrosa's lap record set on the 990cc Honda, and again Pedrosa tried to match him, falling another tenth short. On lap 19, Rossi ran another 1'59.3 lap, but this time, Pedrosa had nothing left. Rossi gained a second on lap 19, and another on lap 20. By the time Valentino Rossi crossed the line to take victory, he had a 4 second lead after just 4 laps. The Doctor was back.

After Rossi bullied his way to get Bridgestones at the end of last season, people started wondering whether the Italian still had his mojo. Rossi's legend was built on being able to compensate for inferior equipment based on sheer riding skill, the last switch Rossi had made being from the utterly dominant Honda RC211V to the ill-fated Yamaha. By demanding Bridgestone tires, it looked like Rossi was tacitly admitting that his talent was waning, and he needed the best equipment to keep on winning. At Shanghai, he'd proved the doubters wrong. The China track favors neither brand of tire, taking rubber out of the equation. But the manner of Rossi's win left no room for questions: passing to get to the front, and pushing until the opposition surrendered.

Cheap Trick

The manner of Rossi's victory also showed the old fox was not too old to learn. In 2007, Rossi had tried to beat Casey Stoner and Dani Pedrosa the way he had beaten Sete Gibernau and Max Biaggi: by sitting on their tail until they got nervous and made a mistake. But Stoner and Pedrosa were entirely impervious to that trick, and just kept their heads down and the throttle open. By the time Rossi realized that they weren't going to make a mistake, his tires were too shot to cope with the extra stress of a hard pass.

At Shanghai, Rossi gave a demonstration of how to beat the likes of Pedrosa and Stoner: get past them early, and push from in front, not behind. Pedrosa eventually capitulated, settling for championship points instead of fighting Rossi for the win. Against Biaggi and Gibernau, Rossi made them afraid of what they couldn't see, and put pressure on from behind. Against Pedrosa today, Rossi made him afraid of what he could see, getting in front of the Spaniard and intimidating him with what he had, putting in a sequence laps each faster than the next. There can be no doubt that The Doctor intends to apply the same treatment to Casey Stoner at the earliest possible opportunity.

Dani Pedrosa crossed the line knowing he'd been beaten, but still satisfied. Pedrosa had scored 20 valuable points in the championship, and pulled out a comfortable lead over his rivals. The Spaniard has a single aim this year: to become world champion, and he conceded the battle, that he might win the war at the end of the season.

But despite being beaten, Pedrosa had put up an almighty fight. He had faced down a Valentino Rossi at the top of his game for 17 laps, and only chosen discretion over valor once it was a safe decision to make. What's more, he'd pushed Rossi hard on a motorcycle which was 8 km/h down on top speed. If he can do that with the steel-spring valve, what will Pedrosa be capable of once the Repsol Honda team get the pneumatic valve engine, which should produce more power and use less fuel? Pedrosa's goal of a world title is looking very realistic indeed.

The Blame Game

The current holder of that crown finished a lonely race 15 seconds behind Rossi. Casey Stoner's 3rd place marked an important upturn after the past two difficult races at Jerez and Estoril, and kept him in contention for the championship. But the Australian's difficulties are starting to take their toll: in Parc Ferme, Stoner was seething, and when interviewed, Stoner immediately complained about his tire, and that he'd been advised to take a different one to the tire he'd used during practice, and that it hadn't worked out. Stoner is known as a frank speaker, but this was a barely concealed public retribution to his team. Even getting on the box couldn't console the Australian: "A podium this far off is just about not worth it," Stoner told the BBC. Casey Stoner needs to start fighting for a win again, for his own peace of mind, if not for his title defense.

The battle for 4th had raged for half the race, with five men battling it out. At first, Marco Melandri looked in control of the position, holding off first Nicky Hayden, then Andrea Dovizioso. But then charging up through the field came the redoubtable Jorge Lorenzo.  From 9th on lap 4, Lorenzo had bided his time, and worked his way forward. By lap 14, he was behind Melandri, and holding 5th ahead of Dovizioso, and on the next lap, he was past and into 4th. With a chipped ankle and fractured bones in his feet, to take 4th in conditions which were far from ideal is a testament to Lorenzo's talent and determination. The Spaniard proved he is talented with the remarkable win at Estoril. At Shanghai, he showed his grit and his mettle. Lorenzo's 4th place in China is possibly even more remarkable than his victory in Portugal.

The Comeback Kid

Marco Melandri had to settle for 5th, but accepting that will not be so hard. So far this season, his time aboard the Ducati has been a vale of tears, with Melandri looking visibly defeated by his inability to ride fast on the bike. But long discussions with Ducati's chief engineer Filippo Preziosi seemed to have helped, and either promises of support, or perhaps just having someone listen to him have turned the situation around for Melandri. Whether this is just an aberration, or whether the Melandri of old really is back and ready to start chasing podiums and wins remains to be seen. But the picture is a lot less bleak today than it was just a few days ago.

Just one position behind, but a good deal less happy, Nicky Hayden came home in 6th. The American is having a far better season than during his ill-fated title defense, the 2008 Honda RC212V a bike much more suited to his style than last year's machine. But Hayden too is frustrated, and feels he should be running closer to the front. Maybe the new engine will give him the final lift he needs.

Colin Edwards came home similarly disappointed in 7th. After his breathtaking pole, and a good start, Edwards was bitter about the braking mistake he'd made on lap 6. If it hadn't been for that, the Texas Tornado could have had a podium, but "if" doesn't count for anything, in sport or in life.

The next man home was another revived Ducati: Toni Elias was finally looking like the Elias of old, and had looked strong all weekend. The changes made in testing after Estoril had worked in China as well. Expect to see more of Elias for the rest of the season.

In 9th, more disappointment for Loris Capirossi. The Italian veteran had been running strong and giving as good as he got in the fight for 5th, until a clutch problem lost him some time. With both Capirossi and Vermeulen suffering the same problem, this is something Suzuki will need to address as soon as possible if they are to get back on the podium.

Shinya Nakano came home in 10th, around the place he's finished in the last two races. Nakano had been much quicker during practice, finishing as high as 4th on Friday afternoon. Practice had showed that Nakano made progress in China, but the rain may have muddied the waters.

Andrea Dovizioso finished a disappointed 11th after losing grip in the latter stages of the race. The Italian put on another great show in the early stages, fighting in the second group, and the points he scored are not at all commensurate with the entertainment he is providing.

James Toseland was less disappointed than his position may suggest, only managing 12th. The reigning World Superbike champion could take a lot of comfort from the weekend. At a track he'd never seen before, Toseland had improved his lap times by at least 0.7 seconds in every session, with the race his weakest performance of the event. At a track which is notoriously difficult to learn, a long lap with a lot of bumpy corners, the Brit stayed on and scored points. In his rookie season, that's all that's expected of him.

The Hollow Men

Randy de Puniet finished an invisible weekend in 13th place. The Frenchman never really got going at Shanghai, and his position showed it.

John Hopkins expected a great deal more from the race at Shanghai. At his 100th Grand Prix, at the track where he scored his first podium, and in front of Kawasaki senior management, Hopper had been optimistic of his chances for the race. But neither of the Kawasakis coped well with the damp conditions, and Hopper made a couple of early mistakes leaving him stranded down the field.

In 15th position, Sylvain Guintoli is at least scoring points, but seeing both Marco Melandri and team mate Toni Elias suddenly finding some pace with the Ducati must be disheartening. The young Frenchman needs to start stealing his team mate's set up, or he may find it hard to find a job next year.

At least Guintoli finished ahead of Alex de Angelis. The Gresini Honda man had a weekend similar to de Puniet's and was as invisible in the race as he was during practice.

Poor Ant West probably wishes he was invisible. The Australian must have prayed for a downpour on Saturday night, and felt cursed that he got it on Sunday morning, only for the track to dry in the afternoon. With rumors abounding that this could be West's last race for the Kawasaki MotoGP team, last place was the last thing he needed.

Resurrection

After being virtually written off from the beginning of the season, in China, the big names of MotoGP showed just why it is that they are such big names. Valentino Rossi stamped his authority on the race in exactly the style we have come to expect of The Doctor, winning with apparent ease. Marco Melandri finally stepped up and was back in the thick of things, rather than trailing round at the back like a spectator. And if Toni Elias had gotten off to a better start, he could have been fighting over 4th place, rather than down in 8th. His lap times were good enough for 6th, once he got going. It just goes to show that 3 races in is way too early to start drawing conclusions.

Yet some conclusions seem obvious: with 4 winners from 4 races, the title seems more open than it has been for a very long time. Casey Stoner, Dani Pedrosa, Jorge Lorenzo and Valentino Rossi all seem capable of winning at will, and there's 3 or 4 other names who could quite easily steal the odd win from the season yet.

But the biggest lesson to be drawn from the Shanghai round of MotoGP is that The Doctor is back in business. He finally had a tire and a setup which lasted all race, and allowed him to push from start to finish. After just 4 races on Bridgestones, he is winning again, and winning convincingly. Just how much the victory meant was clear on the parade lap, as Rossi stopped at almost every corner, to take the congratulations of photographers, corner workers, everyone in MotoGP. More significantly, Rossi got off his bike, and gave it a kiss and a pat, something he last did when he won in South Africa, on his first outing on the Yamaha M1. Rossi is gelling again with his Yamaha, and when The Doctor achieves that unity of man and machine, it is truly a thing of dread and wonder. It's going to be a long, hard and exciting season.

Full result of the Grand Prix of China at Shanghai

MotoGP championship standings after Shanghai

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2008 Shanghai MotoGP Preview - Beauty And The Beast

The Shanghai International Circuit is a strange place. It is, to paraphrase Dickens, the best of tracks and the worst of tracks. For like so much of the building going on due to China's rise as a global superpower, the facilities are quite simply remarkable. The pit garages are spacious and clean, the paddock buildings are beautifully laid out, complete with garden and water village, and the press room looks like it could be used by NASA to monitor space shuttle flights. The trackside facilities truly are second to none.

Before they can enter this oasis of luxury, however, they must first wrestle through the Great Wall of red tape required to ensure that their bikes and supporting equipment actually get into the country and to the racetrack on time. The problem is worse this year, with the Chinese authorities tightening up security for the Olympics, especially after the Olympic torch relay turned into a mass protest against China's active role in Tibet and her passive role in Darfur in Sudan. Beijing's fear of protests inside the country has turned what used to be a bureaucratic headache into a complete nightmare.

Once through China's Kafkaesque customs procedures, things don't improve much. The layout of the track is absolutely dire: Two vast straights, 1.2 kilometers and 1 kilometer in length, with a few squiggles to join the straights together, all meant to resemble  the Chinese character "Shang", meaning "High" or "Above", which forms part of Shanghai's name. The problem is that the simple strokes of the Shang character, resembling an upside-down capital T with a short stroke to the right halfway up the stem of the T, plus small serif-like embellishments on the top and the right of the character, do not translate at all easily to the requirements of a racetrack, which is to all intents and purposes a circle which has been deformed in any number of interesting ways.

Four Wheels Good, Two Wheels Bad

Added to the uncooperative nature of its basic shape was the fact that the track was designed to host Formula 1 in China. The requirements of Formula 1 and motorcycle racing are mostly diametrically opposed: Formula 1 cars require wide tracks with long straights for passing at speed, with sharp turns at the end to allow cars to outbrake each other. Motorcycles, on the other hand, are much narrow and more agile, and as a result it's possible to pass through the middle of corners, as well as along the straights or in the braking zone. The best motorcycle tracks, such as Assen and Mugello, feature combinations of bends with several lines through them, giving riders a choice of places to attack, and to make their pass, while simultaneously opening themselves up to counterattack once they've made their move. Shanghai is not one of those tracks.

And yet there are places which offer some entertainment. At the end of the start and finish straight, Turns 1 and 2 are basically a single right hander closing up through almost 270 degrees. Turn 3 follows, a left-hand hairpin, offering a chance to dive up the inside if you can hold the wider line out of Turn 2. The left-right combination of Turns 7 and 8 also flows more naturally, leading on to the double left of Turns 9 and 10, the first real chance to attack. But if you get past here, you can often find yourself getting off the corner more slowly for the short drag up to Turn 11, and will see the rider you just passed coming back past you as you brake for the tight left of Turn 11, before the long right hander of Turns 12 and 13. This is perhaps the best corner on the circuit, with the track wide enough to offer a number of lines onto the back straight.

The interest awakened at Turn 13 quickly peters out, however, as the riders then hammer down the interminable straight, where racing comes back to its most primitive form, horsepower and aerodynamics. Differences in bike speed are doubly emphasized here, as not only do the bikes reach their top speeds, but they spend longer at them, so a faster bike is not just faster, it's also faster for longer, gaining valuable tenths of a second on every lap. At the end of the straight is another very sharp hairpin, where little ground can be gained, before a short hop back to the final corner, a fast left hander taking you back onto the front straight, this one nearly as fast as the back straight.

The Lessons Of History

Just how important those straights are was demonstrated last year. Valentino Rossi proved his mastery of the Shanghai track by setting a pole time 6/10ths faster than the previous record set on the old 990cc bikes, and nearly a second faster than John Hopkins, the next man on the grid. But in the race, any advantage the Italian managed to pull out through the slow and tortuous section between the two long straights using the sweet handling of his Yamaha M1 would be obliterated down the front and back straights by the sheer top speed of Casey Stoner's Ducati. No slipstreaming involved, Stoner could simply open up the taps on his fearsome GP7 and literally blow by Rossi on his underpowered Yamaha. The 2007 MotoGP race at Shanghai made it painfully clear that Yamaha and Honda had got the new 800 class painfully wrong, and that the team at Ducati had got it just right.

This year, though, Casey Stoner won't have it so easy. Last year, the magical combination of Stoner's unrelenting talent, the Ducati's terrifying speed, and the brilliance of Bridgestone's tires meant that Stoner was almost impossible to beat in China. This year, though the Ducati is as fast as ever and Stoner's talent is undeniably still intact, the rest of the field has caught up. The Ducati is still the fastest bike on the grid, but now, both Honda and Yamaha are within a couple of kilometers an hour, rather than the dozen or so their deficit was last year.

Horses For Courses

So Stoner will have to overcome the Ducati's weak point at Shanghai, and bully the Bologna Bullet through the slow sections in a position to get onto the straights ahead of his competition. If he can keep up with the Yamahas and Hondas from Turn 2 to Turn 13, then he can still exploit the Ducati's top speed down the straights to pull off a victory. Currently just 4th in the championship, he needs a win to get his title defense back on track.

And Shanghai may just be kind to the other Ducatis as well. Marco Melandri, Toni Elias and Sylvain Guintoli are all suffering their worst seasons in the class and are a constant fixture at the back of the field. But with a couple of long straights to aid their cause, they could add a couple of satellite Hondas to the Kawasaki of Ant West they usually manage to keep behind them, and start scoring some substantial points.

For Melandri in particular, this weekend could be crucial. He has already written on his personal website that he feels like a "luxury spectator" aboard the Ducati. If he feels he is able to fight for positions in China, it might just give him the confidence boost he needs to step up his game again.

The fate of the Ducati provides an interesting counterpoint to the development of the Yamaha M1. The philosophy behind the Ducati was to make the bike as fast as possible, and let the rider figure out the corners. Yamaha, on the other hand, believed agility was the key, and focused on making the bike as maneuverable as possible. In 2007, they were short of top speed, but in 2008, they've got plenty, which complements the bike's handling to make it the best bike currently on the grid, as witnessed by the Yamahas consistently managing to get 3 bikes into the top 6 at every round of racing so far.

Be Careful What You Ask For

While this is just what Valentino Rossi asked for, he is currently still being hampered by the other thing he asked for, the switch to Bridgestone tires. Rossi and his crew are still working out how to get the best out of the Japanese rubber, and being the only Yamaha on Bridgestones isn't making their job any easier. But coming off two podiums in a row, and at a track he is incredibly strong at, The Doctor has got to be the hot favorite for victory in China.

If it wasn't for an operation to fix a problem with arm pump, that honor would probably go to Rossi's ostensible team mate, Jorge Lorenzo. Lorenzo's entry into MotoGP has been nothing short of meteoric, taking three poles and three podiums in his first three races. As if that wasn't impressive enough, the flamboyant Spaniard backed it up with a win at the last race in Portugal, taken in deeply impressive style. In a recent interview, Lorenzo told AS.com that he wasn't yet 100% fit. The closer he is to full fitness, the higher up the podium that Porfuera is likely to finish.

The one thing that may interfere with Lorenzo's podium hopes could be the Yamaha Tech 3 team. Now that both Colin Edwards and James Toseland have the pneumatic valve engine, the Tech 3 riders have plenty of speed along the straights. And with Edwards already having been on the podium here in 2006, the Texan could easily feature at the front on Sunday. Now liberated from his role as testing workhorse for his former team mate Valentino Rossi, Edwards is starting to enjoy racing again, and it shows. Colin Edwards is starting to look like the former World Superbike Champion that he is.

Being pushed by the reigning World Superbike Champion is helping Edwards. If it wasn't for Jorge Lorenzo, James Toseland is the rookie we would all be talking about. Many people doubted Toseland's decision to leave Honda and Superbikes and join the Tech 3 Yamaha MotoGP team, but so far, it has turned out to be a stroke of brilliance. The British hopeful has been extremely impressive aboard the Yamaha so far, hampered mostly by his lack of track knowledge at Estoril, and to a lesser extent, Jerez. With Shanghai another circuit that Toseland hasn't seen before, he will have to learn quickly once again. Currently 5th in the championship, he's proved he is up to that task.

The Honda Lane

Where Yamaha have already solved their top speed problem, Honda are still struggling. Extra horsepower is proving very hard to find from the current conventional steel spring valve version of the Honda RC212V powerplant, and both Dani Pedrosa and Nicky Hayden are desperate to start running the pneumatic valve engine which HRC are still in the midst of developing. After telling the press that the air valve engine wouldn't make an appearance until the Le Mans MotoGP race in two weeks' time, rumors have surfaced that Honda will be bringing a set of pneumatic engines to the Shanghai race, to address the speed deficit down the Chinese track's endless straights.

If this turns out to be true, and the new bike proves to be both fast and reliable enough during the early practice sessions, it could make the already tense atmosphere inside the Repsol Honda garage even more difficult. Unless HRC supply both Nicky Hayden and Dani Pedrosa with enough engines and frames to field two bikes during the race, the Repsol team could once again be forced to choose which of the riders to favor with the new bikes. This is precisely what happened at Qatar, where Pedrosa raced the new 2008 steel spring bike, while Hayden was forced to make do with the 2007/2008 hybrid they had been using up to that point.

Whether Dani Pedrosa can defend his joint lead in the championship is likely to depend on whether he gets the new engine or not. Although the 2008 RC212V is no slouch, the Honda keeps coming up just a little bit short on top speed. With two long straights to contend with, the engine will be pushed to its limit to keep up, creating problems with both speed and reliability. Pedrosa has already won here, getting his maiden victory in MotoGP back in 2006, and if his bike is fast enough and stays in one piece, he is sure to be a candidate for the podium.

Pedrosa's team mate, Nicky Hayden, will be even more grimly determined to get back on the podium in China. The American has been getting faster at every event, partly through sheer willpower. The risks inherent in such a strategy were demonstrated by Hayden's crash at Estoril, where the American lost the front by pushing too hard to try and catch the leading group. The Kentucky Kid is likely to be pushing at least as hard in China, but he could perhaps be a little more wary this weekend. At the last two AMA Superbike events, his brothers Roger Lee and Tommy Hayden have both suffered serious crashes, with Roger Lee losing part of a finger, and Tommy badly dislocating his ankle, requiring surgery to relocate it. While Hayden may be tempted to adopt a "rostrum or hospital" attitude, the fate of his brothers may make him fear the hospital a little more than usual.

Second Class Ticket

While the promise of extra speed is on offer for the factory Honda riders, the satellite men are left to grin and bear their horsepower shortage. Only the 2007 spec Honda's outstanding agility is keeping the satellite bikes from the bottom of the results sheet, while they await uprated chassis and engines with more power. The most impressive of the satellite Hondas has been Andrea Dovizioso, well used to pushing an underpowered Honda against superior machinery from racing 250s last year. He battled hard with Alvaro Bautista to take 2nd in the 250 race last year, despite his woefully underpowered bike. Although another 2nd place is unlikely in the extreme given the level of competition, if any of the satellite Hondas can manage to run with the front 5 or 6 at Shanghai, it will be Andrea Dovizioso.

The Honda riders aren't the only people waiting for a new engine. The Kawasaki men are also hoping that the new screamer engine will be available soon, as the screamer should give them more acceleration out of corners, and a little more top speed. But sadly for John Hopkins and Ant West, the bike doesn't look like it will make an appearance until much later in the year, as the engine is still a long way from being race ready.

That leaves John Hopkins to fall back on his considerable racing skills. Shanghai is the place where Hopper finally scored his first podium, taking a 3rd place here last year, after a 6 year wait. Hopper's podium came on top of his 4th place here in 2006, so if there is one track where Hopkins can do well, this is definitely it. Now almost fully recovered from his groin injury from preseason testing, and about to start his 100th Grand Prix, there can be no doubting  Hopkins motivation to be as near the front as possible in China.

Of course, Hopper's excellent results at Shanghai were set aboard a Suzuki, rather than the Kawasaki he is now on, and Suzuki will be keen to prove they were at least partly responsible for the American's success in China. But Chris Vermeulen and Loris Capirossi come to Shanghai with a rather fractious history. Last year, Vermeulen and Capirossi came together during qualifying, badly injuring Vermeulen's foot. Then, the two men battled it out for 6th place all race long. With 6th the best result of Suzuki's year so far, the 2008 bike yet to deliver on the 2007 machine's promise, Suzuki would be glad of a repeat performance this year.

Nature's Wildcard

There may yet be an answer to Suzuki's prayers. The weather forecast for the weekend at Shanghai shows a 40% chance of rain on Sunday, which could shake the entire field up. Vermeulen has already won one race in the rain, taking the French Grand Prix at Le Mans in a downpour last year, and Ant West, who has had such a dreadful time in the dry, could show some of his wet-weather genius to run at the front. And with rain making horsepower less important, the Hondas then also come into contention. Even the Ducatis could benefit, with rain allowing the satellite men to run a softer engine mapping making the bike much easier to ride. Although a dry race would allow the race to be a true measure of strength between Stoner, Rossi, Lorenzo and Pedrosa, a wet race could turn up a few very interesting and entertaining surprises.

Chinese Whispers

But before the race can commence, there are a few more potentially fatal hurdles to leap. Several riders mentioned the situation in Tibet at the Estoril race, with Loris Capirossi commenting that he'd like to show his support for the Tibetan cause at the race in Shanghai. With the Chinese authorities currently at a high state of alert over any signs of dissent, and promises of a harsh crackdown on anyone displaying the Tibetan flag during the Olympics, the race could be fraught with peril. If any of the riders wear Tibetan flags or Tibet's traditional orange on the grid before the race - the logical time and place to do so, with the eyes of the world upon them - the question is whether the authorities will step in and act.

With this year almost certain to be the final visit that MotoGP pays to Shanghai, thanks to a lack of interest from either local business or local spectators, the Chinese government may feel they have nothing to lose by making an example of the MotoGP athletes, and either hauling them off the grid or even canceling the race altogether, to discourage any athletes tempted to do the same thing at the Beijing Olympics in the summer. However unlikely the scenario, we won't know whether the race will actually be run until the bikes roar off the line on Sunday. While the track may lack excitement, the 2008 Grand Prix of China certainly won't.

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2008 Estoril MotoGP Race Report - Grudge Match

The winner's circle, or parc fermé as it's known to MotoGP insiders, is a place as mysterious as it is magical. At the end of a long hard race, after they've just given their all for the past 45 minutes, the first three riders to cross the finish line are escorted to a separate roped-off section of pit lane. Here, they park their bikes in a specially preordained order, receive the congratulations and plaudits of their teams, give interviews to various TV companies, and wait to make their way to the podium. Parc fermé is the one place which every motorcycle racer hopes to be as he sits on the grid waiting for the flag to drop.

But if a MotoGP rider is skilled enough to be finish in the top three, any romantic notions they may have had about the atmosphere in parc fermé are quickly dispelled. For the fact is that the winners' circle is a much more complicated place than it seems at first glance.  After all, the lucky souls who roll their bikes in there have just spent the previous 70-odd miles doing everything within their power to defeat the other occupants of that hallowed piece of tarmac as thoroughly as possible. And to achieve that goal, they may have engaged in some forceful and sometimes downright dangerous moves, applied intense psychological pressure, or attempted to scare the others into making a lapse of concentration.

And as if this wasn't bad enough, the riders who make it into parc fermé are usually the same riders who are chasing the title, which means that not only have they just spent this Sunday trying to beat each other into submission, but they probably did the same thing the last weekend, and the weekend before that. These men are often deadly rivals, engaged in a battle which for most of them is even more important than life and death.

So when a rider's skill, luck and machinery finally collide to allow him to enter parc fermé for the first time, what greets him is a strange and vaguely sinister mixture of elation, frustration, hatred and despair. If you're lucky enough to win, the overwhelming emotion is one of sheer joy, and there are few experiences greater than to share this joy with your team, who have worked just as hard as you have to get you there. But if you weren't the first person across the line, then the feelings can be very much more mixed: joy at a good result, certainly, especially if you were able to put some points between yourself and a title rival. But also regret at a small mistake you may have made which allowed the people who beat you to get ahead or get away; anger, at yourself or at your team, for bike setup changes which didn't work, or tires or parts which didn't perform as expected; anger also at the riders who beat you, for harsh passes and dangerous moves, either real or imagined; resentment, too, at the winner, for having the temerity to beat you and take the trophy which you feel rightfully belongs to you, for all your hard work; and sometimes even a sense of awkwardness, as you are forced to share the space - and tiptoe around - riders who you may feel genuine hatred for, after incident upon incident has piled up between you, reinforcing your mutual dislike.

The Hate Zone

The previous two MotoGP races have been perfect illustrations of the point. At Qatar, there was Casey Stoner's obvious joy at getting his title defense off to the best possible start, Dani Pedrosa's pleasure at taking third, and Jorge Lorenzo's joy at getting on the podium in his first MotoGP race. And at Jerez there was Dani Pedrosa's delight at winning in front of an ecstatic home crowd, and Valentino Rossi's pleasure at being able to compete for wins once again.

But both podiums also showed their darker side. Pedrosa may have been pleased to take 3rd in Qatar, but he was not at all happy to be sharing the podium with Lorenzo, a man he hates with a passion. And at Jerez, it was Lorenzo's turn to show his displeasure, seemingly angry at finishing only 3rd in front of his home crowd. The situation was only highlighted by the King of Spain, present to hand out the trophies, forcing the two rivals to shake hands, a gesture which Pedrosa underwent as if having a tooth extracted.

So with Jorge Lorenzo on pole, after setting a truly stunning time during Saturday's qualifying practice, with Dani Pedrosa beside him on the grid, and feared to be nigh on unstoppable if the tiny Spaniard managed to make a break from the start, there was every chance that the podium ceremony at Estoril could end up more resembling Classical Greek tragedy than a formality for distributing silverware. There had already been a dress rehearsal during the low-calorie version of parc fermé put on after qualifying, with Lorenzo and Pedrosa, numbers 1 and 2 on the grid, studiously ignoring each other, while Valentino Rossi, the last man on the front row, looked on in bemusement. If the two Spaniards managed to end up on the podium together, then the atmosphere in parc fermé after the race would be anything but pleasant.

Of course, the podium isn't a place they hand out season tickets for, and results from the past are no guarantee of admittance to the secure confines of parc fermé. First, there was a race to win, and Lorenzo and Pedrosa faced 16 opponents with a hunger for glory which matched their own. What's more, Estoril's notoriously unreliable weather was playing up, with spots of rain starting to appear on visors and cameras. The two Spanish youngsters were almost unbeatable in the dry, but during the two wet sessions, they had been well down the running order.

Panic Stations

As if the threatening rain hadn't made the situation tense enough, as the starter held the bikes on the line, panic broke out on the third row of the grid. As Casey Stoner rolled up to the grid to take his spot at the end of the third row, he found it already occupied. In his eagerness to fight his way forward from 12th position on the grid, Loris Capirossi had accidentally lined up a row further forward than he had qualified. Stoner tried gesturing to race direction, but then quickly solved the problem by tapping Capirossi on the shoulder. The Italian veteran immediately realized his mistake, and both men leapt off their bikes to manhandle their machines to their proper starting positions.

For Casey Stoner, it was just another item to add to the list of misfortunes the reigning champion had suffered at Estoril. Only in cold and damp conditions had we seen any of Stoner's former dominance return. Once the track dried, the Australian was in trouble, suffering simple crashes and his Ducati GP8 constantly threatening to get completely out of control. It had been a long weekend so far, and Stoner's bitter cup was not yet empty.

With the grid now correctly formed, all eyes were on the starting lights, and on Turn 1 beyond.  With rain spotting visors, and grip unknown, would all 18 men be able to fit through the tight right hander of Turn 1? The question did not linger long, for moments later, the lights dimmed and the bikes howled off the line to settle the matter for good.

Holeshot

The battle of Spanish pride commenced almost immediately, with Dani Pedrosa landing the first blow, firing off the line as he now seems to at every race. Pedrosa had just got the drop on Valentino Rossi, who had edged out Jorge Lorenzo into the first turn. Lorenzo was in peril of losing yet another place to Pedrosa's Repsol Honda team mate Nicky Hayden, but Hayden had the outside line at Turn 1, and as they flicked left to head towards Turn 2, Lorenzo had the better line, and was back up to 3rd.

Hayden's choice of line into the first corner would cost him more dearly yet. Andrea Dovizioso had also gotten a fantastic start, and had forced his way level with Hayden and Tech 3 Yamaha's Colin Edwards into Turn 1. As the three of them picked their bikes up out of the right hander, Dovizioso followed Lorenzo's lead, and stuffed his Team Scot Honda ahead of Hayden and into 4th.

At the front, the lesson of Jerez was still fresh in Valentino Rossi's mind. The Doctor knew he could not allow Dani Pedrosa to lead from the front, as with a clear track ahead of him, the Repsol Honda man would be almost impossible to catch. So Rossi lined the Spaniard up out of Turn 2, and as they dropped down the hill towards Turn 3, the Italian barged his Fiat Yamaha up the inside of Pedrosa and into the lead.

A move that forceful has a price, and Rossi looked right to find another Fiat Yamaha inside his own, team mate Jorge Lorenzo having taken advantage of the squabble for 1st. But Rossi is a multiple winner at Estoril, and knew he only had to hold his line to get back inside Lorenzo into the next left hander of Turn 4. Two can play at that game, though, and Lorenzo held his own line out of Turn 4, and getting hard on the gas, was perfectly placed to snatch back the lead as the bikes heeled over right for the fast kink of Turn 5. The lead was settled, at least for now.

Behind Rossi, Andrea Dovizioso was on a charge. As the bikes got hard on the brakes for Turn 6, the Italian rookie forced his satellite Honda inside of Dani Pedrosa's factory machine to grab 3rd, and close on Rossi. Dovizioso wasn't the only worry which Pedrosa had, as once the Team Scot Honda was past, John Hopkins was almost upon the Spaniard, with Nicky Hayden and Colin Edwards in hot pursuit. But Hopper couldn't capitalize on his position, and as they raced around Orelha and towards Turn 8 and then the chicane, the American had to let Pedrosa go.

As the pack rounded the long fast right, speed building to fire onto the front straight, Valentino Rossi made it eminently clear just how badly he wanted to lead. Parked almost on his team mate's tailpiece and gaining, Rossi was forced to take the outside line, running over the kerbs and then kicking up dust from the edge of the track. With nowhere left to go, he lost his momentum, and snicked back into Lorenzo's draft. Rossi's pursuit of his team mate found an echo behind, with Dani Pedrosa hitting the draft of fellow Honda rider Dovizioso. As the front four headed down towards the braking zone for Turn 1, both Rossi and Pedrosa pulled out of the draft in a synchronized passing attempt. But all attempts at coordination ended there. Rossi is a much stronger braker than Pedrosa, so while The Doctor surged ahead of Lorenzo's Michelin-shod Yamaha to take the lead, Pedrosa could not follow suit, and Dovizioso held onto 3rd, leaving Pedrosa to stew in 4th.

Making A Break

The front four had the beginnings of a gap. Hopkins ran alone in 5th, while more empty space separated Hopper's Kawasaki from Colin Edwards and Nicky Hayden. Another gap separated Suzuki's Chris Vermeulen, with Casey Stoner the Ducati filling between Vermeulen and Loris Capirossi.

Despite the rain spotting the occasional camera lens, the pace the MotoGP bikes were hitting made it clear there was no lack of grip. But with dark clouds closing on the track, race direction made a quick decision and had the white rain flags waved, indicating that if they wished, the riders could enter the pits and swap their slick-shod machines set up for racing in the dry for more softly-sprung bikes with intermediate or wet tires. A cautious, and, it turned out, premature decision, for though the declaration of a wet race sparked a surge of activity in the pits, with mechanics rushing to change tires and suspension settings on the spare bikes, any real rain never materialized. The weather confined itself to a scattering a drops around the track, just enough to keep everyone on their toes, but not put them on the floor.

The race officials may have been waving white flags, but out on the track nobody was thinking of surrender. The front four were welded together, with barely a sliver of daylight between them. They headed back towards the front straight for the second time, with Rossi pulling a hint of a gap from Lorenzo, and Dovizioso fending off Pedrosa behind. Where Pedrosa had failed at the end of lap 1, he succeeded as lap 2 ended and lap 3 commenced. Using the extra speed of his factory Honda, he pulled out of Dovizioso's draft, and was up into 3rd into Turn 1.

For the next 6 laps, Rossi, Lorenzo, Pedrosa and Dovizioso were perfectly evenly matched. Each was strong in a different part of the track, and the gap between the group was never more than 0.7 seconds. At  times it looked like Valentino Rossi was creeping away, but half a lap later, the following threesome would be back with him. Each time the group sped down the front straight, the better drive Pedrosa was getting out of the Parabolica allowed him to try and whip out of Lorenzo's draft and into 2nd, but each time, Lorenzo held him without too much effort. Down the back straight, Andrea Dovizioso would creep closer to Pedrosa, and try to dive up the inside into Turn 6 on the brakes, but each lap, Dovi couldn't quite get close enough to hit the turn ahead of Pedrosa. For the moment, the front four were stuck where they were.

American Chase

Behind the two Yamahas and two Hondas, the Kawasaki of John Hopkins followed. On occasion, Hopper looked as if he might catch the front four, but try as he might, they were just out of reach. Running virtually the same pace as the leaders, Hopkins was starting to drop the riders behind.

The first of the followers were Colin Edwards and Nicky Hayden. A second down on Hopper's Kawasaki, they were the only other riders on the same pace as the leaders. Though they were just out of touch with the men ahead of them, they were not being dropped completely. If the two Americans could hang on and step up the pace, they could reel in the front group and maybe even contend for the podium itself.

Edwards and Hayden were the last of the pack to match the leaders' speed. By the end of lap 3, Hayden had a 2 second lead over 8th place man Chris Vermeulen, who headed up a pack of 6, with the Suzuki rider battling it out with Casey Stoner, Tech 3 Yamaha's James Toseland, Vermeulen's team mate Loris Capirossi, the Gresini Honda of Shinya Nakano and Randy de Puniet on the LCR Honda. Places were no sinecure, positions swapping on almost every lap.

Once Casey Stoner got past Chris Vermeulen, it looked like the reigning champion could be ready to force his way back to the front, as he had done at Qatar and attempted to do at Jerez, but though he could pass Vermeulen, he could not escape. But just as it looked like Stoner's weekend was starting to improve, ill fortune struck the Australian again. First, Vermeulen struck back to take 8th again, and then James Toseland followed, pushing Stoner down into 10th. Then, an electronic control box, part of the on-board camera and GPS system supplied and maintained by Dorna for the TV feeds, broke free of its velcro moorings and started dangerously flapping about the Ducati's steering head and clutch, occasionally interfering with the clutch and, what's worse, with the steering lock. It was exactly the kind of distraction the world champion didn't need at his worst weekend of the year.

Back at the front, the foursome, lonesome and twosome were showing the first signs of coagulating into a big group of 7. Edwards and Hayden were starting to catch John Hopkins, and the front four had stopped opening a gap. On lap 10, a mistake by Hopper allowed his two compatriots past, and the Texas Tornado and the Kentucky Kid were off to chase the Italians and Spaniards leading the race.

On lap 11, Pedrosa's drafting practice on Lorenzo finally paid off. Pulling out from behind Lorenzo with just a fraction more speed, the Repsol Honda man finally managed to outbrake Lorenzo into Turn 1, and into 2nd. Forced down to 3rd by his arch rival, Lorenzo remained surprisingly calm. Over the next two laps, Pedrosa closed the gap on Rossi, whose lap times were starting to plateau, while others dropped. Lorenzo simply clamped onto Pedrosa's back wheel, and let the Honda man do all the work of closing the gap. The leading trio crossed the line with just 2/10ths of a second between them, an almost continuous blur.

The Move

Now Lorenzo was ready to make his move. First up was Pedrosa, and Lorenzo returned the compliment of Pedrosa's pass two laps earlier, pulling out of the draft and ahead into Turn 1. One down, one to go, but Valentino Rossi is easy meat for no man. Easy or not, Lorenzo stalked Rossi round the back of the circuit, closing through the double rights of Orelha and Turn 8, before putting a tough and impudent pass up the inside of Turn 9, and into the lead at the chicane. If Rossi ever had any delusions of being treated with deference by his young team mate, they were now brutally shattered. At a track infamous for risky passes among team mates, Lorenzo had just added another perfect example.

If there is to be any criticism of Lorenzo's pass, it can be only this: Lorenzo's nickname is "Porfuera," Spanish for "round the outside," a pass he regards as his signature move. Jamming your Fiat Yamaha up the inside of your illustrious team mate is the very antithesis of the smooth, sweeping outside pass. The only thing they have in common is the enormous degree of self-confidence they require to carry them off. Lorenzo has self-confidence by the truckload, and on the basis of this pass alone, it is entirely justified.

Lorenzo's pass on Rossi also revealed something important about the Italian: Rossi was now the slowest of the front four. On lap 14, Lorenzo put 3/10ths of a second on Rossi, while The Doctor was dealing with Pedrosa's attentions from behind. Rossi's defense of 2nd lasted just shy of 2 laps. He fended off Pedrosa's first attack, in the braking zone for Turn 1, with relative ease. But as the group rounded Turn 6, Pedrosa was ready. He fired out of the double apex left to grab the right-hand line, getting inside Rossi for the next right hander at Orelha. Rossi was left with nowhere to go, and was forced to console himself with 3rd place.

With a clear run at Lorenzo ahead of him, Dani Pedrosa settled in to chase down the young upstart who dared challenge for Spanish supremacy. Pedrosa led the contest so far, his win at Jerez trumping Lorenzo's 2nd place at Qatar, and was not willing to concede defeat here. With 13 laps left to go, he could afford to bide his time.

Luck On His Side

Force to let first Lorenzo, then Pedrosa past, Valentino Rossi now had more trouble approaching from behind. The final member of the front four had now latched onto Rossi's tail, and Andrea Dovizioso still had the sweet memories of his last lap pass on The Doctor at Qatar. If he'd done it once, he could do it again, the Italian rookie reasoned, and Dovi pushed his Team Scot Honda on, to catch and try to pass Rossi. His enthusiasm would not be rewarded. On the next lap, as Dovizioso closed on Rossi, he pushed too heard into the tricky right hander of Orelha, and found himself in the gravel, rather than on the podium.

Youthful exuberance had spared Rossi once, but he would need something a little bit stronger over the next few laps. Nicky Hayden had passed Colin Edwards, and with clear track ahead of him, was starting to lap faster than anyone bar the leader, Jorge Lorenzo. Just over 2 seconds down on Rossi, the former world champion had grown weary of being off the podium, his last visit dating from the Brno race nearly 8 months ago, and was pushing to get back on the box. As he closed on Rossi, he pushed too hard, losing the front at Orelha, the same spot as Dovizioso. With Hayden out of the race, Rossi had a comfortable buffer of 5 seconds back to Edwards. A podium looked secure.

The pressure from behind having disappeared almost by magic, Rossi could concentrate on hanging on to the two leaders ahead. Lorenzo had now wicked up the pace, and Pedrosa was giving his all to try and follow. But the laps which Rossi had spent leading, and the steep learning curve Rossi and his crew are still on with the Bridgestone tires were starting to take their toll. Rossi stepped up the pace for one more lap, before having to let the two Spaniards go.

Showdown

It was now a straight fight between Lorenzo and Pedrosa. With Lorenzo now the only impediment on the track, Pedrosa was quietly confident, and settled down to run as fast and smooth as possible, hoping to reel his bitter rival in, if not by speed, then at least by endurance, once Lorenzo started suffering the arm pump which has plagued his early races on the MotoGP bike.

Pedrosa waited in vain. Lorenzo pulled out fractions of a second, for lap after lap, his pace barely faltering. Towards the end of the race, Lorenzo's lap times started to rise, but to underline his superiority, the reigning 250 champion ran his second fastest lap of the race on the final lap. With that final, defiant lap, Jorge Lorenzo proved to the world that he is a very special talent indeed. To take a win in only his third MotoGP race, after claiming three pole positions in a row, as well as taking the fastest lap of the race at Estoril is a feat impressive beyond words. Yamaha may have gambled on signing Jorge Lorenzo as Valentino Rossi's replacement, but so far, their gamble is paying off handsomely.

Lorenzoland

Part of the terms of Lorenzo's contract with Yamaha stipulated that he toned down some of his post-race celebrations. Lorenzo had already elected to wear his red helmet, rather than the garish gold number he usually sports during the race, but a race win is a race win, and in traditional Lorenzo style, the Spanish rookie planted his Lorenzoland flag in the gravel, claiming the track at his own. You may argue with his taste, and his sense of decorum, but after dominating at a track he has traditionally done poorly at, it is hard to deny his Lorenzo's claim to the circuit.

How Dani Pedrosa felt about the entire episode was made crystal clear as he crossed the line in 2nd place. The Spaniard punched his tank in anger, frustrated to have lost, but most of all, to have lost to Lorenzo. There is no worse fate that Pedrosa could suffer on a Sunday, and Lorenzo taking Pedrosa's place atop the championship standings just rubbed salt into the wounds.

After the race, Pedrosa put his defeat down to the wrong choice of gearing. His team had expected a stronger headwind down the front straight, and had elected to run a lower top gear, leaving Pedrosa a fraction short of top speed down the straight, and spending a little too much time on the rev limiter. But even with more outright speed, it is questionable with Pedrosa could have beaten the Jorge Lorenzo who rolled onto the grid on Sunday. If it is even possible, the rivalry between the two Spaniards just got even more intense.

Valentino Rossi settled for 3rd, over 12 seconds behind Lorenzo. Rossi's preseason demand that Yamaha build a competitive motorcycle has been fulfilled, witness the fact that Yamaha is leading the individual, manufacturers and team championships. But a 5th, a 2nd and a 3rd is not what The Doctor wishes to be finishing, and the way his tires faded in the second half of the race leaves Rossi and his team some work to do in adapting to the Bridgestones. The good news is, at every race, the team learn more.

Another Yamaha finished in 4th, behind Rossi, Colin Edwards taking advantage of the pneumatic valve engine in his Tech 3 M1 at Estoril. From last year's laughing stock, Tech 3 have been transformed into this year's heroes, and Colin Edwards is inching closer to that elusive first win in MotoGP, which will allow the Texan to retire to the AMA with a clear conscience. At Le Mans, or Laguna Seca, Edwards could well spring a surprise.

John Hopkins ended Kawasaki's early season misery by finishing 5th, and looking capable of running at the front for the first half of the race. Hopper is still in some pain from the groin injury the American suffered in preseason testing, but both the Kawasaki and Hopkins are getting stronger every round.

The Fast And The Furious

In 6th place came a furious Casey Stoner. The world champion had struggled with the flailing box of Dorna electronics all race, forced to stuff the box back inside the fairing at close to 200 mph down the front straight every lap. And a 6th place, after the disastrous 11th spot at Jerez, is not much consolation for the man defending his world title. But at second glance, this 6th place is a pretty strong showing, after Stoner and the Ducati team struggled with grip all weekend. And despite the dangling electronics box, Stoner had fought his way through the field in a race long battle with Toseland, Vermeulen and de Puniet. A 6th place may only be worth 10 points in the title race, but getting a 6th on a weekend when everything is against you is just the kind of performance that championships are built on.

James Toseland finished 7th, another strong showing from the rookie who had never raced at Estoril before. Toseland's lack of experience had cost him dearly in the early laps, as he was uncertain just how much grip the Michelin slicks would provide in the light drizzle which spotted the track from time to time. The answer was as much as if it were dry, but once Toseland realized this, he had already lost too much time, and was left slugging it out in the pack behind the leaders. But Toseland's 7th place meant that all 4 Yamahas finished in the top 7. Proof, if any were needed, that Yamaha got its sums right over the winter.

Behind Toseland, the two Suzukis finished 8th and 9th, Chris Vermeulen finishing ahead of Loris Capirossi. Both men had been caught up in the mid-pack skirmish which had raged for much of the race, with Capirossi the first to lose touch at half distance. Suzuki still haven't found the form they had in early 2007, and continue to experiment with the aerodynamics package from last year. With the next MotoGP race being at Shanghai, where John Hopkins got on the podium last year, they will hope to have something to offer in China.

The Suzuki team headed up the Gresini Honda team, with Shinya Nakano not far off Capirossi in 10th. Team mate and rookie Alex de Angelis was nearly 20 seconds behind Nakano, but managed a brave finish, despite suffering with severe tonsillitis and the 'flu.

Desmosedici Despair

Behind Gresini, the current state of Ducati's misery was made evident. Toni Elias was the second Ducati home, taking 12th on the Alice satellite bike. A further 6 seconds behind Elias, Marco Melandri just held off Sylvain Guintoli to avoid the ignominy of being last Ducati home on the factory machine. With the remaining Ducatis finishing over a minute behind the winner, and 35 seconds behind Casey Stoner, there is clearly something wrong with the bike. Even the head of Ducati's MotoGP project Livio Suppo has started to acknowledge the problems, and told the Italian press that he is considering drafting in Troy Bayliss and Max Biaggi to test the bike, and try to fix its problems.

While question marks hang over the Ducati, there is very little wrong with the Honda. Except, that is, when Randy de Puniet persists in his unfortunate habit of throwing his satellite-spec Honda RC212V into the gravel. The Frenchman was lucky this time, and could remount, and continue the race. But he must be costing Team LCR a fortune in parts, and needs to stay on board and score some serious points.

If the Ducatis are suffering, they can take some small comfort in the misery of Ant West. Since arriving on a high at Kawasaki, West's fortunes have continued to slide. The official press releases from Michael Bartholemy's team are starting to sound ominous, and unless West can pick up his game, it's looking less and less likely that West will finish out the season. There is no doubt that West can do better than he is at the moment, but the difference between theory and practice is the difference between keeping your ride in MotoGP and looking for work elsewhere.

The Tire Thing

The question hanging over all of the series is how much Ducati's, and to a smaller extent, Valentino Rossi's problems are due to the Bridgestone tires. The practice timesheets at Estoril were often divided almost perfectly by tire brand, with Michelins dominating in the dry and Bridgestone sweeping the board in the cold and damp. The only exception to this pattern was Valentino Rossi, whose 7 world titles suggest that it is Rossi that is the exception, not the rest. Michelin have made a huge leap forward during the off-season, and Estoril seems to reinforce the suggestion that they have reclaimed the dominance they enjoyed in the years running up to 2007. With 15 more races to go, there is still time to see just how much water this theory holds.

Winner's Circle

At Estoril, Jorge Lorenzo won his place in parc fermé in devastating style. And this being his third trip to the podium in his first three races, he should by now be accustomed to the strange atmosphere which hangs there. Lorenzo, being who he is, took no notice of course, and celebrated his victory in parc fermé with the joy he so richly deserved. His achievement is truly remarkable, and is perhaps best compared to the arrival of another rookie on a Yamaha in the premier class, Jarno Saarinen back in 1973. The flying Fin won his first two races in the class, at the same time as setting the fastest lap, and winning the 250 races at the same events. A tragic accident at Monza during the fourth round of the 1973 season left Saarinen dead, and robbed motorcycling of potentially one of the greatest riders ever. Lorenzo looks to be picking up where Saarinen was cruelly forced to leave off all those years ago.

Lorenzo's joy was not shared by everyone in parc fermé. Despite finishing second, and extending his lead over both Casey Stoner and Valentino Rossi, Dani Pedrosa looked like he had just found a cockroach in his sandwich. Pedrosa had not only lost the race to Lorenzo, he'd also suffered a couple of other sensitive defeats. For Jorge Lorenzo had also drawn level in points with his victory, and by dint of being faster in qualifying, had taken over the lead in the championship. What's worse, Lorenzo had also taken away Pedrosa's record as the youngest rider ever to score three podiums in MotoGP, by just a single day. That kind of record can never be reclaimed, and the pain of losing it should not be underestimated.

The atmosphere in parc fermé at Estoril was illustrative of the true nature of professional sports at the very highest level. The top three finishers spent their time studiously ignoring each other, Valentino Rossi the man least affected, making a point of congratulating Pedrosa's and Lorenzo's teams. And for the group photo on the podium, body language spoke volumes about how the protagonists felt about each other.

Before the 2008 season started, the expectations were that at some point in time the Fiat Yamaha team would explode under the pressure of the two inflated egos in the garage. But the wall put in place to divide the garages, and protect the different tire companies' data, seems to be strong enough to contain and dissipate any interpersonal problems which could potentially arise.

And so the real problems have been channeled elsewhere, mostly into the Spanish side of the Repsol Honda garage. At every race, the antipathy which Dani Pedrosa feels for Jorge Lorenzo seems to grow, and Lorenzo feels almost obliged to return the feelings in kind. Lorenzo has only been in MotoGP for three races, but already, he has managed to create a rivalry as intense and bitter as the heyday of Biaggi and Rossi. The Spanish press are intensely grateful, as the sports pages almost fill themselves. But MotoGP fans around the world can be grateful too, for two men of exceptional talent driven by mutual dislike will push each other to extremes of performance. The racing will just keep on getting better from here.

Full results of the 2008 MotoGP Portuguese Grand Prix at Estoril

Championship standings after the Portuguese Grand Prix

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2008 Estoril MotoGP Race Report - Grudge Match

The winner's circle, or parc fermé as it's known to MotoGP insiders, is a place as mysterious as it is magical. At the end of a long hard race, after they've just given their all for the past 45 minutes, the first three riders to cross the finish line are escorted to a separate roped-off section of pit lane. Here, they park their bikes in a specially preordained order, receive the congratulations and plaudits of their teams, give interviews to various TV companies, and wait to make their way to the podium. Parc fermé is the one place which every motorcycle racer hopes to be as he sits on the grid waiting for the flag to drop.

But if a MotoGP rider is skilled enough to be finish in the top three, any romantic notions they may have had about the atmosphere in parc fermé are quickly dispelled. For the fact is that the winners' circle is a much more complicated place than it seems at first glance.  After all, the lucky souls who roll their bikes in there have just spent the previous 70-odd miles doing everything within their power to defeat the other occupants of that hallowed piece of tarmac as thoroughly as possible. And to achieve that goal, they may have engaged in some forceful and sometimes downright dangerous moves, applied intense psychological pressure, or attempted to scare the others into making a lapse of concentration.

And as if this wasn't bad enough, the riders who make it into parc fermé are usually the same riders who are chasing the title, which means that not only have they just spent this Sunday trying to beat each other into submission, but they probably did the same thing the last weekend, and the weekend before that. These men are often deadly rivals, engaged in a battle which for most of them is even more important than life and death.

So when a rider's skill, luck and machinery finally collide to allow him to enter parc fermé for the first time, what greets him is a strange and vaguely sinister mixture of elation, frustration, hatred and despair. If you're lucky enough to win, the overwhelming emotion is one of sheer joy, and there are few experiences greater than to share this joy with your team, who have worked just as hard as you have to get you there. But if you weren't the first person across the line, then the feelings can be very much more mixed: joy at a good result, certainly, especially if you were able to put some points between yourself and a title rival. But also regret at a small mistake you may have made which allowed the people who beat you to get ahead or get away; anger, at yourself or at your team, for bike setup changes which didn't work, or tires or parts which didn't perform as expected; anger also at the riders who beat you, for harsh passes and dangerous moves, either real or imagined; resentment, too, at the winner, for having the temerity to beat you and take the trophy which you feel rightfully belongs to you, for all your hard work; and sometimes even a sense of awkwardness, as you are forced to share the space - and tiptoe around - riders who you may feel genuine hatred for, after incident upon incident has piled up between you, reinforcing your mutual dislike.

The Hate Zone

The previous two MotoGP races have been perfect illustrations of the point. At Qatar, there was Casey Stoner's obvious joy at getting his title defense off to the best possible start, Dani Pedrosa's pleasure at taking third, and Jorge Lorenzo's joy at getting on the podium in his first MotoGP race. And at Jerez there was Dani Pedrosa's delight at winning in front of an ecstatic home crowd, and Valentino Rossi's pleasure at being able to compete for wins once again.

But both podiums also showed their darker side. Pedrosa may have been pleased to take 3rd in Qatar, but he was not at all happy to be sharing the podium with Lorenzo, a man he hates with a passion. And at Jerez, it was Lorenzo's turn to show his displeasure, seemingly angry at finishing only 3rd in front of his home crowd. The situation was only highlighted by the King of Spain, present to hand out the trophies, forcing the two rivals to shake hands, a gesture which Pedrosa underwent as if having a tooth extracted.

So with Jorge Lorenzo on pole, after setting a truly stunning time during Saturday's qualifying practice, with Dani Pedrosa beside him on the grid, and feared to be nigh on unstoppable if the tiny Spaniard managed to make a break from the start, there was every chance that the podium ceremony at Estoril could end up more resembling Classical Greek tragedy than a formality for distributing silverware. There had already been a dress rehearsal during the low-calorie version of parc fermé put on after qualifying, with Lorenzo and Pedrosa, numbers 1 and 2 on the grid, studiously ignoring each other, while Valentino Rossi, the last man on the front row, looked on in bemusement. If the two Spaniards managed to end up on the podium together, then the atmosphere in parc fermé after the race would be anything but pleasant.

Of course, the podium isn't a place they hand out season tickets for, and results from the past are no guarantee of admittance to the secure confines of parc fermé. First, there was a race to win, and Lorenzo and Pedrosa faced 16 opponents with a hunger for glory which matched their own. What's more, Estoril's notoriously unreliable weather was playing up, with spots of rain starting to appear on visors and cameras. The two Spanish youngsters were almost unbeatable in the dry, but during the two wet sessions, they had been well down the running order.

Panic Stations

As if the threatening rain hadn't made the situation tense enough, as the starter held the bikes on the line, panic broke out on the third row of the grid. As Casey Stoner rolled up to the grid to take his spot at the end of the third row, he found it already occupied. In his eagerness to fight his way forward from 12th position on the grid, Loris Capirossi had accidentally lined up a row further forward than he had qualified. Stoner tried gesturing to race direction, but then quickly solved the problem by tapping Capirossi on the shoulder. The Italian veteran immediately realized his mistake, and both men leapt off their bikes to manhandle their machines to their proper starting positions.

For Casey Stoner, it was just another item to add to the list of misfortunes the reigning champion had suffered at Estoril. Only in cold and damp conditions had we seen any of Stoner's former dominance return. Once the track dried, the Australian was in trouble, suffering simple crashes and his Ducati GP8 constantly threatening to get completely out of control. It had been a long weekend so far, and Stoner's bitter cup was not yet empty.

With the grid now correctly formed, all eyes were on the starting lights, and on Turn 1 beyond.  With rain spotting visors, and grip unknown, would all 18 men be able to fit through the tight right hander of Turn 1? The question did not linger long, for moments later, the lights dimmed and the bikes howled off the line to settle the matter for good.

Holeshot

The battle of Spanish pride commenced almost immediately, with Dani Pedrosa landing the first blow, firing off the line as he now seems to at every race. Pedrosa had just got the drop on Valentino Rossi, who had edged out Jorge Lorenzo into the first turn. Lorenzo was in peril of losing yet another place to Pedrosa's Repsol Honda team mate Nicky Hayden, but Hayden had the outside line at Turn 1, and as they flicked left to head towards Turn 2, Lorenzo had the better line, and was back up to 3rd.

Hayden's choice of line into the first corner would cost him more dearly yet. Andrea Dovizioso had also gotten a fantastic start, and had forced his way level with Hayden and Tech 3 Yamaha's Colin Edwards into Turn 1. As the three of them picked their bikes up out of the right hander, Dovizioso followed Lorenzo's lead, and stuffed his Team Scot Honda ahead of Hayden and into 4th.

At the front, the lesson of Jerez was still fresh in Valentino Rossi's mind. The Doctor knew he could not allow Dani Pedrosa to lead from the front, as with a clear track ahead of him, the Repsol Honda man would be almost impossible to catch. So Rossi lined the Spaniard up out of Turn 2, and as they dropped down the hill towards Turn 3, the Italian barged his Fiat Yamaha up the inside of Pedrosa and into the lead.

A move that forceful has a price, and Rossi looked right to find another Fiat Yamaha inside his own, team mate Jorge Lorenzo having taken advantage of the squabble for 1st. But Rossi is a multiple winner at Estoril, and knew he only had to hold his line to get back inside Lorenzo into the next left hander of Turn 4. Two can play at that game, though, and Lorenzo held his own line out of Turn 4, and getting hard on the gas, was perfectly placed to snatch back the lead as the bikes heeled over right for the fast kink of Turn 5. The lead was settled, at least for now.

Behind Rossi, Andrea Dovizioso was on a charge. As the bikes got hard on the brakes for Turn 6, the Italian rookie forced his satellite Honda inside of Dani Pedrosa's factory machine to grab 3rd, and close on Rossi. Dovizioso wasn't the only worry which Pedrosa had, as once the Team Scot Honda was past, John Hopkins was almost upon the Spaniard, with Nicky Hayden and Colin Edwards in hot pursuit. But Hopper couldn't capitalize on his position, and as they raced around Orelha and towards Turn 8 and then the chicane, the American had to let Pedrosa go.

As the pack rounded the long fast right, speed building to fire onto the front straight, Valentino Rossi made it eminently clear just how badly he wanted to lead. Parked almost on his team mate's tailpiece and gaining, Rossi was forced to take the outside line, running over the kerbs and then kicking up dust from the edge of the track. With nowhere left to go, he lost his momentum, and snicked back into Lorenzo's draft. Rossi's pursuit of his team mate found an echo behind, with Dani Pedrosa hitting the draft of fellow Honda rider Dovizioso. As the front four headed down towards the braking zone for Turn 1, both Rossi and Pedrosa pulled out of the draft in a synchronized passing attempt. But all attempts at coordination ended there. Rossi is a much stronger braker than Pedrosa, so while The Doctor surged ahead of Lorenzo's Michelin-shod Yamaha to take the lead, Pedrosa could not follow suit, and Dovizioso held onto 3rd, leaving Pedrosa to stew in 4th.

Making A Break

The front four had the beginnings of a gap. Hopkins ran alone in 5th, while more empty space separated Hopper's Kawasaki from Colin Edwards and Nicky Hayden. Another gap separated Suzuki's Chris Vermeulen, with Casey Stoner the Ducati filling between Vermeulen and Loris Capirossi.

Despite the rain spotting the occasional camera lens, the pace the MotoGP bikes were hitting made it clear there was no lack of grip. But with dark clouds closing on the track, race direction made a quick decision and had the white rain flags waved, indicating that if they wished, the riders could enter the pits and swap their slick-shod machines set up for racing in the dry for more softly-sprung bikes with intermediate or wet tires. A cautious, and, it turned out, premature decision, for though the declaration of a wet race sparked a surge of activity in the pits, with mechanics rushing to change tires and suspension settings on the spare bikes, any real rain never materialized. The weather confined itself to a scattering a drops around the track, just enough to keep everyone on their toes, but not put them on the floor.

The race officials may have been waving white flags, but out on the track nobody was thinking of surrender. The front four were welded together, with barely a sliver of daylight between them. They headed back towards the front straight for the second time, with Rossi pulling a hint of a gap from Lorenzo, and Dovizioso fending off Pedrosa behind. Where Pedrosa had failed at the end of lap 1, he succeeded as lap 2 ended and lap 3 commenced. Using the extra speed of his factory Honda, he pulled out of Dovizioso's draft, and was up into 3rd into Turn 1.

For the next 6 laps, Rossi, Lorenzo, Pedrosa and Dovizioso were perfectly evenly matched. Each was strong in a different part of the track, and the gap between the group was never more than 0.7 seconds. At  times it looked like Valentino Rossi was creeping away, but half a lap later, the following threesome would be back with him. Each time the group sped down the front straight, the better drive Pedrosa was getting out of the Parabolica allowed him to try and whip out of Lorenzo's draft and into 2nd, but each time, Lorenzo held him without too much effort. Down the back straight, Andrea Dovizioso would creep closer to Pedrosa, and try to dive up the inside into Turn 6 on the brakes, but each lap, Dovi couldn't quite get close enough to hit the turn ahead of Pedrosa. For the moment, the front four were stuck where they were.

American Chase

Behind the two Yamahas and two Hondas, the Kawasaki of John Hopkins followed. On occasion, Hopper looked as if he might catch the front four, but try as he might, they were just out of reach. Running virtually the same pace as the leaders, Hopkins was starting to drop the riders behind.

The first of the followers were Colin Edwards and Nicky Hayden. A second down on Hopper's Kawasaki, they were the only other riders on the same pace as the leaders. Though they were just out of touch with the men ahead of them, they were not being dropped completely. If the two Americans could hang on and step up the pace, they could reel in the front group and maybe even contend for the podium itself.

Edwards and Hayden were the last of the pack to match the leaders' speed. By the end of lap 3, Hayden had a 2 second lead over 8th place man Chris Vermeulen, who headed up a pack of 6, with the Suzuki rider battling it out with Casey Stoner, Tech 3 Yamaha's James Toseland, Vermeulen's team mate Loris Capirossi, the Gresini Honda of Shinya Nakano and Randy de Puniet on the LCR Honda. Places were no sinecure, positions swapping on almost every lap.

Once Casey Stoner got past Chris Vermeulen, it looked like the reigning champion could be ready to force his way back to the front, as he had done at Qatar and attempted to do at Jerez, but though he could pass Vermeulen, he could not escape. But just as it looked like Stoner's weekend was starting to improve, ill fortune struck the Australian again. First, Vermeulen struck back to take 8th again, and then James Toseland followed, pushing Stoner down into 10th. Then, an electronic control box, part of the on-board camera and GPS system supplied and maintained by Dorna for the TV feeds, broke free of its velcro moorings and started dangerously flapping about the Ducati's steering head and clutch, occasionally interfering with the clutch and, what's worse, with the steering lock. It was exactly the kind of distraction the world champion didn't need at his worst weekend of the year.

Back at the front, the foursome, lonesome and twosome were showing the first signs of coagulating into a big group of 7. Edwards and Hayden were starting to catch John Hopkins, and the front four had stopped opening a gap. On lap 10, a mistake by Hopper allowed his two compatriots past, and the Texas Tornado and the Kentucky Kid were off to chase the Italians and Spaniards leading the race.

On lap 11, Pedrosa's drafting practice on Lorenzo finally paid off. Pulling out from behind Lorenzo with just a fraction more speed, the Repsol Honda man finally managed to outbrake Lorenzo into Turn 1, and into 2nd. Forced down to 3rd by his arch rival, Lorenzo remained surprisingly calm. Over the next two laps, Pedrosa closed the gap on Rossi, whose lap times were starting to plateau, while others dropped. Lorenzo simply clamped onto Pedrosa's back wheel, and let the Honda man do all the work of closing the gap. The leading trio crossed the line with just 2/10ths of a second between them, an almost continuous blur.

The Move

Now Lorenzo was ready to make his move. First up was Pedrosa, and Lorenzo returned the compliment of Pedrosa's pass two laps earlier, pulling out of the draft and ahead into Turn 1. One down, one to go, but Valentino Rossi is easy meat for no man. Easy or not, Lorenzo stalked Rossi round the back of the circuit, closing through the double rights of Orelha and Turn 8, before putting a tough and impudent pass up the inside of Turn 9, and into the lead at the chicane. If Rossi ever had any delusions of being treated with deference by his young team mate, they were now brutally shattered. At a track infamous for risky passes among team mates, Lorenzo had just added another perfect example.

If there is to be any criticism of Lorenzo's pass, it can be only this: Lorenzo's nickname is "Porfuera," Spanish for "round the outside," a pass he regards as his signature move. Jamming your Fiat Yamaha up the inside of your illustrious team mate is the very antithesis of the smooth, sweeping outside pass. The only thing they have in common is the enormous degree of self-confidence they require to carry them off. Lorenzo has self-confidence by the truckload, and on the basis of this pass alone, it is entirely justified.

Lorenzo's pass on Rossi also revealed something important about the Italian: Rossi was now the slowest of the front four. On lap 14, Lorenzo put 3/10ths of a second on Rossi, while The Doctor was dealing with Pedrosa's attentions from behind. Rossi's defense of 2nd lasted just shy of 2 laps. He fended off Pedrosa's first attack, in the braking zone for Turn 1, with relative ease. But as the group rounded Turn 6, Pedrosa was ready. He fired out of the double apex left to grab the right-hand line, getting inside Rossi for the next right hander at Orelha. Rossi was left with nowhere to go, and was forced to console himself with 3rd place.

With a clear run at Lorenzo ahead of him, Dani Pedrosa settled in to chase down the young upstart who dared challenge for Spanish supremacy. Pedrosa led the contest so far, his win at Jerez trumping Lorenzo's 2nd place at Qatar, and was not willing to concede defeat here. With 13 laps left to go, he could afford to bide his time.

Luck On His Side

Force to let first Lorenzo, then Pedrosa past, Valentino Rossi now had more trouble approaching from behind. The final member of the front four had now latched onto Rossi's tail, and Andrea Dovizioso still had the sweet memories of his last lap pass on The Doctor at Qatar. If he'd done it once, he could do it again, the Italian rookie reasoned, and Dovi pushed his Team Scot Honda on, to catch and try to pass Rossi. His enthusiasm would not be rewarded. On the next lap, as Dovizioso closed on Rossi, he pushed too heard into the tricky right hander of Orelha, and found himself in the gravel, rather than on the podium.

Youthful exuberance had spared Rossi once, but he would need something a little bit stronger over the next few laps. Nicky Hayden had passed Colin Edwards, and with clear track ahead of him, was starting to lap faster than anyone bar the leader, Jorge Lorenzo. Just over 2 seconds down on Rossi, the former world champion had grown weary of being off the podium, his last visit dating from the Brno race nearly 8 months ago, and was pushing to get back on the box. As he closed on Rossi, he pushed too hard, losing the front at Orelha, the same spot as Dovizioso. With Hayden out of the race, Rossi had a comfortable buffer of 5 seconds back to Edwards. A podium looked secure.

The pressure from behind having disappeared almost by magic, Rossi could concentrate on hanging on to the two leaders ahead. Lorenzo had now wicked up the pace, and Pedrosa was giving his all to try and follow. But the laps which Rossi had spent leading, and the steep learning curve Rossi and his crew are still on with the Bridgestone tires were starting to take their toll. Rossi stepped up the pace for one more lap, before having to let the two Spaniards go.

Showdown

It was now a straight fight between Lorenzo and Pedrosa. With Lorenzo now the only impediment on the track, Pedrosa was quietly confident, and settled down to run as fast and smooth as possible, hoping to reel his bitter rival in, if not by speed, then at least by endurance, once Lorenzo started suffering the arm pump which has plagued his early races on the MotoGP bike.

Pedrosa waited in vain. Lorenzo pulled out fractions of a second, for lap after lap, his pace barely faltering. Towards the end of the race, Lorenzo's lap times started to rise, but to underline his superiority, the reigning 250 champion ran his second fastest lap of the race on the final lap. With that final, defiant lap, Jorge Lorenzo proved to the world that he is a very special talent indeed. To take a win in only his third MotoGP race, after claiming three pole positions in a row, as well as taking the fastest lap of the race at Estoril is a feat impressive beyond words. Yamaha may have gambled on signing Jorge Lorenzo as Valentino Rossi's replacement, but so far, their gamble is paying off handsomely.

Lorenzoland

Part of the terms of Lorenzo's contract with Yamaha stipulated that he toned down some of his post-race celebrations. Lorenzo had already elected to wear his red helmet, rather than the garish gold number he usually sports during the race, but a race win is a race win, and in traditional Lorenzo style, the Spanish rookie planted his Lorenzoland flag in the gravel, claiming the track at his own. You may argue with his taste, and his sense of decorum, but after dominating at a track he has traditionally done poorly at, it is hard to deny his Lorenzo's claim to the circuit.

How Dani Pedrosa felt about the entire episode was made crystal clear as he crossed the line in 2nd place. The Spaniard punched his tank in anger, frustrated to have lost, but most of all, to have lost to Lorenzo. There is no worse fate that Pedrosa could suffer on a Sunday, and Lorenzo taking Pedrosa's place atop the championship standings just rubbed salt into the wounds.

After the race, Pedrosa put his defeat down to the wrong choice of gearing. His team had expected a stronger headwind down the front straight, and had elected to run a lower top gear, leaving Pedrosa a fraction short of top speed down the straight, and spending a little too much time on the rev limiter. But even with more outright speed, it is questionable with Pedrosa could have beaten the Jorge Lorenzo who rolled onto the grid on Sunday. If it is even possible, the rivalry between the two Spaniards just got even more intense.

Valentino Rossi settled for 3rd, over 12 seconds behind Lorenzo. Rossi's preseason demand that Yamaha build a competitive motorcycle has been fulfilled, witness the fact that Yamaha is leading the individual, manufacturers and team championships. But a 5th, a 2nd and a 3rd is not what The Doctor wishes to be finishing, and the way his tires faded in the second half of the race leaves Rossi and his team some work to do in adapting to the Bridgestones. The good news is, at every race, the team learn more.

Another Yamaha finished in 4th, behind Rossi, Colin Edwards taking advantage of the pneumatic valve engine in his Tech 3 M1 at Estoril. From last year's laughing stock, Tech 3 have been transformed into this year's heroes, and Colin Edwards is inching closer to that elusive first win in MotoGP, which will allow the Texan to retire to the AMA with a clear conscience. At Le Mans, or Laguna Seca, Edwards could well spring a surprise.

John Hopkins ended Kawasaki's early season misery by finishing 5th, and looking capable of running at the front for the first half of the race. Hopper is still in some pain from the groin injury the American suffered in preseason testing, but both the Kawasaki and Hopkins are getting stronger every round.

The Fast And The Furious

In 6th place came a furious Casey Stoner. The world champion had struggled with the flailing box of Dorna electronics all race, forced to stuff the box back inside the fairing at close to 200 mph down the front straight every lap. And a 6th place, after the disastrous 11th spot at Jerez, is not much consolation for the man defending his world title. But at second glance, this 6th place is a pretty strong showing, after Stoner and the Ducati team struggled with grip all weekend. And despite the dangling electronics box, Stoner had fought his way through the field in a race long battle with Toseland, Vermeulen and de Puniet. A 6th place may only be worth 10 points in the title race, but getting a 6th on a weekend when everything is against you is just the kind of performance that championships are built on.

James Toseland finished 7th, another strong showing from the rookie who had never raced at Estoril before. Toseland's lack of experience had cost him dearly in the early laps, as he was uncertain just how much grip the Michelin slicks would provide in the light drizzle which spotted the track from time to time. The answer was as much as if it were dry, but once Toseland realized this, he had already lost too much time, and was left slugging it out in the pack behind the leaders. But Toseland's 7th place meant that all 4 Yamahas finished in the top 7. Proof, if any were needed, that Yamaha got its sums right over the winter.

Behind Toseland, the two Suzukis finished 8th and 9th, Chris Vermeulen finishing ahead of Loris Capirossi. Both men had been caught up in the mid-pack skirmish which had raged for much of the race, with Capirossi the first to lose touch at half distance. Suzuki still haven't found the form they had in early 2007, and continue to experiment with the aerodynamics package from last year. With the next MotoGP race being at Shanghai, where John Hopkins got on the podium last year, they will hope to have something to offer in China.

The Suzuki team headed up the Gresini Honda team, with Shinya Nakano not far off Capirossi in 10th. Team mate and rookie Alex de Angelis was nearly 20 seconds behind Nakano, but managed a brave finish, despite suffering with severe tonsillitis and the 'flu.

Desmosedici Despair

Behind Gresini, the current state of Ducati's misery was made evident. Toni Elias was the second Ducati home, taking 12th on the Alice satellite bike. A further 6 seconds behind Elias, Marco Melandri just held off Sylvain Guintoli to avoid the ignominy of being last Ducati home on the factory machine. With the remaining Ducatis finishing over a minute behind the winner, and 35 seconds behind Casey Stoner, there is clearly something wrong with the bike. Even the head of Ducati's MotoGP project Livio Suppo has started to acknowledge the problems, and told the Italian press that he is considering drafting in Troy Bayliss and Max Biaggi to test the bike, and try to fix its problems.

While question marks hang over the Ducati, there is very little wrong with the Honda. Except, that is, when Randy de Puniet persists in his unfortunate habit of throwing his satellite-spec Honda RC212V into the gravel. The Frenchman was lucky this time, and could remount, and continue the race. But he must be costing Team LCR a fortune in parts, and needs to stay on board and score some serious points.

If the Ducatis are suffering, they can take some small comfort in the misery of Ant West. Since arriving on a high at Kawasaki, West's fortunes have continued to slide. The official press releases from Michael Bartholemy's team are starting to sound ominous, and unless West can pick up his game, it's looking less and less likely that West will finish out the season. There is no doubt that West can do better than he is at the moment, but the difference between theory and practice is the difference between keeping your ride in MotoGP and looking for work elsewhere.

The Tire Thing

The question hanging over all of the series is how much Ducati's, and to a smaller extent, Valentino Rossi's problems are due to the Bridgestone tires. The practice timesheets at Estoril were often divided almost perfectly by tire brand, with Michelins dominating in the dry and Bridgestone sweeping the board in the cold and damp. The only exception to this pattern was Valentino Rossi, whose 7 world titles suggest that it is Rossi that is the exception, not the rest. Michelin have made a huge leap forward during the off-season, and Estoril seems to reinforce the suggestion that they have reclaimed the dominance they enjoyed in the years running up to 2007. With 15 more races to go, there is still time to see just how much water this theory holds.

Winner's Circle

At Estoril, Jorge Lorenzo won his place in parc fermé in devastating style. And this being his third trip to the podium in his first three races, he should by now be accustomed to the strange atmosphere which hangs there. Lorenzo, being who he is, took no notice of course, and celebrated his victory in parc fermé with the joy he so richly deserved. His achievement is truly remarkable, and is perhaps best compared to the arrival of another rookie on a Yamaha in the premier class, Jarno Saarinen back in 1973. The flying Fin won his first two races in the class, at the same time as setting the fastest lap, and winning the 250 races at the same events. A tragic accident at Monza during the fourth round of the 1973 season left Saarinen dead, and robbed motorcycling of potentially one of the greatest riders ever. Lorenzo looks to be picking up where Saarinen was cruelly forced to leave off all those years ago.

Lorenzo's joy was not shared by everyone in parc fermé. Despite finishing second, and extending his lead over both Casey Stoner and Valentino Rossi, Dani Pedrosa looked like he had just found a cockroach in his sandwich. Pedrosa had not only lost the race to Lorenzo, he'd also suffered a couple of other sensitive defeats. For Jorge Lorenzo had also drawn level in points with his victory, and by dint of being faster in qualifying, had taken over the lead in the championship. What's worse, Lorenzo had also taken away Pedrosa's record as the youngest rider ever to score three podiums in MotoGP, by just a single day. That kind of record can never be reclaimed, and the pain of losing it should not be underestimated.

The atmosphere in parc fermé at Estoril was illustrative of the true nature of professional sports at the very highest level. The top three finishers spent their time studiously ignoring each other, Valentino Rossi the man least affected, making a point of congratulating Pedrosa's and Lorenzo's teams. And for the group photo on the podium, body language spoke volumes about how the protagonists felt about each other.

Before the 2008 season started, the expectations were that at some point in time the Fiat Yamaha team would explode under the pressure of the two inflated egos in the garage. But the wall put in place to divide the garages, and protect the different tire companies' data, seems to be strong enough to contain and dissipate any interpersonal problems which could potentially arise.

And so the real problems have been channeled elsewhere, mostly into the Spanish side of the Repsol Honda garage. At every race, the antipathy which Dani Pedrosa feels for Jorge Lorenzo seems to grow, and Lorenzo feels almost obliged to return the feelings in kind. Lorenzo has only been in MotoGP for three races, but already, he has managed to create a rivalry as intense and bitter as the heyday of Biaggi and Rossi. The Spanish press are intensely grateful, as the sports pages almost fill themselves. But MotoGP fans around the world can be grateful too, for two men of exceptional talent driven by mutual dislike will push each other to extremes of performance. The racing will just keep on getting better from here.

Full results of the 2008 MotoGP Portuguese Grand Prix at Estoril

Championship standings after the Portuguese Grand Prix

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2008 Estoril MotoGP Preview - The Western Shore

After the bizarre, ghostly night race at Qatar and the seething cauldron at Jerez, MotoGP returns to some semblance of normality when it visits Estoril for the Portuguese Grand Prix. At Qatar, the night race entered completely unknown territory, the combination of falling temperatures and rising humidity making getting setup right a gamble at best. Then came Jerez, a track which places particular demands on the bikes and on setup. It also strongly favors Michelin, as it is one of the French tire company's nominated test tracks. And so to go to Estoril, a track with both a long, high-speed straight and a slow, intricate turns, and a track where nobody has done any testing for many months raises hopes of seeing a more normal result. More normal, and more representative of the relative strengths of the riders and teams.

Of course, nothing is ever that simple. For although Estoril should be a much more level playing field than either Qatar or Jerez were, the Portuguese track has plenty of quirks of its own. First and foremost of these is the weather. The Circuito do Estoril sits just a stone's throw away from the Atlantic Ocean, albeit a very powerful throw of a small and aerodynamic stone. Once over the row of low hills which separate the track from the sea, there's nothing between yourself and Connecticut for thousands of miles.

As picturesque as ocean vistas can, they also have a flip side. For the energy which generates those majestic waves crashing upon the shore can also raise mighty towers of clouds and great gusting winds, which can then proceed to soak and batter the racetrack and riders, turning prior expectations on their head. All too often, the elements have had a decisive effect on racing at Estoril, the region's capricious weather catching many a racer out. The most recent victim was Sete Gibernau, who crashed out of the lead in 2005 when he was the first of the field to hit the freshly-soaked Turn 1 just after it started to rain.

Whatever The Weather

But it is unfair to characterize Estoril solely in terms of its unpredictable weather conditions. For the circuit, which lies just west of the Portuguese capital Lisbon, is blessed with a layout which has provided us with some spectacular racing in the past. It starts with the front straight, one of the fastest of the season, which leads you down to the first possible spot for passing, the sharp right of Turn 1. If your best efforts at braking harder and later into the turn than your rivals fail to get you ahead, or if, like Toni Elias in 2006, you found that you were so late on the brakes that you threatened to launch into the Atlantic, then all is not yet lost. Simply bide your time through Turn 2, and try your luck through the hairpin loops of Turn 3 or Turn 4, both of which allow you to attack through a multitude of lines.

Of course, if you get through at Turn 3, the danger is that you surrender the better line for Turn 4, allowing your rival back past again, and on to the short back straight with the fast right-hand kink. At the end, your next opportunity beckons, the double-apex left loop of Turn 6, now christened Repsol Corner after the infamous incident in 2006, in which Dani Pedrosa's momentary lapse of reason almost left Nicky Hayden's championship foundering in the gravel.

Failure at Turn 6 is not yet fatal. For if you can stay close through the next couple of right handers, then the combination of Turns 9 and 10 offers you your best chance yet. The slow, uphill chicane is one of the best corners in racing, offering a brave and physical rider an opportunity to put an old-fashioned beating on his rivals, getting by with a classic block pass, then slamming the door brutally in their faces. If you have the nerve, you can win the race right here.

The Fast Show

There's only one small problem with being ahead out of Turn 10. You now have to hold off an enraged rival through the Esses, where they will surely attempt to dish you out a dose of your own medicine, and then the Parabolica, a long, fast right hander leading back onto the straight. Like the Parabolica at Monza, there are plenty of lines through there, and getting past through the turn is not necessary. All you have to do is be close enough to pull out of the draft and whip past your opponent on the long drag down to the finish line. With 28 laps of the track to complete, you can spend all race practicing this maneuver so that by the time it really matters, you have it down pat.

With so many different places to pass, and each of them suiting very different kinds of bikes, almost everyone has a chance to pass somewhere. If your bike has great top speed, just wind her up down the front straight and pass your opponents on outright power. If stability under braking is what your machine does best, then there are the braking zones for Turn 1 and Turn 6. But if the bike has been built with agility in mind, there's the chicane and the Esses, or even Turns 3 and 4, and the run between them. And if all else fails, you can simply try the sheer guts option of the faster outside line round the already deceptively quick Parabolica.

Three's A Crowd

Happily for MotoGP fans, the varied nature of the Estoril track matches the varied skill sets and bikes of the main protagonists for Sunday's race down to a tee. Casey Stoner's ability to get outstanding drive out of fast corners allied with the top speed of his Ducati means that the reigning champion will be able to match anyone down the front straight, and that if he has company going into that final turn, he's going to be a very hard man to beat. Dani Pedrosa's blistering acceleration and smooth, fast style will give the winner of the Jerez race the edge out of the slower turns and through the fast kink down the back straight. While the agility of Valentino Rossi's Yamaha, coupled with his ability to make almost impossible passes means that The Doctor can hustle through the chicane and round the Esses faster than any rider on track, and unlike last year, his M1 now has the beans to stay with the Ducati and the Honda down the front straight as well.

In fact, the 2008 Portuguese Grand Prix at Estoril is shaping up to be a repeat of the 2007 race of six months ago. In September last year, Valentino Rossi, Dani Pedrosa and Casey Stoner slugged it out almost to the end. Stoner had been the first to lose ground, as he struggled with a non-functioning slipper clutch on his Ducati, leaving him with next to no engine braking. Dani Pedrosa then chased Rossi all the way to the line, unable to get back past the Italian after Rossi finally won the overtaking battle with just two laps to go.

And if anything, the bikes are more evenly matched than ever. The Ducati is still the outright winner in terms of top speed, and Casey Stoner is still horribly quick into and out of the turns. After struggling a bit during preseason testing, Honda seem finally to have found a chassis and engine combination that works, and Dani Pedrosa's injured hand is nearly back to full strength. And Valentino Rossi's Yamaha now has sufficient speed to stay with the Ducati and Honda in a straight line, and Rossi has the Bridgestones which he longed for last year, allowing him to slug it out with Stoner on equal footing.

Place Your Bets

On the strength of last year's race, it would be foolish to bet against Valentino Rossi at a track where he has won five times previously. But Rossi's decision to switch tire manufacturers last year may come back to haunt him in Portugal: Bridgestone have never won a race at Estoril, leaving Rossi with a bigger mountain to climb than he might have wished for.

That's bad news for Casey Stoner, too, but what could be worse for the Australian was his performance at Jerez just two weeks ago. Stoner had an uncharacteristically poor weekend in Spain, crashing heavily, and running off the track twice to finish 11th. His frustration at his worst ever finish aboard the Ducati were evident, and Estoril will be a test of his mental resilience. If Stoner can bounce back in Portugal, he will be very hard to beat.

But it is probably Dani Pedrosa who is the clearest favorite to win at Estoril. The Spaniard is coming off a deeply impressive victory at Jerez, where he ran away with the race in the early stages. His hand is healing, the Honda is improving, and HRC are due to test the pneumatic valve engine after the race weekend, ready for the monster straights at Shanghai. Pedrosa could be on a roll.

Get Ready To Rumble!

If the promise of a close fight between the three favorites is tempting, the prospect of the rookies at Estoril is positively mouthwatering. Andrea Dovizioso, James Toseland and Jorge Lorenzo have already shown that they are afraid of no one, and Estoril's tricky turns could be just the ticket for their particular brand of fresh-faced impetuosity. Andrea Dovizioso and Jorge Lorenzo could find themselves in a repeat of their 250 battles, as Dovizioso has to wring the last drop of performance out of his 2007 spec satellite Honda in his quest to defeat Jorge Lorenzo on the factory Yamaha. But the fight could just as easily go Dovizioso's way, as Estoril has never been kind to Lorenzo. Despite dominating the 250 class in both his championship years, Lorenzo has never managed better than 3rd place here in Portugal. Though the Spaniard will be looking to put that right, there will be a horde of rivals keen to capitalize on that perceived weakness.

But perhaps the best spectacle of the weekend could come from the Tech 3 Yamaha garage. With both James Toseland and Colin Edwards due to receive the pneumatic valve engined Yamaha M1, the Tech 3 pairing should have the speed to stay with the rest down the front straight at Estoril. But the fun comes round the back of the track, once they hit the chicane. In 2006, Colin Edwards put on a display of some of the finest block passing of recent years in holding off Hayden, Pedrosa and Elias through that chicane, his passes fair but brutal. And this year, his team mate should join in the fun. Chris Vermeulen has already complained about James Toseland's physical passing, after JT barged his way past at Jerez. If there is one corner in the whole of the season that suits tough passes, it is surely the chicane at Estoril. And if Toseland can learn the track fast enough, a track that he has never ridden at before, he should put on a show of good old-fashioned street brawling racing round that last section of track, of the kind that fans just love to watch.

Two years ago, Colin Edwards' antics were aimed at holding off Nicky Hayden, and allowing his then team mate Valentino Rossi to get away. This year, Edwards won't be defending for anyone, but he could still find himself getting tangled up with the Kentucky Kid. Estoril is a track which suits Hayden, despite it holding bad memories of being taken out by his team mate, and seeing the title slipping out of his hands. After a 4th place here last year, and a 4th place last time out at Jerez, the American will surely be out for vengeance in Portugal, and looking for a podium.

Halfway House

A podium would suit Loris Capirossi and John Hopkins just fine. But unfortunately for the two veterans - one rather more of a veteran than the other - both men are still hard at work developing a bike which isn't quite there yet. Capirex was delighted with his 5th place at Jerez two weeks ago, but in general the Suzuki has been disappointing, after showing such promise last year. And Hopper is in a similar situation, waiting for improvements in both his health and the bike. The groin injury the American suffered is still painful and taking a long time to heal, and the Kawasaki is close, but not quite there. Kawasaki have been publicly testing their fantastic-sounding screamer engine, which should deliver on both power and in saving fuel, but still has some way to go before it is ready to race. The best both men can hope for is to be fighting for points behind the front runners.

Their respective team mates find themselves in much the same boat. Suzuki's Chris Vermeulen and Kawasaki's Ant West were hoping to be much closer to the front at the start of the season, but both men are not where they want to be. Vermeulen is by far the better of the pair, managing to run close to his team mate, if not actually outshine him. Ant West, on the other hand, has had a nightmare of a season so far, only capable of fighting to stay out of last with the Alice Ducatis. West has completely lost his confidence, in both the bike and his own ability to ride. Things have gotten so bad that the Australian will be trying a new, untested chassis at Estoril, gambling on a softer chassis restoring his confidence.

But what both Vermeulen and West really need is for Estoril's notoriously capricious weather to play a part. If it rains, then Vermeulen and West stop being also-rans, and suddenly become favorites for a victory. If you pass through the paddock late Saturday night, you can be fairly sure of hearing the two Australians performing a rain dance in their motorhomes.

Lasciate Ogne Speranza

Not even rain could help salvage the hopes of the other Ducatis. Marco Melandri, Toni Elias and Sylvain Guintoli have had a nightmare of a season so far on the Ducati GP8, running miles off the pace on the machine which is winning races in the hands of Casey Stoner. The qualifying practice at Jerez was the low point for Melandri, the Italian sitting in his pits after a crash with a look of utter despair on his face.

But help could be at hand. Filippo Preziosi, Ducati's engineering mastermind, has finally conceded that Ducati's championship-winning bike only really suits a single rider. The bike is so aggressive, both in its power delivery and in the stiffness of its chassis, that it is extremely difficult to ride. Unless, that is, you are Casey Stoner, who likes the immediacy of the feedback he gets from the stiff frame and lightning throttle response. And so Preziosi has promised to develop a softened version of the bike for Marco Melandri, in the hope that Melandri can regain some confidence, and find some of the form which he surely still has. If they succeed, then maybe that same softer chassis might find its way down to the Alice Ducati team, and solve some of that team's woes as well. But this weekend, it looks like Toni Elias, the 2006 winner of the Estoril round, will be struggling just to score points.

High Hopes

And so expectations are high for this Sunday's race in Portugal. All the ingredients for a fantastic race are present: we have three closely-matched favorites, all with a great deal to prove; we have a chasing pack of up-and-coming youngsters, all hungry for glory; we have a sprinkling of seasoned veterans, with a knack for pulling rabbits out of hats. But most of all, we have a glorious, intricate, complex racetrack, a circuit full of contradictions. The track with the slowest average speed of the season, coupled with one of the fastest straights of the year. A track which demands impossible compromises from bike setup, and a which richly rewards your strengths as a rider, while punishing your weaknesses mercilessly.

And added to all that, a track sat next to a notoriously treacherous ocean, where the weather can change at a moment's notice. It's almost as if Nature stands ready to lend a hand, just in case the racing gets predictable. The only sure thing on Sunday is that anything could happen. It should be a gripping spectacle.

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