2007 Donington MotoGP Preview - The Heart Of England

There are many hundreds, perhaps even thousands, of racetracks around the world. Each of them is unique, and has a particular personality. Some are bland and faceless, like Shanghai. Others, like Barcelona, have plenty of character, but have no real tie to their location. But perhaps the best tracks are the ones like Mugello, which are both beautifully laid out, and so at one with the landscape and the location that they simply could not exist anywhere else. Donington Park is just such a track.

It is hard to envisage a place more quintessentially English than Donington Park: Set among the rolling hills of Derbyshire, close to the geographical center of England, the track sits surrounded by green meadows and wooded copses. Perched upon a pedestal, overlooking some of the finest turns in racing, the Craner Curves, sits a Supermarine Spitfire, the aircraft that won the Battle of Britain, and saved England's green and pleasant land from the ignominy of German invasion, and suffering under the jackboot of tyranny. Helping to make this scene so green and lush is England's weather, an entirely unpredictable affair offering sun, rain and cloud, in every changing measure, the only certainty being that you will see some of each at some point every day.

A Tale Of Two Tracks

But the track more than makes up for any chance you may have of getting a soaking. It starts at Redgate, the first right-hander where you turn to head down the hill, and through the glorious Craner Curves, trying desperately to flick from right to left with the front already at the limit of adhesion, attempting not to end sliding ungracefully along the grass after losing the front. The track flows on around the back section, through the Old Hairpin, and round Schwantz and McLeans, before heading back towards the stop and go of the Fogarty Esses and the Melbourne Loop. Polish it off with the bumpy, tight hairpin of Goddards, another favorite spot to end up in the gravel, and the track rewards both riders and fans alike.

The difficulty for teams and riders is setting the bike up: There's the fast and flowing first section, which requires flickability and the ability to hold a line perfectly, but the bike also has to be stable enough on the brakes not to lose ground into the Esses and through the hairpins, while also having the punch to pull out of the turns through the Melbourne Loop. Finding the right set up is a compromise at any track, but at Donington, it's worse than most.

At Home With The Doctor

If the criteria for success at Donington are agility, stability on the brakes and drive out of corners, it's hard to see how Yamaha, and Valentino Rossi in particular, will be beaten here. Donington Park is the circuit where Rossi took his very first senior class win back in 2000, and since then he has had a special relationship with the track. Living in London also makes this race his "other" home race, so The Doctor is sure to put on a show, especially as he could pass Mick Doohan as the all-time highest points scorer in MotoGP here. So strong is Rossi at Donington that last year, he managed to take a hard-fought second place while riding with a broken wrist. Now he's healthy, he should be formidable.

While Rossi is second in the championship standings, team mate Colin Edwards is having a much more torrid season. He has regularly qualified on the front row, even taking his first pole at Le Mans, but the Texan has been singularly incapable of capitalizing during the race. With the Donington track suiting the Yamaha so well, Edwards must be in with a shot at another podium, at the very least. The Texas Tornado has yet to score a win in MotoGP, and the next two races, at Donington and Assen, surely represent his best chances of finally getting on the top step.

Hope Of All England

Yet another Yamaha rider will be hoping to do well at Donington: Although Sylvain Guintoli is hardly the most English of names, the Brits have taken the young Frenchman to heart. Guintoli is married to an Englishwoman and lives just 40 minutes from the Donington Park circuit. When he speaks, it is with a charming mixture of a French accent, laced with a Midlands twang. With such strong support, Guintoli will surely be inspired to achieve, and the last time that happened, the Frenchman led the race for several laps. Guintoli could turn out to be the real joker in the pack at Donington, and is definitely one to watch.

Though the British constantly complain of a lack of British riders on the MotoGP grid, there's no shortage of surrogate Brits. Rossi, Guintoli and Melandri all live in the UK, providing at least a tenuous link to top flight racing, but Rizla Suzuki's John Hopkins is probably the closest thing to a home rider the British will have at Donington. Though born in Ramona, southern California, Hopkins is of English stock, both his parents hailing from London. His British credentials tend to take a nosedive once you hear him speak: Hopper sounds exactly as you would expect of a SoCal boy. But still, while British fans wait longingly for James Toseland to make the switch to MotoGP, and for Bradley Smith to graduate from the 125 class, they will clasp at any straws which float across their path.

And Hopkins is Britain's best hope for success at Donington: The Suzuki just keeps on getting better, and the bike's strong points are agility and stability under braking, just what is required at the Donington track. Hopkins stands a very good chance of getting his second podium this weekend, if he can persuade his tires to last the full length of the race.

Rain Man

Hopper's team mate, Chris Vermeulen, could also end up on the podium on Sunday, quite possibly on the top step again. The weather forecast for Sunday gets gloomier with every passing hour, and if it rains, it would be very hard to bet against the Australian, as he is acknowledged as probably the best rain rider of the field. The irony is that Vermeulen says he hates the rain, but he must surely be doing a little rain dance in his motorhome over the next few days.

But Vermeulen could have serious competition this weekend, now that the dust has settled on the rumor feeding frenzy in the Kawasaki garage. Anthony West, another Australian wet-weather magician, is joining the Kawasaki Racing Team this weekend, as a permanent replacement for the star-crossed Olivier Jacque, who, judging by his luck, must have driven under a ladder into a mirror shop after a black cat crossed his path. West has always excelled in the wet: His sole victory in the 250 class came at Assen in 2003 in the rain, and less than a month ago, West dominated the Silverstone round of the World Supersport series in an absolute downpour, winning the race by over 26 seconds. If it rains, then Kawasaki could achieve their first win in the premier class since Mick Grant won the Isle of Man TT in 1975.

No doubt this would annoy Kawasaki's younger rider, Randy de Puniet, as de Puniet is currently enjoying the limelight of his heroic 5th place at Catalunya, achieved with a hugely swollen knee. With the swelling greatly reduced by surgery, de Puniet should be in even better form on Sunday, and with the bike getting better and better, the pressure will be on the young Frenchman to start performing consistently. A competitive team mate could be just the incentive he needs.

The Straight Story

While the Donington track suits the Yamahas, the Suzukis and the Kawasakis, it doesn't suit the Ducatis half as well. Donington doesn't have anywhere which will allow the Ducati to really stretch its legs, and only Casey Stoner's phenomenal drive out of corners should keep it in contention.

Stoner comes to Donington holding a comfortable 14 point lead over Valentino Rossi, but is unlikely to leave so far ahead in the points. Though Donington is the track where Casey Stoner rode his first road race, he has never really got on with the track, and will have to fight for every point he can muster on Sunday, having to fend off a gaggle of more agile Yamahas, Suzukis and Kawasakis.

Team mate Loris Capirossi is likely to have an even more torrid time. Capirex is still struggling to get to grips with the Desmosedici RR, having problems adapting his all-or-nothing throttle action to the peakier nature of the 800 cc GP7 bike.

Though the track does not suit the Ducatis, the Pramac d'Antin team could still end up doing well, weather permitting. Alex Barros is another outstanding rain rider, and could easily turn the conditions to his advantage. And with Alex Hofmann's 5th place in the rain at Le Mans in mind, it's entirely conceivable that the works Ducatis see two satellite bikes finish ahead of them on Sunday.

And Then There Were Eight

As for Honda, they are having their worst season in a very long time. Stoner's win at Catalunya increased Honda's winless stretch to 8 races, their worst record since 1991. If a Honda doesn't get a win in the next three races, they will have their worst streak ever in premier class racing. HRC's engineers are hard at work rectifying the bike they got so badly wrong at the beginning of the year, but they still have plenty of hard graft ahead of them.

The most likely candidate to break that winless streak is surely Dani Pedrosa. At Catalunya, Pedrosa showed he could follow Stoner and Rossi, but try as he might, he could not get past the two championship leaders. As the RC212V improves, Pedrosa should start challenging for the lead again, but this is unlikely to happen at Donington. Though the Spaniard dominated the race weekend last year, taking a clean sweep of pole, lap record and race win, Pedrosa will have much tougher time this year. Though the agility of the Honda should allow Pedrosa to scrap with the leaders through the first, flowing half of the track, the RC212V will be in trouble once they reach the final section: The Fogarty Esses and the Melbourne Loop are all areas which reward incredibly hard braking, but the Honda is still suffering from stability on the brakes. HRC's mass centralization project has left the bike difficult to set up, and with too little forward weight transfer, making the bike hard to stop. Until this is fixed, the Hondas are likely to lose too much here to be able compete.

Although the mood in the Honda camp is generally downbeat, reigning world champion Nicky Hayden may be the exception this weekend. After the Barcelona race, Hayden tested the chassis which his Repsol Honda team mate has been using for a couple of races, and set the fastest lap of the weekend on race tires. Sadly for the Kentucky Kid, he set the lap when it didn't matter, but the progress he booked during the test leaves Hayden optimistic for the first time in weeks. Although a win is entirely out of the question, Hayden could at least start to run closer to the front, and more in keeping with his status as MotoGP champ this weekend.

As for the remainder of the Honda riders, the atmosphere is as gloomy as the skies over Donington. Marco Melandri has led the chorus of complaints, demanding more help from Honda, and perhaps now regretting he turned down the offer of the Ducati ride in the middle of last year. With Gresini Honda in the early stages of talks with James Toseland for next season, both Melandri and team mate Toni Elias must be fearing for their jobs. Melandri may have a future at either Ducati or Kawasaki, but Elias needs to start scoring results to retain his ride. Terrible Toni pulled out a win at Estoril last year, and he must be hoping to do the same again here.

Carlos Checa and Shinya Nakano can only grit their teeth and wait until the good parts start to filter down to their satellite teams. The comfort for Nakano is that the next few races are all at tracks which suit the Japanese rider's style, tight and technical. Whether he can exploit that remains to be seen.

First Refusal

Last, and sadly at the moment very much least, Team KR continue to struggle, while the team waits for a new chassis which should solve the handling problems they are having. The chassis probably won't be ready until Laguna Seca, in four races time, so until then, Kurtis Roberts is replacing older brother Kenny Roberts Jr. In a remarkable move, Kenny Jr has refused to ride the KR212V in its present state, saying he has ridden the bike enough, and there's nothing more to be learnt. The one criticism that has constantly been leveled at Kenny Roberts Jr is that he will not ride a bike that he does not to its limit, an assessment borne out by his poor results on the Suzuki during the four-stroke era.

Kurtis Roberts, however, is keen, and is sure to make a go of riding the bike. The team were slated to be joined this weekend by Jonny Rea, currently riding a Honda in British Superbikes, but Honda withdrew Rea from the race, citing the pressure on the young British rider's time, what with his involvement with the Suzuka 8 hour race, and the BSB championship. Suspicions remain, however, that Honda pulled Rea to prevent his reputation being tarnished by a futile race at the back of the field. Big things are expected of Rea in the future, and Honda may not have wanted him carrying the albatross of a failed MotoGP ride around his neck for the rest of his career.

Better Build An Ark

If the weather forecasters are to be believed, Donington Park could see a whole range of sea creatures this weekend, with a veritable deluge possible over the next few days. Already, areas to the south and west of the Midlands have suffered very heavy flooding after torrential downpours drenched the nation, and Donington could be next. Fortunately, though, the weather in Britain is ever capricious, and those heavy showers could easily be mixed in with some sunshine. The fickle weather will complicate an already unpredictable race, but come rain or shine, the race is sure to entertain. Roll on, Sunday.

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2007 Catalunya MotoGP Race Report - Signs And Wonders

Human beings are extraordinary creatures. Where the birds of the air and the beasts of the field simply take note of everything that takes place around them, accept it, and move on, we humans are always looking for symbols and signs. The one thing that marks us out more than anything is the need to attach significance to events, to impose a pattern upon them to make them easier to comprehend. We do this in many ways: Sometimes, by attributing causes to certain occurrences, saying that a wallet was lost because we walked under a ladder, or cracked a mirror. Sometimes, we simplify events, shaping them to fit our preconceptions, preferring to attribute causation to a specific person or group, rather than investigate the details and find out what really happened. And sometimes we reduce the vast complexity of history down to a handful of exchanges between famous individuals, assigning responsibility for events that swept across the world on the actions of a few key players.

Usually, such patterns and symbols exist only in our heads, as our minds struggle to fathom the immeasurable complexity of world beyond ourselves. But on occasion, the symbols that we impose are an accurate reflection of what we witness, as events themselves conspire to distill the richness of reality down to a simple, lucid portrait of the underlying truth of what played out before us.

Heart And Head

Last week's race at Mugello was a case in point. The Italian press had accused Valentino Rossi of not having his heart in MotoGP any more, of having raced too much and won too much to sustain the hunger needed to race at the very top level. Rossi's answer was simple, and in twofold: The helmet which Rossi always has specially painted for Mugello featured a giant heart at the front, and the way in which The Doctor fought his way forward to lead and then dominate the race was a powerful demonstration that Rossi had lost none of his passion for racing and his desire to win.

The question was, was this a turning point? Now that Rossi had won at a track where Ducati was expected to dominate with its superior power, did this mean that the sting had been drawn from the Beast From Bologna, and that Casey Stoner's title shot was spent? Here at Catalunya, we would surely get an answer to that question. For the track just outside Barcelona has the right ingredients to settle this argument: It has a kilometer-long straight which favors outright top speed, allowing a fast bike like the Ducati to pull away using raw horsepower, but it is also one of Valentino Rossi's favorite tracks, a place where he has won an astonishing 8 times out of the 11 times has raced here.

The practices sessions had left the argument undecided, with Casey Stoner fastest on the Ducati in the relative cool of the mornings, but Valentino Rossi quickest in the burning heat of the afternoon, showcasing his ability to ride when grip is low and tires are sliding. But the afternoon is when it counts, and The Doctor had taken a brilliant pole with a record-setting lap during Saturday's qualifying, leaving Stoner on the second row, down in 4th. And as the one session that really matters is in the afternoon, the race taking place after the scorching midday sun has taken its toll on the track, the odds were starting to sway Rossi's way.

... And Breathe

As the red lights ceased blazing, and the massed ranks of metal machinery thundered down to turn 1, the first round of the battle unfolded. It was Casey Stoner's Ducati which struck the first blow, the kid from Kurri Kurri getting his usual rocket-propelled start to the front of the field, while Valentino Rossi's Fiat Yamaha exhibited its usual reluctance to leave the line, losing three places before they reached the first turn. The roar of a pack of 130dB engines was almost lost in the sound of collective intake of 112,000 breaths, the memory of last year's first corner catastrophe still fresh in the minds of the thronged spectators, but this year, good sense prevailed. The field sailed through in a neat procession, the spectacle provided by tight racing, not flying debris.

Rather aptly, Dani Pedrosa led the field through Elf corner, the first turn of the circuit, with Stoner close behind him and John Hopkins following on the Suzuki. Rossi had slipped to 4th, ahead of the gutsy Frenchman Randy de Puniet, who had set the 2nd fastest time in qualifying on his Kawasaki, despite his knee being swollen to the size of a volleyball. Stoner's jump from 4th to 2nd was no fluke: His Ducati team mate Loris Capirossi had gotten an even more ballistic start, leaping from a lowly 17th spot up to 9th. The Italian veteran was to lose two places before the end of the lap, but the Ducatis had made it clear that they meant business.

As they ran down the short straight into Repsol, things looked like getting worse for Rossi. De Puniet was on him, and starting to push through the long right-hander. Rossi countered by pressing on to Hopkins, sneaking a glance up the inside of the Suzuki going into the left-right flick of Würth. Hopper blocked, and held Rossi off to power away up the hill. Behind Rossi, de Puniet was still pushing hard. How hard would show at the tight left-hander La Caixa, the Frenchman catching a highsider just in time, allowing Toni Elias to slip through and take 5th on the Gresini Honda.

A Day At The Races

The crowd awaited the first straight horsepower fight through the long series of right handers before the finish line. Pedrosa still led as they ran onto the straight, but would the extra 800 revs the Hondas had at their disposal be enough to hold off the dreaded Ducati drive down the front straight? The answer, as the bikes hit the Elf corner once again, was no. But unlike Qatar and Shanghai, where the Ducatis had destroyed the competition down the straights, at Catalunya, the Beast from Bologna only edged towards and past the Honda, entering the turn ahead, but not by much.

If there was one thing that Valentino Rossi could not permit to happen, it was Casey Stoner checking out. Seeing Stoner pounce on Pedrosa spurred the Italian into action: If he was to catch Stoner, he had better do it soon. The first obstacle in his path was John Hopkins. Rossi tried drafting the Suzuki down the front straight, drawing even as they entered the braking zone for Elf. There are ways of getting past Hopper, but hard on the brakes is probably the most difficult, and Rossi came up just short. But The Doctor was not to be deterred, as he hounded Hopkins round the long right handers and then the hairpin, cutting inside the American to snatch 3rd through the left hander at Würth. His victory was short-lived, as Hopper was back past again into Campsa, after the short drag up the hill.

Rossi was forced to bide his time, following Hopkins through the stadium section, and lining the Suzuki up round the long right handers back onto the front straight. As they flashed across the line, Hopkins once again had the Fiat Yamaha slowly gaining on, as Rossi used the draft of the Suzuki ahead. This time, Rossi waited just a fraction later before braking, and was past Hopkins into the first turn.

It had taken Rossi a whole lap to get past Hopkins, and Stoner and Pedrosa had taken advantage to pull a gap, putting a chink of space between themselves and the Rossi. But Hopper had no time to recover from the loss of a place, for Toni Elias was on him right after Rossi went through. The field was all still very close: Randy de Puniet was still battling on behind Elias in 6th, with Elias' Gresini Honda team mate Marco Melandri sat on his tail pipe. Behind Melandri, Colin Edwards was starting to lose touch on his Fiat Yamaha, but keeping ahead of Nicky Hayden on the other Repsol Honda and Stoner's team mate, Loris Capirossi storming through the field, with Alex Barros on the Pramac Ducati close behind.

Pushy Kids

Back at the front, Dani Pedrosa was working on ways to attack Stoner's lead. On lap 3, the Spaniard clung close to the Ducati, launching his Honda down the front straight in an attempt to draft past Stoner into the first turn. He gained on the Australian, but the Ducati was just too strong to be passed along the straight, and Stoner led into Elf as they started on the turns once again. Wherever Pedrosa pushed, Stoner responded, holding off the local hero, despite the crowd almost physically willing Pedrosa on.

In the meanwhile, Hopkins was starting to lose touch with Rossi, just the merest hint of daylight appearing between the two. Toni Elias chose that moment to pounce, drafting past the Suzuki and attempting to outbrake Hopper into the first turn. Once again, Hopkins was not to be outdone on the brakes. Elias got past, but the effort was expensive: The Honda man was in just a fraction too hot, and ran wide, allowing Hopkins back past into 4th. Elias' move was costly for the Spaniard, but also painful for the man behind him, Randy de Puniet. As Elias recovered, he pulled into the path of the Frenchman's Kawasaki, slamming the bodywork of his Honda into de Puniet's badly injured knee. Both men stayed upright, but the move left de Puniet smarting, and allowed Melandri to get right on the Kawasaki's rear wheel. Sensing the chaos behind him, Hopkins pushed on, build an unbridgeable gap by the end of the lap.

Four laps later, de Puniet repaid Elias for that blow on his painful knee, in the most precious currency racing has to offer. The Frenchman finally got past Elias, to take 5th from the Catalonian in front of his home crowd.

Horns Of A Dilemma

With the battle still raging between the front two, Valentino Rossi started creeping closer, shaving tenths of a second of the lead for lap after lap. By the start of lap 7, the Italian had almost joined the leading pair, closing the last of the gap braking into Elf again, and chasing the Spaniard down through the Renault and Repsol right handers. Pedrosa was now caught in a trap: Should he concentrate on Stoner, with the risk of leaving the door open for Rossi somewhere, or should his first priority be on keeping The Doctor at bay? Pedrosa's hesitation proved costly, Stoner edging fractionally away, settling the Spaniard's dilemma for him. With the Yamaha and Honda getting in each other's way, Hopkins made another push to join them, setting the fastest lap of the race to pull within half a second of Rossi. Last year, Hopper would have been delighted with a 4th place, but the American has tasted the podium champagne now, and 4th is simply not good enough any more. He put his head down, and gave chase once again.

But now Rossi needed to make a move. With Stoner leading unchallenged, and able to concentrate on conserving his tires, Rossi need to catch the Australian and start applying some serious pressure. To do that, he had to pass Pedrosa, and passing Pedrosa is no easy task. Rossi kept snapping away at the Spaniard's heels, finally forcing his way past at the end of the straight. But that first turn is tricky, as the initial right-hander is followed quickly by a flick left, where a rider passed on the inside into turn 1 can get back past if they can stay left and hold their speed round the outside of Elf. Pedrosa tried, but Rossi blocked perfectly, clipping the left hand apex and forcing Pedrosa to back off, and allowing Hopkins to get on the back of the Spanish prodigy once again.

Battle Plan

With Pedrosa dealt with, Rossi focused his efforts on Casey Stoner. The Italian gave chase, closing on Stoner through the long, fast right-hand turns which litter the Montmelo circuit. By the end of the lap, The Doctor was almost in Stoner's draft again, finally bridging the gap with another stupendous display of braking into turn 1. The Doctor then started clinically applying pressure on the young Aussie round the Renault and Repsol right handers once again, getting close enough to barge his way through into the left hand hairpin which follows. He could pass, but could not hold his line, and Stoner was back through after Rossi ran wide. The move had cost Rossi little, as he still sat perched on Stoner's tail, but it was the start of a pattern, one we have seen repeated so many times before from the Italian. Once Rossi is following a rider he considers a rival for the championship, The Doctor starts slowly turning the screws. A wheel is shown in one turn, a pass he knows he cannot sustain is made at the next, in the hope of making his rivals nervous, and forcing them to make a mistake. With the battle already raging on the racing front, Rossi had opened hostilities on a second front, in the field of PsyOps.

Over the next 5 laps, Rossi applied the pressure, buzzing around Stoner's tail like an irate wasp. The Australian was constantly engaged in holding off Rossi's advances round the rear of the section, winning only the slightest reprieve down the front straight, before facing yet another attack into Elf. For while the Yamaha could stay in the Ducati's draft, a vast improvement since the humiliation of Qatar, Rossi could not pull out and past, still a couple of miles per hour short of the Ducati's top speed.

But this was still a three-way fight. With Rossi fixated on bludgeoning Stoner into submission, Pedrosa was hunting down The Doctor, and attempting to administer a dose of his own medicine. While Rossi pushed Stoner round the twists and turns of the back section of the circuit, Pedrosa tracked Rossi's movements closely, then slipped out of Rossi's draft to have a look at the Italian going into the first turn.

The Hunter Hunted

At the end of lap 17, with Dani Pedrosa right on his tail, The Doctor judged that Stoner should be softened up just about enough. And so Rossi pushed on once again, cutting inside through Repsol and running wide, knowing that if he could hold his position, he would have the line through the Seat hairpin. Stoner was back inside Rossi coming out of the right hander, just as Rossi had expected, but Rossi held his line, and fended off the Australian through the hairpin. Both Rossi and Stoner knew that Rossi had to make his move straight away, and try to get enough of a gap through the twist and turns of the back section before the leading trio reached the front straight. Rossi pushed hard, but Stoner pushed harder, and as they exited the last of the long series of right-hand turns that lead on to the straight, Rossi was not far enough ahead. Rossi led over the line, but Stoner was in his draft, and gaining.

By the end of the straight, the Australian was past, but not by enough: Majestic on the brakes once again, Rossi took back the lead to start lap 19 ahead for the first time. But Stoner was not going to take it lying down. Casey gritted his teeth and dug in, forcing the nose of his Ducati up the inside of the first long right hander of the track at Renault. They exited two abreast, Rossi outside while Stoner sat holding the inside line, creeping ahead on the short straight, but still with nothing between the front three. If three had fitted into the first right hander, then three should have been able to fit through the second right hander, both Rossi and Pedrosa pulling out of the Ducati's draft to try to get into Repsol first. But it was Stoner who held the advantage, the three running through the turn almost bumping tires like a fairground ride.

While Stoner led, Rossi moved at the hairpin once again, jamming his Yamaha up the inside of Stoner into Seat. But this time, he could not hold his line, and ran wide, allowing Stoner back past, and holding Pedrosa up behind. Pedrosa was now just inches from Rossi's back wheel, and sat perched on the Italian's tail ready to pounce. His moment came down the front straight, pulling out of the draft to pass Rossi as they approached the first turn. But Rossi once again demonstrated the Yamaha's astounding stability on the brakes, snatching back 4 bike lengths to get back ahead into Elf.

If At First You Don't Succeed ...

His attempt at forcing a break round the rear of the track having failed, Rossi tried another tack. The Doctor closed down Stoner as they entered the stadium section, all the while towing Pedrosa in his wake. But instead of waiting patiently in Stoner's slipstream to outbrake him into Turn 1, Rossi slid up the inside through the final right hander leading back onto the straight. At first sight, a pointless maneuver, his Yamaha sure to be outgunned by the Ducati's superior horses along the main straight. And as expected, the Australian got past, first by a fair margin going into the Elf turn at the end. But Rossi had the information he needed: He may have lost the lead by the end of the straight, but as the bikes crossed the finish line, where the flag would fall 5 laps later, it was the Yamaha in front, by the slimmest of margins.

The front three were still inseparable, as if joined at the wheels by an invisible bond, but the battle had abated, each side content to sit for a lap and plan their next attack. They did not wait long. As the trio crossed the line to embark on lap 22, Rossi once again slid out of Stoner's draft to outbrake the Aussie into Turn 1. This time, Stoner could not reply again through the early right handers, but nor could Rossi escape. The front two scrapped within inches of each other, with Dani Pedrosa just behind, content to ride the Australo-Italian roller coaster, ready to strike at the first sign of weakness.

Rossi tried to break Stoner round the back of the circuit again, and again he failed. And along the long front straight, Stoner was past yet again, trying to cut across and hold the inside line on Rossi into the Elf corner. But Rossi would not be held on the brakes, and entered first, brutally cutting across Stoner, blocking him through the turn. The block did not hold for long though, as moments later, Stoner was once again back on Rossi's tail, Pedrosa still sat perched like a hawk behind Stoner.

Blue In The Face

The tension around the track was palpable, and in the Yamaha, Ducati and Honda garages, people were turning purple. Every ounce of mental energy was focused on the intense action on the TV screens, none wasted on fripperies such as the need to breathe.

As the bikes embarked on the penultimate lap, Rossi still led Stoner over the line, with Pedrosa behind. But Stoner was gaining once again, and he had learned from his move on the last lap, this time making sure that his pass on Rossi stuck into Turn 1, not allowing the Italian back past. This time it was Rossi's turn to attach himself to Stoner's tail unit as they rounded the right-handers, then ran up and down the hill, then into and out of the stadium section, and back onto the front straight. And along the front straight, it was Pedrosa's turn to launch himself out of the draft, poking his nose ahead of Rossi, before getting pummeled by the superior braking of Rossi's Yamaha.

The front three could have been covered by a very small hand towel as they rounded Renault. Two turns later, Rossi had yet another go at passing Stoner into the Seat hairpin, but this time, he could not get past. The waiting was for the final right handers, and the move that Rossi had practiced earlier. But Stoner is a quick learner: He'd seen the move that Rossi had tried through those final long right handers, and was prepared. Holding his line, he held Rossi off just long enough to get the drop out of the final turn, to clinch the victory by little more than a wheel. Just 0.069 separated Casey Stoner's Ducati from Valentino Rossi's Yamaha as they crossed the line, both men utterly spent. Dani Pedrosa was forced to settle for 3rd, after constantly threatening throughout the race, but never quite able to make a move.

Behind Pedrosa, John Hopkins came home to another frustrating 4th place, nearly 8 seconds off the pace. The Suzuki man knows that another podium is close, but at Catalunya, it wasn't close enough.

True Grit

Hopkins was followed by the bravest rider of the weekend. Randy de Puniet secured the best finish of his career with a knee the size of a melon. He entered the pits, barely able to get off the bike, and hobbled back into his garage to a hero's reception from his Kawasaki crew. There is constant speculation about de Puniet's future, but he proved here at Barcelona that he has the grit and the talent to get great results under difficult circumstances. The only thing he lacks is consistency.

But de Puniet's 5th was significant for more than just the Frenchman. It also demonstrated the parity of the field, with the first five places taken by five different manufacturers' bikes, the Ducati leading home the four Japanese manufacturers.

Stoner's Ducati team mate, Loris Capirossi, came home in 6th, a strong showing after battling his way up from 17th place on the grid during the early laps. But it had taken too long for Capirex to fight his way past Melandri into 7th spot to catch those ahead of him, only being gifted an extra place after Toni Elias' engine blew up in a spectacular cloud of smoke.

The fight behind Capirossi had been long and fierce. Chris Vermeulen had eventually come out on top, taking his Rizla Suzuki into 7th spot, almost catching and passing Capirossi at the end of the race. Vermeulen gets stronger and stronger as the race goes on, but loses too much in the early stages to be in contention for a podium.

The losers of the battle for 7th came in 5 seconds behind Vermeulen. Alex Barros led the way to take 8th on the Pramac d'Antin Ducati, his podium at Mugello not to be repeated here, ahead of Marco Melandri on the Gresini Honda. Melandri had been on a backward slide since getting past Colin Edwards on lap 2, slow slipping down the order to finish 9th. Edwards came out of the scrap to finish 10th on the Fiat Yamaha, passing the reigning world champion Nicky Hayden on the last lap.

The Burden Of Office

11th position is not where The Kentucky Kid will want to be conducting his title defense from, but that number 1 plate is turning out to be at least as heavy as Valentino Rossi had warned him it would be. Hayden had some new parts, including the new engine internals and exhausts which Pedrosa had used earlier, and almost as importantly, he had a new, wider fairing, providing a fractionally better aerodynamic shape down the long front straight. But there is still a mountain to move for the American champion, even though things are improving round by round. He must surely be desperate to have things fixed by the time the MotoGP circus reaches Laguna Seca.

In 12th place came Makoto Tamada on the Dunlop Tech 3 Yamaha. The Dunlops are slowly and steadily improving, and inching closer to the two main tire suppliers race by race. Tamada had beaten Alex Hofmann this race, the German to get comfortable with his bike after wrecking a clutch during qualifying.

Tamada's team mate Sylvain Guintoli came home in 14th, scoring points once again, and what's more, holding off Shinya Nakano. Great things had been expected of Nakano at the beginning of the season, but Konica Minolta Honda seem like a cursed team, with Nakano suffering the same fate as Makoto Tamada, the man whose place Nakano took. The prospects look poor for both team and rider at the end of this season.

Kenny Roberts Jr finished 16th, and just out of the points. But still, the team did well this weekend, Kenny Jr finally beating someone, after a run of finishes in last place. What's more remarkable is Roberts' lap times, getting stronger towards the end of the race, while those around him faded.

The man Kenny Roberts beat was the hapless Carlos Checa. 17th place is a disaster in front of his home crowd, especially after his strong showing at last year's race on the Tech 3 Yamaha, but Checa is suffering the same problems as all the other Honda riders. His fortunes are unlikely to improve until the faster parts now being used by the Repsol Honda team start filtering their way down to the satellite teams.

Kurtis Roberts was the last man home on the Team Roberts KR212V. Although not a spectacular result, Kurtis' riding has been extremely helpful to the team, allowing them to find a direction to develop the bike. Although some new parts for Kenny Jr will be present at Donington, Kurtis' work won't start to pay off until the team get to Laguna Seca in July.

Signs Of The Times

We came to Catalunya looking for signs, for clues to the way the championship would play out. We were treated not just to a great race, but also to a beautifully condensed summary of the championship. The issues which will be key to the outcome of the 2007 MotoGP season were laid out clearly and understandably in Barcelona, providing a perfect synopsis of the main characters, and their strengths and weaknesses.

Those weaknesses are very few indeed. Previously, whenever anyone mentioned weakness, they cast a furtive glance at Casey Stoner, as the Australian was expected to wither under the intense pressure from Valentino Rossi, as so many had before him. But the race at Barcelona put a very permanent end to any such talk, as Stoner withstood everything The Doctor could throw at him, and paid him back in kind. What's more, Stoner's advantage could no longer be laid firmly at the door of his Ducati, as both the Yamaha and Honda have so clearly closed the gap, though suspicion remains that the Ducati may have been reigned in a little, to conserve fuel and make the bike a fraction more ridable. The Ducati is still the fastest bike on the grid, but the difference is no longer measured in tens of kilometers an hour.

Now, any talk of weakness must focus on the Honda RC212V. The bike is much improved, with the power so sorely missed in previous rounds now at least on tap in some small measure. But the bike still suffers from chatter, and from a vagueness at the front end, as so clearly demonstrated by the drubbing Valentino Rossi was dishing out to Dani Pedrosa each time the pair got involved in a braking duel. Catalunya equaled Honda's longest streak of 8 races without a win back in 1992, and with the Honda in the shape it's in, and the Ducati and Yamaha as good as they are, that record looks like being broken, possibly by several races.

Of course, the Honda's obvious weakness hides another question mark. Dani Pedrosa is able to ride without too much pressure, as shortcomings in the race are rightly blamed on the machine. Without this pressure, Pedrosa has proven himself to be an outstanding rider, capable of achieving results well beyond the capabilities of just the machine itself. The question is, how will Pedrosa stand up once HRC have put their house in order, gotten the RC212V back to winning ways, and the burden of expectations shifts once again from the engineers to the slight frame of the man from Sabadell.

As for Valentino Rossi, things seem perfectly clear: The Yamaha is lacking just a little bit of top end power, but is almost certainly the best handling motorcycle in the world. As for Rossi, he has never ridden better, putting on imperial displays of riding skill to compensate for the horses lacking from his M1. But the machinery is closer and the competition is tougher than ever before, with two of the best riders ever to come out of the 250 class just beginning to reach the peak of their abilities in MotoGP. Rossi has never had it so tough, and frankly, he seems to be relishing it.

We asked for signs, and got so much more. If anyone ask you to explain what is going on in MotoGP today, you need only point them to the Barcelona race. Past, present and future were all wrapped up inside, in a neat, understandable, and above all glorious package.

2007 Catalunya MotoGP Race Results

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2007 Catalunya MotoGP Race Report - Signs And Wonders

Human beings are extraordinary creatures. Where the birds of the air and the beasts of the field simply take note of everything that takes place around them, accept it, and move on, we humans are always looking for symbols and signs. The one thing that marks us out more than anything is the need to attach significance to events, to impose a pattern upon them to make them easier to comprehend. We do this in many ways: Sometimes, by attributing causes to certain occurrences, saying that a wallet was lost because we walked under a ladder, or cracked a mirror. Sometimes, we simplify events, shaping them to fit our preconceptions, preferring to attribute causation to a specific person or group, rather than investigate the details and find out what really happened. And sometimes we reduce the vast complexity of history down to a handful of exchanges between famous individuals, assigning responsibility for events that swept across the world on the actions of a few key players.

Usually, such patterns and symbols exist only in our heads, as our minds struggle to fathom the immeasurable complexity of world beyond ourselves. But on occasion, the symbols that we impose are an accurate reflection of what we witness, as events themselves conspire to distill the richness of reality down to a simple, lucid portrait of the underlying truth of what played out before us.

Heart And Head

Last week's race at Mugello was a case in point. The Italian press had accused Valentino Rossi of not having his heart in MotoGP any more, of having raced too much and won too much to sustain the hunger needed to race at the very top level. Rossi's answer was simple, and in twofold: The helmet which Rossi always has specially painted for Mugello featured a giant heart at the front, and the way in which The Doctor fought his way forward to lead and then dominate the race was a powerful demonstration that Rossi had lost none of his passion for racing and his desire to win.

The question was, was this a turning point? Now that Rossi had won at a track where Ducati was expected to dominate with its superior power, did this mean that the sting had been drawn from the Beast From Bologna, and that Casey Stoner's title shot was spent? Here at Catalunya, we would surely get an answer to that question. For the track just outside Barcelona has the right ingredients to settle this argument: It has a kilometer-long straight which favors outright top speed, allowing a fast bike like the Ducati to pull away using raw horsepower, but it is also one of Valentino Rossi's favorite tracks, a place where he has won an astonishing 8 times out of the 11 times has raced here.

The practices sessions had left the argument undecided, with Casey Stoner fastest on the Ducati in the relative cool of the mornings, but Valentino Rossi quickest in the burning heat of the afternoon, showcasing his ability to ride when grip is low and tires are sliding. But the afternoon is when it counts, and The Doctor had taken a brilliant pole with a record-setting lap during Saturday's qualifying, leaving Stoner on the second row, down in 4th. And as the one session that really matters is in the afternoon, the race taking place after the scorching midday sun has taken its toll on the track, the odds were starting to sway Rossi's way.

... And Breathe

As the red lights ceased blazing, and the massed ranks of metal machinery thundered down to turn 1, the first round of the battle unfolded. It was Casey Stoner's Ducati which struck the first blow, the kid from Kurri Kurri getting his usual rocket-propelled start to the front of the field, while Valentino Rossi's Fiat Yamaha exhibited its usual reluctance to leave the line, losing three places before they reached the first turn. The roar of a pack of 130dB engines was almost lost in the sound of collective intake of 112,000 breaths, the memory of last year's first corner catastrophe still fresh in the minds of the thronged spectators, but this year, good sense prevailed. The field sailed through in a neat procession, the spectacle provided by tight racing, not flying debris.

Rather aptly, Dani Pedrosa led the field through Elf corner, the first turn of the circuit, with Stoner close behind him and John Hopkins following on the Suzuki. Rossi had slipped to 4th, ahead of the gutsy Frenchman Randy de Puniet, who had set the 2nd fastest time in qualifying on his Kawasaki, despite his knee being swollen to the size of a volleyball. Stoner's jump from 4th to 2nd was no fluke: His Ducati team mate Loris Capirossi had gotten an even more ballistic start, leaping from a lowly 17th spot up to 9th. The Italian veteran was to lose two places before the end of the lap, but the Ducatis had made it clear that they meant business.

As they ran down the short straight into Repsol, things looked like getting worse for Rossi. De Puniet was on him, and starting to push through the long right-hander. Rossi countered by pressing on to Hopkins, sneaking a glance up the inside of the Suzuki going into the left-right flick of Würth. Hopper blocked, and held Rossi off to power away up the hill. Behind Rossi, de Puniet was still pushing hard. How hard would show at the tight left-hander La Caixa, the Frenchman catching a highsider just in time, allowing Toni Elias to slip through and take 5th on the Gresini Honda.

A Day At The Races

The crowd awaited the first straight horsepower fight through the long series of right handers before the finish line. Pedrosa still led as they ran onto the straight, but would the extra 800 revs the Hondas had at their disposal be enough to hold off the dreaded Ducati drive down the front straight? The answer, as the bikes hit the Elf corner once again, was no. But unlike Qatar and Shanghai, where the Ducatis had destroyed the competition down the straights, at Catalunya, the Beast from Bologna only edged towards and past the Honda, entering the turn ahead, but not by much.

If there was one thing that Valentino Rossi could not permit to happen, it was Casey Stoner checking out. Seeing Stoner pounce on Pedrosa spurred the Italian into action: If he was to catch Stoner, he had better do it soon. The first obstacle in his path was John Hopkins. Rossi tried drafting the Suzuki down the front straight, drawing even as they entered the braking zone for Elf. There are ways of getting past Hopper, but hard on the brakes is probably the most difficult, and Rossi came up just short. But The Doctor was not to be deterred, as he hounded Hopkins round the long right handers and then the hairpin, cutting inside the American to snatch 3rd through the left hander at Würth. His victory was short-lived, as Hopper was back past again into Campsa, after the short drag up the hill.

Rossi was forced to bide his time, following Hopkins through the stadium section, and lining the Suzuki up round the long right handers back onto the front straight. As they flashed across the line, Hopkins once again had the Fiat Yamaha slowly gaining on, as Rossi used the draft of the Suzuki ahead. This time, Rossi waited just a fraction later before braking, and was past Hopkins into the first turn.

It had taken Rossi a whole lap to get past Hopkins, and Stoner and Pedrosa had taken advantage to pull a gap, putting a chink of space between themselves and the Rossi. But Hopper had no time to recover from the loss of a place, for Toni Elias was on him right after Rossi went through. The field was all still very close: Randy de Puniet was still battling on behind Elias in 6th, with Elias' Gresini Honda team mate Marco Melandri sat on his tail pipe. Behind Melandri, Colin Edwards was starting to lose touch on his Fiat Yamaha, but keeping ahead of Nicky Hayden on the other Repsol Honda and Stoner's team mate, Loris Capirossi storming through the field, with Alex Barros on the Pramac Ducati close behind.

Pushy Kids

Back at the front, Dani Pedrosa was working on ways to attack Stoner's lead. On lap 3, the Spaniard clung close to the Ducati, launching his Honda down the front straight in an attempt to draft past Stoner into the first turn. He gained on the Australian, but the Ducati was just too strong to be passed along the straight, and Stoner led into Elf as they started on the turns once again. Wherever Pedrosa pushed, Stoner responded, holding off the local hero, despite the crowd almost physically willing Pedrosa on.

In the meanwhile, Hopkins was starting to lose touch with Rossi, just the merest hint of daylight appearing between the two. Toni Elias chose that moment to pounce, drafting past the Suzuki and attempting to outbrake Hopper into the first turn. Once again, Hopkins was not to be outdone on the brakes. Elias got past, but the effort was expensive: The Honda man was in just a fraction too hot, and ran wide, allowing Hopkins back past into 4th. Elias' move was costly for the Spaniard, but also painful for the man behind him, Randy de Puniet. As Elias recovered, he pulled into the path of the Frenchman's Kawasaki, slamming the bodywork of his Honda into de Puniet's badly injured knee. Both men stayed upright, but the move left de Puniet smarting, and allowed Melandri to get right on the Kawasaki's rear wheel. Sensing the chaos behind him, Hopkins pushed on, build an unbridgeable gap by the end of the lap.

Four laps later, de Puniet repaid Elias for that blow on his painful knee, in the most precious currency racing has to offer. The Frenchman finally got past Elias, to take 5th from the Catalonian in front of his home crowd.

Horns Of A Dilemma

With the battle still raging between the front two, Valentino Rossi started creeping closer, shaving tenths of a second of the lead for lap after lap. By the start of lap 7, the Italian had almost joined the leading pair, closing the last of the gap braking into Elf again, and chasing the Spaniard down through the Renault and Repsol right handers. Pedrosa was now caught in a trap: Should he concentrate on Stoner, with the risk of leaving the door open for Rossi somewhere, or should his first priority be on keeping The Doctor at bay? Pedrosa's hesitation proved costly, Stoner edging fractionally away, settling the Spaniard's dilemma for him. With the Yamaha and Honda getting in each other's way, Hopkins made another push to join them, setting the fastest lap of the race to pull within half a second of Rossi. Last year, Hopper would have been delighted with a 4th place, but the American has tasted the podium champagne now, and 4th is simply not good enough any more. He put his head down, and gave chase once again.

But now Rossi needed to make a move. With Stoner leading unchallenged, and able to concentrate on conserving his tires, Rossi need to catch the Australian and start applying some serious pressure. To do that, he had to pass Pedrosa, and passing Pedrosa is no easy task. Rossi kept snapping away at the Spaniard's heels, finally forcing his way past at the end of the straight. But that first turn is tricky, as the initial right-hander is followed quickly by a flick left, where a rider passed on the inside into turn 1 can get back past if they can stay left and hold their speed round the outside of Elf. Pedrosa tried, but Rossi blocked perfectly, clipping the left hand apex and forcing Pedrosa to back off, and allowing Hopkins to get on the back of the Spanish prodigy once again.

Battle Plan

With Pedrosa dealt with, Rossi focused his efforts on Casey Stoner. The Italian gave chase, closing on Stoner through the long, fast right-hand turns which litter the Montmelo circuit. By the end of the lap, The Doctor was almost in Stoner's draft again, finally bridging the gap with another stupendous display of braking into turn 1. The Doctor then started clinically applying pressure on the young Aussie round the Renault and Repsol right handers once again, getting close enough to barge his way through into the left hand hairpin which follows. He could pass, but could not hold his line, and Stoner was back through after Rossi ran wide. The move had cost Rossi little, as he still sat perched on Stoner's tail, but it was the start of a pattern, one we have seen repeated so many times before from the Italian. Once Rossi is following a rider he considers a rival for the championship, The Doctor starts slowly turning the screws. A wheel is shown in one turn, a pass he knows he cannot sustain is made at the next, in the hope of making his rivals nervous, and forcing them to make a mistake. With the battle already raging on the racing front, Rossi had opened hostilities on a second front, in the field of PsyOps.

Over the next 5 laps, Rossi applied the pressure, buzzing around Stoner's tail like an irate wasp. The Australian was constantly engaged in holding off Rossi's advances round the rear of the section, winning only the slightest reprieve down the front straight, before facing yet another attack into Elf. For while the Yamaha could stay in the Ducati's draft, a vast improvement since the humiliation of Qatar, Rossi could not pull out and past, still a couple of miles per hour short of the Ducati's top speed.

But this was still a three-way fight. With Rossi fixated on bludgeoning Stoner into submission, Pedrosa was hunting down The Doctor, and attempting to administer a dose of his own medicine. While Rossi pushed Stoner round the twists and turns of the back section of the circuit, Pedrosa tracked Rossi's movements closely, then slipped out of Rossi's draft to have a look at the Italian going into the first turn.

The Hunter Hunted

At the end of lap 17, with Dani Pedrosa right on his tail, The Doctor judged that Stoner should be softened up just about enough. And so Rossi pushed on once again, cutting inside through Repsol and running wide, knowing that if he could hold his position, he would have the line through the Seat hairpin. Stoner was back inside Rossi coming out of the right hander, just as Rossi had expected, but Rossi held his line, and fended off the Australian through the hairpin. Both Rossi and Stoner knew that Rossi had to make his move straight away, and try to get enough of a gap through the twist and turns of the back section before the leading trio reached the front straight. Rossi pushed hard, but Stoner pushed harder, and as they exited the last of the long series of right-hand turns that lead on to the straight, Rossi was not far enough ahead. Rossi led over the line, but Stoner was in his draft, and gaining.

By the end of the straight, the Australian was past, but not by enough: Majestic on the brakes once again, Rossi took back the lead to start lap 19 ahead for the first time. But Stoner was not going to take it lying down. Casey gritted his teeth and dug in, forcing the nose of his Ducati up the inside of the first long right hander of the track at Renault. They exited two abreast, Rossi outside while Stoner sat holding the inside line, creeping ahead on the short straight, but still with nothing between the front three. If three had fitted into the first right hander, then three should have been able to fit through the second right hander, both Rossi and Pedrosa pulling out of the Ducati's draft to try to get into Repsol first. But it was Stoner who held the advantage, the three running through the turn almost bumping tires like a fairground ride.

While Stoner led, Rossi moved at the hairpin once again, jamming his Yamaha up the inside of Stoner into Seat. But this time, he could not hold his line, and ran wide, allowing Stoner back past, and holding Pedrosa up behind. Pedrosa was now just inches from Rossi's back wheel, and sat perched on the Italian's tail ready to pounce. His moment came down the front straight, pulling out of the draft to pass Rossi as they approached the first turn. But Rossi once again demonstrated the Yamaha's astounding stability on the brakes, snatching back 4 bike lengths to get back ahead into Elf.

If At First You Don't Succeed ...

His attempt at forcing a break round the rear of the track having failed, Rossi tried another tack. The Doctor closed down Stoner as they entered the stadium section, all the while towing Pedrosa in his wake. But instead of waiting patiently in Stoner's slipstream to outbrake him into Turn 1, Rossi slid up the inside through the final right hander leading back onto the straight. At first sight, a pointless maneuver, his Yamaha sure to be outgunned by the Ducati's superior horses along the main straight. And as expected, the Australian got past, first by a fair margin going into the Elf turn at the end. But Rossi had the information he needed: He may have lost the lead by the end of the straight, but as the bikes crossed the finish line, where the flag would fall 5 laps later, it was the Yamaha in front, by the slimmest of margins.

The front three were still inseparable, as if joined at the wheels by an invisible bond, but the battle had abated, each side content to sit for a lap and plan their next attack. They did not wait long. As the trio crossed the line to embark on lap 22, Rossi once again slid out of Stoner's draft to outbrake the Aussie into Turn 1. This time, Stoner could not reply again through the early right handers, but nor could Rossi escape. The front two scrapped within inches of each other, with Dani Pedrosa just behind, content to ride the Australo-Italian roller coaster, ready to strike at the first sign of weakness.

Rossi tried to break Stoner round the back of the circuit again, and again he failed. And along the long front straight, Stoner was past yet again, trying to cut across and hold the inside line on Rossi into the Elf corner. But Rossi would not be held on the brakes, and entered first, brutally cutting across Stoner, blocking him through the turn. The block did not hold for long though, as moments later, Stoner was once again back on Rossi's tail, Pedrosa still sat perched like a hawk behind Stoner.

Blue In The Face

The tension around the track was palpable, and in the Yamaha, Ducati and Honda garages, people were turning purple. Every ounce of mental energy was focused on the intense action on the TV screens, none wasted on fripperies such as the need to breathe.

As the bikes embarked on the penultimate lap, Rossi still led Stoner over the line, with Pedrosa behind. But Stoner was gaining once again, and he had learned from his move on the last lap, this time making sure that his pass on Rossi stuck into Turn 1, not allowing the Italian back past. This time it was Rossi's turn to attach himself to Stoner's tail unit as they rounded the right-handers, then ran up and down the hill, then into and out of the stadium section, and back onto the front straight. And along the front straight, it was Pedrosa's turn to launch himself out of the draft, poking his nose ahead of Rossi, before getting pummeled by the superior braking of Rossi's Yamaha.

The front three could have been covered by a very small hand towel as they rounded Renault. Two turns later, Rossi had yet another go at passing Stoner into the Seat hairpin, but this time, he could not get past. The waiting was for the final right handers, and the move that Rossi had practiced earlier. But Stoner is a quick learner: He'd seen the move that Rossi had tried through those final long right handers, and was prepared. Holding his line, he held Rossi off just long enough to get the drop out of the final turn, to clinch the victory by little more than a wheel. Just 0.069 separated Casey Stoner's Ducati from Valentino Rossi's Yamaha as they crossed the line, both men utterly spent. Dani Pedrosa was forced to settle for 3rd, after constantly threatening throughout the race, but never quite able to make a move.

Behind Pedrosa, John Hopkins came home to another frustrating 4th place, nearly 8 seconds off the pace. The Suzuki man knows that another podium is close, but at Catalunya, it wasn't close enough.

True Grit

Hopkins was followed by the bravest rider of the weekend. Randy de Puniet secured the best finish of his career with a knee the size of a melon. He entered the pits, barely able to get off the bike, and hobbled back into his garage to a hero's reception from his Kawasaki crew. There is constant speculation about de Puniet's future, but he proved here at Barcelona that he has the grit and the talent to get great results under difficult circumstances. The only thing he lacks is consistency.

But de Puniet's 5th was significant for more than just the Frenchman. It also demonstrated the parity of the field, with the first five places taken by five different manufacturers' bikes, the Ducati leading home the four Japanese manufacturers.

Stoner's Ducati team mate, Loris Capirossi, came home in 6th, a strong showing after battling his way up from 17th place on the grid during the early laps. But it had taken too long for Capirex to fight his way past Melandri into 7th spot to catch those ahead of him, only being gifted an extra place after Toni Elias' engine blew up in a spectacular cloud of smoke.

The fight behind Capirossi had been long and fierce. Chris Vermeulen had eventually come out on top, taking his Rizla Suzuki into 7th spot, almost catching and passing Capirossi at the end of the race. Vermeulen gets stronger and stronger as the race goes on, but loses too much in the early stages to be in contention for a podium.

The losers of the battle for 7th came in 5 seconds behind Vermeulen. Alex Barros led the way to take 8th on the Pramac d'Antin Ducati, his podium at Mugello not to be repeated here, ahead of Marco Melandri on the Gresini Honda. Melandri had been on a backward slide since getting past Colin Edwards on lap 2, slow slipping down the order to finish 9th. Edwards came out of the scrap to finish 10th on the Fiat Yamaha, passing the reigning world champion Nicky Hayden on the last lap.

The Burden Of Office

11th position is not where The Kentucky Kid will want to be conducting his title defense from, but that number 1 plate is turning out to be at least as heavy as Valentino Rossi had warned him it would be. Hayden had some new parts, including the new engine internals and exhausts which Pedrosa had used earlier, and almost as importantly, he had a new, wider fairing, providing a fractionally better aerodynamic shape down the long front straight. But there is still a mountain to move for the American champion, even though things are improving round by round. He must surely be desperate to have things fixed by the time the MotoGP circus reaches Laguna Seca.

In 12th place came Makoto Tamada on the Dunlop Tech 3 Yamaha. The Dunlops are slowly and steadily improving, and inching closer to the two main tire suppliers race by race. Tamada had beaten Alex Hofmann this race, the German to get comfortable with his bike after wrecking a clutch during qualifying.

Tamada's team mate Sylvain Guintoli came home in 14th, scoring points once again, and what's more, holding off Shinya Nakano. Great things had been expected of Nakano at the beginning of the season, but Konica Minolta Honda seem like a cursed team, with Nakano suffering the same fate as Makoto Tamada, the man whose place Nakano took. The prospects look poor for both team and rider at the end of this season.

Kenny Roberts Jr finished 16th, and just out of the points. But still, the team did well this weekend, Kenny Jr finally beating someone, after a run of finishes in last place. What's more remarkable is Roberts' lap times, getting stronger towards the end of the race, while those around him faded.

The man Kenny Roberts beat was the hapless Carlos Checa. 17th place is a disaster in front of his home crowd, especially after his strong showing at last year's race on the Tech 3 Yamaha, but Checa is suffering the same problems as all the other Honda riders. His fortunes are unlikely to improve until the faster parts now being used by the Repsol Honda team start filtering their way down to the satellite teams.

Kurtis Roberts was the last man home on the Team Roberts KR212V. Although not a spectacular result, Kurtis' riding has been extremely helpful to the team, allowing them to find a direction to develop the bike. Although some new parts for Kenny Jr will be present at Donington, Kurtis' work won't start to pay off until the team get to Laguna Seca in July.

Signs Of The Times

We came to Catalunya looking for signs, for clues to the way the championship would play out. We were treated not just to a great race, but also to a beautifully condensed summary of the championship. The issues which will be key to the outcome of the 2007 MotoGP season were laid out clearly and understandably in Barcelona, providing a perfect synopsis of the main characters, and their strengths and weaknesses.

Those weaknesses are very few indeed. Previously, whenever anyone mentioned weakness, they cast a furtive glance at Casey Stoner, as the Australian was expected to wither under the intense pressure from Valentino Rossi, as so many had before him. But the race at Barcelona put a very permanent end to any such talk, as Stoner withstood everything The Doctor could throw at him, and paid him back in kind. What's more, Stoner's advantage could no longer be laid firmly at the door of his Ducati, as both the Yamaha and Honda have so clearly closed the gap, though suspicion remains that the Ducati may have been reigned in a little, to conserve fuel and make the bike a fraction more ridable. The Ducati is still the fastest bike on the grid, but the difference is no longer measured in tens of kilometers an hour.

Now, any talk of weakness must focus on the Honda RC212V. The bike is much improved, with the power so sorely missed in previous rounds now at least on tap in some small measure. But the bike still suffers from chatter, and from a vagueness at the front end, as so clearly demonstrated by the drubbing Valentino Rossi was dishing out to Dani Pedrosa each time the pair got involved in a braking duel. Catalunya equaled Honda's longest streak of 8 races without a win back in 1992, and with the Honda in the shape it's in, and the Ducati and Yamaha as good as they are, that record looks like being broken, possibly by several races.

Of course, the Honda's obvious weakness hides another question mark. Dani Pedrosa is able to ride without too much pressure, as shortcomings in the race are rightly blamed on the machine. Without this pressure, Pedrosa has proven himself to be an outstanding rider, capable of achieving results well beyond the capabilities of just the machine itself. The question is, how will Pedrosa stand up once HRC have put their house in order, gotten the RC212V back to winning ways, and the burden of expectations shifts once again from the engineers to the slight frame of the man from Sabadell.

As for Valentino Rossi, things seem perfectly clear: The Yamaha is lacking just a little bit of top end power, but is almost certainly the best handling motorcycle in the world. As for Rossi, he has never ridden better, putting on imperial displays of riding skill to compensate for the horses lacking from his M1. But the machinery is closer and the competition is tougher than ever before, with two of the best riders ever to come out of the 250 class just beginning to reach the peak of their abilities in MotoGP. Rossi has never had it so tough, and frankly, he seems to be relishing it.

We asked for signs, and got so much more. If anyone ask you to explain what is going on in MotoGP today, you need only point them to the Barcelona race. Past, present and future were all wrapped up inside, in a neat, understandable, and above all glorious package.

2007 Catalunya MotoGP Race Results

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2007 Catalunya MotoGP Preview - Fear And Loathing In La Caixa

From the soul of motorcycle racing, to it's nerve center. While Mugello, the scene of last week's MotoGP round, is close to Ducati, Montmelo, where the Barcelona track is located, is close to Dorna, the organization which runs MotoGP. But there is much more than just Dorna: many of the riders live in and around Barcelona, including Carlos Checa and Dani Pedrosa, but also Troy Bayliss and Hiroshi Aoyama. Kenny Roberts Sr has a place near Sitges, just down the coast from Barcelona, as does the famous US journalist Dennis Noyes. Then there's the medical profession: with so many racers of all disciplines in the area, the region's hospitals have also become specialists in racing-related injuries. Barcelona is the center the motorcycle racing world revolves around.

As a result, the circuit at Barcelona is deeply familiar to most of the MotoGP paddock. The track, shaped like a pair of bull's horns, flows up and down the hillsides just outside of Barcelona, and is a frequent venue for testing of all kinds of racing motorcycles. But the irony is that this year, the MotoGP circus has yet to visit the Montmelo circuit, having done all their pre-season testing down in Jerez instead. So neither the 800 cc bikes, nor the new tire regulations, have been tested at Barcelona, and frankly, that's making some of the teams a little nervous. The track has a long front straight with a fast turn at the beginning of it, meaning that although it's not the longest straight on the calendar, it does tend to produce the highest speeds: The riders enter it already traveling at close to 100 mph, before rocketing down the kilometer-long tarmac ribbon past the finish line. And that means that the huge injectors are spewing forth fuel into the thirsty, high-revving engines as fast as they can for a very long time. So far this year, we've seen the new tire regulations affect the race at both Istanbul and Shanghai, at Barcelona, we could see the new fuel limit of 21 liters cause problems, leaving some riders down on power, if not out of fuel, during some part of the race on Sunday.

Unlucky For Some

While some of the teams are a little nervous, Ducati must arrive at the Montmelo circuit with a great deal of trepidation. Their last visit here, the ill-fated 2006 MotoGP race, was about as disastrous an affair as you could ever imagine. Both their riders got caught up in the first corner chaos when the race as started for the first time, leaving Loris Capirossi with a very badly bruised chest, effectively ending his championship hopes, and Sete Gibernau with a broken collarbone, exacerbating an old injury, and presaging the end of Gibernau's racing career. With their last outing a catastrophe, there should be plenty of jitters in the Ducati garage this weekend.

But they have plenty of reasons for optimism to help wash those jitters away. The long straight at the Circuit de Catalunya should in theory allow the Ducatis to turn on the top speed advantage once again, but Barcelona could be like Mugello: Speculation is rife that Ducati turned down the power a little at the high-speed Italian track, to conserve fuel at the end of the race, as the speed differential with the rest of the field was markedly less than at previous races.

Fortunately for Ducati, Casey Stoner is so good at getting out of corners and onto straights, it's likely to be hard keeping up with the championship leader at Barcelona. Stoner again showed his maturity at Mugello, riding a steady race once he realized that he couldn't stay with Dani Pedrosa and Valentino Rossi, and scored some important points. But with Rossi taking a win, and closing the points gap down to just 9 points, the pressure will be on the young Australian. So far, he has borne that burden extraordinarily well, but Barcelona could be his first real test.

Loris Capirossi has less reason to be cheerful. Last year, Barcelona saw the accident that wrecked possibly the best shot the Italian ever had at winning the world title, and this year, he has singularly failed to get on with the 800cc GP7. Capirex used new engine parts at Mugello, aimed at providing a less peaky power delivery, which he claims have helped a little, but he really needs to find his feet again soon.

The other man with unhappy memories of Barcelona is Marco Melandri. He ended up in hospital in Barcelona with Capirossi and Gibernau, after lying motionless in the gravel. Almost miraculously, he returned to racing just a few days later at Assen, after suffering some bruising and a concussion. He will be hoping for revenge, but despite the fact that the Honda RC212V is steadily improving, it still has a number of issues, including chatter and a lack of feel at the front. Melandri has appeared on the podium twice at Catalunya, but a third time could be a very difficult prospect indeed.

Keeping The Streak Alive

All of Honda's hopes rest on the slight shoulders of Dani Pedrosa. But even Pedrosa had a torrid time here last year. The Spaniard, or to be more precise, the Catalonian, crashed a grand total of three times during last year's race, getting caught up in the first corner crash on the first start, then tumbling into the gravel shortly after remounting, only to crash out during the restarted race while sitting in 5th position. Up to that point, however, Pedrosa had looked very strong, barging his way through the field from 11th place. He always went well at Barcelona in the 250 class, winning once and taking second as well, and his race at Mugello last week was very strong indeed. Pedrosa has been just about the only Honda rider capable of getting anything out of the RC212V, and as the bike continues to improve, Pedrosa will get ever closer to a win. It's now been nearly a year since Pedrosa's last win, his longest losing streak since he started racing in the 125 class back in 2001.

And if Pedrosa or another Honda rider doesn't win at Barcelona, it will also be Honda's longest losing streak since Mick Doohan started off the 1992 season by breaking the string of 8 wins by Suzuki and Yamaha at the end of 1991. Honda have now been seven races without a win, their last victory being the race Toni Elias beat Valentino Rossi by the narrowest of margins at Estoril in Portugal. The MotoGP giant is unaccustomed to losing, and heads will surely start rolling if they don't return to winning ways soon.

If Dani Pedrosa will be hard pressed to win at Catalunya, the remainder of the Honda men will find it even more difficult. Nicky Hayden, Pedrosa's Repsol Honda team mate and the reigning world champion, is still battling to come to terms with the new, smaller Honda. Despite finally getting some new parts at Mugello, including a fairing which now provides a modicum of protection down long straights, The Kentucky Kid still can't get comfortable with lack of front end feel from the Honda, and without that feel, Hayden doesn't have the confidence in the bike to just go out and push the bike to its limits.

Two other Honda riders will be dreaming of an improbable victory come Sunday: Barcelona is the local track for Gresini Honda's Toni Elias and LCR Honda's Carlos Checa, both of whom live not far from the circuit. If anyone could pull the cat out of the bag, it would have to be wild man Elias, whose spectacular sliding style has won him many fans in the stands, but also many enemies in the paddock. With the memory of what happened in the first corner last year, many a rider will have a wary eye on Elias, hoping that the Spaniard can keep himself at least a little in check until the pack has siphoned through the first few turns.

His Way

After his spectacular victory at Mugello, Valentino Rossi must be relishing the prospect of the race at Barcelona. Like Mugello, the track at Montmelo has several places which really reward agility, and as Yamaha eke out a few more horses from Rossi's M1, he is losing less and less down the long straights as well. Rossi has won the last three races here, and in his current form, he is a very strong bet to extend that winning streak as well.

The Tech 3 team will also be looking forward to visiting Barcelona: this was the track that the Dunlops started showing real progress at last year, and as the gap between Dunlop and the big two tire manufacturers narrows, Sylvain Guintoli and Makoto Tamada get closer to running with the pack. Guintoli continues to impress, the most underestimated rider going into the season quickly becoming a favorite with both the fans and the paddock. With the transfer market seemingly in full swing, Guintoli looks like being a much hotter property than you might have guess just 6 months ago.

Hot To Trot

The hottest properties in the riders' market are to be found at Suzuki. Both Chris Vermeulen and John Hopkins have been linked with just about every other team in the paddock, after the Suzuki's vastly improved performance this year has allowed them both to show their true potential. And Barcelona is a track they both went well at last year, Hopkins coming tantalizingly close to his first podium here, finally being beaten by the horsepower of Kenny Roberts Jr's Honda-powered KR211V, while Vermeulen finished 6th. This year's Suzuki is if not light years, then at least astronomical units ahead of last year's bike, and so a podium for Hopkins looks very likely indeed.

The Kawasaki is also a bike that is hugely improved over last year. Unfortunately, however, the riders have been anything but an improved. The official Kawasaki press release spoke of the main challenge for Randy de Puniet and Olivier Jacque being not to crash. Kawasaki is one of the players making the most noise in the market, trying to attract a big name to finally release the potential of the ZX-RR, something the two Frenchmen have so clearly failed to do. Unless either OJ or de Puniet step up soon, they are likely to be looking for work at the end of the season. And with both of them injured, OJ still suffering with an injured arm from a crash in China, and de Puniet with a badly swollen knee from his fall in Mugello, that turnaround is unlikely to come in Spain.

At least the Kawasakis can be sure of beating the Team KR bikes. A repeat of Kenny Roberts Jr's podium of last year is almost unthinkable, unless the rest of the field crash out. Team Roberts has struggled badly so far this year, suffering both from the Honda engine's lack of horsepower, plus the centralized mass of the engine, which has made it difficult to balance the bike. Added to the team only having one rider, developing the KR212V has been very difficult. Luckily for the team, Kenny Senior's other son, Kurtis Roberts, joined the team at Mugello, and helped find the direction the bike needs to go in to become competitive. Kurtis is back for Barcelona, providing more input, and hopefully getting the underdog of the paddock, the team which is perhaps most admired for its gritty determination, back on track.

Affairs Of The Heart

If anywhere in the world deserves a MotoGP race, it is Barcelona. Catalonia, the autonomous region which has Barcelona at its heart, has done so much for motorcycle racing over the years, throwing up a seemingly endless supply of great racers, and adding the passion for racing which keeps MotoGP close to the hearts of all Spaniards. If the race at Mugello was anything to go by, the Gran Premi de Catalunya should be a classic.

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2007 Mugello MotoGP Race Report - Italian Passion

It takes many things to make a great motorcycle racer: incredible reflexes, natural riding talent, immense courage, intense concentration, and outstanding physical conditioning are just the very start of it. Above all, it takes one thing to succeed: Passion. Without passion, it is impossible to put in the hours of tedious physical training to keep up your fitness; Without passion, it is impossible to maintain the strict riding schedule, needed to sharpen your reflexes; Without passion, it is impossible to keep confronting the risk of pain and injury, and push at the very limits of your motorcycle and yourself, just for the chance to stand on a box, holding a tawdry bauble, while a second-rate tune pours out of tinny speakers.

It also takes passion to keep plugging away when things are not running your way, when equipment fails, or your bike is slower than everyone else's, or you can't get your machine sorted just as you want, or money from sponsorship fails to turn up, or a million other little setbacks which constantly stand in the way of success in top-level sport. And it takes passion to stand up to the constant barrage of criticism you face, from your fans, from the press, but most of all, from yourself.

If there's one place likely to help you rekindle any of the passion for motorcycle racing you may have lost, it's Mugello. Set like a black pearl among the emerald Tuscan hills, clasped between the twin jewels of the Renaissance, Florence and Bologna, Mugello makes the pulse race and the nerves tingle, and brings passion to a full and rolling boil.

The weather had helped add to the excitement at Mugello, raining on and off throughout practice, bringing riders to the front of the grid in one session, only to leave them languishing at the bottom of the timesheets the next. The grid was given a final shake during a qualifying session which saw both rain and sunshine, leaving both a Ducati and an Italian on the front row, though disappointingly for the Italian fans, the Italian was not on the Ducati. And after a drafting battle with a last-gasp winner in the 125 race, a brutally physical confrontation in the 250s featuring a last-lap crash and a last-corner dive for victory, the tension on the starting grid and round the stands and hills was so thick that a chainsaw could barely have cut it. The dark clouds that hung in the Tuscan hills served as a visual expression of the atmosphere in the pits, thick, swirling and taut.

Forza Italia

So as the lights dimmed, and the MotoGP bikes thundered off the line and over the crest into the San Donato turn, the deafening roar of racing engines bursting over the crowd like a thunderstorm, a wave of blessed relief sweeping around the circuit as the waiting was over. The crowd's relief soon made way for joy, as the shiny red Ducati of Casey Stoner led by several bike lengths into first turn, the Australian championship leader getting yet another of his famous rocket-assisted starts. Chris Vermeulen followed in 2nd on his Suzuki, but bringing even greater joy to the massed ranks of Ducatisti coloring the hillsides red was Loris Capirossi, firing through to take 3rd place, and hot on Vermeulen's tail. Behind Capirossi, the Italian fans faced a dilemma: to cheer on the Ducati of Alex Barros in 4th, or their compatriot Marco Melandri aboard the Gresini Honda, pushing to take Barros' place? Wisely, they avoided the issue, and cheered for both.

Italy's most favored son was faring much worse. From the front row of the grid, Valentino Rossi had seen his Fiat Yamaha almost swamped, as rider after rider passed. His slide was not as precipitous as that of the two Kawasaki riders, who saw their 4th and 7th spots on the grid turn into 12th and 14th by the end of the lap, but after just three turns, Rossi had been relegated from 3rd to 8th, rudely pushed aside by John Hopkins on the Suzuki. The Doctor tried to get back through Casanova, but Hopkins passed again through Savelli, the following left-hander. Rossi passed once again at Scarperia, and though his lead was to last longer this time, Hopkins was back into 7th at the start of the next lap, rudely passing Rossi on the brakes into San Donato, the first turn at the end of the front straight.

Unleash The Hounds

Loris Capirossi had no need of such subtleties to pass Vermeulen. Capirex simply unleashed the Italian stallions of his Ducati along the front straight, and was past Vermeulen's Suzuki by the time they crossed the line at the end of the lap. The forecast Ducati whitewash, the scenario feared by the entire paddock, seemed about to unfold, much to the delight of the banked red mass filling the Ducati stand at Correntaio, as Stoner and Capirossi put their heads down and started to edge away from the chasing pack. The pack knew they could not afford to let the Ducatis go, and started to give chase.

Melandri led the hunt, having passed Chris Vermeulen as the Suzuki rider slumped down the field, a slide which was only halted once he found his rhythm after 8 laps. Melandri was soon joined by Dani Pedrosa on the Repsol Honda, the man who had been fastest during all of the weekend's dry practice sessions, and a lap later by John Hopkins on the other Suzuki. Both Pedrosa and Hopkins had passed Barros, the Brazilian going backwards, soon to be passed by Valentino Rossi as well.

The efforts of the chasing pack were aided by the Ducatis themselves. Not satisfied with just running at the front, Loris Capirossi wanted to lead his home Grand Prix as well. Drafting his team mate along the front straight, he slipped into the lead as they crossed the line. But Stoner was not selling his hide that cheaply: As they dived towards San Donato, Stoner tried getting past back again on the brakes. With neither Ducati willing to give an inch, both ended up way too slow through the first turn, allowing Melandri and Pedrosa, engaged in a braking duel of their own, to catch them to form a front bunch of four.

Rush Hour

With the front four holding each other up riding defensive lines round the back half of the circuit, they were an easy target for the following group. Hopkins was first to join the fray, with Valentino Rossi not far behind, regaining ground after passing Vermeulen. On the next lap, the racing got closer still. Once again, the front four divided into pairs down the main straight, with Casey Stoner trying to pass Capirossi once again, while Marco Melandri held off Dani Pedrosa. But this time, it was Melandri who braked latest, and showed what makes Mugello such a great circuit. Running wide into San Donato, he held station round the outside of Stoner, using the next left-hander, Luco, to move past into 2nd, taking advantage of the multiple lines the Tuscan track allows.

The Italian Shuffle at the front meant that Hopkins and Rossi could turn the four into six. Rossi, sensing his chance, scythed past Hopper a couple of turns later, coming down the hill through Savelli, and moved to sit on Pedrosa's tail. Then things started really hotting up. As they crossed the line to start lap 6, the front group were almost 4 abreast. First Stoner flew past Melandri, taking advantage of the Ducati's superior power, then Pedrosa came by too, using the drive he was getting out of the final turn to launch down the front straight. Behind Melandri, Hopper was showing off the new horses that Suzuki had found him, re-passing Rossi over the line.

As San Donato approached, Loris Capirossi, sensing his team mate breathing impatiently down his neck, drifted left for the right-hander, and left his braking as late as possible, in the hope of cutting across everyone's lines and buying himself some space to make a getaway. But Capirex had left his braking just a half a yard too late, suddenly finding himself wide, and unable to turn early enough. By the time he finally got his Ducati heeled over and into San Donato, it wasn't just Stoner who had got past him, it was Pedrosa and Melandri as well, dumping Capirex from 1st to 4th in one fell swoop. Two turns later, Hopkins was past Capirossi through Poggio Seco, Rossi following in his wake along the next short straight. This was to be the signal the end of Capirossi's resistance, as he followed Vermeulen's lead, dropping off the back of the group and losing touch with the front runners.

Fortunately for the Italian fans, they still had a Ducati leading. But not for long, as Dani Pedrosa was hell-bent on getting into the lead. Half a lap later, Pedrosa pulled off a brilliant pass, apexing early through Arrabiata 1 to move up the inside of Stoner and lead into Arrabiata 2. The reason for Pedrosa's hurry was just a few bike lengths behind: Rossi had his revenge on Hopkins through The Doctor's favorite passing zone, Scarperia, to claw back 4th place, and was past Melandri into 3rd just a few turns later into Bucine, the long left-hander leading back onto the main straight.

Ducati Lite

Stoner was not taking being passed by his old 250 nemesis lying down. Back along the front straight, Stoner unleashed the Beast from Bologna once again, and went after Pedrosa once more. But Ducati must have the Beast on a diet, as the fearsome carnage that the Stoner was dishing out in Qatar and Shanghai was looking more like a gentle slapping at Mugello. Combined with the 800 extra revs which HRC have found, the Ducati was no longer destroying the Honda down the straight, but instead, it was all that Stoner could do to sneak past Pedrosa into the first turn. And even this was to be in vain, as the young Spaniard, having regained the form which so impressed everyone last year, took the lead back from Stoner through Poggio Seco. And into Materassi, the next corner, Rossi was past Stoner too.

But Pedrosa, Rossi and Stoner still had company. Melandri and Hopkins had been rejoined by Alex Barros, and the three were right behind Stoner. As Pedrosa crept away from Rossi down the straight to start lap 8, Hopkins and Barros made a move on Melandri. Hopkins inside and Barros outside, there was no chance that all three could get through San Donato at the same time, despite the different lines possible through the first turn of the track. It was Alex Barros who blinked first, running wide, and forced to drop behind Melandri, who had had no choice but to let Hopkins through into 4th.

Six Green Bottles

The top 6 were all still close. Just over a second covered Pedrosa in 1st to Barros in 6th, but the first cracks were starting to show. Melandri was the first victim, dropping out of contention after Barros passed on the next lap. But that still left the front 5 close. Pedrosa and Rossi were like siamese twins, linked at the wheels, and Stoner had his sights on Rossi's tail. But as he closed, Rossi moved on Pedrosa. Through Scarperia, the blind right-hander over the crest of a hill, Rossi was past and into the lead. Pedrosa, unshaken, kept Rossi close, and blasted past once more as they motored down the front straight, but once again, Rossi demonstrated the Yamaha's amazing stability on the brakes, going back past into the lead into San Donato.

Though Rossi was past, Pedrosa was not going to just roll over. Pedrosa kept as close as he could to Rossi, trying to get back past down the straight. The Spaniard came close, but could not hold on, as he tried for lap after lap. The fierce duel was already proving too much for Stoner, the Australian losing touch on lap 12, leaving the win down to a straight fight between Rossi and Pedrosa. Rossi pushed hard round the first part of the track, building a lead from San Donato to Correntaio but Pedrosa fought back out of Bucine and along the front straight. But even though Rossi was losing a quarter of a second in less than a mile, he was gaining more than that through the earlier sections.

Passion Wagon

Pedrosa fought bitterly to stay with Rossi for 3 more laps, before finally having to admit defeat, Rossi gaining half a second for every quarter of a second he lost. The race was run, and Valentino Rossi went on take the win by over 3 seconds, keeping his streak at Mugello alive, and extending his series to 6 wins in a row at Mugello, an incredible accomplishment. As The Doctor crossed the line, Mugello exploded into a cacophony of noise, the tension stored during a long, grueling weekend finally burst, Italian passion for motorcycle racing finally allowed free flow. The fans invaded the track, and the hills resounded to the deafening din of engines of every conceivable type being bounced off rev limiters until they blew up. If you wanted a demonstration of passion, it was here before you, in Mugello.

Rossi had come to Mugello with a point to prove. All Italian riders show up at Mugello with something special in terms of gear, and Rossi had brought a new helmet. Featured prominently on the front was a large, red heart. When asked about it, Rossi was uncharacteristically evasive, saying that it was a token of appreciation for his fans, to thank them for their passion. But the real story could be read from the race: The Italian press, fickle as ever, had been accusing Rossi of not having his heart in MotoGP any more, of being too rich, and in MotoGP too long to put in the effort and the passion which being a champion in the premier class of motorcycle racing requires. On Sunday, Rossi answered them loud and clear, first with his helmet, then with his race. If anyone was in any doubt about The Doctor, Mugello should have cleared it up.

Dani Pedrosa, too, showed the passion of a champion. The Spaniard could barely hide his disappointment at only taking second at Mugello, despite running his best race since Jerez. Pedrosa had been convinced he could win here in Italy, and the timesheets would have agreed with him, if it hadn't been for one very special motorcycle racer on a very special mission.

And Then There Were Three

With 1st and 2nd places settled, there was still all to race for back in 3rd. Casey Stoner had dropped out of reach of Rossi and Pedrosa and into the clutches of Hopkins and Barros. The three stuck together as if tied with lock wire. It would turn into a war of attrition, and John Hopkins was the first to break. Hopper had run a softer compound on his front tire, and by lap 18, it was past its prime. Barros passed the Rizla Suzuki along the front straight, and Hopper was left to run on his own, finally coming home in 5th.

Now, it was down to who would be top Ducati. Casey Stoner could not afford to lose another place, as that would mean surrendering valuable points in the title race. But Barros was equally determined to get past, and take the podium place he came so close to getting in Istanbul. With 3 laps to go, the Brazilian veteran made his move. He had been hired by Ducati and Bridgestone because his phenomenal braking ability provided such valuable data, and he used this skill to perfection, passing Stoner down the front straight and holding him off on the brakes into San Donato. Stoner struggled valiantly, fighting Barros every inch of the way, but try as he might, he could not get back past. The Pramac d'Antin team, last year's perennial backmarkers, had undergone the astonishing transformation from MotoGP ugly ducklings to podium swans, Barros flying over the line to take 3rd, ahead of a bloodied but unbowed Casey Stoner on the factory Ducati.

John Hopkins was unchallenged in 5th, but behind Hopper, Toni Elias had fought several fierce battles to climb up to 6th, passing Loris Capirossi on the final lap, forcing the Ducati man down to 7th. Chris Vermeulen, having halted his slide, fought a race long battle with Nicky Hayden, coming out on top, and then passing Marco Melandri on the last lap to take 8th. Melandri was forced to settle for a disappointing 9th on the Gresini Honda, with reigning world champion Hayden again struggling to take 10th.

Behind Hayden, Barros' team mate Alex Hofmann ran a lonely race to take 11th place, dissatisfied after his strong showing at Le Mans, while the winner's team mate Colin Edwards came in a very lowly 12th. Both Fiat Yamaha men extended their Mugello streaks on Sunday, but while Rossi's is an enviable run of wins, Edwards' record at Mugello is one of bad luck and missed chances, a run he would gladly have broken.

Shinya Nakano continued his and Konica Minolta's run of anonymous performances with a 13th place, while behind Nakano, Sylvain Guintoli put on another strong showing to finish 14th on the Dunlop-shod Tech 3 Yamaha, ahead of his far more experienced team mate Makoto Tamada. Olivier Jacque finished a similarly faceless race down in 16th, and out of the points on the Kawasaki, while Kenny Roberts Jr's misery continued, finishing 17th and dead last. The only bright point for Kenny Jr is that the extra data gained by having brother Kurtis run this weekend may have helped Team KR find the direction they need to go to improve his lot. Kurtis Roberts has pulled out fairly early in the race, with unspecified problems, but the team were just glad to have the data he collected.

The Passion

Mugello was truly at the heart of motorcycle racing on Sunday, the heart on Valentino Rossi's helmet. The race, Rossi's performance, and the raw, untamed energy of the crowd once the checkered flag had dropped didn't just kindle motorcycle passion, it doused it in rocket fuel and dropped in a match. The noise was deafening, as the fans ran Piaggio APE three-wheelers and brand new Fireblades to destruction. The speaker struggled in vain to make himself heard above the racket, but soldiered bravely on. The only time that anything intelligible could be made out above the cacophony was the sound of thousands of Italian throats joined in song, belting out the Italian national anthem during the podium ceremony, with the winner Valentino Rossi conducting. If you wanted to know what passion was, it was on display her at Mugello. No one will dare question The Doctor's passion again.

Mugello Race Results

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2007 Mugello MotoGP Race Report - Italian Passion

It takes many things to make a great motorcycle racer: incredible reflexes, natural riding talent, immense courage, intense concentration, and outstanding physical conditioning are just the very start of it. Above all, it takes one thing to succeed: Passion. Without passion, it is impossible to put in the hours of tedious physical training to keep up your fitness; Without passion, it is impossible to maintain the strict riding schedule, needed to sharpen your reflexes; Without passion, it is impossible to keep confronting the risk of pain and injury, and push at the very limits of your motorcycle and yourself, just for the chance to stand on a box, holding a tawdry bauble, while a second-rate tune pours out of tinny speakers.

It also takes passion to keep plugging away when things are not running your way, when equipment fails, or your bike is slower than everyone else's, or you can't get your machine sorted just as you want, or money from sponsorship fails to turn up, or a million other little setbacks which constantly stand in the way of success in top-level sport. And it takes passion to stand up to the constant barrage of criticism you face, from your fans, from the press, but most of all, from yourself.

If there's one place likely to help you rekindle any of the passion for motorcycle racing you may have lost, it's Mugello. Set like a black pearl among the emerald Tuscan hills, clasped between the twin jewels of the Renaissance, Florence and Bologna, Mugello makes the pulse race and the nerves tingle, and brings passion to a full and rolling boil.

The weather had helped add to the excitement at Mugello, raining on and off throughout practice, bringing riders to the front of the grid in one session, only to leave them languishing at the bottom of the timesheets the next. The grid was given a final shake during a qualifying session which saw both rain and sunshine, leaving both a Ducati and an Italian on the front row, though disappointingly for the Italian fans, the Italian was not on the Ducati. And after a drafting battle with a last-gasp winner in the 125 race, a brutally physical confrontation in the 250s featuring a last-lap crash and a last-corner dive for victory, the tension on the starting grid and round the stands and hills was so thick that a chainsaw could barely have cut it. The dark clouds that hung in the Tuscan hills served as a visual expression of the atmosphere in the pits, thick, swirling and taut.

Forza Italia

So as the lights dimmed, and the MotoGP bikes thundered off the line and over the crest into the San Donato turn, the deafening roar of racing engines bursting over the crowd like a thunderstorm, a wave of blessed relief sweeping around the circuit as the waiting was over. The crowd's relief soon made way for joy, as the shiny red Ducati of Casey Stoner led by several bike lengths into first turn, the Australian championship leader getting yet another of his famous rocket-assisted starts. Chris Vermeulen followed in 2nd on his Suzuki, but bringing even greater joy to the massed ranks of Ducatisti coloring the hillsides red was Loris Capirossi, firing through to take 3rd place, and hot on Vermeulen's tail. Behind Capirossi, the Italian fans faced a dilemma: to cheer on the Ducati of Alex Barros in 4th, or their compatriot Marco Melandri aboard the Gresini Honda, pushing to take Barros' place? Wisely, they avoided the issue, and cheered for both.

Italy's most favored son was faring much worse. From the front row of the grid, Valentino Rossi had seen his Fiat Yamaha almost swamped, as rider after rider passed. His slide was not as precipitous as that of the two Kawasaki riders, who saw their 4th and 7th spots on the grid turn into 12th and 14th by the end of the lap, but after just three turns, Rossi had been relegated from 3rd to 8th, rudely pushed aside by John Hopkins on the Suzuki. The Doctor tried to get back through Casanova, but Hopkins passed again through Savelli, the following left-hander. Rossi passed once again at Scarperia, and though his lead was to last longer this time, Hopkins was back into 7th at the start of the next lap, rudely passing Rossi on the brakes into San Donato, the first turn at the end of the front straight.

Unleash The Hounds

Loris Capirossi had no need of such subtleties to pass Vermeulen. Capirex simply unleashed the Italian stallions of his Ducati along the front straight, and was past Vermeulen's Suzuki by the time they crossed the line at the end of the lap. The forecast Ducati whitewash, the scenario feared by the entire paddock, seemed about to unfold, much to the delight of the banked red mass filling the Ducati stand at Correntaio, as Stoner and Capirossi put their heads down and started to edge away from the chasing pack. The pack knew they could not afford to let the Ducatis go, and started to give chase.

Melandri led the hunt, having passed Chris Vermeulen as the Suzuki rider slumped down the field, a slide which was only halted once he found his rhythm after 8 laps. Melandri was soon joined by Dani Pedrosa on the Repsol Honda, the man who had been fastest during all of the weekend's dry practice sessions, and a lap later by John Hopkins on the other Suzuki. Both Pedrosa and Hopkins had passed Barros, the Brazilian going backwards, soon to be passed by Valentino Rossi as well.

The efforts of the chasing pack were aided by the Ducatis themselves. Not satisfied with just running at the front, Loris Capirossi wanted to lead his home Grand Prix as well. Drafting his team mate along the front straight, he slipped into the lead as they crossed the line. But Stoner was not selling his hide that cheaply: As they dived towards San Donato, Stoner tried getting past back again on the brakes. With neither Ducati willing to give an inch, both ended up way too slow through the first turn, allowing Melandri and Pedrosa, engaged in a braking duel of their own, to catch them to form a front bunch of four.

Rush Hour

With the front four holding each other up riding defensive lines round the back half of the circuit, they were an easy target for the following group. Hopkins was first to join the fray, with Valentino Rossi not far behind, regaining ground after passing Vermeulen. On the next lap, the racing got closer still. Once again, the front four divided into pairs down the main straight, with Casey Stoner trying to pass Capirossi once again, while Marco Melandri held off Dani Pedrosa. But this time, it was Melandri who braked latest, and showed what makes Mugello such a great circuit. Running wide into San Donato, he held station round the outside of Stoner, using the next left-hander, Luco, to move past into 2nd, taking advantage of the multiple lines the Tuscan track allows.

The Italian Shuffle at the front meant that Hopkins and Rossi could turn the four into six. Rossi, sensing his chance, scythed past Hopper a couple of turns later, coming down the hill through Savelli, and moved to sit on Pedrosa's tail. Then things started really hotting up. As they crossed the line to start lap 6, the front group were almost 4 abreast. First Stoner flew past Melandri, taking advantage of the Ducati's superior power, then Pedrosa came by too, using the drive he was getting out of the final turn to launch down the front straight. Behind Melandri, Hopper was showing off the new horses that Suzuki had found him, re-passing Rossi over the line.

As San Donato approached, Loris Capirossi, sensing his team mate breathing impatiently down his neck, drifted left for the right-hander, and left his braking as late as possible, in the hope of cutting across everyone's lines and buying himself some space to make a getaway. But Capirex had left his braking just a half a yard too late, suddenly finding himself wide, and unable to turn early enough. By the time he finally got his Ducati heeled over and into San Donato, it wasn't just Stoner who had got past him, it was Pedrosa and Melandri as well, dumping Capirex from 1st to 4th in one fell swoop. Two turns later, Hopkins was past Capirossi through Poggio Seco, Rossi following in his wake along the next short straight. This was to be the signal the end of Capirossi's resistance, as he followed Vermeulen's lead, dropping off the back of the group and losing touch with the front runners.

Fortunately for the Italian fans, they still had a Ducati leading. But not for long, as Dani Pedrosa was hell-bent on getting into the lead. Half a lap later, Pedrosa pulled off a brilliant pass, apexing early through Arrabiata 1 to move up the inside of Stoner and lead into Arrabiata 2. The reason for Pedrosa's hurry was just a few bike lengths behind: Rossi had his revenge on Hopkins through The Doctor's favorite passing zone, Scarperia, to claw back 4th place, and was past Melandri into 3rd just a few turns later into Bucine, the long left-hander leading back onto the main straight.

Ducati Lite

Stoner was not taking being passed by his old 250 nemesis lying down. Back along the front straight, Stoner unleashed the Beast from Bologna once again, and went after Pedrosa once more. But Ducati must have the Beast on a diet, as the fearsome carnage that the Stoner was dishing out in Qatar and Shanghai was looking more like a gentle slapping at Mugello. Combined with the 800 extra revs which HRC have found, the Ducati was no longer destroying the Honda down the straight, but instead, it was all that Stoner could do to sneak past Pedrosa into the first turn. And even this was to be in vain, as the young Spaniard, having regained the form which so impressed everyone last year, took the lead back from Stoner through Poggio Seco. And into Materassi, the next corner, Rossi was past Stoner too.

But Pedrosa, Rossi and Stoner still had company. Melandri and Hopkins had been rejoined by Alex Barros, and the three were right behind Stoner. As Pedrosa crept away from Rossi down the straight to start lap 8, Hopkins and Barros made a move on Melandri. Hopkins inside and Barros outside, there was no chance that all three could get through San Donato at the same time, despite the different lines possible through the first turn of the track. It was Alex Barros who blinked first, running wide, and forced to drop behind Melandri, who had had no choice but to let Hopkins through into 4th.

Six Green Bottles

The top 6 were all still close. Just over a second covered Pedrosa in 1st to Barros in 6th, but the first cracks were starting to show. Melandri was the first victim, dropping out of contention after Barros passed on the next lap. But that still left the front 5 close. Pedrosa and Rossi were like siamese twins, linked at the wheels, and Stoner had his sights on Rossi's tail. But as he closed, Rossi moved on Pedrosa. Through Scarperia, the blind right-hander over the crest of a hill, Rossi was past and into the lead. Pedrosa, unshaken, kept Rossi close, and blasted past once more as they motored down the front straight, but once again, Rossi demonstrated the Yamaha's amazing stability on the brakes, going back past into the lead into San Donato.

Though Rossi was past, Pedrosa was not going to just roll over. Pedrosa kept as close as he could to Rossi, trying to get back past down the straight. The Spaniard came close, but could not hold on, as he tried for lap after lap. The fierce duel was already proving too much for Stoner, the Australian losing touch on lap 12, leaving the win down to a straight fight between Rossi and Pedrosa. Rossi pushed hard round the first part of the track, building a lead from San Donato to Correntaio but Pedrosa fought back out of Bucine and along the front straight. But even though Rossi was losing a quarter of a second in less than a mile, he was gaining more than that through the earlier sections.

Passion Wagon

Pedrosa fought bitterly to stay with Rossi for 3 more laps, before finally having to admit defeat, Rossi gaining half a second for every quarter of a second he lost. The race was run, and Valentino Rossi went on take the win by over 3 seconds, keeping his streak at Mugello alive, and extending his series to 6 wins in a row at Mugello, an incredible accomplishment. As The Doctor crossed the line, Mugello exploded into a cacophony of noise, the tension stored during a long, grueling weekend finally burst, Italian passion for motorcycle racing finally allowed free flow. The fans invaded the track, and the hills resounded to the deafening din of engines of every conceivable type being bounced off rev limiters until they blew up. If you wanted a demonstration of passion, it was here before you, in Mugello.

Rossi had come to Mugello with a point to prove. All Italian riders show up at Mugello with something special in terms of gear, and Rossi had brought a new helmet. Featured prominently on the front was a large, red heart. When asked about it, Rossi was uncharacteristically evasive, saying that it was a token of appreciation for his fans, to thank them for their passion. But the real story could be read from the race: The Italian press, fickle as ever, had been accusing Rossi of not having his heart in MotoGP any more, of being too rich, and in MotoGP too long to put in the effort and the passion which being a champion in the premier class of motorcycle racing requires. On Sunday, Rossi answered them loud and clear, first with his helmet, then with his race. If anyone was in any doubt about The Doctor, Mugello should have cleared it up.

Dani Pedrosa, too, showed the passion of a champion. The Spaniard could barely hide his disappointment at only taking second at Mugello, despite running his best race since Jerez. Pedrosa had been convinced he could win here in Italy, and the timesheets would have agreed with him, if it hadn't been for one very special motorcycle racer on a very special mission.

And Then There Were Three

With 1st and 2nd places settled, there was still all to race for back in 3rd. Casey Stoner had dropped out of reach of Rossi and Pedrosa and into the clutches of Hopkins and Barros. The three stuck together as if tied with lock wire. It would turn into a war of attrition, and John Hopkins was the first to break. Hopper had run a softer compound on his front tire, and by lap 18, it was past its prime. Barros passed the Rizla Suzuki along the front straight, and Hopper was left to run on his own, finally coming home in 5th.

Now, it was down to who would be top Ducati. Casey Stoner could not afford to lose another place, as that would mean surrendering valuable points in the title race. But Barros was equally determined to get past, and take the podium place he came so close to getting in Istanbul. With 3 laps to go, the Brazilian veteran made his move. He had been hired by Ducati and Bridgestone because his phenomenal braking ability provided such valuable data, and he used this skill to perfection, passing Stoner down the front straight and holding him off on the brakes into San Donato. Stoner struggled valiantly, fighting Barros every inch of the way, but try as he might, he could not get back past. The Pramac d'Antin team, last year's perennial backmarkers, had undergone the astonishing transformation from MotoGP ugly ducklings to podium swans, Barros flying over the line to take 3rd, ahead of a bloodied but unbowed Casey Stoner on the factory Ducati.

John Hopkins was unchallenged in 5th, but behind Hopper, Toni Elias had fought several fierce battles to climb up to 6th, passing Loris Capirossi on the final lap, forcing the Ducati man down to 7th. Chris Vermeulen, having halted his slide, fought a race long battle with Nicky Hayden, coming out on top, and then passing Marco Melandri on the last lap to take 8th. Melandri was forced to settle for a disappointing 9th on the Gresini Honda, with reigning world champion Hayden again struggling to take 10th.

Behind Hayden, Barros' team mate Alex Hofmann ran a lonely race to take 11th place, dissatisfied after his strong showing at Le Mans, while the winner's team mate Colin Edwards came in a very lowly 12th. Both Fiat Yamaha men extended their Mugello streaks on Sunday, but while Rossi's is an enviable run of wins, Edwards' record at Mugello is one of bad luck and missed chances, a run he would gladly have broken.

Shinya Nakano continued his and Konica Minolta's run of anonymous performances with a 13th place, while behind Nakano, Sylvain Guintoli put on another strong showing to finish 14th on the Dunlop-shod Tech 3 Yamaha, ahead of his far more experienced team mate Makoto Tamada. Olivier Jacque finished a similarly faceless race down in 16th, and out of the points on the Kawasaki, while Kenny Roberts Jr's misery continued, finishing 17th and dead last. The only bright point for Kenny Jr is that the extra data gained by having brother Kurtis run this weekend may have helped Team KR find the direction they need to go to improve his lot. Kurtis Roberts has pulled out fairly early in the race, with unspecified problems, but the team were just glad to have the data he collected.

The Passion

Mugello was truly at the heart of motorcycle racing on Sunday, the heart on Valentino Rossi's helmet. The race, Rossi's performance, and the raw, untamed energy of the crowd once the checkered flag had dropped didn't just kindle motorcycle passion, it doused it in rocket fuel and dropped in a match. The noise was deafening, as the fans ran Piaggio APE three-wheelers and brand new Fireblades to destruction. The speaker struggled in vain to make himself heard above the racket, but soldiered bravely on. The only time that anything intelligible could be made out above the cacophony was the sound of thousands of Italian throats joined in song, belting out the Italian national anthem during the podium ceremony, with the winner Valentino Rossi conducting. If you wanted to know what passion was, it was on display her at Mugello. No one will dare question The Doctor's passion again.

Mugello Race Results

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2007 Mugello Race Preview - Racing Soul

If Japan is the brains of motorcycle racing, the place where they design the machines that captivate us, and Spain is the heart of motorcycle, the humming, vibrant center, full of passion for all forms of two-wheeled racing, then Italy is the soul of motorcycle racing, the place where motorcycle racing is imagined, dreamed of, experienced, be it MotoGP, Superbikes or minibikes. The Italians live for racing and speed, on two wheels or four, as the myriad racetracks and motorcycle manufacturers testify. Indeed, anyone who has ever driven on Italian roads could attest to their love for racing: no Italian ever misses a chance to pass the vehicle ahead, nor would they be seen dead taking a less than perfect line through the many fantastic roads which crisscross the country.

And the roads don't get much better than Mugello. If Italy is the soul of motorcycle racing, then Mugello is the seat of that soul. Nestling in the glorious Apennine hills, Mugello is just a few miles from both the Ferrari and Ducati factories, and functions as a test track for both. The circuit exudes racing history, the scent of hot oil emanating from exotic prototypes permeating the subconscious of all who visit. But there is more than just the history; there's also the track. The Mugello circuit is one of the finest in the world, and it truly has everything: From probably the fastest straight of the season, to flowing fast turns, slow hairpins and chicanes, and elevation changes, flowing up and down the Tuscan hills, Mugello is a glorious track in a glorious setting.

A Desmo Drubbing?

With that location so close to Ducati's home base in Bologna, and Mugello's long, fast straight, the prospect of anything other than a Ducati whitewash seems virtually impossible, and completely unacceptable to the thousands of tifosi who will line the track on race day. The fans most fervent hope will be to see an Italian rider of an Italian motorcycle stand atop the podium on Sunday, although they would be willing to accept an Italian rider of a Japanese motorcycle, as they have done since 2001. And yet they could well be disappointed. Though the Ducatis are blisteringly fast, the Australian Casey Stoner is the only Ducatista who has been consistently at the front of the pack, while his Italian team mate Loris Capirossi has struggled to come to terms with the new 800. And the Italians not on Ducatis are on perhaps the slowest bikes of the field, both the Yamaha and the Honda suffering in comparison to the Ducatis. And where the marques bearing the current and former world champions are making slow forward progress, the competition, in the shape of Kawasaki and Suzuki have just gotten faster. Kawasaki already believe that they have the horsepower of the ZXRR at the same level as the Ducati, and Suzuki will be bringing yet more horsepower to Mugello, which should put them in contention down the main straight.

That prospect will not be worrying Ducati too much at the moment. Casey Stoner goes from strength to strength, his outstanding wet podium at Le Mans extending his lead over Valentino Rossi. So confident is Stoner that he has decided against using the new parts being made available for Loris Capirossi. Capirex has had an awful start to the season so far, and is hoping that the changes to the engine and electronics will allow him to ride the bike in the way he wants to. There will be a great deal of pressure on Capirossi to perform at Mugello, and his team, the fans, and Capirex himself will not accept failure.

The Pramac d'Antin team will also be hoping to profit from the Ducati's speed. The Mugello round is almost a home race for the Pramac boys, so close are their links to Ducati this season, and both Alex Barros and Alex Hofmann will have high hopes here. Significantly, Barros is the last man to beat Valentino Rossi here at Mugello, back in 2001. With the power advantage the Ducati has, the Brazilian must be confident of repeating that feat.

Don't Look Back

But the Ducatis will not have it all their own way. The competition is catching up, and the strongest challenge could come from the Suzuki garage. Buoyed by John Hopkins' 3rd place at Shanghai, a circuit that is all about speed, and Chris Vermeulen's brilliant rain win at Le Mans, the Rizla Suzuki boys will be looking to benefit from the power gains which new engine parts should bring. Hopkins has looked stronger than ever before this season, and with the boost in top speed, he should be capable of staying with any of the Ducatis down the front straight.

The other beneficiaries of added horsepower have been Kawasaki. The bike is now brutally fast, though it still has a few rough edges, but should have little trouble with keeping up with the Ducatis. Kawasaki's problem, however, is their riders: Both Randy de Puniet and Olivier Jacque are carrying injuries, and neither has shown the necessary aptitude to take a win. De Puniet has been the best of the pair, but, as he demonstrated by crashing out of the Le Mans race whilst in the lead, still makes too many mistakes. Olivier Jacque, on the other hand, is just plain slow. Still stuck in the mentality of the test rider, OJ needs to find the do-or-die attitude which racing at the very highest level requires.

No Such Thing As Too Much

And so to those who will surely be fearing Mugello most. That group includes the one name you would least expect to be afraid of Mugello: 7 time winner here, Valentino Rossi. Fiat Yamaha's star Italian rider says he has a "special relationship" with Mugello, but for the first time in many years, that relationship may start to be showing the strain. The Yamaha is an incredibly fast motorcycle through any section of turns in the world, but The Doctor has had to expend every ounce of his skill to make up through those turns what he has lost to the faster bikes, and especially the Ducati of Casey Stoner, down any straight of significant length. While this has offered the fans the awe-inspiring spectacle of seeing the world's most talented motorcycle racer forced to work for his money, it has not pleased Rossi at all. Both Rossi and Edwards are paying the price of the choices made during pre-season testing: focus on agility, and add the power afterwards. With 5 of the first 7 races rewarding top speed, that gamble has yet to pay off.

So once again, expect to see The Doctor expounding every ounce of his skill through Poggio Seco, Arrabbiata 1 and 2, especially Bucine, the last turn onto the long front straight, in an attempt to either regain the ground lost to, or put space between his Yamaha and the faster bikes. The spectacle will be all the greater for Rossi's troubles.

As for the other Yamahas, Colin Edwards just cannot seem to get on with Mugello, despite the fantastic track and atmosphere, and though undoubtedly inspired by his debut pole at Le Mans, the race may prove tougher than he would like. But not as tough as for the Dunlop Tech 3 Yamahas: despite the obvious steps forward the Dunlop tires have made, they are not quite within striking range of the big two, despite Sylvain Guintoli's heroic efforts at Le Mans. But his outing at his home Grand Prix can only give encouragement for the team, even though they may end up having to suffer through the next two races, hoping for more power from Yamaha soon.

House Of Pain

The Hondas are in much the same boat. Like Yamaha, HRC gambled on maneuverability, sacrificing top speed, and any semblance of wind protection, at the altar of agility. Unfortunately for Honda, in their hunt for agility by centralizing mass, they made it almost impossible to make the necessary subtle adjustments needed to set up the bike, meaning that the Honda RC212V lacks both front end and rear end feel, as well as top speed. Parts are slowly starting to trickle through, but several riders are already going back to last year's forks in an attempt to improve the bike, reminiscent of Yamaha's long and troubled road with the M1 at the beginning of the 2006 season.

The two riders who have managed best with the RC212V are Repsol Honda's Dani Pedrosa and Gresini Honda's Toni Elias, coincidentally (or not) the two smallest riders in the paddock. Being of such slight stature, they fit perfectly with Honda's concept of mass centralization, and have run fairly well, despite the Honda's shortcomings. Pedrosa was expected to be the main title contender this year, but has been unable to truly compete, while Elias is quickly making himself persona non grata among the rest of the paddock, with his wild and unruly riding style posing a threat to the other riders, according to those other riders. His Tomahawk missile impersonation at Shanghai proved to be immensely unpopular with the rest of the paddock. When Terrible Toni is in form, he is a factor to be reckoned with, but often, he can turn out to be a factor to be avoided.

Dani and Toni's team mates are in more of a pickle. Gresini's Marco Melandri has failed to live up to expectations, as with the other Honda riders, but Melandri's strong ride in the downpour in France must have given him the confidence boost he needs. But he has repeatedly asked HRC for more help with the bike, and those demands are unlikely to be answered in the short term. As for Pedrosa's team mate, Nicky Hayden, you can only really feel sorry for him. He is attempting to put up the kind of title defense worthy of a world champion, as he believes is his duty. But the new bike, and his adaptation to it, have stood very much in his way. Slowly, he is making progress, but too slowly to have any chance of retaining the #1 plate. He may be back on the podium by mid-season, but not yet, not here at Mugello.

The other two Hondas are suffering even worse, if that's possible. Poor Shinya Nakano must cry himself to sleep asking himself why he ever left Kawasaki, and Carlos Checa has fared little better, despite his front row start in France. With so much to do to improve the RC212V, it's tough at the bottom of the HRC food chain.

This is just as true for Team KR, but although they have the advantage of being able to build a better chassis than the one provided by Honda, they only have a single rider to help develop it. This has put them a long way behind compared to the rest, but luckily, they'll be able to do something about that this weekend. Kenny Roberts Jr will be joined by brother Kurtis at Mugello, on a second KR212V, to help get the bike in some kind of shape to be competitive. The Roberts family can only hope to make some significant progress both here and at Catalunya, to get them back into contention.

Home Field Advantage

The two big stories so far this year have been the rise of Ducati, and the rise of Bridgestone. Here at Mugello, test track for both Ducati and Bridgestone, those stories only look like getting bigger. Though the progress made by Suzuki and Kawasaki make the prospect of a Ducati clean sweep look highly unlikely, the chances of the Italian anthem being played on Sunday must be very, very good indeed. The only question is, will it be only for the bike, or will it also play for the rider?

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2007 Le Mans MotoGP Race Report - Luck Of The Draw

Motorcycle racing is a lot like poker. Over the long haul, the best player will always come out on top, as they take the cards they are given, play the percentages, and make the best of the hand they have. Of course, sometimes luck intervenes, and a run of bad hands can leave strong players floundering around trying to cut their losses, while they wait for their luck to change and the percentages to start running in their favor. So it is in MotoGP, where the best riders take what they're given and wring the last possible drop of performance out of it, winning when they can, and limiting their losses when they know they can't. Over the duration of a season, riders will hope that their luck will even out, leaving the final result down to the skill of the rider, rather than the luck of the draw.

But when it rains, the rules change. It's as if a couple of strangers had joined the table and suggested playing by an arcane set of rules used only in a tiny mountain town in Nevada mining country. Suddenly, winning comes down to courage, adaptability, a quickness to learn, and plain old-fashioned luck. Sometimes, that luck can even come down to whether or not you happened to have passed through that little mountain town or not before. It would be unfair to call motorcycle racing in the rain a lottery, but it does mean that all the old bets are off, and we start anew, with the slates wiped clean.

Personal Voodoo

So there was much crossing of fingers, waving of rabbits' feet and touching of wood as the weather outlook worsened during the junior classes. The day had started bright enough, a few drops of rain soon driven away, but the track mainly dry and the skies sunny, if not clear. However, as the morning went on, the skies began slowly to darken, as did the faces in the garages as they watched the rain's relentless approach on the weather radar. The 125 races had been run under great, if rather cool conditions, but as the 250 race progressed, the cloud cover grew thicker, the temperatures dropped, and the skies put on a mantle of darkest gray. There was still hope the rain might yet hold off, at least until after the race, but that hope grew fainter as 2pm, and the start of the MotoGP race, approached.

As the bikes were rolled out of the garages, the rain finally began to fall, a thin, faint drizzle hardly worthy of the name. But it was enough to trigger an explosion of activity in the pits: spare bikes were hurriedly transformed, with slick tires swapped for wets or intermediates, suspension softened, and engine mappings hurriedly reprogrammed. The astute Dani Pedrosa even went out for one sighting lap on his intermediate-shod spare bike, scrubbing the tires in to rid them of the smooth and slippery surface, hoping for an advantage if the rain got worse, before returning to take his dry race bike to the grid. With a few minutes to go, the Race Director officially declared the event to be a wet race, meaning anyone could come into the pits to change bikes at any point during the race, as long as the new bike was on different tires to the old one.

The Greasy Pole

But as the bikes rolled round after the warm up lap, to take their place on the grid for the start, no one was thinking that far ahead. All were out on slicks and though the track was greasy, it was still a long way from being wet, and a dry line sure to form after a few laps. When the lights finally went out and the pack exploded off the line, all thoughts were on the Dunlop Chicane, whether everyone would get through safely, or whether we would see yet another first lap incident, as we had in China and in Turkey. The first chicane came and went safely, but there was drama of a different kind: Colin Edwards, who had set such an astonishing lap to conquer pole on Saturday, was swamped by a marauding throng of 800s as if he had gotten the class wrong and turned up on a 250. The polesitter's Fiat Yamaha, which had been working so perfectly all weekend, was now looking more injured cow than raging bull, and from 1st on the grid he had dropped all the way down to 18th in the space of a single lap. Two laps later, Edwards was in to change bikes, to try his luck on his spare bike.

Where Edwards was going backwards, team mate Valentino Rossi was going forward, grabbing a couple of spots into the chicane, to tuck in behind Casey Stoner on the Ducati, who was off to yet another lightning start from 3rd on the grid. Once out of the chicane, Rossi was on Stoner, and past at the La Chappelle right hander, exactly as the script, written by fans and commentators, dictated.

Behind the title duo, John Hopkins, who had shot his Rizla Suzuki to third through the chicane, was dropping back, as rider after rider slipped past. Carlos Checa, who had made good on the brakes into the chicane what he had lost from the starting line, was the first to pass, with the Gresini Honda duo of Marco Melandri and Toni Elias following, bringing along the Brazilian Alex Barros, off to a great start from a lowly 13th spot on the grid. But what really set the crowd on fire was the sight of local man Sylvain Guintoli rocketing through the field, passing Hopkins to take 7th before the lap was done.

Local Hero

As the bikes chased around the track on the second lap, the Yamahas were unleashed. At the front, Valentino Rossi pulled away, building a lead of nearly 1.4 seconds. Behind Rossi, Guintoli, the revelation of the weekend, was on a charge, passing Elias into the chicane, and Melandri one corner later. As the pack lined up for the final double right-hander leading back on to the start and finish straight, Guintoli pounced again, dispensing with Carlos Checa and taking over 4th.

The crowd were already elated, but more was to come. Randy de Puniet, inspired by his compatriot's charge, was surging forward himself. On the next lap, de Puniet wedged his Kawasaki past Marco Melandri and Carlos Checa, to take up station behind Guintoli's Yamaha.

By this time, Casey Stoner was starting to fade. He had been having problems holding off a resurgent Alex Barros, finally succumbing on lap 3, only to be joined by the following Frenchmen. De Puniet moved first, passing Guintoli into Garage Bleu, and opened the hunt for Stoner. By the time they got to the chicane, the French pair were upon, and then past the Ducati rider. But it was not yet over for the Stoner, for a couple of turns later Melandri was past too, pushing the Australian down into 6th.

De Puniet was riding like a man possessed. Once past Stoner, he set his sights on Barros, taking the Brazilian before the lap was out. Where one local led, the other followed, Guintoli taking over 3rd within the next lap. With the pesky foreign interlopers out of the way, the local boys were free to chase down the leader, Valentino Rossi. They made very short work of the chase, De Puniet taking over a second out of Rossi's lead once past Barros, and by the end of lap 5, the French pair were breathing down the Doctor's neck. The Doctor's discomfort was short-lived, as by the chicane, de Puniet and Guintoli were past. If the crowd had been pleased earlier, they were ecstatic fit to burst by now. This time, it was Guintoli's turn to push, the Dunlop rookie slipping past de Puniet through the Museum left-hander. Two Frenchmen battling for the lead at the French Grand Prix was a dream come true for the home crowd, but their lead was small, with a group of nine, containing the Hondas of Pedrosa, Melandri, and Hayden, the Suzuki of Hopkins, the Ducatis of Stoner, Barros and Capirossi, and the Yamahas of Rossi and Tamada following hot on their heels.

Can't Stand The Rain

The rain though still light, had been getting steadily worse, and speculation started on which of the rain specialists we would see making a charge. So surprise was great to see a man who is notorious for loathing the wet come charging through the field. Dani Pedrosa had started from 10th, dropping to 15th by the end of the first lap. But someone or something had lit a rocket under the tiny Spaniard, and he was bludgeoning his way to the front, dispensing with Capirossi, Hayden, Checa, Melandri and Stoner in the space of just 3 laps. Pedrosa's example had similarly inspired John Hopkins. 2nd going into the first corner from the start, he slipped down to 11th, then latched on to Pedrosa to fight his way forward. By lap 6 he had made his way to 9th, but on the next lap, he just exploded, taking 6 places to leap up to 4th.

As lap 7 progressed, the rain was starting to get serious. Lap times had been good while the track was still only damp, as long as you avoided the greasy patches off the racing line, but that was starting to change. Riders were having to slow, the worsening rain starting to make conditions treacherous in places. Fortune may favor the brave, but she also lays traps for the reckless, and Carlos Checa was the first of her victims. Tires had started sliding , and rider after rider was getting lifted out of the saddle as the grip-slide-grip of impending highsides began to make their presence felt. Such a twitch had allowed de Puniet back past Guintoli, and a couple of corners later, Valentino Rossi had a similar twitch before Garage Bleu, running wide and immediately losing four places to the massed crowd behind him. Carlos Checa saw his chance, and ran in hot up the inside, but just a little too hot, crashing out of the race. He was not to be the last.

After losing out to de Puniet, Guintoli was caught by the chasing pack. First Hopkins flew past, and Pedrosa followed at Museum. Desperately trying to hold off the charge of Valentino Rossi, Guintoli highsided two turns later at the Chemin aux Boeuf Esses. The Doctor's reflexes were astonishing, getting hard on the brakes and just missing the tumbling Dunlop Yamaha of the French rookie, but again losing places which he had just managed to claw back. Guintoli's triumphant run was over, but he proved his mettle as a rider, remounting his damaged bike and entering the pits, to take out his wets-shod bike, and rejoin the fray.

It's The Pits

Guintoli wasn't the only early visitor to the pits. Alex Hofmann gambled on coming in early, and got back out again having lost only a single place. On the next lap, the field from 6th on down decided to follow the Pramac Ducati's example, pitting to swap bikes for ones with tires more suited to the conditions. The leaders would wait another lap before coming in to change bikes, but this came one lap too late for the other French hero, Randy de Puniet falling victim to his own excitement at leading his home race and crashing out while in the lead. Toni Elias was another victim, losing the front in the difficult conditions.

The two waves of pit stops had surprisingly little effect on the running order, aided by less chaotic scenes than at Phillip Island, the last place we had done this. But the biggest beneficiary was a familiar name: Chris Vermeulen had seized the opportunity to jump from 7th to 2nd in Australia, and at Le Mans, he went one better. 8th on lap 9, by the time he came past the finish line at the end of lap 10, he passed the leading group as they left the pits on fresh tires, taking over the lead ahead of his Suzuki team mate John Hopkins.

The Suzuki 1-2 was not to last long. Vermeulen was strong, and looking comfortable at the front, but Hopper was coming under pressure from the bunch behind, Melandri leading the attack ahead of Pedrosa, Rossi, a revitalized Nicky Hayden and the Ducati train of Stoner, Capirossi, Hofmann and Barros. He withstood Melandri's attack for a lap, falling prey to Rossi on the next. While Vermeulen's wet weather setup looked absolutely perfect, parrying Melandri's approaches with apparent ease at the time, Hopkins was having a tougher time, running wide to let past a gaggle of followers. The American, who snatched his first podium last time out at Shanghai, would not feature again at the front.

Within 3 laps of the pit stops, the top two steps of the podium looked settled, Vermeulen and Melandri clear of the rest by over 3 seconds. Vermeulen had pulled a a gap of 1.8 seconds on Melandri, but Melandri kept nibbling away at it, taking a couple of tenths each lap. Melandri worried away at Vermeulen to get the lead down to 2/10ths of a second, but Vermeulen responded. Over the next couple of laps, the former World Supersport champion clawed back a couple of tenths to extend his lead. Melandri made another push, getting within a quarter of a second once again, but Vermeulen was not to be fazed. The Australian Suzuki man kicked once again, taking 2/10ths on lap 21, over half a second on lap 22, and another second on lap 23. With 5 laps to go, a 2 second deficit, and over 15 seconds back to 3rd place, Marco Melandri decided to settle for 2nd, his best result of the season, and valuable points in the championship, leaving Chris Vermeulen to take his first win in MotoGP, Suzuki's first four-stroke win, and their first win since the Sete Gibernau won the Valencia Grand Prix in 2001. The Australian had put on another masterful performance of wet weather riding, demonstrating that when the conditions are right, he is capable of beating anyone in the world.

Title Dogfight

Behind Vermeulen, the final podium place was yet to be settled, and more importantly, championship points. Valentino Rossi had come to this track with a mission: to cut down Casey Stoner's lead in the title race, before the series hits the high-speed heaven of Mugello and Catalunya. After Rossi had had to let Vermeulen and Melandri go, his 3rd place looked in good shape, parrying every move which Casey Stoner tried on him. For 4 laps he fended off the young Ducatista, but on lap 17, he succumbed to the pressure, running wide going into the Esses, and letting the Stoner through. It was a harbinger of worse to come for The Doctor. Rossi lost a second to Stoner on the next lap, one and a half seconds the next, completely losing touch with the Ducati and surrendering a potential 3 points in the championship. But Rossi's day was about to get worse: having chosen a hard rain tire, gambling that the rain would be light, his lap times kept slipping, from 1'50s on laps 16, 17 and 18, down to 1'52 by lap 21, 1'55 by lap 23, down to 2'00 by the final lap. Casey Stoner, the man expected to wilt under Rossi's relentless pressure, had not cracked, but had instead ridden a strong race to take yet another podium and another 6 points from Rossi, the difference between the Australian's 3rd and Rossi's 6th. With the Ducati heartland of Mugello and Barcelona to come, Stoner will surely approach the season's halfway mark with a very cushy title lead indeed.

Rossi put up several laudable but doomed defenses on his way back through the field. First up was an invigorated Nicky Hayden, the reigning world champion improving every race, with the prospect of a decent points tally to help him out of the title basement. Hayden looked well on his way to 4th, despite being chased by his Repsol Honda team mate Dani Pedrosa, until he lost the rear at the Esses and crashed heavily into the gravel at high speed. The Kentucky Kid sat disconsolate in the gravel, shades of Estoril, only this time Hayden had no one to blame but himself. Pedrosa went on to take 4th, while Hayden's crash lost him yet more ground in his title defense, leaving the American 72 points, or nearly 3 race wins, adrift of the leader Casey Stoner.

Pedrosa had passed Rossi earlier, and once the Spaniard was past, it was Alex Hofmann's turn. The German rider had a near perfect wet weather setting on his d'Antin Ducati, and once past Rossi, Hofmann rode it home to take 5th, his best ever finish in MotoGP. Rossi held on to take 6th, scoring vital points, but giving away too many to Stoner, while Vermeulen's team mate John Hopkins struggled home to 7th.

The Kids Of Today

Behind Hopkins, a seething Loris Capirossi took 8th, unhappy with his bike, and unhappy with his team. Many felt that 2007 could be Capirossi's year in MotoGP, including Capirex himself. But so far, he has failed to come to grips with the 800 cc Ducati GP7, and is starting to express his frustration at being comprehensively outclassed by his younger, and ostensibly junior, team mate. After the race, Capirossi said that he felt let down by Ducati, that the team had made a big mistake with the mapping for his wet weather bike, and that he believed that after so many years of working for Ducati, Ducati should start working for him. This season is expected to be Capirossi's swan song in MotoGP, and the Italian veteran must surely have hoped for a much prettier tune.

The Dunlop Yamaha Tech 3 team ended up taking 9th and 10th places, Makoto Tamada finishing ahead of Sylvain Guintoli, but utterly outclassed by his young French team mate. Guintoli had remounted after his crash, swapped to his wet weather bike, and still managed to clinch a 10th, a strong and gritty performance, and impressing all who watched. Little was expected of the Frenchman, but he has shown real ability in pushing the Dunlop project forward.

Behind Guintoli, Fonsi Nieto rode a very steady race to take 5 points in his first MotoGP outing. The Spaniard, riding the injured Olivier Jacque's Kawasaki, kept his cool in the terrible conditions and brought the bike home to score points, a very creditable performance.

The last points scorer was the 2nd unluckiest man of the weekend. Starting from pole, Colin Edwards' race had gone from bad to worse, pitting twice, once with a problem with engine braking, and another time for fresh tires. After the race, Edwards summed up his luck by saying "I'm not even friends with Pasini, a reference to the Italian 125 rider tipped for the title prior to the season, who has taken 4 poles in dominant form but suffered 4 mechanical DNFs, and whose Aprilia has been dogged by problems at every race. If Colin Edwards was unlucky, at least he was better off than Mattias Pasini.

The rest of the field failed to finish, the conditions exacting a terrible toll on riders and machinery. Alex Barros and Kenny Roberts Jr were perhaps unluckiest, both crashing out on the final lap, though Kenny Jr had already been lapped. Nicky Hayden, Shinya Nakano, Randy de Puniet, Toni Elias and Carlos Checa had all crashed out much earlier, failing to rejoin.

The Stuff Of Legend

Once again, we came to France expecting the result to be cut and dried, the Yamahas to win, and Valentino Rossi to get back some of the precious points he had given away at the faster tracks. The weather had other ideas, and threw up a thrilling spectacle; Not quite a lottery, but certainly a reshuffling of the pack, which rewarded calculated risk and an effective strategy for using the conditions to your advantage. The man most capable of turning the conditions to his hand was Chris Vermeulen, and no one could begrudge him his victory, the deserved reward for a brilliant race.

But the big winner at Le Mans is Casey Stoner. Riding a careful race, he extended his points lead, and is in an outstanding position going into the next two rounds at fast tracks. Valentino Rossi limited the damage, but his mission here was not damage limitation, it was to attack and move forward. For Rossi, the 2007 season so far is depressingly similar to 2006, despite the much better shape that Rossi's M1 is in.

Working against Valentino Rossi are the new tire rules. The new regulations have shaken up the championship, and made the outcome of races less dependent on the favored status of a particular rider, and more on the team's ability to select the right tires for the conditions. The tire regulations were less of a factor today, the teams being allowed as many wet tires as they wish, but the teams used to flying in tires built to suit the conditions no longer hold sufficient advantage at the dry races to counter the randomness which a wet race provides. Michelin may get a bye for the weather, with Bridgestone taking the podium here in Le Mans, Michelin's home track, and a place they should not lose at, but they have to pick up their game when it's dry, or they may lose the title for the first time since Dunlop won it in 1991.

Though the rain had a huge impact on the outcome of the race, it seems entirely fitting that a location which is suffused with so much history should create yet more: The first win for the Suzuki four-stroke GSV-R; The first win for Chris Vermeulen; and the first time that Michelin have lost a race here almost since living memory. If history is to be made, it might as well be made at a track which is forever linked with racing legend.

Le Mans Race Result

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2007 Le Mans MotoGP Race Report - Luck Of The Draw

Motorcycle racing is a lot like poker. Over the long haul, the best player will always come out on top, as they take the cards they are given, play the percentages, and make the best of the hand they have. Of course, sometimes luck intervenes, and a run of bad hands can leave strong players floundering around trying to cut their losses, while they wait for their luck to change and the percentages to start running in their favor. So it is in MotoGP, where the best riders take what they're given and wring the last possible drop of performance out of it, winning when they can, and limiting their losses when they know they can't. Over the duration of a season, riders will hope that their luck will even out, leaving the final result down to the skill of the rider, rather than the luck of the draw.

But when it rains, the rules change. It's as if a couple of strangers had joined the table and suggested playing by an arcane set of rules used only in a tiny mountain town in Nevada mining country. Suddenly, winning comes down to courage, adaptability, a quickness to learn, and plain old-fashioned luck. Sometimes, that luck can even come down to whether or not you happened to have passed through that little mountain town or not before. It would be unfair to call motorcycle racing in the rain a lottery, but it does mean that all the old bets are off, and we start anew, with the slates wiped clean.

Personal Voodoo

So there was much crossing of fingers, waving of rabbits' feet and touching of wood as the weather outlook worsened during the junior classes. The day had started bright enough, a few drops of rain soon driven away, but the track mainly dry and the skies sunny, if not clear. However, as the morning went on, the skies began slowly to darken, as did the faces in the garages as they watched the rain's relentless approach on the weather radar. The 125 races had been run under great, if rather cool conditions, but as the 250 race progressed, the cloud cover grew thicker, the temperatures dropped, and the skies put on a mantle of darkest gray. There was still hope the rain might yet hold off, at least until after the race, but that hope grew fainter as 2pm, and the start of the MotoGP race, approached.

As the bikes were rolled out of the garages, the rain finally began to fall, a thin, faint drizzle hardly worthy of the name. But it was enough to trigger an explosion of activity in the pits: spare bikes were hurriedly transformed, with slick tires swapped for wets or intermediates, suspension softened, and engine mappings hurriedly reprogrammed. The astute Dani Pedrosa even went out for one sighting lap on his intermediate-shod spare bike, scrubbing the tires in to rid them of the smooth and slippery surface, hoping for an advantage if the rain got worse, before returning to take his dry race bike to the grid. With a few minutes to go, the Race Director officially declared the event to be a wet race, meaning anyone could come into the pits to change bikes at any point during the race, as long as the new bike was on different tires to the old one.

The Greasy Pole

But as the bikes rolled round after the warm up lap, to take their place on the grid for the start, no one was thinking that far ahead. All were out on slicks and though the track was greasy, it was still a long way from being wet, and a dry line sure to form after a few laps. When the lights finally went out and the pack exploded off the line, all thoughts were on the Dunlop Chicane, whether everyone would get through safely, or whether we would see yet another first lap incident, as we had in China and in Turkey. The first chicane came and went safely, but there was drama of a different kind: Colin Edwards, who had set such an astonishing lap to conquer pole on Saturday, was swamped by a marauding throng of 800s as if he had gotten the class wrong and turned up on a 250. The polesitter's Fiat Yamaha, which had been working so perfectly all weekend, was now looking more injured cow than raging bull, and from 1st on the grid he had dropped all the way down to 18th in the space of a single lap. Two laps later, Edwards was in to change bikes, to try his luck on his spare bike.

Where Edwards was going backwards, team mate Valentino Rossi was going forward, grabbing a couple of spots into the chicane, to tuck in behind Casey Stoner on the Ducati, who was off to yet another lightning start from 3rd on the grid. Once out of the chicane, Rossi was on Stoner, and past at the La Chappelle right hander, exactly as the script, written by fans and commentators, dictated.

Behind the title duo, John Hopkins, who had shot his Rizla Suzuki to third through the chicane, was dropping back, as rider after rider slipped past. Carlos Checa, who had made good on the brakes into the chicane what he had lost from the starting line, was the first to pass, with the Gresini Honda duo of Marco Melandri and Toni Elias following, bringing along the Brazilian Alex Barros, off to a great start from a lowly 13th spot on the grid. But what really set the crowd on fire was the sight of local man Sylvain Guintoli rocketing through the field, passing Hopkins to take 7th before the lap was done.

Local Hero

As the bikes chased around the track on the second lap, the Yamahas were unleashed. At the front, Valentino Rossi pulled away, building a lead of nearly 1.4 seconds. Behind Rossi, Guintoli, the revelation of the weekend, was on a charge, passing Elias into the chicane, and Melandri one corner later. As the pack lined up for the final double right-hander leading back on to the start and finish straight, Guintoli pounced again, dispensing with Carlos Checa and taking over 4th.

The crowd were already elated, but more was to come. Randy de Puniet, inspired by his compatriot's charge, was surging forward himself. On the next lap, de Puniet wedged his Kawasaki past Marco Melandri and Carlos Checa, to take up station behind Guintoli's Yamaha.

By this time, Casey Stoner was starting to fade. He had been having problems holding off a resurgent Alex Barros, finally succumbing on lap 3, only to be joined by the following Frenchmen. De Puniet moved first, passing Guintoli into Garage Bleu, and opened the hunt for Stoner. By the time they got to the chicane, the French pair were upon, and then past the Ducati rider. But it was not yet over for the Stoner, for a couple of turns later Melandri was past too, pushing the Australian down into 6th.

De Puniet was riding like a man possessed. Once past Stoner, he set his sights on Barros, taking the Brazilian before the lap was out. Where one local led, the other followed, Guintoli taking over 3rd within the next lap. With the pesky foreign interlopers out of the way, the local boys were free to chase down the leader, Valentino Rossi. They made very short work of the chase, De Puniet taking over a second out of Rossi's lead once past Barros, and by the end of lap 5, the French pair were breathing down the Doctor's neck. The Doctor's discomfort was short-lived, as by the chicane, de Puniet and Guintoli were past. If the crowd had been pleased earlier, they were ecstatic fit to burst by now. This time, it was Guintoli's turn to push, the Dunlop rookie slipping past de Puniet through the Museum left-hander. Two Frenchmen battling for the lead at the French Grand Prix was a dream come true for the home crowd, but their lead was small, with a group of nine, containing the Hondas of Pedrosa, Melandri, and Hayden, the Suzuki of Hopkins, the Ducatis of Stoner, Barros and Capirossi, and the Yamahas of Rossi and Tamada following hot on their heels.

Can't Stand The Rain

The rain though still light, had been getting steadily worse, and speculation started on which of the rain specialists we would see making a charge. So surprise was great to see a man who is notorious for loathing the wet come charging through the field. Dani Pedrosa had started from 10th, dropping to 15th by the end of the first lap. But someone or something had lit a rocket under the tiny Spaniard, and he was bludgeoning his way to the front, dispensing with Capirossi, Hayden, Checa, Melandri and Stoner in the space of just 3 laps. Pedrosa's example had similarly inspired John Hopkins. 2nd going into the first corner from the start, he slipped down to 11th, then latched on to Pedrosa to fight his way forward. By lap 6 he had made his way to 9th, but on the next lap, he just exploded, taking 6 places to leap up to 4th.

As lap 7 progressed, the rain was starting to get serious. Lap times had been good while the track was still only damp, as long as you avoided the greasy patches off the racing line, but that was starting to change. Riders were having to slow, the worsening rain starting to make conditions treacherous in places. Fortune may favor the brave, but she also lays traps for the reckless, and Carlos Checa was the first of her victims. Tires had started sliding , and rider after rider was getting lifted out of the saddle as the grip-slide-grip of impending highsides began to make their presence felt. Such a twitch had allowed de Puniet back past Guintoli, and a couple of corners later, Valentino Rossi had a similar twitch before Garage Bleu, running wide and immediately losing four places to the massed crowd behind him. Carlos Checa saw his chance, and ran in hot up the inside, but just a little too hot, crashing out of the race. He was not to be the last.

After losing out to de Puniet, Guintoli was caught by the chasing pack. First Hopkins flew past, and Pedrosa followed at Museum. Desperately trying to hold off the charge of Valentino Rossi, Guintoli highsided two turns later at the Chemin aux Boeuf Esses. The Doctor's reflexes were astonishing, getting hard on the brakes and just missing the tumbling Dunlop Yamaha of the French rookie, but again losing places which he had just managed to claw back. Guintoli's triumphant run was over, but he proved his mettle as a rider, remounting his damaged bike and entering the pits, to take out his wets-shod bike, and rejoin the fray.

It's The Pits

Guintoli wasn't the only early visitor to the pits. Alex Hofmann gambled on coming in early, and got back out again having lost only a single place. On the next lap, the field from 6th on down decided to follow the Pramac Ducati's example, pitting to swap bikes for ones with tires more suited to the conditions. The leaders would wait another lap before coming in to change bikes, but this came one lap too late for the other French hero, Randy de Puniet falling victim to his own excitement at leading his home race and crashing out while in the lead. Toni Elias was another victim, losing the front in the difficult conditions.

The two waves of pit stops had surprisingly little effect on the running order, aided by less chaotic scenes than at Phillip Island, the last place we had done this. But the biggest beneficiary was a familiar name: Chris Vermeulen had seized the opportunity to jump from 7th to 2nd in Australia, and at Le Mans, he went one better. 8th on lap 9, by the time he came past the finish line at the end of lap 10, he passed the leading group as they left the pits on fresh tires, taking over the lead ahead of his Suzuki team mate John Hopkins.

The Suzuki 1-2 was not to last long. Vermeulen was strong, and looking comfortable at the front, but Hopper was coming under pressure from the bunch behind, Melandri leading the attack ahead of Pedrosa, Rossi, a revitalized Nicky Hayden and the Ducati train of Stoner, Capirossi, Hofmann and Barros. He withstood Melandri's attack for a lap, falling prey to Rossi on the next. While Vermeulen's wet weather setup looked absolutely perfect, parrying Melandri's approaches with apparent ease at the time, Hopkins was having a tougher time, running wide to let past a gaggle of followers. The American, who snatched his first podium last time out at Shanghai, would not feature again at the front.

Within 3 laps of the pit stops, the top two steps of the podium looked settled, Vermeulen and Melandri clear of the rest by over 3 seconds. Vermeulen had pulled a a gap of 1.8 seconds on Melandri, but Melandri kept nibbling away at it, taking a couple of tenths each lap. Melandri worried away at Vermeulen to get the lead down to 2/10ths of a second, but Vermeulen responded. Over the next couple of laps, the former World Supersport champion clawed back a couple of tenths to extend his lead. Melandri made another push, getting within a quarter of a second once again, but Vermeulen was not to be fazed. The Australian Suzuki man kicked once again, taking 2/10ths on lap 21, over half a second on lap 22, and another second on lap 23. With 5 laps to go, a 2 second deficit, and over 15 seconds back to 3rd place, Marco Melandri decided to settle for 2nd, his best result of the season, and valuable points in the championship, leaving Chris Vermeulen to take his first win in MotoGP, Suzuki's first four-stroke win, and their first win since the Sete Gibernau won the Valencia Grand Prix in 2001. The Australian had put on another masterful performance of wet weather riding, demonstrating that when the conditions are right, he is capable of beating anyone in the world.

Title Dogfight

Behind Vermeulen, the final podium place was yet to be settled, and more importantly, championship points. Valentino Rossi had come to this track with a mission: to cut down Casey Stoner's lead in the title race, before the series hits the high-speed heaven of Mugello and Catalunya. After Rossi had had to let Vermeulen and Melandri go, his 3rd place looked in good shape, parrying every move which Casey Stoner tried on him. For 4 laps he fended off the young Ducatista, but on lap 17, he succumbed to the pressure, running wide going into the Esses, and letting the Stoner through. It was a harbinger of worse to come for The Doctor. Rossi lost a second to Stoner on the next lap, one and a half seconds the next, completely losing touch with the Ducati and surrendering a potential 3 points in the championship. But Rossi's day was about to get worse: having chosen a hard rain tire, gambling that the rain would be light, his lap times kept slipping, from 1'50s on laps 16, 17 and 18, down to 1'52 by lap 21, 1'55 by lap 23, down to 2'00 by the final lap. Casey Stoner, the man expected to wilt under Rossi's relentless pressure, had not cracked, but had instead ridden a strong race to take yet another podium and another 6 points from Rossi, the difference between the Australian's 3rd and Rossi's 6th. With the Ducati heartland of Mugello and Barcelona to come, Stoner will surely approach the season's halfway mark with a very cushy title lead indeed.

Rossi put up several laudable but doomed defenses on his way back through the field. First up was an invigorated Nicky Hayden, the reigning world champion improving every race, with the prospect of a decent points tally to help him out of the title basement. Hayden looked well on his way to 4th, despite being chased by his Repsol Honda team mate Dani Pedrosa, until he lost the rear at the Esses and crashed heavily into the gravel at high speed. The Kentucky Kid sat disconsolate in the gravel, shades of Estoril, only this time Hayden had no one to blame but himself. Pedrosa went on to take 4th, while Hayden's crash lost him yet more ground in his title defense, leaving the American 72 points, or nearly 3 race wins, adrift of the leader Casey Stoner.

Pedrosa had passed Rossi earlier, and once the Spaniard was past, it was Alex Hofmann's turn. The German rider had a near perfect wet weather setting on his d'Antin Ducati, and once past Rossi, Hofmann rode it home to take 5th, his best ever finish in MotoGP. Rossi held on to take 6th, scoring vital points, but giving away too many to Stoner, while Vermeulen's team mate John Hopkins struggled home to 7th.

The Kids Of Today

Behind Hopkins, a seething Loris Capirossi took 8th, unhappy with his bike, and unhappy with his team. Many felt that 2007 could be Capirossi's year in MotoGP, including Capirex himself. But so far, he has failed to come to grips with the 800 cc Ducati GP7, and is starting to express his frustration at being comprehensively outclassed by his younger, and ostensibly junior, team mate. After the race, Capirossi said that he felt let down by Ducati, that the team had made a big mistake with the mapping for his wet weather bike, and that he believed that after so many years of working for Ducati, Ducati should start working for him. This season is expected to be Capirossi's swan song in MotoGP, and the Italian veteran must surely have hoped for a much prettier tune.

The Dunlop Yamaha Tech 3 team ended up taking 9th and 10th places, Makoto Tamada finishing ahead of Sylvain Guintoli, but utterly outclassed by his young French team mate. Guintoli had remounted after his crash, swapped to his wet weather bike, and still managed to clinch a 10th, a strong and gritty performance, and impressing all who watched. Little was expected of the Frenchman, but he has shown real ability in pushing the Dunlop project forward.

Behind Guintoli, Fonsi Nieto rode a very steady race to take 5 points in his first MotoGP outing. The Spaniard, riding the injured Olivier Jacque's Kawasaki, kept his cool in the terrible conditions and brought the bike home to score points, a very creditable performance.

The last points scorer was the 2nd unluckiest man of the weekend. Starting from pole, Colin Edwards' race had gone from bad to worse, pitting twice, once with a problem with engine braking, and another time for fresh tires. After the race, Edwards summed up his luck by saying "I'm not even friends with Pasini, a reference to the Italian 125 rider tipped for the title prior to the season, who has taken 4 poles in dominant form but suffered 4 mechanical DNFs, and whose Aprilia has been dogged by problems at every race. If Colin Edwards was unlucky, at least he was better off than Mattias Pasini.

The rest of the field failed to finish, the conditions exacting a terrible toll on riders and machinery. Alex Barros and Kenny Roberts Jr were perhaps unluckiest, both crashing out on the final lap, though Kenny Jr had already been lapped. Nicky Hayden, Shinya Nakano, Randy de Puniet, Toni Elias and Carlos Checa had all crashed out much earlier, failing to rejoin.

The Stuff Of Legend

Once again, we came to France expecting the result to be cut and dried, the Yamahas to win, and Valentino Rossi to get back some of the precious points he had given away at the faster tracks. The weather had other ideas, and threw up a thrilling spectacle; Not quite a lottery, but certainly a reshuffling of the pack, which rewarded calculated risk and an effective strategy for using the conditions to your advantage. The man most capable of turning the conditions to his hand was Chris Vermeulen, and no one could begrudge him his victory, the deserved reward for a brilliant race.

But the big winner at Le Mans is Casey Stoner. Riding a careful race, he extended his points lead, and is in an outstanding position going into the next two rounds at fast tracks. Valentino Rossi limited the damage, but his mission here was not damage limitation, it was to attack and move forward. For Rossi, the 2007 season so far is depressingly similar to 2006, despite the much better shape that Rossi's M1 is in.

Working against Valentino Rossi are the new tire rules. The new regulations have shaken up the championship, and made the outcome of races less dependent on the favored status of a particular rider, and more on the team's ability to select the right tires for the conditions. The tire regulations were less of a factor today, the teams being allowed as many wet tires as they wish, but the teams used to flying in tires built to suit the conditions no longer hold sufficient advantage at the dry races to counter the randomness which a wet race provides. Michelin may get a bye for the weather, with Bridgestone taking the podium here in Le Mans, Michelin's home track, and a place they should not lose at, but they have to pick up their game when it's dry, or they may lose the title for the first time since Dunlop won it in 1991.

Though the rain had a huge impact on the outcome of the race, it seems entirely fitting that a location which is suffused with so much history should create yet more: The first win for the Suzuki four-stroke GSV-R; The first win for Chris Vermeulen; and the first time that Michelin have lost a race here almost since living memory. If history is to be made, it might as well be made at a track which is forever linked with racing legend.

Le Mans Race Result

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2007 MotoGP Le Mans Race Preview - A Sense Of History

The contrast couldn't be bigger. Two weeks ago, the MotoGP circus was at Shanghai, a new, forgettable facility built especially for Formula 1, untouched by the hand of history. This weekend the paddock sets up shop in Le Mans, one of the greatest names in motor racing, a place so steeped in history you can almost taste it in the air. The very name of Le Mans conjures up images of exhausted riders blasting their way through the night by the glare their headlights, with only grim determination to bear them on until daylight breaks, and the approach of the race's end. Le Mans is a racing legend, as big as Assen, Monza, and Indianapolis.

Though the French Grand Prix takes place at a legendary location, it does not use the legendary Circuit de la Sarthe, the insane, half public roads, half closed track course, but rather the shorter, much tighter Bugatti circuit. The Bugatti circuit is a far cry from the last two tracks we visited, which had plenty of long, fast straights. It comprises a series of short straights connected by wide hairpins, with a couple of chicanes and the long, fast Courbe Dunlop which hurt Alberto Puig so badly back in 1995. Where Shanghai and Istanbul favored outright, sixth gear speed, Le Mans demands agility for the first gear turns, and low down grunt to get out of those turns as quickly as possible. On the face of it, the Ducati's days of clubbing the opposition into submission with brute horsepower are over. But there was one detail which was easily lost among the images of Ducatis romping past Yamahas on sheer top speed, and that was the acceleration which Casey Stoner got out of the last corner onto the back straight in China. The Ducatis may have been forced to surrender their best cards, but they could still have a couple of jokers up their sleeves.

But judging by history (a noble goal, at a track so rich in it), Casey Stoner, and everyone else, will have their work cut out for them trying to keep up with the Yamahas at Le Mans. Since the start of the four-stroke era, the Yamahas have always run well at Le Mans, scoring at least one podium every year, with the exception of 2006, when Valentino Rossi's bike suffered a terminal electronics failure while The Doctor was on a charge, robbing him of a certain podium. But with the bike looking much more reliable this year, and being, as Colin Edwards has put it, "the fastest bike in the world in a circle", the Yamahas look just about unstoppable this weekend.

A Foregone Conclusion?

Although total domination by Yamaha sounds like it could make for a dull race, there's a snake in the grass which might just spice things up. Though everyone expects Valentino Rossi to reign in France, Colin Edwards has made no secret of his belief that Le Mans could be where he takes his first victory in MotoGP. There's no doubt that under ordinary circumstances, Rossi would be glad to let Edwards take his maiden win, and would even do what he could to help. But these are not ordinary circumstances. Four races into the season, and The Doctor finds himself staring at a 15 point deficit to Casey Stoner, with the fast tracks at Mugello and Catalunya to come. It is unlikely that Rossi will feel his able to just hand out points to his team mate without putting up a fight. And Edwards is likely to give him one: Seeing John Hopkins break his podium duck, and seeing his own prospects of retaining his seat at Yamaha next year looking slim, thanks to an expected influx of talent, Edwards is chomping at the bit to take his first win, and will be taking more risk than usual for a chance to stand on the top of the box. A fierce battle between the Fiat Yamaha team mates is likely, and could end up being costly. If they get a little too enthusiastic and end up taking each other out, then Rossi could find himself staring at an even bigger points gap, at a track where he hoped to claw points back.

The man sitting on that points gap must be feeling pretty comfortable. Casey Stoner goes into Le Mans with a 15 point lead, knowing that once we leave France, the MotoGP circus heads to two tracks that will once again play to the Ducati's strength in top speed. So Stoner's mission is simple on Sunday: stick with Rossi and limit the points damage. That may be easier said than done, as Stoner may find himself amidst a pack of more agile Yamahas, Suzukis, and even the odd Honda, all trying to make the most of their advantage while they can. Le Mans could turn into a measure of Stoner's maturity, testing whether he can stay calm under the intense pressure he could end up facing, and not end up pushing too hard and making an expensive mistake.

It will be interesting to see if Stoner can call upon his Marlboro Ducati team mate to help him out. Loris Capirossi has been the number one rider in the Ducati garage since the Italian factory returned to MotoGP, but since the advent of the 800 era, he has forfeited that role. Capirex is still struggling to come to terms with the smaller bikes, despite being a former 250 cc world champion, a supposed prerequisite for being fast on the new 800s. Now, with his Australian team mate leading the championship, Capirossi could find himself under pressure to start working in support of Stoner's title chances, and having to sacrifice his own.

One Small Step

In the Suzuki garage, the pecking order is already fairly well established. John Hopkins has had his strongest start to a season so far, and finally smashed through his personal glass ceiling in China, getting a MotoGP podium at long last. Now that he has rid himself of the monkey he carried on his back for so long, Hopper looks like being unleashed. The Suzukis have been strong from the moment that testing started at the end of last season, only coming up a little short on horsepower. But the team will be bringing two sets of new engines to France, one set with more horsepower for the race on Sunday, and "something special" to test on the Monday after the race. The extra ponies will help the already outstanding handling of the GSV-R, and could help an already stoked Hopkins to climb another step on the podium. Or maybe even two.

Chris Vermeulen has had a tougher time than his team mate. The Australian Suzuki rider has struggled in qualifying, never managing to get decent grid position, but has consistently ridden strong races to finish well ahead of his qualifying spot. Unfortunately, gaining 7 or 8 spots to take 7th does not make the headlines, even though close examination of his lap times has often revealed a strong and fast race. If Vermeulen can start qualifying better, his results will improve drastically. And with the extra horses the Rizla Suzuki will have on tap, he could be much closer to the front than he has been at previous races.

The French Connection

The other bike which has shown a huge improvement is the Kawasaki. Going from blowing up at its first public appearance to posting strong qualifying times, and a couple of top 10 finishes, the Kawasaki team is looking ever more competitive. And they should be strong at Le Mans: the team has strong connections with France, beyond their two French riders. The youngest of the pair, Randy de Puniet, will be looking for revenge for last year, when he crashed out on the first lap after being forced into the gravel by a hard-charging Valentino Rossi. The young Frenchman has been riding well so far this season, but has still shown signs of his old weakness, a penchant for slinging the machinery at the scenery. He finished on the podium four times in the 250 class at Le Mans, so he always runs well at his home Grand Prix. If he can stay aboard, he will be someone to watch.

Kawasaki's other French rider, Olivier Jacque, will be absent from Le Mans this weekend, as he is still recovering from a nasty arm injury he suffered in a crash at Shanghai. His place will be taken by Spanish rider Fonsi Nieto, currently racing for Kawasaki in World Superbikes. Though the Spaniard has a name almost as legendary as Le Mans, being the nephew of the 2nd most successful motorcycle racer of all time, Angel Nieto, this is Fonsi's first time on a MotoGP bike, and the learning curve is too steep to expect him to be much of a force in France.

The Pramac d'Antin Ducati team could also find themselves having a tougher time than they would like. So far, the private Spanish-based team has performed beyond most people's pre-season expectations, but Le Mans could be difficult for them. The tight, slow nature of the Bugatti Circuit will not favor the Ducati's strong top-end, robbing Alex Barros and Alex Hofmann of the advantage they have. Alex Barros put in an extraordinary, if unnoticed, performance at Shanghai two weeks ago, riding a lonely race after getting tangled up with Toni Elias' Honda at Turn 1, lapping as fast as Pedrosa and Melandri, who finished 4th and 5th there. He also became the first person to perform the incredible feat of bump-starting a MotoGP bike, an accomplishment not to be sniffed at considering the extremely high compression ratio of the Desmosedici. He will need to repeat his race in Shanghai to stand a chance in France.

Troubled Times

Le Mans will also be difficult for Honda. Big Red has finally admitted that it made a mistake when designing the RC212V, seriously underestimating the power required. Being slow is one thing, but sadly for the Honda riders, and perhaps especially for Carlos Checa and Shinya Nakano, who left teams to grab a ride on a Honda, the RC212V is not just slow, it's also weak in the turns. The front end lacks feel, and the back end lacks feel, meaning it's tough to get confidence through corners. Fortunately, the corners at Le Mans are mostly fairly slow, where the lack of front end feel is less of an issue, and a good deal less frightening than in fast sweepers, but Honda has some work to do before they start to catch up.

A sign that they are taking the problems seriously is the announcement that for the time being, HRC will be focusing its efforts on the factory Repsol Honda team. While bad news for the rest of the Honda riders, it should help Nicky Hayden and Dani Pedrosa make some serious steps forward. Reigning champion Hayden has been waiting for a new fairing since Qatar, and HRC's new commitment could see parts starting to come out of Japan more quickly. The Kentucky Kid needs something, for although he is getting to grips with the 800 better with every race, he is still running a long way behind where he feels a champion should be.

The most obvious beneficiary of increased focus at HRC is likely to be Dani Pedrosa. The tiny Spaniard has adapted well to the new Honda 800, despite its problems, and has so far posted the best results of the Honda riders. His smooth style suits the new class, and his small size fits the Honda philosophy of mass centralization. Despite all this, Pedrosa is still nowhere near being the title challenger he was touted as at the start of the season. As new parts start to come into the team, his fate will improve, but at Le Mans, both Hayden and Pedrosa can only hope not to lose too much ground.

Grin And Bear It

For the other Hondas, the public lack of HRC support means all they can do is grit their teeth and hang on. Marco Melandri, another man touted as a potential champion during the pre-season, has started to gell with the RC212V after a rocky start. Despite his improvement, he is still complaining bitterly about the defects of the 800, and may have to come to terms with 2007 being a lost season for him. Melandri won in convincing style at Le Mans last year, but he will be very hard put to repeat this weekend.

Melandri's Gresini Honda team mate Toni Elias is the only one of the Honda men who seems to have no problems with the RC212V. Terrible Toni's flamboyant riding defies reason and logic, sliding the rear and hanging it out in total contrast to the smooth style which MotoGP sages have declared to be the best way to ride an 800. The spectacle of Elias' wild style has earned him great acclaim from fans and spectators, but has met with a much cooler welcome from fellow riders. Valentino Rossi complained after being shoved brutally aside at Istanbul, Alex Barros was not amused at getting caught up in Elias' desperate first corner lunge at Shanghai, and championship leader Casey Stoner has had harsh words to say about Elias following him during qualifying. The young Spaniard has shown much promise so far this season, but needs to start cleaning up his act. If he can keep it together at Le Mans, he could be a force to be reckoned with. But that's a big if.
 
It Could Be Worse

The Honda riders furthest down the HRC food chain are the riders with the biggest problems. Both Shinya Nakano and Carlos Checa had high hopes when they finally got a ride on the odds-on favorite to dominate the new MotoGP series. But now, both are left floundering towards the rear of the pack. While Carlos Checa was already familiar with the Michelins from his time at Yamaha, Shinya Nakano has the double handicap of struggling with the RC212V's distant front-end, and adapting to his switch from the Bridgestones he ran last year. The only benefit to being last in line for upgrades is not being tied to Honda for changes. Team LCR have ordered an Italian firm to produced a revised fairing for Checa, to replace the minuscule item which the Spaniard is too big to crouch behind. Although Checa has always done well at Le Mans, and Nakano qualified in 2nd last year, neither man is likely to be a factor on Sunday.

If the Honda riders think they're having a bad time, then it is as nothing compared with the nightmare that Kenny Roberts Jr and Team KR are going through. Although Honda's engine is underpowered, Team KR at least have the freedom to build a chassis which does not suffer from the chatter or vagueness of the Honda bike. They seem, however, to have built a chassis which suffers from a whole host of other problems, including a lack of rear end grip. After a promising 2006, Kenny Jr has spent the start of this season running at the rear, often finishing behind the Dunlop-shod Tech 3 Yamaha boys. Team KR still have a lot of work to do.

The French Connection II

The Tech 3 Dunlop Yamaha team are looking fairly cheerful heading into their home Grand Prix. Sylvain Guintoli continues to show good progress, and Makoto Tamada, though inconsistent, occasionally shows flashes of the brilliance he once had. Most importantly, the Dunlop tires are starting to make real inroads on the Bridgestones and Michelins. The gap keeps narrowing, bringing the Tech 3 Yamahas ever closer to being in contention.

History In The Making

But despite Dunlop's improvement, Bridgestone and Michelin are the only contenders for the win on Sunday. The tire regulations have already had a huge impact, with Bridgestone emerging from the fray as the winning tire so far, helped by the fact that Bridgestone has never been able to fly in tires overnight, made based on data collected the previous day, as Michelin did previously. Ironically, Casey Stoner puts part of his success down to being out of the "overnight" Michelin loop last year. The lowly position which the LCR team held in the Michelin tire hierarchy left the Australian working with a set allocation each race weekend. Instead he was forced to learn to "set the bike up to the tyres and not the other way around." That has worked strongly in his favor so far this year.

But after trips to two tracks where both tire manufacturers have tested, and two tracks where no one had tested, the next arena of combat is Le Mans, a track where Michelin has "more data than NASA," in the words of Eurosport commentator Julian Ryder. If Michelin cannot win here, they are in real trouble, and the new tire regulations will have caused a genuine revolution in MotoGP. A Bridgestone win at Le Mans could change the face of the championship, and leave Valentino Rossi, the red hot favorite to take the title prior to the season, with an even bigger hill to climb. It would be history in the making, and the legendary Le Mans would be a very fitting venue indeed for such historic events.

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