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.
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.
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.