Imola Race Notes -- Home Field Advantage

There's just something about Italy and motorcycles. The culture and economy are suffused with the love of all things two-wheel. Chances are, if you are a motorcylist at least a bit of your kit is produced in Italy or maybe your garage is populated by machines that were designed and built by people who have a preternatural passion for motorcycles. Italians love racing, too, and when you combine the two on Italian soil you always have the opportunity for something special. Italian riders feed on this passion and the energy and intensity they absorb makes them try just a bit harder than they might at, say, Sepang or Motegi. Of course, that energy and intensity can have a flip side as well, just ask Colin Edwards, he'll give you a profane mouthful about Italian riders in Italy.

Coming into Imola, 2 riders not from Italy but who have been virtually adopted by the paisanos as their own and whose teams are from the country, came into ths round in a dogfight for the world title. Amercan Ben Spies had clawed back from an 88 point deficit to lead the series by 18 points on the back of 2nd place man Noriyuki Haga's crash in race two at the Nurburgring.  This capped a misbegotten string of mostly mediocre races that saw Haga slipping in the points spread, partly due to injuries to his shoulder and arm.


Race One: Old Age and Treachery

The first race saw Max Biaggi get out to an early lead with Haga stalking him closely until, with three laps to go, the man formerly known as Nitro went by and didn't look back, taking his first win since he doubled at Kyalami in May. Haga's teammate, Michele Fabrizio, had also caught Biaggi and it took last gasp pass by the Roman Emperor in the final chicane to secure his second step on the box.  Fabrizio, who claimed that arm-pump type symptoms had rendered his clutch hand so numb that he could barely feel the bars, took the final podium spot in front of a rapidly fading Ben Spies. Spies, who hung around in the place he would eventually finish, fourth, for most of the race, claimed that electronic settings rendered his R1 so powerless that it seemed like he was "riding a 600" for 21 laps. Final score: Three Italian bikes and two Italian riders on the box.


Race 2: Youth and Enthusiasm

At the light, the Dynamic Ducati Duo of Haga and Fabrizio took off with Aprilia-mounted Max Biaggi trailing in their wake. Fabrizio dispatched Haga about halfway through the race and ran off for his second career win, arm pump apparently vanquished by a liberal jolt of winner's adrenaline. Current 250cc Word Champion Marco Simoncelli, in a one-off appearance for Aprilia, after finally dispatching a pesky Shakey Byrne with Ben Spies in tow, caught a fading Biaggi with 9 laps to go and in a move that redefines the term "hairball pass" forced the Emperor off track, nearly collecting the hapless Spies, who took an unwanted trip through the kitty litter, killing his momentum. Final Score: 4 Italian bikes and 3 Italian riders in the top 4.


Back to Square One

With 4 races to go in the season, we're nearly back where we started, lo those many weeks ago.  Haga leads Spies by 3 points and he looks like the Nitro of old, minus the proclivity to toss the machinery into the scenery at the most inopportune times. Although the majority of the paddock would kill for a 4th and 5th place weekend, it ain't what we expect from Ben Spies. Whether it was a rustiness developed in the three week hiatus (Ducati and Aprilia had tested for two days at Mugello during the break) or an unfortunate recurrence of the rotten Spies luck, the Texan looked, well, flat. Hopefully he'll be back at the front at Magny Cours next weekend so that this shining season can end with the lustre it deserves.



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2009 Imola World Superbikes Preview - Showdown at Imola

Lately, the flow of racing endorphins has dried up for motorcycle junkies. There hasn't been any bike racing on the world scene since Labor Day weekend (OK, so there has been BSB and *yawn* endurance racing). The sight of once-proud motorcycle journalists posting trivia like a list of the ages of racers as news items is a pitiful one and the most heated topic of discussion is the silly season. Cold Turkey is an ugly experience indeed.

Luckily for us, the drought is nearly over and the World Superbike series will resume this weekend at the Autodromo Enzo e Dino Ferrari, near Imola, Italy. When we last met at the Nurburgring, American rookie sensation "Big" Ben Spies had wrested the lead in the series from Xerox Ducati's "Nitro" Noriyuki Haga as a result of the Texan's win in race one and second place in race two while Haga was knocked went down as a result of contact with Ten Kate Honda's Jonny Rea. At the end of the day, Spies found himself atop the leader board, 18 points ahead of Haga.

With 6 races left in the season, the championship has become Spies' to lose. The Yamaha Italia team tested at Imola last July and Spies was at or near the top of the time sheets most of the time. Spies was also fast at the season-ending Portimao test last year on a bike he'd never seen before. That leaves Magny Cours as the only track that the American has no prior seat time at, not that lack of track knowledge has been much of an impediment to his meteoric rise to the top.

Nori looks to have mostly recovered from the broken wrist and shoulder blade incurred at Donington Park in June. Haga finished a close second to Spies in Race one in Germany and was running at the the front before he was taken out. Haga's Xerox Ducati team mate, Michel "Mr. Fabulous" Fabrizio hasn't provided much of an assist to Haga, other than his failed pass in race 1 at Brno that sent both himself and Spies into the kitty litter.

The most improved rider as of late has been young Ulsterman Jonny Rea who has taken to his Ten Kate team's new Ohlins suspension like a duck to water. Teammate Carlos Checa has had a recurrence of his annual bout of "Checa's Syndrome", a mysterious condition whereby his results get better as contract time nears.

The real news during the hiatus has concerned the Silly Season in both the SBK and MotoGP paddocks. When it was announced prior to the Misano MotoGP round that Ben Spies had signed with Yamaha for 2 more years, Yamaha stated that the team "foresaw" that Spies would be in SBK in 2010 with a possible bump up to the Tech 3 satellite team in MotoGP. Reports in MCN that Spies had committed to appearing in MotoGP in 2010 seem to indicate the tuning fork crystal ball was cloudy and the future is a lot closer than it seemed a few weeks ago.

Spies' departure could and probably will set in motion a veritable domino effect of team restructurings and rider placements in the weeks to come. Most likely, we'll start to see some official movement soon, maybe this weekend. Whatever happens, us racing junkies will be comfortably numb with a fresh supply of our favorite drug.


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2009 MotoGP Misano Race Report - Making A Point

On the face of it, MotoGP is in trouble. There are just 17 bikes on the grid, the lowest number in recent memory; a factory has withdrawn due to financial problems, as has a satellite team; another team has had to swap riders mid-season to bring in someone with sufficient sponsorship to allow the team to continue. Every couple of races MotoGP's rule-making body meets, trying to find new ways to cut costs and looking for rule changes that might make the series cheaper. And contract negotiations have switched from being about riders extracting large salaries from the teams that are trying to hire them to teams finding the riders who will ride for free and bring in the most sponsorship cash.

Yet take a step back and throw off the shroud the global recession has cast over the MotoGP paddock and the series is looking as healthy as ever. Sure, there may be only 17 bikes on the grid, but there are four riders who are capable of winning at any racetrack we visit. The margin of victory is falling again and last-lap passes and gaps of under a second are becoming the norm rather than the exception. Crowd attendance is up, as are TV audiences; team merchandise sales are extremely brisk; and new outside industry sponsors are trickling into the sport, finding valuable opportunities to promote their brands.

Best of all, perhaps the greatest rider of all time is up against a young apprentice, a rider whose speed matches his and who is learning the master's tricks at incredible speed. Both men have an insatiable appetite for victory, a keen intelligence, and otherworldly levels of ability. What's more, both Valentino Rossi and Jorge Lorenzo are on exactly the same bike - though Lorenzo might occasionally dispute that assertion.

Injury and illness have kept Dani Pedrosa and Casey Stoner from interfering too much in this rivalry - Pedrosa and Honda's progress delayed by the Spaniard's leg injury suffered during the preseason testing, and Stoner and Ducati's fierce challenge blunted by the Australian's mystery illness and his absence from the last three races - but that has only served to make the match up between team mates all the more intense. After two costly mistakes by Jorge Lorenzo gave Rossi the upper hand in the title race, a similarly expensive error at Indianapolis by The Doctor handed back half his championship lead and gave Lorenzo hope of the title once again.

Little Donkey

So elementary was Rossi's mistake that he turned up at Misano with a special helmet, one similar to his Mugello "scream" helmet, but with a picture of Donkey, the character from Shrek, painted in where his face was at Mugello. Because the first thing that went through his mind as he slid through the grass at Indy, Rossi told reporters, was that he felt exactly like a donkey for being so incredibly stupid.

The custom helmet announced to the world, but most especially to Valentino Rossi, that he had a special mission to fulfill here at Misano. The circuit is in Rossi's back yard, literally just half a day's walk from the hillside village where the Italian legend lives, and from the moment Rossi hit on Friday it was clear that he meant business. His team mate put in deeply impressive runs during practice, with many laps inside the existing lap record, but at the end of each session The Doctor would pull out a few super-fast laps and it would be Rossi's name at the top of the timesheets, not Lorenzo's. The way that Rossi pushed, it was clear that this was personal and purposeful. Rossi was claiming his home ground.

Qualifying was a case in point. With less than a minute left in the session, Jorge Lorenzo seemed to have pole position in the bag, topping the timesheets with a 1'34.808. But with just seconds to go, Valentino Rossi crossed the line to take one last shot, the track clearing ahead of him like the Red Sea, Rossi steaming to a lap nearly half a second quicker than his Fiat Yamaha team mate. His point had been forcefully made.

As the bikes lined up on the grid, Jorge Lorenzo knew all too well the disadvantage he faced. The Spaniard had failed to find the extra speed he needed during the morning warm up, finishing the session shaking his head ominously. And he had Dani Pedrosa between himself and Rossi on the front row, a lightning-fast starter, and certain to get in his way at the start and prevent him from putting space between himself and Rossi.

Human Torpedo

Just as Lorenzo had feared, it was Dani Pedrosa who led off the line when the lights dimmed. The Repsol Honda rider repeated his usual trick, using his light weight and the Honda's launch control to maximum effect. Another Honda led the screeching pack that chased Pedrosa down towards Turn 1, Toni Elias leaping past the marginally slower Yamahas of Valentino Rossi and Jorge Lorenzo to take 2nd, while Colin Edwards completed the trio of chasing M1s, his Monster Tech 3 bike right on the tail of Lorenzo's factory Fiat Yamaha.

But Misano's first corner complex is notorious, the right-left combination highly successful at collecting the over-eager and dumping them in the gravel traps, and with so many Italians riding in front of their home crowd, the over-eager were well represented. This year, it was the turn of Alex de Angelis to get into Turn 2 too hot, running round the outside of Turn 1 in an attempt to stay with the leaders before they could make a break. Exiting Turn 1, De Angelis flicked the bike left again but was going too fast to get the machine turned, spearing Colin Edwards amidships and skittling Nicky Hayden in the process, the Marlboro Ducati man making a strong run round the outside of Turn 2 and ready to chase the leaders.

Hayden was incandescent with rage, almost as angry as he had been after Dani Pedrosa had taken him out at Estoril in 2006. There was much less at stake at Misano in 2009, but Hayden was just starting to find a rhythm with the Ducati that he had taken so long to tame, and had been looking forward to the race. Edwards was more phlegmatic about the affair, telling the BBC afterwards "We're in Italy, you always have to keep a lookout for dumbass Italians."

De Angelis himself was probably the chief victim of the incident. The man from San Marino, the tiny mountain kingdom just a few miles away, had been widely tipped to take a ride at the Pramac Ducati squad next season. All of Ducati's top brass were present at Misano and none were particularly impressed by the Italian's impetuosity, and so De Angelis torpedoed not just Edwards and Hayden, but also perhaps his best chance of staying in MotoGP next season.

Innocent Bystanders

There were more that suffered: Everyone in mid-pack got held up a little, and Randy de Puniet, a man who has yet to complete a race lap at Misano having crashed out of the two previous editions, found himself sitting in a Misano gravel trap once again. This year, though, his luck had changed, and still upright he rode through the gravel and back onto the track, 10 seconds down but still moving.

The crash had even seen a stray bike tag the back of Jorge Lorenzo's machine, but the force of the collision was slight enough for the Spaniard to stay on the bike without losing too much time on Rossi. Head down, he chased his team mate and was soon right on the back of Rossi once again.

At the front, Dani Pedrosa was trying to escape, but that was a tougher task than usual. The job was complicated by Toni Elias, the Spaniard determined to prove that he should not be out of a ride next season, and pushing his compatriot hard. Elias chased the Repsol Honda down along the back straight, closing through the terrifying right flick of Curvone, and preparing to attack as the track tightened up for the Carro complex. Now close enough he made his move, but his eagerness betrayed him. Pedrosa had been expecting the Gresini Honda rider and he let Elias run out wide, passing him back immediately on the tighter line.

As they crossed the line for the first time, Jorge Lorenzo initiated his first attack on his team mate. With drive from the final corner, Lorenzo was across the line and into Turn 1 ahead of Rossi. But only just: Rossi's parry saw him almost hit the back of Lorenzo's bike as they flicked back left for Turn 2, The Doctor only just pulling up in time.

Neither Elias nor Rossi were going to settle for the places they were in. The four men ran together, Pedrosa leading ahead of Elias, while Lorenzo chased his two countrymen, hounded from behind by Rossi. Elias was the first to make a move, pulling an audacious move round the outside of Pedrosa at Quercia on lap 3. Seeing a clear breach of his "Porfuera" copyright, Lorenzo tried putting Elias in his place, attacking into the tightening rights that follow the Curvone. Foiled, Lorenzo looked again, this time into the corner leading onto the back of the paddock straight, but Elias countered once again, making his RC212V as wide as possible.

Forging Ahead

Rossi took advantage of Lorenzo travails, the Spaniard distracted by his attacks on the Gresini Honda, and The Doctor slid past his team mate heading into Turn 1 to start lap 5. Now Rossi had Elias to deal with, and the Italian did so briskly, diving inside of Elias through Turn 6 and holding off the Spaniard into Quercia. Seeing Rossi pass Elias spurred Lorenzo into action, and the Mallorcan dropped any coyness he may still have had, squeezing past the Gresini Honda through the tight right hander at Carro and taking over 3rd.

The scrap at the front had been tight enough to hold the leaders up, and Andrea Dovizioso, running for the first time on Ohlins suspension, took advantage. The Italian had been unaffected by the first corner pile up, and had dispatched Loris Capirossi the following lap to give chase to the leaders. By lap 5 he was on the back of Lorenzo, but after the factory Yamaha rider got past Elias, Dovizioso faced the same challenge that both Rossi and Lorenzo had, attempting to get by the wide-as-a-truck Gresini Honda. It only took a lap or so, but by the time Dovi succeeded, there was clear space between himself and the front three and a gap too large to bridge.

For Rossi, the math was simple: Two Spaniards down, one more to go. But Dani Pedrosa, still leading the race, was even tougher to pass than his fellow countryman Elias had been. Rossi poked and probed, but every time he did, he left himself open to attack from behind, and Lorenzo would not let him forget it.

But Rossi was on a mission, and would not be denied. It took him three laps, but eventually, he got past Pedrosa through the right handers curling back towards the back straight. Past but not away, the two Spaniards he had overtaken were still sticking to his tail. At first, when Rossi pushed, Pedrosa and Lorenzo responded, the gap never growing. On lap 11, Rossi pushed again and this time he got a gap, Pedrosa being more engaged in holding off the attentions of Lorenzo than in chasing down the man in front.

Stuck In Traffic

This left Lorenzo frustrated. Pedrosa was capable of getting close to Rossi's pace, but the Spaniard was not capable of matching or even bettering it, and clear blue air was starting to open between the Repsol Honda and the #46 Yamaha. If Lorenzo was to keep his title hopes alive, recently resuscitated by Rossi's crash at Indianapolis, he could barely afford to lose 5 points to The Doctor, let alone 9, the difference between 1st and 3rd. Lorenzo knew what he had to do, but Pedrosa was putting up more resistance to his arch rival than he had to Rossi.

Lorenzo would get by but it would take him 6 costly laps. The pressure he had been applying to Pedrosa eventually became too much for the Repsol Honda man, Pedrosa running into Quercia too hot and going wide, the door finally open for Lorenzo to get through. Lorenzo did not need a second invitation, and was off to chase down Rossi, the gap now nearly a second and a half.

On his first clear lap Lorenzo took back a tenth, but Rossi had seen his pit board, and had stepped up the pace once again. Lorenzo, too, was back in the groove, but in front of his home crowd, Rossi's rhythm resounded to a faster beat and the Italian edged away, tantalizingly out of reach and receding, too far and too fast for Lorenzo to catch.

For the final third of the race, Rossi blazed a trail of glory through the Italian hillsides, untouchable by any who dared to challenge him. For the second year in succession, Valentino Rossi took a significant win at Misano, cementing his hold on the championship and bringing him yet another step closer to usurping Giacomo Agostini's place in the record books. Misano was Rossi's 103rd win, with 19 - or 20, depending on how you count them - to go to match Agostini, and scored another 25 points towards his 7th MotoGP title.

Jorge Lorenzo had been forced to yield to Rossi's superior pace, held up in the early laps enough that he was unable to challenge his Fiat Yamaha team mate for victory. Yet even if Lorenzo had not been held up, he would have had his hands full with The Doctor. When Rossi arrives at a racetrack where he feels he has a point to prove, he is almost impossible to beat. Lorenzo had been fast all weekend, but not fast enough and Sunday was no exception.

The Third Man

Once the two Fiat Yamaha's had got past Dani Pedrosa, they had immediately disappeared. Pedrosa was starting to lose grip, both on corner entry and corner exit, and the Yamahas were lapping first half a second, then a whole second a lap faster than Pedrosa's Honda. Pedrosa was forced to settle for 3rd, the position he had been saying all weekend he expected to be. Before the race on Sunday, Honda announced that they had finalized the contracts with Dovizioso and Pedrosa but the Spaniard had only signed up for a single year. The man who Honda has brought up through the ranks is growing increasingly disillusioned with Big Red, and unless they deliver on the promise of a much improved bike, 2010 could well be Pedrosa's last season for Honda.

The pair of Fiat Yamahas were followed by a pair of Repsol Hondas, but Andrea Dovizioso had been forced to fight for his 4th place. After losing touch with the front three Dovi had fallen back into the clutches of a resurgent Loris Capirossi. The Suzuki man had even passed Dovizioso with 3 laps to go, and the Repsol Honda rider had to wait until the final run into Quercia at the end of the back straight to take back 4th from Capirex. But for a first outing on Ohlins suspension, 4th place is a pretty good start.

Dovi's pass left Loris Capirossi with no option but to grudgingly settle for 5th. Yet the Italian veteran leaves Misano with some hope, as the upgrades which the Suzuki has received recently seem finally to be paying off and the bike could start to be competitive again before the end of the season.

Toni Elias, who had started the race so well, eventually came home in 6th after following Dovizioso and Capirossi fighting over 4th. He had been unable to get involved but still posted a decent result, especially for a rider who will be without a seat in MotoGP next season.

A couple of seconds behind Elias, Mika Kallio scored his best result of the season on what will presumably be his final ride on the factory Ducati, filling in for the absent and sorely missed Casey Stoner. Kallio had been made to fight for 7th by Marco Melandri, but in the end the Ducati prevailed over Melandri's ailing Hayate.

Danger Zone

Chris Vermeulen had had a strong start, but got caught up in the melee in the first corner. The Australian made up a couple of places before the end of the race, posting respectable lap times, but once again, Vermeulen could manage only a 9th place finish. The Australian has spoken often of his desire to stay in MotoGP, but he will need better results if he is to find a new home now that he has lost his Rizla Suzuki seat to Alvaro Bautista for next year.

Vermeulen finished ahead of another rider in the danger zone, Britain's James Toseland on the Monster Tech 3 Yamaha. Toseland still doesn't have a contract for next season, and though it is known that Dorna is keen to keep a British rider in the series, another 10th place finish is hardly a convincing reason for him to stay. Toseland has never really got to grips with the Bridgestone spec tires, and this looks like being his downfall this season.

Though 10th is hardly impressive for Toseland, Aleix Espargaro's 11th place finish on just his second ride on the satellite Pramac Ducati turned an awful lot of heads. Espargaro posted the 5th fastest lap time during the race, and the speed with which he has learned to ride the MotoGP bike may have earned him a place for the rest of the season, replacing his temporary team mate Niccolo Canepa, who has failed to impress this year.

Randy de Puniet was hardly pleased to have come home in 12th, but at least he finally got to complete a race lap of Misano. Some 14 seconds back at the end of the first lap, he reeled in the men ahead of him, coming up just 5 seconds short of 11th spot. De Puniet's race may have been long and lonely, but at least he finally got to finish at the Adriatic circuit.

Bringing up the rear of the field were once again MotoGP's weakest links. Niccolo Canepa was not as far off the pace at Misano, a track he knows the layout of, but he still finished in 13th. Meanwhile, Gabor Talmacsi is still half a second a lap slower than Canepa and a second a lap slower than the rest, a second he needs to find soon if he is to be competitive. The Hungarian oil giant sponsoring Talmacsi may be pleased with a high-profile rider like Talmacsi, but you have to wonder if they'll agree to keep paying the significant sums involved just to see the Hungarian running around at the back of the field.

Things Are Looking Up

There may only have been 14 finishers at Misano, but the celebrations at the end of the road swept any worries about the future of the sport from everyone's minds. Valentino Rossi had come to his local track with a mission: To make amends for his stupidity at Indianapolis, as the donkey helmet and post-race donkey ears were meant to remind everyone. But there was an unspoken message underlying that mission as well. After giving away his advantage over his team mate through an act of temporary madness, he had to stamp his authority back on the championship, on the team, and on his team mate. The way he achieved all these goals was intimidating, exactly as he had intended it to be.

With Valentino Rossi in the championship, and being pushed harder than ever by some of the most talented young racers to appear on the scene in a generation, the future for MotoGP is looking bright. And with a host of fresh young faces expected to arrive next season, and rumors of more bikes to appear on the grid, the future could be brighter than anyone expects. The 2009 MotoGP season got off to a tough start, but since the bleak winter of '08 and '09 things have kept on getting better.


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2009 MotoGP Indianapolis Preview - History In The Making

There is a firmly ingrained belief in Europe that the United States, as a young country, has neither history nor any sense of it. The view back in the Old World is formed almost entirely - and almost entirely incorrectly - from Hollywood and the TV studios, of gleaming glass-fronted buildings, huge and hugely complicated freeway interchanges, and gated communities consisting of a vast sprawl of identikit houses, in the words of the Malvina Reynolds song, little boxes made of ticky tacky.

While it is true that Americans tend to treat their history with a little less respect than Europeans - many a fine 18th or 19th century building has been torn down and replaced with something modern without a second thought, where in Europe zoning regulations and building preservation orders would have made such destruction incredibly difficult, if not outright impossible - the US does have plenty of physical history and a deep understanding and respect for the markers of that history.

The Indianapolis Motor Speedway is a prime example of this European misapprehension. Europe, with its long history and tradition of motorsports, boasts such classic tracks as Monza, Assen and Brooklands. But Brooklands fell into disrepair after the Second World War, the last piece of the original Assen track was pulled up in the changes in 2006, and while both Monza and Assen have a long history, they "only" date back to the 1920s. The Indianapolis Motor Speedway, on the other hand, hosted its first race in 1909, some 13 years before Monza and 18 years before racing first took place on the roads south of Assen.

As if celebrating 100 years of racing at the Speedway was not enough, the whole weekend at Indy will be packed with history. On Saturday night, at the Indiana State fairground, the Indy Mile, perhaps the most legendary flat track race of all is to be held. Flat track is a discipline which is itself steeped in history, and the Indy Mile sits at the pinnacle of the sport. Just to add even more texture to the event's rich tapestry, three-time 500cc World Champion Kenny Roberts will be wheeling out perhaps the most feared motorcycle in racing history, his TZ750-powered dirt tracker. After racing the four-cylinder two stroke - a bizarre configuration in a sport dominated by the endless torque of pushrod V-twins - Roberts uttered the immortal words "They don't pay me enough to ride that thing."

Modern History

Though the facility itself has a long history, the association between the Indianapolis Motor Speedway and MotoGP is still very new, as the series visits the Speedway for only the second time. But history will still be written here, as a series of announcements are due to change the face and determine the course of MotoGP for the foreseeable future.

Perhaps the most significant announcement will come at the meeting of the Grand Prix Commission. The MSMA is due to formally submit a proposal aimed at putting more bikes on the grid. The proposal is expected to allow for engines to be leased to teams on their own, rather than as part of a complete bike, but Honda has already signaled that it is opposed to such a plan. However, as part of the MSMA, Honda will be forced to find some kind of workable compromise which expands the grid at a more affordable cost.

More off-track announcements will come in the form of contract signings. The biggest announcement has already been made: On Monday, Jorge Lorenzo issued a press statement putting an end to ten days of intense speculation, declaring that he would be staying with Yamaha for another year, and not making a shock switch to Ducati, despite an extraordinarily generous pay packet.

With Lorenzo's future now secured, the rider shuffle is likely to continue on its merry way. Loris Capirossi has already told the press that he expects to stay with Suzuki for 2010 as partner to newcomer Alvaro Bautista, and a formal announcement is expected this weekend. Nicky Hayden is likely to follow, as with Lorenzo out of the equation and promising signals of a Casey Stoner return coming from Australia, Ducati will probably exercise the option to retain the American for 2010. Elsewhere, news is likely to come out of the Tech 3 camp, with James Toseland close to hearing his future from team boss Herve Poncharal, and Randy de Puniet could sign an extension with LCR Honda this weekend, despite the Frenchman still being in talks elsewhere.

But the focus of the weekend will truly be on the track. Last year's debut race at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway was universally acclaimed as a success, despite the remnants of Hurricane Ike hitting the area just as the racing was about to get underway. Indeed, some of the success of the event was down to the way the extreme weather conditions were handled, with European viewers being treated to the spectacle of a jet dryer - basically a jet turbine engine strapped to the back of a flatbed truck, it's exhaust blast angled to dry and disperse the water from the track - sent round to clean the circuit. Almost every circuit operator watched that spectacle green with envy, and determined to look into the cost.

In Control

Last year's winner will be looking to repeat his success here, as Valentino Rossi's victory at Indianapolis helped the Italian get within a few points of clinching the title, and added the last missing piece to his clean sweep, having had a victory at every track the MotoGP series visited that season. There now isn't a track on the calendar that Rossi hasn't won at, a record which will only change next year, when the series visits the new Balatonring circuit in Hungary. If it is finished, that is.

But Rossi will face a formidable opponent in his team mate, Jorge Lorenzo. Now back with Fiat Yamaha for another year, Lorenzo will want to expunge the memory of two crashes and a string of defeats at the hands of The Doctor with a victory at Indy. The 50 points Lorenzo trails Rossi by in the championship mean that the Spaniard has written off his chances of taking the title, but Lorenzo has stated that he intends to make amends by concentrating on winning. Arguably, trying to win is what caused Lorenzo to crash out at Donington and Brno, but he has proven that he learns fast. He may still make mistakes, but he doesn't often make the same mistake.

Lorenzo's chances must be considered good. The Fiat Yamaha man finished 3rd here last year, but only because the race was red-flagged shortly after Lorenzo passed Nicky Hayden for 2nd. Hayden scored his first podium of the year at Indy last year, at the event which he considers to be his home race, as the Indianapolis Motor Speedway is just 170 miles from the Kentucky Kid's native Owensboro. Hayden - like so many Ducati riders before him - has struggled with the Ducati's fickle and unpredictable nature, sometimes finishing in the top 6, often winding up well down the order. But the American will be going that extra mile on Sunday, both to do his many fans proud, and to underline that he deserves to stay at Ducati, and perhaps back up the contract extension which could be signed this weekend.

Like Hayden, fellow American Colin Edwards will be hoping to be at least close to the podium on Sunday. The Texan has been impressive on the Tech 3 Yamaha, underlining the dominance of the Yamaha M1 this season with his 5th place in the championship, ahead of a factory Honda rider, a factory Ducati rider and both factory Suzukis. As a Texan, Indianapolis is more of a home race than Laguna, and Edwards has a special relationship with the circuit, writing a column for the Speedway's excellent website and performing a number of PR duties for the track and the event. Edwards had a miserable race here last year in the rain, the Texas Tornado finishing just 15th in the Indianapolis Hurricane. With the weather expected to hold this weekend, the Texan should be much further up the field on Sunday.

Small Obstacle

Of course, any hope of a podium for the American riders leaves them with an enormous challenge to overcome. The only time the Untouchables - Valentino Rossi, Jorge Lorenzo, Dani Pedrosa and Casey Stoner - have swept the podium is through illness or accident, or a very rare mistake. With Rossi focused on the title, and Lorenzo bent on winning, the third member of the Fantastic Four still racing, Dani Pedrosa, is almost certain to claim a podium spot here at Indy. The Repsol Honda rider has already won once in the US this season, taking victory at the US Grand Prix at Laguna Seca. The new parts which are filtering through from Japan are starting to pay dividends, and the Honda is looking increasingly competitive. They still have a way to go, though, as Valentino Rossi's nearly 12 second margin of victory at Brno so amply demonstrates.

Pedrosa's team mate Andrea Dovizioso will also be hoping to challenge for a podium. After his maiden win, taken in characteristically cool and calculated fashion at a damp Donington, Dovizioso found himself back scrapping for the final podium spot with the jobless Toni Elias on the Gresini Honda. Dovi needs to find the spark of magic that allowed him to take the win at Donington again, and perhaps Indy can be the catalyst. Last year, the Italian was fighting for 4th place here at Indianapolis, losing out to Casey Stoner but beating Ben Spies. The chances of Dovi being nearer the front must surely be better.

Things are pretty tough for Toni Elias. The stocky little Spaniard took a podium last time out, crashed out while running with the leaders at Donington, has been remarkably competitive over the past few races, and is almost certain to be out of a job in MotoGP next season. For once, his nationality and that of his Italian team mate Alex de Angelis are playing against them: With an influx of fresh Spanish and Italian talent into the series next season, Dorna is looking to preserve the (relative) diversity of nationalities in the series, and not reduce it to a solely Mediterranean affair. With neither Elias nor Gresini Honda team mate de Angelis bringing significant sponsorship to the table, both men look to be forced out into either Moto2 or World Superbikes. Neither man is likely to go quietly, and both are likely to finish well inside the top 10 for the rest of the season, and end up in the championship well ahead of a number of riders who will remain in the series next year.

Of all the riders who will be remaining despite a relatively modest points total, Marco Melandri is probably the rider who deserves it most. The Italian - who will be taking a Gresini from Elias and de Angelis - has had a remarkable season on the Hayate-run Kawasaki, a bike that was nowhere last season. The team has even received a few updates for the bike at the test which took place on Monday after Brno, holding out hope of further improvements to come for Melandri. As the Indianapolis circuit has few of the long, fast corners which expose the Hayate's lack of edge grip, Melandri could well post a respectable result on Sunday. A podium is probably a bridge too far, but the Italian could easily be among the best of the rest.

High Hopes

Like Melandri, Frenchman Randy de Puniet is certain to stay in MotoGP next season, helped by his nationality but most of all his excellent results on a second-string machine. Despite the fact that the LCR Honda is a very basic satellite-spec machine, de Puniet has visited the podium once and been a top 10 regular all season long. De Puniet is still recovering from the broken ankle he suffered in a motocross accident during training, but is growing stronger with every week. Whether he is recovered enough to cope with the fast changes of direction the Indy track demands remains to be seen, but de Puniet's motivation is beyond question. After all, he is holding out on contract negotiations in the hope of securing better equipment for next year. Those kind of commitments are not the type that money can buy; to get a better bike, only results count.

Results are just what are missing from Gabor Talmacsi scoresheet. The Hungarian rider moved up to the MotoGP class with a third of the season gone, after a dispute with the Aspar team over media rights. Talmacsi brought a much-needed influx of cash into the Scot Honda team from the Hungarian oil giant MOL, but so far, the former 125cc World Champion is still a couple of seconds off the pace in the class. Talmacsi needs to pick up a second on the leaders, and he needs to do it quite soon, if MOL are to continue to fund his presence in MotoGP. Given that the Hungarian fell during practice and fractured his wrist here at Indianapolis last year, that is unlikely to happen on this weekend.

Hopes are high in the Suzuki camp, as the GSV-R received some important updates over the past few weeks. A new engine appeared at Brno, and here at the Speedway, both Loris Capirossi and Chris Vermeulen will be racing with a new frame. The new engine helped, as witnessed by Capirossi's 5th place finish at Brno two weeks ago. The improvements have persuaded Capirossi to sign with Suzuki for another year, a deal likely to be announced officially this weekend. If the new chassis helps as much as the engine, Capirossi could well be a challenger at Indy, hoping to expunge the memory of his inglorious 16th place finish here last year.

His Rizla Suzuki team mate Chris Vermeulen will be even more motivated than Capirossi. The Australian looks to be out of MotoGP next season, despite having offered his services to the Tech 3 Yamaha squad, reportedly for no charge. Vermeulen recently criticized Suzuki for the lack of progress the factory has shown with the bike, and he will be hoping the new parts he will be receiving will allow him to prove he deserves to stay in the series. To do so, he will have to improve on the 9th place he scored here at Indy last season.

Hot Seat

The job that Vermeulen is after is one of the most desirable seats available in the series. James Toseland's seat at the Monster Tech 3 Yamaha squad is being chased by a host of riders, and the Briton will have to drastically improve his results if he is to hang on to his seat at the team. Toseland is a living witness to the saying that you should be careful what you ask for, as at the end of last season, Toseland wanted Bridgestone tires and the services of Colin Edwards' crew chief, Gary Reynders. He now has both, but instead of improving, the Briton's results have gone badly downhill. Toseland's salvation may yet come from his nationality, as Dorna may decide they need to keep the Briton in the series to keep the BBC happy. That will not please the Englishman, as he entered the series on merit, as a double World Superbike Champion, and would like to stay here on merit rather than as a sop to a TV rights holder.

Pramac Ducati's Mika Kallio will be back next year, not just because his Finnish nationality guarantees the international flavor that Dorna is keen to ensure, but also because he has posted strong - if occasionally erratic - results in his rookie season. At times Kallio has seemed capable of taming the Desmosedici almost as well as Casey Stoner has, while at others the Finn has ended up well down the order. Kallio is replacing Casey Stoner on the factory Ducati again this weekend but the Australian must be starting to have some concerns about the Finn. Two big crashes at Brno may potentially have trashed 2 of Stoner's allowance of 5 engines for the rest of the season, and may result in the Australian accepting a 10 point forfeit later on in the season, if he is forced to use an extra engine beyond his allowance once he returns from illness. Kallio will be keeping his head down and his bike upright at Indianapolis, rather than risking any win-it-or-bin-it tactics. Meanwhile, his crashes may well cause the Grand Prix Commission to re-examine the engine limit rules, to find a way to deal with engines suffering with crash damage, rather than just the ordinary wear and tear of racing.

The History Man

The Pramac team sees a couple of riders with contrasting fortunes. Niccolo Canepa is riding for a place in World Superbikes, knowing that he has no future in MotoGP, but the Italian rookie may score rather better here at Indianapolis, as he has plenty of experience at the track, having both raced here and tested here during the tire test. His temporary team mate Aleix Espargaro makes his debut in the MotoGP class, as well as making history as the youngest Spanish rider to race in the class, at just 20 years and 1 month. The former 250cc rider is extremely talented, but has tended to be erratic in his short career. He will have his work cut out for him getting to grips with the Ducati Desmosedici GP9 at Indianapolis this weekend.

If you are going to make a historic debut, then there is no better venue than the legend that is the Brickyard, the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. Though the road course built inside the giant oval is not the greatest track for racing motorcycles, it is still challenging and interesting enough and capable of providing some great racing. Last year, the Speedway's chance to prove that was thwarted by Hurricane Ike choosing to blow through town just as the racing was about to start. This weekend, there'll be sun, high clouds and rather cool temperatures, and so this year, we should see the race which we deserve, a piece of history at a truly historic location.


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2009 MotoGP Brno Race Report - One For The Team

Probably the best-known aphorism in motorcycle racing - or racing of any sort, for that matter - is that the first person you have to beat is your team mate. Your team mate, after all, is on exactly the same equipment with the same support, and so there are no excuses. If you beat him you're the better rider, if he beats you, he is. No argument.

Reality is always a little more complicated than a simple aphorism, of course. Just because you're in the same team doesn't necessarily mean that your bike is the same as your team mate's; development parts filter through at different rates. You may be on the same team, but like riders, not all team members are equal; your crew chief might be a genius or he might be just very, very smart, which can be the difference between finding three tenths of a second during the warm up on Sunday and losing the race because you're a tenth a lap too slow.

All the more reason to beat your team mate, then. After all, if you do so regularly, then it is you who will get the pick of the development parts, use of the genius crew chief and hopefully, a serious chunk of the team budget. You get the glory, but more importantly, you get the power. The bike is developed to your tastes rather than anyone else's, so that the bike naturally suits your style. This in turn allows you to get the most out of the bike, more than anyone else, increasing your advantage over your competition - and especially your team mate - and further tipping the balance of power in your favor.

It is this goal which has been driving Jorge Lorenzo since being beaten by Valentino Rossi at his home race in Barcelona. His contract with the Fiat Yamaha team comes to an end this season and talks on its renewal are in full swing. There are a lot of reasons for Lorenzo to stay with the squad - the bike is clearly the best on the grid, the team is probably the best run team in the paddock, and Yamaha's R&D department are dedicated to building a motorcycle that riders can win on, rather than a winning motorcycle - but there is one major downside: At Yamaha, Jorge Lorenzo is the number two rider, not the number one.

Number One

For a young man as ambitious as he is talented, that is not good enough. Lorenzo wants to be number one, and the drawn out negotiations, the posturing, the flirtations with other manufacturers, all are aimed at securing that undisputed number one status, preferably with Yamaha. The one minor obstacle in his way is that at Yamaha he shares a garage with a rider who has 101 victories, 8 world titles and 6 MotoGP championships under his belt. Receiving preferential treatment over the man widely reckoned to be the greatest motorcycle racer ever is a very serious, and rather presumptuous, demand to make. There is only one way to ensure that such a demand is heeded: by beating your team mate, and beating him regularly.

Over the past few races, Jorge Lorenzo's intention to do just this has been increasingly clear. The young Spaniard has gone out at every practice and laid down a ferocious pace, challenging Rossi - and anyone else - to follow. He has demonstrated emphatically that Jorge Lorenzo is the fastest man on the track, and as such, is the man to beat.

Yet that is just what Valentino Rossi keeps doing. At Catalunya, The Doctor put a tough move on Lorenzo to beat him in front of his home crowd; At Assen, Rossi dominated to take his 101st victory; At Laguna, Lorenzo came away the moral victor, having only been narrowly beaten despite carrying a seriously injured collarbone; But at the Sachsenring, Rossi beat him again in another frenzied last lap. Finally, at Donington, both Lorenzo and Rossi fell, but the Spaniard came away with a DNF, while Rossi got back on his miraculously undamaged bike, and powered his way forward to 5th, extending his championship lead in the process.

With the season dragging on and Lorenzo's contract options running out, the necessity of beating Rossi straight up is becoming increasingly imperative. Lorenzo had told the press after the race in Germany that he knew he had to beat Rossi, and since then, he had lost yet more points to his team mate. So once he hit the track at Brno, the Spaniard stepped up his pace another notch, destroying the race lap record during free practice, and getting to within a few thousandths of the old pole record during qualifying. However, the holder of that record - set on a 990cc bike using super sticky qualifying tires - managed to better it, Valentino Rossi setting a new record a few hundredths under the old one. Once again, Lorenzo had been foiled by his team mate.

The Man With The Plan

So the Spaniard lined up on the grid more determined than ever not to be beaten. He could not afford to let this trend continue and knew he had to do something to turn the tide. Lorenzo knew he had the pace - his long runs done in race trim had been a couple of tenths faster than anyone else, and over a second faster than most of the field - it was just a matter of getting himself into a position to be able to run that pace unhindered. His objective was simple: Get to the front of the race, and start cranking out the laps in the low 1'56s, just as he'd been doing all throughout practice. Nobody, not even the great Valentino Rossi, would be able to follow him.

Best of all for Lorenzo would be to get a great start and escape from the front. Without the need to fight his way forward, he could lay down the law from the off and have the race sewn up by half distance. But as the starting lights dimmed and the diminished fifth howl of seventeen MotoGP bikes powering off the line filled the Bohemian hillsides, Lorenzo's Plan A failed. Letting out the clutch, Lorenzo bogged his engine off the line, and the hordes from the second row of the grid started to fly past him on the run into the first corner.

Making things worse was Valentino Rossi's start which had been impeccable, launching down the front straight and on towards the first turn with a comfortable lead. Rossi was faster off the line than even that normally lightning fast starter, Dani Pedrosa, though Pedrosa got past him on the brakes into Turn 1. Behind Rossi, Toni Elias was past Jorge Lorenzo, who had recovered some of the ground he had lost off the lights. The Fiat Yamaha man tried his trademark "porfuera" move around the outside of Elias at Turn 1, but Lorenzo had to settle for 4th, with Andrea Dovizioso and Colin Edwards jostling impatiently behind him.

Rossi did not take kindly to being beaten on the brakes by Dani Pedrosa, and immediately put the Spaniard back in his place into Turn 3, taking the lead as he sailed past under braking. Behind him, Jorge Lorenzo was repeating the demonstration of the Yamaha M1's stability on the brakes by flying past under Toni Elias and into 3rd in the same corner.

Even though Lorenzo was past, Elias had plenty more company behind him. Andrea Dovizioso was crawling all over the back of the Gresini Honda, and Loris Capirossi joined the fray after slotting past the American duo of Colin Edwards and Nicky Hayden on the run into turn 5. But the Spaniard's attention was ahead of him, and Elias focused on trying to latch on to Lorenzo, and try to stay with the leading trio.


An admirable objective, to be sure, but the trio that Elias was trying to stay with were the three remaining Untouchables, a man down now that Casey Stoner had been forced to withdraw due to health issues. Less than a lap later, it was crystal clear why Valentino Rossi, Dani Pedrosa and Jorge Lorenzo are being labeled the Untouchables, for the trio were dropping their pursuers by over a second a lap. Just 5 laps in and the podium was already settled.

Its composition may have been known, but the order was very far from being finalized. Rossi led the way, but that was all he was doing. Pedrosa followed closely, hounded all the way by Lorenzo, the Mallorcan keen to get past and after his team mate. Pedrosa was still close on lap 2, but on the third lap, the merest hint of a gap started to open between the Repsol Honda and the Fiat Yamaha at the head of the field. This gap was enough to spur Lorenzo on to further action. Rossi must not escape, at any cost, and so Lorenzo redoubled his efforts at getting past Pedrosa.

For the possessor of such a small frame, Pedrosa knew how to make his motorcycle seem as wide as a truck. Round Brno's broad track with its multitude of esses it should have been easy to pass, but Pedrosa would not concede lightly. It took a lap of total pressure and foiled attempts, but on lap 4, Lorenzo managed to get past his compatriot. He had probed Pedrosa severely through the stadium section, but Pedrosa had kept the door firmly shut. But that probing had been a dress rehearsal, taking a wider line through Turn 10 at the bottom of the hill, Lorenzo got drive from the extra speed he was carrying and stuffed his Yamaha M1 up the inside of Pedrosa's Honda on the entry into Turn 11. The uphill right of Turn 12 which follows immediately helped him slam the door in Pedrosa's face and turn his attention forwards, to the other Fiat Yamaha ahead of him.

One Down, One To Go

Once Lorenzo was past it became apparent just how much Pedrosa had been holding him up. Lorenzo was on the back of Rossi within half a lap, but Pedrosa was starting to lose touch. As the Fiat Yamahas upped the pace past Casey Stoner's lap record and headed off on a journey into the 1'56s, Pedrosa was stuck in the mid 57s, watching Rossi and Lorenzo recede into the distance. The factory Honda RC212V is much improved of late, but not enough to stay with the Yamaha M1. Especially not when that M1 is being piloted by two men bent on one mission: To beat the other.

Valentino Rossi and Jorge Lorenzo's need for speed was insatiable. As each lap passed, they upped the pace and dropped their lap times, shaving tenths then hundredths of a second off the lap record every other lap. First Rossi pushed on, stretching his lead agonizingly slowly up to half a second, but once it exceeded that, Lorenzo started to reel the Italian in again. The gap had grown to 0.6 seconds on lap 10, and two laps later it was back to 0.2, the lead negligible at best.

Rossi pushed again, but by now, Lorenzo was in assault mode. The Spaniard had learned his lesson at the Sachsenring, where he had followed Rossi around and felt he had the pace to pass, but had left his attack until too late. This time, he was determined to get ahead earlier and see how much Rossi had left in the tank.

The first part of that plan should have been the hardest, but Lorenzo was simply unstoppable. He fired a warning shot on lap 14, smashing the lap record once, before doing it again on lap 16. By now he was so close to Rossi that the Yamahas were singing a crossplane crank duet, the flat baritone rumble filling the surrounding pine forests. A pass was inevitable, as was the place Lorenzo would attempt it. Carrying more speed through Turn 1, Lorenzo was virtually touching Rossi's rear wheel as the flicked left through Turn 2. On the run into the first of the left-right combination of Turn 3 and 4, Lorenzo whipped out of the draft to jam his Yamaha ahead of his team mate's, and complete the block pass as they flicked back right for Turn 4.

Passing The Doctor is not the same as staying ahead though, and Rossi employed the lesson he had first learned from Troy Bayliss. If somebody passes you, the first thing you do is pass straight back before they have chance to regain their composure. Lorenzo, like Rossi, is a fast learner and had already attended that class, one given by Rossi himself. So when the Italian lined Lorenzo up at the next corner, the tight downhill right, Lorenzo was waiting, and braking later than usual to prevent Rossi's egress up the inside.

His first attack parried, Rossi sat back to consider his options. The Italian crawled all over the back of Lorenzo, probing for a sign of weakness. Down to the bottom of the circuit and all the way up Horsepower Hill he was on Lorenzo like a piece of old chewing gum on a school locker, but he could not pass. Over the line and into Turn 1, and the mirror image of the previous lap, Lorenzo blocking the apexes, Rossi carrying more corner speed. Up and over the crest and into Turn 3, and Rossi tried where Lorenzo had succeeded before him. Lorenzo, of course, was expecting this, and knowing that Rossi was coming, the Spaniard held off braking later and sat out wider than ever, ready to turn in and block Rossi's passage, to try and hold the line and hold the lead.

Gamblin' Man

But wider was too wide, and on a part of the track which hadn't had rubber laid down on it during practice the grip was less, much less than Lorenzo needed. The front folded and down Lorenzo went. Two races in a row, determined to beat his team mate and force his contract negotiations, Lorenzo had asked too much of his front tire. Both times his disappointment had been evident, but this time Lorenzo was furious, with himself mostly, though he took it out on his bike and the gravel trap.

Afterwards, Lorenzo told reporters that he knew he was taking a risk, but that he needed to win and decided the risk was worth it. He had gambled, and he had lost. He accepted that he had made a mistake, apologized to his crew, and laid it aside, choosing to concentrate on the next race at Indianapolis. Lorenzo showed a huge amount of maturity, but it could not mask the fact that he had been trumped once again, and another corner of his bargaining position had just been crumbled away. He really, really didn't need this.

It was exactly what Valentino Rossi needed, though. With Lorenzo out, the necessity to maintain the ferocious pace that Lorenzo had forced upon him was gone, and next lap Rossi was a second and a half slower than he had been with Lorenzo on his tail. The margin that the Fiat Yamaha pair had built up over Dani Pedrosa had reached nearly 15 seconds, and with 5 laps to go Rossi had time in hand. The Doctor dropped his pace and cruised to victory, taking his 102nd win and his 160th podium, beating Giacomo Agostini's record.

It was the second of Agostini's records he has beaten, and leaves him two more major records ahead, for MotoGP championships and wins in all classes. Lorenzo's crash allowed Rossi to extend his championship lead to 50 points, and with just 6 races left to go, Rossi now has at least one finger, and probably part of his thumb, on his 7th title. With another year to go of his contract, the Italian is edging ever closer to another of Agostini's records.

Dani Pedrosa had ridden a lonely race, dropped by Rossi and Lorenzo after lap 5, but clearly faster than the following pack, and came home in 2nd with a comfortable 9 second margin of his own. The gaps between the Untouchables and the rest of the field was vast, but the lead which Rossi held over Pedrosa at the end showed that some riders are more Untouchable than others.

Pedrosa simply didn't have the pace to follow Rossi and Lorenzo, but he still picked up some very useful points for the championship. With Stoner out with illness and Lorenzo out of grip, Pedrosa reeled the two men in by 20 points, going from completely out of touch to within reach of third, and only another mishap away from 2nd.

Pick Me! Pick Me!

Behind the Untouchables, whose battles seemed to take place on another planet, the usual close and exciting battle for places had raged. The fight over what had been 4th place before Lorenzo crashed out had been very tight indeed, with Andrea Dovizioso pushing Toni Elias every inch of the way, every lap of the race. Loris Capirossi had followed closely, not quite fast enough to challenge, but close enough to stay in touch.

Capirossi was about to get a little help, however. Just before Lorenzo crashed, Dovizioso had passed Elias, but as the pair crossed the line, they saw that they had been promoted, and they were now fighting not for 4th but for 3rd, and the final podium spot. Without a contract for 2010, and having just learned that the seats at his current San Carlo Gresini team had been filled for next year, the prospect of a podium spurred Elias on to redouble his efforts. The Spaniard quickly pushed back, passing Dovizioso going into Turn 1, but getting in a fraction too hot and running a fraction too wide allowed Dovizioso back underneath. Just barely, though, as the Italian saved his Repsol Honda from a front and back end slide on the exit.

Elias closed all through the stadium section, and on the run into the long, wide hairpin of Turn 10 he put his trademark sideways corner entry to good effect, jamming his Gresini Honda inside Dovizioso's Repsol and taking back 3rd. The Italian tried to fight back, chasing Elias to the line, but he could never get close enough to put a move on Elias which would have stuck.

His audacious passing and ferocious defense saw Toni Elias finish 3rd, giving him the podium boost he needed in his search for a new contract. After the race Elias gave vent to his irritation at being left on the sidelines, pointing out that he managed to score at least one podium a year, and other riders with far less impressive results seemed to be have no trouble finding contracts. With the seats in MotoGP filling up rapidly, Elias may finally find that despite his ability, his luck may have run out.

After the ecstasy of victory at Donington, Andrea Dovizioso was back in his usual position, crossing the line to finish 4th, the fourth of the year for #4. More importantly, he was back with the mortals, not up with the Untouchables, and despite the fact that he looks set to sign a new two-year contract with Honda, that must be a very worrying position.

If the fight between Elias and Dovizioso had allowed Loris Capirossi to catch the fight for 3rd, he had been unable to join in. The upgrades which Suzuki had brought to Brno had clearly helped, drastically slashing the distance to the rest of the bikes, but the GSV-R is still just a little way off the pace. Suzuki was due to test more parts on Monday, so the bike might finally get more competitive just as the season draws to a close.

A Nation Divided

Some four seconds off the podium battle, an American Civil War saw Ducati's Nicky Hayden pitted against the Monster Tech 3 Yamaha of Colin Edwards. The pair had tangled with each other from the very start, Edwards getting the better of the first half of the race, while Hayden led for the second half. In the end, it was Nicky Hayden who crossed the line to take 6th place, leaving Edwards down in 7th.

It was another useful finish for Hayden, and a sign of more progress with the Ducati, something that the Kentucky Kid desperately needs. All weekend long, his times had been held up against those of his temporary team mate, Mika Kallio, and dissected, weighed and evaluated for signs of who would get the factory Ducati seat for next season. When it counted, Hayden held the upper hand, beating Kallio by a couple of seconds, until the Finn was taken out in a last-lap incident between Kallio and Marco Melandri settling the issue for good. Kallio's debut on the factory Ducati had been promising, though the difference with the results he had scored on the satellite Pramac bike were not as significant as he might have hoped.

The incident between Kallio and Melandri - which both blamed each other for, but was an incident typical of Brno, with one rider trying a block pass through the esses, and the other holding the tighter, faster line - worked out very conveniently for Alex de Angelis and James Toseland. Both men are chasing Toseland's current Tech 3 ride, and De Angelis finishing in 8th ahead of JT will have tipped the scales in the San Marinese rider's favor.

After his podium triumph last time out at Donington, Randy de Puniet had turned to training, unfortunately breaking a leg while riding a motocross bike. He returned to Brno having to be carried to his bike, and obviously in severe pain, but he still managed to score important points, coming home 10th. He'll be back at Indianapolis, and he should be stronger again.

Where Loris Capirossi was fighting for the podium, Chris Vermeulen was struggling in the nether regions of the field, eventually coming home in 11th. The Australian heard this weekend that Alvaro Bautista would be filling his spot in the team next season and this clearly did not sit well with him. But if Vermeulen is to have a chance at another ride in MotoGP he will have to finish much further forward than this.

Niccolo Canepa finished 12th, happy to be back at a track that he knows and riding better than at earlier rounds. He still finished way down the order, but his deficit was now just respectable, no longer embarrassing.

Last across the line was Gabor Talmacsi on the Team Scot Honda. Talmacsi is still learning his way around the RC212V, but he needs to start finding some pace soon. Though his future may be secure in MotoGP thanks to the sponsorship he brings to the team, unless he can pick up a second a lap it will look more like he is buying his ride than that he has it on merit alone.

The first rider to withdraw was Kallio's replacement at Pramac Ducati, Michel Fabrizio. The Italian World Superbike star put his early exit down to pain in his shoulder, something he picked up here at Brno three weeks ago when he punted Ben Spies off the track. But before Fabrizio pulled out of the race, his lap time dropped by 10 seconds, and he pulled into the pits on a bike that sounded like it was about to expire. With only 5 engines left to last for the remaining 7 races, on pain of a 10 point penalty, the priority for wild card riders is to bring the bike back in one piece for when the regular rider returns.

You Have To Beat Your Team Mate

When Jorge Lorenzo joined Yamaha, he had guarantees of equal treatment with Valentino Rossi and was hailed as the future of the brand once Rossi retired, which at the time, everyone expected would be at the end of 2010. But - in part thanks to Lorenzo - Rossi has found the fire in his belly again, and is relishing the battles he is having with the young upstarts challenging his authority, and enjoying doing it on a bike which is now more than competitive. With Rossi showing no signs of wanting to end his career, Lorenzo is growing tired of the role of The Future of Yamaha, and is trying to ensure that he is seen much more as Yamaha's Present.

To force Yamaha's hand in this question, and swing the balance of power in the contract negotiations back in his direction, he knew he had to beat his team mate. And after failing to do so since Mugello, he was prepared to take a risk, regardless of the outcome on his championship standing. Lorenzo showed he was capable of matching Rossi's pace, and passing the Italian on equal terms. But in his attempt to beat the Doctor, he placed a bet in the wrong column, hitting not pay dirt, but just plain dirt.

In two weeks' time, Lorenzo gets another chance. At Indianapolis, he will be going through the same process all over again. Assisted this time by a big money offer from Ducati, he will try and force Yamaha's hand once again by beating his team mate in a straight fight. But his team mate will still be Valentino Rossi, and faced with the tricks and racecraft that Rossi brings from his 6 MotoGP titles, Lorenzo's task will be as difficult as ever. Lorenzo is learning, though, and he never gives up.


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2009 MotoGP Brno Preview - All Change

MotoGP, like all things in life, has its seasons. As an outdoor activity taking place in the northern hemisphere, those seasons closely mirror the seasons of Europe: When the series starts racing in April, there's the thrill and excitement of things new and full of boundless possibility. In July, as summer hits its peak, the MotoGP field has taken shape, and the title chase is in full flow. In October, the championship starts winding down, and titles are mostly settled. And finally, in December, all activity ceases, as MotoGP embarks on its annual winter hibernation.

So by rights, as the riders return to the paddock at Brno after their short summer break and the championship well into its stride, the season should be rushing headlong along the course already laid out before MotoGP took its summer vacation after Donington. But some shock news and new rules coming into effect have thrown the series into confusion, leaving riders, teams and followers floundering for explanations and with a good deal more to think about than they were expecting.

The most astounding news was Casey Stoner's astonishing announcement that he will be missing at least the next three races, in a bid to discover the cause of the mystery ailment that has plagued him since Barcelona in mid-June. Although riders will often miss a couple of races to recover from a physical injury, to allow a broken leg or fractured wrist to heal, pulling out because of an undiagnosed complaint whose main symptoms are nausea and fatigue has set paddock tongues wagging. Though both Ducati and Stoner are certain the problem is down to some form of viral infection and the fact that since catching it shortly before Catalunya, Stoner has had no time to recuperate, the paddock gossips are putting it down to mental problems. Stoner and Ducati vehemently deny this, and although the Australian is undoubtedly dejected about being forced to pull out, he is back in his native country working on a training program and consulting doctors. Not the behavior of a broken man.

Opportunity Knocks

Whatever the causes of Stoner's problems, on the face of it, his withdrawal should make the title race somewhat simpler. With one of the three main candidates eliminated, the championship will surely go to either Valentino Rossi or Jorge Lorenzo. Nothing new in that of course, but in his quest to beat his team mate, Lorenzo had been counting on a little help. The 25 point deficit the Spaniard has to Rossi is a real mountain to climb, especially with just 7 races left in the season. And so Lorenzo had been hoping that Stoner could get between Rossi and himself and take extra points away from the reigning champ, allowing the young pretender to get closer to snatching Rossi's crown. With Dani Pedrosa back to full health and rapidly regaining fitness, Lorenzo had two potential allies capable of stealing points from his championship rival.

Of course, that's a sword that cuts both ways. With Valentino Rossi in the rampant form he is in and a resurgent Dani Pedrosa, Lorenzo could just as easily find himself losing 9 points to Rossi instead of just 5. At the Sachsenring, and again at Donington, Lorenzo saw the title slip away from him while Rossi extended his advantage. Lorenzo needs to break that trend right now.

The omens are good for both men, with Lorenzo as well as Rossi having a strong record here at the Brno circuit. Rossi has won here four times and finished on the podium a further three times in the premier class. Jorge Lorenzo was 10th here last year, hampered by Michelin's decision to bring tires that were way too soft for Brno's abrasive surface, but he is a two-time winner here in the 250 class. Now he's on the same tires as his team mate he will be much closer to the pointy end.

Like Lorenzo, Dani Pedrosa has also won regularly here at Brno, both in the 125 and 250 classes. And like Lorenzo, he will want revenge for last season, when his Michelin tires left him incapable of competing. The revised parts which Pedrosa has been receiving for his Honda RC212V are starting to prove their usefulness, the revised engine with a softer power delivery and altered chassis putting the Honda back at the sharp end.

The Seventh Seal

Which brings us to the biggest change of the weekend, one which will largely go unseen by the general public, but which will potentially have a major effect on the championship. Brno is the first race to see engine limits introduced, with each rider now only having 5 engines to last the remaining 7 races. If a rider blows up an engine, or crashes it and damages it badly enough so that the seals need to be broken (for example, to replace engine cases if they get holed in a crash), then that's one less engine to last to the end of the season. Use a 6th engine, and you forfeit 10 points, and another 10 points for every further engine used.

The first effects of the engine limits should be visible in qualifying. In the final 15 minute dash for pole with no fuel limits to worry about, the teams usually turn up the wick a little, squeezing that bit of extra performance to improve their chances of a front row start. But with limited engines to play with that gamble now carries much more risk: A blown motor in qualifying will leave you one engine down and still 7 races to go. Brno will be the biggest problem, as everyone is on their first set of engines, but maybe at Indianapolis and certainly at Misano, engines which have already been raced may well see one final tour of duty running at full power during qualifying before being discarded and returned to the factory. Of course, if you are running a tired engine at full power, the chances of it blowing up in an shower of parts and engine oil are greatly increased. It will be interesting to see if qualifying gets red flagged more often, as teams try to squeeze one last blistering lap out of a used motor.

The beneficiaries of this will most likely be the satellite teams. The satellite bikes are already doing 2000 kilometers - or a little more than two race weekends - on a single engine, their motors already detuned by the factory technicians who accompany the satellite machines as part of the lease package. For the independent teams, little is likely to change, as the factories have already enforced the engine life experiment on them as part of their internal cost-cutting measures.

Less Power Please?

The factory teams, on the other hand, may find themselves a little more hamstrung by the measure. In the first year of the 800cc era, the RC212Vs were needing to be rebuilt after between 300 and 500 kilometers, which at the time was just about every day or so. Since then the Honda power plant has become significantly more reliable, but each iteration has seen some of the added reliability taken away again by increased power. As for Yamaha, they have already tested a longer life engine after the Barcelona round, though it is unclear just how much power has been sacrificed for the extra reliability. But the last two years have been spent in reducing internal friction and making the engine run cooler, two developments which are generally beneficial to engine life.

Ducati have been working closely with their partners Shell, and a laboratory truck was present at the Sachsenring to analyze the oil as it came out of the Desmosedici GP9s. Both the factory and their oil supplier have been working intensively on the problem of improved lubrication, and this should make engines durable enough to last the distance. As a token of their faith in their engines, the factory Ducati riders have both already had 4 of their 5 permitted engines sealed. They clearly do not expect to have to make any modifications to make the engines last the distance.

With one of the Fantastic Four out due to illness and the performance gap to the factory bikes possibly reduced, however marginally, the rest of the field smell blood. This could be their chance to get on the podium, and a single mistake by Lorenzo, Rossi, or Pedrosa will pave the way to glory. With a host of riders still uncertain about their futures - especially with the announcement that Alvaro Bautista and Hector Barbera will be entering the MotoGP class in 2010 - it's time for the riders in the danger zone to step their riding up a notch and starting taking a few extra risks in the hope of securing a contract.

Andrea Dovizioso probably has the least to fear and is the most likely beneficiary of any slip by the trio of untouchables still in the series. The quiet Italian took his first victory at Donington last time out, and he will be feeling confident of at least getting on the box again at Brno. Dovizioso expects to leave the Czech Republic with a new contract from Repsol Honda, as HRC boss Tetsuo Suzuki is in Brno to sign deals with Repsol, Dovi and team mate Dani Pedrosa.

Though Colin Edwards will be carrying the same confidence into Brno as Dovizioso, taking it from his podium at Donington alongside the Italian, the Monster Tech 3 Yamaha rider does have some cause for concern. The Texan has never finished inside the top 6 at the Czech circuit, and more worryingly, Brno is one of four tracks where he's never managed this feat. The other three are Indianapolis, Misano and Sepang, all of which come in the second half of the season. With no contract signed for next season - though Edwards is widely tipped to stay put at Tech 3 - the Texan will need to score a few big results to ensure that Yamaha Japan are willing to stump up Edwards' considerable salary.

In The Hot Seat

At least Edwards is fairly confident of retaining his seat at Tech 3. Team mate James Toseland is far less sure of his fate. The Englishman had his best result of the year last time out at his home Grand Prix, coming home in 6th, just beaten on the last lap by Valentino Rossi. But Toseland needs to start breaking into the top 5, and more importantly, start beating his team mate if he is to be offered another year in MotoGP, let alone at Tech 3.

For competition is fierce for the fourth Yamaha seat. The M1 is generally acknowledged as the best bike on the grid, and the best chance a non-factory rider has of getting on the box. The favorite candidate for the second Tech 3 seat at the moment is Randy de Puniet, his status reaffirmed by the podium he scored at Donington. The Frenchman has been transformed by the Bridgestones from frequenter of the gravel trap to surprise package on an underperforming bike. De Puniet has won here once in 2003 on a 250, and despite riding with a broken ankle - suffered in a motocross accident whilst out training with his coach, former MX world champion Yves Demaria - De Puniet will be out to prove something at Brno.

The other man in the frame for the Tech 3 ride is Suzuki's Chris Vermeulen. With Alvaro Bautista due to announce he has signed with the Suzuki squad some time this weekend, effectively taking the place of the likable Australian, Vermeulen has his work cut out. Fortunately, Brno is one of Vermeulen's better tracks, the Australian having scored a 5th and a 6th at the last two visits, and with a new engine and a new chassis for the weekend, he'll be hoping to impress potential MotoGP employers, before turning his attention to the World Superbike paddock.

Over at Ducati, another fratricidal conflict looms. Mika Kallio has gained a temporary promotion to the factory Marlboro Ducati team, taking Casey Stoner's place alongside Nicky Hayden. The Finnish rookie has had a number of impressive results, and has regularly finished ahead of the American, who is ostensibly on the better machine. But Hayden has started to find his feet with the fickle GP9 recently, including a 5th place at Laguna Seca. Ducati would like to keep both Hayden and Kallio, though the two men might be asked to switch seats, Kallio moving up to the factory squad, while Hayden is shuffled down to the Pramac squad. Hayden will be hell bent on beating Kallio on the same bike, and ensuring that Ducati exercise the option to retain him in the factory team for 2010. He embarks on that campaign at Brno.

With Kallio kicked upstairs to the Marlboro squad, Xerox Ducati Superbike rider Michel Fabrizio has stepped into the Pramac team to fill Kallio's boots. Fabrizio is naturally delighted with the chance of a MotoGP ride, but the Italian has an unhappy history in MotoGP. He spent a year riding for the WCM team, in the period when it was clear that the bike lacked the funding to make it truly competitive. Then in 2006 he broke a collarbone in practice at Donington, subbing for Toni Elias. His last appearance in MotoGP was marginally more successful, scoring 10th place while substituting for Elias once again at the Sachsenring in 2007. Fabrizio was at Brno just three weeks ago, racing in the World Superbike round held there at the same time as the Donington MotoGP race, crashing out of the first race then taking a 3rd in the second. If Fabrizio harbors any ambitions of making it back into MotoGP, then just staying on and bringing the bike home will be his main objective.

Home Safe

Loris Capirossi will not be racing for his ride, as the Italian veteran is close to renewing his deal with Suzuki for one last year. Capirex' main focus will be testing the new engine and chassis which Suzuki are bringing, and hoping it will finally bring him the improvement he needs to get close to the podium again. The Italian scored his 99th podium here last year, and has been waiting for his hundredth ever since. That magic figure is unlikely to come up on Sunday, but he might at least be capable of laying the groundwork for that elusive 100th trip to the box.

Like Capirossi, Marco Melandri will also have some changes to test. Kawasaki has finally provided a revised chassis for the Hayate team, though this does not mean that the factory has changed its mind about pulling out of the series. Hayate's team boss, Andrea Dosoli, is adamant that Kawasaki's withdrawal is not official, but few in the paddock share his optimism.

That hasn't stopped the Hayate team from being a generally cheerful bunch, as they continue to surprise themselves with a series of outstanding results. Another finish between 5th and 10th should be easily possible for Melandri, which is more or less where the Italian always finishes at Brno.

At Scot Honda, Gabor Talmacsi will continue his learning process, gradually getting to grips with a MotoGP bike and closing the gap on the riders ahead of him. Talmacsi is one of the lucky few who is unlikely to have to scratch around for a ride next year, as the Hungarian can probably bring in enough sponsorship money off the back of his immense popularity at home. Talmacsi will be aiming high at Brno, as tens of thousands of Hungarians make the short trip up to the Bohemian circuit. Until - and if - we finally get to the Balatonring circuit next year, this is the closest thing Talmacsi has to a home race.

Double Or Quits

Finally, we reach the desperate trio, the three most likely riders to be out of the series at the end of the season. Toni Elias is the rider with the best chances of staying, having proved his ability as a former Grand Prix winner. The Spaniard has struggled since the start of the year, but over the past couple of races Elias has picked up the pace, getting the best out of the new chassis he has finally be given to use. A few more solid results will secure his position over his direct competition, the former Superbike riders Vermeulen and Toseland, and his current team mate Alex de Angelis.

And like his Gresini Honda team mate, De Angelis has seen his results improving over the past couple of races. The man from San Marino finished 5th in Germany, 4th in Britain, and is obviously on a roll. Whether he can maintain that momentum after the layoff of the summer break remains to be seen.

While Elias and De Angelis can still cherish some hope of returning to MotoGP in 2010, that cannot be said for Niccolo Canepa. The Italian has struggled since entering the class, despite his pedigree as a former Superstock 1000 champion. Canepa is almost certain to find his way to the World Superbike paddock next season, and only a miracle can prevent that. He has seven more shots at that miracle.

New Age Dawns

After a comparatively short summer layoff, with just three weeks gone since the last race in Britain, the MotoGP paddock returns to action in a state of uncertainty and some disarray. We are entering the heart of contract season, but with so many unknowns entering the equation, a sense of unease pervades the paddock. Casey Stoner's mystery illness has reminded the riders of their incredible vulnerability, especially in the face of something as unknown and hard to diagnose as a viral infection. Broken bones, missing fingers, bumps and bruises, these are the things the paddock understands and knows how to deal with. Chronic fatigue, nausea and stomach cramps are unfamiliar, and therefore far more feared.

And added to that we have the new engine restrictions, limiting the number of motors the riders can use. Valentino Rossi has pointed out one downside of the move, dissuading riders from performing celebratory burnouts and wheelies after the race. The post race celebrations are likely to be far less exuberant, detracting from the spectacle, and the way the changes affect qualifying could have a similar effect, the battle for pole being less intense and settled earlier.

On the other hand, if it narrows the gap between the factories and the satellite teams, that is only to be welcomed. Just how rule changes play out are always hard to predict, whether they will help the show or hinder it, but one thing is for sure: With engines limited, and one of the series top names missing, MotoGP enters a new era this weekend at Brno.


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2009 MotoGP Donington Preview - Wave Goodbye

Saying goodbye is one of the hardest things to do. At the end of a relationship, no matter how badly it ends, it is all too easy to look back at the good things, the happy memories, and gloss over the cracks and flaws that caused it all to end.

So it goes with Donington, which hosts the MotoGP series for the last time this year, for at least five years and probably longer. The track, located on the fringe of Leicestershire, has a long and glorious history of racing, dating back to 1937, though the circuit was closed after the Second World War, only hosting racing again in 1977. But based on the roads that ran round the grounds of the estate the track is built on, it still has the feel of an old-fashioned road circuit, like the best parts of Assen or Phillip Island.

The run down the hill through Craner Curves is still legendary, one of the finest sections of track still on the calendar today, and Schwantz, McLeans and Coppice are as challenging to get right as anywhere. The track has seen some memorable moments, from the affable Simon Crafar winning his only Grand Prix here in 1998 on the WCM Yamaha, to Valentino Rossi's battles with Loris Capirossi, or with Kenny Roberts Jr and Jeremy McWilliams, to Scott Redding's first victory for a British rider in the 125 class just last year.

Then there are the bad points. Most of the riders - all except Casey Stoner, rather surprisingly - hate the Melbourne Loop, calling it dismissively the "car park section", which is basically a set of esses and two short straights joined by hairpins. But even the horrors of the Melbourne Loop have their bright side: The Foggy Esses, the Melbourne Hairpin and Goddards are all excellent places for passing, generating plenty of spectacle despite the lack of respect they are regarded with by the riders.

But by far the worst part of the track, and the reason that riders, fans, teams and journalists alike will not be sorry to see the back of the place, is the facilities. Most of the buildings are if not decrepit, than at least run down; the tarmac is crumbling in the paddock; the plumbing is overworked; and the toilet facilities around the track are best described as medieval. The crumbling buildings might charitably be regarded as possessing old-world charm, but even viewed through the soft focus lens of nostalgia, it's hard not to feel dispirited by the run-down feel to Donington Park. It is a salutary lesson for those who look back at the Forties and Fifties and see happier times: Things may have been simpler, but that also meant that they were pretty dire.

Of course, the imminent departure from Donington adds some extra motivation for the riders. Victory here will see their names leave an indelible mark on the record books as the last premier class winner at Donington.

The man with perhaps the greatest sense of history on the MotoGP grid will be triply motivated here at Donington. Valentino Rossi hasn't won here since 2005, after winning 5 of the previous 6 races at Donington. Rossi wants to say goodbye here with a victory, and make amends for the past three years of failure.

It would be foolish to bet against him. Rossi arrives fresh from victory at the Sachsenring, his fourth of the season and extending his championship lead to 14 points. He has also won three out of the last four races, coming perilously close to taking the fourth at Laguna Seca, and having fixed the problems the team were having in the early part of the season, he will be a very hard man to beat.

His team mate will be doing his utmost to do just that. After being beaten at the Sachsenring by just 0.099 seconds, Jorge Lorenzo conceded that he needed to beat Rossi in a straight fight, alluding to the stalled negotiations over his 2010 contract with Yamaha. Lorenzo needs a win, not just to close the gap on Rossi, but even more to put pressure on Yamaha and Honda to respond to his salary demands. Lorenzo has a history of winning here in the 250 class, so it is not beyond the realms of possibility. Going into the summer break, when deals are traditionally sealed so that the riders can enjoy an untroubled vacation, Lorenzo really needs victory at Donington.

But Lorenzo has not just Valentino Rossi to beat, but also the man who could become his new team mate. Dani Pedrosa won a convincing victory here in 2006 and was on the podium in 2008. The Repsol Honda rider is gaining strength every day, now almost fully recovered from his previous injury woes and starting to train once again. His own victory at Laguna Seca just three weeks ago left Pedrosa feeling capable of regularly fighting for the win again, and finishing right behind the leaders in Germany will merely have steeled his resolve.

The last of the Fantastic Four is the one over whom the most doubt remains. Casey Stoner is still not sure just what his body is capable of, describing his condition before the race as "pretty mediocre." There is absolutely nothing wrong the the Ducati, though, according to the Australian. He believes that if he were not having his health issues, he would be battling for wins rather than podiums. But despite the exhaustion he is suffering at the end of races, leaving him struggling to keep up, the British weather might just work in his favor. It is much easier to stay on the pace when the weather is cool and the track is slick with rain, and in England, rain is always a possibility.

On the eve of the summer break, most of the rest of the field is fighting for their contracts. The most prominent candidate at Donington will be James Toseland, the British rider wanting to make an impression in front of his home crowd. His memories of 2008 are awful, Toseland not even making it past the first corner. And being widely tipped to be headed to World Superbikes next year, Toseland has freely admitted that he is riding for his job. He has his work cut out at his home race.

But Toseland isn't the only rider fighting to save his place in MotoGP. Toni Elias, Alex de Angelis, Chris Vermeulen, and Niccolo Canepa are all in the same boat to a greater or lesser extent. Niccolo Canepa looks certain to be out of MotoGP next season, though the Italian is making quiet progress on the Pramac Ducati. It will most likely not be fast enough to save him, though. Chris Vermeulen will be hoping for a wet race, as another victory would make it very difficult for Suzuki to fire him. It being Donington, and showers forecast for sometime on Sunday, his prayers might just be answered.

The Gresini team did remarkably well at the Sachsenring, finishing in 5th and 6th place, making it two 6th places in a row for Elias. With one seat at Gresini already taken by Marco Simoncelli for next season, both Elias and de Angelis are on a mission for more top 5 results. That mission starts on Sunday at Donington.

Though contract time can be harrowing for many riders, for others it is more frustrating than truly terrifying. Nicky Hayden, Marco Melandri, and Andrea Dovizioso are not certain to be staying where they are next year, but the chances of them being forced out of MotoGP are minimal. If they do lose their jobs, there will be plenty of other teams standing ready to pick them up, the only question is who, and where.

So all three men will be looking for a result to bolster their negotiating positions, and of the three, Melandri has the best cards. The Italian has a podium at Donington, and though another is almost certainly out of the question, another top 10 result will underline his value. Despite being on an underdeveloped bike, that has to be possible for the Italian.

Nicky Hayden has often struggled at Donington, but is coming off a growing streak of improving results. The Kentuckian qualified in 4th in Germany, but a poor start saw him floundering way down the order. Hayden will want to be making amends and running with the Fantastic Four at the front.

Colin Edwards has had a more successful time at Donington than his compatriot, also having taken a trip to the podium here. Edwards' spot in MotoGP is more dependent on other factors - most notably, what Jorge Lorenzo elects to do next year - than on specific results, but Edwards has come close to a podium this year, and will be keen to consolidate.

Edwards could have a new team mate next year, in the shape of Randy de Puniet. The Frenchman has been vastly improved this season, already close to matching his entire points haul of 2008 with just 9 races gone. Another strong result for de Puniet will buy himself some leverage.

The remainder of the field look safe where they are, and can approach the Donington race with a little more equanimity. Loris Capirossi is nearly back to full fitness, but after a miserable outing at the Sachsenring, the Italian veteran - making his 17th start at the British track, his first dating from 1990 - will want to start making some progress towards making the Suzuki competitive once again.

While he may not be as grizzled a veteran as Loris Capirossi, Gabor Talmacsi has been round Donington plenty of times already, though only ever on a 125cc bike. The Hungarian looks likely to stay at Scot for next season, if only because he can bring money into the cash-stricken team. But Talmacsi will still be wanting a decent result. For Talmacsi, that means narrowing the gap to the front runners, and preferably not finishing last.

Mika Kallio won at Donington last year, but it would be a very brave man who would forecast a repeat of that performance in 2009. Kallio is still struggling with the finger he injured at Assen, but a week's improvement should make things easier for the Finn. The jury is still out on whether Kallio can actually ride the Ducati Desmosedici, and more evidence from the Donington race would be more than welcome.

The MotoGP circus will leave Donington with mixed feelings on Sunday. Craner, the Old Hairpin and Coppice and McLeans will be sorely missed, but the car park section most assuredly will not. But what the MotoGP circus will miss least of all are the retro 1940's style facilities. The rest of the world seems to manage to provide pleasant, large, clean facilities, it's a mystery why that can't be done in the UK.

Whatever their opinion of the track, MotoGP fans will be hoping that the classic old track of Donington is at least given a worthy send off before the infield section is torn up to make way for the facilities required by Formula 1. For the sake of the history which is still palpable at the track, Donington truly deserves a good send off.


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2009 MotoGP Sachsenring Race Report - Alien Invasion

The Aliens. That's what Randy de Puniet calls them. The Frenchman can find no other logical explanation for why Valentino Rossi, Jorge Lorenzo, Dani Pedrosa and Casey Stoner should be so much faster than the rest of the field. Certainly, the Yamaha is the best bike of the field, but in the hands of two-time World Superbike Champion Colin Edwards, it isn't half a second a lap or more faster. The Honda was the best bike of the 990 era, but only Dani Pedrosa has been able to win races on its 800cc cousin, even podiums being a rare event for anyone else riding the bike. And as for the Ducati, it has been the kiss of death for anyone who isn't called Casey Stoner.

Even better than the fact that these four are faster than the rest of the field is the fact that they are all pretty evenly matched. They may be half a second quicker than the 13 other MotoGP riders, but there's only tenths or fractions of tenths separating the four of them. The results reflect this: the margin of victory has been falling, from an average of 4.5 seconds for the first 9 races last year to just over 4 seconds this year, but that includes the monster 17.7 second victory by Jorge Lorenzo at Le Mans this year, where last year the largest gap was just 10 seconds.

As the gaps have closed, so the racing has become tenser. On any given day, any one of the Aliens can win, something they have all done at least once this year. It's clear that the Fantastic Four are on a showdown for the title and that a clash between the four is looming, but each time it looks like the fans might be in for the treat they've been waiting for, something has always conspired to prevent it. At first, it was Dani Pedrosa's recovery from a skin graft on his knee that left the Spaniard out of contention. Then Pedrosa had another crash, fracturing the top of his femur, and leaving him to struggle in races.

As Pedrosa began to recover, Casey Stoner suddenly started to suffer from vomiting and chronic fatigue, and was diagnosed with anemia and gastritis. The effort of racing beyond half distance has become too much for the Australian, taking him out of contention too early. And last time out at Laguna Seca, Jorge Lorenzo threatened to take himself out of the equation, dislocating a collarbone in a giant highside.

And so MotoGP fans have been left wanting, kept hungry at the prospect of the proper four-way battle they know awaits them. Like Tantalus, the race that would sate their appetite seems forever to be just out of their reach.

That did not stop MotoGP fans descending on the steeply wooded valleys of Saxony in their hundreds of thousands. The German track has provided great spectacle before, and the fans hoped it would do so again, and maybe this time, Rossi, Pedrosa, Lorenzo and Stoner would put on a race.

The omens were mixed. Casey Stoner had recovered a little and was saving himself through practice, doing only the laps he needed. Jorge Lorenzo was still smarting from his dislocated collarbone, but the pain was less than two weeks ago. On the bright side, Dani Pedrosa was well on the road to recovery, finally able to train again as his hip healed and inspired after his victory at Laguna Seca. And Valentino Rossi - well, Valentino Rossi was Valentino Rossi, always fast and chasing a new record, the chance to equal Giacomo Agostini's record of 159 podiums, a goal that always adds extra motivation for the Italian.

Then the weather threw preparations for a loop. After the sultry heat of Friday, a rain-lashed qualifying session on Saturday saw the hopes of the Fantastic Four qualifying on the front two rows dashed. Dani Pedrosa, who had been fast when it was dry, only managed to qualify in 8th, back on the 3rd row of the grid.

The weather on race day was equally uncertain. It was definitely going to rain, the only question was, when would that be. The first few showers had come on the first lap of the 250 race, forcing a restart and a radically shortened contest. But the clouds that scudded overhead as the start of the MotoGP race approached looked undecided, threatening rain, but not too seriously.

As the riders climbed up the Sachenring's final hill to take their places on the starting line, they put all such thoughts far from their minds. They would deal with the rain if it came, but right now, their minds were concentrated on the tight, tricky downhill loop of Turn 1, and the red lights that separated them from it.

The red lights dimmed, unleashing 17 pent up bundles of noisy ambition towards that first corner. Valentino Rossi, famed for his indifferent starts, broke with his usual habit and fired into Turn 1 ahead of the pack. Famed for the opposite, Dani Pedrosa had launched himself off the line and through the field, gaining 7 places to slot in behind Rossi, while Randy de Puniet had followed Pedrosa's lead, climbing from 6th to 3rd.

De Puniet was on an early charge, hunting Pedrosa up the hill ready to pounce at the bottom of the waterfall, the long downhill leading down to Turn 12, but he never got the chance. Flicking left for the terrifying blind right-hand kink at the top of the hill, De Puniet's tires, not quite up to temperature, cried enough, flinging the Frenchman off and into the gravel. It was De Puniet's third crash of the weekend, and an unwelcome return to the bad old days, when the Frenchman used to fling his LCR Honda at the scenery with alarming regularity. But after 12 races in a row without single race crash, and only two crashes in practice so far this year, his mistake should probably be put down more to chance than recidivism.

The Frenchman's fall pushed Casey Stoner up the order to take over 3rd, Lorenzo shuffling up into 4th in turn. This put the Fantastic Four at the front of the race, and the fans finally looked like getting the titanic four-way struggle that they had been hoping for for so long.

In fact, they looked like getting even luckier. For while the field broke, it was breaking not at fourth, but at fifth, behind Andrea Dovizioso, Dani Pedrosa's Repsol Honda team mate putting the new engine he had received for the German Grand Prix to good use. Dovizioso was clearly determined to shake off both the two last race crashes and his penchant for finishing fourth, and was pushing to get ahead of Lorenzo.

On lap 3, he succeeded, diving up the inside at the bottom of the hill, but this merely goaded Lorenzo into responding. The Spaniard immediately counterattacked, looking for a way back past Dovizioso, and in less than a lap he was back in 4th. Over the next couple of laps, though, it became painfully clear that the loss of the position had been down to more than just Lorenzo's brilliance. Once Lorenzo had passed him, Dovizioso started going backwards. The young Italian gave up 5th to Alex de Angelis, then on lap 18, he started dropping even further. Eventually, he pulled into the pits, the left-hand side of his front tire completely shot. Dovizioso scored his third DNF in a row, though this time, through no fault of his own.

With Dovizioso out of the picture, Lorenzo had a clear shot at making up the ground he had lost to the front three. He was helped by the squabbling at the front. While Rossi still led, Casey Stoner appeared to have shaken off his earlier illness and was pushing Dani Pedrosa for 2nd. The position was his on lap 5, Turn 12 at the bottom of the hill providing the opportunity. Two laps later, Turn 12 served Casey Stoner once again, this time to pass Valentino Rossi for the lead.

After Stoner had passed him, Pedrosa fell back into the clutches of Lorenzo, but the attentions of what may be his future team mate spurred Pedrosa on, and the Spanish pair were soon back with Stoner and Rossi. But Lorenzo had more in mind than just reuniting the front four: The Fiat Yamaha rider wanted the lead, and started working on a way forward. Pedrosa resisted for a couple of laps, but eventually surrendered at Turn 2. The Repsol Honda man hung on to the back of the group, and plotted his revenge.

While Pedrosa sat analyzing the situation ahead of him, waiting for an opening, Rossi started prying at Stoner, while Lorenzo in turn pushed at Rossi. Rossi's explorations were the most overt: examining his options at the bottom of Turn 12, but finding himself not close enough, The Doctor took another peek at Turn 1, but was similarly rebuffed by Stoner. The front three hared round the tight Saxon track with less than a breath between them, yet each was wily enough not to expose any chinks in their armor.

On lap 17, shortly after half distance, Stoner's efforts at resistance lapsed, if only briefly. The lapse was enough, and at the bottom of the hill, Rossi was past, and back into the lead. He would not be alone: Two corners later, Rossi's Fiat Yamaha team mate was past the Ducati as well, taking over 2nd from Casey Stoner at Turn 1.

Stoner would not let this go unchallenged, and sunk his talons into the tail of Lorenzo, probing for a a way back past. But the effort was starting to tell. Stoner pushed, then dropped back a little, then pushed one more time, setting his fastest lap of the race on lap 22, but in his eagerness he nearly lost the front of his Ducati, losing half a second to the two Fiat Yamahas he had been chasing, and with the blue and white bikes disappearing into the distance, the steam finally went out of Stoner. The adrenalin rush of battling for the lead had carried him further than even he had expected, but once that was gone his fatigue returned, and Stoner dropped away from Rossi and Lorenzo, no longer able to match their scorching pace.

Smelling blood in the water, Pedrosa seized his chance and sprang past the Ducati, firing out of Turn 13 with more drive and leading Stoner across the line. At the same time, Jorge Lorenzo had waited just a fraction later than Valentino Rossi to brake for Turn 1, and the Spaniard passed and took over the lead on lap 26.

This simply would not do, Rossi felt, and The Doctor latched onto the back of his team mate's Yamaha M1. Rossi pressured Lorenzo for two more laps before finally pouncing into Turn 1 on the penultipmate lap, diving up the inside of Lorenzo and leaving him no option but to give up the spot. But Lorenzo was not going to give up so easily. Next time around, Lorenzo tried a move of his own, attempting his trademark "Porfuera" move round the outside of Rossi at Turn 1. He came surprisingly close, but not close enough, and was rapidly running out of time.

Down the hill they went, round the Omega Kurve, then down the hill and up again, climbing to the top of the Waterfall back straight. Lorenzo inched closer on Rossi all the way round, lining the Italian up in Turn 11 ready to strike at the bottom of the hill in Turn 12, but he was not quite close enough. One last corner remained, and Lorenzo focused all his energy on getting out of that final corner with enough speed to pass Rossi as they crossed the line. If the starting line had been where the finish line was, his efforts might have been rewarded, but Rossi judged the race perfectly, crossing the line ahead of Lorenzo to win by just ninety nine thousandths of a second, a cruel irony that the Spaniard should be beaten by an amount containing the new number that Lorenzo had selected for himself at the start of the season.

The numbers added up for Valentino Rossi, though. The Doctor took his fourth win of the season to make it 101 in total, a fitting number given the lesson in both passing and defensive riding he had just given. The win also meant Rossi equaled another of Giacomo Agostini's records, this time for the number of podiums taken, with 159. If Rossi stays in MotoGP for another three years, as he has threatened, then Agostini's victory total is sure to be in danger.

More importantly, Rossi struck a double blow for the championship. He consolidated his lead, now 14 points ahead of his team mate Jorge Lorenzo, but he also won, just when he needed that victory most. Speaking at the press conference afterwards, Lorenzo said he was angry at himself for not winning. "I have to beat him," he said, also inferring he needed the win to reinforce his hand in contract negotiations. Lorenzo has four 2nd places to go with Rossi's 4 wins, and badly needs and wants to change that situation around.

Dani Pedrosa had closed up on the two Fiat Yamaha rivals, but could not place an attack. The pace of the Yamahas had been so furious that the Spaniard was forced to settle for 3rd.

Casey Stoner did well to salvage yet more points after physically collapsing once again to come home 4th. The bright side for the Australian is that he managed his strength for longer, and at a physically demanding track. At Donington, with a couple of straights it is possible to briefly relax on, Stoner is in with a chance of hanging on till the end.

Though the front four were once again in a league of their own, there were a few surprises behind them. Two of the biggest were in 5th and 6th, the Gresini pairing of Alex de Angelis and Toni Elias respectively. The Gresini team have had a tough season so far, but with both riders so close to the front, the team could be on the verge of a turnaround.

Toni Elias was lucky to take 6th, however. The remarkable Marco Melandri with his cast-off Kawasaki came perilously close to taking 6th from Elias, but a bumblebee hit the Italian's visor after he had removed his final tear off, hampering his vision in the crucial final moments and leaving him stuck in 7th. The team continues to hope for support from Kawasaki, though those hopes are almost certain to be in vain. They have proved that in the right circumstances, the team can perform and Melandri is still a deeply talented rider. If only he had the right equipment.

After a fantastic qualifying session, Nicky Hayden's hopes of staying with the front runners were dashed on the starting line. The Kentuckian got a terrible start, dropping from 4th down to 9th, leaving himself out of contention for the weekend. Hayden had to work hard to climb back up into 8th, but he cannot afford to make that kind of mistake too often, especially not when he is getting closer to be able rider the nigh-on untameable Ducati.

In 9th and 10th came another pair of team mates, in the shape of Colin Edwards and James Toseland. The huge gap between them belied the fact that they both struggled to make an impact in Germany, despite both citing an improvement from the new wheelie control they received for the race.

Loris Capirossi came home a disappointing 11th, the Rizla Suzuki rider never really featuring this weekend. Behind Capirex, his compatriot and Ducati rookie Niccolo Canepa finished 12th once again, the Italian seeming like he is making some small progress with the Ducati.

Their team mates reflected the positions ahead of them, Chris Vermeulen finishing 13th while Mika Kallio came home 14th. Vermeulen had been struggling with a huge bruise on his hip all weekend, while Kallio is still getting to grips with his newly-shortened finger. Neither man was expected to feature, but neither were they expecting to be quite so anonymous as they were.

The last man to finish came home surprisingly content, Gabor Talmacsi finally scoring his first points aboard the Scot Honda, and given the short lap at the Sachsenring, Talmacsi was unlucky to be lapped, being caught by Rossi and Lorenzo on the very last lap. The Hungarian continues his progression, slowly but surely narrowing the gap to the rest of the field.

Things are looking up for MotoGP: the racing is getting closer, and once again, we have had a race decided by less than a second. No longer is it just a two-way battle for supremacy, instead now all four of the championship leaders have joined the fray and give no impression of leaving it again. There really are four men capable of winning, something all four of them have already done.

Yet what is troubling is the gap back to the men behind them. Though victory was decided by just 0.099 seconds, the difference between 1st and 5th was 21 seconds, and Casey Stoner's collapse saw him only drop back by 10 seconds, still way ahead of the Gresinis who followed. On any given day, there are four men who can win a race, but the chances of anyone else even getting a podium are slim beyond belief.

Valentino Rossi, Jorge Lorenzo, Casey Stoner and Dani Pedrosa are so far ahead of the rest of the field, Randy de Puniet's nickname for the four of them seems more and more apt. Them being aliens is the only logical explanation for how come they finish such a huge margin ahead. In the words of the immortal Sherlock Holmes: "When you have eliminated the impossible, whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth."


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2009 MotoGP Sachsenring Preview - Round The Left Hand Side

In every form of competition requiring a track, the participants travel around the track in a counter-clockwise direction, making a sequence of left turns. In track cycling, athletics, flat track, speedway, greyhound racing, horse racing, NASCAR and a host of other forms of racing, the competitors just keep turning left. There have been many theories advanced for just why this should be - this was the way the Greeks raced; right-handed people prefer to turn left, as they have more strength in their right leg than their left; even the Coriolis effect, which also causes water to go down a plughole counter-clockwise in the Northern Hemisphere - but none have ever proved satisfactory.

The puzzling exception to this rule are road race circuits. The vast majority of racetracks around the globe buck the counter-clockwise trend, going against almost every other form of racing. Of the 17 tracks on this season's MotoGP calendar, 12 run clockwise, and just 5 run counter-clockwise, containing a majority of left handers. The MotoGP circus has just come from one of them - Laguna Seca - and now heads into the next, the tight and tortuous Sachsenring circuit.

As if to compensate for the excess of right-handers which the MotoGP circus faces, the Sachsenring crams a whole raft of lefts into its short 3.67 kilometer length. Just three right handers - the sharp right Coca Cola Kurve of Turn 1, the endless right of the Omega Kurve, as it rounds the tree-crested hump at its heart, then a single, blisteringly fast kink at the crest of the hill which runs down to towards the final two corners. That one right hander makes up for a lot, though. Nicky Hayden described it as one of the best corners the MotoGP circus visits, fast, blind, downhill, 5th or 6th gear; It is a corner to test the mettle of any rider.

Left Turn, Clyde

Joining those three right handers are a long sequence of lefts that start at the exit of the Omega Kurve and make their way over a crest, then up the hill again to that one fast right, before plummeting back down towards the final two lefts, the Sachsenkurve and Quickenburgkurve. The last two corners are the most crucial part of the track, the place where most of the passing gets done.

The Sachsenkurve is the most obvious candidate for a pass, as it offers the longest braking zone on the circuit. But it is also a risky move, the plunge down the hill leaving a lot of weight on the front wheel, and little room left to absorb the extra load of outbraking an opponent. Beyond the corner lies a large gravel trap, manned by a lot of tired marshals whose weekend consists of extracting the bikes of overoptimistic riders who have just discovered where the limit was.

But even if you get past at the Sachsenkurve, there's one more corner to go. And a pass underneath at the Sachsenkurve leaves you on the outside for the Quickenburgkurve, and open in turn to attack. The corner is tight and steeply uphill, and any drive you lose from a pass at the Sachsenkurve kills your speed through the Quickenburgkurve. More than one rider has got past at the first of those two left handers only to find themselves trailing out of the second, and considering a desperate attempt into the tight first right-hand turn.

The abundance of left handers favors riders with a history of turning left. And few have more history in that art than the former flat tracker and son of a flat tracker, Nicky Hayden. Hayden has had something of a resurgence of form over the past few races, his results improving until he scored an impressive 5th place finish at Laguna Seca. Prior to the Sachsenring race, Hayden said that he was finally starting to feel comfortable with the Ducati, after getting off to a terrible start, and regularly struggling just to score points.

Now, the Kentucky Kid believes he has turned a corner. Hayden will be looking to make the next step, from watching the Fantastic Four disappear into the distance to running with them and eventually even challenging for the podium. Despite Hayden's history of third places here at the Sachsenring, it's probably a little bit too early for the Ducati man to be making it this weekend.

Sick Boy

The Ducati Desmosedici GP9 may hold no secrets for his team mate, but Casey Stoner's own body is currently posing more problems for the Australian. After three races in which the effort of giving his all for 45 minutes has completely drained Stoner, and robbed him of any chances of competitiveness, the Ducati rider has finally chased down what ails him. After a battery of tests in the US, the diagnosis came in as a case of mild gastritis coupled with anemia. Now that he has a concrete diagnosis, he can at least follow a course of treatment and hope that he starts to recover soon. But the Sachsenring is really a little too early for the former World Champion.

Stoner's biggest problem is the resounding form that Fiat Yamaha rider and reigning World Champion Valentino Rossi is displaying. The 2009 Yamaha M1 MotoGP bike is clearly the best bike on the grid, having accumulated 5 wins and a total of 14 podiums from just 8 races. In addition, Rossi is happier and more competitive than he has ever been, having three riders chasing him forcing him to step up his game further than he has ever needed to. Fully fit and full of fight, Valentino Rossi is a threat at any track on any Sunday.

The same could be said for his team mate, were it not for Jorge Lorenzo's relapse into the nasty habit of highsiding and hurting himself. The Spaniard will be racing with his collarbone still recovering from being dislocated during qualifying at Laguna Seca, Lorenzo crashing twice at the US track. The Fiat Yamaha rider claimed he could have won Laguna Seca if he had been fully fit, but despite receiving injections, Lorenzo will still have to cope with riding in pain. The only comfort is that the race looks like being either wet, or at least damp, making it just that little bit easier conditions to race under while injured.

The final of the Fantastic Four is now well on the road to recovery from his injuries, as his victory at Laguna Seca demonstrated. Dani Pedrosa is not yet fully fit, but is at least racing without pain. What's more, the Spaniard will have a new engine to try out at Laguna Seca, in addition to the new - well, revised 2008 - chassis he has had since Catalunya. Pedrosa is back to being a force to contend with, and at a track he has often done well at - though his huge off here last year, when he fractured his wrist in the pouring rain and threw away a gaping race lead - he will be chasing another victory, having not yet quenched the thirst he built up in over twelve winless months.

The most interesting prospect for Honda is not Dani Pedrosa receiving the new RC212V engine, aimed at improving power delivery. Andrea Dovizioso has been complaining all year that the Honda power plant is too aggressive, making the bike spin up too easily exiting corners. With the new engine promising smoother delivery, Dovizioso might finally be able to get that elusive podium he's been chasing since the start of the season. He's been fourth so many times this year that he must be regretting selecting #4 as his racing number.

Road To Redemption

Unlike the factory Hondas, Toni Elias won't be receiving the new engine upgrade. But Elias is just happy to have the new chassis, which has already seen him leap up the standings and start to compete in the upper reaches of the top 10. Elias was virtually ordered to run the harder of the two available compounds at the Sachsenring by team boss Fausto Gresini, but will be getting a slight reprieve if the Saxon weather should turn as capricious as the weather forecasters have promised. Elias is embarking on a campaign to save his MotoGP career, and needs to string results together to impress team managers with his ability. The Sachsenring is as good a place as any to start.

Elias' team mate has a similar quest, Alex de Angelis being as predictable as the German weather. The man from San Marino is either close to the top 5 or struggling just to score points, with little in between it seems. But with rumors that de Angelis has signed a contract with Pramac for next year, he should be freed of at least one concern in that regard. Whether that translates to a good result at the Sachsenring remains to be seen.

Like the factory Honda riders, the Suzukis have also been receiving new parts recently. And slowly but surely, the bikes have been showing some improvement, a trend they will hope to build on in Germany. Last year, Chris Vermeulen slashed through the field in the pouring rain to end the day on the podium, after starting from way down on the grid. With this year's downpour expected on Saturday during qualifying, the Australian rain master should end up closer to the front of the grid, but the question remains just how well he will do if the race is dry, as expected.

At least the nature of the Sachsenring track suits the Suzuki. The tight German track reduces the role that horsepower has to play, leveling the playing field for both Vermeulen and team mate Loris Capirossi. So far this year, it has been the Italian veteran who has had the better results from the Suzuki, even leading his home race during the wet-and-dry Mugello round of MotoGP. With the weather expected to start moving in Saturday, maybe the wily old fox could spring a surprise on the field.

Tech Trois Tornado

To the embarrassment of the factory Rizla Suzuki squad, they have the satellite Tech 3 Yamaha team breathing down their necks. Colin Edwards' run of strong results has demonstrated just how strong the Yamaha M1 has been this year, but the Texan has also benefited from the switch to Bridgestones, the Japanese tire maker's legendary sticky front tire perfectly complementing Edwards' strong front-end style. Like Andrea Dovizioso, Edwards has been chasing his first podium of the year, and it seems unimaginable that he should not succeed before the year is out. His record at the Sachsenring suggests, however, that it's not going to be this weekend.

The same is undoubtedly true of his team mate. James Toseland continues to struggle with set up issues, though his fate has been greatly improved after receiving help from Fiat Yamaha team boss Masahiko Nakajima over the past couple of races. Sadly, though, Toseland has failed to build on his success from last year, though his results from Assen were extremely encouraging. If Toseland is to remain in MotoGP, he too needs to start finishing in the top 6 for the rest of the season.

Marco Melandri's future in MotoGP seems secure, with the Italian almost certain to sign for the Gresini Honda squad for next year. Meanwhile, he continues to squeeze every last drop of performance out of the Hayate Kawasaki, while paying the price for the lack of development of the machine. Melandri will be one of many riders hoping for rain on Sunday, to give him a chance of competing with the front runners, as he did at Le Mans and Mugello.

Randy de Puniet has had no such problems. The Frenchman has been both steady and a reliable points scorer all year, in stark contrast to his former reputation as a crasher. A change of personal coach has had a huge change, and De Puniet looks secure in his LCR Honda seat for next season.

Gabor Talmacsi also looks like being a good bet to remain at Scot Honda, despite only just having ousted Yuki Takahashi from the team. The Hungarian brings both money and interest from his native country, two quantities which are in short supply in MotoGP over the past year or so. After his sudden ascendancy to the MotoGP class, just a few short months after leaving the 125s, Talmacsi is starting to find his feet - and the limits - of the premier class machinery. The Hungarian is improving with every race, and looks like being another top 10 regular in the not too distant future.

The fates of the Pramac riders are as diverse as the cool-blooded Mika Kallio and the much more lively Niccolo Canepa. Kallio has impressed many observers with his ability to ride the Ducati GP9, a bike thought almost untameable. The Finn is almost certain to find a seat somewhere in the paddock, but the question is where. He may end up staying right where he is, if he continues to book the strong results he took in the early part of the season.

Team mate Canepa's days look to be numbered in MotoGP. The former Superstock 1000 Cup champion has never been able to make much of an impression when racing, despite his strong performance as a test rider for Ducati. Earlier rumors that Canepa would be ditched in favor of Pasini after the summer break have faded away, but almost the entire paddock would be shocked if he were to return to MotoGP next season.

Tight Fight

The swooping, tight Sachsenring circuit helps keep the riders together, and has generated a host of thrilling races over the past few years. The combination of the tight track and Eastern Germany's fickle weather could turn out another fascinating race. The first day of practice is expected to be hot, humid and exhausting, while Saturday's practice and qualifying sessions are forecast to be run in the cold and rain of a Saxon downpour.

With Sunday's weather completely up in the air - reasonable temperatures, overcast, and a chance of rain, though no one knows when and if it will arrive - practice will provide few clues as to race setup and what it will take to win the race. The Saxon weather could throw up some genuine surprises on Sunday, and maybe even some new faces on the podium. The German Grand Prix on Sunday could turn into a magical mystery tour for the MotoGP field.


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2009 MotoGP Laguna Seca Preview - Return To The Scene Of The Crime

At heart, every motorcycle race starts fundamentally the same: A group of riders of similar talent on similar equipment line up on the grid with the intention of crossing the line ahead of their rivals at the end of the race. Yet despite its simplicity of concept, once the flag drops, each race develops in a unique direction, taking on a distinctive character all of its own.

That character is often dictated in large part by the nature of the class: in recent years, MotoGP races have tended to resemble a high-speed version of chess, each move carefully considered and rehearsed and several laps in the preparation. World Superbike races, on the other hand, often look more like a bar room brawl than a motor race, with riders wading in wildly more in hope than in expectation, and emerging surprisingly unscathed. And more often than not, races in the 125cc class turn into the nearest thing to a pack of hyenas fighting over a bone, bikes and bodies shooting in every direction, with no order or decorum, and even less chance of making any sense of the fight.

Sometimes, though, a motorcycle race can transcend the ordinary limitations of the class imposed by the nature of the bikes involved, and take on a uniqueness of character that leaves it burned into the collective memory of race fans for many, many years to come. The 2008 Red Bull US Grand Prix at Laguna Seca was just such a race. No high-speed chess here, no careful premeditation or long-rehearsed moves, the race between Valentino Rossi and Casey Stoner was a fight to the death, mortal combat between two highly-trained assassins using any and every means at their disposal to inflict a fatal blow on their opponent.

Stone Cold Killers

Their combat was assisted, perhaps even encouraged, by the nature of the Laguna Seca track itself. For the first 24 laps of the race, both Casey Stoner and Valentino Rossi used every inch of the track to gain an advantage over the other. Along Laguna's short front straight, it was Stoner's Ducati that had the edge, its better drive and horsepower allowing Stoner to catch Rossi.

But too often, it was not quite enough to get past Rossi before heeling over for the most terrifying corner on the track, the 170mph left kink of Turn 1. Rossi got caught out there a couple of times, but on most laps, as they rolled the bikes left over the crest of the hill, The Doctor held the perfect line, in the middle of the track and drifting right. Rossi was leaving the door open for Stoner, but the route it led to was the hardest route of all, the outside line over the rumblestrip, as dangerous as the North Face of the Eiger. Brave as a mountaineer, Stoner accepted the challenge, even passing there on lap 24.

Through Turn 2, the Andretti Hairpin, both men were equal, trying passes through the tight left hander, but both giving up on the exit what they gained on the entry. Turns 3 and 4, the flat right handers, saw passes by both men, as well as the most extraordinary piece of defensive riding, with Rossi holding the outside line while Stoner tried up the inside. On the exit, Stoner found Rossi in his path, and was left with nowhere to go that would not mean running into the Italian and taking both himself and Rossi off into the gravel.

Finis Terra

From there, the track starts to wind its way up the hill, first ascending the tighter left of Turn 5, then the scarier, faster left of Turn 6, the exit onto the ridge leaving little room for run off, even less for mistakes. Then all the way up the hill to the often overlooked right-hand kink of Turn 7, before falling off the edge of the world at The Corkscrew.

Much has been written about that hallowed corner, and Rossi's legendary pass on Stoner, riding through the dirt on the inside of the turn on lap 4, miraculously staying upright and almost physically slamming into Stoner on the way out, but Turn 7 is a part of what makes The Corkscrew - Turn 8a and Turn 8b - such a magical corner. That brief kink narrows the entrance into the Corkscrew, requiring a subtle adjustment for the ideal line. But that adjustment leaves the door momentarily open for attack, and if you trust your ability on the brakes, and are not fazed by the drop off in the braking area and the complete lack of visual clues about where the line is, then just as Valentino Rossi did on two separate occasions, you can dive through on the brakes and grab the lead into the downhill esses that make up The Corkscrew.

Just being ahead isn't enough. After the drama of The Corkscrew comes the banked Rainey left hander, and the run though 10 before the final turn onto the back straight. Turn 11 is fairly straightforward, but in all its simplicity, it is crucial to the lap. Get drive out of 11, and the straight is just long enough to nip ahead before the terror of Turn 1. But only just long enough - get balked through 11, or don't get on the gas early enough, and you are left with the North Face route past at Turn 1.

This is where Valentino Rossi won the 2008 US GP at Laguna; not with the legendary gravel pass at The Corkscrew; not with his extraordinary ability on the brakes going into Turn 2, or into Turn 7; not even with his bravery at Turn 4, refusing to give ground despite the obvious danger to himself. But at Turn 11, lap after lap, Rossi altered his line subtly, changed his braking points, his turn-in points, leaving Casey Stoner guessing on where he should be braking if he was to get the drag out of the final corner and on to the straight.

In the end, it cost Stoner dearly, as frustration saw him too close going into Turn 11 on lap 24, and forced to run wide to avoid running into the back of Valentino Rossi, taking a trip through the gravel. For Laguna Seca has one final peril on the exit of Turn 11: beyond the thin strip of hard-packed gravel at the racetrack's edge, there is a softer, deeper pit, luring the unwary in and tipping them over. At the end of lap 24 Stoner went down, and one of the most enthralling races of the MotoGP era was effectively at an end.

Encore! Encore!

The chances of a repeat are sadly rather slim. There is nowhere to hide at Laguna, the short front straight giving you five quick breaths to recover before it is back to the physically punishing labor of working your way round this track, and you have to be in the peak of physical fitness to stand a chance of winning. In the last two races, Casey Stoner has shown to be a long way from that peak, the Australian suffering from a mystery virus which has left him drained and completely exhausted after both the Catalunya and Assen MotoGP races, and incapable of following the pace set by Valentino Rossi and Jorge Lorenzo.

Though Stoner is unlikely to be fully recovered just 8 days after the previous round at Assen, Valentino Rossi has a new threat to deal with. Jorge Lorenzo has been the revelation of the 2009 season, exceeding the already high expectations both fans and paddock insiders had for the Spaniard. At Barcelona, Lorenzo proved that he was almost a match for the immense talent of Rossi, being beaten only by his own overconfidence in the final corner at the Spanish track.

At Assen, Lorenzo's inexperience worked against him. Rossi beat the Spaniard by pushing in the most frightening part of the track, the very high speed right-left transit of Hoge Heide, but Lorenzo is an eager student and will be expecting a similar trick from his Fiat Yamaha team mate. At Laguna Seca, Lorenzo will also have inexperience against him, as he only managed 5 corners before a huge highside - his trademark last year - saw him out of the race and damaging his ankles once again. If Lorenzo can stay in the saddle and follow his team mate, we could yet see another nail-biter at the Dry Lake.

The biggest question mark at Laguna will be the health of Repsol Honda's Dani Pedrosa. The Spaniard has had a nightmare year with injuries so far, and is slowly recovering from his fractured femur sustained at Mugello. Pedrosa was fast at Assen, staying with the front group until he lost the front at Turn 1 just a few laps in, but the question is how long Pedrosa can sustain that kind of pace at an intensely physical track like Laguna. Pedrosa hasn't been able to train for a long time, and he may not last the distance if he gets involved in a dogfight.

The Outsider

There will be more than just the usual suspects fighting for a podium at Laguna Seca, however. Chris Vermeulen - not a name which has set the series on fire so far this year - has to be odds on for the podium, for the Australian has been on the box for the past two years, and would have been on the year before if it hadn't been for the seriously overheated engine in his Rizla Suzuki. Laguna is a track which sees Vermeulen elevate himself from mid-pack obscurity to potential winner, for no reason other than that he loves the track. Vermeulen will be a factor at Laguna, the only question is whether he can take one more step forwards and match the pace of Rossi, Lorenzo, Stoner and Pedrosa.

Vermeulen will have an American hot on his heels. Colin Edwards is having another excellent season on the Tech 3 Yamaha, and Yamaha's M1 is turning out to be the bike of the series, especially after James Toseland made it four Yamahas in the top six at Assen last time out. Edwards has been edging ever closer to a podium this year and would love to get on the box in front of his home crowd. If there is one rider who will take unnecessary risks at Laguna Seca, it is probably Colin Edwards this year.

His fellow American will be looking just to survive. Nicky Hayden's season so far on the Ducati has borne a worrying resemblance to Marco Melandri's 2008 Ducati season. Yet the first green shoots of hope are beginning to poke out of the Desmosedici GP9's fairing. Hayden had one good day at Barcelona, then had his first decent race at Assen, spending the race caught up in the gigantic tussle for 6th and finishing in 8th after having to deal with a loose clip-on. A repeat of the victory Hayden has tasted here twice before is unlikely, and even a podium is well beyond the bounds of the probable, but if Hayden can be involved in the top 10 battle again and build his confidence with the bike, then he'll at least be heading in the right direction once again.

The man who took his place in the Repsol Honda team will be looking to break his streak of 4th place finishes. Since electing to run the #4 plate (his favored #34 having been retired in honor of Kevin Schwantz), Andrea Dovizioso has found himself all to often in 4th position, and just out of reach of the podium. Dovi made a strong debut at Laguna Seca last year, finishing - you guessed it - in 4th. If he hadn't crashed out at Assen, then the Italian would have been another candidate for risking it all to get on the podium. But with another race on the new RC212V chassis, he may not need to risk it to get that far forward.

Redemption Song

James Toseland is another rider who has gone well here in the past, though that was in another series and on another bike. Like Hayden, Toseland has had a nightmare season, struggling to get used to the feel of the Bridgestone tires on the Yamaha M1. But after receiving help from Yamaha MotoGP boss Masahiko Nakajima in getting the bike set up at Assen, Toseland appears to have made a remarkable return to form.

The British rider badly needs it. Toseland is hotly tipped to be shown the door at the end of the season, and is believed to be close to a deal with the Ten Kate Honda team in World Superbikes. But if Toseland has found the key to performing on the Tech 3 Yamaha, then he might finally break into the top 5, and if he starts doing that regularly, there may be a place for him in MotoGP yet.

One man whose future seems secure in MotoGP is Loris Capirossi. Despite his age, Capirex looks set to continue at Rizla Suzuki again next year, the veteran Italian getting more consistent results out of the bike than his team mate. Not at Laguna, though, as this is the track where Vermeulen shines. Capirossi is more likely to be involved in the increasingly common and increasingly entertaining mid-pack dust-up.

Randy de Puniet has matured this season from MotoGP Joker to MotoGP Jack of Hearts. The Frenchman has stopped crashing inexplicably, and has grown faster and more reliable from race to race. De Puniet had a strong finish here last year, coming in 6th, and his form so far says the LCR Honda man must be capable of more on Sunday.

More In Hope

If there is one track where Marco Melandri might be able to overcome the lack of performance of his Kawasaki, then it is Laguna Seca. Melandri has been on the podium here before, badly beaten up after a crash in practice on the Gresini Honda in 2007. After initially hating the track when the series first returned to Laguna Seca in 2005, Melandri has come to appreciate the place, despite the remaining dangers. Melandri should be able to at least hang on to the mid-pack melee once again at Laguna, and might even come out on top.

Where once a Gresini Honda was a guarantee of competitiveness, nowadays it is no such thing. Since the switch to the spec tire, Toni Elias has struggled with a lack of grip. At Assen, the team found the start of a solution, and Elias found himself in the bunch fighting for 6th once again, though a wild move saw him penalized and pushed down to 12th, despite crossing the line in 8th place. Elias will be out of the Gresini squad next year, but he may yet be able to salvage a ride in MotoGP.

That task is a great deal more difficult for Alex de Angelis. The man from San Marino was criticized for being erratic last year, scoring well one week and poorly the next. De Angelis is no longer erratic, sadly, he is reliably to be found scrapping for the final points and his days in MotoGP are almost certainly numbered. A future in World Superbikes beckons, though he may do better moving down to the Moto2 class.

The fight for the last place could be surprisingly interesting. Gabor Talmacsi, the man who entered the series just two races ago, has showed solid progress in the little time he's had aboard the Scot Honda, and is now ready to start making the next step, by matching the backmarkers and avoiding last place. Laguna is a tough place to pull that trick off, as it is such a difficult circuit, and one that Talmacsi has never seen before, but the Hungarian shouldn't be far off.

At least the man that Talmacsi has to beat is also new to Laguna Seca. Niccolo Canepa has been a disappointment since making the transition from test rider to MotoGP racer, his size at least one of the factors that has worked against him. Canepa will be working hard to avoid the humiliation of defeat by Talmacsi, but that is a fate that he can avoid for only so long.

The final candidate for the final spot is Sete Gibernau. The Spanish veteran once fought for championships, but it is merely his empty shell that now haunts the paddock, not the once-brilliant title contender. Injury continues to plague him, and Gibernau must by now be having doubts about the wisdom of his return to racing at the highest level.

The Numbers Game

After two races with a fuller grid, the MotoGP class will line up in depleted numbers again at Laguna. Mika Kallio is out after a crash in the penultimate corner at Assen, which saw him trap his hand under the bike, grinding his finger and damaging it too badly for him to ride at Laguna Seca. Kallio is expected to be back at the next race at the Sachsenring in Germany.

Yuki Takahashi, on the other hand, will not. The Japanese rider has succumbed to the inevitable, being forced out to make way for Gabor Talmacsi, arguably more talented and undeniably better funded. At first, Team Scot protested that they would be trying to find a way to field both Takahashi and Talmacsi for the rest of the season, and asking Honda for more support and extra bikes. But exactly as expected, neither was forthcoming, and given the impossibility of running a flag-to-flag race with just one bike for each rider, and badly needing the money which Talmacsi brought in from the Hungarian oil company Mol, Takahashi was cast aside.

Takahashi's departure leaves the series without full-time Japanese rider for the first time since 1992. For Japan - and indeed for MotoGP - that is a tragedy. But the bigger tragedy is that Japan has been unable to produce a competitive MotoGP rider for several years now, and their prospects are getting fewer all the time.

Celebration Of Hope

With the memory of last year's Laguna race still fresh in the memory, fans and followers have great hopes for the Red Bull US GP at Laguna Seca. There is indeed every reason to expect a great race, the track makes it possible for riders to hold up someone faster for long enough to take victory, and there are a host of candidates to take advantage of those possibilities. But the memory of the 2008 race is rather too much to live up to, and that level of excitement seems improbable. However, good planning by Dorna means that the US GP falls on the July 4th weekend, meaning that whatever the outcome of the race, the partying and celebrations will go on regardless. There will by something to celebrate at Laguna this weekend whatever happens.


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