2009 Mugello MotoGP Preview - The Heart Of Italy

It's hard to overstate just how important motorcycling is both to Italian culture and the Italian economy. Originally adopted as cheap transport, Italians almost literally grow up on two wheels, transported about as children on Vespas before graduating to small-capacity Aprilias, Piaggios, Vespas, Derbis, Gileras and even Yamahas, Suzukis and Hondas when they hit their mid-teens. Eventually, as Italians grow older, they end up with either a Piaggio or a Suzuki Burgman to commute on, or a Ducati Monster, or perhaps a Triumph Speed Triple to cruise the country's city streets and beautiful beachfronts.

This passion has produced hundreds of businesses scattered around the north of the country. The old centers of boot and saddlemaking turned their skills with leather to gloves, boots and protective clothing, while the dozens of motorcycle manufacturers - now reduced to just a handful - spawned a vibrant industry building parts and accessories for every conceivable shape or form of two-wheeled vehicle. The chances are that if you own or ride a motorcycle, you have something Italian either attached to or associated with it, be it Brembo brakes, Marchesini wheels, Alpinestars leathers, Sidi boots, Nolan helmets, Arrow or Termignoni exhausts, or Pirelli tires. Or perhaps you just own a Moto Guzzi, an Aprilia, a Moto Morini or a Ducati. Motorcycling without Italy is simply inconceivable.

It should come as no surprise, then, that the Italian Grand Prix at Mugello is an event that captivates both the hearts and the minds of the Italian people. Mugello and the Italian Grand Prix are at the heart of Italy, both physically and metaphorically. The breathtaking track, surrounded by the beautiful, bucolic Tuscan hills, lies in a fold of Italy's Apennine mountains, just north of Florence. Glorious winding roads thread through the surrounding mountains, and at each mountain pass or major crossroads, there's a cafe where you can stop for a coffee and a bite to eat. In every one of these establishments hangs a shrine to motorcycling: helmets, leathers, signed photos of Italian motorcycling legends - Valentino Rossi, Giacomo Agostini, Marco Lucchinelli, Luca Cadalora - cards, folders, maps, gloves; All the regalia of motorcycling hang here. And as you sit nursing your espresso, your reverie is interrupted every couple of minutes by the rumble, roar or shriek of bikes as they chase that perfect zen moment of motorcycling, dancing to the rhythm of the Passo Sambuca, or the Passo di Raticosa, or the legendary Passo di Futa.

On The Road

It is no coincidence that this latter pass leads from Borgo Panigale, a nondescript outer suburb of Bologna, through the outskirts of the city, then south towards Florence, up and over some of the most magnificent motorcycling roads on the planet, before arriving some 80 kilometers later in the village of Scarperia, past that town's beautiful bell tower, and then down winding, tiny local roads until a giant red crash helmet marks the entrance to the Mugello circuit. In Borgo Panigale, Ducati builds the motorcycles it sells to support its racing habit, then tests those bikes on that illustrious pass, on the grounds that if a motorcycle performs well on the Passo di Futa, it will perform well on any road on the planet.

The one motorcycle which Ducati has not tested over the Passo di Futa - or at least, not that they will admit to - is the Desmosedici GP9. Instead, the weapon that won the 2007 championship for Casey Stoner and the Bologna factory is tested mainly just over the other side of the Passo di Futa, at the Mugello circuit. But the Mugello track has all the elements you will find on the Futa pass and more: The 320 km/h front straight kinks, then dips right at the point you need to get hard on the brakes to slow the bike up for the double apex right hander at San Donato. The track then climbs up through a series of left-right flicks before heading over the blind crest into Casanova, and down towards the double right of Arrabbiata 1 and 2.

Once again, the track winds up the hill like a mountain road, twisting through Scarperia and Palagio, before dropping down the long hairpin of Correntaio towards the final Bucine hairpin. Like Jerez' final Ducados hairpin, this is a place a race can be lost and won, with room to pass both on the way in and on the way out. If you're still battling for the lead when the last lap comes around, this is the place you roll the dice. But as any gambler will tell you, rolling the dice won't guarantee you the result you want, and you're as likely to come away from the Bucine corner empty handed as you are to cross the line in the lead.

With Ducati using Mugello - owned by Ferrari, their brethren in Italian motor racing - as a private test track, you would expect that the factory would have racked up a pile of wins here. But you'd be wrong: Ducati have been on the podium at Mugello every year except 2004, and have looked capable of winning almost every year, but not once have they managed to get on the top step.

This Spot Taken

The trouble at Mugello, you see, is that the top step of the podium has a "reserved" sign on it. For the past 7 years, a certain Valentino Rossi has turned up at the Tuscan track, laid his towel out on the step marked with a #1, and returned an hour later to claim what is rightfully his. Rossi may be used to winning, but his record at Mugello is astonishing, not having lost a race since crashing out in 2001.

What is even more impressive is that Rossi has won here almost regardless of the capabilities of his machinery: He won in 2003 aboard the all-conquering Honda RC211V, but also in 2004 in his first year aboard the previously struggling Yamaha. He won here in 2005, the year he dominated the class taking 11 wins in a single season, but also in 2007, the year that Yamaha got the M1 so horribly wrong, down on power and acceleration at a track where horsepower plays a huge role. Even Rossi's loss here in 2001 he puts down to the bad luck created by racing a bike with a special paint scheme, something he has refused to do ever since.

With his name already penciled in the space marked "winner" on the results sheet, Valentino Rossi is going to take some stopping. But this year, The Doctor finally faces the kind of competition which might just be able to put an end to his incredible winning streak. Ducati's Casey Stoner, Repsol Honda's Dani Pedrosa and Fiat Yamaha team mate Jorge Lorenzo have all shown themselves to be remarkably tough competitors this year, and pose the strongest challenge that Rossi has ever faced.

If the rabidly partisan crowd - Mugello is just a couple of hours away from Rossi's home town of Tavullia - is to accept a Rossi defeat, then it can only come from either an Italian rider, or an Italian motorcycle. Which leaves Casey Stoner as the only acceptable option, and probably the most likely. Stoner pushed Rossi hard here last year, on a bike which was still under par, coming off poor results at both Jerez and Le Mans. This year, Stoner has been much more competitive at the two tracks the Ducati struggled at most, and the Australian World Champion is also much calmer and much stronger mentally. The Ducati remains the fastest bike on the grid - though only just, and the dismal results by the rest of the Ducati riders mark it as almost impossible to ride quickly - and if the bike is this good this early, Stoner will push Rossi to the very limit.

#99 Says No #99

The other man prime candidate to prevent Valentino Rossi from taking win #99 will be the man bearing #99 on the front of his fairing. Jorge Lorenzo has grown in stature since his rookie season last year, and leads the championship after taking two wins from four races. The only blemish on his record is his DNF at Jerez, crashing out of 4th while closing on Casey Stoner. If he hadn't lost the front in Spain, Lorenzo's lead would be 17 points rather than just the one. At Mugello, Lorenzo will have to keep his head and use the knowledge that his bike is the equal of Rossi's to stay close to the Italian, before pouncing at the end. Rossi won't let his team mate run away from him, so Lorenzo's best chance is to let Rossi do the work, then snatch victory in the final few laps.

If anyone is going to run away with victory in Italy, it could well be Dani Pedrosa. The Spaniard is still struggling with a painful knee and subsequent lack of fitness, as well as complaining about the uncompetitiveness of Honda's latest iteration of the RC212V. But Pedrosa's rivals are taking his complaints less and less seriously, as the tough little Spaniard is proving to be a very hard man to beat. Though he is yet to take victory this season, Pedrosa has been there or thereabouts since the second race of the year, after almost being knocked into the gravel by Alex de Angelis at Qatar, and losing ground in the desert. On current form, Pedrosa is due a win, and if it doesn't come at Mugello, it's almost certain to come in front of his home crowd in Barcelona in two weeks' time.

As Mugello is Ducati's test track, the remaining Ducatis will be under careful scrutiny here, and under great pressure to improve on the miserable results so far. Best placed rider so far is Mika Kallio, on the satellite Pramac squad. The Finn got the year off to an excellent start, with a brace of 8th places at Qatar and Motegi, but his season has gone rapidly downhill since then. A technical problem halted his progress in Spain, then a bizarre crash in Le Mans gave him another blank score. Ducati is looking to Kallio as proof that the Desmosedici GP9 isn't impossible to ride, and so will be looking for another decent finish here in Italy.

If Not Here, Where?

The pressure on his team mate will be even greater. Niccolo Canepa was drafted into the Pramac Ducati squad after a year as Ducati's test rider, and in that capacity has done hundreds, if not thousands of laps of this track. Canepa has struggled so far this year, finding it difficult to deal with the pressures of being a Grand Prix racer and learning new tracks. But if there is one track where Canepa should be competitive, it is here, a track he knows well and is capable of lapping at a strong pace. Finishing last or near to last will not be good enough for Canepa at Mugello, and a place in or near the top 10 will be required if he is to be given a chance to stay in MotoGP.

Ironically, the man feeling the least pressure could be Casey Stoner's Marlboro Ducati team mate Nicky Hayden. Hayden started work with his new crew chief Juan Martinez at Le Mans, and Mugello will be a chance to build on that weekend. More importantly, perhaps, Hayden might get three full and uninterrupted sessions of practice, and a chance to get back some of the seat time he has so badly needed this year, either through accident, injury, regulation changes or just plain bad weather. Three hours of dry practice, together with a crew chief he can communicate with easily and freely should help the American finally gain some ground on the rest of the field. There won't be any miracles at Mugello, but at least Nicky Hayden might start to look like his old self again in Italy.

Ducati's biggest misfortune is the fact that Sete Gibernau will be missing at Mugello. The Spanish veteran broke his left collarbone for the umpteenth time at Le Mans, and is sitting in Barcelona hoping to be fit for his home Grand Prix in two weeks' time. But the Hayden crew chief change was part of a bigger reshuffle aimed at making all of the Ducatis competitive, not just the one ridden by an Australian former MotoGP champion. To do this effectively, Ducati need all the track time they can get, and Gibernau's data would have been a welcome addition to this.

As for the other Italian riders, only one man looks capable of disrupting the Fantastic Four's party. Andrea Dovizioso came perilously close to taking his first podium of the year at Le Mans, before Repsol Honda team mate Dani Pedrosa cruelly snatched it from him on the very last lap. Like Pedrosa, Dovizioso has been complaining of the substandard RC212V, but that hasn't stopped the quiet Italian from being consistently competitive. Dovi continues to grow in his role as a factory rider, learning and improving all the time. He is due a visit to the podium, and Mugello might just give him that little extra motivation that he needs to finally get on the box.

Home Sweet Home

Of the remaining Italians, the rider showing the most promise so far is also the biggest surprise of the series. Marco Melandri, consigned to the wastebasket of history after Kawasaki announced their withdrawal from the series, has taken the defunct ZXRR Ninja and made it more competitive than it has ever been, taking his and Kawasaki's first podium since 2007. Melandri has been pleading with Kawasaki to provide more development for the bike, but so far to no avail. His Le Mans podium might help swing opinion in Akashi, and if it does, then Melandri will be a serious threat once again. Until then, the Italian will have to be content to wait for the leaders to make a mistake, and seize the opportunity.

Loris Capirossi is in a similar situation, though at least he knows that the Suzuki will be receiving new upgrades soon, rather than just vainly hoping for them. After a strong preseason, Suzuki have lagged behind again, down on power compared to the rest of the field, and even behind Kawasaki in the constructors standings. Capirex has an excellent record at Mugello, but until Suzuki finds more power for the GSV-R, he won't be able to make himself a permanent fixture in the top 5.

At Mugello last year, Alex de Angelis demonstrated his ability by finishing 4th, his best finish so far. But all that year, he also showed his penchant for destroying equipment, slinging his Gresini Honda into the gravel on numerous occasions. So far this season, de Angelis has proven to be much more consistent, and capable of staying firmly seated, rather than headed for the gravel. Sadly, de Angelis' consistency has mainly been finishing in the bottom half of the field, with the exception of Qatar. The man from San Marino will have to hope to rekindle some of his Mugello Magic from last year, or he is likely to find himself on the transfer shortlist for next season.

De Angelis' Gresini team mate continues his struggle with the spec Bridgestone tires, the flyweight Toni Elias still having problems getting heat into the stiff spec tires. Elias underwent surgery for arm pump just prior to Le Mans, where he rode with little strength in his arms. Now closer to recovering his fitness, Elias will have a chance to work on his setup problems once again and find a solution to his tire troubles. Elias is a proven race winner, but unless he finds a setup that works he could be the first victim of the single tire rule.

Winners And Losers

Over in the Tech 3 Yamaha garage, the riders face contrasting fortunes with the standard Bridgestones. Colin Edwards has taken to them like a duck to water, the super-sticky front giving him the confidence to ride as he pleases. Edwards has been strong almost everywhere so far this year, but his history at Mugello is not good. A 5th place is the best result he has had at the Tuscan track, the mitigating factor being that it was last year that he scored that best result. Over the past few days, Edwards has been linked to a switch back to the World Superbike series with Aprilia, but the Texan still has unfinished business in MotoGP, as he is yet to score his first win in the series. It won't come at Mugello, but if he can run close to the leaders, he will gain confidence going towards Assen and Laguna Seca, the two tracks he might finally bag that elusive victory.

While Edwards revels in the new-found levels of grip with the front Bridgestone, James Toseland struggles with a lack of grip at the rear. The Briton has suffered from a lack of practice time and dented confidence after two big crashes during the preseason, and is still coming to terms with the spec tires. At Le Mans, Toseland had a steady, quiet race, slowly building his confidence once again. A repeat of last year's outstanding 6th place finish at Mugello is extremely unlikely for the Yorkshireman, but he'd probably settle for a full set of uninterrupted practice sessions and a solid finish in the top 10. If it stays dry - and it looks like it probably will during practice - Toseland should be able to build his confidence, and build on his results.

Though he will deny it publicly, the final English speaker in the paddock would probably prefer it if it didn't stay dry on race day at Mugello. Chris Vermeulen has a very indifferent record at the Italian track, and coupled to the Suzuki's lack of horsepower, without a rain shower, that record looks set to continue. But though the weather forecast looks good for Friday and Saturday, the forecast is for rain on race day, so Vermeulen could yet get a chance to shine at Mugello.

Frenchman Randy de Puniet will not be best pleased if it does turn damp. The Frenchman had a miserable race at his home Grand Prix at a rainy Le Mans two weeks ago, after a promising start to the season. De Puniet has at last unlearned his nasty habit of throwing racing motorcycles through the gravel traps, suffering his first fall of the season during practice at Le Mans. If he can stay aboard again at Mugello, the Frenchman might finally start to realize some of the potential he has shown over the years.

The Team Scot garage may well be a hive of interest this weekend, but the buzz will not be about where Yuki Takahashi might finish on Sunday. Rumors persist that Hungarian 250 rider Gabor Talmacsi, who split with the Aspar team last week, could bring much-needed sponsorship into the team and take Takahashi's spare bike. Dorna would surely look kindly on any such move, as it would allow them to test the water for the proposed one-bike-per-rider rule for 2010 and see how it works in practice. But Aspar boss Jorge Martinez may yet prevent any such deal from happening, as the Hungarian will need Martinez' blessing if he is to ride again this season. If Talmacsi's manager Stefano Favaro is seen spending a lot of time in the Team Scot garage or hospitality suite, then the Japanese rider could soon find himself with one fewer RC212V, and one extra team mate.

The Scene Is Set

The Mugello circuit, close to the heart of the Italian motorcycle industry, also sees MotoGP get into the heart of the motorcycle racing season. For the next two months, MotoGP tours a host of classic tracks packed with race-crazy fans. Mugello is the opening scene at the start of a drama-filled action sequence of racing. Set in the heart of the beautiful Tuscan hills, and packed with cast of tens of thousands of bike-mad race fans, that opening scene could not have a better backdrop than Mugello.


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2009 Le Mans MotoGP Race Report - Take A Chance

Motorcycle racing fans are deeply divided on the question of racing in the rain. One faction believes that rain makes motorcycle racing more exciting, because the smallest error is punished so mercilessly; Their opponents counter that this is exactly the problem: because the rain makes the track so difficult, riders making a mistake crash straight out of the race, with no chance to recover from their mistakes. Both sides agree on one thing, though: the rain turns racing into a lottery, and chance plays a much greater role than in the dry.

That point was illustrated most forcefully in the two races that preceded the MotoGP race at Le Mans on Sunday. In the 250cc race, only 14 of the 24 riders who started made it to the finish, and some surprising names were in the points: Toby Markham, who usually struggles just to qualify, came away with 2 precious points, while Russian rookie Vladimir Leonov scored his first top 10 finish. The 125cc race had been even more of a blood bath: of the 33 riders who sat on the starting grid, just15 had made it to the line, the last of whom was Randy Krummenacher of the De Graaf team 2 laps behind the winner.

As if to demonstrate that there are worse things than racing in the rain, the skies cleared as the 250cc race ended, and the MotoGP riders headed to the grid on wet tires in the knowledge that the track would be drying as the race progressed. If rain races are a lottery, flag-to-flag races - run in changeable conditions where riders are allowed to enter the pits and swap bikes - are more like Russian Roulette, the charge into the pits to leap onto a bike with different tires a lot like spinning the barrel, pulling the trigger and hoping for the best.

Snake Eyes

With the sun already out as the bikes got ready to head out of the pits, some teams even considered taking the ultimate gamble and going out on slicks. But the sighting lap dismissed any such notions; the track was still soaking and far too dangerous for tires without water-dispersal grooves. There was no other option than to start the race on wet tires, and wait until the track was dry enough to come in for slicks.

Sitting on the starting line waiting for the lights to extinguish is a nerve-wracking enough experience at the best of times, but lining up in damp and changeable conditions knowing you will have to choose the right moment to come in to swap bikes makes the tension almost unbearable. Jorge Lorenzo was the first to show the ill effects of nerves on the line, as the Spaniard threaded his way through the bikes on the grid, only to line up in the wrong position, taking the 2nd spot used by the four-in-a-row 250 and 125 bikes, rather than the three abreast MotoGP machines. The grid official, seeing Lorenzo in the wrong place, soon put the Spaniard right, and the rest of the field was forced to wait a few more agonizing seconds as Lorenzo tiptoed his bike round onto the right starting position.

At last the lights lit up, then dimmed, releasing the riders and their nervousness into the Zen state that is racing, no thoughts or concentration for anything other than the now, any time not spent on the bike, the track and the riders ahead merely a distraction which could cost places at best, a crash at worst. Dani Pedrosa was the best away as ever, his fellow rocket starter Casey Stoner catching him as they heeled over through the fast Dunlop Curve, and lined up for the Chicane, the first major obstacle.

Jorge Lorenzo had gotten off the line a little slowly, briefly fazed by lining up in the wrong place, but only gave up one place to Stoner, slotting in ahead of his Fiat Yamaha team mate Valentino Rossi. Lorenzo soon made up for his slowness off the line. The Spaniard had to allow the smallest of gaps through the Dunlop Chicane, but by the time the leading pair turned in to La Chappelle, Lorenzo was upon them.

Casey Stoner's attention was entirely consumed by Dani Pedrosa, the Australian trying to find a gap to wedge his Ducati GP9 past the Spaniard's Honda, but as they rolled right into the double apex at Garage Vert, Stoner got a surprise. Jorge Lorenzo had decided against hanging around, and was demonstrating his trademark move by going round the outside of Stoner, a move which had earned him the nickname of "Porfuera" in the lower classes. Stoner held his nerve and held his line, drifting outside on the exit and leaving Lorenzo with nowhere to go but to slot in behind him.

Hard Six

Stoner's rebuttal actually worked in Lorenzo's favor, leaving him perfectly placed to fire fast out of Garage Vert and get the run on Stoner down the back straight. As they braked for the Chemin aux Boeufs esses, the Spaniard jammed his Fiat Yamaha ahead of the Australian's Ducati, and into 2nd. Lorenzo wasn't done yet, though. Out of Chemin aux Boeufs, Lorenzo next lined up Pedrosa, diving up the inside of the Repsol Honda to take over the lead at Garage Bleu.

Once past, Lorenzo was gone, pulling a gap of half a second over Pedrosa by the time they crossed the line. Pedrosa was also facing attack from behind. As they fired across the line for the first time and lined up for the fast Dunlop Curve right-hander, Stoner lunged up the inside of Pedrosa for the second time in succession, this time making it stick. Stoner's pass held Pedrosa up just enough for Valentino Rossi to close on the Repsol Honda and try a desperate dive into the chicane, but he was not quite close enough.

Though Stoner had passed Pedrosa and was free to chase Lorenzo, there was no catching the Fiat Yamaha man. The Spaniard was flying, and in his haste to catch him, Casey Stoner flew into Garage Vert a little too hot, running wide and letting Dani Pedrosa back underneath him, and allowing Valentino Rossi to pass too. Stoner used the power of his Ducati to blast ahead of the Fiat Yamaha on the short back straight, but Rossi was having none of it. The Italian dived easily underneath the Australian into Chemin aux Boeufs, Stoner dropping from 2nd to 4th in just two corners.

This was the start of a vertiginous drop for Stoner, the Australian going backwards through the field. Stoner could only wait for the track to dry out, and hope that gambling on the right moment to come into the pits would pay off.

Stoner wasn't the only rider going backwards. With Stoner out of the way, Valentino Rossi had arrived on the tail of Dani Pedrosa, and was pushing the Spaniard hard. Next time the bikes fired through the fast left on the approach to the Chicane, Rossi was closer, and able to execute a perfect block pass on Pedrosa to take over 2nd place.

Behind Pedrosa, his Repsol Honda team mate Andrea Dovizioso had put exactly the same move on Casey Stoner to take 4th and challenge Pedrosa as well. Dovi closed on his team mate, then on the run into Musee, the Italian stuffed his RC212V in front of his team mate's, forcing Pedrosa off line and taking 3rd spot from the Spaniard. A lap later, Marco Melandri, who had worked his way past Stoner on the back straight, was past Pedrosa in exactly the same spot, the Spaniard running wide once again while the Hayate slipped underneath and up into 4th.

By lap 5, a dry line was starting to form. The state of the track seemed to have no effect on Jorge Lorenzo, as he streaked away by over a second a lap, but behind him, thoughts were turning to tactics. Valentino Rossi, loath to be so comprehensively outclassed by his team mate, unable to get the bike to turn as he wanted and coming under intense pressure from Andrea Dovizioso, was the first to spin the chamber and pull the trigger.

Dani Pedrosa and Loris Capirossi followed Rossi into the pits. The three men leapt off their bikes and onto their second, slick-shod machines, gritting their teeth for the agonizingly slow 60 km/h pit lane speed restriction before crossing the line marking pit exit and getting back hard on the gas. The combination of slick tires and a still very damp track is a treacherous one and the riders have to perform a most delicate balancing act, pushing hard to get heat into the tires without going over the edge and crashing. This, then, is what turns the lottery of a rain race into Russian Roulette, where the smallest mistake can be fatal.

Dead Man's Hand

On his first lap out, after just a couple of corners, Valentino Rossi's chamber turned out to not to be empty. As Rossi tipped the bike into Musee, the bike tipped over, the front sliding out after the Italian hit a puddle. Worse still, the bike flipped as it hit the gravel, damaging both sides of the bike and sheering off the left-hand foot peg. Rossi would have no choice but to return to the pits and change bikes again. To add to Rossi's woes, this left his team with just a couple of minutes to prepare the bike he had just come in on to go back out on the track.

By the time Rossi exited the pits for the second time of the race, he was already a lap down and in last place. And inevitably, in the rush to get Rossi's first bike ready to go back out again, the team forgot to engage the pit lane speed limiter. Rossi rushed out onto pit lane, breaking the speed limit and earning himself a ride through penalty. It was not going to be Rossi's day.

Pit lane was now a hive of activity, though not as busy as we have seen at previous races. Teams, but mostly riders, were playing with strategy, some staying out as long as they dared, others pitting early and hoping the track would dry out quickly. At the front of the race, Jorge Lorenzo saw no need to come in, the fastest man on the track by well over a second and his lead extending with every lap. But behind Lorenzo, chaos reigned. It would take until lap 13 before everyone had pitted to swap bikes, and some semblance of order would return. Until then, the actual running order was down to guesswork.

Andrea Dovizioso hung on to Lorenzo until lap 11, giving up over a second a lap. Meanwhile, Marco Melandri, who had pitted on lap 7, was the first rider to get up to speed on slick tires, grabbing places as others entered the pits ahead of him. There was another advantage to entering the pits later rather than earlier. The later you pitted, the quicker you were in and out, as the drying track meant that entering and exiting pit lane was a much faster process later in the race.

Down To The River

By lap 12, Melandri was really starting to fly. The Hayate rider's lap times were 4 seconds quicker than Lorenzo's, and just 45 seconds behind the Spaniard, Melandri was really starting to close. It was time, and Lorenzo peeled off and into the pits. The penultimate rider to enter the pits to swap bikes, Lorenzo was also the fastest, pitting 11 seconds quicker than Melandri. Those 11 seconds would prove crucial: The Fiat Yamaha man exited the pits still ahead, up on 2nd place man Melandri by over 7 seconds.

It took two more laps for Lorenzo to get back up to speed on slick tires, but in that time, Lorenzo only gave up 3 more seconds to Melandri. From that point on, Jorge Lorenzo picked up the pace, and put the hammer down. Lorenzo was going to be a very hard man to catch.

The pit stops had shaken up the field, but after Jorge Lorenzo and Toni Elias, the last riders to enter the pits, had emerged back onto the track, the field started to settle down, and the race resumed anew. Once the smoke had cleared, it looked like the late pitters had taken an advantage. Lorenzo, late pitter, led, from Marco Melandri who had hit the pits on lap 7. Behind Melandri, Andrea Dovizioso, Casey Stoner and Chris Vermeulen, all pitting on lap 11, had exited still ahead of Dani Pedrosa, who had gone in together with Valentino Rossi at the end of lap 5.

The gaps between Lorenzo, Melandri and Dovizioso all looked unassailable, but there was nothing to choose for 4th place. And though Stoner and Vermeulen had exited ahead of Pedrosa, the Spaniard was flying on tires which by now were nicely up to temperature. Pedrosa quickly passed Vermeulen, flying past the Suzuki rider through the fast Turn 1, Dunlop Curve, before closing on Stoner, then diving inside in the final corner, Raccordement. As Pedrosa passed him, Stoner demonstrated just how hard it is to get rain races right, by pulling to one side to adjust his steering damper, and get back some control over the wayward front end of his Ducati. He had to use his throttle hand to do this, and immediately lost the place to Vermeulen as well.

The Ace Of Spades

As the laps ticked off, Lorenzo's lead continued to grow. By the time the riders behind him started matching his pace, they were over 25 seconds behind, and the Spaniard could afford to give up half a second a lap for the last five laps. Jorge Lorenzo came across the line to take a well-earned and deeply impressive victory. Lorenzo had led from the first lap, and ridden a race where only his start was less than perfect, an error he rectified before the lap was over.

Afterwards, old endurance racing hands pointed out that Lorenzo had employed the perfect endurance strategy for a drying track: stay out for as long as possible, and only come in when the riders on slicks start going faster than you. That decision gave Lorenzo a crucial 11 second advantage over the man in 2nd place at the time, Marco Melandri. If Lorenzo had come in earlier, he would have got caught up in the mid-pack melee, and risk being forced onto the wet part of the track and falling, or being knocked off by someone else and robbed of victory.

At Le Mans, Lorenzo showed that he has added maturity and good judgment to his obvious talent. By staying calm and minimizing his risks, he had come away not just with a win, but with the lead in the championship - albeit by a single, solitary point. At the IRTA Test at Jerez, before the season started, Lorenzo dismissed all talk of the title, saying that his only task was to learn and to have fun. When asked who he tipped for the championship, he named Rossi, Stoner, and Pedrosa, adding pointedly "They must win, I do not have to." He may not have to win, but that doesn't stop him from doing it.

Lorenzo may have been completely out of reach for Marco Melandri, but the Italian celebrated 2nd place like a victory. Afterwards, Melandri told reporters that if anyone had predicted he would be on the podium before the season began, he would have laughed at them and walked away. But Melandri showed just what he is capable of when he is on a bike that he is comfortable on and feels he can trust. Though the Hayate team may not (yet) be getting any more development from Kawasaki, Melandri's results must surely be making the Akashi factory reconsider the choice they made.

It is hard to fault Melandri's performance, he rode a steady and smart race to take 2nd. Only the pettiest of commentators might point out that Melandri got lucky with his pit strategy, emerging to an empty track ahead and behind. Free to ride his own race at his own pace, Melandri had no need to make a mistake either trying to pass a rider ahead or holding off attacks from behind. But lucky pit strategy or no, Melandri still had the pace to get on the podium and equal Kawasaki's best result of the four-stroke era.

Splitting A Pair

Behind Melandri, Andrea Dovizioso looked like cruising to his first podium finish of the season, the Italian having pitted late and staying smooth and fast. But Dovi had reckoned without his Repsol Honda team mate. Dani Pedrosa was one of the first men to change bikes and had paid the penalty, struggling in the early laps out of the pits, unsure of where the track was wet and where it was dry. As the track dried, Pedrosa could pick up the pace and get more heat into his tires, and after passing Stoner and Vermeulen, the Spaniard got faster and faster every lap, gradually starting to reel in Dovizioso ahead of him.

As the race entered the final laps, Pedrosa put on a final burst of pace. From getting back a couple of tenths a lap, Pedrosa went to taking back a second at a time, until on the penultimate lap, he reached Dovizioso's back wheel. The Spaniard then set about hunting the Italian with a hunger he hasn't often displayed before, almost physically harassing Dovizioso through the Chicane, running in too hot to La Chappelle in his eagerness to pass, then doing the same at Garage Vert, nearly taking out Dovi's tailpipe in his haste to get past. Pedrosa finally jammed his RC212V brutally up the inside of his team mate's into the esses of Chemin aux Boeufs.

Even though he only had a couple of corners to go, Dani Pedrosa did not let up, only finally easing off the gas when he was already well into Turn 1, and 3rd place secured hundreds of meters previously. The one complaint that has constantly been made about Pedrosa is that though he was fast, he didn't seem to have any fight in him, giving up places too easily and not attacking hard enough when an opportunity presents itself. Those final couple of laps at Le Mans scuppered any such accusations comprehensively, Pedrosa riding more like a street corner thug than the tight, refined fencer he has looked before.

Perhaps it is the talk of Pedrosa being on notice that he has to win the championship this year, perhaps it is just Pedrosa's anger at the talk itself, but whatever it is, it's definitely working. Pedrosa has taken three podiums on the bounce, and that while still a long way from being fully fit and on a bike he continues to complain bitterly about not being good enough. As Valentino Rossi pointed out after the Spaniard had taken pole on Saturday, if this is how fast Pedrosa is while still injured and on a bad bike, once he's fit again and Honda have fixed the RC212V, the rest of the field is in real trouble.

Pedrosa's charge demoted Andrea Dovizioso down to 4th, and robbed him of his first podium of the year. Like Melandri, Dovi had done everything right, stayed calm and been fast, and changed bikes just at the right time. The Italian had fought his way forward early on, then held his pace to the end of the race. If it hadn't been for an unleashed Pedrosa, Dovi would have been on the box. Despite only finishing 4th, the Italian has shown that he is starting to realize his potential, and is capable of running with the fast front four. He may have missed out on the podium on Sunday, but it only brought his first trip to the podium that much closer.

Cutting The Losses

Casey Stoner crossed the line bitterly disappointed in 5th place, yet actually he had ridden a great race. Stoner had suffered problems with his wet set up, lacking grip and dropping through the field, but once again, he showed he is capable of riding around problems and still going fast. Once on his dry bike he fixed a problem with a steering damper, losing a place as a result, then took it back in short order. In the process he became the second fastest man on track, only beaten by Dani Pedrosa.

Casey Stoner leaves the track where Ducati have struggled in the past just 1 point behind the leader, Jorge Lorenzo. The MotoGP circus now heads to the tracks where Stoner clawed back a huge pile of points on last year's leader Valentino Rossi, putting himself back into contention for the title. If last year is anything to go by, Casey Stoner is perfectly poised to enter the summer very much in charge of the championship.

Behind Stoner, Chris Vermeulen came home 6th, the best result of the year for the Rizla Suzuki rider. Vermeulen always thrives in the wet, but the weekend had not been wet enough for the teams to find a decent setup, and the race was not wet enough for Vermeulen to truly shine. If the race had been run a couple of hours earlier, the result might have been very different, but a 6th place finish is a creditable result for the Australian.

In 7th place came another bundle of disappointment. Colin Edwards has often said that if there's one track where he is going to bag his first win in MotoGP, it's Le Mans. But there always seems to be something or other that gets in Edwards' way, and this weekend was no different. The Texan got a terrible start, struggling with bike setup, and only improved after swapping bikes. But once he had his tires up to temperature there was nothing to hold him, and he charged through the field from 13th to finish 7th. On his way forward, he put a particularly harsh pass on his team mate James Toseland through the frighteningly fast Dunlop Curve at Turn 1, a pass he clearly relished. When the heavens align, Colin Edwards is capable of fantastic results. Sadly, Edwards' lucky stars seem to be a very rare and infrequent conjunction indeed.

Edwards was the filling in a Rizla Suzuki sandwich, Loris Capirossi coming home in 8th after a difficult and indifferent race. The Italian had come in early for tires, and had run off the track a couple of times in the wet. This was not the kind of preparation Capirossi will have wanted for his home race at Mugello, but it was all he was capable of on the day.

James Toseland finished 9th, and was pleased to make a return to the top 10. Toseland has had a nightmare year so far, with crashes denting his confidence and struggling to find a setup he is confident with now that he is on the Bridgestone spec tire. The Briton earned the first positive words from his team manager at Le Mans, Herve Poncharal praising both Toseland's result and his attitude. A 9th place finish may not set the world alight, but this was a first and important step on the road back to being competitive.

Slow Hand

The Gresini Honda team mates finished just a few tenths apart, after battling for 10th place for the second half of the race. Toni Elias came out on top, a positive result after having recent surgery for arm pump. The Spaniard had ridden in pain and with little strength in his arm, and a top 10 finish was about as much as he could hope for under the circumstances. Team mate Alex de Angelis continues to be mostly mediocre, his only flash of brilliance his 6th place finish at Qatar so far.

Nicky Hayden's 12th place finish may not look like much, but it belies a distinct improvement. Hayden was battling for 8th when Mika Kallio crashed out while trying to pass him and forcing the American off the track, leaving him to fight with the Gresinis with a slightly damaged bike. More importantly, though, Hayden got used to working with his new crew chief, Juan Martinez, and came away with the feeling that things are going to improve. On the Ducati Desmosedici, a bike which has been labeled a career killer for everyone except Casey Stoner, optimism is an important part of the equation.

Hayden held off Yuki Takahashi, leaving the Team Scot Honda rider down in 13th. Takahashi continues to make up the numbers, Honda's counterpart to Ducati's Niccolo Canepa. At least Takahashi finished ahead of Randy de Puniet. The Frenchman had entered his home race full of hope, but came away disillusioned as he struggled in the wet. From 4th in Jerez to 14th in Le Mans is not the journey the LCR Honda rider had hoped to take.

Perennial backmarker Niccolo Canepa came home in 15th, taking the final point. The Italian is showing some improvement, but only a little, and will be hoping to shine in two weeks' time at Mugello, a track where he has put in hundreds of laps as Ducati's test rider. Mugello will most likely decide Canepa's career in MotoGP.

High Roller

Like Canepa, Valentino Rossi had been looking forward to Mugello, and hoping it would mark a decisive point in his career. The six time MotoGP champion had been hoping to take his 100th win in front of his home crowd in two weeks, but to do that, he needed to secure his 99th victory first here at Le Mans. A stupid mistake, hitting a patch of water he hadn't spotted, saw Rossi crash out, then ride back to the pits to swap bikes for the second time that day, effectively ending any chance the Italian had of either victory or a significant points haul. Rossi may rue his mistake deeply, but he will still head to Mugello with his heart set on victory. A win here every year since 2002 says he has every chance of at least taking his 99th win in front of his home crowd, though he may have to wait a little longer to celebrate his century.

Rossi's three-stop strategy, necessary after his crash on fresh tires, may yet turn out to have serious consequences. On returning to the pits on his freshly crashed bike, which wore slicks front and rear, his team had shod his new bike with a wet front and a slick rear. Then, when he came in again a few laps later, he left the pits again on a bike fitted with slicks both front and rear. The team had changed just one tire each time, and when asked whether this was legal, or whether both tires needed to be different to the previous bike, Rossi, crew chief Jerry Burgess and team manager Davide Brivio all pointed to the rule book. In the English version says that riders are allowed to change "from a machine equipped with rain tyre to a machine equipped with intermediate or slick tyre" (Grand Prix regulations, 1.18 item 17), which could be interpreted to mean that what Rossi's Fiat Yamaha team did was legal.

The French regulations, however, read as follows: "Passer d'une machine équipée de pneus pluie à une machine équipée de pneus intermédiaires ou slick." The French word for tire is "pneu". The word used in the regulations is "pneus", the plural, meaning more than one tire. Burgess and Brivio claim they can't speak French, and so followed the English rules. But as in every form of motorsport, the rules are written in French then translated into English, so the French rules are the final arbiter for any decisions.

With Rossi out of the points at Le Mans, nobody lodged a complaint, and so Rossi's result will stand. If they had lodged a complaint, it would almost certainly have been awarded and Valentino Rossi would have been disqualified. By letting Rossi's results stand, the FIM have set a precedent, one which teams are likely to use and point to the next time there's a race in changing conditions.

Of course, it could still backfire. If a team comes in and changes to a bike with one wet and one slick tire and is then disqualified by Race Direction, the team may appeal against that DQ. The FIM is likely in that case not to be lenient on the appealing team, but to retrospectively disqualify Rossi. The race might be over, but the results have only really been penciled in.

Stacking The Deck

Rossi's fate, and the fate of so many in the 250cc and 125cc classes are exactly the kind of ammunition which critics use when they describe wet races as being like a lottery, with races determined more by chance than by ability. Yet when you examine the results of all three races at Le Mans on Sunday, a familiar pattern emerges. Julian Simon won the 125cc race, after a very strong display of speed and stability; Marco Simoncelli won the 25cc race, staying calm while behind him all was chaos; And Jorge Lorenzo took victory in the MotoGP class, in a display of utter dominance and sheer brilliance.

The winning line up at Le Mans on Sunday doesn't look like the results of random selection. If rain races are a lottery, it seems that some players know beforehand which numbers are going to fall.


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2009 Kyalami World Superbike And World Supersport Race Report

The return of the World Superbike series to Kyalami was eagerly awaited by racing fans all around the world, but most especially the fans in South Africa. The track, which had been scheduled to be demolished and have housing built in its place, features vast elevation changes and sweeping bends, and has been much improved since the removal of the chicane at Turn 12. So interest was high in how the racing would turn out on this tight and in places twisty circuit. Would the tightness of the track make passing difficult, or would the bikes all get bunched up, and a close and typically tight Superbike race ensue?

Noriyuki Haga was fastest away from the line in race 1, Max Biaggi following, before getting duffed up by Ben Spies at Turn to take 2nd. Haga's Xerox Ducati team mate soon joined the fun, wresting 2nd from Spies before the lap was over. The three men who dominated last week's race at Monza soon had a gap back to Johnny Rea, Carlos Checa and Max Biaggi, and set about doing at Kyalami what they had done at Monza.

Haga's lead was not long-lived, Michel Fabrizio taking over first place on the second lap, while Ben Spies hung behind the Xerox Ducatis, assessing his options. Fabrizio tried to forge off on his own, but the Italian could not shake off his team mate, while the blue Yamaha of Spies tailed the pair, the gap slowly starting to grow between Haga and Spies. Haga patiently awaited his chance for the next 10 laps, seizing the opportunity when it presented itself on lap 12, taking back the lead.

Once past, Haga then set about trying to break the tow to Fabrizio, with some success. The Italian started falling back into the clutches of Spies, who had picked up the pace enough to start catching the leading Ducatis. By lap 17, Spies was close enough to attempt a pass, taking 2nd place from Fabrizio as the pair entered the final corner. This was not to Fabrizio's liking, the Italian fighting back, passing Spies only to be passed straight back, but as Spies and Fabrizio squabbled over 2nd spot, Noriyuki Haga took advantage to build enough of a lead that he could defend comfortably.

Spies' defense of 2nd was to cost him eventually, as a big moment going through Turn 5 saw the Texan cede the spot to Fabrizio once and for all. Fabrizio then set about chasing Noriyuki Haga, but he had started the hunt too late. Haga took a convincing victory in race 1, ahead of team mate Fabrizio, with Spies forced to settle for 3rd. Ten Kate Honda's Johnny Rea came home in 4th, just holding off Max Biaggi at the line. The Aprilia rider had chased Rea down in the second half of the race, but could not get past the Ulsterman.

Results of Kyalami World Superbike race 1

In the second Superbike race of the day, Noriyuki Haga once again got the drop on the field, leading Max Biaggi into the first corner, only for Ben Spies to take 2nd from Biaggi into Turn 2 for the second time that day. There was more to come for Biaggi, however: more specifically, Johnny Rea was to come, the Ten Kate Honda rider also sneaking past before the lap was over. A lap later, and Michel Fabrizio was also past, the Xerox Ducati man having gotten swamped off the line, and fighting his way forward over the first couple of laps.

Ben Spies was determined not to get stuck chasing Haga like he did in race 1, and so passed Haga as quickly as possible, then set about trying to build a lead. His attempt would not last long though, as a broken gear shift saw the American suddenly run wide, then pull up and into the pits on lap 3. Spies had remained calm when he had run out of fuel in the final corner at Monza, but this time he was furious, thumping the tank of his Yamaha R1, and heading straight out the back of the garage after he entered the pits.

Spies' early exit left Noriyuki Haga ideally placed. A clear track ahead of him, and enough of a gap back to Johnny Rea not to have to fear any immediate consequences, he could concentrate on running fast laps round the track. His gap would not last, though, as a lap later, Fabrizio was past Rea and heading for the twin tailpipes of Haga's Ducati. They were to prove an elusive target, as it took Fabrizio the best part of 10 laps before he got close enough to Haga to think about mounting an assault.

The pair had built up an impressive lead over the chasing pack. Rea and Biaggi had been joined by Leon Haslam, who was running a lot faster on his second bike than he had done on his number one bike in the first race. Haslam muscled his way past Biaggi on lap 13, but he could not find his way past his compatriot and fellow Honda rider Rea. He pushed the Ten Kate man hard, even getting past at Westbank, only to give the position straight back again. But try as he might, there was no way through.

At the front, Fabrizio was following Haga, but not close enough to attack. Haga managed the gap masterfully for over ten laps, but on the final couple of laps, Fabrizio abandoned all caution and pushed to catch his Japanese team mate. Arriving on his tail just in time for the final couple of laps, Fabrizio put in a couple of do-or-die moves to try to pass Haga. He tried at Westbank just as the pair were coming up on a backmarker, but ran wide on the exit allowing Haga back past. Then Fabrizio tried once more into the final corner, a truly last gasp effort, but once again, ran wide allowing Haga back into the lead. Noriyuki Haga crossed the line to take the double ahead of his team mate, and crowning the day with their second one-two for Xerox Ducati.

Behind Haga and Fabrizio, Johnny Rea had held up Leon Haslam and Max Biaggi, then put on a burst of speed to secure the final spot on the podium by a comfortable margin. Haslam held off Biaggi to take 4th, while further back, Carlos Checa had held off Shinya Nakano to secure 6th spot. Honorable mention must go to local Superbike champion Sheridan Morais, who on his first time out with the factory Kawasaki picked up a 13th and an 11th spot, a remarkable achievement given the lack of competitiveness of the Kawasaki. Morais was unlucky not to have done better in race 1, but a loss of grip saw him drop from 8th place halfway through the race. What impressed his team more, though, was the fact that he helped the team find a solution for race 2, maintaining consistent speed and position and scoring valuable points.

Noriyuki Haga's double in South Africa combined with Ben Spies mechanical woes means Haga now has the championship very firmly by the throat. There's still a long way to go - we're not quite halfway through the series yet - but Haga's 85 point lead over second place man Michel Fabrizio and the 88 point lead over Ben Spies presents a huge hurdle to overcome. What makes Haga's position even more unassailable is his absolute consistency: 6 wins out of 12 races, 5 second places and just a solitary DNF. Previously, Haga could be relied upon to regularly toss the bike into the air fence, wrecking any title challenge with a few choice DNFs. The more paranoid race fans are starting to suggest that there is something deeply suspicious about the whole affair, and that the next time we see the real Noriyuki Haga will be as he steps off of an alien spaceship on top of Devil's Mount, allowing his all-too-perfect replica to go back to his makers. Whatever it is that Haga has found to make him so consistent, it's working.

Results of Kyalami World Superbike race 2

The World Supersport series has seen some of the best racing on the planet so far this year, and fans were hoping for more of the same at Kyalami, but they were to be disappointed. Kenan Sofuoglu got off the line first, but Eugene Laverty went with him, and by lap 2, the Irishman was past. At that point, the race was basically over, the Parkalgar Honda man getting a couple of seconds lead within three laps and maintaining his pace as either the fastest or very close to the fastest man on track all race long. Laverty's position never came under any serious threat, and the Irishman reestablished his reputation as Mr 50%, winning half the races run so far.

Laverty's mission was probably helped by the poor start that Cal Crutchlow got off to. The Yamaha rider had been the only other man capable of matching Laverty's pace during practice, and so it was to prove in the race. But by getting swamped off the line, Crutchlow spent the first 5 laps fighting his way forward before he had clear track ahead of him to go and chase Laverty. By this time, Laverty had a comfortable lead, and with both men running the same pace and capable of responding to attacks by the other, Crutchlow's pursuit would eventually be in vain, forced to settle for second, allowing Laverty the victory.

The action was back behind the front two. Kenan Sofuoglu's early lead soon melted away, and once passed, the Turk dropped back through the field, struggling with grip. Team mate Andrew Pitt suffered the same fate, running near the front at first, but soon dropping back after he was passed by Crutchlow. The battle for 3rd place would be between Fabien Foret, Joan Lascorz, Kenan Sofuoglu, and Mark Aitchison.

Foret barged his way to the front of the pack early on, and for much of the race looked capable of hanging on, but on lap 18, the excitable Frenchman crashed out of 3rd, throwing away valuable points. This left Sofuoglu and Lascorz scrapping over 3rd spot, but they spent so much of their time getting in each other's way that they allowed Mark Aitchison to catch then pass them on the last lap. The podium has been a long time coming for the Australian, and is a well-deserved reward for his persistence.

The battle for the World Supersport championship may be a lot closer than the fight for the World Superbike title, yet two clear favorites have already emerged. Two rookies, Cal Crutchlow and Eugene Laverty, have gained a clear advantage and are the two names penciled in for victory, or at worst a podium, at every meeting. The 2009 World Supersport title could be the first since 2001 not to be won by the Ten Kate team. The times, they really are a-changing.

Results of the Kyalami World Supersport race


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Yamaha Ends Suzuki’s AMA Superbike Streak

Josh Hayes leads Mat Mladin in race 1 at Infineon

Graves Yamaha rider Josh Hayes won Race 1 at Infineon Raceway yesterday, ending the factory Suzuki team’s incredible run of 55 consecutive wins. Top Rockstar Makita Suzuki rider Mat Mladin finished fifth, almost 25 seconds behind the winner, but still has a 69-point lead over Suzuki teammate Tommy Hayden. Mladin commented after the race that due to the heat here in Sonoma, California, his team had struggled to find a good setup for Saturday’s race.

Josh Hayes was pleased with his first Superbike win since joining the Graves Yamaha factory team at the beginning of this season. Hayes is a former AMA champion in both the Superstock and Formula Xtreme classes. After qualifying second behind Mladin, Hayes finished over six seconds ahead of second place rider Tommy Hayden, though he had a lead of over eight seconds at one point. Ducati rider Larry Pegram finished third.

The weather here today should be just as warm if not more so, so Rockstar Makita Suzuki will have to make some improvements to Mladin’s package if the championship leader hopes to get on the podium today.


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2009 Le Mans MotoGP Preview - Sprint Finish

This weekend, MotoGP moves from the site of one great motorcycle racing party to the location of another. But while MotoGP is at the center of the party at Jerez, in Le Mans, the party was over four weeks ago and lasted the entire duration of the race. The contrast illustrates the difference between France and its more southerly neighbor: both countries are mad about motorsport and motorcycle racing, but the Spanish love sprint racing, while for the French, if the race lasts less than 8 hours it's barely worthy of the name.

France is truly the home of endurance racing. Two of the two-wheeled discipline's greatest events take place here, the Bol d'Or, a 24 hour race currently held at Magny-Cours, and the Le Mans 24 hour race, as well as the biggest car endurance race in the world, the 24 Heures du Mans. The cars use the glorious 13.6 kilometer long Circuit de la Sarthe - including the once terrifying Mulsanne Straight, to which two chicanes have been added to slow the cars down - but that vast track is considered unsuitable for motorcycles, the bikes unlikely to last being thrashed down the Mulsanne Straight at full throttle too many times.

So the bikes run the shortened 4.2 kilometer Bugatti Circuit, a much more restrained, some might even say boring, affair. The track layout vaguely resembles a giant clothes peg, with the two prongs of the Chappelle and Garage Vert corners separated by the Musee hairpin, and a simpler section leading through Garage Bleu to the final turn at Raccordement, before hitting the front straight again.

Stop And Go

Like Motegi, which it also resembles, the track is mostly about stability under braking and hard acceleration out of corners. The front straight leads into the Dunlop Curve, and then the Dunlop Chicane, the Curve being the brave part, while the Chicane is the corner where the first lap pile ups tend to occur. It's then a matter of hard-on-the-gas, hard-on-the-brakes through La Chappelle, Musee, Garage Vert and the straights that connect them, before the long back straight down to Chemin aux Boeufs, a faster chicane which caught Nicky Hayden out so badly in 2007.

Another short straight takes you to the Garage Bleu Esses, and some of the best places to pass. The first spot is the sharp right-hander which starts the turn, but a carefully selected line allows a crafty rider to either slide up the inside of the left, or line up an opponent into the final sharp double right of Raccordement. With the finish line so close to the start, the first rider through the corner is usually the first across the line, but the width of the track means that you can run too wide, and let the rider you just passed come back underneath, your hard work undone.

The Time Is Now

The stop-and-go nature of the Le Mans track seems to suit one man perfectly. If there is one circuit where Colin Edwards is capable of taking his long-awaited first win in MotoGP, it is Le Mans. The Texan has been on the podium here twice, and if he hadn't got stuck behind Dani Pedrosa last year, he might have fought with Rossi for the victory. Quite why Edwards is quick here is a bit of a mystery: The other tracks where the American is quick are Assen and Laguna Seca, both of which have completely different characters to Le Mans, and indeed each other. Yet every year, Edwards looks like being capable of an upset at Le Mans.

Sadly, every year Edwards also keeps coming up short, the stars never quite aligning correctly for the Texan. But with the Tech 3 team celebrating their 20th year in Grand Prix racing, Herve Poncharal and Guy Coulon having started the squad back in 1989, Edwards will want to give his crew chief and his boss something to celebrate. No doubt they would be pleased with just a podium, but Edwards knows that he has to get a win some time, and this weekend is as good as any.

Fin De Siecle

If anyone is going to be standing in Edwards' way, it is his former team mate and reigning world champion Valentino Rossi. While Edwards is still waiting for his first victory in the series, Rossi is on course to score 100 victories in all classes. After winning in Jerez, his current tally stands at 98, and a win here would put him in place to take his 100th win in front of his home crowd at Mugello, a track he is unbeaten at since 2001.

However, to even get the chance to attempt to take his 100th victory, first he has to win at Le Mans. That did not prove too difficult last year, when Rossi took his 90th career win here, celebrating in style by taking Angel Nieto, the man whose record he had just equaled, out for a victory lap. And the Yamaha M1 is even better this year than it was in 2008, making Rossi a strong favorite to stay on track for a monster celebration at home. With history in his sights, Rossi is a very hard man to beat.

His team mate Jorge Lorenzo is capable of doing just that, though. Lorenzo finished 2nd at Le Mans last year, after dropping down to 11th on the second lap then fighting his way past everyone but Rossi. As fantastic a performance as that was, what made it truly remarkable was that Lorenzo came to Le Mans just two weeks after suffering the monster highside which broke both his ankles. If Lorenzo is capable of 2nd place with two broken legs, just imagine what he can do at Le Mans when he is fully fit.

The last of the Yamaha men looks to be less of a threat at Le Mans. James Toseland has had a torrid season so far, with two huge crashes ruining his preseason and a host of problems adapting to the Bridgestone tires. Toseland's main problems have centered around stability under braking, a factor which is absolutely crucial at the Bugatti Circuit. Though Toseland is unlikely to trouble the scorers unduly, the nature of Le Mans should at least give him time to find a solution to the problems his crew are desperate to deal with.

Turning Point?

That very stability under braking could at last start to work in Nicky Hayden's favor. The team announced a shakeup of the crew on Hayden's side of the garage, former crew chief Cristhian Pupulin being shifted aside to concentrate on his role as track engineer for all of the Ducatis, while veteran crew chief Juan Martinez has been brought in to solve the communications problems Hayden has been having with his mainly Italian crew.

Like previous world champions before him, Hayden has struggled to tame the Ducati, but Le Mans has the potential to be a turning point for the American. The changes in his crew should help, as well as the fact that Le Mans plays to the Ducati's strong points: heavy braking and hard acceleration. But what Hayden needs most of all is more time on track, and with the practice sessions reverting to one hour, instead of 45 minutes, Hayden should finally get a chance to do some of the hard methodical work to figure out solutions to his problems again.

Given his usual modus operandi, Casey Stoner would probably be just as competitive with no practice as with three sessions of one hour. The Australian is usually the fastest man on track within a couple of minutes of leaving the pits, a position he concedes only rarely, and most grudgingly. Jerez saw Casey Stoner finish in third place, but celebrating the podium as if it had been a win. The Spanish track has always been a bogey track for Ducati, so Stoner's joy was down to that jinx finally having been shaken off.

Last year at Le Mans, Stoner looked to be on course for at least a podium until a broken crankshaft wrecked his chances. In the end, Stoner finished just outside the points on his second bike, bringing his unbroken string of points-scoring races on the Ducati to an end. With a better bike, and in better form than last year, Casey Stoner is going to be the man to watch at Le Mans.

Jusqu'Ici Tout Va Bien

The surprise of the weekend could well come from home rider Randy de Puniet. The Frenchman finished in 4th place last time out in Jerez, finally starting to turn his obvious talent into solid results. De Puniet has always been fast, often qualifying well ahead of men on far better equipment. But de Puniet has struggled to convert a decent grid position into a strong result. If Jerez truly did mark a turning point for the Frenchman, then he could well cause trouble for the front runners. But de Puniet's past history would seem to dictate that the Frenchman will start quickly, then let the excitement get the better of him and be tempted to sling the machinery into the scenery.

The other rider capable of a surprise at Le Mans is a former winner here. If the weather in the Sarthe region of France is its usual changeable self - and the forecasts so far show a 60% chance of rain - then Suzuki's Chris Vermeulen could be the man to capitalize on it. Despite his distaste for the moniker, Vermeulen is genuinely one of the very best wet-weather riders in the paddock, and if it rains on Sunday, Vermeulen has to be in with a good chance of victory at Le Mans.

Even if it's dry, Vermeulen should do well. The Suzuki has usually run well at the Bugatti Circuit, and the 2009 version of the GSV-R is clearly competitive if still struggling for speed. Both Vermeulen and Rizla Suzuki team mate Loris Capirossi have not produced what the early testing results promised, but at a track that suits the bike, they could well be a factor.

Jerez may well prove to have been a turning point for the Repsol Honda team too. The paddock was alive with rumors that Repsol were getting tired of waiting for Dani Pedrosa to win a championship, and that the Spanish oil giant had approached Jorge Lorenzo about taking Pedrosa's place. Any such plans were denied by Repsol's head of sponsorship Begona Elices, if not quite wholeheartedly, but what was more significant was head of HRC Shuhei Nakamoto's admission that Pedrosa's failure was mostly down to Honda's inability to produce a competitive 800cc MotoGP bike. Nakamoto has promised to improve the bike using Pedrosa's input, an unusual statement for a company which has revolved around engineers for so many years.


Pedrosa has given HRC every reason to listen to him. Despite still recovering from knee surgery, only just fit in time for the season opener at Qatar, Pedrosa has been on the podium twice, finishing 3rd at Motegi and 2nd at Jerez. Honda are still struggling for rear grip with the RC212V, the bike still not adapted to the Bridgestone spec tires. So far, Pedrosa has been finishing well above where the bike should allow him. With another two weeks of recovery time for his knee and more work done on the RC212V, Pedrosa should be at the front at Le Mans, with more to come over the next few races.

Team mate Andrea Dovizioso is struggling with similar issues to Pedrosa, and has also complained of aggressive throttle response on the Honda. Dovi has been fast and pretty steady so far, as he adapts to life as a factory rider, but he had higher hopes at the start of the year. Dovizioso's time will come, but it may not be at Le Mans.

For the rest of the satellite Honda and Ducati riders, Le Mans offers little joy. At Gresini Honda, both Alex de Angelis and especially Toni Elias have generally failed to deliver, despite de Angelis' impressive 6th place at Qatar. Elias seems to be the biggest casualty of the single tire rule, the featherweight rider struggling to get heat into the stiff spec tires. Unless the Spaniard can solve this problem, he is unlikely to have a long future in MotoGP.

Over at Team Scot, Yuki Takahashi is looking forward to the race at Le Mans. The Scot Honda rider won the 250 race here in 2006, and finished 4th in the 250 race last year. Takahashi had his first decent race of the season at Jerez last year, and will be carrying that confidence forward into Le Mans.

Like Nicky Hayden, the satellite Ducatis will be hoping to see the benefits of the Marlboro Ducati team shake up. With Cristhian Pupulin now focusing full time on analyzing the data from all five Ducati riders, the Bologna factory might find some solutions which will help Mika Kallio, Niccolo Canepa and Sete Gibernau ride the bike as well. Kallio has shown the most promise of the non-Australian Ducati riders so far, finishing 8th in the first two races of the season, but a mechanical problem at Jerez took him out of the race. At Le Mans, Ducati will be hoping for more confirmation from Kallio that it's not just Casey Stoner who can get the GP9 to fly.

Belle Epoque?

Though both France and Le Mans are intimately linked with endurance racing, the French also have a long and proud history of sprint racing too. The history books are full of illustrious Frenchmen: Christian Sarron, the man who battled with Spencer, Lawson and Rainey; Jean-Philippe Ruggia, the original elbow-dragging rider; Olivier Jacque, the last French 250 champion; and perhaps even Mike di Meglio, the reigning 125 champion, currently contesting his first year of 250s. This weekend, they will be hoping to add the name of another local hero to that list, in the shape of Randy de Puniet. But with Valentino Rossi chasing history, Colin Edwards chasing his first win, and Jorge Lorenzo, Casey Stoner and Dani Pedrosa chasing the pair of them, de Puniet has a tough task ahead of him.


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2009 Kyalami World Superbike And World Supersport Preview

The World Superbike series returns to Kyalami in South Africa for the first time since 2002, and through no particular fault of Infront Motor Sport, the series couldn't have chosen a worse time to visit such a physical and technical track. A large part of the field is either injured or has been replaced due to injury, leaving the injured and unfamiliar to struggle to get the bike round the difficult circuit. What's more, Kyalami is located on the high plain of South Africa's eastern plateau, and the elevation takes its toll on both bikes and riders. At Monza, an injured rider could rest a little down the long straights. At Kyalami, that's virtually impossible.

The track is new to some, and all too familiar to others. The manufacturers designated teams tested here back in December last year, and a number of the veterans have raced at Kyalami in the past. Perhaps half the riders on the World Superbike grid will have ridden here previously, while a far smaller proportion of the World Supersport grid will have seen the South African track before.

With little previous form to go on, this leaves the race a rather unpredictable affair, apart from the pattern which has dominated the season so far. The races are likely to be shared between Ben Spies and Noriyuki Haga again, Spies so far managing to maintain his 50% win ratio, while Haga continues to finish either 1st or 2nd. But Haga's mask of reliability slipped at Monza, if through no fault of his own.

In race 1, Haga should have finished 3rd, having been comprehensively beaten by Spies and outclassed by his team mate Michel Fabrizio, but Spies Yamaha R1 running out of fuel left Haga in 2nd spot. In race 2, Haga hit a flock of pigeons through the very high speed Curva Grande, damaging Haga's arm and causing him to lose sensation in it, which later caused him to crash out of the race. It didn't cause Haga to lose his sense of humor, as is evident from the popup on his web site. Haga is the only current rider to have won at Kyalami, taking victory back in 2000, and so has a slight advantage going into the race, though one which is probably negated by the pain Haga is still suffering from the lacerations in his arm.

Ben Spies dominated at Monza, and only a miscalculation on fuel saw him run out of gas in the very last corner of the race. Spies is clearly the man to beat in World Superbikes, but is doing an excellent job of beating himself, with two race crashes and the fuel incident. He is due another double, though, and if he can stay on the bike, he looks capable of taking one in South Africa.

One of the most interesting things to watch at Kyalami will be how Michel Fabrizio does. The Italian took his first win in 87 races at Monza, after 14 previous visits to the podium. Sometimes a first win can rid a rider of the monkey on his back and allow him to rise to the greater heights that he had always thought himself capable of. But sometimes, the first win turns out to be nothing more than an anomaly, a blip in normal service. Fabrizio should be running with Haga and Spies anyway this weekend, but the interest will come in whether he looks capable of taking another victory.

The Ten Kate Hondas also showed signs of improvement at Monza, with Ryuichi Kiyonari taking two podiums, and Johnny Rea getting a 4th and a 5th. The Ten Kate team have struggled with the new bike since the start of the season, but may now finally be getting on track. While Kiyonari is the type of rider who is brilliant at one circuit and nowhere at another, Rea should be able to build on the results from Monza and make progress up the championship table. So far, neither Rea nor Kiyonari have looked capable of a win, but if the Hondas are being sorted out, then that day must be coming soon.

After the carnage of the first-corner pile up at Monza's silly chicane, the World Superbike field will be full of unfamiliar faces at Kyalami. Max Neukirchner, Brendan Roberts, Makoto Tamada and Troy Corser were all injured badly enough to have to miss the South African race. As a result, Fonsi Nieto, Gregorio Lavilla, local boy Sheridan Morais and veteran Steve Martin will be filling in for them, while another local rider Shaun Whyte will be riding in place of David Checa. Both Lavilla and Martin have experience here in the past, while Morais is the reigning South African Superbike champion, and so knows Kyalami like the back of his hand. Morais' problem is that he will be riding the uncompetitive Kawasaki, though that didn't prevent him from taking the SA Superbike title last year.

If the World Superbike title is looking like a two-man race, there are are six riders who look capable of winning every weekend in World Supersport, and another couple who could win on occasion. The most impressive riders so far have been the class rookies Cal Crutchlow on the factory Yamaha and Eugene Laverty on the Parkalgar Honda, both men having taken two victories. The Yamaha has the edge on top speed, but Laverty's CBR600RR is no slouch either, and both men are evenly matched in terms of talent. On any weekend, either or both of these men will be involved at the front, and in at the kill as the bikes cross the finish line.

Crutchlow's team mate Fabien Foret and Ten Kate's Andrew Pitt bring the benefit of experience to Kyalami, both men having ridden here the last time the Supersport series ran here in 2002. But both men have had their problems this year, Foret getting off to a slow start and being completely outclassed by his rookie team mate. The Frenchman is slowly recovering his form, finishing 4th at Assen and 3rd at Monza, though there was a good deal of complaining about the manner in which Foret took that 3rd spot in Italy. He will need a few more podiums if he is to hold on to his job at the end of the year.

Andrew Pitt could hardly have thought his title defense would turn out to be such an uphill task at the start of the season, but problems with the 2009 Honda have caused Pitt and team mate Kenan Sofuoglu to struggle far more than expected this season, despite the model changes being minimal. As Ten Kate iron out the bugs, both Pitt and Sofuoglu should be back at the front of the pack, and with Pitt's experience at the track, he could make a start this weekend.

The biggest anomaly in racing at the moment has to be Joan Lascorz on the Glaner Motocard Kawasaki. Not because of Lascorz, who has proven to be a highly talented, if occasionally capricious rider. Rather, the fact that a Kawasaki has looked capable of winning in any form of road racing is surprising indeed: The ZX-10R has been singularly unimpressive in the World Superbike class, and equally invisible in the more restricted FIM Superstock championship. In the European Superstock 600 championship, the Kawasakis are completely outclassed by the Yamahas and the Hondas. It is only in the World Supersport series that Kawasaki's bikes seem to fly, despite both ZX-10R and ZX-6R receiving rave reviews in motorcycle magazines. Building a sports bike is one thing, building a race bike is evidently another.

Finally, there will be not one, but two Lavertys on the World Supersport start grid at Kyalami. Eugene's brother Michael will be filling in for Robin Harms, who broke a collarbone during practice at Monza. With Johnny Rea also from the same part of the world, the World Superbike paddock is becoming home to an increasingly large (Northern) Irish contingent, unsurprising given the long history of racing in that part of the British Isles.

There are a lot of reasons to be glad that the World Superbike series is making a return to Kyalami. If motorcycle racing is to be a truly global sport, then it needs to be present on all the continents, and racing has been missing from Africa for too long. Kyalami has a fantastic layout and has produced some great racing, and is likely to do so again this weekend.


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2009 Monza World Superbike And World Supersport Race Report

So far this year, the World Superbike races have followed an almost clockwork pattern: If Noriyuki Haga doesn't win the race, then the man chosen as Troy Bayliss' heir apparent at Xerox Ducati comes second to Ben Spies. And if the Yamaha Motor Italia rider doesn't win, then he either comes second to Haga or is involved in some bizarre incident which sees the American crash out or finish out of the points. With Haga and Spies having dominated the races so completely so far this year, the World Superbike paddock arrived at Monza expecting little to change.

Haga's team mate Michel Fabrizio had other ideas, though. The Italian was quickest in every session of practice and qualifying on Friday and Saturday and was clearly the man to beat. Only another masterful qualifying performance during Superpole saw Ben Spies take his 5th pole in a row, a feat never before equaled in any form of motorcycle racing. With Haga only qualifying on the second row, the Japanese/American stranglehold on race wins looked like being broken for the first time at Monza.

Monza's notorious first chicane wreaked havoc at the start of the first Superbike race. Someone, most probably Makoto Tamada, clipped the back of Brendan Roberts' Guandalini Ducati as the bikes braked for the chicane, pushing the Australian off track and onto the grass, which flung him off the bike. His bike then slid onto the track and into the Suzuki of Max Neukirchner, breaking the German's femur and dislocating his foot, and putting the likable Neukirchner out of action for at least four weeks. Elsewhere in the mayhem, Troy Corser and Tommy Hill came together, flipping both Hill's Honda and Corser's BMW up in the air, causing Hill's CBR1000RR to catch fire.

With burning fuel and broken bikes all over the track, the race stewards were left with no option but to red flag the race. Back in the pits, Stiggy Racing's Leon Haslam summed what had happened up in a single word: "Carnage." The carnage caused the race to be delayed for nearly an hour, as repairs were made to the track and the astroturf on the outside of the chicane. With Neukirchner out injured, Haga moved up onto the front row of the grid, putting Nitro Nori in a much better starting position to enter that first and demonstrably perilous corner.

Haga immediately took advantage of his improved grid position to snatch the lead away from the line, with Ben Spies and Michel Fabrizio following close behind. Neukirchner's team mate Yukio Kagayama could only follow the leading trio for the first couple of laps before being dropped, then getting caught up in a battle with Max Biaggi which would last almost the entire race.

Fabrizio took over the lead on the way into the Ascari chicane, and spent the first four laps swapping paint with his Japanese team mate, while Spies bided his time behind them. Then a mistake by the Italian saw Haga and Spies pass, the Texan taking over the lead as the pair crossed the line. Spies put his head down and charged, but a lead over just over a second was as much as the Yamaha rider would ever get.

Behind Spies, Fabrizio closed on his team mate Haga, then after briefly disputing who got to chase the Texan, the pair of them closed the gap to the Yamaha, Fabrizio leading the way. The Italian was putting in one of his best races ever, almost impossible to pass on the brakes and very fast out of Ascari and down the back straight towards the Parabolica and the line. Fabrizio passed Spies as they crossed the line to start lap 16 and held on for a lap, before a brutal pass by Spies into the Roggia chicane forced Fabrizio wide and let both Spies and Haga past. Not to be denied a shot at his first ever victory, the Italian closed first on Haga, passing the Japanese rider into Ascari, the set about chasing Spies.

But Haga was not of a mind to just lie down and let Fabrizio past, and the two Xerox Ducati's spent so much of their energy battling each other that Spies could easily slip away at the front. The Texan looked to be safely on his way to yet another World Superbike victory and a chance to close the points gap to Haga. Spies led into the Parabolica, the fast final corner, but he would not exit the corner ahead. In a bizarre twist of fate, the American's Yamaha died on him from a lack of fuel in mid -corner, and the Texan was forced to coast all the way to the line, giving up his hard-fought lead.

Spies misfortune handed Michel Fabrizio the win on a silver platter, the Italian holding off his team mate to take his maiden victory. It had been a long time coming, and he celebrated it accordingly. Max Biaggi crossed the line in 3rd, but was later penalized 20 seconds for cutting across the first chicane, dropping the Italian to 11th and handing 3rd place to Ryuichi Kiyonari, who had spent the race battling with Yukio Kagayama. Disconsolate, Spies crossed the line in 15th, salvaging a solitary championship point.

Monza World Superbike race one results

The American couldn't afford to repeat that mistake in race two. Spies was lucky that Fabrizio had got ahead of Haga, the Japanese rider now 79 points ahead in the title race. But at the start of race two, it was Nori Haga who got away from the line fastest, leading into the first chicane. Leading has its disadvantages however, as Haga found out to his discomfort. As the bikes howled round the tree-lined Curva Grande bend, the racket disturbed a flock of pigeons and Haga was the first to hit them. A bird strike at over 160mph is excruciatingly painful, and Haga lost all feeling in his arm, forcing the Ducati man to pull up, Haga dropping through the field like a stone. Even worse was to follow for Haga, as the loss of feeling meant that he made a mistake going into Parabolica, crashing spectacularly out of the race, his first DNF of an otherwise clockwork season.

Ben Spies, who had been following Haga, also hit the birds, but with Haga running interference for him, the Texan missed the worst of the flock and got away with a few glancing shots. Seeing Haga drop out of the lead, Spies immediately seized his chance. The American put the hammer down, pulling away by over half a second a lap for the first half of the race. By lap 10, Spies had a lead of over 5 seconds, and settled down to manage the race. The Texan slowed up a little in the final third of the race as his engine temperature began to rise in the heat, but he still came home to keep his 50% victory record intact, winning by over 2.6 seconds and pulling back 25 valuable points. The win cut his deficit to Haga to 54, 6 fewer than at the start of the weekend. After the disastrous finish to race one, that is something Spies surely couldn't have bargained on.

Behind Spies, Michel Fabrizio was quickly run down by Ten Kate Honda's Ryuichi Kiyonari. Kiyo and Fabrizio scrapped it out for the first two thirds of the race, Fabrizio leading at first, then Kiyonari getting past on lap 7, passing Fabrizio on the brakes into the chicane in a do-or-die pass. After dropping back a little, Fabrizio regrouped, then picked up his pace to first catch and then repass the Ten Kate Honda, brutally elbowing Kiyonari aside on his way into the chicane. Once past, Fabrizio just had the edge on the Japanese rider, and Kiyonari had to settle for 3rd. Fabrizio topped off a remarkable weekend with a 2nd place to add to his win in race one.

Johnny Rea came home in 4th place, after running with Kiyonari and Fabrizio in the early laps, but once Kiyo got past, he could never get close enough to attempt a pass. Max Biaggi crossed the line just yards behind Rea in 5th, coming up just short at a shot of taking 4th from the Ulsterman. Spies' team mate Tom Sykes ended up in 6th, ahead of Leon Haslam, while a race-long battle for 8th was finally decided in Jakub Smrz' favor, small consolation for a difficult weekend after his podium at Assen. Smrz finished ahead of Ruben Xaus, Carlos Checa and Regis Laconi. The result gave Ruben Xaus his best weekend of the season aboard the BMW, and consolation for the team after Troy Corser had to withdraw from race two with injuries suffered in two crashes during the two attempts at running race one.

Monza World Superbike race two results

Like Spies, Eugene Laverty was keen to improve on his 50% victory record in the World Supersport series, and the Irishman got a rocket start into the first chicane, leading Kenan Sofuoglu on the first lap. The Ten Kate man passed Laverty going into Ascari, but by the time they braked at the end of the back straight, Laverty had retaken the lead, and Sofuoglu was dropping back and would struggle for the rest of the race to finish 9th.

A group of six quickly formed at the front, with Cal Crutchlow on the Yamaha leading the Hondas of Eugene Laverty, Andrew Pitt and Mark Aitchison, and the Kawasakis of Joan Lascorz and Katsuake Fujiwara. Fujiwara was the first to be dropped, his place taken by the storming Fabien Foret. Crutchlow's Yamaha team mate had smashed the lap record on his way forward, and was riding on and sometimes just beyond the limit to get past, enough to raise complaints from the managers of competing teams after the race.

By lap 11, the six had become four, Pitt losing touch and Aitchison crashing out, and it looked like being a repeat of Assen, with the race decided in the very last corner. But Laverty and Foret slugging it out over first allowed Crutchlow past, and then the Yamaha man used the superior top speed of his YZF-R6 to slip away while Foret and Laverty tripped each other up. Crutchlow focused on being fast and smooth, cruising home to his second victory in the class, and a comfortable 18 point lead in the championship.

Laverty's squabble with Foret had also allowed Joan Lascorz to catch the Parkalgar Honda and the Yamaha, and after nearly pushing each other into the dirt at the chicane, Joan Lascorz came home in 2nd, ahead of Fabien Foret, with Eugene Laverty losing out in the mayhem. Pitt was first of the Ten Kate riders home in 5th, just ahead of Katsuake Fujiwara. Pitt's 5th place finish put him ahead of Ant West, who crashed out on lap 3, a dismal ending to a miserable weekend.

Monza World Supersport race results

The teams all fly out to South Africa now, heading south to Kyalami. The grid will be a little thinner at the South African track, however, as a number of teams have decided to forgo the flyaway rounds at Kyalami and Miller Motorsports Park in Utah to save money. The financial crisis is still having an effect on the World Superbike and World Supersport paddock, but luckily for the fans, the racing is as good as ever.


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2009 Monza World Superbike And World Supersport Preview

If Assen is the Cathedral of motorcycle racing, then Monza is its Hoover Dam - a track built with a grand purpose, steeped in history, and as impressive today as it was when it was first conceived and completed. The circuit is located on the outskirts of Milan, Italy's industrial capital, in a huge park that was once part of the Villa Reale, a palace that belonged to the Habsburg dynasty. And so the casual visitor can find themselves wandering through the Arcadian beauty of the heavily wooded park only to find the peace abruptly shattered by the bark of a Ducati Superbike, or the shriek of a Ferrari Formula One car, or the massed howl of Monza track day.

Originally built in 1922 as a test track for testing for prolonged periods at high speeds, the circuit is still renowned for its very fast nature. It is basically series of high speed corners interrupted by a handful of chicanes, and topped off by the Parabolica, one of the great and frightening spectacles of racing, the corner opening up as the bikes head back onto the front straight. The brave just pin the throttle and change up through the gears, but the corner is so fast that you can draft the rider ahead of you, pulling out just before you cross the line to take a spectacular last lap victory.

As you might expect of a nation which is happy to locate a race track in the middle of a city park without complaining, winning is important for the Italians at Monza, and nothing could make the Italians happier than to see an Italian rider on an Italian bike take victory at the fifth round of the World Superbikes series here this weekend. Luckily for the Italians, they have two real chances of that happening at Monza on Sunday.

Both candidates have their problems, though. Max Biaggi got off to an excellent start aboard the Aprilia RSV4, bagging a pair of podiums at the Qatar round, but since then, he has struggled a little. Biaggi's particular problem is the new Superpole format, where the Italian has been caught out a couple of times and left to start a long way down the grid. But if there's one thing the Aprilia is, it's fast, regularly being the fastest bike through the speed traps. Monza is a track where that could well pay off, as long as Biaggi isn't stuck behind traffic for too long.

As much as Ducati's Michel Fabrizio would like to win at Monza, he still has question marks hanging over his consistency. The Italian is certainly stronger this year than last, and has been on the podium twice and just off it twice more. But he also has a 9th place and a couple of DNFs to his name. Fabrizio had a mostly indifferent weekend at Monza last year, and though he should do better this weekend, he is still more likely to finish in the top 5 rather than on the top step.

The truth is that Ducati's best hope of victory lies with Noriyuki Haga. The Japanese rider has looked nigh on invincible this year, with only one man finishing ahead of Haga so far. Haga has been reliable as clockwork, and has looked incredibly smooth on the Ducati 1198F09. So much so that the tinfoil hat community are starting to speculate about some kind of Stepford Wives-style apparatus being secretly installed in the bowels of Ducati's Borgo Panigale factory, the "real" Haga being kept in suspended animation.

Haga's record at the races this season echoes his record at Monza: in the past two years, he's had three wins and one 2nd here, proving beyond a shadow of a doubt that Nitro Nori knows how to win here. Only the most foolhardy of betting men would consider wagering against Haga taking at least one victory at Monza on Sunday.

The only man capable of stopping Haga at Monza is the only man capable of beating the Ducati rider all year. Ben Spies has made a sensational start to his rookie World Superbike season, taking four straight poles and sharing the victories with Haga. Spies' problem is that rather than the four 2nd places that Haga has, he has two DNFs, a 2nd and a finish outside the points. The 16th place finish was beyond his control, but the two crashes - one at Valencia, one at Assen - were down to Spies and Spies alone. Spies results may have been good enough to land the Yamaha Motor Italia team a major sponsorship deal with Italian yogurt maker Sterilgarda, the crashes have cost Spies dearly. Spies is a safe bet for one victory at Monza - he was fastest here at the tests a few weeks ago - but his rostrum or hospital finishes so far spell busy times for the track marshals in Italy.

Yamaha's sponsorship deal will be adding to the air of gloom hanging over Shane Byrne's Sterilgarda Ducati team, run by Marco Borciani. The team has already had to let Alex Polita go - now Barry Veneman's Suzuki team mate in World Supersport - due to a shortage of sponsorship funds, and if Sterilgarda pulls out of the title sponsor role, then the future of BRC Racing (as the team is called when it doesn't have a title sponsor) must be at stake. That would be a blow for Shakey Byrne, who has had a rough start to the season, nowhere near as competitive as his preseason testing form would seem to indicate. But after winning the CIV Italian championship Superbike race by 16 seconds last weekend at Monza, he will at least be ready for the track.

The man who gave Haga a run for his money last year could yet pull a rabbit out of hat here in 2009. Max Neukirchner won race 1 by less than 6/100ths of a second, then lost race 2 by just 9/1000ths of a second last year. The German has been much less competitive on the Alstare Suzuki so far this season, but it has been luck rather than talent which has been holding him back so far. Neukirchner arrives at Monza with happy memories, and will be looking to add a few more before the weekend is over.

Before the season started, all eyes were on the Ten Kate team to mount a serious challenge for the title. But so far, the Netherlands-based Honda team have been very disappointing, the team's best result Ryuichi Kiyonari's 4th place in Qatar. Since then, Kiyonari has been mediocre at best, while Carlos Checa is starting to show signs of the bad old days that earned him the moniker Careless Chucker, crashing out with alarming regularity. Even Johnny Rea, the young Ulsterman who showed so much promise last year in World Supersport and during testing has been mostly indifferent. At least Rea's form has shown the first signs of a renaissance over the past couple of races, but he will have to build on that at Monza.

The big surprise in the Honda camp has been that not Ten Kate, but Stiggy Racing has been the team to beat. Leon Haslam has been on the podium three times so far this year, and at Assen even looked like disrupting Spies and Haga's monopoly on the top two podium spots. If anyone is going to break up the American-Japanese podium party, Haslam is the most likely candidate. With John Hopkins having taken himself out of racing at Assen for the second year in succession, Haslam will be joined at Monza by another American, Jake Zemke. Zemke was due to race here last year, until paperwork problems prevented him. Bureaucracy permitting, Zemke will finally get his chance to race in World Superbikes this weekend.

If the likely podium candidates look all too familiar, there could still be a couple of riders who could wreck their plans. Two more Ducati riders have looked strong this season: Regis Laconi has been coming home 4th almost more often than not, having a much better year on the DFX Ducati than he did last year on the Kawasaki. Laconi had an awful weekend at Monza in 2008, and so 2009 can hardly be worse. Jakub Smrz had his first ever podium at Assen last time out, and the Czech rider is starting to find the consistency that he has previously missed. He has always been fast, qualifying well, but that has never translated into race results. With one podium under his belt, Smrz will be hungry for more.

While Aprilia have had excellent results with a brand new bike, BMW have struggled with their new Superbike. It would be hard to blame the riders, both Troy Corser and Ruben Xaus seasoned veterans and multiple winners in World Superbikes, with Corser a double World Champion. But the bike is just not where it needs to be yet, a state of affairs that is unlikely to change at Monza.

Much the same could be said for Kawasaki. No matter who runs the factory-supported Kawasaki World Superbike team, and no matter who rides the ZX-10R, the results remain the same. For whatever reason, Kawasakis just refuse to be competitive in World Superbikes, no matter how hard the parties involved try.

The odd thing is that the World Supersport series is the only class that Kawasaki seems to be capable of performing. WSS veteran Katsuake Fujiwara and especially the young Spaniard Joan Lascorz have been very tough competitors this year, Lascorz coming with one corner of victory at Assen. Lascorz is in sparkling for this season, and should show well at Monza.

The Glaner Motocard Kawasaki team haven't been the only team to be competitive in World Supersport this year. Indeed, what's remarkable about the series in 2009 is the depth of competition. Ten Kate cup no more, any one of seven men have looked capable of winning, sometimes even as the race entered the final lap. Probably the best and closest racing on the planet at the moment, the strength of the field has made for a deeply entertaining series.

Though it may not be the Ten Kate cup this year, that doesn't mean that Ten Kate have forgotten how to be competitive. With a win and three podiums, Kenan Sofuoglu and Andrew Pitt have still been the men to beat in the World Supersport class. The problem is that other riders have managed that feat rather too easily this season, the team struggling with the '09 version of the CBR600RR - despite the bike being little changed from last year - and either failing to finish or being well down the field on a couple of occasions.

No such problems for the Parkalgar Honda team. Despite appeals by other Honda teams that the Parkalgar bikes have been using illegal parts - a claim disproved every time they have been inspected - the team run by Simon Buckmaster has been nothing but impressive this year. Much of that is down to Irishman Eugene Laverty, the revelation of the season. After several years struggling in the 250 World Championship, Laverty finally bagged himself a competitive ride. And he has grabbed that opportunity with both hands, his win rate up at 50% so far this season. Laverty will feature at the front in Monza, despite never having raced here before.

Ant West is proof of that. West came here in 2007, and in his first ride on a World Supersport bike, the Australian put the Yamaha R6 on the podium. Now back in World Supersport after an abortive year in MotoGP aboard a - surprise, surprise - Kawasaki, West has consistently run at the front this season. West will be keen to repeat his Yamaha podium for his new team, Stiggy Honda, on Sunday, and only the closeness of the competition is likely to keep him off it.

Yamaha will be keen to keep their podium record at Monza going this weekend. The Yamaha Supersport team took 1st and 3rd here last year, and Fabien Foret will be dead set on a repeat of his win this year. So far, the Frenchman has been outclassed by his rookie team mate, Cal Crutchlow, whose 4th place finish in his first race is his worst result of the year. Crutchlow is young, fast, and learns quickly, and will be keen to keep a hold on his championship lead at Monza. But in the World Supersport class, that is an awfully tough task.

Monza is not just a magnificent circuit in a magnificent location, it also seems to produce some of the best racing imaginable. The top three Superbikes finished within yards of each other here last year, and there's every reason to believe that this year could well be the same. Monza is a circuit that has gone down in racing legend, and every year, we get to see just why that is. This Sunday will be no different.


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2009 Jerez MotoGP Race Report - La Fiesta Del Chivo

The Jerez round of MotoGP is a very Spanish affair. Though fans may flock from all over Europe to attend the opening of the MotoGP season - flyaway rounds notwithstanding, Jerez is where the season starts as far as European fans are concerned - the race retains a deeply Spanish character. At night, the fans flock together in that peculiarly Spanish way, as if averse to more than a few seconds' solitude; the weekend is filled with noise and light, and the deafening roar of Spanish fireworks, designed more around decibel production rather than visual spectacle; and around the grounds, the fans are as likely to drink wine as drink beer, a prospect which fans from more northerly climes would regard as unthinkable, entirely outside their very masculine world view.

And despite the debauchery, the occasion also manages that very Spanish trick of retaining its friendly and unthreatening atmosphere. Where elsewhere around Europe, the quantities of alcohol involved and the level of noise generated would quickly see the mood turn ugly, the crowds at Jerez somehow manage to maintain the festival atmosphere, the event always seeming like one big, long party.

As hosts of the party, it would be impolite to deny the Spanish fans a gift, and there is nothing they desire more than a win by a Spanish rider. Actually, that's incorrect, there is one thing they desire more, and that's a clean sweep of Spanish riders winning every race of the day. Fortunately for the race-mad home crowds, the host nation has both the talent and the funds to ensure that they start the day with a strong chance of one victory at the very least.

Stacking The Odds

The 2009 race weekend was no different. Over a hundred and twenty thousand fans streamed into the circuit on Sunday morning secure in the knowledge that they started the day on the right footing. Local riders sat on pole position for all three classes, and should the polesitters fail, they had a pack of compatriots beside them on the grid poised to take their place. Everything was in place for a proper Spanish fiesta.

But races came and races went, and no fatted calf did the Spanish fans see. In the first race of the day, the 125cc class, British rider Bradley Smith took victory, local boy Julian Simon crashing out while chasing Smith down. At least Smith won on the Bancaja Aspar bike, fielded by Spain's most prominent racing team, and home to many Spanish champions past, present and future.

Then in the 250cc race, darling of the fans Alvaro Bautista, another Aspar star, dived up the inside of Hiroshi Aoyama to lead into the final corner. Unfortunately, the inside line into the final Ducados corner all too often means running wide on the way out, and Bautista found the Japanese Honda man ahead of him on the exit, and crossing the line to snatch another victory from under the noses of the Spanish fans. Aoyama may be a long-time resident of Barcelona and enjoy some popularity in Spain, but once again, this was not what the fans had been hoping for.

It would all come down to the MotoGP race. If anything, the odds looked even better for the home fans in the premier class, with rising superstar Jorge Lorenzo on pole, just five hundredths of a second ahead of his compatriot and bitter rival Dani Pedrosa. More importantly, both Casey Stoner and Valentino Rossi were struggling more than usual at the Andalusian race track. Stoner had failed to find the form which had allowed him to dominate the IRTA test here in March; and Valentino Rossi seemed to have lost his way during qualifying after his display of supremacy on the first day of practice.

Bullet From A Gun

Spanish hopes rose with the revs as the red lights held the MotoGP bikes on the grid. Once unleashed by the fading lights, the howl of the bikes finally drowning out the roar of the crowd, those hopes rose further, as Dani Pedrosa got his habitual rocket start, barreling into Turn 1 in first place, ahead of the other ballistic starter Casey Stoner. The crowds saw shades of 2008, when Pedrosa entered the Expo '92 corner in exactly the position last year, going on to win by a comfortable margin.

Of course, the first corner is far too early to call a race, despite both Pedrosa and Stoner's records once given a head start off the line. Polesitter Jorge Lorenzo had tried the outside line around Stoner into Turn 1 but been forced to tuck in behind the Australian's Ducati, while Valentino Rossi nestled in behind his Fiat Yamaha team mate. Randy de Puniet had secured 5th, and behind him, Colin Edwards had sneaked past Loris Capirossi to challenge de Puniet. The outside line around the Michelin corner was too long though, and Edwards was left to contemplate his options further round the track.

The bikes hared down the hill along the back straight, and as the track started to level out, the front four steadied themselves for the tight right hander of the Dry Sack corner. Casey Stoner sat poised on Dani Pedrosa's tail, while Valentino Rossi got ready to pounce on team mate Jorge Lorenzo. Stoner and Rossi pulled out of the draft ready for a move up the inside, Rossi's right leg flailing in his customary last-gasp balance style. But for both men, it was too early and neither Stoner nor Rossi could get close enough to their respective targets to make a full-blooded attempt at a pass.

Of the two, Rossi was the closest to his prey, team mate Jorge Lorenzo. Rounding the two left handers that followed, Rossi lined Lorenzo up again and tried to pry his Fiat Yamaha ahead of Lorenzo's going into the first of the tight right handers leading through the stadium section. This time, Lorenzo closed the door on Rossi a little more firmly: In front of his home crowd, the Spaniard would not be passed through a corner named after an illustrious compatriot, Angel Nieto. Rossi would have to bide his time.

Ahead of the Fiat Yamahas, Dani Pedrosa and Casey Stoner were starting to edge away, a sliver of daylight between Stoner and Lorenzo growing to become a solid wedge. With two of Rossi's main title rivals gapping both himself and the third pretender to his throne, and Pedrosa and Stoner with previous form in runaway victories from the front, any pretensions Valentino Rossi may have had for victory required immediate action.

Second Chance

Peeking inside Lorenzo into Dry Sack once again on lap 2, Rossi focused on the run through the two left handers that followed. Firing fast and tight through Turn 7, Rossi carried the extra speed he had gained through Turn 8, ready to dive up the inside into Nieto once again, this time leaving Lorenzo with nowhere to go. The young Spaniard simply had no option but to yield.

Once past Lorenzo, Rossi forged on towards the Honda and the Ducati. Dani Pedrosa was now well into his stride, breaking the existing lap record on lap 2 and again on lap 4, but the fact that Pedrosa's new record stood for less than a second before Rossi took it from him was a sign that The Doctor was approaching.

Over the next couple of laps, Rossi reeled Casey Stoner in agonizingly slowly, arriving on the tail of the Ducati as the bikes braked for the Dry Sack corner, Rossi's leg waving ever more frantically. Once within reach of Stoner the Italian then laid the ground for his attack, allowing the Australian's Ducati to draw him ever closer, ready to pounce at Jerez' infamous final corner. This time it was Stoner's turn to do the leg waving, but it served only to wave the Italian through, Rossi diving up the inside of the Ducati to take over 2nd place.

But Stoner would not surrender that easily. Being passed into Ducados loses you a place but offers the chance of immediate revenge, as the wider line gives better drive out of the corner than the inside passing line. Stoner used this advantage to launch himself out of Turn 13 and across the stripe behind Rossi, pulling alongside the Fiat Yamaha then jamming on the brakes just late enough to be right in Rossi's way as the pair of them turned in for Expo '92. Stoner was back in 2nd, and Rossi's work had been for naught.

If Rossi had done something once, he clearly felt he could do it again. The Italian sat tucked on Stoner's tail again. Not close enough to pass at Dry Sack, and though he had a look up the inside at Nieto, he was keeping his powder dry for the final corner once more. This time, both men entered Turn 13 with legs flailing, but as on the last lap, it was Valentino Rossi who held the inside line and entered the turn ahead. And having learned his lesson the last time around, Rossi got just enough extra drive on the exit to hold Stoner off down the short front straight and enter the first corner ahead of the Australian, firmly in charge of 2nd place.

Follow My Leader

If the battle at the front resembled a high-speed game of chess, the fight for 5th was a much more physical affair. Randy de Puniet had taken the position from the line but had been unable to follow the sweltering pace set by the front four. With his Repsol Honda team mate disappearing at the front, Andrea Dovizioso felt that he too should be making his way forward, and after dispatching Colin Edwards on the second lap in a brave move through the Pons corner, Dovi started closing on de Puniet.

The Frenchman was not about to just roll over and let the Italian past, though. It took four laps of prodding and poking at every opportunity before Dovizioso could find a way through, and by the time he did, the Repsol Honda man was in a real hurry. He took two-tenths out of Lorenzo on the next lap, but losing out the lap after, Dovi tried pushing harder still. That turned out to be a little bit too much, the Italian running wide at the first of the two left handers that bring the bikes back to the stadium section and heading into the gravel. Dovizioso managed to keep the bike upright, but a single mistake had dropped him from 5th all the way down to 16th. He had his work cut out ahead of him.

Behind de Puniet, a race-long battle was unfolding between Loris Capirossi, Marco Melandri and Colin Edwards. After a strong early start, both Edwards and Capirossi had fallen behind the Hondas of de Puniet and Dovizioso, and had found themselves very evenly matched with Melandri. Capirossi held the early advantage, but his lead of the group was never more than a couple of bike lengths. This scrap would not be settled quickly or easily, the outcome uncertain almost to the end.

Uncertainty was growing at the front, too. With Valentino Rossi now past Casey Stoner and chasing Dani Pedrosa, the first Spanish victory of the day was starting to look less and less of a foregone conclusion. Pedrosa was still lapping fast, but The Doctor was chipping away at the Honda man's already slender lead, a tenth at a time. Pedrosa may be small in stature, but he is incredibly tough: Still riding with a knee injury and not back to full fitness, the Spaniard made catching him as hard as he possibly could, running fast, smooth and fault-free laps.


But Rossi had Pedrosa in his sights and like a terrier with a bone, just would not let him go. On lap 17, the Yamaha arrived on the tail of the Honda, and Pedrosa showed the first signs of weakness. Rossi stalked Pedrosa through the fast rights of Senna and Ferrari, hoping to dive inside the Spaniard going into the final corner, but he could not get close enough.

Next lap round, Pedrosa made the slightest mistake going into the tight Dry Sack corner at the end of the back straight, and Rossi saw his chance. He crept up onto the tailpipe of the Honda through the two left handers, to slingshot out from behind and dive up the inside into Nieto. Pedrosa hung tough, trying to hold the outside line but Rossi had the edge, and was into the series of fast right handers leading back to the finish line that he had been so strong through all race. By the time they reached the final corner, Rossi had enough of a cushion to make it through the turn and back across the line in the lead.

Pedrosa stuck with Rossi for a couple of laps, but his attempt to close the gap at the end of the back straight saw him run wide and lose half a second to the now rampant Rossi. The Italian was now free, and kept up his searing pace all the way to the line. Valentino Rossi crossed the line to take his first victory of the season, his 98th in all classes and his 72nd victory in the premier class unopposed.

It was a much needed win, and one he hadn't expected after qualifying on Saturday. The warmer conditions on Saturday had seen him lagging behind Pedrosa, Stoner and Lorenzo, but crew chief Jeremy Burgess had performed his customary Saturday night magic, finding a solution during the morning warm up, then another tweak for the race. At both Qatar and Motegi, Rossi had been frustrated at not being able to compete, and complained that having only two compounds to choose from made it more difficult and more dangerous, tempting riders to push harder than the tires would carry them. At Jerez, he had no such problems, and despite not getting the lead from the line, nothing had stood in his way.

Spanish Seconds

Even the redoubtable Dani Pedrosa had not been able to hold Rossi, and the Spaniard crossed the line in 2nd only a little disappointed. Still not fully fit, and still complaining about a lack of grip from the Honda RC212V, Pedrosa put up a serious fight before relinquishing the lead. The rumors suggesting that he may be out of a job if he doesn't win the title this season and that Repsol are pushing Honda to sign Jorge Lorenzo to replace him may have helped spur Pedrosa on. But another very strong finish at least exposed the fact that any such move would be unfair and unwarranted, as well as underlining that despite starting the season injured, Dani Pedrosa's title hopes can't be written off just yet.

After being passed by Rossi, Casey Stoner's grip on 3rd place looked pretty unassailable, but as the halfway mark passed, Jorge Lorenzo starting reeling the Australian in. Over the course of 10 laps, Lorenzo cut Stoner's advantage from 3.5 seconds to under a single second, and Casey Stoner could see his first ever podium in any class at Jerez start to slip out of his reach. Then, on lap 24, within sight of a podium in his home race, Jorge Lorenzo pushed just a little bit too hard through the terrifyingly fast right handers leading down to the final corner, and lost the front, sliding down and out of the race. Lorenzo remounted, but only to limp back into the pits, furious with himself for pushing too hard to catch Stoner, and with his bike for not being as fast as it was yesterday.

Lorenzo's misfortune finally broke the back of Casey Stoner's bad luck at Jerez, the Australian getting on the podium here at last. Stoner celebrated his 3rd place finish like a victory, performing a huge celebratory wheelie, finally expunging the bad memories of last year's race here. More than that, Stoner was comforted by the knowledge that if this is what the Ducati is capable of at a track it has always been terrible at, then once they get to the tracks that Ducati goes well at - which in Casey Stoner's case, is all the rest of them - he is going to be a very hard man to beat.


Stoner wasn't the only man to benefit from Jorge Lorenzo's crash. LCR Honda's Randy de Puniet, resplendent in Playboy sponsorship, had ridden a long and lonely race in 5th until Lorenzo's disappearance bumped him up into 4th spot. De Puniet was not fast enough to be able to stay with the Fantastic Four at the front, finishing over 30 seconds down on the winner Valentino Rossi and 20 seconds behind Casey Stoner. But he was more than fast enough to keep plenty of space between himself and the riders behind. The Frenchman was rightly delighted with 4th, his best result since Sepang in 2007 and a reward for the confidence that Lucio Cecchinello has shown in him. Cecchinello has kept faith in de Puniet despite his tendency to crash, and will be hoping that the Frenchman will have a few more 4th place finishes rather than DNFs.

The battle for 5th was only really settled two laps from the end, when Marco Melandri finally managed to shake off the attentions of Loris Capirossi and Colin Edwards. The three men had tangled all race long, swapping places until Capirossi ran wide trying to pass Melandri, and allowed the Hayate to make the break. The Italian crossed the line celebrating almost as exuberantly as Stoner had, his 5th place on what had been expected to be a hopeless Hayate proving the doubters utterly wrong. The Kawasaki - for that's what the Hayate is at heart - is proving to be remarkably competitive with a revitalized Melandri on board, and the Italian publicly acknowledged his hope that Kawasaki would go back on their decision to stop development on the bike and put a bit more money into the project. Whether Kawasaki's management actually will is another matter entirely, however.

Loris Capirossi and Colin Edwards were both annoyed and disappointed to have been humiliated by the Hayate. Both men were convinced they could have done better, but Capirossi had changed a tire on the grid and had problems in the early laps, while Edwards had encountered setup problems caused by the heat of race day. The two MotoGP veterans will be hoping for redemption at Le Mans, which is one of Edwards' best tracks and a place the Suzuki always goes well.

The Comeback Kid

In a remarkable 8th place came Andrea Dovizioso. Making amends for his silly mistake, the Italian had fought his way up through the field from 16th, after running off the track while in 5th position. Dovizioso's result is a testament both to his youthful exuberance getting drawn into making a mistake, and his gritty maturity, forcing his way forward again and scoring valuable points for the team. On a factory bike for the first time, Dovi is proving that Repsol Honda did the right thing in signing the Italian.

On his way forward, Dovizioso had passed the other factory-spec Honda of Toni Elias. Elias continues to disappoint on the Gresini Honda, but that is more down to the tires than to the bike. The flyweight Elias has had problems getting heat into the stiffer spec tires, the softer specials he used to get from Bridgestone now just history. The team has experimented with ballast to solve the problem, but so far to no avail. Fausto Gresini was reportedly speechless with fury at the end of the race, both Elias and de Angelis having failed to perform in the eyes of the team manager.

Chris Vermeulen came home in 10th place, a disappointing result for the Rizla Suzuki rider. Vermeulen has failed to carry his preseason testing form into the races, and will be looking for more at Le Mans, a circuit which should suit the bike much better.

Sete Gibernau was the second Ducati home, the bike now thankfully shorn of its Equatorial Guinea paint scheme and logos, bearing instead the tasteful white, black and gold scheme of the construction company that is financing Gibernau's return. As a previous winner here, 11th place is not what he must have been expecting, but a lack of fitness from the weak shoulder he has is adding to the difficulties presented by riding the Ducati and preventing better results. Whether Gibernau is capable of more remains to be seen, but it's clear a two-year absence from the sport is a serious handicap.

Behind Gibernau, Yuki Takahashi had his best result of the season with a 12th place finish. So far, Takahashi has been the man who can do no better than finish ahead of the Pramac Ducatis, but the Scot Honda rider was up as high as 10th at one point, battling Toni Elias and Chris Vermeulen in the first part of the race, before the Spaniard and the Australian got past. Takahashi still has a long way to go, but his race at Jerez at least showed some promise.

Slough Of Despond

After a promising top 10 finish at Motegi, James Toseland struggled again at Jerez, coming home in 13th. At least he finished a place higher than he qualified, but so far, the Briton has failed to show the brilliant form from the beginning of last season. Much of that can be put down to getting used to the new Bridgestone tires and trying to find a setting that works for the Tech 3 Yamaha rider, but Toseland is running out of time in which to look. With Le Mans the site of the next Grand Prix, an event the Monster Tech 3 Yamaha team regards as its home race, Toseland will have to step up a gear sooner rather than later.

Alex de Angelis had an entirely anonymous race at Jerez to finish 14th, the Gresini Honda man suffering with the flu, and incapable of making a mark all weekend. With a 6th, a 13th and a 14th place finish, de Angelis is turning into what Marco Melandri used to be, the man with the random finishes. Like de Puniet, at least the man from San Marino is finishing, rather than throwing it into the gravel as he did all too often last year.

Taking the final point was the long-suffering Nicky Hayden. Hayden, Canepa and Kallio all took the softer of the two compounds on offer, indicative of the problems that the Ducati is having finding grip, and a sign that Jerez remains a bogey track for Ducati, despite Stoner's outstanding podium. Take Casey Stoner out of the equation and Ducati's results would be downright disastrous.

Tragically, Nicky Hayden's season seems to be heading in the direction that Marco Melandri's did last year. The fickle nature of the Ducati - incredibly difficult to set up, extremely sensitive to changes one week, completely inert to them the next - is sapping Hayden's confidence, and an injury and a lack of track time are preventing him from recovering it. Hayden has been hit hardest by the reduction in practice, as his method of working has always been to run as many laps as possible to try to understand the bike. Hayden will be glad that the Grand Prix Commission decided to extend the sessions back to one hour, as after the washed out qualifying session at Motegi and then being taken out by Takahashi during the race, he has a lot to catch up on.

In 16th place came the perennial backmarker, Niccolo Canepa. Still overawed by the step from tester to MotoGP star, and having to deal with the problem of riding an 800cc MotoGP bike designed for a typical jockey-sized rider, rather than someone like Canepa, who is much closer to the size of an actual human, Canepa continues to flounder. The Italian rookie is rumored to be incredibly fast at Mugello, so we shall have to wait another couple of races before we see his true potential.

At least Canepa beat his team mate this time, though only because Mika Kallio was forced to withdraw with with a rear brake problem. But even during practice, Kallio had not been able to repeat the kind of performance that had impressed fans and paddock at Motegi and Qatar. Le Mans will provide a better idea of just where Kallio stands.

It's My Party

As the crowds emptied from around Jerez' epic track, they went home only partially disappointed. They came in the hope of a Spanish clean sweep, but sadly for the local fans, that was not to be this weekend. What they did see was a Spanish team win in the 125 race, and some close racing for the podium, an epic battle in the 250 race, with a local boy just coming up short, and a stunning ride by hometown hero Dani Pedrosa to take second behind Valentino Rossi.

The crowds celebrated just the same. If the Spanish Grand Prix weekend is anything, it is a celebration of racing, a true motorcycle fiesta. And with so many fans in every country around the world, whatever track Valentino Rossi wins at, it counts as a home victory. That was reason enough for a party at Jerez.



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2009 MotoGP Jerez Preview - The Party At The End Of The World

Jerez, MotoGP, Thursday, Paddock, 2009
Photo copyright Andrew Wheeler

The question of what happens when law breaks down and humanity surrenders to its wildest and basest instincts has occupied the minds of the great, the good and the plain wacky throughout all of human history. Indeed, so pervasive is this idea that it even has a term to cover it: Millenarianism. Religious cults have been founded on the belief that this is about to happen, great works of art have been painted, and thousands of books and hundreds of movies have been produced on the subject, from Bruegel the Elder's Triumph of Death, to William Golding's Lord Of The Flies, to the Mad Max trilogy of apocalyptic landscapes.

For those with neither the patience nor the penchant to explore the many works on the subject, the good news is that they can save themselves the effort. All they need to do is attend the annual Jerez round of MotoGP, and there they will see what the human spirit is capable once unleashed, unfettered by either fear of physical harm or self-conscious self-restraint.

The Jerez MotoGP round marks the return of the series to European soil, and what many - especially Spanish - fans feel is its spiritual home. The Spanish are passionate about motorcycle racing, and at Jerez, they get to give full flow to that emotion. The inflammable Iberians are not the type of people to pass up the opportunity to celebrate the start of a long summer of MotoGP, and they do so in style.


The fans transform the streets of the charming old town of Jerez into something resembling a cross between Biker Boyz, Blade Runner and Apocalypse Now. The night air is filled with a heady mix of acrid rubber smoke and the howl of sports bike engines being bounced off rev limiters. Headlights pierce the smoke pointing at the wildest of angles as helmetless race fans wheelie through Jerez with varying success and safety. And the streets flow with the rather good wine the region produces, some of which goes to make the Sherry the city is famous for.

In other countries, the police would simply not stand for such public displays of wanton lawbreaking, but in Spain, the police know when to accept defeat, and do so with a good deal of grace. The Spanish police - not known for either their tolerance nor their restraint - can regularly be seen awarding marks for style at the many burnout and wheelie sessions which take place throughout the city. Only the most egregious lawbreakers are firmly escorted away to ponder their sins in a local police cell, and despite the mayhem, injuries and quantity of alcohol consumed, the atmosphere remains almost entirely festive.

For the locals, there can be no better way to cap the weekend than with a victory in the race. Preferably, three victories, one in each class. And with Julian Simon and Alvaro Bautista tearing up the 125 and 250 classes at the IRTA test here back in March, the chances of victory in the lower categories are good. Now all they need is a winner in the MotoGP class, and they will have had a perfect weekend.

All Grown Up

And it has to be said that the chances are very good indeed. Going by the results of the races held last week and last year, both Jorge Lorenzo and Dani Pedrosa have to be odds on to win here. Lorenzo rode a brilliant race at Motegi to take a thoroughly convincing win, banishing any doubts that the Fiat Yamaha man was still in the process of learning the Bridgestones. Lorenzo has made another jump in maturity and speed over the off-season, and after taking a while to get used to the spec rubber, at the IRTA test here, Lorenzo showed he had no problems at all, leading the first day, and being second fastest in the early session on the second day. On a high from his victory at Motegi, Lorenzo is going to be a hard man to stop.

Without a bunch of stitches holding the big hole in his knee together, you'd have to say that Dani Pedrosa would be one of the riders capable of doing just that. Pedrosa won here last year, getting a clean break at the start and leaving the chasing Yamahas no chance of catching him, but the injury he sustained during testing at Qatar would normally rule him out of contention this weekend. His finish at the race in Qatar was respectable, and where you might expect it given that he cannot put much weight on his knee. But a podium at Motegi, including a tough battle with Valentino Rossi for second, one he eventually lost, proved that Pedrosa is both tough as nails, despite his small size, as well as supremely talented. If the Repsol Honda man can get on or near the front row at Jerez, he is in with a chance of victory.

The Unstoppable Force

But both Lorenzo and Pedrosa have a formidable obstacle to overcome. Casey Stoner reigned supreme in Qatar, then finished very strongly at Motegi to take fourth, after struggling with a brake problem. In years past, Jerez has been a bogey track for Ducati, as witnessed by Stoner's miserable race here in 2008. But at the IRTA Test in March, Stoner came, saw, and drove away the BMW which was on offer during the special M Award qualifying hour.

What was most worrying though was not that Stoner was fastest - he often is during qualifying sessions - but the manner of his domination. Stoner took the BMW by nearly three quarters of a second, and since then, the Australian says that Ducati have ironed out more of the bugs from the new carbon fiber swingarm which has cured the rear wheel pump that made the GP9 such a terrifying prospect to both watch and ride. With the weather promising to be sunny and dry all weekend, Stoner shouldn't run into the kind of glitches that handicapped him at Motegi. In his current form, that would make him all but unstoppable.

And stopping Stoner is exactly what Valentino Rossi has to do at Jerez. The Doctor has finished second in both races held so far, a state of affairs he does not consider acceptable. Rossi is most worried by the margin of defeat he suffered at Qatar, where there was absolutely nothing he could do to close Stoner down. At Jerez, Rossi will have to make sure that he gets the kind of start that he got at Motegi, to prevent both Casey Stoner and Dani Pedrosa from escaping. If he can be either on their tails or even ahead of the two former 250 rivals, then Rossi is in with a chance. Jerez has been the scene of some memorable battles here for The Doctor, and the many thousands of Rossi fans lining the track will be hoping for a repeat.

Fear And Loathing

If the Fiat Yamaha team travels to Jerez with high hopes, the emotions in the Monster Tech 3 Yamaha satellite team are a good deal more mixed. Colin Edwards has shown great form all preseason, and after finishing fourth in Qatar and then training well in Motegi, had hoped to show a good result in Japan as well. In the end, an electronics snafu saw the Texan forced to race with the engine management system set up for a wet race. Rage helped Edwards push the bike much further forward than it deserved, but on a bike "with less power than a Supersport 600," as Edwards said afterwards, a twelfth place finish was more than he could ever expect. Edwards is in form and angry, a combination that will serve him well at Jerez.

James Toseland, on the other hand, will be returning to Jerez with some trepidation. The Englishman left here in an ambulance at the IRTA test, after touching a white line and highsiding off the bike and into the gravel. Toseland could even count himself lucky, as it happened at Turn 3, the same corner that finally ended Mick Doohan's career. Toseland scored a top 10 finish at Motegi, after a poor start at Qatar and a dismal preseason, his confidence completely knocked out of him by another big crash at Sepang. Gradually, the Yorkshireman is getting his confidence back, and with it should come results. With the other Yamahas regularly scoring top 5 finishes, he won't have the bike to blame.

In previous years, the Suzuki riders have also had that excuse. The Suzuki was always underpowered and underperforming, only strong at a few tracks. But the British-based team has made a huge step forward over the winter, and for the first time since 2007 is starting to look very competitive. Both Loris Capirossi and Chris Vermeulen have set strong times in testing and practice, though race results have left a little to be desired, but Jerez is one track where they could make a breakthrough. Both Vermeulen and Capirossi were quick at the IRTA test a month ago, Capirex ending up 3rd in the timed session behind Casey Stoner and Valentino Rossi. With the Italian having won here in 2006, he knows his way around the track, and though the competition might be a little bit intense for Capirossi to take the win, a podium should be well within his reach.

In years past, it would be hard to imagine anyone complaining about a factory Honda, but everyone who rides the 2008 version of the RC212V certainly has been. So far, Andrea Dovizioso has been the most consistent of the riders aboard the factory Honda, despite his own complaints about the machine. A pair of fifth places is respectable for the newly hired Repsol Honda rider, but Dovi is hungry for more. It's a little early at Jerez, but the Italian is due a podium, and due one sometime soon.

Out Of Nowhere

The surprise package of the season so far has been Marco Melandri and the Kawasaki. Written off prior to the season, after the reconstituted Hayate team was left with the dismal Kawasaki, the worst bike of the 2008 season by a significant margin. But since then, Melandri and the team have staged a stunning comeback, the test at Qatar in March fixing the rear grip problems with the Kawasaki, and Melandri regaining his confidence to show the form that he made him a title candidate in 2005 and 2006. The Hayate is probably not good enough to take a win anywhere, but Melandri should be able to challenge for a top 5, and a bit of luck may even see the Italian get a sniff of the podium. Heaven knows they deserve it.

The reason for the return of Melandri's confidence is that he no longer has to try and tame the Bologna Beast, a task he struggled with desperately last year. Instead, that charge falls to Nicky Hayden, and like Melandri, Hayden is struggling under the burden of riding the Ducati GP9. So far, Hayden has managed better than the Italian did, but bad luck and injury have dogged the Kentucky Kid. A huge highside at Qatar left him with stitches in his chest and a badly banged-up back, and then at Motegi, the Kentuckian was speared off the track by an over-excited Yuki Takahashi. What Hayden needs most of all is a quiet, incident-free weekend. With the weather looking good, at least the conditions should be on his side.

If Hayden is struggling to tame the Ducati, Pramac Ducati's Mika Kallio seems to be managing extraordinarily well. The Finn has booked solid results, with an 8th place at both races so far, and seems to be comfortable aboard the Desmosedici GP8. Kallio first surprised the field at the IRTA test here in March, going sixth quickest in the timed session, and at home on both the bike and the track, Kallio should put in another good result at the track he was handed victory at last year in the 250 race.

No Business

While Kallio is showing promise on the Pramac Ducati, his team mate Niccolo Canepa continues to struggle. Though in Canepa's case, it's more with the class than with the machine. Canepa was fast as a test rider but since making the transition from part-time student to full-time MotoGP racer, he has completely failed to make an impression. Just getting through a weekend and not finishing last would be a good result for Canepa.

The last of the Ducati riders comes to Jerez with powerful memories of the track, linked strongly to Valentino Rossi. Sete Gibernau has been on the podium here a number of times, winning in 2004, then taking second in the infamous final corner incident in 2005. In 2009, however, the Spanish veteran is unlikely to get anywhere near the podium, as after two years away from racing and numerous injuries, his fitness and his race experience are still short of what it takes to compete at the highest level. All Sete Gibernau will be doing this weekend is promoting the interests of a ruthless African dictator.

The last of the Spaniards, Toni Elias, will be hoping for a decent result here, but the chances of it are slim. The cheery Spaniard is struggling with both the stiff front Bridgestone tire and the lack of rear grip from the factory Honda RC212V chassis. Until Honda improves the bike, and the flyweight Elias finds a way to get some heat into his front tire, the Spaniard is likely to be firmly mid-pack at best.

Much the same is true for the other Honda riders as well. Scot Honda's Yuki Takahashi will be hoping to make amends for his mistake at Motegi, taking out Nicky Hayden in a mindless first-lap lunge, but even then, his record so far shows he is capable of beating Niccolo Canepa and no one else. Alex de Angelis will once again be trying to finish, but nearer to the fantastic sixth place he took at Qatar, rather than the thirteenth spot he occupied in Motegi. And Randy de Puniet will be hoping to hold on to his consistency at Jerez, while improving on the tenth and eleventh places he has scored so far.

Your Host For This Evening

At least Randy de Puniet's LCR Honda will be in keeping with the atmosphere at Jerez. The team is once again sporting Playboy sponsorship in Spain, to help promote the relaunch of the Italian edition. The Playboy bunnies which have been promised as umbrella girls should fit in perfectly at Jerez. After all, if the race at Jerez seems like the party at the end of the world, who better to host it than Hugh Hefner?


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