The point of the single tire rule, adopted for the 2009 season here at Motegi last year, was to make the racing safer by stemming the breakneck increase in corner speed. At least, that was the reason given officially, but it was an open secret - one accidentally admitted by Carmelo Ezpeleta from time to time - that the real driving force behind the rule was the hope that putting everyone on the same tire would level the playing field, reduce the differences between the riders and make the racing closer.
At Qatar, the first race to be run under the new rule, the official rationale for having a single tire was vindicated, with lap times lower than last year despite warmer temperatures. But the race made a mockery of the unofficial reasoning: The gaps between the riders were huge, with 16 seconds between first and third, and sixth place man Alex de Angelis almost half a minute behind the runaway winner Casey Stoner. So far, it looked like putting riders on equal equipment actually accentuated the differences between them, variations in individual skill now allowing the best of them to build up a huge margin over lesser men.
The season opener had been a rather bizarre affair, though, with the race postponed until Monday after a rainstorm made racing under the floodlights impossible on Sunday, and an extra warm up session had left the riders with limited tire choice. So at Motegi, the place where the single tire rule was formally adopted last year, its proponents hoped that we would get to see a more realistic view of how the rule was working.
It wasn't the tire rule that everyone was talking about at Motegi, however. Instead, the the reduction in practice time was the target of the teams' and riders' ire: A typical Motegi spring downpour on Saturday afternoon had made the track unrideable and forced qualifying to be canceled, and with Friday morning practice already scrapped under the new rules, the riders entered the race with scarcely any dry track time under their belts, forced to guess both at tire choice and setup.
The loss of qualifying also meant that the grid had been drawn up based on the combined practice times, and as Saturday's morning free practice session had taken place in the rain, this effectively meant that grid position was determined by the outcome of FP1 on Friday. The trouble with that was that everyone had been using the Friday session to work on setup and finding a race tire, rather than going all out for speed, and so the grid suffered some notable losers. Dani Pedrosa, his fitness improved from Qatar, was one, forced to start from 11th, while Randy de Puniet, now resplendent in his Playboy livery, was another, shuffled down to 16th while his team was working on race setup.
But all that was spilt milk as the riders sat on the grid, holding the bike on the rev limiter while they waited for the red lights to dim. With the conditions sunnier and track temperatures warmer than they had been on Friday, there was nothing that the riders could do but hope the guesses made by their crew and tire technicians were correct, and watch the lights.
As the bikes were unleashed off the line, all eyes switched from the extinguished red of the starting lights to the bright red of Casey Stoner's Ducati. The Australian is a fearsome starter, usually so fast off the line that he hits the first corner already several bike lengths ahead. But Motegi would be different, in many respects. The bike heading into the first corner with room to spare behind it was Valentino Rossi's Fiat Yamaha. Normally Rossi's starts are his weakest point, but at Motegi, the reigning World Champion had got a flyer off the line to lead into Turn 1, ahead of a similarly storming Chris Vermeulen on the Rizla Suzuki.
As impressive as Valentino Rossi's start was, it was as nothing compared to Dani Pedrosa's. Starting from 11th, the Spaniard had fired off the line, weaving his way to the outside of the track and heading into Turn 1 after passing half the field. Holding the outside line, Pedrosa muscled his way past Casey Stoner to end up 3rd, behind Vermeulen and ahead of the Ducati of the 2007 World Champion. Three corners later, as the pack braked hard for the sharp right hander of Turn 5, Pedrosa grabbed the inside line from Vermeulen, and was up into 2nd and ready to chase leader Valentino Rossi.
Behind Pedrosa, fellow Spaniard and bitter rival Jorge Lorenzo was on a similar charge. Lorenzo had lost a couple of places off the line, but on the run into Turn 5, Lorenzo used the drive of his Fiat Yamaha to close down Stoner and was well ahead by the time they peeled off into the tight right hander. Two corners later, Lorenzo was stuffing his blue and white bike up the inside of Vermeulen's powder blue Rizla Suzuki to snatch 3rd.
If Lorenzo and Pedrosa were going forwards, Casey Stoner was going backward. Normally one of the very best brakers in the paddock, Stoner was having trouble getting the nose of his Ducati ahead of Chris Vermeulen's Suzuki into both the hairpin and the 90 Degree Corner at the end of the back straight. Adding insult to injury, just as Stoner was forced to back off and let Vermeulen enter Turn 11 first, Andrea Dovizioso shoved his Repsol Honda underneath him and up into 5th. Further humiliation came half a lap later, as former team mate Marco Melandri came past at the fast flick of 130R, the Italian clearly much more at home on the Hayate than he ever was on the wild beast that was the Ducati.
At the front, it was the Fiat Yamahas that were making all the running. Valentino Rossi was pulling away from Dani Pedrosa's Repsol Honda, while Pedrosa was under attack from behind by Rossi's team mate Jorge Lorenzo. Lorenzo was on Pedrosa as they braked for the Hairpin, and ahead on the exit of that tight turn. But his pass had left him with less drive down the following straight and by the end of it, Pedrosa had retaken 2nd, getting the better line into Turn 11.
... And Ladders
Lorenzo would not be denied for long, though. On the next lap, the Yamaha rider concentrated on his line through the first two corners, and getting the better drive out of Turn 2 set himself up to slide gracefully past Pedrosa into 2nd place as they rolled the bikes into the first of the double left handers at Turns 3 and 4. Lorenzo was on a charge, and was not ready to let anything get in his way.
That included his team mate. Over the next four laps, Lorenzo hunted Rossi down, arriving on his tail halfway through lap 7. But catching Valentino Rossi is one thing, passing him is another. Rossi knows how to make his bike as wide as the transporter that brought it to the track, and for two laps, Lorenzo simply couldn't find a way around. Until lap 9, when Lorenzo stepped up his attack.
The Spaniard tracked Rossi closely out of Turn 5 and through the S Curve, before lunging inside at Turn 9, the V Curve. Rossi, wily old veteran that he was, had been expecting him, and cutting back early held the tighter line, demoting Lorenzo back into 2nd. But Lorenzo would not be deterred. Tucking in behind Rossi down the back straight, Lorenzo used the Italian's draft to slingshot him forward and alongside Rossi, jamming his Fiat Yamaha right where The Doctor would have to turn in. The perfectly executed block pass left Rossi with no option but to hand over the lead and try to get back at Lorenzo further on.
But there was no getting back at Lorenzo. It was all Valentino Rossi could do to hang with his team mate for the next four laps, but on lap 15 Lorenzo turned up the wick a notch. With a lap time over a second faster than Rossi's, Lorenzo broke The Doctor's resistance, and the Spaniard was off to the races. Within two laps, the Spaniard's lead was over two seconds, a comfortable lead with two thirds of the race already gone.
Yes He Can
Comfortable, but not insurmountable. With 8 laps left, Rossi should have had plenty of time to close Lorenzo down, but instead, he found himself fending off a resurgent Dani Pedrosa. The Repsol Honda rider had slipped back after being passed by Lorenzo, but the battle between the two Fiat Yamahas had given him time to regroup and get back on to the leaders. With Rossi struggling after Lorenzo upped the pace, Pedrosa saw his chance, and started hounding the World Champion, waiting for a chance to pounce.
His chance came on lap 17. Often accused of not being able to outbrake other riders, Pedrosa attempted to dispel that myth by diving up the inside of Rossi into Turn 11. Unfortunately for Pedrosa, he failed, running a fraction wide and allowing Rossi back past on the exit of the turn. Smelling blood, Pedrosa tried again at the end of the home straight, trying again up the inside of Rossi into Turn 1. But again, the Spaniard ran wide, and Rossi cut in early for Turn 2 to snatch back 2nd place.
Knee injury or not, Pedrosa would not be denied. At the end of the back straight, the tiny Spaniard sliced inside again into Turn 11, and this time, Pedrosa made it stick. Demoted to 3rd, Rossi was left mulling over his options. Within a handful of corners, he had a plan. Getting the run out of Turn 4, Valentino Rossi slammed his Fiat Yamaha inside the Repsol Honda of Dani Pedrosa, leaving the Spaniard with nowhere left to go. Now back in 2nd, Rossi decided that enough was enough, and put his head down to start building a lead over Pedrosa again.
With a clear track ahead of him, Rossi picked up speed and started closing on Lorenzo. He gained back half a second of the 2 seconds deficit he had to his team mate, but as Rossi went faster, so Lorenzo picked up his pace. As the laps ticked down, Jorge Lorenzo managed the lead perfectly, crossing the line with over a second to spare to take his second victory in MotoGP, to add to the win he took in Portugal last year.
Coming Of Age
What was most impressive about this victory was how Lorenzo had taken it. Moving easily forward through the pack, then seeing off Valentino Rossi in a straight braking duel, and finally managing the gap he had back to Rossi all the way to the end, Jorge Lorenzo had done everything right and demonstrated every aspect of the skills that go to make a MotoGP champion. But Lorenzo immediately dismissed any talk of a championship push this year. "I am the leader in the championship but I still think that Stoner, Valentino and Pedrosa are stronger than us," he said after the race. "They are more experienced with the Bridgestone tires but we are still learning about them and improving."
Lorenzo's words should be taken with a sizable pinch of salt, though. Throughout the preseason, Lorenzo has insisted that he is not capable of winning the championship, but he always added a little twist to his words, telling reporters, "They have to win, I don't." It would be foolish to believe that the Lorenzoland flag which Jorge Lorenzo planted in Motegi was the only piece of territory the Spanish prodigy intended to claim this year.
Having seen off Pedrosa and unable to catch Lorenzo - despite setting his fastest lap of the race on the penultimate lap - Valentino Rossi was once again forced to settle for 2nd. Unlike Qatar, however, at least Rossi felt that he had stood a chance of winning here. Setup problems from a lack of practice had left the Italian to find a way around a handling issue he faced, but he had only lost a little ground to Lorenzo, and a Yamaha one-two showed the potential of the bike. Rossi may be 2nd in the championship after two races, but the single point that separates him from the leader Lorenzo must be regarded as an excellent start to his title defense.
Little Big Man
The final spot on the podium was both a surprise and not a surprise. Certainly, the sight of Dani Pedrosa on the podium is hardly a shock - he has stood on the box 28 times since entering the series in 2006. But Pedrosa is still recovering from very serious knee surgery, and has neither the strength or the range of motion in his knee that would allow him to race freely. Even more impressive was the fact that Pedrosa's front Bridgestone chunked so badly that the Japanese firm whisked it off to their R&D labs to investigate what happened to it.
Afterwards, he said he had been surprised at how well he had managed with the pain, expecting to start dropping back through the field. But he had held on, even seriously challenging Valentino Rossi for 2nd during the race. For Dani Pedrosa, Motegi was yet another gutsy display from an obviously talented rider. If this is how good Pedrosa is riding injured on a bike that he continues to complain has serious grip issues and with a defective front tire, imagine where he'll finish when he's fit and HRC have improved the RC212V.
If there were only ever three real candidates for victory at Motegi, the situation was a good deal messier behind the leading trio. Chris Vermeulen had started the race at the front, but had slipped back through the field with a quickshifter problem, and forced - horror of horrors! - to change gear using the clutch and throttle, rather than just relying on the quickshifter to cut the power when changing up. With Vermeulen gone, Andrea Dovizioso then forced his way forward, closing on the back of Dani Pedrosa all race, and at one point looking like he might even be able to challenge his Repsol Honda team mate for 3rd. But the Italian lost touch with Pedrosa in the second half of the race, and was forced to abandon any aspirations of a podium.
Like Vermeulen, Casey Stoner had started the race going backwards. The Australian's Ducati had developed a serious brake vibration problem, and it took Stoner a few laps to figure out how to ride around it. By that time, Stoner had dropped back to 7th, but once he had a feeling for how hard he could brake, he started to claw his way back through the field. Assisted by a mistake by Marco Melandri, who ran wide and handed Stoner a position, the Marlboro Ducati rider first passed Vermeulen, then chased down Andrea Dovizioso, chipping away at the Italian's lead lap by lap.
With just under two laps to go, Stoner finally caught the Repsol Honda and outwitted Dovizioso through the double apex left handers of Turns 3 and 4, holding a tighter line out of 3 to cut inside ahead through 4. Once past, Dovi was no match for him, and Casey Stoner came home in 4th disappointed that the brake problem had robbed him of a potentially better result, but pleased to have scored solid points towards the championship. Just three points separate championship leader Jorge Lorenzo and Casey Stoner in 3rd, so there's everything still all to play for.
Being passed by Stoner left Andrea Dovizioso to settle for 5th, but there was no shame in that. In his first year aboard the factory Repsol Honda, Dovizioso has rewarded the faith shown in him so far, and his race at Motegi was another solid showing, displaying maturity and the potential for more. As Dovi gets the hang of the Bridgestones, and as HRC start to sort out the problems with the RC212V - spurred on by the highly vocal criticism of Dani Pedrosa - Dovizioso could start to feature even further towards the front.
The Dark Knight
If Dani Pedrosa's 3rd place was impressive, Marco Melandri's 6th was downright awe-inspiring. Written off prior to the season's start, and on a bike which is at a developmental dead end, with Kawasaki having pulled out at the beginning of the season, Marco Melandri is starting to show the talent we last saw from him back in 2006. Taking 6th in Motegi ahead of two factory Suzukis and just behind a factory Honda will be both a huge boost to Melandri and the Hayate team, but also an important result in Kawasaki's home Grand Prix. Rest assured that the Kawasaki bosses were watching, and that Melandri's result is generating some intense discussions behind the scenes. Whether those discussions result in more money and development being poured into the subject remains to be seen, however.
Loris Capirossi was the first of the Rizla Suzukis home in 7th place, riding a relatively lonely race as he battled the same setup problems that everyone faced due to a lack of practice time. Though Capirossi would have hoped for more - the Italian has won at this track 3 times, and always goes well here - 7th is a solid result for the Suzuki, and shows that the improvements the bike showed during the preseason are genuine.
Behind Capirossi, Mika Kallio was the second Ducati home, the Finn having another impressive race on the Pramac Ducati. Kallio had been engaged in a battle with James Toseland and Randy de Puniet for the first half of the race, eventually breaking free of them to bring the Pramac Ducati across the line in 8th. Kallio's two 8th places are not just important for the Finnish rookie, they are cause for relief at Ducati's Borgo Panigale base as well. For two years now, it has appeared as if only Casey Stoner is capable of taming the Bologna Beast, Ducati's fickle and difficult Desmosedici. But two good results at different tracks from Kallio in his rookie year in MotoGP suggest that that may not be an impossible task after all. As long as the bike is ridden by someone with no prior experience of a MotoGP bike, it seems.
The loser in the duel for 8th was James Toseland, but the Tech 3 Monster Yamaha man was pleased nonetheless. After two huge crashes in the preseason and a 16th place finish at Qatar after the Yorkshireman ran off the track, a top 10 finish is a first step on the road back to form for Toseland. But the double World Superbike champion will need to show a lot more than just a 9th spot if he is to keep his job at the end of the season.
The problems with his quickshifter left Chris Vermeulen struggling, and finally finishing in 10th place. Vermeulen had qualified 4th, and without the technical difficulties would have been capable of more. But whether that would have been enough to stay with the front runners is open to debate.
The one thing that Randy de Puniet has lacked has been consistency, and the Frenchman has corrected that problem so far this season. However, that consistency only got de Puniet to 11th at Motegi, after a 10th spot at Qatar. The only remarkable thing about de Puniet's weekend was the arrival of the Playboy sponsorship, which had been taboo at Qatar. De Puniet's team boss must be hoping that that won't be the only reason for public interest at Jerez.
A seething Colin Edwards finished in 12th place. Toseland's Tech 3 team mate had had a great race at Qatar and had showed strongly in practice at Motegi, topping the wet practice session on Saturday morning. But a technical snafu left the Texan riding the dry Motegi circuit with the engine management stuck on a rain setting. "Mid-corner I was wide open and nothing would happen," Edwards said later. But with Edwards in sparkling form, he will be a factor once we get back to Europe.
After his brilliant if controversial 6th place at Qatar, Alex de Angelis had an anonymous race at the back of the field, eventually coming home 13th. Like de Puniet, de Angelis needs to stop crashing and finish races, something both men have achieved so far this year. But Fausto Gresini will expect de Angelis to do better than 13th. The man from San Marino has his work cut out for him.
Niccolo Canepa was pleased with his first MotoGP championship points, but that was all. Once again, the Italian rookie was a backmarker from the start, and only Toni Elias' crash stopped Canepa from being in last place.
After losing the front and sliding out at Turn 10, Toni Elias remounted to ride a lonely race and finish in the points. Elias was upset at being forced to ride the 2009 RC212V chassis, which has caused Dovizioso and Pedrosa such grief, the two other men on factory Hondas. Losing the front will not have improved Elias' mood. He must have been hoping for a good deal more when he signed a deal to ride a factory Honda with Fausto Gresini's top-notch satellite squad.
Though Elias was the last of the official finishers, Sete Gibernau was circulating at the end as well. And like Elias, Gibernau had crashed, the Spanish veteran sliding out on lap 13, then returning to the pits for repairs. But in need of valuable practice time, Gibernau had gone back on the track, to eventually finish 7 laps behind the winner, and officially not classified.
At least Gibernau had been able to return to the track. Nicky Hayden's run of terrible luck aboard the Ducati continued at Motegi, after he was broadsided by an overenthusiastic Yuki Takahashi, hoping to make an impression at his home Grand Prix. He made an impression alright: On Hayden's fairing with his tire. Poor Hayden came down on exactly the same part of his back that he injured in Qatar in a highside, and though he did not injure himself further, he was bitterly disappointed at losing even more track time, time that he feels he desperately needs.
Is Less More?
After the processional opening round at Qatar, MotoGP fans' hopes of more excitement were answered at Motegi. Multiple passes for the lead, and multiple passing and repassing on the same lap is just what the doctor - or in this case, The Doctor - ordered. The single tire rule, aimed at making the racing more exciting, had worked. Or had it?
A more likely explanation can be gleaned from the litany of complaints that just about every single rider had at the end of the race. The loss of qualifying due to bad weather, combined with the scrapping of Friday morning practice and the reduction in the length of the sessions from 1 hour to 45 minutes left everyone guessing as to setup. The riders had had just a single dry session on Friday, leaving them with no other option than to use what they had and hope for the best. Everyone had got it wrong to some extent or other, leaving the riders to struggle with unwilling bikes that would not do what they wanted.
And the racing was all the better for it. Ordinarily, MotoGP is about getting the setup as near to perfect as you can, and then making as few mistakes as possible for the 45 minutes of the race. The rider with the best setup and the fewest mistakes wins, and usually by a comfortable margin. But Motegi was different: It was a battle of improvisation, of riding around problems, and of coping with what the conditions had thrown at you.
The lack of practice rewarded the teams with the best basic setup, and the riders best able to adapt to a bike that wouldn't do exactly what they wanted. And as they struggled, so they made mistakes, allowing other riders past, and offering opportunities to regain positions too. The lack of practice actually made for a pretty exciting race.
The teams and the riders must be hoping that Dorna don't make this same connection. If they do, then it would be a good time to put a sizable sum on Friday being scrapped altogether. And if it did make the racing more exciting, how many fans would be willing to sacrifice a day of watching practice for closer racing?