Motorcycle racing is full of drama. It's the reason so many people love it so much. After the drama at Mugello, the race at Catalunya was eagerly anticipated. Could the second Spanish round live up to the previous race weekend in Italy? MotoGP followers were divided into two camps: the optimists, who saw the monster tussle at Mugello as a sign of a continuing season of claustrophobically close and exciting racing; and the pessimists, who saw Rossi's win as a sign that The Doctor's early problems with his Yamaha were fixed, and believed that much of the excitement in MotoGP was over. Both camps would be proved wrong at the Montmelo circuit near Barcelona. The day was to be full of drama, but would also presage a change in title fortunes.
The day started well: riders which much had been expected of, but had qualified badly, suddenly seemed to have found answers to their problems. Dani Pedrosa and Casey Stoner set a blistering pace on race tires, 6/10ths of a second under the existing lap record, Sete Gibernau half a second slower in fourth, behind Kenny Roberts Junior. With Valentino Rossi down in 9th spot, the 20 minute session seemed to point to the race being a much closer affair than Rossi's scorching pole time suggested. So the grid, ever a highly strung place, was tenser than ever. If the championship contenders were to run with Rossi during the race, the start was going to be crucial. If Rossi was allowed to get into the first corner at the head of the field, everyone knew he would be gone. Fortunately, and yet also, unfortunately, modern MotoGP bikes are equipped with launch control electronics, which give the riders a better chance of making good their poor positions on the grid by getting a clean start. So as the red lights came on, and the hills of Catalunya were deafened by the shriek of nineteen 130 decibel racing motorcycles being held at full throttle, the world seemed to hold its breath.
A fraction of a second later, in a blur of violent color, those motorcycles launched into the void of an empty race track, heading for the first corner at full tilt. The Jackson Pollock splatter of color was testament to launch control helping everyone get off the starting line fast, yet it was also blatantly obvious that launch control alone is not enough to guarantee a good start. John Hopkins, having put his Suzuki on the second place on the grid, got off to an awful start, losing 9 places or so before the pack was even halfway towards the first corner. Nicky Hayden, on the other hand, got away great, leapfrogging forward from seventh on the grid to slip in behind Valentino Rossi in second. But Hayden's fantastic start was overshadowed by Casey Stoner. The young Australian left the grid as if powered by NASA. From a lowly eighth place on the grid, the rocket-propelled Stoner fired to the front, diving into the first corner with several bike lengths lead.
But behind Stoner, chaos had been unleashed. Sete Gibernau, knowing that he had to be near the front into the first corner to race for a home win, had got off the line very fast, catching level with Ducati team mate Loris Capirossi as they approached the braking zone for the chicane at the end of the finish straight. Drifting slightly to the right as Capirossi drifted slowly to the right, the inevitable collision saw Gibernau catch his front brake lever on Capirossi's fairing, jamming his front brake full on. His front wheel locked up, flipping the red machine and launching Gibernau spectacularly into the air. Capirossi ricocheted off this collision into Marco Melandri, causing both Melandri and Capirossi to be tossed from their bikes in simultaneous highsides. Gibernau, being in the middle of the pack just as the riders started to turn in right for the chicane, was lucky to come down in a patch of clear track, his spinning bike not taking any other riders out, with the only subsequent casualty being Randy de Puniet, forced to ride his Kawasaki straight on into the gravel trap to avoid being struck by the flying Ducati. But Sete had landed badly, breaking a collarbone and suffering a concussion.
Marco Melandri was less lucky. Melandri had been on the inside line heading towards the turn when Capirossi struck him. Once launched, both Melandri and Capirossi slid straight on, just as the riders were cutting across their path to enter the chicane. Capirossi got caught up with his Ducati, being dragged into the gravel trap in turn one, suffering suspected internal bleeding in the process. But poor Melandri ended up being sandwiched between his own bike and Dani Pedrosa's Honda as they headed towards the gravel, breaking his collarbone and suffering a concussion. He was eventually carried from the gravel wearing a neck brace, and was sent to a local hospital to be checked for damage to his neck. Pedrosa, having been dumped in the gravel, picked his bike up, and got a marshal to help bump start it. But on starting it and riding off, he immediately fell again as he rode through some gravel along the tire wall in an attempt to rejoin the race.
Where Dani Pedrosa had fallen once his bike had hit the gravel, John Hopkins was to suffer a harsher fate. Hopkins had been outside Pedrosa as they headed into turn one, and was skittled off into the gravel at high speed when Pedrosa was taken down by Melandri and Capirossi. Hopkins still had plenty of momentum as he hit the gravel trap, and shot straight towards the tire wall, losing much, but by no means all of his speed, colliding with the wall harshly. With turn one littered with crash wreckage and several injured riders, the race director had no choice but to red flag the race as the remaining riders passed the start and finish line for the first time.
If At First You Don't Succeed...
The atmosphere in the pits was subdued, as riders and such crew who weren't hectically rushing to get second bikes ready to race watched the footage on their TV screens. As news filtered through that the riders, though injured, were not critical, the atmosphere was much relieved, memories of Daijiro Kato's fatal crash at Suzuka in 2003 still fresh in everyone's minds. Fifteen minutes later, everyone but the two Ducatis and Melandri's Fortuna Honda lined up to try once again.
But the drama was not yet done: as the bikes returned to line up after the warm up lap, Chris Vermeulen held up his hand and started signaling frantically, his Suzuki apparently having stalled. As he parked his bike against the pit wall, the pits and officials began another round of frenetic activity. It was decided to run another warm up lap, and try again. Riders and teams were looking worried, as for most riders, this would be the third warm up lap on tires which are constructed to last exactly race distance, a problem compounded by the first race lap most people had already ridden. So the warm up lap was taken fairly gently, and as the riders lined up on the grid for the third time, the world once again held its breath, not to exhale until everyone was safely through the first turn.
...Try, Try, and Try Again
As the lights went out, most of the grid started just a fraction more gently than the first time round, afraid of blowing up fragile clutches, except for one man. Casey Stoner was disappointed when interviewed after the first race had been red-flagged: after all, what were the odds of being able to pull off another lightning start like that? About 100%, as it turned out, for it was Stoner who led into the first chicane again, in a carbon copy of his start in the first race. John Hopkins decided against copying his first start, and shot off to follow Stoner through turn one. Nicky Hayden had taken a leaf from Stoner's book, firing through the field to latch on to Hopkins tail in third spot. Valentino Rossi had taken a gentler start, dropping from pole to sixth, behind Kenny Roberts Junior and Shinya Nakano.
As the bikes returned to the front straight for the first time, Nicky Hayden pulled out of John Hopkins' slipstream to blast past into second. But Hopper was not one to take this lying down: through the first and second sections of the track, Hopkins took second back from Hayden, only to lose it again further round. Through the first few laps, the front group stuck together, with Stoner leading Hayden from Hopkins, with Roberts, Rossi, Vermeulen, Elias and Nakano following. Vermeulen, Elias and Nakano started to lose touch with the front five, and as the laps progressed, Valentino Rossi started to pick his way forward, place by place.
Behind the leaders, Dani Pedrosa, who had got a bad start, was also on the move. Eleventh at the end of the first lap, the Spaniard, short of stature but big of heart, set blazing times for lap after lap. As he moved inexorably forward, it seemed only a matter of time before he joined the front runners. Meanwhile, Shinya Nakano was showing once again that he could not capitalize on a good start. His slide down the table was exacerbated when it turned out that his good start had been down to taking off before the lights had gone out, and he was called in for a jump start. But the Kawasaki rider's attention was fully engaged by the tussle he was in with Melandri's team mate Toni Elias, and, after failing to notice his lap board and come in for a ride-through penalty, he was shown the black flag. Kawasaki's weekend got even worse just one lap later when Randy de Puniet crashed out, losing the front end of his Kawasaki. De Puniet was not to be the last rider to pull out of this bizarre, drama-laden race.
Slip Sliding Away
One lap later, on lap nine, just after Valentino Rossi had caught and passed Casey Stoner, the Australian LCR Honda rider was the next to go, also losing the front end round the tight left-hander of turn 10. On the next lap, Toni Elias slid out on one of the fast right handers. And a lap later, just as Dani Pedrosa had caught Kenny Roberts along the front straight after a fantastic charge, the front folded on the Spaniard through the first turn. With just eleven riders left on the track, this was to be the last crash of a strange race.
At the front of the race, the riders seemed to be pairing up: Rossi and Hayden led, a few seconds ahead of Roberts and Hopkins, who were a couple more seconds ahead of Vermeulen and Colin Edwards. Where Hayden could follow Rossi, but not pass him, Kenny Jr and Hopper were far from settled on who would take third, swapping positions until Roberts finally managed to put some space between his KR211V and Hopper's Suzuki. But Hopkins could not be blamed: banged up from his run-in with the tire wall, he was out on his spare bike, a machine he hadn't ridden all weekend, and was starting to tire. Behind him, Edwards got past Vermeulen, but by this time it was too late to move any further forward. Behind Vermeulen, Carlos Checa was demonstrating that the Dunlop race tires had made a couple of steps forward, chasing down Makoto Tamada on the Michelin-shod Honda, falling just short at the line.
With six laps to go, The Doctor finally tired of playing follow-my-leader with Hayden, and proceeded to leave the Kentucky Kid behind. By the final lap, he had built up enough of a lead to showboat for the crowd, sliding the back out and spinning it up spectacularly, still crossing the line with four and a half seconds to spare. His last laps were nearly all around a second faster than Hayden's, an impressive display on worn tires.
Behind Hayden, Kenny Roberts Junior crossed the line in third, to the elation of his team. A tired and beat-up Hopkins finished fourth, falling just short of the podium once again, but a hard-fought and well-deserved result. Rossi's Yamaha team mate Colin Edwards finished in fifth, ahead of Hopkins' team mate Chris Vermeulen. Makoto Tamada managed to keep ahead of Carlos Checa to hold on to seventh, with Checa's team mate James Ellison nearly 30 seconds behind in ninth. Pramac d'Antin's Alex Hofmann and Jose Luis Cardoso were the best Ducatis of the race, taking the final points in tenth and eleventh.
The Title Turned Upside Down
Like the previous race at Mugello, the GP de Catalunya is a race that will be remembered for a long time. Sadly, it won't be for the same reason as Mugello, as the racing was nowhere near as exciting, and the effect this race has had on the championship is similarly disheartening. With Capirossi, Melandri, and Pedrosa scoring blanks, the close four-way race is over. And with Melandri and Gibernau sure to be gone for several weeks at the least, which could mean up to four races, and Capirossi uncertain for next Saturday's Dutch TT at Assen at the least, the title race basically comes down to whether Hayden can hold off Rossi until the end of the season. If Rossi continues in his current form, that's going to be supremely difficult. Now that Yamaha has cured most of his chatter problems, The Doctor looks just about unstoppable.
But the crashes have unearthed a deeper weakness of the MotoGP series: Eight bikes crashed out this weekend, leaving only eleven finishers. That's a pretty poor tally for motorcycle racing's premier series. What's more, we have four races coming up over the next five weekends, and with Melandri, Gibernau, and possibly Capirossi out, replacements are going to be hard to find. Half-empty grids could be a presage of next season, with Honda being the only manufacturer so far to make satellite bikes available when the class switches to the 800cc capacity, several others citing cost considerations for only running factory teams.
But next year is still nine months away, and we have motorcycle races to enjoy. Next week, the paddock moves to Assen. With the redesigned Strubben hairpin already having claimed a number of crash victims during national races in Holland, the depleted MotoGP grid may view the race with some trepidation.