An English Summer Afternoon
Donington Park is a quintessentially English circuit. Located just a few miles from the geographical center of England, it sits among rolling green hills, the very picture of the ideal English countryside. And what a circuit that English country idyll produces: the track snakes across the hillsides in a mixture of sweeping fast off-camber bends and short harsh hairpins, demanding the utmost of rider and bike. Its demanding nature is what makes it a firm rider favorite, matched only by Phillip Island, and the old, and sadly lamented, Assen.
You can see why the riders love it as you brake hard at the end of the finish straight, lining up for the sharp Redgate right-hander, cresting through Hollywood, and then rolling down perhaps the finest section in motorcycle racing: the glorious Craner Curves. Picture Laguna Seca's Corkscrew writ large and you have an idea of its sweeping grandeur. Running downhill, at 125 mph, the off-camber track falling away from you, Craner requires perfect setup and a delicate balance to get right. Too slow, and everyone blows by you, too fast, and you slide a long way across the grass, the old Spitfire peering down at your humiliation, as you join the many illustrious names to have suffered a similar fate. But where Craner requires delicacy, the Melbourne Loop needs utter commitment: first at the Hairpin, then at Goddards, it's a question of getting on the gas as hard as possible before braking as hard as possible to get through the first and second gear turns, a perfect place for desperate passing moves before rolling back over the finish line.
And what makes the British Grand Prix more English yet is the weather: held during an English summer, the weekend inevitably sees rain at some point. But last year's race was exceptional even by the standards of a damp English summer. The race was held in an utter downpour, the heavens opening in an attempt to drown the riders and 75,000 fans who turned out to witness one of the greatest demonstrations of wet weather riding ever given. After a great tussle in the rain, bikes squirming and sliding like knights trying to joust on a tightrope, Valentino Rossi finally dealt with and left behind Kenny Roberts Jr and Alex Barros on lap 22 of 29, proceeding to put over 2 seconds a lap on second and third place for the next three laps before bringing it home to a comfortable victory, his seventh in nine races of the season.
But the chances of the race being a repeat of last year don't look good. Firstly the weather looks like being fine, warm (for England), sunny and dry. And secondly, with Rossi fracturing a bone in his wrist last week at Assen, it seems unrealistic to expect The Doctor to be quite so devastatingly dominant. His wrist heavily strapped and his throttle thickly taped, Rossi rode a great race at Assen, for an injured man. But unlike Assen, Donington has the Melbourne Loop, with three sharp turns, each of which you approach at high speed (over 170 mph at the Esses, and 130 at Melbourne and Goddards), before braking hard down to 45 mph to make the turn, all of your weight forced onto the clipons, carried through your wrists. To do this once with a fractured wrist is painful. To do it 29 times is almost unbearable.
That the Yamaha is finally working right, after so many races suffering with chatter, was made stunningly obvious at Assen. If Colin Edwards had been just fractionally less committed to getting his first win in MotoGP on Saturday, he wouldn't have ended up onto, and off at, the astroturf on the inside of the GT chicane, and would have kept the win, instead of handing it to Nicky Hayden, whose last ditch move had sealed Edwards' determination, and indirectly, his fate. The Texas Tornado had been in almost perfect control for most of the race, showing a return to the form that he has sorely missed so far this season. With Donington one of his favorite tracks, and out to avenge himself for last week, Colin Edwards will surely be a force to be reckoned with this Sunday.
The man who forced, then capitalized on Edwards' misfortune, Nicky Hayden, must also be a favorite for the race. After finishing on the second or third step of the podium for every race but one this season, the Kentucky Kid finally proved to his critics that he could make aggressive passes and win races outside of the US. The points leader in the championship, leading second place Dani Pedrosa by a massive 42 points, Hayden can now race a little more freely. Taking a win away from home takes a lot of pressure off of the American Repsol Honda rider, allowing him to enjoy his racing, instead of always playing the numbers game.
Hayden's team mate, and closest challenger in the championship, Dani Pedrosa also landed on the podium last week. But in stark contrast to Hayden's unconfined joy, Pedrosa looked barely conscious of his third place, feeling it was undeserved after Edwards stacked it in the last corner. Once again, he spent the race in a 250 rematch with his old sparring partner Casey Stoner on the LCR Honda, and this pattern seems set to continue at Donington, if not for the rest of the season. Both young men run well at Donington, but will have to beware of the extra weight and power of the MotoGP bikes down through Craner.
Two other riders will be struggling with that weight and power: Both Ducati's Loris Capirossi and Fortuna Honda's Marco Melandri are still suffering the after effects of Catalunya's first corner pile-up. Capirossi is the worst affected of the two, and will be putting on another courageous, though arguably misguided, display on Sunday. The hard braking for the Melbourne Loop will not be kind to Capirossi's internal bleeding, and it's going to be another long race for him. Melandri seems in better shape, and came through the race at Assen stronger than Capirossi, though he faded towards the end.
Both Capirossi and Melandri also have replacement team mates this weekend. The German Alex Hofmann will continue in place of Sete Gibernau, who broke a collarbone in the same accident at Catalunya. Hofmann will hope to improve on his 12th place in Assen, in the hope of keeping the Marlboro Ducati for his home GP at the Sachsenring on July 16th, as Gibernau could possibly be back to racing fitness by then. A good result by Hofmann could give Sete another week's rest. Melandri's temporary team mate, Michel Fabrizio, the DFX Honda World Superbike rider, will almost certainly only see action for one race. The man he replaces, Toni Elias, is expected to be sufficiently recovered from the injury he suffered at Assen to race again in Germany. Fabrizio is no stranger to MotoGP, riding the WCM for the 2005 season, but as he said himself, the Honda RC211V is "very different". An altogether different proposition indeed.
The Home Team
One rider who knows Donington well is Suzuki's John Hopkins. The American rider lives just a few miles from the track and cycles past it frequently on his training rides. After a pole and a good start at Assen, both he and Chris Vermeulen will be looking for more at Donington, as the Rizla Suzuki team is based in Britain, and will want to do well for their home Grand Prix. The first part of the track really suits the nature of the Suzuki, requiring a bike which turns quickly, but it is still short on mid-range pull out of corners, and so what it gains through Craner will be lost at Melbourne.
Shinya Nakano and Randy de Puniet also have a bike known for its great handling, and after Nakano's 2nd place at Assen, the Kawasaki's equal best finish, they will be gunning for more. The Kawasaki suffers some of the same lack of mid-range as the Suzuki, so the section before start and finish will be difficult for them, but Nakano's style suits Donington. It will suit the highly technical Sachsenring even more, so it will be important for Nakano to carry the momentum given him by the podium at Assen through for the next couple of weeks. As the Bridgestone tires have always done well at Donington, this should not be too much of a problem.
Another rider with momentum is Kenny Roberts Jr. Kenny Sr's Team KR is based in Banbury, 60 or so miles from the Donington track, and so it will be a semi-home race for the Roberts family too. The KR211V is really starting to become competitive, and Kenny Jr is looking the most relaxed and comfortable he's looked for years. The team gets a new, slightly revised chassis at Donington, and are sure to be in contention again this weekend.
One surprise that's been creeping up over the past couple of races has been Carlos Checa's performance on the Dunlops. Checa set very fast times during the off-season on the Tech 3 Yamaha, but when racing started for real, the Dunlops just couldn't keep up. But the tires have improved, as over the past couple of races, Checa's lap times have been edging closer to the front runners' times, and could be very competitive if progress continues. All of which is good news for Checa's team mate James Ellison. The British rider will desperately want a decent result at his home Grand Prix, after a fairly disappointing season so far. Ellison is the last Yamaha rider to be using the old chatter-ridden Yamaha M1 chassis, and his crew have resorted to sawing holes in the frame to make the chassis less rigid, and more able to absorb the vibrations caused by chatter.
A Healthy Pursuit
After Thursday's spectacular Day of Champions, which helped to raise money for Riders for Health, the charity set up by Randy Mamola to provide transport for primary health care provision in Africa, the crowds will be hoping for good weather, and spectacular racing action. The weather forecasters have promised us sunshine, so it's down to the riders to provide us with the action. So far this season, it hasn't been too shabby, and with so many riders with so much to race for, the chances are our leather-clad heroes won't disappoint.