That tires play an important role in MotoGP has been made abundantly clear this season. From the Yamaha M1 suffering extreme chatter at the start of the season, through two Valentino Rossi DNFs due to tires shredding, to the rise of the former 250 riders, used to lots of grip and high corner speeds, those black sticky hoops have had a major impact on the course of the MotoGP championship. To make things worse, the tire factor has played all one way so far this season, with Rossi, Edwards, Checa and Ellison all complaining of terrible vibration, while the massed Honda riders have breezed through races, their tires looking nearly as unblemished at the finish as when the mechanics took off the tire warmers on the grid. That kind of luck cannot hold, of course. The only question was when it would break, and who would be the victim.
So, as the grid formed on a surprisingly dry and sunny Sunday afternoon in the Czech Republic, the question of tires hung in the air. Camel Yamaha seemed to have solved Rossi's problems with the M1, as The Doctor had been consistently fast all weekend, finally managing to qualify on the front row again with a mind-bogglingly fast pole record. Bridgestone seemed to have some answers too, with Loris Capirossi consistently keeping his Ducati at the top of the timesheets with Rossi. Shinya Nakano's 5th spot on the grid was confirmation the Bridgestones were good. And the winds of fate seemed to be shifting, as at Brno, it was the Hondas which were struggling with tires, none of them managing to set fast lap sequences on race tires. Nicky Hayden's 4th spot on the grid was small consolation, but it was just a single fast lap on qualifiers, whereas both Pedrosa and Melandri were a long way down the field. The question was, could that be remedied on the day of the race?
The Red Rocket
As the red lights dimmed, and engines roared, Loris Capirossi justified his relaxed attitude to losing pole position by getting a fantastic start, hammering away from the line to lead the charging pack into the first turn. Behind Capirossi, Nicky Hayden made good his loss in qualifying, slipping past Valentino Rossi to enter Turn 1 in 2nd place, ahead of front row sitters Rossi and Kenny Roberts Jr. Hayden's advantage was to be short-lived, though, as going into Turn 4, Rossi was back past and into 2nd.
Behind the top 4, Casey Stoner had gotten another one of his trademark lightning starts, leaping from 12th place on the grid, to claim 5th place. Two turns later, the young Australian was past Kenny Jr into 4th, his sights set firmly on Hayden. Then, to add insult to injury, in the last combination before the riders returned to roar past the finish line, Dani Pedrosa muscled his way up the inside of Roberts to force the former champion yet further down the grid.
From the very start, Loris Capirossi was unleashed. At the end of the first lap, he was 0.8 seconds ahead. The diminutive Ducatisti smashed Valentino Rossi's lap record on lap 2 by 0.3 of a second, then did it again on lap 3, setting a blisteringly fast 1:58.157, over 6/10ths of a second faster than last year's time. Behind Capirossi, there was no one who could match his pace. By the end of lap 3, Capirex was nearly 1.8 seconds ahead, and was adding nearly half a second to his lead every lap. And by the half-way point, the Italian veteran looked almost untouchable, having built a lead of nearly 6 seconds. If any questions remained about his fitness after the injuries he'd sustained in the horrific first corner pile up at Catalunya, they were being answered, loudly and categorically.
Secure And Hold
If the matter of the race lead was settled, the other places were up for grabs. After briefly losing 2nd to Nicky Hayden on the first lap, Valentino Rossi started to steal an inkling of a gap, aided by Hayden's forced defense of his 3rd place. Although Stoner had leaped into 4th by lap 2, both Dani Pedrosa and a revitalized Colin Edwards pushed past him on the next lap. Kenny Roberts Jr, after running superbly in practice, and getting a decent start, seemed to be going backwards, slipping to 8th place by the end of lap 5. Whether this was permanent, or the temporary result of a harder tire choice, only time would tell.
By lap 6, Nicky Hayden seemed to have the situation under control. Unable to threaten Rossi, but close enough for his potential points deficit to be limited, and ahead of his closest rivals in the championship. But on the next lap, his control started to slip. Chief title challenger Dani Pedrosa had been right on Hayden's tail for several laps, and on lap 7, he pushed, before whipping out of his slipstream along the pit straight to out-brake him going into Turn 1. Once past Hayden, Pedrosa immediately pulled away, closing on 2nd place Rossi and leaving Hayden behind. But the Kentucky Kid's troubles weren't over yet: Marco Melandri had caught him within a lap, and going into the last left-right combination before the finish line, Melandri was past Hayden, and into 4th. If Melandri were to leave Hayden like Pedrosa had, Hayden's defense of his title lead would be made more difficult yet.
Fortunately for Hayden, though Melandri could pass him, he couldn't get a way. With Capirossi off over the horizon, and Rossi and Pedrosa pulling away to get a 3 second cushion, behind Melandri, a group was forming. Nicky Hayden clung valiantly to 5th, ahead of Casey Stoner, with Kenny Roberts Jr, Shinya Nakano, Colin Edwards and John Hopkins all closing up behind. With a group that close, mistakes are costly, a truism that was to be played out many more times today. On lap 13, Melandri ran wide, allowing both Hayden and Stoner to get past. This was not to be the last mistake that day.
At the front, Loris Capirossi was putting on a racing demonstration. For lap after lap, he was faster than everyone else on the track, running consistent 1:58s until lap 15, settling to 1:59s from lap 19 onwards. By lap 18, his lead was 8 seconds, and barring misfortune, the race was his. In this strangest of seasons, mechanical misfortune could never be ruled out, but Capirex rode smoothly and sensibly, if brutally fast, and cruised home to take the win.
With 1st place taken, there was the small matter of 2nd place to be settled. Valentino Rossi had given up chasing Capirossi, and was concentrating on holding on to 2nd place. This was no easy task, however, with Dani Pedrosa constantly pushing, but apparently incapable of passing. By lap 17, Pedrosa dropped off a little, and seemed content to settle for 3rd. But this turned out to be nothing more than a ploy: on the next lap, the Spaniard crept forward to try and sneak up the inside of Rossi in the last part of the circuit. Rossi's response was firm and imperious, slamming the door on Pedrosa, and forcing him off his line. But Pedrosa wasn't done. It took him a lap to get back to The Doctor, but going into Turn 12, Pedrosa tried it again, this time with more success. Over the course of the next half a lap, Master and Pupil fought it out in a no-holds-barred brawl: Pedrosa might have got past Rossi at Turn 12, but Rossi got the better drive out of the corner, passing Pedrosa on the short straight before T13. But Pedrosa had anticipated this, as he slipped back up the inside of Rossi through T14, to lead over the line. Rossi used Pedrosa's slipstream to his advantage, whipping out to pass the Spaniard going into Turn 1, only to see Pedrosa come back past again in Turn 3. Two turns later, Rossi decided he'd had enough. Sliding up the inside into Turn 5, The Doctor put a trademark tough pass on Pedrosa, this time making it stick. Pedrosa had to admit defeat, but had posted a warning: Rossi had won this round, but there would be other races, and Pedrosa just keeps getting better and better.
Behind the podium candidates, the battle for points was hotting up. Although Nicky Hayden had skillfully taken advantage of Marco Melandri's mistake, his hold on 4th was tenuous at best. On lap 15, Casey Stoner came by going into Turn 1. Before the lap was over, Melandri would also pass Hayden, pushing Nicky down to 6th, losing yet more valuable points to his major rivals. By lap 18, Kenny Roberts Jr's tire gamble was starting to pay off. He was pushing Nicky Hayden, and two laps later, he was past, and by the end of the lap had pushed past both Stoner and Melandri, to take back 4th, the position he'd started from after the first turn of the first lap. Melandri held on take 5th ahead of Stoner.
So Very Tired
Where Roberts' tires gamble was paying off, Nicky Hayden was learning a painful lesson about tires gone bad. The Kentucky Kid had been struggling from the moment he'd been passed by Pedrosa, and by the time the last lap started, his tires were finished. Shinya Nakano tried stuffing his Kawasaki inside of Hayden into Turn 1 on the last lap, but Nicky grimly fought off his challenge. He bravely hung on to his 7th spot all the way to the last turn, but it was to be in vain. Going through and out of the last turn onto the start and finish line, both Shinya Nakano and John Hopkins got past, as Hayden struggled for traction getting onto the straight, pushing Hayden down to 9th, and dealing his title hopes a painful, though not terminal, blow.
Behind Hayden, Colin Edwards had been able to hold onto the group battling it out, and crossed the line in 10th, ahead of a group with Toni Elias, Chris Vermeulen and Makoto Tamada. Behind Tamada, Randy de Puniet took 14th ahead of Carlos Checa and Alex Hofmann. James Ellison crossed the line 30 seconds behind Hofmann, ahead of Ivan Silva in 18th and last.
An Open Contest
As the MotoGP circus returned from its summer break, fans and followers were afraid the excitement of the title race might be over, with Nicky Hayden in such a commanding lead. But the lesson of this season is that nothing can be taken for granted. Just because you're leading a race, it doesn't mean you'll actually get to finish, let alone win it. And just because you've got a seemingly unassailable lead in the title race, it doesn't mean the #1 plate will be yours. If we've learned anything this season, it's that this title will go down to the wire. The Fates are conspiring to keep this championship a thriller to the end. I think the Fates might be race fans.
Brno Race Results:
|1||65||Loris CAPIROSSI||Ducati Marlboro Team||43'40.145|
|2||46||Valentino ROSSI||Camel Yamaha Team||43'45.047||4.902|
|3||26||Dani PEDROSA||Repsol Honda Team||43'48.157||8.012|
|4||10||Kenny ROBERTS JR||Team Roberts KR211V||43'54.945||14.800|
|5||33||Marco MELANDRI||Fortuna Honda||43'55.170||15.025|
|6||27||Casey STONER||Honda LCR||43'55.844||15.699|
|7||21||John HOPKINS||Rizla Suzuki MotoGP||43'56.920||16.775|
|8||56||Shinya NAKANO||Kawasaki Racing Team||43'57.087||16.942|
|9||69||Nicky HAYDEN||Repsol Honda Team||43'57.206||17.061|
|10||5||Colin EDWARDS||Camel Yamaha Team||43'59.580||19.435|
|11||24||Toni ELIAS||Fortuna Honda||44'02.360||22.215|
|12||71||Chris VERMEULEN||Rizla Suzuki MotoGP||44'04.123||23.978|
|13||6||Makoto TAMADA||Konica Minolta Honda||44'05.112||24.967|
|14||17||Randy DE PUNIET||Kawasaki Racing Team||44'09.106||28.961|
|15||7||Carlos CHECA||Tech 3 Yamaha||44'09.441||29.296|
|16||66||Alex HOFMANN||Ducati Marlboro Team||44'09.946||29.801|
|17||77||James ELLISON||Tech 3 Yamaha||44'43.127||1'02.982|
|18||22||Ivan SILVA||Pramac d'Antín Ducati||45'24.920||1'44.775|
Championship Standings after Brno
|7||Kenny ROBERTS JR||USA||92|
|16||Randy DE PUNIET||FRA||23|
|19||Jose Luis CARDOSO||SPA||8|