On any given race weekend, riders line up to be measured. They pit themselves and their machines against all comers, borne by an unwavering belief in their own ability to overcome their adversaries and the limitations of the equipment they have been given. They stand to be measured every time they line up. Sometimes, though, the measurement goes deeper. For there are some days when a racer has to step up and go beyond himself, beyond the limitations of his body and his machine, and reach a higher plane. On days such as those, the line which separates the great from the merely good becomes crystal clear: A good rider will give his utmost, and meet all that is expected of him; A great rider goes beyond himself, and rises above the field to do the seemingly impossible.
The Jerez MotoGP round was just such an occasion. Many questions had been answered at the opening race at Qatar, but in their answering, many others had been raised: Was Ducati's horsepower advantage the definitive blow of the season? Could Yamaha exploit their handling advantage at a slower track? Would Dani Pedrosa be able to stamp his authority on his home Grand Prix? And would the veterans who were doing so surprisingly poorly, such as Loris Capirossi and reigning champion Nicky Hayden, be able to solve the problems which seemed to dog them?
Practice had been a very mixed picture. The temperature differences between the cool morning sessions and the warm afternoon sessions meant that some people were running great times in one session, only to plummet to the bottom of the timesheets in the next. The new limits on tire choice showed the first signs of biting, as testing tires chosen for a warm afternoon race on a chilly morning was proving virtually pointless. And by the time qualifying was done, the picture was, if anything, even more confusing, Saturday's official Qualifying Practice producing the closest grid ever seen in MotoGP, with just over 3/10ths of a second covering the top 10 places, and the top 15 all inside of a single second. With the times so close, the race looked like being a lottery, with the run into the first corner looking ever more capable of deciding the race.
As the lights dimmed, and the pack roared off the line, there was a universal intake of breath. Last year at Jerez, Turn 1 set the tone for the rest of the year, as a hard-charging Toni Elias shunted Valentino Rossi off into the gravel, and setting Rossi on the long, hard road that would eventually lead him to lose his title. As the pack emerged unscathed from Turn 1, and headed off towards the rear of the track, the crowd collectively exhaled, glad that the race would be decided on the tarmac and not in the gravel traps.
The Doctor must have been delighted that his Spanish Grand Prix got off to a better start than last year, as he slotted in behind the Repsol Honda of Dani Pedrosa through the first few turns, before outbraking the Spaniard into the Dry Sack corner at the end of the back straight. Behind Rossi, the current world champion was hoping that his title defense would not suffer the same fate as Rossi's last year at Jerez. Nicky Hayden had been stuck down in 11th on the grid, but had got off to a fantastic start. By the time the pack exited Turn 1, the Kentucky Kid was up into 6th, and one corner later he was past the Ducati of Casey Stoner to take 5th. Two corners later, Hayden was past Carlos Checa and into 4th place behind Colin Edwards.
The scene seemed set for a repeat of the IRTA Test here in Jerez back in February, with the Fiat Yamahas and Repsol Hondas doing battle for the honors, with Valentino Rossi leading Dani Pedrosa, and Colin Edwards leading Nicky Hayden. For the first few laps, the lead four all stayed within spitting distance of each other, but no one could get close enough to pass. Rossi, Pedrosa, and Edwards seemed to be biding their time, and sparing their tires, keeping something in reserve for the latter part of the race. Only Hayden looked as if he would take no prisoners, desperate to turn his fast start into an ability to follow the lead pack round to the checkered flag.
One In, One Out
Behind the lead group, another group was forming. Casey Stoner had passed Carlos Checa on the LCR Honda, and was towing John Hopkins and Marco Melandri in his wake. Hopkins, clearly buoyed by his 4th spot in Qatar two weeks ago, was determined to go one better this time. By the end of lap 3, he had passed both Checa's Honda and Stoner's Ducati, and was off chasing Nicky Hayden. Just as Hopkins was checking out of the group, Melandri's Hannspree Honda team mate Toni Elias joined from the rear, making up the numbers in the four-way combat.
By the end of the next lap, Hopkins had caught Hayden, who in turn was having to let the trio of Rossi, Pedrosa and Edwards go, the Kentuckian's early speed starting to fade. But not by much: Try as he might, Hopkins could chase and follow Hayden, but he could not get past. Hopper pushed and pushed, on Hayden's tail all through the first set of turns, only to lose out fractionally to Hayden's top speed down the back straight. He could follow, but it took him 13 laps before he could get past.
Behind the American pair, a battle royal was unfolding. At first, it seemed that Marco Melandri was getting the better of it, passing Casey Stoner, and then Carlos Checa to slip into 6th. But as the laps progressed, it was Melandri's team mate Toni Elias who came out strongest. In a repeat performance of last year, when he charged his way through the field to finish 4th, the young Spaniard put on a spectacular display of his wild and ragged style that make him such a firm fan favorite, going back and forth with Stoner, Checa and Melandri before finally coming out ahead, and charging to catch Hopkins and Hayden ahead.
Cat And Mouse
Back at the front of the race, the question was whether Pedrosa could answer Rossi's charge. The Doctor put in lap after lap of fast, flowing racing, and lap after lap, Pedrosa hung on, closing up by 1/10th one lap, only to lose 1/10th the next. Colin Edwards broke first, losing touch on lap 9, but Pedrosa hung grimly on. Was he conserving his tires, keeping something in reserve for the last half of the race, or was he giving his all to to try and stay in touch? The answer finally came on lap 16. Pedrosa's deficit had been growing very slowly for the last few laps, but on lap 16, the Spanish title hopeful cracked, dropping nearly a second in a single lap. Though he recovered a little, by this time Pedrosa was down 2.4 seconds, and Rossi was definitively out of his reach.
The Doctor was left unperturbed by what was happening behind him, and kept banging in lap after lap, never flagging, only letting his times slip on the final lap, when victory was certain. The win put an end to Rossi's longest winless streak since winning his first race in what was then the 500 class back in Donington in 2000. All victories are sweet, but it was obvious that this one was all the sweeter for having been such a long time coming.
Behind Rossi, Dani Pedrosa rode a strong and steady race to take second, unchallenged for his step on the podium, but equally incapable of challenging Valentino Rossi for the win. And following Pedrosa, Colin Edwards found himself in a similar predicament: Incapable of catching either Pedrosa or Rossi, but safely ahead of the group behind. And like Rossi, Edwards ended a dry spell too, getting on the podium for the first time since Shanghai last year. After Yamaha's travails at Jerez last year, to have both their riders on the box was a vast relief.
Sharing Out The Spoils
Though the top 3 places were never really in danger after Hayden lost touch with Edwards on lap 5, there were still a whole mess of points to be shared out, and a group of scrapping racers hungry to take them. Nicky Hayden was still holding off Rizla Suzuki's John Hopkins, but with Toni Elias having left Carlos Checa, Marco Melandri and Casey Stoner to scrap amongst themselves, and quickly starting to close down the two Americans, Hopper realized he had to make his move if he was finally to get on the podium. With Elias breathing down his neck, the American finally managed to draft past Hayden down the back straight and out-brake him into the Dry Sack corner. This meant the end of Hayden's gallant defense of 4th, as once Hopkins was past, Elias quickly followed before the lap was over.
Once past, it was evident that Hopper was in a hurry. He knew he had an unleashed Toni Elias hot on his heels, and the group he had left early in the race was not far behind. If Hopkins wanted to finally get on to the podium, after so many long years of struggle, he had to get his head down and charge. His eagerness was evident, and excessive, for just half a lap later, Hopkins slid out, losing the front while pushing. He would later claim that a gust of wind had caught the front, but the way he was pushing, it seemed destined to end in tears. To his credit, Hopkins remounted his Suzuki, and went on to complete the race, finishing way down in 19th spot, but he was livid to have missed out on a podium yet again. If he stops tripping himself up, a podium must surely come soon.
This left Toni Elias with an unobstructed run at Colin Edwards, but by this time, it was too late. The gap had grown to nearly 4 seconds, and the young Spaniard had to settle for 4th, a repeat of last year. Elias seems to hold the copyright on charging his way through the field in spectacular fashion, and if he could only find a little consistency, he could yet feature heavily in the championship.
The Gentle Slide
With Elias past, Hayden's rearward progress continued. Within a couple of laps, he was caught by the group containing Checa, Stoner and Melandri. The Kentucky Kid had a couple of laps respite, while Checa and Stoner slugged it out for the right to take the first shot at Hayden, but once Stoner had settled that, he was past, and Hayden was left to hold off a flying Carlos Checa. Easing his task was the fact that Marco Melandri had run out of tires, his lap times rapidly going downhill, no longer a threat to the group ahead of him. But eventually, Hayden was no match for Checa, and had to let the Spanish veteran past. A disillusioned Hayden finished the race in 7th, and disappeared into his pit with a huge pile of questions about how he will ever get this Honda 800 cc RC212V to work to his liking.
Behind Melandri, the final points were being scrapped over even harder than the mid placings. The battle for 9th spot was prolonged and fierce, with Suzuki's Chris Vermeulen, Honda's Shinya Nakano, the two Ducatis of Loris Capirossi and Alex Barros, the Kawasaki of Randy de Puniet and Kenny Roberts Jr aboard the KR212V all swapping places for lap after lap. The running order changed continuously, with no one seemingly able to either make a break or make a pass stick. The lottery was finally decided in favor of Vermeulen, who managed to keep Barros and Nakano behind him with enormous difficulty. Capirossi and De Puniet had dropped off the back a little, having been held up by what looked like the first instance of a fuel shortage, Kenny Roberts bike showing signs of erratic running on the final laps, failing in the end even to make the parade lap, Roberts Jr parking his deceased machine against the end of pit wall after crossing the line, having been robbed of points by his failing equipment. The sight of a dead Team KR bike bearing the skull and crossbones of their sponsor's logo seemed somehow fitting, if a tough break for the little team who work so hard. The final points went to the Dunlop-shod Tech 3 Yamaha team, veteran Makoto Tamada just managing to pip his rookie team mate Sylvain Guintoli to the post.
The Mark Of Greatness
There are times when riders have to step up to the mark, and stake their claim to greatness. Today was such a day, and Valentino Rossi responded by putting an emphatic end to his long winless streak. If Rossi wanted to prove that he is still a great champion, and the one man that others must beat if they want a shot at the title, then this dominant win at Jerez was the way to do it. Similarly, if Dani Pedrosa wanted to claim his place in history, and become the man standing in the way of Rossi's 6th MotoGP crown, today was the day to step up and win his home Grand Prix, or at least push Rossi to the limit in trying to stop him. Dani Pedrosa rode a brilliant, solid race today, but he came up short on the path to greatness. To take a title from Rossi, you must at the very least beat him at your home Grand Prix. Whether reasonable or not, every man, woman and child in Spain expects this of Pedrosa, but today he could not fulfill these expectations. Fortunately for Pedrosa, there are two more races to be held here in Spain, so his day may yet come. That day, the day that Pedrosa and Rossi face off in individual combat, is a day that race fans all over the world, but especially in Spain, eagerly await.
And what of the other men marked for greatness before the season began? Reigning world champion Nicky Hayden fought a courageous but doomed rearguard action, starting at the front and sliding ever further rearwards. He has so far failed to get comfortable with the Honda RC212V, complaining of a lack of feel from the front end. Though the relative scarcity of Hondas at the front of the field would seem to suggest that HRC have yet to turn the RC212V into the near invincible weapon that its predecessor was, Dani Pedrosa, Toni Elias and Carlos Checa found a way to make the Honda fly. With two days of testing to follow the Jerez race, Hayden has his work cut out to achieve just that.
Then there are two more winners from last year: Marco Melandri and Loris Capirossi. Melandri is close to getting the Honda to work, but not quite there yet. The next stop on the MotoGP itinerary is Istanbul, scene of one of Melandri's victories from last year, so we can expect much from Macio there. Whether he can live up to these expectations remains to be seen. As for Loris Capirossi, the old man of the paddock is looking like just that: an old man. Circulating at the rear of the pack, it seems Capirex' mind is more on the imminent arrival of his first child than on the imminent arrival of the checkered flag. They say that a child adds a second to a racer's lap times, and a quick glance at Capirossi's timesheets seems to bear out the truth of this rumor. By the time we get to Turkey, Capirossi's child should have arrived. Maybe then, we will see the return of the man that many have tipped for the championship this year. On his current form, that looks like very poor judgment indeed.
And so, the next stop is Turkey, a grand, flowing track with one of the most terrifying turns of the season. With its long, fast back straight, the Ducatis could once again unleash the stableful of Italian ponies they so brutally displayed in Qatar. But at the end of that straight awaits a section of three turns, requiring maximum agility, something the Yamahas have in abundance. In four weeks time, we get to see whether agility or brute force wins.