Sometimes, life seems scripted. Events, personalities and locations seem to align so perfectly that keen observers believe they can discern a pattern among the entrails of what is unfolding before them, and, borne by their smugness at believing they have glimpsed the future, they make proud predictions and pompous pronouncements. But the Fates do not allow such conceit to stand unchallenged, and love nothing more than to prick such pomposity with the cold, sharp razor of reality. For what we are surrounded by is not the pattern of history, but the strands of the stories we impose upon it, as we have done from the dawn of time.
There was no shortage of pompous pronouncements going into the Shanghai round of MotoGP. Every journalist, commentator, fan and internet forum visitor, including your humble scribe, were predicting that the Ducatis would take a clean sweep in China, powering away from the field down Shanghai's endless back straight and shorter front straight, leaving the rest to squabble over whatever crumbs the Beasts From Bologna deigned to leave them. Naturally, these pronouncements conveniently overlooked the fact that in spite of those two vast arrows of tarmac, the track on China's eastern seaboard has one of the lowest average speeds of the season. The circuit is littered with hairpins, chicanes and almost endless turns, demanding agility and corner speed, to rival the sheer top speed of those long straights.
Pricking The Bubble
Our hubris was punctured from the very first practice session. For though the Ducatis sat proudly atop the maximum speed standings, their hegemony only interrupted by the flyweight Dani Pedrosa aboard the Honda, the fastest laps were being set by riders on slow bikes: John Hopkins on the Suzuki and Valentino Rossi on the Yamaha. The one exception to the Rule of the Agile was Casey Stoner. The young Australian was the only Ducati rider whose name was consistently to be found at the top of the timesheets, while team mate Loris Capirossi and the Pramac Alexes Barros and Hofmann were left swimming mid-field amid a gaggle of Hondas.
And once qualifying came around, the red bikes looked more vulnerable still. The weekend's fastest men Rossi and Hopkins were joined by Kawasaki's surprise package Randy de Puniet at the front of the field, the engineers from team green having found an extra 10 horsepower to power the young Frenchman into contention. After the frenetic final fifteen minutes of qualifying had finished not a word was being spoken about the Ducatis, as the world was left speechless by Valentino Rossi's near perfect qualifying lap, smashing Dani Pedrosa's previous pole record, set on a bigger, more powerful bike, by over half a second, and leading the field by nearly 9/10ths of a second. Casey Stoner had managed a mere 4th place on the grid, behind the Yamahas of Rossi and Colin Edwards, and the Suzuki of Hopkins, the other Ducatis left down in 8th, 11th and 14th. If this was to be the reign of terror which the Ducatis were supposed to impose down Shanghai's straights, then the Japanese manufacturers didn't really have much to fear.
So once the lights went out, and the MotoGP pack took off to hunt down the first corner, thoughts of Ducati dominance had receded to the back of everyone's minds. At the forefront was John Hopkins, who had gotten a fantastic start, to lead the two Yamahas into the first turn, Rossi ahead of Colin Edwards, while Casey Stoner had not gotten his usual rocket-assisted start, managing to hold 4th ahead of Dani Pedrosa and Marco Melandri.
Behind Pedrosa, chaos was unleashed round Turns 1 and 2. Shades of Turkey ensued, this time featuring Toni Elias who came into far to hot, trying to make up for his poor 12th spot on the grid going round the long right-hander. Nicky Hayden had been forced to brake as Randy de Puniet cut across his line, but it was too late for the Rocketship Elias. Toni was going too fast, and had nowhere to go except the back of Hayden's bike, forcing the Kentucky Kid to run off the track and across the grass. The blow sent Elias flying, but left Toni's bike parked across the bows of Alex Barros, who found the front wheel of his Pramac d'Antin Ducati stuck in the Gresini Honda. Hayden rejoined at the rear of the pack, joined 35 seconds later by the unfortunate Barros, who had stalled his bike and had managed the impressive feat of bump-starting a large-capacity, high-compression racing motorcycle, but Terrible Toni was left down and out, a victim of his own impetuousness.
Back at the front, the question of tactics was raised. Colin Edwards, interviewed on the grid, had mentioned the need for someone to stay behind and block the Ducatis. With his Fiat Yamaha team mate Valentino Rossi hot on the heels of race leader John Hopkins, and the Texas Tornado between Rossi and the first of the Ducati men, Casey Stoner, it looked like that task fell to him. But Edwards was still set in hurry-up mode, and was sat close behind Rossi, concentrating on racing, rather than blocking.
Going into Turn 11, the sharp left-hander which prefaces the long right leading onto the back straight, The Doctor pounced. Rossi was past Hopkins, and leading the pack as they thundered down the back straight for the first test of power. The scene had been set during the 250 race, where Andrea Dovizioso had used the maneuverability of his Honda 250 to counter the pace of the Aprilias, losing less down the back straight than expected. And now we would see whether the Suzukis and Yamahas could do the same to the mighty Ducatis. The answer came at the middle of the straight, Stoner's Ducati powering past both Colin Edwards in 3rd and John Hopkins in 2nd, to sit tight behind Rossi as they braked hard for the hairpin, the slowest corner on the track, and the slowest corner of the season. By Turn 16, the corner that leads onto the front straight, Stoner was next to Rossi, and though Rossi got better drive onto the straight, the Italian could only manage to lead across the finish line by a fraction, before being Stoner blew by using his Bolognese stallions.
Behind Rossi, Marco Melandri had adeptly used Casey Stoner's draft to close up on Hopkins, outbraking the Suzuki man for 3rd place into Turn 1. Melandri, who has had a very mixed season so far, had looked strong during the morning warm-up, and was looking even stronger as he started to chase down The Doctor. He was close by Turn 11, and used a classic drafting move, no doubt picked up during his days of racing 125s, to fly past Rossi along the back straight. Once past Rossi, Melandri was clear to go chase Stoner.
Permission To Launch
The question was, of course, now that Casey Stoner had a clear track ahead of him, could he put some space between himself and his pursuers? On both the front straight and the back straight, Stoner visibly edged away from Melandri and Rossi, but his advantage did not look as big as at Qatar, and as we crossed the line at the end of lap 4, Stoner's lead was growing, but much too slowly to settle the race quickly. Having Stoner take off from the front was not an acceptable option for Rossi, however, so at the end of the front straight, The Doctor outbraked Melandri to take 2nd into Turn 1, and set about closing the gap.
Not far behind Stoner, Rossi and Melandri, Repsol Honda's Dani Pedrosa was pushing John Hopkins for 4th. He could close, but not get past, until he was close enough to use the extra drive his light weight gave him on to the back straight to pressure Hopper into making a mistake. Braking for the hairpin at Turn 14, Hopper ran wide, leaving a big gap for Pedrosa to ride under. Only temporarily perturbed, he soon reasserted his authority, taking 4th place back before they crossed the line at the end of the lap.
Further back, Colin Edwards was paying dearly for picking the wrong tires. Since starting from 3rd on the grid, he had slipped further and further behind. Stoner had passed him, pushing him to 4th by the end of lap 1, but Edwards then saw Melandri, Pedrosa and Randy de Puniet go by on consecutive laps. Edwards' drift towards the back stopped temporarily after Ducati's Loris Capirossi forced him down into 8th, ahead of Chris Vermeulen.
At the front of the field, the same sequence of Ducati and Yamaha still held. Casey Stoner led, but Valentino Rossi was chasing him down, the race turning into a repeat of the duel in the desert of Qatar. As at Losail, Rossi crept closer to Stoner through the slow sections of the first and second parts of the track, only to lose ground down the long back straight and shorter front straight. As in Qatar, a Honda led a Suzuki in the following chase, the difference in China being that it was Marco Melandri, rather than Dani Pedrosa, leading Hopkins' Suzuki. But Hopper had decided that he didn't really like the idea of a repeat of Qatar, where he came so tantalizingly close to his first podium, and set about attacking Melandri, taking 3rd from him on lap 7. Hopper's pass signaled the end of Melandri's forward progress. Two laps later, Pedrosa was past as well, sealing Melandri's fate.
Over the next 8 laps, a deadly duet unfolded between Stoner and Rossi. The Italian clearly had the upper hand through the slow sections of the track, pushing Stoner through Turns 2 and 3, and the long Esses of 7 and 8, scenes reminiscent of the way The Doctor pushed Sete Gibernau and Max Biaggi into committing errors in seasons past. Rossi would sit on the outside round one turn, show Stoner a wheel through the next, buzzing around Stoner like an irate wasp around a picnic. But Stoner was impervious to such pressure, for he knew he had a card up his sleeve. Try as Rossi might, he could not get past Stoner early enough, only managing to get through going into Turn 11, at the start of the short sequence which led onto the back straight, where Stoner used his two trump cards: The fantastic drive he was getting out of Turn 13 onto the back straight; And the still fearsome power of the Ducati Bullet From Bologna along the straight. By the time the hairpin came around, Stoner would be back past Rossi, and have a comfortable cushion again.
Rossi and Stoner being totally engaged in their own private battle had allowed John Hopkins to catch the pair. Hopkins now looked certain of a the podium he had been so desperate to get for so many years, the front three having pulled out a lead of over 5 seconds on Dani Pedrosa, who had passed Marco Melandri for 4th. And with the Yamaha and the Ducati focused so completely on each other, there was every chance that Hopper could sneak past the pair to take more than just a 3rd. On lap 16, Hopkins was gifted just such an opportunity.
Every lap, Valentino Rossi had been making up much of the ground he had lost to Casey Stoner down the back straight by using his Fiat Yamaha's fantastic stability under braking to catch Stoner again on the brakes. On lap 16, the strain of braking later than humanly possible for lap after lap finally caught up with The Doctor. Realizing that this time, he was in just too hot, Rossi was force to release the brakes a little so as not to take out both himself and Stoner, and ran wide and off the track at the hairpin. He rejoined in a flash, but only after letting Hopkins through to take 2nd on his Suzuki. Hopper gratefully accepted the place he'd been gifted, but seeing Rossi run wide had broken his concentration a fraction, allowing Casey Stoner the tiniest sliver of space, which he grabbed with both hands, running away over the next lap to build his lead to over a second.
Valentino Rossi, once back on the track, went on to show why he is a seven-time world champion, and the ultimate motorcycle racer. When most racers make a mistake, being the mere mortals they are, they take a half a lap or so to recover. Rossi, once back on the track, was immediately back on track, and chasing down the leaders again. Trailing Hopkins by over 1.4 seconds on lap 16, on lap 17, he took back over half of that deficit, and by lap 18, The Doctor was close enough to Hopkins to draft past the American's Suzuki along the long back straight, taking back 2nd and demoting Hopper back to 3rd.
Follow The Leader
The Italian was flying, but by now, Stoner had an advantage of nearly 3 seconds, and with 4 laps to go, Rossi had very little time to run Stoner to ground. On lap 19 he pulled back nearly half a second, which would leave him close, but not close enough. On lap 20, Stoner responded, and though Rossi was still faster, he only pulled back another tenth of a second, and with over 2 seconds to get back in 2 laps, the race was done. Casey Stoner put on another master performance to take his third win of the four races run so far and consolidate his championship lead. To put Stoner's performance into perspective, he is one of only two men to have led races so far this season, sharing that honor with Valentino Rossi. But Rossi has led one lap here at Shanghai, and all of the Jerez race. Casey Stoner has led every other lap of the season, at Qatar, Istanbul and in China. Stoner has gelled flawlessly with the Ducati, with the Bridgestones, and with his Ducati factory team. The young man's dream is falling almost perfectly into place, race by race.
Behind Stoner, Valentino Rossi, the man who still has a picture of Excalibur on his Yamaha, the symbol of his quest to regain the world title, resigned himself to taking 2nd. Rossi now trails Stoner by 15 points, not an insurmountable deficit, particularly at such an early stage of the season, but worrying nonetheless. Of the next three races, two are at Mugello and then Catalunya, another two tracks with high-speed straights which favor out and out horsepower. And with Mugello being almost within a stone's throw of the Ducati factory, the odds favor Stoner there almost overwhelmingly. Though the Yamaha is, as Colin Edwards described it, "the fastest bike in the world in a circle", it badly needs horsepower for the straight lines, and it needs it soon.
There was no hint of resignation at 3rd place for John Hopkins. The Anglo-American was overjoyed, finally getting on the podium after finishing 4th and crashing out while in contention so many times since he joined Suzuki, creeping ever closer to the podium with every race. Now that he has finally made it into the winner's circle, the pressure is off young Hopper, and he is likely to do even better. With the Suzuki looking strong this year, promises of more horsepower for the Le Mans race, and hints of a lot more after Le Mans, Hopkins could end up not just a podium regular, but maybe even a race winner soon. With the form Hopkins is in, his family must be thinking about putting some champagne on ice for when we visit Laguna Seca.
Behind Hopkins, Dani Pedrosa rode home the first of the Hondas to take 4th at the track he dominated at last year. Pedrosa and Elias remain the only riders who look capable of getting the new RC212V to produce any kind of pace, both helped by their small stature. Pedrosa's size was especially useful down the back straight, his light weight allowing him to get more drive out of Turn 13, and his small frame allowing him to tuck behind the Honda's minuscule fairing, the Spanish prodigy setting the 3rd fastest top speed.
Marco Melandri was the 2nd of the Hondas home, riding a lonely race behind Pedrosa to take 5th. There is some irony in Melandri's 5th place, for the main accusation leveled against Macio has always been accused that he is too erratic, winning one week, and coming 12th the next. So far, Melandri has finished 5th in three of the four races so far, a beacon of consistency, but not in a position which puts him in contention for the title.
Behind Melandri, a battle had been tersely fought for 6th place, with Kawasaki's Randy de Puniet doing all he could to hold off Loris Capirossi and Hopkins' team mate Chris Vermeulen. Sadly for de Puniet, who had told his team he believed he could finish 6th, it was a battle he lost, with both Capirossi and Vermeulen passing the young Frenchman two laps from the end, equaling de Puniet's best finish ever, achieved two weeks ago in Turkey. The men who passed him had both rode a gritty race, both carrying injuries from a crash during qualifying in which they took each other out. For Capirossi and Vermeulen to start from 14th and 15th and finish 6th and 7th respectively is a very commendable performance indeed.
In 9th place, Alex Hofmann rode the first of the Pramac Ducatis home, once again finishing well ahead of where the Pramac team are accustomed to finishing in previous seasons. Behind the German, Carlos Checa finished in 10th, the tall Spaniard struggling with his tiny Honda RC212V just as Nicky Hayden is.
Colin Edwards' poor choice of tires took him from a front row start on his Fiat Yamaha to finish down in 11th spot, fighting a lack of rear grip all race long. Back in the pits, Edwards seethed with discontent, knowing he had the best-handling motorcycle in MotoGP, but the wrong tire package.
The Weight Of Expectations
Before the season began, Valentino Rossi had told reigning world champion Nicky Hayden that the number 1 plate was heavier than he might think, and Hayden's difficulties in adapting to the Honda 800 have combined with some bad luck to give The Kentucky Kid a very deep understanding of what Rossi meant. Hayden rode a tough race to finish 12th, after losing 6 seconds running off the track when Elias crashed out.
The other young Frenchman, Sylvain Guintoli, put his Dunlop Tech 3 Yamaha into 13th place, a highly respectable finish for a rookie on uncompetitive tires. And yet there are definite signs of improvement for the Dunlops, as Guintoli was only around a half a second slower a lap than the riders ahead of him, and the day that the Dunlops can run with that pack is not far off. Guintoli has not been helped much by his team mate Makoto Tamada so far, who crashed out with Shinya Nakano on lap 4.
Behind Guintoli, Alex Barros rode a fantastic race in virtual anonymity. Run off the track, having to bumpstart his Pramac Ducati, and finishing the first lap some 42 seconds down, he went on to ride a superb series of laps, consistently lapping nearly as fast as Pedrosa and Melandri in 4th and 5th. If Barros had not become entangled with Elias on the first lap, he could have been in contention for a 4th or 5th place.
The last rider to cross the line was Kenny Roberts Jr on the KR212V. Team KR are unhampered by the disadvantages of the other Honda teams, and are free to build their own chassis to replace the temperamental RC212V's. But so far, they have signally failed to improve upon Honda's design, suffering both with a lack of feel and a lack of horsepower. Team KR had a similarly poor start to the season last year, the turnaround coming in meetings with Honda engineers at Shanghai. We can only hope for them that the same thing happens this season, as Kenny Jr's podiums last year show that both he and the team are capable of running with the best when everything is working.
What Did You Expect?
And so we leave China, and head back towards Europe, and the heart of MotoGP once again. It's very possible that we may not return here, but there is little sadness at that prospect, unlike Turkey. We came here expecting to see the Ducatis dominate, and walk off with all the silverware. But human expectation is such a very shallow thing, and cannot compete with the rich complexity of the real world. For on the one hand, the Ducatis, or rather, a Ducati, did exactly what everyone predicted, walking away from the competition down this dull and overly elaborate track's ridiculously long back straight. Yet on the other hand, two underpowered but highly agile bikes pushed the Ducati hard for much of the way, only yielding once Valentino Rossi made a rare error. No one would contest the fairness of the result, with Casey Stoner withstanding The Doctor's pressure to take a convincing, if not quite commanding, victory, Rossi riding to the very limit, and just beyond, of both his machinery and his immense talent, and the persistence and talent of John Hopkins finally being rewarded with a spot on the podium. Our expectations were confounded, and most agreeably.
But one group of people will not be pleased with their expectations being confounded. Once again, the Hondas looked very mediocre, and not the weapon which HRC expect them to be. Casey Stoner's victory aboard the Ducati marked the 5th race in a row which Honda have not won, a sequence not seen since Valentino Rossi's utterly dominant 2005 season, where the Honda's were kept off the podium for 7 races in a row. With Le Mans, a track where we can safely assume a Yamaha will win, and the two high-speed tracks at Mugello and Catalunya, where Ducati is surely a shoo-in, that bitter record looks like being broken. Hard questions will be asked at Honda, questions to add to, and a result of, the biggest question in MotoGP at the moment: How could Honda get it so very wrong?