Human beings are extraordinary creatures. Where the birds of the air and the beasts of the field simply take note of everything that takes place around them, accept it, and move on, we humans are always looking for symbols and signs. The one thing that marks us out more than anything is the need to attach significance to events, to impose a pattern upon them to make them easier to comprehend. We do this in many ways: Sometimes, by attributing causes to certain occurrences, saying that a wallet was lost because we walked under a ladder, or cracked a mirror. Sometimes, we simplify events, shaping them to fit our preconceptions, preferring to attribute causation to a specific person or group, rather than investigate the details and find out what really happened. And sometimes we reduce the vast complexity of history down to a handful of exchanges between famous individuals, assigning responsibility for events that swept across the world on the actions of a few key players.
Usually, such patterns and symbols exist only in our heads, as our minds struggle to fathom the immeasurable complexity of world beyond ourselves. But on occasion, the symbols that we impose are an accurate reflection of what we witness, as events themselves conspire to distill the richness of reality down to a simple, lucid portrait of the underlying truth of what played out before us.
Heart And Head
Last week's race at Mugello was a case in point. The Italian press had accused Valentino Rossi of not having his heart in MotoGP any more, of having raced too much and won too much to sustain the hunger needed to race at the very top level. Rossi's answer was simple, and in twofold: The helmet which Rossi always has specially painted for Mugello featured a giant heart at the front, and the way in which The Doctor fought his way forward to lead and then dominate the race was a powerful demonstration that Rossi had lost none of his passion for racing and his desire to win.
The question was, was this a turning point? Now that Rossi had won at a track where Ducati was expected to dominate with its superior power, did this mean that the sting had been drawn from the Beast From Bologna, and that Casey Stoner's title shot was spent? Here at Catalunya, we would surely get an answer to that question. For the track just outside Barcelona has the right ingredients to settle this argument: It has a kilometer-long straight which favors outright top speed, allowing a fast bike like the Ducati to pull away using raw horsepower, but it is also one of Valentino Rossi's favorite tracks, a place where he has won an astonishing 8 times out of the 11 times has raced here.
The practices sessions had left the argument undecided, with Casey Stoner fastest on the Ducati in the relative cool of the mornings, but Valentino Rossi quickest in the burning heat of the afternoon, showcasing his ability to ride when grip is low and tires are sliding. But the afternoon is when it counts, and The Doctor had taken a brilliant pole with a record-setting lap during Saturday's qualifying, leaving Stoner on the second row, down in 4th. And as the one session that really matters is in the afternoon, the race taking place after the scorching midday sun has taken its toll on the track, the odds were starting to sway Rossi's way.
... And Breathe
As the red lights ceased blazing, and the massed ranks of metal machinery thundered down to turn 1, the first round of the battle unfolded. It was Casey Stoner's Ducati which struck the first blow, the kid from Kurri Kurri getting his usual rocket-propelled start to the front of the field, while Valentino Rossi's Fiat Yamaha exhibited its usual reluctance to leave the line, losing three places before they reached the first turn. The roar of a pack of 130dB engines was almost lost in the sound of collective intake of 112,000 breaths, the memory of last year's first corner catastrophe still fresh in the minds of the thronged spectators, but this year, good sense prevailed. The field sailed through in a neat procession, the spectacle provided by tight racing, not flying debris.
Rather aptly, Dani Pedrosa led the field through Elf corner, the first turn of the circuit, with Stoner close behind him and John Hopkins following on the Suzuki. Rossi had slipped to 4th, ahead of the gutsy Frenchman Randy de Puniet, who had set the 2nd fastest time in qualifying on his Kawasaki, despite his knee being swollen to the size of a volleyball. Stoner's jump from 4th to 2nd was no fluke: His Ducati team mate Loris Capirossi had gotten an even more ballistic start, leaping from a lowly 17th spot up to 9th. The Italian veteran was to lose two places before the end of the lap, but the Ducatis had made it clear that they meant business.
As they ran down the short straight into Repsol, things looked like getting worse for Rossi. De Puniet was on him, and starting to push through the long right-hander. Rossi countered by pressing on to Hopkins, sneaking a glance up the inside of the Suzuki going into the left-right flick of Würth. Hopper blocked, and held Rossi off to power away up the hill. Behind Rossi, de Puniet was still pushing hard. How hard would show at the tight left-hander La Caixa, the Frenchman catching a highsider just in time, allowing Toni Elias to slip through and take 5th on the Gresini Honda.
A Day At The Races
The crowd awaited the first straight horsepower fight through the long series of right handers before the finish line. Pedrosa still led as they ran onto the straight, but would the extra 800 revs the Hondas had at their disposal be enough to hold off the dreaded Ducati drive down the front straight? The answer, as the bikes hit the Elf corner once again, was no. But unlike Qatar and Shanghai, where the Ducatis had destroyed the competition down the straights, at Catalunya, the Beast from Bologna only edged towards and past the Honda, entering the turn ahead, but not by much.
If there was one thing that Valentino Rossi could not permit to happen, it was Casey Stoner checking out. Seeing Stoner pounce on Pedrosa spurred the Italian into action: If he was to catch Stoner, he had better do it soon. The first obstacle in his path was John Hopkins. Rossi tried drafting the Suzuki down the front straight, drawing even as they entered the braking zone for Elf. There are ways of getting past Hopper, but hard on the brakes is probably the most difficult, and Rossi came up just short. But The Doctor was not to be deterred, as he hounded Hopkins round the long right handers and then the hairpin, cutting inside the American to snatch 3rd through the left hander at Würth. His victory was short-lived, as Hopper was back past again into Campsa, after the short drag up the hill.
Rossi was forced to bide his time, following Hopkins through the stadium section, and lining the Suzuki up round the long right handers back onto the front straight. As they flashed across the line, Hopkins once again had the Fiat Yamaha slowly gaining on, as Rossi used the draft of the Suzuki ahead. This time, Rossi waited just a fraction later before braking, and was past Hopkins into the first turn.
It had taken Rossi a whole lap to get past Hopkins, and Stoner and Pedrosa had taken advantage to pull a gap, putting a chink of space between themselves and the Rossi. But Hopper had no time to recover from the loss of a place, for Toni Elias was on him right after Rossi went through. The field was all still very close: Randy de Puniet was still battling on behind Elias in 6th, with Elias' Gresini Honda team mate Marco Melandri sat on his tail pipe. Behind Melandri, Colin Edwards was starting to lose touch on his Fiat Yamaha, but keeping ahead of Nicky Hayden on the other Repsol Honda and Stoner's team mate, Loris Capirossi storming through the field, with Alex Barros on the Pramac Ducati close behind.
Back at the front, Dani Pedrosa was working on ways to attack Stoner's lead. On lap 3, the Spaniard clung close to the Ducati, launching his Honda down the front straight in an attempt to draft past Stoner into the first turn. He gained on the Australian, but the Ducati was just too strong to be passed along the straight, and Stoner led into Elf as they started on the turns once again. Wherever Pedrosa pushed, Stoner responded, holding off the local hero, despite the crowd almost physically willing Pedrosa on.
In the meanwhile, Hopkins was starting to lose touch with Rossi, just the merest hint of daylight appearing between the two. Toni Elias chose that moment to pounce, drafting past the Suzuki and attempting to outbrake Hopper into the first turn. Once again, Hopkins was not to be outdone on the brakes. Elias got past, but the effort was expensive: The Honda man was in just a fraction too hot, and ran wide, allowing Hopkins back past into 4th. Elias' move was costly for the Spaniard, but also painful for the man behind him, Randy de Puniet. As Elias recovered, he pulled into the path of the Frenchman's Kawasaki, slamming the bodywork of his Honda into de Puniet's badly injured knee. Both men stayed upright, but the move left de Puniet smarting, and allowed Melandri to get right on the Kawasaki's rear wheel. Sensing the chaos behind him, Hopkins pushed on, build an unbridgeable gap by the end of the lap.
Four laps later, de Puniet repaid Elias for that blow on his painful knee, in the most precious currency racing has to offer. The Frenchman finally got past Elias, to take 5th from the Catalonian in front of his home crowd.
Horns Of A Dilemma
With the battle still raging between the front two, Valentino Rossi started creeping closer, shaving tenths of a second of the lead for lap after lap. By the start of lap 7, the Italian had almost joined the leading pair, closing the last of the gap braking into Elf again, and chasing the Spaniard down through the Renault and Repsol right handers. Pedrosa was now caught in a trap: Should he concentrate on Stoner, with the risk of leaving the door open for Rossi somewhere, or should his first priority be on keeping The Doctor at bay? Pedrosa's hesitation proved costly, Stoner edging fractionally away, settling the Spaniard's dilemma for him. With the Yamaha and Honda getting in each other's way, Hopkins made another push to join them, setting the fastest lap of the race to pull within half a second of Rossi. Last year, Hopper would have been delighted with a 4th place, but the American has tasted the podium champagne now, and 4th is simply not good enough any more. He put his head down, and gave chase once again.
But now Rossi needed to make a move. With Stoner leading unchallenged, and able to concentrate on conserving his tires, Rossi need to catch the Australian and start applying some serious pressure. To do that, he had to pass Pedrosa, and passing Pedrosa is no easy task. Rossi kept snapping away at the Spaniard's heels, finally forcing his way past at the end of the straight. But that first turn is tricky, as the initial right-hander is followed quickly by a flick left, where a rider passed on the inside into turn 1 can get back past if they can stay left and hold their speed round the outside of Elf. Pedrosa tried, but Rossi blocked perfectly, clipping the left hand apex and forcing Pedrosa to back off, and allowing Hopkins to get on the back of the Spanish prodigy once again.
With Pedrosa dealt with, Rossi focused his efforts on Casey Stoner. The Italian gave chase, closing on Stoner through the long, fast right-hand turns which litter the Montmelo circuit. By the end of the lap, The Doctor was almost in Stoner's draft again, finally bridging the gap with another stupendous display of braking into turn 1. The Doctor then started clinically applying pressure on the young Aussie round the Renault and Repsol right handers once again, getting close enough to barge his way through into the left hand hairpin which follows. He could pass, but could not hold his line, and Stoner was back through after Rossi ran wide. The move had cost Rossi little, as he still sat perched on Stoner's tail, but it was the start of a pattern, one we have seen repeated so many times before from the Italian. Once Rossi is following a rider he considers a rival for the championship, The Doctor starts slowly turning the screws. A wheel is shown in one turn, a pass he knows he cannot sustain is made at the next, in the hope of making his rivals nervous, and forcing them to make a mistake. With the battle already raging on the racing front, Rossi had opened hostilities on a second front, in the field of PsyOps.
Over the next 5 laps, Rossi applied the pressure, buzzing around Stoner's tail like an irate wasp. The Australian was constantly engaged in holding off Rossi's advances round the rear of the section, winning only the slightest reprieve down the front straight, before facing yet another attack into Elf. For while the Yamaha could stay in the Ducati's draft, a vast improvement since the humiliation of Qatar, Rossi could not pull out and past, still a couple of miles per hour short of the Ducati's top speed.
But this was still a three-way fight. With Rossi fixated on bludgeoning Stoner into submission, Pedrosa was hunting down The Doctor, and attempting to administer a dose of his own medicine. While Rossi pushed Stoner round the twists and turns of the back section of the circuit, Pedrosa tracked Rossi's movements closely, then slipped out of Rossi's draft to have a look at the Italian going into the first turn.
The Hunter Hunted
At the end of lap 17, with Dani Pedrosa right on his tail, The Doctor judged that Stoner should be softened up just about enough. And so Rossi pushed on once again, cutting inside through Repsol and running wide, knowing that if he could hold his position, he would have the line through the Seat hairpin. Stoner was back inside Rossi coming out of the right hander, just as Rossi had expected, but Rossi held his line, and fended off the Australian through the hairpin. Both Rossi and Stoner knew that Rossi had to make his move straight away, and try to get enough of a gap through the twist and turns of the back section before the leading trio reached the front straight. Rossi pushed hard, but Stoner pushed harder, and as they exited the last of the long series of right-hand turns that lead on to the straight, Rossi was not far enough ahead. Rossi led over the line, but Stoner was in his draft, and gaining.
By the end of the straight, the Australian was past, but not by enough: Majestic on the brakes once again, Rossi took back the lead to start lap 19 ahead for the first time. But Stoner was not going to take it lying down. Casey gritted his teeth and dug in, forcing the nose of his Ducati up the inside of the first long right hander of the track at Renault. They exited two abreast, Rossi outside while Stoner sat holding the inside line, creeping ahead on the short straight, but still with nothing between the front three. If three had fitted into the first right hander, then three should have been able to fit through the second right hander, both Rossi and Pedrosa pulling out of the Ducati's draft to try to get into Repsol first. But it was Stoner who held the advantage, the three running through the turn almost bumping tires like a fairground ride.
While Stoner led, Rossi moved at the hairpin once again, jamming his Yamaha up the inside of Stoner into Seat. But this time, he could not hold his line, and ran wide, allowing Stoner back past, and holding Pedrosa up behind. Pedrosa was now just inches from Rossi's back wheel, and sat perched on the Italian's tail ready to pounce. His moment came down the front straight, pulling out of the draft to pass Rossi as they approached the first turn. But Rossi once again demonstrated the Yamaha's astounding stability on the brakes, snatching back 4 bike lengths to get back ahead into Elf.
If At First You Don't Succeed ...
His attempt at forcing a break round the rear of the track having failed, Rossi tried another tack. The Doctor closed down Stoner as they entered the stadium section, all the while towing Pedrosa in his wake. But instead of waiting patiently in Stoner's slipstream to outbrake him into Turn 1, Rossi slid up the inside through the final right hander leading back onto the straight. At first sight, a pointless maneuver, his Yamaha sure to be outgunned by the Ducati's superior horses along the main straight. And as expected, the Australian got past, first by a fair margin going into the Elf turn at the end. But Rossi had the information he needed: He may have lost the lead by the end of the straight, but as the bikes crossed the finish line, where the flag would fall 5 laps later, it was the Yamaha in front, by the slimmest of margins.
The front three were still inseparable, as if joined at the wheels by an invisible bond, but the battle had abated, each side content to sit for a lap and plan their next attack. They did not wait long. As the trio crossed the line to embark on lap 22, Rossi once again slid out of Stoner's draft to outbrake the Aussie into Turn 1. This time, Stoner could not reply again through the early right handers, but nor could Rossi escape. The front two scrapped within inches of each other, with Dani Pedrosa just behind, content to ride the Australo-Italian roller coaster, ready to strike at the first sign of weakness.
Rossi tried to break Stoner round the back of the circuit again, and again he failed. And along the long front straight, Stoner was past yet again, trying to cut across and hold the inside line on Rossi into the Elf corner. But Rossi would not be held on the brakes, and entered first, brutally cutting across Stoner, blocking him through the turn. The block did not hold for long though, as moments later, Stoner was once again back on Rossi's tail, Pedrosa still sat perched like a hawk behind Stoner.
Blue In The Face
The tension around the track was palpable, and in the Yamaha, Ducati and Honda garages, people were turning purple. Every ounce of mental energy was focused on the intense action on the TV screens, none wasted on fripperies such as the need to breathe.
As the bikes embarked on the penultimate lap, Rossi still led Stoner over the line, with Pedrosa behind. But Stoner was gaining once again, and he had learned from his move on the last lap, this time making sure that his pass on Rossi stuck into Turn 1, not allowing the Italian back past. This time it was Rossi's turn to attach himself to Stoner's tail unit as they rounded the right-handers, then ran up and down the hill, then into and out of the stadium section, and back onto the front straight. And along the front straight, it was Pedrosa's turn to launch himself out of the draft, poking his nose ahead of Rossi, before getting pummeled by the superior braking of Rossi's Yamaha.
The front three could have been covered by a very small hand towel as they rounded Renault. Two turns later, Rossi had yet another go at passing Stoner into the Seat hairpin, but this time, he could not get past. The waiting was for the final right handers, and the move that Rossi had practiced earlier. But Stoner is a quick learner: He'd seen the move that Rossi had tried through those final long right handers, and was prepared. Holding his line, he held Rossi off just long enough to get the drop out of the final turn, to clinch the victory by little more than a wheel. Just 0.069 separated Casey Stoner's Ducati from Valentino Rossi's Yamaha as they crossed the line, both men utterly spent. Dani Pedrosa was forced to settle for 3rd, after constantly threatening throughout the race, but never quite able to make a move.
Behind Pedrosa, John Hopkins came home to another frustrating 4th place, nearly 8 seconds off the pace. The Suzuki man knows that another podium is close, but at Catalunya, it wasn't close enough.
Hopkins was followed by the bravest rider of the weekend. Randy de Puniet secured the best finish of his career with a knee the size of a melon. He entered the pits, barely able to get off the bike, and hobbled back into his garage to a hero's reception from his Kawasaki crew. There is constant speculation about de Puniet's future, but he proved here at Barcelona that he has the grit and the talent to get great results under difficult circumstances. The only thing he lacks is consistency.
But de Puniet's 5th was significant for more than just the Frenchman. It also demonstrated the parity of the field, with the first five places taken by five different manufacturers' bikes, the Ducati leading home the four Japanese manufacturers.
Stoner's Ducati team mate, Loris Capirossi, came home in 6th, a strong showing after battling his way up from 17th place on the grid during the early laps. But it had taken too long for Capirex to fight his way past Melandri into 7th spot to catch those ahead of him, only being gifted an extra place after Toni Elias' engine blew up in a spectacular cloud of smoke.
The fight behind Capirossi had been long and fierce. Chris Vermeulen had eventually come out on top, taking his Rizla Suzuki into 7th spot, almost catching and passing Capirossi at the end of the race. Vermeulen gets stronger and stronger as the race goes on, but loses too much in the early stages to be in contention for a podium.
The losers of the battle for 7th came in 5 seconds behind Vermeulen. Alex Barros led the way to take 8th on the Pramac d'Antin Ducati, his podium at Mugello not to be repeated here, ahead of Marco Melandri on the Gresini Honda. Melandri had been on a backward slide since getting past Colin Edwards on lap 2, slow slipping down the order to finish 9th. Edwards came out of the scrap to finish 10th on the Fiat Yamaha, passing the reigning world champion Nicky Hayden on the last lap.
The Burden Of Office
11th position is not where The Kentucky Kid will want to be conducting his title defense from, but that number 1 plate is turning out to be at least as heavy as Valentino Rossi had warned him it would be. Hayden had some new parts, including the new engine internals and exhausts which Pedrosa had used earlier, and almost as importantly, he had a new, wider fairing, providing a fractionally better aerodynamic shape down the long front straight. But there is still a mountain to move for the American champion, even though things are improving round by round. He must surely be desperate to have things fixed by the time the MotoGP circus reaches Laguna Seca.
In 12th place came Makoto Tamada on the Dunlop Tech 3 Yamaha. The Dunlops are slowly and steadily improving, and inching closer to the two main tire suppliers race by race. Tamada had beaten Alex Hofmann this race, the German to get comfortable with his bike after wrecking a clutch during qualifying.
Tamada's team mate Sylvain Guintoli came home in 14th, scoring points once again, and what's more, holding off Shinya Nakano. Great things had been expected of Nakano at the beginning of the season, but Konica Minolta Honda seem like a cursed team, with Nakano suffering the same fate as Makoto Tamada, the man whose place Nakano took. The prospects look poor for both team and rider at the end of this season.
Kenny Roberts Jr finished 16th, and just out of the points. But still, the team did well this weekend, Kenny Jr finally beating someone, after a run of finishes in last place. What's more remarkable is Roberts' lap times, getting stronger towards the end of the race, while those around him faded.
The man Kenny Roberts beat was the hapless Carlos Checa. 17th place is a disaster in front of his home crowd, especially after his strong showing at last year's race on the Tech 3 Yamaha, but Checa is suffering the same problems as all the other Honda riders. His fortunes are unlikely to improve until the faster parts now being used by the Repsol Honda team start filtering their way down to the satellite teams.
Kurtis Roberts was the last man home on the Team Roberts KR212V. Although not a spectacular result, Kurtis' riding has been extremely helpful to the team, allowing them to find a direction to develop the bike. Although some new parts for Kenny Jr will be present at Donington, Kurtis' work won't start to pay off until the team get to Laguna Seca in July.
Signs Of The Times
We came to Catalunya looking for signs, for clues to the way the championship would play out. We were treated not just to a great race, but also to a beautifully condensed summary of the championship. The issues which will be key to the outcome of the 2007 MotoGP season were laid out clearly and understandably in Barcelona, providing a perfect synopsis of the main characters, and their strengths and weaknesses.
Those weaknesses are very few indeed. Previously, whenever anyone mentioned weakness, they cast a furtive glance at Casey Stoner, as the Australian was expected to wither under the intense pressure from Valentino Rossi, as so many had before him. But the race at Barcelona put a very permanent end to any such talk, as Stoner withstood everything The Doctor could throw at him, and paid him back in kind. What's more, Stoner's advantage could no longer be laid firmly at the door of his Ducati, as both the Yamaha and Honda have so clearly closed the gap, though suspicion remains that the Ducati may have been reigned in a little, to conserve fuel and make the bike a fraction more ridable. The Ducati is still the fastest bike on the grid, but the difference is no longer measured in tens of kilometers an hour.
Now, any talk of weakness must focus on the Honda RC212V. The bike is much improved, with the power so sorely missed in previous rounds now at least on tap in some small measure. But the bike still suffers from chatter, and from a vagueness at the front end, as so clearly demonstrated by the drubbing Valentino Rossi was dishing out to Dani Pedrosa each time the pair got involved in a braking duel. Catalunya equaled Honda's longest streak of 8 races without a win back in 1992, and with the Honda in the shape it's in, and the Ducati and Yamaha as good as they are, that record looks like being broken, possibly by several races.
Of course, the Honda's obvious weakness hides another question mark. Dani Pedrosa is able to ride without too much pressure, as shortcomings in the race are rightly blamed on the machine. Without this pressure, Pedrosa has proven himself to be an outstanding rider, capable of achieving results well beyond the capabilities of just the machine itself. The question is, how will Pedrosa stand up once HRC have put their house in order, gotten the RC212V back to winning ways, and the burden of expectations shifts once again from the engineers to the slight frame of the man from Sabadell.
As for Valentino Rossi, things seem perfectly clear: The Yamaha is lacking just a little bit of top end power, but is almost certainly the best handling motorcycle in the world. As for Rossi, he has never ridden better, putting on imperial displays of riding skill to compensate for the horses lacking from his M1. But the machinery is closer and the competition is tougher than ever before, with two of the best riders ever to come out of the 250 class just beginning to reach the peak of their abilities in MotoGP. Rossi has never had it so tough, and frankly, he seems to be relishing it.
We asked for signs, and got so much more. If anyone ask you to explain what is going on in MotoGP today, you need only point them to the Barcelona race. Past, present and future were all wrapped up inside, in a neat, understandable, and above all glorious package.