MotoGP Donington Race - No Room For Doubt
If there's one thing that racing a MotoGP bike does not allow for, it is doubt, and hesitation. To ride fast and win races requires complete concentration and utter commitment. There is no time to carefully consider all your actions as you approach each corner, you need to have complete confidence in your own ability to find the very limit of grip and in your bike to respond predictably and precisely. Any hesitation, even the merest hint of uncertainty, and you lose precious tenths and hundredths of seconds, the difference between victory and finishing at the back of the field.
Wet races make this even worse. Suddenly, the price of hesitation is no longer a couple of hundredths, but a couple of seconds. From the difference between 1st and 11th place, hesitation suddenly becomes the difference between winning and being lapped before the race is over, the ultimate humiliation for any racer.
But rain is a two-edged sword, for not only does it reward confidence and smooth and fast riding, it also mercilessly punishes hubris. Get too confident, and you will immediately be punished with a one-way ticket into the gravel trap, most likely after first being catapulted out of your seat by a vicious highsider. For that is the paradox of riding in the rain: You cannot afford to hesitate, and must take every corner at exactly the right speed to make use of the available grip, yet the rain makes every corner different, changing grip levels from lap to lap, and even from moment to moment. If fortune favors the brave, racing in the rain favors those who are precisely brave enough, but no braver.
Fear And Fortitude
And so the grid for what was obviously going to be a rain-stricken MotoGP race was filled with a real mixture of emotions, from the utter confidence of riders like Colin Edwards and Anthony West who had found a perfect set up during the morning's wet warm up, to the tension and worry of the Dunlop Tech 3 Yamaha riders Makoto Tamada and Sylvain Guintoli, whose Dunlop tires were so obviously failing to deal with the wet conditions. The earlier 250 race had shown the difference between confidence and hesitation, with the leaders consistently lapping 3 to 5 seconds faster than the following group. There could be no doubt: everyone was aware of the potential rewards at stake, and the high price to be paid for a lapse of concentration.
As the lights dimmed, and the peace of the English countryside was shattered by the roar of 130 dB racing motorcycles powering off the line, it was the brave who profited. Colin Edwards led the pack through Redgate, with the Repsol Honda pair of Dani Pedrosa and Nicky Hayden close on his heels. Edwards Fiat Yamaha team mate Valentino Rossi was not far behind, sandwiched between a pair of Rizla Suzukis, John Hopkins ahead with Chris Vermeulen behind.
Vermeulen rocketing to the front was no real surprise, for much as the Australian professes to loathe the rain, it always means he will be near the front. Vermeulen had shot through to 6th from 12th on the grid, a great leap forward in the wet. What was a surprise was Casey Stoner: normally Stoner starts as if fired from a gun, but today, it looked like the rain had dampened his powder, and the championship leader was way down in 10th as the pack wound their way down Craner curves towards the Old Hairpin.
Blood In The Water
Rossi, sensing Stoner's misfortune, moved to take advantage. As Hopper forced his Suzuki up the inside of Hayden's Honda into the Old Hairpin, they both ran wide, opening a gap for Rossi to force his way through and push on to chase Pedrosa. Hayden was in no mood to take the loss of two places lying down. The reigning world champion had rediscovered confidence in his RC212V after the team switched off most of the traction control, allowing The Kentucky Kid to slide the bike once again, the way he has done all his career. Hayden pushed back at Hopper, and by the time the pack reached the treacherous Coppice corner, Hayden was all over the Suzuki. Hopper's troubles were a blessing for Vermeulen, and taking advantage of Hayden's concentration being otherwise engaged, he powered past the Repsol Honda on the run into the Fogarty Esses.
At the front, Pedrosa had been steadily closing on Edwards as the first lap progressed. As the bikes ran through the Esses, Pedrosa was getting close enough to pass, and as the pair braked for the Melbourne hairpin, Pedrosa was inside, and past, into the lead.
Meanwhile, further back, Casey Stoner was making amends for his poor start. Down in 10th at the start of the lap, by the time the pack crossed the line, the Australian was past Marco Melandri and into 7th. While Stoner's progress through the pack was laudable, it was as nothing compared to the charge put on by fellow Australian Anthony West, the Kawasaki rider slicing his way through the pack to end the first lap in 9th, having started from 17th. West's surge was all the more remarkable considering this was his first race on the Kawasaki, having been signed to replace the battered and bruised Olivier Jacque only days beforehand.
With Pedrosa leading the Fiat Yamahas, the right to challenge the top three was being hotly contested. First, Chris Vermeulen got past team mate Hopkins through Hollywood and on towards Craner, with Hayden close behind. Once through the Old Hairpin, Hayden was also past Hopper, getting the drive round the outside through Starkey's, ahead by the time they reached Schwantz. Though Rossi led the two Americans and the Australian, his lead was marginal, and by the time the group entered the Esses, there was nothing between 3rd to 6th spot. Into Melbourne, Vermeulen pounced, snatching 3rd from the 7 time world champion, and potentially valuable championship points.
There were more problems to come for Valentino Rossi, and they came in the shape of Casey Stoner. As they crossed the line, the Ducati was on to the tail of the group, and ready to mix it up for more. Rossi, on the other hand, was under pressure. Nicky Hayden was prodding at Rossi as they rounded McLeans and Coppice, and coming out of the Esses, Hayden was past, the first time the Kentucky Kid had been able to put a proper pass on Rossi all year. Then, on the run into Melbourne, Hopkins forced his way inside Rossi, pushing the Doctor down to 6th, and just ahead of Stoner and West, who had now also caught the leading pack.
Hopkins' move had also put him ahead of Hayden, successfully holding the inside line through Melbourne, but out of Goddards Hayden was back, and ahead as they crossed the line. Hopper tried again into Redgate, but this time Hayden held his line, and was back in front by the time they ran through Hollywood and down into Craner.
If dropping to 6th was bad for Rossi, it was about to get worse. Stoner sat tight behind, poised like a leopard, awaiting his moment. Stoner's moment came at Schwantz, cutting inside and ahead of Rossi to take 6th, while a couple of corners later, West was past as well, the Australian living up to his reputation as a master of wet weather racing.
Hopkins and Hayden continued their feud unabated. Back at Melbourne for the 4th time, Hopkins dove up the inside into the hairpin yet again, and this time, he made it stick. It stuck so well that Casey Stoner followed it up by passing Hayden into Goddards, the current championship leader ahead of the reigning champion as they crossed the line for the start of lap 5.
Swift And Deadly
Once past Hayden, Stoner set his sights on Hopkins, moving swiftly in for the kill at Redgate. But though Stoner had passed Hayden, the American was still close, and seeing a chance to pull back a position, took the brave outside line through Hollywood, hoping to sneak ahead by holding his line into Craner, the next sweeping left-hander. He was close, but not close enough.
Where Hayden had failed, Edwards had earlier done better. He had been edging closer to leader Pedrosa lap by lap, and now he sprung his courageous outside move, taking the lead, and the good line, into Craner, well ahead by the Old Hairpin. Once past, Edwards started to push, aiming to build a lead while he had clear track ahead, and try to break both the pole curse and his victory virginity, and gain his first win in MotoGP in 73 attempts.
Edwards' pass must have broken Pedrosa's concentration, for the Texas Tornado was the first of several riders to get past on lap 5. By the time they came back across the line, Pedrosa had been passed by Stoner, Vermeulen and Hopkins, with Hopper and Vermeulen giving the Spaniard a particularly brutal mugging through Melbourne, Hopkins pushing Pedrosa wide, which allowed Vermeulen to come straight through as well.
By this time, Stoner was past Vermeulen and chasing Edwards. Stoner's pass had allowed Hopkins and Hayden to catch Vermeulen, and as Hayden fought to get past Hopkins, Coppice caught him out, causing the Kentucky Kid to lose the front and slide off into the gravel. Though Hayden was clearly back on form, his resurgence caused him to get overconfident, and such false pride never goes unpunished in the wet. Hayden remounted, returned to the pits for some emergency repairs, and came back out onto the track, hoping at least to score some points. But by the time he was back on track, he was over a lap down, and beyond any possibility of redeeming enough places to score.
The Best Laid Plans
Things were not looking good for Valentino Rossi. June was supposed to be the month where Rossi clawed back points from Stoner, using his Yamaha's agility at some of his favorite tracks to reassert his authority on the championship, and head into the summer break in the lead. His plan had faltered at Barcelona, unable to keep ahead of Stoner when it mattered most, and here at Donington, things were looking even worse. Stoner was in 2nd place, and off chasing Colin Edwards for the lead, although at this point, Rossi's team mate had a firm grasp on the lead. But Rossi himself was in trouble: Though he had gotten past Pedrosa, to climb up to 5th, round Starkey's, Ant West was past, pushing Rossi into 6th, the Italian ceding a potential 10 points to Stoner.
But there was still a lot of racing left to be done, and though Rossi sat in 6th, he had a pair of Australians, in the shape of Chris Vermeulen and Ant West, just yards ahead of him, with John Hopkins further ahead, but still within reach. On lap 8, West moved past Vermeulen into the Old Hairpin to take 4th, and a couple of turns later, Rossi past the Suzuki man as well. Then, luck finally smiled on Valentino Rossi, as Ant West, pushing just too hard on his first outing on the Kawasaki, ran wide at Coppice and off into the gravel. West almost managed to stay upright, only falling after gently bumping the tire wall and losing balance. West's racing number, 13, seemed to be bringing him mixed fortunes, for though he had run off and fallen, the bike was still running, and West remounted, and rejoined the race, riding out of the gravel throwing up a rooster tail of dirt and gravel, as if aiming for the holeshot at a motocross race.
Rossi was now up into 4th, and starting to chase Hopkins. Within a couple laps, Rossi had closed the 3rd place man down. Once again, combat was joined down the hill at Craner, Rossi getting the better line out of the left-hander to dive up the inside at the Old Hairpin. Once past, Rossi started to charge, but Coppice awaited, the old trickster of corners, which had claimed Troy Bayliss' little finger earlier this year. Rossi ran just a fraction wide out of the first of the two right-handers which make up Coppice, touching the curbstones, and having to stand the bike up to avoid losing it on the greasy, painted surface. But being upright meant he had to run straight on, along the grass, forcing The Doctor off the gas even more, allowing Hopkins to regain the position Rossi had fought so hard to conquer just moments before.
Rossi lost over a second with that mistake, but within a lap, The Doctor had put right what he had done wrong, and was back past Hopkins at Coppice, the corner which bit him so badly the lap before. Once past the Suzuki man, Rossi was off to chase Casey Stoner. Over the next three laps, he started slowly closing the Australian down, taking 2/10ths a lap out of Stoner. But by this time, Edwards and Stoner had put over 8 seconds on the rest of the field, with Stoner just a second behind the American. For Valentino Rossi, 2/10ths a lap was not going to get the job done, with 15 laps left to go.
And now, just as the tide seemed to be turning for Rossi, his fortunes changed yet again. The rain, which had been falling lightly at the start of the race, had ceased by now, and a dry line was starting to appear. As the track dried, Rossi's tires started to overheat, losing grip and rubber, and his lap times started to climb. But it wasn't just Rossi: his team mate Colin Edwards still led the race, but his lead dropped rapidly in the drying conditions. Casey Stoner pulled back half a second on lap 15, and was within striking distance as they approached the Melbourne Loop on lap 16. Braking hard for the hairpin, Edwards ran wide, overshooting and letting Stoner underneath, allowing the Australian to take the lead. Edwards gallantly fought back, but as he said afterwards, "I had nothing for him," and once Stoner was past, he was gone.
The Rider, Not The Bike
Over the course of the next 14 laps, Casey Stoner was unleashed. The young Australian pulled away by an average of a second a lap to the end of the race, dominating here at Donington, a twisty track which isn't supposed to suit the Ducatis, more thoroughly than even at Shanghai or Istanbul, where Stoner was able to use the Ducati's top speed advantage to pull away at will. At Donington, his opponents had no such excuse. At Donington, Stoner was gapping the rest of the field on skill alone, eventually winning the race by a devastating margin of nearly 12 seconds. A display such as Stoner put on here in Derbyshire must surely now silence any criticism of the Australian, finally putting to rest any talk that it is the Ducati which is winning, not Stoner. After Sunday, no doubt can remain in anyone's mind; The reason that Casey Stoner is leading the championship, and has won 5 of the 8 races run this season, is down to one reason, and one reason alone. That reason is Casey Stoner.
Having nothing for Stoner, Colin Edwards rode home to take a lonely 2nd place, his best place of the season, and a just reward for a strong performance this weekend. Though Edwards' tires, like Rossi's were suffering, he had built enough of a lead to hold on to the end, and get his 2nd podium of the season, a podium he badly needed after a string of poor results since being knocked into the dirt by Olivier Jacque at Istanbul. But Edwards was unable to break the pole jinx which has rested on the MotoGP class since Estoril, with the polesitter unable to secure a win since October last year. With the series visiting Assen next Saturday, a track which Edwards loves, and which he nearly won at last year, he must be hoping to set the 2nd fastest time during qualifying on Friday, and add a first place to his 3rd and 2nd places.
Behind Edwards, Valentino Rossi was concentrating on salvaging valuable points. His tires deteriorating with each lap, Rossi put his head down, and focused on keeping enough space between himself and a charging Chris Vermeulen. Vermeulen's times had slumped mid-race, as the sweat built up from the effort of racing was making his visor mist up. Once the rain stopped falling, The Australian Rizla Suzuki rider could open his visor a fraction to allow it to demist, restoring his vision and allowing him to get past team mate Hopkins and start chasing Valentino Rossi.
Vermeulen started lap 19 over five and a half seconds down, but the Australian was taking big bites out of Rossi's lead every lap. By lap 27, Vermeulen was with Rossi, and as the two riders drove out of Coppice down towards the Fogarty Esses, it was clear that Rossi was beaten. Vermeulen was getting much better drive out of the corners, and was past Rossi into the Esses, going on to take Vermeulen's second, and Suzuki's third podium of the season, after his win in the rain at Le Mans, and Hopkins' third place in China. The Suzukis have made a big step forward this year, and this is reflected in their results. When it rains, Vermeulen continues to be a threat, the odds offered for Vermeulen by online betting agencies rising and falling with the barometer, and Hopkins is always close to the podium when it's dry. Whatever the weather, the chances are that a powder blue motorcycle will be running at the front.
Something For The Weekend
The Doctor finally crossed the line in 4th place, conceding another 12 precious points to Casey Stoner in the title race, suffering yet another problem with tires. Before the 2006 season, Valentino Rossi's luck seemed almost limitless, everything he touched working out just right. But since the start of that ill-fated season, Rossi's fortune has been as fickle as the English weather, glorious one week, only to disappoint the next. Where the Yamaha M1 was the problem last season, this year it's the tires. The new tire rules have left Michelin completely at sea, having difficulty providing the correct rubber under the "paddock closes on Thursday" rule unless conditions are completely perfect. And the worst victims of Michelin's malaise have been the riders who got the best treatment under the old rules, the recipients of the tires shipped in especially on the morning of the race. No longer able to rely on the tire company to give them something tailored precisely to their needs on race day, riders such as Rossi and Edwards have struggled with tire choice, Rossi nearly running out of rubber three times already this season. The tire rules may not have saved the teams money, as was planned, but they have shaken up the paddock and revitalized the racing.
John Hopkins came home in 5th, having briefly ceded his position to Loris Capirossi, before Capirossi lost the front of his Ducati at Redgate, ending up in the gravel. Hopkins had again started strongly, battling with the front group before losing contact. Hopkins has been amazingly consistent this year, finishing somewhere between 3rd and 7th at every race this season, except when he crashed out of 4th place at Jerez. One day soon, the stars will align just so for Hopper, and he will finish on the top of the box. Looking at Hopkins' strengths, and those of the Suzuki, that day could well come on one of the next three race weekends.
Behind Hopkins, Randy de Puniet put in another strong showing to finish 6th, despite still suffering with a knee injury. Kawasaki must be hoping that with Ant West in the garage beside him, the Frenchman will find some consistency and stop crashing. At the very least, de Puniet's results are starting to look a good deal more respectable, and much more in line with the abilities of the ZX-RR Ninja.
Alex Barros was the next man home, the Pramac d'Antin Ducati man taking another solid, if unspectacular result. The Pramac team were worried that they wouldn't be able to make the Ducati work around Donington, so with Barros' 7th and Alex Hofmann's 9th, they won't be too disappointed here.
Slough Of Despond
Sandwiched between the two Pramac Ducatis was the first Honda home, Repsol's Dani Pedrosa. Once he'd been passed Edwards, Pedrosa's race was just about done, the drying track wreaking havoc on Pedrosa's choice of a soft rear tire. Pedrosa's 8th place means that Honda have now gone without a win for 9 races, their longest streak since 1990. Honda are having their worst season for nearly 20 years, and if things don't start looking up, it could be their worst season ever.
The next Honda home was Marco Melandri in 10th, riding another anonymous race in an anonymous season for the man widely tipped to be a title challenger this year. Melandri is being widely tipped to take Loris Capirossi's seat at Ducati at the end of the year, but unless something changes soon for the Italian, he won't get that ride on the basis of his results.
Ant West, on the other hand, looks like going a long way to securing his future in MotoGP, either at Kawasaki or elsewhere. If West hadn't run off the track early on, a podium could quite easily have been on the cards for the Australian, and even after ending up in the gravel, West mounted an impressive charge back up the field to end up 11th. With rain likely at Assen on Saturday, West could cause a few surprises at the Dutch TT.
Melandri's team mate Toni Elias finished in 12th, similarly anonymous, the only highlight of Terrible Toni's race a brief excursion over the grass down Craner Curves. In 13th, behind Elias, Kurtis Roberts got the KR212V home to score some points, the best result ever for the ill-fated team. Team KR is currently in a holding pattern, waiting for a new chassis which they hope will solve their handling problems, and get the bike back to the front of the grid, where it managed to finish last season.
Shinya Nakano finished in 14th, even more anonymous than the Gresini Hondas, proving to himself once again that he should never have left Kawasaki. Behind Nakano, the two Dunlop-shod Yamahas struggled home, Makoto Tamada ahead of Sylvain Guintoli, two laps behind the winner Stoner. Dunlop have made huge strides with their dry weather tires, rapidly closing the gap on Michelin and Bridgestone, but in the wet, they are still a very, very long way from home.
Finally, down in 17th place, Nicky Hayden limped home to at least finish the race and make amends for crashing out while running with the lead group. For the first 5 laps, Hayden looked like the Kentucky Kid of old, pushing hard, and having no problems staying with the front runners. Hayden said afterwards that that is the feeling he wants to take with him to Assen, and he feels he has turned a corner. His 17th place wouldn't seem to bear this out, but the entire weekend up until his crash tells perhaps a truer story of where Hayden stands.
Rain on a racing weekend tends to muddy not just the grassy banks the spectators watch from, but the also the waters from which we must pick out the reflection of the state of MotoGP racing. But this weekend, that image was fairly easy to read, for Casey Stoner stamped his authority on the series with an iron fist. There can be no more doubts about whether it's Stoner or the bike, at Donington, Stoner swept those doubts away. The kid from Kurri Kurri now has a 26 point lead, and can afford to relax. But in his present form, there's no doubt that relaxing is the last thing on his mind. The rest of the paddock should be very, very afraid.