Is the MotoGP series sport or entertainment? That's the question which has gripped and divided the world of MotoGP, both inside and outside the paddock, since roughly the end of July. At Laguna Seca, Casey Stoner had humiliated the rest of the field, beating 2nd placed Chris Vermeulen by nearly 10 seconds and 3rd place man Marco Melandri by over 25 seconds. The week before Laguna, Dani Pedrosa had given the field an even worse drubbing, Loris Capirossi finishing over 13 seconds down on Pedrosa in 2nd. Of the five rounds since Laguna, three had been processional affairs, the race at Motegi had been interesting only because the rain turned the field upside down, leaving only the Estoril round as an exciting spectacle, featuring passing for the lead and keeping the fans on the edge of their seat until the very last lap.
In Italy and Spain, countries where MotoGP is at least as popular as Formula 1 and rivals even the world's favorite sport, soccer, in popularity, viewing figures had plummeted, with TV audiences down by millions of viewers. In part, this is down to the Italian and Spanish fans seeing their respective favorites dropping out of the title race so early in the season. But it's also been caused by the tediously processional nature of the races so far this season. Look at the lap charts for most of the races this season, and they tell a very static story, with one rider — usually Casey Stoner — taking the lead from lap 1 and going on to win unchallenged. At the end of last year, MotoGP fans were taunting Formula 1 fans about how boring F1 was compared with MotoGP, the only passing taking place during pit stops. By the time we left Brno, the shoe was on the other foot, F1 fans countering that, thanks to those pit stops, at least there was actually some passing going on.
Dorna, the company which runs MotoGP and holds the worldwide TV rights for the series, looked on with horror as audiences continued to fall in their key markets. Faced with a potentially serious shortfall in income and decline in both global popularity and, consequently, political influence, Dorna's CEO Carmelo Ezpeleta was forced to act: On Saturday, September 22nd, Ezpeleta proposed changing the MotoGP tire rules from an open market system to a single manufacturer supplying control tires for the series, with all teams getting equal access to the available tires. The reasoning was simple: the current tire rules — introduced with Dorna's full approval at the same time as maximum engine capacity was reduced from 990 to 800 cc, and the fuel allowance was also reduced to 21 liters — were ruining the racing, and killing the spectacle of MotoGP. MotoGP fans support riders, not tire brands, ran the reasoning at Dorna's Barcelona HQ.
Shock And Awe
Ezpeleta's announcement shocked the paddock and unleashed a war of words among MotoGP writers, fans and riders, as well as a great deal of behind-the-scenes chicanery among riders and tire companies about who would get what tires for 2008. Controversy has raged ever since, with fans around the world complaining that the races were boring, and declaring themselves willing to accept almost any technical change if it will see a return to the scintillating action of last year, while the race purists denounce any such a move as a betrayal of MotoGP's underlying principles as a prototype series, and claiming that MotoGP might as well turn into "the Yamaha R6 Cup," as Casey Stoner put it during the press conference at Phillip Island.
Although Ezpeleta subsequently retracted the proposal, claiming that it had helped him achieve his aims of getting the tire manufacturers to agree on a new set of tire rules for 2008, the tire controversy has rumbled on, much of it centering on the two perceived losers under the current rules, Dani Pedrosa, and especially Valentino Rossi. Both men embarked upon the 2007 season expecting to be able to win the championship this season. And both men were unpleasantly surprised at the season opener at Qatar, when they were both destroyed by the top speed of the Ducati, and Casey Stoner's supreme confidence in his bike, his tires, and his ability. It has all gone downhill from there for both men, it becoming quickly obvious that they had little chance of competing against Stoner's perfect package of rider, bike and tires, and that part of that equation, the tires, was completely out of their hands. What made their situation even worse was the perceived lack of urgency at Michelin. Plead as they may, the French tire maker seemed in no particular hurry to sort out the problems which have lost them the championship and seen Michelin runners battle with shot tires after two thirds distance.
Storm Clouds Rising
As MotoGP headed to Sepang, the whole episode seemed to be coming to a head. On the Saturday before the race, the Grand Prix Commission was scheduled to meet, the body which oversees the regulations, consisting of teams, manufacturers, Dorna and the FIM. The hope was that the prospect of the Commission meeting settling the issue once and for all, the focus could return to the action on the track, rather than behind the scenes.
Once the teams turned up at the Malaysian track, however, they had a nasty surprise: Sections of the track had been resurfaced in August, after a previous track resurfacing had left the circuit too bumpy according to the cars which had raced here. With little action at the Sepang circuit since the second resurfacing, the track was incredibly slippery in various places, and arguments started all over again about which tires were finding grip and which tires weren't. The issue was exacerbated by the varying temperatures and fickle weather. The morning sessions were cool, at least by the standards of the tropics, and rain falling intermittently, keeping track temperatures low. But the afternoons were drier, and once the sun came out, track temperatures were sent soaring, making tire selection and finding a setup extremely difficult.
On Saturday after qualifying, the bomb burst. Valentino Rossi, who on Friday had told an Italian camera crew he expected to be on Michelins next year, was rumored to have threatened to retire from MotoGP altogether if he didn't get Bridgestones for 2008, complaining once again that Michelin and Yamaha hadn't worked hard enough, despite all that Rossi had done for them through the years. Rossi's complaints about Michelin were again backed up by Dani Pedrosa, both men struggling with a lack of grip on race tires, despite Pedrosa taking pole position on qualifiers. Once again, we were talking about tires, and rules, and back room deals, and political machinations. As sick as they were of the whole situation, nobody seemed to want to talk about the racing.
A Little Less Conversation, A Little More Action
So when the bikes came back round the final hairpin on the warm up lap, and lined up on the grid, the entire paddock was once again praying for some on-track action, and a return to the essence of MotoGP: The struggle between riders and their machines, and the quest to go ever faster. But as the track officials waved the flags to give the all clear, and hastened to leave the track, the incongruent look to the grid jarred the eye, and hinted that all was not quite right.
Any doubts were quickly drowned out by the thunderous roar of 20 MotoGP bikes firing off the line. Though Dani Pedrosa had taken the pole during Saturday's qualifying session, beside him on the front row sat champion-elect Casey Stoner, and rocket man Stoner was off to a flyer as always. The young Australian slammed off the line and shot into Turn 1 ahead of the pack, as he has done almost every race this year.
But the pack were closer this time than they had been for a while. Dani Pedrosa followed Stoner, the front wheel of the Spaniard's Repsol Honda almost touching Stoner's Ducati, while Randy de Puniet had shot ahead of Marco Melandri, the Gresini Honda man losing his 3rd place on the grid to the Frenchman's Kawasaki. As the bikes exited the first two excruciatingly tight corners, and flicked right again into Turn 3, Stoner led the way still, ahead of Pedrosa, de Puniet and Melandri. Behind Melandri, the Gresini / Kawasaki order had been reversed, Toni Elias sneaking round the outside of Ant West to take 5th spot, while behind West, the two Rizla Suzukis of Chris Vermeulen and John Hopkins headed out Loris Capirossi and Valentino Rossi.
Elias' leap up the field from 8th to 5th was not long-lived. By the time the pack flicked left, then right for Turn 6, both Ant West and Chris Vermeulen were back, pushing Elias down to 7th, only for Hopkins to get by one corner later. As they braked hard for the tight left which turns on to the back straight, Hopkins was past team mate Vermeulen as well, and up into 6th.
Stoner led the field as they raced down the back straight, but Dani Pedrosa, who all lap long had been stuck on Stoner's tail like a piece of old gum, sat right in the Australian's draft. Stoner knew Pedrosa was there, and knew he had to shake the Spaniard before they exited the hairpin at the start of the home straight, to give himself a chance at losing the Repsol Honda before they crossed the line and braked hard again for Turn 1. Likewise, Pedrosa knew that if he was to have a shot at beating the Australian, he had to get into the final corner first, try and hold the Ducati off down the front straight, and stay ahead for as long as could.
Stoner counted on beating Pedrosa on the brakes, and waited until the last instant before slamming on the anchors, kicking out the tail of his Ducati to try and get the bike turned as quickly as possible. But Stoner had left it a few yards too late, and found himself deeper into the turn than he wanted, watching Pedrosa sailing by up the inside as Stoner ran wide. In turn, Pedrosa had apexed early in his pursuit of the Australian, in an attempt to stuff his Repsol Honda up the inside of the Ducati, and hold the line round the outside of the hairpin, to enter the straight ahead. If Stoner hadn't been trying so hard, Pedrosa's move would have succeeded, but once Stoner got his Desmosedici GP7 turned, he was back on the inside of Pedrosa, out of the way of Pedrosa's attempted block, and into the lead again. They crossed the line much as they had entered the final corner, nearly abreast.
As they hit Turn 1 for the second time, the front two were separated by a sliver of nothingness, thick as thieves throughout the lap. Behind Pedrosa, the smallest of gaps preceded Randy de Puniet, with a similar gap back to Marco Melandri and Ant West. But just as hopes grew in the Kawasaki garage, their bubble was punctured: The timing screens flashed up the news that the anomaly on the starting grid had been Ant West, lining up in his old, familiar, four-wide 250 grid spot, not the three-wide spot required by MotoGP. He was officially given a jump start, and would have to come in for a ride-through penalty, just as he had at Motegi. To get two jump starts in three races is more than unfortunate, and betrays West's inexperience in the class.
Do The Shuffle
Behind the front five, the pack was shaking itself out. Toni Elias, having been demoted to 8th by the end of the first lap, had made short order of the dueling Suzukis to take back 6th. But John Hopkins wouldn't let this affront lie, and as they lined up for Turn 4, Hopper tried to make good his deficit on the brakes. He succeeded, but ran in way too hot, running wide, just off the track and onto the grass, losing three places instead of gaining one.
Behind Hopkins, his team mate was under sustained attack from The Doctor. Rossi had got past Capirossi earlier, and was now lining up Chris Vermeulen into Turn 4. He braked, stuffed his Fiat Yamaha onto the inside line and ahead of Vermeulen, and was past. From 10th, Rossi was now back up to 7th, and could start to chase the leaders.
He had a lot to do. Elias was within easy reach, but Elias was nearly 2 seconds behind the man in 5th, Ant West. Rossi would need some help to get back with the front runners, and needed the leaders to start holding each other up.
Casey Stoner and Dani Pedrosa were doing their best to assist Rossi. Pedrosa was still glued to Stoner's tailpipe, and looked poised to strike at any moment. The only question was where. The most obvious place was at the end of the back straight, going into the final hairpin, but both men knew this. As they chased down towards the hairpin, Pedrosa was not close enough, but pulled out of Stoner's draft anyway, to draw some much-needed cooler air into his RC212V's radiator, and make Stoner aware that he was not alone.
While Stoner and Pedrosa only had eyes for each other, Randy de Puniet and Marco Melandri were starting to close. As they crossed the line to start lap 3, the front duo had become a trio, and Melandri was close to making it a quartet. West had started to lose ground, and was heading backwards to meet the group following.
That group was now led by Valentino Rossi, the Italian wedging his Yamaha ahead of Elias' Honda going into Turn 1. But Rossi was still 2 seconds adrift of West, and nearly 4 seconds behind the leader, Casey Stoner. If he wanted to join the party, he had to up the pace.
Wherever You Go ...
Though the front four were together, they were not close enough to start mixing it up. Pedrosa sat in pool of Stoner's shadow, while de Puniet followed a fraction behind, Melandri a similar distance from the Frenchman. But de Puniet was giving it his all. As they exited turn 8, at the back of the track, the Frenchman clipped the apex just a fraction too early, getting off the rubber laid down during practice and on to the treacherous newly surfaced part of the track, the rear of the bike yoyoing wildly as he opened the gas.
With the Kawasaki briefly derailed, Melandri shot over the rumblestrip and round the outside to get past into 3rd. But only for a few moments, as into the tight left-hander of Turn 9, de Puniet was back past on the brakes, and chasing Pedrosa once again. Having tasted third place, Melandri was now keen for more. A third of a lap later, Melandri was past once again, this time through the complex after Turn 4.
De Puniet wasn't the only Kawasaki rider getting passed. Behind the Frenchman, Valentino Rossi had a shift on. The Doctor had caught de Puniet's team mate Ant West, and was not taking any prisoners. In a brutal move, Rossi barged West aside in Turn 4, leaving the Australian with nowhere to go, except into another mugging by Toni Elias. Despite the harshness of the moves put on him, West had no one to blame but himself, as, dispirited by having had yet another jump start, he had let up his pace just enough to start getting in the way.
At the front of the field, the leaders were as tight as ever, with near to nothing separating Casey Stoner, Dani Pedrosa and Marco Melandri. Once passed by Melandri, Randy de Puniet had quickly ceded half a second to the leaders, and could not claw it back, try as he might. For the next four laps, though the order remained the same, changed threatened at any moment. And lap after lap, down the back straight, Pedrosa pulled out of Stoner's draft, cooling his Honda and letting Stoner know he was still there.
On lap 8, Stoner upped the pace, and smuggled an extra 0.2 seconds from Pedrosa, who was increasingly having to concentrate on holding off Marco Melandri. Pedrosa's factory Repsol Honda held Melandri off with relative ease down the straights, but Melandri could smell 2nd place, and maybe more. Lap 8 went to Pedrosa, but on lap 9, Melandri found a way round, sneaking past through the left-right section of Turn 6, ahead by the time they reached the back of the track.
... There You Are
Taking 2nd place was one thing, keeping it another. Dani Pedrosa, seeing his chance of victory snatched from his hands, determined to get back past. Pedrosa had a slight power advantage down the straights, edging close, and even equal at one point, but at the end of the straight, he had to attack Melandri where Melandri is strongest: On the brakes. Try as he might, Pedrosa could not get past, Melandri holding him off every time in the braking zone.
Melandri and Pedrosa engaged in close quarters combat was just what Casey Stoner needed. Temporarily relieved of pressure from behind, he was free to concentrate on what he does best: Run fast, smooth lap times, trying to build the gap for lap after lap. On lap 9, he set the fastest lap of the race so far, but Melandri was almost as fast, nullifying the Australian's advantage. On lap 10, Stoner was slower, but not by much, while Marco Melandri had his hands full with Dani Pedrosa. Stoner started the lap with three quarters of second advantage, but finished it nearly a second and a half a head. By squabbling over the right to go after Stoner, Melandri and Pedrosa had given him the break he craves, and had given themselves a lot more work to do than they needed. Their only comfort was that there was still over half the race left.
Behind the leaders, Valentino Rossi was giving chase. But chase as he might, The Doctor faced two problems, one in front, and one behind. Ahead of him, Randy de Puniet, though dropped by the leading three, had found his rhythm and was holding station, matching Rossi's lap times almost to the hundredth. When Rossi upped the pace, and gained on de Puniet, the Frenchman responded, making good on the following lap. Both riders were lapping fast, as fast as the leaders, but not fast enough to catch either the front three, or each other.
Behind him, Rossi had to deal with the wild and wonderful Toni Elias. The Spaniard would catch Rossi one lap, before fading the next, only for the cycle to repeat itself again the following lap. Unable to drop Elias permanently, The Doctor had to keep one eye behind him, to fend off any unwelcome advances from the Gresini Honda.
Wild-Eyed And Reckless
In turn, Elias had problems of his own. Another former world champion was on a charge, Nicky Hayden having found his feet after a mediocre start, and was swashbuckling his way up through the field. In Elias, Hayden met his fiercest foe, the Spaniard holding off all of Hayden's thrusts, in Turn 1, Turn 9, and round the section onto the back straight.
As they fired down the straight towards the final corner, Elias risked a look under his elbow to see where Hayden was. The answer was right on his tail, and about to whip out of the draft and past him. But in his eagerness to get past, Hayden had pushed just a little too hard. Ahead going into the hairpin, The Kentucky Kid found himself with more braking to do, and too little space to do it in. In a fit of target fixation, Hayden ran wide, sat up, and rolled off the track, to rejoin down 10th, losing out to the Suzukis and Colin Edwards.
Over the next 10 laps, the race became a contest of fractions of a second. At the front, Casey Stoner was running fast, smooth laps, but the slow broil of the tropics was starting to take its toll. The newly-crowned world champion, normally a paragon of regularity such that you could set your atomic clock by his lap times, was tiring, making mistakes, and becoming that must un-Stoneresque of things, erratic. Stoner's vacillation left room for Melandri chasing him, but Melandri was riding in the same heat and humidity as Stoner. Worse for Melandri, the Italian's drinking tube had malfunctioned, filling his helmet with moisture, and splashing water all over his neck and into his helmet. Melandri had to face the twin difficulties of a lack of water to drink, and gathering water in his helmet, with the ensuing worry that his visor could fog.
The laps counted down, and gaps swung back and forth, Stoner pulling out nearly a 2 second advantage by lap 16, only to see it reduced to just over a second two laps later. With three laps to go, and 1.1 seconds to close, Melandri was still in with a chance. But on the next lap, Casey Stoner put in the 4th fastest lap of the race so far, taking over half a second from the Italian, and giving himself enough of a cushion to bring it home for his 10th win of the season, equaling the third-highest total number of wins in a season, shared with Valentino Rossi and Giacomo Agostini. Once again, Stoner had been strong, and run the race from the front. But the weather, and the proximity of Pedrosa and Melandri had prevented the Australian from dominating as he is used to. The gap to the rest of the field is starting to close.
Marco Melandri closed the gap the most. Melandri was delighted with his 2nd place, regarding it as a triumph after a difficult year on the Gresini Honda. Melandri has been extremely vocal in his criticism of Honda, after they had been very slow to provide him with engine and bike upgrades which he believed they had promised him before the season started. Melandri had been looking for a way to demonstrate to Honda just what a mistake they'd made, and at Sepang, he found it. He leaves Honda to join Casey Stoner at Ducati next year, and if this race was anything to go by, Stoner could have a much tougher time defending his title than he had winning it.
Close behind Melandri, Dani Pedrosa came home in 3rd, surprised that his tires had lasted. All weekend long, Pedrosa had worried about tires, as everything he had tried from his allocation had lacked grip, or lost grip, and his experience in Australia last week, when his tires faded badly during the second half of the race, had not given him much room for optimism. But Pedrosa's tires lasted well, allowing him to take his 7th podium of the year, and recover a few points in his battle for 2nd place in the championship with Valentino Rossi.
A second and a half behind Pedrosa, Randy de Puniet came home a steady 4th, eventually ceding little ground to the front runners to take his second best result of the season. Whether he will be as successful at LCR Honda as he has been at Kawasaki remains to be seen.
Up And Down
Valentino Rossi was both pleased and disappointed by his 5th place. Like Pedrosa, The Doctor had started the race with little confidence in his tires, but as the race had progressed, the tires kept going, and kept going better, with Rossi setting his fastest lap of the race, beaten only by Casey Stoner, on lap 20 of 21. It remains to be seen whether Rossi will jump ship to Bridgestones at the end of the season, but the race at Sepang may have given him something to ponder before deciding whether to ditch the Michelins.
Behind Rossi, Toni Elias came home in 6th, not close enough to Rossi to challenge, and far enough ahead of the Suzuki battle to be sure that it was not under threat. Elias had looked like catching Rossi several times during the race, but seemed to lose ground as quickly as he lost it, his spectacular riding style pleasing the fans, but not paying the dividend he might hope for.
Behind Elias, the epic Battle of the Suzukis was finally won by Chris Vermeulen, after John Hopkins last-lap do-or-die move to pass his team mate failed. The dice between the two team mates was the most entertaining fight of the whole race, and just the kind of battle that TV audiences, fans, and Dorna want to see. Sadly, it was only for 7th place, and so did not get the TV coverage it deserved, the directors choosing instead to focus on the tension at the front. But Vermeulen's 7th spot gave him a precious point in the championship fight for fifth place, now just 4 points behind team mate Hopper.
Behind the Suzukis, Nicky Hayden had recovered one of the places he lost in the overeager passing attempt on Elias, getting by Colin Edwards to finish 9th. Behind Edwards, another battle of similar bikes had raged, Loris Capirossi successfully defending the honor of the factory Ducati team by beating Alex Barros on the Pramac d'Antin satellite bike for 11th.
The New Boy
Another duel had been fought for 13th, Suzuki's wild card rider Nobu Aoki finally beating LCR Honda's Carlos Checa. Aoki had debuted the prototype of the 2008 Suzuki GSV-R, and the new bike was regularly to be found near the top of the maximum speed charts. The Suzukis have looked good so far this year, and could be even stronger in 2008.
Ant West took the final point in 15th, after the misfortune of having a ride through penalty at the track with the longest pit lane of the series, over a thousand yards of 40 mph, while your competitors blast past you at closer to 200 mph. By the time he rejoined the race, he had lost over 30 seconds, any chance of running with the leaders completely gone.
Behind West, Shinya Nakano came home in 16th, his long-suffering year on the Michelin-shod Konica Minolta Honda nearly over, a fact he will be surely relieved about. Chaz Davies brought the second Pramac d'Antin Ducati home in 17th, after struggling to find a setup all weekend, and amid rumors that Toni Elias would take the open seat at the team for 2008, leaving Davies out of MotoGP.
The two Dunlop Tech 3 Yamahas finished 18th and 19th, Makoto Tamada beating his young team mate Sylvain Guintoli this time out. The Dunlops never really worked at Sepang, leaving Tamada and Guintoli out of contention, and making Dunlop's job of finding a team to use its tires with next year almost impossible.
The only team the Dunlops could be an option for is Team KR. Kurtis Roberts' 20th place aboard the KR212V, which has received no engine upgrades at all from Honda this year, has not made the team's quest for sponsorship any easier, and Dunlop will surely have money to spend if it wants to stay in MotoGP.
Show Or Go?
If the 2007 MotoGP round at Sepang started amid a raging argument about whether MotoGP needs more show, or should stay a purely technical pastime, the race had done little to settle the argument one way or the other. While the debate had centered around tires, the race left onlookers with no further insights to help them make up their minds. Neither Bridgestone nor Michelin had dominated, but then the tires had not behaved as expected at all. Where tires were expected to go off quickly in the tropical heat, instead they lasted, and even got better. Of the 20 riders on the grid, all but 4 of them did their fastest lap in the second half of the race, 5 of them setting their fastest times in the last 3 laps in the grueling, tropical conditions.
However, worryingly for the technical purists, who want to see as few rules as possible, the best action on the track came from two pairs of riders on the same bikes and tires, with the Suzukis fighting tooth and nail for 7th, and Barros and Capirossi having a private Ducati battle for 11th. Similar tires and similar equipment seemed to have created closer racing, supporters of the control tire were keen to point out. Closer, but slower, the purists countered.
So we leave Sepang in the same position that we arrived here, with the fight for the future, or perhaps even the soul of MotoGP still raging. On Friday, one of the battles will be fought and settled, as the Grand Prix Commission settle rules on tires, and we learn whether Valentino Rossi will get the Bridgestones he believes he needs to be competitive. But the underlying war will continue: Is MotoGP sport, or is it entertainment?
If MotoGP is to remain a pure sport, where manufacturers compete in open warfare on technology, what is to stop the richest company from just pouring more money into its program, and dominating the series? What is to become of the rider, as technology advances, and more and more control is taken out of the hands of riders, and managed by computers? And who is going to pay for all this technology, if TV audiences disappear, and sponsors lose interest?
But if MotoGP is entertainment, why bother with expensive technical development at all? Why not just supply every rider with the same bikes and the same tires, and let the best rider win? MotoGP weekends already feature one spec class, the Red Bull Rookies Cup, how hard would it be to supercharge the idea to get it ready for the premier class? And if that fails, why not fix the racing, to make sure that the riders stay bunched together, and no one can build up a big lead? If it works for NASCAR, why shouldn't it work for MotoGP?
Heart And Soul
The war rages on, and it may rage on indefinitely. It is a war of principles, a war that encapsulates the very essence of MotoGP. Every advance in technology threatens the control which riders have over their machines, but great riders may still find a way to leverage that technology better than lesser riders. And every once in a while, a rider such as Mick Doohan, Giacomo Agostini, or maybe even Casey Stoner will dominate the series. Is there a way to stop that domination happening? And if there is a way, should you use it?
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