Dorna, the organization which holds the TV rights for MotoGP and is charged with marketing the series, likes to tell people that MotoGP is truly a global sport. And for the most part, this is only a mild exaggeration. MotoGP rounds are held on four of the world's five inhabited continents, and the series is broadcast in over two hundred different countries. It is fair to say that MotoGP has a worldwide reach.
But just having a global reach is not the same as being a global sport. The series certainly has fans all around the world, but there are only a two countries where MotoGP really matters. While coverage in other places around the world varies from a quick highlights reel in the middle of the night to live coverage of the race on national TV, in Spain and Italy, MotoGP is a central part of sporting culture. Spanish and Italian TV don't just show the races live, they also have extensive pre-race and post-race shows, as well as weekly talk shows dedicated to the sport, not to mention the yards and yards of coverage that MotoGP receives in the national press.
And with such intense coverage comes intense pressure. Italian and Spanish riders are expected to be competitive, to win races and win championships. When they don't win, there's trouble, as the last two years, with two English-speaking champions and a slew of English-speaking winners have demonstrated. That isn't what Spanish and Italian TV viewers pay their cable fees to watch.
This pressure is bad enough when the MotoGP circus is off traveling the world, but when it visits its spiritual home it becomes almost explosive. The Spanish Grand Prix at Jerez is testament to that. Over a quarter of a million people throng the ancient streets of the Spanish town, and on Sunday, over half that number make their way to the racetrack to cheer on their local heroes in a cacophony of sound which easily drowns out the 130 decibel bark of MotoGP bike exhausts.
And times have been hard for Spanish fans over the past few years. The last time a Spaniard won at Jerez was in 2004, when Sete Gibernau saw off Max Biaggi to take victory, and since then, Spanish fans have had to watch a frustrating sequence of 2nd place finishes from their home riders, with the low point being the final-corner collision between Valentino Rossi and Sete Gibernau in 2005, when both men aimed for the same spot of tarmac and Rossi came out on top.
Spanish fans and media were desperate for this dry spell to end, but with two Spaniards on the podium at Qatar three weeks ago, it looked like their prayers might finally be answered. Jorge Lorenzo then added to the Spanish fervor by tearing up qualifying and taking his second pole position in a row. Lorenzo's qualifying was just an extension of what he'd been doing during practice, where he had been banging in lap after lap at record pace.
The Fast And The Furious
A home win finally looked like it might be on the cards. And it couldn't be more welcome, as Juan Carlos, the King of Spain, was in attendance to hand out the winner's trophies. Normally, the King would the pleasure of presenting at least one trophy in either the 250 or 125 classes, but thanks to a strong ride by Simone Corsi in the 125 class, and engine trouble for Alvaro Bautista in the 250s, the monarch's trips to the podium had so far been to honor riders with entirely the wrong nationality. So as the riders lined up on the grid for the start of the MotoGP race, the pressure on Lorenzo and Pedrosa was greater than ever.
As if a crowd hungry for a victory they had so far been denied wasn't enough pressure, both Jorge Lorenzo and Dani Pedrosa also wanted one thing above all: to beat the other man. The feud between the two Spanish riders has been simmering almost since they started racing each other, but had heated up after Pedrosa apparently refused to shake Lorenzo's hand after the race at Qatar. Winning had become even more important, as this wasn't just about winning the Spanish Grand Prix, this was about bragging rights in Spain.
So as the lights faded, and the bikes thundered off the line, the race to the first corner was a battle for prestige, as well as the lead. At first, it looked like Jorge Lorenzo had converted his pole position into the race lead, but as the first corner approached, it was the Repsol Hondas which shot past and ahead, both Dani Pedrosa and Nicky Hayden getting a rocket launch off the line. Pedrosa and Hayden entered the turn level, but Pedrosa had the inside line and held it. But Hayden would not be gainsaid, and clung onto the outside line, getting ready for an outside pass round the next turn, the Michelin corner. It was a brave move, but just a fraction too much for his tires, and Hayden ran wide, losing a place to Jorge Lorenzo down into 3rd.
The Hondas weren't the only bikes to get a jet-assisted launch: Casey Stoner put on a repeat of his usual slingshot start, firing up from 7th to contest 4th with Colin Edwards. Not close enough at Turn 1, by the next turn, he had slid ahead of Edwards, and was closing on Hayden. Behind Edwards, Loris Capirossi had also gotten a fantastic start from the 4th row on the grid and led Valentino Rossi, who had been forced down from 5th into 7th place. Once again, The Doctor was stuck watching his main rivals for the title, along with his rookie team mate, take off into the distance while he was stuck in traffic.
As the pack hared round Pons corner and onto the back straight, Rossi had already snatched back one position, taking advantage of Loris Capirossi running his Suzuki wide. But ahead of him, Casey Stoner was getting ready to use the Ducati's top speed to his advantage, at the only place at this tortuous track where it was any use. By the time the world champion hammered on the brakes for the tight Dry Sack hairpin, he was past Nicky Hayden, and up into 3rd.
At the front, Dani Pedrosa was setting a furious pace. By the end of the first lap, Jorge Lorenzo was right on his heels, but Pedrosa was the fastest man on the track. On lap 2, he smashed the lap record set by Valentino Rossi on a 990 cc Yamaha in 2005. Then, on lap 3, he smashed it again just for good measure. Pedrosa had taken nearly half a second off Rossi's previous lap record, in just the second year after the reduction in capacity. If that had been meant to slow the bikes down, it had very obviously failed.
In The Hunt
While Pedrosa eked out a lead at the front, the pack squabbled bitterly over the right to chase him down. As they crossed the line to end the first lap, Rossi hove out of the draft behind Edwards to take 5th into Turn 1. The Doctor then closed on Hayden, who had allowed the smallest of gaps to open to Casey Stoner. But as they entered Pons to get onto the back straight, Stoner ran wide, the rear tire of his Ducati sliding and almost pitching him off the bike. Stoner recovered but it was too late: Hayden was past coming onto the straight, and Valentino Rossi followed, jamming his Fiat Yamaha up inside Stoner into Dry Sack.
Having recovered his composure, the reigning champ was back chasing The Doctor, who in turn was pushing Hayden, now half a second behind Jorge Lorenzo in 2nd. Rossi hunted down Hayden round the first half of the Andalucian track, getting drive out of Pons to draft Hayden's Honda down the back straight once again. At the end of the short straight, Rossi whipped out of Hayden's draft to dive up the inside at Dry Sack, and into 3rd position.
Seeing Valentino Rossi get still further ahead, and aware that he couldn't afford to let his chief rival get away, Casey Stoner tried braking a fraction later than before, to try and close the gap. His attempt failed: instead, Stoner couldn't get the bike stopped in time, and was forced to stand it up and send it into the gravel. Mr Perfect had been struggling all weekend, desperately trying to find grip at what has turned out to be Ducati's bogey track in the 800 cc era, and his usually flawless execution was starting to slip. As he edged gingerly through the gravel, Stoner was forced to watch the rest of the pack fly by, leaving him dead last. His only consolation was that he had improved since practice, now only running off the track where earlier on, he had been crashing out.
Stoner wasn't the only rider running wide. Now past Hayden, Rossi had his team mate Jorge Lorenzo in his sights, and was closing fast. But as they approached the final hairpin before the finish line, Rossi let himself get carried away by his enthusiasm, and ran wide, losing all of the ground he'd just made up on Lorenzo, only fending Hayden off again with a judicious cut back to the inside.
It didn't take Rossi long to recover. Half a lap later, as they hammered down the back straight towards Dry Sack, Rossi was back on Lorenzo once more. After the two long lefts towards the stadium section, Rossi was close enough to strike, sliding his Fiat Yamaha up inside his team mate, and into 2nd. He could now get on with the serious task of trying to chase Dani Pedrosa down.
That was not as easy as Rossi had hoped for. Over the next few laps, a pattern kept repeating itself: through the first three sections, all the way round the track from the finish line through Michelin and Pons, down the straight into Dry Sack, then back towards the stadium and out of Nieto, Rossi took 2/10ths out of Dani Pedrosa, slowly closing the gap. But as they crossed the line to start the next lap, Pedrosa had whipped through the fast right handers behind the pits and out of the hairpin to add another 3/10ths of a second to his lead. Through that one part of the track, consisting of just 3 right-handers and one sharp left, the Spanish ex 250 champion was pulling back over half a second, more than enough to keep extending his lead.
Nothing Rossi tried seemed to help. And every lap, the result was the same. At the end of lap 4, Rossi was a second and a half down. The next lap, he was 1.6 seconds behind Pedrosa, then 1.75, then 2 seconds, then 2.4 seconds. Dani Pedrosa was pushing, and nothing Rossi did made a blind bit of difference. By the half way mark, Pedrosa was 4 seconds ahead, and still pulling away.
But as the laps remaining started to count down towards single figures, the tide began to turn. On lap 17, Rossi took back 7/100ths of a second. It was the tiniest fraction of his deficit, but it was a start. Seeing his lead stop climbing, Pedrosa pushed once again, adding another 3/10ths to his lead, taking it back to a comfortable 4.6 seconds. It was the last little bit extra that he had, but would it be enough?
The Spanish Main
Rossi started coming back, taking back a tenth every lap, but by now, it was too late. Dani Pedrosa had done what he does best: take off from the front, and ride so hard, fast and smooth that only a miracle could intervene. At Jerez, no one had a miracle to hand, and so Pedrosa went on to take a classic victory, delighting the crowd, and saving the honor of Spain in front of her monarch, Juan Carlos.
While Rossi focused his attention on chasing the rider ahead, he still had company from behind. Jorge Lorenzo, despite having been passed by his Fiat Yamaha team mate, had sunk his teeth into Rossi's tailpipe, and was not letting it go. He was constantly within spitting distance of The Doctor, but try as he might, he could not get close enough to attempt a pass. What's more, Lorenzo also had Nicky Hayden to contend with.
Hayden had had to let Lorenzo go for the first half of the race, ceding fractions of a second every lap. But once past the halfway mark, Hayden started to inch his way back towards the fight for 2nd, between Rossi and Lorenzo. By lap 17 he was closing, and 5 laps later, he was close enough to think about making a move.
Being close is not enough, though. As the three men thundered down the front straight, Hayden had Lorenzo's scent firmly in his nostrils, and as they headed into Turn 1, he pushed to bridge the final gap. But the gap was bigger than he thought, for as he turned the bike in, the front twitched, slipped, threatening to dump Hayden onto the track. With incredible reflexes, and a healthy dose of luck, The Kentucky Kid slipped onto his elbow, held the bike on his knee, and tried to flip the bike up onto the fat part of the tire once again. Whether through good fortune or skill, the tire gripped, and Hayden stayed on board, out of touch with Rossi and Lorenzo, but still comfortably in 4th position. It was a repeat of Colin Edwards' incredible save during Qualifying. Not as spectacular as Edwards' knee-and-elbow catch, but testament to Hayden's reflexes nonetheless.
With Hayden out of the way, having lost over a second with his elbow-down antics, 2nd place came down to a straight fight between Valentino Rossi and Jorge Lorenzo. But push as he might, Lorenzo could not catch his Bridgestone-shod team mate, and looked like having to settle for 3rd. At least, until Rossi crossed the line for the end of lap 26. In shades of Estoril 2005, as Rossi crossed the line, he sat up and pointed his finger in the air, starting to celebrate his 2nd place finish. But when he looked at his team, he didn't see them celebrating with him, but rather frantically urging him on. In a flash, he realized that he'd miscounted the laps and had one more to go. Still ahead of Lorenzo, Valentino Rossi put his mistake behind him, his head down, and fired off one last fast lap to hold on to 2nd.
Rossi celebrated his 2nd place almost like a victory. He had been disappointed with his result at Qatar, and, as a result, uncertain about his switch to Bridgestone tires. But to be the best of the Bridgestone runners at Jerez, and having made strong progress in understanding how the tires work with the Yamaha M1 points the way to a competitive future for Rossi, and a fair shot at regaining the title. Perhaps his joy at this result may go some way to explaining his rookie mistake.
Behind Rossi, and a little disheartened, Jorge Lorenzo came home in 3rd place, his second podium finish in two races. It may seem a little strange that Lorenzo should be disappointed, after getting his rookie season off to such a blistering start with two poles and two podiums in two races, but on the evidence of practice, Lorenzo looked like running away with the race, and felt justifiably confident. He put his 3rd place down to the tires not behaving as they had in practice, conditions being several degrees cooler during the race on Sunday. Despite his disappointment, it surely won't be long before Lorenzo gets his first victory in MotoGP.
Several seconds behind Jorge Lorenzo, Nicky Hayden brought the second Repsol Honda home in 4th place, having taken the warning from his tires on lap 22 seriously. After his disastrous start at Qatar, finishing just 10th on the 2007 version of the RC212V, Hayden was once again in contention for the podium, and riding like the Kentucky Kid of old. There is definitely light at the end of the tunnel for Hayden, in what is likely to be a year of auditioning for 2009 for the American ex-champ.
The Wild Bunch
While the front four had sorted themselves out relatively quickly, behind them, mayhem reigned. Rizla Suzuki's Loris Capirossi, Team Scot Honda's Andrea Dovizioso, James Toseland on the Tech 3 Yamaha, Kawasaki's John Hopkins, Chris Vermeulen on the other Suzuki and Gresini Honda's Shinya Nakano slugged it out for 5th in varying combinations, the group never losing more than a couple of seconds to each other. They had initially been joined by Colin Edwards, who had lost touch with the leaders fairly early. But Edwards crashed on lap 5, retiring the next time round, after pushing too hard to keep up.
The battle for 5th turned out to be one of the most entertaining spectacles of the race. At first, Loris Capirossi seemed to have the 5th in the bag, building a comfortable lead of several seconds to the group behind. But by the halfway mark, he had fallen back into their clutches, and was forced to scrap it out for places. Despite his bronchitis, James Toseland put several very tough passes on Vermeulen and Capirossi, only to see his moves parried, and reciprocated in kind.
The scrap lasted all race, so it was inevitable that it would come down to the final corner. The final hairpin at Jerez has a lot of history, the most recent of which was Gibernau and Rossi in 2005. If two people contesting that final turn is cause for trouble, for four riders to enter the turn almost simultaneously was always going to be chaotic at best, and catastrophic at worst. As they came through the fast right handers on their approach to the hairpin, it was Toseland who looked in best position, having taken the lead from Capirossi a lap earlier. But Dovizioso had other ideas.
Whose Line Is It Anyway?
As they braked for the hairpin, Dovi tried a do-or-die dive up the inside of Toseland, to try and hold off the Briton and snatch back 5th. But he was in too hot, and as he ran wide, he forced Toseland to brake harder than he wanted and turn in early. This left Loris Capirossi perfectly placed to take advantage of the tangle between JT and Dovi, and slip underneath Toseland to take 5th place. James Toseland ran wide, but held on to 6th place, forcing Andrea Dovizioso out onto the kerb and almost into the grass, allowing John Hopkins underneath to snatch 7th.
Behind Dovizioso, Shinya Nakano came home in 9th, having lost touch with the fight for 5th earlier, ahead of Chris Vermeulen, who'd been battling it out with Nakano, in 10th.
Seven seconds behind Vermeulen, a bitterly disappointed Casey Stoner could only manage 11th position. The reigning world champion had struggled all weekend with a lack of front end grip, something uncharacteristic of the Bridgestones, but several front end tucks by most of the Bridgestone riders had shown that the Japanese tire maker was still having trouble at this track. Stoner's excursion into the gravel had been proof of that, but the champion put his head down and fought his way back up from last, until he arrived in 11th spot, and lapping half a second quicker than the group right ahead of him.
As he caught Nakano and Vermeulen, he attempted the pass down the short back straight, drawing almost level with the Honda and the Suzuki. As Stoner went for the pass, Nakano cut across in front of him, leaving the Australian with nowhere to go. Stoner braked, had to sit up, and ran on into the same gravel trap he'd visited 20 laps earlier. Furious, he rejoined the race once again, now robbed of a potential 5th place finish he would surely have been capable of.
Marco Melandri finished in 12th, behind his Ducati team mate, after a much stronger ride than expected. Qualifying and practice had been a nightmare for Melandri, the Italian qualifying in 18th and dead last place. But he'd fought his way through the field, and taken back a few places to recover a little bit of confidence, and the tiniest hope of improvement over the coming races.
Ant West took his Kawasaki to 13th place, mugging Alex de Angelis on the final corner to grab an extra point. And the Alice Ducatis of Toni Elias and Sylvain Guintoli brought up the rear, finishing 15th and 16th respectively. The Alice Ducati team, led by Luis d'Antin, has been at the back of the pack almost since testing began, and has struggled in both races. If they don't get some help from Ducati soon, it's going to be very hard to find anyone to ride for them.
And so, the Spanish crowd got what it came for, seeing a Spanish rider receive the winner's trophy from their king. Dani Pedrosa, never the most expressive of riders, was visibly delighted to have gotten another win, just two races after his previous victory at Valencia.
But the victory ceremony was made even more interesting than usual by the gesture in the press room, as the riders waited to go out onto the balcony for the champagne and trophies. King Juan Carlos, who has played a remarkable and conciliatory role in recent Spanish history, attempted to settle one of the bitterest disputes to have raged through a country already suffering deep regional divisions. Juan Carlos took the hands of Dani Pedrosa and Jorge Lorenzo, and forced them together, to shake hands. Lorenzo smiled, and shook, while Pedrosa, who has made no secret of his animosity towards Lorenzo, looked annoyed at being pressured into this. This feud is by no means settled, but at least the King has tried to play his part.
A Long Way To Go
So the outcome of the Jerez race leaves the MotoGP in a pretty interesting state. After last year, the fear was that Casey Stoner would walk away with the championship right from the start, but so far, the racing has already been much closer than in 2007. And there are even more hopeful signs, as the factory Honda and factory Yamaha teams took the top four spots at Jerez.
While it is still early in the season, it is clear that the Japanese manufacturers have closed the gap to Ducati, and that Michelin have stepped up their game to meet the challenge of Bridgestone. Even more importantly, Casey Stoner has demonstrated that despite his brilliance, he is merely human, and that when under pressure, he can make mistakes. He has a host of riders right behind him, and ready to apply that pressure.
Stoner's challengers have only two weeks to wait. The whole circus moves on to Estoril for the following round of MotoGP, and once again, Spanish fans will throng the circuit. With Estoril's long fast straight favoring top speed, and the slow back section favoring agility, the contest seems evenly balanced. With the track often providing fantastic racing, with plenty of opportunities for hard passing, the current crop of excitable rookies should be their element. The season really is starting to heat up, though it's only just begun.