The three painted lines marking the spot where MotoGP line up on the grid cram a lot of tension into a tiny space. After rolling out of the pits, and round the track for the sighting lap, the riders are in their element doing something they know and understand, riding a powerful motorcycle around a race track. But that release from pre-race tension is all too brief, for it is the prelude to the worst 15 minutes of a rider's life. Once they round the final corner and roll up to their starting position, they are trapped once again inside those few lines of paint, forced to stand idle while the clock ticks away the endless seconds before the race actually starts.
Then, once the bustle of the grid is brought to an end by the 1 minute board, and the bikes head off round the track for the warm up lap, the riders know that things are about to get worse. As they return to the confinement of those three stripes of paint, that sickening feeling in the pit of their stomach intensifies. For though they know they will only be held in that painted prison for a few seconds, restrained by just a red light, they have just long enough to ponder the fact that what they do next is irreversible. No room for error, no second chances, and no quarter given when the flag drops, but until then, motorcycle racers, people who are fundamentally defined by what they do, can do nothing. Just wait. And worry.
Dealing with this kind of tension week in and week out, requires nerves of steel, or an inner calmness, or preferably both. Those final moments before the race starts can be made so much worse and so much more complicated by the random nature of the events which surround them. As much as getting a MotoGP bike ready to race is about controlling as many variables as precisely as possible, and getting a MotoGP rider ready is about excluding anything which isn't relevant to the task at hand, there are still far too many factors which are completely beyond the control of teams and riders. The weather, track conditions, stray wildlife, erratic riding by competitors: any of these can wreck your race, and none of them are within your sphere of influence.
The Gathering Storm
The grid at Le Mans illustrated this point all too painfully. For a start, there was the weather. While the two days of practice had taken place under largely clear skies with only the merest hint of rain, the late morning saw a heavy shower disrupt the morning's 125cc race, with the track damp but drying while the 250s were out. With no wet weather setup data, the track mostly dry, and patches of bright sunshine interspersed with dark clouds, picking a race tire and setup looked like a complete gamble. Nervous pit crews slaved away both on the grid, making last-minute adjustments to their setup, and in pit lane, laying out everything necessary to get the riders' spare bikes into wet race trim should the heavens open.
And while the weather placed added strain on everyone, some riders had their own individual problems to deal with. Andrea Dovizioso looked worriedly on as his mechanics rushed to change the front wheel on his Team Scot Honda, after the tire vibrated badly on the sighting lap. Jorge Lorenzo nervously contemplated the task ahead of him, and questioned whether he could ride through the pain once again, after adding bangs and bruises to his fractured ankles, after crashing on both Friday and Saturday. The pressure on everyone was immense, the conditions merely adding to their burden.
In Chinese tradition, evil spirits are chased away with loud bangs and the crackle of fireworks. In MotoGP, the evil spirits of prerace nerves are dispatched with the ear-shattering130dB bellow of MotoGP bikes roaring off the line once the lights go out. Pent-up tension now dispelled, the riders chased blessed relief into the fast right of the Dunlop Curve, before lining up for the chicane.
Colin Edwards, the man who had come so close to taking two poles in a row on Saturday, got away from the line well, but his misfortune was that he had the two quickest starters either side of him. By the time the bikes peeled right for the fast Dunlop Curve, both Casey Stoner and Dani Pedrosa had slipped past Edwards, pushing the Texan down into 3rd. Behind Edwards, Tech 3 Yamaha team mate James Toseland had got a flying start, and had shot from 7th to 4th, ahead of Nicky Hayden. Valentino Rossi, meanwhile, had dropped a couple of places, and held 6th ahead of the dueling Suzukis of Chris Vermeulen and Loris Capirossi.
Braking for the chicane, the first real corner the riders faced after the start, Hayden forced his Repsol Honda round the outside of Toseland, forcing the Brit back into 5th. Most of the rest of the field got through the chicane in one piece, Randy de Puniet the only semi-casualty, running wide and across the tarmac, rejoining ahead of where he entered the chicane, and forced to relinquish the places he had unfairly gained.
Further down the field, Jorge Lorenzo's worries about his injuries seemed to have been confirmed. From 5th on the grid, the Spaniard had dropped down to 10th, as the reigning 250 world champion struggled to get a feeling for his Fiat Yamaha. But the biggest loser at the lights was Marco Melandri, who had been forced to bump start his Ducati Desmosedici after it had stalled on the line. It was a bad start to what was to be a very long day for the Italian.
With his two main rivals leading the pack, Valentino Rossi knew he had to get a move on. The Doctor lined up James Toseland through Musee, before slipping his Yamaha M1 gracefully up the inside of Toseland at Garage Vert, and into 5th. Unfortunately for Toseland, Rossi was trailing the Suzuki of Chris Vermeulen in his wake, and by the time the bikes reached the end of the back straight, the Australian was inside Toseland and past through Chemin des Boeufs.
As they crossed the line for the first time, the front four, consisting of Pedrosa, Stoner, Edwards and Hayden, had opened a small gap to the following group, but on the run up towards the Dunlop Curve, The Doctor was closing them down. At the front, Stoner was using the power of his Ducati to try and pull a gap, but Pedrosa was expertly using his draft. As they approached the chicane, the Spaniard pulled out for a look up the inside, but he was too far away to lunge for the lead.
Pedrosa tried a different tactic at the long right of La Chappelle, holding a wide line and conserving his corner speed to get a slingshot down to Musee. He could pass Stoner's back wheel, but not the front, and as they flicked hard left, Stoner held on to the lead. The duel between the two leaders was starting to frustrate Colin Edwards, the Tech 3 Yamaha man glued to the tail of Pedrosa. With Stoner and Pedrosa taking up so much space slugging it out for 1st, Edwards was stuck, unable to pass the Ducati and the Honda in a single move.
The move around La Chapelle may not have worked for Pedrosa, but it was perfectly effective for Rossi. Inside Hayden at Musee, the Italian was ready to chase the front three. It took him exactly a lap, for by the time they braked for Musee once again, Rossi was right on Edwards' back wheel. The three had become four, with little separating them.
Casey Stoner and Dani Pedrosa either didn't know or didn't care about what was going on behind them. The former 250 rivals were as rapt with each other as teenage lovers, and getting almost as physical. Pedrosa had a clear edge on corner speed, gaining through every turn, but Stoner had enough of an advantage in braking to negate any gains the Spaniard made through the corners. But a few feet here and a few feet there made little difference. The two men were almost as one.
Grace And Beauty
As they ran out of La Chappelle for the 4th time, the front four put on a display of synchronized racing. At the front, Dani Pedrosa slipped up the inside of Casey Stoner in an attempt at the lead, at the same time as Valentino Rossi attempted the same maneuver on his former team mate Colin Edwards. The difference was timing. Their moves had been simultaneous, but Pedrosa had fewer yards to get his braking done for the corner, and that space was not quite enough. The Spaniard ran wide into Musee allowing Casey Stoner to take back the lead, and Rossi to draw virtually level. Rossi's move past Edwards had been initiated 20 meters earlier than Pedrosa's, and Rossi had gotten through without a glitch.
Pedrosa's wide line may have failed him against Stoner, but against Rossi, it gave him an advantage. From further out on the track, he was able to get on the gas earlier, and parry Rossi's charge up the inside. But Rossi would not be denied so easily. Into the next corner, at Garage Vert, Rossi was inside Pedrosa once again, and past onto the short back straight.
As clean as Rossi's move had been, he had made it just before the strongest part of the track for Dani Pedrosa. The Repsol Honda man got perfect drive out of the double apex right, as he did almost every lap, and swung out of Rossi's draft to get past and back into 2nd as the group hit Chemin des Boeufs. Pedrosa's lead lasted just one and a half corners. Rossi was right on Pedrosa's tail through Chemin des Boeufs, and stuffed his Yamaha M1 firmly up the inside of Pedrosa on the brakes into the Esses, and was comfortably in 2nd by the time they crossed the line.
The pack had splintered into groups of four by now. Stoner led from Rossi, Pedrosa and Edwards at the front, while a second behind Edwards, Chris Vermeulen was past Nicky Hayden, with Loris Capirossi and John Hopkins right behind. Another second saw the solitary Jorge Lorenzo, who was a second ahead of the next group, composed of Toni Elias on the Alice Ducati and a gaggle of satellite Hondas, the Gresini bike of Shinya Nakano, Randy de Puniet on the LCR Honda and Andrea Dovizioso on the Team Scot RC212V. Dovizioso had been unfortunate, coming together with James Toseland, an incident which saw Toseland crash out and Dovi lose time, but gain a set of fetching black tire marks all over his leathers.
One Down ...
With Rossi past Pedrosa, he turned his attention on Casey Stoner. He gained on the Australian through Dunlop Curve, coming up just short braking at the chicane. Foiled at the chicane, Rossi tried the trick which had succeeded twice before, running fast through La Chappelle and trying to jab his front wheel inside at Musee. But Stoner was harder on the brakes than either Hayden or Edwards had been, and the world champion held The Doctor off, before cutting across his nose to inform him that he would have to do better than that.
For the rest of the lap, Rossi could only follow, while Dani Pedrosa closed up behind. Then on lap 6, the cycle repeated itself again: Rossi closed up through the Dunlop Curve, but could not get close enough to pass at the chicane. He tried again through La Chappelle, but was foiled once again at Musee. If Valentino Rossi was to get past Casey Stoner, he would have to try another approach.
As they front four headed through the fast uphill right of Dunlop Curve, this time, Rossi refrained from his usual attack on Stoner. It was a tactic he nearly came to regret, for as he looked to his inside, he saw the red, orange and blue of Pedrosa's Repsol Honda attempt to sneak past. The Doctor would have none of it, and on the wider, faster line, he held Pedrosa off on the brakes at Dunlop, easily back in charge as they approached the chicane.
Rossi decided he had had enough. With Pedrosa buzzing around his tailpipe like an irate wasp, and Stoner blocking for all he was worth, the seven time world champion altered his strategy. Still fast through La Chappelle, he passed on the overtaking attempt at Musee, and instead, backed his Yamaha M1 into the first apex of the double right of Garage Vert, jamming it up the inside of Stoner's Ducati. But the wily Australian was onto Rossi's game, and cut back inside the Italian at the second part of Garage Vert, and back into the lead. Down the back straight, Rossi was right back where he started, with an Australian ahead and a persistent Pedrosa jabbing at him from behind.
The next lap, Rossi reverted to his former tactic, running hot and high through La Chappelle, before diving once more unto the breach at Musee. This time, though he was closer, and held his Yamaha tighter through the left hander, and finally made the pass stick. Once past, The Doctor put the hammer down. In half a lap, Rossi pulled out 4/10ths of a second lead, adding another 1/10th on lap 9. But he was only just starting to build speed; on lap 10, Rossi pulled nearly half a second, before taking the lap record on lap 11, with a lap of 1'34.215. Another lap of 1'34.2 on lap 12 saw The Doctor's lead grow to over 2.6 seconds, and by now he was the fastest man on track by a considerable margin. If Casey Stoner or Dani Pedrosa wanted to stop Rossi from running away, they had to act fast.
Neither Stoner nor Pedrosa were close to Rossi's times, though. The only man capable of that feat was a surprise: Jorge Lorenzo had started poorly, dropping back to 11th on lap 2, but finding his - badly injured - feet shortly after. Up to 9th on lap 3, the Fiat Yamaha rookie started a charge through the field. He had caught the group ahead of him, consisting of Nicky Hayden, Loris Capirossi and John Hopkins by lap 5, and on lap 8, he elbowed his way past all three men in one lap. He now set his sights on chasing down the man in 5th place, Chris Vermeulen. At the pace Lorenzo was running, it was looking easy.
Behind Rossi, as the Italian started to stretch away, Casey Stoner and Dani Pedrosa were still squabbling over who would lead the chase. Stoner's tires were starting to lose their freshness, but Pedrosa could not capitalize on this. Every time Pedrosa got close to the Australian, Stoner held him off on the brakes. It was clear that the Spaniard was faster than the Australian, but not by enough to make the difference.
On lap 11, Pedrosa made his move. Keeping hard on Stoner's tail down the back straight, and through Chemin des Boeufs, Pedrosa tried taking the long way round. Holding a tight line through the inside of the first part of the Garage Bleu Esses, he rode round the outside of Stoner as they flicked back left, lining himself to take the tough line through the final turn and back onto the straight. Stoner was left with nowhere to go, and Pedrosa was finally through.
If Pedrosa wanted to catch Rossi, he needed to get a move on. Rossi was the fastest man on the track, and was pulling several tenths of a second every lap. Pedrosa would need to get his head down and charge, and even if he did, there would be no guarantees The Doctor would not respond.
But Rossi did not need any prompting from the men behind him. Now back in his rhythm, and with a clear track ahead of him, The Doctor was back in the groove he had found at Shanghai, and in the kind of form which we haven't seen since 2005. Looking this fast and this composed, the only thing capable of stopping Rossi would be either a mechanical disaster or the random shuffle which a heavy bout of rain might bring about.
Keep The White Flag Flying Here
As if in answer to the supplications of the people chasing Rossi, on lap 16, the first spots of rain began. And it seems to be a law of nature that when it does start to rain at a race track, the first place it starts to fall is a couple of corners ahead of the race leader, ensuring he is the first rider to run across the now damp track, and the first person to test the limits of available grip. The drizzle spotting the visor and the white flags waved with worrying enthusiasm by the corner workers once again test the riders nerve, as he is left to balance the need for caution in unknown grip conditions against the knowledge that those who are chasing can be faster than you, by following the dry line you are carving for them.
Rossi's first wet lap was uneventful, the warm track evaporating the light rain faster than it could fall, but on lap 17, The Doctor eased off his pace, not wanting to risk the lead before he knew what the conditions were doing. For a couple of laps, the conditions were decidedly undecided: dry and sunny round the Dunlop Curve, while at the Garage Bleu esses, the rain was starting to fall properly, with damp patches beginning to form. The rain had triggered another burst of frantic activity in the pits, as teams got wet weather bikes ready to race.
At the front, Rossi concentrated on being smooth, his lap times slowing by a couple of seconds, but his pace still strong. With the track still dry in parts, he focused on keeping his tires hot enough through the dry section to maintain his grip through the wet parts.
Behind him, there were too many distractions to concentrate on lap times. Lorenzo had passed Vermeulen just before it started to rain, and two laps later, he was on Edwards. Once past Stoner, Pedrosa was trying to edge away from the front, but the Australian was hanging on doggedly.
But Jorge Lorenzo was on a mission. On lap 20, the Spaniard was on Edwards, then past at Chemin des Boeufs, and was already lining up Casey Stoner. Getting past the reigning champion seemed only a matter of time, and Lorenzo used the drive of his Yamaha M1 to fire across the line and draw level as they approached the first corner, the Dunlop Curve. Perfectly set up for the pass into the chicane, Lorenzo's job was suddenly done for him, as disaster struck for Casey Stoner.
On the run up the hill towards Dunlop, Stoner suddenly slowed and sat up, putting his hand in the air. His bike had developed a problem, and Stoner had no more drive, managing little better than walking pace. Under normal circumstances, the Australian's race would have been over, but the rain threw Stoner a lifeline. If he could make it back to the pits, he could get onto a bike with rain or intermediate tires, and get back out to try and score some points. Cruelly, Stoner's bike had developed a problem at the first corner. He could rejoin the race, but first, he would have to nurse his crippled machine a couple of miles back to the pits. By the time he made it, he was having to push his bike along, already a lap down. His only hope now was that others ahead of him would crash, gifting him a few precious points.
Having 3rd handed him on a plate left Lorenzo with extra energy for his next attack. This was swift, hard and deadly: Lorenzo drove hard out of La Chappelle, and stuffed his Yamaha brutally and surgically inside Pedrosa's Honda. A twitch from fthe ront and rear of Lorenzo's M1 betrayed just how hard that move had been, but he stayed on board, and was ahead and off to chase Rossi.
Pedrosa's misery was not yet done, though. Less than a lap after his archrival had beaten him up through Musee, Edwards jammed his Tech 3 Yamaha inside of Pedrosa into the chicane. From 2nd to 4th in just two laps, and Pedrosa's lead in the championship was starting to look fragile.
Rossi's lead in the race was anything but. While the squabbling went on behind him, The Doctor had woven his magic at the front, and taken a couple of seconds a lap from the chasing group. With 5 laps left to go, Rossi had built an insurmountable 10 second lead. He needed only to stay on, and his victory was assured.
Holding onto a big lead can place a surprising amount of pressure on a rider. It's easy to relax, and if you relax, your concentration lapses, and a lapse of concentration leads to a small mistake, which loses you half a second where you weren't expecting it. So you step up your pace again, but overcompensate, push too hard, and make a big mistake instead of a small mistake. Before you know it, you're languishing in the gravel, contemplating the error of your ways.
One Hundred And Eighty!
If there's one thing Valentino Rossi can handle, though, it's pressure. The Doctor kept his focus, and kept up his pace, content to lose half a second a lap to the following pack. He crossed the line to take the win, elated and relieved. Not only was this Rossi's first back-to-back win since Barcelona in 2006, it was also Rossi's 90th career victory, taking him to second place in overall victories, level with the legendary Angel Nieto, the Spanish rider who dominated the small capacity classes during the 70s and 80s. Many riders have faltered at the threshold of such momentous occasions, but not Rossi. He cleared this hurdle at his first attempt.
To underline just how well he copes with pressure, Rossi had arranged a special celebration. Nieto is present at every Grand Prix, working as a commentator for Spanish TV, and was waiting at the Chicane in a special set of leathers. Rossi stopped, picked up a flag bearing the words "90 + 90" - the sum total of victories between the two men on the bike - and Nieto took over the controls of Rossi's Yamaha to ride back to the paddock carrying The Doctor as a passenger. The whole affair had been meticulously planned, but depended on one thing: Rossi had to win. On the day, Rossi delivered.
Rossi's celebration was also a remarkable insight into the man as a racer. For most motorcycle racers, their sense of history extends back only to the last lap, and the condition of the particular corner they are about to enter at that moment. Anything further back is irrelevant, and barely worth considering.
But not Rossi. The man has a keen sense of motorcycle racing history, and his place in it. Allowing Angel Nieto to ride him around on the parade lap was both a celebration of his own achievement, and a commemoration and tribute to one of the greats of motorcycle history.
Though he was too far behind Rossi to catch him, this didn't stop Jorge Lorenzo from pushing as hard as he could to the finish. By the time he crossed the line, he had taken back nearly 5 seconds from the winner, not enough, but a remarkable achievement nonetheless. His result was made all the more remarkable by his physical limitations. Barely able to walk, even with crutches, and in excruciating pain, Lorenzo had ridden the wheels off his Yamaha to take 2nd place. His ankles may be fractured, his body may be battered and bruised, but there is no doubting the man's heart.
Crossing the line in 3rd was a happy, but still slightly disappointed Colin Edwards. Though he is starting to resemble the Tornado of old, the Texan had been unable to pass Stoner and Pedrosa in the early part of the race, and felt he could have been much further up the podium if he could have gotten away. But disappointment with 3rd place is a good sign. It means that the rider believes there is more to come, and this may not be Edwards' best finish by the end of the year.
Dani Pedrosa came home in 4th, the first of the day's main losers. The Spaniard had had a tough day indeed; he'd been passed by his bitter enemy Jorge Lorenzo, who'd made the pass look easy; he'd not got on the podium for the first time this season; and he'd lost the lead he had in the championship, slipping down to 3rd, 3 points behind Rossi and level with Lorenzo.
Chris Vermeulen came home in 5th, his best result of the season at a track that suits both him and the Suzuki. Vermeulen rode a strong race, and looked like he could have raced with the front runners if he had been able to catch them, but his pace slipped a little at half distance, and left him too far behind to catch him.
Vermeulen was lucky to hold on to 5th, as he was caught on the last lap by Andrea Dovizioso on the Team Scot Honda. The Italian rookie had yet another outstanding ride, finishing 2nd Honda, and complained that if he hadn't been hit by Toseland, he could have caught the front group, and been in with a shot of the podium. Dovizioso's complaints were understandable, if a little unfair, as their coming together seemed to be very much a typical racing incident.
Steady As She Goes
Loris Capirossi came home in 7th, putting in another steady ride at a track which suits the Suzukis. Although he hasn't set the world on fire since making the switch to Suzuki, Capirex is already 6th in the championship, one place better than he finished last season.
After starting strongly, Nicky Hayden had slipped down the field to finish 8th. Hardly a place befitting a former world champion, but not as bad as early practice had suggested he could end up. Hayden is under a great deal of pressure, with his contract up at the end of the season. His form so far suggests the Kentucky Kid could be looking for work.
Randy de Puniet was the first of the French riders home, finishing in 9th, after a race long battle with Shinya Nakano, who took 10th. Both men will have hoped for more, but the satellite Hondas are not up to the job of keeping up with the front runners.
Toni Elias continued to make progress, bringing the Alice Ducati home in 11th, and rather surprisingly, first Ducati. Elias seems to be getting a handle on the difficult Ducati, but he should be capable of much more than this.
Behind Elias, Alex de Angelis came home in 12th, the most disappointing of the rookies so far this season. But he finished ahead of last year's rookie of the year, Sylvain Guintoli, who was devastated to have finished so poorly at a race track where he did so well last year, and in front of his home crowd.
Ant West came home a furious 14th. This time, West's problems weren't a result of his inability to ride the bike, but down to a mistake his crew had made in the setup of the bike. Kawasaki had a tough day at Le Mans, as West's traction problems came on top of a snapped chain for John Hopkins, putting the American out of the race while in a promising 7th position.
But Kawasaki's problems were as nothing compared to Ducati. Marco Melandri struggled home in 15th place, and the scant comfort of a single point. Melandri had stalled on the line, and bump-started his factory GP8 to resume the race already 30 seconds down. With little to lose, he'd gambled on the rain getting worse, coming in shortly after the rain started to switch bikes, but the rain never materialized to reward his initiative. Melandri's revival at Shanghai seems to have been all too brief.
The big loser of the day was Casey Stoner, however. Having coaxed his dying Ducati home on lap 21, he too had been forced to use wet tires. But just as for Melandri, the rain never came, and Stoner was left to baby overheating rain tires round in the hope of scoring a point. His hope was in vain, and Casey Stoner failed to score for the first time in 23 races aboard the Ducati. What's worse, he lost a lot of valuable points to his rivals for the championship, and is now 41 points down on Rossi, and 38 behind Lorenzo and Pedrosa. Though there are still 13 races left to go, unless the three men leading the championship suffer a DNF each, Stoner's title defense is starting to look very troubled indeed. The #1 plate seems to be a heavier burden than anyone thought.
The 2008 Le Mans MotoGP turned out to be an incredibly nerve-wracking affair. The conditions and events of the weekend placed a huge strain on all involved, and the tension was unbearable at times. It was a true test of the competitors' ability as a racer, not just as a rider, and the way that they handled the pressure was reflected in the results. Valentino Rossi's ability to handle pressure has not often been doubted, and not just arranging a special celebration, but making good by achieving his 90th victory at the first attempt is the mark of a very special racer.
And as one milestone is passed, the next looms on the horizon. Rossi now has 64 premier class victories, just 4 behind the legendary Giacomo Agostini. The form that Rossi is currently in, that record looks likely to fall before the end of the season, and Rossi will take his place in the record books. With the next round at Mugello, a race track where Rossi has not been beaten since 2001, The Doctor could be taking his first step on the way in just two weeks. It promises to be an amazing occasion.