2008 Catalunya MotoGP Race Report - Leading From The Front

Ask a dozen riders what their favorite race was, and you'll get a dozen different answers. But as different as those answers may be, in the end, they divide out into two camps. On the one hand, there are the Racers, the riders who love nothing more than to battle with their rivals all race long, only to pass them in the final corner and go on to take the win. On the other, there are the Winners, the riders who only care about getting away from the pack and dominating the opposition. The Racers love to win by fractions of a second, the Winners love to win by minutes.

This issue doesn't just divide racers, it also divides fans. Some enjoy nothing more than watching their favorite rider put in lap after perfect lap, gapping the competition by a second or more every time the cross the line. To them, their pleasure in racing is in watching a motorcycle being ridden as fast as humanly possible, the rider attempting to ride the bike at its very limit every inch of the track. For these fans, riders are like brain surgeons, exercising their skill to the utmost of their ability.

Other fans come to see combat, and want to see as many riders as possible dicing for the lead throughout the race. For them, the perfect race was one where the lead changed twice at every corner, only for their favorite rider to triumph in the end, edging their front wheel over the line ahead of the competition by just the thickness of the tire. To this kind of fan, the riders are gladiators, the winner decided in mortal combat by a mixture of skill, cunning and brute force, in varying proportions.

Fast And Faster

Fortunately for both sets of fans, the current crop of MotoGP talent contains both Racers and Winners. In fact, the fans can count themselves very lucky indeed, as both the Racers and the Winners on the grid are some of the finest exponents of their art for many years. In the Racer camp, we have Valentino Rossi, possibly the greatest and most passionate of the Racers, who is only really happy when he has four men bunched just yards ahead of him as he enters the first corner of the last lap. But there is also Loris Capirossi, another rider who loves to bash fairings, and Colin Edwards and James Toseland, who are also always game for a scrap.

In the Winner camp, there are Dani Pedrosa, Jorge Lorenzo and Casey Stoner, all capable of laying down lap after blistering lap until they break the will of the competition and run away with the win. Dani Pedrosa is probably the real purist of the bunch, all of his wins having come by escaping from the front and never looking back. Lorenzo and Stoner, though they prefer to dominate, will give as good as they get in close quarters combat when they have to, but their preference is to run at the front.

An interview Casey Stoner gave recently to the Spanish paper AS.com illustrates this dilemma perfectly. When asked if last year's thrilling battle with Valentino Rossi at Barcelona was the best win of his career, Stoner disagreed. "That wasn't my best race. I've done much better races, where I've lapped a lot faster, with a better rhythm and making fewer mistakes, like at Laguna Seca." The fans of Racers loved Stoner's gutsy battle with Rossi which went almost to the line. But Stoner, and the fans of his Winner's attitude, lapped up his victories at Laguna Seca, where he ran away from the field from the moment the flag dropped.

More In Hope Than Expectation

On Sunday afternoon, both sets of fans awaited the race anxiously. Last year's race still fresh in their minds, half of the crowd hoped for another scintillating scrap between the men who have dominated the season, with little to choose between them. Already, though, one name would be missing from the grid. Jorge Lorenzo had had yet another big crash during practice on Friday, and this time, the concussion he had suffered was enough to keep him in hospital and away from the track for the duration.

Qualifying practice had seen the balance sway in favor of the Winners. For a long time, it looked like Dani Pedrosa would take pole position in front of his home crowd, but in the dying minutes, he saw the first place on the grid snatched from him by an astounding lap from Casey Stoner. With the two quickest starters in the field starting from the front of the grid, there was every chance that one or the other would run away with the race.

Valentino Rossi had not helped matters by having his worst qualifying since Valencia last year, where he rode with a broken wrist. Starting from 9th, at the wrong end of the 3rd row, Rossi would have a lot to do just to get close to the men on the front row, before he could even start to take the fight to them. The Grand Prix de Catalunya had all the makings of a runaway.

From The Front

As the lights dimmed, and the riders thundered off the line for the long drag down to Turn 1, the Elf corner, the predictable turned into the inevitable. By the time the pack hit Turn 1, two bikes had already punched a big hole between themselves and the chasing pack. Casey Stoner had gotten his usual lightning start, but Dani Pedrosa was out to prove that there are faster things than lightning. Devoid of nerves in front of his home crowd, Pedrosa had launched perfectly to hit the first corner in front of Stoner, and in the lead.

Behind Stoner, a four-man tangle approached the corner, splitting into pairs as the heeled over for the right-hander. In the end, it was Andrea Dovizioso who got into the turn first, fractionally ahead of Colin Edwards in 4th. Behind Edwards, Randy de Puniet entered the turn level with Nicky Hayden, but on the inside line. That left Hayden on the right line for the flick left which follows immediately, but de Puniet had gained just enough to take 5th spot ahead of the American.

James Toseland followed, but the shock of the day was the sight of the 2nd Marlboro Ducati in 8th. Marco Melandri, who had qualified way down in 16th, had got the start of his life, flying through the field into the first chicane ahead of Valentino Rossi, who had failed to make good any of the places he needed if he was to catch the front runners. Melandri's resurgence was to be short lived, and within three laps, the struggling Italian was back in 14th.

Stoner crept up on Pedrosa around the first long right of Renault, lining Pedrosa up for the pass at the next long right of Repsol. The world champion pulled out from behind Pedrosa to make his move, his bike getting seriously out of shape, but Pedrosa had Stoner beaten. The Spaniard cut back across nose of the Ducati to hold on to the lead, drifting wide to get better drive on the short run up to the hairpin left at Seat.

That hairpin represented Stoner's next shot at the Repsol Honda. Stoner closed on the run into the sharp left, but the shapes his Ducati had made at Repsol were a signal that his tires weren't ready yet. Stoner braked, but got even more out of shape than the previous corner. By the time the Australian had his Ducati back under control, he was running wide, and Andrea Dovizioso was already up the inside and into 2nd.

Gone

Stoner's mistake had opened up the first crack of daylight for Pedrosa, the Spaniard already starting to push hard. Dovizioso was giving chase, but his satellite Team Scot Honda was clearly outclassed by Pedrosa's factory machine, especially after the upgrades the bike had received over the weekend. Down the back straight, Dovizioso was still in touch, but only just, and he was losing ground.

As the pack rounded the final right handers to head back towards the line, positions were being taken ready for the blitz down the front straight. Pedrosa was clear, and Dovizioso had a cushion over Stoner. Then a gap from Stoner back to Edwards, who had Randy de Puniet and Nicky Hayden crawling all over his tail. Hayden then had another few yards of breathing space back to James Toseland, who Valentino Rossi had already set his sights on.

The Chase Is On

They fired round the final right and down the straight. Pedrosa, with a clear track ahead of him, was starting to pull away, his lead already 6/10ths of a second. Seeing Pedrosa on the verge of checking out, Casey Stoner knew he had to make a move. But he had entered the straight too far behind Dovizioso: despite the top speed of his Ducati, he couldn't quite get close enough to Dovizioso to attempt the pass. Dovi held Stoner off with ease on the brakes, and kept his 2nd place.

In the following trio, the pattern was much the same: de Puniet pulled out of Edwards' slipstream, as Hayden did to de Puniet, but they were not close enough to pass. Behind Hayden, the story was different. Valentino Rossi had got close enough to James Toseland, but only just. Rossi had the nose of his Fiat Yamaha just up the inside of Toseland's Tech 3 bike as they entered the first corner, leaving the reigning World Superbike champion nowhere to go, except wide. It was harsh but effective, taking Rossi up into 7th, and pushing Toseland back into the clutches of Loris Capirossi, who quickly took advantage.

Record Breaker

Pedrosa was charging, but the surprise was just how hard. The Repsol Honda man was gaining several tenths at every intermediate timing point, his lead building and building. But the full extent of the damage was not apparent until he crossed the line at the end of lap 2. On only his first flying lap, Pedrosa shattered Nicky Hayden's lap record from 2006, set aboard the 990cc RC211V, by nearly half a second. If Pedrosa was this fast so early in the race, anyone with pretensions of victory at Barcelona had better get a hurry on to try and catch him.

Casey Stoner had got the message. Chasing Andrea Dovizioso all the way round the back of the track, Stoner was upon the Italian as they entered the stadium section. Dovi defended his line through the long right handers, but Stoner was poised, just waiting to pounce down the straight. Dovizioso crossed the line for the end of lap 2 in the lead, but only just. Dovi's satellite Honda had no answer for the raw horsepower of the Ducati, and Stoner was well past by the time they hit the first turn.

Stoner wasn't the only man to want past Dovizioso. The trio of Edwards, de Puniet and Hayden were all catching Dovi, and on his tail as they entered the first corner, not close enough to attempt a pass. Behind Hayden, there was a gap back to Valentino Rossi, but The Doctor was working on closing it. Stretching behind Rossi was a bigger gap back to Loris Capirossi, who had got past Toseland, but the Suzuki and the Tech 3 Yamaha were already a long way down.

With Dovizioso out of his way, Stoner set about chasing the Honda of Pedrosa. On lap 3, Stoner took 3/10ths of his previous lap time, and on lap 4, the Australian was already running high 1'42s. Last year, that would have made Stoner half a second quicker than the rest of the field. But that was last year. This year, Dani Pedrosa was running almost a second a lap quicker than 2007, and was the fastest man on track by a huge amount. After smashing the lap record on lap 2, he then pulverized on lap 3 and lap 4 as well. By the end of lap 5, the Spaniard had a lead of over 3 seconds, and was pulling over half a second a lap on the following group.

The Duel

Stoner's progress had stalled. Still fast, he could neither escape the clutches of Dovizioso, the Italian insolently poking at the Australian at every opportunity, nor cut his deficit to Pedrosa. The speed of his Ducati was still good, but at the few left handers round the track, Stoner was struggling with grip, the rear tire sliding nastily into the turns.

The only man whose pace even approached Pedrosa's was Valentino Rossi, but Rossi had work to do. After passing Toseland, Rossi chased down the gap which had opened to Hayden, but it took him 3 laps to catch and pass the American, the Italian hanging the Kentucky Kid out to dry into Turn 1 on lap 5. A lap later, and Rossi was on Randy de Puniet, and another lap later, he was past, and into 4th.

Rossi's steady progress had brought him close to his next objective, the leaders in the hunt for Pedrosa. As he hit Dovizioso's tail, Casey Stoner must have sensed his presence, and been spooked by it. The Australian ran into the left hander at Seat hot once again, again running wide and allowing Dovizioso to come underneath. Stoner recovered quickly, just in time to shut the door on Rossi, but it looked like his days were numbered. The three chasers where line astern, with nothing between them on the run through the stadium section, and round the right handers back on to the straight.

Valentino Rossi was perfectly placed, right on the tail of Stoner's Ducati as they fired down the front straight. He sat in Stoner's draft over the line ready to make his move, but the Yamaha still came up just short of the speed needed to pass the Bologna Bullet. As if to underline his superior speed, Stoner in turn pulled out of Dovizioso's wake and passed him easily into Turn 1, dumping the Italian rookie right into the waiting jaws of The Doctor. Rossi hounded Dovizioso round Renault, and tightened his line to stick his Yamaha, decked out in the colors of the Italian national soccer team, underneath Dovizioso's Honda. One down, one to go.

It only took a couple of hundred yards. With just inches separating the three bikes through Repsol, Rossi got drive out of the long right once more, lining Stoner up at his weakest point: the left-hand hairpin of Seat. In the end, the pass looked simple, leaving the Australian with no option but to follow.

After You

Rossi's pass on Stoner left him in 2nd, and with clear track ahead of him, The Doctor was - in theory - ready to chase down Dani Pedrosa. But as so often happens when theory meets cold hard practice, things never quite work out as you planned. Rossi's charge through the field had been an incredible feat, an object lesson in cutting through traffic. But it had taken him 9 laps to get from 9th on the grid up to 2nd, and all that time, Pedrosa had been in a groove and lapping fast. So fast, in fact, that by the time Rossi was ready to open the hunt, the Spaniard had opened a vast and gaping lead of over 6.6 seconds.

With 16 laps to go, The Doctor would have to take back 4/10ths on every lap. A tall order, even for a rider as gifted as Valentino Rossi, but Pedrosa wasn't quite done. Though his pace was starting to ease just a fraction, on the next lap, the Spaniard took yet another 0.4 seconds out of Rossi, leaving the Italian with a mammoth 7 seconds to get back.

Those last 4/10ths of a second transformed the task from improbable to impossible, and satisfied that the job was done, Pedrosa backed off a fraction. His lap times climbed into the 1'43s, but that merely meant that the Repsol Honda man went from taking half a second a lap out of the competition, to eking out a tenth at a time. Only a disaster could stop Pedrosa now.

The Spaniard's job was made easier by the scrap taking place for 2nd. Though Rossi had passed Stoner with relative ease, escaping was completely beyond him. The Australian sat on Rossi's tail, pulling out of the Italian's draft down the straight to see if he could pass. An edgy battle developed, with Rossi gaining a tenth one lap, and Stoner pulling it back the next, the two never out of each other's sight.

No, After You

On lap 16, Stoner decided he'd followed Rossi for long enough. This time, Stoner was a lot closer behind Rossi as they fired out of the last big right and onto the straight, and as they headed down towards the first corner, Stoner pulled out of the draft and drew level with Rossi. But the Italian's strength lies in braking, and Rossi braked a fraction later than the Ducati man, pulling back over a bike length into the Turn 1.

Rossi had been warned. Along the back straight, Stoner tried once more, Rossi holding him off on the brakes again into La Caixa, the sharp left hander heading off into the stadium section. But Stoner was still on Rossi's tail, and poised to strike. Tight on Rossi's back wheel out of the final corner again, this time, Stoner got more drive onto the straight, and more speed out of the corner, and by the time the two men hit the braking zone for Turn 1, Stoner had a lead to spare. Second position was his once again.

The Winner

It was too late to catch Pedrosa, though. With 9 laps, Dani Pedrosa had an 8 second lead, and was running smooth and fast. As the laps clicked down, and his lap times slowly rose, the man born just a few miles from this track carefully managed his lead, giving away a tenth of a second here and a tenth of a second there, but always keeping a tight rein on the race. As Dani Pedrosa crossed the line to take the win, he still had nearly 3 seconds over the next man home, and was almost cruising.

It had been a classic display, both of what Dani Pedrosa can do, and of how to dominate a race completely. Pedrosa had controlled the race from the moment he dropped the clutch for the start to the moment he took the checkered flag, and his victory had been almost certain since lap 6. Pedrosa had ridden a Winner's race, by the simple expedient of making sure no one was in his way, and then riding as fast as possible. If you can do it, it is a deadly efficient formula.

With the win out of reach, there was still the small matter of the podium, and more importantly, championship points. Casey Stoner had entered the race 46 points down on Valentino Rossi, and needed to finish ahead of him both to claw back points from the Italian, and to minimize his losses to Pedrosa. But just as Rossi had been unable to get away from Stoner, the reigning world champion couldn't shake the Italian.

The Racers

Rossi shadowed the Australian like a four year-old follows his big brother. The two were inseparable as they chased round the track, with only yards between them. The fact that they could not catch Pedrosa did not mean they were not trying, the bikes leaving black marks all around the track as they spun up their rears, traction control or no. Lap after lap, Stoner pushed to make a break, and Rossi pushed to stay with Stoner, always looking for a chance to strike.

On lap 20, he almost had his first chance, Stoner having a huge moment as he flicked his bike from left to right out of La Caixa and into Sabadell. But the twitch that ran through his bike happened right in front of Rossi, leaving the Italian with nowhere to go, his only option to back off and stay in 3rd. It was enough to tell Rossi that options to take back 2nd place were approaching, though.

Not needing another invitation, Rossi stepped up the pressure, nudging his front wheel under Stoner's Ducati more often, to let Stoner know he could not afford to make a mistake. Now, every time they crossed the line, Rossi pulled out of Stoner's draft and took a look up the inside, those peeks getting more forceful every time round. As they started lap 23, Rossi came closer still, but was just short of the speed to get past into Turn 1.

Now he knew it was there, though. On the run into Turn 1 to start lap 24, The Doctor was late on the brakes, and past into 2nd. Past Stoner, Rossi put the hammer down, and tried to make a break. But once again, Stoner bent, but did not break, forced to concede a gap, but still close enough to get back if Rossi faltered.

Faltering is not something The Doctor does very often, and Valentino Rossi held on to cross the line in 2nd, surprisingly happy, despite giving up 5 points to Pedrosa in the title race. But on Saturday, Rossi's chances of a podium were looking slim, the Fiat Yamaha man struggling in qualifying as the rest of the field upped their pace. The world championship leader had held on under difficult circumstances to defend his lead, scoring points when they counted most.

He'd also had the kind of race he loved: First, he'd had to fight his way through the field, then he'd spent all race going backwards and forwards with Casey Stoner, and he felt like he'd been in a scrap. His honor assuaged, he could accept 2nd place with dignity.

Casey Stoner was considerably less magnanimous about his 3rd place. The Australian had clearly struggled with rear grip in left hand corners all race, and been forced to ride around the problem. By the time he'd gotten to grips with the lack of grip, Dani Pedrosa was long gone, and Stoner's chance of a win with him. But at least the champion had been competitive, and running at the front. After Ducati's problems at Le Mans, being able to fight for the podium counted as progress.

Coming Man

Andrea Dovizioso came home delighted in 4th place. The Team Scot Honda rider had been able to hang with Rossi and Stoner for a long time, losing ground only slowly. But his second 4th place finish this year leaves the Italian rookie 6th in the championship, and inching towards the top 5.

The holder of the #5 plate, Colin Edwards, came home in a position to match his race number. The Texan had lost touch with the fight for 2nd just after the half way mark, unable to match the pace of the men ahead. Disappointed as he was, it was yet another solid result for both Edwards and the team, and both team and rider held onto their place in the title race.

James Toseland crossed the line in 6th, the Tech 3 team managing to finish 5th and 6th for the second race in a row. After losing several places early in the race, Toseland had gradually worked his way up through the field, picking off one rider at a time, to put in a very strong finish at a track he'd only ever seen before on the Playstation. Toseland has proved that he learns quickly, but he will be glad the run of new tracks he had to learn is at an end. With the next race at his home circuit of Donington, the double World Superbike champion is a dark horse for a podium, and may even be secretly dreaming of a win.

Like Toseland, Chris Vermeulen also had to fight his way up through the field. After a disastrous first lap, the Suzuki man had dropped to 13th, but he was soon working his way forward. To finish 7th, one place ahead of where he started, may be considered a decent performance.

Nicky Hayden's day was less successful. From the front row of the grid, the Kentucky Kid started well, spending the first half of the race on the tail of group dicing for 2nd. But as the race went on, Hayden's times began to suffer, and the Repsol Honda man dropped through the field to finish 8th. After watching his team mate run away with the win, Hayden will be pinning his hopes of a recovery on the pneumatic valve engine the team will be testing here on Monday and Tuesday.

Shinya Nakano was the lone Gresini Honda man home in 9th place, after team mate Alex de Angelis crashed into Loris Capirossi in the dice for 10th and 11th place. Though much improved from last year, Nakano needs to get closer to the front if he wants to be in MotoGP next year.

Trouble Ahead

Behind Nakano, an injured John Hopkins brought his Kawasaki home in 10th. It was a brave ride by the American, who had badly hurt his back in a crash on Friday. Hopkins' injury leaves Kawasaki with more problems, as it leaves Ant West to do the testing on Monday and Tuesday on his own, in an attempt to find a solution for the terrible problems the Kawasaki has had to deal with. West will be picking up some of the slack by flying out to Japan to go testing, in the hope that the shorter communications lines mean that the factory will be able to provide better solutions.

Despite the problems he has had since the start of the season, Ant West's day was not as bad as at previous races. The Australian spent all race going back and forth with the second factory Ducati of Marco Melandri, finally forced to concede 11th place to the Italian on the last lap.

Melandri will have been relieved not just to have beaten West, but also to have not finished as the last Ducati, after seeing both Toni Elias and Sylvain Guintoli qualify ahead of him. But with Toni Elias disqualified after ignoring a ride through penalty for a jump start, and Sylvain Guintoli running off the track early on, Melandri's honor was saved, scant comfort though that might be.

Guintoli was the final finisher in 13th place, a spate of crashes and the absence of Jorge Lorenzo exposing the sparseness of the grid. With Loris Capirossi's participation at the next race at Donington in doubt, after breaking a finger in his crash with de Angelis, and Lorenzo still not 100% certain to race at the British Grand Prix, the grid is starting to look eerily bare.

Make Haste Slowly

There's an old adage in motor racing, which says that you should always try and win the race by going as slowly as possible. The idea behind this seeming contradiction is that you ride as conservatively as you can to preserve your tires and your engine, while still trying to stay ahead of the rest of the pack.

That adage was completely disregarded in Barcelona by everyone with a chance of winning. Dani Pedrosa ran under the previous lap record for 10 straight laps after the start, and only really started to ease up in the last 4 laps. Behind him, Valentino Rossi charged hard through the field, until he caught Casey Stoner, then the championship candidates spent the rest of the race pushing each other to the limit, until Rossi settled the duel in his favor.

Such ferocity in the top 3 places also gave the fans of both types of racing something to enjoy. For those who love to watch Winners destroy the opposition by riding every lap at the very limit of their ability, Dani Pedrosa put on a display of perfect riding to cherish. While for the fans of Racers, the close and tense battle between Valentino Rossi and Casey Stoner kept them on the edge of their seat for most of the race. There was something in this race for everyone.

Destination Or Journey?

But although the race was a lesson in perfection, it also illuminated some key weaknesses in the field. Pedrosa's win was taken in exactly the same way as the other wins he has had in his career: by escaping early in the race, and running at his own pace. Catalunya underlined Pedrosa's strength in running hard and fast on his own. But each win Pedrosa takes in the same way begs the question whether Pedrosa can also win if he has to fight for every inch of the race. He may need to if he wants to win the championship this year, but if he takes enough wins like this one, it could be a moot point.

Pedrosa's escape act from the line also underlined the importance of qualifying. Give Pedrosa a free run into the first corner, and that may be the last you ever see of him. With Valentino Rossi only qualifying 9th on the grid and Casey Stoner struggling with rear grip, the race was effectively over after the first few corners. If you want to beat Pedrosa, first you have to catch him, and you don't catch him by starting several rows behind him.

Though the result of the race was never in doubt after the first lap, the Grand Prix de Catalunya at Barcelona made the MotoGP season more fascinating yet. Dani Pedrosa got back five points from Valentino Rossi, while Casey Stoner limited the damage. There are still three men in this race, and a DNF by Pedrosa and Rossi would turn the championship on its head. As we approach the halfway point in the series, it's clear that there still an awful lot of racing left to come, and a host of riders ready to do it.

Full results of the MotoGP Grand Prix de Catalunya from Barcelona.

MotoGP championship standings after Round 7, Catalunya.

 

round_number: 
7
2008

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