There's an old axiom in motorcycle racing that says that you can't win the race in the first corner. Of course, being a truth universally acknowledged means that at every race, somebody tries to disprove the rule by launching themselves off the starting line in a fit of abandon, hoping that if they can just make good on some places and get into Turn 1 first, then they can take control of the race. The upshot of such a precipitate course of action is usually that, far from proving their own point, the hotheaded riders instead prove the corollary to this axiom, which is that, if you can't win the race in the first corner, you can most assuredly lose it.
The examples are legion, so many in fact that it makes it difficult to remember specific incidents. One first-corner crash fades into the next, with every weekend yet another rider heading into the gravel and out of the race by leaving their braking way too late, or pushing too hard on tires which haven't warmed enough yet, or jamming their bike into a non-existent gap between riders they haven't quite managed to pass. But a couple of incidents illustrate the point all too well.
Down And Out
One of the most memorable was the omen that Valentino Rossi's 2006 championship defense was to be long, difficult, and ultimately futile. Crushing the opposition in 2005 meant that the team had taken their collective eye off the ball, and the factory Yamaha team entered the season with a bike that chattered and vibrated and simply wouldn't handle, a problem made worse with the added grip of qualifying tires. So Rossi started the 2nd race of the season at Jerez from down in 9th on the grid, behind the Spaniard Toni Elias. Trying to make up the positions he had lost, Rossi fired through the order from the start, and tipped into the first corner in 4th position. Unfortunately for Rossi, the man he had just edged into 5th was wild man Toni Elias, and the Spaniard, braking far too late to actually make it round the turn, slammed into the rear of Rossi's Yamaha, sending him into the gravel, and left to chase his way up through the field for a couple of points. Rossi's enforced charge combined with Elias' determination not to get passed resulted in disaster for Rossi.
There are of course more recent examples. None more recent than the previous race, the British Grand Prix at Donington. In his first MotoGP race in front of his home crowd, and at a track that he knows well for the first time since they left Qatar, the tension really got to James Toseland. The British rookie struggled all weekend, suffering partly from the difficulty of finding a setup in changeable weather, and partly just from nerves. Two crashes in the final minutes of qualifying left Toseland down in 16th on the grid, and with it all to do. To make matters worse, the home crowd had already been sent wild by fellow Brit Scott Redding's victory in the 125 class, and expectations were being raised from sky high to somewhere beyond the orbit of Pluto. Once the flag dropped, Toseland succumbed to the temptation to make up as much of his deficit as he could at the first corner, with the inevitable result. Asking too much of his tires at Redgate, Toseland slid, fell and ended up in the gravel, rejoining the race already nearly 40 seconds down.
The pressure to get into the first corner ahead of the pack has been increased by the use of launch control systems. With riders virtually able to pin the throttle and dump the clutch off the line, the electronics removing the proclivity of the bikes to hoist the front wheel, as well as ensuring the engines don't bog down, the differences in the run down to the first corner are getting ever smaller. Getting into the first corner ahead is becoming more and more a question of reflexes and anticipation, and less about fluffing the start due to pre-race nerves.
Launch control has also increased the importance of qualifying, and the free practice sessions running up to it. As the electronics have taken the luck out of the starts, the further forward a rider is on the grid, the better his chances of getting into the first corner at the front of the pack. And so qualifying sessions have become ever more competitive, with the first qualifying tires now making an appearance about halfway through the hour-long session, a whole 10 minutes earlier than in previous years. The ability to put in a fast lap on very sticky rubber is becoming more and more crucial to the results.
The reigning World Champion Casey Stoner is a master of both arts. His starting reflexes are sublime, honed as a child dirt-track racer. When the race only lasts a couple of minutes, you can't afford to waste even the tiniest fraction of a second, and Casey Stoner cherishes every thousandth he can gain. But Stoner is also astounding in practice, establishing his place at the top of the timesheets in any given session early, and not relinquishing it without a major fight. He has a knack of dominating almost every session of practice at an event from the moment the bikes roll out on track, and doesn't appear to understand the concept of building up slowly.
This year's Dutch TT at Assen was no different. Stoner was blisteringly fast from Thursday morning: 0.6 seconds faster than the rest in FP1, increasing his lead to 0.7 seconds in the afternoon. Impressively, Stoner smashed the existing pole record by over a third of a second. What was even more intimidating was the fact that he did it in FP2, on race tires, in a run of 7 laps. In fact, he put in a total of 5 laps under the pole record without ever having broken out the soft tires. Only relinquishing his lead on Friday morning, in a chaotic wet session that dried out towards the end, Stoner looked to have the pole wrapped up before qualifying even started.
Things didn't quite work out the way that Stoner had planned. Friday afternoon's qualifying session looked like following the pattern established by Stoner on Thursday, with the Australian grabbing provisional pole on his 3rd lap. Colin Edwards was the first to challenge Stoner's hegemony, the Tech 3 Yamaha rider making good use of his first set of qualifiers. Edwards was quickly followed by his former team mate Valentino Rossi, but both Yamaha men were still outside Stoner's fastest time set in FP2.
With a quarter of an hour to go, Casey Stoner reestablished his authority on the proceedings, setting one lap in the 1'35 bracket, before slamming in another one at 1'35.697. That looked good enough for pole, but Valentino Rossi had other ideas. With 7 minutes to go, the Italian took another slice out of Stoner's time, and stole back the pole position. Piqued, but slightly worried, Stoner struck back again, this time setting a 1'35.520.
It was good enough for pole, but only just. Valentino Rossi was unlucky to have had yellow flags waving from John Hopkins' huge and frightening crash at the Ramshoek on his final fast lap, where the Italian had been under Stoner's time until he saw the warning flags. But both Dani Pedrosa and Nicky Hayden got close to Stoner as well, at times threatening to best the World Champion's pole time. In the end, there was less than 0.2 seconds covering the front row, something inconceivable at the end of Friday's practice. Stoner's dominance was far from certain.
On Your Marks
The run to the first corner would prove crucial. With Casey Stoner and Dani Pedrosa 1st and 2nd on the grid, and both with a proven ability to run away from the front, if given the chance, championship leader Valentino Rossi - the worst starter of the group - needed to be close to his title rivals on the first lap, to keep them within range.
Once the lights dimmed, unleashing a symphony of engines off the grid, from the booming baritone of the big bang Yamaha in-line four, to the screeching soprano of Ducati's L4 Desmosedici, it was clear that Rossi had failed in his initial objective. Once again, Dani Pedrosa got the holeshot, hitting the first turn of the Haarbocht in the lead. Right on his tail were the other two fastest starters from recent races, Casey Stoner and Pedrosa's Repsol Honda team mate Nicky Hayden.
Behind Hayden, the two satellite Hondas of Randy de Puniet and Shinya Nakano were ahead of Valentino Rossi, leaving the Italian with plenty of work to do. To add to Rossi's problems, Colin Edwards and Chris Vermeulen were right behind him, poised to take advantage of any mistake The Doctor might make.
As the bikes all peeled right for the Haarbocht, then lifted again briefly before heeling over once again for Madijk, and the long series of right handers which lead through to the Strubben hairpin, it looked as if everyone had made it through the first corner in one piece. Fears of trouble at the tight first corner had been unwarranted, and the pack continued on their way. The only casualty so far was Toni Elias, whose bike had roared slowly off the line in a cloud of smoke, in the misconception that it was a two-stroke 500 instead of a Ducati 800cc four stroke. But even Elias was soon back with the pack, the temporary glitch having magically sorted itself.
The long series of right handers - in reality, a single long turn - which follow the first corner gave Valentino Rossi plenty of time to reflect on his plight. His two main rivals were ensconced firmly at the head of the pack, the place at which both men are most dangerous. Having lost the first corner battle, the championship leader would have to get to the front quickly, or risk being too late to counter the predictable charge from Dani Pedrosa and Casey Stoner. The decision he took was one that he would come to regret.
Oops! I Did It Again
As the long snake of riders flicked the bikes over for the excruciatingly tight left hand hairpin at the Strubben, and prepared to fire out onto the back straight, Rossi made his move. Jamming his Yamaha M1 up the inside Randy de Puniet, he got back on the gas to edge ahead at the exit. But The Doctor had forgotten a very basic rule at Assen. The track is all right hand corners, with only four left handers dotted at various points around the track. Assen is very heavy on the right hand side of the tire, but the real danger comes from the left. While the right hand side of the tire is getting hotter and hotter, the left side is cooling, its capacity to grip treacherously seeping out of it. As Valentino Rossi hit the gas to try and surge ahead of de Puniet's LCR Honda, the cold left side of his tire gave its refusal. The rear of Rossi's bike slid, whipping out from behind him, dumping Rossi on the floor and taking out Randy de Puniet at the same time.
Rossi's eagerness to stay at the front had caught him out. He had avoided the first corner trap, ceding positions to stay in the race, but had lost the race at the first left hander instead. A stupid mistake - the kind he usually manages to make exactly once a season - had put the championship lead he held in danger, a lead which was just starting to look comfortable.
Even in misfortune, Rossi's legendary good luck held out. His bike was still running, and with the help of the marshals, he picked it up, and went off to try and salvage whatever points he could. He would be helped in this by the same factor that had caused his crash, those deceptive left handers. The terrifyingly fast left hander at the Ramshoek had already claimed two victims during practice, preventing first Loris Capirossi, then John Hopkins from starting due to injury, and Alex de Angelis would go the same way at the next left hander after the Strubben, the Ruskenhoek, sliding out as the corner flicked left.
With so many riders already out, Rossi was guaranteed at least 2 points, if he could just finish. The damage to his bike, including a sheared gear lever and a bent clip-on, would seem to preclude the Italian gaining very many more points, if he could even get it home at all.
What's Behind Me Is Not Important
At the front of the race, Casey Stoner and Dani Pedrosa were pushing on entirely unaware of the drama behind them. Pedrosa led down the back straight and into Ruskenhoek, but the way that Stoner was climbing all over the back of Pedrosa's Honda, his Ducati squirming underneath him, the Spaniard's lead was very far from safe. Pedrosa's team mate Nicky Hayden followed Stoner almost as closely as Stoner was following Pedrosa, while Shinya Nakano followed in 4th.
Rossi's crash had had consequences for the group behind. The incident had opened up a gap behind Nakano, which Andrea Dovizioso was having a hard time trying to close up. And it had taken Colin Edwards out of contention as well. The Texan had been forced to brake almost to a standstill at the Strubben, to avoid crashing into the tumbling Valentino Rossi and Randy de Puniet. By the time he rejoined the race, he was at the tail of the pack, and lucky to be gifted 12th place when Ant West got held up by Alex de Angelis' crash at the next corner. It was a bitter blow for the Texan, as Edwards had been fast all weekend, and still had something to prove at Assen, after seeing certain victory slip from his grasp in an ignominious crash at the GT chicane in 2006.
In the lead, Dani Pedrosa started to push on, trying to drop Stoner and create a gap, but Stoner had his talons firmly embedded in the Spaniard's RC212V. The two were already creating enough pace to start dropping Nicky Hayden, on the pneumatic valve engined Honda once again. But even the added horsepower of air valves was unable to withstand the onslaught of the leading pair.
End Of The Beginning
As the first lap neared its end, and the riders howled through the searingly fast section of right handers from Mandeveen to Hoge Heide, Casey Stoner was looming ominously on Dani Pedrosa's tail. It was surely just a matter of time, and on the exit of the Ramshoek, Stoner made his move. Driving out of the Ramshoek, and holding the tight line on the run into the GT chicane, Stoner braked ahead of Pedrosa, and entered the chicane ahead, forcing Pedrosa down into 2nd.
Once past, Stoner put the hammer down. Stepping up his pace to the scorching speed he had shown all through practice, the Australian started pulling away. On lap 2, Stoner took 6/10ths out of Pedrosa, followed by half a second on lap 3. Another 8/10ths were added on the next lap, then nearly a second a lap later, and after just 5 laps, Stoner had already built a 3 second lead. The crushing defeat which Casey Stoner had threatened to hand out to the rest of the field from the moment he rolled onto the track on Thursday morning was taking shape with exactly the kind of inevitability that everyone had feared. Everyone, that is, except for Casey Stoner's side of the Ducati garage, and the several thousand Australians who had made the pilgrimage to Assen to cheer him on.
The ball was now firmly in Dani Pedrosa's court, but Pedrosa had more to deal with than just the charge of Casey Stoner. Behind him, he had a resurgent Nicky Hayden pushing, determined to finally finish ahead of his Repsol Honda team mate. There is a lot of bad blood in the Repsol Honda garage, and has been almost ever since Pedrosa joined the American at the team. Though the Repsol Honda press releases still describe the pair as "team mates", it would be more accurate to preface the phrase with the adjective "bitter". On lap 2 and 3, Hayden stalked Pedrosa, trying to force the Spaniard into an error, but Pedrosa stood his ground. On lap 4, Hayden's charge halted, the American losing ground, and by the time he regained his former pace, Pedrosa was out of his clutches and free to concentrate on the man ahead.
Beginning Of The End
With 21 laps left in the race, Dani Pedrosa had plenty of time to chase Stoner down. Over the next 5 laps, Pedrosa pushed hard to try and catch the Australian. It made a difference, but only in stopping Pedrosa hemorrhaging time to Stoner, stemming his losses to the slow drip of a couple of tenths a lap. By lap 10, Pedrosa had lost only another second, Casey Stoner's lead growing to 4 seconds, but Pedrosa's biggest problem remained. Casey Stoner was still quicker than anyone else on the racetrack, and there was nothing Dani Pedrosa could do about it.
Over the next 5 laps, Stoner upped the pace once again, taking 3/10ths a lap out of Pedrosa, taking his lead to 5.5 seconds by lap 15. Then Stoner struck the fatal blow. His pace undiminished, running consistent laps in the high 1'36s and low 1'37s, the Australian stretched his lead further. Pedrosa, unable to match the Australian's ferocious pace, was starting to give up half a second every lap, instead of just a few tenths. By two-thirds distance, the race was effectively over, Stoner having built a lead of nearly 9 seconds.
With some 7 laps to go, only a disaster could separate the reigning world champion from victory, but Stoner has already had his season's quota of disaster, first at Jerez and later at Le Mans. With his Ducati Desmosedici GP8 now back in devastating form, and Casey Stoner if anything even more devastating than his Ducati, the Australian cruised to his second win in a row in merciless style. Stoner's victory had looked like a foregone conclusion from Thursday morning, and, with the aid of a little impetuosity on the part of Valentino Rossi, the race unfurled as inevitably as death and taxes. With both Casey Stoner and his Ducati back in their 2007 form, title prolongation is once again a very, very serious possibility.
Dani Pedrosa had been unable to offer much more than the vaguest semblance of resistance once the halfway mark approached. Pedrosa's fastest laps came in the first third of the race, his pace slipping as the race went on, raising speculation once again that Honda's fueling strategy is to open the taps in the early laps and lean out the mixture towards the end to save fuel, causing the bike to slow. So much so that towards the very end of the race, Pedrosa started losing time to Nicky Hayden, chasing from behind. But Pedrosa held on, and with his 2nd place at Assen, regains the championship lead he lost at Le Mans. And as much as he dislikes his team mate, with 2 wins and a string of podiums, Pedrosa's title campaign is taking on a decidedly Haydenesque appearance.
What Goes Around
Said team mate should have joined Pedrosa on the podium, but fate had other ideas for Nicky Hayden. While electing to ride the pneumatic valve engined Honda has given Hayden back much of his confidence, racing an engine so freshly out of development is not without risks.
The engine had been playing up from the moment Hayden rolled it out for the sighting lap. Another warning light prior to the start was a signal that the gremlins have yet to vacate the air valve engine altogether, though the light disappeared for most of the race. But in one of the cruelest strokes of irony seen on the MotoGP racetrack for a very long while, Hayden's engine cut out just as he hit the second part of the GT chicane on the final lap. His attempts to twist the throttle open beyond the throttle stop were as comical as they were tragic, and in the end Hayden reverted to crouching behind the fairing of his still rolling Honda like a veteran of the 125 cc class, eventually rolling across the line in 4th, robbed of a podium by fate, and an electrical problem.
After the race, Hayden was distraught, the most upset he has been since being knocked off by Pedrosa at Estoril in 2006. Finally seeing a chance to redeem a difficult 18 months aboard a Honda he is so ill-suited to, he had to stand by, powerless to stop it being ripped from his grasp.
The man who was handed the podium described it as "karma". For Hayden's place on the rostrum was taken by none other than Colin Edwards, the man who two years ago had given Nicky Hayden the win by crashing out in exactly the same place. That crash has grated on Edwards for a long time, and so it gave him some gratification to see the tables turned between himself and the Kentuckian.
If You Put Your Mind To It
More than that, though, Colin Edwards' 3rd place was the crown on a remarkable charge. Balked at the Strubben by Valentino Rossi's crash, Edwards decided he would rather crash out chasing than ride around in 9th. And so the Texan pushed hard, forging his way through the field from 12th on the first lap. Taking Marco Melandri and Toni Elias on the next lap, Edwards charged on, consistently one of the fastest men on the track. Up to 8th on lap 7, he soon chased down the group ahead, consisting of Andrea Dovizioso, Chris Vermeulen and Shinya Nakano. Two laps later, he was past them, and chasing down Nicky Hayden, gradually chipping away at the Repsol Honda man's lead. If the race had gone on for another couple of laps, Edwards would have caught and passed Hayden, but the electrics of Hayden's Honda did his work for him.
Edwards' ability has been questioned many times over his years in MotoGP, but a race like the one he put in on Saturday should silence his critics. On his day, and on the right track, Colin Edwards can hold his own with anyone.
Behind Nicky Hayden, Andrea Dovizioso eventually won the race long scrap he'd been having with Chris Vermeulen and Shinya Nakano to come 5th, taking advantage of mistakes by both the Australian and the Japanese rider. Dovizioso had another good weekend, best of the satellite Hondas once again, and not succumbing to the proclivity to crash that plague Randy de Puniet and Alex de Angelis. Rumors are growing louder than Dovi will be taking Hayden's place at the factory Honda team next year, and another top 5 by the Italian will pump up the volume another notch.
Like Hayden, Dovizioso was lucky the race didn't last any longer. For making a charge on the final laps was Jorge Lorenzo, in another steady, but solid performance. The Fiat Yamaha rookie is slowly building his confidence again after his huge crashes, starting each weekend slowly and gaining speed each session. Once again, Lorenzo got faster as the race progressed, to come home in a creditable 6th place.
The Nearly Men
Chris Vermeulen and Shinya Nakano finished in 7th and 8th, Vermeulen finally winning the battle which had gone on between them all race. They had both lost out to Dovizioso after running wide, and were forced to settle for chasing each other instead. Vermeulen is running around 7th or 8th place pretty consistently this season, though whether that will be enough to secure his job at Rizla Suzuki remains to be seen. At least he did not have to contend with Ben Spies at Assen. The American had elected not to ride, despite being eligible to replace Loris Capirossi who had injured himself badly in FP2, not wanting to risk injury himself by racing with insufficient time to learn another new track in difficult weather conditions. Instead, Spies will concentrate on the test to be held at Indianapolis on July 1st and 2nd.
James Toseland came home in 9th, regrouping but frustrated after a disastrous weekend at his home Grand Prix 6 days ago. Toseland had expected to be much more competitive at the tracks he knew, but that track knowledge has disadvantages as well. The British rookie is used to racing a Superbike at those tracks, bikes which have less power, more weight and far less powerful brakes, meaning that he has to relearn all the tracks anyway, as braking points and acceleration points are all now in different places aboard his Tech 3 Yamaha. He still has a lot left to learn.
In his best result of the season, Sylvain Guintoli came home in 10th, the Frenchman finally starting to get a handle on his Alice Ducati. Guintoli had been further forward than usual most of the weekend, even being the fastest man on the circuit for a significant part of the rain-stricken FP3 session. If Guintoli can continue his progress, then maybe the Ducatis will start to look like a more appealing package, rather than just a freak show which is only fast in the hands of one man.
Fools Rush In
The man with the 3rd fastest lap times could only manage to finish 11th. But Valentino Rossi had only himself to blame for that, as his annual silly mistake saw him down by nearly 30 seconds at the end of the first lap. What's even more remarkable is that he set such fast laps on a bike with a bent clip-on and a missing gear shift lever. He "changed gear by anger" he later told reporters, and the technique seemed to be remarkably successful. More importantly, his charge - and a couple of mishaps ahead of him - gained him valuable points, limiting the potential damage he could have suffered in the championship race. Although he has had to relinquish his lead to Dani Pedrosa, he trails the Spaniard by just 4 points, a deficit that a win ahead of Pedrosa would wipe out.
Perhaps more worryingly, though, Rossi's foolish mistake means that Casey Stoner is now just 25 points down on The Doctor. With Stoner currently in Doohanesque form, that margin looks easily recoverable for the Australian, a thought that will trouble Rossi deeply.
Bringing up the rear, as always, were two Ducatis. This time it was Toni Elias, whose race hadn't improved much since it started in a cloud of smoke off the line, who finished in 12th place, ahead of the hapless Marco Melandri. Rumors have been increasing since Donington that Melandri will soon be making way for Sete Gibernau, who is looking at returning to racing. Those rumors keep saying the change will come at the next race, yet each race, Melandri returns to action. But the look on Melandri's face, and the body language he exudes in the pits seems to be saying that the Italian would not be too heartbroken if he were to be dumped by Ducati. Team boss Livio Suppo and Melandri were delighted to get a chance to work with each other again when Melandri's contract was signed. That enthusiasm had now disappeared entirely.
This year's Dutch TT at Assen was less of an exciting race, and more of an interesting intellectual exercise. The first lesson was given by Valentino Rossi, reminding everyone that the race isn't won on the first lap, but all too often, it is lost there. Rossi also featured in the extra courses on the effects of track layout on tire grip, with Rossi, Capirossi, Hopkins and de Angelis all crashing out on left handers, at points where the left hand side of the tire is not at the temperature you may be expecting. Colin Edwards put on a practical lesson demonstrating how determination and risk taking provide more potential benefits than just settling for safety and a limited points haul.
But the main lesson of Assen was given by Casey Stoner. Once the Ducati is running as Stoner likes, and when things run relatively smoothly in his garage, Casey Stoner is a force to be reckoned with. The way Stoner destroyed any and all competition, in nearly every session on the track was a demonstration on how to win championships: by demoralizing your opponents into submission with sheer, unmitigated speed. If you've ever wondered what an unstoppable object looks like, take a look at the reigning World Champion. Now all we need is an immovable object.