The gloves are off. Neither Valentino Rossi nor Casey Stoner were taking any prisoners during their enthralling and almost terrifying battle at Laguna Seca, and since leaving the track, the atmosphere has only gotten worse.
It started with complaints in parc ferme by Casey Stoner that some of Rossi's passes were too hard and too dangerous. The complaints continued in the post-race press conference and in the media immediately after the race. Valentino Rossi then poured oil onto the fire by dismissing the incidents as the kind of thing that happens during a close race, and nothing to get particularly upset about. He summed it up in two words which are well on their way to achieving legendary status: "That's racing!"
Stoner parried swiftly. "That's racing, is it? We'll see...." Part threat, part promise, it was clear the young Australian was not about to let it lie. In the weeks that followed the race, he stepped up the war of words, telling the Spanish press that he had lost all respect for Rossi, a man he once regarded as a hero. He even suggested that Rossi's fears that he couldn't match Stoner's pace had forced him to overreach himself, saying "I believe that I can be faster than Rossi. He knows that too and it worries to him. I probably shouldn't say it but I think that it was because of that in Laguna he let his ambition to win take control over his technique."
In turn, Valentino Rossi has made no secret of the fact that he intends to pursue the same tactics for the rest of the season. In the run up to the Brno race, Rossi set out his stall quite bluntly: "We have seven races left and I am dreaming of them all being as fun as Laguna Seca!" The message could not be clearer: If Casey Stoner didn't like the passes Rossi put on him in the US, then that's exactly what Rossi is going to serve up for Stoner at every race to come.
All In The Mind
The war of words reveals a deeper truth about motorcycle racing: Though the focus is almost always on the physical aspects of the sport, the speed of the machines, and the delicate balance, subtle throttle control and sheer skill of the riders, a very large part of racing takes place between the ears.
It's not hard to understand why. Roaring towards a corner at close to 200mph, waiting for the very last inch to go from full throttle to full brake while getting ready to find the exact fastest speed you can pitch the bike through without crashing requires incredible concentration. The slightest distraction means braking a foot later, which means carrying a fraction more corner speed, which is so often the difference between exiting the corner ready to fire off towards the next turn, and exiting the corner in a jumble of gravel, tumbling limbs, and expensively destroyed motorcycle parts.
So it's unsurprising to find that mental tactics can be just as effective as extra horsepower. If you can get your opponent to spend a few percentage points of his attention on worrying about you, where you are on the track and what you are likely to do, that's less focus on getting the most out of the bike. A little intimidation can get you a few fractions of a second, time you won't find as easily through suspension adjustments and traction control settings.
Valentino Rossi is an acknowledged master of this trade. Rossi broke both Max Biaggi and Sete Gibernau with his mental pressure, turning them from championship contenders to also-rans, forcing them both out of MotoGP. His modus operandi was simple: get in behind his rivals, and breathe down their neck until their concentration broke and they made a mistake. All Rossi had to so was to show them a wheel now and again, and bide his time until they ran off the track, or ran wide, or crashed out. It worked often enough to make Rossi's 5 premier class titles if not a walk in the park, then at least a jog around the block.
Are You Talking To Me?
Then, two young riders came up from the 250 class, and to Rossi's horror, they were impervious to his pressure. Both Dani Pedrosa and Casey Stoner were perfectly happy to let Rossi sit on their tail, as it allowed them to get on with the job at hand: pushing the bike to its absolute maximum every lap of the race. That strategy gave Pedrosa 6 race wins, and handed Casey Stoner a world title. Clearly, another tactic was required.
At Laguna Seca, Rossi did not so much tip his hand as lay his cards on the table for all to see. From now on, The Doctor would not be putting pressure on from behind, but interfering from in front. By constantly blocking Casey Stoner's path, and barging back past whenever the Australian got ahead, Rossi used his Yamaha to disrupt Stoner's rhythm, and break his concentration. The passes round the outside enraged the reigning World Champion, and distracted him from the task at hand: get by and take off.
To make things worse, Stoner showed just how effective Rossi's strategy had been by falling off, after a silly mistake in the final corner saw Stoner run wide, then get off line and into the soft gravel, tipping over at just a few miles an hour and losing any chance of catching and challenging Rossi for the lead once again. With that fall, and especially by his comments afterwards, Stoner gave Rossi the upper hand in the psychological war.
Horses For Courses
Of course, having a strategy and being able to apply it are two entirely different matters. Laguna Seca's tight, narrow tarmac makes passing difficult, and keeping an opponent behind you easy. But up next are a series of tracks that are wide, fast and open, with plenty of opportunities for passing. Disrupting people's lines by staying in front will take much more than just a little sleight of hand and a bellyful of determination.
The first track MotoGP visits after the summer break illustrates Rossi's problem all too clearly. Brno, in the Czech Republic, is one of the widest tracks on the calendar, and has room to pass and multiple lines through turns at almost every corner. The track rolls majestically up and down the wooded hills of Moravia, flowing through a series of esses which contribute to the track's unique character. At most of the corners, the initial turn is followed almost immediately by a flick back in the opposite direction, making passing a risky affair. Slide under your rival at Turn 8 or Turn 11, and you leave the door open at Turn 9 or Turn 12. Try the outside pass, on the other hand, and you find yourself running wide out of the corners, and losing the place you just gained.
Added to the intricate set of twinned corners is the elevation. The difference is huge, over 75 meters, or nearly 250 feet. That means that not only are you pushing hard to flick the bike from side to side, but you have the added complication of the slope. Either you are braking downhill, and already have a lot of weight on the front end, risking folding the front, or else you are firing uphill, with all the weight at the rear, and the chance of the front washing out due to a lack of grip. The track places a huge burden on front tires, with a fresh layer of asphalt complicating matters even further.
The decisive part of the track will be the section from the bottom of the hill before Turns 11 and 12, a section which almost resembles a reverse Corkscrew, before the steep climb up towards the final combination before the finish line. This climb has earned the nickname Horsepower Hill for the dividends it pays out to engines with a strong midrange and good top end power. If you have a powerful bike, you can leave the rest for dead up the power-sapping climb, pulling out a comfortable lead just in time to cross the line. And if you're down on power, you're forced to push even harder through the uphill combination of 11 and 12, clinging on to any speed you can carry to help you on the haul up the hill.
This could be the section which decides the race. If Casey Stoner is within striking distance of Valentino Rossi going into Turn 11, then the reigning champion should be able to use the superior horsepower of the Ducati to pull away from the Yamaha on the final climb. And if he's close enough early in the race, this could be the point where Stoner breaks Rossi's tow, wrecking the Italian's plans to engage the enemy.
Though Yamaha have made great strides with the M1, Valentino Rossi's bike is still down on power compared to the Ducati. So disrupting Stoner's rhythm in the flowing first part of the track may not be enough. Rossi could be forced into pushing the front hard to get enough of a gap to keep Stoner behind him going up the hill. And the strain on an already overworked front tire could mean Rossi losing out in the last part of the race, unable to follow the Australian's pace.
For there can be no doubt that Stoner has that pace. Ever since Barcelona, Casey Stoner has got faster and faster still. Until Laguna Seca, the Australian seemed to have regained the sort of form that allowed him to dominate the race last year. With 7 races to go, and 25 points behind Valentino Rossi, Stoner will need a repeat of 2007 to get his title defense back on track.
As for Rossi, he has his work cut out. With the nature of the Brno track against him, and more power likely to be available from revised electronics to be tested after the race, The Doctor may settle for a light spot of intimidation, followed by graciously conceding defeat. Rossi will want to make his point, and make it forcefully, but whether he can actually force a win is more questionable.
But another man may yet intervene to spoil the party. Dani Pedrosa's two DNFs may have taken the wind out of his title challenge, but with 2 wins under his belt and a string of podiums, the Repsol Honda man clearly has the ability to muscle in on battle at the front. Now 41 points down on Rossi, the title is out of his reach, Pedrosa's main focus will be winning as many races as possible, which means staying in touch with Rossi and Stoner, and preferably leaving them behind.
Pedrosa's presence adds an interesting twist to the Rossi-Stoner rivalry. For either the Italian or the Australian, the worst thing that could happen is that Pedrosa takes 2nd, splitting the two protagonists. A possible 5 point difference suddenly becomes a 9 point difference, and either a nigh-on insurmountable lead, or a significantly closing of the gap. But still recovering from the hand and ankle injury the Spaniard suffered after crashing out of the lead at the Sachsenring, Pedrosa may find it difficult to stick with the leaders if the race continues in the explosive vein set in California.
Pedrosa may be forced to settle for third at Brno, but there may be hope for him afterwards. The Spaniard is due to test the pneumatic valve engine in his Honda RC212V during the two day test after the Czech Grand Prix. If he likes it, and if it gives him the power boost he is looking for, the air valve engine could help him back to winning ways.
Joining The Fun
And Pedrosa is not the only shark in the waters Valentino Rossi and Casey Stoner must swim through. For a start, there's the Tech 3 Yamaha team, who will be getting engine upgrades for the Brno race, taking them to the same spec as the factory Yamaha bikes. The added revs should allow Colin Edwards and James Toseland to stay closer to the front, and maybe even mix it with the leaders.
Toseland certainly has good memories of Brno. The last time he was here, the British rider took a win and a second place on the way to taking his 2nd World Superbike title, so there is no doubt he has mastered the track. The problem for Toseland has been that every time MotoGP has visited a track that he knows well from World Superbikes, he has had a hard time recalibrating his markers and getting up to speed. This has confounded Toseland, and dented his confidence after his strong early start. If he can get back some of the confidence he has lost, he should be capable of running at least in the top 6 once again.
After his disastrous race at Laguna Seca with another special livery, Colin Edwards returns to Brno and his standard paint scheme, the one which has seen him on the podium twice so far this year. Much of Edwards' poor performance in California can be laid at the door of Michelin, whose gamble on the weather in Monterey went so completely wrong, leaving the Michelin riders with tires that came off the bikes after the race looking virtually unmarked. Michelin won't want to make that mistake again, and have been working on carcass construction and compounds over the summer break.
As Michelin's main development rider, Edwards will be riding the French rubber company's technicians as hard as rides his Yamaha M1, to ensure the they don't take their eyes off the ball again. With a new engine and improved tires, Edwards could be able to mix it with the front runners, and could easily be in contention for a place on the podium. And as Edwards enjoys a close battle just as much as Rossi does, he could turn into a source of great irritation for Casey Stoner and Dani Pedrosa if he can help to break their rhythm.
Out Of The Blue
The dark horses of the bunch could well be the Suzukis. Last year, Chris Vermeulen took a 5th position, while John Hopkins actually got onto the podium. With Vermeulen coming off two podiums in a row, and his contract negotiations stalled after failing to get into the top 6 in the title race, the Australian needs a result to strengthen his bid to keep his seat with the Hamamatsu factory. With good historical form at Brno, as well as at Misano, where the next round is to be held, Vermeulen will be going all out for a result.
Vermeulen's team mate is in a similar boat. Carlo Pernat, Loris Capirossi's manager, has been saying that the Italian veteran is close to renewing his contract for many weeks now, and the claim gets less credible each time it is repeated. Looking at the numbers, Capirossi is having a worse year than 2007, the year that saw him dumped by Ducati, and though the Suzuki is a mere shadow of the bike it was last year, this is not the kind of form expected of a former 250 world champion. Capirossi will have to step up his game if he wants to secure his seat for next year, and he needs to start at Brno.
Some of Capirossi's problems can be put down to injuries, a problem which has decimated the field this year. Even now, after the summer break to recover, the field isn't at full strength. Repsol Honda's Nicky Hayden will be missing at Brno, after injuring his heel while racing supermoto at the X Games. And though Fiat Yamaha's Jorge Lorenzo and Monster Kawasaki's John Hopkins are back in the paddock, neither man will be fully fit.
Hopkins is back on two feet, but the ankle injury he suffered at Assen will still be painful. Hopper's season has been a veritable vale of tears this year, with injury upon injury adding to the problems the Kawasaki ZX-RR has had since the beginning of the season. Hopkins' hope will rest on the completely revised bike the team will be running at Brno. Though not yet using the fabulous-sounding screamer engine, the Kawasaki is almost a completely new bike, as the bike used during the first half of the season has been such a disappointment. Hopkins is one of the few riders not to have to worry about his contract, being halfway through a two-year deal, but if the bike doesn't get any better soon, he may yet come to regret his move.
As for Jorge Lorenzo, it's not so much the bike as the rider which is the problem. Lorenzo's early season form overwhelmed the field, and won over many of the fans who had vowed to hate him after his antics in the 250cc class. But since his huge highside at Shanghai, Lorenzo has seemed to crash at every race, picking up injury after injury. Another big highside on the first lap of the Laguna Seca race saw Lorenzo crack his ankles once again, after they had only just healed from previous crashes.
But Lorenzo's biggest problem is not physical, it is mental. Each crash Lorenzo has suffered has sucked another chunk of confidence out of the Mallorcan. And though some might say that he had more than enough to spare at the beginning of the season, his stock is certainly starting to run dry. What Lorenzo needs most of all is a run of uneventful finishes, gradually improving at each race. With Lorenzo's luck so far, that seems almost too much to ask for.
While Jorge Lorenzo's rookie year in MotoGP has been decidedly torrid, his former 250cc rival Andrea Dovizioso has kept his season on a much more even keel. The Italian has run consistently well from the start of the year, and last time out seemed to have tightened his grip on a factory Honda ride for 2009 by beating the current Repsol Honda man Nicky Hayden. If Dovizioso continues his strong form, then the factory contract he has been working for since his days in the 125cc championship can't be very far away.
A Riddle Wrapped In An Enigma
Dovizioso's prospects of a factory ride make the announcement that Shinya Nakano will be given a factory-spec spring valve Honda RC212V to ride at Brno all the more puzzling. Nakano has certainly been a steady performer this season, a big step up from his disastrous year at the doomed Konica Minolta team, but it's hard to see what the Japanese rider has done to deserve a shot on factory machinery.
HRC is saying that Nakano has been chosen because of his development skills, and because he can communicate with HRC's Japanese technicians more easily. But some cynical voices are suggesting that Nakano has been given the factory ride because he poses no threat in the title race. If Dovi or Alex de Angelis were given the bike, then there's a good chance they could start getting on the podium, and taking points away from Dani Pedrosa. But with Nakano on board, HRC can be sure he'll be fast enough to give them good feedback on developing the bike, without being so fast he'll start getting in Pedrosa's way.
His Gresini Honda team mate Alex de Angelis is unlikely to be pleased at the news. De Angelis has been fast all year, but unreliable, taking rather too many excursions into the gravel. When he manages to stay on, the man from San Marino has come very close to getting on the podium, and either this race or next, at his home Grand Prix, his luck could finally change. If he makes it onto the podium, his future will be secured. If he flings it into the scenery, his future will be secured in a direction he surely will not have meant it to take.
The same could be said of Frenchman Randy de Puniet. De Puniet has headed the timesheets during a couple of practice sessions this year, and is clearly capable of running fast laps. But in the races, he has either crashed out or muddled on, mostly running mid-pack at best. His 6th place finish at Laguna Seca was his best of the season, and he'll be hoping that he can continue this form at Brno.
The men most looking for a turnaround in form are Kawasaki's Ant West, and the rest of the Ducati riders. West is looking ever more despondent, and has struggled terribly with the Kawasaki ZX-RR, and until it rains, and the Australian wet weather wonder gets his chance to shine, his future is looking bleak in MotoGP. His only hope is that either the revised bike is such an improvement that he moves a long way up the grid, or that nobody else can be persuaded to risk killing their career by taking West's seat.
Like the Kawasaki, the Ducati also seems to be a career killer, for everyone except Casey Stoner. Marco Melandri is a former world champion, runner up in MotoGP and multiple race winner. But aboard the Ducati GP8, he has looked like a shadow of himself, and has struggled just to avoid finishing last. Released from another year of suffering after his two year contract was halved at the Sachsenring, Melandri can start looking for another employer. A good result at Brno would help him in his quest, and with the pressure to perform for Ducati off his shoulders, he may relax a little, and improve his results.
The Alice Ducati riders have had a similarly problematic time. The team's reputation for destroying careers has continued, with Toni Elias, a race winner and one-time fan favorite now likely to leave MotoGP and go race in the World Superbike series. Elias' results have been erratic to say the least, struggling to score points at one event, whilst finishing well into the top 10 at others. So it's hard to say whether Elias has got to grips with the Ducati or not. With his future looking more settled, and less to lose, Elias may also find a way to handle the Ducati, and start to show some of his potential.
Despite his results, Elias' team mate Sylvain Guintoli has been the most methodical in his approach to riding the Ducati. He has attempted to unlearn everything he knew about racing motorcycles from his previous experience, and just tried to ride the bike the way it wants to be ridden. The problem is, this is so different to the other bikes on the grid that it takes a great deal of getting used to. If Guintoli can continue to show the progress he's made over the past few races, Brno could be the first step on the way to remaining in MotoGP next year.
War Of Minds
After the raw, visceral thrill of the race at Laguna Seca, MotoGP fans are hungry for another close race, full of tough passes and paint-swapping action. Having found what he believes is the key to defeating Casey Stoner, Valentino Rossi will be keen to oblige, and will be trying his best to get in Stoner's way. The Doctor will be attempting to break the Australian's concentration, and force Stoner to make another mistake, like the one he made at Laguna Seca.
Casey Stoner, for his part, will be doing his best to stay calm. After losing his cool in California, Stoner faced a wave of criticism from fans and former racers alike. Kevin Schwantz was among the more vocal critics, saying it's a good that Stoner wasn't riding in the late '80s and early '90s, when such passes were commonplace. And at the pre-race press conference at Brno, Stoner apologized for overreacting, saying that it was all said in the heat of the moment, after which Stoner and Rossi shook hands, and put the incident behind them.
But anyone who thought that it was all now water under the bridge and behind them will find that they have been deceived. For immediately after Stoner made his public apology, Valentino Rossi stated his intention to make the race at Brno a carbon copy of the race at Laguna Seca. And tellingly, Stoner's apology contained a veiled warning of how he would be approaching the race. "It would be nice if I can put the pressure on until the last lap," he told the press.
Ready To Rumble
The race for the MotoGP crown has now come down to its bare essentials, to a battle of wills. In the blue corner is the wily veteran, Valentino Rossi, a man whose mind games are as fearsome as his on-track antics. Rossi knows that he has to break Stoner's rhythm, and force the Australian to ride the race that Rossi wants to ride if the Italian is to keep Stoner at arm's length.
In the red corner, the young upstart Casey Stoner is showing how quickly he learns, and only really has one option to beat Rossi. Any attempt to fight on Rossi's terms, or on Rossi's grounds, is almost certainly doomed from the start. Any response to Rossi's challenges, or Rossi's tactics will be read as a sign of weakness, and punished mercilessly. If Casey Stoner wants to beat Valentino Rossi, he has to do it on his own terms, and in the way he does best. If Stoner can avoid getting caught up in Rossi's trap, stay calm, and just concentrate on going as fast as possible, ignoring anything that Rossi tries, he can gain the upper hand.
Valentino Rossi can take a great deal, but the one thing he can't stand is being ignored. If Casey Stoner can put his head down and be the fastest man on track every session, as he has done for the past 4 races, ignoring any attempt Rossi may make to engage him, Stoner can turn The Doctor's mind games to his own advantage, and give him a taste of his own medicine. Whatever happens, it's going to be a fascinating prospect.