Ever since the long-lamented 990cc bikes roared into the sunset at the end of 2006 to be replaced by the 800cc machines, MotoGP has suffered a crisis of confidence. That final year of competition with the large capacity bikes produced some of the most exhilarating racing ever seen, yet after the introduction of the new formula, the racing changed overnight, suddenly becoming processional and rather too often, positively dull.
Having been spoilt by a year of thrills and spills, and with the big name stars being left for dead by a relatively unknown Australian on a Bridgestone-shod Ducati, TV audiences switched off in droves, the viewing figures tumbling. MotoGP was starting to lose ground to other motorsports, and with teams already finding it difficult to raise the necessary sponsorship to fund their efforts, neither Dorna nor the teams could afford for the series to decline in popularity further. Something had to be done.
Whenever a group of people - be it organizations, governments or even families - decide that "something has to be done" the first step is usually to try and pinpoint a culprit. Throughout 2007, the finger of blame was pointed squarely at tires, Bridgestone prospering as Michelin failed to adapt to the new rules limiting tire numbers. This regularly left half the field unable to compete, and most painfully, saw Valentino Rossi and Dani Pedrosa, key figures in Dorna's target markets, floundering and off the pace. The current tire situation could not be allowed to stand.
I Know I'm Unlovable
An appropriate culprit - or perhaps scapegoat - found, the rules were tweaked at the end of the season in the hope of reintroducing competition. And as extra insurance, Valentino Rossi was allowed to switch tire brands, with the hope of putting motorcycle racing's media phenomenon back on equal footing with the implacably unlovable Casey Stoner.
The first few races showed at least some improvement, with four different winners in the first four races, and Valentino Rossi then going on to win three races in a row. But the underlying problem remained: The margin of victory was never less than 1.8 seconds, and most races were still being decided by half way. And after Ducati found some fixes to the problems that plagued Casey Stoner's early season, the situation got worse. Once again, the reigning World Champion was humiliating the field, winning race after race, sometimes by as much as 11 seconds.
The changes to the tire rules hadn't changed anything. The little-known and even less liked Australian was winning races by the end of the first lap again, and the field was spread out seconds apart. Down in 6th place, huge multiple rider battles were raging, but these were going on off-camera, and for the consolation prizes. When Michelin ran all of their riders on hard rain tires in Germany, gambling on a drying track which never arrived, we were back at square one. Once again, conversations about MotoGP were all about tires, and not about riders.
Then came Laguna Seca. At Laguna, two things happened. First, Michelin turned up with tires that were completely inadequate to cope with the conditions, leaving all of the Michelin runners completely out of contention once again. The heat under the tire discussion got turned up another notch, and the first rumblings of more rule changes started to appear.
Secondly, as the race got underway, one of the most nail-biting battles MotoGP has seen for a long time unfolded, with Valentino Rossi and Casey Stoner knocking chunks out of each other for 23 long laps. For half an hour, the crowd and TV viewers around the world held their breath, as the death-defying spectacle went on for lap after lap. And for 45 minutes, no one mentioned tires, wrapped up in the glorious duel of two racers at the very top of their ability.
The respite was to be only brief, as another Michelin failure at Brno after the summer break saw the riders, fans and paddock all talking tires once again, only briefly diverging to talk about the racing, before returning to the subject at the forefront of everybody's minds.
Lessons From The Lake
But all the talk of tires disguised a much more important lesson from Laguna Seca: There was plenty of racing to be had in MotoGP, if the track would only allow it. Laguna Seca, with a few fast corners mixed with tight and tortuous sections, but more importantly, the track layout following the lie of the land and flowing from corner to corner, proved an ideal stage for MotoGP. The combinations of corners placed the emphasis on rider skill once again, and gave Valentino Rossi, his Yamaha clearly outclassed, a chance to match Casey Stoner's terrifying pace around the Californian circuit.
In a strange way, the tracks that followed Laguna underlined this lesson. Misano is run backwards, against the natural flow of the track, Indianapolis was an artificial course inside a racing oval, and Motegi is a collection of perfectly engineered corners joined by a complete failure of imagination. Only Brno has some kind of natural character, and any hopes of a race were soon cut short, with Casey Stoner crashing out early on.
Though the MotoGP paddock arrived at Phillip Island once again full of tire talk, a single tire rule having been agreed the week before, the fans hoped for much more. The Australian circuit is an old road course, and flows naturally across the landscape, organically evolved rather than technologically designed. As such, it lends itself to fantastic racing, rewarding the brave and the skilled far above those with just a fast bike.
Guts And Glory
The secret to the track is perhaps its mixture of very fast corners, a couple of sharp hairpins, and the way that the corners roll into one another in a natural rhythm. A rider with the courage to carry more speed through terrifyingly quick corners like Doohan and Turn 12, the skill to hold other riders off on the brakes going into the Honda hairpin, and the mixture of both to carry enough speed going over Lukey Heights to pass while still being able to brake for MG, such a rider can flourish here, almost regardless of the machine underneath him.
As a result, qualifying on the front row of the grid is less crucial at Phillip Island than at other racetracks. With a bellyful of courage and a bit of blind faith in your tires, you can work your way up from way down on the grid to battle for the lead.
This was exactly what Valentino Rossi was counting on. A crash on his second qualifying tire had left The Doctor dazed and with a painful neck, and unable to get out in time for another assault on pole. Once the checkered flag dropped on the qualifying session, Rossi was left way down in 12th position, on the end of the 4th row of the grid.
To make Rossi's objective - a 6th MotoGP victory at Phillip Island - more difficult, Casey Stoner, the man Rossi has battled with all season long, was on pole. Once again, Rossi was going to need a little help from the other front row men Jorge Lorenzo and Nicky Hayden, or maybe a rocket start from Dani Pedrosa down in 6th. If the men nearer the front could get ahead of Casey Stoner going into the first corner, they might just be able to hold him up long enough for Valentino Rossi to fight his way up through the grid.
Unto The Sea
As the red lights holding the bikes on the grid dimmed, unleashing the howl of 18 screaming MotoGP bikes across the Bass Strait, the chase into Doohan corner was on. Casey Stoner's start was entirely according to plan, shooting off the line as befits a Bologna Bullet, but he had plenty of company. Nicky Hayden had taken advantage of his Honda RC212V's outstanding launch control to rocket off the line almost alongside the Australian.
Hayden was soon joined by his team mate Dani Pedrosa, the diminutive Spaniard always one of the fastest men away from the start, while Tech 3 Yamaha's James Toseland slotted in behind Pedrosa. In fact, both Tech 3 men got great starts, Colin Edwards rolling into Doohan in 5th, having squeezed out Randy de Puniet. The Frenchman found himself caught between Edwards and Jorge Lorenzo, who had got a disastrous start, dropping from 2nd on the grid down to 8th into the first corner.
Exiting the fast first corner, Stoner still led, but Nicky Hayden clearly had a plan. Pulling all the way over to the left hand side of the track, he took the longer, outside line through Doohan, carrying more speed through the first turn, giving him the opportunity to lunge up the inside of Stoner as the track folded back left for the Southern Loop.
It was a very cunning plan indeed, and if it hadn't been for that pesky Australian, he might have gotten away with it. But Hayden's speed through Doohan meant he had to brake just a tad harder than Stoner, and the reigning World Champion shut the door on Hayden, keeping the Honda firmly behind him.
Behind Hayden, Pedrosa was approaching rapidly. Fast out of Doohan, Pedrosa arrowed in on Hayden, aiming to be right on his team mate's tail through the Southern Loop. Pedrosa hit his mark alright, but simultaneously managed to miss. He caught up with his team mate just as they flicked left for the 180 degree turn, but found himself carrying a fraction more speed than he bargained on.
Pedrosa wasn't going to make the turn. Trail braking as hard as he dared, he sat the bike up a little, hoping to scrub enough speed off to either stay on the track, or get back on if he ran off. Under normal circumstances, that was an entirely feasible plan of action, but two factors managed to interfere. Just before Pedrosa ran off the track, on the outside of the turn, the Spaniard's Honda locked the rear for a fraction of a second. The bike weaved, then hit the dirt, and with the ground still muddy from the heavy rain that had fallen earlier in the weekend, it was beyond saving. Pedrosa was down, and out of the race.
Second Corner Mayhem
Normally, most of the trouble at the start of the race occurs at the first corner. Not so at Phillip Island. Pedrosa's crash caused a ripple effect down the field. With the whole pack suddenly diverging from their chosen lines, it was inevitable that the Southern Loop would claim more victims.
As it was, the field got off lightly. Suzuki's Chris Vermeulen and Alice Ducati's Sylvain Guintoli were the only casualties, Vermeulen forced to run straight on into the gravel before rejoining. Guintoli, unable to react quickly enough due to a cracked shoulder blade suffered in practice, also ran wide, and taking his time to recover his composure while ploughing through the grass, returned to the track slowly and bringing up the rear.
But it wasn't just the back of the field that Pedrosa's crash had affected. The Spaniard's fall had opened up a gap between Nicky Hayden in 2nd and James Toseland, now suddenly gifted 3rd place. With Casey Stoner flying and Hayden following right on his tail, that gap was enough to break the tow for Toseland. By the time they crossed the line for the end of the first lap, Stoner and Hayden were loose, and over a second ahead.
The Southern Loop wasn't the only corner to catch riders out. That most treacherous of locations, the bottom of the hill at MG claimed its traditional victim too. Alex de Angelis had crept forward to sit on Randy de Puniet's tail, but de Puniet messed up his braking, leaving de Angelis with nowhere to go but down.
De Angelis' misfortune was Valentino Rossi's gain. Rossi was already up to 9th, with some help from Pedrosa's crash and Andrea Dovizioso being forced on to the grass on the run into the first corner, and de Angelis' crash gave him another place, putting him in 8th. But it also came perilously close to robbing him of any points at all, the San Marinese rider's Gresini Honda tumbling across the track directly in front of The Doctor, missing him by inches.
Casey Stoner may have held the lead as they streaked across the line to start lap 2, but it was clear that Nicky Hayden was in no mood to just lie down and meekly surrender to the Australian. Hayden closed on Stoner through Doohan once again, and had his front wheel firmly ensconced on Stoner's tail as they approached the Southern Loop. Once again, Hayden had a look, trying to edge his Honda into the turn ahead, but again, Stoner was too far in front, cutting across Hayden's wheel to make it clear who was in charge.
Hayden was undeterred. Phillip Island suits the Kentucky Kid's riding style down to the ground, and he was going all out for glory. Casey Stoner, so imperious during the morning warm up, suddenly found himself with a fight on his hands, and was forced to push his Ducati to the limit to keep it ahead of Hayden's Honda.
Just how hard that was became clear from the pace the two leaders were setting. Casey Stoner was already a few hundredths under the old lap record pace on his 2nd lap, then shattered it on lap 3. But his place in the history books replacing Marco Melandri as lap record holder was to be very short lived indeed. Two tenths of a second later, Nicky Hayden crossed the line still hunting Stoner down, snatching the lap record from Stoner with a time of 1'30.059, six thousandths of a second under Stoner's time.
The difference illustrated just how close the fight was. For lap after lap, there was little to choose between Stoner and Hayden, the gap always just a couple of tenths of a second as they crossed the line. Each time Casey Stoner pulled away in one section of the track, Nicky Hayden would pull it back again in another. And each time Hayden closed Stoner down, the Australian would inch ahead, ensuring that Hayden never got quite close enough to launch a full on attack. The two 2009 team mates were stuck, trapped in a 200mph stalemate.
The Bayliss Doctrine
Behind the leaders, no one was able to match their furious pace. Certainly not James Toseland, who was dropping well over half a second a lap. But though the British rookie could not match Hayden and Stoner, he was still putting his experience here in World Superbikes to good use. He was both a hard man to pass, and when passed, knew just where to get back the position he'd just been forced to relinquish.
Jorge Lorenzo was the first recipient of Toseland's Phillip Island masterclass. The Spanish rookie flew out of the final corner and ahead of Toseland into the first corner as they started lap 3, but getting past was not going to be enough. With Lorenzo's Fiat Yamaha ahead of him, Toseland flung out his mooring line and was firmly anchored to the leading bike for the next lap. Creeping closer on lap 5, Toseland returned Lorenzo's compliment into Doohan, jamming his satellite Tech 3 Yamaha ahead of Lorenzo's factory bike.
Toseland's team mate, Colin Edwards, was also holding up traffic behind him. But the Texan's life was more complicated, for Edwards had not just Shinya Nakano to contend with, but a rampant Valentino Rossi.
From 12th on the grid, Rossi was up to 8th by the end of the 1st lap, taking 7th from Randy de Puniet the next time around. Within another lap, Rossi had closed Shinya Nakano and Colin Edwards down, flying across the line and past both men into 5th as they entered Doohan corner for the 4th time. Barely breaking his stride, Rossi was off, matching the leaders' pace with a clear track ahead of him, and had caught Toseland and Lorenzo as they crested Lukey Heights on lap 5.
If Rossi could get past the Lorenzo and Toseland duel as quickly as Edwards and Nakano, the newly crowned world champion would be in with a chance of catching the two men who had taken the title from him for the past two years. But he had to move swiftly, as the scrap for 3rd place meant that Stoner and Hayden were rapidly departing.
A lap after catching Toseland and Lorenzo, Rossi made the first move. Taking his trademark line round the outside of Lukey Heights, the Italian hammered on the brakes going into MG, diving up the inside of Lorenzo and leaving his team mate with no option but to give up 4th place. One down, one to go.
Rossi closed on Toseland's tail through the frighteningly fast Turn 3, showing Toseland his wheel for the first time into the Honda hairpin. But Toseland was prepared. And the Englishman knew what was coming next: Heading over Lukey Heights, Toseland carried a fraction more speed, not leaving Rossi the option of a dive into MG, and holding onto 3rd.
Oh No You Don't
One option gone, Rossi took the next. Hard on Toseland's tail out of Turn 12, the Italian fired out of the Tech 3 Yamaha's slipstream to slide underneath Toseland going into Turn 1. With a clear track ahead of him once again, Rossi could concentrate on hunting down Stoner and Hayden.
That was the theory. But as so often, a gaping chasm separated theory from practice, a chasm which was filled with James Toseland's World Superbike experience. Having beaten Troy Bayliss here in 2007, JT knew his way around the track, and a lap later, did unto Rossi what Rossi had done unto him. Instead of being off to chase Nicky Hayden, Valentino Rossi had been bundled down to 4th, stuck behind the remarkably wide Yamaha M1 of James Toseland.
He would have to try again. His first attempt was a glance round the outside at the Southern Loop, but when that failed, he poked his wheel up the inside of the Honda hairpin once more. Here, too, Toseland was ready, cutting off Rossi's advance into the corner. So it looked like Lukey Heights would be the battleground once again.
Rossi closed on the approach, getting right on Toseland's exhaust pipe as they ran through the Hayshed and started the climb up the hill. Once at the brow of the hill, Rossi tried his outside line once more, hoping to swoop past Toseland on the plunge into MG, and take the position that way.
It hadn't worked lap 7 and it didn't work on lap 9, Toseland anticipating The Doctor's move. The Englishman was ready at the bottom of the hill, slamming the door in Rossi's face, and leaving him with nowhere to go. Just how hard Valentino Rossi was trying was demonstrated at the bottom of the hill: Forcing the bike hard over to make the tight hairpin at MG, Rossi lost the front, catching it on his knee, and getting back on the gas to chase Toseland, giving up all the ground he'd gained that lap.
Toseland's brilliance at keeping people behind him was not just letting Casey Stoner and Nicky Hayden get away at the front. It was also starting to allow a logjam of riders to form behind. Jorge Lorenzo had never really been dropped by Toseland and Rossi, and the Spaniard was soon joined by Shinya Nakano.
On lap 9, Team Scot Honda rider Andrea Dovizioso tagged on the back of Nakano, after an epic fight through the field. Last into the first corner after being pushed wide at the start, Dovizioso profited from the first lap incidents to cross the line in 10th. Over the course of the next few laps, he steadily worked his way past Loris Capirossi, Randy de Puniet, then Colin Edwards to take 7th, upping his pace to catch the group scrapping over 3rd.
For by now, 3rd looked to be all that was on the cards. Casey Stoner and Nicky Hayden were long gone, with a gap of nearly 7 seconds back to Toseland, but the pace was starting to take its toll. Hayden had fitted a softer tire than his Michelin tire engineer was comfortable with, knowing that he had to get a good start if he was to be in with a chance of the win. Now, though, the combination of Phillip Island's long left handers and Casey Stoner's unrelenting pace was becoming too much for Hayden's tires, and the American was forced to back off a notch to preserve his tires and try to hang on to 2nd.
Casey Stoner, on the other hand, was merciless, his lap times barely faltering. One question mark still hung over the Australian: Whether his fitness would last. Last time out at Motegi, Stoner had been forced to back off after Valentino Rossi's blistering pace caused Stoner too many problems with his wrist, and drained of strength from having to ride round his fractured scaphoid, he had slowed a fraction and dropped back to 2nd. If Stoner's wrist could hold up, his home Grand Prix would be his. With Phillip Island's flowing track placing fewer demands on his wrist than the stop-and-go track at Motegi, the odds were good.
No Way Through
The battle for 3rd was intensifying. With Toseland's blocking tactics now holding up Rossi, Lorenzo, Nakano and Dovizioso, something had to give. While Valentino Rossi probed at every cranny Toseland left uncovered, the jockeying behind Rossi became more frantic.
Every lap, the same pattern unfolded. Valentino Rossi tried to jam his front wheel ahead of James Toseland's at Doohan, but Toseland held the Italian off on the brakes, and slammed the door in his face. Rossi then chased Toseland down through Siberia, closing on the Englishman through Hayshed to challenge at Lukey Heights, looking for the inside line at MG. But the wily World Superbike champion would not surrender so easily. At MG, too, he held the Italian off on the brakes, rubbing Rossi's nose in it by flinging his Yamaha across the nose of Rossi's works bike.
As they started lap 12, Rossi tried a change of tactics. Trailing Toseland's smoking rear Michelin through the final corner, Rossi got drive onto the straight and was past into Doohan, now clearly ahead of the Englishman. But Toseland would not be caught out so easily, and like Hayden on the first lap, held the faster outside line through the first corner, then diving up the inside into the Southern Loop, ahead of Rossi and back into 3rd.
Rossi tried one final dive at the Honda hairpin, before conceding that that was one place where he would just not get past. The Doctor settled back on Toseland's tail once again, forfeiting another attempt at Lukey Heights to concentrate on the final pair of left handers. Getting strong drive out of Turn 12 once again, he pulled out of Toseland's draft to dive up the inside into Doohan for the second lap in succession.
Seen That Before
This time, though he was expecting Toseland's counter attack, so with a bit more space and a bit more speed, it was The Doctor's turn to slam the door in Toseland's face, and seizing 3rd place with both hands. Knowing that he could not afford to lose any more time, Rossi put the hammer down, pushing as hard as possible for the rest of the lap.
By the time he crossed the line to end lap 13, Rossi had a gap of 4/10ths of a second over Toseland, putting him just out of reach of the Tech 3 man. Another lap, and another couple of tenths, and Rossi knew that Toseland would trouble him no more. He put his head down and concentrated on running consistent fast laps, his only choice if he was to catch Nicky Hayden and Casey Stoner ahead.
Rossi's pace was certainly fast enough. The Italian was running close to the scorching pace being set by Casey Stoner in the lead, but his problem was the time he had already lost. Rossi was now 8 seconds down on Stoner and 6 behind Nicky Hayden, with 13 laps to go. With the speed that Stoner was running, Stoner looked to be out of reach unless Stoner's wrist gave out, which there was no sign of so far.
But Nicky Hayden was a different prospect. Since being forced to let Stoner go, the American's pace had slowed, dropping into the low 1'31s. Rossi was a few tenths a lap quicker, but the sums weren't adding up in his favor yet. He would need to find a bit more speed if he was to catch Hayden in time to steal 2nd.
War, What Is It Good For?
While the battle for the podium was developing into a strategic game of fractions of seconds, the fight for 4th was developing into an all-out war. Andrea Dovizioso had barged his way into 5th at the same time as Rossi took 3rd from Toseland, the Scot Honda man firing past Jorge Lorenzo into Doohan corner. He then set about trying to find a way around James Toseland, but was running into the same difficulties as Valentino Rossi had a few laps earlier.
Toseland's blocking tactics were once again working against the man behind him, for while Dovizioso crawled all over Toseland's back, Jorge Lorenzo sneaked up on Dovi, getting ready to pounce. While Dovizioso was concentrating his efforts on Toseland, Jorge Lorenzo lined the Italian up on lap 18, firing across the line and ahead of Dovi as they approached Turn 1. But Dovizioso was not to be had so easily, and stuffed his Honda back past Lorenzo's Yamaha as they entered the turn.
Lorenzo was back at the Honda hairpin, and now the roles were reversed. It was Lorenzo's turn to try to worm his way past James Toseland, who was making his Tech 3 Yamaha as wide as the Southern Ocean which fringed the track. And while Lorenzo focused all his talent on Toseland, Dovizioso concentrated on catching Lorenzo, and launching his own assault on 4th once again.
As the laps counted down, Casey Stoner's pace remained resolutely relentless. This was another display of sheer, uninhibited speed, the Australian bullying his Ducati round the track for lap after lap, never faltering, never backing off. The gap to the rest of the field grew and grew, and by lap 18, the race was done. Nearly 5 seconds ahead with just 9 laps to go, nobody would be able to catch the Australian.
Casey Stoner came across the line to take his 5th win of the season after a long and difficult set of races, including three race crashes and two DNFs. His return to form came just in time for his home Grand Prix, the sight of an Australian aboard a bike carrying the #1 plate delighting the home fans. Nicky Hayden had forced Stoner to fight hard for the lead for the first half of the race, but through guts, talent and determination, he stuck at it for the win. This was a victory no one would begrudge him.
Nicky Hayden's lead over Valentino Rossi was a lot less comfortable, and as the laps counted down, so did the gap between the two. Sniffing a chance at 2nd rather than 3rd, Rossi pushed hard, his pace dropping to match and even beat Casey Stoner's. Nicky Hayden, his tires shot from the early pace, was left increasingly defenseless against the Italian's onslaught.
In a cruel stroke of fate, Rossi caught Hayden as they crossed the line to start the last lap. Try as Hayden might, there was nothing the American could do, and he was forced to give up 2nd place without the fight he felt it deserved.
A delighted Valentino Rossi rode home to take 2nd place at Phillip Island, an incredible performance considering he had been forced to start from 12th on the grid. The Island always brings out the best in Rossi, as he showed in 2003, overcoming a 10 second time penalty to win with ease. The measure of Rossi's pleasure was his display on the podium, throwing his knee sliders into the crowd. As generous as he is to the crowds which follow him around, Rossi rarely throws any of his gear into the crowds after the race. The gifts bestowed show just how important this result was for The Doctor, and confirms that he is still capable of magic down in the Southern Hemisphere.
Nicky Hayden crossed the line in 3rd unsure whether to laugh or to cry. The good news for the American is that he had shown that he is still an incredibly gifted racer, and can push hard when things come together. He pushed Casey Stoner to the absolute limit before Stoner managed to get a gap, a feat very few riders have managed this year. He showed that at real rider's tracks, big, fast scary places, he can ride with the best, skill and courage overcoming a bike which still doesn't suit his style.
More important still, he ended up on the podium while his team mate was nowhere to be seen. For the rest of the season, Nicky Hayden has one goal, to beat Dani Pedrosa whenever he can, and show to Honda that he deserved better treatment than he got. Being robbed of 2nd place on the final lap was a bitter pill to swallow. But the spoonful of sugar provided by Pedrosa's absence from the field made it just a little easier to swallow.
Confused? You Will Be!
2nd place wasn't the only place decided on the final lap. The battle for 4th got more and more intense as the end of the race approached. Jorge Lorenzo, Andrea Dovizioso and James Toseland swapped places and paint for lap after lap, while Shinya Nakano looked on from behind, hoping to profit from a mistake by the three protagonists ahead of him.
First Lorenzo passed Toseland, then Toseland came back, then Dovizioso passed Lorenzo, and Lorenzo came back. All three men tried running into Doohan at the same time, an act of incredible bravado, the corner being terrifyingly fast at the best of times, without finding yourself flanked by two other men unwilling to give an inch.
Dovizioso won the run into Doohan that time, but Lorenzo came back at Honda, while Toseland passed the Italian a lap later. In a final bid for 4th place, Toseland stuffed his Yamaha up the inside of Dovizioso going into the Honda hairpin, and got past, but couldn't hold his line. He ran wide, letting Lorenzo escape and Nakano get by while pushing Dovi completely off line. With just a few more corners left, the finishing order was settled.
Jorge Lorenzo came out on top of that epic battle, the Fiat Yamaha man cannily placed at the head of the pack, and holding the rest of the field behind him. After a poor start, Lorenzo had had another strong race, gaining valuable points for his 4th spot in the championship table and closing on Dani Pedrosa after the Repsol Honda rider's fall.
Like a seagull watching others scrap over a piece of bread, Shinya Nakano swooped at the right moment, and ran off with 5th position. The Gresini Honda rider had good pace all race long, but had been unable to mix it up with the men he had been following. But after his second best result of the season, and no contract for next year, the Japanese rider made a powerful case to stay in the series.
James Toseland ended up 6th, for the 6th time this year. The Tech 3 Yamaha man had felt that more was possible, and had risked it all to achieve that, but the race-long battle had used up his tires, making his final move on Dovizioso was asking just a little too much. Toseland was left disappointed, but not too much, with yet another 6th place.
But Toseland's disappointment was assuaged by his satisfaction at having battled with Valentino Rossi for a good many laps. Toseland and proved both his mettle and his worth in that fight, and it cost Rossi all of his talent and a good deal more time than he wanted before he could finally get past the Englishman. At Phillip Island, James Toseland showed that he was more than just a token Englishman to satisfy the BBC.
Andrea Dovizioso was not at all enamored of Toseland's efforts, though. After being forced to settle for 7th, after Toseland's last lap do-or-die dive, Dovizioso complained bitterly of Toseland's riding after the race. Saying that Toseland would be better off taking up kickboxing instead of motorcycle racing, most of Dovizioso's complaints seemed to come down to the fact that Toseland was difficult to pass on the brakes. If Dovi needs a lesson in braking and tough passing, he may want to go back and watch a few World Superbike races, so he can understand the school that Toseland emerged from.
And Dovizioso's complaints detract from what was truly a stellar performance. Dovizioso carved his way forward with almost Rossi-esque ease after entering the very first corner dead last. On a very standard satellite Honda, Andrea Dovizioso showed that he can pass and he can ride, even at the most challenging track on the calendar. The prospect of Dovizioso on a factory Honda next year looks more appetizing each week.
The Hidden War
The battle for 8th place had been almost as intense as the battle for 4th, but had largely gone unnoticed. In the end, it was Colin Edwards who came out on top, the Tech 3 Yamaha man having lost touch with the group ahead in the early laps. Beaten again by his team mate, Edwards' results are looking rather more erratic than they should be.
Speaking of erratic, Randy de Puniet finished in 9th, putting in a very reasonable performance. But his LCR Honda team were most pleased with the fact that the Frenchman finished his 3rd race in a row, matching his longest streak without crashing of the season. De Puniet can be fast, mediocre and dangerous, sometimes all in the same weekend. At Phillip Island, he plumped for mediocre.
Loris Capirossi would probably have been delighted with mediocre. The Italian may have only finished in 10th place, but he had battled for 8th for much of the race, on a track that the Suzuki is still pretty dire at. Though Suzuki have fixed some of the problems with traction which previously plagued the bike, at Phillip Island, it was just too slow, with not enough horsepower to keep with the bikes ahead. Suzuki have their work cut out for them.
Toni Elias came home in 11th, and had the race lasted a little bit longer, could possibly have gone a couple of places better. Elias was closing the group led by Colin Edwards down over the final laps, but in the end, the Spaniard came up just a couple of tenths short.
Ant West won the battle of the Kawasakis to take 12th place, ahead of his team mate John Hopkins. Phillip Island exposed the Kawasaki's weak points with painful precision, the green bike suffering from both traction problems at the rear and a lack of grip at the front, leaving both Monster Kawasaki men straggling nearly 50 seconds behind the winner.
West and Hopper were lucky that Sylvain Guintoli and Chris Vermeulen lost so much time avoiding Pedrosa's crash. Both men closed on the Kawasakis all race long but couldn't quite catch them. Sylvain Guintoli eventually took 14th, passing Chris Vermeulen on the last lap, the Australian forced to settle for the final point in 15th.
The very nature of the Ducati which allows Casey Stoner to ride it so quickly is exactly what prevents Marco Melandri from doing the same. The Italian struggled round the track to come home in 16th, one minute and eleven seconds behind his Ducati team mate.
Racing By Numbers
If you judge a race purely by the times on the results sheet, then the Australian Grand Prix at Phillip Island was not close. But then again, if you judge a race purely by the times on the results sheet, the race at Laguna Seca was a comfortable victory by Valentino Rossi. But the story of a race cannot be told in the cold, clinical summary of a few numbers on a piece of paper.
For the truth is more complicated, and a good deal more exciting, than just the gaps shown on the results sheet. Though it only lasted for the first 10 laps, the battle for the lead was intense and hard fought and brought back some of the spectacle that many had felt has been missing from MotoGP. The battle for 3rd through 7th was breathtaking, and one of the best multiple-bike shootouts since the demise of the 990s. The order that the group approached a corner bore no resemblance to the order they would exit, and the show went on from the first lap to the last.
Finally, and most significantly, the Australian Grand Prix gave the lie to the belief that the 800cc bikes have made passing almost impossible. Both Valentino Rossi and Andrea Dovizioso fought their way up through the field to finish a good deal higher than they entered the first corner in. And the battles for 3rd and 8th saw more passing than some of the other races combined. The fans came to see a show, and for once, they got more than their money's worth.
The Track Is The Difference
The question is, how did we end up with exciting racing at Phillip Island, while elsewhere, there has been none? The answer cannot be down to tires, for though the Michelins were good in Australia, they didn't quite last the full distance as well as the Bridgestones did, despite all of the Michelin runners finishing in the top 10. On the evidence of Phillip Island, giving everyone the same tire would have had little influence on the outcome.
The answer, perhaps, lays in the nature of the racetrack itself rather than any of the attributes of the bikes that race here. Phillip Island is a circuit that rewards skill, bravery and cunning in equal measure, and allows competitors on unequal equipment to compete by compensating for the shortcomings of their equipment. With a mixture of high speed sweepers and difficult and treacherous, the track offers everyone opportunity to exploit their strengths and disguise their weaknesses.
The natural, flowing layout of the track allowed Valentino Rossi and Andrea Dovizioso to cut a swathe through the field, a feat which is nigh-on impossible at Motegi or Shanghai. And it also allowed James Toseland to use his guile and braking skills to hold off a horde of charging riders for almost the entire length of the race. It even allowed Toseland to use his ability to keep arguably the greatest motorcycle racer of all time behind him for more laps than Rossi had expected.
So it seems like tracks matter just as much as tires, and electronics, and any of a host of other rider aids. A racetrack, too, can act as an equalizer allowing close and exciting racing, just as easily as supposedly equal equipment. Perhaps if MotoGP were to focus on finding better racetracks to compete at, the racing might just get closer. That has to be an option worth exploring, before imposing untested restrictions of dubious value.