There is always something bittersweet about the Valencia round of MotoGP. The final race is at once both apogee and perigee, zenith and nadir, as befits the culmination of any experience which marks its fans as deeply as MotoGP does. The last chance to party with fellow fans, and the last chance to watch, hear and feel the awe-inspiring sights and sounds of the 18 fastest, loudest, most technologically advanced motorcycles in the world tear around a racetrack at dizzying speeds. Valencia is always part birthday celebration, part funeral wake, as fans and followers celebrate the passing of another astounding season.
For many people, this year's end-of-season party at Valencia will be more like a wake than at any time in recent history. Sure, there were tears of nostalgia when the two strokes went, to be shed once again at the demise of the 990s. But on each of those occasions, there was also hope and curiosity, waiting to see what the new bikes that replaced them would bring.
2009, though, will be different. For once the bikes pull into the pit lane after the race on Sunday, MotoGP will cease to be a purely prototype series and will open the door to spec equipment and standardization. The imposition of a single tire manufacturer with the authority to dictate which tires the teams will use marks the end of an era. Once, anyone with the desire, the ability and the funds could manufacture whole motorcycles or individual components, and as long as they complied with certain basic rules and specifications, any team sensing an advantage could use them. But that is now gone.
Waving The Flag
Supporters of the change quite rightly point out that tires, while incredibly important, are the least interesting part of a racing motorcycle to the vast majority of fans. They say that merely instituting a single tire rule can hardly be construed as an assault on the principle of prototype engineering, and that the tires are the part of the racing machine which the motorcycle manufacturers are least associated with. Nobody was ever a fan of a tire company, they say, a claim which Bridgestone and Michelin might publicly decry, while privately admitting.
But concerns over safety and cost have prevailed, and in an attempt to at least slow up the ever-increasing speeds the 800cc bikes were capable of, Dorna felt it had to act. The deal was done at Motegi, Bridgestone were awarded the contract at Sepang, and at Valencia, after 20 years of dominance, Michelin tires will roll out onto a MotoGP race track for the last time, never to return.
At least they will be in with a chance of bowing out in style. The Valencia track has always been kind to Michelin, and Bridgestone have only beaten them here once, when Troy Bayliss romped to victory on a wildcard Ducati after taking his 2nd World Superbike championship in 2006. Even last year, the year in which Michelin had their worst season for decades, Dani Pedrosa took a resounding win on French rubber, showing that Michelin could be competitive when they wanted to, and helping rekindle faith in the company.
This Looks Familiar
Pedrosa's win was in part down to the experience the tire companies have at the track. The Ricardo Tormo circuit always kicks off the winter test season on the day after the final race, and being situated near Spain's temperate Mediterranean coast, has a climate which is mild and dry enough to allow testing to take place in early spring.
While the climate makes it perfect for testing, the location makes the Circuito Ricardo Tormo perfect for racing. Just half an hour from Valencia, Spain's third largest city, and three hours from Madrid and Barcelona, the numbers 1 and 2 in that league, the circuit is a Mecca for the crazed Spanish racing fans.
And the physical geography of the track makes it a fantastic spot for those fans to spectate at. The track sits in a bowl of low hills which form a natural amphitheater where MotoGP's gladiators gather to do battle. Seated upon the slopes of the hills overlooking the circuit, spectators can see almost the entire track, and follow all of the action no matter where it takes place.
The first point of engagement is Turn 1, at the end of the surprisingly long front straight. If you've been hearing the roar of another bike behind as you race down the straight, this is the place they will pull out of your draft and try to bump past you on the brakes. But passing here is risky: Turn 1 is not quite 90 degrees and very wide, and as a consequence, pretty fast. Carry too much speed into the corner trying to get past somebody and you risk a very fast and very painful tumble, as you run wide and hit the gravel at high speed.
Too Cool For School
After a short straight, the first hairpin looms, followed by a left kink, the third left hander in a row. But more danger lurks at Turn 4, the first right hander since halfway round the track on the previous lap. By the time you turn in for the corner here, the right-hand side of your tire is starting to cool and grip levels can be deceptively low. Coming off a series of turns which have gotten the left side of your tire nice and sticky, it's all too easy to go in too hot expecting grip, only to contemplate your miscalculation in the gravel trap after lowsiding off.
Another slow right brings you up to Turn 6, and on towards the most technical and most interesting section of the Valencia circuit. Out of 6, you enter the short back straight, short-shifting up to 150 mph, before leaning the bike over for the left hand kink and getting hard on the brakes for Turn 8.
After the tight right-hand hairpin, the track doubles back on itself, and you flick the bike left and right, ready to enter the slowest corner on the track and a place where those brave enough will try to come underneath you on the brakes. If you get through Turn 11 unscathed, then it's on to the most spectacular part of the circuit.
The hairpin takes you along another short straight, gathering speed before braking hard again for a right kink, then the endless curve of Turn 13. This long, long left hander turns you through nearly 90 degrees, but it takes an awful long time to do it. What's more, as the corner closes up for the tight right hander leading on to the straight, it drops away underneath you, leaving you with the front pushing and the rear hung out struggling for grip.
But like all great corners, the truly difficult turns are where great riders can make the difference. If you can slide the rear smoothly round that endless left, then you are lined up perfectly for a dive up the inside into the final hairpin, Turn 14. A brave rider will close down the man ahead along the long left and barge his way ahead into the hairpin. But get it wrong, and both you and the man you are trying to pass end up in the gravel, you cursing your luck, your opponent cursing you.
Perhaps the most spectacular of riders around that most spectacular of corners is Nicky Hayden. Having grown up on dirt tracks, the American has no equal when it comes to fast left turns with the rear end stepping out. Hayden is fantastic to watch at Valencia every year, but 2008 could be something special.
For the Valencia race is the end of an era for Hayden as well. It will be his last race on a Honda, having been with the factory for nearly 10 years and with the Repsol Honda team in MotoGP since 2003. Hayden's results have suffered since the introduction of the 800s in the year after he won his world title, and he has only just returned to his old form over the past few races. He would really like to leave Honda by giving his team a win, as a thank you for the years of support and hard work.
That's the official line. The unofficial, though barely concealed line is that Hayden wants a win to rub his team mate's - or rather, his team mate's manager's - nose in it. Over the past few weeks, Nicky Hayden has been engaged in an uncharacteristic war of words with Alberto Puig and has a few scores to settle. There are lots of reasons why Hayden wants to win, but beating Dani Pedrosa is right at the top of that list. Helping Michelin beat Bridgestone, after not being given the choice to switch when his team mate switched tires would be the icing on the cake.
But beating Dani Pedrosa at Valencia is no easy task. The Spaniard has won the two other MotoGP rounds held in Spain this year and is looking for both a hat trick at home, and his first win on Bridgestone tires. A win at Valencia would be a vindication of his decision to push for a switch of tires mid-season.
And it's a vindication he badly needs. Now that MotoGP will be going to a single tire and the tires supplied will be very different to the ones currently on offer, if Pedrosa can't conjure up a win, then he will have wasted an awful lot of political capital on a meaningless change. There are already rumblings that Honda have given Pedrosa one more year to win a championship before being politely shown the door, but a win in front of Repsol's home audience aboard the tires he pushed so hard to get might just buy him a reprieve.
Though Pedrosa showed last year quite emphatically that he knows how to win at Valencia, he'll be facing stiff competition come Sunday. If it was Casey Stoner who made Pedrosa work for his victory in 2007, the Australian, and still reigning World Champion, is unlikely to put up too much of a fight this year.
With the title lost, Stoner is focusing on testing next year's Ducati GP9 early next week. Still suffering with a cracked scaphoid, and due for a bone graft later next week, Stoner won't want to risk aggravating the injury and missing out on testing. In fact, he is not even certain that he will be racing on Sunday, having told the press that he would see how his wrist held up on Friday and Saturday. With the weather looking uncertain and very little at stake, Stoner may well decide to sit out the race and wait for Monday.
In A Glass Darkly
Casey Stoner's wrist injury neatly reverses the situation from last year. In 2007, Valentino Rossi was unable to put up much of a fight due to an injured wrist, while Stoner pushed Pedrosa for the win for much of the race. This year, the tables are turned, and it is Rossi who is most likely to challenge Pedrosa for victory.
With Rossi in insatiable form this year, and his 6th MotoGP title under his belt, you would think the Italian would be the man to beat. But Valencia has been cruel to Rossi over the years, and The Doctor has not disguised his lack of affection for the circuit. Last year, he crashed and fractured his wrist during practice, while the year before, he slid off at Turn 2 dumping his hopes of crowning an astonishing MotoGP comeback with a world title into the gravel.
Add this to other practice crashes - including destroying a special anniversary bike during qualifying in 2005 - and Rossi's run of bad luck at Valencia is long and ominous. But the one certainty in MotoGP is that you can never bet against The Doctor. If Rossi can stay focused, and stay on board, then the 2008 World Champion may just chalk up his 10th win of the season.
Like his team mate, Jorge Lorenzo would like to win at Valencia too. And like his team mate, the track has not brought the Spaniard much luck, 2005 being the last time he appeared on a podium here. After a mid-season slump as a result of the huge crashes he had earlier, Lorenzo has recovered his form over the past few races, with two podium finishes and two 4th places. Sepang was Lorenzo's worst result since the summer, crashing out while in the group battling for 3rd. Now competitive once again, Lorenzo will be out to break his Valencia jinx.
Just When You Least Expected It
The surprise package at Valencia may well turn out to be Suzuki. John Hopkins finished on the podium here last year in his last race on the GSV-R, and the track suits the nature of the bike. Though down on top speed, the Suzuki turns well and can get close enough out of the final corner to draft the riders ahead down the front straight, while making use of the bike's ability to change direction around the many tight turns in the stadium section of the circuit.
And Loris Capirossi's record here is strong as well. On the 800cc Ducati, the bike he struggled with all through 2007, Capirossi finished 5th, having been 2nd the year previously behind his temporary team mate Troy Bayliss. If there is ever a dark horse at Valencia, it is surely Loris Capirossi.
Chris Vermeulen isn't too shabby here either. After an up-and-down season, with podiums one week, while struggling into the top 10 the next, Vermeulen would like to end his season on a high. At tracks where the Suzuki works, Vermeulen could raise a few eyebrows.
His former team mate and the man who finished 3rd here last year is unlikely to feature at Valencia. The 2008 season has been disastrous for Kawasaki, and John Hopkins must be questioning the wisdom of his move. Hopper's season has been plagued by injury, but even more, by the complete failure of the ZXRR Ninja to be competitive. Hopkins may want to end the season on a high, but on a Kawasaki, that means being in with a chance of the top 10.
If Hopper has had a bad season on the Kawasaki, Ant West's year has been absolutely awful. At least Hopkins' switch to Kawasaki made the American a lot of money: West ended up badly out of pocket, as last year, he had to buy out the contract he had just signed with Yamaha to finish the 2007 World Supersport season. From double race winner on a Supersport last year, West has gone to perennial backmarker in 2008.
Just how low West has sunk was apparent in an interview he gave to the Italian magazine Motosprint last week. The only objective he felt was achievable, he revealed, was to end the season beating his team mate and Marco Melandri. With West out of MotoGP and back to World Supersport for 2009, he should be able to go back to being a winner once again. We can only hope so, for fate has been cruel indeed to Ant West so far.
Out Of The Frying Pan
Many questions have been asked of Marco Melandri's decision to take the ride that West is leaving behind. The most cynical of observers remark that at least Melandri can be sure of moving up one place, as West was often the only man ahead of Melandri at the end of the race. But with an offer on the table of factory support from Honda, the mystery remains why he chose to move to the team which has done so terribly all year. Melandri's 2008 season may have been the absolute low point for him, but on current form, 2009 aboard a Kawasaki is hardly likely to be much better.
Shinya Nakano's decision to take a Kawasaki ride - at least, if the latest rumors of the on-again-off-again third Kawasaki on the grid actually turn out to be true this time - is much more understandable. A Kawasaki ride is the only option Nakano has if he is to stay in the series and not end up in a testing role for Honda. But whether a 2009 ride materializes for the Japanese veteran or not, Nakano will be doing his utmost at Valencia. Nakano has seen his results buck up since receiving the factory-spec spring valve engine for his Gresini Honda RC212V, and he will be trying to wring the very last drop out of it if he is to impress potential employers for next year.
For Sylvain Guintoli, there is only pride at stake. Out of MotoGP for next year, the Frenchman will be hoping for a repeat of his performance from 2007. Qualifying 5th on the Dunlop-shod Tech 3 Yamaha, Guintoli managed to get the satellite spec Tech 3 Yamaha home in 11th, well ahead of his erstwhile team mate. While the package he had this year was superior to last year's Yamaha, the Ducati GP8 has not been an easy beast to tame. Guintoli will be hoping for one last hurrah before he heads off to British Superbikes.
Things are less urgent for Toni Elias. Like his Alice Ducati team mate, this will be his last outing aboard the GP8, but unlike Guintoli, Elias will be staying in MotoGP, returning to the bosom of his former team Gresini Honda. With the pressure off and in front of his home crowd, Elias may yet shine at Valencia, but at a track he has no particular affection for, he may choose instead to take it easy and focus on the testing that is to begin on Monday.
Elias' future team mate Alex de Angelis will be hoping for an upturn in his fortunes. The San Marinese rider has suffered a string of bad results, including a number of crashes, in a highly erratic rookie season. With two 4th places to his name, de Angelis has shown he can ride, but all too often he has also shown he can crash when pushing too hard. The Valencia track is the circuit where Alex de Angelis won his only 250 race, and he could cause a surprise if he can keep out of the gravel traps.
Randy de Puniet's season has been similar to Alex de Angelis in many ways. Both men can be extremely fast, but both men have a penchant for destroying bikes by pushing too hard and cartwheeling out of contention. De Puniet has finished the last 4 races in a row, his longest streak of the year. If he can avoid crashing his LCR Honda at Valencia, he can extend that streak a little longer.
While Randy de Puniet and Alex de Angelis are staying put for next year, Andrea Dovizioso will be moving up to possibly the most coveted and the most feared ride of the paddock. The Italian, who has pushed Jorge Lorenzo hard for the title of Rookie of the Year, despite being forced to pit his satellite Honda against Lorenzo's factory Yamaha, will be trading his Team Scot Honda for a factory Repsol bike on Monday. But team mate to Dani Pedrosa is a hard furrow to plough, as Nicky Hayden can attest to.
With his first MotoGP podium finally under his belt from last week's race at Sepang, he will be even more motivated to finish the season on a high. And the skills he has developed over the past three years, first on the underpowered Honda 250, then on the underpowered satellite Honda RC212V, will stand him on good stead. For the ability to draft faster riders, then pass and hold them off on the brakes is exactly what it takes to win at Valencia. The 3rd place Dovi scored at Sepang last week might just end up being a harbinger of more to come in Spain.
Past And Future
The two members of the Tech 3 Yamaha team will head into their final race on Michelins with very different feelings. Colin Edwards will be heading into the unknown and a completely different situation. Edwards was always Michelin's lead tire developer and has had an excellent relationship with the company since his years in World Superbikes. But with the disappearance of Michelin from MotoGP, Edwards' position will be significantly weakened and he will have much less input into the direction the tires take.
Fortunately for Edwards, however, the new tire rules could well end up suiting him. Edwards has spent a lot of time testing tires and getting them to work. His development experience with Michelin might just help him in setting up the Yamaha to work with the new Bridgestones next year.
With an uncertain future, Edwards will be trying for a good result at Valencia to thank Michelin for the years of effort the tire maker have put in. But Edwards history at Valencia is not a good one: The American has been a solidly mid-pack rider at the circuit. The Texan will be hoping for more on Sunday.
While Edwards may be heading into uncharted territory, for James Toseland, it is a step back in time. The multi-talented Briton has years of experience with a single tire, having used them in the World Superbike series. So Toseland knows what he can expect next year, and in theory, should be among the quickest riders to adapt.
But as much as he will be hoping for better from next year, first Toseland has unfinished business at Valencia. The Yorkshireman had a win here last year on his way to clinching his second World Superbike championship, and will be hoping to repeat that feat here this year. Though a win looks to be out of the question, with a bit of luck, JT could finally do better than the long string of 6th places he has had.
Eat, Drink And Be Merry
The Valencia MotoGP round always feels vaguely as if the end of the world is approaching, with fans partying wildly as if there were no tomorrow, riders giving their all one last time in the hope of making a better impression than they might deserve given the rest of the season, and most of the paddock bidding their fond farewells as if they were never to see one another again. This year, though, that feeling will be stronger, as the paddock bids farewell not just to the Michelin engineers who have helped them win championships for the past 25 years, but also to the sense that MotoGP was the final prototype series, the last bastion holding out against a rising tide of single tire regulations.
But like most prognostications of apocalypse, those preaching the end of the world are likely to be wrong. Though MotoGP has finally caved in and become a single tire series, that doesn't mean the end of development. In reality, all the time spent developing tires in search of ever more grip will be spent elsewhere, on suspension, on chassis rigidity, on electronics.
After two or three years of slower lap times, the chassis and electronics engineers will start to work their way around the limitations imposed by the inferior tires, and get back the grip they lost when competition between tire companies was killed. Corner speeds will skyrocket, lap times will drop, and Dorna, the FIM and the MSMA will be left looking for another avenue to slow the bikes down in the name of safety.
More rules will be introduced to limit some other part of the bikes - a spec ECU, a ban on electronic suspension, specific rules on chassis stiffness, narrower wheel rims - and at the final MotoGP race at Valencia, the whole paddock will be cast into mourning once again. The cycle of racing evolution, where the regulators make the rules while the engineers find ways of making those rules irrelevant as quickly as possible, will start all over again.
But all that is in the future. The 2009 MotoGP season may start on Monday, but first there's the final race of the 2008 season to contest. With most of the field with nothing to lose and a point to make, the 2008 Valencia MotoGP round has all the ingredients of a thrilling race. Everyone has a final chance on Sunday, and most of them are chomping at the bit to seize it.