There are lots of reasons to go to a MotoGP race. If your aim is to see the best riders in the world test their skill, bravery and machines to the limit on a technical track, then you go to Mugello in Italy, or Phillip Island in Australia. If your reason for going is to try and meet the riders, or at least stand a chance of getting as close to them as possible, then you head to Qatar, where the lack of crowds mean the paddock is more relaxed and less stressful, or you visit Laguna Seca, where the AMA's policy of selling paddock tickets means that for part of the weekend, you stand a chance of actually talking to your heroes.
If you're looking for a party, a chance to celebrate the joys of motorcycle racing with like-minded individuals, then you have several options. Mugello combines spectacular scenery with crowd insanity, Assen offers well-organized and efficient celebration, while the extremely low prices of beer, tickets and lodging at Brno make it an excellent choice for bike fans on a budget.
But the two MotoGP rounds which traditionally offer the most frantic partying are the two Spanish races which top and tail the season. The Jerez race, which opens the season in Europe, is sheer bedlam, as hordes of crazed Spanish motorcycle fans unleash a long winter's worth of pent-up frustration in an orgy of wine, wheelies and wanton abandon.
24 Hour Party People
At the other end of the year, the MotoGP season finale at Valencia is almost a mirror image: Vast legions of bike fans gather from all around the world to mark the end of motorcycle racing for another year. Fittingly, they party as if there were no tomorrow, and to an extent, they are right. It will be 5 long months before the MotoGP field lock horns on the track once again, and so the fans amassed at the Circuito Ricardo Tormo do their utmost to squeeze half a year's worth of partying into just three short days. So frenetic is the pace at the Valencia track and in downtown Cheste, the small town nearest to the circuit, that sometimes it can actually feel like quite hard work.
On the first two days of the race weekend, it wasn't so much the frenetic pace which took its toll on Valencia's partygoers as enduring the weather. The torrential and continuous rain turned the campsites and parking areas around the track into a mud bath, and a damp chill seeped its way into the very bones of everyone attending. On Friday and Saturday, the fans had to work a good deal harder at having a good time than they had bargained for.
It wasn't just the fans the rain had had an effect on. The MotoGP paddock, freshly disembarked off a long-haul flight from the sweltering tropics, was stupefied with shock at the change in conditions. From getting off the bike drenched with sweat and close to heat exhaustion, the riders were now dismounting drenched by the rain, and approaching hypothermia.
It seemed like Nicky Hayden was the only rider to enjoy the conditions, leading all three rain-drenched free practice sessions by a comfortable margin. Valencia would be the Kentucky Kid's last race with Honda, and he clearly had his heart set on leaving with a good result as a thank you to his team. But more than this, he was determined to beat his team mate, after getting drawn into an ugly slanging match with Dani Pedrosa's manager, Alberto Puig.
Things Can Only Get Better
As qualifying started, things started looking up, for both fans and riders. On a mostly dry track, Nicky Hayden was once again quickest, until a very gentle rain returned. Hayden looked like he would end his 9-year stint with Honda with a pole position, but it was not to be. The weather gods had only been jesting when they sent a rain shower to taunt racing fans, and the track continued to dry.
As the qualifying session entered the final 15 minutes, Casey Stoner put on his usual demonstration of high-speed riding, snatching pole from Hayden with a lap the Kentuckian had no answer for. To make matters worse, Hayden's team mate Dani Pedrosa was the only rider capable of getting close, taking 2nd place on the grid by just 5/100ths of a second. Nicky Hayden would have to make do with starting 3rd.
If the weather had started to show its gentler side on Saturday afternoon, come Sunday morning it was doing its best to appear radiant. Clear skies welcomed fans and riders to the track, leaving the teams with a terrible dilemma. During the morning warm-up, 4 hours before the race was due to start, air and track temperatures were already well above anything experienced so far in practice. So instead of ironing out the last few minor issues on the bikes, the teams were left frantically scrabbling for as much data as possible, to at least take some of the guesswork out of setup for the race. But with track temperatures nearly 30 degrees Fahrenheit higher than during the morning warm-up, tire choice, and even bike setup, was going to be pretty much of a gamble.
Almost as much of a gamble as the first corner. With the three fastest starters on the front row of the grid, the run into Turn 1 was going to be close, and quite possibly either disastrous or decisive. The competition was either going to be too slow off the line to interfere, or was too far back on the grid to have an impact.
Among the latter group was Valentino Rossi. The 2008 World Champion had still not shaken off his Valencia jinx, getting caught out by the changing conditions during qualifying, and ending up 10th on the grid. Andrea Dovizioso was in the same boat, starting from 9th, while Jorge Lorenzo, like his Fiat Yamaha team mate, had a Valencia jinx of his own to contend with. The Spaniard had struggled all weekend, and was yet to find a setup that would make him competitive.
So in theory, the top 3 looked settled even before the bikes had turned a wheel in anger. But as the red lights faded on a warm Sunday afternoon, and the skies filled with the banshee wail of 230 horsepower MotoGP bikes roaring away from the line for the last time in 2008, practice turned out to be a good deal more convoluted than theory had predicted.
The front three were away quickest as expected, Dani Pedrosa getting the drop on Casey Stoner, while Nicky Hayden followed close behind. But as they lined up to tip into the fast first corner, Hayden suddenly found Colin Edwards sitting on the ideal line, the Texas Tornado having gotten a whirlwind start and flying into Turn 1 in 3rd, forcing Hayden to relinquish a place.
There were two things the field dreaded in this race. The first was that Casey Stoner would get a flying start and escape, never to be seen again. Fortunately for the rest of the field, this was not to be the case. Unfortunately for the rest of the field, what prevented this scenario was the other thing which had terrified them: Dani Pedrosa had taken a flying start, and just as at Jerez and Barcelona this year, was ahead into Turn 1 and ready to build a lead.
If this prospect had worried the field, it was one Casey Stoner was not prepared to countenance. But unlike the rest of the pack, Stoner was well placed to do something about it, and as they braked for the sharp hairpin at Turn 2, the Australian made his move. Jamming his Ducati up the inside and ahead of Pedrosa's Honda, resplendent in its beautiful Repsol 40th anniversary livery, Stoner was past and into the lead.
Behind Pedrosa, Colin Edwards was holding off Nicky Hayden, while Andrea Dovizioso pressed from behind. But Edwards wasn't the only Yamaha to have gotten a good start. Valentino Rossi had simply rocketed away from the start, gaining two places on the run into the first turn, and another along the short straight heading into Turn 2. Though still with plenty of work to do, if Rossi could dispense with a few more riders quickly enough, he might be able to catch the leaders, and finally dispel the jinx.
If Rossi had any such ambitions, he needed to get a move on. A gap had already opened up to 6th, Dovizioso starting to drop Loris Capirossi, and that gap was growing at every corner. What's more, John Hopkins was complicating matters by diving up the inside of Rossi into Turn 4, and forcing The Doctor down into 8th.
Rossi made short shrift of Hopper, sliding neatly up the inside of the American's Kawasaki as they flicked left at Turn 7, ready for the hairpin at Turn 8, and set about chasing Capirossi's Suzuki once again.
Not So Fast
Though the pack may have feared Casey Stoner leading from the start, as they screamed across the line at the end of the first lap, their fears looked to be overblown. Stoner still led from Dani Pedrosa, but it was as part of a pack of 5, rather than just 2. Colin Edwards was closing on the tail of Pedrosa, while Nicky Hayden was doing everything he could to try and find a way past from 4th, and Andrea Dovizioso sat weighing his options in 5th.
Hayden was too far behind down the front straight to try to pass Edwards into Turn 1, so instead, he carried as much speed as possible through that first left hander to line himself up for Turn 2. Pulling left, the American stuffed his Repsol Honda up the inside of his compatriot's Tech 3 Yamaha, and was through into 3rd.
The move was brave, and just a fraction too abrupt. Hayden ran wide on the exit, allowing Edwards back through the left kink of Turn 3. But the Kentucky Kid wasn't done yet. Running wide at Turn 2 had left him on the ideal line to grab 3rd back from Edwards, with another robust move up into the first right-hander of the circuit. Edwards immediately tried to come back on Hayden again, but it was too late, Hayden was through.
The squabble over the right to chase the leaders had given Casey Stoner and Dani Pedrosa a hint of breathing space. They did not need a second invitation, and by the time the pack crossed the line for the second time, Nicky Hayden was trailing 2nd place man Pedrosa by nearly a second.
Dropped from the front, the fight for 3rd had also allowed Loris Capirossi and Valentino Rossi to close up from the rear. In one lap, the leaders had gone from a group of 5+2 to a group of 2+5, the field rapidly being torn apart.
Rossi was a man on a mission. After failing to find a setup during practice, his crew had clearly found something during the warm-up as he was on a charge. Though he'd had a peek at Capirossi going into Turn 1, he was just too far back for a viable attempt at a pass. But three corners later he pounced, diving up the inside of the Suzuki into 6th place through Turn 4, in a manner all too reminiscent of Hayden's pass on Edwards a lap ago.
Capirex was not to be the Italian's last victim. As the bikes entered the braking zone at end of the front straight, Rossi's wildly dangling leg gave an indication of his intentions: the longer it is waved, the harder he is on the brakes, and going into Turn 1, it was out for an age. Dovizioso didn't stand a chance, and though he attempted to retaliate into Turn 2, was forced to relinquish 5th to The Doctor.
At the front, Casey Stoner was showing how serious he was about winning this race. By lap 3, Stoner was within a few hundredths of lap record pace, and 2 laps later was nearly 2/10ths under it. The previous holder of that record could not get near and was starting to lose touch, Stoner creeping away a tenth of a second at a time. By lap 6, Stoner's lead was up over a second, and after a mistake cost Pedrosa several tenths on the next lap, the gap was up to 1.8 seconds.
Pedrosa's mistake galvanized the Spaniard into a counterattack. Pedrosa put his head down and pushed his Repsol Honda even harder, eking back time a tenth of a second a lap. But there was only so much his tires would take, and by the halfway mark, Pedrosa's times crept up again, and Stoner started to extend his lead.
While the battle for 1st looked to be settled early, the fight for 3rd still had some life in it. Early on, Hayden seemed to have a firm grip on the position, as Colin Edwards was forced to contend with first Andrea Dovizioso and then Valentino Rossi breathing down his neck. But little by little, the Texan started to slowly reel Hayden back in.
Far too slowly for Dovizioso and Rossi. Rossi harried the Texan all through lap 4 and lap 5, even attempting a desperate dive up the inside into Turn 14, the final tight left hander leading onto the front straight. That move failed, but a kilometer later, the next one didn't. Once again waving his left leg to signal his intention to pass, Rossi was up the inside of Edwards on the brakes, and ahead into Turn 1.
Still reeling from the Rossi move, Edwards was given no time to recover. On the short run up to Turn 2, Dovizioso followed Rossi's lead, and pushed Edwards down into 6th. The Texan had lost two places in the space of just two corners.
With one hurdle taken, Rossi was immediately on to the next. The Italian was onto Hayden through the two right handers, and barging his way past into Turn 6, as they headed off down the back straight. And just as when Rossi passed Edwards, Dovizioso was following.
This time, Dovi wasn't close enough to stuff his Scot Honda up the inside of Hayden's factory bike, at Turn 8, but that didn't prevent him trying. Rebuffed at the left-hand hairpin, the Italian satellite rider tried again at the right-hand hairpin of Turn 11. Hayden seemed intent on teaching Dovizioso that no really does mean no: If his rebuff at Turn 8 was firm, at Turn 11, it was brutal, clipping across the nose of the Italian, who had only managed to get his front wheel level with Hayden's rear brake lever, not enough for a pass.
Dovizioso was only temporarily chastened. The Italian crept back on to Hayden's back wheel round the long left arc of Turn 13, before slicing inside the American into the tight Turn 14, and up into 4th.
Now that they were both past Nicky Hayden, Valentino Rossi and Andrea Dovizioso could turn their attentions to the men ahead. But the battle for 3rd had taken up too much of their time, and Stoner and Pedrosa were already over 4 seconds ahead. With a clear track ahead of him, Rossi started lapping 3/10ths quicker than before, but that was only enough to staunch his losses to the leaders.
The race was run. By one quarter distance, the order of the field had been settled, and for the rest of the race the field was slowly stretched out like well-chewed piece of gum. As the laps counted down, the crowd fell silent, while the world's fastest motorcycle racers on the world's fastest motorcycles flew past them at high speed, the gaps between them growing.
The fans had come for fireworks, but as hard as the riders worked - and they were giving it everything they had - they would see none on track. No last lap do-or-die attempt at passing, leading to a huge crash and a heroic remount, as in the 250 class. No five-man battle to the line like in the 125s, with three men into the last corner with a fair shot at winning. Just a high-speed procession of talent and engineering, fit only to fire the passions of engineers and the hardest of hardcore MotoGP fans.
As Casey Stoner crossed the line to take his 6th win of the season, the crowd finally got the fireworks they had been waiting for, but they were the paper-and-gunpowder type, rather than on-track shootouts. Finally aroused by the noise, the crowd roared its approval, appreciative of the astonishing speed with which the man who relinquished his world title could ride his Ducati, but perhaps even more appreciative of the fact that the whole charade was over, and the serious business of partying could begin.
This is, in part, Stoner's tragedy. The Australian is without doubt the fastest man in the world, and the connoisseurs of motorcycle racing are left open-mouthed in wonder at just how close to the edge Stoner manages to push his Ducati. In another near-perfect race, Casey Stoner had not so much spanked the field as bludgeoned them to death with a house brick, smashing the lap record, leading his nearest rival by nearly 5 seconds on the penultimate lap, all with a broken scaphoid that might yet finish his career. Stoner only led the world championship race once, after the very first race at Qatar, yet the Australian pushed Rossi harder than he had ever been pushed before.
Stoner's last lap celebrations allowed Dani Pedrosa to reduce the scale of his defeat by a second, but that could not disguise the fact that even at his home track, he had been comprehensively outclassed at Valencia. Once Stoner had gotten past, Pedrosa had had nothing for the Australian and had concentrated on riding fast and smooth all the way home.
But the Spaniard's 2nd place was confirmation of his status as the 3rd best rider on the grid. Pedrosa has taken an astonishing 12 podiums this year, 1 more than the man who beat him. His weakness has been his inability to win regularly, only managing 2 wins this season, despite a raft of 2nd and 3rd place finishes. More encouragingly, he has learned quickly since switching to Bridgestones, and at least some of his lack of victories could possibly be put down to his problems with Michelins, and his adaptation process to the new Japanese rubber.
The only place that Valentino Rossi has shown an inability to win is here at Valencia. A messy qualifying session and problems with his race setup meant that Rossi started the race too far back to have a realistic chance of victory, but 10th on the grid did not stop the 2008 World Champion from slashing his way forward to finish 3rd, and take his 16th podium of the year. The only time Rossi has been off the podium has at his first race on Bridgestones, and after a stupid mistake at Assen, crashing out while trying to make good too many places off the grid.
The remarkable thing is that Valencia is supposed to be a track that it's hard to pass at, as witnessed by the lack of passing elsewhere in the field. But it didn't stop Rossi getting past 7 other riders in just 5 laps. Perhaps if the grid were reversed, we'd see a lot more passing in MotoGP.
Andrea Dovizioso finished 4th at Valencia, after following Rossi's example. Like the newly-crowned World Champion, Dovi seems to be able to pass almost at will, having fought his way up from 9th on the grid. Dovizioso has proven to be a prodigious talent this year, his skills honed by being forced to race both here and in the 250s on inferior machinery. Next year, the Italian will be on the factory Repsol Honda, and any disadvantages he may have had will be wiped out. It will be fascinating to see just how well he copes.
Out Of Here
In 5th place was the man who had dominated in the wet. Nicky Hayden didn't leave Repsol Honda on the high that he might have wanted, but he certainly left with his head held high. He didn't beat his team mate, but beating someone as fast as Dani Pedrosa is a lot to ask at his home race. Hayden might miss his crew, but he won't miss his team when he walks into the Ducati garage on Monday.
Colin Edwards finished his final race of the season a respectable 6th, much where he has been for the last four races. The Tech 3 Yamaha man had hoped for much more this season, and podiums at Le Mans and Assen seemed to show that might have been possible. Edwards has complained about the Michelins for the latter half of the season, and now the series will be switching to a single tire, he must be hoping that will make him competitive.
The top 6 riders were separated by 32 seconds, Dovizioso and Hayden the closest with just a couple of ticks between them. The race had been won in the second corner, and any passing in the top 6 was done by lap 6. At the front of the field, this had not been MotoGP's finest hour, and as so often, any fun to be had was further down field.
Shinya Nakano bowed out of MotoGP, most likely bound for the Aprilia Superbike ride alongside Max Biaggi, with a decent 7th place. Since being given the factory-spec spring valve engine at Brno, Nakano's results had improved significantly, and though he never recovered the form he had in 250s or when riding the Kawasaki, he showed he could still ride.
In 8th, Jorge Lorenzo was both satisfied and disappointed. The Spanish rider, who wrapped up the Rookie Of The Year title at Valencia, had started the weekend in awful position and things had barely improved through qualifying. But after a miserable start, Lorenzo had fought his way back up the field, to at least bring home some points. This was not the ending of the season Lorenzo had been hoping for, but early on in the weekend, things had been looking a lot worse.
Loris Capirossi finished 9th, struggling after the soft front tire he had chosen started to lose grip. Both Capirossi and Suzuki had been expecting more, but tire choice and a lack of horsepower had left Capirex unable to do much better.
Alex de Angelis rounded out the top 10, a positive achievement after starting from 16th on the grid. The man from San Marino finished as the weakest of the MotoGP rookies this year, but given the class of the other two newcomers to the series acquitted himself well. De Angelis obviously has a lot of potential, but has only managed to realize it on a few occasions during the year.
The Thick Of The Action
MotoGP's problems were highlighted by the men who finished 11th to 15th. A fierce battle had raged for most of the race, providing most of the day's entertainment. But it is difficult to get as excited about a scrap for 11th - no matter how entertaining - as a battle for the lead. All season long there have been multiple rider fights over the middle order positions, many of which have been fantastic to watch. But these battles go largely untelevised and unreported, and end up consigned to the scrapheap of history, as all we remember are the processions shown at the front.
James Toseland came out on top of the multi-man scrimmage, taking 11th place in the final race of a mixed debut season. The British rookie brought some of his World Superbike ways with him when he entered MotoGP, and they weren't always particularly appreciated. Used to close-quarters combat with the likes of Troy Bayliss and Noriyuki Haga, Toseland wasn't afraid to barge in front of other riders and take their places.
Compared to the formalized combat of the MotoGP series, Toseland often appeared to be bringing a broadsword to a fencing match. Where the MotoGP riders are accustomed to scything through the field with rapier-like precision, the double World Superbike champion would bludgeon his way forward with flail and mace, equally effective, but a good deal more intimidating.
Sylvain Guintoli finished up his MotoGP career in 12th aboard the Alice Ducati. The amiable Frenchmen never really got on with the Desmosedici, and will be working his way back towards the world stage via British Superbikes. He proved at least that nice guys don't necessarily come last, but at Valencia, he was only 6 places ahead of that.
Like his Rizla Suzuki team mate, Chris Vermeulen suffered tire issues, this time from going with a hard tire rather than a soft tire. The Suzuki team gambled on tires, and like most gamblers, found that they had lost. 13th was all that Vermeulen could manage at Valencia.
The Horror, The Horror
His one consolation was that he finished ahead of his former team mate. John Hopkins must go home after every weekend, stare at his bank balance, and wonder if it was all worth it. Even without the horrific injuries he has suffered this season, crashing at Assen, and during testing at Phillip Island, 2008 has been disastrous for John Hopkins. The Kawasaki has been terrible this year, after looking promising in 2007. Hopper will be hoping that Team Green get their act together over the winter and bring a more competitive bike next year.
Randy de Puniet came home in 15th, but more importantly, finished his 5th race in a row. The LCR Honda rider almost looked like he had returned to his old ways early on in the race, when he ran on at the end of the back straight. But the Frenchman rejoined the race in last position, and fought his way up into the points.
At first glance, Marco Melandri's 16th place finish looks like just another dire result in a terrible year aboard the factory Ducati. But Melandri was actually doing pretty well, and was one of the few men capable of battling his way forward through the pack at Valencia. Only a problem with his gearbox got in the way of what would have been only his 4th top 10 finish of the season. Melandri was surely delighted to close the door to the Ducati garage behind him on Sunday night.
Ant West will be less pleased to leave Kawasaki, and his dream of MotoGP, behind. But West has had the same problems that Hopper suffered with all season, but doesn't have the American's marketability to help save his career. West will be off to World Supersport next year, and a chance to rebuild his confidence with a few wins.
Like Melandri, Toni Elias will have been delighted to shut the door of the Alice Ducati garage behind him on Sunday night. Elias has had an up-and-down year, getting on the podium twice, whilst failing spectacularly elsewhere. Valencia was clearly in the category of spectacular failures, and it was fairly obvious from Elias' lap times that by the end of the race, all the fight had gone out of the tiny Spaniard. Next year sees a return to the bosom of the Gresini Honda team, and factory equipment. Surely he will do better there.
The Party That Wasn't
The season finale at Valencia is supposed to be a huge party, a vast celebration of the spectacle that is MotoGP. But like so many parties which require meticulous planning, the devil is in the detail. The miserable weather was not conducive to celebration, but Dorna and the organizers could do little about that. But the state of exhaustion in the paddock, the result of a road trip taking in five races in six weekends spread across four continents, made it hard for riders and teams to get into the mood to party.
The most worrying aspect is of course the racing. What Dorna - and every motorcycle racing fan along with them - really want is to come to the final Grand Prix of the season and see spectacular racing. But the cocktail of the Valencia track, where passing is difficult; the 800cc MotoGP bikes, which lack torque; traction control systems, which helps correct mistakes; and last but very far from least, the astonishing levels of grip and durability offered by modern racing tires, has made for processional racing, and left MotoGP partygoers coldly sober, having already forgotten what happened.
Work started on fixing this problem on Monday, as MotoGP entered a new world of a single tire supplier, providing harder tires with less grip, meant to slow people down and close up the field. At the end of the day, the top 3 during testing was identical to the top 3 in the race the day before, and Casey Stoner had gone even faster during testing than his lap record from Sunday's race. The gaps between the fastest laps of each rider during testing followed an almost identical pattern to the gaps seen during the race on Sunday. On the - admittedly all too brief - evidence so far, the cure isn't working.