Photo copyright Andrew Wheeler
The question of what happens when law breaks down and humanity surrenders to its wildest and basest instincts has occupied the minds of the great, the good and the plain wacky throughout all of human history. Indeed, so pervasive is this idea that it even has a term to cover it: Millenarianism. Religious cults have been founded on the belief that this is about to happen, great works of art have been painted, and thousands of books and hundreds of movies have been produced on the subject, from Bruegel the Elder's Triumph of Death, to William Golding's Lord Of The Flies, to the Mad Max trilogy of apocalyptic landscapes.
For those with neither the patience nor the penchant to explore the many works on the subject, the good news is that they can save themselves the effort. All they need to do is attend the annual Jerez round of MotoGP, and there they will see what the human spirit is capable once unleashed, unfettered by either fear of physical harm or self-conscious self-restraint.
The Jerez MotoGP round marks the return of the series to European soil, and what many - especially Spanish - fans feel is its spiritual home. The Spanish are passionate about motorcycle racing, and at Jerez, they get to give full flow to that emotion. The inflammable Iberians are not the type of people to pass up the opportunity to celebrate the start of a long summer of MotoGP, and they do so in style.
The fans transform the streets of the charming old town of Jerez into something resembling a cross between Biker Boyz, Blade Runner and Apocalypse Now. The night air is filled with a heady mix of acrid rubber smoke and the howl of sports bike engines being bounced off rev limiters. Headlights pierce the smoke pointing at the wildest of angles as helmetless race fans wheelie through Jerez with varying success and safety. And the streets flow with the rather good wine the region produces, some of which goes to make the Sherry the city is famous for.
In other countries, the police would simply not stand for such public displays of wanton lawbreaking, but in Spain, the police know when to accept defeat, and do so with a good deal of grace. The Spanish police - not known for either their tolerance nor their restraint - can regularly be seen awarding marks for style at the many burnout and wheelie sessions which take place throughout the city. Only the most egregious lawbreakers are firmly escorted away to ponder their sins in a local police cell, and despite the mayhem, injuries and quantity of alcohol consumed, the atmosphere remains almost entirely festive.
For the locals, there can be no better way to cap the weekend than with a victory in the race. Preferably, three victories, one in each class. And with Julian Simon and Alvaro Bautista tearing up the 125 and 250 classes at the IRTA test here back in March, the chances of victory in the lower categories are good. Now all they need is a winner in the MotoGP class, and they will have had a perfect weekend.
All Grown Up
And it has to be said that the chances are very good indeed. Going by the results of the races held last week and last year, both Jorge Lorenzo and Dani Pedrosa have to be odds on to win here. Lorenzo rode a brilliant race at Motegi to take a thoroughly convincing win, banishing any doubts that the Fiat Yamaha man was still in the process of learning the Bridgestones. Lorenzo has made another jump in maturity and speed over the off-season, and after taking a while to get used to the spec rubber, at the IRTA test here, Lorenzo showed he had no problems at all, leading the first day, and being second fastest in the early session on the second day. On a high from his victory at Motegi, Lorenzo is going to be a hard man to stop.
Without a bunch of stitches holding the big hole in his knee together, you'd have to say that Dani Pedrosa would be one of the riders capable of doing just that. Pedrosa won here last year, getting a clean break at the start and leaving the chasing Yamahas no chance of catching him, but the injury he sustained during testing at Qatar would normally rule him out of contention this weekend. His finish at the race in Qatar was respectable, and where you might expect it given that he cannot put much weight on his knee. But a podium at Motegi, including a tough battle with Valentino Rossi for second, one he eventually lost, proved that Pedrosa is both tough as nails, despite his small size, as well as supremely talented. If the Repsol Honda man can get on or near the front row at Jerez, he is in with a chance of victory.
The Unstoppable Force
But both Lorenzo and Pedrosa have a formidable obstacle to overcome. Casey Stoner reigned supreme in Qatar, then finished very strongly at Motegi to take fourth, after struggling with a brake problem. In years past, Jerez has been a bogey track for Ducati, as witnessed by Stoner's miserable race here in 2008. But at the IRTA Test in March, Stoner came, saw, and drove away the BMW which was on offer during the special M Award qualifying hour.
What was most worrying though was not that Stoner was fastest - he often is during qualifying sessions - but the manner of his domination. Stoner took the BMW by nearly three quarters of a second, and since then, the Australian says that Ducati have ironed out more of the bugs from the new carbon fiber swingarm which has cured the rear wheel pump that made the GP9 such a terrifying prospect to both watch and ride. With the weather promising to be sunny and dry all weekend, Stoner shouldn't run into the kind of glitches that handicapped him at Motegi. In his current form, that would make him all but unstoppable.
And stopping Stoner is exactly what Valentino Rossi has to do at Jerez. The Doctor has finished second in both races held so far, a state of affairs he does not consider acceptable. Rossi is most worried by the margin of defeat he suffered at Qatar, where there was absolutely nothing he could do to close Stoner down. At Jerez, Rossi will have to make sure that he gets the kind of start that he got at Motegi, to prevent both Casey Stoner and Dani Pedrosa from escaping. If he can be either on their tails or even ahead of the two former 250 rivals, then Rossi is in with a chance. Jerez has been the scene of some memorable battles here for The Doctor, and the many thousands of Rossi fans lining the track will be hoping for a repeat.
Fear And Loathing
If the Fiat Yamaha team travels to Jerez with high hopes, the emotions in the Monster Tech 3 Yamaha satellite team are a good deal more mixed. Colin Edwards has shown great form all preseason, and after finishing fourth in Qatar and then training well in Motegi, had hoped to show a good result in Japan as well. In the end, an electronics snafu saw the Texan forced to race with the engine management system set up for a wet race. Rage helped Edwards push the bike much further forward than it deserved, but on a bike "with less power than a Supersport 600," as Edwards said afterwards, a twelfth place finish was more than he could ever expect. Edwards is in form and angry, a combination that will serve him well at Jerez.
James Toseland, on the other hand, will be returning to Jerez with some trepidation. The Englishman left here in an ambulance at the IRTA test, after touching a white line and highsiding off the bike and into the gravel. Toseland could even count himself lucky, as it happened at Turn 3, the same corner that finally ended Mick Doohan's career. Toseland scored a top 10 finish at Motegi, after a poor start at Qatar and a dismal preseason, his confidence completely knocked out of him by another big crash at Sepang. Gradually, the Yorkshireman is getting his confidence back, and with it should come results. With the other Yamahas regularly scoring top 5 finishes, he won't have the bike to blame.
In previous years, the Suzuki riders have also had that excuse. The Suzuki was always underpowered and underperforming, only strong at a few tracks. But the British-based team has made a huge step forward over the winter, and for the first time since 2007 is starting to look very competitive. Both Loris Capirossi and Chris Vermeulen have set strong times in testing and practice, though race results have left a little to be desired, but Jerez is one track where they could make a breakthrough. Both Vermeulen and Capirossi were quick at the IRTA test a month ago, Capirex ending up 3rd in the timed session behind Casey Stoner and Valentino Rossi. With the Italian having won here in 2006, he knows his way around the track, and though the competition might be a little bit intense for Capirossi to take the win, a podium should be well within his reach.
In years past, it would be hard to imagine anyone complaining about a factory Honda, but everyone who rides the 2008 version of the RC212V certainly has been. So far, Andrea Dovizioso has been the most consistent of the riders aboard the factory Honda, despite his own complaints about the machine. A pair of fifth places is respectable for the newly hired Repsol Honda rider, but Dovi is hungry for more. It's a little early at Jerez, but the Italian is due a podium, and due one sometime soon.
Out Of Nowhere
The surprise package of the season so far has been Marco Melandri and the Kawasaki. Written off prior to the season, after the reconstituted Hayate team was left with the dismal Kawasaki, the worst bike of the 2008 season by a significant margin. But since then, Melandri and the team have staged a stunning comeback, the test at Qatar in March fixing the rear grip problems with the Kawasaki, and Melandri regaining his confidence to show the form that he made him a title candidate in 2005 and 2006. The Hayate is probably not good enough to take a win anywhere, but Melandri should be able to challenge for a top 5, and a bit of luck may even see the Italian get a sniff of the podium. Heaven knows they deserve it.
The reason for the return of Melandri's confidence is that he no longer has to try and tame the Bologna Beast, a task he struggled with desperately last year. Instead, that charge falls to Nicky Hayden, and like Melandri, Hayden is struggling under the burden of riding the Ducati GP9. So far, Hayden has managed better than the Italian did, but bad luck and injury have dogged the Kentucky Kid. A huge highside at Qatar left him with stitches in his chest and a badly banged-up back, and then at Motegi, the Kentuckian was speared off the track by an over-excited Yuki Takahashi. What Hayden needs most of all is a quiet, incident-free weekend. With the weather looking good, at least the conditions should be on his side.
If Hayden is struggling to tame the Ducati, Pramac Ducati's Mika Kallio seems to be managing extraordinarily well. The Finn has booked solid results, with an 8th place at both races so far, and seems to be comfortable aboard the Desmosedici GP8. Kallio first surprised the field at the IRTA test here in March, going sixth quickest in the timed session, and at home on both the bike and the track, Kallio should put in another good result at the track he was handed victory at last year in the 250 race.
While Kallio is showing promise on the Pramac Ducati, his team mate Niccolo Canepa continues to struggle. Though in Canepa's case, it's more with the class than with the machine. Canepa was fast as a test rider but since making the transition from part-time student to full-time MotoGP racer, he has completely failed to make an impression. Just getting through a weekend and not finishing last would be a good result for Canepa.
The last of the Ducati riders comes to Jerez with powerful memories of the track, linked strongly to Valentino Rossi. Sete Gibernau has been on the podium here a number of times, winning in 2004, then taking second in the infamous final corner incident in 2005. In 2009, however, the Spanish veteran is unlikely to get anywhere near the podium, as after two years away from racing and numerous injuries, his fitness and his race experience are still short of what it takes to compete at the highest level. All Sete Gibernau will be doing this weekend is promoting the interests of a ruthless African dictator.
The last of the Spaniards, Toni Elias, will be hoping for a decent result here, but the chances of it are slim. The cheery Spaniard is struggling with both the stiff front Bridgestone tire and the lack of rear grip from the factory Honda RC212V chassis. Until Honda improves the bike, and the flyweight Elias finds a way to get some heat into his front tire, the Spaniard is likely to be firmly mid-pack at best.
Much the same is true for the other Honda riders as well. Scot Honda's Yuki Takahashi will be hoping to make amends for his mistake at Motegi, taking out Nicky Hayden in a mindless first-lap lunge, but even then, his record so far shows he is capable of beating Niccolo Canepa and no one else. Alex de Angelis will once again be trying to finish, but nearer to the fantastic sixth place he took at Qatar, rather than the thirteenth spot he occupied in Motegi. And Randy de Puniet will be hoping to hold on to his consistency at Jerez, while improving on the tenth and eleventh places he has scored so far.
Your Host For This Evening
At least Randy de Puniet's LCR Honda will be in keeping with the atmosphere at Jerez. The team is once again sporting Playboy sponsorship in Spain, to help promote the relaunch of the Italian edition. The Playboy bunnies which have been promised as umbrella girls should fit in perfectly at Jerez. After all, if the race at Jerez seems like the party at the end of the world, who better to host it than Hugh Hefner?