The Jerez round of MotoGP is a very Spanish affair. Though fans may flock from all over Europe to attend the opening of the MotoGP season - flyaway rounds notwithstanding, Jerez is where the season starts as far as European fans are concerned - the race retains a deeply Spanish character. At night, the fans flock together in that peculiarly Spanish way, as if averse to more than a few seconds' solitude; the weekend is filled with noise and light, and the deafening roar of Spanish fireworks, designed more around decibel production rather than visual spectacle; and around the grounds, the fans are as likely to drink wine as drink beer, a prospect which fans from more northerly climes would regard as unthinkable, entirely outside their very masculine world view.
And despite the debauchery, the occasion also manages that very Spanish trick of retaining its friendly and unthreatening atmosphere. Where elsewhere around Europe, the quantities of alcohol involved and the level of noise generated would quickly see the mood turn ugly, the crowds at Jerez somehow manage to maintain the festival atmosphere, the event always seeming like one big, long party.
As hosts of the party, it would be impolite to deny the Spanish fans a gift, and there is nothing they desire more than a win by a Spanish rider. Actually, that's incorrect, there is one thing they desire more, and that's a clean sweep of Spanish riders winning every race of the day. Fortunately for the race-mad home crowds, the host nation has both the talent and the funds to ensure that they start the day with a strong chance of one victory at the very least.
Stacking The Odds
The 2009 race weekend was no different. Over a hundred and twenty thousand fans streamed into the circuit on Sunday morning secure in the knowledge that they started the day on the right footing. Local riders sat on pole position for all three classes, and should the polesitters fail, they had a pack of compatriots beside them on the grid poised to take their place. Everything was in place for a proper Spanish fiesta.
But races came and races went, and no fatted calf did the Spanish fans see. In the first race of the day, the 125cc class, British rider Bradley Smith took victory, local boy Julian Simon crashing out while chasing Smith down. At least Smith won on the Bancaja Aspar bike, fielded by Spain's most prominent racing team, and home to many Spanish champions past, present and future.
Then in the 250cc race, darling of the fans Alvaro Bautista, another Aspar star, dived up the inside of Hiroshi Aoyama to lead into the final corner. Unfortunately, the inside line into the final Ducados corner all too often means running wide on the way out, and Bautista found the Japanese Honda man ahead of him on the exit, and crossing the line to snatch another victory from under the noses of the Spanish fans. Aoyama may be a long-time resident of Barcelona and enjoy some popularity in Spain, but once again, this was not what the fans had been hoping for.
It would all come down to the MotoGP race. If anything, the odds looked even better for the home fans in the premier class, with rising superstar Jorge Lorenzo on pole, just five hundredths of a second ahead of his compatriot and bitter rival Dani Pedrosa. More importantly, both Casey Stoner and Valentino Rossi were struggling more than usual at the Andalusian race track. Stoner had failed to find the form which had allowed him to dominate the IRTA test here in March; and Valentino Rossi seemed to have lost his way during qualifying after his display of supremacy on the first day of practice.
Bullet From A Gun
Spanish hopes rose with the revs as the red lights held the MotoGP bikes on the grid. Once unleashed by the fading lights, the howl of the bikes finally drowning out the roar of the crowd, those hopes rose further, as Dani Pedrosa got his habitual rocket start, barreling into Turn 1 in first place, ahead of the other ballistic starter Casey Stoner. The crowds saw shades of 2008, when Pedrosa entered the Expo '92 corner in exactly the position last year, going on to win by a comfortable margin.
Of course, the first corner is far too early to call a race, despite both Pedrosa and Stoner's records once given a head start off the line. Polesitter Jorge Lorenzo had tried the outside line around Stoner into Turn 1 but been forced to tuck in behind the Australian's Ducati, while Valentino Rossi nestled in behind his Fiat Yamaha team mate. Randy de Puniet had secured 5th, and behind him, Colin Edwards had sneaked past Loris Capirossi to challenge de Puniet. The outside line around the Michelin corner was too long though, and Edwards was left to contemplate his options further round the track.
The bikes hared down the hill along the back straight, and as the track started to level out, the front four steadied themselves for the tight right hander of the Dry Sack corner. Casey Stoner sat poised on Dani Pedrosa's tail, while Valentino Rossi got ready to pounce on team mate Jorge Lorenzo. Stoner and Rossi pulled out of the draft ready for a move up the inside, Rossi's right leg flailing in his customary last-gasp balance style. But for both men, it was too early and neither Stoner nor Rossi could get close enough to their respective targets to make a full-blooded attempt at a pass.
Of the two, Rossi was the closest to his prey, team mate Jorge Lorenzo. Rounding the two left handers that followed, Rossi lined Lorenzo up again and tried to pry his Fiat Yamaha ahead of Lorenzo's going into the first of the tight right handers leading through the stadium section. This time, Lorenzo closed the door on Rossi a little more firmly: In front of his home crowd, the Spaniard would not be passed through a corner named after an illustrious compatriot, Angel Nieto. Rossi would have to bide his time.
Ahead of the Fiat Yamahas, Dani Pedrosa and Casey Stoner were starting to edge away, a sliver of daylight between Stoner and Lorenzo growing to become a solid wedge. With two of Rossi's main title rivals gapping both himself and the third pretender to his throne, and Pedrosa and Stoner with previous form in runaway victories from the front, any pretensions Valentino Rossi may have had for victory required immediate action.
Peeking inside Lorenzo into Dry Sack once again on lap 2, Rossi focused on the run through the two left handers that followed. Firing fast and tight through Turn 7, Rossi carried the extra speed he had gained through Turn 8, ready to dive up the inside into Nieto once again, this time leaving Lorenzo with nowhere to go. The young Spaniard simply had no option but to yield.
Once past Lorenzo, Rossi forged on towards the Honda and the Ducati. Dani Pedrosa was now well into his stride, breaking the existing lap record on lap 2 and again on lap 4, but the fact that Pedrosa's new record stood for less than a second before Rossi took it from him was a sign that The Doctor was approaching.
Over the next couple of laps, Rossi reeled Casey Stoner in agonizingly slowly, arriving on the tail of the Ducati as the bikes braked for the Dry Sack corner, Rossi's leg waving ever more frantically. Once within reach of Stoner the Italian then laid the ground for his attack, allowing the Australian's Ducati to draw him ever closer, ready to pounce at Jerez' infamous final corner. This time it was Stoner's turn to do the leg waving, but it served only to wave the Italian through, Rossi diving up the inside of the Ducati to take over 2nd place.
But Stoner would not surrender that easily. Being passed into Ducados loses you a place but offers the chance of immediate revenge, as the wider line gives better drive out of the corner than the inside passing line. Stoner used this advantage to launch himself out of Turn 13 and across the stripe behind Rossi, pulling alongside the Fiat Yamaha then jamming on the brakes just late enough to be right in Rossi's way as the pair of them turned in for Expo '92. Stoner was back in 2nd, and Rossi's work had been for naught.
If Rossi had done something once, he clearly felt he could do it again. The Italian sat tucked on Stoner's tail again. Not close enough to pass at Dry Sack, and though he had a look up the inside at Nieto, he was keeping his powder dry for the final corner once more. This time, both men entered Turn 13 with legs flailing, but as on the last lap, it was Valentino Rossi who held the inside line and entered the turn ahead. And having learned his lesson the last time around, Rossi got just enough extra drive on the exit to hold Stoner off down the short front straight and enter the first corner ahead of the Australian, firmly in charge of 2nd place.
Follow My Leader
If the battle at the front resembled a high-speed game of chess, the fight for 5th was a much more physical affair. Randy de Puniet had taken the position from the line but had been unable to follow the sweltering pace set by the front four. With his Repsol Honda team mate disappearing at the front, Andrea Dovizioso felt that he too should be making his way forward, and after dispatching Colin Edwards on the second lap in a brave move through the Pons corner, Dovi started closing on de Puniet.
The Frenchman was not about to just roll over and let the Italian past, though. It took four laps of prodding and poking at every opportunity before Dovizioso could find a way through, and by the time he did, the Repsol Honda man was in a real hurry. He took two-tenths out of Lorenzo on the next lap, but losing out the lap after, Dovi tried pushing harder still. That turned out to be a little bit too much, the Italian running wide at the first of the two left handers that bring the bikes back to the stadium section and heading into the gravel. Dovizioso managed to keep the bike upright, but a single mistake had dropped him from 5th all the way down to 16th. He had his work cut out ahead of him.
Behind de Puniet, a race-long battle was unfolding between Loris Capirossi, Marco Melandri and Colin Edwards. After a strong early start, both Edwards and Capirossi had fallen behind the Hondas of de Puniet and Dovizioso, and had found themselves very evenly matched with Melandri. Capirossi held the early advantage, but his lead of the group was never more than a couple of bike lengths. This scrap would not be settled quickly or easily, the outcome uncertain almost to the end.
Uncertainty was growing at the front, too. With Valentino Rossi now past Casey Stoner and chasing Dani Pedrosa, the first Spanish victory of the day was starting to look less and less of a foregone conclusion. Pedrosa was still lapping fast, but The Doctor was chipping away at the Honda man's already slender lead, a tenth at a time. Pedrosa may be small in stature, but he is incredibly tough: Still riding with a knee injury and not back to full fitness, the Spaniard made catching him as hard as he possibly could, running fast, smooth and fault-free laps.
But Rossi had Pedrosa in his sights and like a terrier with a bone, just would not let him go. On lap 17, the Yamaha arrived on the tail of the Honda, and Pedrosa showed the first signs of weakness. Rossi stalked Pedrosa through the fast rights of Senna and Ferrari, hoping to dive inside the Spaniard going into the final corner, but he could not get close enough.
Next lap round, Pedrosa made the slightest mistake going into the tight Dry Sack corner at the end of the back straight, and Rossi saw his chance. He crept up onto the tailpipe of the Honda through the two left handers, to slingshot out from behind and dive up the inside into Nieto. Pedrosa hung tough, trying to hold the outside line but Rossi had the edge, and was into the series of fast right handers leading back to the finish line that he had been so strong through all race. By the time they reached the final corner, Rossi had enough of a cushion to make it through the turn and back across the line in the lead.
Pedrosa stuck with Rossi for a couple of laps, but his attempt to close the gap at the end of the back straight saw him run wide and lose half a second to the now rampant Rossi. The Italian was now free, and kept up his searing pace all the way to the line. Valentino Rossi crossed the line to take his first victory of the season, his 98th in all classes and his 72nd victory in the premier class unopposed.
It was a much needed win, and one he hadn't expected after qualifying on Saturday. The warmer conditions on Saturday had seen him lagging behind Pedrosa, Stoner and Lorenzo, but crew chief Jeremy Burgess had performed his customary Saturday night magic, finding a solution during the morning warm up, then another tweak for the race. At both Qatar and Motegi, Rossi had been frustrated at not being able to compete, and complained that having only two compounds to choose from made it more difficult and more dangerous, tempting riders to push harder than the tires would carry them. At Jerez, he had no such problems, and despite not getting the lead from the line, nothing had stood in his way.
Even the redoubtable Dani Pedrosa had not been able to hold Rossi, and the Spaniard crossed the line in 2nd only a little disappointed. Still not fully fit, and still complaining about a lack of grip from the Honda RC212V, Pedrosa put up a serious fight before relinquishing the lead. The rumors suggesting that he may be out of a job if he doesn't win the title this season and that Repsol are pushing Honda to sign Jorge Lorenzo to replace him may have helped spur Pedrosa on. But another very strong finish at least exposed the fact that any such move would be unfair and unwarranted, as well as underlining that despite starting the season injured, Dani Pedrosa's title hopes can't be written off just yet.
After being passed by Rossi, Casey Stoner's grip on 3rd place looked pretty unassailable, but as the halfway mark passed, Jorge Lorenzo starting reeling the Australian in. Over the course of 10 laps, Lorenzo cut Stoner's advantage from 3.5 seconds to under a single second, and Casey Stoner could see his first ever podium in any class at Jerez start to slip out of his reach. Then, on lap 24, within sight of a podium in his home race, Jorge Lorenzo pushed just a little bit too hard through the terrifyingly fast right handers leading down to the final corner, and lost the front, sliding down and out of the race. Lorenzo remounted, but only to limp back into the pits, furious with himself for pushing too hard to catch Stoner, and with his bike for not being as fast as it was yesterday.
Lorenzo's misfortune finally broke the back of Casey Stoner's bad luck at Jerez, the Australian getting on the podium here at last. Stoner celebrated his 3rd place finish like a victory, performing a huge celebratory wheelie, finally expunging the bad memories of last year's race here. More than that, Stoner was comforted by the knowledge that if this is what the Ducati is capable of at a track it has always been terrible at, then once they get to the tracks that Ducati goes well at - which in Casey Stoner's case, is all the rest of them - he is going to be a very hard man to beat.
Stoner wasn't the only man to benefit from Jorge Lorenzo's crash. LCR Honda's Randy de Puniet, resplendent in Playboy sponsorship, had ridden a long and lonely race in 5th until Lorenzo's disappearance bumped him up into 4th spot. De Puniet was not fast enough to be able to stay with the Fantastic Four at the front, finishing over 30 seconds down on the winner Valentino Rossi and 20 seconds behind Casey Stoner. But he was more than fast enough to keep plenty of space between himself and the riders behind. The Frenchman was rightly delighted with 4th, his best result since Sepang in 2007 and a reward for the confidence that Lucio Cecchinello has shown in him. Cecchinello has kept faith in de Puniet despite his tendency to crash, and will be hoping that the Frenchman will have a few more 4th place finishes rather than DNFs.
The battle for 5th was only really settled two laps from the end, when Marco Melandri finally managed to shake off the attentions of Loris Capirossi and Colin Edwards. The three men had tangled all race long, swapping places until Capirossi ran wide trying to pass Melandri, and allowed the Hayate to make the break. The Italian crossed the line celebrating almost as exuberantly as Stoner had, his 5th place on what had been expected to be a hopeless Hayate proving the doubters utterly wrong. The Kawasaki - for that's what the Hayate is at heart - is proving to be remarkably competitive with a revitalized Melandri on board, and the Italian publicly acknowledged his hope that Kawasaki would go back on their decision to stop development on the bike and put a bit more money into the project. Whether Kawasaki's management actually will is another matter entirely, however.
Loris Capirossi and Colin Edwards were both annoyed and disappointed to have been humiliated by the Hayate. Both men were convinced they could have done better, but Capirossi had changed a tire on the grid and had problems in the early laps, while Edwards had encountered setup problems caused by the heat of race day. The two MotoGP veterans will be hoping for redemption at Le Mans, which is one of Edwards' best tracks and a place the Suzuki always goes well.
The Comeback Kid
In a remarkable 8th place came Andrea Dovizioso. Making amends for his silly mistake, the Italian had fought his way up through the field from 16th, after running off the track while in 5th position. Dovizioso's result is a testament both to his youthful exuberance getting drawn into making a mistake, and his gritty maturity, forcing his way forward again and scoring valuable points for the team. On a factory bike for the first time, Dovi is proving that Repsol Honda did the right thing in signing the Italian.
On his way forward, Dovizioso had passed the other factory-spec Honda of Toni Elias. Elias continues to disappoint on the Gresini Honda, but that is more down to the tires than to the bike. The flyweight Elias has had problems getting heat into the stiffer spec tires, the softer specials he used to get from Bridgestone now just history. The team has experimented with ballast to solve the problem, but so far to no avail. Fausto Gresini was reportedly speechless with fury at the end of the race, both Elias and de Angelis having failed to perform in the eyes of the team manager.
Chris Vermeulen came home in 10th place, a disappointing result for the Rizla Suzuki rider. Vermeulen has failed to carry his preseason testing form into the races, and will be looking for more at Le Mans, a circuit which should suit the bike much better.
Sete Gibernau was the second Ducati home, the bike now thankfully shorn of its Equatorial Guinea paint scheme and logos, bearing instead the tasteful white, black and gold scheme of the construction company that is financing Gibernau's return. As a previous winner here, 11th place is not what he must have been expecting, but a lack of fitness from the weak shoulder he has is adding to the difficulties presented by riding the Ducati and preventing better results. Whether Gibernau is capable of more remains to be seen, but it's clear a two-year absence from the sport is a serious handicap.
Behind Gibernau, Yuki Takahashi had his best result of the season with a 12th place finish. So far, Takahashi has been the man who can do no better than finish ahead of the Pramac Ducatis, but the Scot Honda rider was up as high as 10th at one point, battling Toni Elias and Chris Vermeulen in the first part of the race, before the Spaniard and the Australian got past. Takahashi still has a long way to go, but his race at Jerez at least showed some promise.
Slough Of Despond
After a promising top 10 finish at Motegi, James Toseland struggled again at Jerez, coming home in 13th. At least he finished a place higher than he qualified, but so far, the Briton has failed to show the brilliant form from the beginning of last season. Much of that can be put down to getting used to the new Bridgestone tires and trying to find a setting that works for the Tech 3 Yamaha rider, but Toseland is running out of time in which to look. With Le Mans the site of the next Grand Prix, an event the Monster Tech 3 Yamaha team regards as its home race, Toseland will have to step up a gear sooner rather than later.
Alex de Angelis had an entirely anonymous race at Jerez to finish 14th, the Gresini Honda man suffering with the flu, and incapable of making a mark all weekend. With a 6th, a 13th and a 14th place finish, de Angelis is turning into what Marco Melandri used to be, the man with the random finishes. Like de Puniet, at least the man from San Marino is finishing, rather than throwing it into the gravel as he did all too often last year.
Taking the final point was the long-suffering Nicky Hayden. Hayden, Canepa and Kallio all took the softer of the two compounds on offer, indicative of the problems that the Ducati is having finding grip, and a sign that Jerez remains a bogey track for Ducati, despite Stoner's outstanding podium. Take Casey Stoner out of the equation and Ducati's results would be downright disastrous.
Tragically, Nicky Hayden's season seems to be heading in the direction that Marco Melandri's did last year. The fickle nature of the Ducati - incredibly difficult to set up, extremely sensitive to changes one week, completely inert to them the next - is sapping Hayden's confidence, and an injury and a lack of track time are preventing him from recovering it. Hayden has been hit hardest by the reduction in practice, as his method of working has always been to run as many laps as possible to try to understand the bike. Hayden will be glad that the Grand Prix Commission decided to extend the sessions back to one hour, as after the washed out qualifying session at Motegi and then being taken out by Takahashi during the race, he has a lot to catch up on.
In 16th place came the perennial backmarker, Niccolo Canepa. Still overawed by the step from tester to MotoGP star, and having to deal with the problem of riding an 800cc MotoGP bike designed for a typical jockey-sized rider, rather than someone like Canepa, who is much closer to the size of an actual human, Canepa continues to flounder. The Italian rookie is rumored to be incredibly fast at Mugello, so we shall have to wait another couple of races before we see his true potential.
At least Canepa beat his team mate this time, though only because Mika Kallio was forced to withdraw with with a rear brake problem. But even during practice, Kallio had not been able to repeat the kind of performance that had impressed fans and paddock at Motegi and Qatar. Le Mans will provide a better idea of just where Kallio stands.
It's My Party
As the crowds emptied from around Jerez' epic track, they went home only partially disappointed. They came in the hope of a Spanish clean sweep, but sadly for the local fans, that was not to be this weekend. What they did see was a Spanish team win in the 125 race, and some close racing for the podium, an epic battle in the 250 race, with a local boy just coming up short, and a stunning ride by hometown hero Dani Pedrosa to take second behind Valentino Rossi.
The crowds celebrated just the same. If the Spanish Grand Prix weekend is anything, it is a celebration of racing, a true motorcycle fiesta. And with so many fans in every country around the world, whatever track Valentino Rossi wins at, it counts as a home victory. That was reason enough for a party at Jerez.