Motorcycle racing fans are deeply divided on the question of racing in the rain. One faction believes that rain makes motorcycle racing more exciting, because the smallest error is punished so mercilessly; Their opponents counter that this is exactly the problem: because the rain makes the track so difficult, riders making a mistake crash straight out of the race, with no chance to recover from their mistakes. Both sides agree on one thing, though: the rain turns racing into a lottery, and chance plays a much greater role than in the dry.
That point was illustrated most forcefully in the two races that preceded the MotoGP race at Le Mans on Sunday. In the 250cc race, only 14 of the 24 riders who started made it to the finish, and some surprising names were in the points: Toby Markham, who usually struggles just to qualify, came away with 2 precious points, while Russian rookie Vladimir Leonov scored his first top 10 finish. The 125cc race had been even more of a blood bath: of the 33 riders who sat on the starting grid, just15 had made it to the line, the last of whom was Randy Krummenacher of the De Graaf team 2 laps behind the winner.
As if to demonstrate that there are worse things than racing in the rain, the skies cleared as the 250cc race ended, and the MotoGP riders headed to the grid on wet tires in the knowledge that the track would be drying as the race progressed. If rain races are a lottery, flag-to-flag races - run in changeable conditions where riders are allowed to enter the pits and swap bikes - are more like Russian Roulette, the charge into the pits to leap onto a bike with different tires a lot like spinning the barrel, pulling the trigger and hoping for the best.
With the sun already out as the bikes got ready to head out of the pits, some teams even considered taking the ultimate gamble and going out on slicks. But the sighting lap dismissed any such notions; the track was still soaking and far too dangerous for tires without water-dispersal grooves. There was no other option than to start the race on wet tires, and wait until the track was dry enough to come in for slicks.
Sitting on the starting line waiting for the lights to extinguish is a nerve-wracking enough experience at the best of times, but lining up in damp and changeable conditions knowing you will have to choose the right moment to come in to swap bikes makes the tension almost unbearable. Jorge Lorenzo was the first to show the ill effects of nerves on the line, as the Spaniard threaded his way through the bikes on the grid, only to line up in the wrong position, taking the 2nd spot used by the four-in-a-row 250 and 125 bikes, rather than the three abreast MotoGP machines. The grid official, seeing Lorenzo in the wrong place, soon put the Spaniard right, and the rest of the field was forced to wait a few more agonizing seconds as Lorenzo tiptoed his bike round onto the right starting position.
At last the lights lit up, then dimmed, releasing the riders and their nervousness into the Zen state that is racing, no thoughts or concentration for anything other than the now, any time not spent on the bike, the track and the riders ahead merely a distraction which could cost places at best, a crash at worst. Dani Pedrosa was the best away as ever, his fellow rocket starter Casey Stoner catching him as they heeled over through the fast Dunlop Curve, and lined up for the Chicane, the first major obstacle.
Jorge Lorenzo had gotten off the line a little slowly, briefly fazed by lining up in the wrong place, but only gave up one place to Stoner, slotting in ahead of his Fiat Yamaha team mate Valentino Rossi. Lorenzo soon made up for his slowness off the line. The Spaniard had to allow the smallest of gaps through the Dunlop Chicane, but by the time the leading pair turned in to La Chappelle, Lorenzo was upon them.
Casey Stoner's attention was entirely consumed by Dani Pedrosa, the Australian trying to find a gap to wedge his Ducati GP9 past the Spaniard's Honda, but as they rolled right into the double apex at Garage Vert, Stoner got a surprise. Jorge Lorenzo had decided against hanging around, and was demonstrating his trademark move by going round the outside of Stoner, a move which had earned him the nickname of "Porfuera" in the lower classes. Stoner held his nerve and held his line, drifting outside on the exit and leaving Lorenzo with nowhere to go but to slot in behind him.
Stoner's rebuttal actually worked in Lorenzo's favor, leaving him perfectly placed to fire fast out of Garage Vert and get the run on Stoner down the back straight. As they braked for the Chemin aux Boeufs esses, the Spaniard jammed his Fiat Yamaha ahead of the Australian's Ducati, and into 2nd. Lorenzo wasn't done yet, though. Out of Chemin aux Boeufs, Lorenzo next lined up Pedrosa, diving up the inside of the Repsol Honda to take over the lead at Garage Bleu.
Once past, Lorenzo was gone, pulling a gap of half a second over Pedrosa by the time they crossed the line. Pedrosa was also facing attack from behind. As they fired across the line for the first time and lined up for the fast Dunlop Curve right-hander, Stoner lunged up the inside of Pedrosa for the second time in succession, this time making it stick. Stoner's pass held Pedrosa up just enough for Valentino Rossi to close on the Repsol Honda and try a desperate dive into the chicane, but he was not quite close enough.
Though Stoner had passed Pedrosa and was free to chase Lorenzo, there was no catching the Fiat Yamaha man. The Spaniard was flying, and in his haste to catch him, Casey Stoner flew into Garage Vert a little too hot, running wide and letting Dani Pedrosa back underneath him, and allowing Valentino Rossi to pass too. Stoner used the power of his Ducati to blast ahead of the Fiat Yamaha on the short back straight, but Rossi was having none of it. The Italian dived easily underneath the Australian into Chemin aux Boeufs, Stoner dropping from 2nd to 4th in just two corners.
This was the start of a vertiginous drop for Stoner, the Australian going backwards through the field. Stoner could only wait for the track to dry out, and hope that gambling on the right moment to come into the pits would pay off.
Stoner wasn't the only rider going backwards. With Stoner out of the way, Valentino Rossi had arrived on the tail of Dani Pedrosa, and was pushing the Spaniard hard. Next time the bikes fired through the fast left on the approach to the Chicane, Rossi was closer, and able to execute a perfect block pass on Pedrosa to take over 2nd place.
Behind Pedrosa, his Repsol Honda team mate Andrea Dovizioso had put exactly the same move on Casey Stoner to take 4th and challenge Pedrosa as well. Dovi closed on his team mate, then on the run into Musee, the Italian stuffed his RC212V in front of his team mate's, forcing Pedrosa off line and taking 3rd spot from the Spaniard. A lap later, Marco Melandri, who had worked his way past Stoner on the back straight, was past Pedrosa in exactly the same spot, the Spaniard running wide once again while the Hayate slipped underneath and up into 4th.
By lap 5, a dry line was starting to form. The state of the track seemed to have no effect on Jorge Lorenzo, as he streaked away by over a second a lap, but behind him, thoughts were turning to tactics. Valentino Rossi, loath to be so comprehensively outclassed by his team mate, unable to get the bike to turn as he wanted and coming under intense pressure from Andrea Dovizioso, was the first to spin the chamber and pull the trigger.
Dani Pedrosa and Loris Capirossi followed Rossi into the pits. The three men leapt off their bikes and onto their second, slick-shod machines, gritting their teeth for the agonizingly slow 60 km/h pit lane speed restriction before crossing the line marking pit exit and getting back hard on the gas. The combination of slick tires and a still very damp track is a treacherous one and the riders have to perform a most delicate balancing act, pushing hard to get heat into the tires without going over the edge and crashing. This, then, is what turns the lottery of a rain race into Russian Roulette, where the smallest mistake can be fatal.
Dead Man's Hand
On his first lap out, after just a couple of corners, Valentino Rossi's chamber turned out to not to be empty. As Rossi tipped the bike into Musee, the bike tipped over, the front sliding out after the Italian hit a puddle. Worse still, the bike flipped as it hit the gravel, damaging both sides of the bike and sheering off the left-hand foot peg. Rossi would have no choice but to return to the pits and change bikes again. To add to Rossi's woes, this left his team with just a couple of minutes to prepare the bike he had just come in on to go back out on the track.
By the time Rossi exited the pits for the second time of the race, he was already a lap down and in last place. And inevitably, in the rush to get Rossi's first bike ready to go back out again, the team forgot to engage the pit lane speed limiter. Rossi rushed out onto pit lane, breaking the speed limit and earning himself a ride through penalty. It was not going to be Rossi's day.
Pit lane was now a hive of activity, though not as busy as we have seen at previous races. Teams, but mostly riders, were playing with strategy, some staying out as long as they dared, others pitting early and hoping the track would dry out quickly. At the front of the race, Jorge Lorenzo saw no need to come in, the fastest man on the track by well over a second and his lead extending with every lap. But behind Lorenzo, chaos reigned. It would take until lap 13 before everyone had pitted to swap bikes, and some semblance of order would return. Until then, the actual running order was down to guesswork.
Andrea Dovizioso hung on to Lorenzo until lap 11, giving up over a second a lap. Meanwhile, Marco Melandri, who had pitted on lap 7, was the first rider to get up to speed on slick tires, grabbing places as others entered the pits ahead of him. There was another advantage to entering the pits later rather than earlier. The later you pitted, the quicker you were in and out, as the drying track meant that entering and exiting pit lane was a much faster process later in the race.
Down To The River
By lap 12, Melandri was really starting to fly. The Hayate rider's lap times were 4 seconds quicker than Lorenzo's, and just 45 seconds behind the Spaniard, Melandri was really starting to close. It was time, and Lorenzo peeled off and into the pits. The penultimate rider to enter the pits to swap bikes, Lorenzo was also the fastest, pitting 11 seconds quicker than Melandri. Those 11 seconds would prove crucial: The Fiat Yamaha man exited the pits still ahead, up on 2nd place man Melandri by over 7 seconds.
It took two more laps for Lorenzo to get back up to speed on slick tires, but in that time, Lorenzo only gave up 3 more seconds to Melandri. From that point on, Jorge Lorenzo picked up the pace, and put the hammer down. Lorenzo was going to be a very hard man to catch.
The pit stops had shaken up the field, but after Jorge Lorenzo and Toni Elias, the last riders to enter the pits, had emerged back onto the track, the field started to settle down, and the race resumed anew. Once the smoke had cleared, it looked like the late pitters had taken an advantage. Lorenzo, late pitter, led, from Marco Melandri who had hit the pits on lap 7. Behind Melandri, Andrea Dovizioso, Casey Stoner and Chris Vermeulen, all pitting on lap 11, had exited still ahead of Dani Pedrosa, who had gone in together with Valentino Rossi at the end of lap 5.
The gaps between Lorenzo, Melandri and Dovizioso all looked unassailable, but there was nothing to choose for 4th place. And though Stoner and Vermeulen had exited ahead of Pedrosa, the Spaniard was flying on tires which by now were nicely up to temperature. Pedrosa quickly passed Vermeulen, flying past the Suzuki rider through the fast Turn 1, Dunlop Curve, before closing on Stoner, then diving inside in the final corner, Raccordement. As Pedrosa passed him, Stoner demonstrated just how hard it is to get rain races right, by pulling to one side to adjust his steering damper, and get back some control over the wayward front end of his Ducati. He had to use his throttle hand to do this, and immediately lost the place to Vermeulen as well.
The Ace Of Spades
As the laps ticked off, Lorenzo's lead continued to grow. By the time the riders behind him started matching his pace, they were over 25 seconds behind, and the Spaniard could afford to give up half a second a lap for the last five laps. Jorge Lorenzo came across the line to take a well-earned and deeply impressive victory. Lorenzo had led from the first lap, and ridden a race where only his start was less than perfect, an error he rectified before the lap was over.
Afterwards, old endurance racing hands pointed out that Lorenzo had employed the perfect endurance strategy for a drying track: stay out for as long as possible, and only come in when the riders on slicks start going faster than you. That decision gave Lorenzo a crucial 11 second advantage over the man in 2nd place at the time, Marco Melandri. If Lorenzo had come in earlier, he would have got caught up in the mid-pack melee, and risk being forced onto the wet part of the track and falling, or being knocked off by someone else and robbed of victory.
At Le Mans, Lorenzo showed that he has added maturity and good judgment to his obvious talent. By staying calm and minimizing his risks, he had come away not just with a win, but with the lead in the championship - albeit by a single, solitary point. At the IRTA Test at Jerez, before the season started, Lorenzo dismissed all talk of the title, saying that his only task was to learn and to have fun. When asked who he tipped for the championship, he named Rossi, Stoner, and Pedrosa, adding pointedly "They must win, I do not have to." He may not have to win, but that doesn't stop him from doing it.
Lorenzo may have been completely out of reach for Marco Melandri, but the Italian celebrated 2nd place like a victory. Afterwards, Melandri told reporters that if anyone had predicted he would be on the podium before the season began, he would have laughed at them and walked away. But Melandri showed just what he is capable of when he is on a bike that he is comfortable on and feels he can trust. Though the Hayate team may not (yet) be getting any more development from Kawasaki, Melandri's results must surely be making the Akashi factory reconsider the choice they made.
It is hard to fault Melandri's performance, he rode a steady and smart race to take 2nd. Only the pettiest of commentators might point out that Melandri got lucky with his pit strategy, emerging to an empty track ahead and behind. Free to ride his own race at his own pace, Melandri had no need to make a mistake either trying to pass a rider ahead or holding off attacks from behind. But lucky pit strategy or no, Melandri still had the pace to get on the podium and equal Kawasaki's best result of the four-stroke era.
Splitting A Pair
Behind Melandri, Andrea Dovizioso looked like cruising to his first podium finish of the season, the Italian having pitted late and staying smooth and fast. But Dovi had reckoned without his Repsol Honda team mate. Dani Pedrosa was one of the first men to change bikes and had paid the penalty, struggling in the early laps out of the pits, unsure of where the track was wet and where it was dry. As the track dried, Pedrosa could pick up the pace and get more heat into his tires, and after passing Stoner and Vermeulen, the Spaniard got faster and faster every lap, gradually starting to reel in Dovizioso ahead of him.
As the race entered the final laps, Pedrosa put on a final burst of pace. From getting back a couple of tenths a lap, Pedrosa went to taking back a second at a time, until on the penultimate lap, he reached Dovizioso's back wheel. The Spaniard then set about hunting the Italian with a hunger he hasn't often displayed before, almost physically harassing Dovizioso through the Chicane, running in too hot to La Chappelle in his eagerness to pass, then doing the same at Garage Vert, nearly taking out Dovi's tailpipe in his haste to get past. Pedrosa finally jammed his RC212V brutally up the inside of his team mate's into the esses of Chemin aux Boeufs.
Even though he only had a couple of corners to go, Dani Pedrosa did not let up, only finally easing off the gas when he was already well into Turn 1, and 3rd place secured hundreds of meters previously. The one complaint that has constantly been made about Pedrosa is that though he was fast, he didn't seem to have any fight in him, giving up places too easily and not attacking hard enough when an opportunity presents itself. Those final couple of laps at Le Mans scuppered any such accusations comprehensively, Pedrosa riding more like a street corner thug than the tight, refined fencer he has looked before.
Perhaps it is the talk of Pedrosa being on notice that he has to win the championship this year, perhaps it is just Pedrosa's anger at the talk itself, but whatever it is, it's definitely working. Pedrosa has taken three podiums on the bounce, and that while still a long way from being fully fit and on a bike he continues to complain bitterly about not being good enough. As Valentino Rossi pointed out after the Spaniard had taken pole on Saturday, if this is how fast Pedrosa is while still injured and on a bad bike, once he's fit again and Honda have fixed the RC212V, the rest of the field is in real trouble.
Pedrosa's charge demoted Andrea Dovizioso down to 4th, and robbed him of his first podium of the year. Like Melandri, Dovi had done everything right, stayed calm and been fast, and changed bikes just at the right time. The Italian had fought his way forward early on, then held his pace to the end of the race. If it hadn't been for an unleashed Pedrosa, Dovi would have been on the box. Despite only finishing 4th, the Italian has shown that he is starting to realize his potential, and is capable of running with the fast front four. He may have missed out on the podium on Sunday, but it only brought his first trip to the podium that much closer.
Cutting The Losses
Casey Stoner crossed the line bitterly disappointed in 5th place, yet actually he had ridden a great race. Stoner had suffered problems with his wet set up, lacking grip and dropping through the field, but once again, he showed he is capable of riding around problems and still going fast. Once on his dry bike he fixed a problem with a steering damper, losing a place as a result, then took it back in short order. In the process he became the second fastest man on track, only beaten by Dani Pedrosa.
Casey Stoner leaves the track where Ducati have struggled in the past just 1 point behind the leader, Jorge Lorenzo. The MotoGP circus now heads to the tracks where Stoner clawed back a huge pile of points on last year's leader Valentino Rossi, putting himself back into contention for the title. If last year is anything to go by, Casey Stoner is perfectly poised to enter the summer very much in charge of the championship.
Behind Stoner, Chris Vermeulen came home 6th, the best result of the year for the Rizla Suzuki rider. Vermeulen always thrives in the wet, but the weekend had not been wet enough for the teams to find a decent setup, and the race was not wet enough for Vermeulen to truly shine. If the race had been run a couple of hours earlier, the result might have been very different, but a 6th place finish is a creditable result for the Australian.
In 7th place came another bundle of disappointment. Colin Edwards has often said that if there's one track where he is going to bag his first win in MotoGP, it's Le Mans. But there always seems to be something or other that gets in Edwards' way, and this weekend was no different. The Texan got a terrible start, struggling with bike setup, and only improved after swapping bikes. But once he had his tires up to temperature there was nothing to hold him, and he charged through the field from 13th to finish 7th. On his way forward, he put a particularly harsh pass on his team mate James Toseland through the frighteningly fast Dunlop Curve at Turn 1, a pass he clearly relished. When the heavens align, Colin Edwards is capable of fantastic results. Sadly, Edwards' lucky stars seem to be a very rare and infrequent conjunction indeed.
Edwards was the filling in a Rizla Suzuki sandwich, Loris Capirossi coming home in 8th after a difficult and indifferent race. The Italian had come in early for tires, and had run off the track a couple of times in the wet. This was not the kind of preparation Capirossi will have wanted for his home race at Mugello, but it was all he was capable of on the day.
James Toseland finished 9th, and was pleased to make a return to the top 10. Toseland has had a nightmare year so far, with crashes denting his confidence and struggling to find a setup he is confident with now that he is on the Bridgestone spec tire. The Briton earned the first positive words from his team manager at Le Mans, Herve Poncharal praising both Toseland's result and his attitude. A 9th place finish may not set the world alight, but this was a first and important step on the road back to being competitive.
The Gresini Honda team mates finished just a few tenths apart, after battling for 10th place for the second half of the race. Toni Elias came out on top, a positive result after having recent surgery for arm pump. The Spaniard had ridden in pain and with little strength in his arm, and a top 10 finish was about as much as he could hope for under the circumstances. Team mate Alex de Angelis continues to be mostly mediocre, his only flash of brilliance his 6th place finish at Qatar so far.
Nicky Hayden's 12th place finish may not look like much, but it belies a distinct improvement. Hayden was battling for 8th when Mika Kallio crashed out while trying to pass him and forcing the American off the track, leaving him to fight with the Gresinis with a slightly damaged bike. More importantly, though, Hayden got used to working with his new crew chief, Juan Martinez, and came away with the feeling that things are going to improve. On the Ducati Desmosedici, a bike which has been labeled a career killer for everyone except Casey Stoner, optimism is an important part of the equation.
Hayden held off Yuki Takahashi, leaving the Team Scot Honda rider down in 13th. Takahashi continues to make up the numbers, Honda's counterpart to Ducati's Niccolo Canepa. At least Takahashi finished ahead of Randy de Puniet. The Frenchman had entered his home race full of hope, but came away disillusioned as he struggled in the wet. From 4th in Jerez to 14th in Le Mans is not the journey the LCR Honda rider had hoped to take.
Perennial backmarker Niccolo Canepa came home in 15th, taking the final point. The Italian is showing some improvement, but only a little, and will be hoping to shine in two weeks' time at Mugello, a track where he has put in hundreds of laps as Ducati's test rider. Mugello will most likely decide Canepa's career in MotoGP.
Like Canepa, Valentino Rossi had been looking forward to Mugello, and hoping it would mark a decisive point in his career. The six time MotoGP champion had been hoping to take his 100th win in front of his home crowd in two weeks, but to do that, he needed to secure his 99th victory first here at Le Mans. A stupid mistake, hitting a patch of water he hadn't spotted, saw Rossi crash out, then ride back to the pits to swap bikes for the second time that day, effectively ending any chance the Italian had of either victory or a significant points haul. Rossi may rue his mistake deeply, but he will still head to Mugello with his heart set on victory. A win here every year since 2002 says he has every chance of at least taking his 99th win in front of his home crowd, though he may have to wait a little longer to celebrate his century.
Rossi's three-stop strategy, necessary after his crash on fresh tires, may yet turn out to have serious consequences. On returning to the pits on his freshly crashed bike, which wore slicks front and rear, his team had shod his new bike with a wet front and a slick rear. Then, when he came in again a few laps later, he left the pits again on a bike fitted with slicks both front and rear. The team had changed just one tire each time, and when asked whether this was legal, or whether both tires needed to be different to the previous bike, Rossi, crew chief Jerry Burgess and team manager Davide Brivio all pointed to the rule book. In the English version says that riders are allowed to change "from a machine equipped with rain tyre to a machine equipped with intermediate or slick tyre" (Grand Prix regulations, 1.18 item 17), which could be interpreted to mean that what Rossi's Fiat Yamaha team did was legal.
The French regulations, however, read as follows: "Passer d'une machine équipée de pneus pluie à une machine équipée de pneus intermédiaires ou slick." The French word for tire is "pneu". The word used in the regulations is "pneus", the plural, meaning more than one tire. Burgess and Brivio claim they can't speak French, and so followed the English rules. But as in every form of motorsport, the rules are written in French then translated into English, so the French rules are the final arbiter for any decisions.
With Rossi out of the points at Le Mans, nobody lodged a complaint, and so Rossi's result will stand. If they had lodged a complaint, it would almost certainly have been awarded and Valentino Rossi would have been disqualified. By letting Rossi's results stand, the FIM have set a precedent, one which teams are likely to use and point to the next time there's a race in changing conditions.
Of course, it could still backfire. If a team comes in and changes to a bike with one wet and one slick tire and is then disqualified by Race Direction, the team may appeal against that DQ. The FIM is likely in that case not to be lenient on the appealing team, but to retrospectively disqualify Rossi. The race might be over, but the results have only really been penciled in.
Stacking The Deck
Rossi's fate, and the fate of so many in the 250cc and 125cc classes are exactly the kind of ammunition which critics use when they describe wet races as being like a lottery, with races determined more by chance than by ability. Yet when you examine the results of all three races at Le Mans on Sunday, a familiar pattern emerges. Julian Simon won the 125cc race, after a very strong display of speed and stability; Marco Simoncelli won the 25cc race, staying calm while behind him all was chaos; And Jorge Lorenzo took victory in the MotoGP class, in a display of utter dominance and sheer brilliance.
The winning line up at Le Mans on Sunday doesn't look like the results of random selection. If rain races are a lottery, it seems that some players know beforehand which numbers are going to fall.