2009 MotoGP Donington Preview - Wave Goodbye

Saying goodbye is one of the hardest things to do. At the end of a relationship, no matter how badly it ends, it is all too easy to look back at the good things, the happy memories, and gloss over the cracks and flaws that caused it all to end.

So it goes with Donington, which hosts the MotoGP series for the last time this year, for at least five years and probably longer. The track, located on the fringe of Leicestershire, has a long and glorious history of racing, dating back to 1937, though the circuit was closed after the Second World War, only hosting racing again in 1977. But based on the roads that ran round the grounds of the estate the track is built on, it still has the feel of an old-fashioned road circuit, like the best parts of Assen or Phillip Island.

The run down the hill through Craner Curves is still legendary, one of the finest sections of track still on the calendar today, and Schwantz, McLeans and Coppice are as challenging to get right as anywhere. The track has seen some memorable moments, from the affable Simon Crafar winning his only Grand Prix here in 1998 on the WCM Yamaha, to Valentino Rossi's battles with Loris Capirossi, or with Kenny Roberts Jr and Jeremy McWilliams, to Scott Redding's first victory for a British rider in the 125 class just last year.

Then there are the bad points. Most of the riders - all except Casey Stoner, rather surprisingly - hate the Melbourne Loop, calling it dismissively the "car park section", which is basically a set of esses and two short straights joined by hairpins. But even the horrors of the Melbourne Loop have their bright side: The Foggy Esses, the Melbourne Hairpin and Goddards are all excellent places for passing, generating plenty of spectacle despite the lack of respect they are regarded with by the riders.

But by far the worst part of the track, and the reason that riders, fans, teams and journalists alike will not be sorry to see the back of the place, is the facilities. Most of the buildings are if not decrepit, than at least run down; the tarmac is crumbling in the paddock; the plumbing is overworked; and the toilet facilities around the track are best described as medieval. The crumbling buildings might charitably be regarded as possessing old-world charm, but even viewed through the soft focus lens of nostalgia, it's hard not to feel dispirited by the run-down feel to Donington Park. It is a salutary lesson for those who look back at the Forties and Fifties and see happier times: Things may have been simpler, but that also meant that they were pretty dire.

Of course, the imminent departure from Donington adds some extra motivation for the riders. Victory here will see their names leave an indelible mark on the record books as the last premier class winner at Donington.

The man with perhaps the greatest sense of history on the MotoGP grid will be triply motivated here at Donington. Valentino Rossi hasn't won here since 2005, after winning 5 of the previous 6 races at Donington. Rossi wants to say goodbye here with a victory, and make amends for the past three years of failure.

It would be foolish to bet against him. Rossi arrives fresh from victory at the Sachsenring, his fourth of the season and extending his championship lead to 14 points. He has also won three out of the last four races, coming perilously close to taking the fourth at Laguna Seca, and having fixed the problems the team were having in the early part of the season, he will be a very hard man to beat.

His team mate will be doing his utmost to do just that. After being beaten at the Sachsenring by just 0.099 seconds, Jorge Lorenzo conceded that he needed to beat Rossi in a straight fight, alluding to the stalled negotiations over his 2010 contract with Yamaha. Lorenzo needs a win, not just to close the gap on Rossi, but even more to put pressure on Yamaha and Honda to respond to his salary demands. Lorenzo has a history of winning here in the 250 class, so it is not beyond the realms of possibility. Going into the summer break, when deals are traditionally sealed so that the riders can enjoy an untroubled vacation, Lorenzo really needs victory at Donington.

But Lorenzo has not just Valentino Rossi to beat, but also the man who could become his new team mate. Dani Pedrosa won a convincing victory here in 2006 and was on the podium in 2008. The Repsol Honda rider is gaining strength every day, now almost fully recovered from his previous injury woes and starting to train once again. His own victory at Laguna Seca just three weeks ago left Pedrosa feeling capable of regularly fighting for the win again, and finishing right behind the leaders in Germany will merely have steeled his resolve.

The last of the Fantastic Four is the one over whom the most doubt remains. Casey Stoner is still not sure just what his body is capable of, describing his condition before the race as "pretty mediocre." There is absolutely nothing wrong the the Ducati, though, according to the Australian. He believes that if he were not having his health issues, he would be battling for wins rather than podiums. But despite the exhaustion he is suffering at the end of races, leaving him struggling to keep up, the British weather might just work in his favor. It is much easier to stay on the pace when the weather is cool and the track is slick with rain, and in England, rain is always a possibility.

On the eve of the summer break, most of the rest of the field is fighting for their contracts. The most prominent candidate at Donington will be James Toseland, the British rider wanting to make an impression in front of his home crowd. His memories of 2008 are awful, Toseland not even making it past the first corner. And being widely tipped to be headed to World Superbikes next year, Toseland has freely admitted that he is riding for his job. He has his work cut out at his home race.

But Toseland isn't the only rider fighting to save his place in MotoGP. Toni Elias, Alex de Angelis, Chris Vermeulen, and Niccolo Canepa are all in the same boat to a greater or lesser extent. Niccolo Canepa looks certain to be out of MotoGP next season, though the Italian is making quiet progress on the Pramac Ducati. It will most likely not be fast enough to save him, though. Chris Vermeulen will be hoping for a wet race, as another victory would make it very difficult for Suzuki to fire him. It being Donington, and showers forecast for sometime on Sunday, his prayers might just be answered.

The Gresini team did remarkably well at the Sachsenring, finishing in 5th and 6th place, making it two 6th places in a row for Elias. With one seat at Gresini already taken by Marco Simoncelli for next season, both Elias and de Angelis are on a mission for more top 5 results. That mission starts on Sunday at Donington.

Though contract time can be harrowing for many riders, for others it is more frustrating than truly terrifying. Nicky Hayden, Marco Melandri, and Andrea Dovizioso are not certain to be staying where they are next year, but the chances of them being forced out of MotoGP are minimal. If they do lose their jobs, there will be plenty of other teams standing ready to pick them up, the only question is who, and where.

So all three men will be looking for a result to bolster their negotiating positions, and of the three, Melandri has the best cards. The Italian has a podium at Donington, and though another is almost certainly out of the question, another top 10 result will underline his value. Despite being on an underdeveloped bike, that has to be possible for the Italian.

Nicky Hayden has often struggled at Donington, but is coming off a growing streak of improving results. The Kentuckian qualified in 4th in Germany, but a poor start saw him floundering way down the order. Hayden will want to be making amends and running with the Fantastic Four at the front.

Colin Edwards has had a more successful time at Donington than his compatriot, also having taken a trip to the podium here. Edwards' spot in MotoGP is more dependent on other factors - most notably, what Jorge Lorenzo elects to do next year - than on specific results, but Edwards has come close to a podium this year, and will be keen to consolidate.

Edwards could have a new team mate next year, in the shape of Randy de Puniet. The Frenchman has been vastly improved this season, already close to matching his entire points haul of 2008 with just 9 races gone. Another strong result for de Puniet will buy himself some leverage.

The remainder of the field look safe where they are, and can approach the Donington race with a little more equanimity. Loris Capirossi is nearly back to full fitness, but after a miserable outing at the Sachsenring, the Italian veteran - making his 17th start at the British track, his first dating from 1990 - will want to start making some progress towards making the Suzuki competitive once again.

While he may not be as grizzled a veteran as Loris Capirossi, Gabor Talmacsi has been round Donington plenty of times already, though only ever on a 125cc bike. The Hungarian looks likely to stay at Scot for next season, if only because he can bring money into the cash-stricken team. But Talmacsi will still be wanting a decent result. For Talmacsi, that means narrowing the gap to the front runners, and preferably not finishing last.

Mika Kallio won at Donington last year, but it would be a very brave man who would forecast a repeat of that performance in 2009. Kallio is still struggling with the finger he injured at Assen, but a week's improvement should make things easier for the Finn. The jury is still out on whether Kallio can actually ride the Ducati Desmosedici, and more evidence from the Donington race would be more than welcome.

The MotoGP circus will leave Donington with mixed feelings on Sunday. Craner, the Old Hairpin and Coppice and McLeans will be sorely missed, but the car park section most assuredly will not. But what the MotoGP circus will miss least of all are the retro 1940's style facilities. The rest of the world seems to manage to provide pleasant, large, clean facilities, it's a mystery why that can't be done in the UK.

Whatever their opinion of the track, MotoGP fans will be hoping that the classic old track of Donington is at least given a worthy send off before the infield section is torn up to make way for the facilities required by Formula 1. For the sake of the history which is still palpable at the track, Donington truly deserves a good send off.

round_number: 
10
2009

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