On the face of it, MotoGP is in trouble. There are just 17 bikes on the grid, the lowest number in recent memory; a factory has withdrawn due to financial problems, as has a satellite team; another team has had to swap riders mid-season to bring in someone with sufficient sponsorship to allow the team to continue. Every couple of races MotoGP's rule-making body meets, trying to find new ways to cut costs and looking for rule changes that might make the series cheaper. And contract negotiations have switched from being about riders extracting large salaries from the teams that are trying to hire them to teams finding the riders who will ride for free and bring in the most sponsorship cash.
Yet take a step back and throw off the shroud the global recession has cast over the MotoGP paddock and the series is looking as healthy as ever. Sure, there may be only 17 bikes on the grid, but there are four riders who are capable of winning at any racetrack we visit. The margin of victory is falling again and last-lap passes and gaps of under a second are becoming the norm rather than the exception. Crowd attendance is up, as are TV audiences; team merchandise sales are extremely brisk; and new outside industry sponsors are trickling into the sport, finding valuable opportunities to promote their brands.
Best of all, perhaps the greatest rider of all time is up against a young apprentice, a rider whose speed matches his and who is learning the master's tricks at incredible speed. Both men have an insatiable appetite for victory, a keen intelligence, and otherworldly levels of ability. What's more, both Valentino Rossi and Jorge Lorenzo are on exactly the same bike - though Lorenzo might occasionally dispute that assertion.
Injury and illness have kept Dani Pedrosa and Casey Stoner from interfering too much in this rivalry - Pedrosa and Honda's progress delayed by the Spaniard's leg injury suffered during the preseason testing, and Stoner and Ducati's fierce challenge blunted by the Australian's mystery illness and his absence from the last three races - but that has only served to make the match up between team mates all the more intense. After two costly mistakes by Jorge Lorenzo gave Rossi the upper hand in the title race, a similarly expensive error at Indianapolis by The Doctor handed back half his championship lead and gave Lorenzo hope of the title once again.
So elementary was Rossi's mistake that he turned up at Misano with a special helmet, one similar to his Mugello "scream" helmet, but with a picture of Donkey, the character from Shrek, painted in where his face was at Mugello. Because the first thing that went through his mind as he slid through the grass at Indy, Rossi told reporters, was that he felt exactly like a donkey for being so incredibly stupid.
The custom helmet announced to the world, but most especially to Valentino Rossi, that he had a special mission to fulfill here at Misano. The circuit is in Rossi's back yard, literally just half a day's walk from the hillside village where the Italian legend lives, and from the moment Rossi hit on Friday it was clear that he meant business. His team mate put in deeply impressive runs during practice, with many laps inside the existing lap record, but at the end of each session The Doctor would pull out a few super-fast laps and it would be Rossi's name at the top of the timesheets, not Lorenzo's. The way that Rossi pushed, it was clear that this was personal and purposeful. Rossi was claiming his home ground.
Qualifying was a case in point. With less than a minute left in the session, Jorge Lorenzo seemed to have pole position in the bag, topping the timesheets with a 1'34.808. But with just seconds to go, Valentino Rossi crossed the line to take one last shot, the track clearing ahead of him like the Red Sea, Rossi steaming to a lap nearly half a second quicker than his Fiat Yamaha team mate. His point had been forcefully made.
As the bikes lined up on the grid, Jorge Lorenzo knew all too well the disadvantage he faced. The Spaniard had failed to find the extra speed he needed during the morning warm up, finishing the session shaking his head ominously. And he had Dani Pedrosa between himself and Rossi on the front row, a lightning-fast starter, and certain to get in his way at the start and prevent him from putting space between himself and Rossi.
Just as Lorenzo had feared, it was Dani Pedrosa who led off the line when the lights dimmed. The Repsol Honda rider repeated his usual trick, using his light weight and the Honda's launch control to maximum effect. Another Honda led the screeching pack that chased Pedrosa down towards Turn 1, Toni Elias leaping past the marginally slower Yamahas of Valentino Rossi and Jorge Lorenzo to take 2nd, while Colin Edwards completed the trio of chasing M1s, his Monster Tech 3 bike right on the tail of Lorenzo's factory Fiat Yamaha.
But Misano's first corner complex is notorious, the right-left combination highly successful at collecting the over-eager and dumping them in the gravel traps, and with so many Italians riding in front of their home crowd, the over-eager were well represented. This year, it was the turn of Alex de Angelis to get into Turn 2 too hot, running round the outside of Turn 1 in an attempt to stay with the leaders before they could make a break. Exiting Turn 1, De Angelis flicked the bike left again but was going too fast to get the machine turned, spearing Colin Edwards amidships and skittling Nicky Hayden in the process, the Marlboro Ducati man making a strong run round the outside of Turn 2 and ready to chase the leaders.
Hayden was incandescent with rage, almost as angry as he had been after Dani Pedrosa had taken him out at Estoril in 2006. There was much less at stake at Misano in 2009, but Hayden was just starting to find a rhythm with the Ducati that he had taken so long to tame, and had been looking forward to the race. Edwards was more phlegmatic about the affair, telling the BBC afterwards "We're in Italy, you always have to keep a lookout for dumbass Italians."
De Angelis himself was probably the chief victim of the incident. The man from San Marino, the tiny mountain kingdom just a few miles away, had been widely tipped to take a ride at the Pramac Ducati squad next season. All of Ducati's top brass were present at Misano and none were particularly impressed by the Italian's impetuosity, and so De Angelis torpedoed not just Edwards and Hayden, but also perhaps his best chance of staying in MotoGP next season.
There were more that suffered: Everyone in mid-pack got held up a little, and Randy de Puniet, a man who has yet to complete a race lap at Misano having crashed out of the two previous editions, found himself sitting in a Misano gravel trap once again. This year, though, his luck had changed, and still upright he rode through the gravel and back onto the track, 10 seconds down but still moving.
The crash had even seen a stray bike tag the back of Jorge Lorenzo's machine, but the force of the collision was slight enough for the Spaniard to stay on the bike without losing too much time on Rossi. Head down, he chased his team mate and was soon right on the back of Rossi once again.
At the front, Dani Pedrosa was trying to escape, but that was a tougher task than usual. The job was complicated by Toni Elias, the Spaniard determined to prove that he should not be out of a ride next season, and pushing his compatriot hard. Elias chased the Repsol Honda down along the back straight, closing through the terrifying right flick of Curvone, and preparing to attack as the track tightened up for the Carro complex. Now close enough he made his move, but his eagerness betrayed him. Pedrosa had been expecting the Gresini Honda rider and he let Elias run out wide, passing him back immediately on the tighter line.
As they crossed the line for the first time, Jorge Lorenzo initiated his first attack on his team mate. With drive from the final corner, Lorenzo was across the line and into Turn 1 ahead of Rossi. But only just: Rossi's parry saw him almost hit the back of Lorenzo's bike as they flicked back left for Turn 2, The Doctor only just pulling up in time.
Neither Elias nor Rossi were going to settle for the places they were in. The four men ran together, Pedrosa leading ahead of Elias, while Lorenzo chased his two countrymen, hounded from behind by Rossi. Elias was the first to make a move, pulling an audacious move round the outside of Pedrosa at Quercia on lap 3. Seeing a clear breach of his "Porfuera" copyright, Lorenzo tried putting Elias in his place, attacking into the tightening rights that follow the Curvone. Foiled, Lorenzo looked again, this time into the corner leading onto the back of the paddock straight, but Elias countered once again, making his RC212V as wide as possible.
Rossi took advantage of Lorenzo travails, the Spaniard distracted by his attacks on the Gresini Honda, and The Doctor slid past his team mate heading into Turn 1 to start lap 5. Now Rossi had Elias to deal with, and the Italian did so briskly, diving inside of Elias through Turn 6 and holding off the Spaniard into Quercia. Seeing Rossi pass Elias spurred Lorenzo into action, and the Mallorcan dropped any coyness he may still have had, squeezing past the Gresini Honda through the tight right hander at Carro and taking over 3rd.
The scrap at the front had been tight enough to hold the leaders up, and Andrea Dovizioso, running for the first time on Ohlins suspension, took advantage. The Italian had been unaffected by the first corner pile up, and had dispatched Loris Capirossi the following lap to give chase to the leaders. By lap 5 he was on the back of Lorenzo, but after the factory Yamaha rider got past Elias, Dovizioso faced the same challenge that both Rossi and Lorenzo had, attempting to get by the wide-as-a-truck Gresini Honda. It only took a lap or so, but by the time Dovi succeeded, there was clear space between himself and the front three and a gap too large to bridge.
For Rossi, the math was simple: Two Spaniards down, one more to go. But Dani Pedrosa, still leading the race, was even tougher to pass than his fellow countryman Elias had been. Rossi poked and probed, but every time he did, he left himself open to attack from behind, and Lorenzo would not let him forget it.
But Rossi was on a mission, and would not be denied. It took him three laps, but eventually, he got past Pedrosa through the right handers curling back towards the back straight. Past but not away, the two Spaniards he had overtaken were still sticking to his tail. At first, when Rossi pushed, Pedrosa and Lorenzo responded, the gap never growing. On lap 11, Rossi pushed again and this time he got a gap, Pedrosa being more engaged in holding off the attentions of Lorenzo than in chasing down the man in front.
Stuck In Traffic
This left Lorenzo frustrated. Pedrosa was capable of getting close to Rossi's pace, but the Spaniard was not capable of matching or even bettering it, and clear blue air was starting to open between the Repsol Honda and the #46 Yamaha. If Lorenzo was to keep his title hopes alive, recently resuscitated by Rossi's crash at Indianapolis, he could barely afford to lose 5 points to The Doctor, let alone 9, the difference between 1st and 3rd. Lorenzo knew what he had to do, but Pedrosa was putting up more resistance to his arch rival than he had to Rossi.
Lorenzo would get by but it would take him 6 costly laps. The pressure he had been applying to Pedrosa eventually became too much for the Repsol Honda man, Pedrosa running into Quercia too hot and going wide, the door finally open for Lorenzo to get through. Lorenzo did not need a second invitation, and was off to chase down Rossi, the gap now nearly a second and a half.
On his first clear lap Lorenzo took back a tenth, but Rossi had seen his pit board, and had stepped up the pace once again. Lorenzo, too, was back in the groove, but in front of his home crowd, Rossi's rhythm resounded to a faster beat and the Italian edged away, tantalizingly out of reach and receding, too far and too fast for Lorenzo to catch.
For the final third of the race, Rossi blazed a trail of glory through the Italian hillsides, untouchable by any who dared to challenge him. For the second year in succession, Valentino Rossi took a significant win at Misano, cementing his hold on the championship and bringing him yet another step closer to usurping Giacomo Agostini's place in the record books. Misano was Rossi's 103rd win, with 19 - or 20, depending on how you count them - to go to match Agostini, and scored another 25 points towards his 7th MotoGP title.
Jorge Lorenzo had been forced to yield to Rossi's superior pace, held up in the early laps enough that he was unable to challenge his Fiat Yamaha team mate for victory. Yet even if Lorenzo had not been held up, he would have had his hands full with The Doctor. When Rossi arrives at a racetrack where he feels he has a point to prove, he is almost impossible to beat. Lorenzo had been fast all weekend, but not fast enough and Sunday was no exception.
The Third Man
Once the two Fiat Yamaha's had got past Dani Pedrosa, they had immediately disappeared. Pedrosa was starting to lose grip, both on corner entry and corner exit, and the Yamahas were lapping first half a second, then a whole second a lap faster than Pedrosa's Honda. Pedrosa was forced to settle for 3rd, the position he had been saying all weekend he expected to be. Before the race on Sunday, Honda announced that they had finalized the contracts with Dovizioso and Pedrosa but the Spaniard had only signed up for a single year. The man who Honda has brought up through the ranks is growing increasingly disillusioned with Big Red, and unless they deliver on the promise of a much improved bike, 2010 could well be Pedrosa's last season for Honda.
The pair of Fiat Yamahas were followed by a pair of Repsol Hondas, but Andrea Dovizioso had been forced to fight for his 4th place. After losing touch with the front three Dovi had fallen back into the clutches of a resurgent Loris Capirossi. The Suzuki man had even passed Dovizioso with 3 laps to go, and the Repsol Honda rider had to wait until the final run into Quercia at the end of the back straight to take back 4th from Capirex. But for a first outing on Ohlins suspension, 4th place is a pretty good start.
Dovi's pass left Loris Capirossi with no option but to grudgingly settle for 5th. Yet the Italian veteran leaves Misano with some hope, as the upgrades which the Suzuki has received recently seem finally to be paying off and the bike could start to be competitive again before the end of the season.
Toni Elias, who had started the race so well, eventually came home in 6th after following Dovizioso and Capirossi fighting over 4th. He had been unable to get involved but still posted a decent result, especially for a rider who will be without a seat in MotoGP next season.
A couple of seconds behind Elias, Mika Kallio scored his best result of the season on what will presumably be his final ride on the factory Ducati, filling in for the absent and sorely missed Casey Stoner. Kallio had been made to fight for 7th by Marco Melandri, but in the end the Ducati prevailed over Melandri's ailing Hayate.
Chris Vermeulen had had a strong start, but got caught up in the melee in the first corner. The Australian made up a couple of places before the end of the race, posting respectable lap times, but once again, Vermeulen could manage only a 9th place finish. The Australian has spoken often of his desire to stay in MotoGP, but he will need better results if he is to find a new home now that he has lost his Rizla Suzuki seat to Alvaro Bautista for next year.
Vermeulen finished ahead of another rider in the danger zone, Britain's James Toseland on the Monster Tech 3 Yamaha. Toseland still doesn't have a contract for next season, and though it is known that Dorna is keen to keep a British rider in the series, another 10th place finish is hardly a convincing reason for him to stay. Toseland has never really got to grips with the Bridgestone spec tires, and this looks like being his downfall this season.
Though 10th is hardly impressive for Toseland, Aleix Espargaro's 11th place finish on just his second ride on the satellite Pramac Ducati turned an awful lot of heads. Espargaro posted the 5th fastest lap time during the race, and the speed with which he has learned to ride the MotoGP bike may have earned him a place for the rest of the season, replacing his temporary team mate Niccolo Canepa, who has failed to impress this year.
Randy de Puniet was hardly pleased to have come home in 12th, but at least he finally got to complete a race lap of Misano. Some 14 seconds back at the end of the first lap, he reeled in the men ahead of him, coming up just 5 seconds short of 11th spot. De Puniet's race may have been long and lonely, but at least he finally got to finish at the Adriatic circuit.
Bringing up the rear of the field were once again MotoGP's weakest links. Niccolo Canepa was not as far off the pace at Misano, a track he knows the layout of, but he still finished in 13th. Meanwhile, Gabor Talmacsi is still half a second a lap slower than Canepa and a second a lap slower than the rest, a second he needs to find soon if he is to be competitive. The Hungarian oil giant sponsoring Talmacsi may be pleased with a high-profile rider like Talmacsi, but you have to wonder if they'll agree to keep paying the significant sums involved just to see the Hungarian running around at the back of the field.
Things Are Looking Up
There may only have been 14 finishers at Misano, but the celebrations at the end of the road swept any worries about the future of the sport from everyone's minds. Valentino Rossi had come to his local track with a mission: To make amends for his stupidity at Indianapolis, as the donkey helmet and post-race donkey ears were meant to remind everyone. But there was an unspoken message underlying that mission as well. After giving away his advantage over his team mate through an act of temporary madness, he had to stamp his authority back on the championship, on the team, and on his team mate. The way he achieved all these goals was intimidating, exactly as he had intended it to be.
With Valentino Rossi in the championship, and being pushed harder than ever by some of the most talented young racers to appear on the scene in a generation, the future for MotoGP is looking bright. And with a host of fresh young faces expected to arrive next season, and rumors of more bikes to appear on the grid, the future could be brighter than anyone expects. The 2009 MotoGP season got off to a tough start, but since the bleak winter of '08 and '09 things have kept on getting better.