The 2009 MotoGP season has seen the advent of a remarkable period in motorcycle road racing. For the first time in perhaps twenty years, there are not one or two riders dominating the championship, but a grand total of four. On any given day, at any given racetrack, any one of Valentino Rossi, Jorge Lorenzo, Dani Pedrosa or Casey Stoner can win, sometimes by a few hundredths, sometimes by a few seconds.
What is even more remarkable is the gap these four have over the rest of the field. Check each rider's fastest lap of the race at a particular circuit and the fifth fastest man is inevitably well over half a second slower than the leaders. While the leaders finish within seconds of each other, the race for fifth usually takes place half a minute or more behind the winner.
So dominant have Stoner, Pedrosa, Lorenzo and Rossi become that they have spawned a veritable avalanche of nicknames: the Aliens, the Untouchables, the Fantastic Four, the list goes on and on. And because there are four of them operating at such a peak of performance in terms of talent, application and fitness, each must push himself to the limit not to get left behind by the other three, and come sailing back down to Earth with mere mortals such as double World Superbike Champion Colin Edwards or former 125cc World Champion Andrea Dovizioso.
Then There Were Three
The stress of having to push to the limit and beyond just to keep up was what was blamed by many, both inside and outside the paddock, when the Fantastic Four lost one of its number. After suffering stomach cramps, vomiting and extreme fatigue at Barcelona and at subsequent races, and after initial medical tests failed to yield a conclusive diagnosis, Casey Stoner returned to Australia to sit out the races at Brno, Indianapolis and Misano, and try to pinpoint an exact cause.
Stoner's absence did more than turn the foursome into a trio. The on-track action become more and more a duel between the Fiat Yamahas of Jorge Lorenzo and Valentino Rossi, with Dani Pedrosa a distant third. Mistakes by Lorenzo at Brno and Rossi at Indianapolis kept the gap between the two manageable, leaving the title race still open. Thirty points separated the team mates after San Marino, a serious obstacle to Jorge Lorenzo's title hopes, but not an insurmountable one.
So Casey Stoner's return was warmly welcomed by both Rossi and Lorenzo for more than just altruistic reasons. Both men figured that with the Australian back, they could use Stoner's presence to their advantage, putting him between the two of them to gain extra points over their title rival. Casey Stoner had no intention of coming to the aid of either man. "Maybe they won't be so happy after the race," he said to the packed press conference at Estoril which he gave upon his return.
For though Stoner looked happy to be back and much fitter than before his time away, there was still the question of whether he would have the endurance to last an entire race, pushing his bike and his body to the limit for 45 minutes. The first session of practice confirmed that Stoner was fast, and longer runs on Saturday morning suggested that the Australian had the fitness. When Stoner qualified in third, just a few hundredths off Valentino Rossi in second and three tenths of polesitter Jorge Lorenzo, it was clear that the Fantastic were Four again.
Out Of Sight
Yet as the lights went out and the screech of 230 horsepower four-cylinder four strokes echoed through Estoril's packed grandstands, it was the man on the second row who ploughed his way to the front. Dani Pedrosa got the rocket-launch start he always pulls from somewhere and shot through the front row to hit the first corner in the lead.
His lead would not last long though. As Pedrosa entered Turn 3, the Spaniard ran it a little wide, ready to cut back for the second apex of the long hairpin turn. But having dominated every session of practice except for the morning warm up, Jorge Lorenzo was not going to just lie down and let Pedrosa lead. Holding the tighter line through the long hairpin Lorenzo cut inside Pedrosa and into the lead.
With clear track ahead of him, Lorenzo set about the task he had set himself for the weekend. Lorenzo had come here to win and take back as many points as he could in the championship, and his domination of practice had been a step on his way to that goal. Quickly pulling a half second gap, Lorenzo was pushing as hard as he could go.
Best Served Cold
Behind Lorenzo, Casey Stoner had arrived in Portugal with his own set of goals. He had achieved his first target in practice too, proving that he was both fast and could last, at least for ten laps or so. The next goal was to silence his critics, and only a podium would do that effectively.
On lap 1, though, Stoner found himself stuck behind both Valentino Rossi and Dani Pedrosa, while Jorge Lorenzo was pulling away at the front. As the bikes howled across the front straight for the first time Stoner tackled the first obstacle, drawing alongside Rossi and ready to attack on the brakes into Turn 1. But The Doctor was not prepared to give up without a fight. Rossi waited a fraction longer in the braking zone, entering Turn 1 ahead, but after the flick left on the way up to Turn 2, Stoner seized his chance and dived ahead of the Fiat Yamaha, taking over 3rd from Rossi.
While a podium would have silenced Stoner's critics, 2nd would be so much more effective, and finding himself parked behind the Repsol Honda of Dani Pedrosa, the Australian started planning his way past. It would not take too long, Stoner getting better drive out of the final Parabolica corner to fire along the straight and past Pedrosa. The Ducati man was in 2nd, and dreaming of more.
That would mean catching and passing Jorge Lorenzo. Just catching the Spaniard would be hard enough, the special silver and white livery on his Fiat Yamaha seemed to have given him even more speed at Estoril. Getting past Lorenzo would be nigh on impossible.
Stoner pushed on towards the Spaniard, but a broken footpeg hampered his chase, Stoner having snapped the securing mechanism on lap 2 in the fast right flick down the back straight. Unable to use the rear brake of his Ducati GP9 to prevent the bike from running wide through Estoril's tight and twisty turns, the Australian was losing a few hundredths a lap, and Lorenzo was edging away. Stoner eventually worked his way around the problem, but Lorenzo was in unstoppable form.
Lap after lap, the silver and white Fiat Yamaha thundered along Estoril's vast front straight, and lap after lap, he edged away from Stoner. The gap had increased from just over a second on lap 3 to nearly two seconds on lap 12, but Stoner still had Lorenzo firmly in his sights.
While the Australian was concentrating on the Fiat Yamaha ahead, he was still being hounded by a Repsol Honda behind. A mistake on lap 4 saw Pedrosa drop nearly a second to Casey Stoner, but the Spaniard quietly worked his way back towards the Australian as the race approached half distance. Once past the halfway mark, though, Pedrosa relented, and his chase was also over.
Where the pace of Casey Stoner and Dani Pedrosa slackened off a little as the race entered its second half, Jorge Lorenzo continued relentlessly hammering in laps in the low 1'37s. His two second lead on lap 12 turned into a three second lead on lap 18, and a four second lead on lap 21. As the Fiat Yamaha crossed the line 7 laps later, Lorenzo's lead had grown to over six seconds, and for the second year in a row, Jorge Lorenzo took victory at Estoril.
Lorenzo had come to Portugal intending to claw back as much of his team mate's lead as possible, and he had done his part by crushing the opposition. As if to emphasize his position as one of the Aliens, Lorenzo had come to Estoril with his leathers and helmet painted to resemble the spacesuits of the Apollo program, marking the 40th anniversary of Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin's trip to the moon. His victory celebration consisted of doing a creditable impression of walking slowly across the surface of the moon and planting a LorenzoLand flag in the gravel trap. This display immediately prompted one Internet wit to claim that Lorenzo's victory had been faked in a film studio in the desert, as the shadows were all wrong and the flag seemed to be waving in the breeze.
Lorenzo may have believed that he had crushed the opposition, but Casey Stoner certainly didn't feel that way about it. The Australian was elated, taking an impressive 2nd place on his return to the grid, and demonstrating beyond any doubt that he was back and he was fit. In the press conference afterwards, Stoner struck back at his critics, saying that this podium was proof that everyone who had claimed that his illness had been faked or was all in his head were wrong, and that now that he was no longer ill, he was still as fast and as fearsome as ever.
Dani Pedrosa finished a distant 3rd, having run out of steam earlier than Stoner. But by sticking with the Australian for as long as he had, he had limited the damage to his 3rd place in the championship, and still leads Stoner by 3 points.
The last of the Fantastic Four was also the least, Valentino Rossi crossing the line in 4th, some 23 seconds behind his Fiat Yamaha team mate. The reigning World Champion had struggled with set up all weekend, and his crew had gambled on a set up change on the morning of the race, shortening the bike and moving weight around to get the bike to turn more quickly round Estoril's tortuous track. It had turned alright, but the lack of weight on the rear had left Rossi with no edge grip and as a result he could not get on the gas out of corners, spinning the rear as soon as he touched the throttle. In the latter stages of the race, Rossi had been nearly two seconds a lap slower than Lorenzo, and ended up off the podium at Estoril for the first time in his career.
Rossi had lost 12 costly points to his team mate and title rival Lorenzo, and was fuming as he entered the garage. After a lengthy technical meeting with his crew in which he underlined the importance of getting the set up sorted on Friday, rather than ending up chasing their tails on Sunday morning. Rossi's comfortable 30 point lead was gone, and Lorenzo had closed the gap to 18 points, bringing the championship back into reach.
Down To Earth
Further back, and closer to planet Earth, Colin Edwards was the first of the mortals, as he has been so often this year. Another strong and steady ride saw him finish as the best of the rest, which with Stoner back meant in 5th. Edwards heard - officially, though he'd known unofficially since Indianapolis - that Ben Spies would be joining him at Tech 3 next year, and the Texan is preparing for the challenge of handling the talented rookie by demonstrating that he will be no pushover once Spies becomes his team mate.
If the racing at the front had been monotonous, with all passing completed by lap 3, behind Colin Edwards there was entertainment throughout the field. Toni Elias came out on top in the battle for 6th, diving ahead of Andrea Dovizioso with 5 laps to go. Nicky Hayden had led that fight early, but a lack of rear grip forced him to buckle to the pressure Dovizioso and Elias were placing on him, the Kentuckian finally finishing in 8th.
James Toseland ran a relatively lonely race to finish 9th, scoring the kind of result that has caused him to lose his ride this season and leaving him to take Ben Spies' ride on the factory Yamaha in World Superbikes next year. Toseland has struggled all year, and has still not managed to improve his best result in MotoGP of 6th place. He has three more races.
Toseland will be joined in World Superbikes by Chris Vermeulen, the Australian having agreed to join Paul Bird's factory-supported Kawasaki team. At Estoril, Vermeulen fought valiantly with Randy de Puniet, staying ahead of the Frenchman to clinch 10th. Putting Vermeulen's performance into perspective, De Puniet had his boot come open on the first lap, forcing him to slow to close it up again. He then charged past three riders to catch Vermeulen, nearly highsiding off in a failed attempt at passing the Australian and slamming his still painful ankle into the fairing.
Marco Melandri found himself in the unfortunate position of scrapping with Pramac Ducati's Niccolo Canepa for 12th. As the season has progressed, the Hayate has fallen further and further behind, and Melandri will be glad he will be on a factory-spec Honda RC212V with the Gresini team next season.
Last of the 14 finishers was, as ever, Gabor Talmacsi on the Scot Honda. The contrast between Talmacsi and his team mate Hiroshi Aoyama could not be greater. While Talmacsi continues to struggle with the RC212V in MotoGP, Aoyama moves closer to clinching the 250cc title every race, pushing a three-year-old RS250 RW further than it has any right to go. Just how long Talmacsi's money will be good in MotoGP remains to be seen.
Mika Kallio was the first rider out, losing the front in the final Parabolica while sitting in 6th position. Loris Capirossi followed later, after a gear sensor failed putting the bike into safe mode and taking him out of contention. A similar electrical problem left Alex de Angelis sidelined, bad news for the Italian as he is still without a job for next year.
War Of The Worlds
With the Aliens now once again complete, Casey Stoner's return to the fold has added the predicted complication to the championship race. Jorge Lorenzo did exactly what he set out to do, dominate the proceedings from start to finish and come away with maximum points. Casey Stoner played into Lorenzo's hands by achieving his own personal goals, silencing his critics with a powerful display and a 2nd place finish. The real loser this weekend was Valentino Rossi, the magic fix that Jeremy Burgess and the crew usually find on Sunday morning not coming off in Portugal. "Everybody says Burgess always finds something for Valentino on Sunday," Lorenzo said after the race, "But he doesn't always."
Though Casey Stoner's efforts helped Jorge Lorenzo at Estoril, it could have worked out very differently. Stoner reckoned he had the pace to run with Lorenzo in Portugal, and if he hadn't made the mistake on lap 2 and snapped his footpeg he thought he could have challenged Lorenzo for victory. The MotoGP circus now heads down to Phillip Island, Stoner's home track and a place where he has never lost on a Ducati. Jorge Lorenzo may have been wearing a spacesuit at Estoril, but in Australia, Casey Stoner is likely to be the leader of the Aliens.