There is always a strange atmosphere at the final MotoGP round at Valencia. It is probably the biggest party of the season, but a sense of sadness permeates the party atmosphere, making it feel more like the wild and desperate abandon of the night before the world is due to end than the joyous celebration of racing it could be. The Valencia MotoGP round is as much parting as it is party.
That sense of loss will be even more real this year, for MotoGP fans are once again about to lose one of the great triumphs of motorcycle racing. After the 500s made way for the 990cc four-strokes, then the 990s were cast aside for the 800s, at Valencia, the 250cc bikes are due to make their final ever outing, before being consigned to the dustbin of history, pushed aside for the 600cc four-stroke Moto2 machines.
There are many perfectly rational and sound reasons for the switch from two strokes to four, not least the question of cost. With Aprilia having a virtual monopoly on the class, the Italian manufacturer could pick and choose its winners and set the price of the factory-spec RSA250 at whatever rate it wanted. And with the other manufacturers having pulled out several years ago - though Honda still has a lingering presence - that meant that competition in the class was effectively dead.
More Is Less
But despite all of their shortcomings, the 250s are going to be sorely missed. The magical combination of light weight and decent power made the bikes more than fast enough, yet still incredibly nimble. As Andrea Orlandi, crew chief to Mapfre Aspar's Alvaro Bautista put it so succinctly: "100 kilo. 100 horsepower. Perfect."
That perfection is reflected in the many generations of riders the 250s have produced. A powerful yet sensitive engine in a fully adjustable chassis made the bikes the ideal training vehicle for young riders, giving them a solid grounding in engine, chassis and suspension setup. With an understanding of what a racing motorcycle should be capable of, riders moved up to the premier class with one less thing to learn and could concentrate on getting the best out of themselves, not just out of the bike.
If a 250cc two stroke twin is a perfect race bike, Valencia is a perfect track for a 250. Casey Stoner - 2007 MotoGP World Champion and former 250 racer - certainly believes so. "It's a little bit tight, but at the same time it flows from corner to corner. If you get the bike handling well, you can pass at just about every corner on the circuit."
Take a lap around Valencia and you can see what he means. The run along the fast front straight leads into a nasty left-hander, slightly off-camber, slightly downhill and deceptively fast. Then the run up the hill takes you to turns 2 and 3, and the next opportunity to pass. But if you do get ahead into Turn 2, you find yourself trying to fend off the unwelcome attention of the rider you just got ahead, added to the stress of worrying about the two right handers of Turns 4 and 5. The bike is on the right-hand side of the tire for the first time in half a lap, and if your defense of the line is too vigorous, you can find yourself picking gravel out of your fairing, victim of a cold tire.
The next real chance at overtaking is the run into Turn 8 through the fast flick of Turn 7. Here, too, a dive underneath can leave you exposed to a counterattack through the Esses of 9 and 10, and the interior hairpin of 11. Through Turn 12, and the track turns from perfect for 250s to perfect for MotoGP machines. The endless fast left of Turn 13 sees the big four strokes kicking the rear tire out, sliding the rear to get the bike turned for the final tight left of Turn 14. Here, it's do or die: Any illusions you have of leading across the line have to be realized by diving inside at the final corner. Success will take you to victory; failure leaves you pondering the sin of overeagerness in the gravel.
The Hangman's Reward
It is ironic in the extreme that the two parties credited with killing the 250 class are poised to take the last ever World Championship crown to be awarded. If Aprilia dealt the class the coup de grace by exploiting its monopoly position, they were arguably only wielding the sword handed to them by Honda's refusal to actively support the class any more and arguing for its replacement by a four-stroke formula. And yet the rider taking the title will do so on either an Aprilia RSA 250 (though rebadged as a Gilera), or a Honda RS250RW.
The journey to the title showdown at Valencia has been a long and rather convoluted one. Scot Honda's Hiroshi Aoyama and Mapfre Aspar's Alvaro Bautista made all of the early running, swapping both the championship lead and race wins. But a series of crashes by Bautista and a late surge by Marco Simoncelli saw the Spaniard drop out of the equation, and the Italian on the Gilera take his place.
Simoncelli will need a lot of luck to prevent Aoyama from taking the title, though. The Scot Honda man leads by 21 points, and needs only an 11th place finish to become the first Japanese World Champion since Dajiro Katoh in 2001. Though Aoyama's record is not good at Valencia - his best result here is a 6th place - the Japanese rider likes the track and has shown sufficient consistency to make 11th a fairly safe bet. What's more, Aoyama arrives at Valencia bolstered by a victory taken in a real fairing-bashing humdinger of a race at Sepang, in which he faced and successfully fought off the challenge from his rival Simoncelli. Aoyama has announced that the best form of defense is attack, and is unlikely just to settle for a place mid-pack.
Simoncelli's task is simple: He has to win the last ever 250cc race, regardless of what Aoyama does. The Gilera rider cannot accept 2nd place, as that would leave him 1 point short of Aoyama's current total of 252 and out of contention. And so Marco Simoncelli must aim for a repeat of last year, when he took victory with a comfortable margin over - ironically - the Scot Honda of Yuki Takahashi.
The task in hand is not easy, for either Simoncelli or even for Aoyama, for they will have a gaggle of 250 madmen to contend with. Worst of the bunch will be the local riders, with Hector Barbera and Alex Debon both determined to put on a show in front of their home crowd, and both with a reputation for wild and often reckless passing maneuvers. Alvaro Bautista, though not a Valencian native like Debon and Barbera, also has a score to settle: After falling off for the last three races, Bautista needs at least a podium to regain some of the momentum he has lost before entering the MotoGP class.
The 250 race is likely to be more interesting than the MotoGP one. While Valencia is perfect for 250s, it's just a little bit too tight for the big bikes, making it both hard work and difficult to overtake. What's more, just about everything is settled in MotoGP, with any changes in position at the top possible more in theory than in practice.
What is almost certain is that the Fantastic Four will finish 1st to 4th, the only question being in what order? Though you can never count him out, Valentino Rossi is the least likely to win here, the Italian having had a torrid time at the Valencia track in recent years. The two local boys - if you count 200 miles up the road or 200 miles across the Mediterranean as local - will be keen to make a point: Dani Pedrosa wants to avoid his worst season in years, with only 1 win so far this year, a poor showing by his standards. Jorge Lorenzo, meanwhile, will want to regain his momentum by finishing ahead of his team mate, having been beaten by Rossi in the last two outings.
Casey Stoner, though, is looking unstoppable at the moment. The Australian took one race to get into his stride - finishing 'only' 2nd to a runaway Jorge Lorenzo, after snapping a footpeg in the early laps - but since then he has dominated, resisting the challenge of Valentino Rossi comfortably at Phillip Island and thrashing the field at Sepang. The Marlboro Ducati rider won here last year and will be keen to win again as a tribute to his team boss, who will be leaving to join Honda. On current form, you'd have to say that Stoner has every chance of managing just that.
The Fantastic Four may dominate, as they have done all this year, behind them are some fascinating struggles with places still wide open. Repsol Honda's Andrea Dovizioso leads Monster Tech 3 Yamaha's Colin Edwards by just 4 points, and the duo have been squabbling over 5th place in the championship by swapping 5th place in the races for much of the season. Edwards has been the more reliable of the two, but Dovizioso has the edge, as the Italian has the lead. This far down the field, there's only 1 or 2 points between each finishing position, and so a deficit of 4 is a serious hill to climb.
Behind the fight for 5th, a monster battle is underway. Just 7 points separate 7th from 12th, with Marco Melandri and Loris Capirossi tied for 7th, while 9th is a three-way tie between Alex de Angelis, Toni Elias and Chris Vermeulen. Those five riders, together with Frenchman Randy de Puniet in 12th are likely to provide the best entertainment of the afternoon, as they slug it out both for places on the track and for points in the championship.
The wildcard in what Valentino Rossi has described using a cycling term as the "second group" is a wildcard on the track. Newly crowned from his 2009 World Superbike campaign, WSBK champion Ben Spies arrives at Valencia for a wildcard ride on a satellite Yamaha fielded by the Yamaha test team, ostensibly to get a few more days on track before work starts in earnest on his 2010 MotoGP season with Monster Tech 3 Yamaha, as testing begins on Monday. But the ambition that takes a rookie to the Superbike title at his very first attempt is likely to show through on Sunday, and Spies could find himself mixing it with the group fighting over 5th.
The Short Goodbye
Whatever the outcome, the giant fiesta that kicks off directly after the final race of the 2009 season will be tinged with an extra touch of sadness on Sunday. The fans and followers watching the race will witness the very final outing for arguably the perfect racing motorcycle, the 250cc two-stroke V-twin. No doubt that they shall attempt to dull the pain of their loss with a orgiastic frenzy of partying, but the loss will remain. The only comfort is that the MotoGP bikes take to the track on Tuesday, for the very first test of the 2010 season. Moving on may not dull the pain of losing the 250s, but at least it will take our minds off it.