MotoGP hits Valentino Rossi's back yard, just as The Doctor can put his name in the record books. But there's a bright red Ducati parked squarely in his path. Can he push it aside for the third time running?
In most countries, the place you put a race track is somewhere nice and quiet, a long way from civilization - or at least neighbors who might complain. You may, like the Ricardo Tormo circuit in Valencia, locate it a couple of miles from the nearest town, and well out of earshot of the local residents. Alternatively, like Donington, you may choose to situate it under the flight path of a regional airport, to ensure that any noise problems are rendered irrelevant by the air traffic overhead.
But not in Italy. To say that Italians are keen on motorsports is like saying squirrels are not averse to the odd nut or two. Take a trip around Italy and you won't be able to avoid the sights and sounds of motorized racing of one form or another. Posters and photographs of racers on both two wheels and four adorn the walls of bars the length and breadth of the country, and almost every village has someone riding around on an immaculate example of race-bred exotica.
This love of motor racing results in some remarkable locations for race tracks. Perhaps the most remarkable of all is Monza, which sits in a spacious and beautiful town park, right in the middle of a large suburb of Milan. One minute, you're watching a young couple jog past, and enjoying the rhythmical clip-clop as a horse and rider trots by, the next the shriek of a four-cylinder superbike shatters the sylvan serenity, closely followed by the rabid bark of a 90 degree twin being thrashed within an inch of its life.
Sun, Sea, And Strokers
Having seen Monza, Misano is barely a surprise. Located just a few hundred yards from one of the busiest and most glamorous resorts along Italy's Adriatic riviera, in any other country, the circuit's location would be utterly insane. In motorcycle-crazy Italy, it is just the opposite. After all, what could be better than to spend the morning lounging on the beach, head off to the track to watch some world-class racing in the afternoon, to return for a quick dip in the sea to cool off, and finish up the evening with some outstanding Italian food and wine at a restaurant overlooking the beautiful Adriatic sea. To the Italians, it makes perfect sense, and frankly, it's hard to fault their logic.
If the surroundings of the Misano circuit approach perfection, the track itself is a little bit of a letdown. The location itself plays a part here: built at the edge of wide, flat expanse of the Po valley, the track is pretty well flat, with no elevation changes to speak of. What's more, since the direction of the track was reversed in an attempt to improve safety - a concession to get MotoGP to return after a crash there in 1993 left Wayne Rainey in a wheelchair - the circuit has lost many of the other features that gave it its character and made it special.
Before the changes, the Curvone was the final part of a sequence of fast left handers opening up and getting ever faster, before braking hard for the long hairpin of Tramonto. Since 2006, with the track running in the opposite direction, those fast lefts have become a series of ever slower rights, as the riders scrub off speed all the way into the very tight right hander at Carro. No longer does the Curvone demand the utmost of a rider's courage, instead, it taxes their ability to brake while leaned hard over, and still maintaining corner speed.
Reversing the track has had an even bigger effect on the final turn. Before the track was reversed, the Variante del Parco was the final corner, a right-left chicane leaving room for braking before heading off to the line. But now the last has become first, and the Variante is the first obstacle the riders have to tackle after rocketing away from the line.
The wisdom of having a chicane as the first corner was thrown into doubt during last year's race at Misano, when an overly enthusiastic Randy de Puniet entered the Variante far too hot to make it through safely, and took out himself and Dani Pedrosa, while at the same time forcing Nicky Hayden off the track and out of contention. Like the first corner at Le Mans, Misano's initial chicane seems destined to take riders out of the race right from the start.
But Misano is not a boring track, by any stretch of the imagination. The fast back straight provides an ideal opportunity for passing into the Quercia hairpin, and the difficult sequence of rights after Curvone can provide opportunities to the brave for passing as they enter the Carro hairpin. Add to this the chicane and the combinations round the Curva del Rio, and the track has a few spots that can offer some interesting racing.
The History Man
If the track layout lacks that certain special something, Sunday's race could more than make up for it. For Misano could be on the brink of seeing history being made this weekend, with a record which has stood for a 32 years being equaled. If Valentino Rossi wins on Sunday, it will be his 68th win in motorcycle racing's premier class, equaling his fellow Italian Giacomo Agostini's record, set way back in 1976.
Meeting such a milestone would, on its own, be a memorable achievement, but to do so at Misano would make it unforgettable, for a number of reasons. First of all, the Misano circuit is less than 10 miles from Valentino Rossi's home town of Tavullia in Italy, a town he has returned to live in after a period in London. The entire population of the town will be at the track, joining thousands of other Rossi fans to cheer their hero on.
Secondly, Misano is the one track that Rossi hasn't won at yet, a fact that stings a man so deeply aware of his record and his place in history. After taking victory at Laguna Seca in July, Misano is the only track left where Rossi has ridden, but not won. That is a blemish he feels he needs to remove from his record.
The other blemish a win would erase was the bitter disappointment of last year's result. In a desperate bid to keep pace with the terrifying pace of the Ducati, Yamaha introduced the pneumatic valve engine early. Perhaps a little too early, for Valentino Rossi was out of the race with a blown crank bearing, his 2007 title hopes finally sunk. Rossi wants to avenge the embarrassment of that result, and only a win will really suffice.
And finally, with Giacomo Agostini certain to be present at Misano, the entertainer in Rossi will want to put on a big show. His celebration at Le Mans was memorable enough, when he picked up Angel Nieto for the parade lap after equaling his 90 wins in all classes. But if Rossi matches Ago's record, by winning his 68th race just a few miles from his home, the celebration promises to be the stuff of legend.
Potential Party Poopers
Of course, before any celebration can take place, there is the minor nuisance of winning the race. And despite Valentino Rossi's acknowledged status in MotoGP history, there are plenty of riders hoping fervently to spoil the party.
The most likely candidate to rain on the Italian's parade is Ducati's Casey Stoner. Like his predecessor before him, the reigning World Champion is finding the #1 plate heavier than expected, and is now 50 points, or two whole race wins, behind Rossi in the title race.
The remarkable thing about this is the fact that Casey Stoner is clearly the fastest man in the world at the moment. Ever since Barcelona, Stoner has been the fastest man in practice, taking pole in the last 6 races, and often leading the rest of the field by well over half a second. The reigning champ has also won 3 of the last 5 races, and was seemingly on his way to sweeping the rest of the races, winning three on the bounce at Donington, Assen and the Sachsenring. During practice at Laguna Seca, Casey Stoner was looking his old, unstoppable self again.
Then came The Race. The US Grand Prix was a gripping, life-and-death battle for supremacy in the class. Casey Stoner was clearly faster, but Valentino Rossi used cunning and racecraft to hold Stoner up, and eventually forced Stoner into a mistake. Stoner made a series of bitter and accusing comments after the race, and it looked as if Rossi had done to Stoner what the Italian had done to Max Biaggi and Sete Gibernau before him.
Stoner was back with a bang at Brno. Fast right out of the box as usual, and on the pole once again. This time, though, Rossi was closer, within two tenths of Stoner in the dry, rather than over half a second back as before. In the race, Rossi showed he could stay with the Australian, keeping the gap down to 1.3 seconds for the first few laps, before dramatically closing the gap on lap 6.
A few corners later, Stoner was down again, and out of the race. Rossi fans everywhere jumped on the champion's mistake, seeing it as proof that Rossi had finally broken the Australian, and that he would not trouble Rossi's title chances again. But it's a little early to be leaping to that conclusion just yet. Stoner's crash was caused by losing the front so quickly on the newly resurfaced track that he didn't have time to respond. The World Superbike riders had complained of similar problems early in the year, and so it's possible that Stoner just misjudged the grip levels of the track, rather than being hounded into an error by the chasing Rossi.
The big difference was in the reigning champion's demeanor. Where Stoner had been seething at Laguna, he handled his crash in the Czech Republic with equanimity, responding calmly and politely to questions from journalists. And at the post race tests on the Monday and Tuesday, Stoner blitzed the field once again, telling the media that Ducati had found another improvement like the one at Barcelona, the one that left Stoner and the Ducati streets ahead of the rest of the MotoGP paddock.
And so Casey Stoner and Valentino Rossi enter Misano fairly evenly balanced. There can be no doubt that last year's winner here is going to be blindingly fast once again, and likely to start smashing records after his 2nd or 3rd flying lap at the track. But Stoner is up against a Valentino Rossi with a point to prove, and a lot at stake. Rossi is happy with his bike, happy with his tires, and on the verge of making history.
Casey Stoner won't be the only man standing between Rossi and the history books. Dani Pedrosa is likely to be the most determined man on the track at Misano, after the last three disastrous race weekends. The first problem came at the Sachsenring, when Pedrosa crashed out from the lead, in torrential rain. If that was mostly his own fault, the next two races were entirely down to Michelin.
The French tire company had started badly at the Sachsenring, advising the riders to use too hard a tire in the rain, leaving the Michelin-shod men struggling for grip. But then they compounded that error, first by bringing only very hard compounds to Laguna Seca, and then by appearing at Brno with a choice between tires that either offered no grip at all, or provided plenty of grip, but wore out within a handful of laps.
Bait And Switch
Pedrosa was unhappy at the end of 2007, after Honda vetoed a switch by the Repsol Honda team to Bridgestones, a switch Pedrosa and his manager Alberto Puig had been pushing very hard for. But having gone from leading the championship to being 65 points behind, Pedrosa is determined to ensure two things: Firstly, that he gets Bridgestone rubber next year; And secondly, that he will be going all out to win for the remaining 6 races.
If Michelin give Pedrosa a tire he can use at Misano, he will do whatever it takes to run at the front. Whether that is enough for the still injured Pedrosa to be capable of staying with two men who are driving each other to the peak of riding perfection remains to be seen, but there can be no doubt about sense of purpose.
If Michelin can get back in the race, then that could spell the end for Chris Vermeulen's impressive run of podiums. His first was in the wet, the conditions that Vermeulen thrives on, and the second was at Laguna Seca, a track which he is incredibly fast at. At Brno, Vermeulen looked like getting on the box once again, but started to fade halfway through the race. While 6th is slightly disappointing, he still managed to fighting his way forward through the pack at Brno with some hard work and clever riding.
Two podiums and a 6th also helped his bargaining position with Suzuki. For a while, Vermeulen's looked like losing his seat at Suzuki next year, but his strong finishes have rekindled the factory's interest. Another podium might finally clinch the deal, at a price acceptable to the likable Australian, and after a podium here last year, that's got to be an achievable goal.
But last year's race, like last week's race, was skewed in Vermeulen's favor. At Misano in 2007, the leading Michelin riders - Pedrosa, Hayden and Rossi - were all removed from the equation as a result of either crashes or engine failures, and at Brno, their tires rendered the Michelin riders unable to put up a fight. If Michelin get it right at Misano - and if they don't, then they will find it difficult to find a single team willing to use their tires next year - then there could be a horde of riders in between Vermeulen and a 4th podium in a row.
For it won't just be Dani Pedrosa that Vermeulen will have to fend off. There's the remaining Yamaha riders to deal with for a start, all of whom are keen to get back at the sharp end. Colin Edwards, James Toseland and Jorge Lorenzo all started the season strongly, but have seen their results decline sharply since mid-season.
For Edwards and Toseland, that has mostly been down to the tires they've had to contend with, though Toseland didn't help himself by cracking under the pressure at Donington, where thousands of English fans had gathered hoping to see Toseland victorious. Both men already have contracts for next year, but both men are very worried, and have been very critical, of Michelin. In turn, this must be making team manager Herve Poncharal very nervous, as Michelin provides a large chunk of the finance for the team. If Michelin are forced out, or decide to pull out of MotoGP, that will leave Poncharal and his Tech 3 team severely short of funds.
As for Jorge Lorenzo, tires have only been part of his problem. The Spanish rookie, who stunned the fans in the early part of the season with his stunning results, then suffered a series of confidence-crushing crashes, breaking bones in vicious highsides, and lowsiding off at other tracks, gathering a severe concussion along the way. With his confidence at low ebb, Lorenzo is steadily building it back up, concentrating on finishing in once piece. Misano should be another step on the way back to his spectacular early season form.
It's not just the Yamahas, though. There are a few men on Hondas hoping to be fight men who could be back at the front if Michelin come through for them. Andrea Dovizioso has been the most impressive of the satellite Hondas, and is giving Lorenzo a run for his money for the title of Rookie of the Year. Like most of the Italians racing on Sunday, Dovizioso lives very close to the Misano circuit, and will have a large contingent of fans at the race.
They are unlikely to be disappointed. Dovizioso has been the most consistent of the Michelin runners, suffering the least when the tires gave problems, and managing to finish in a reasonable position, despite the tire troubles. Dovi is tipped for the factory Repsol Honda team next year, and a strong result at Misano could clinch the deal.
The man whose seat Dovizioso will be taking is likely to be only too glad to give it up. Nicky Hayden has struggled on the comically undersized Honda ever since taking his world championship in the last year of the 990cc bikes. His hard work and dedication have been little appreciated by HRC, and tired of functioning as test mule for Dani Pedrosa, Hayden now looks set to join Ducati for next year.
There could be an announcement this weekend, were it not for the fact that Honda's contracts are always watertight, allowing Honda to decide when to announce a rider's departure. Having Ducati steal the show by announcing Hayden's signing at a track just down the road from their Bologna headquarters is unlikely to be a high priority for HRC, and so Hayden could be forced to wait.
The American is unlikely to push his luck on the track, either. With a cracked heel bone still healing, and the Indianapolis GP just 2 weeks from now, Hayden has stated he won't be pushing as hard as possible at Misano. He wants to make an impression at the track nearest his home, rather than the home of so many Italians.
If Andrea Dovizioso is to be Nicky Hayden's replacement at Honda for the race side of things, Shinya Nakano is likely to be doing Hayden's test work. Nakano was given a factory-spec spring valve RC212V engine at Brno, and immediately put it to good use by finishing a season high 4th. Nakano's outing on the bike proved two important things: the steel spring valve engine is still extremely competitive, and perhaps more importantly, it performs extremely well on Bridgestones.
For the conspiracy theorists who said that Nakano getting the factory-spec bike was a prelude to the Repsol Honda team dumping Michelin and switching to Bridgestones are looking less like wild-eyed crackpots each week. Their predictions are looking positively rational and prescient, with Honda inching closer to an announcement at every meeting. Another good result by Nakano will hasten the move to Japanese rubber, proving the conspiracy theorists and cynics right.
There is little room for cynicism or conspiracy theories at Kawasaki. After a downright dismal first half of the year, Kawasaki's engineers put together a radically revised bike at Brno, and their work paid off in spades. Ant West, MotoGP's perennial backmarker this year, suddenly showed some of the talent that got him the factory ride in the first place, taking a 5th at Brno, his best result of the year.
That could be a harbinger of good things to come at Misano. Along with Casey Stoner, West is the only other rider to have won on the new Misano layout, having taken an impressive victory in last year's World Supersport race. So there's no doubt that West can go quickly here, it's just a matter of hoping Kawasaki's progress is real, and not just a blip.
West's team mate, John Hopkins, will be praying that progress is real too. Hopper signed a big money deal to come to Team Green at the end of last year, and is finding out that money isn't everything the hard way this year. In addition to a poor bike, Hopkins has also been plagued by injury, with a broken leg at Assen the latest injury he's had to deal with. Now almost back to full strength, and with memories of his podium on the Suzuki here last year, he will have his eyes on a good result. On a Kawasaki of dubious provenance, and with a leg that is still painful, It may take a minor miracle for Hopper to get on the podium, though.
The Gran Premio Cinzano di San Marino e della Riviera di Rimini - or as it's known to MotoGP journalists paid by the word, the big money race - is going to be a crucial point in the 2008 season. There are a slew of riders still riding for their contracts for next year, and who therefore have little to lose. Chris Vermeulen, Randy de Puniet, Alex de Angelis, Toni Elias, all of them have a point to prove, and a seat to secure. Crashing out of 3rd is likely to give them a better chance at a seat than finishing a reliable 9th, and so there's the chance of some spectacular, if overly optimistic passing attempts.
Then there's Michelin, currently seated firmly in the Last Chance Saloon, sippin' whiskey clutched firmly in their hands. The French tire make simply cannot afford another bad performance, and if they don't get the tires for Misano exactly right, the countdown to their exit from MotoGP will be officially started. They have to deliver, and if they do, there's a bunch of Michelin men out there determined to score some spectacular results to compensate for the misery they've been forced to go through over the past few races.
But the big show, the one that has captivated the imaginations of just about every MotoGP fan around the world, will be between Valentino Rossi and Casey Stoner. Rossi can make history at Misano, but to do so, he has to overcome the man who is so fast he is almost untouchable.
Valentino Rossi would not be a 7 time world champion if he didn't have a plan: "(Casey Stoner) knows he is the best and therefore does not respect his rivals; I have to give him a problem," he told Julian Ryder. The prospect of Valentino Rossi trying to hold up a man who is faster than him, and of Casey Stoner trying to apply pressure, while withstanding the pressure from Rossi is the most mouthwatering prospect in all of motorcycle racing.
On Sunday, history will be made. One way or another. It should be a memory to treasure.
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