After Casey Stoner's crash at Brno, would he be back, and ready to ruin Valentino Rossi's fairy tale of getting a record-equalling 68th win at the track just a stone's throw from Rossi's home?
Everybody loves a story. A story can capture our imagination, and transport us beyond the realms of our daily lives. A story can move us and put us in touch with our deepest feelings. And a story can teach us, by allowing us to walk a mile in another person's shoes and understand their point of view. Stories help us organize and explain the world around us, and make sense of the endless stream of seemingly random events which fill it.
For stories are at the heart of what makes us human: Every culture, every creed, every people has its tales, myths and legends to help it make sense of the world. It is how we keep track of our history, both on the global scale, and at the level of the personal narrative which we construct from our lives.
So deep-seated is this instinct that we also tell stories that may not even be there. We draw together isolated incidents, related only by their proximity in time or in geographical location, add our own correlations and interpretations, and build a logical and coherent story that sounds completely plausible. That such stories do not necessarily bear any resemblance to reality, present or future, tends to be completely disregarded.
Tell Me A Story
The Misano MotoGP round, or the Gran Premio Cinzano di San Marino e della Riviera di Rimini, to give it its full, keyboard-eroding name, was a case in point. So many separate possibilities came together at this race that the fairy tale was being written before anyone had turned a wheel on the track.
As so often in motorcycle racing fairy tales, the character at the heart of the story was Valentino Rossi. Rossi's story, already embroidered so broadly across the rich tapestry of MotoGP, was poised to see more chapters added at Misano.
For Misano was the very first track that the Italian had ever raced at as a teenager aboard a 125, yet at the same time, it was the only track that he had not yet won a MotoGP race at. The Doctor had already scratched Laguna Seca from that ever-dwindling list six weeks ago, and had announced his attention that Misano should go the same way.
The History Man
Added to this was the fact that a win here would bring Rossi's total of premier class wins up to 68, equal with the legendary Giacomo Agostini. Agostini had dominated the sport in the 1960s and early 1970s, making a habit of winning every race until he secured a title, then taking the rest of the season off. To draw level with Agostini in an era of much more closely fought competition would brighten Rossi's star still further beyond it's already blazing brilliance.
As if this were not enough, Rossi would have the opportunity of achieving this incredible milestone less than 10 miles from his home town of Tavullia. In fact, almost the entire population of Tavullia had turned up at the track to cheer Rossi on, and watch him enter the history books. They had even gone so far as to hold a town council meeting at the track, with one of the items of business the appointment of Valentino Rossi as honorary mayor for a day.
The scene was set, the actors had taken the stage, all that was needed was a deft storyteller to allow the tale to unfurl as the fans and followers had scripted it in their minds. A thrilling race-long battle with his archrival Casey Stoner, followed by a final pass for the lead at the final hairpin, with Rossi courageously holding the Australian champion off for the win over the line. Everything was in place for a repeat of the Laguna Seca race, with the same intended outcome. They just needed to roll the film, and let it all play out.
Racing, though, is not scripted. As thrilling as the plots of Grand Prix or Days Of Thunder may have been, the protagonists of the 2008 MotoGP series are less interested in ensuring a fairy tale ending and more focused on winning races, and championships, if possible. The press might try to write the script, but the teams and the riders just keep ad-libbing all the while.
It can hardly come as a surprise, then, that Casey Stoner refused to play along. As usual, the reigning world champion was terrifyingly fast right out of the box, humiliating the rest of the field in free practice by taking an advantage of 7/10ths of a second.
Qualifying was closer, Valentino Rossi closing to half a second, but even that small concession was granted at Stoner's whim: The Australian had been working on perfecting his race setup, and had run out of time. As a result, Stoner only used 2 qualifiers, while the rest of the field used 3 or 4, and so fell short of what he felt he could have achieved.
If Valentino Rossi still harbored any aspirations of turning his fairy tale into reality he had a lot of work to do. After crashes at Laguna Seca and Brno, Mr Perfect was back, and he showed no sign of taking any prisoners. Most terrifying of all was that Casey Stoner had done this despite an old injury resurfacing, with a crack in the scaphoid bone of his left hand opening back up again. Riding with a broken hand is painful, riding at MotoGP speeds with a broken hand must be excruciating. But it certainly wasn't slowing Stoner down.
As the lights dimmed, unleashing the howling cast onto the blank canvas of the Misano circuit, Rossi's fairy tale looked over before it had even begun. Casey Stoner launched himself off the line, fast as ever, with Valentino Rossi following at a distance, but still in touch with the red Ducati. But as Rossi prepared to heel his Fiat Yamaha over into the first corner, he found a Repsol Honda in his way. Dani Pedrosa had, as ever, fired away from the line like a bullet from a gun and rocketed up from the 2nd row of the grid to snatch 2nd place from Rossi.
Pedrosa's wasn't the only Honda Rossi had to contend with. Behind him, the Italian had Randy de Puniet snapping at his heels too, the Frenchman having barged his way ahead of Rossi's team mate Jorge Lorenzo, while Toni Elias and Shinya Nakano crowded Lorenzo from behind.
As the pack flicked left again for the second part of the first chicane, Elias and Nakano got past Lorenzo and were clear through Turn 3. After starting from the front row of the grid, both Fiat Yamahas had been forced back down the field.
Three corners in, and Casey Stoner was already scrawling the same old story across the face of the race, taking off at the front and turning it into a one man show. Valentino Rossi needed to act, and through the double right hander at Rio, Rossi was on Pedrosa and pushing the Spaniard hard. Just how hard would be revealed as they rounded the left hander that opened up onto the back straight.
Rossi exited the corner with his front Bridgestone almost kissing Pedrosa's rear Michelin, and was hard on the gas ready for a pass down the straight. A little too hard for his rear tire, the bike bucking and kicking Rossi out of his seat, losing 30 yards to Pedrosa and leaving him to start the chase all over again.
With Stoner escaping, and Pedrosa chasing, Rossi now headed an angry pack of riders, suddenly finding themselves held up by the Italian. But fortunately for Rossi, the group was too busy fighting with each other to take full advantage, and only Jorge Lorenzo was close enough to follow in Rossi's tracks.
Behind Lorenzo, Toni Elias, Randy de Puniet, Shinya Nakano, James Toseland and Andrea Dovizioso headed into Tramonto, all determined to come out ahead. The long, wide hairpin allowed each of them to try different lines both on the way in and on the way out, and as the air cleared after the ensuing chaos, it was Elias who led onto the straight, from de Puniet and Nakano.
Down the straight and through the series of ever-tightening right handers from Curvone to Carro, Rossi chased Pedrosa down, aware that he could not allow Stoner to escape. By the time they entered the final turn, Rossi was back on Pedrosa's tail, and pushing him once again.
It was about time, too. In just one lap, Casey Stoner had already built a lead of 1.7 seconds, and by the way he kicked up dirt as he used up all of the track, the kerb and a little bit of the track-side grass as well, he was in no mood to slow down. If Misano was to be a fairy tale, it would be Casey Stoner who was going to write the script.
Valentino Rossi had to try to stop him, and to do that, he first needed to get past Dani Pedrosa. Stuck behind the Spaniard at the intricate first section of the track, and too far behind along the back straight, Rossi started his move at the sharp left of Quercia. Cutting tight inside the turn while Pedrosa drifted wide left Rossi sat on Pedrosa's shoulder as the pair headed into the long right of Tramonto.
Pedrosa clipped the first apex, and drifted out to turn in for the second, taking the smoothest line around the corner, but Rossi had anticipated this. As Pedrosa drifted outside, Rossi cut back inside, stuffing his Yamaha onto the apex that Pedrosa was aiming for. His path blocked, Pedrosa was forced to sit up briefly, and let Rossi through.
Not So Fast
Pedrosa would not give up 2nd place lightly, though. As they fired down the back straight towards the 150mph right kink of Curvone, Pedrosa crept closer to Rossi, and looked up the inside at the scary right, only backing off when he realized the pass was not there. The 250 race had proved that it was possible to pass there, but only if you were prepared to risk imminent disaster. On only the 2nd lap of the race, the prudent thing to do was to wait, and try again later.
The Italian was not going to give Pedrosa that chance though. Once he was past the Spaniard, Rossi took off after Stoner and set about trying to close the gap. As they crossed the line at the end of lap 2, the magnitude of that task became apparent: with 2 laps gone, Casey Stoner already had a lead of over 3 seconds. There was still a lot of the race left, but 3 seconds are not easy to find against a man as fast as Stoner.
That would not stop Rossi from trying. Over the next few laps, a scenario reminiscent of the last race at Brno played out, with Rossi closing, and Stoner responding. Unlike Brno, however, Stoner's lead was always comfortable. On lap 3, Stoner added another 3/10ths of a second, only to see Rossi take it back again on lap 4.
The pair drove each other ever deeper into lap record territory, neither man able to seize an advantage, and make it stick. The time that Valentino Rossi made up in the first sector of the track would be gone again by the end of the second sector, Casey Stoner using the speed of the Ducati down the back straight and his own speed through Quercia to take it back. Round Tramonto and the following series of right handers, the fight was even, Rossi gaining on one lap, Stoner dropping the Italian again on the next.
With lap times dropping, something had to give. At some point, it would just be physically impossible to get any faster, but neither man looked close to reaching that point just yet.
Until lap 8. As Casey Stoner braked for Tramonto, and started to turn in, the front folded, his tire losing grip and letting go. Even worse, Stoner's right clip-on snapped, ending any chance of the Australian trying to get back on and salvage some points. Just as at Brno, Rossi had been gifted the lead by a mistake by Stoner, and just as at Brno, he would see his championship lead over the Australian grow.
Unlike Brno, though, there didn't seem to be an obvious explanation. In the Czech Republic, Stoner was only a second ahead of Rossi, and had just seen the Italian take 3/10ths out of his lead. At Misano, Stoner was comfortably in the lead, and looked able to parry anything Rossi could throw at him.
After the race, two theories were popular. The first was that the pain from Stoner's broken scaphoid had caused him more problems than he would admit to. This was plausible, as the pain was particularly bad in some right handers, where Stoner was having to push on the bars to get the bike turned.
The second, and most popular among those clothed in yellow, was that Valentino Rossi's voodoo had worked its magic once again, and Stoner had crumbled under pressure. But the evidence for this is thin at best, as Stoner was matching Rossi lap for lap, held a comfortable 3 second lead, and had run 0.6 seconds faster during free practice on race tires.
Tell Me Why
Stoner himself put his crash down to a strange feeling with his front tire. The team had elected to scrub the tire in during the morning warm up, and Stoner told journalists that the heat cycling from running hot on the bike to cooling slightly under tire warmers had changed the right-hand side of the tire, and made it lose some of its grip. They had scrubbed the tire in so that Stoner could push hard from the outset, with the pain in his wrist leaving him little appetite to fight his way forward through the pack.
Whatever the reason, be it injury or sorcery, the outcome was the same. Coming into Misano, Casey Stoner was 50 points behind Valentino Rossi, and with a big hill to climb if he wanted to keep hold of his title. With no score from Misano, the hill was likely to turn into a mountain.
With Stoner out of the race, the Australian's story coming to an abrupt end, Valentino Rossi could get on with the predicted fairy tale. No one ahead of him, and an advantage of nearly 3 seconds over his team mate Jorge Lorenzo meant he could focus on copying what Stoner had tried to do, run fast and steady laps to take the win, and write his name beside the legendary Giacomo Agostini.
Team mate or no, Jorge Lorenzo was not prepared to just lie down and let this happen. With Stoner out, Lorenzo sensed his chance of a 2nd win in his rookie season, and a boost to his battered confidence. Lorenzo was already looking more like the man who took three poles in a row at the start of the season, and less like the frightened doe of his post-crash races. He pushed to catch Rossi, and to try and steal his thunder.
The Knight's Tale
With the most serious threat to his dream scenario taken out of the equation, Rossi was in no mood to let a supporting actor steal the show. Seeing Lorenzo up his pace, Rossi responded in kind, maintaining his gap at 3 seconds, before slowly starting to extend it. As the laps counted down, Rossi's lead looked ever safer, and the fairy tale which the press and his fans had written for it looked ever more likely to come true.
As he crossed the line to take his 68th victory in 500s and MotoGP, Valentino Rossi was visibly moved, and as excited as he had been at his first win on Bridgestone tires. The story that had been so carefully scripted had reached the climax just as planned, though the plot had meandered wildly and worryingly along the way. In front of his friends, his family and most of his home town, at his home circuit, Valentino Rossi had equaled Giacomo Agostini's amazing record for premier class wins.
More than that, Rossi had taken a big step towards reclaiming the title, taking maximum advantage of Casey Stoner's fall to extend his lead to 75 points, or 3 race wins, with just 5 races to go. Even if Stoner wins every race for the rest of the season, Rossi only needs to come in 6th and the title will still be his. The chances of 4 other riders along with Stoner beating Valentino Rossi at every race are slim, to say the least, and only misfortune can take the title from him.
After Rossi had drawn level with Angel Nieto for all-class wins at Le Mans, he had put on a special celebration with the Spanish racing legend, sitting pillion as Nieto rode his Yamaha M1 round the track on the parade lap. With Rossi capable of equaling Agostini's record at Misano, expectations were high that Rossi would pull a similar stunt to celebrate.
So there was a certain amount of disappointment that Ago did not make an appearance and join Rossi on track, and allow the Italian fans to page homage to two legendary Italian riders. But disappointment soon made way for understanding: As the crowd spilled over the fences and onto the track to join in the celebrations, riding round the Misano track became increasingly hazardous, and riders were spending more time riding on the grass avoiding fans than on the asphalt.
Robbed of Agostini, there was some small comfort for the Yamaha fans. Jorge Lorenzo rode a great race to take 2nd, almost capable of matching Rossi's pace, but never quite able to close the gap. However, after the tough few months which Lorenzo has been through since his monster highside at Shanghai, followed by his monster crash at Barcelona, a 2nd place was almost as good as a victory. The Spaniard looked like his old self again, to the delight of the fans. An in-form Lorenzo adds a big dollop of extra spice to MotoGP, something which has been sorely missed.
Lorenzo was at the head of a train of Spanish riders. Dani Pedrosa had led the Spaniards on the first lap, but once Rossi had gotten past, with Lorenzo following a few laps later, Pedrosa had then been forced to contend with an unleashed Toni Elias. The Repsol Honda rider was unable to hold off Elias for long, but sunk his teeth into the Alice Ducati's tail, and hung on for all he was worth.
Oh No You Don't
For 6 laps, Pedrosa trailed Elias, looking for an opportunity to strike back, but on lap 11, it looked like it was all over, the gap growing to over a second. But Pedrosa was not done. He dug his heels in once again, and clawed his way back onto Elias' tail, and pushed the Ducati man hard once more.
However determined, Pedrosa's chase was in vain. His pursuit foundered on lap 20, giving up half a second, and then over a second on the next lap. Pedrosa was beaten, and Toni Elias went on to claim his second podium in a row, taking 3rd place on the Alice Ducati. Since the departure of Luis d'Antin, the teams fortunes have been turned completely around, and from being the career killer that did for Alex Barros and Alex Hofmann, the satellite Ducati team is becoming an attractive prospect in MotoGP once again.
Dani Pedrosa was not at all pleased to have come home in 4th. But at least the end of his perceived suffering was in sight. Before the race even began, rumors surfaced that Pedrosa would be switching from Michelin to Bridgestone tires from the Indianapolis GP onwards, in two weeks time. After the race, it was announced that Pedrosa would be allowed to switch effective immediately allowing the Spaniard to get a feel for the Japanese rubber the following day.
After three horrendous races for Michelin, Pedrosa's - and more importantly, Repsol's, the sponsors behind the factory Honda team - patience had snapped, and the Spaniard finally got what he had called for at the end of the 2007 season. His request had been rejected by Honda's senior management then, as the Japanese company felt they were honor-bound to give Michelin another chance. But the pressure from Repsol, the Spanish oil giant which funds much of HRC's racing program, was greater than the ties of honor which had bound Honda to Michelin for 24 years and 14 premier class titles.
Battle Of Midway
If the race at the front had been a procession, the battle for places 5 through 8 was anything but. Shinya Nakano had initially led the group, but it quickly became clear he was off the pace. He clung on until lap 8, when Andrea Dovizioso got past, and after that, gradually slid down through the pack, putting up a hard, but fruitless fight for every place he had to give up.
Dovizioso was soon joined by James Toseland and Chris Vermeulen, and the three men then set about each other in a fierce battle for 5th. Dovizioso held the upper hand initially, but Toseland fought hard for every inch, while Vermeulen was biding his time behind the Honda and the Yamaha.
Eventually, the Rizla Suzuki rider struck, and once finally past Toseland on lap 22, Chris Vermeulen started to pull away, eventually to come home 5th. Another strong finish by the Australian bolstered his contract negotiations greatly, and after rumors had been emerging that Vermeulen could be forced to either take a major pay cut or leave MotoGP, his 5th place finish gave the Suzuki team the chance to emphasize in the press just how much they'd like to keep the Aussie.
James Toseland had been unable to stay with Vermeulen, but still hung on to take 6th place. Like fellow Yamaha rookie Lorenzo, Toseland had been through a rough patch of form since Donington, and had been at a bit of a loss. By equaling his best results in MotoGP once more, Toseland may have got back into the groove once again.
Toseland ended up splitting the Rizla Suzuki team, finishing ahead of Loris Capirossi. Capirossi had tagged onto the back of the group fighting for 5th, and once Nakano was gone, managed to get past Dovizioso to take 7th. The Suzukis had been experimenting with a new chassis at Misano, one which allows them to use the same front tire as Casey Stoner and Valentino Rossi, and the benefits are starting to show.
Forced to let the others through, Andrea Dovizioso was left with crumbs, coming home in 8th. The Italian will have hoped for a better result in front of his home crowd, but there was little more he could do at Misano.
The Long Tail
Behind Dovizioso finished another Italian. The first laps of the race looked like being another miserable trial for Marco Melandri, but as the race progressed, the factory Ducati rider started to find a rhythm. Melandri slowly fought his way from 16th at the end of the first lap to 9th at the end of the race. Now that his future has been settled Melandri has seemed more comfortable on the Ducati, and though he is unlikely to be competing for wins, at least he can now put on the appearance of being competitive from time to time.
In 10th came a disillusioned Colin Edwards, complaining bitterly about his tires. While the other Michelin riders managed decent finishes, filling out the even positions in the top 10 where Bridgestone took the odd positions, Edwards seemed to get the worst of the deal. He had some fierce, barely printable but very funny criticism of the Michelins at the end of the race, something which Michelin is unlikely to be very pleased about, especially as it is said that Michelin pay the bills for the Tech 3 Yamaha team.
Toni Elias' Alice Ducati team mate Sylvain Guintoli came home in 11th, after an anonymous race, while Shinya Nakano's downward spiral stopped only once the Gresini Honda man reached 12th.
The Kawasakis propped up the back of the field once again, Ant West finishing ahead of his troubled team mate John Hopkins. To finish 13th and 14th was especially disappointing, after the strong results the team had posted at Brno. But the setup changes at Brno had not worked at Misano, a completely different type of track. Added to their misery, Hopkins had missed the first day of qualifying amidst a flurry of rumors, citing a rib injury. The absence, then presence of his wife did nothing to stem the flow of these rumors, nor did it do much to boost Hopper's results.
With only 14 finishers, the field was made to look suspiciously empty again. Nicky Hayden pulled out of the race on Sunday morning, after he found the heel he had injured was causing him too much pain. Instead, the American elected to focus on preparing for Indianapolis, the closest thing Hayden has to a home GP.
If Hayden didn't start, Randy de Puniet and Alex de Angelis did. De Puniet got carried away by his own enthusiasm, as usual, and made it into, but not out of, the final corner on the first lap. De Angelis lasted longer, but not by much. The man from San Marino, riding at what was in name at least his home race finished the first lap, but not the second.
I Want To Believe
If you just look at the result of the San Marino Grand Prix, you could easily believe that fairy tales do come true. By coming to his home race and equaling a record which had achieved almost mythical status, at a track just a few miles from the town he grew up in and where he has returned to live, Valentino Rossi made us believe once again that MotoGP is a story, a tale written by an expert storyteller.
Casey Stoner's fall, crashing out while in the lead for the 2nd time in a row, added more credence to this belief, with many seeing Rossi's invisible hand behind Stoner's mistake. They were careful to give it a rational explanation, blaming it on Rossi's mind games, or the pressure Rossi put on Stoner, the more adventurous and imaginative putting it down to Rossi's voodoo, referring back to tales of dolls which Rossi was alleged to have of Max Biaggi and Sete Gibernau. The human impulse to impose a single, coherent narrative on a chain of events proved irresistible, as always.
Yet this impulse could be telling a story which is not there. Rossi's victory at Misano, though impressive, was anything but inevitable, and anyone putting money on the Italian would have got good odds on Sunday morning before the race. And though Casey Stoner's crash certainly gave reason to suspect that Stoner had been under pressure, the evidence that it was a direct and inevitable result of pressure from Rossi is flimsy at best.
Casey Stoner's modus operandi has always been simple: to get away if he can, and to run the fastest rhythm possible to the end, winning by as big a margin as possible. In this light, Misano was no different. After all, it's not just during the race. The reigning world champion usually manages to hit the top of the timesheets within 2 or 3 laps of hitting the track for free practice, smashing lap records a few laps later. So for Stoner to be pushing hard from the start is hardly a surprise.
What is a surprise is that Stoner has made two mistakes in a row, depriving himself of a possible 50 points in the process. This could just be a factor of Stoner stepping up the pace as he goes in pursuit of ever faster laps, or it could be a response to Valentino Rossi being able to match Stoner's pace. But to attribute it directly to the kind of panic which Rossi managed to instill in Max Biaggi or Sete Gibernau is to go a little too far. Rossi is famous for his mind games, and an absolute master at them, but so far, Stoner has seemed impervious. Whether that invulnerability to Rossi's pressure is over remains to be seen.
Despite the neatness of the story line which would have Casey Stoner buckling to Valentino Rossi's pressure, the jury is still out. Two no-scores in a row have raised some questions, but answers are as yet to be given. But if it happens again, then the room for doubt will be severely squeezed.
Whether all these events are related in a coherent narrative or not, just being a collection of random events puzzled together by human inventiveness, the fact remains that we love a story. And writing history in front of your home fans is certainly the way to make them believe in fairy tales. At Misano, on the last day of August, there could be no better role model for the handsome prince on his royal steed than Valentino Rossi.
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