MotoGP Shanghai Race Report - Resurrection

Tired of MotoGP's Young Turks, the Old Guard strikes back

Posted: 4 May 2008
by David Emmett

Shanghai MotoGP Race Report - Resurrection

Throughout the first three races of the 2008 MotoGP season, all the talk has been of the newcomers to the class. And rightly so, as Jorge Lorenzo, Andrea Dovizioso, James Toseland and Alex de Angelis have all made an impact on MotoGP, to a greater or lesser extent. Lorenzo taking three poles in his first three races, and his first win at just the third attempt; Dovizioso punching way above the weight of his underpowered satellite Honda RC212V; Toseland proving that World Superbikes is still a viable entry route into MotoGP by finishing in the top 7 in the first three races of the year; even de Angelis has impressed the public, by pushing his Honda right to the limit, and rather too often, well over it, and into the gravel.

As exciting as this development has been for the fans, it has meant that the attention the established names in MotoGP are getting is a good deal less than they are either accustomed to or care for, and what attention they do get has been of entirely the wrong kind. Nothing flatters the ego more than to be asked your opinion by journalists, but nothing deflates it more than to be asked your opinion of why other riders are doing better than you by those same pressmen. For MotoGP stars used to being the main attraction, this is a bitter pill to swallow.

The trouble is, those same stars have no one to blame but themselves. Valentino Rossi forced a switch from Michelin to Bridgestone tires at the end of 2007, and since then, has struggled to learn his way round the new tires. After being dumped unceremoniously from his ride at Ducati, Loris Capirossi swore revenge aboard the Rizla Suzuki, but finds himself finishing in much the same position as he did on the Ducati GP7. Far from challenging the world champion on equal machinery, Marco Melandri, the man who replaced Capirex at Ducati, has been almost entirely faceless. And only relative newcomer Dani Pedrosa seems able to make the Honda competitive.

Move On

MotoGP's Old Guard is suddenly looking very jaded indeed. There is talk of a wholesale shakeup, with suggestions that Valentino Rossi may be past his prime, that Honda has lost its way, that riders like Toni Elias and John Hopkins, who have shown such promise in the past, are only as good as their results, and no more. And there are widespread rumors that Marco Melandri could be heading for an early split with Ducati, perhaps even to retire.

Such talk eventually begins to grate on MotoGP veterans, and as practice progressed for the Shanghai round of MotoGP, they showed signs of reasserting their authority. The names at the top of the timesheets during practice had a much more familiar ring, and the revenge of the veterans was made complete when the old stalwart Colin Edwards put in a scorching lap in the dying seconds of qualifying to take pole, shattering Valentino Rossi's previous pole record by 3/10ths of a second. Less prominent, but just as remarkable, was the return to form of Marco Melandri and Toni Elias. No longer loitering at the very bottom of the timesheets, the two Ducati men had suddenly made a huge step forward, and moved much further up the field.

The Old Guard's resurgence was not all of their own making. On Friday, Jorge Lorenzo had suffered probably the biggest highside seen at a racetrack since the demise of the 500cc two strokes, chipping a bone in his ankle and fracturing bones in both feet. It was a testament to Lorenzo's courage that he rode at all on Saturday, but the measure of Lorenzo was managing to grab 4th on the grid, despite nearly falling in another spectacular incident, his Yamaha M1 bucking and weaving wildly, throwing the Spaniard up into the air before the bike regained its composure. The way he slammed down onto the tank brought tears to the eye of every man in the paddock, and quite a few of the women too.

Just When You Thought It Was Safe To Go Back In The Water

Then, the weather threw the race a curveball. Practice had taken place under the hot humid smog that hangs perennially over the Chinese city of Shanghai, but race day dawned amidst a downpour. The morning warmup session was all the time the teams had to find a wet setup, and to their relief, the rain disappeared and the track began to dry as 3pm approached.

On the grid, everyone was on slicks, despite the race being declared wet by Race Direction. A gamble, but with a dry line all the way round the track, and no sign of fresh rain visible through the haze of pollution obscuring the clouds, a gamble which the riders were forced to take. The difficulty came for the men on the end of each row, the right-hand side of the track not cleared of water by the preceding 250 race. If there was one place where it was likely to be hard getting off the line, it was from 3rd, 6th and 9th on the grid.

But as the officials waved the riders off for the start of the warmup lap, it was Jorge Lorenzo who was in trouble. Clearly nervous about his race, the Spaniard stalled his Fiat Yamaha pulling way from the line too slowly, and was left paddling his bike forward on his two painfully injured feet. His crew sprinted to his aid though, and once they had bump-started his M1, Lorenzo was underway once more for the final lap before the start.

Magic Roundabout

As the lights dimmed, pole man Colin Edwards led the thundering pack away from the line, before seeing Casey Stoner fire past and into the first corner marginally ahead. Valentino Rossi, who had been 2nd on the grid, was forced to watch Dani Pedrosa fly past him up the inside, Pedrosa putting the electronic launch system fitted to his Repsol Honda to maximum effect. Behind Rossi, his team mate Jorge Lorenzo had gotten over his warmup lap nerves to hit Turn 1 in 5th, but with the Suzukis of Loris Capirossi and Chris Vermeulen inside him on the tight line.

Fortunately for the Yamahas of Edwards, Rossi and Lorenzo, the fact that Turn 1 and then Turn 2 goes on for such a very long time, before flicking back left again for Turn 3, means that the battle is by no means over once you tip the bike in for the first right hander. By the time the pack exited Turn 3, Edwards was back ahead of Stoner, who now had Rossi snapping at his tail, while Pedrosa was left to fend off Lorenzo. Pedrosa's team mate Nicky Hayden had used the outside line round Turns 1 and 2 to nip past the Rizla Suzukis, while Loris Capirossi also had Marco Melandri charge past into 7th.

Round the hairpin, and through the flowing section between Turns 7 and 10, Melandri was forced to surrender first the place he'd taken from Capirossi, and then another spot to James Toseland, racing at yet another track the Brit had never seen before. Ahead of them, Nicky Hayden and Jorge Lorenzo swapped back and forth on the short drag up to Turn 11, before the pack rounded the banked Turn 13, and headed off down the long back straight.

Speed

As a rule, long straights add little interest to motorcycle racing, but this first passage with the pack still closely grouped had been keenly awaited. At last year's race, this was the point that Casey Stoner opened up his Ducati and walked away from the rest, forcing Valentino Rossi to brake at the very limit of his ability for the hairpin at the end of the straight, just to try and stay in touch. This year, the top speeds between the different makes of bike were much closer, but the Ducati was still ahead. The question remained, would Rossi be able to stay with Stoner this year, and not have to rely on his brakes every lap?

Down the straight, Ducati horsepower prevailed once again. But only just: where Stoner romped away from Rossi in 2007, this year, his advantage was just a crawl. And so it came down to a braking showdown once again, but with a tailwind blowing down the long back straight, the pack found themselves going 10 km/h faster than they had during practice. The leading four compacted like a squeezebox, but made it through one of the slowest corners of the year in one piece, their order unchanged.

That was not to last. As the leaders crossed the line for the first time, Casey Stoner blew past Edwards to take the lead, while behind the American, Dani Pedrosa had followed Stoner to pass Rossi. But in his eagerness to lead, Stoner was in too hot, and edging wide and scrubbing speed off, the reigning champ was forced to watch Edwards and Pedrosa slip underneath. Adding insult to injury, Valentino Rossi followed just a couple of turns later, passing on the brakes into the hairpin of Turn 6.

Rossi's move came not a moment too late. At the same corner, Dani Pedrosa had already gotten ahead of Edwards, and was poised to make a break. Shanghai is the track where Pedrosa got his first victory in MotoGP by running away at the front, and with Rossi on his longest winless streak in MotoGP, The Doctor wasn't prepared to lie down and let that happen. As they hared down the back straight for the second time, Rossi crept alongside Edwards ready to pass on the brakes.

No Time To Lose

Rossi's mind was clearly already on Pedrosa. Passing Edwards simply, Rossi's focus switched to the Honda, and thought about killing two birds with one stone. But he was too late, and too far back, and the attempt to make up the ground meant he ran far too deep, losing 2nd to Edwards once again, Pedrosa slipping out of his grasp. Ironically, Stoner was focused on Rossi as Rossi had been on Pedrosa, and as Rossi went wide and late on the brakes, Stoner followed, nearly running off the edge of the track.

Rossi's demotion was short lived. The Italian was already onto Edwards' tail by the final corner, and was up the inside and into 2nd as they entered Turn 1. He now had a clear run at Pedrosa, but the Spaniard had a lead of over a second, and a reputation for winning races by taking off at the front. Rossi had his work cut out.

Not one to shy away from a challenge, The Doctor put his head down and charged. Taking 3/10ths out of Pedrosa on lap 3, then 4/10ths on lap 4, by the time the two men arrived at the double left of Turns 9 and 10, Rossi was upon him. The Italian tailed Pedrosa through the tight left and then long right, biding his time, aware of the power advantage his pneumatic valve Yamaha M1 had. As they ran out onto the back straight, Rossi closed on Pedrosa, then pulled out of his slipstream, passing easily before the two men entered the braking zone for the tight hairpin.

Now past Pedrosa, Rossi's set about the task of pulling away. Having taken several tenths of a second out of the Spaniard on the previous three laps, it should have been a cakewalk, but Pedrosa dug in his heels. With a target to focus on, Pedrosa's lap times dropped to match Rossi's, and though the Italian was still quicker, Pedrosa was now losing just 100ths a lap, keeping The Doctor well within his grasp. Every lap, Rossi pushed, upping the pace, times dropping, and every lap, Pedrosa responded, the Italian never leaving his sight. Shaking off Pedrosa was a much bigger job than Rossi had anticipated.

The Following

Behind Rossi and Pedrosa, a tense battle raged. Colin Edwards led a gaggle of riders, with Casey Stoner and Nicky Hayden close behind. Hayden had a gap on Andrea Dovizioso, who was engaged in close quarters scrapping with Jorge Lorenzo, Loris Capirossi, Marco Melandri, James Toseland, Shinya Nakano and Chris Vermeulen.

Though Edwards was the fastest of the followers, the leaders were too quick for the Texan, and he had to let Rossi and Pedrosa go. Focusing on keeping the rest behind, Edwards ran fast and smooth, until on lap 6, he got caught out on braking at the end of the straight, and was forced to  run wide. He only lost a couple of seconds, but more importantly, he also lost 4 places. Now stuck in traffic, the extra speed he'd had went to waste, dissipated by the struggle to pass and not be passed.

Edwards' mistake left Casey Stoner leading the chase. Nicky Hayden closed on Stoner, but could never match the speed of the Australian's Ducati down the back straight, and faced with attacks from behind, was forced to let Stoner go.

Get Ready To Rumble

Hayden had fallen into the clutches of a ferocious set to for 5th. Jorge Lorenzo had led this group at first, but had dropped back as the fight grew intense in the opening laps. In his place, Andrea Dovizioso was his usual combative self, caught up in the multiple-bike scrap he seems to end up in just about every race. The Team Scot Honda man had Loris Capirossi and Marco Melandri to contend with, Lorenzo following close behind.

At first, Hayden held off the charging group behind him, while Dovizioso and Capirossi fought over 6th. But on lap 5, a problem with the clutch on Capirex' Suzuki dropped the Italian to 12th, and too far down the order to get back into the fight. As it turned out, Capirossi was lucky, for a lap later, his team mate Chris Vermeulen suffered a similar problem, and was forced to pull into the pits.

The most remarkable figure in the battle for 4th was Marco Melandri. Melandri's season so far had consisted of running around just inside the points, and now he was battling it out just behind the podium. The mark of his comeback was that on lap 8, he passed not one, but two riders, taking Dovizioso on the front straight, and Nicky Hayden into the tight hairpin of Turn 14. All of a sudden, Marco Melandri was up in 4th.

Up The Pressure

At the front, the pace was hotting up. Both Rossi and Pedrosa had been running laps of 2'00 flat, but as their bikes began to lighten and the track dried out even more, 1'59 began to beckon. Rossi was the first to crack the 2'00 minute barrier on lap 10, with Pedrosa following two laps later. Still with just a few tenths separating the pair, Rossi cranked up the pressure again, and again Pedrosa responded. Nearly a second a lap faster than the rest of the field, the leaders were beyond reach of the chasing pack, now over 11 seconds down.

Each time Rossi pushed his Fiat Yamaha harder, pulling away in the first part the track, Pedrosa would pick up the pace, inching back the hundredths of a second through sectors 2 and 3. On 17, Rossi pushed again, getting down towards lap record pace, and once more Pedrosa followed, this time losing a tenth of a second. Rossi kicked again with a 1'59.273, breaking Pedrosa's lap record set on the 990cc Honda, and again Pedrosa tried to match him, falling another tenth short. On lap 19, Rossi ran another 1'59.3 lap, but this time, Pedrosa had nothing left. Rossi gained a second on lap 19, and another on lap 20. By the time Valentino Rossi crossed the line to take victory, he had a 4 second lead after just 4 laps. The Doctor was back.

After Rossi bullied his way to get Bridgestones at the end of last season, people started wondering whether the Italian still had his mojo. Rossi's legend was built on being able to compensate for inferior equipment based on sheer riding skill, the last switch Rossi had made being from the utterly dominant Honda RC211V to the ill-fated Yamaha. By demanding Bridgestone tires, it looked like Rossi was tacitly admitting that his talent was waning, and he needed the best equipment to keep on winning. At Shanghai, he'd proved the doubters wrong. The China track favors neither brand of tire, taking rubber out of the equation. But the manner of Rossi's win left no room for questions: passing to get to the front, and pushing until the opposition surrendered.

Cheap Trick

The manner of Rossi's victory also showed the old fox was not too old to learn. In 2007, Rossi had tried to beat Casey Stoner and Dani Pedrosa the way he had beaten Sete Gibernau and Max Biaggi: by sitting on their tail until they got nervous and made a mistake. But Stoner and Pedrosa were entirely impervious to that trick, and just kept their heads down and the throttle open. By the time Rossi realized that they weren't going to make a mistake, his tires were too shot to cope with the extra stress of a hard pass.

At Shanghai, Rossi gave a demonstration of how to beat the likes of Pedrosa and Stoner: get past them early, and push from in front, not behind. Pedrosa eventually capitulated, settling for championship points instead of fighting Rossi for the win. Against Biaggi and Gibernau, Rossi made them afraid of what they couldn't see, and put pressure on from behind. Against Pedrosa today, Rossi made him afraid of what he could see, getting in front of the Spaniard and intimidating him with what he had, putting in a sequence laps each faster than the next. There can be no doubt that The Doctor intends to apply the same treatment to Casey Stoner at the earliest possible opportunity.

Dani Pedrosa crossed the line knowing he'd been beaten, but still satisfied. Pedrosa had scored 20 valuable points in the championship, and pulled out a comfortable lead over his rivals. The Spaniard has a single aim this year: to become world champion, and he conceded the battle, that he might win the war at the end of the season.

But despite being beaten, Pedrosa had put up an almighty fight. He had faced down a Valentino Rossi at the top of his game for 17 laps, and only chosen discretion over valor once it was a safe decision to make. What's more, he'd pushed Rossi hard on a motorcycle which was 8 km/h down on top speed. If he can do that with the steel-spring valve, what will Pedrosa be capable of once the Repsol Honda team get the pneumatic valve engine, which should produce more power and use less fuel? Pedrosa's goal of a world title is looking very realistic indeed.

The Blame Game

The current holder of that crown finished a lonely race 15 seconds behind Rossi. Casey Stoner's 3rd place marked an important upturn after the past two difficult races at Jerez and Estoril, and kept him in contention for the championship. But the Australian's difficulties are starting to take their toll: in Parc Ferme, Stoner was seething, and when interviewed, Stoner immediately complained about his tire, and that he'd been advised to take a different one to the tire he'd used during practice, and that it hadn't worked out. Stoner is known as a frank speaker, but this was a barely concealed public retribution to his team. Even getting on the box couldn't console the Australian: "A podium this far off is just about not worth it," Stoner told the BBC. Casey Stoner needs to start fighting for a win again, for his own peace of mind, if not for his title defense.

The battle for 4th had raged for half the race, with five men battling it out. At first, Marco Melandri looked in control of the position, holding off first Nicky Hayden, then Andrea Dovizioso. But then charging up through the field came the redoubtable Jorge Lorenzo.  From 9th on lap 4, Lorenzo had bided his time, and worked his way forward. By lap 14, he was behind Melandri, and holding 5th ahead of Dovizioso, and on the next lap, he was past and into 4th. With a chipped ankle and fractured bones in his feet, to take 4th in conditions which were far from ideal is a testament to Lorenzo's talent and determination. The Spaniard proved he is talented with the remarkable win at Estoril. At Shanghai, he showed his grit and his mettle. Lorenzo's 4th place in China is possibly even more remarkable than his victory in Portugal.

The Comeback Kid

Marco Melandri had to settle for 5th, but accepting that will not be so hard. So far this season, his time aboard the Ducati has been a vale of tears, with Melandri looking visibly defeated by his inability to ride fast on the bike. But long discussions with Ducati's chief engineer Filippo Preziosi seemed to have helped, and either promises of support, or perhaps just having someone listen to him have turned the situation around for Melandri. Whether this is just an aberration, or whether the Melandri of old really is back and ready to start chasing podiums and wins remains to be seen. But the picture is a lot less bleak today than it was just a few days ago.

Just one position behind, but a good deal less happy, Nicky Hayden came home in 6th. The American is having a far better season than during his ill-fated title defense, the 2008 Honda RC212V a bike much more suited to his style than last year's machine. But Hayden too is frustrated, and feels he should be running closer to the front. Maybe the new engine will give him the final lift he needs.

Colin Edwards came home similarly disappointed in 7th. After his breathtaking pole, and a good start, Edwards was bitter about the braking mistake he'd made on lap 6. If it hadn't been for that, the Texas Tornado could have had a podium, but "if" doesn't count for anything, in sport or in life.

The next man home was another revived Ducati: Toni Elias was finally looking like the Elias of old, and had looked strong all weekend. The changes made in testing after Estoril had worked in China as well. Expect to see more of Elias for the rest of the season.

In 9th, more disappointment for Loris Capirossi. The Italian veteran had been running strong and giving as good as he got in the fight for 5th, until a clutch problem lost him some time. With both Capirossi and Vermeulen suffering the same problem, this is something Suzuki will need to address as soon as possible if they are to get back on the podium.

Shinya Nakano came home in 10th, around the place he's finished in the last two races. Nakano had been much quicker during practice, finishing as high as 4th on Friday afternoon. Practice had showed that Nakano made progress in China, but the rain may have muddied the waters.

Andrea Dovizioso finished a disappointed 11th after losing grip in the latter stages of the race. The Italian put on another great show in the early stages, fighting in the second group, and the points he scored are not at all commensurate with the entertainment he is providing.

James Toseland was less disappointed than his position may suggest, only managing 12th. The reigning World Superbike champion could take a lot of comfort from the weekend. At a track he'd never seen before, Toseland had improved his lap times by at least 0.7 seconds in every session, with the race his weakest performance of the event. At a track which is notoriously difficult to learn, a long lap with a lot of bumpy corners, the Brit stayed on and scored points. In his rookie season, that's all that's expected of him.

The Hollow Men

Randy de Puniet finished an invisible weekend in 13th place. The Frenchman never really got going at Shanghai, and his position showed it.

John Hopkins expected a great deal more from the race at Shanghai. At his 100th Grand Prix, at the track where he scored his first podium, and in front of Kawasaki senior management, Hopper had been optimistic of his chances for the race. But neither of the Kawasakis coped well with the damp conditions, and Hopper made a couple of early mistakes leaving him stranded down the field.

In 15th position, Sylvain Guintoli is at least scoring points, but seeing both Marco Melandri and team mate Toni Elias suddenly finding some pace with the Ducati must be disheartening. The young Frenchman needs to start stealing his team mate's set up, or he may find it hard to find a job next year.

At least Guintoli finished ahead of Alex de Angelis. The Gresini Honda man had a weekend similar to de Puniet's and was as invisible in the race as he was during practice.

Poor Ant West probably wishes he was invisible. The Australian must have prayed for a downpour on Saturday night, and felt cursed that he got it on Sunday morning, only for the track to dry in the afternoon. With rumors abounding that this could be West's last race for the Kawasaki MotoGP team, last place was the last thing he needed.

Resurrection

After being virtually written off from the beginning of the season, in China, the big names of MotoGP showed just why it is that they are such big names. Valentino Rossi stamped his authority on the race in exactly the style we have come to expect of The Doctor, winning with apparent ease. Marco Melandri finally stepped up and was back in the thick of things, rather than trailing round at the back like a spectator. And if Toni Elias had gotten off to a better start, he could have been fighting over 4th place, rather than down in 8th. His lap times were good enough for 6th, once he got going. It just goes to show that 3 races in is way too early to start drawing conclusions.

Yet some conclusions seem obvious: with 4 winners from 4 races, the title seems more open than it has been for a very long time. Casey Stoner, Dani Pedrosa, Jorge Lorenzo and Valentino Rossi all seem capable of winning at will, and there's 3 or 4 other names who could quite easily steal the odd win from the season yet.

But the biggest lesson to be drawn from the Shanghai round of MotoGP is that The Doctor is back in business. He finally had a tire and a setup which lasted all race, and allowed him to push from start to finish. After just 4 races on Bridgestones, he is winning again, and winning convincingly. Just how much the victory meant was clear on the parade lap, as Rossi stopped at almost every corner, to take the congratulations of photographers, corner workers, everyone in MotoGP. More significantly, Rossi got off his bike, and gave it a kiss and a pat, something he last did when he won in South Africa, on his first outing on the Yamaha M1. Rossi is gelling again with his Yamaha, and when The Doctor achieves that unity of man and machine, it is truly a thing of dread and wonder. It's going to be a long, hard and exciting season.

Full result of the Grand Prix of China at Shanghai

MotoGP championship standings after Shanghai

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