Donington MotoGP Preview - The Sound And The Fury

MotoGP hits Blighty, for what threatens to be a rain-sodden British Grand Prix. Is that the sound of Ant West and Chris Vermeulen cheering that I can hear?

Racetracks are remarkable things. At their heart lies a deep paradox. For devotees of motor racing, they are mighty temples, places where they congregate to worship at the high altar of speed. For them, the smell of hot oil and fuel burnt and unburnt, and the deafening howl of engines pushed to bursting point and beyond for lap after lap stir the blood and are the very reason they flock to the track in their tens and hundreds of thousands, to fulfill a deep-seated need to experience the spectacle of racing.

For racing's detractors, the noise, the smell and the danger are precisely the reason to loathe racetracks. To them, thousands of people traveling from all around the world to watch a group of leather-clad lunatics waste such a precious – and costly – commodity as gasoline by going round in circles at high speed is utterly incomprehensible, and almost criminal in its wastefulness. The fact that this strange activity also produces a great deal of noise and a certain amount of stench just adds to their aversion.

In many countries, the problem is getting worse. Once located far from civilization, the space and open roads that made racing easy to organize have attracted wealthy refugees from the expanding towns, meaning that the suburbs are gradually closing in on the once isolated racetracks. And as those big comfortable homes, sold as oases of tranquility, get closer to the circuits, the complaints about the noise and the crowds and the traffic have increased, and the authorities which supervise the tracks are constantly forced to examine ways of reducing the problems.

Crisis? What Crisis?

Some tracks are luckier than others, though. For a variety of reasons, a number of tracks have fewer problems to deal with than the rest. The Losail circuit in Qatar, located in the middle of a desert and built at the behest of an authoritarian government, is unlikely to be surrounded by expanding populations hungry for space, and even if it were, their complaints would fall on deaf ears. A track like Jerez, in the heart of bike-mad Spain, has more fans living nearby than people who hate racing, and can therefore rely on plenty of local support. Any recent arrivals near the track are most likely moving to be nearer the circuit, and fully aware of the consequences.

There is a slightly more novel reason that Donington Park, the venue for the British MotoGP round, manages to limit complaints about the track. Like Qatar, the track benefits from its location. Unlike Qatar, however, this has less to do with its isolation from the inhabited world, and more to do with being situated next to Nottingham East Midlands Airport. The 50,000 aircraft a year which take off and land at the airport generate plenty of noise and stench of their own, neatly disguising some of the noise of the racetrack, and diverting attention away from the circuit.

But as smart a strategy as this might seem, there are downsides. The fact that many of those 50,000 aircraft are bearing local residents off to exotic and much warmer climes for a much-needed vacation means that those very locals are more likely to turn a blind eye and a deaf ear to the noise emanating from the airport. Whereas a vanishingly small segment of the local population is likely to spend their afternoons at Donington Park, either spectating or taking part in motorized forms of sport. As a result, and rather unjustly, complaints about the airport tend to be tempered by self-interest, and any criticism of the noise and the pollution deflected towards the Donington Park circuit.  

Slip Sliding Away

And though the proximity of East Midlands Airport neatly camouflages the noise the racing may produce at the track, it also generates another problem. The aircraft taking off and landing produce more than just noise; they also tend to douse the track in a liberal application of kerosene, making the track extremely treacherous in damp conditions.

What's worse is that the airport's main runway runs in the same direction as the two main straights, meaning aircraft take off and land directly over two of the most crucial corners on the track. The worst affected is Coppice, a fast and nasty right hander which takes the riders onto the Dunlop Straight and down towards the Fogarty Esses. This corner has caught some of the most experienced racers in the world out, even under perfect conditions; when wet, it becomes just plain vicious.

The other major victim is Redgate, the corner after the start and finish line. Though the corner tends to be less slippery, it presents other difficulties to compensate. For a start, Redgate is located on the brow of a hill, so as the riders tip into the corner, the track falls away underneath them, robbing them of grip. Then, from Redgate, they are launched down one of the great roller coaster rides of motorcycle racing: Down the hill and through the majestic and terrifying sweeps of the Craner Curves. If Redgate didn't catch you out, then Craner surely will, and you end up grass surfing on your back for hundreds of yards in front of thousands of spectators. The only comfort is that you weren't the first rider to be caught out here, nor will you be the last.

Here Comes The Rain Again

Fortunately, spilled jet fuel is not much of a problem when it's dry. Unfortunately, Donington Park is in England, and English summers are damp and drizzly as often as they are warm and dry. And this weekend looks like being no exception. With light showers forecast to start on Friday, culminating in heavy bouts of rain on Sunday afternoon, the chances of a typical rain-sodden race are all too great.

For two riders, that prospect will come as an answer to their prayers. Kawasaki's Ant West and Suzuki's Chris Vermeulen have an awful lot of things in common. Both are Australian, and both grew up racing dirt track, before turning their hand to road racing. Both are outstanding in the wet, and more significantly, both are in danger of losing their seats at the end of the season.

The situation is most pressing for Ant West. After a strong debut at last year's Donington round, the Australian's fortunes have continued to slide, hitting rock bottom through the early part of this season, which he has spent battling it out for last place with the Alice Ducatis. Fresh from a two-day test in Japan - ironically curtailed as a result of rain - which helped solve some of the traction problems the Kawasaki was exhibiting, a downpour may be just the tonic West's career needs. Anyone who witnessed his breathtaking demolition of the field at the Silverstone round of World Supersport in 2007, when he lapped almost the entire field in conditions more suitable for scuba diving than for motorcycle racing will be in no doubt about West's ability. If it rains, he is a safe bet for the front of the field.

Like his compatriot, Chris Vermeulen is in need of a boost to his career, and a wet-weather win at Donington could provide it. Vermeulen has already won at Le Mans, again in the rain, but has run consistently mid-pack in the dry, failing to make good on the promise the Australian showed when he first arrived from World Superbikes. With rumors flying that Vermeulen could well be returning to that series at the end of the year and Ben Spies taking his place at Suzuki, a win is one of the few things that could save the Australian's career in MotoGP. Though Vermeulen professes not to enjoy riding in the rain, he is truly a master of the art, and Sunday could well see another display of his craft.

Home Boy

While West and Vermeulen may find the pressure starting to grind them down, James Toseland will be positively reveling in it. The rookie - and double World Superbike champion - has been showered with praise over the past few races for consistently finishing inside the top 8 at tracks he had often never even visited before. Luckily for Toseland, MotoGP now visits a sequence of tracks which the British rider knows all too well. Even more luckily, the first of these tracks is his home Grand Prix.

Toseland knows Donington well, having raced here in a host of classes over the years, and has to be considered a real threat. But although the expectations of the home crowd will undoubtedly inspire Toseland, he will also be under enormous pressure to perform. British motorcycle racing forums are abuzz with speculation of at least a podium, and the weight of expectation is starting to grow beyond the reasonable and into the realms of fantasy. Although it's not unthinkable for Toseland to take his first MotoGP win on Sunday, the fact that he is up against three of the best riders to come along for nearly a generation suggests that he may find it a tough nut to crack at this stage in his career. A podium may be possible, but he has some huge names to beat to get there.

The Usual Suspects

The biggest of those names is surely Valentino Rossi. Donington is a track that Rossi loves, and it is also a track at which he took one of his most impressive wins in the rain. With the Yamaha the best bike on the grid, Rossi back to his former glory, and 3 victories so far this year, The Doctor will be a very formidable opponent indeed on Sunday.

If Rossi is formidable in the rain, Casey Stoner is probably even better when it's neither fully wet nor fully dry. The reigning world champion seems to have a completely instinctive understanding of just how much grip damp asphalt will afford, despite the fact that it might change from corner to corner, and even from yard to yard. Stoner is having a much tougher time this year than in 2007, but his mettle is showing through in the way he keeps battling to get the Ducati to do what he wants. Though trailing in the championship by a massive 50 points, Stoner seems on the verge of a return to his former glory. And with difficult weather predicted for Sunday, that return could start at Donington Park.

Like both Rossi and Stoner, Dani Pedrosa has also taken a dominant win at Donington. But unfortunately for the man who is currently 2nd in the championship, he took it in the dry and sunny weather of 2006. When it rains, Pedrosa is nowhere near as brilliant, though to his credit, his riding in the rain has advanced by great leaps and bounds. No longer does Pedrosa linger mid-pack when the rain starts to fall, now he is found right at the sharp end, rain or shine. But as impressive as his improvement has been, he still lacks the final edge which would allow him to dominate in the rain as he has been able to do in the dry.

The Big Squeeze

Pedrosa's team mate will be less concerned with the weather, and more concerned with the new pneumatic valve engine he will finally get a chance to run. The air valve engine will its long-awaited first outing in the hands of a factory Repsol Honda rider, and as Hayden has consistently struggled with the conventional steel spring motor, he'll be hoping that switching to the new unit will give him more revs and more power to ride as he wishes. Hayden using the air valve engine also suits Pedrosa, who will be sticking with the conventional motor, as it means that Hayden can test the bike in full, competitive race conditions. If it looks to be competitive, Pedrosa can switch at a later date, once Hayden has ironed the bugs out, without risking his title chase on an unproven engine.

While Nicky Hayden will be getting new parts which he hopes will solve some of his problems, there is no such comfort for Marco Melandri. The Italian has struggled miserably on the Marlboro Ducati, consistently running around at the back of the field with Ant West and the satellite Ducatis. The fact that 3 of the bottom 4 bikes are all Ducatis must mean that there is something wrong with the bike, though Casey Stoner's consistent podiums would argue against that. So far, Stoner is still the only man capable of getting the Ducati to go, leaving Melandri at a complete loss. With Sete Gibernau now testing the Ducati, and talking of his desire to return to MotoGP, Melandri's future at Ducati is looking ever more brief. And there is little hope of improvement in sight.

Spies Like Us

Over at Rizla Suzuki, a similar confrontation will feature even more prominently. With Loris Capirossi out with a hand injury, Chris Vermeulen will see his potential replacement sitting on the other side of the garage. The reigning AMA Superbike champion is joining the Rizla Suzuki team as Capirex' replacement, as an extra prelude to his scheduled wildcard appearances at Laguna Seca and Indianapolis. This is a stroke of excellent fortune for the American, as Spies will be able to make his MotoGP debut away from the expectations of his home crowd at a track he has never seen before. Spies will spend the weekend learning his way around the bike, the team and the track, without the pressure to perform. If he improves his lap times in every session, and finishes within spitting distance of the top 10, he will have gone a long way to securing a MotoGP deal for 2009.

Of the rest of the field, Colin Edwards and Andrea Dovizioso are the men most likely to cause an upset. Edwards knows Donington well, and is strong at the track, while Dovizioso is busy auditioning to take Nicky Hayden's seat next year. Both men need a good result at Donington to consolidate their positions, and pave the way for greater things at Assen next weekend.

The one name you are unlikely to seen on the podium this weekend is Jorge Lorenzo. Despite the Fiat Yamaha rookie's scintillating start to the season, his horrific high side at Shanghai has slowed the Spaniard up a fraction. Lorenzo managed a podium at Le Mans, but has crashed at every round since China, finally forced to bow out by a concussion he suffered during practice at Catalunya. Now recovered - though by motorcycle racer standards, not by the standards which apply to ordinary human beings - he will participate at Donington, but is unlikely to be able to do more than that.

Expect The Unexpected

The weekend's racing at Donington promises to be a traditional British spectacle of grit and bravery under supremely trying conditions. And that's just the spectators. The riders face an even tougher task, slithering around in unpredictable conditions, on a track with varying grip thanks to a continuous drenching of jet fuel. Whatever the weather, one of Britain's finest tracks promises to put on another breathtaking display of motorcycle racing, with plenty of room for a few surprises. Even the bookmakers are excited, with the odds on Ant West and Chris Vermeulen closing all the time, and way outside their normal range. Anything could happen this weekend, and more than likely, anything will.

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