Casey Stoner leads the MotoGP World Championship into the summer break with five wins from ten starts but the race for the title is poised to run on well into the autumn.
Many pre-season forecasters would’ve been forgiven for thinking this year’s championship battle would have been contested exclusively within the Repsol Honda ranks. The RC212V machine was setting an ominous pace in testing with the returning Stoner and Dani Pedrosa more than half a second quicker than any other make of motorcycle.
Their chief rivals were struggling too. Jorge Lorenzo was gearing up to defend his crown in far from ideal circumstances as the Yamaha squad desperately searched for pace but his problems were nothing compared to those of Valentino Rossi. The nine-time World Champion had swapped the blue of Yamaha for the iconic red of Ducati but 13th in the final pre-season test spelt trouble for the Italian who was still recovering from an injured shoulder.
Qualifying under the night skies of Qatar did nothing to allay any of these fears, Stoner storming to pole position with Pedrosa taking second. Lorenzo did at least manage to salvage third but the gap to the Hondas had grown to eight tenths of a second. Rossi was also left to scratch his head after qualifying ninth and with Hector Barbera half a second ahead in the quickest Ducati, the marriage made in heaven hadn’t got off to the best of starts.
Stoner’s subsequent victory was no great surprise but Lorenzo offered hope that the championship wouldn’t be a foregone conclusion by beating Pedrosa to second as arm pump struck for the 25 year old. Andrea Dovizioso and Marco Simoncelli, now riding with factory support, also made it into the top five while Ben Spies edged out Valentino Rossi for sixth.
British rookie Cal Crutchlow had an impressive debut weekend which began by qualifying on the third row, ahead of Rossi and teammate Colin Edwards. The Tech 3 man finished a creditable 11th, setting the tone for a strong start to life in MotoGP.
Controversy has been one of the watchwords in 2011 and the first instalment came in a chaotic Spanish GP. The front row took on an identical appearance to Qatar, helped by a crash for Rossi but it was the Italian’s exploits on race day that had everyone talking.
After scything through the field, Rossi was up to fourth and challenging Stoner, but an attempted overtaking move into turn one had disastrous consequences. Both bikes fell in a heap and an indignant Stoner was furious with the apparent favouritism of the marshalls. Rossi didn’t escape criticism either with the Australian telling Rossi, “your ambition outweighed your talent”. Lorenzo steered clear of the mayhem to take a welcome victory ahead of Pedrosa and Nicky Hayden as Simoncelli and Spies both threw away potential podiums with wet-weather mistakes.
Proving how the tables can turn very quickly in motorcycle racing, Lorenzo turned an eight tenth deficit in Qatar to pole in Portugal. In fairness, the Hondas were hot on his heels with Simoncelli having pole within his grasp before crashing while Pedrosa and Stoner were also in touch. Dan was the man with all the answers on race day though as he out-thought and out-raced Lorenzo with Stoner a distant third.
The intense rivalry amongst the front runners increased once again at Le Mans with Marco Simoncelli in the centre of it all, not for the first time and certainly not for the last. The Gresini rider had already raised the ire of Lorenzo with his riding style in the final race of last year but the French GP would see him add Pedrosa to his lengthening list of enemies.
As Stoner romped to a second win in four races, the battle raged on for second between the flamboyant Italian and the gritty Spaniard. It all came to a head on lap 18 with Simoncelli attempting a forceful move around the outside of Pedrosa, too forceful as it turned out, with Pedrosa sent crashing to the floor with a broken collarbone to boot.
Simoncelli’s punishment came in the form of a ride-through penalty which cost him a maiden podium. Dovizioso secured a Repsol Honda 1-2 with Rossi claiming his first piece of silverware in Ducati colours. Lorenzo was strangely off-colour in fourth with Simoncelli bumped down to fifth.
The furore surrounding his riding didn’t affect Simoncelli in Catalunya though as he stormed to his first pole position in MotoGP but perhaps a cautious approach was recommended for the race, with sixth the result. Stoner proved too strong for the Yamahas out front and cruised to another victory ahead of Lorenzo and Spies. Meanwhile, Cal Crutchlow’s strong campaign continued with a career best seventh.
Any hopes of a triumphant homecoming at Silverstone would turn sour in qualifying for the Brit who crashed heavily, breaking his collarbone. The Tech 3 squad had endured a miserable week with Colin Edwards suffering a similar injury in Barcelona but the American stunned everyone, not only with his speedy recovery, but also his performance as he conquered the wet conditions to finish on the Silverstone podium.
The torrential weather claimed a number of high-profile victims, including Lorenzo, allowing Stoner to take the championship lead with a third straight win with Dovizioso maintaining his consistency with second. Simoncelli’s wait for the elusive podium went on though after a crash at Abbey.
One of the talking points in the UK was the disappointing form of Pramac Ducati. Loris Capirossi and Randy de Puniet were down in 15th and 16th in the championship with the Frenchman suffering the ignominy of being lapped, later describing it as the “worst race of his life”.
The season went from bad to worse for Pramac just two weeks later as Capirossi picked up an injury in qualifying for the Dutch TT. The experienced Italian wouldn’t be seen in a race for four weeks with Sylvain Guintoli substituting in Germany.
Qualifying saw a second pole of the year for Marco Simoncelli, but controversy followed him once again. The 24 year old only made it as far as the fifth corner of the race before sliding out, taking Lorenzo with him. The incident did nothing to help the World Champion’s already dim view of Simoncelli, accusing him of failing to “learn from the past.”
Yamaha still had cause to celebrate in Holland as Ben Spies capitalised on the first lap mayhem to take his first Grand Prix win, marking the manufacturer’s 50th Grand Prix anniversary in the grand manner. Stoner finished a quiet second to increase his championship lead, with Lorenzo mired down in sixth after his problem.
Valentino Rossi brought the Ducati home in fourth but the Italian outfit’s failure to close in on the leaders had triggered a radical change in strategy. Looking ahead to next year’s switch to 1000cc engines, Ducati took the decision to give Rossi the 2012 chassis, modified to 2011 regulations. The ‘GP11.1.’ didn’t give the team the required boost at Mugello though, with Rossi forced to start his home race from 12th. The nine-time Italian GP winner raced his heart out to finish sixth, including a thrilling battle with Suzuki’s Alvaro Bautista, a duel that would be replicated two weeks later at the Sachsenring.
After claiming another pole position on Saturday, Stoner looked set to increase his lead still further at Mugello but Lorenzo turned the tables in a race which may prove to be the turning point in the season. From 2.8seconds back, the Yamaha reeled in the Honda to give Lorenzo his second win of the year, with Dovizioso snatching second on the final lap.
The pendulum continued to swing Lorenzo’s way at the Sachsenring with the Spaniard sneaking past at the very last corner. His prize was not 25 points, but 20, as Dani Pedrosa put in a brilliant ride to claim victory on just his second race back after his Le Mans injury.
Seven days later and title battled moved Stateside for the U.S. Grand Prix at Laguna Seca and it turned out to be redemption for Casey Stoner. Three years after his physical battle with Rossi, the Australian sealed an impressive victory with two outstanding overtaking manoeuvres.
The first came at the Corkscrew, the exact place Rossi had mugged him in 2008, as Stoner demoted Pedrosa to third, before a brave move around the outside of turn one forced Lorenzo to settle for second. That was no bad result for Jorge though who was fortunate to be racing at all after a heavy crash in practice.
With just 20 points separating the title protagonists, the Czech supporters will have more than home rider Karel Abraham to look out for when the MotoGP circus returns to action next weekend. Eight races remain to decide the destiny of this year’s World Championship, a title race that has already had enough twists and turns to last a whole campaign.
Riders’ Championship (After Round 10: United States)
|1||Casey Stoner||AUS||Honda||Repsol Honda Team||5||193|
|2||Jorge Lorenzo||SPA||Yamaha||Yamaha Factory Racing||2||173|
|3||Andrea Dovizioso||ITA||Honda||Repsol Honda Team||143|
|4||Dani Pedrosa||SPA||Honda||Repsol Honda Team||2||110|
|5||Valentino Rossi||ITA||Ducati||Ducati Team||108|
|6||Ben Spies||USA||Yamaha||Yamaha Factory Racing||1||98|
|7||Nicky Hayden||USA||Ducati||Ducati Team||94|
|8||Colin Edwards||USA||Yamaha||Monster Yamaha Tech 3||67|
|9||Hiroshi Aoyama||JAP||Honda||San Carlo Honda Gresini||63|
|10||Marco Simoncelli||ITA||Honda||San Carlo Honda Gresini||60|
|11||Hector Barbera||SPA||Ducati||Mapfre Aspar Team MotoGP||56|
|12||Karel Abraham||CZE||Ducati||Cardion AB Motoracing||46|
|13||Alvaro Bautista||SPA||Suzuki||Rizla Suzuki MotoGP||39|
|14||Toni Elias||SPA||Honda||LCR Honda MotoGP||38|
|15||Cal Crutchlow||GBR||Yamaha||Monster Yamaha Tech 3||34|
|16||Loris Capirossi||ITA||Ducati||Pramac Racing Team||26|
|17||Randy de Puniet||FRA||Ducati||Pramac Racing Team||15|
|18||John Hopkins||USA||Suzuki||Rizla Suzuki MotoGP||6|
|19||Kousuke Akiyoshi||JAP||Honda||San Carlo Honda Gresini||3|