MotoGP: Round 14 – Misano, San Marino – Aug 31

Valentino Rossi must have scarcely believed his luck when he saw Casey Stoner crash out for the third consecutive race today. It’s the stuff of dreams for Rossi, and a nightmare for reigning champion Stoner, who is now 75pts adrift of the Italian in the MotoGP championship with just five more races to go.

In many ways it was an identical copy of how things went at Brno: Casey Stoner got off to a flying start, while Rossi – as is his habit – struggled for the first lap or so. Dani Pedrosa managed to slip past him into second, and while Rossi dealt with the Spaniard it gave Stoner all the time in the world to sail off into a commanding lead. By the time Rossi finally dispatched Pedrosa on lap 2, Stoner had a 3s lead.

Rossi was finally on the pace after some lairy moments in the first minutes of the race and a scare where he seemed on the brink of crashing out. But with second secured and the tyres nicely heated, Rossi set about setting fastest laps in an effort to carry the fight to Stoner.

Rossi was cutting his lead, but not by enough per lap to seriously challenge Stoner. Or so you’d think, because something certainly unsettled the Australian: on lap 8, without warning, Stoner lost the front end and the bike skidded off into the gravel. It was a low speed incident and Stoner was quickly up, but the bike was irretrievably damaged with the handlebar snapped and undriveable – Casey was out.

So what happened? Ducati team boss Livio Suppo said that it was down to the old wrist injury that Casey Stoner had exacerbated during the practice sessions. Racing with a fractured scaphoid is very tough, Suppo pointed out: “He has stabs of pain, you saw his face during this morning’s warm-up, those stabs are very painful. He only needed to suffer a stab at the wrong moment… if you have it in the garage you just clinch your teeth, but if you have it on the track you may fall.”

Ducati’s technical director Filippo Preziosi suggested that the fault may lie with the tyres. “Unfortunately Casey did not have the right feeling with the front tyre,” Preziosi said on BBC Sport. “Yesterday he did a very good lap time with the same tyre. But we are a team and we have to stay together.”

And the man closest to the accident, Valentino Rossi, had another theory: “He was pushing, and at that point he’d always take a very tight line, also in practice. For sure he braked a bit too hard and he lost the front. He slid while he was pushing hard and I was going more or less like him, so he was trying to increase the lead.

“So maybe he tried to push a bit harder and he lost the front. Today the surface was a bit more slippery. On that corner I too had some warnings.”

As in Brno, Casey Stoner had been utterly dominant in all practice and qualification sessions, so to see him yet again throw away what should have been a certain win when under comparatively little pressure is a real shock  and very revealing. Stoner it seems only has one speed – flat out. He can’t modulate that, hence his dominance in all the pre-race sessions; but nor can he push it any further without crashing out. It is, quite literally, all or nothing – no shading with Casey. Or to use an old phrase, when it comes to varying his racing tactics, Casey is more from the “young, dumb and full of come” school.

And that goes someway toward explaining his bizarrely petulant reaction at Laguna Seca – where Rossi got in front and frustrated Stoner’s attempt to get past. Stoner found that hard to deal with, both in terms of racecraft and emotionally, because as far as he was concerned he was the faster man, therefore Rossi should concede. But that’s not racing, Casey – racing is far more subtle and tactical than just who is driving fastest. This, it seems, is a lesson that Casey hasn’t grasped, partly because the edge that the tyre situation gave him in 2007 made the matter moot. This year however he’s running smack into this lesson.

With Stoner out, there was no one else close to challenging for the lead. Pedrosa had already lost the next spot back to Rossi’s team mate Jorge Lorenzo, who was looking much stronger this weekend after a mid-season slump caused by crashes and injuries that knocked his confidence for a time. But finishing second seemed to have refired the Spaniard’s ego: “I’m happy to be here on the podium again, four months after Le Mans, the last race where we got it,” Lorenzo said.

“After Stoner crashed, I wanted to win. But to follow Valentino was very difficult and I had to take so many risks, so I preferred to finish second and to gain the confidence that we haven’t had for the past three months.”

Some consolation for Ducati came in 3rd place, with the Alice team’s Toni Elias putting in another excellent ride to show that the marque are finally getting on top of the problems that have made them so reliant on Casey Stoner. Alas, the works Ducati of Marco Melandri could manage no more than 9th, so it’s strange that Elias should be the driver to find himself no longer wanted in MotoGP.

“I don’t know what will happen now,” Elias confirmed. “I’m completely free, this is important. I hope to find a good place, a good bike, for 2009. There’s a lot of talking but we haven’t decided anything yet. I think something more may be coming, let’s hope we can take a good decision for next year.”

The best battle on the track was for 5th place, between James Toseland and Andrea Dovizioso. Toseland finally got past the Honda on lap 18 with a typically forceful move, but behind them the Suzukis were coming up fast. Chris Vermeulen had made a good start but then had to save a high-side on the second corner, causing him to lose several position and damage his bike’s fairing: but by lap 21 he had made short work of Dovizioso and a lap later no amount of defensive riding by Toseland was enough to stop the Suzuki cruising through into 5th.

Behind them, Vermeulen’s team mate Loris Capirossi was now looming, and with two laps to go he squeezed past Dovizioso for 7th place and was determined to make it into the top six. Toseland was equally determined not to let him, and he did indeed cling on to 6th to the chequered flag by the skin of his teeth,

The final positions make for interesting reading from a tyre perspective – alternating Bridgestone/Michelin positions all through the top ten. Lorenzo’s ability to keep fairly close to Rossi shows that the Michelins were very much on the pace here. Strange, then, that the rumour going around the paddock was the Dani Pedrosa is about to switch allegiance and move to Bridgestone with immediate effect – something that might herald the exit of Michelin and a de fact single tyre championship.

Other than Stoner, the only other non-finishers were Randy de Puniet (who crashed out on the last corner of the opening lap) and Alex de Angelis who fell on lap 2. But it was a miserable race for the Kawasaki duo of Anthony West and John Hopkins, hopelessly off the pace and stuck in the last two positions.

Pos  Rider             Bike           Time
 1.  Valentino Rossi   Yamaha    (B)  44:41.884
 2.  Jorge Lorenzo     Yamaha    (M)   +  3.163
 3.  Toni Elias        Ducati    (B)   + 11.705
 4.  Dani Pedrosa      Honda     (M)   + 17.470
 5.  Chris Vermeulen   Suzuki    (B)   + 23.409
 6.  James Toseland    Yamaha    (M)   + 26.208
 7.  Loris Capirossi   Suzuki    (B)   + 26.824
 8.  Andrea Dovizioso  Honda     (M)   + 27.591
 9.  Marco Melandri    Ducati    (B)   + 33.169
10.  Colin Edwards     Yamaha    (M)   + 36.529
11.  Sylvain Guintoli  Ducati    (B)   + 42.081
12.  Shinya Nakano     Honda     (B)   + 43.808
13.  Anthony West      Kawasaki  (B)   + 54.874
14.  John Hopkins      Kawasaki  (B)   + 55.154

Retirements:

     Rider             Bike           Laps
     Casey Stoner      Ducati    (B)  7
     Alex de Angelis   Honda     (B)  1
     Randy de Puniet   Honda     (M)  0

Championship positions:

Pos Driver  Points
1   Valentino Rossi     262
2   Casey Stoner        187
3   Daniel Pedrosa      185
4   Jorge Lorenzo       140
5   Andrea Dovizioso    118
6   Chris Vermeulen     110
7   Colin Edwards       108
8   Shinya Nakano        87
9   Loris Capirossi      86
10  James Toseland       85
11  Nicky Hayden         84
12  Toni Elías           82
13  Alex de Angelis      49
14  Marco Melandri       48
15  Sylvain Guintoli     47
16  Randy de Puniet      40
17  John Hopkins         39
18  Anthony West         36
19  Ben Spies            10
20  Jamie Hacking         5
21  Tadayuki Okada        2

Pos Constructor Points
1   Yamaha      291
2   Ducati      228
3   Honda       223
4   Suzuki      139
5   Kawasaki     66
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