MotoGP: Round 15 – Indianapolis, United States – Sun Sep 14

We were lucky to get a MotoGP at all this week, with some major weather closing in on all sides. And while it ended up in unsatisfactory red flag eight laps early, while it lasted the first Indianapolis outing for the series was an exciting and enjoyable affair.

With the organisers having done an impressive job drying out the track after the heavy showers that caused the 125cc support race to be truncated, the track was damp but not at all bad – except in one or two places where the water was seeping back on in the twisting in-field sections.

Still, polesitter Valentino Rossi had a rotten start, falling back to 5th off the line and into the first few turns, while Casey Stoner leapt away on the Ducati. But Stoner’s lead was short-lived, and his confidence level was clearly not high, unable to carry his normal speed into corners.

Stoner found himself mugged by two Michelin-shod riders, Andrea Dovizioso and Nicky Hayden. They had decided to go for it this week by using the risky super-soft tyres from the French manufacturer and not follow their usual “safety first” instincts when it came to rubber. The tyres gave them more immediate grip as they heated up quicker than the harder tyres that the Bridgestone riders were running, but the question was – could they last a full race distance?

Never mind durability for now – their short term impact was unequivocal. Dovizioso managed to get in the lead for the first time in his career during the first lap, from 7th on the grid. He was closely followed by Hayden, and they quickly dropped Stoner who fell into the clutches of a recovering Valentino Rossi and his team mate Jorge Lorenzo.

Stoner blamed a rear tyre problem for his underwhelming performance in the race. “I got a good start but I quickly lost confidence because the rear tyre was tearing up quickly and by the time they stopped the race I was struggling,” he said. “I’m never going to be satisfied with fourth place but it would have been foolish to push harder in those conditions and I made the right decision not to do so.”

After his early success, Dovizioso too found himself moving backwards, again struggling with his rear tyre: “We started the race with two tyres we never tried before, we risked a lot, and unfortunately the rear wasn’t going very well. At the start it was okay, but as soon as Hayden and especially Valentino started to go quick, there was nothing I could do,” he explained. “It’s a shame, because I think I could have given trouble at least to Hayden. By contrast the front tyre was good, but I couldn’t get into corners aggressively because I was losing grip.”

Hayden was out in front and loving it. “I had nothing to lose here and just had to go for it,” he said afterwards. “The bike felt pretty good in the wet when it wasn’t heavy water, and I felt confident before the race. Up front, leading early, it’s been a long time since I led a race and it felt really good coming out of the last corner and seeing nobody. I was thinking ‘man, this is only supposed to happen in the movies’, especially being at my home GP.”

But storm clouds were moving in for Hayden, in more ways than one. The weather was getting worse by the minute, with the rain starting again and increasing in intensity; even more problematic was the wind which was picking up strength by the second and prone to abrupt changes of direction. For motorcycle riders, it’s a nightmare scenario.

Predictably it was the wise old head of Rossi that coped best, and on lap 14 he finally found a way past Hayden for the lead. The Repsol Honda had the edge on the straights – Hayden’s pneumatic valve engine doing an impressive job of pulling away from Rossi’s Yamaha. But in the tighter, twistier in-field sections, Rossi’s skill at late braking had the edge, and it was this that finally took the lead.

But even Rossi was on the edge, and on lap 17 made a major moment that lifted him off his seat and nearly threw him from the bike. He managed to save it and carry on, but it was a reminder that these conditions were potentially deadly.

It was at this point that Yamaha collapsed. Or rather, their concession stand in the in-field collapsed. Leaves, trash and other debris was being blown onto the track and the rain was lashing down. “When I got in the lead I was a tad quicker in certain spots and I tried to push hard, but an incredible wind started, it began to rain a lot and you couldn’t see anything anymore, on the straight there were gusts making the bike uncontrollable,” confirmed Rossi. “The problem then was the wind, it was incredible, inconsistent, with gusts. You couldn’t go over the front straight, with beer cans, paper cups, plastic bags going over the track. It was a mess, the artificial grass was coming off.”

The TV cameramen could barely hold a the camera in these conditions, and when the did there was only great clouds of wet spray visible for long stretches. The race was becoming untenable, and had to be stopped – which it was on lap 20, eight shy of the full race distance.

It came at an annoying moment for Jorge Lorenzo, who by now was all over the back of Hayden for second. having closed Hayden’s early lead by over a second per lap. Hayden had clearly cooked his soft tyres by this point: “When the track dried out, we used a lot of rubber off the tyre. When it rained again, on the edge I’d lost so much tread pattern and it went ‘gnarly’. But still I pushed till the end, to the maximum, and I really left nothing on the table. I was riding as hard as I could, taking a few chances and I felt good up front.” Second place was still Hayden’s best since Laguna Seca in 2006, and achieved despite the X-Games foot injury that still has him limping when off the bike.

No doubt Lorenzo would have found his way past Hayden given an extra lap or so, but it wasn’t to be. “Maybe one or two laps more I could have passed Nicky,” said Lorenzo. “He was so fast at the beginning, but with the wind and his worn tyres, he reduced his pace. Next time I hope to do better.”

But nonetheless he was delighted with third place: “This is my first podium in wet conditions in all my life, so I’m so happy,” he said. “In the Spanish championship, I never took a podium (in the wet). So for me it’s a very good result.”

Despite the red flag, there was confusion about whether the race was in fact over, or whether it would be restarted if and when the weather improved – the rules allowed it to go either way. Rossi and Stoner were dispatched to lobby Dorna CEO Carmelo Ezpeleta to get the race result declared, and eventually the officials did indeed decide that the results should be taken from lap 20. Some parts of the crowd that had sat out the conditions booed and jeered, but most people understood.

At no time during the race had Rossi raised his arm to indicate he felt the race should be suspended, as is the system in MotoGP. “I didn’t raise my arm up because otherwise they would have said ‘he raised it up because he’s ahead’, but every lap I was hoping to see the red flag and in the end I saw it.

“I can’t remember when was the last time I won four races in a row. I’m extremely happy, I hadn’t won a wet race for a very long time. I feel in shape, I’m riding well. We are working hard with the entire team, with Yamaha, and Bridgestone. Even though we have some problems, we always try to solve them calmly and we never give up.”

Rossi dedicated he race win to his grandfather who passed away this weekend. “It’s a shame, because I would have liked to show him whether I could win the title because he cared for it. But he was very sick, these things happen, he was very old. I’m happy to have a victory to dedicate to him.”

Rizla Suzuki rider Ben Spies was satisfied with his career-best result in 6th. “It was a good race today for me because my goal was to better my result at Laguna and I did that,” said the 24-year-old American. “I know that I had a fourth place bike today though because the crew had got it working great, but after ten laps I couldn’t see anything through my visor and that was why I never made an attack because I had to follow the other guys around me to see where I was going – I think if I had lost them I would have got caught by everybody!

Regular Suzuki race riders Chris Vermeulen and Loris Capirossi today could do no better than ninth and 16th respectively. Sylvain Guintoli – often impressive in wet conditions – did well to finish 7th and even Anthony West (who had led the waterlogged practice sessions on Friday) proved his wet weather credentials by climbing from the back of the grid to 11th. Dani Pedrosa finished 8th on his first ever run on Bridgestone wet tyres, having made the controversial switch only in the two weeks since Misano.

As for first lap leader Andrea Dovizioso, he took comfort from his early achievement: “I wanted at all costs to lead at least a lap before the end of the season, so I made it,” he said, before brushing off questions that he had struck a deal to replace Nicky Hayden at Honda: when asked by television station Italia1 if he had signed a Repsol Honda deal, Dovizioso replied: “No, not yet, but I hope I will. You can’t say what you’re not allowed to…” Hayden is widely assumed to be joining Ducati at the end of the season.

While Stoner’s 4th place avoids the championship being decided here, the reigning world champion is now 87 points behind Rossi in the standings with only four rounds remaining. If he leaves the next race, Motegi (28 September) with a 76pt lead then he is uncatchable and the title will be his.

Race result:

Pos  Rider             Bike           Time
 1.  Valentino Rossi   Yamaha    (B)  37:20.095
 2.  Nicky Hayden      Honda     (M)  +   5.972
 3.  Jorge Lorenzo     Yamaha    (M)  +   7.858
 4.  Casey Stoner      Ducati    (B)  +  28.162
 5.  Andrea Dovizioso  Honda     (M)  +  28.824
 6.  Ben Spies         Suzuki    (B)  +  29.645
 7.  Sylvain Guintoli  Ducati    (B)  +  36.223
 8.  Dani Pedrosa      Honda     (B)  +  37.258
 9.  Chris Vermeulen   Suzuki    (B)  +  38.442
10.  Alex de Angelis   Honda     (B)  +  42.437
11.  Anthony West      Kawasaki  (B)  +  47.179
12.  Toni Elias        Ducati    (B)  +  55.962
13.  Randy de Puniet   Honda     (M)  +  57.366
14.  John Hopkins      Kawasaki  (B)  +  58.353
15.  Colin Edwards     Yamaha    (M)  +1:00.613
16.  Loris Capirossi   Suzuki    (B)  +1:05.620
17.  Shinya Nakano     Honda     (B)  +1:05.854
18.  James Toseland    Yamaha    (M)  +1:07.968
19.  Marco Melandri    Ducati    (B)  +1:21.023

MotoGP championship:

Pos Driver  Points
1   Valentino Rossi     287
2   Casey Stoner        200
3   Daniel Pedrosa      193
4   Jorge Lorenzo       156
5   Andrea Dovizioso    129
6   Chris Vermeulen     117
7   Colin Edwards       109
8   Nicky Hayden        104
9   Shinya Nakano        87
10  Toni Elías           86
11  Loris Capirossi      86
12  James Toseland       85
13  Sylvain Guintoli     56
14  Alex de Angelis      55
15  Marco Melandri       48
16  Randy de Puniet      43
17  John Hopkins         41
18  Anthony West         41
19  Ben Spies            20
20  Jamie Hacking         5
21  Tadayuki Okada        2

Pos Constructor Points
1   Yamaha      316
2   Honda       243
3   Ducati      241
4   Suzuki      149
5   Kawasaki    71
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