MotoGP: Round 18 – Valencia, Spain – October 26

And so the 2008 MotoGP season comes to an end. But even with all the key positions locked down, there was still plenty for riders to want to prove here: from the front to the back, the game was afoot.

Dani Pedrosa was determined to make it a clean sweep os Spanish races this year, and got off to his usual absolute flier at the start to beat pole sitter Casey Stoner into the first turn. But Stoner’s start wasn’t bad either, and the Australian fought back at the next curve, dived down the inside of Pedrosa, got back ahead, and never relinquished the lead again.

Nicky Hayden initially looked strong in third and fought off pressure from Colin Edwards. But Hayden never had the form that he had promised throughout the practice sessions: after all the damp and cool conditions so far this weekend, the race day was dry and very warm, meaning that all that time spent developing set-ups was a complete waste and it was now complete guess work. Hayden’s Repsol Honda team guessed wrong, and as a result he struggled to keep up with the front runners and eventually settled back to 5th.

Casey Stoner’s Ducati Marlboro team had no such problems getting the set-up right, and neither did Nicky’s team mate and chief rival Dani Pedrosa. The two were escaping at the front and were never seen again.

Valentino Rossi was the only rider on track with anything like the raw pace to present a threat to the front two, but he had been forced to start from 10th on the grid after a bad qualifying session and although he’d made up three places by the end of the first lap, it was clear that it was taking too long and Stoner and Pedrosa were pulling out an insurmountable lead.

Still, Rossi being Rossi, that wasn’t about to put him off and he proceeded to pass at least one bike per lap, including Dovizioso and then both Edwards and finally Hayden for third both on lap 5. Dovizioso slyly followed him through as ell and took fourth place from the American duo. He pulled away from the chasing pack and was matching Dani’s lap times ahead, but there was no prospect of closing the huge lead that the Spaniard had over him.

In a rather uneventful 30-lap race – where positions were pretty much settled after the first six laps and gaps started to widen from there on – there were a couple of surprises in performance. Notably, Marco Melandri – who had started from dead last on the grid and who has had a rotten season unable to come to terms with the Ducati bike in anything like the same way as his team mate Casey Stoner. It’s been a bruising, confidence-battering season for Melandri as he’s struggled.

So how did he manage to finally get on top of the bike today and overtake multiple riders – including John Hopkins, Sylvain Guintoli and James Toseland – with ease? It’s like he finally worked out what to do with the Ducati after all – on his very final ride with the team (Nicky Hayden takes the seat in 2009 while Melandri switches to Kawasaki.) Alas after working all the way up to 10th place, a gear box problem sent him into the gravel on the penultimate lap and he tumbled all the way back down to 16th again.

“The feeling today was a bit better,” Melandri told Italia 1 TV. “I started calmly because I usually struggle a lot at the start, while today everything was better. Unfortunately at the end while changing down from second to first the gearbox remained in neutral and I didn’t manage to stop. I almost fell, but by the time I was in first gear I was already in the gravel.”

Toseland on the other hand had a miserable day, his season really ending on a downward spiral after such an impressive early season debut. The way Melandri strolled past the Brit was a shock for Toseland fans who are used to seeing him battle to the grim death for every corner. Indeed, the chief criticism of him has been that he’s too aggressive, too inclined to fight even over trivialities. You wouldn’t have known it from today’s showing, owever, as he slumped form 5th on the grid to 11th by the end of the race.

“I just misjudged (Jorge) Lorenzo off the line and lost some places,” he explained. “I had a really good feeling in the first half of this race and was pushing so hard to get past, and I got past twice but made mistakes at the hairpin, which made me really mad with myself. Not a great last race, but this one was just to get out of the way so I can build on it next year.”

Lorenzo himelf ended up 8th, enough to secure 4th place and the rookie of the year title in his first season of MotoGP. “It’s not the best finish of my career for sure,” Lorenzo said. “We couldn’t get a good pace or the right feeling all weekend. In the race it was getting better, and I’m happy because yesterday with the race tyre I was last (early in qualifying), and today eighth is not so bad. But it’s not the best dream finish.” But it’s certainly enough to mark him out as a title contender in 2009.

Stoner was of course ecstatic with the win – “We couldn’t ask for much more than to finish the season like this,” he said, before revealing that his broken scaphoid bone was troubling him toward the end. “I started running wide a little bit, and I was lucky that I had a bit of a buffer at the front, because then I had to start carrying more corner speed,” he sain on the BBC TV feed. “I couldn’t brake at the same points – by the end of the race I was braking probably 50, 60 metres earlier going into the first turn than I was at the beginning. It was hard work to keep the lap times going, but we managed to do it.”

Pedrosa conceded that “Stoner was a little bit faster every lap – one tenth per lap faster every time. Today he was better than me. But I’m happy to keep improving. We were on top all weekend, even in wet conditions, so it’s not so bad for the end of the season.”

With the elimination of the tyre war from MotoGP – next year everyone will run on Bridgestones – it’s looking like the championship could be at the very least a four-way battle between Rossi, Stoner, Pedrosa and Lorenzo. And who knows who else will suddenly pop up and start threatening to break into the top rank? The teams will be hard at work during the off-season and all eyes are looking to the April 2009 season opener in Qatar.

It’ll be upon us before you know it.

Race result:

Pos  Rider             Bike           Time
 1.  Casey Stoner      Ducati    (B)  46:46.114
 2.  Dani Pedrosa      Honda     (B)  +   3.390
 3.  Valentino Rossi   Yamaha    (B)  +  12.194
 4.  Andrea Dovizioso  Honda     (M)  +  24.159
 5.  Nicky Hayden      Honda     (M)  +  26.232
 6.  Colin Edwards     Yamaha    (M)  +  32.209
 7.  Shinya Nakano     Honda     (B)  +  34.571
 8.  Jorge Lorenzo     Yamaha    (M)  +  35.661
 9.  Loris Capirossi   Suzuki    (B)  +  38.228
10.  Alex de Angelis   Honda     (B)  +  47.583
11.  James Toseland    Yamaha    (M)  +  52.107
12.  Sylvain Guintoli  Ducati    (B)  +  52.350
13.  Chris Vermeulen   Suzuki    (B)  +  52.833
14.  John Hopkins      Kawasaki  (B)  +  53.227
15.  Randy de Puniet   Honda     (M)  +  53.411
16.  Marco Melandri    Ducati    (B)  +1:08.387
17.  Anthony West      Kawasaki  (B)  +1:11.181
18.  Toni Elias        Ducati    (B)  +1:37.055

Championship:

Pos Driver  Points
1   Valentino Rossi     373
2   Casey Stoner        280
3   Daniel Pedrosa      249
4   Jorge Lorenzo       190
5   Andrea Dovizioso    174
6   Nicky Hayden        155
7   Colin Edwards       144
8   Chris Vermeulen     128
9   Shinya Nakano       126
10  Loris Capirossi     118
11  James Toseland      105
12  Toni Elias           92
13  Sylvain Guintoli     67
14  Alex de Angelis      63
15  Randy de Puniet      61
16  John Hopkins         57
17  Marco Melandri       51
18  Anthony West         50
19  Ben Spies            20
20  Jamie Hacking        5
21  Tadayuki Okada       2

Pos Constructor Points
1   Yamaha      402
2   Ducati      321
3   Honda       315
4   Suzuki      181
5   Kawasaki     88
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