MOTOGP: Round 2 – Motegi, Japan – 26 April

For the second race running, the weather played a hugely important role in the MotoGP race – even if the race itself enjoyed a completely dry track and brilliant sunshine.

That hadn’t been the case a few hours earlier when the riders endured a sodden final warm-up practice session; and things had been even worse on Saturday, resulting in qualifying being cancelled and the running order being set by the single dry session thus far, a distant memory back on Friday afternoon. Added to that, the rain had washed the track clean and reset it to factory conditions, so to speak – no one had a clue how it would handle.

That meant the drivers had very little set-up data for the race day itself, and there was a lot of guesswork going on. The form book was well and truly out of the window on this one.

It all seemed to be playing into Valentino Rossi’s hands. Not only did he have pole position, but with his level of experience his guess work should be better than most. And if it wasn’t – well, his biggest skill is being able to change his riding style to suit the conditions, and never would that be tested more than this race.

Sure enough, Rossi got a strong start and headed off to a commanding lead. Behind him it was Dani Pedrosa who got a flyer, starting from the fourth row of the grid in 4th but somehow blasting through the pack to instantly battle Jorge Lorenzo for second place. Over the opening laps, the two arch-rival Spaniards had a thrilling battle for the position, trading places until finally Lorenzo managed to secure the second spot and put Pedrosa behind him; and once he did, he was quickly able to pull out a lead on the Honda, but by this time Rossi was some way ahead and looking unassailable.

Meanwhile Casey Stoner was having a horrible time of it, swallowed up by the pack and dropping as far back as 7th to tussle with Chris Vermeulen for a time. He seemed unable to get the Ducati into the corners with any pace or confidence, and later admitted that he had problems with the front brakes. Still, the bike finally started to come back to him and by mid race he was moving forward and starting to catch the bikes in front – although still way off the lead.

Rossi seemed to be flying, but then he too started to suffer problems with the raw pace of his Yamaha. In the space of a couple of laps, his huge lead over his team mate was wiped out and Lorenzo was all over him. Lorenzo was clamped to the back of Rossi, trying to find a way past the world champion without risking the ultimate motor racing sin of hitting your own team mate; when he finally sliced his way past Rossi on lap 9 it was a stylish, clean move that Rossi simply couldn’t argue with. And then Lorenzo started to pull away, setting up a comfortable lead that was never again under serious threat.

Rossi initially stayed in touch, the two Yamahas pulling out a big lead over the two Hondas of Dani Pedrosa and Andrea Dovizioso, but on lap 15 the Italian fell way back from Lorenzo and firmly into the clutches of Pedrosa. The Spaniard is still battered and bruised and far from race fit, but he put any such concerns behind him to being the battle to Rossi in spades.

Twice, Pedrosa managed to lunge down the inside of Rossi going into a hairpin, and twice Pedrosa was lured into running too deep allowing Rossi to retake the spot on the exit of the turn. But then on lap 18 Pedrosa managed a perfectly judged overtaking move, actually out-braking Rossi (an extremely rare achievement for anyone in MotoGP) and this time holding onto the spot on the exit. Job done, surely?

Ahh, you’re forgetting this is Valentino Rossi we’re talking about. Getting overtaken isn’t a defeat, it’s a challenge to meet. And he did so the very next lap, passing Pedrosa in similar style and then making sure he pulled out a comfortable gap on Dani. Whatever performance issues had been ailing him, Rossi had adapted – and Pedrosa would get no more chances.

Behind Pedrosa, his team mate Andrea Dovizioso was finding it difficult to maintain pace, and he proved an eas target for an easy Casey Stoner in the closing laps. Stoner will be hugely relieved with fourth place as an effective piece of damage limitation, especially given that his main rival Rossi had been denied the points for the win by his own team mate.

Further back, Marco Melandri finally laid his horror year at Ducati to rest with a fine run in 6th place, while the star of the day was newcomer Mika Kallio who started 17th but by the end had achieved a pass on the hard racer of MotoGP, James Toseland, to finish 8th. Toseland himself will be happy to finish in the top 10 after a difficult period, while his team mate Colin Edwards had an early technical problem that put him well down the running order in 12th.

Toni Elias and Sete Gibernau both had similar accidents going into turn 10 at different parts of the race, where the bike simply slipped away from under them and they slide into the gravel. Elias was able to carry on, albeit a lap down by the end, but Gibernau’s accident was more damaging and put him out of the race on lap 13. The only other retirements of the day came on the first lap, when Stoner’s team mate Nicky Hayden got taken out by a hugely ill-advised lunge by Yuki Takahashi that will win him no new fans even at this, his home event.

So Lorenzo was able to celebrate his second-ever win in MotoGP with his familiar “Lorenzo Land” flag-planting antics; although it also meant he hit his biggest problem of the afternoon when his Yamaha refused to fire up again and he has to be pushed by a whole entourage of marshals.

“I didn’t expect this victory,” Lorenzo said afterwards. “It’s true, I did not expect to win – because in Qatar I finished so, so far behind Stoner.

“It has been a difficult race, because I didn’t do a very good start,” Lorenzo told the post-race press conference. “I finished the first lap in fourth, I think. But after I caught up to the pace, I passed Valentino, I opened a little gap – one and a half seconds. He was pushing me very hard, so I had to ride as well as I could to get the victory.”

As ever, Rossi was in a good mood after relishing the fierce on-track battles. “It was a good race,” said Rossi. “It was a great race – long and difficult, and very physical.

“I made a great start in the beginning but at one part of the race I was not able to ride like I wanted. I had some problems and I was not able to ride fast enough to pull away. After I lost time from Jorge, I battled a little with Dani. But in the last part of the race I was able to pick up my pace and take my line, and do good lap times, and come back.

“Second place is not a victory but 20 points is important for the championship. I think this championship has become very interesting because we have four riders already battling for wins.”

And Pedrosa was stunned to end up on the podium at all. “I thinking maybe I could stay there for three laps, but then it was four, then it was five, and finally the whole race. For the whole race I like ‘I don’t believe it, I’m still here, I’m still here – so close to the Yamahas’. I’m really very happy.

“I’m very tired, but the race was really, really good, more than I expected,” Pedrosa told the TV crews. “It’s been a long and very difficult time for me, but this podium will be good for me.”

Let’s hope his fitness allows him to recover in time for the next MotoGP event in just one week, on his home ground in Spain at the Catalunya circuit.

Race results

Pos  Rider             Bike             Time
 1.  Jorge Lorenzo     Yamaha           43m47.238s
 2.  Valentino Rossi   Yamaha           +   1.304s
 3.  Dani Pedrosa      Honda            +   3.763s
 4.  Casey Stoner      Ducati           +   5.691s
 5.  Andrea Dovizioso  Honda            +   9.207s
 6.  Marco Melandri    Hayate Kawasaki  +  30.555s
 7.  Loris Capirossi   Suzuki           +  32.756s
 8.  Mika Kallio       Pramac Ducati    +  39.416s
 9.  James Toseland    Tech 3 Yamaha    +  43.106s
10.  Chris Vermeulen   Suzuki           +  43.245s
11.  Randy de Puniet   LCR Honda        +  44.834s
12.  Colin Edwards     Tech 3 Yamaha    +  46.540s
13.  Alex de Angelis   Gresini Honda    +  53.525s
14.  Niccolo Canepa    Pramac Ducati    +1m21.804s
15.  Toni Elias        Gresini Honda    +    1 lap

Retirements:

     Rider             Bike              Laps
     Sete Gibernau     Hernando Ducati   13
     Nicky Hayden      Ducati            0
     Yuki Takahashi    Scot Honda        0

Championship standings

It’s tight at the top! Lorenzo’s win puts him at the top of the championship, a single point ahead of his team mate Valentino Rossi, with Stoner pushed down to third – but a mere 3pt seperates all three and it’s looking like it’s shaping up to be a very close championship year.

Pos Driver          Points
1   Jorge Lorenzo       41
2   Valentino Rossi     40
3   Casey Stoner        38
4   Andrea Dovizioso    22
5   Daniel Pedrosa      21
6   Colin Edwards       17
7   Mika Kallio         16
8   Chris Vermeulen     15
9   Alex de Angelis     13
10  Marco Melandri      12
11  Randy de Puniet     11
12  Loris Capirossi      9
13  Toni Elías           8
14  James Toseland       7
15  Nicky Hayden         4
16  Sete Gibernau        3
17  Niccolo Canepa       2
18  Yuki Takahashi       1

Pos Constructor Points
1   Yamaha      45
2   Ducati      38
3   Honda       27
4   Suzuki      18
5   Kawasaki    12
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