MOTOGP: Round 16 – Sepang, Malaysia – 25 October

Valentino Rossi wrapped up the 2009 MotoGP world championship – his seventh MotoGP and ninth world title – on schedule at Sepang, but it was about the only thing that did go to plan on Sunday afternoon.

After hot, humid but dry conditions up to race day, a sudden tropical downpour 20 minutes before the planned start of the race, just after the 125cc and 250cc support races had concluded, completely flooded the circuit and forced a forty minute delay to proceedings as everyone took shelter. The race would be a very wet one, but at least the torrential downpours had stopped by the time the riders had to make it out of their pit stalls.

Then, as the drivers emerged on the formation lap to take up their grid positions, there was more drama – Jorge Lorenzo was having some sort of technical problem that had the mechanics feaverishly working on the machine. But they failed to get the situation resolved before the pit lane was closed, and he had to switch to the back-up bike: Lorenzo had lost his opportunity to take up his second place slot. He would have to start from the pit lane, and surely that was the end of his title bid for the year.

All Rossi had to do was not make any mistakes, and he leapt away at the start of the race leaving the rest of the field dead, save for Loris Capirossi. Loris was starting from the second row of the grid but benefitted from the empty grid spot in front of him where Lorenzo should have been, although that advantage was quickly played out and he soon started falling back through the running order as the race wore on.

But being first into the first corner of the first run in wet conditions has its disadvantages, as Rossi found out: the traction he’d anticipated simply wasn’t there and he was forced to tiptoe through a very wide line to make it round, and while he did that the rest of the field were streaming past on the inside. He emerged from turn 2 in eighth place; and to his shock, Jorge Lorenzo was right behind him despite starting from the pit lane in last place.

The pressure was still on Lorenzo, of course, who had to go all-out for the win while Rossi had a comfortable margin and didn’t need to gamble. So when Lorenzo passed him, Rossi didn’t put up much of a fight, but instead opted to slot in behind him and shadow him for much of the race: simply finishing right behind Lorenzo would give him the points advantage needed to wrap up the title here rather than at Valencia in a fortnight. So when Lorenzo eventually overtook Marco Melandri for 7th after several attempts, Rossi followed him through a few corners later. Again when the Yamaha duo saw off Loris Capirossi, Nicky Hayden (a particularly hard target) and Tony Elias: Rossi was right behind him, just sitting back and watching. And waiting.

FInally, the racing computer that is Rossi’s brain had absorbed all the data on the race conditions, processed, analysed and programmed them into memory, and suddenly Rossi switched levels and sailed past Lorenzo for 4th place on lap 8, although he had a scary bobble a few corners later than must have had his heart in his mouth and Lorenzo momentarily believing that perhaps not all was lost after all. But Rossi controlled the bike and eventually he dropped Lorenzo completely as he set about hunting down the leaders. Lorenzo appeared spent, the tyres maybe cooked by all the work he’d asked of them in the opening laps, and he had nothing left. Through the clear visor, the TV cameras picked up a disappointed but resigned face.

Up front, Casey Stoner had once again been absolutely peerless and in a different world for much of the race, the wet conditions not so much affecting him as energising him to new heights. He was between one and two seconds a lap faster than second-placed Dani Pedrosa, who never likes the rain all that much and who was 17s behind Stoner at one point in the race – an astonishing and almost unprecedented lead in MotoGP.

Dani’s discomfort was underlined by his Honda team mate Andrea Dovizioso who was cutting the distance between 2nd and 3rd place runners with every lap – until lap 14, when suddenly Dovizioso’s bike simply folded under him into turn 5 leaving both man and machine to slide into the grass. The only other retiree of the day had been Randy de Puniet on the second lap, the LCR Honda snapping into a vicious high side that launched de Puniet into the air and returning him to earth with crunching force that fortunately left no lasting injuries.

The Tech 3 Yamahas were struggling here – something clearly wrong with James Toseland’s machine to put him 5s a lap off the lead pace for much of the race, but his team mate Colin Edwards faring little better to struggle to finish ahead of Gabor Talmacsi in 13th. But it was a good day for Chris Vermeulen, who hates being called a “rainmeister” but who nonetheless seems to shine everytime the rain comes down and who finished in a strong 6th place.

Dovizioso’s crash meant that Rossi finished in third place and was able to celebrate his title from the podium after all. Before that, he savoured the moment by stopping out on the track to celebrate with fans, don a “Rossi world champion” T-shirt – and, bizarrely, pose with a chicken that has been wrapped up in a similar T-shirt. The fun and spontaneity of the FOM premier title contrasts with the poe-faced solemnity of the FIA F1 series where any expression of joy (such as, God forbid, donuts) is frowned upon and subject to harsh penalty.

Lorenzo was among the first to congratulate Rossi on the warm-down lap, and a helmet means you can hide the gritted teeth and forced smile rather better. There’s no doubt that Rossi deserved the title this year – he was more consistent, less accident prone, and more able to keep his head and calculate the right strategy where Lorenzo would simply charge in and take the consequences. But Lorenzo has made a quantum leap in 2009 compared with the very scrappy 2008, and certainly shows the skill and speed to win races and MotoGP titles. So at the back of Rossi’s mind must be the thought: if Lorenzo makes similar strides between this season and next, and Casey Stoner is now over his mystery illness once and for all, will this seventh title be the last that Rossi will be able to claim? Is the torch about to be handed to a new era and generation of riders? Are these victory celebrations also a requiem for the passing of the hugely successful era of the beloved “Greatest Of All Time”?

These thoughts are for another day. Today there are the celebrations and the moment of triumph. 2010 is months away – even if the build-up and planning starts tomorrow.

Race result

Pos  Rider            Bike                Time/Gap
 1.  Casey Stoner     Ducati            47m24.834s
 2.  Dani Pedrosa     Honda              + 14.666s
 3.  Valentino Rossi  Yamaha             + 19.385s
 4.  Jorge Lorenzo    Yamaha             + 25.850s
 5.  Nicky Hayden     Ducati             + 38.705s
 6.  Chris Vermeulen  Suzuki             + 41.061s
 7.  Toni Elias       Gresini Honda      + 48.555s
 8.  Marco Melandri   Hayate Kawasaki    + 55.557s
 9.  Loris Capirossi  Suzuki           + 1m00.303s
10.  Mika Kallio      Pramac Ducati    + 1m00.440s
11.  Aleix Espargaro  Pramac Ducati    + 1m01.655s
12.  Alex de Angelis  Gresini Honda    + 1m01.847s
13.  Colin Edwards    Tech 3 Yamaha    + 1m10.778s
14.  Gabor Talmacsi   Scot Honda       + 1m15.851s
15.  James Toseland   Tech 3 Yamaha    + 1m50.672s

Retirements:

     Andrea Dovizioso Honda            14 laps
     Randy de Puniet  LCR Honda        1 lap

MotoGP world championship standings after round 16

While Rossi scored only 3pts more than Lorenzo this weekend, that puts him 41pts ahead in the championship with only a maximum of 25pts left at the final remaining race at Valencia. The title is therefore decided.

Lorenzo should be safe as the runner-up from Casey Stoner, who seems to have a pretty safe lock on 3rd place from Dani Pedrosa, accicents notwithstanding. It’s sobering to see Stoner’s points tally considering this was done in three races less than anyone else; if he’d ridden in those three races and achieved nothing more than an average of third place then he would be easily ahead of Lorenzo and the championship would be coming down to the wire at Valencia instead.

Roll on the 2010 season and a three-way battle for the championship. Maybe even four-way if Dabi Pedrosa can just find someway to make that last breakthrough on pace and get himself out of the “best of the rest” leagues.

Pos Driver           Points
1   Valentino Rossi     286
2   Jorge Lorenzo       245
3   Casey Stoner        220
4   Daniel Pedrosa      209
5   Andrea Dovizioso    152
6   Colin Edwards       148
7   Marco Melandri      108
8   Loris Capirossi     108
9   Alex de Angelis     105
10  Toni Elias          105
11  Chris Vermeulen     105
12  Randy de Puniet     101
13  Nicky Hayden         93
14  James Toseland       88
15  Mika Kallio          64
16  Niccolo Canepa       38
17  Gabor Talmacsi       19
18  Aleix Espargaro      13
19  Sete Gibernau        12
20  Yuki Takahashi        9
        
Pos Constructor Points
1   Yamaha      366
2   Honda       272
3   Ducati      261
4   Suzuki      131
5   Kawasaki    108
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