MOTOGP: Round 14 – Motegi, Japan – Oct 3

Casey Stoner showed that Ducati’s Aragon success was no fluke, while Valentino Rossi demonstrated not only that there was life in the old dog yet, but that he had teeth as well – and wasn’t afraid to bare them at his team mate.

There was inevitably a sense of anti-climax as the riders took up their positions on the grid, as there always is when a major player is absent: the sidelining of Dani Pedrosa at such a critical juncture of the season was keenly felt by all. But could Jorge Lorenzo climb from fourth on the grid to second to give him a shot of sealing the championship as early as next week?

With no Pedrosa to catch the eye with a trademark flying start, the getaways were more even than usual: Andrea Dovizioso seemed to have made a good enough start to hold the lead, but Casey Stoner got the better slingshot exit through the one eighty and powered past Dovizioso to take the lead straight away.

Behind them, Rossi had had the worst getaway of the two Yamaha drivers, albeit only by a slender margin, and found Lorenzo alongside him out of the exit of turn 2. Lorenzo gave Rossi an unfriendly nudge to move over, and promptly won the battle for the next corner, but it was a hostile takeover: Rossi was clearly not pleased, and he was right on the back of his team mate, clearly the faster of the two and getting frustrated that he was getting held up while Stoner and Dovizioso made a break for it at the front. The Yamaha pits grew tense at the prospect of a collision between the two taking both bikes out.

Six laps in and Rossi’s patience had expired – he made a lovely lunge down the inside into the turn 10 one-eighty onto the so-called “dummy straight” and left Lorenzo with no hope of making a fight-back stick. But by this point the two leaders were some two seconds up the road, and far from making any impression on that gap Rossi found himself unable even to shake off Lorenzo as the laps wore on.

The race seemed to have settled into a rhythm by lap 12, with the biggest battle between that between Carl Edwards and Maro Simoncelli for fifth place, albeit some 10s back from the Yamaha duo – Edwards was able to make best use of his long MotoGP experience to hold off the rookie till the end.

It wasn’t until the closing quarter of the race that Stoner finally broke Dovizioso and started to pull away at the front to secure a win that would have been considered frankly unexpected just 24 hours earlier: “We didn’t start out the weekend with a very stable bike – we had a lot of wheelie-ing and a lot of problems with brakes. [E]very time we improved that, we made the rear worse,” he told reporters after the race. “So we were having a bit of a disaster weekend, we couldn’t get any grip out of the bike. So we went somewhere in the middle – more traction and a bit more pitching in the bike, rather than stability under braking, and it seems to have paid off for us. We found that time that we were missing.”

With the win in the bag, attention turned to the newly supercharged battle for third place between Rossi and Lorenzo. Suspecting that Rossi might be feeling the wear and tear on his shoulder injury by this point, Jorge was signalling his clear intention to make a move, and with seven laps to go was starting to make feints on his team mate, bringing renewed anguish to the Yamaha pit crews who could hardly dare to breath. Any thoughts that Rossi would move over and make Lorenzo’s championship big a little easier (as he said he would do when he returned to racing after his broken leg) were completely dispelled by the increasingly hard-edged racing on display between the two: not only were there no team orders, it was practically team civil war.

Things finally got serious between the two on the penultimate lap: Lorenzo got a run on Rossi into turn 5, but on the exit under the bridge Rossi swept back and gave a light kiss of contact to Lorenzo, enough to make him check up by the slightest amount. But Jorge wasn’t done, and one turn later he was alongside Rossi again – and there was further contact, harder this time; ambulances were dispatched to the Yamaha pits for multiple heart attacks and nervous breakdowns. Rossi was essentially saying: I want this podium, I have nothing to lose. You have the championship to think about. I win.

Lorenzo had another attack through the same section on the final lap, and was briefly ahead for a couple of corners before once again Rossi slammed the door shut, this time without contact. Rossi had shown that he still had it, and that you tangled with the Doctor at your own risk – and the spectators were left breathless at this thrilling finish, the toughest racing of the year.

“Jorge came back and was faster than me, and we started a great battle with some good overtaking,” said Rossi afterwards, just before swearing on live BBC coverage. You suspected he only felt that magnanimous and upbeat about the battle because he’d come out on top, otherwise the language would have been even more expletive-laden and terse.

Nicky Hayden and Ben Spies had an early tangle on lap 2 that saw them run each other off into the gravel through turn 5 just before the bridge carrying the intersecting oval track. Spies recovered quicker and was at times matching the lap times of the leaders as he scythed his way through backmarkers as he recovered to eighth place by the end; Hayden made heavier weather of it and was slower to make progress, finally finishing 12th.

Randy de Puniet (turn 5) and Marco Melandri (turn 11) were the only other riders to head off dirt tracking through the gravel, although Loris Capirossi went off track as his electronics appeared to die on him, and he pulled off to allow his team mate Alvaro Bautista to cruise past him into seventh place while Loris retired.

So will the result encourage Dani Pedrosa to make an early return to MotoGP? Possibly. Not only has Lorenzo failed to deliver a knockout blow to the championship, but Casey Stoner’s win makes a deep cut into Dani’s second place prospects. It might not be fighting for the win, but runner-up in MotoGP is still a decent ambition and the Spaniard will not want to let it slip through his fingers if he can help it.

But perhaps the significance is more for 2011: with Rossi resurgent and Stoner finally back on form after early-season problems, and Pedrosa consistently proving to be the best of the field before his Friday accident, it means Lorenzo will have his hands full next year to retain the championship that he is now all-but-assured. And not forgetting Andrea Dovizioso if he gets a ride – which he should after filling in to ably here for his stricken team leader – and Ben Spies, who will be on the other Yamaha next year as the drivers play musical chairs. It should be quite a season.

Not that this one is over yet: just a week to go before battle recommences in Malaysia; will Jorge be out for revenge against Valentino? We can’t wait to see.

Race result

Pos  Rider             Team                  Time/Gap
 1.  Casey Stoner      Ducati              43:12.266s
 2.  Andrea Dovizioso  Honda                 + 3.868s
 3.  Valentino Rossi   Yamaha                + 5.707s
 4.  Jorge Lorenzo     Yamaha                + 6.221s
 5.  Colin Edwards     Tech 3 Yamaha        + 27.092s
 6.  Marco Simoncelli  Gresini Honda        + 30.021s
 7.  Alvaro Bautista   Suzuki               + 31.826s
 8.  Ben Spies         Tech 3 Yamaha        + 35.572s
 9.  Randy de Puniet   LCR Honda            + 47.564s
10.  Hiroshi Aoyama    Interwetten Honda    + 49.598s
11.  Marco Melandri    Gresini Honda        + 49.999s
12.  Nicky Hayden      Ducati               + 50.703s
13.  Hector Barbera    Aspar Ducati         + 51.422s
14.  Aleix Espargaro   Pramac Ducati        + 52.843s
15.  Mika Kallio       Pramac Ducati      + 1:14.668s

Retirements:

Loris Capirossi   Suzuki     21 laps

Championship standings

Pos Driver            Pts   Pos Constructor       Pts 
1.  Jorge Lorenzo     297   1.  Yamaha            309 
2.  Daniel Pedrosa    228   2.  Honda             285 
3.  Casey Stoner      180   3.  Ducati            220 
4.  Andrea Dovizioso  159   4.  Suzuki            81 
5.  Valentino Rossi   156    
6.  Ben Spies         139    
7.  Nicky Hayden      129     
8.  Randy de Puniet   88
9.  Marco Simoncelli  84
10. Colin Edwards     81
11. Marco Melandri    79
12. Hector Barbera    69
13. Alvaro Bautista   58
14. Aleix Espargaro   52
15. Loris Capirossi   41
16. Hiroshi Aoyama    35
17. Mika Kallio       34
18. Alex de Angelis   11
19. Roger Lee Hayden  5
20. Kousuke Akiyoshi  4
21. Wataru Yoshikawa  1
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