MOTOGP: Round 17 – Estoril, Portual – Oct 31

We shouldn’t be surprised that motor racing event after event is being hit by inclement weather – it is October, after all. But even so, it was a depressing Friday and Saturday in Estoril as first the newly reinstated Friday morning session was badly hit by rain, and then the entire run of qualifying sessions for MotoGP and supporting races were wiped out by storms.

That left the organisers setting grid positions by the combined times of the remaining practice sessions, which had been wet but driveable on Friday afternoon and Saturday morning. As a result it was a mixed-up grid, and there was always going to be an early phase of the race itself that would be about finding out the true running order.

When it came to the race day itself, there was another problem – ironically, it was now too dry. None of the riders had been able to run in the dry up till this point, but save for a few damp patches here and there the race was now classified as dry, and the teams had to conjure dry settings out of thin air. There was only the formation lap to test those new settings out – and rookie of the year Ben Spies was the first to find out that his dry settings weren’t in order, as he was launched into a violent high-side in turn 4. He attempted to walk away but was clearly in pain, and finally had to sit back down and wait for a stretcher. He didn’t make the starting grid, and eventually came work that he had dislocated his left ankle – putting his participation in the season finale in Valencia next week in doubt.

That left an empty spot in the middle of the second row of the grid, which was a nice boost for Randy de Puniet. But the eye-catching start of the day came without a doubt from Jorge Lorenzo: not usually known for being the best of starters, this time he launched himself away from the grid as if from an aircraft carrier catapult, leaving the rest of the field looking momentarily stunned and motionless: but if it looked as though the race was over and done with before the first corner, there would be a surprise by the end of lap 1 when Lorenzo made a mistake and lost the lead to Nicky Hayden.

Hayden’s pace didn’t last for long, Lorenzo’s Yamaha blitzing the Ducati down the start/finish straight in a display of superior engine power we haven’t seen in years; and soon Hayden had not only handed back the lead to Lorenzo but also lost positions to Casey Stoner and Valentino Rossi. Rossi had not had a great start and found himself impeded in traffic, but as soon as things started sorting themselves out he was showing some breathtaking form, pulling away from the competition and getting right on the tail of of his team mate and rival-in-chief, finally taking the lead with a great move through the slow hairpin turn 9 on lap 3.

Lorenzo seemed to have nothing to respond with: not only was Rossi building up a one and a half second lead, but Casey Stoner was also all over the back of Lorenzo as well and threatening to take second place. And then suddenly, the Ducati was down and spinning out into the gravel, Stoner having lost the rear of the bike coming out of the final turn of lap 5. Stoner ran over, took one look at the beached bike, and declared it game over.

The Yamaha duo were in a class of their own after this, pulling out a huge margin of over ten seconds over the chasing six-pack of Hayden, Andrea Dovizioso, Marco Simoncelli, Randy de Puniet, Carl Edwards – and Dani Pedrosa, who had started in 12th place after the aborted qualifying sessions to run as high up as fifth before the combined effects of tyre wear from his early charge through the field mixed with fatigue and pain from his collarbone injury caused him to fade and fall away in the second half of the race, ending up in a lonely spot on the track in a safe but distant eighth.

The chief battle in this group ended up being between Dovizioso and Simoncelli for the final podium position, both drivers surviving scares along the way: Dovizioso lost several positions after narrowly avoiding being thrown from his works Honda, while Simoncelli managed to hold on to his customer version despite several heart-stopping tankslappers. Randy de Puniet could have been in contention for the place as well, but sabotaged his campaign with several run-offs into turn 1 as he consistently misjudged his braking point.

Up front, however, it was looking like Rossi’s race all the way. But with the track drying with every minute, all of a sudden Rossi no longer had the edge over his team mate that he did. As the race reached halfway, Rossi’s lead evaporated in a lap and a half and suddenly Lorenzo was right behind measuring him up for an overtaking move: on lap 17, Lorenzo had the perfect slipstream down the start/finish straight, slipped alongside and forced Rossi to the outside line, holding him from turning into the first corner just long enough to prevent the wily Valentino from mounting any sort of switchback fightback.

Not only was Lorenzo was back in the lead, he was far faster than Rossi who seemed to have no answer for him. All Rossi could do was watch the brilliant white leathers of Jorge (gleaming in his spacesuit-lookalike racing gear) recede further and further into the distance, never to be seen in close-up again until after the chequered flag had fallen.

The other retirements alongside Spies and Stoner were Aleix Espargaro who was puzzled about what brought him down on lap 1; and Carlos Checa, who was paying for his sudden return to MotoGP by being reminded of the traumas of arm-pump in the premier class, and who retired on lap 13 after a lively battle with Hector Barbera.

All in all, though, it has been a good and entertaining race: while the race itself was dry, all the uncertainty created by rained-out sessions having most definitely thrown a hungry feline among the avian population and created an entertaining afternoon’s sport to make up for the absence of Saturday action.

Stoner’s retirement means he is now officially out of the running for second place in the 2010 MotoGP world championship: only Rossi can wrest the runners-up prize from Pedrosa, and then only if Pedrosa has a serious disaster at Valencia. Still, you can be sure Rossi will give it his best shot – both to take the second place, and also to make sure his final race with Yamaha ends with a win and puts that upstart Lorenzo firmly in his place in preparation for 2011!

Race result

Pos  Rider             Team                  Time/Gap
 1.  Jorge Lorenzo     Yamaha              46m17.962s
 2.  Valentino Rossi   Yamaha                + 8.629s
 3.  Andrea Dovizioso  Honda                + 26.475s
 4.  Marco Simoncelli  Gresini Honda        + 26.534s
 5.  Nicky Hayden      Ducati               + 27.154s
 6.  Randy de Puniet   LCR Honda            + 28.297s
 7.  Colin Edwards     Tech 3 Yamaha        + 30.109s
 8.  Dani Pedrosa      Honda                + 44.947s
 9.  Marco Melandri    Gresini Honda      + 1m13.649s
10.  Hector Barbera    Aspar Ducati       + 1m17.721s
11.  Alvaro Bautista   Suzuki             + 1m17.908s
12.  Hiroshi Aoyama    Interwetten Honda  + 1m33.025s
13.  Loris Capirossi   Suzuki             + 1m39.752s

Retirements:

Carlos Checa    Pramac Ducati 12 laps
Casey Stoner    Ducati         4 laps
Aleix Espargaro Pramac Ducati  0 laps
Ben Spies       Tech 3 Yamaha     DNS

MotoGP world championship standings

Pos Driver            Pts
1   Jorge Lorenzo     358
2   Daniel Pedrosa    236
3   Valentino Rossi   217
4   Casey Stoner      205
5   Andrea Dovizioso  195
6   Ben Spies         163
7   Nicky Hayden      163
8   Marco Simoncelli  115
9   Randy de Puniet   110
10  Marco Melandri    100
11  Colin Edwards     99
12  Hector Barbera    82
13  Alvaro Bautista   78
14  Aleix Espargaro   60
15  Hiroshi Aoyama    51
16  Loris Capirossi   44
17  Mika Kallio       43
18  Alex de Angelis   11
19  Roger Lee Hayden  5
20  Kousuke Akiyoshi  4
21  Wataru Yoshikawa  1

Pos Constructor Pts
1   Yamaha      379
2   Honda       331
3   Ducati      266
4   Suzuki      101
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