MOTOGP: Patient Lorenzo wins in rainy Spain

Jorge Lorenzo was the last man standing and ultimate winner in a Spanish Grand Prix, a race the likes of which everyone agreed they could never remember having seen before.

This weekend it seems the rain in Spain was mainly circulating over Jerez: pulses of rain and drizzle interspersed with drier periods had plagued the morning races, leaving the starting grid of the MotoGP sat on a wet track but apparently with the rain itself easing off and about to stop. What would it do the relative form of the MotoGP field, which until this point had been dominated by the Hondas of Casey Stoner and Dani Pedrosa?

We saw that this wasn’t going to be business as usual right form the green flag, when Dani Pedrosa failed to get away to his usual flying start that we’re so used to seeing. Maybe it was his slight build that was stopping him getting heat into the tyres during the warm-up lap, but not only did he not fly off the start, he was beaten around the outside line by a cunning Jorge Lorenzo starting from third and from there on plummeted backward to ninth place at the end of the first lap, then losing another place to Cal Crutchlow shortly into lap 2. This looked set to be an irredeemably bleak Sunday for Dani.

Just as Dani was going backwards, Valentino Rossi seemed to by skyrocketing up the positions. Starting from 12th on the grid, he was up to eighth by the end of lap 1. Meanwhile things were going according to plan for Casey Stoner, easing into the lead from pole position with Lorenzo doing well to stay with him but not really looking like a major threat to the Aussie. Behind them, Marco Simoncelli and Andrea Dovizioso were ahead of Ben Spies and Nick Hayden.

Three laps down, and Stoner was enjoying a 0.5s lead over Lorenzo but the big threats were coming from further back: Marco Simoncelli was putting in the fastest laps and Rossi was now right behind him in fourth. Down the field, Dani Pedrosa finally seemed to have found some grip and had re-passed Crutchlow and also passed Colin Edwards to climb back to eighth place, the drier track conditions suiting him better.

In fact the changing track conditions were producing fluctuating performances all over the place: Stoner’s lap faltered and Lorenzo closed up, but it was Simoncelli who passed Lorenzo for second at the start of lap 6 outbraking the world champion into turn 1, and then overtaking Stoner as well later the same lap to claim the lead of the race. Then next lap around, Valentino Rossi was able to pull his Ducati into a tighter line than Lorenzo’s Yamaha into turn 2 and slotted into third, right on the tale of Casey Stoner and dropping Lorenzo off the back.

Rossi wasn’t done yet, and on lap 8 he tried an opportunistic move on Stoner down the inside of turn 1. He must have known going in that it was a horrible mistake: there was no way of making the turn, and when he tried the bike folded underneath him, hitting Stoner’s Honda through the apex of the turn and taking them both into the gravel trap. Rossi was briefly pinned under the combined weight of both machines, but the Ducacti was actually in better shape and was still running, allowing Rossi to remount and ride off at the back of the field. Stoner was not so fortunate, frustrated by the attention the marshalls were giving Rossi to help him get underway but in the end the Honda was too badly damaged to continue anyway. He was out, race done.

That left Simoncelli with a huge lead, and Jorge Lorenzo quietly smirking in second after his “safety first” approach was vindicated. Behind him was Hayden and Spies, while Dani Pedrosa was now flying again after his dismal start, dispatching his team mate Andrea Dovizioso who was clearly having troubles – running off into the gravel at one point, then losing a bunch of positions and finally pitting for a new set of wet weather tyres in a desperate attempt to salvage something from a day that had started so well.

Pedrosa was into fourth with a fantastic move on Spies in the middle of lap 10, and repeated the feat with a great overtake on Hayden the next lap around to claim third place, the much drier track now ideally suiting him. But less happy was the race leader Marco Simoncelli, who was finding his wet weather tyres ripped to shreds. Even so, he had a 2.6s lead over Lorenzo whose conservative, careful strategy continued to put “first, finish” ahead of “finishing first”.

And how right he was to do so. Going into turn 1 at the start of lap 12, Simoncelli found the limits of the rubber and sailed right over them, the front giving away and then the back launching Marco high into the air. The crossbar was too badly damaged to allow him to continue, meaning that his day was well and truly done.

That left Lorenzo in the lead, and Pedrosa close behind him. But Dani’s strongest phase was now over, and Lorenzo started to ease out a big gap over his compatriot over the ensuing laps which was helped when the weather started to close in again and the rain returned, unsettling Pedrosa just as much as it had in the earliest laps of the afternoon. He would be happy to seal second place now, and to cede Lorenzo the win.

With six laps to go, the big battle on track was between Dani Pedrosa and Ben Spies for second place. Spies had the confidence in the wetter conditions that Dani lacked, and on lap 24 a small mistake by Pedrosa into turn 5 gave the American the chance to pounce as Dani ruefully shook his head; but just a lap later, as Spies pushed to open up a gap over Pedrosa and stop the Spaniard from staging a counter-attack, it was Spies who made the error, and a more serious one at that when the bike went from under him and deposited him in the kitty litter.

The fastest man on track in the latter stages of the race was unquestionably Valentino Rossi, who was working his way up through the field at such a rate of knots that he had recovered from his collision with Stoner and made it to fifth place just behind Hiroshi Aoyama by the end of the race, a huge achievement. His first stop back in the paddock was the Honda garage, to offer abject apologies to Stoner for taking him out: Stoner even took it in remarkably good grace in the circumstances, although he couldn’t resist a “ambitions outweighed the talent, eh?” shot.

The wetter conditions took their toll further back down the field, however. Randy de Puniet exited the race on lap 18 while running in tenth and was unable to get the bike refired; Karel Abraham lost his front and ploughed deep into the gravel two laps later, but got back underway with some help from the marshalls; and Cal Crutchlow slid into the gravel at turn 1 a lap after that. His team mate Colin Edwards looked set for a podium finish in third after overtaking a wobbling Nicky Hayden at the start of lap 25, until his Tech 3 ran its front wheel into the gravel at the start of the final lap – it transpired that there was an engine failure, something that should concern Yamaha coming so early in the season when engine wear should not really be an issue.

Despite his own gravel excursion, Cal Crutchlow still managed to finish eighth behind Hector Barbera and Karel Abraham in only his second MotoGP outing, while John Hopkins – sitting in at Suzuki after Alvaro Bautista’s injury at Qatar – managed to very satisfactory tenth place behind Tony Elias after his last minute recruitment back to the series as a stand-in, despite flirting alarmingly with some of the wet white paint lines at times.

All in all, it had been one of the most enthralling, exciting and entertaining MotoGP races for ages, with so much happening throughout the field that one didn’t know where to look. While it’s a shame that a possible classic battle for the lead with Rossi and Stoner was thwarted by that collision, it’s hard to complain about the value for money, and the Spanish crowd weren’t explaining about having their two local heroes top of the heap at their home race; Lorenzo carried on a new tradition he started just last year at Jerez with a leap into the local plastic-bottomed “duck pond” to celebrate. And why not: since he was dripping wet already!

Lorenzo finds himself top of the championship table, which is not what the form books would have suggested. By far the best rider/bike combination has to be Casey Stoner, who deserved to be the points leader if not for that stroke of misfortune. The surprise is possibly how fast and strong Rossi proved to be: given his race recovery pace in the second half of the race, it’s hard to see how anyone could possibly have held him off for the lead if it hadn’t been for that early incident.

MotoGP takes an unexpectedly long break at this point, with the postponement of the Japanese race following the earthquake and tsunami leaving a near-month long interval before the next race in Portugal on May Day. For Dani Pedrosa (who needs surgery to remove a titanium plate on his collarbone in order to relieve the arm problems he suffered at Qatar) and Alvaro Bautista (still recovering from his broken femur) it’s a welcome relief. As it probably also is for anyone else currently suffering palpitations after the very eventful Jerez round!

Race results

Pos  Rider             Team                  Time
 1.  Jorge Lorenzo     Yamaha           50:49.046
 2.  Dani Pedrosa      Honda           +   19.339
 3.  Nicky Hayden      Ducati          +   29.085
 4.  Hiroshi Aoyama    Gresini Honda   +   29.551
 5.  Valentino Rossi   Ducati          + 1:02.227
 6.  Hector Barbera    Aspar Ducati    + 1:08.440
 7.  Karel Abraham     Cardion Ducati  + 1:14.120
 8.  Cal Crutchlow     Tech 3 Yamaha   + 1:19.110
 9.  Toni Elias        LCR Honda       + 1:42.906
10.  John Hopkins      Suzuki          + 1:48.395
11.  Loris Capirossi   Pramac Ducati   + 1:51.876
12.  Andrea Dovizioso  Honda           +    1 lap

Retirements:

    Colin Edwards     Tech 3 Yamaha       26 laps
    Ben Spies         Yamaha              24 laps
    Randy De Puniet   Pramac Ducati       16 laps
    Marco Simoncelli  Gresini Honda       11 laps
    Casey Stoner      Honda                7 laps

Championship standings

Pos Driver           Pts
1   Jorge Lorenzo     45
2   Daniel Pedrosa    36
3   Casey Stoner      25
4   Nicky Hayden      23
5   Valentino Rossi   20
6   Hiroshi Aoyama    19
7   Andrea Dovizioso  17
8   Hector Barbera    14
9   Cal Crutchlow     13
10  Karel Abraham     12
11  Marco Simoncelli  11
12  Ben Spies         10
13  Colin Edwards      8
14  Toni Elias         7
15  John Hopkins       6
16  Loris Capirossi    5

Pos Constructor  Pts
1   Honda         45
2   Yamaha        45
3   Ducati        25
4   Suzuki         6
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