MOTOGP: Pedrosa back to his best in Estoril

Sometimes it’s looked like Dani Pedrosa simply couldn’t buy a break.

Everytime he looked set for a triumph, a crash or an injury could conspire against him and sideline him again. He’s been looking like the nearly-man for years now, and some thought that his window of opportunity might be slipping away from him altogether. But this weekend, at Estoril, Dani came out swinging with one of his best, smartest and most unequivocal performances.

Going into the race, all the focus was on Jorge Lorenzo and Marco Simoncelli, after Lorenzo has used an official MotoGP press conference to attack the Italian’s riding style as too physical and aggressive. “It’s not funny, because we are playing with our lives,” he had said on Saturday. “We are riding at 300 km/h with a very powerful and very heavy bike … It’s a dangerous sport and you have to think about what you do.”

Simoncelli had been looking extremely strong here at Estoril, and had been set to sweep away all competition during qualifying before a late crash sidelined him and left the door open for Lorenzo to take the pole position (his first in 2011) and ironically put the two warring riders alongside each other on the starting grid, with Pedrosa the other man on the front grid in third ready to perform one of his flying starts.

Actually, the flying start didn’t happen: Lorenzo got off to a solid start and that was all that was required to lead into the first turn, while behind him Pedrosa sliced off the threat from Casey Stoner and beat Simoncelli into the corner as well.

Several of the bikes seemed to be struggling on cold tyres in these opening seconds: Pedrosa had a little tremor through the apex of turn 2 but that was nothing compared to the shaking that Simoncelli and Stoner went through, both drivers lucky not to be thrown off at that point and trigger a major accident with everyone following so closely behind them.

It looked like Simoncelli had lived to fight another day – but that day proved to be no further ahead than the next left hander at turn 4. Once again the cold tyres refused to co-operate with what Marco was asking, and this time they made a good good of throwing him off the bike in a jarring high-side that dispatched him sliding off into the gravel. Second later, and only yards further up the road, Hector Barbera suffered an almost identical fate, the wind knocked out of him leaving him lying prone for several seconds until he, like Simoncelli, was able to walk away from the scene of the accident.

That left Lorenzo in the lead – presumably with a big smile on his face after his attack on Marco had been “proven” by events. But he now had problems with another long time rival, fellow Spaniard Dani Pedrosa, and try as he might Jorge wasn’t able to shake the diminutive Honda rider. Indeed, it quickly became clear that Pedrosa was the faster of the two bikes, but every time he looked set to coast down the start/finish straight and claim the lead, he pulled back and braked early. He simply didn’t want it yet, and wasn’t inclined to set himself up as a target and let Lorenzo have the time to follow him round and study him for weaknesses, so he bided his time instead. The question was whether it would be Lorenzo’s tyres wear or Pedrosa’s shoulder (recovering from having a metal plate removed during the month-long hiatus between races) that would come into play first.

It turned out that Pedrosa was feeling just fine, thank you very much. When he finally overtook Lorenzo, with four laps to go to the end of the race, Pedrosa confirmed that he really did have the much faster bike and quickly started pulling away from the Yahama. Lornezo had no answer, and moreover this is the “safety first” Jorge these days (after his crashing and smashing first season in MotoGP in 2009) and so the reigning champion settled for another strong points finish in second.

Behind them, Casey Stoner seemed to be rather sluggish in the early laps, perhaps unsettled by that turn 2 wobble on the first lap or seeing Simoncelli crash in front of him; perhaps it was just that he, like Marco, was finding it difficult to get enough heat into his tyres and was worried about falling. He certainly had no answer to Lorenzo and Pedrosa who quickly opened out a big gap over him in the early laps; when he felt a bit more comfortable with his tyres mid-race and tried to push, he initially closed on the leaders only to have them respond with a vengeance and quickly build up a 3s lead over the Aussie.

And Stoner wasn’t a happy man for other reasons: on board camera shots showed Casey suddenly letting go of the handlebars and reaching round to grasp his back. I unfortunately had a twinge in the back,” Stoner confirmed later, saying he’d been unable to move for half a lap and almost considered retiring. “Luckily it loosened up enough for me to be able to change direction and get from one side of the bike to the other. It’s just a relief, to be honest, to finish.”

Valentino Rossi had a relatively quiet afternoon, settling into fourth place immediately after Simoncelli’s accident and staying there for almost the entire length of the remaining race. He had no answer for Stoner up ahead who had disappeared into the distance, and could also not pull away from Andrea Dovizioso who was stalking him immediately behind. It was only when the final turns of the race came up that Dovi sprang his trap, getting a better run out of the final corner and then using the Honda’s superior engine grunt to win a sprint to the line by a mere 0.025s.

Ben Spies had an eventful dozen laps that was more crisis management than motorbike racing, thanks to an engineer’s tool that had been accidentally let on the bike on the starting grid that impeded the brake lever. He ran wide through turn 6 on lap 2 trying to do something about it, nearly collided with Nicky Hayden and lost out in a battle with Hiroshi Aoyama as he tried to recover his former sixth position, and then had another off before finally crashing out on lap 12.

“When I noticed the tool hadn’t been removed I tried to do it myself because it was right in there next to my brake lever,” Spies said. “I managed to get it off but then this loose tube was flying around which was pretty scary. It really messed with my concentration … and then I crashed.”

Karel Abraham was another early faller on lap 2 and seemed to have injured his left wrist in the process. That left only 13 runners, allowing Suzuki’s Alvaro Bautista to score points despite struggling on his rather heroic return from a broken leg sustained in Qatar practice and having at least one run-off during this week’s race.

Britain’s Cal Crutchlow spent much of the afternoon circulating in seventh position, but the Tech 3 rider has been suffering all weekend with excessive fluid build up in his arm – that has required regular drainage – and he eventually lost the position to Aoyama but did well to finish despite the physical problems.

The result certainly tightens up the standings at the top of the MotoGP championship, with Pedrosa’s win pulling up to within 4pts of Lorenzo at the top of the table, the two of them comfortably ahead of Stoner and Rossi going into the next race at the famous Le Mans in France on May 15.

Race results

Pos Rider            Team/Bike         Time/Gap
 1. Dani Pedrosa     Honda           45:51.483s
 2. Jorge Lorenzo    Yamaha         +    3.051s
 3. Casey Stoner     Honda          +    7.658s
 4. Andrea Dovizioso Honda          +   16.530s
 5. Valentino Rossi  Ducati         +   16.555s
 6. Colin Edwards    Tech 3 Yamaha  +   32.575s
 7. Hiroshi Aoyama   Gresini Honda  +   38.749s
 8. Cal Crutchlow    Tech 3 Yamaha  +   40.912s
 9. Nicky Hayden     Ducati         +   54.887s
10. Randy de Puniet  Pramac Ducati  +   59.697s
11. Toni Elias       LCR Honda      + 1:00.374s
12. Loris Capirossi  Pramac Ducati  + 1:01.793s
13. Alvaro Bautista  Suzuki         + 1:24.370s

Retirements:

Ben Spies         Yamaha           12 laps
Karel Abraham     Cardion Ducati    1 lap
Marco Simoncelli  Gresini Honda     0 laps
Hector Barbera    Aspar Ducati      0 laps

MotoGP championship standings

Pos Driver            Pts   Pos Constructor  Pts
1   Jorge Lorenzo     65    1   Honda        70
2   Daniel Pedrosa    61    2   Yamaha       65
3   Casey Stoner      41    3   Ducati       36
4   Valentino Rossi   31    4   Suzuki       9
5   Nicky Hayden      30     
6   Andrea Dovizioso  30     
7   Hiroshi Aoyama    28
8   Cal Crutchlow     21
9   Colin Edwards     18
10  Hector Barbera    14
11  Karel Abraham     12
12  Toni Elias        12
13  Marco Simoncelli  11
14  Ben Spies         10
15  Loris Capirossi   9
16  Randy de Puniet   6
16  John Hopkins      6
18  Alvaro Bautista   3
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