MOTOGP: Stoner dominates, as Dani gets broken again

At last, for the first time since the season opener at Qatar, Casey Stoner converted total domination of the race weekend into an easy race win. It was behind him that all the fierce duels, incidents, accidents and major controversies were breaking out…

Casey Stoner might have been forgiven for thinking that it was still Friday 13th when a Repsol Honda mechanic was still frantically wielding a spanner on the bike as the lights started to signal the start of the formation lap. After dominating all the sessions at Le Mans during the weekend, was he really about to be foiled on the grid by clutch problems?

Fortunately for the Australian, the problem was sorted out and Stoner was away only slightly slowly and belatedly; the problem with the clutch never reared its head again or developed into anything more serious, although Casey could have been forgiven if it was niggling at the back of his mind as the starting lights shone.

Stoner got a good start – as did Marco Simoncelli and Andrea Dovizioso on the front row – but nonetheless the Australian had to yield the lead at the start of the race to his Repsol team mate Dani Pedrosa who was back to his starting form best with a flier from the head of the second row to beat them all.

In fact the signs for Honda were all very positive right from the first corner, when Pedrosa, Stoner and Dovizioso took the lead positions and Marco Simoncelli was shuffled back to fourth ahead of Jorge Lorenzo. The Yamaha world champion had looked distinctly out of sorts and struggling here at Le Mans even before he crashed his bike in the Sunday morning warm-up and wrote it off, the machine even catching fire from the accident. It left Jorge on the back foot for the rest of the day, and it showed.

Not that Jorge was hoisting the white flag straight away: he outran Simoncelli into turn 6 and looked to have the pass made, only to have the Italian come right back and re-take fourth position on the exit. That lit a fire under Simoncelli who soon blasted past Dovizioso down the start/finish straight at the beginning of the next lap to take third place, and Lorenzo made an extraordinarily risky move through the Dunlop Chicane to barge Dovizioso aside and follow Simoncelli past him. Whether it was intended or accidental (Lorenzo did seem to have some instability into the chicane) or Lorenzo being simply too fixed on Simoncelli to even notice Dovizioso, it was quite amazing that it hasn’t resulted in a race-ending crash for both of them.

Stoner finally took the lead through the second chicane “Esses” on lap 2, and Pedrosa was unable to hold him off or counter-attack down the start/finish straight; behind them, Lorenzo was able to apply greater engine power down the straight to steal third place from Simoncelli and it looked as though he might be able to carry the fight to the two Hondas up front who were already threatening to break away.

It was not to be. Lorenzo had shot his bolt and he already looked fragile, unable to make any impression on Pedrosa up the road; so it was no surprise when next lap through the Esses he fell prey to Simoncelli wanting that third place back. That left Lorenzo struggling to stay in front of Dovizioso, and all the time he was backing the pair of them up into the clutched of Valentino Rossi who was starting to come back into contention in sixth. Dovizioso out-braked Lorenzo into a right hander on lap 11 to take the position back, but Lorenzo stayed in touch and set up a lovely sweep around the outside of turn 1 to give himself an unbeatable line into the Dunlop Chicane on lap 15 to take the position back again – great racing.

Up ahead, Pedrosa had tried to stay with Stoner and apply on the leader, but Stoner responded and pulled away. Pretty soon he was all but out of sight: for the remainder of the race Casey would have been forgiven for thinking he was on a Sunday afternoon pleasure ride through the French countryside. That left Pedrosa now struggling with the pressing problem of Simoncelli – and the sight of the two drivers battling together close on track as “little and large” was rather surreally comic. But when things came to the crunch it proved to be no laughing matter.

It all happened on lap 18: Pedrosa’s pace was increasingly dropping off and finally Simoncelli was able to line up a lovely move on Pedrosa through turn 6. late-braking down the inside of the sweeping right hander. On the exit, Pedrosa was able to apply the superior engine power of the Honda on the long drag down to the middle chicane and went into turn 7 ahead with Simoncelli hanging on around the outside.

And then Pedrosa was down on his side in the sand, the front of his Repsol works Honda being snatched way from him by contact with the Gresini customer Honda that had been trying an impossible overtaking move around the outside. Worse, Pedrosa – perennially unlucky with injuries – was immediately clutching at his right collarbone and it was clear that he’d broken it, just weeks after having surgery to have the metal plate on his left collarbone removed. The injury puts into question whether he can possibly be in any fit state to compete at the next event, which is a home race for the Spaniard.

Remarkably the contact hadn’t adversely affected Simoncelli: but the drive-thru penalty that was handed down by the stewards shortly afterwards certainly did. It was a shock to everyone, since comparable recent accidents – such as Rossi ploughing into Stoner at Jerez just a month before – had received no such sanction. Whether or not Simoncelli was to blame for the accident, the drive-thru seemed an over-reaction: and worse, unlike a post-race time penalty, it was irrevocable once issued and completely altered the course of the race from there on. It seemed a strange (if not outright incorrect) call by the stewards who seemed to be over-reacting to the fact that, this time, a rider had been injured by the otherwise normal racing incident.

Pedrosa’s exit and Simoncell’s penalty handed the second and third positions to the winners of the Lorenzo/Dovizioso/Rossi scrap, and with the stakes heightened for the trio battle was well and truly resumed. Rossi took third position with eight laps to go when Dovizioso misjudged a move on Lorenzo and ran wide, opening the door for the Valentino; but it was soon clear that the runt of the litter was now definitely Lorenzo who was fading fast. He was passed by both Rossi and Dovizioso on lap 24 and barely put up a fight as he seemed resigned to the outcome, struggling even to stay on the track in the final laps and grateful just to make it to the finish line.

Now it was just a question of whether Rossi or Dovizioso would take second: the Honda was clearly the faster bike, but Rossi had track position and was pouring all his years of race craft into defending the position, but it wasn’t enough and Dovizioso took the position with three laps to go. Rossi tried to lunge past as they came through the final corner on the penultimate lap, but he out-braked himself and Dovizioso calmly regained the position onto the main straight. Rossi wasn’t able to get close enough during the final lapo to have another serious try, and would have to settle for third place – but still so much better than Ducati would have been expecting at this stage of the season.

Simoncelli – who had been unfortunate with the penalty but who had also been the architect of his own misfortune – had emerged behind both this scrap and a battle between Ben Spies and Nicky Hayden for fifth. He managed to keep the red mist at bay long enough to pass both bikes and claim fifth place at the line.

Tony Elias (who had started from last) and Alvaro Bautista both had great first halves of the race and made up multiple positions through the midfield pack to reach 11th and 12th by the end of lap 10, only to struggle in the second half. ELias lost a bunch of positions he’s previously gained when his Honda momentarily turned into a bucking bronco through the Esses on lap 14, while Alvaro Bautista lost positions in the closing laps as wear and tear took its toll on both tyres and driver, with Bautista still recovering from the broken leg he sustained in practice at Qatar in March.

Randy de Puneit exited the race in the gravel at the end of the first lap during a close battle with Nicky Hayden, and his Pramac Ducati team mate Loris Capirossi would also crash off seven laps before the end. Tech 3 were having no better a day either, with Cal Crutchlow pushing too hard on lap 7 and catching the edge of the track, and Carl Edwards also slid out but was able to resume at the back after a lengthy trip back to the pits to fix an electrical problem, which at least enabled him to pick up a couple of consolation championship points.

Despite clearly struggling at Le Mans, Jorge Lorenzo ironically comes out of the weekend with an extended lead thanks to the misfotunes of his previous closest challenger, Dani Pedrosa. But with Dani potentially sidelined for several weeks with his newest injury, Jorge will have to ignore him and look instead at Casey Stoner who takes over the second position in the championship and threatens to be a nigh-unstoppable force over the next few weeks and months unless Yamaha can wring some more speed and performance from their hardware.

The next chance everyone will have to test out their equipement in battle is in three weeks time at Catalunya in Spain. Let’s hope Dani Pedrosa is fit and well enough to compete come June 5.

Race result

Pos  Rider             Team/Bike          Time/Gap
 1.  Casey Stoner      Honda            44:03.955s
 2.  Andrea Dovizioso  Honda             + 14.214s
 3.  Valentino Rossi   Ducati            + 14.564s
 4.  Jorge Lorenzo     Yamaha            + 21.075s
 5.  Marco Simoncelli  Gresini Honda     + 31.245s
 6.  Ben Spies         Yamaha            + 31.609s
 7.  Nicky Hayden      Ducati            + 35.566s
 8.  Hiroshi Aoyama    Gresini Honda     + 51.502s
 9.  Hector Barbera    Aspar Ducati    + 1:03.731s
10.  Karel Abraham     Cardion Ducati  + 1:03.885s
11.  Toni Elias        LCR Honda       + 1:04.068s
12.  Alvaro Bautista   Suzuki          + 1:04.192s
13.  Colin Edwards     Tech 3 Yamaha      + 2 laps

Retirements:
Loris Capirossi   Pramac Ducati       21 laps
Dani Pedrosa      Honda               17 laps
Cal Crutchlow     Tech 3 Yamaha        6 laps
Randy de Puniet   Pramac Ducati         1 lap

MotoGP championship after race 4

Riders
Pos Rider            Pts
1   Jorge Lorenzo     78
2   Casey Stoner      66
3   Daniel Pedrosa    61
4   Andrea Dovizioso  50
5   Valentino Rossi   47
6   Nicky Hayden      39
7   Hiroshi Aoyama    36
8   Marco Simoncelli  22
9   Colin Edwards     21
10  Hector Barbera    21
11  Cal Crutchlow     21
12  Ben Spies         20
13  Karel Abraham     18
14  Toni Elias        17
15  Loris Capirossi   9
16  Alvaro Bautista   7
17  John Hopkins      6
17  Randy de Puniet   6

Teams
Pos Constructor Pts
1   Honda        95
2   Yamaha       78
3   Ducati       52
4   Suzuki       13
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