Casey Stoner has all but conceded that his 2008 MotoGP title hopes are over after his third fall in three races - and second in a row while leading - at Misano on Sunday.
The reigning world champion has shown staggering pace throughout practice and qualifying ever since the Catalan Grand Prix seven races ago, but stumbled during a stunning battle with Valentino Rossi at Laguna Seca and has fallen whilst trying to stay clear of the Italian at the two rounds since.
The Ducati rider's latest error came on lap eight of the San Marino Grand Prix, just as the Australian looked to be holding the Fiat Yamaha rider. Stoner had kept the world championship leader three-seconds behind since lap two, an advantage that counted for nothing when he slid from his Desmosedici in a repeat of his Brno accident.
Had the weight of his previous mistakes been playing on his mind? Did pain from a scaphoid injury cause Stoner to drop his Ducati? According to Casey it was a front tyre problem.
"Basically we took the decision to put one lap on the race tyre in warm-up this morning to get it scrubbed in: we've done it before and not had a problem but today I could feel from the first lap that the grip wasn't right," said Stoner. "After a few laps it started to feel better and I was gaining confidence but it let go."
Stoner has now slipped 75 points behind Rossi with just five rounds and 125 points remaining, prompting the young Australian to begin thinking about 2009.
"It's a real shame but, anyway, we tried hard here and once again I think we've shown we are very fast, we have a great bike and tyres that work fantastically. This gives me confidence for next year and I'm looking forward to it already," said Stoner.
The four-time 2008 race winner added that his left wrist injury - a re-opened break from 2003 - will remain untreated until the end of the year.
"As for the injury, it's huge disappointment this problem came out but I'll have to wait until the end of the season for an operation," he said.
Ducati Corse general director Filippo Preziosi was seen with his head in his hands immediately after Stoner's accident, but stressed that the Italian factory is standing firmly behind its first ever MotoGP world champion.
"I'm really disappointed for Casey but it is important that we stay together as a team at a moment like this," he said. "We leave here knowing that we have a competitive bike, a good team and a truly great rider. I am proud to be able to work with Casey Stoner."