Crash.net's MotoGP season review - Pt 1
23 December 2008
The 2008 MotoGP season began with a step into the unknown in the form of the first ever grand prix night race, but - despite the shock of a rookie qualifying one-two by Jorge Lorenzo and James Toseland - the end result was exactly the same as the year before, victory for Casey Stoner and Ducati at Qatar.
The Australian and his Bridgestone-shod Desmosedici had destroyed the 2007 opposition and a second MotoGP title was already looking a distinct possibility, especially with lead rival Valentino Rossi only fifth on his Bridgestone debut.
Few doubted that Rossi would reach race-winning speed eventually on his new tyres, but would it be too late to stop Stoner - a rider who finished every race in 2007, winning ten of them and never finished lower than sixth?
But the Stoner/Ducati invincibility hit an unexpected stumble next time out in Jerez, when - for the first time since throwing a leg over a Ducati - Stoner appeared to be in genuine difficulty.
With new team-mate Marco Melandri never looking comfortable on the GP8, the Jerez handling problems weren't a complete surprise - but this was the first time that Stoner's talent and determination had been unable to rise above them.
The #1 qualified seventh, but ran off track on lap three, leaving him at the back of the field. Stoner went on to finish eleventh, after suffering a further moment late in the race. Rossi wasn't the main beneficiary of Stoner's woes, although the Italian did claim his first Bridgestone podium at Jerez, instead it was Dani Pedrosa who stood on the top step of the rostrum, in front of his home fans.
Pedrosa had missed much of pre-season testing due to injury and, like team-mate Nicky Hayden, had begun the year using last year's valve-spring Honda engine, but the Spaniard raced from eighth to third at Qatar, then qualified behind only Lorenzo at Jerez en route to his first win of the year - and the world championship lead.
Lorenzo finished behind Pedrosa and Rossi to prove that his Qatar debut was no fluke, and the 20-year-old - the youngest rider on the MotoGP grid - completed a stunning start to his premier-class career next time out at Estoril, when he converted his third pole in a row into his first ever MotoGP victory, by 1.8sec over arch-rival Pedrosa, and took the world championship lead.
"I feel like I'm in heaven!" beamed Lorenzo, who planted his trademark 'Lorenzo's Land' victory flag for the first time as a MotoGP rider.
But the next time Lorenzo rode his M1, during Friday free practice for the Chinese Grand Prix, he was catapulted into the air during a vicious highside that left him with fractures to both ankles. Incredibly, Lorenzo returned to the track on Saturday and qualified fourth on the grid, then repeated that position on race day.
Nevertheless, Fiat Yamaha team-mate Rossi stole the Sunday Shanghai headlines by winning his first race of the season and first ever with Bridgestone tyres. The victory also marked the end of a seven-race losing streak, Rossi's longest since his debut 2000 season, and put The Doctor within nine points of Pedrosa.
Rossi's title challenge was galvanised with victory next time out in Le Mans - a race that saw Stoner fail to score points for the first time as a Ducati rider, after a technical problem in the closing stages - while the injured Lorenzo and Colin Edwards completed an all-M1 podium. In claiming third Edwards, who had taken pole at Shanghai, handed Tech 3 its first MotoGP podium since 2004 - at the team's home event - while Rossi and Lorenzo now held first and second in the world championship.
Rossi then took his third win in a row with a record-breaking seventh successive home win at Mugello, before Pedrosa rose to the occasion for his second home victory of the season at Catalunya. Like Rossi, the Repsol Honda rider had finished off the podium just once during the first seven rounds and was now ranked ahead of Lorenzo in the championship and just seven points from Rossi.
But it was fourth in the championship Stoner, without a win since Qatar, who was soon to re-emerge as Rossi's toughest challenger - thanks to an electronic breakthrough at the post Catalunya test.
"In the past few rounds we've had trouble getting power to the ground - every time I opened the throttle the bike wanted to buck and that made the chassis look a lot worse than it really was," said Stoner, after dominating Friday practice at the following British GP. "In the Barcelona test we tried something with the electronics that both [test rider] Vitto and myself really liked straight away. It is great to see that the improvement has transferred to Donington and I believe there is still more to come…"
Stoner went on to win from pole at not only the British Grand Prix, but also the following Dutch TT at Assen and German Grand Prix at the Sachsenring - each victory increasing the pressure on Rossi and Yamaha, who knew they couldn't afford to keep being beaten by Stoner indefinitely.
Rossi began the British GP 48 points ahead of Stoner, but the Australian's triple victory meant he left Germany just 20 points from the Italian. During this period, Rossi also suffered what proved to be his worst result of the season, when he fell on lap one at Assen. It was Rossi's only race mistake of the season and he still managed to salvage eleventh.
Pedrosa's mistake at a soaking Sachsenring was more costly; the Spaniard had stunned his opponents by charging to a 7.4sec lead after just five laps, but then fell at high speed as he braked for turn one. Pedrosa had been leading the championship at the time, but his title hopes effectively ended in the Sachsenring gravel - hand and ankle injuries ruled Dani out of the following US and he wouldn't return to the podium until round 15 of 18.
Laguna Seca, the last race before the summer break, was expected to see the seemingly unstoppable Stoner repeat his runaway 2007 victory and thereby close to within striking distance of Rossi - especially after claiming his fifth pole in a row by 0.447sec over the Yamaha rider.
"Casey is very fast and I don't know exactly how to beat him - maybe I need to start 30 seconds earlier!" confessed Rossi on Saturday in California. "Whatever happens a good start is going to be very important and then I will just try to stay with him and keep pushing."
What followed was arguably the best MotoGP race since 2006. When the red lights went out Rossi launched a relentless barrage against the Australian - retaliating whenever Stoner took the lead to prevent the #1 using his superior speed to disappear into the distance.
Stoner's frustration eventually got the better of him and he ran off-track with eight laps to go, allowing Rossi to cruise to his fourth victory of the year and deliver a major psychological blow to Stoner. Stoner initially refused to shake Rossi's hand after the race, but had calmed down a little by the podium ceremony.
Rossi, by contrast, was consumed by a mixture of relief and elation: "What a race! I knew I had to try and stay in front of Casey and it was impossible to relax. I don't know how many times we changed the lead but it was a lot and it was great, great racing. I am sorry Casey thinks some of the passes were a bit strong but I really don't agree; I passed only on the brakes, I braked in the same places every time and we never touched. Of course this was an aggressive race, but it was definitely a fair one."