It's hard to say that a rider with Valentino Rossi's pedigree has given up; yet a certain despondency has certainly set in over the 2011 season. The Indianapolis GP saw Ducati with possibly its worse showing as a brand since it entered premiere competition, with virtually every bike on the grid having to return to the pits for some issue. Rossi's bike was plagued with teething issues around the new gearbox being developed, the issue sending him wide on several occassions and at least once completely off track. Amazingly though, and to give credit where due, Rossi managed to claw his way back into the top 10 in a starting grid of 17 by race's end. Nicky Hayden also had a rough day at the office, although his woes were much more predictable. Taking a gamble on the medium front tire offered by Bridgestone, the early race laps saw the Kentucky rider making daring passes and producing the kind of hard charging racing that many of his fans have been clamoring for. Yet by mid-race the tires had been worn through and the Kentucky Kid's position began to plumet. Hayden would attempt to pit in due to the severity of the tire issues, but eventually limp home laps down to claim a consilotory point. The team tries to remain positive going into Misano though, focusing on the positive steps taken prior to The Brickyard and summoning the energy from those races.
If Yamaha, and in particular Jorge Lorenzo, expected to be gloating over Rossi’s departure by this point of the season then they find themselves in a much different position. Having completed two thirds of the championship season Lorenzo enters Misano a full 44 points and almost two races down from Casey Stoner. Indy was the second race in a row that saw the current world champion struggle as he fought, and failed, to find a good setting for the track. That track conditions were less than desirable was clear – viewers could clearly see clumps of debris on the track surface (albeit just off the racing line) in the newly repaved sections. This was on top of the already tricky surface that marks the track. Prior to this weekend Lorenzo has enjoyed good results at The Brickyard, making a likely contributing factor to his weekend struggles the improvements made to the track. Still, Spies’ pace and finish were insult added to the increasingly grievous injury to his title aspirations. The Texan rider had been on pace all weekend, matching Casey stride for stride through practice and qualifying. Despite yet another questionable start that saw him drop as far back as ninth on the first lap alone, Spies found himself closing on Lorenzo for a podium finish for the second race in a row. His Brno finish had been the result of team orders (official or otherwise) or a medical injury as reported, depending on which side of the conspiracy fence you choose to sit on. Indianapolis, however, was a different matter. He may have tiptoed around it, he may have gone above and beyond to give the defending champion his space, but Spies wanted by and found himself on the podium by the time they crossed the checkered flag. That the US track suits Spies’ style is very apparent, despite having less experience on it than his teammate. However Misano marks a return to the European tracks, and Spies must continue the momentum that he is starting to establish in order to truly claim a place with Lorenzo, Stoner and Pedrosa.
There is a scene in an old Warner Bros. cartoon where Tweety Bird, having been stalked by a cat (likely a prototype Sylvester) for the entire show finds himself in a cage with a new “friend”. The friend turns out to be yet another guise of the deceptive cat, and the cartoon closes with the cat looking back at the camera as it closes the cage door. It is one of the few, if not the only, scenes in Warner history where we are led to believe that Tweety meets his end, yet the truly memorable thing from that entire cartoon is not the yellow canary with high pitched voice that spawned several shows and a merchandise empire. Rather it is the look of the cat as it closes the door – predatory, self satisfied and intensely eager for the feast to come.
It is hard to picture Honda as the season closes without summoning a similar image. After a drought that spanned nearly a decade they have finally found a combination of rider and machine that just works. Stoner has been on a roll this season, adding win after win to his tally and – with some of his favorite tracks such as Phillip Island still to come in the season – does not seem prepared to stop. He is nearly half way done with the 200 points range, and no other competitor has been able to crack that bracket to date. Additionally, while he is undoubtedly faster this season than Lorenzo, the money that Honda has thrown at both machinery and personnel have provided a supporting cast that unwittingly add a buffer to his performance at every race. On any given weekend Lorenzo must contend with four full factory Hondas at the start of the race, the slightest mistake seeing him pushed down in standing and points and increasing the gap to Casey’s lead. Stoner is definitely “the cat who got the bird”, and his new found position has led to interesting changes in the style and content of his interviews. Even Christian Gabarini, his long time crew chief, has been more open about some of the things happening in the garage and his rider’s head. In contrast, Pedrosa continues to work to establish his position in the Respol team and his camp has been notably rather silent. His results post-accident have been admirable, and barring Stoner and Simoncelli this would likely have been his year. Yet ifs and buts have no place in racing (except perhaps under the paddock umbrella) and he once again finds himself playing second fiddle. To his credit, however, he scored a well earned 2nd place in Indy despite initial woes early on in the weekend, and has a good history at Misano. If he can capitalize on this then he could be in a good position come race day.
Which leaves, among the top riders this year, Dovizioso. It is widely reported that Honda will drop factory rides next year, however speculation persists that Dovi will be dropped and Simoncelli retained in the event that Honda is able to retain 3. Neither Dovi nor Sic have contracts yet for 2012, however there is simply no comparison on who has been posting the results in 2011 (or 2010 for that matter). Finishing behind a pitted Rossi at IMS certainly does nothing to help Simoncelli’s case, yet will results alone be enough to keep Dovi on Honda’s good graces? With so few races to go, the anticipation of announcements concerning rider placement becomes almost as important – or exciting – as the riders’ performances. That Andrea will do well at Misano goes without saying; what does not is whether he and a few key others (Edwards, Crutchlow, etc) will stamp in concrete what’s going on for next year.
It would do a great disservice to overlook the tremendous effort and accomplishment of the Rizla sqad. Last year, as a series and big-bike Rookie, Bautista took his GVR to an 8th place finish at Misano. This past weekend, despite riding a bike with very limited development and on a track that caused highly accomplished riders problems, he was the sixth person to blaze past the checkered flag. He sits twelfth in the championship having crashed ingloriously so many times this season. His challenge will be to maintain form and avoid the gravel this weekend when many of the riders who have struggled in the past couple of rounds will likely start coming into their own again. Whether he has the maturity to do so remains to be seen.