by Tracy Hagen
The eventful 2011 MotoGP season came to a close at Valencia with Honda’s Casey Stoner winning a race full of spectacular drama and emotional tribute. A fortnight from the tragedy that claimed Marco Simoncelli’s life, the MotoGP fraternity arrived in Valencia with aching hearts and left with new life.
In qualifying, the nearly unstoppable Casey Stoner scored his twelfth pole position of the year, tying the season record of compatriot Mick Doohan. As the field gridded for the race, crew chiefs glanced over their shoulders looking for rain clouds. A minute before the warm-up lap, race officials put out the WET RACE sign. As it would turn out, the race was a wetting race.
When they were given the green light Stoner’s teammate, Dani Pedrosa, shot off the line, but Stoner held Pedrosa back. But the real action was further back: Alvaro Bautista’s front tire touched the rear tire of Andrea Dovisioso’s Honda, causing Bautista’s Suzuki to go down in a shower of sparks. As the Suzuki slid off the track to the Turn 1 gravel trap it collected the Ducatis of Valentino Rossi, Nicky Hayden, and Randy De Puniet. With factory riders Bautista, Rossi, and Hayden out of the race; exiting world champion Jorge Lorenzo on the mend following the partial amputation of a finger, and Simoncelli watching from above, the B-list riders could smell the podium champagne.
At the end of the first lap Stoner was 1.5 seconds clear of his three closest pursuers, Pedrosa, Ben Spies (Yamaha), and Dovisioso. Another two seconds behind this trio came Cal Crutchlow (Yamaha), Karel Abraham (Ducati), Toni Elias (Honda), Katsuyuki Nakasuga (Yamaha, filling in for Jorge Lorenzo), Loris Capirossi (Ducati), and Josh Hayes (Yamaha, filling in for Colin Edwards). Three seconds behind this sextuplet came Hector Barbera (Ducati) and Hiroshi Aoyama (Honda), as this pair had to take evasive action to avoid Bautista’s sliding Suzuki.
On the following lap Crutchlow and Abraham paired up and broke away, as the two MotoGP novices were battling for the Rookie of the Year honor. Hayes and Nakasuga also paired up and raced for the unofficial Yamaha replacement rider of the race award.
As interesting as those match-ups were, more attention was on the battle for second. Over the 30 laps of the race second place changed hands no less than twelve times.
Pedrosa ‘s grip on second was broken on the third lap when Dovisioso charged ahead. Pedrosa came back through on the fifth lap, and Dovisioso returned the favor on the seventh lap. Dovisioso stayed there until lap 12, when teammate Pedrosa pushed past. Dovisioso found his way back around on lap 14, then the race started taking a different look as the rain sprinkles started during into rain drops. Stoner, who had amassed a ten second lead at this point, backed off on the pace. The trio contesting second place started taking time out of the Aussie and, in addition, tightened up their race into a bar-to-bar battle.
In the last quarter of the race the track was thoroughly covered in rain water. Stoner was playing it safe and allowed the three amigos to catch him. Of the three, Ben Spies was handling the crummy conditions the best. The Texan had his Yamaha in third on lap 24 with a pass on Pedrosa in Turn 5. Two laps later Spies passed Dovisioso in the same place, with Stoner just two seconds up the track and slowing.
At the completion of lap 27 the gap to Stoner was 1.3 seconds. On the 28th lap Stoner ran wide at Turn 6, and Spies sailed through to the lead.
At the white flag Spies led Stoner by 0.326 seconds. At the next timing interval Spies was 0.517 seconds ahead. Halfway around the course Spies was 0.850 seconds ahead, and at the last timing loop before Start/Finish, Spies was 0.779 seconds ahead.
At the last set of left-hand turns prior to the front straight, Stoner said “the hell with it” and lunged towards Spies. Exiting the final turn Stoner was on Spies’ rear wheel. On the nail-biting run to the checkered flag Stoner squeaked out the win with a margin of victory of 0.015 seconds. It was the second-closest finish in the MotoGP era (the closest was Toni Elias over Valentino Rossi by 0.002 seconds at the 2006 Estoril GP).
Dovisioso finished third in the race, 6 seconds later, as well as third in the championship. Crutchlow pinched Pedrosa for fourth place to redeem himself after a rough rookie year. Katsuyuki Nakasugu scored sixth on Jorge Lorenzo’s Yamaha, with Josh Hayes seventh on the Colin Edwards Yamaha. Karel Abraham finished eighth after recovering from a crash from contacting Crutchlow’s rear tire on the final lap. Loris Capirossi and Toni Elias finished ninth and tenth, respectively, after drastically slowing when the rain fell harder. Hector Barbera finished eleventh, and Hiroshi Aoyama, Simoncelli’s teammate, was the last rider to finish after taking the brave decision to race at all.
Apart from the ugly crash at the start of the race, the final race of 2011 and the 800cc MotoGP era was just about as good as they get. It also provided one of the best quotes of the year: during the TV broadcast announcer Gavin Emmett asked Jorge Lorenzo when his partially amputated left ring finger would be back to 100%. “Never,” deadpanned Lorenzo.