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MotoGP 2012 season starts now

Kevin Schwantz, the 1993 500cc MotoGP champion, stands with Marco Simoncelli's motorcycle during a tribute to the fallen racer. Photo: MotoGP

The Moto GP title was decided two races ago at Philip Island in Australia, where home-town boy Casey Stoner cemented his second Moto GP championship on a Repsol Honda. It’s the last 800cc title, and Stoner also took the first, on a Ducati.

The GP circus was horrified two weeks ago when Marco Simoncelli was killed in a freak accident at Sepang, and the shock plus the tributes to “Super Sic” have pretty much dominated the time since then.

Still, there was one more race to run, and any of the riders who were asked believed that Simoncelli would have been deeply offended at any other course of action. Their belief was seconded by Simoncelli’s father Paulo, who asked for a “moment of noise” rather than a moment of silence as a more appropriate tribute to his son.

The result was all the bikes in all three classes doing a lap, then two minutes of Spanish fireworks – Apocalypse Now would have nothing on that !

They may be teammates, but Dani Pedrosa and Andrea Dovisio battled each other hard for third place overall in the season-ender at Valencia. Photo: MotoGP

There were also some awards to be won and scores to settle. In particular, Repsol Honda “team-mates” Dani Pedrosa and Andrea Dovizioso were scrapping for third place in the championship, and farther back, Cal Crutchlow on his Tech 3 Monster Yamaha was scrapping with Karel Abraham on his privateer Ducati for rookie of the year honours.

The race turned out to be one of the best-ever in the 800 cc era of GP racing in spite of the fact that four bikes, all of them potentially podium-finishers given qualifying results and the weather, were out in the first corner of the race.

Cal Crutchlow, 35, and Karel Abraham, 17, had a tight race for the rookie of the year award; Crutchlow eventually prevailed when Abraham pushed too hard and paid the price. Photo: MotoGP

Alvaro Bautista on the Rizla Suzuki seemed to get in a little hot, couldn’t avoid touching Dovizioso’s rear wheel and went down in the middle of the field, his sliding bike taking out the three Ducatis of Valentino Rossi, Nicky Hayden, and Randy de Puniet.

Unfortunate to be sure, but definitely just “a racing accident” in crowded conditions. With only a dozen bikes left running and Stoner vanishing into the distance – he’d qualified an unbelievable second faster than Pedrosa’s best – it looked like a dim race coming.

Wrong. Dovizioso rode as though he was possessed by Simoncelli’s spirit, more aggressively than he’s ever appeared in a Moto GP race. He also rode smart, trying to hold up Pedrosa when he was leading to conserve his soft front tire, then slashing back past Dani every time the Spaniard got by. It was a masterful display of tactics and aggression working beautifully.

Andrea Dovisio leads Dani Pedrosa and Ben Spies. Photo: MotoGP

Meanwhile Yamaha’s Ben Spies, who missed the last two races from injury and again crashed heavily at Valencia in practice, crept up on them and joined the fray, finally getting by both of them as the last quarter of the race started. By then the cold and damp weather had worsened, and rain started splatting down intermittently.

Pedrosa backed off to be safe, Dovizioso stayed closer but settled down, and up front Casey Stoner was slowing dramatically. As the leader, he was the only one who couldn’t watch someone else to judge traction conditions, and suddenly he was shocked to see Spies go by as he recovered from a too-wide corner.
Spies pulled out a bit of a lead in the last few laps, then Stoner went banzai on the last lap and pipped the American at the line by 15/1000ths of a second; that’d be about half the diameter of the front wheel.

“My heart was in my throat!” said the Aussie. “In the last half of the last lap I thought ‘this is it’ and just decided to go for it – take some risks that I haven’t taken all season. I was able to catch Ben going into the last turn, then got fantastic drive on the way out. I managed just to pip him on the line. Sorry Ben!”

Dovizioso hung on for the final podium position, while Crutchlow slipped his Tech 3 Monster Yamaha into fourth ahead of Pedrosa, by far his best finish of the year. That also gave him the rookie of the year honours; he and Abraham had been literally banging on each other all race, and finally Abraham banged a little too hard, hitting Crutchlow’s rear wheel and putting himself in the gravel. He remounted and crossed the line pointing at his head.

It’d be unreasonable not to comment on the incredible results of Josh Hayes, U.S. Superbike champ, who was in Spain to test-ride Yamaha’s Moto GP bike as a reward for his U.S. title. When Colin Edwards couldn’t race due to injury, Hayes was tossed in the deep end to replace Edwards in the race. Never having seen the bike or the track before, or ridden on the notoriously difficult Bridgestone tires, and in cold and intermittently damp conditions, he finished an unbelievable seventh. A remarkable performance, to say the least.

The best comment of the race was made by Yamaha rider Jorge Lorenzo, unable to ride due to injury, who spent some time in the commentary booth. When asked what he thought about Yamaha test rider Katsuyuki Nakasuga riding his bike, he said, “It’s sort of like, Hey you! Get off my girlfriend!”

Altogether, other than the still shocked overall reaction to Simoncelli’s death, it was an unexpectedly enjoyable end to the season and the horridly boring 800 cc bikes. Tuesday the action for next season starts as the 1,000 cc machines make their first official tests. And we’re off for 2012 …

Final Standings, 2011 Moto GP season
1. Casey Stoner, Australia, Repsol Honda, 350 points
2. Jorge Lorenzo, Spain, Yamaha Factory Racing, 260
3. Andrea Dovizioso, Italy, Repsol Honda, 228
4. Dani Pedrosa, Spain, Repsol Honda, 219
5. Ben Spies, U.S.A., Yamaha Factory Racing, 176
6. Marco Simoncelli, Italy, San Carlo Gresini Honda, 139
7. Valentino Rossi, Italy, Marlboro Ducati, 139
8. Nicky Hayden, U.S.A., Marlboro Ducati, 132
9. Colin Edwards, U.S.A., Tech 3 Monster Yamaha, 109
10. Hiroshi Aoyama, Japan, San Carlo Gresini Honda, 98.

Next event: April 15, 2012, Losail Circuit, Qatar.

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