Early June brings Round Five of the 2012 MotoGP season, which storms into bucolic Montmeló, Spain for the Gran Premi Aperol de Catalunya. Jorge Lorenzo, fronting the factory Yamaha team, leads rival Casey Stoner in the championship by 8 points, on the strength of a formidable win two weeks ago in France.
Repsol Honda lame duck Stoner, on the other hand, announced his impending retirement at Le Mans and went on to finish a disappointing third, getting seriously worked on the last lap of the race by Valentino Rossi and the Ducati Desmosedici. A reversal of fortune may be underway. Or not.
You’d have to speak Spanish to understand why Catalunya only gets a “Gran Premi” while the other three Spanish venues get a “Gran Premio”, and I don’t. The Circuit de Catalunya, at age 21, is familiar to most of the riders and is a favorite stop on the MotoGP trail. With both the beach and the mountains within easy reach, a pleasant climate, and a storied track, Catalunya is “must-see MotoGP.” (One wonders whether the impending collapse of the Spanish banking industry will reduce the number of MotoGP races held in Spain. If so, let’s hope Catalunya stays on the calendar.)
The 2009 Catalunya race was one for the ages – Ali-Frazier on two wheels. It featured Fiat Yamaha teammates Rossi and Lorenzo, during one of those years they kept a wall down the middle of the garage to separate the combatants. Rossi was the reigning champion, Lorenzo the macho young challenger. The two ran away from the field early, and it was mano à mano from then on.
Lorenzo led Rossi by a few yards heading into the last turn, but would discover it wasn’t enough, as Rossi exited the turn in the lead to win by less than a tenth of a second. Stoner edged satellite Honda rider Andrea Dovizioso for third spot on the rostrum. A classic, to be sure.
The 2010 edition saw Repsol Honda teammates Dani Pedrosa and Andrea Dovizioso leap out in front of pre-race favorites Stoner and Lorenzo (Rossi was recovering from shoulder and leg injuries suffered previously at Mugello). Pedrosa took himself out of contention in Turn 1 of Lap 1, running hot, wide and, shortly thereafter, ninth. Dovi went low-side on Lap 14, leaving Lorenzo comfortably in the lead. Pedrosa fought his way back to finish second, four seconds ahead of Stoner.
Last year, flanked by Le Mans and Silverstone, Catalunya delivered the second of three consecutive early season wins for Stoner and his shiny Honda RC212V. The Factory Yamaha duo of Lorenzo and Ben Spies chased Stoner but settled for second and third, respectively, while pole-sitter Marco Simoncelli finished sixth. This was only a year ago, back when we thought both Sic and Spies had radiant futures in MotoGP. The race itself was something of a procession. Outside of Stoner and his fans, there was little joy in Mudville last year. (Pedrosa sat out 2011 after getting tagged by Simoncelli in France the previous round.)
Which Brings Us to 2012
The surprises at Le Mans last time out not only shook up the 2012 standings but raised a number of questions for both this year and several to come. I’m wondering if it’s really possible that Rossi is back, and find myself thinking “probably not.” Perhaps, if the next 14 races could be run at Le Mans in the rain, he might challenge for the championship. But Le Mans, I expect, probably proved little more than that the Ducati, with Rossi aboard, somehow runs well in the wet. I refuse to believe it will suddenly become competitive on dry tracks. It’s good to see, though, that Rossi has not lost his competitive fire during his self-imposed purgatory with the Bologna factory.
As for The Aliens, both Lorenzo and Stoner have better histories in Barcelona than does Stoner’s Honda teammate Dani Pedrosa. (Thus far, the same could be said about 2012 – Pedrosa stands third for a reason.) Stoner has three thirds there, bookended by wins in 2007 and 2011. Lorenzo has a win and two seconds. Including Rossi, of the four top suspects this weekend, only Stoner has NOT failed to start a race here due to injury. Indeed, much of the seemingly endless recent conversation about Stoner has overlooked how remarkably durable he has been during his MotoGP career. Other than the whole tummyache thing in 2010.
Looking ahead, Stoner’s probable retirement at the end of the season throws a major spanner into the works of figuring out who will be riding for whom next year and beyond. (I read a funny conversation online today on the subject of Stoner and his previous non-negotiable pronouncements. The last word in the discussion cracked me up: Motegi.)
I agree with those who say the shoes won’t begin dropping in earnest for next year until Jorge Lorenzo re-signs with Yamaha. In the unlikely event he would jump to Honda, confusion will reign. And, in the even-less-likely event Rossi would return to Honda, or Yamaha, it will be bedlam. Marc Marquez, Alien-in-Waiting at Moto2, will play a big part in the play, too.
I’m Just Sayin’ …
I get what Casey Stoner is doing. There are one or two reasons to continue the career he’s built for the past 10 years; there are a dozen reasons to get out now. One of the most compelling of the latter is the heartbreaking number of wheelchair-bound young men you see in the garage and press areas of the tracks, living witnesses to the hazards involved in their sport.
But, listening to what he says about why he’s retiring, part of what comes through is that the dilution of talent brought on by 21st century economics and, specifically, the CRT bikes begat by those economics, have made the sport kind of … BORING! This is sensational. Casey Stoner apparently finds himself stifling yawns while rocketing down the main straights of race tracks at over 200 mph on two wheels. Trying to maintain focus, trying not to drift off – is there a Starbucks near here? – in the midst of the controlled chaos that is the premier class of MotoGP. Impossible.
It is this aspect of Casey’s demeanor that makes me fear this will be only his FIRST retirement. If he finds his current occupation dull, how’s he going to do watching over the sheep and reviewing the monthly statement on his investment portfolio? Furthermore, if he finds he can’t take the pace of normal life, what’s left to put the lead in his pencil? Mushing to the North Pole? Flying solo around the world in a balloon? Going over Niagara Falls in a barrel?
Given his stratospheric “coefficient of boredom,” I just can’t see Casey Stoner leaving another, maybe, 40 or so career wins on the table. If it’s his wife putting pressure on him to get out, he may indeed walk away or, alternately, go find a new wife. Kidding, kidding. But if it’s just him, I expect that what Arnold The Governator once promised will come to pass – “I’ll be back.”
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