The weekend of October 3 and 4 saw both Formula 1 and MotoGP move into their final phase. Formula 1 went racing in Japan: after that only two races left and both flyaways – to Brazil and the finale at first time track Abu Dhabi.
MotoGP was in Portugal and Rossi, leading the Championship by 30 points going in to the weekend was looking to maintain his record of nine visits to Estoril and nine podiums. The bike boys also have two flyaways to come: Philip Island (Australia) and Malaysia, but return to Europe and Valencia for their grande finale.
Formula 1 went to Japan on the back of controversy – Renault’s race-fixing of the 2008 Singapore Grand Prix but, as is the way in F1, the talk this time was not about that, but all about Fernando Alonso’s move to Ferrari for 2010. One of the worst kept secrets in the paddock, this news “broke” during the preceding week and set off a predictable discussion about what this meant for everyone else. Where would Raikkonen go – back to McLaren? What about Heikki – one Finn in, one out, perhaps to Renault? Rosberg and Barrichello to swap at Brawn and Williams – maybe Mercedes taking a stake-holding in the Brawn team?
So much chatter that it almost drowned out the events of qualifying, but thanks to some rather careless driving, qually became unusually tense and exciting. The second session was red-flagged twice and the final session ended under a red flag – all of which threw the grid into some disarray.
Button and Barrichello – the top two drivers ended up 10th and 6th respectively after various penalties had been applied to drivers caught up in crashes and the aftermath of qualifying.
Vettel – needing to score at the max to stay in the hunt was untouched. A perfect lap delivered pole position and out in front, Seb was clear of the chaos.
The race started at 6am UK time – it needs the promise of an exciting race to get up that early. Thanks to the dramas of qualifying and the fact that Suzuka is one of the classic drivers’ tracks often delivering Championship deciding races – it’s safe to bet that a lot of people dragged themselves out of bed in the dark to see what would happen.
The pre-race build-up was one of the best of the season. Controversy put to bed, it was all about the racing. So much could happen – both the Drivers’ and Constructors’ titles were up for winning, but if results didn’t go Brawn’s way, then both, especially Drivers’ could become much more exciting.
As it happened, no titles were either won or lost. Vettel drove magnificently for a lights to flag victory – even a very late intervention of the safety car could not disrupt his rhythm. Trulli and Hamilton fought hard for second place, with the Italian gaining the honours for his Japanese Toyota team. A boost that might just keep the manufacturer in the sport a while longer.
Both Brawn drivers took points – Barrichello pipping JB to seventh and so stealing a point in the standings. Honda would have been looking on with mixed feelings – it was perfectly possible for Brawn to have taken enough points to win here, just 11 months after Honda withdrew from the sport. A bitter-sweet moment that has been postponed for surely the Constructors’ title will go to the newbies in Rio.
So all is still to play for in F1. Vettel’s 10 points put him right back in the hunt with only 16 points separating him from leader Button, Barrichello a mere 14 behind JB and two races to go.
In Portugal , although MotoGP does not go in for the level of controversy that has rocked F1 over the past few years, paddock talk was also much about contracts. Yamaha have decided to sign US rider Ben Spies to the Tech Two team, thus relegating our own James Toseland back to the world of Superbikes. Already a double World Champion (for Ducati and Honda), James has put a brave face on the situation and vows to bring the Superbike title home for Yamaha. Nicky Hayden has kept his Ducati contract, despite being pushed incredibly hard by Stoner’s stand-in Mika Kallio – who goes back to the satellite team as the rumours were confirmed and Stoner was back in the saddle for Estoril.
Casey – World Champion in 2007 – suffered a mystifying and debilitating illness which saw him exhausted and vomiting after the Donington race. He returned to his native Australia and underwent all manner of tests to ascertain the cause. With no definitive results, Casey has been eschewing a variety of foods to see if diet is at the nub of the matter, and judging by his physical appearance and performance on his comeback in Portugal, it would seem that cutting out lactose is a very good thing.
To everyone’s astonishment, not least his own, Stoner banged his bike on the front row and rode an exemplary race to second place. Beaten only by a stunningly on form Jorge Lorenzo – who had taken pole and was in a world of his own during the race.
Gorgeous George, sporting specially designed leathers and helmet to honour the 40th anniversary of the moon landing, could indeed have been on a different world as the race unfolded. Beaten off the line by the usual fast-starting pocket rocket that is tiny Dani Pedrosa, he quickly re-took the lead and sped away.
It was a demonstration of superiority that we normally see delivered by Lorenzo’s Italian team mate, the legend that is Valentino Rossi. In fact, Lorenzo, over the weekend, mirrored the performance that Rossi had turned in a month ago in Misano. On that occasion, Rossi aced every session, all the practice, the qualifying and the race. George returned the favour this time out.
With Rossi finishing in fourth (off the podium for the first time in Estoril), Lorenzo has blown the championship wide open. Three races to go, 75 points up for grabs and Rossi has what seems now a slender 18 point lead.
Stoner, despite the missed races, is only three points off third place – and puts the pressure on Pedrosa.
While the race itself was not a fest of excitement, the results make the championship far more exciting as we head to Stoner’s home race at Philip Island.
For British interest, James Toseland’s ninth place (good for him but not a thriller) was overshadowed by another Brit. Young Bradley Smith, riding in the 125cc class, took a fine third, leaving him second overall in the standings. We may be losing our only representative in the premier class of motor cycle racing, but at least we’ve got a youngster who shows the talent and spirit that could well take him into MotoGP within the next few years.
Fans of four- and two-wheeled sport with engines will be licking their lips with relish at the thought of high-octane racing for the final month or so. Pundits enjoy describing the contests as “going down to the wire”. This year it doesn’t feel like hype.
For all the trials of loyalty that F1 has put its supporters through this year, the last races are well set to deliver true excitement. In MotoGP, a championship that almost seemed sewn up by the GOAT after Misano is going to be one of the best in recent history.
It is going to be fun!