Monday, April 27, 2009

Bahrain and Motegi – more motorsport from mimitig

As the Formula One circus relocated from China to Bahrain last weekend, so the MotoGP cavalcade moved in the opposite direction, swapping the deserts of Qatar for the shores of Japan and Honda’s backyard – the Motegi Twinring Racetrack.

All things being equal, this should have been a weekend with weather taking a back seat. Fears about a fierce sandstorm that had kept Baghdad airport closed for two days were proven unfounded for the four-wheelers in Bahrain. Practices and qualifying played out under perfect (though extremely hot) conditions while in Japan, guess what? There was, as the commentators would say, rain of biblical proportions! Saturday qualifying was quite literally washed-out for all three classes and grids were set from Friday’s practice times.

Sunday morning dawned – here in Scotland it was misty and a bit dreich. In Bahrain it was outstandingly hot and in Japan – well, there was a bit of morning rain, but nothing to worry about.

What I had to worry about was how I could watch all the racing and get to my work without missing anything. In theory I could have got up at 6am for the bikes and watched live, but – it may surprise my readers to know this, I have a social life. Not getting to bed til when gone midnight on Saturday meant that the bikes had to be taped.

Rising late on Sunday morning, my mission was to avoid any sports news results. This was achieved and I settled down for the first part of the F1 race – knowing that I would miss the end as I had to go to work at 2pm. That first hour was truly exciting. Overtaking off the line, and all through the first lap reminded me of how racing used to be.

Toyota had bagged the front row but they had done it by running very light on fuel in the final session of qualifying. Behind them were cars, notably Sebastian Vettel’s Red Bull and Jenson Button’s Brawn that were due to run much deeper into the race before pitting for tyres and fuel.

Button simply stormed the start. Some great driving saw him past Vettel and fending off the fast-starting Hamilton. Delivering the fast laps demanded of him by team boss Ross Brawn (exactly as Schumacher used to do when he and Brawn ruled Ferrari), Button ensured that the Toyota challenge would remain thus: a challenge.

Although there were several other drivers leading the race at various stages because of fuel stops, Button was the clear winner from early on. The only issue was whether the car would hold together. In practice and qualifying, Brawn GP had been concerned about their cars’ ability to operate well at the high temperatures encountered in Bahrain.

Unfounded worries. Jense came home a worthy winner, Barrichello notching up good points in fifth ensuring that the team move on to Barcelona with a more than healthy lead in the championship tables – both drivers’ and constructors’.

You can’t help wondering what Honda are feeling now having pulled the plug on the team just a couple of months ago. And doubly bad given Motegi – read on my friends.

It was another great day for Red Bull and Adrian Newey’s 2009 championship contender. It seems that comparative newbie Sebastian Vettel (he’s only in his second full year of F1) has the measure of many more experienced drivers. After a superb win in wet Shanghai, he drove faultlessly to second in Bahrain.

Red Bull are ready to stand toe-to-toe with Brawn GP this season.

Back east, in Japan, the racing had already been done but I didn’t see it until after.

What a race! If F1 has rediscovered its mojo this year, then MotoGP has done that and more.

The new tyre restrictions – one supplier, only two choices (much as F1 has done, I have to say) have helped to chuck a spanner in the works of some teams. It’s strangely equivalent in these two sports at the moment. We have the rule changes, we have a “phoenix” team in that Kawasaki pulled out at the last moment only to re-emerge with a black paint-job and the name Hayate and we’ve had rain (of biblical proportions) affecting the racing.

So Saturday qually was a complete and utter wash-out. There were rivers running across the track in at least three corners. The safety car could barely make it round. Spectators were pictured forlornly huddled under their sponsor branded umbrellas but there could be no action. A grid was set from the one brief Friday practice and the god who is Valentino Rossi was on pole.

Sunday’s race got underway in sunshine – thank the weather. The 125cc lot and indeed the 250cc brigade had to race on a nastily damp track. Rossi did nothing wrong – clean start and led by over a second for several laps. Problems with the front end allowed team mate Gorgeous Jorge Lorenzo through and boy, did Jorge make the most of that.

While Rossi scrapped with Dani Pedrosa, Jorge scampered away and by the time Dani was well and truly put in his place, Rossi didn’t have the laps or the tyres to chase for the win.

Pragmatic as ever, and thinking about the big picture, Valle settled for a comfortable second as Jorge took the glory and his second GP win.

Dani showed rare signs of emotion coming in third. He’s not exactly a PR dream – usually appearing as surly and sullen – but his post-race interview was really rather sweet. He’s been through the mill in the off season with surgery to his knee and he is rather bashed up and bruised, but he smiled a lot at getting on the podium and I reckon he’s won new fans this race.

Rossi was thrilled, as he always is when he’s fought hard for a podium – and the trademark knee-out was there a lot this race. There is no doubt at all that he is fighting to keep his crown.

Gorgeous George is as delightful and arrogant as always. We love him for his insouciance and he’s only the second person ever, after Telly Savales, to make sucking a lollipop cool – I can’t believe he doesn’t have Chuppa Chups sponsorship!

Stoner finished fourth – wrestling the Ducati all the way. His team-mate, former World Champion Nicky Hayden didn’t finish (not his fault, but he should have qualified better) so the next best Ducati was Finn Mika Kallio who is definitely defying the rules about Finnish drivers – they need four wheels – not!. A superb ride from the back of the grid to eighth means he is a man to watch.

So there we go – both disciplines are heading back to Europe. F1 to Barcelona – where Brawn GP performed superbly in testing and are looking to further humiliate a rather shambolic Ferrari.

MotoGP comes back to Jerez and who knows what will happen there? Honda scraped a podium at their home track and must be expected to fight back.

And believe you me, every single person involved in Honda Racing will be feeling huge pain tonight. To be beaten by Yamaha, a one-two, at their home track of Motegi, my oh my those Honda boys and girls are going to be searching for a way to win at Jerez.

Button sits comfortably atop the F1 Drivers’ table, Rossi is second to team-mate Jorge – with Jorge coming in to a home race.

All is to play for and the only bitter pill is what will happen for McLaren in Paris next week. Hamilton did a sterling job driving to fourth in Bahrain. It would be sad to see his results and an historically important and brilliant team done down in a court of law.

Fans of every team want to see results on the track. One of the reasons why MotoGP is becoming the motorsport of choice ahead of F1 is these silly politics.

Let the boys race – that’s my call, and thus far (aside from silliness), that’s what we’re getting.

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