The rear lights glinted red, almost otherworldly. The helicopter camera zoomed out, but the circuit at Sepang disappeared amidst a smattering of raindrops that blotted the lens. On the track, Jorge Lorenzo fought to make up lost ground and find his way past Dani Pedrosa. But it was slippery, and the riders left a plume of water in their wake.
Gingerly, carefully, they took the turns, trying to stay ahead and upright. They made it look easy as they continued to dance that ballet we love every Sunday.
The rain continued, unforgiving and almost primal. Mother Nature had thrown down the gauntlet, challenging the riders – be warned and turn back. But the race continued – like it does, almost always. Then, Lorenzo held up a hand, quiet, yet emphatic. “Stop the race,” it meant. “It’s too dangerous.”
Lap 13, Turn 15: It happened. Lorenzo wobbled. The M1 threatened to unseat him, an uncontrollable bronco horse, but Lorenzo stuck his leg out, and held on. “If we were riding at 20km per hour, it is easy to stay on the bike,” he later said in a press release. “But it is very difficult to find the limit in these conditions. They made the right decision to stop the race, for us it was great because we might otherwise have finished on the ground and crashed.”
Like his teammate Ben Spies. The Texan started at the 6th place, but dropped 3 places and then to the 10th at the third lap. But he found his pace and started moving up to join the front-runners. The track was treacherous by the 8th lap, as the bike slipped and he crashed. An initial examination indicated he was fine, but subsequent tests said otherwise. He will now head back home for surgery and treatment for an AC shoulder separation, a cracked rib in the upper chest area, and bruising to the lung. It has been an unlucky season and Spies will now miss the Phillip Island race. He said, “I’m lost for words. We’ve had such a tough season with an unbelievable amount of bad luck. We have always gone out there to give it 100% and it was the intention of both myself and my team, to continue to do so at Phillip Island. I took a really hard knock on Sunday and it’s now clear from today’s tests that I have some injuries that require immediate attention.” I wish him well and a fast recovery.
But the weekend started out on a brighter, slightly sunnier note. Lorenzo set a new track record during Qualifying and steamed ahead to pole position, as title contender Pedrosa took the 2nd spot. Ducati had it tough as Nicky Hayden battled chattering issues and ended up at 9th position, while Valentino Rossi took the 11th spot.
It was definitely a wet race on Sunday as the riders headed out on to the track. Lorenzo opted for the softer wet rear tyre while Pedrosa went for the harder rear tyre. All eyes – and television cameras – were on the two Spaniards. The Championship boiled down to a matter of points and it all depended on who won the race. But, even as the rain came down, water slathering the track, there were battles played out all across the field.
Lorenzo kept his lead, but Pedrosa had reduced the gap to less than half a second. It was at the 9th lap when Pedrosa finally made his move, passing Lorenzo and taking the lead. The rain intensified and the riders became a shadowy blur. Meanwhile, the Ducatis had made a miraculous recovery. It isn’t surprising really, considering they really come into their own in the wet. So, Vale swept past the others, gaining positions and took the 5th slot by the end of the 1st lap. It was a focused lap, which lead in to a battle with Andrea Dovizioso and Casey Stoner for 3rd. But the rain played spoilsport as Vale made a mistake at turn 7, and slipped back to 9th. Hayden meanwhile, had found his rhythm, pacing himself as he made his way to 4th. “There was a lot of water those last couple of laps, and it was almost impossible to see, although the rear lights on the bikes helped a lot. In dry conditions, I would’ve been thrilled with 4th, but I know our potential is higher in the wet,” he later said in a press release.
Meanwhile, up ahead, Dovizioso was fighting Stoner for a 3rd. He pushed his bike hard, but the track had become treacherous and he crashed on lap 10. He managed to pick up his bike and rejoin the race at 14th. Luck however failed his teammate Cal Crutchlow once again. The Briton managed to work his way up from 10th to 5th. He passed Hayden and Stefan Bradl when, at the last corner on the 11th lap, he fell, crashing out of the race.
Vale had worked his way up to 5th, but the red flags came out. The race came to a standstill, as the bikes slipped and slid their way back to the pits. Drenched and soggy, they waited for word. Finally the officials called it. The race was over. Vale later said, “I started having some problems with my visor fogging, and in these extreme conditions, with low light and a lot of water, it was very difficult…Without that mistake (at turn 7), I could have finished 4th because honestly, Stoner was a bit faster than I was, especially in T2.”
Pedrosa celebrated victory and caught up with Lorenzo in the numbers game, edging closer to the Championship. He is now 23 points behind Lorenzo. With two more races to go – at Phillip Island and Valencia – the door to the Championship is wide open. There are 50 points up for grabs. But, don’t rule out Casey Stoner. Inspite of the fight for points, Stoner will be looking at taking victory at his last career race on home ground. Also up will be legend Mick Doohan who will be performing exhibition laps on Stoner’s RC213V Honda on Saturday.
It does seem like the fight of the Champions is now headed Down Under.
*I will be away at the Indian GP, cheering on my favourites, so Gisele Varotti will be writing a special piece on the Phillip Island race for Riding Fast and Flying Low.*