MotoGP Season Review
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Lorenzo takes 2nd in the season ranking!
Highlight of Yamaha's WGP 50th Anniversary
Highlight of Yamaha's WGP 50th Anniversary
In 2011, Yamaha Motor Co., Ltd. celebrated the 50th anniversary of the start of its participation in the World Grand Prix of road racing. When that challenge to become No. 1 in the world began in 1961, it was literally a start from square one with Yamaha's engineers and riders struggling to find ways to get competitive. Fifty years later in 2011, Yamaha was on the starting grid as defending champions, running on an unprecedented hot streak of three consecutive MotoGP Triple Crowns of Rider, Team and Constructor titles. It was also the final season of the existing 800cc spec machines. Carrying the Yamaha banner into the 18-race series were Jorge Lorenzo and Ben Spies of the YAMAHA FACTORY RACING team and Colin Edwards and Cal Crutchlow riding for the Monster Yamaha Tech 3 team. In this review, we look at the 2011 performance of the riders and machines in what would be a season triumphs and unexpected mishaps that turned the tables time and again.
"Gambaro Nippon" becomes the call of Yamaha's 50th year in WGP racing
The opening round of the 2011 MotoGP season at Qatar was one where not only the Yamaha riders and team staff, but everyone on the paddock from all the teams were united in one spirit of prayer and concern.
The schedule called for the Qatar GP to start the new season on March 18, a week after the final test session on March 13 and 14 at the Losail International Circuit on the outskirts of the capital city of Doha. However, just as the Yamaha teams were heading to the Middle East for the final test session, Japan was struck by the Great East Japan Earthquake and Tsunami on March 11. The suddenness and devastating scale of this disaster sent shockwaves through the paddock at Losail where the teams were preparing for the official tests. As the severity of the disaster became clear and images of the destruction filled the international media, the riders and teams decided to use their race efforts as their way of showing support for the people of Japan. On the side of the 2011 model YZR-M1, a message was printed in large lettering, saying in Japanese and English "Gambaro Nippon" "With You Japan" and the riders were determined to send a message of courage and hope with their race performances.
In the race, defending champion Jorge Lorenzo dashed from 3rd position on the starting grid to lead the race and battled on through fierce competition to take the checkered flag in 2nd place. His teammate Ben Spies emerged from a hard-fought duel mid-race to finish 6th. The riders hoped that their unwavering competitive spirit throughout the 22 laps of the race would send a message to the people of Japan.
Two weeks later, the series moved to its European rounds and the competition continued with season strategies adding intensity to the racing. Round two, the Spain GP, was held at the Jerez de la Frontera Circuit, where passionate fans flock each year to watch the world's top racers. This year was no exception, as large numbers of spectators gathered in Jerez at the southern tip of the Iberian Peninsula and the excitement grew. Being his home GP, Lorenzo was disappointed to miss taking pole position in the qualifier. Still, he managed to be on the front row of the starting grid in 3rd position. Rain made the conditions difficult in the race, with the wet track gradually drying as the machines lapped it. Lorenzo raced on boldly with sure control of his machine to take the lead and eventually score his second consecutive Jerez victory. After his victory lap, Lorenzo put on a show for the adoring crowd by jumping into trackside pond, just as he had done the year before. This happened to be the first time that Jorge had ever won a race on a wet track. Afterwards he was exuberant, saying: "This was one of my most patient races. It's a great victory, which we needed and I feel so good. The King of Spain said to me that he would bring me good luck after our meeting last February in Madrid, he was right! I am so happy to have won this weekend."
Lorenzo and Spies
Top podium finishes in mid-season
Round three was the Portugal GP that had been so good for Lorenzo since coming to MotoGP. For three years straight, he won the race in perfect pole-to-finish style. Again this year he won pole position and led the race into its final stages, seemingly on his way to a fourth straight win at Estoril. But then he was caught and passed by Dani Pedrosa with three laps to go and had to settle for 2nd place. Although he failed to win the race, he extended his record string of podium finishes from the season start.
After round four in France, the series returned to Spain for round five at Catalunya, where the new member of the factory team, Ben Spies came through with a brilliant 3rd place finish. With this he joined 2nd place Lorenzo on the podium to give the Yamaha factory team its first double podium of the season.
In the succeeding round six at Silverstone in the UK, the weather was unpredictable as usual during race week. On race day it rained from morning, making the conditions on the wet track especially bad. Both Lorenzo and Spies started out the race in the top group, but eventually had their feet virtually taken out from under them as they slipped and fell on the wet track and no-pointed. However, veteran Colin Edwards came through to take the place of his fallen Yamaha comrades in the lead group. Running steadily at a high level, Edwards raced through the pain of the broken collarbone and bruised ribs he suffered in the previous race to take 3rd and mount the podium. Once again, Edwards showed the amazing skills in the rain that had helped him finish 2nd in the British GP of 2009.
It was in round seven in the Netherlands that Ben Spies finally showed the world his great talent by mounting the highest rung of the winners' podium for the first time since coming to MotoGP. The Dutch GP is also famous for plaguing the teams with its changeable weather, and although this year's race was spared rain, the temperatures dropped sharply to mid-winter levels and made things tough for the riders and crews. Seemingly unaffected by the cold conditions, Spies began to open up a lead over the field in the early stages of the race. With each lap, the distance between him and Stoner in 2nd place continued to grow. He was in full control of the race, and by the time he took the checkered to win the race he had built up a 7-second lead.
"It was a strange race today as it was one of the most comfortable races we had and it resulted in a win. I have to thank my guys; they gave me a great bike today. At least we've won a race now," said Spies after it was over. In his riding and in his somewhat excited expression as he commented coolly on it post-race, you could feel his joy at having won his first MotoGP race.
The next weekend brought round eight in Italy, and as it had last year, the victory went to Lorenzo. With two wins in two weeks, the momentum was strong on the YAMAHA FACTORY RACING team. Lorenzo went on to finish second in the next two rounds, nine and ten, in Germany and the USA. Although just missing a podium finish each time, Spies also continued to run strongly and consistently in rounds eight through ten, finishing 4th, 5th and 4th respectively.
Battling the second half of the season
not as title defenders, but as challengers
After the summer break, the second half of the season started with round eleven in the Czech Republic. As in years past, an official test session was held after the race, which gave Lorenzo and Spies their first chance to test the new 2012 1,000cc spec model. It was a fruitful session in which both riders had positive reactions to the new machine and looked forward to development toward the next season.
Round twelve was the Indianapolis GP, which saw Spies mount the podium in 3rd place in his home GP. In round 13 at San Marino Lorenzo, Lorenzo won his third race of the season, and the following round at Aragon brought him another podium finish with 3rd. These performances proved the competitive potential of the 2011 model M1 again, but as the season entered its final stages, Stoner led with 284 points to Lorenzo's 240. No one could deny that the Australian was leaving the defending champion in his dust.
The series left Europe at this point to head for the Pacific rim with just four rounds remaining. Considering the consistency of Stoner's performances this season, it would clearly be very difficult for Lorenzo to make up a gap of 44 points in four rounds. But the Spaniard assured everyone that he would not give up hope of defending his title. Rather he would pursue it with the spirit of a challenger, one race at a time. He was going into the final four races with a positive competitive attitude.
Overcoming one setback after another
Aiming to recapture the crown
Round 15 in Japan was the important home GP for Yamaha. The importance was doubled this time by the fact that Yamaha was celebrating its 50th year in World GP racing. Lorenzo, Spies, Edwards, Crutchlow and all the team crew supporting them went to the Twin Ring Motegi Circuit in Japan with the same must-win attitude. Although that win didn't materialize, Lorenzo put in an outstanding performance to finish 2nd. Because Stoner finished 3rd, the point gap between the two was down to 40 and tension mounted once again in the title race with three races remaining.
At round 16 in Australia, Lorenzo and the team were set on taking another big piece out of that point gap. In the qualifying, Stoner edged out Lorenzo to take pole position, but the Spaniard was close behind with 2nd grid position. In the morning practice on race day, Lorenzo was making steady progress toward the afternoon race and trying to finish out the 20-minute session with the fastest lap time. That was when the accident occurred.
Lorenzo had gone through the first half of his final timed lap in a personal best split and was on his way toward beating Stoner's best time when he hit a bump in the track coming out of the last turn and went down. In the fall he injured the fourth finger of his left hand. He got up right away and took the emergency car straight to the medical room, but it was determined that the injury was too serious for him to take part in the afternoon race. Instead, he would undergo surgery on the finger at a hospital in Melbourne that evening. With Lorenzo out of the race due to this injury, Stoner clinched the 2011 championship title. Stoner had taken the title as he had hoped before his home fans, but he commented that he wished he could have won it battling Jorge on the track, adding that he hoped for the success of Lorenzo's surgery and a quick recovery.
The injury would keep Lorenzo out of round 17 in Malaysia, where he was replaced by Japanese rider Katsuyuki Nakasuga. The race had only just begun when tragedy struck. In a crash on the second lap of the race, the popular Italian rider and frequent rival of Lorenzo and Spies, Marco Simoncelli (24), was fatally injured. In the same accident, Colin Edwards also suffered a broken collarbone and other injuries. It was a sad day for everyone in the MotoGP world. Simoncelli, with his bright personality, had been loved by everyone on the circuit and his passing was truly a tragic one felt by all.
Two weeks later, the final round of the season in Valencia, Spain was held as a memorial race for Marco Simoncelli. Riders from all the classes and teams showed Simoncelli's race number 58 on their helmets, race suits and machines in honor of their departed comrade. The race itself was a good one for the Yamaha camp. It started with a dry track, but rain would fall on and off after that to make for very difficult racing conditions. Running in the lead late in the race, Stoner began to slow his pace as the track conditions worsened. With marvelous machine control, Spies quickly closed the gap and eventually overtook Stoner. Leading through the last lap all the way to the last turn, it looked as if Spies would win the race, but Stoner was able to draft off of Spies coming down the straight and nip him at the finish line by just 1.5 hundredths of a second.
Late in the race, Crutchlow also came up to pass Pedrosa and take 4th place, his best finish of the season. This performance helped Crutchlow win the Rookie of the Year award. Substituting for the injured Lorenzo for the second round in a row, Nakasuga rose skillfully from a 15th position grid start to finish the race in an impressive 6th place. Called up suddenly to ride in place of the injured Edwards, Josh Hayes finished just behind Nakasuga in 7th place. All of these riders used the performance potential of the YZR-M1 to maximum effect in the difficult conditions to consistently produce results that ended the season on a positive note.
When the 18-round 2011 MotoGP season was over, Yamaha riders had taken 15 podium finishes. During the year, the YAMAHA FACTORY RACING team had competed at five races with the special red & white Yamaha WGP 50th Anniversary livery, and in all five races, the Dutch GP, the US GP, Indianapolis GP, Japan GP and the final round in Valencia, the team had scored podium finishes to celebrate this important year in style.
On the Tuesday after the final race, Ben Spies, Cal Crutchlow and Andrea Dovizioso (who will join the Monster Yamaha Tech 3 team next season) were on the track testing the new 1,000cc machine as the 2012 team members. They rode aggressively to start preparations for next year's season, which will see a campaign to win back the MotoGP crown for Yamaha in its 51st season in world championship road racing.