Jerez rarely disappoints as a MotoGP venue. Apart from the fact that it's an incredible circuit, the Spanish fans love their racing so much that the atmosphere, like Monza, makes up for any potential shortcoming with the circuit. Not that there's much to make up. Jerez is a relatively new track and doesn't take up much space, but the layout is a fascinating mix of the fast and slow. It's intensely technical, very hard work physically and a surprisingly long way around each lap. There are plenty of overtaking opportunities, especially for the brave and committed, with outbraking probably the favourite technique for making up ground. Sete Gibernau's return will be bringing back memories of the epic scrap between himself and Rossi in the last year of the 500s, ending up with Gibernau taking to the gravel on the last corner and Rossi taking the chequered flag. Yes, it's a hell of a circuit to mark the beginning of the season proper...
So for the first time this year we had no interference from Mother Nature. The weather stayed warm, dry, sunny and, above all, predictable, which meant that at last we could get everyone riding on an even playing field. Although Bridgestone hadn't brought their hardest tyres with them, at least everyone had the chance to experience putting over two hundred horsepower through a shot rear tyre around three quarters race distance, so again it made the game relatively even. Probably.
Free practice was generally dominated by Valentino Rossi, the man with no fewer than five wins here. I don't think Rossi has ever failed to step onto the podium at Jerez, and initial form suggested that this year would be no exception. Of course, in pre season testing it was Casey Stoner who was the fastest man around here by some way, but that didn't seem to translate in practice this weekend, the former champion running a consistent third in every session. No, practice honours were shared by Rossi, Pedrosa and Lorenzo with an honourable mention due to Loris Capirossi who made a brief appearance in second place on the Rizla Suzuki. But it was Rossi who was clearly the man to beat.
Practice is one thing, qualifying is something else, though. And when it came down to deciding grid positions, it was a surprisingly off form Valentino Rossi who ended up heading the second row behind Stoner in third again, Pedrosa and championship leader Lorenzo on pole. Behind Rossi, an astonishing performance from Randy de Puniet put the Frenchman ahead of Capirossi in the middle of the second row, while Colin Edwards, Andrea Dovizioso and Toni Elias made up row three. Chris Vermeulen rounded out the top ten on the second factory Suzuki, while james Toseland continued his disappointing season with a fourteenth place qualifying, just ahead of Nicky Hayden whose season is even worse than the former double SBK champion.
Warmup on another sunny and dry day saw another change at the top as Rossi stamped his authority on proceedings. And then it was time for the race. Though not before young Englishman Bradley Smith took his maiden GP win in the 125cc class and Hiroshi Aoyama denied a Spanish win in the 250s. The locals were definitely up for a local hero, and with Lorenzo and Pedrosa on the front row it looked likely they'd get their wishes.
Lights out and it was Pedrosa who made a stunning start, the diminutive Honda rider making the most of his light weight and the Honda's flexible power delivery to fire off the line in impressive style. Stoner, not exactly a man mountain himself, slotted in behind while Lorenzo, the man of the moment, found himself falling back to third and immediately coming under pressure from Rossi. De Puniet, too, was trying to make an impression, at one point looking as though he might pass Rossi though to no avail. Just behind, a scrap had already started as Colin Edwards, Andrea Dovizioso, Loris Capirossi and Marco Melandri started to fight for fifth - a fight that would continue for the next twenty six laps.
Up at the front, on the second lap Rossi clearly tired of seeing Pedrosa and Stoner extend a lead because he pulled a neat, though rather firm, block pass on his team-mate, got his head down and went for it. And he really did go for it, too, as the gap to Stoner evaporated in no time at all. But such was the pace at the front that on just the second lap Pedrosa broke the lap record. A record he had set himself last year, by the way. Lorenzo was clearly having a bit of a thin time as he was now starting to come under pressure from de Puniet and then Dovizioso as the second factory Honda rider managed to subdue the Ohlins equipped LCR Honda. A few laps in and it was apparent to all that Stoner was holding Rossi up. Even to the Australian who, after fighting back brilliantly and regaining his position by the end of the main straight after being passed coming onto it on lap five, clearly recognised the inevitability of what was to come and rather let Rossi go when he repeated the move on lap six. There is, it's fair to say, little more uncomfortable for a top level racer than the knowledge that you're holding someone up. Unless it's near the end of the race and you're fighting for position - that's different.
Now by this stage Pedrosa had produced a string of very fast laps and had a fairly commanding lead. And though Rossi got the gap down to around a second, for a long time afterwards it remained pretty well constant and it appeared that the Italian had nothing more to give. Then gradually he started to real Pedrosa in again until he was all over the back of the Honda and indeed nearly rammed it on occasions. And on lap eighteen Rossi struck, blasting through and extending a clear lead immediately. Three laps later and it was obvious that Pedrosa was broken and had no comeback. Stoner was no real threat either and indeed was being closed down by Lorenzo who was pushing incredibly hard to try to overcome whatever problem he was encountering. Dovizioso had found it all too much and had run himself off the track and onto the gravel, rejoining in sixteenth place while the crap for fifth had continued unabated with Melandri, Capirossi and Edwards regularly changing places and clearly having a ball.
With four laps to go, Lorenzo made a final herculean effort to get back on to the podium, closing on Stoner but losing the front and sliding off, unhurt but unable to continue, into the gravel. Stoner later commented that he was losing the front on almost every lap as his tyres were so shot. And that left Rossi to take the top spot from Pedrosa and Stoner, with a surprised but thoroughly vindicated Randy de Puniet in a lonely fourth place. Marco Melandri prevailed in the scrap for fifth from Loris Capirossi and Colin Edwards, while Andrea Dovizioso did a brilliant job in coming back up through the pack to finish seventh after his earlier excursion. Toseland managed to improve one place on his qualifying to at least get a couple of points while Nicky Hayden finished fifteenth, taking the final available point.
There are very few people that the Spaniards would have accepted beating Pedrosa that afternoon. Lorenzo, of course, is one. I think Rossi is probably the only other. Certainly his reception was warmer than might otherwise have been expected. Pedrosa seemed happy enough having made a credible fist of the race while still not fully fit and on a bike that he's still not happy with and Stoner was delighted to make the podium on a bogey circuit for Ducati. Everyone's a winner, then. Except for Lorenzo, who drops from championship leader to third behind Rossi and Stoner, equal on points with arch rival Pedrosa. Not a place he'd want to be.
So we go on to Le Mans in a fortnight with the third championship leader in as many races. It's a circuit where there have been more than a few upsets in the past. Let's see what happens this time...
Spain MotoGP Results
1. Valentino Rossi (Yamaha)
2. Dani Pedrosa (Honda)
3. Casey Stoner (Ducati)
4. Randy de Puniet (Honda)
5. Marco Melandri (Kawasaki)
6. Loris Capirossi (Suzuki)
7. Colin Edwards (Yamaha)
8. Andrea Dovizioso (Honda)
Toni Elias (Honda)
10. Chris Vermeulen (Suzuki)
MotoGP standings (after three rounds)
1. Valentino Rossi 65
2. Casey Stoner 54
3. Jorge Lorenzo 41
4. Dani Pedrosa 41
5. Andrea Dovizioso 30
6. Colin Edwards 26
7. Randy de Puniet 24
8. Marco Melandri 23
9. Chris Vermeulen 21
10. Loris Capirossi 19