Well the fat lady came out and sang in Malaysia, with Valentino Rossi securing yet another World Title and making his position as "The Greatest" even more likely to receive global acceptance. But of course there is more than just a first place at stake, and on recent form Casey Stoner would still be capable of snatching second from Jorge Lorenzo if the fast but occasionally flaky Spaniard threw the Yamaha into the gravel at his home round. Dani Pedrosa looked potentially able to upset a few people as well, though again whether it would be the home crowd seeing yet another local hero self destruct or whether it would be Ducati seeing their all conquering Stoner/Desmosedici combination getting a bloody nose would be another matter entirely.
Valencia, which is where we are this weekend, is one of my favourite circuits, yet I can't for the life of me work out why. It's pretty flat, it's viciously technical and it often ends up with races that are spread out and processional. Mind you, it's seen some classic scraps as well. I just like the way it flows I guess. Anyhow, it's never been a successful venue for Rossi, who has actually thrown away a world championship here and had, I believe, yet to get on the top step of the podium. Stoner likes it, though, having won comprehensively here the last couple of visits.
And Stoner certainly came out as the man to beat, setting blistering times in free practice while Lorenzo, Pedrosa and Rossi could only do their best to keep up. In the first session, only the latter trio were within a second of Stoner's time, and though it got better as the sessions went on it was clear that the Australian had recognised that he had absolutely nothing to lose and that he might as well really go for it. At the other end of the front, if that makes sense, Valentino Rossi was struggling for grip and setup on an unusually cool circuit. Though the result meant nothing to him in terms of this year's championship, a strong finish would rather show everyone who was boss and set him up for the winter break with the right psychological advantage.
Someone who was doing rather well, improving on every lap, was Ben Spies. The new SBK champion is swapping seats with James Toseland for 2010 and Yamaha brought him in for a special one-off ride on their 2009 development mule. First session saw him fifteenth, which is quite respectable for his first time on a MotoGP bike. Session two saw him twelfth and getting steadily quicker. While James Toseland, now looking at next year's challenge on the Yamaha in SBK, was clearly not giving it his best and was dropping further down each session.
Qualifying was predictable, with Stoner acing everyone to take pole by just over a quarter of a second from Pedrosa who in turn had Lorenzo snapping at his heels a mere two hundredths of a second behind. Row two was headed by Rossi, two thirds of a second off pole and clearly struggling, with Colin Edwards next to him and Nicky Hayden also making a strong showing. Randy de Puniet and Toni Elias, so often together through this season, headed up row three with Ben Spies in ninth. That's pretty extraordinary, though to be fair to Toseland he qualified on the front row in his first ever MotoGP a couple of years ago. So brilliance in the first round doesn't necessarily foretell a glittering future.
Race day was warm, dry and windy. Well, warmish - this round is a couple of weeks later than usual, and the temperature is accordingly a little cooler and the weather less predictable. The gusty wind made things interesting for the riders because it changed the braking points and the way the bike turned in each lap. Which is an element of excitement that someone trying to manhandle a MotoGP bike around could really do without. No surprise that in warmup, Casey Stoner was fastest again though interesting that Jerry Burgess had clearly found something that worked on Valentino's bike as he was second, ahead of with Edwards and Hayden. Ben Spies was, um, fifth, ahead of Lorenzo.
So the race definitely had potential. Though nobody anticipated what happened next. Everyone lined up on the grid as usual and then got waved off for their sighting lap. Lots of weaving around and working to get heat into the tyres. Nothing unusual - everyone has their favourite techniques for this part of the race, with Rossi pressing reasonably hard, Pedrosa leaping around everywhere, Stoner dropping back then making a late surge to get to the grid last and have the shortest wait while having, potentially, got the most heat into his tyres. Except this time the Australian highsided on turn six. On the sighting lap. Hero to zero in one simple mistake.
That meant the front of the grid now had a hole where Stoner should have been. A hole straight in front of Valentino Rossi. But as usual it was Dani Pedrosa who got the holeshot, followed by Lorenzo. The real surprise came as Toni Elias rocketed through to take second and leave Rossi in fourth, unable to capitalise on his potential advantage. And so it stayed, for one lap at least, with an all Spanish podium driving the crowd into a frenzy. It couldn't last, of course, and while the pace was clearly good, Rossi was equally clearly biding his time and making sure he had all the heat he wanted in his tyres before making his move. And by the end of lap four he'd done it, passing Elias on turn one and then slipping past Lorenzo a few moments later. But getting past Pedrosa was a different matter entirely.
For once, the fragile Spaniard kept his head and maintained a spectacular pace throughout, never putting a wheel wrong. Rossi pushed super hard for a few laps but Pedrosa responded each time and gradually built a gap over the pursuing champion. Rossi in turn made a cushion between himself and Lorenzo, now assured of second place in the championship after Stoner's demise, while Elias, after his initial promise, faded a bit. Colin Edwards slipped past Elias on lap seven after harrying him for a few laps earlier, and half a dozen laps later Nicky Hayden did the same thing. And from here on, to be honest, things got pretty dull at this end of the field, with everyone having clear air and nobody doing anything daft. But further back things were a little different.
Ben Spies needed, more than anything else, to spend time riding with other people who better understood the abilities of a MotoGP bike. So spending the first three laps glued to the back of Marco Melandri didn't do him any harm at all, even if he had dropped a place to get there. And for the next few laps it all looked as though it had got too much as the Texan dropped back further, ending up in twelfth and being pressured by Toseland in what I'm sure wasn't a remotely personal battle. Then he seemed to get it all together and just went for it. He steadily worked his way up the field, picking off other riders one by one, until he came up to Andrea Dovizioso in seventh. And simply slid past him on turn two in a textbook pass, immediately gapping him and, co-incidentally, securing fifth place in the world championship for his new team-mate Colin Edwards at the same time.
And that was it. Pedrosa won convincingly from Rossi and Lorenzo. Colin Edwards was a solid fourth ahead of Nicky Hayden, Toni Elias and Ben Spies. Dovizioso was eighth with Mika Kallio a distant ninth, pursued by Alex de Angelis. Toseland had a miserable ride to finish twelfth in the race and fourteenth in the title chase, while fellow SBK returnee Chris Vermeulen had an even thinner time, finishing fifteenth on a seriously underperforming Suzuki.
So 2009 ended, really, with more of a whimper than a bang. Rossi still has it, for sure, but had to work harder this year than ever before against a talented team-mate. Stoner would have been a real threat had he not got sick, and maybe next year Hayden will be up there as well. He certainly seems the most likely to tame the Ducati after Stoner. And what about Edwards and Spies? Team Texas will be a force to be reckoned with, I'd say, and they may well upset the apple cart a few times. Will 2010 be classic season? Maybe. One thing is for sure, though. We'll be there to cover it for you...
Valencia MotoGP Results
1. Dani Pedrosa (Honda)
2. Valentino Rossi (Yamaha)
3. Jorge Lorenzo (Yamaha)
4. Colin Edwards (Yamaha)
5. Nicky Hayden (Ducati)
6. Toni Elias (Honda)
7. Ben Spies (Yamaha)
8. Andrea Dovizioso (Honda)
9. Mika Kallio (Ducati)
10. Alex de Angelis (Honda)
MotoGP standings (after seventeen rounds)
1. Valentino Rossi 306 (2009 MotoGP Champion)
2. Jorge Lorenzo 261
3. Dani Pedrosa 234
4. Casey Stoner 220
5. Colin Edwards 161
6. Andrea Dovizioso 160
7. Toni Elias 115
8. Alex de Angelis 111
9. Loris Capirossi 110
10. Marco Melandri 108