Dutch TT preview
Although he lost his world title to Nicky Hayden last year, Valentino Rossi is still considered to be the world's best motorcycle rider.
But the seven times world champion is a hunted man and the 77th edition of the A-Style Assen TT will not see
an end to the hostilities. Among the hunters are two young guns called Casey Stoner and Dani Pedrosa, both barely 21 years of age.
At 28, Valentino Rossi is one of the most successful motorcycle riders in racing history. The charismatic Italian has, so far, racked up seven world titles in four different classes. One in the 125, 250 and 500cc each and following those up with four consecutive titles in MotoGP. Up to and including this year's Grand Prix of France, Rossi graced the grid of 179 GP races of which he managed to win an astounding 85.
In the Royal class (until 2002 the 500cc and after that the MotoGP), with 59 wins for 119 starts (a success rate of almost 50 percent), the “Doctor” is only eclipsed by the legendary Giacomo Agostini. Not only is Rossi incredibly successful, he is also boundlessly popular all over the world .
Nonetheless, last year he had to forfeit the title because of technical problems and unforced errors. However, the number of times the Yamaha rider was beaten in a straight duel could easily be counted on the fingers of one hand. This feat was only pulled off by Loris Capirossi (Ducati) and Marco Melandri (Honda), two Italians who, like Rossi himself, are tried and true veterans of the Royal Class.
Relative newcomers to the most important road racing category are Casey Stoner and Dani Pedrosa.
These two young riders where taken up within the MotoGP elite in 2006 and it took them little time in making a lasting impression.
Stoner, in just his second appearance, managed to clock the fastest training time at Qatar and at the following Turkey GP only had to give leeway to the more experienced Melandri. Pedrosa fared even better!
At his debut at Jerez and cheered on by his home-crowd he came in second after Capirossi. Within weeks after that, the diminutive Spaniard astounded the motorcycle world yet again by claiming victory in China at just his 4th MotoGP race; even a certain Valentino Rossi had never managed that! Later on in the season, Pedrosa managed to win Donington as well. The two new kids in town finished third and fourth, respectively, at Assen and closed the season in the Royal Class as fifth and eighth respectively.
Partly due to a lack of experience, their high points were counterbalanced by a couple of crashes and other disappointments. But there was no doubt as to the capability of both riders to reign in the, 250 or so, brake horsepower of a MotoGP machine and be contenders for the title.
Road racing starting points
Both Pedrosa and Stoner can trace back the starting points of their careers back to Spain.
In the case of Pedrosa, who was born at Sabadell near Barcelona (29-9-1985) that seems logical. For Stoner, who entered the world 17 days later, it does not. His cradle rocked on the other side of the world at Australia's Kurri-Kurri. Casey could barely walk when he was already riding motorised two wheelers. Father Colin acknowledged his son's talent and passion for motorcycle riding. So, in the following years, the entire Stoner family: father, mother and older sister, sojourned at every single dirt track in Australia.
That investment paid off, because little Casey began picking up dirt- and long-track titles wholesale. At most events he competed in five separate classes on five different bikes, which accounts for his uncanny motorcycle handling skills. Because one has to be at least 16 to race road circuits in Australia, Casey's parents decided to pack up the family to England in the year 2000. 14 year old Casey was allowed to race in the 125cc Aprilia challenge, a series of races he promptly went on to win.
At the end of that season, the young Australian also raced in Spain twice and was there that he caught the eye of former GP rider Alberto Puig. Apart from winning, amongst others, the 500cc race of the Spanish GP in 1995, Puig was the discoverer of… Dani Pedrosa!
Pedrosa had become Spain's 1998 pocket bike champion, something which was not lost on Puig. This talent scout par excellence not only took Pedrosa under his wings but found room there for Casey Stoner as well. He became a friend and confidant to the Stoner family who were living in an old auto bus and shuttling between England and Spain. This meant that the two young riders met each other a lot, not just on the Spanish circuits but later on in the Grands Prix as well.
While Pedrosa was riding for Puig's own Movistar Honda team, the Spaniard took care of Stoner by placing him under the care of Lucio Cecchinello. This jovial Italian was not just a rider but owner/manager of his own Aprilia team as well. Stoner and Pedrosa's GP careers diverged heavily after that. The young Australian was fast but prone to falling off his bike, often so nasty that insiders threw doubts as to whether it would be wise to have him continue racing.
Pedrosa knew how to find the gas handle as well but made few mistakes. A comparison with two famous riders of the nineties of the last century thus presents itself. Casey Stoner was to Kevin Schwantz as Dani Pedrosa was to Wayne Rainey! In other words, one a flamboyant and often impetuously impulsive rider and the other a more calculated and introverted rider.
For the time being, Pedrosa's character and actions was the more fruitful of the two, because after he claimed the 125cc world title in 2003, ‘Galáctico' went on to win two consecutive world titles in the quarter litre class. At 20 years of age, this made the Spanish flyweight (barely weighing 50 kilos) more successful than Valentino Rossi at that age.
Because of his partiality to falling, Stoner earned the nickname: ‘Rolling Stoner' but that hardly bothered the rugged individualist from down under. After his parents and sister returned to Australia he went it alone and rode the 2004 season for KTM in return for a royal pay check which, in one fell swoop, recouped Stoner senior's entire investment in his son.
After that Casey returned to Lucio Cecchinello. While Pedrosa, as a Repsol Honda protégé, could count on the best technical support the world's biggest motorcycle manufacturer had to offer, Stoner had to make do with an off-the-shelf bike from said factory. Most importantly for Stoner however, he had arrived in the class he had always dreamed of competing in: MotoGP!
The 2006 Portugal GP was to be the turning point for Stoner. Although he crashed in the race itself, he was approached afterwards by Ducati team manager Livio Suppo with an invitation to join the ranks of the famed Italian brand. Casey did not hesitate for long and took the offer.
While Honda, with the new 800cc RC212V, was concentrating their attack on Rossi (although dethroned as champion, in most eyes, still the man to beat) Stoner lay quietly under the shadow of his team's first man, Loris Capirossi, and waited patiently for his chance. He did not need to wait for long. Ducati's new weapon, the Desmosedici GP7, partnered with the Bridgestone tyres soon turned out to be just what Casey needed.
On top of that the young rider seems to have matured somewhat. Not only did he marry his beautiful Adriana at the beginning of the year, his penchant for falling seems all but disappeared. During the first confrontations of 2007 ‘Rolling Stoner' morphed into ‘Winning Stoner' forcing not just Dani Pedrosa to yield to the man he used to beat summarily but Valentino Rossi had to admit defeat as well.
Of course, Stoner has a lightning fast weapon in his Ducati but it takes a special person to tame a rocket because no one ever won a race with an unguided missile. Pedrosa's Honda hasn't lived up to the high expectations that were held for it in the first few Grands Prix but, no doubt, that will change sooner than later.
Young guns Stoner and Pedrosa are cocked and ready to fire on all cylinders. They take aim not just at each other but at Valentino Rossi in particular. But the snag is that Rossi is, by no means, a helpless frightened bunny. It will only add to the excitement and suspense of the coming A-Style Assen TT!