For possible World Championship decider
Round 14 of the 2007 MotoGP World Championship takes place at the Estoril circuit on September 16th, as the best riders on two wheels go head to head at the bwin.com Grande Premio de Portugal.
Always an exciting race, this
year's visit to Portuguese soil also has the added intrigue of being a possible title decider. With Casey Stoner currently leading the World Championship by 85 points with five races remaining, and a lowest finish of fifth this season, the Australian has an outside chance of clinching his maiden crown before his departure from Estoril.
If Stoner manages to win his ninth race of the season, and only serious title rival Valentino Rossi is unable to finish higher than sixth, then the Ducati man will have accomplished his task and become the first Australian to win the World Championship since the heyday of Mick Doohan.
Stoner failed to finish the race last year in Portugal, taking out Sete Gibernau in the Spaniard's final Grand Prix appearance. He will have happier memories of his 2005 ride at the track, where he took victory in the 250cc class onboard a factory Aprilia.
Currently lying in second place in the classification, Valentino Rossi has been having a tough time as of late. The Italian has not won a Grand Prix since the visit to Assen back in June, and most recently was forced to retire after just five laps in front of his home fans at Misano. ‘The Doctor' has never finished off the podium at Estoril, winning four consecutive Portuguese Grands Prix between the 2001 and 2004 seasons. For the past two years he has played second fiddle, most excitingly last year when he was involved in a three man showdown with Kenny Roberts Jr and eventual winner Toni Elias. Although his title chances now remain slim, Rossi has indicated that he will believe that the season is over only when the mathematicians say so, and will not be easing off despite Stoner huge points advantage.
For proof that anything can happen in MotoGP, one need look no further than current third placed rider Dani Pedrosa's collision with team-mate Nicky Hayden at last year's race in Portugal. The Spaniard looked to have cost the eventual 2006 World Champion his chance of the title when he made a rash move which forced both factory Honda riders into retirement, an embarrassing incident for Pedrosa of which he will be keen to avoid a repeat in 2007. Estoril is not one of the former 125cc and 250cc World Champion's favoured circuits, as he has been unable to finish higher than fourth there in any class.
Whilst Rossi is within catching distance of Pedrosa, the Spaniard himself has a group of riders hunting him down in search of third place in the World Championship. The Suzuki duo of Chris Vermeulen and John Hopkins have been on a run of podium finishes as of late, and shared the rostrum for the first time at Misano.
Friendly rivalry between the two has led to the continued success of the Suzuki GSV-R800, and just four points separate the Australian and the Anglo-American in their most successful seasons respectively in MotoGP. Vermeulen is the closest to Pedrosa in the standings, trailing the Honda rider by 24 points.
On recent form, Marco Melandri appears to be a rare anomaly in motorcycle racing: a rider who actually performs better when injured. MotoGP's own ‘Man of steel' has been the recipient of a number of knocks and blows over the past three races, having taken hard practice crashes to his back and ankle and received a mystery neck injury at Brno. Despite this, the Italian has finished in the top four at the last two races that he has started, including a second podium of the season at Laguna Seca in the United States. Hopefully back at full strength for the race at Estoril, Melandri has been on the podium twice in the 250cc class at Portugal, but has a highest position of fourth in the premier class.
The remainder of the top ten is comprised of Colin Edwards, Loris Capirossi, reigning World Champion Nicky Hayden and veteran Alex Barros. The latter is favoured to have his best race of the season in Portugal, where he won on his last visit in 2005. A good result would be important to the Brazilian, who is still in the shop window for a 2008 ride.
There is also a runaway leader in the 250cc class, where Jorge Lorenzo has been unstoppable in recent races. The Spaniard has won eight races so far this year, all from pole, and victory at Misano made him the most successful rider from his country in the history of the quarter litre class. The Aprilia factory rider has a pending issue to address at Estoril, as it is the only circuit on the calendar where he has failed to step onto the podium in 250cc.
Lorenzo currently heads the standings by 54 points over Alex de Angelis, who has suffered a dip in form at the worst possible moment. Having gone 15 races without finishing lower than fourth, since crashing in Brno the San Marino rider's batting average has dropped slightly with an eleventh and fifth place from the last two races. His focus now must surely be more trained on keeping ahead of Andrea Dovizioso, who he leads by a solitary point in the World Championship after the Italian suffered a heartbreaking blow to his title hopes with a mechanical problem at Misano.
Alvaro Bautista, Hector Barbera and Hiroshi Aoyama complete the top six in the 250cc class.
Arguably the most exciting races of recent weeks have come in the 125cc class, which is currently wide open after a series of twists in the title thriller. Gabor Talmacsi is currently on top of the lower cylinder category tree after a spectacular race at Misano, where team-mate and title rival Hector Faubel collided with Simone Corsi in a jaw-dropping race eventually won by the in-form Mattia Pasini.
Talmacsi leads the way by ten points, turning around Faubel's pre-Misano advantage. Bearing down on the duo is KTM rider Tomoyoshi Koyama, albeit from afar with a 44 point deficit to recover. Lukas Pesek's title push appears to be over after he suffered a crash at the last round, and he lies in fourth ahead of Simone Corsi and Sergio Gadea.
DORNA / CAPSIS International