The first of a concluding quartet of rounds in the 2009 FIM MotoGP World Championship season takes place this coming weekend at Estoril.
As Valentino Rossi prepares to make his 100th appearance on a Yamaha factory machine, in the bwin.com Grande Premio de Portugal, at a venue where he has taken victory on five occasions in the premier class, the Italian rider is aware that another Portuguese win will edge him closer to retaining the MotoGP title.
Rossi has a 30-point championship lead after 13 rounds, the last of which saw him take victory on home soil at Misano to bounce back from his Indianapolis crash and DNF, before a September break in proceedings.
Indeed, Rossi’s main objective at Estoril will be to finish in front of his Fiat Yamaha team-mate and championship rival Jorge Lorenzo, who still has a fighting chance of catching his illustrious colleague in the standings. Lorenzo achieved his maiden MotoGP win in Portugal last year in just his third premier class race and the Spaniard will be striving to repeat that success this time around.
Lorenzo has also crossed the line first and second at the last two rounds of the current season to push his way back into the title fight after consecutive DNF results at Donington and Brno earlier in the summer.
For third-placed championship rider Dani Pedrosa, Estoril is one of just four tracks on the current MotoGP calendar where he has not tasted victory in any class of Grand Prix racing. However, Pedrosa has crossed the line in second place in Portugal for the last two years and the Repsol Honda rider will be highly motivated by the challenge of staying ahead of the returning Casey Stoner in the standings over the final four GPs of 2009.
Stoner returns for Ducati Marlboro at round 14, having missed three race weekends due to illness, and he will aim to rediscover his early season competitiveness which saw him register wins at Losail International (Qatar) and Mugello, in addition to three further podiums. The Australian is 87 points behind Rossi, 57 behind Lorenzo and just seven adrift of Pedrosa, heading to a track where he won the 250cc race in 2005 and was on the MotoGP rostrum in third place in 2007. With Stoner back to the Ducati official team, Mika Kallio rides again for Pramac Racing together with teammate Niccolò Canepa.
Repsol Honda’s Andrea Dovizioso, who in fifth place is ten points ahead of Colin Edwards, has finished fourth in the last three races – since his first MotoGP victory at Donington in July. The Italian was the 250cc race-winner at Estoril three years ago but last season he crashed out on his debut MotoGP appearance at the circuit.
Edwards’ blameless first lap crash and DNF at Misano last time out was his first non-point-scoring result since Germany last year and the Monster Yamaha Tech 3 man would probably be happy with repeating his 2008 and 2006 fourth places at Estoril.
Behind Edwards, Loris Capirossi (Rizla Suzuki), Alex de Angelis (San Carlo Honda Gresini), Randy de Puniet (LCR Honda) and Marco Melandri (Hayate Racing) complete the current MotoGP top ten.
With four rounds remaining the battle at the head of the 250cc World Championship standings appears to be a two-way fight between leader Hiroshi Aoyama and second placed Alvaro Bautista. Aoyama leads Bautista by 13 points, with World Champion Marco Simoncelli way back – 40 points off the top spot – in third place.
Scot Racing’s Aoyama has been highly consistent all season, but he has not won a race since Donington in July and has been off the podium in two of the last three races. In contrast to Bautitsta the Japanese rider does not have a great history at Estoril – having only once appeared on the podium there, in 2006 in second place – but his 2009 form overall suggests he will improve that record.
Bautista has won for the last three years in Portugal – in the 125cc class in 2006 and in the 250cc race in both 2007 and 2008. The Spaniard has not won a race since Catalunya this year though, so he will aim to step up a notch on his recent steady podium form to repeat his previous Portuguese triumphs and put further pressure on Aoyama.
Although title-holder Simoncelli looks to be out of the race in this year’s championship he has won three of the last five races and will be looking for revenge after his home heartbreak at Misano. Additional Simoncelli wins this season would be no surprise and last year he finished second at Estoril having started on pole.
Fourth placed Hector Barbera, who won at Misano in the last round, has a modest record at Estoril in the 250cc class, but he did take victory there in the 2004 125cc race.
Meanwhile, Estoril is one of Mattia Pasini’s least successful circuits, but he will arrive for the Portuguese GP on a high after testing a Ducati MotoGP bike in Italy since his home race at Misano where he finished a close second.
For Bancaja Aspar’s Julian Simon the decision to move back down to the 125cc class from 250cc competition this year has paid off in style and the Spanish rider could clinch the title at the next round in Portugal if results go his way.
If he wins the Estoril race and Nico Terol finishes no higher than ninth and Bradley Smith finishes no higher than fifth or if Simon finishes second with Terol no higher than 14th and Bradley Smith no better than ninth, that will be enough to secure the 125cc crown.
In all likelihood Simon may have to wait a while longer to finish the job – his best result to date at Estoril is fifth in 2006 in the 125cc class – but he needs to score just 43 points from the remaining four races to secure the title, irrespective of the results of other riders.
For current runner-up Terol, meanwhile, his third place last year in Portugal was his first point-scoring finish at the Estoril circuit. The Spaniard is on a run of eight successive top four results this year and he would more than deserve finishing second overall.
It is fair to say that Estoril is not the favourite circuit of Simon’s team-mate Smith, with the Briton registering his best result at the track in 2007 in 12th place. Smith crashed out last year having caught the leading group from 13th on the grid, but he is currently in good form after two consecutive podiums and he’ll be confident of bettering his previous Portuguese best.
Also in the current top five are Simon and Smith’s colleague Sergio Gadea and Italian rider Andrea Iannone – whose main aim will simply be to avoid any controversy in Portugal after he let himself down at Misano with some aggressive riding and some subsequently self-acknowledged unsporting behaviour. Iannone clashed with Pol Espargaro last time out and the young Spaniard, who is sixth in the standings, got his first GP podium at Estoril two years ago.
The 2009 bwin.com Grande Premio de Portugal takes place from 2nd-4th October, with free practice in the MotoGP class commencing at 1.55pm local time. The first 250cc and 125cc practices take place at 3.10pm and 12.40pm respectively.