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MotoGP: The Top Ten Races of 2011

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2011 marked the end of an era as the unloved 800cc MotoGP racers have finally been put out to pasture. However, while frequently derided for creating relatively stale racing, the season's individual Grands Prix contested by the lame-duck 800s were generally quite compelling this past season.

And these were the best of the year:

10. Qatar

While not particularly exciting up front, the season opener was an accurate sign of what was to come in 2011. Casey Stoner kicked off his career as a factory Honda pilot with a dominating victory, the first of ten he would go on to rack up in an epic title campaign.

9. Portugal

Dani Pedrosa put to rest concerns about his lingering injuries and late-race endurance with a studied stalking and subsequent acing of rival Jorge Lorenzo. The weekend was also memorable for the QP press conference war of words waged by reigning champ Lorenzo and rising star Marco Simoncelli. After refusing to back down and in fact throwing a few verbal barbs back at Lorenzo, Simoncelli provided his rival with added ammunition by crashing out on the race's opening lap.

8. Mugello

Lorenzo notched up a statement win at Mugello, tracking down and beating the seemingly invincible Stoner in a straight fight. Lorenzo's triumph added a bit of midseason drama to the championship race before Stoner stepped up his steamroller act.

7. Laguna

Coming into Laguna Seca, early season favorite Stoner was starting to look a bit vulnerable, fading late in the his subsequent two races. However, after downplaying his chances leading up the race, Stoner patiently bid his time before ultimately striking and leaving Lorenzo and Pedrosa in his wake. Stoner took the lead with a bold blind-crest maneuver, blastig past Lorenzo to open lap 27 of 32 before storming to the checkered flag.

6. Indy

Stoner took a second impressive victory on American soil but the reason this one ranks so high is the remarkable tear up through the pack performed by home favorite Ben Spies. Looking like a 50/50 threat to Stoner as the lined up for the start, the anticipated showdown would not materialize, as Spies suffered a nightmarish opening lap, quickly dropping to ninth. However, the Texan continued to fight, displaying an extensive overtaking repertoire en route to an eventual podium placing.

5. Phillip Island

How's this for a perfect day? Stoner scored his fifth-straight home race victory (his fourth consecutive from pole) on his 26th birthday to lock up his second-career MotoGP title. No reason to blow out the birthday candles at that point. On a more somber note, the race also marked the best finish of Simoncelli's MotoGP career as he finished as the runner-up to Stoner one week before he was tragically killed at Sepang.

4. Assen

Another race that makes the list more for symbolic reasons than for actual on-track fireworks (although Simoncelli did manage to take out Lorenzo on the race's opening lap…). Spies performed brilliantly to score his first career MotoGP win, thriving under the pressure of Stoner and never putting a wheel wrong. Spies' victory was the first (and only) dry race win of the 800cc era scored by anyone other than the 'four aliens' (Stoner, Pedrosa, Lorenzo, and Valentino Rossi).

3. Sachsenring

The Sachsenring shootout was the rare race-long MotoGP battle for victory, with five man tussling deep into the race before it finally took shape as a three-rider scrap featuring Stoner, Pedrosa, and Lorenzo. At one point Stoner amazed by racing up from fourth to first in a single lap but was ultimately victimized himself by Lorenzo for second on the last lap. Pedrosa wicked up the pace late to claim a hard-earned win. Meanwhile, Dovi, Simoncelli, and Spies engaged in a spirited fight for position (as the did with increasing frequency in '11), Spies acing Simoncelli on the race's final lap for the second straight race.

2. Motegi

The Motegi affair was one of the wildest dry race premier class Grands Prix in recent memory. Pedrosa emerged victorious but on this day the win was something of an afterthought. The insanity started on the opening lap when Rossi's dangling leg clipped Lorenzo's bike and Rossi crashed, taking Spies out with him. Spies remounted but found himself 17 seconds down on the second-to-last active rider. Stoner led but ran wide, handing first over to a charging Dovi, who was unable to capitalize after clearly jumping the start and being forced to accept a ride-thru penalty (as were Simoncelli and Cal Crutchlow, who flinched while lined up directly behind Dovizioso, imitating his early jump). Alvaro Bautista crashed from fourth while battling with Nicky Hayden, who also ran off track. Stoner made his way back up to third, Simoncelli and Dovi took fourth and fifth despite their penalties, and Spies fought all the way back up to sixth, with Hayden taking seventh. That's right, positions 3-7 were collected by riders who all either ran off track, served a penalty, or crashed. And to think the Japanese GP nearly didn't happen…

1. Valencia

Casey Stoner closed out his rival-spirit-crushing championship season with a tenth win thanks to a rival-spirit-crushing final rush to the flag. After looking like an easy winner earlier in the race, Stoner was hunted down and displaced by Spies with a few laps remaining as a spitting rain turned the contest on its head. However, despite holding a clear and seemingly unassailable lead as he powered onto the front straight, Spies was somehow zapped by Stoner and his RC212V with a space-time continuum confounding pass that saw him eclipse Spies at the stripe by 0.015s.

That was the only highlight on the day; Dovizioso also defeated (now former) teammate Pedrosa for third in the championship in his last start as a Honda man while Crutchlow edged out Karel Abraham following a final-lap clash for rookie of the year honors.

Meanwhile, like Stoner, Ducati's season ended in a fitting fashion with Rossi and Hayden both ending their disastrous campaigns in the dirt while two-time AMA Pro Superbike champ Josh Hayes notched up seventh in his maiden MotoGP attempt. The race also marked the end of Loris Capirossi's long and distinguished (and sometimes controversial) GP career as he rode his final race honoring fallen countryman Marco Simoncelli by contesting the race with the competition #58..

Not a bad way to end an era and say goodbye to a rising star extinguished far too soon.

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