Archive - 2006 - Race Story
Nicky Hayden arrived at Valencia with some new artwork on his bike and his leathers. The left-hand side of his fairing depicted a hand of five cards: the ten, jack, queen and king of diamonds, and one more card face down. Besides the cards was a large pile of poker chips, and the words "All In ...". No clearer indication of Hayden's intent could be imaginable: After the fiasco at Estoril, where Hayden's championship hopes were all but terminated by his team mate, the only course of action the Kentucky Kid had open to him was to gamble everything on getting to the front, and trying to win the race. Conceding an 8-point lead to the 5-time and reigning MotoGP world champion, and the man almost universally acclaimed as the greatest motorcycle racer of all time, reclaiming the lead and taking the title seemed a nigh impossible task. But, as Hayden kept insisting to the press each time he was interviewed: "This is MotoGP, anything can happen. That's why we line up." Anything can happen. And sometimes, it does.
To visitors from the lush north of Europe, their first impression of the Circuit Ricardo Tormo is an overwhelming sense of desolation. As you leave the bustling Spanish coast and the metropolis of Valencia behind you, and head along the highway towards the parched Spanish meseta, the earth turns redder, the low hills turn drier and the palms which line the coast turn to scrub and squat silver-green olive trees. In late October, after the long, searing Spanish summer, and before the winter rains come, this dry, desolate landscape is a fitting backdrop for a good old-fashioned showdown.
And on Sunday, that's what we'll get: two young men face off for the biggest prize in motorcycle racing: The title of MotoGP World Champion. On one side, The Kentucky Kid, whose consistency and hard work throughout the season have paid dividends, putting him at the forefront of the title chase. On the other, The Doctor, the current champion and acknowledged master, on a strong charge after a disastrous start to the year.
Over the long haul of a MotoGP season, stretching over seven months from the first race to the last, racer fortunes ebb and flow, riding a crest of success at one race, only to be left high and dry a couple of races later. And this year, as so often, there hasn't been a single rider with consistently good luck from March to October. For some, such as Loris Capirossi, whose Himalayan highs of three wins have been matched by the Hadean depths of the crash at Catalunya, the difference has been dramatic; For others, the peaks have not been so high, nor have the troughs been so deep.
Nicky Hayden was one of the latter category: His string of podium finishes early in the year swelled gently to a crescendo of two wins in the summer, then ebbed to a run of places just behind the front runners, slowly leeching points to his rivals. But his early run of luck looked like being just good enough to take the title for the Honda Racing Corporation, after their long years of drought since Valentino Rossi left to go to Yamaha. All Hayden needed was to stay close to Rossi, and HRC would have a World Champion again.
This is going to be an exciting week in the wonderful world of motorcycling. On Wednesday, the motorcycling world gathers to find out what the future of biking holds as the Intermot, the first of the major motorcycle shows, opens in Munich, Germany. Meanwhile, at the other end of continental Europe, the motorcycle racing world gathers to discover what the future of MotoGP holds, as the MotoGP circus gathers at Estoril for the Portuguese GP. At both venues, the focus will be on shiny new motorcycles, kept a closely-guarded secret until now. The difference is that in Munich, most of the attention will be on the world's biggest manufacturers, and what they have in store for us. At Estoril, all eyes will be on the racing world's newest, and arguably smallest, racing manufacturer.
New Kid On The Block
For on Thursday, Ilmor, the British-based factory with a long history in Formula 1, will roll their V4 800 out to be ridden in anger for the very first time. Ex-GP star Garry McCoy will be racing Mario Illien and Eskil Suter's brainchild, and even the most jaded of MotoGP followers can barely contain their curiosity at how this new addition to the field will compare. Perhaps the most salacious detail is the fact that this is an 800, and by running against the 990s, due to pass into MotoGP history at the end of the season, the Ilmor will be setting the benchmark against which all other 800s will be measured. Already, rumors are rife that Ducati will be racing their 800 at Valencia, but by turning up at Estoril, Ilmor have captured the attention of the world.
Three weekends. Three races. Three winners. The story of the flyaway races seems simple, put like that. But like so many simple tales, this does the story no justice: There is so much more to tell.
It all started at Sepang on Friday. From the start, Loris Capirossi seemed set to continue the dominance he had shown in Brno and impose his will at Malaysia, as he had done the previous year. The only person who looked capable of getting close was Dani Pedrosa. But then, during the second qualifying practice, Pedrosa suffered what looked at first a fairly innocent fall, catching his knee on the curbstones, and sliding off into the gravel. But it transpired that in catching his knee, he had badly gashed it, and broken his toe to boot. His injuries were so serious that there was some doubt that he would be able to make the race, dealing his title aspirations a severe blow.
The Power Of Numbers
Numerologists, and others who seek deeper meaning in numbers, of which there are many inside the MotoGP paddock, will be delighted this weekend. For, after a 3 week break, MotoGP returns for 3 races in 3 weekends, traveling 9000 miles to do so, in a series of races spread around the Pacific, calling at Sepang in Malaysia, Phillip Island in Australia, and Motegi in Japan.
That tires play an important role in MotoGP has been made abundantly clear this season. From the Yamaha M1 suffering extreme chatter at the start of the season, through two Valentino Rossi DNFs due to tires shredding, to the rise of the former 250 riders, used to lots of grip and high corner speeds, those black sticky hoops have had a major impact on the course of the MotoGP championship. To make things worse, the tire factor has played all one way so far this season, with Rossi, Edwards, Checa and Ellison all complaining of terrible vibration, while the massed Honda riders have breezed through races, their tires looking nearly as unblemished at the finish as when the mechanics took off the tire warmers on the grid. That kind of luck cannot hold, of course. The only question was when it would break, and who would be the victim.
So, as the grid formed on a surprisingly dry and sunny Sunday afternoon in the Czech Republic, the question of tires hung in the air. Camel Yamaha seemed to have solved Rossi's problems with the M1, as The Doctor had been consistently fast all weekend, finally managing to qualify on the front row again with a mind-bogglingly fast pole record. Bridgestone seemed to have some answers too, with Loris Capirossi consistently keeping his Ducati at the top of the timesheets with Rossi. Shinya Nakano's 5th spot on the grid was confirmation the Bridgestones were good. And the winds of fate seemed to be shifting, as at Brno, it was the Hondas which were struggling with tires, none of them managing to set fast lap sequences on race tires. Nicky Hayden's 4th spot on the grid was small consolation, but it was just a single fast lap on qualifiers, whereas both Pedrosa and Melandri were a long way down the field. The question was, could that be remedied on the day of the race?
After three weeks of official rest and relaxation, but actual frantic negotiations about 2007, the MotoGP circus descends on Brno in the Czech Republic this weekend. Set amidst wooded hills west of the city of Brno, in the east of the Czech Republic, Brno is the last of the former road tracks which MotoGP visits. Once upon a time, as at Assen and the Sachsenring, racing took place over the public roads around here, but, like the Sachsenring, eventually a separate track was built to accommodate.
And Brno resembles the Sachsenring in more ways: set among similar woods, it also has surprising elevation changes, making setting bikes up to handle lifting the front as they charge up the hill as well as remaining stable under hard braking very difficult indeed. But Brno differs from the Sachsenring in two important aspects: The track is much longer and much wider. In fact, the track is so wide, (up to 50 feet in places) that it's hard for riders to keep their lines: make a single mistake, and you end up running so wide that everyone passes you up the inside. This also means that overtaking is a breeze, which is of course a very double-edged sword. As most of the corners are in chicanes or combinations, getting past in one corner leaves yourself wide open running into the next.
A Festival Of Racing
Last year's US Grand Prix at Laguna Seca was a festival of racing. But more especially, it was a festival of American racing, for many reasons. First and foremost, it saw the return of premier class motorcycle racing to US soil after 11 years. Secondly, because it saw an American winner, and an American runner-up. Thirdly, because it saw visits from the cream of Hollywood, truly the American Dream. But what made it an especially American occasion was the fact that the Europeans hated it.
Looked at in isolation, Laguna Seca is a spectacular track. The blind drop over the crest and into the Corkscrew is one of the most breathtaking sections in racing. But sadly, the track doesn't exist in isolation: it exists surrounded by hard concrete walls just feet from the track. Marco Melandri compared turn 6 to "the entrance to the Autopista in Milan". His distaste for the track was only reinforced by the three hard falls he took during the weekend, the third after less than a lap of the race, finally burying any ambitions he may have had for the world title. The only exceptions were the former Superbike riders Xaus and Bayliss, who had raced here during World Superbike rounds, and long-time veterans such as Barros, Biaggi and Checa. Bayliss and Biaggi even went on to put in decent finishes, in the face of stiff home competition.
Some reputations are undeserved. The Sachsenring has a reputation for being a short, tight track with very few possibilities for passing, where a good position on the grid is vital. Sunday's MotoGP race was a demonstration both that passing is possible for any rider with the necessary skill and determination, and that if you can get a clean start, anything can happen.
Despite having closed the gap to Nicky Hayden two weeks ago at Donington to 35 points, Valentino Rossi was a worried man the night before the race. All of the Yamahas had struggled during practice, Carlos Checa on the Dunlop-shod Tech 3 Yamaha being the notable exception. So on the grid on Sunday, Valentino Rossi sat in a lowly 10th position, a place flattered by the forced withdrawal of Casey Stoner after a big crash during the morning warmup session, shifting everyone below Stoner's 8th spot up a place. Beside Rossi sat Checa, the Dunlops improving in leaps and bounds, but The Doctor's team mate Colin Edwards had qualified in 15th position, his worst qualifying since Jerez at the start of the season. And yet Rossi didn't look as worried as might be expected, having found something during the warm up session, getting him to within 3/10ths of Loris Capirossi's fastest session time, and with 2/10ths of pole sitter Dani Pedrosa's morning time. But with Pedrosa being fast all weekend, and the Sachsenring's reputation as a hard track to pass at, everyone knew it was imperative not to let the tiny Spaniard get away from the start, for fear that the race could be over by the second corner.
I'm off for brief, if poorly timed, vacation to Northern Italy, to do what I write about: ride motorcycles. I'll be doing it more slowly than the heroes I write about, and I'll be enjoying the scenery. This means I will be absent for the Sachsenring GP, but will write a report once I return, which will be Monday or Tuesday after the race. My apologies for any convenience caused.
Whenever riders or followers of MotoGP refer to a "Mickey Mouse racetrack", the example which always gets cited is the Sachsenring. This is a rather cruel jibe for a track so steeped in history. Racing has taken place in the area since 1927 over public roads, like Assen, until a new circuit was built here in the 1990s, after German reunification. The track is short, and just under 2.3 miles, so speeds are not high, but the track is situated among the rolling German hills, surrounded by woods. The rolling landscape also provides the biggest challenge on the track: after a long series of left-handers, a drop down and a climb up the hill, the track crests a blind right-hander before rocketing downhill along the short back straight, on a real roller coaster ride. Both John Hopkins and Carlos Checa have painful memories of that roller coaster, the two riders both coming harshly unseated down the back straight, Checa leaving a spectacular long red mark where his leathers had slowed his fall and protected him from injury.
The Once And Future King
At the beginning of the season, motorcycle racing followers all over the world viewed the arrival of Dani Pedrosa with great anticipation, but also some regret. Finally, it was felt, here was a rider who could challenge the dominance of the MotoGP class by Valentino Rossi. Pedrosa's record in the 125 and 250 classes was superlative, better than Rossi's, winning the 250 championship at the first go, where Rossi took a year to learn. And yet it was feared that we would be robbed of the epic battles which must surely ensue between these two champions, as it would take Pedrosa at least a year to master riding a MotoGP bike, by which time, Rossi would be firmly ensconced in the seat of a Ferrari F1 car.
An English Summer Afternoon
Donington Park is a quintessentially English circuit. Located just a few miles from the geographical center of England, it sits among rolling green hills, the very picture of the ideal English countryside. And what a circuit that English country idyll produces: the track snakes across the hillsides in a mixture of sweeping fast off-camber bends and short harsh hairpins, demanding the utmost of rider and bike. Its demanding nature is what makes it a firm rider favorite, matched only by Phillip Island, and the old, and sadly lamented, Assen.
Revenge Of The Racetrack
Racing is about focus. It's about focusing on getting your bike right, about focusing on getting your lines right, about focusing on outsmarting your competitors. Focus on the right things, and everything comes together as sweetly as monkey puzzle fruit. Focus on the wrong things, and disaster looms. All throughout the race weekend at Assen, the focus had been on the replacement of the old North Loop section of the track, with its glorious, high-speed cambered bends, with a short loop more reminiscent of Shanghai than Schoonlo. But when looking back at the 76th Assen TT, the North Loop, old or new, will barely get a mention, for the race, and possibly the championship, was not decided in the completely changed Strubben and Ossebroeken, or even the straightened Veenslang which is now a genuine back straight, but at the parts of the track they'd left untouched: the high-speed Hoge Heide and Ramshoek, and the GT chicane.
The Geert Timmer Bocht, to give its full name, is located right after a fast flowing section of turns, and is the very last chance to make a pass before the short sprint to the finish line. As a consequence, the GT has seen some famous battles fought, and been the nemesis of many racers, brutally punishing their last ditch lunges for the lead. One that sticks in my mind was the final lap of a World Superbike race, where Carl Fogarty lunged up the inside of Frankie Chili, bashing fairings and forcing him off the track, which so offended Chili that he took a swing at Fogarty in the paddock. And now the GT chicane has added another classic memory, a moment when a winner was made, and a title came closer.