October 21st, 2006
In Turn 6, on the 5th lap of the Portuguese Grand Prix in Estoril, the race, Nicky Hayden's title hopes, and a large part of the world's motorcycling fans exploded. Seconds after Dani Pedrosa's impetuous passing attempt on Hayden, taking both riders out, even the official MotoGP website's live video feed went into meltdown, depriving thousands of shocked US fans of the aftermath of the resultant crash, and the thrilling end to a literally unbelievable race. A wave of shock went through all who watched, and once incredulous brains had finally come to terms with what had happened, the same question filled millions of heads: How could this have been allowed to happen?
After Sete Gibernau was injured in a crash caused by Casey Stoner, ironically the man who will replace him next year at Ducati, speculation was rife as to who would replace Gibernau at Valencia. The name getting the most attention was Troy Bayliss, and Ducati have finally made it official: today they issued a press release stating that Bayliss will ride at Valencia. Bayliss is understandably delighted, and it must give extra satisfaction, after being dropped by the Ducati MotoGP team two years ago.
After putting on a spectactular showing at the weekend, beating Valentino Rossi by 2/1000ths of a second to take the win at the Portuguese Grand Prix, Toni Elias was the name on everyone's lips. His gamble paid off, as Gresini Racing has announced that Elias will be riding with the team for 2007. Gresini expects to have Honda V4 800s next year, though he is yet to announce who will be sponsoring the team, as Gresini's title sponsor, Fortuna, are withdrawing from MotoGP at the end of this season.
After several months of speculation, and an unofficial announcement at Estoril, Ducati Corse has finally officially announced that Casey Stoner has signed to ride for them in 2007. Few details of his contract were made public, other than Stoner will be riding the GP7 Desmosedici next year, with an option to ride in 2008.
Claudio Domenicali, Managing Director of Ducati Corse, is quoted as saying of Stoner: "With his enthusiasm and aggressive riding style, Casey is sure to give our fans some extraordinary emotions." So far this year, those emotions have been elation as Stoner runs at the front, followed by despair as he loses the front end and crashes out. What is certain is that Stoner should be very spectacular to watch on the Ducati, and his riding style should match Loris Capirossi's, who is the Ducati team's main rider.
The FIM have announced that the 2007 MotoGP calendar has been revised. Most of the changes are fairly minor, but there are one or two bigger changes. In brief, Qatar is a week earlier, Turkey and China have switched places, and Australia and Malaysia have been moved up a week. The biggest change is to Portugal, which has been pulled forward to September, giving the paddock an extra week to recover from the three previous flyaways.
The excellent US roadracing magazine RoadRacerX has a story on it's website that punishments might be on the cards for key HRC personnel after Dani Pedrosa shattered Honda's best chance of taking a World Championship since Valentino Rossi left, with an ill-advised pass. The kamikaze pass on team mate Hayden is widely being blamed on HRC's failure to instigate team orders, allowing Pedrosa to believe he was fully justified in taking any risk necessary to win races, in a desperate attempt to close the 34 point deficit Pedrosa had on Nicky Hayden.
Well, contrary to what I wrote in a previous post, Casey Stoner is almost certain to stay in MotoGP after all. He will be losing his ride with LCR Honda at the end of this season, but he has announced to the press that he will be riding a Ducati in 2007. No details of the contract were released, but with Loris Capirossi taking a nice pay rise, it is unlikely that Stoner will be getting the $3 million he was reportedly demanding. However, the upside for Stoner is that he will be on a factory machine, and not have to wait in line for parts from HRC with the other satellite Honda riders.
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.
The knife-edge tension of this morning's free practice session was continued this afternoon, as the riders set out on the qualifying practice for tomorrow's Portuguese Grand Prix. Spectators were not to be disappointed.
The session started with a very fast lap by Casey Stoner, and though many tried, the young Australian sat on top of the timesheets for a very long time, while most riders were out tweaking race set-ups and selecting race tires. Behind Stoner, it was Valentino Rossi who seemed to have gained the first advantage, close to matching Stoner's times, and never dropping out of the top 3.
Day 2 of the Portuguese Grand Prix started with what the MotoGP 2006 season has come down to: Two men, Nicky Hayden and Valentino Rossi, going head to head. It was only a free practice session, though admittedly a very important one, preceding qualifying as it does, but tension is being raised to almost unbearable levels. At the end of the session, it was Nicky Hayden who came out on top, setting a scorching 1:36.846, with Valentino Rossi setting the 2nd fastest time with a 1:37.032. Hayden will have dealt a psychological blow to Rossi, being the first, and only, rider to break into the 1:36 bracket. But Rossi ran consistently faster when testing race tires, a fact which will worry Hayden. So, we will have to call the result of FP3 a draw, for the moment.
Superbikeplanet.com is suggesting that Yamaha will renew Colin Edwards' contract before the weekend is out. The rumor is tentative, and based on more Chinese whispers than a Shanghai library, but still. Valentino Rossi is known to look favorably on Colin Edwards as a team mate, as he provides useful input during testing (without being a threat to Rossi's title chances), and Michelin like Edwards because of his skills in tire development. Even Yamaha like him, as he is an American, a very significant market for the Musical Motorcycling Manufacturer, especially with the growing popularity of MotoGP in the USA. And after failing to sign Nicky Hayden earlier this year, Edwards looks like their best American option. We shall see on Sunday.
Day 1 at Estoril brought a whole bunch of surprises, as you might expect from this topsy-turvy season. The morning started out almost as an echo of last season, with Valentino Rossi ensconced firmly atop the timesheets, although the times were remarkably slow, Rossi's fastest a 1:39.398, fully 2 seconds off Alex Barros' pole time from 2005. Behind Rossi was his friend and colleague Loris Capirossi, putting the big red Ducati into second spot. Capirossi was followed by John Hopkins, putting on a strong showing in the cool conditions, with the championship leader Nicky Hayden in 4th. Hayden headed up the class rookies Casey Stoner and Dani Pedrosa, with the Yamahas of Colin Edwards and Carlos Checa doing surprisingly well to take 7th and 8th. Behind Checa, the Fortuna Hondas were having a harder morning of it, with Toni Elias leading team mate Marco Melandri, down in 10th.
Over the past few months, the items I have posted here about the Ilmor / Suter bike have pulled a large number of visitors to my blog, as witnessed by the hundreds of hits from Google with the words "Ilmor" and "Suter" in the search query. Today, the long wait for those news hungry fans has finally come to an end, as the new Ilmor Suter X3 was unveiled at Estoril. The bike, a very sharp, pointed, almost KTM-like design, was presented to huge media interest at a news conference this afternoon, where the team commented on the future of the project, and attempted (somewhat unsuccessfully) to dampen expectations for this weekend.
Well, the influx of young riders from the 250 class seems slowly to be staunching: After Jorge Lorenzo decided to stay in 250s for one more year (I will have more to say about this during the off-season), the only man capable of taking the title from him has also announced he'll be staying in the class next year. According to the Italian site MotoOnline, Andrea Dovizioso has signed a 2 year contract with Honda, staying in 250s for 2007, and moving to MotoGP in 2008.