If the atmosphere was tense during practice yesterday, today it was as taut as piano wire. The morning session had already seen the Nicky Hayden and Valentino Rossi square off on qualifying tires, Hayden coming within 4/100ths of Rossi's fastest lap, with both men diving just under Sete Gibernau's qualifying time from last year. Prior to the qualifiers coming out, both men had set long runs of 1:33 laps, proving they both had decent race pace. But neither of these sets of laps were quite as impressive as Loris Capirossi's 19 lap run, 18 laps of which were below 1:34. With Capirex capable of doing 2/3rds race distance on his Ducati at that kind of pace, it no longer looked like a two man fight.
The second Free Practice session at Valencia threw up some interesting, but rather deceptive results. While everyone's focus was on Valentino Rossi and Nicky Hayden, it was Ducati man Loris Capirossi who stole the show. Capirex headed the timesheets for nearly all of the session, only briefly deposed by flying Frenchman Randy de Puniet on the Kawasaki. De Puniet's fast lap was the first obvious sign of qualifying tires being used, though surprisingly, only the top three riders went for an all-out shot with qualifiers on.
We already knew that the Valencia race would be tense, and hard-fought, and the first free practice session has lived up to our expectations. The session saw times staying very close, with the two main protagonists taking it in turns to leapfrog over each others' times. At the end of the session, it was Valentino Rossi who came out ahead, but only just. Rossi set the fastest time of the morning, with a time of 1:33.313, just 6/1000ths ahead of Casey Stoner, and 7/1000ths ahead of Nicky Hayden. Behind Hayden, a couple of Bridgestone runners are showing good form, with Loris Capirossi taking 4th, followed by Chris Vermeulen on the Suzuki. Behind Vermeulen sit the title candidates' team mates: Colin Edwards putting his Yamaha just ahead of Dani Pedrosa. Troy Bayliss needed little time to get used to the Ducati Desmosedici again, putting the bike on 8th spot, while behind him are Randy de Puniet on the Kawasaki and Marco Melandri on the Fortuna Honda. The top 15 runners are covered by less than 3/4 of a second. It's going to be a thriller.
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.
In an interview with Spanish sports daily Marca, Dani Pedrosa has promised to help Hayden in Valencia. "I was very upset at what happened in Estoril," the diminutive Spaniard said, "but I'll be the best help possible in Valencia".
Pedrosa was extremely apologetic for the incident at Estoril, which saw the Spaniard take out his American team mate, turning Hayden's 12 point title lead into an 8 point deficit. "I want to win, but not at the cost of my team mate's title race."
Pedrosa was also full of praise for Hayden's attitude after the crash. He said Hayden had "behaved with great professionalism", especially in his interviews with the press. "He didn't say a single bad thing about me," Pedrosa said of Hayden, "and I would have understood completely if he had. He would been totally justified."
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.