2006 Istanbul Race - Plus ca Change

Last year, the Istanbul Park Circuit provided a thrilling spectacle, as Rossi and Melandri slugged it out at the front of the field. In just its second year, the track laid claim to a place in motorcycling history, providing some of the closest and most exciting racing imaginable. After an astonishing 250 race, in which any one of four riders could have won, the MotoGP race turned into one of the best races that MotoGP has seen for a very long time. The track challenges bike and rider, rewards risk, and offers plenty of places to attack the opposition. The fast Turn 11, before the heavy braking for the Turn 12 - 13 - 14 combination, nicknamed the "Tilke Twiddles" after the track designer, the last turns before the finish line, means that if you can stay within spitting distance on the last lap, you are in with a chance of the win.

With the track dry, and no sign of rain, everyone expected the Suzukis to get swamped quickly, and start dropping off the back from the get-go. Vermeulen's fantastic display in qualifying, taking pole, together with Hopkins in a season's best 5th spot certainly made up for the dismal showing at Qatar, but without rain, they weren't expected to use the advantage the Bridgestone rain tires so obviously afforded during qualifying. As it happened, tires were indeed to play a crucial role, but manufacturers than the seasoned heads were saying.

As the red lights extinguished, the Suzukis surprised everyone, with Vermeulen getting a fantastic start from pole to lead the race, with Gibernau hot on his heels, and Hopkins improving on his grid position to take third spot, followed by Hayden, Stoner and Melandri. Gibernau sneaked past Vermeulen round the back of the circuit, but Vermeulen took Gibernau back in a spectacular braking maneuver into Turn 12, the first of many such moves we would see today. But Vermeulen couldn't hold on to the lead. On the next lap, first Gibernau and then a fired-up Hopkins went past Vermeulen, pushing him back into third.

Further down the field, Valentino Rossi had started to improve upon his poor grid position, moving up into 9th, behind team mate Colin Edwards, and pushing on to try to regain a grip on the championship. But he pushed too hard, running wide and off the track, dropping to 14th before rejoining the race. At least this time, his bike wasn't damaged as it was at Jerez, but he still had a lot of catching up to do.

Up at the front, a battle royal was developing. Gibernau managed to grab a small lead, fluctuating between 0.5 and 1 second, while behind him, Hopkins, Stoner, Hayden, Melandri, and Vermeulen duked it out, constantly swapping positions, with Vermeulen slowly dropping off the back of the group. On one lap, Hayden would pass Melandri going into the downhill drop of Turn 2, but be back behind Melandri on the brakes going into Turn 12.

Behind this group sat Capirossi, with Edwards slowly closing him down, and a hard charging Dani Pedrosa moving very quickly through the field from his dire 16th spot on the starting grid on the factory Honda, with Rossi desparately trying to recover lost ground from his runoff.

Then, from lap 7, the lack of practise on a dry track started taking its toll. Hopkins, who had made a strong impression, running in second place up till then, first let Stoner past, then, on the next lap, lost nearly a second as his tires started to go off, from running too soft a tire. By the end of lap 9, he had slipped from 2nd to 9th. And Hopkins wasn't the only Bridgestone rider to be struggling. Gibernau, who had led since lap 2, lapped half a second slower on lap 9 and 10, losing entirely the margin he'd acquired on the following group. By 11, the Ducati rider had slipped from 1st to 5th.

This left the front group, which by then had been caught by Pedrosa, to slug it out for the lead. The Hondas of Melandri, Pedrosa, Hayden and Stoner were all evenly matched, and the positions they held depended on who got through Turn 1 fastest, and who could brake into Turn 12 hardest. As Gibernau slipped down the order, he held up Vermeulen just long enough for the Suzuki rider to lose touch with the leading group. Still, the Australian Suzuki rider was faring better than his team mate Hopkins, who by this time had been forced to pit for a new rear tire.

Capirossi must have chosen a different tyre to Gibernau, as the other Ducati rider managed to maintain his position a couple of seconds off the leading group, but could not close them down. Valentino Rossi, meanwhile, was having fewer problems gaining on the leaders, trailing Melandri's Honda team mate Toni Elias in his wake. By lap 13, both Rossi and Elias were past Colin Edwards, and within 6 seconds of the leader Dani Pedrosa. Behind Edwards came the two Kawasakis of Nakano and de Puniet, the Frenchman not being able to capitalize on his excellent grid position. An improved Makoto Tamada followed close behind the Kawasakis, leaving a gap of over 10 seconds to a steady Kenny Roberts Jr. Kenny Jr rode an incredibly consistent race, lapping constantly in the low 1:56s and high 1:55s. Unfortunately, the leaders were riding 1:54s. And to demonstrate that it wasn't just the Bridgestone riders who were having tire problems, British rider James Ellison was also in the pits collecting a new rear Dunlop for his Tech 3 Yamaha.

Working in Rossi's favour was the continuing battle up front. For the next 5 laps, Nicky Hayden, Dani Pedrosa, Marco Melandri and Casey Stoner were engaged in an epic battle for the lead. Although Pedrosa led for much of this time, he could never get away, as each time he managed to get a small gap, he would be chased down by Hayden, and lose time having to block his HRC team mate, giving Melandri and Stoner a chance to catch back up, and get in each other's way as they swapped places out of Turn 11 and into Turn 12. But by lap 18, this epic struggle was taking its toll on Hayden's tire, as he started to lose touch after running wide as he was passed by Melandri.

And then there were three. After passing Hayden, Melandri got a great run out of the blazingly fast Turn 11, allowing him to out-brake Pedrosa into the Turn 12 to 14 Tilke Twiddles. This move also allowed Stoner to close up on Pedrosa, and pass him on the finish straight at the start of lap 18. By the end of the lap, the young Australian had passed Melandri as well to take the lead.

For the next 3 laps, it looked as if Stoner was going to equal Freddie Spencer's record as the youngest GP winner ever, being exactly the same age, to the day, as Spencer was when he won in Spa Francorchamps in 1983. Stoner on the LCR Honda had gained a little gap on Melandri and Pedrosa bogged themselves down in the scrap for second place. But this dispute was settled over the course of the penultimate lap. Pedrosa attempted to force his Repsol HRC Honda in front of Melandri going into Turn 12, but almost out-braked himself, running wide and letting Melandri get a gap. In a last ditch attempt to catch the Italian, Pedrosa flung his Honda into the downhill Turn 1, losing the front end and sliding off into the gravel.

This freed Melandri to concentrate on catching Stoner over less than the lap that was left. He looked like he wasn't close enough into Turn 9 and 10, and hadn't gained significantly through Turn 11, but in a masterful display of gutsy braking, he nudged his Honda ahead of Stoner's braking into Turn 12, while keeping the door firmly closed through the "Tilke Twiddles", and taking a hard-fought but richly deserved win. Stoner took second just a fraction behind, while Hayden hung on to his sliding bike to clinch a crucial third place, making it an impressive three podiums in a row for the Kentucky Kid.

He was lucky the race wasn't one lap longer though, as Rossi had closed to fourth, just 8/10ths behind Hayden, and lapping a lot faster, with Toni Elias in his wake. Ten seconds adrift, Vermeulen was unlucky to have sixth taken from him by Capirossi on the last lap, marking an impressive race by the other Australian rookie. Five seconds behind Vermeulen, Nakano had passed Colin Edwards to take 8th, the Texan not being able to make much headway so far this season. Tamada followed Edwards at a distance, the Japanese Honda rider's tenth place surely coming as a relief after his previous disastrous outing at Qatar.

Behind Tamada came another rider whom Lady Luck does not appear to favor. One-time race leader Sete Gibernau had slipped to a lowly 11th spot, nursing his tires 30 seconds behind the winner. The other Kawasaki rider Randy de Puniet led home Kenny Roberts Jr on the Honda V5-powered Team KR machine. Although 13th will not be what Kenny Jr would have hoped for, it's a long way ahead of where Kenny Sr's bikes were finishing last year.

Dani Pedrosa had bravely remounted to finish the race, grabbing two points which may turn out to be crucial by the end of the season. Spanish Yamaha rider Carlos Checa took the last point, with the Dunlop-shod Ducati of Alex Hoffman finishing ahead of John Hopkins, after Hopper returned to the pits for a new rear tire. James Ellison, the other rider to pit for tires, was the last official finisher.

Melandri's victory means that we have only ever had one winner at Istanbul. To be fair, that's in only two races, but the Italian has shown that the track really suits him. Stoner made clear that he is destined to win a race sometime very soon indeed, and it can't be long before Dani Pedrosa decides he wants the big cup too.

Nicky Hayden was careful not to try to apportion blame after the race, even though it was obvious deteriorating tires had robbed him of the chance to go for broke on the last lap. But you can't keep finishing on the podium without getting on that top step at some point, and the way that Nicky is riding, it looks like being sooner rather than later.

Valentino Rossi rode another outstanding race, after almost putting himself out of contention. No one can doubt the champion's determination and skill after his display, but if he had managed to get a decent spot on the grid in qualifying, there would have been no need to push so hard that he ran off track during the race.

This leaves the title race wide open, with three race winners so far, and the top five riders separated by 12 points. There is everything to play for, and the riders know it.

Istanbul Race Results

 

Marco Melandri

ITA

Fortuna Honda

41min 54.065 secs

Casey Stoner

AUS

Honda LCR

41min 54.265 secs

Nicky Hayden

USA

Repsol Honda Team

41min 59.523 secs

Valentino Rossi

ITA

Camel Yamaha Team

42min 0.274 secs

Toni Elias

SPA

Fortuna Honda

42min 0.652 secs

Loris Capirossi

ITA

Ducati Marlboro Team

42min 10.747 secs

Chris Vermulen

AUS

Rizla Suzuki MotoGP

42min 10.842 secs

Shinya Nakano

JPN

Kawasaki Racing Team

42min 15.602 secs

Colin Edwards

USA

Camel Yamaha Team

42min 16.912 secs

Makoto Tamada

JPN

Konica Minolta Honda

42min 24.548 secs

Sete Gibernau

SPA

Ducati Marlboro Team

42min 24.608 secs

Randy de Puniet

FRA

Kawasaki Racing Team

42min 28.349 secs

Kenny Roberts

USA

Team Roberts

42min 39.177 secs

Dani Pedrosa

SPA

Repsol Honda Team

42min 47.590 secs

Carlos Checa

SPA

Tech 3 Yamaha

42min 53.920 secs

Alex Hofmann

GER

Pramac d'Antin MotoGP

42min 55.306 secs

John Hopkins

USA

Rizla Suzuki MotoGP

43min 32.693 secs

James Ellison

GBR

Tech 3 Yamaha

43min 27.080 secs

DNF:
Jose Luis Cardoso SPA Pramac d'Antin MotoGP 42min 25.898 secs

Championship Standings

 

1

Nicky HAYDEN

USA

52

2

Loris CAPIROSSI

ITA

51

3

Marco MELANDRI

ITA

45

4

Casey STONER

AUS

41

5

Valentino ROSSI

ITA

40

6

Dani PEDROSA

SPA

32

7

Toni ELIAS

SPA

32

8

Shinya NAKANO

JPN

22

9

Colin EDWARDS

USA

19

10

Sete GIBERNAU

SPA

18

11

Kenny ROBERTS JR

USA

17

12

Makoto TAMADA

JPN

14

13

Chris VERMEULEN

AUS

13

14

Carlos CHECA

SPA

8

15

John HOPKINS

USA

7

16

Randy DE PUNIET

FRA

4

17

James ELLISON

GBR

3

18

Alex HOFMANN

GER

2

 

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