Just to confuse the many fans around the world who get up early or stay up late to watch the MotoGP races, either live on TV or via the MotoGP.com live video feed, the clocks will be going back tonight. 0300 on Sunday morning, October 29th, Central European Summer Time ends, and Central European Time begins, and as Valencia, Spain uses CET, it'll happen there too. This means that the MotoGP race might not be starting when you think it is. The good news is that, as the clocks are going back, you won't miss the race if you get up when you were planning to, you might just be an hour early. To check what time 2pm Sunday in Valencia equates to in your time zone, check it at TimeandDate.com. Alternatively, download Steve Jones' excellent Excel sheet which takes the hard work out of calculation from his website.
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.
By the afternoon, the stage was set for what has to have been one of the most intense qualifying sessions ever. As the bikes rolled out on to the track for the final time, the question was how much time would be spent looking for a race set-up, and how quickly would people start looking for fast laps? Valencia is a very difficult track to pass at, thanks to its tortuous infield, so a place at the front is crucial. Almost from the start, Loris Capirossi set a fast time, putting in a string of 1:32s, getting progressively faster almost every lap. The Ducatis were obviously fast, as World Superbike refugee Troy Bayliss was running close behind Capirossi's times. By the 40 minute mark, no one had really gotten close to challenging the Bolognese supremacy, but the reigning world champion had come closest, putting in a couple of runs in the 1:33 bracket. At that moment, Hayden was down in 7th, though climbing gradually up the timesheet. On his 2nd run, the Kentucky Kid was starting to post better lap times, hitting 1:32s on a regular basis.
Just as Hayden got closer to Rossi's times, attention suddenly shifted to Randy de Puniet, who put on a set of qualifiers just 25 minutes into the session, and ripped through to a fastest lap of 1:31.914, 1/10 slower than the storming time Valentino Rossi had set during the morning session. The French Kawasaki rider had stated his intention of taking the pole on Friday, after his fine 2nd fastest time in FP2. The qualifiers were out, and the gloves were quite clearly off.
But with 35 minutes of the session to go, it seemed a little early to be putting in pole laps. Any time spent trying to get a qualifying time now would cost valuable time testing race set-ups. On the other hand, a spot on the front row is vital at Valencia, so it could well be worth the risk. Especially if, like Loris Capirossi, you already have a pretty good race set-up. Having put in fast consistent sessions in the morning and at the beginning of qualifying, Loris set about attempting to conquer pole, and with 32 minutes left, he smashed Sete Gibernau's pole record by nearly 2/10ths of a second.
The minutes that followed confirmed that Bridgestone had brought some excellent qualifying tires, as the Ducatis, Kawasakis and Suzukis all started putting in fast laps. But it took 10 minutes for Capirossi's time to be bettered. Fortunately for both Bridgestone and Ducati, it was Loris' temporary team mate Troy Bayliss who did so, shaving a fraction off Capirex's time, with a 1:31.585.
Bayliss could not enjoy his advantage for as long as Capirossi did, for within 3 minutes Nicky Hayden showed everyone that he meant business. If first Capirossi then Bayliss had broken Gibernau's former pole record, Hayden just crushed, coming within a hair of taking 1/2 a second off of the previous record. A couple of hundred yards behind Hayden, danger lurked, as Valentino Rossi followed the Kentucky Kid around. Everywhere Hayden had been fast, Rossi had been faster, or nearly as fast. The question was, how long would Hayden's pole time last? As The Doctor crossed the line, it was clear just what a strong time Hayden's lap had been: Rossi came in over 1/10th slower, taking 2nd place.
But it was a long way from over. With close to 15 minutes to go, nothing was settled, despite the blistering pace. Rider after rider put in a fast lap, but no one could get close, until, with 9 minutes to go, Valentino Rossi wrested the pole back from arch-rival Hayden, setting a time of 1:31.234, just over 0.1 of a second faster than Hayden's time.
The Bridgestones were not yet done, and both Nakano and Capirossi put in strong shots at the pole, both falling short. Then, with 3 minutes left, a missile struck: a Baylisstic missile, Sete Gibernau's replacement, and the man who had given the Ducati Desmosedici its first public outing, put in one more astonishingly fast lap, shaving 3/100ths off Valentino Rossi's pole time, to steal the top spot on the time sheet. Bayliss' pole didn't look like it would last long though, as not far behind, The Kentucky Kid was back on a stormer: beating Bayliss' time at every intermediate, the pole seemed to be his, until he came across Alex Hofmann on his out lap. Hofmann did his best to get out of Hayden's way, but Nicky's rhythm was broken, and he lost 3/10ths in the last section. His pole attempt ruined, and with not enough time left in the session to take out another qualifier, Hayden could only wait for the session to end, and hope that he had done enough to stay on the front row.
There was one man Hayden didn't have to wait for. A few seconds after Hayden's lap finished, a yellow bike flashed passed the timing lights in a mind-bending 1:31.002, just 2/1000ths away from smashing the 1:31 barrier. That man was, of course, Valentino Rossi. Rossi's time was nearly 9/10ths faster than Gibernau's previous pole record, an astounding feat. Though Rossi had taken the moral victory, snatching the pole, all was not yet lost for Hayden. He was still on the front row, in 3rd place, but there were still a couple of minutes left. Not enough time for Hayden to go back in for a new tire, but enough for others, already out on the track, to have a shot at beating him.
The first man to do that was Shinya Nakano, who set a time just fractionally faster than Hayden's, but this was enough to push the Kentucky Kid onto the 2nd row. Starting directly behind Rossi wouldn't have been so bad, but the session was still not done: As the clock ticked down, Loris Capirossi put in a last gasp attempt to take back the fastest time, or at least to beat his temporary team mate. Beating Bayliss proved impossible, but his time was good enough to clinch 3rd place, taking the final spot on the front row, and pushing Hayden down into 5th.
So as the session ended, and the showboating began, the victor of the day was Valentino Rossi. He had demolished the old pole record, shown that he had race pace, and would start from the front of the grid. Beside Rossi sat two Ducatis, the first of them being Bayliss, taking 2nd place on the grid at a track he knows well. Next to Bayliss sits his team mate Loris Capirossi, who will prove a real threat if he can set the same pace in the race that he set in practice.
Heading up the 2nd row sits Shinya Nakano, starting his last race on the Kawasaki determined to put on a good show. And beside Nakano sits Nicky Hayden. Starting from 5th is not disastrous, but it does make things difficult for the Kid. Fortunately for Hayden, team mate Dani Pedrosa, who has pledged to do all he can to help Hayden, sits right next to him in 6th.
Bad news for Hayden is Casey Stoner in 7th place. Stoner is a notoriously fast starter, often taking 4 or 5 places from the start, something Hayden won't want. Besides Stoner sit the Suzuki pairing of Chris Vermeulen and John Hopkins. The Bridgestones have good race pace, so neither of them can be counted out. Rounding out the top 10 is Colin Edwards, too far down the grid to be of much help to his team mate in Valencia.
Nicky Hayden has an uphill struggle tomorrow. But one thing that has changed is his options: In previous races, Hayden has ridden conservatively, attempting to safely maximize his points. It's a wise, but uninspiring approach, and one which is now entirely redundant. Hayden only has one option tomorrow, and that is to ride the race of his life to try and win. With Valentino Rossi in this kind of form, nothing else will suffice.
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With the season 2006 drawing to a climax, there are still a couple of loose ends to be tidied up for next year. The outcome of such loose ends usually comes as no surprise, but just occasionally, a result comes seemingly from out of the blue. That Colin Edwards would prolong his stay with Yamaha was an open secret, especially after his deft display of teamwork in Portugal. Makoto Tamada, however, is an entirely different story.
JIR / Konica Minolta had announced last week what everyone already knew: Tamada would not be riding for them again next season, after two tough years struggling to get to grips with Michelin tires. There were plenty of rumors, centered around either a sideways step to World Superbikes, or a move to Kawasakis, to be reunited with his favored Bridgestone tires. With no names confirmed for Kawasaki next year, this was the hot favorite among paddock rumormongers. But today, Hervé Poncharal announced that Tamada would be riding one of Poncharal's Dunlop-shod Tech 3 Yamahas in 2007. How Tamada will fare on the Dunlops is a big question. Tamada's biggest complaint about the Michelins is that he never felt confident in the front end. Most of the complaints about the Dunlops have been about poor traction from the rear, so it may yet work out. Time will tell.
Despite these loose ends being tied up, the grid is still not fully complete. Tamada's team mate at Tech 3 is yet to be named, and at least one Kawasaki seat is vacant. Randy de Puniet should remain for 2007, but the 2nd bike is still without a rider. Kawasaki are said to be looking for an "experienced" rider, which could mean that Sete Gibernau, who does not yet have a contract for 2007, could be in the picture. James Ellison, who did not have his contract renewed at Tech 3, is also being mentioned, though he has failed to make an impression this year. The other open seats are at Ilmor. Garry McCoy is widely expected to be offered a ride for next year, but the plan is to ride 2 bikes next season, and nothing outside of the realms of wild speculation is known about who will take the second seat. Time will surely tell.
Edited, to correct errors about de Puniet.
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.
The fast trio's times belied a deeper story: where this morning was marked by gamesmanship, with Rossi and Hayden swapping fast times, this afternoon the teams settled down to the hard work of finding a race set-up. The session started with Valentino Rossi putting in a sequence of laps which amounted to nearly half the distance of Sunday's race. The most worrying thing, from Honda's perspective, was the incredible consistency of his lap times: after two laps warming the tires, he set a long string of 1:33s, all very close to his race lap record from 2003. Hayden answered later in the session, putting in a time 1/4 of a second faster than Rossi's fastest, but in a shorter lap sequence. Measuring performances against each other is always a risky thing to do on the Friday before the race, but this afternoon went to Hayden, by an edge. But things are very close.
Not so close at the front, where Loris Capirossi put in a decent fastest lap of 1:32.220, followed 2/10ths behind by Randy de Puniet, and by Chris Vermeulen another 1/2 second slower. Nicky Hayden is in 4th, the first of the riders not on qualifiers, followed by two Honda men: Casey Stoner, and Hayden's team mate Dani Pedrosa. Valentino Rossi took the 7th time, ahead of John Hopkins, Shinya Nakano and Troy Bayliss. There was less than a second between 4th place Hayden and 16th place Carlos Checa.
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.
After earlier speculation, Pramac d'Antin have now officially announced that Alex Barros will be riding for the Pramac d'Antin Ducati team for 2007. The d'Antin team will be running Ducatis again next season, but the GP7 bike for the d'Antin satellite team is widely expected to be much more competitive than this year's bike, mostly because only the newest 800 cc bikes will be available, making it a much more level playing field for both satellite and works teams.
The official press release also has an interesting quote. Paolo Campinoti, the CEO of the PRAMAC Group, which sponsors the d'Antin team, says: The PRAMAC Group believes a lot in the racing project and will keep on following it with the biggest commitment. For the 2007 season we will soon announce important news. The d'Antin team is widely expected to be running Bridgestone tires next season, which, combined with the more competitive GP7 bikes, will put the team on a much more even footing. This footnote by the Pramac CEO suggests that this expectation could be reality.
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."
~~~ UPDATE ~~~
It looks like the interview was actually done by the Spanish motorcycle weekly Motociclismo. Here's the full Spanish text of the interview.
~~~ UPDATE ~~~
Crash.net is carrying a full interview with Pedrosa, where Pedrosa discusses the incident in full.
More rumors of returnees, today, as "European sources" are being quoted as saying that Alex Barros could return to MotoGP. His name is being linked to a ride with Pramac d'Antin for 2007. D'Antin have been permanent backmarkers this season, running satellite Ducatis on Dunlop tires, but they could be a surprise package next year, running machinery which will be very close to the works Ducatis, and using the same competitive Bridgestone tires. Barros had a mixed season in World Superbikes this year on the Klaffi Honda, invariably getting off to a terrible start, but following it up with a very strong chase through the pack, finally getting a win at Imola. He has also been linked to several teams in World Superbikes, but the problem has always been finding sponsorship.
The latest MotoGP.com Podcast quotes Spanish press sources saying that Sete Gibernau is considering retiring from MotoGP. Gibernau was injured after a crash caused by Gibernau's replacement at Ducati for 2007, Casey Stoner. He fractured a bone in his hand and damaged the collarbone he hurt at Catalunya earlier this year, requiring yet another operation to fix his collarbone.
There is, of course, plenty more in the podcase, as you might expect, including news about the Hayden-Pedrosa crash, an interview with Lucio Cecchinello about Stoner's move to Ducati, and Checa's move to LCR, and an interview with Randy Mamola. Worth the download.