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Hofmann to Replace Gibernau at Assen

This just in from an official press release by the Pramac d'Antin Team:

For the eighth round of the 2006 MotoGP World Championship that in Assen, Holland, this weekend, ALEX HOFMANN, PRAMAC D'ANTIN MOTOGP rider, will replace SETE Gibernau on the Official Ducati. The Spanish rider injured himself during the frightening accident of last Sunday in Spain and his return will depend on how fast his recover will be. As a replacement for ALEX HOFMANN, there will be the Spanish IVAN SILVA, already racing for the Team of LUIS D'ANTIN in the EXTREME category of the Spanish Championship, that also did a race of the 2006 World Championship in the Superstock 1000 class.

A big opportunity for ALEX HOFMANN, that will have a great occasion to race with the Official DUCATI (BRIDGESTONE tyres), but also for IVAN SILVA that will ride on the DUCATI DESMOSEDICI GP06 for the first time in the World Championship, assisted by the technical staff of the Team PRAMAC D'ANTIN MOTOGP.

ALEX HOFMANN: "I'm excited and so happy! Having the possibility to race on the Official DUCATI DESOMOSEDICI is an unbelievable opportunity and I will give my 100% to take advantage of it the most I can. I know this motorcycle well, I also know the evolution level of the BRIDGESTONE tyres that I developed until the Valencia GP of the 2005 Championship, with which I had a good feeling that I hope to get back from the first laps I will make in Assen. I'm very motivated and I want to make something good. In our world, these kind of agreement doesn't happen very often and I want to thank everybody: DUCATI, PRAMAC, LUIS D'ANTIN and PAOLO CAMPINOTI, for thier confidence, that I hope to reciprocate giving the maximum. I also have a special thought for SETE GIBERNAU to whom I wish to get well at the soonest and in the best way possible."

 

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More Injury Updates on Melandri, Capirossi and Gibernau

Although, thankfully, no one was seriously injured, the chaos at Catalunya is having a number of interesting repercussions. An update on the latest developments:
 

  • Loris Capirossi is out of hospital, and though badly bruised, expects to start as normal at Assen on Saturday.
  • Sete Gibernau is expected to undergo an operation to replace a plate on his collarbone today (Tuesday), and will be out for at least two races (Assen and Donington). Gibernau is likely to be replaced by fellow countryman Ruben Xaus, currently riding in the World Superbike series, rather than Ducati's test rider Vittoriano Guareschi, though this has not yet been officially confirmed.
  • Marco Melandri has also left the hospital. He has a severe concussion and a great deal of bruising, but will be flying to Assen together with MotoGP's own Dr Costa. Dr Costa will judge whether Melandri is fit to ride on Thursday morning before the first free practice session. Melandri is expected to be fit for Donington, and as a result, Fortuna Honda is unlikely to field a replacement for him, as MotoGP rules only oblige teams to provide a replacement if a rider is out for two races or more. The organizer of the Dutch TT at Assen, Jos Vaessen, has been heavily involved in trying to persuade Fortuna Honda to run the Dutch ex-GP star Jurgen van den Goorbergh as replacement, which is entirely feasible, as van den Goorbergh is currently involved with Honda in Enduro and Supermoto racing, and is a test rider for Michelin, so has spent a good deal of time recently on a range of top MotoGP bikes which run Michelin tires, including the Honda.

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A Review of the Track Changes at Assen

There was a good deal of sorrow at the end of 2005, as racers around the world said goodbye to the old North Loop at Assen. Although already much shortened over the years, the North Loop still held some remnant of the old country roads that used to form the track when racing started at Assen over 80 years ago, with its high-speed, off-camber crooks, combined with tighter, but still fast bends. But for the sake of commerce, this glorious cathedral of racing was to disappear, to make way for a vast entertainment complex-cum-theme park-cum-shopping mall.

The digging equipment moved in in late Autumn, tearing up the old track, and piling up the mounds of earth for what will become new seating areas around the new Haarbocht, Strubben, and laying the foundations for the TT World entertainment complex. But the long, cold winter we suffered in Holland threw a spanner in the works, delaying work on the track by several weeks due to frozen ground, which in turn set back the date for the first races planned around the new track.

As a result of these delays, a special practice day was opened to the competitors in the Dutch National Championships. Reports from the practice spoke repeatedly of the problems riders were having finding their way around the new northern section, with the redesigned, and tightened up, Strubben hairpin causing the most chaos, with too many different lines possible, making choosing the right one extremely difficult.

Then, a friend who races in an open streetbike class, fell at the Strubben and broke his shoulder on the new kerbstones, which he struck as he slid over them. So I decided to visit the World Endurance Championship 500 km race on Easter Monday, to get a look at the new section, and see for myself what effect the track changes have had.

Although the track and gravel traps are finished, construction on the stands is still in full swing around the new section, and so it wasn't possible to get a close look at the new Madijk and Ossebroeken section, but I got a decent look at the revised Strubben hairpin, and from the grandstand and pit building.

As you can see from the comparison image, the new northern section is very much shorter: turn one (the Haarbocht) is now a right-angle right-hander at the end of the finish straight, a short section leading on to turn two (Madijk), a 45-degree right-hander. Another short section leads into the new Ossebroeken: a very long, double apex right-hander, reminiscent of turn 2 at Shanghai. As you leave Ossebroeken, you fling the bike over for the extremely tight left-handed Strubben hairpin. The Strubben turn has been tightened, and the exit modified, so you have a quick right flick directly after the exit of the hairpin. The Strubben is also very round, an almost perfect arc, and the track is very wide at this spot, so there is plenty of room for overtaking.

Because the Strubben has been tightened up so much, it has been made incredibly slow, and could well be the slowest turn of the season. At just about every race that's been held at Assen this year, the riders have complained about how difficult it was to get round it, and there have been plenty of fallers at the hairpin as well.

But what do the changes mean for the racing? Overall, the new section is pretty interesting. Because of the layout, there are several lines through the section, and plenty of places to pass. Taking a late entry into the Haarbocht gives you an advantage at Madijk over someone squaring the corner off. Similarly, the double apex of the new Ossebroeken is not so much a turn with two obvious apexes, as a long turn which you need to pick a couple of spots to hit the inside kerb at. Because you make your own apexes, you can pass other riders by turning in earlier or later for the second apex.

Of course, if you do that, you better take care to shut the door at the Strubben. This has turned into a real monster: I saw passes here where the rider getting the decent drive by turning in later and standing up early, would take 10 to 15 meters on the exit. But if you pass at Ossebroeken, there's a good chance you'll get bitten by the Strubben. I saw some decent duels around the new section, riders passing each other two or three times before getting out of the hairpin and down to the old south section.

It's obvious that the track designers knew they had a tough act to follow, when they removed the fast, flowing section that was the North Loop, and tried to compensate by giving the riders plenty of places to pass in the new design. They have succeeded in their intention, and created a piece of track that will see great racing action. However, by a section of track so thoroughly modern in design, they have broken the track in two: the south end still bears the marks of the old Dutch farm roads, where the new section is more like a modern stadium track like Valencia.

Is the old Assen dead? Not exactly. The track still has much of its original charm, but like a middle-aged movie starlet after one face lift too many, that charm is looking more and more contrived and artificial with each stroke of the surgeon's knife.

You can find more information about the track at the Official Dutch TT Assen Website

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Catalunya Injury Update

The three riders injured in today's first corner pile up seem to be less badly injured than was first thought.
 

Marco Melandri was diagnosed with a collarbone dislocation, minor concussion, and various minor injuries. He was airlifted to hospital, where he underwent various scans.
Loris Capirossi had scans to his chest and abdomen, to check he hadn't aggravated the internal injuries he suffered at Phillip Island last year. Nothing serious showed up on the scans, but he is being kept in hospital for observation.
Sete Gibernau was doubly unlucky: He will need an operation to fix a fractured collarbone, and the ambulance taking him to hospital was involved in a traffic accident just short of the hospital, Sete's second crash of the day. Fortunately, Sete suffered no further injury during the traffic accident.

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MotoGP Catalunya 2006 Qualifying

Thousands of Spanish fans, and many observers, including your humble reporter, expected the Gran Premi de Catalunya to be a festival of Spanish racing, with Spanish, or rather Catalan, riders starting from the front row of the grid, to take a Catalan win in front of their home crowds. The fact that most of the Catalan riders are on Michelins, the tires which dominated last year's race weekend, only reinforced this expectation. But this evening, the bars of Barcelona will be filled with despairing Spanish fans, wondering what happened to their local heroes. Sometimes, things just don't work out as you expected.

The MotoGP qualifying session began under warm sunny skies, with a hot track. Friday's afternoon session had started with a drying track, but there had been no sign of rain on Saturday, so times were quick right from the off. Kawasaki's Randy de Puniet took turns at the top of the timing charts with local boy Sete Gibernau, fanning the hopes of the local fans. Times were in the low 1:44s, still a long way off the expected qualifying pace, until Suzuki's John Hopkins broke into the mid-1:43s.

After 10 minutes, the Michelin riders reasserted their spot at the top, with first Casey Stoner, then Dani Pedrosa and his Repsol Honda team mate Nicky Hayden setting fastest lap, edging ever closer to a respectable pole time with a 1:43.149 at the 15 minute mark. The Kentucky Kid was in the middle of a longish seven-lap run at the time, running race tires, so race pace looks like being faster than last year.

As if piqued that someone had run faster than his race lap record, Valentino Rossi took back the top spot 3 minutes later, only to run into the gravel at the end of the main straight. This gave Dani Pedrosa a chance to snatch fastest lap back, breaking the 1:43 barrier with a 1:42.926. Rossi equaled this time a lap later, on the same tires he'd run into the gravel on.

By this time, Shinya Nakano had taken another tenth of a second off the fastest time, taking his Kawasaki to a 1:42.806. His time was to stand for a quarter of an hour, as the field were either out trying to find a race setting and a decent tire in the warm weather and hot track conditions, or else were in the pits studying the data gathered so far.

With just under 25 minutes to go, the Kawasaki pair were at it again. Randy de Puniet took fastest lap from his team mate, but he was only to enjoy this position for 15 seconds, as Nakano streaked back across the line with a 1:42.632, just 3 tenths slower than Sete Gibernau's pole record from last year. Five minutes later, John Hopkins made it a provisional Bridgestone front row, setting a time just a couple of hundredths slower than Gibernau's record.

By now, almost everyone was out on their first set of qualifiers, trying to get a fast lap in while there were still occasional clear stretches of track to be found, a commodity which disappears during the manic last 10 minutes of qualifying. With 15 minutes to go, Australian rookie Casey Stoner broke up the Bridgestone love-in, putting his LCR Honda into second place. And a couple of minutes later, Valentino Rossi finally broke Gibernau's lap record, taking provisional pole with a 1:42.264. With 11 minutes left on the clock, Kenny Roberts Junior showed his excellent performance during the free practice sessions was no fluke, taking 4th spot, while local boy Toni Elias moved up to eighth position, after a fairly dismal showing up till that point. He then proceeded to get in John Hopkins' way on his slowdown lap, as Hopper stormed round on what looked like being another fastest lap.

As the clock ticked down, the Honda riders and championship favorites started answering the question of where they had been so far. With 8 minutes to go, Marco Melandri finally put in a fast lap, setting the third fastest time at that point, with Nicky Hayden slipping into second place a couple of minutes later. But by then, The Doctor had reasserted his superiority, setting a new fastest time of 1:41.855, the first rider to break into the 1:41s. And Hayden's stint at second was not to last, as Shinya Nakano took back second spot a minute later.

With less than five minutes to go, the pits became a seething hive of activity, as everyone rushed back to get a new qualifier to shoot for one last quick lap. That some riders were feeling the strain became obvious when Melandri, eager to set a time faster than the 1:42.492 he already had, cracked the throttle a fraction too early and lowsided to spin out into the gravel round the rear of the track. That everyone was pushing was equally obvious as one rider after another set their fastest lap. With a minute to go, John Hopkins took back second spot, becoming the only other rider to crack the 1:41 barrier with a 1:41.984. Nakano bravely tried to parry, taking back third, only to be pushed down by first Kenny Roberts Junior, then Nicky Hayden, Ducati's Loris Capirossi and the other Suzuki rider Chris Vermeulen. After the flag had fallen, Nakano finally managed to take back 5th on his last hot lap.

So after the dust of a hectic and exhilarating session settled, the grid once again defied expectations. Seven-times winner at Catalunya Valentino Rossi sits on pole with a new qualifying record of 1:41.855, nearly half a second faster than Sete Gibernau's previous record from 2005. Nothing unusual in The Doctor on pole, you might say, except this is Rossi's first pole since the British Grand Prix at Donington in July 2005. Behind Rossi sits John Hopkins on the Rizla Suzuki, with Kenny Roberts Junior on his father's Team KR KR211V completing the front row of the grid. In fourth place is Hopkin's team mate Chris Vermeulen, followed by Kawasaki's Shinya Nakano, with championship leader Loris Capirossi in sixth. The man Capirossi shares the lead in the championship with, Nicky Hayden is the first Honda on the grid in 7th, followed by Casey Stoner's LCR Honda, and Marco Melandri's Fortuna Honda completing the all-Honda third row.

Nakano's Kawasaki team mate Randy de Puniet is in a respectable 10th position, in front of a severely disappointed Dani Pedrosa, 11th on the grid not where he wanted to be for his home Grand Prix. The Texas Tornado has blown hot and cold this year, hot during races and cold during qualifying, and Colin Edwards stays true to form with a 12th place in qualifying. Catalan disappointment reigns supreme on row five, Sete Gibernau in 13th on the Ducati, followed by Toni Elias on the other Fortuna Honda. That disappointment will be shared by the man in 15th, Makoto Tamada, who may be riding his last races aboard the Konica Minolta Honda, as the paddock is buzzing with rumors that either Jorge Lorenzo or Andrea Dovizioso may move up from the 250 class to take his place.

The Dunlop riders bring up the rear, as usual, and unfortunately for them. Carlos Checa leads the way, 7/10ths from Makoto Tamada, while Alex Hoffman aboard the Pramac d'Antin Ducati is 17th, a second behind Checa. Checa's Tech 3 Yamaha team mate James Ellison follows in 18th, Jose Luis Cardoso taking the final spot on the grid.

So what are we to make of this qualifying session? First and foremost, we may be seeing the first signs of the end of this year's excitement. Valentino Rossi once again dominated on his Camel Yamaha, not just by putting in the fastest qualifying time, but also by riding consistent low 1:43s and high 1:42s on race tires early on in the session. No one else is as quick on race tires. Dani Pedrosa, Nicky Hayden and Casey Stoner come closest, though they start from a way down the grid. But they may find themselves with a tough fight to get through to chase Rossi, as Hopkins, Kenny Jr, Nakano, de Puniet, Edwards and Gibernau were all consistently running mid- to high 1:43s on race tires, and could end up getting in the way. The other item worth noting is that Carlos Checa opened the session by putting in nearly 18 laps, or 2/3rds race distance, in a single run. Lapping consistently in the low 1:44s and high 1:43s, look to Checa to finish much further forward than he has in previous races. This may be the first sign that Dunlop are making real progress, and could be more competitive later in the season. With four of the first six riders on Bridgestones, and only two Michelin riders, having a third tire manufacturer capable of running at the front is an exciting prospect.

As for the race, if Rossi gets away from the start, it could be all over by the end of the first lap. But there is no reason to despair: the battles for 2nd to 10th place will be fantastic, and with Rossi's recent run of luck, leading the race could be meaningless. If he does lead, you can be sure that there'll be a mass of crossed fingers in the Yamaha garages, right until he crosses the finish line.

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Sebastian Porto Retires From 250 Class With Immediate Effect

At a dramatic press conference at the Barcelona race track, Sebastian Porto, Repsol Honda's 250 cc class rider, announced his retirement from motorcycle racing with immediate effect. The 27 year old Argentinian has had a dismal season so far, his best result a 7th place in Qatar, a severe disappointment for the man who came a very close second in the championship in 2004. Porto blamed his failure to adapt to the Honda as his main motivation for calling it quits, after moving to the Repsol Honda team from Aprilia.

The move will come as a shock to almost everyone in the motorcycle racing community. Big things were expected of his move into the team run by Alberto Puig, the man who helped Dani Pedrosa to two 250 cc world crowns. Porto stressed that his decision had nothing to do with the team. "It is totally my decision, and not one made by Repsol, Alberto Puig, or any other party", he said.

See the full report over at MotoGP.com

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New Zealand To Be Added To MotoGP Calendar?

Crash.net is reporting that the Taupo Motorsports Park, which has just received a $2 million funding boost, is in negotiations with Dorna for a five year contract to host a MotoGP round. With the calendar already crowded, you have to wonder which of the GPs would disappear. The New Zealand Minister for Economic Development stated in the announcement that the facilities would be "as good as the best facilities in Australia", but it is unlikely that the Australian GP round at Phillip Island would disappear, as it is a firm favourite with the riders, always draws a good crowd, and produces great racing. With speculation rife that Shanghai is to be dropped from the calendar, especially after the announcement that Misano is to be added to the calendar for next year, the next candidate for replacement would be Qatar, as the attendance at Losail barely makes it out of triple figures.

New Zealand is an obvious choice for staging a MotoGP round, as the country has a long and vivid history in motorsports, and motorcycle racing. It is the birth place of that motorcycling genius John Britten, for a start, has produced a long list of racers in various classes, and is home to a large community of motorcycle enthusiasts and two- and four-wheeled motorsports fans. The Taupo track is to be extended to 3.5 km (just under 2 1/4 miles), which would make it one of the shortest tracks of the season, if it were to host a MotoGP round.

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Ellison To Be Replaced At Tech 3 Yamaha?

Dutch racing website Racesport.nl is reporting that not James Ellison, but French 250cc rider Silvain Guintoli, rode James' Tech 3 Yamaha during the Mugello post-race testing session. Guintoli set a testing time of 1:52.1, faster than Ellison's 1:52.224 race lap. Speculation is rife that Guintoli will step in to replace the British rider, who has failed to live up to his pre-season form, or match team mate Carlos Checa's results. In James' favor is the fact that he is the only British rider in the championship, which could be important to the BBC, who broadcast MotoGP in the UK.

The news is also over on MotoGP.com

 

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2006 Mugello Race - The Titans Meet in Tuscany

Motorcycle racing is a sport haunted by injustice. Chance lies waiting at every corner, turning a dream race into a nightmare, where engines can blow, tires can tear themselves apart, or an overcooked corner can end in the gravel traps. But sometimes, Fate takes a step aside, and races turn into a direct reflection of the real strengths in the paddock. That this should happen at Mugello seemed only fitting: great races belong at great racetracks.

That Mugello had the potential to turn into a great race was shown in the 250 race, where a group of 5 riders battled for the win almost to the wire, Jorge Lorenzo finally taking an epic win, and demonstrating his credentials for entry to the senior class next season. That the main title contenders were bent on making it a great race was a given. Two Ducatis, in their gorgeous anniversary livery, sat on the front row, driving an already excitable Italian crowd into absolute frenzy. Beside the Ducatis on the front row sat The Doctor Valentino Rossi, his chatter problems seemingly cured by the new chassis debuted at Le Mans. Repsol Honda's Nicky Hayden sat in fourth, knowing that he had his work cut out to defend his lead in the championship, with Rossi's Italian compatriot Marco Melandri sitting directly behind Rossi in sixth.

At the sixth race of the year, with roughly one third of the season gone, and with three rounds coming up on three consecutive weekends 14 days from now, everyone knew we were getting into the guts of the title fight. A good result here was crucial, to take momentum into the grueling three-week stretch that is to come.

Hail To The Chief

As the lights went out, the pack leapt off the line, the crowd becoming ecstatic as the red, silver and green Ducati took the lead into the first corner, the yellow Camel Yamaha bearing #46 hot on its tail. The excitement was followed by a ripple of disappointment, as the Italian masses realised that it was the "wrong" Ducati in the lead, bearing Spaniard Sete Gibernau. But by the second corner, the disappointment made way for elation, as Valentino Rossi barged through to capture the lead. Meanwhile, the "right" Ducati, the Italian bike bearing an Italian rider, was languishing down in eighth place, Loris Capirossi having got off to a terrible start.

By contrast, Shinya Nakano had a fantastic start on the Kawasaki, sitting right in Gibernau's tailpipe in third, leading a charging Marco Melandri and another great starter Casey Stoner down the hill away from Poggio Secco. The question remained whether he could hang on to third spot, and cast off his image as a fast starter who fades as the race progresses. As the bikes crossed the line at the end of the first lap, Nakano's reputation seemed once again justified, having lost a spot to Melandri round the southern end of the track, and being outbraked at the end of the straight by the young Australian Stoner.

Behind Nakano, Nicky Hayden and team mate Dani Pedrosa were engaged in a fierce battle for sixth, a reflection of their battle for position within the Repsol Honda hierarchy. It would be several laps before this one was settled one way or another. Behind the HRC pair, and Loris Capirossi, Kenny Roberts Junior was showing that the new chassis that Team KR had provided for the Honda V5 engine was a major improvement over the previous version, holding down a promising ninth place. Fellow American John Hopkins followed, failing to capitalize on the great grid position he'd put his Rizla Suzuki in during qualifying. Another American with a new chassis was down in thirteenth, Colin Edwards having decided on using the new chassis Valentino Rossi was riding after a poor qualifying session on Saturday. On the grid, he seemed confident he'd found a good set up with the new frame, but any chance of proving his point was ruined, as he ran wide and into the gravel on lap 2, rejoining at the rear of the race. He was eventually to finish in 12th, after a strong ride making up for the ground he lost.

Back at the front of the race, Rossi's determination to pull out a win was showing. Proof that he was pushing as hard as possible came in the second lap, as he ran a little wide through the Palagio left-hander, kicking up dirt outside the kerbstones, and allowing Sete Gibernau to take back the lead. Rossi settled in behind Gibernau, to regain his composure and await his chance. Melandri was right on Rossi's tail, passing him briefly, before losing back out again. Completing the group was Casey Stoner, making a strong impression, and pushing Melandri hard.

Let Me Through, I'm The Doctor

By lap five, Rossi had retaken the lead, after swapping back and forth with Gibernau, and the front group had grown to six members, Pedrosa and Hayden joining the front runners, their personal feud not yet finally settled. The fight was fierce at the front, with no one expecting any quarter to be given. Melandri, in particular, was vehement in not taking prisoners, putting a series of extremely tough moves on almost everyone in the group. The battle for third was starting to take its toll on the group, allowing Rossi and Gibernau to slip away, picking up a narrow lead.

As the riders passed the stripe at the end of lap 8, Casey Stoner dealt decisively with Melandri, who'd been holding the following group up a fraction, pulling out of the Fortuna Honda rider's slipstream to dive into the San Donato right-hander in third. Stoner's determination was to prove his downfall, however. In his rush to make up the 1.2 seconds lost to Rossi and Gibernau, he opened the gas too early coming over the Poggio Secco rise, losing the rear spectacularly, the bike spinning end over end to its expensive demise. Stoner was lucky to get up and walk away, to pay a visit to the Clinica Mobile for treatment on an injured hand.

Settling Scores

By this time, the Kentucky Kid had settled the HRC rivalry in his favor, finally managing to make the pass he'd put on Pedrosa stick, and move on to dispatch Melandri back to fourth. Loris Capirossi had also joined the fray by now, making good on his poor start to join the front runners, moving past Melandri into fourth by lap 11. At the front, Sete Gibernau seemed to be rehearsing the move he would be making on the last lap, slipstreaming The Doctor out of the long Bucine left-hander and along the final straight, but he never seemed able to get past Rossi, the Yamaha's top speed, a weakness in previous seasons, no longer in doubt.

After sneaking past Nicky Hayden, Loris Capirossi was quick to close down the two leaders, taking a whopping 8/10ths off the gap on lap 13. Once he'd arrived, however, the leading six reassembled, with Rossi leading Gibernau, Capirossi, Hayden, Melandri and Pedrosa. Battle was once again joined, with tussles on almost every corner. Rossi, who had seemed superb, was showing the strain of keeping the chasing pack behind him, outbraking himself and running wide on lap 15, losing 4 places in the process, leaving Gibernau in the lead. The Spaniard's lap was to last for less than a lap, however, the crowd emitting a huge cheer as Loris Capirossi passed his team mate onto the starting straight.

This was the start of a remarkable slide for Gibernau, losing five places and over two and a half seconds in just two laps. Though he recovered his lap times, and was running as fast as the front group, he never managed to rejoin them, finally finishing a lonely fifth. The man he did manage to pass was Marco Melandri, whose effort to pass Nicky Hayden proved too much, leaving him running extremely wide, rejoining five seconds down on the leaders.

And Then There Were Three

With four riders left at the front, two of them Italians, the scene was set for a memorable finale. And the crowd were not to be disappointed. Capirossi led into the final laps, with Rossi pushing him every step of the way, and Nicky Hayden hot on their heels. Dani Pedrosa was losing contact, and moving out of contention for the podium. The top three were inseparable, Rossi and Hayden constantly probing for gaps to poke their bikes through to pass Capirossi for the lead, but Capirex and The Doctor kept slamming the door shut at every attempt. On the penultimate lap, Rossi finally managed to get past his fellow Italian, slipping inside at Materassi to take the lead. Coming back over start and finish, Capirossi pulled out of Rossi's slipstream to get his bike a tire's width ahead, but with a lap to go, this move wouldn't count.

But The Doctor had decided that he was going to win this one. His last lap was scorching, building a half-second cushion between himself and Capirossi, who was caught up keeping Hayden in third, to take a truly epic win. Capirossi kept second over the line, and a magnificent Hayden taking third. Pedrosa, who had faded a little over the last couple of laps, finished two seconds down in fourth, ahead of a strong Gibernau on the Ducati. A disappointed Melandri was sixth, the victim of his own eagerness.

Behind the front group, another great battle had played itself out over the course of race. Toni Elias, Kenny Roberts Jr, Makoto Tamada, John Hopkins and Shinya Nakano had been all over each other all race long. As they crossed the line, Melandri's Fortuna Honda team mate Elias came out on top, taking seventh ahead of an excellent performance by Kenny Roberts Jr on the new Team KR bike, Makoto Tamada in ninth, Suzuki's John Hopkins in tenth, and Shinya Nakano in eleventh. Colin Edwards followed a long way behind in 12th, a decent recovery after a bad mistake. Nakano's Kawasaki team mate Randy de Puniet ended 13th, followed by Australian Suzuki rider Chris Vermeulen on his first outing to Mugello, with Carlos Checa taking the final point for fifteenth. Ellison and the lapped Cardoso finished up the field, Cardoso's team mate Hoffman having pulled out of the race on lap 8.

Normal Service Has Been Resumed. Kind of.

After a run of freak failures and surprising results, Mugello turned out more or less as everyone would have expected at the start of the season. Valentino Rossi demonstrated why he is the world champion, taking a crucial win when he needed it. Loris Capirossi pushed his Ducati to the very limit to try and put an Italian rider on an Italian bike on the top step. And Nicky Hayden rode an impressive and calculating race, only gambling what he could afford to lose. But the result sheet belies what really happened: On any given lap, the race winner was almost impossible to predict, the title contenders pushing each other to the very limit, and sometimes beyond, to take the win at Mugello.

Rossi looked almost as relieved and emotional on the cool down lap as he did after winning on his first outing at Yamaha at Welkom in South Africa. This win meant more to him than even he realised, and it was exactly what he needed to get his title defense back on track. But he had to fight for it every inch of the way. Capirossi returned to blistering form, after a couple of poor outings, looking once again like a credible championship contender. Nicky Hayden put in another strong, sensible, champion's race, defending his lead without taking stupid risks. Back on the podium after missing out at Le Mans, he again looked slightly disappointed, the desire to win one getting stronger every race, and especially after races like Mugello, where he ran at the front and threatened all race long.

Even the class rookies behaved just as expected. Pedrosa ran hard and came close, but faded towards the end, seemingly justifying the predictions of his pre-season critics that he couldn't last a whole race. But he looked fresh and frustrated in the post-race interviews, and not like a man with nothing left. Fellow rookie Casey Stoner also stayed true to form, running very fast, riding very hard and looking like a real threat, before making a mistake and crashing out, something he has built up a reputation for in the lower classes. And Melandri stayed true to his fickle form, winning races one week while ending in the middle orders the next.

What Mugello does make clear is that with the arrival of the young guns, and the departure of the old guard, MotoGP has received a shot in the arm this season. With today's race at Mugello and the race at Istanbul, racing fans have been treated to two of the greatest MotoGP races for a very long time. The fans really have been the winner in 2006, and with Valentino Rossi back in the title race, and Capirossi and Hayden tied for points at the top of the table, things are just going to get better.

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2006 Mugello Round Qualifying - The Honorary Italian

It should come as no surprise that the Italians are highly motivated at Mugello this weekend. Valentino Rossi had already jumped up the qualifying rankings at Le Mans, after setting some very poor practice times in earlier races, and had dominated both Free Practice sessions on Friday. Not to be outdone, Ducati's Loris Capirossi had set the fastest time in Saturday morning's free practice session, slashing a second off Rossi's time. The only Italian missing from the party was Marco Melandri, who seemed to settle for running around 7th or 8th place.. So all eyes were on the Italians before qualifying, with much pressure on them to get a pole in front of their home crowd.

As qualifying opened, just about everyone took to the track to try and set a semi-respectable time, yesterday's semi-wet FP2 session still fresh in their memories. The weather seems destined to be a factor this season, and with this in mind, no one was taking any chances. It was clear that the Italian riders were serious right from the start, with Loris Capirossi setting the weekend's fastest time so far at 1:50.133 with over 53 minutes of the session left. Four minutes later, Capirossi broke into the 1:49s, setting a 1:49.819. Most riders having set a time they were comfortable with, the session quietened down, riders concentrating on finding tires and a bike setting to last the distance of tomorrow's race.

With 37 minutes to go, Valentino Rossi took over provisional pole from his compatriot, taking a tenth of a second off of Capirex' time, but Ducati were not content to let this stand. Some four minutes later, Sete Gibernau took 3/10ths off Rossi's time, getting within 2/10ths of Rossi's pole record from last year. With over half an hour left in the session, it was only a matter of time before that record would go, and by how much. It only took another 7 minutes before Loris Capirossi to answer that question, taking provisional pole back from team mate Gibernau with a new record 1:49.058. With over 25 minutes left in the session, it was obvious that this time had been set on race tires, and if this was possible on race tires, then the 1:49 barrier seemed sure to crumble.

As the session progressed, this time began to look more and more impressive. No one seemed capable of breaking it, even after the first sets of qualifiers started to appear with around 20 minutes to go. What was becoming clear was that Bridgestone had some great tires for the sweeping Mugello circuit, with both Hopkins and Nakano setting very impressive qualifying times, with Rossi, Hayden and Melandri the only Michelin riders capable of following.

With just two minutes to go, the moment everyone had been waiting for arrived: a Ducati broke into the 1:48s at Mugello. To the slight disappointment of the crowd, it was not Loris Capirossi, but team mate Sete Gibernau who took the new pole record, with a 1:48.969. Although there was plenty of time left for others to try to improve on that time, no one was able to beat it. Despite several riders putting in fast times in the first part of the circuit, they couldn't maintain the momentum, coming up short in the fight for pole.

As the checkered flag fell for the end of the session, the two Ducatis stand at the head of the grid, to the delight of the Italian fans. Their delight is only slightly tempered by the man on pole being Sete Gibernau, but with Capirossi in 2nd, and Valentino Rossi in 3rd, they still have plenty to celebrate. Repsol Honda's Nicky Hayden put in a fine display to take fourth on the grid, with Shinya Nakano once again demonstrating his excellent qualifying form in fifth. The third Italian on the grid is Marco Melandri on the Fortuna Honda in 6th, which will be a mild disappointment to him, though he has improved his position during each qualifying session.

Yet another Bridgestone-shod bike heads up the third row, John Hopkins putting in another solid performance to take seventh, with Dani Pedrosa, the man who took pole in the last two rounds, down in a disappointing 8th position, followed by fellow 250cc-graduate rookie Casey Stoner. Makoto Tamada holds onto his improved form to take 10th, with Kenny Roberts Junior showing similar steady progress in 11th. Rossi's team mate Colin Edwards is obviously still struggling, after having decided to stick with the old chassis for his Yamaha, finishing a disappointing 14th place, behind a fine showing by Carlos Checa, riding the Tech 3 Yamaha on the underperforming Dunlop tires, and ahead of Suzuki's Chris Vermeulen, on his first visit to the Mugello track.

The big question of this afternoon's qualifying is whether Sete Gibernau's pole position marks a true return to form for the Spaniard, who has not had the blistering season he must surely have hoped for after moving to Ducati at the beginning of the year. Gibernau looked relieved and delighted at the post-practice press conference, describing taking pole as "a victory", and confirmation that he made the right decision to switch to Ducati and Bridgestone. With Sete being a rider whose performance is extremely dependent on his psychological state, taking pole here will be a big boost, and make him a force to be reckoned with. Unless of course something happens to deflate his confidence again, which would mean all bets are off again.

But anyone looking for a potential winner tomorrow need look no further than third spot on the grid. This is the first time so far this year that Rossi has started from the front row, and without the necessity of fighting his way past 10 riders before reaching the front, he can concentrate on getting away from the start and trying to take the lead. After being robbed of a good result two races in a row by mechanical problems, he will be desperate to replace the -43 on the tail of his bike with a smaller negative number. He needs a win to get his championship bid back on track, and to make his points deficit more manageable. The biggest threat to this plan is the man ahead of him on the grid. Capirossi will be dead set on taking a win this weekend. For an Italian rider, to win the Italian Grand Prix riding an Italian motorcycle is the highest achievement, besides taking the title. And with Ducati having launched their Desmosedici race replica road bike earlier this week, you can bet that Ducati will be doing everything they can to make this happen.

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