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?
Despite the almost murderous intent assigned to the crash, mostly by American fans, it was not a particularly unusual incident. In fact, it was fairly reminiscent of a crash earlier in the year at the Sachsenring, when Kenny Roberts Jr got into a turn too hot and took Makoto Tamada out, on Tamada's best race of the year so far. The real difference was, of course, that Kenny Jr and Tamada were riders on different teams, fighting for a top 5 showing around mid-season. Pedrosa took out Hayden, ostensibly the number 1 rider on his own Repsol Honda team, in the penultimate race of the year, as Hayden was edging ever closer to his first world championship, and the first title for Honda since Valentino Rossi left three years earlier.
If it had happened in race two, there would have been an enormous hullabaloo: If the first rule of racing is that your team mate is the first person you have to beat, the second rule of racing is that you should under no circumstances take him out directly. But to do it with just two races to go, thereby converting your team mate's 12 point lead over the greatest motorcycle racer of all time into an 8 point deficit, is beyond explanation, and seems almost beyond belief. So, how was it allowed to happen?
The most obvious answer is a pass made by Hayden on Pedrosa a lap earlier, in the same place. Nicky Hayden, in his effort to stay as close to Valentino Rossi as possible, put a pretty robust move on Pedrosa going into Turn 6, getting up the inside and forcing Pedrosa to stand the bike up and run wide. This seems to have riled the young Spaniard to such a degree that he tried a reckless move, trying to stuff his bike ahead of Hayden's when there was no room, something you might expect from a hot-headed rookie in the 125 class, but not from a three-time world champion, and a rider usually considered mature beyond his tender age.
But that only answers a part of the question. The real question is, what made Pedrosa even consider trying to race against his team mate, endangering both himself and his team mate, as well as his team, his sponsors, and the manufacturer's hope of revenge against Rossi? That is a much longer and more complex story.
Alberto Puig, Pedrosa's Svengali-like mentor and friend, let slip a glimpse of the underlying problems in comments he made after the race, blaming Hayden for causing the crash by braking too hard, and asserting Pedrosa had every right to challenge Hayden for a position as he still had 'a mathematical chance of the title'. Puig is a very powerful figure in the paddock, running teams in the lower classes, as well as the MotoGP Academy, widely acknowledged as the best route into premier class racing for young riders. His influence is hard to exaggerate, and when you add in his forceful personality, known for attempting to silence those who criticize his riders, this makes him a potentially disruptive figure in any team. He is, like so many people involved at the very highest levels of professional sport, utterly driven, and people who are so driven often find it difficult to keep a sense of perspective. Alberto Puig is concerned with only one thing: that the riders he coaches should win. Nothing else matters.
In a sense, this is totally understandable: He is paid to nurture young talent to produce winning riders, and he is remarkably good at his job. But his focus and his drive rubs off on his protégés, and can turn them into single-minded, dour automatons, concerned only with their own performance, and little else.
The problem is, of course, that winning championships in MotoGP needs a team. A single rider simply cannot handle the amount of testing it takes to develop a modern racing prototype into a winning motorcycle, and the sponsors, who pour millions of dollars into funding this development, need two bikes running to ensure that their logo is kept permanently in the public gaze. For the sponsor, running two bikes is a way of hedging their bets, so that if one rider should fall, or fail, then there is still a good chance of the other being in the public eye.
So, the racing paradox is that to reach the very top level of racing, you have to be utterly dedicated to your own success. But to remain at the very top level of racing, you need to be aware that you are a part of a team. Being part of a team means that occasionally, you have to make your own interests subservient to those of your team mate. For anyone dedicated to winning, this is hard, but in doing so, you hope to buy yourself enough credit to get your own shot in the future.
This is a lesson that has been totally lost on HRC since the beginning of the season. When Dani Pedrosa moved up to MotoGP from the 250 class, he was welcomed into HRC's factory Repsol Honda team as the champion elect, the rider who would finally bring to and end Honda's humiliation at the hands of the prodigal Valentino Rossi. He wasn't expected to do this in his first year; 2006 was meant as a learning year, so he could get used to the ferocious power of a big four-stroke, and learn to set these bikes up properly, to be ready for his first serious title attempt in 2007. His team mate, Nicky Hayden, was set to work developing the RC211V, riding what is to all intents and purposes a 990cc version of the 2007 bike with which Pedrosa is meant to win the title.
Unfortunately, reality interfered, and half way through the season, Nicky Hayden found himself with a commanding championship lead, and every chance of taking the title for Honda a year ahead of plan. What's more, Pedrosa, in his apprentice year, had proven to be much faster than anyone had expected, and was sitting comfortably in 2nd place, ready to pick up the ball should Hayden drop it. As Valentino Rossi started to close the gap to Hayden, race by race, questions about team orders were waved away as being entirely theoretical, and not something that needed to be addressed at that point of the season. But Rossi continued to close the gap, averaging well over the 9 points he needed to outscore Hayden by each race.
To most observers, the question of team orders had moved from the theoretical into the realm of necessity by Motegi. And with Pedrosa's poor showing in the rain at Phillip Island putting him out of contention for the title in all but the most mathematical sense, it seemed like a no-brainer that Pedrosa would do what he needed to to assist Hayden's title challenge. Team Manager Chris Herring's denial that no team orders were in place was greeted with much nudging and winking. As the race turned out, Pedrosa was never really in a position to do anything to help Hayden, running wide on the first lap, and having to fight his way through the field. The matter was left unanswered. For the moment.
So, as the teams headed to Estoril, team orders were once again the talk of the paddock. Rossi had closed to within 12 points of Hayden, and Pedrosa's mediocre showing at Motegi had all but ruled him out of contention for the title. So when HRC officials once again insisted that no team orders would be issued, their denials were met with incredulity, if not outright hilarity. HRC would not encourage Dani Pedrosa to help his team mate win Honda its first title for 3 years? Impossible! Ridiculous!! We had had our doubts about HRC for giving Hayden parts to test at crucial times in the year, when a good result seemed to us mere observers more important than a revised swing arm, and these doubts had only been reinforced by Hayden's serial clutch woes, but surely the most successful motorcycle racing organization in the world, the company which had won over 200 premier class races, and 16 world titles, would not pass up a golden opportunity like this?
That Pedrosa then took out his team mate in an act of vindictive self-assertion was proof, if any were needed, that HRC had lost its way. The universal shock at what had happened was not just because someone had taken out the rider leading the title race; It was much more the shock of realizing just how horribly wrong things had gone for HRC and the Repsol Honda team. The once-mighty team, the dominant force in the MotoGP paddock, had somehow metamorphosed into a bunch of argumentative, bumbling amateurs, riven by internal strife.
Pedrosa's pass was attempted with impunity, because no one inside the team had told him he shouldn't do that. His mentor Alberto Puig had positively encouraged Pedrosa to fight for every inch against everyone, whether they be the current or the prospective world champion. Since joining Repsol Honda, he had been treated as a future world champion, been given everything he asked for, and seen the team bow under the weight of the pressure Puig applied on Pedrosa's behalf. At no point did he consider it his duty to help out his team mate, as Pedrosa considered himself to be Honda's number 1 rider, lured into this notion by the lack of resistance HRC had shown to Puig's belligerence. Pedrosa's body language after the crash, getting up and walking away, without so much as a glance at his team mate, spoke volumes about how he viewed his team mate.
In the post-race interview Nicky Hayden gave, he came as close as he has ever come to openly criticizing HRC. As he spoke, he gave away perhaps more than he meant to, letting slip the fact that, in contrast to what he had said at the time, it hadn't always been his choice to run the development equipment for the 2007 bike, and that at a certain point in the season, he felt he should have been given the tools he needed to defend his title lead properly, rather than having to fight his way up from 17th position after cooking his clutch, through no fault of his own. The cracks were finally starting to show, and the picture you could glimpse through them was an ugly one: tales of a constant struggle to be taken seriously as a title contender, and to be treated as the top rider at Repsol, not just some test rider for the boy wonder to come.
The point at which the Repsol Honda situation moved from the sublime to the ridiculous for me was after Hayden renewed his contract with HRC for another two years. It turned out that the main sticking point had been Hayden's demands that he be given at least equal treatment with Dani Pedrosa. It seemed to me that if you have a rider who is going to finally get revenge on Valentino Rossi for you, and win the MotoGP title after too many years in the wilderness, you treat him like a warrior king, and give him whatever he wants. You don't beat him down and make him feel like Mr Second Place by holding out for so long on a little appreciation. That Hayden remained as focused and confident as he did is a testimony to his psychological strength, and is in spite of Honda, not because of them.
But what now? Hayden has a brand new, shiny two-year contract to ride with Repsol Honda. Dani Pedrosa has another year to go of his two-year contract. Alberto Puig goes where Pedrosa goes, and has too many fingers in HRC pies to be extracted cleanly. But the situation at Repsol Honda is clearly untenable. It's almost inconceivable that Pedrosa and Hayden will be able to share a pit box next year, yet that is what they are condemned to. It is hard to believe that the combination of Pedrosa and Hayden will prove fruitful in developing a bike and fighting for a title, with so much distrust and bad blood between them. So, unless big changes are made, Repsol Honda is not going to be able to function as a team next year.
There has already been some talk of punishment, the most likely scapegoat being Tsutomu Ishii, HRC's General Manager. But while Alberto Puig stays in pit crew, there will never be enough room for two riders capable of winning a title. For Puig, it's Pedrosa or nothing. If HRC were sensible, it would be nothing. I fear it will be Pedrosa.