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Pedrosa, Hayden and Repsol Honda - An Accident Waiting To Happen

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.

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Bayliss Subs For Gibernau, And Capirossi Won't Race The 800 At Valencia

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.

Although the Ducati press release doesn't say so in so many words, the Dutch website Racesport.nl is reporting that Capirossi won't race the 800 at Valencia. Livio Suppo, Ducati Team Manager is quoted as saying that Capirossi wants to focus on securing 3rd position in the championship, and they can't risk using the 800, even though the tight Valencia track doesn't suit the big Ducati, or indeed any of the MotoGP bikes.

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Winning Pays Off - Toni Elias Renews With Gresini

After putting on a spectactular showing at the weekend, beating Valentino Rossi by 2/1000ths of a second to take the win at the Portuguese Grand Prix, Toni Elias was the name on everyone's lips. His gamble paid off, as Gresini Racing has announced that Elias will be riding with the team for 2007. Gresini expects to have Honda V4 800s next year, though he is yet to announce who will be sponsoring the team, as Gresini's title sponsor, Fortuna, are withdrawing from MotoGP at the end of this season.

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It's Official - Casey Stoner To Ducati For 2007

After several months of speculation, and an unofficial announcement at Estoril, Ducati Corse has finally officially announced that Casey Stoner has signed to ride for them in 2007. Few details of his contract were made public, other than Stoner will be riding the GP7 Desmosedici next year, with an option to ride in 2008.

Claudio Domenicali, Managing Director of Ducati Corse, is quoted as saying of Stoner: "With his enthusiasm and aggressive riding style, Casey is sure to give our fans some extraordinary emotions." So far this year, those emotions have been elation as Stoner runs at the front, followed by despair as he loses the front end and crashes out. What is certain is that Stoner should be very spectacular to watch on the Ducati, and his riding style should match Loris Capirossi's, who is the Ducati team's main rider.

This move now leaves Sete Gibernau without a ride in 2007, although he is reputedly in talks with Kawasaki. The irony of Stoner's signing will not be lost on Sete, who will be unable to race at Valencia as a result of injuries he suffered after crashing out when Casey Stoner fell in front of him, leaving him with nowhere to go but over and out.

~~~ UPDATE ~~~

MotoGrandPrix.it has a blow-by-blow account of the events leading up to Stoner's signing over the weekend of the Portuguese Grand Prix. Some interesting details:

  • Stoner will earn a base salary of 1.5 million Euros, with results-related bonuses;
  • Ducati turned to Stoner on Saturday night after Sete Gibernau demanded 2 million Euros in salary during contract renewal negotiations;
  • Ducati and Stoner basically agreed to terms on Sunday morning, prior to the race;
  • After Stoner told Lucio Cecchinello that he had agreed terms with Ducati, the LCR team boss immediately went out and contracted Carlos Checa as Stoner's replacement;
  • News of Checa's contract with LCR is what blew the whole Stoner / Ducati story into the public eye.

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Updated 2007 MotoGP Calendar

The FIM have announced that the 2007 MotoGP calendar has been revised. Most of the changes are fairly minor, but there are one or two bigger changes. In brief, Qatar is a week earlier, Turkey and China have switched places, and Australia and Malaysia have been moved up a week. The biggest change is to Portugal, which has been pulled forward to September, giving the paddock an extra week to recover from the three previous flyaways.

Whether this is truly the final version of the calendar remains to be seen. A lot of riders are unhappy at having to ride 18 races in a season, and a number of the flyaway races have such poor attendances that doubts remain about their viability. Shanghai, Istanbul and Sepang are the names most frequently mentioned in this context. With Sepang the venue for the winter tests, and Shanghai considered an important stepping stone into the Chinese market, that leaves the best track of the three, and indeed, one of the best tracks of the year, as the most likely candidate to be dropped. If you plan on visiting one of these races, don't rush to book your tickets ...

2007 MotoGP calendar

March 10** Qatar Doha/Losail
March 25 Spain Jerez de la Frontera
April 22 Turkey Istanbul
May 6 China Shanghai
May 20 France Le Mans
June 3 Italy Mugello
June 10 Catalunya Catalunya
June 24 Great Britain Donington Park
June 30 ** Netherlands Assen
July 15 Germany Sachsenring
July 22 United States * Laguna Seca
August 19 Czech Republic Brno
September 2 San Marino &
Riviera di Rimini
Misano
September 16 Portugal Estoril
September 23 Japan Motegi
October 14 Australia Phillip Island
October 21 Malaysia Sepang
November 4 Valencia Ricardo Tormo Valencia
*: MotoGP Class Only
**: Saturday Race

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Punishments At HRC After Pedrosa Destroys Hayden's Title Hopes?

The excellent US roadracing magazine RoadRacerX has a story on it's website that punishments might be on the cards for key HRC personnel after Dani Pedrosa shattered Honda's best chance of taking a World Championship since Valentino Rossi left, with an ill-advised pass. The kamikaze pass on team mate Hayden is widely being blamed on HRC's failure to instigate team orders, allowing Pedrosa to believe he was fully justified in taking any risk necessary to win races, in a desperate attempt to close the 34 point deficit Pedrosa had on Nicky Hayden.

The Italian site MotoGrandPrix.it seems to have broken the story, and is stating that the most likely candidate for punishment will be Tsutomu Ishii, HRC's General Manager, although the names Makoto Tanaka (Team Manager), Chris Herring (Sporting Director) and Roger van der Borght (Team Coordinator) are also being mentioned.

Meanwhile, the international press is calling for Alberto Puig, Pedrosa's crew chief and mentor, to be among those punished, after his extremely intemperate remarks to a Spanish sports daily, basically blaming Hayden for the crash, and claiming that Pedrosa had every right to attempt the pass that ended HRC's title hopes. Dennis Noyes, a long-time MotoGP journalist and former racer, has a very interesting piece over at SpeedTV.com on the Svengali-like relationship between Pedrosa and Puig, putting Pedrosa's mad move into keen perspective.

~~~ UPDATE ~~~

I have a piece about the root causes behind the crash here.

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The MotoGP Merry-Go-Round Continues - Stoner and Checa Moves

Well, contrary to what I wrote in a previous post, Casey Stoner is almost certain to stay in MotoGP after all. He will be losing his ride with LCR Honda at the end of this season, but he has announced to the press that he will be riding a Ducati in 2007. No details of the contract were released, but with Loris Capirossi taking a nice pay rise, it is unlikely that Stoner will be getting the $3 million he was reportedly demanding. However, the upside for Stoner is that he will be on a factory machine, and not have to wait in line for parts from HRC with the other satellite Honda riders.

Stoner's seat at LCR will be taken by Carlos Checa, who has been revitalized this season, after a run of decent, but not brilliant seasons at Yamaha and Ducati. Checa has been the only Dunlop rider to be anywhere near the action this season, and his performance has paid off.

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2006 Estoril Qualifying Practice

The knife-edge tension of this morning's free practice session was continued this afternoon, as the riders set out on the qualifying practice for tomorrow's Portuguese Grand Prix. Spectators were not to be disappointed.

The session started with a very fast lap by Casey Stoner, and though many tried, the young Australian sat on top of the timesheets for a very long time, while most riders were out tweaking race set-ups and selecting race tires. Behind Stoner, it was Valentino Rossi who seemed to have gained the first advantage, close to matching Stoner's times, and never dropping out of the top 3.

As the 20 minutes to go mark approached, the traditional rush for the pole commenced. It was Casey Stoner who opened, with a lap just outside the fastest times of this morning, with a 1:37.066. Carlos Checa, Shinya Nakano, and Valentino Rossi got close to Stoner, but none could beat him, until Nicky Hayden edged Stoner by the narrowest of margins, setting a time one thousandth of a second faster.

A couple of minutes later, Dani Pedrosa looked like he was on his way to oust his team mate from the pole, when his flying lap was ruined by a huge slide exiting the slow chicane in the final section. Minutes later, Marco Melandri showed Pedrosa the correct way to slide the rear, smoking the rear tire round and out of the right-handed chicane exit. Spectacular it surely was, but it did Melandri little good in the standings.

With 10 minutes to go, Valentino Rossi showed everyone the kind of times it was going to take if you wanted to hold on to the pole. In an outstanding display of riding, Rossi weaved his way through heavy traffic to set the fastest time of the day so far, with a 1:36.627, 2/10ths faster than Hayden's time in FP3. The Kentucky Kid was suddenly under real pressure, and while attempting to respond, ran wide, and into the gravel.

Hayden's team mate did respond, however, taking the provisional pole with a time nearly 1/10th faster than Rossi's time. Behind Pedrosa, a legion of riders were out setting fast laps, and within a couple of minutes, Hayden had slipped from 3rd all the way down to 7th. John Hopkins kept getting close to taking the pole, setting the fastest times in the first 3 sections, before always losing out in the last part out onto the final straight. And behind Hopper, Colin Edwards was putting up his best fight of the season, in 5th place with 5 minutes left to go.

But with 4 minutes left to go, The Doctor moved to settle this thing in his favor, setting an astonishing 1:36.200 lap of the Estoril circuit. Feeling that his lead was virtually unassailable, Rossi meandered back into the pits, to take his number 2 bike out to get a feel for it. 2 minutes later, Rossi's lead was looking more fragile than before, as Hayden started on a blistering lap. It was fast, but not fast enough, ending up in 2nd spot, 3/10ths behind Rossi.

As Hayden slowed to come in, team mate Dani Pedrosa was out on a charge, threatening to take Hayden's spot at the least, and get close to Rossi. But as he rounded a right-hander round the rear of the track, he ran into Casey Stoner, slowing inexplicably on the inside racing line of the turn, his foot out, as if ready to perform a test start. Pedrosa was fuming, and rode out the rest of the lap cursing into his helmet and shaking his fist. The whole incident had shades of Assen last year, when Max Biaggi stopped to take a practice start before the session had been flagged as finished, nearly knocking Marco Melandri, who was on a fast lap, off his bike. Biaggi was fined a total of $6000 for the incident, so it will be interesting to see how the FIM responds to Stoner's lapse of judgement. To his credit, Casey Stoner immediately entered Pedrosa's pit after qualifying was finished, and apologized fully to Dani, and the pair settled it with a handshake.

Back on the track, the front row looked settled, a repeat of the morning's practice session with Rossi and Hayden, their roles reversed. But there were still riders out there on fast laps. As the flag fell, Colin Edwards rounded the track in an outstanding 1:36.478, snatching 2nd place from Hayden, the Texan finally showing he could once again be the Tornado at windy Estoril.

So, tomorrow's grid is a fascinating prospect. Two team mates, Valentino Rossi and Colin Edwards, sit in the first 2 places, with two other team mates, Nicky Hayden and Dani Pedrosa, in 3rd and 4th. Beside Pedrosa sits Casey Stoner, followed by John Hopkins. Shinya Nakano heads up the 3rd row of the grid in 7th, with Sete Gibernau and Carlos Checa beside him. Loris Capirossi will be disappointed to have set only the 10th fastest time, while Marco Melandri sits down in 15th. Kenny Roberts Jr, who had been so fast earlier this weekend, sits in a lowly 13th spot.

With the two Camel Yamaha bikes ahead of him, Nicky Hayden has a tough nut to crack tomorrow. Repsol Honda may not have team orders, but you can bet your bottom Euro that Camel Yamaha do. And with Hayden having trouble off the line caused by his clutch at the last few races, if he can't get ahead of Edwards from the start, he may have a problem getting ahead of Valentino Rossi. Rossi, for his part, needs to get a good start, and he could be another step closer to snatching back the title from Hayden. Whatever happens, it's going to be epic.

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2006 Estoril FP3 - Head To Head

Day 2 of the Portuguese Grand Prix started with what the MotoGP 2006 season has come down to: Two men, Nicky Hayden and Valentino Rossi, going head to head. It was only a free practice session, though admittedly a very important one, preceding qualifying as it does, but tension is being raised to almost unbearable levels. At the end of the session, it was Nicky Hayden who came out on top, setting a scorching 1:36.846, with Valentino Rossi setting the 2nd fastest time with a 1:37.032. Hayden will have dealt a psychological blow to Rossi, being the first, and only, rider to break into the 1:36 bracket. But Rossi ran consistently faster when testing race tires, a fact which will worry Hayden. So, we will have to call the result of FP3 a draw, for the moment.

Behind the two title hopefuls, places 3 to 8 were pretty close, Loris Capirossi's 8th time less than half a second slower than Dani Pedrosa's 3rd. Worryingly for Hayden, Pedrosa was also very fast on race tires, running a long string of 1:38s and 1:37s. Kenny Roberts Jr came very close to taking Pedrosa's 3rd spot, finishing just 9/1000ths behind the diminutive Spaniard. Colin Edwards continued his strong showing with a 5th time, ahead of Sete Gibernau and Casey Stoner, Loris Capirossi taking 8th. John Hopkins and Shinya Nakano followed, in 9th and 10th respectively.

Marco Melandri, who injured his knee during FP2 yesterday afternoon, was out, but could only set the 12th fastest time. He is sure to be fit for the race, but not strong enough to challenge at the front. The Ilmor SRT X3's times were once again watched closely, Garry McCoy finally slipping into last place (surely much to the relief of Jose Luis Cardoso), 4.3 seconds behind Hayden's time. We await qualifying practice with even more eagerness than usual.

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A Totally Unfounded Rumor About Edwards, Shamelessly Copied From Soup

Superbikeplanet.com is suggesting that Yamaha will renew Colin Edwards' contract before the weekend is out. The rumor is tentative, and based on more Chinese whispers than a Shanghai library, but still. Valentino Rossi is known to look favorably on Colin Edwards as a team mate, as he provides useful input during testing (without being a threat to Rossi's title chances), and Michelin like Edwards because of his skills in tire development. Even Yamaha like him, as he is an American, a very significant market for the Musical Motorcycling Manufacturer, especially with the growing popularity of MotoGP in the USA. And after failing to sign Nicky Hayden earlier this year, Edwards looks like their best American option. We shall see on Sunday.

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