As everybody expected, Sete Gibernau officially announced his retirement from the highest level of motorcycle racing. "Racing doesn't make me happy any more, and I don't need to do it for the money," the Spaniard said at an emotional press conference in Barcelona. Gibernau will be 34 in December, and had suffered a series of injuries and operations this year.
Well, official times are coming from Valencia, and times have dropped since the reports I heard in the afternoon. Fastest time of the day was set by Valentino Rossi, who put in a 1:33.1 on one of the 43 laps he rode. Surprisingly, Rossi also put in 27 laps on the 990, clocking a fastest time of 1:32.7.
Today marked the unofficial opening of the 2007 MotoGP season, just 3 days after the 2006 season ended. For today, the new 800 cc MotoGP bikes hit the track in earnest, after the 990s were retired on Sunday. The question in everyone's minds is, of course, just how fast the new 800s are. Although no official times have been released so far, sources close to the Valencia track are reporting that the Honda and Ducati 800s are running in the mid 1:33s.
French 250 cc rider Sylvain Guintoli has announced on his website that he will be riding for the Yamaha Tech 3 team next year. No official confirmation has been seen yet, but as Guintoli has tested with Tech 3 several times this year, it would be a logical step, despite Guintoli's mid-pack performances this year. Guintoli's addition to the grid will bring the total of French riders in MotoGP to 3.
What everyone already knew has finally been confirmed. Today, JIR finally announced officially that Shinya Nakano will ride the Konica Minolta Honda for the 2007 season. The one detail that wasn't expected was that Nakano will be on Michelins next year, as all of the rumors surrounding Nakano's move to Konica Minolta involved the team switching to Bridgestone tires.
Nicky Hayden arrived at Valencia with some new artwork on his bike and his leathers. The left-hand side of his fairing depicted a hand of five cards: the ten, jack, queen and king of diamonds, and one more card face down. Besides the cards was a large pile of poker chips, and the words "All In ...". No clearer indication of Hayden's intent could be imaginable: After the fiasco at Estoril, where Hayden's championship hopes were all but terminated by his team mate, the only course of action the Kentucky Kid had open to him was to gamble everything on getting to the front, and trying to win the race. Conceding an 8-point lead to the 5-time and reigning MotoGP world champion, and the man almost universally acclaimed as the greatest motorcycle racer of all time, reclaiming the lead and taking the title seemed a nigh impossible task. But, as Hayden kept insisting to the press each time he was interviewed: "This is MotoGP, anything can happen. That's why we line up." Anything can happen. And sometimes, it does.
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.
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.
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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.
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.
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.
To visitors from the lush north of Europe, their first impression of the Circuit Ricardo Tormo is an overwhelming sense of desolation. As you leave the bustling Spanish coast and the metropolis of Valencia behind you, and head along the highway towards the parched Spanish meseta, the earth turns redder, the low hills turn drier and the palms which line the coast turn to scrub and squat silver-green olive trees. In late October, after the long, searing Spanish summer, and before the winter rains come, this dry, desolate landscape is a fitting backdrop for a good old-fashioned showdown.
And on Sunday, that's what we'll get: two young men face off for the biggest prize in motorcycle racing: The title of MotoGP World Champion. On one side, The Kentucky Kid, whose consistency and hard work throughout the season have paid dividends, putting him at the forefront of the title chase. On the other, The Doctor, the current champion and acknowledged master, on a strong charge after a disastrous start to the year.