At Jerez in 2005, the season was settled in the last corner of the last lap, when Rossi knocked Gibernau physically into the gravel trap, and mentally into a losing state of mind. At Jerez in 2006, the season was shaken up, stirred round and messed up in the first corner of the first lap by, of all things, technology.
In 2006, for the first time, all of the bikes on the grid are using some form of launch control. The down side of this is that everyone arrives at the first corner at the same time. I reckon the Spanish fans felt that Rossi deserved to suffer the consequences of this mass arrival, as Elias tagged Rossi's back wheel, knocking Rossi off his bike.
Rossi looked like he'd got a great start, moving through to about 5th place going into the first corner, but Elias braked just a fraction too late, touched Rossi's back wheel, and down went Rossi. It was a double blow for Yamaha, as Edwards was forced of the track by Rossi's bike, and rejoined the race in 18th place. Rossi, after gesticulating to try and get the race stopped, then showed that his luck had not entirely run out (the bike was still running), and that he understands what it takes to become a champion, as he got back on the bike, despite having lost most of his right footpeg, the tip of his front brake lever, and having twisted his right clip on, and ended the first lap 43 seconds behind the leader Capirossi.
And Capirossi had gotten off to a fantastic start, taking the lead from the outset, followed closely by Gibernau, Melandri, Hayden and Pedrosa. Checa and Stoner both got blinding starts, shooting into top 8 positions from a long way down the grid. Gibernau couldn't quite hold on to his 2nd place, as Melandri inched past him before the end of the first lap, but there were a group of some 8 or 9 riders all very close together in the first few laps, consisting of the two Ducatis, Melandri, Hayden, Pedrosa, Nakano, Checa, and Stoner.
Gibernau, hoping to avenge his disappointment of last year, then suffered another stroke of bad luck, as he dropped out on lap 3, apparently with engine trouble. Sete is a rider whose performance is very closely tied to his mental state, so we shall have to see how he copes with this setback, and how it affects the rest of his season. But he doesn't handle these kinds of problems at all well.
After Gibernau dropped out, it gave Pedrosa a bit of space to start moving forward. Hayden had passed Melandri for 2nd at lap 5, with Dani slipping past Melandri almost in Nicky's slipstream. This immediately showcased the problems that Nicky is having with the 2006 RC211V, as you could see Nicky having trouble controlling the bike, with the rear end sliding all over the place, and Pedrosa following very smoothly, in 250-style. By lap 7, Dani was passed Nicky, and set in to start chasing Capirossi, who by this time had grabbed a couple of seconds lead.
At this stage of the race, a few things caught my attention: Casey Stoner was having a great race, for someone who had missed the tests at Catalunya and Jerez over the last month due to a shoulder injury, battling for 6th with Nakano. And Kenny Jr started a slow progress forwards. And by lap 9, Rossi was lapping in 1:42.2, about the same as Hopkins on the Suzuki. The difference being, of course, that Rossi was riding a damaged bike.
Over the next few laps, the race settled into a pattern, with Pedrosa closing in on Capirossi, eating away a couple of tenths of a second every lap, with a small mistake meaning he lost 3/10ths on lap 12. Edwards had started to move forward through the field, moving up to 13th, and Toni Elias started a charge as well.
By lap 17, Elias passed team mate Melandri, and Pedrosa had just about caught up with Capirossi. Once again, we were offered the spectacle of differing styles: Capirossi has always slid the Ducati around a lot, and the Ducati seems to respond well to that kind of treatment, and Dani was showing off why he ended up as 250cc champion, riding tight, smooth lines. A few years ago, this would have meant losing a couple of seconds a lap to the fastest riders, but today's MotoGP bikes, and the greatly improved tyres, now allow and reward a smooth style much more. Speaking of tyres, Checa started to drop back through the field at this point, showing that Dunlop still have some way to go before they have a race winning tyre. But from the amount of advertising to be seen around the track, it looks like they are taking this very seriously.
By lap 20, Rossi was back in the points again, grabbing a 15th place, and Edwards had moved up to 12th. Hayden, who had been circulating in 3rd, with space ahead and space behind, started to lose ground to Elias and Melandri following behind, with Stoner a little way behind, followed by Nakano and Hopkins.
Then, on lap 23, Loris showed his skill and experience, and Pedrosa showed that he can ride strongly for 4/5ths of a race, but that the full distance is just a fraction too far. Capirossi started to pull ahead, grabbing first a couple of tenths, and putting a whole second on Dani in lap 25. Meanwhile, Elias and Melandri moved in on Hayden, and it became clear that Hayden wasn't going to keep third without a fight. KRJR had, by this time, caught up with Suzuki, and you could see the determination to beat his former team mate, and more importantly, the team that sacked him, right through his tinted visor.
Capirossi crossed the line in style, having dominated the race from start to finish, a truly worthy winner. Pedrosa finished second, sending the crowd, already cheered by Spanish wins in the 125 (Bautista) and 250 (Lorenzo), into a patriotic frenzy. Nicky, looking comfortable just a few laps earlier, ended up in a major dogfight to take the last place on the podium, with Elias pushing him to the very limit, and Melandri very close behind in 5th.
Stoner came in an impressive 6th in his MotoGP debut, even more impressive considering he is still injured, followed by Nakano, who couldn't capitalise on his front row on the starting grid. Roberts pipped Hopkins to the line to take 8th. Tamada finished a rather lacklustre 10th, Edwards finished 11th, Vermeulen took 12th, Checa had dropped back to 13th by this time, ahead of Rossi, taking what could later prove to be 2 vital points for 14th, with Alex Hoffman taking the last point for 15th, ahead of Ellison.
So, what conclusions can we draw from this race? Well, there is so much to choose from (and I don't have all day), but here are just a couple of things for starters:
- Capirossi rode a fantastic race, and proved that the Ducati is a real contender for the title this year. It couldn't have happened to a nicer person.
- Pedrosa proved that he is a force to be reckoned with, by becoming the first rider since Max Biaggi in 1998 to take a podium on his debut in the senior class. But he also showed that he is still not quite strong enough to last a full race. However, by the end of the season, expect Dani to be a contender for every win.
- Stoner proved that he has bags of talent, by finishing in 6th after a lack of practice and still suffering an injury.
- Nakano showed that the Kawasaki has made another small step forward, while the Suzukis proved that any improvements they may have made have been just enough to tread water, finishing more or less where they finished last year.
- Nicky showed that he's a great rider, but he struggled with a Honda which wouldn't do what he wanted.
- Edwards was impressive, making steady progress through the field after a bad start.
- Rossi rode like a true champion, getting on a damaged bike, and pushing it into a points scoring position from a long way behind. At the end of lap 1, he was 42 seconds behind Capirossi, and he crossed the finish line 1:05 behind Capirossi. In other words, he lost 23 seconds over 26 laps, on a bike with out a right footpeg, with a twisted clip on, and probably without a back brake. Those 23 seconds would have given him 8th position otherwise. Don't write him off.
But most of all, Jerez 2006 has proved that this is going to be the closest season for a very very long time. I still believe that Rossi will win, and his performance today just underlined that, but he won't win the championship with 4 or 5 races to go to the end of the season. It's more likely he'll clinch it with just 4 or 5 laps to go. The new boys have arrived, and want a go on the top step of the podium.