Luck Be A Lady
Yellow is Valentino Rossi's lucky color, and as such, he always tried to incorporate some yellow in his riding gear somewhere. So when Camel, whose corporate color is yellow, announced that they would be sponsoring the works Yamaha team this year, a cry of despair could be heard throughout the MotoGP paddock. Valentino Rossi had already proven to be the world's luckiest motorcycle racer, staying on board highsiders which threw other riders off, keeping engines running after crashes where others had stalled. If there was one thing that no one felt Rossi needed more of, it was luck. But since the start of the season, luck is what Rossi has had, by the bucket load.
However, as anyone who has tried their hand at cards or dice is surely aware, luck comes in two flavors: the kind you want, and the kind you wish on your competitors. Where in previous years, Rossi seemed to have a virtual monopoly on good fortune, this season, Lady Luck has shown Valentino an aspect he hasn't seen before, the kind of bad luck which causes chronic chatter to appear during the first race of the year, after having dominated during pre-season testing. And so it was at Shanghai this weekend, where it looked like Rossi's luck had returned, only for his hopes to be shattered in a shower of tire debris.
On Friday, in the rain, Rossi returned to form with an outstanding display, after a miserable showing in his previous wet outing in Istanbul. The question on everyone's lips was had order been restored? But Lady Luck proved once again to be just toying with the seven-time world champion, as he found himself confounded by set-up problems yet again, to end up 13th on the grid during Saturday's qualifying, a place which may ultimately have forced him to push so hard it fatally weakened his front tire.
But the rider least affected by the vagaries of luck was the real star of the Chinese round of MotoGP. All season, Dani Pedrosa has made his own luck, and suffered and celebrated accordingly. After his superb second place during the season opener at Jerez, it was obviously just a question of time before the young Spaniard claimed a victory in the senior class. He had already exceeded expectations with a podium in his first race, where many, myself included, had expected him to take longer to get used to the much more physically demanding MotoGP machines. But his pole position on Saturday, and his masterful win on Sunday, has confirmed that the titles he claimed in the lower classes had nothing to do with luck.
Saturday's qualifying had produced a grid that could only be described as surprising. While Pedrosa's pole was encouraging, rather than shocking, seeing Hopkins put his Rizla Suzuki in second spot in a dry session was totally unexpected. And having Colin Edwards, whose season so far can most charitably be described as lackluster, take the Camel Yamaha to the third and last spot on the front row was almost as much as a surprise as Hopper. Behind them, Shinya Nakano had put in another solid performance on the Kawasaki to take fourth place, ahead of Nicky Hayden on the other Repsol Honda, and Sete Gibernau on the Ducati. The third row held Honda riders Stoner and Melandri, with Nakano's Kawasaki team mate Randy de Puniet a respectable ninth. Valentino Rossi's lowly 13th position on the grid, achieved as a result of using the right set up with the wrong tires, and then the wrong set up with the right tires, turned out to be a portent of things to come.
Pole nerves seemed to get the better of Pedrosa as the riders powered off the line at the start. The first corner at Shanghai goes on almost forever, looping round right 270 degrees through turn 2, before turning back on itself through the hairpin turn 3. Pedrosa got a great run off the line, trailing Edwards and Hopkins into the first turn. His eagerness to make a break got the better of him, however, as he misjudged the line through the first turn, running wide and allowing both Edwards and Hopkins to slide up the inside, and make a break. As the 250cc champion paused to settle himself again aboard his Repsol Honda, Sete Gibernau took advantage to pass him on the Ducati, with Shinya Nakano close behind.
By the end of the first lap, Edwards was keeping his Yamaha ahead of Hopkins' Suzuki, and the pair held a small lead over Gibernau, with the rest of the field following hot on the Ducati's heels. Rossi had already made good 3 places to tenth, but it seemed that fourth position was the most coveted place on the track, as five or six riders including Casey Stoner, Loris Capirossi, Pedrosa and Nicky Hayden, slugged it out for the spot behind Gibernau.
A couple of laps later it became clear that Gibernau's Ducati couldn't keep up with the pace, and was becoming a drag on the rest of the field. The Siamese twins Edwards and Hopkins had built a 2 second lead, the pair proving inseparable all the way to the finish. Behind Gibernau, the HRC duo of Pedrosa and Hayden pushed for a way past the Catalan Ducatista. When they finally found it, the pair quickly pushed on to first arrive at, and shortly afterwards, pass, the Americans leading the field.
A Twist of Fate
Gibernau's slow backward progress through the field was mirrored by Rossi's fast forward charge. From thirteenth on the grid, by lap 9, The Doctor was up to fifth, and starting to close on his Texan team mate and Hopper. But going through the field had been far more difficult than during previous races. Marco Melandri, in particular, fought Rossi tooth and nail, in a battle that looked more like the Fortuna Honda rider was defending a championship rather than 9th place. And the toughness of his charge through the ranks was to take its toll. As Rossi caught Hopkins down the lightning fast back straight, at the end of the 15th lap, Lady Luck dealt him a fatal blow. His front Michelin delaminated, losing a chunk of the front tire which destroyed his front mudguard and with it, his chances of keeping close to the championship leaders.
It is not uncommon for tires to chunk, or have large bits of rubber come off them, especially at high-speed tracks. But it is almost invariably the rear which goes, as it is the rear which gets worked hardest. To have a front tire chunk is a rare occurrence indeed, so much so that it can only be put down to plain old bad luck, a tire with a fatal weakness so small that it could pass Michelin's stringent quality assurance tests after manufacture. However, the Yamaha's severe chatter problems, and Rossi's push to make good his terrible grid position may well have stressed the tire so much that the flaw eventually grew large enough to self-destruct. It was clear from both Rossi's peering down at the rear, as from the Camel Yamaha team's rapid changing of the rear wheel, that no one expected a front to fail. It was only Rossi's childhood friend Uccio who noticed the ruined front mudguard, but by the time he had everyone's attention, Rossi was already out of the pit lane. Rossi realized that the problem hadn't been solved almost immediately, as he was standing up peering over the bars at the front end before he had even rejoined the track. After a slow lap touring, Rossi was back in the pits, this time for good.
The Fast and The Frustrated
Back at the front, the Repsol HRC pairing gradually pulled away from Edwards and Hopkins, Pedrosa keeping the upper hand throughout. It was a fascinating match-up, first Hayden putting in a new lap record to close down Pedrosa, then the diminutive Spaniard responding in kind, to pull away from the Kentucky Kid. This pattern repeated itself over the last eight laps, with Hayden never able to get close enough to Pedrosa to have a chance at passing him, allowing Pedrosa to take his first, well-deserved win in MotoGP, in just his fourth race in the premier class. With this win, Pedrosa has proven his class, and his threat to the championship. Repsol team mate Nicky Hayden kept his series of podiums alive, taking another excellent second place, and yet post-race looked like the unhappiest man in the paddock. Even though Hayden now has a comfortable lead in the championship, 13 points ahead of second-placed Loris Capirossi, and an unprecedented 32 points ahead of current champion Valentino Rossi, his failure to win so far is starting to get to Nicky. If his current form continues, it's entirely possible that Hayden could take the number 1 plate at the end of the season, but if he did it without winning a single race, it would be a very bitter victory indeed. Nicky really, really wants to win one. And he is so very, very close.
If Hayden was disappointed, Colin Edwards, and especially John Hopkins, were elated as they crossed the line. Edwards has struggled all season with chatter from his Yamaha, and although his problems are far from being solved, getting back on the podium must surely rekindle his competitiveness, which despair at a series of poor placings had seemed to diminish. Hopkins seemed determined to break the world wheely record crossing the line in fourth, an effusive display of his delight at taking a top spot. A finish inside the top 5 has been a long time coming for the young Suzuki rider, and to get one in the dry is surely a portent of even better things to come. The biggest surprise for Hopper was that the Suzuki, which is universally believed to be down on top end horsepower compared to the Hondas, Yamahas and Ducatis, seemed capable of staying with both the Yamaha of Edwards and the Repsol Hondas down the fastest straight of the year.
Point-and-Squirt or Smooth-and-Sweet?
With the influx of 250 riders onto the grid has also come a flood of 250-style fairing-bashing action. The battle for fifth was epic, with the Hondas of Casey Stoner, a reinvigorated Makoto Tamada, and Istanbul winner Marco Melandri swapping paint with each other and Loris Capirossi's Marlboro Ducati for lap after lap. Stoner had shown both his old weakness, running off the track to drop to 10th position, and his talent, by fighting his way back to finish fifth, ahead of Tamada who, like Colin Edwards, has found his form again, Marco Melandri and Loris Capirossi.
In fact, the 2006 season is turning into a battle between the Superbike riders and the young guns from the 250 series. And although the tires and traction control mean that riding MotoGP bikes increasingly requires a smooth, 250 style, keeping corner speed high and getting on the gas quickly and smoothly out of turns, favoring riders like Stoner, Pedrosa, Melandri, and even Rossi and Capirossi, the mostly American Superbike generation of Hayden, Edwards and Hopkins are showing that if you're good enough, you can learn to adapt your style to get the most out of the bike, and challenge for the win. And so the racing gets closer and closer, and better and better to watch. 2006 looks more and more like being the best MotoGP season for a very long time.
1. Dani Pedrosa SPA Repsol Honda Team 44min 7.734 secs
2. Nicky Hayden USA Repsol Honda Team 44min 9.239 secs
3. Colin Edwards USA Camel Yamaha Team 44min 22.368 secs
4. John Hopkins USA Rizla Suzuki MotoGP 44min 26.999 secs
5. Casey Stoner AUS Honda LCR 44min 30.795 secs
6. Makoto Tamada JPN Konica Minolta Honda 44min 31.613 secs
7. Marco Melandri ITA Fortuna Honda 44min 31.835 secs
8. Loris Capirossi ITA Ducati Marlboro Team 44min 32.201 secs
9. Sete Gibernau SPA Ducati Marlboro Team 44min 36.092 secs
10. Shinya Nakano JPN Kawasaki Racing Team 44min 41.549 secs
11. Toni Elias SPA Fortuna Honda 44min 43.050 secs
12. Randy de Puniet FRA Kawasaki Racing Team 44min 59.738 secs
13. Kenny Roberts USA Team Roberts 45min 4.027 secs
14. Carlos Checa SPA Tech 3 Yamaha 45min 11.309 secs
15. Alex Hofmann GER Pramac d'Antin MotoGP 45min 18.906 secs
16. James Ellison GBR Tech 3 Yamaha 45min 30.809 secs
17. Jose Luis Cardoso SPA Pramac d'Antin MotoGP 45min 42.884 secs
Valentino Rossi ITA Camel Yamaha Team 36min 11.885 secs
Chris Vermulen AUS Rizla Suzuki MotoGP 6min 11.848 secs