The 2006 MotoGP season is certain to go down in history as one of the most memorable, and most surprising, for a very, very long time. Added to an electric mix of new young talent come up from 250s and over from Superbikes, and capable of immediately running at the front, have been a series of racing incidents and mechanical failures which have totally reshaped the face of MotoGP. And what has caused so much consternation is that much of this has centered around Valentino Rossi. Where once The Doctor was made of Teflon, with crashes, engine blowups and rivals seemingly incapable of touching him, and each championship a foregone conclusion, this year, hardly a race has gone by without the hand of fate attempting to thwart his every move. Le Mans turned out to be another such race.
Race day started looking like the big story would be the weather. This morning's warm up session took place in the wet, the rain petering out towards the end of the 20 minute practice. Everyone was out in force, perfecting their wet weather settings, expecting the race to be wet. But as the day progressed, the weather seemed to clear up, the 125 race being run under partly clouded sky on a drying track, the 250 race which followed being a totally dry affair. Towards the end of the 250 race, the clouds started to gather, and the MotoGP mechanics were thrown into a frenzy of activity getting everything ready to handle both a wet and a dry race. The situation wasn't helped much by the race organization declaring the MotoGP race to be officially wet, allowing for riders to come in and change bikes if it started raining while the race continued. But as the riders lined up on the grid after the warm up lap, both track and sky remained dry. One rider gambled and lost on the weather, Kenny Roberts Jr coming into the pits after the warm up lap to switch bikes. Two laps later, he was back in, this time for good.
Corner Mayhem, Again
As the lights went out, most of the grid got away cleanly, only Shinya Nakano seemingly bogging his engine, got a slow start. This was a result of the Kawasaki creeping forward before the start, and Nakano having to halt the bike's forward progress. In vain, as it appeared later, as Nakano was cited for a jump start, and called in for a stop-and-go penalty. The rest of the pack thundered off the line and into the first turn, led by a quick-fire Marco Melandri on the Fortuna Honda. The pack bunched up going into the Dunlop chicane, and we were treated to a repeat of the first-corner pile up at Jerez. Valentino Rossi, determined to make good some of the 32 point deficit he had in the championship table, manhandled his Yamaha in front of local boy Randy de Puniet, only to find Dani Pedrosa cutting across him. Forced to sit the bike up, Rossi ran wide, forcing de Puniet to sit his Kawasaki up in turn, eventually being sandwiched between Rossi and Sete Gibernau. Unlike at Jerez, Rossi stayed aboard this time, with de Puniet the unlucky loser, the crash ending his race, and his run of podiums at Le Mans, after just two corners. While Rossi sped off in fourth place, Gibernau and Yamaha's Colin Edwards took an excursion through the gravel trap before rejoining the race.
The Champion Unleashed
At the front, Melandri was leading a storming John Hopkins, who was edging closer to the Fortuna Honda rider with every corner. Hopper was past Melandri by the end of the first lap, with Pedrosa, Loris Capirossi and a recovered Shinya Nakano in fifth. Rossi, however, was on a charge. In a display of the brilliance we have come to expect from the magical Italian, The Doctor was coming through. By lap 2 he was past Nakano, one lap later, he had pushed his new M1 past Capirossi's Ducati, going on to take Pedrosa and Melandri on consecutive corners. Unleashed, he started to close down Hopper on the Rizla Suzuki, taking big chunks off the lead the Anglo-American had accrued every lap. Behind him, in the tussle for third place, Pedrosa and Melandri took turns at passing, before Melandri ran wide and let both young Spaniard and the Japanese Kawasaki rider though.
Meanwhile, championship leader Nicky Hayden, who has been suffering with the flu all weekend, was struggling in midfield behind Casey Stoner. Rossi, inspired by his deficit in the standings, set two lap records in a row, passing Hopkins on lap five to take the lead. From that moment on, he never looked like relinquishing his lead, being consistently the fastest rider on the track, losing time only briefly to Dani Pedrosa after the tiny Spaniard had passed Hopkins' Suzuki. Having lost two places, Hopper clung on to Pedrosa's tail in grim determination, desperate to get on the podium this time, and avoid the trauma of another fourth place. Sadly, he paid an even greater price for his determination, braking a fraction too hard into a right-hander, and losing the front. The low-sider left his bike mostly undamaged, so in penance, Hopkins bravely remounted and rejoined the race. Pitting briefly to let his crew sort out a damaged brake lever, he continued the race, to eventually finish in fifteenth, pickup up a single consolation point.
While all this excitement was going on at the front, two other Americans, Nicky Hayden and Colin Edwards, were on a steady climb up through the field. By lap 11, Hayden had got his Repsol Honda past Stoner and was into fifth, helped a little by Nakano and Hopkins going out. Edwards' forward progress was more spectacular: After having rejoined at the rear of the field after the incident at the second corner, The Texas Tornado was riding a whirlwind up through the field, and had advanced to 8th place from 18th in ten laps. Four laps later, he was past Makoto Tamada and into 7th. It was obvious that Yamaha was starting to find answers to the problems which had plagued them at the previous races, Rossi running low 1:35 laps, the fastest rider on the track, Edwards running high 1:35s, as good as or better than the rest.
The Lap Of The Gods
By lap 20, everything was going to plan for Valentino Rossi on the Camel Yamaha. The Doctor was building a comfortable lead, and second-place rider Dani Pedrosa was starting to lose ground, having gambled on a soft rear tire which was starting to wear. Casey Stoner was starting to gain on Nicky Hayden, and looked like passing the Kentucky Kid, as was a storming Colin Edwards, which would help take a big chunk out of Hayden's points advantage. But this idyllic state of affairs proved to be a chimera, a kindly illusion to be destroyed once again by matters beyond Valentino Rossi's control. On lap 21, Rossi's Yamaha ground to a halt, seemingly with an electrical problem. Rossi's pit crew had been switching engines between the new and old chassis all weekend long, and this appears to have taken its toll, a lack of sparks ending what looked to be a certain win for Rossi, and striking a major blow to the Italian's chances of retaining the crown he has held for the past five years. Rossi was visibly devastated, unable to get off his stricken Yamaha for what seemed like minutes. When he did finally dismount, his body language spoke of a broken man, brought low by a second cruel twist of mechanical fate in two weekends, after his front tire self-destructed at Shanghai.
The Show Must Go On
But races don't stop just because the favorite happens to get a bad break, and back on the track, another favorite was finding he'd gambled and lost. Dani Pedrosa had put on a soft rear slick, hoping that if a light rain returned to the track, this would cool his tire and help it to last the full 28 laps of the race. The skies, though ever threatening, remained closed, and Pedrosa's rear Michelin was fast losing rubber, and grip. The first place he inherited from Rossi was not to be his for long. Five laps before the end, Marco Melandri came past the petite Pedrosa, trailing the #65 Ducati in his wake. Dani put up a strong fight, but eventually lost that battle too, being passed by Loris Capirossi on the last lap. Melandri held on to take a well-deserved, and, after struggling during practice, rather unexpected second win of the season, joined on the podium by Capirossi and Pedrosa.
Casey Stoner managed to hold off Nicky Hayden's challenge, with Colin Edwards' strong performance deserving of more than just the 6th place he finally took. Makoto Tamada once again finished in a spot befitting his talents, with Sete Gibernau close behind him on the second Ducati. Melandri's team mate Toni Elias, and Suzuki's Chris Vermeulen rounded out the top ten. Carlos Checa finished best Dunlop rider in eleventh, ahead of Shinya Nakano, suffering after his stop-and-go penalty. D'Antin Ducati's Alex Hofmann will be pleased to have finished ahead of Tech 3 Yamaha's James Ellison, and Hopkins' persistence was rewarded with a solitary point for fifteenth.
A Turning Point?
This fateful race may well turn out to be a pivotal moment in MotoGP history. Valentino Rossi is renowned for his love of a challenge, winning universal respect for his brave move to Yamaha at the end of 2003, in a quest to prove that it was the rider, not the bike. But now the challenge he faces is darker, faceless, less manageable, for it seems as if fate itself is conspiring against Valentino Rossi. As the Yamaha team return to their home base, and their home GP at Mugello, the pressure on Rossi to win will be greater than ever. The motivational sticker on his Yamaha will not read -32 as it did at Le Mans, but -43, something he cannot have expected, especially not while he was leading the race. With the siren call of Ferrari and Formula 1 sounding ever more alluring, and Rossi himself having stated that he will announce his intentions for next year some time in June, the temptation must be great to throw in the towel, call it a lost season, and concentrate on getting ready to race Formula 1 cars. On the other hand, there is surely no greater challenge than coming back to win a title from a 43 point deficit, and defend that title on the new 800 cc bikes to be raced next season.
And what of the man with that 43 point lead over Rossi? The Kentucky Kid missed out on the podium for the first time this season, which might fairly be put down to suffering a bout of flu. But once again, Nicky Hayden still leads the championship after five races without winning a race. And more worryingly, he lost ground to title contenders Melandri and Capirossi, both of whom have won races, and have closed to trail by him by just four points. Once back to full fitness, we shall see how strong Hayden's grip on the championship remains. At this point in the season, after just five rounds, the race is still wide open, any one of the top eight riders capable of taking the title. If you had told me that at the beginning of the season, I would have laughed in your face, expecting Rossi to lead the table by a significant margin by now. But each race so far has given me another lesson in the dangers of hubris. And frankly, I'm absolutely loving it.