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.
As the bikes sat the on the grid, waiting for the red lights to dim, Hayden's position did not look promising. Sat in 5th place on the second row, with a run of poor starts over the second half of the season and Valentino Rossi on record-breaking pole time, the Kentucky Kid had it all to do. Not only did he have to try and get past Rossi, but he had to pass a horde of red Ducatis to get there. Valentino Rossi's job, on the other hand, seemed simple: try to stay as close to the front as possible, and don't let Hayden out of his sight. Both men sat on the grid with the weight of the world's, and, infinitely heavier, their own expectations on their shoulders. Once the red lights dimmed, their mettle would be tested as never before.
Though pole position conveys a distinct advantage, it is not a free pass to lead the race. As the red lights faded, Valentino Rossi's pole advantage vanished. The Doctor fluffed his start, wheelying the bike off the line, and losing a couple of places from the start. And worse, he started drifting left, just as Nicky Hayden was charging through, having gotten off the line well. The two title candidates touched for an instant, then drifted apart again, before entering the first corner melee. The championship came very close to being settled by yet another crash before the bikes had even reached the first turn. But both men recovered, and bashed fairings again into turn 1.
While Valentino Rossi had gotten off to a poor start, Troy Bayliss, the man substituting for Sete Gibernau, had not. The Australian World Superbike champion had made a Baylisstic start, leading into turn 1 and making a charge from the line. Bayliss' temporary team mate Loris Capirossi headed the following pack, leading Dani Pedrosa, Casey Stoner and Nicky Hayden through the first couple of turns. Rossi, recovering slowly, followed in 6th. The chase was close, and into turn 4, Pedrosa was past Capirossi, and off after Bayliss. Two turns later, Nicky Hayden followed Pedrosa's lead, passing Casey Stoner to take 4th, and moving on to Capirossi's tail. Behind Stoner, Valentino Rossi was being harassed by an unleashed Marco Melandri, storming through from a terrible 12th spot on the grid. Into turn 8, Melandri was past, leaving Rossi languishing down in 7th.
As the pack flashed across the line at the end of the first lap, Valentino Rossi found himself in the worst possible situation: down the field, with a gaggle of Hondas ahead of him. Though Honda had again denied the existence of team orders, it was clear that words had been exchanged in private, and that even the non-Repsol Honda teams would be careful when riding near Hayden, and do everything in their power to keep Rossi behind them.
Rossi's one consolation was that Hayden was then in 4th, which would leave the American 5 points short for the title while Rossi held 7th. But Hayden wanted more: After having a look at Capirossi at the end of the main straight, Hayden slipped up the inside of the Ducati man into turn 6, and headed off to chase Pedrosa. 6 turns later, Capirossi lost another place, as Marco Melandri moved up to 4th. With Hayden in 3rd, Rossi still clung on to the championship lead while he ran in 7th. But Hayden had his team mate ahead of him in 2nd.
Making Up Is Hard To Do
For any other team, at any other race, this would be a perfect situation. For Repsol Honda, after the events at Estoril, no one was certain. Hayden closed on Pedrosa as the two team mates hurtled down the main straight to start lap 3. Hayden was within inches of the tiny Spaniard, but not close enough to draft past into turn 1. He would have to bide his time, and hope to find a spot to safely pass his team mate. But Pedrosa had other ideas: The public outcry around the world at his incomprehensible move at Estoril had been noted and understood, and in an act of penance for Portugal, Pedrosa pulled over on the short straight between turn 1 and turn 2, and waved Hayden through with his leg. Pedrosa left the door wide open into turn 2, slamming it firmly shut once Hayden had passed. Hayden had gone from trailing the championship race, to leading it, and the man who had just helped him was the man who had made his life so difficult in the first place.
Pedrosa's work was not yet done, however. Once Hayden was past, the diminutive Spaniard set about making himself as wide as possible, and holding up Melandri, charging from behind. The Italian Fortuna Honda rider had been less than half a second behind Hayden at the end of lap 2. Thanks to some strong defense by Pedrosa, Hayden had 3/4 of a second on Melandri at the end of lap 3. With Hayden in 2nd, and leading the title race, the ball was now firmly in Valentino Rossi's court.
In previous years, Valencia has been a breeze for The Doctor. Usually having wrapped up the title several rounds earlier, Rossi had never had to fight at this track with any more than just another GP win at stake. Not this race. Rossi was now in serious danger of losing his title in a straight fight, and the pressure was starting to build. What's more, where The Doctor usually carves through the field at will, at Ricardo Tormo he was stuck behind Casey Stoner, and unable to pass. To make things worse, Chris Vermeulen was right behind him on the Rizla Suzuki, and starting to push. Lap 3 passed without Rossi find a way past Stoner, then lap 4 as well. At the start of lap 5, while Rossi fell slowly further behind Nicky Hayden, the pressure finally got to The Doctor.
As he entered turn 2, close on the heels of Casey Stoner, Valentino Rossi's bike slid out from under him, for no apparent reason. The front held, but the rear just started to slide, lowsiding Rossi into the gravel. Yet, even in adversity, Rossi's legendary luck held; his Yamaha M1 had not cut out, and, because of the low speed of the crash, had not suffered major damage. Rossi could remount and continue the chase. This time, however, the fates had only spared Rossi to punish him more fully. Though he rejoined the race, he lost over 20 seconds in the crash, and crossed the line to finish lap 5 in 20th and last place. With Hayden running in 2nd, Valentino Rossi would have to pass 16 other riders to retain his title. At any track, that would be hard; at one of the toughest passing tracks on the calendar, it was close to impossible. The only glimmer of hope was that there was still 25 laps to go, and plenty of time.
Back among the leaders, both Marco Melandri and Loris Capirossi had managed to get back past Pedrosa. On the same lap, Nicky Hayden had gotten within a tenth of a second of leader Troy Bayliss. But as he flashed past the finish line, his pit board broke his concentration. It said simply: "Rossi P20". Hayden's pace dropped for the next couple of laps as he absorbed the news, and pondered his next course of action. This minor lapse allowed Melandri and Capirossi to close Hayden down.
For the two Italians were engaged in a battle of their own: Although the first two places in the championship were out of reach, both men had declared their determination to take 3rd. Melandri had the advantage, but with 6 points in it, it was there for either rider to take. Capirossi's motivation won out on lap 7, as he slipstreamed past Melandri into turn 1. Closing on Hayden, a lap later, he was past the American and into 2nd. With the difference between 2nd and 4th being 7 points, Capirossi had seized back the advantage.
Being passed by Capirossi spurred Hayden back into action. A 2nd place would give the Kentucky Kid an almost insuperable 12 point advantage over Rossi. But 3rd meant he only led Rossi by 8 points. Even The Doctor could not be expected to climb from 20th to 4th, but getting to 8th is a far less challenging proposition. Difficult, but not impossible.
Long Way Home
Rossi's fight back had been helped on the same lap as his own fall by Randy de Puniet crashing out. On lap 9, Rossi passed Garry McCoy on the Ilmor to move to 18th, and a lap later he was past James Ellison to move to 17th, then 16th, as Alex Hofmann crashed out. He had regained 4 places in 5 laps, with 20 laps to go. But The Doctor still had a long way to go: he was 21 seconds down on the 8th place he needed, but was lapping only a couple of tenths faster than the people he needed to get past. At this rate, the race wouldn't last long enough for him to fight his way to 8th.
His only hope was that others would help him by taking themselves out. For a while, on lap 12, it looked like that might happen, as Melandri, Pedrosa and Stoner tussled for 4th. Then, Jose Luis Cardoso and Chris Vermeulen pitched into help, by crashing out. Rossi was up to 14th, and on the move. But he was 14 seconds behind Makoto Tamada, the next man in front of him, and nearly 20 seconds behind John Hopkins in 8th. With half the race gone, his mission was looking increasingly impossible. Taking 1.5 seconds a lap off John Hopkins was too much to ask, even of the great Valentino Rossi, and his title hopes faded as each lap passed.
Rossi's misfortune left Nicky Hayden in a quandary: He'd come to Valencia to win, believing it to be his only shot at the title. He was still set on that goal, but it had become unnecessary. He was riding aggressively, and closing on Capirossi, but the need for that aggression had disappeared. If he just stayed focused and brought it home, the title would be his. With a gap of over 3 seconds and growing to 4th place, he could afford to start hedging his bets. "All In..." was surplus to requirements.
As Hayden dropped off the back of Capirossi, the Italian set his sights on his Ducati team mate. To have a rider come in to substitute for an injured team mate, take a spot ahead of you in qualifying, and then beat you in the race seems downright humiliating. That humiliation is tempered somewhat when the substitute is Troy Bayliss: Reigning World Superbike champion, and MotoGP works Ducati rider in 2003 and 2004, he was no stranger to the Desmosedici, and anything he might have forgotten, he had relearned very quickly. As the lap counter clicked down towards the end of the race, Capirossi closed, but never enough. When the checkered flag fell, it fell on Troy Bayliss first.
Bayliss had put the icing on the cake of his year. Capping a great season in Superbikes, he put on a stellar performance at Valencia to lead the MotoGP race from start to finish. Winning a MotoGP race is incredibly hard; to do it in your spare time, and as an afterthought, is an incredible feat.
Ducati's joy was further increased by Loris Capirossi taking 2nd, at the same time taking enough points from Marco Melandri to climb to 3rd in the championship. But the greatest joy was reserved for the new World Champion. Nicky Hayden crossed the line in 3rd, taking 16 points to clinch the win, under the gaze of his family. Both Earl and Rose had been lucky to keep all their fingers; as the laps ticked off, their fingers had been crossed in ever tighter constriction. If the race had lasted much longer, either amputation or broken digits would have ensued.
Hayden's Repsol Honda team mate Dani Pedrosa crossed the line in 4th, his sins entirely forgiven after his fine display of teamwork. Pedrosa led two other team mates home, Fortuna Honda's Marco Melandri and Toni Elias. Behind Elias, Shinya Nakano finished his final outing on the Kawasaki in 7th, ahead of Kenny Roberts Jr and Colin Edwards.
Carlos Checa finished his last ride on the Tech 3 Yamaha with a strong 10th place, ahead of the final American John Hopkins, and Checa's replacement at Tech 3 next year Makoto Tamada. Valentino Rossi had closed Tamada's lead down from 14 to under 9 seconds to finish 13th, ahead of James Ellison and Garry McCoy, taking the final point on the Ilmor.
As the riders circulated on their cool down lap, two little vignettes illustrated perfectly the changes that had taken place here. First, Dani Pedrosa approached Nicky Hayden, and Hayden pounded him on the shoulders like a long lost son. His work had been noted, and he had not been found wanting. The atmosphere in the Repsol Honda garage next year will hardly be warm and friendly, but it won't be as close to absolute zero as it appears to have been over the weekend.
Shortly afterwards, the outgoing champion slowed, grabbed Hayden's arm, and congratulated him. After losing the title in such devastating fashion, to accept defeat with such grace is the sign of a great champion, and a great man. Hayden seemed genuinely touched, and accepted Rossi's congratulations with equal grace. This image, I believe, characterizes this season: two riders, who have fought each other hard at every turn, but never wavered from their desire to win this fairly, cleanly and beyond reproach. Past seasons, with other adversaries, have been very different.
The Once And Future King
A lot of things changed today. Valentino Rossi's incredible record run came to an end. He'll have to ride, and win, another 6 seasons to pass Mick Doohan's sequence of 5 championships in a row. He'll have to race another 8 if he is to pass Giacomo Agostini's record of 7 titles in a row. For the first time in a very long time, Rossi seemed to be merely mortal, buckling under pressure. In an interview after the race, Rossi said that the crash was his fault, the result of a mistake he made himself. Rossi's errors are rare as hen's teeth, and to lose the championship like this means that his veneer of invincibility has been broken. People, and more importantly, teams and riders, have seen he can be beaten, and they'll be back next year to try it again. Rossi remains a legend, but his feet just got a little closer to the ground.
As for Nicky Hayden, this title is the culmination of his hopes and dreams. He and his family have been working for this moment virtually since before Nicky Hayden was born. His parents, Earl and Rose, spent money on taking the kids racing, rather than fix the roof of their house, in an effort to raise champions. To see Hayden win a MotoGP title is the crowning moment of their lives.
But Hayden's title has been won more by hard work and endurance, rather than flashes of brilliance. He has been a paragon of consistency, plugging away race after race, getting points at every turn, but winning very little. This has been at the heart of the criticism aimed at Hayden all year long. Other riders have, of course, won championships taking only 2 wins. But the last time it happened was in 1952, when Umberto Masetti took the world title after a series of 8 races. Hayden had to ride 17 to garner his two wins.
All this, of course, will matter little to Nicky Hayden. He gets to kick off the new era of 800cc machines with the number 1 plate on his bike. And, with Honda's record of building winning machines each time the rules change, it must be a safe bet that Hayden could take the title again in 2007. All In!