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business rather not AS USUAL. . .

Dutch MotoGP, 24th JUne 2006, Assen
Words by Simon Bradley

Battered, yes. Bruised, almost certainly. But in no way defeated. The Doctor rides on...We are used to seeing Valentino Rossi doing the impossible. We expect to see him defying the laws of physics as he catches yet another uncatchable slide while not even losing pace. It's nothing notable to see him carve through the field on an uncompetitive machine to take a win against all odds. What we're certainly not used to is seeing The Doctor falling off and hurting himself. But this weekend at Assen the unthinkable happened - Valentino Rossi suffered a huge crash early in practice and smacked himself around severely. Diagnosis eventually showed fractures in his right hand and left ankle as well as bruising to his chest. Enough to put a lesser man out of contention completely and still enough to rather inhibit the champion's youthful enthusiasm.

Assen is the oldest circuit on the MotoGP calendar and is one of the favourites. It's banked,it flows and it has lots of very high speed direction changes which challenge both the bike setup and the rider's courage. Or rather, it did have. Last year at the end of the season a huge remodelling exercise took place. Partly to address some vague safety concerns and partly to provide more car parking and off circuit facilities. Whatever the reason, the old character of Assen has gone forever, replaced by a rather soul-less purpose built circuit which isn't banked and has many of the old signature switchbacks removed. It's not a universally popular move, but the circuit probably is a little bit safer even if for no other reason than maximum speeds are considerably reduced.

John Hopkins. Nice bloke and quite handy on a motorbike.  And now he's finally got that watch he was after, too...Anyway, on to the main event. Practice and qualifying continued to keep the marshals, recovery and gravel raking teams busy as more than one rider found the new circuit to be a little more challenging than they expected. Only one other casualty, though, as Toni Elias injured his shoulder and was immediately flown home to Barcelona for specialist treatment. Happily it appears that there is nothing broken so the young Spaniard should be back and on form for Donington.

One thing that did swiftly become apparent, though, is that Assen suits Bridgestone tyres. Or that some Bridgestone riders suit Assen. Either way, after the dust had died down and the timesheets had been filled in, the surprise pole-sitter, who finally got his watch as a reward, was none other than Suzuki's John Hopkins. Next to Hopper was another Bridgestone runner, and another surprise. Shinya Nakano qualified just thirteen thousandths of a second slower than Hopkins to take a well deserved second. Colin Edwards rounded out the front row, his best qualifying position for a long time but still a third of a second behind Hopper. Behind this rather unusual front row, Nicky Hayden and Dani Pedrosa sat ahead of Chris Vermeulen, enjoying the opportunity to ride at a circuit with which he is at least vaguely familiar for a change. Marco Melandri, sporting a black eye and several other bandages and abrasions after last week's horrendous crash, headed the third row in a well deserved seventh place, ahead of Carlos Checa on the Dunlop Yamaha and Alex Hofmann, standing in for the still injured Sete Gibernau on the first works Ducati. Kenny Roberts Jnr completed the top ten in a season that is finally getting better for the 2000 champion. And Valentino Rossi managed to do the bare minimum he needed to avoid being excluded from the race and qualified dead last. Eighteenth on the grid and nearly four seconds off the pace.

Chris Vermeulen was on fine form, riding the wheels (and, unfortunately, the tyres) off his Suzuki...So. Race day was warm and dry, the fans were anticipating an exciting race and everything looked set for action. Lights out and it was Colin Edwards who made a fantastic start to drop into the first corner ahead of John Hopkins with Shinya Nakano staying behind Hopper for third. Hayden, Melandri, Pedrosa and Vermeulen streamed along close behind with Stoner, Checa and Roberts making up the top ten. Down at the other end of the pack, Rossi climbed two places in that first lap. Midfield, Chris Vermeulen was riding a storming race, passing both Pedrosa and Melandri in moves which demonstrated just how much talent the likeable young Aussie possesses, while at the front Hayden got the better of Nakano but simply couldn't pass Hopkins. Edwards managed to gradually extend a gap over the pursuing pair, while all of them extended clear air between themselves and the not quite fast enough Nakano.

Nine laps in and while Edwards was still sitting pretty at the front, Hopkins had used up his tyres and was unable to prevent Hayden from coming past. The Anglo-American eventually dropped back through the field, fighting the whole way, to finish sixth and take ten valuable points away. Chris Vermeulen had a similar tale to tell. Having climbed up to fourth, a massive four way scrap with Stoner, Melandri and Pedrosa saw the Suzuki rider relegated to tenth place, where he eventually finished after again using up his tyres holding off the faster Hondas. And at the back of the field Valentino Rossi was up to twelfth place.

Stoner, Pedrosa, Nakano and, um, someone else in a big ruck. Confusing it is, yes...And so it all stabilised rather, settling into the usual mid-race humdrum with everyone trying to save something for a last gasp effort while still keeping in touch with the rest of the pack. Colin Edwards was riding inch perfect and looked set for his first MotoGP win. Nicky Hayden looked as though he was at the limit just staying in touch. Shinya Nakano was in a lonely third place and Pedrosa, Melandri and Stoner were tripping each other up. Roberts Jnr, after a very robust pass on Chris Vermeulen that saw the American wave an apology, was taking a watching brief, ready to pick up the pieces. Rossi and Capirossi had both dropped all the way to the back after taking the slip road in the same place while trying to overtake or resist being overtaken, and had been forced to start their campaign all over again. James Ellison had outbraked himself on the Dunlop Yamaha and gone for an early bath, hopefully again without injury, and things were really rather unexciting.

Then a few laps from the end, Hayden started to close on Edwards, gradually at first and then quicker and quicker until, with just two laps to go, the Kentucky Kid made his move and muscled past in a firm but clean block pass. And that was it. Except that it wasn't. Edwards fought back and made up the vast gap that Hayden had opened after forcing the Texas rider to roll off mid corer, and halfway round the last lap the two were right together. On the approach to the last chicane it was Edwards who had the speed and he made it count, driving in hard and messing up the approach for both riders. Hayden was forced to back off and Edwards retook the lead. Hayden in fact ended up taking to the gravel and cutting the last corner. But Edwards clipped the grass as well, and the bike bucked and A gap too wide to close? Not if you're Colin Edwards chasing your first MotoGP win, it isn't...threw him off and out, Edwards cartwheeling through the gravel while the bike made a bid for the line and nearly crossed it unaccompanied. That would have made it interesting for the timekeepers to sort out...

So Nicky Hayden got his first MotoGP win outside the US, ad his first this season. Shinya Nakano took a safe second while Dani Pedrosa was gifted a barely deserved podium place ahead of Casey Stoner and Kenny Roberts Jnr. Joh Hopkins held sixth ahead of the battered and bruised Marco Melandri, while Rossi made it through to a sensational eighth place for some richly deserved points. Carlos Checa made one of his best finishes of the season in ninth while Chris Vermeulen rounded out the top ten. Colin Edwards picked the remains of his bike up and crossed the line in a disconsolate thirteenth place, three points a weak reward for such a valiant effort.

The championship was all set to be well and truly messed up with so many contenders out condition, but as it happens nothing has really changed. Donington next weekend, though, is a place where Valentino Rossi is pretty well unbeatable. Assuming he is back to full fitness I'd be surprised if he wasn't back and chipping away at the 46 point deficit he now enjoys in the championship table...

Look at the gap where Colin's visor was. Read the expression. This is a very disappointed (and somewhat irritated) man...Results

1 N Hayden, Honda
2 S Nakano, Kawasaki
3 D Pedrosa, Honda
4 C Stoner, Honda
5 K Roberts Jnr, KR211V
6 J Hopkins, Suzuki
7 M Melandri, Honda
8 V Rossi, Yamaha
9 C Checa, Yamaha
10 C Vermeulen, Suzuki

Championship Standing after 8 rounds

144 N Hayden
102 D Pedrosa
100 L Capirossi

99 V Rossi
98 M Melandri
78 C Stoner
63 C Edwards
57 S Nakano
55 K Roberts Jnr
54 M Tamada



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