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Happy father's day, dad!

Catalan MotoGP, 18th JUne 2006, Catalunya
Words by Simon Bradley

Hopper seems to have found a way of making the Suzuki fly. Maybe something has given him wings...Catalunya is technically the best circuit on the calendar. It's won awards for being good - it has a fabulous blend of fast and slow corners, straights and elevation changes coupled with a brilliantly grippy surface and a fantastic atmosphere shared with other Mediterranean circuits. In short, it rocks. Valentino Rossi has won here the last seven times but the racing is always exciting. Nobody could have guessed just how exciting this weekend was going to get, though...

Practice and qualifying were rather routine. At least as routine as it can be with guys wringing every once of performance out of 250bhp motorbikes can be. Turn ten - a long, off camber, downhill left hander - caught quite a few people out and inevitably there was the occasional tumble as riders explored their limits. And that of their tyres. Valentino Rossi showed fairly conclusively that the doldrums of the beginning of the season are behind him as he ran consistently at or near the front of the field. Local hero Dani Pedrosa was fast, of course, as was fellow rookie Casey Stoner while John Hopkins continued to show how well the Suzuki has developed. Kenny Roberts Jnr put the huge amount of chassis work the team has done to good effect too, running back near the front and showing some of the form that gave him a world title. Ducati, though, were having a torrid time with a lack of grip on corner entry and drive on exit hampering their efforts. Kawasaki were similarly blighted though they eventually found a tyre combination that worked.

Rossi is well and truly back on form and the bike is working properly too. Another title? I wouldn't bet against it...Qualifying saw Rossi take his first pole position since Donington last year, just a tenth of a second ahead of John Hopkins with Roberts rounding off the front row - the best a KR bike has done since Jeremy McWilliams put the two stroke on pole in Australia a few years ago. Row two saw Chris Vermeulen consolidating a good effort to qualify ahead of Shinya Nakano and Loris Capirossi. Nicky Hayden had a poor qualifying session, ending up on the third row ahead of Casey Stoner and Marco Melandri - the first time in as long as I can remember that the best qualifying Honda was seventh. Rounding out the top ten, Randy de Puniet headed up the fourth row ahead of Dani Pedrosa who got blocked on his qualifying session and Colin Edwards, still battling with his new setup.

Race day looked as though it was going to be a cracker. The warmup showed the shape of things to come as Pedrosa and Stoner were absolutely on fire. Roberts, too, was very quick on the newly competitive KR211V while Gibernau finally seemed to have found some grip and form to run up there with the fast boys again.

Marco Meladri gets squashed in the middle, Capirossi slides in front of his bike while Gibernau is nearly off the screen already...Lining up on the grid and as the lights went out it was Stoner who got a lightning start from the third row to lead Rossi into turn one. But further back things were all going wrong. Gibernau, who had also got a cracking start, moved over to take the first corer and managed to clip Capirossi with his right handlebar. Capirossi went straight down while Gibernau's front brake lever was pushed back, locking the front wheel and launching the bike and rider skywards in a terrifying somersault over the front. Gibernau landed hard on his head while the bike shot off at a tangent. The resulting melee took out Melandri, Hopkins, Pedrosa and De Puniet. Marco Melandri was most unfortunate, being trapped first under his own bike and then between Pedrosa and his bike before being dumped in the gravel. Inevitably the red flags came out and the race was stopped. Melandri's condition caused some concern for a while but he was finally confirmed not to have any life threatening injury. A bruised spine is likely to rule him out of next week's Assen meeting but that's it. Capirossi likewise turned out to be without major injury though again heavily bruised. Gibernau broke his previously plated collarbone and then the ambulance in which he was being transported was involved in another accident outside the circuit to round off a lousy weekend for the luckless Spaniard.

So a depleted grid lined up for the restart which was further delayed as Vermeulen's Suzuki stalled at the end of the warmup lap. However, this time when the lights went out it was a clean start, again with Stoner taking the holeshot and tucking into the lead ahead of a rather battered John Hopkins with Nicky Hayden holding a watching brief behind and Kenny Roberts Jnr peering over his shoulder. Rossi made an appalling start to finish the first lap fifth after making up a place or two, while Shinya Nakano jumped the start and received a ride through penalty as a result. Ignoring the penalty, the Japanese rider continued for three laps and was promptly disqualified - an unfortunate decision as it later transpired.

It took Rossi a while to get past a very determined (and very fast) Hopkins...Rossi may have started slowly but he wasn't about to let that get in the way. Cautiously - perhaps unusually so - he began to pick his way through the field, surprisingly seeming to have the most difficulty getting past the determined but distinctly disadvantaged Hopkins. Nonetheless, the champion's progress was inexorable, passing Hopper, Hayden and Stoner on the brakes at the end of the main straight in a few laps. Now Stoner has long said that he wants a chance to have a straight race with Rossi and this was it. The young Aussie slotted in behind the champion and settled for a lesson in MotoGP riding. Or not, as the case may be. Because no sooner had Rossi started to get a move on than Stoner lost the front on turn ten and slid off and out - unharmed but points free again. A couple of laps later he was joined by Pedrosa, again apparently in an unforced error that simply saw both wheels slide out, while elsewhere on the circuit Toni Elias made a similar undignified exit from further back while duelling with Chris Vermeulen. Randy de Puniet made his exit slightly earlier, so by mid distance there were just eleven riders left running. So taking his ride through instead of holding out for a disqualification would have guaranteed Shinya Nakano at least four championship points. Maybe as many as nine. Not such a smart move, in hindsight.

The race by now had split into groups. At the front Nicky Hayden was chasing Valentino Rossi but unable to make an impression. A few seconds behind, former team-mates Hopkins and Roberts were duking it out for the last podium, both riding with a brilliant display of controlled aggression. And behind them Edwards and Vermeulen fought to be the top former SBK rider. Tamada, Checa and Ellison were all in the fray though none, to be honest, were really doing anything other than riding at their own best pace - the positions all seemed pretty well set.

And so it remained. With a couple of laps to go Rossi had extended such a lead that he was able to relax and showboat, smoking the back tyre in lurid great slides. With over nine Chris Vermeulen is the only one of this group who stayed on...seconds cushion over the chasing pair, Hayden accepted that he wasn't going to catch Rossi and also indulged himself for the last few laps. Behind, though, Roberts and Hopper fought it to the end, with Roberts taking the KR211V's first ever podium in a lovely father's day present for the team owner, and his dad, Kenny Roberts Snr. Colin Edwards finally got the better of Chris Vermeulen to take fifth after a very robust pass, the young Australian finishing sixth in his best MotoGP result ever. Makoto Tamada rode the steady race he always rides while Carlos Checa was the first local home ahead of his team-mate, Brit James Ellison in his best ever result. Rounding out the top ten, Alex Hofmann came in on the D'Antin Ducati with his team-mate Cardoso a distant eleventh and last.

So after a horrifying start and a few moments of real edge of the seat excitement, the 2006 Circuit de Catalunya turned out to be a fairly humdrum race, notable mainly for the unusual faces at the front of the pack rather than for exceptional racing. Kenny Roberts Jnr gets man of the race for sure, after a sterling performance but hats off to the Suzuki pairing and, of course, to Dr Rossi who rode a textbook race.

Assen next week and Rossi loves it. He loves Donington the week after as well. He's knocked the gap down to a manageable twenty nine points and I'm prepared to place a bet, here and now, that after Donington the gap from Rossi to the top of the table will be less than twenty points.

The next couple of races will be interesting...

Man of the race, without a doubt. Rode like a former champion.Probably becuase he is one...Results

1 V Rossi, Yamaha
2 N Hayden, Honda
3 K Roberts Jnr, KR211V
4 J Hopkins, Suzuki
5 C Edwards, Yamaha
6 C Vermeulen, Suzuki
7 M Tamada, Honda
8 C Checa, Yamaha
9 J Ellison, Yamaha
10 A Hofmann, Ducati

Championship Standing after 7 rounds

119 N Hayden
99 L Capirossi
90 V Rossi
89 M Melandri
86 D Pedrosa
65 C Stoner
60 C Edwards
53 T Elias
49 M Tamada
44 K Roberts Jnr


SB

 




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