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bullfight in a china shop

Chinese MotoGP, 14th May 2006, Shanghai
Words by Simon Bradley, pics by Richard Handley or as credited

Chris Vermeulen demonstrates just how hard you have to brake at the end of the main straightIt's the second time that the MotoGP circus has arrived at the new Shanghai circuit, and the second time that they have been greeted by frankly horrendous conditions. The circuit, for those of you blessed with short memories, is a new purpose built complex about 20km outside Shanghai itself. Designed by the same genius responsible for the excellent layout in Turkey, it's an extremely technical circuit with lots and lots of very long bends, the longest straight anywhere and some of the hardest braking you'll ever see. It's a very demanding place.

Much of practice and qualifying was blessed with the great leveller - rain - which allowed times to close up and everyone to have a fair crack at the whip, regardless of engine power. Yamaha seemed far happier as they appeared to have solved the chatter and vibration problems that have been plaguing them all season and everything on Friday was smiles and happiness. But that was before the sun came out. As the weather improved so Rossi's problems returned with chatter badly affecting his qualifying performance and dumping him back into thirteenth on the grid. Chris Vermeulen, who did so well in Turkey, suffered for being one of the only riders never to have been here before but still ended up one place ahead of the champion.

Dani Pedrosa - a huge talent in a very small package...Up at the other end of the grid, the place was being set on fire by young Dani Pedrosa. The MotoGP rookie is the only man I've seen who makes Loris Capirossi look like a giant, and wouldn't be out of place as a flat racing jockey. But my word he knows how to convert that weight advantage into track speed, and he simply blitzed everyone else in final qualifying, ending up over a third of a second faster than the second placed rider. Who was a bit of a surprise, actually. Because with Rossi's problems, the last person you'd expect to see o the front row would be his team mate Colin Edwards. But here he was, just a hundredth of a second ahead of another surprise visitor in the shape of Suzuki's John Hopkins. Mind you, Hopper made a pretty good fist of things here last year, so maybe we shouldn't be so surprised after all. Row two was headed up by yet another surprise - Shinya Nakano on the Kawasaki four thousandths of a second ahead of championship leader Nicky Hayden with Sete Gibernau's Ducati closing the row off. Casey Stoner and Marco Melandri sat on row three ahead of Randy de Puniet on the second Kawasaki, while Loris Capirossi rounded out the top ten.

Hopkins and Edwards run away while nobody is looking. Or so they think...Now race day made life difficult because it was warm, pleasant and dry. And nobody had any real tyre data for a warm dry track here. The warmup session helped a bit but in reality it was still guesswork. And that meant that things could get interesting.

As the lights went out it was a straight drag to the first corner that could only be won by the lightest rider on the most powerful bike. Except that Pedrosa got pushed wide as he ran in a little hot and left space for Hopkins to stuff the Suzuki down the inside. And somehow Edwards got in front. So by end of the first corner (which seems to go on forever) Pedrosa was down in fifth behind Edwards, Hopkins, Gibernau and Nakano. Not only that, but he was being pressured by Casey Stoner as well. Disaster!

Edwards was riding like a man possessed, really wringing the Yamaha's neck, but though he was pulling away from the group behind, Hopkins was staying with him. The last two meetings have seen a real rejuvenation of the Suzuki and it's now going very well indeed. The following pack kept tripping each other up as they passed, re-passed and blocked each other, which both allowed the leaders to break away and made it easier for the following riders to catch up. In particular, one Dr Valentino Rossi, whose bike seems to work better as the tyres wear a little and fuel load lightens. Rossi started carving his way up through the field at around the same time that Pedrosa and Hayden managed to get a bit of a break and get clear of Stoner, Gibernau and Nakano. Chris Vermeulen, locked in a titanic fight further down the field, locked up the front and slid down and out - unhurt and a little the wiser but out of the race nonetheless. And Casey Stoner (27) tussles with Marco Melandri while Makoto Tamada shows his commitment ahead of Capirossi (65) and GibernauMakoto Tamada, a man whose riding over the last year and a bit has been inconsistent at best and positively lacklustre much of the time, suddenly showed his old form as he grabbed the Honda by the scruff of the neck and simply muscled and barged through the riders ahead of him, trading paint with Gibernau and Melandri as he went. And it was truly brilliant to see, too.

Returning to the front again, Hopkins' prediction that he would get swallowed up by the faster bikes proved true as Pedrosa and Hayden made the most of their extra speed to draft past both the Suzuki and Edwards' Yamaha to take a pretty unassailable lead. Yet still the former leaders were able to stay ahead, and maintain their gap, over the following pack. Except for that pesky Rossi, who had scythed past Gibernau on lap nine to give him clear air between him and the leaders. And over the next few las we saw a vintage Rossi performance as he simply reeled i Hopkins and Edwards to close right up behind the Suzuki. Now over the last few seasons we've commented a number of times on just how lucky Rossi has been to get away with certain things. Well this season it looks as though he may be getting the backlash. Because his Yamaha ate a tyre. Rolling into the pits, the team feverishly swapped the rear wheel and sent him back out but to no avail. Within seconds it was obvious that the champion wasn't racing any more, and after a touring ride back round to the pits the reason was apparent. The front tyre had massively delaminated, leaving a huge chunk out of the surface and rendering the bike unrideable. Just bad luck but something we're not used to seeing Rossi suffer from. Still, at least he was back on form so the championship isn't over yet.

Dani Pedrosa. A man destined for greatness...After twenty two laps of virtually perfect riding, Pedrosa took his maiden MotoGP victory from his Repsol Honda team-mate Nicky Hayden with Edwards and Hopkins a long way behind but still clear of the following horde. Casey Stoner fought his way up to sixth before making a huge mistake and having to rejoin back in tenth just seven laps from the end. That he finished fifth, then, is impressive stuff. Especially as he had to pass some seriously quick riders to get there. Hot on his heels was Makoto Tamada, who finally got the better of his race long battle with Marco Melandri, while Gibernau faded under the assault of fellow Ducati rider Loris Capirossi to finish ninth, five seconds ahead of Shinya Nakano.

It was a good race, full of drama and passion and grit as well as some simply excellent riding and a fair share of against the odds stuff as well. The teams will be dragging themselves back to the airport now for the long flight into Europe. Next weekend we've got the French round at Le Mans. Perhaps Yamaha can take heart from the way things went on the day in China and can actually launch a title defence for Rossi before it's too late. Because it will be soon...

Thinks Rossi, "If only it had stayed like this..."Results

1 D Pedrosa, Honda
2 N Hayden, Honda
3 C Edwards, Yamaha
4 J Hopkins, Suzuki
5 C Stoner, Honda
6 M Tamada, Honda
7 M Melandri, Honda
8 L Capirossi, Ducati
9 S Gibernau, Ducati
10 S Nakano, Kawasaki

Championship Standing after 3 rounds

72 N Hayden
59 L Capirossi
57 D Pedrosa
54 M Melandri
52 C Stoner
40 V Rossi
37 T Elias
35 C Edwards
28 S Nakano
25 S Gibernau



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