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Portuguese MotoGP, 14th October 2006, Estoril
Words by Simon Bradley, Pics as credited Dani Pedrosa, aged 11.

Estoril is an exciting circuit, with wild elevation changes, some incredibly tight chicanes and lovely long sweepers coupled with an extremely fast main straight with the finish line further away from the last corner than is now the norm, meaning that there still is something to be gained form being the fastest out of that corner in the drag to the line.

Chris Vermeulen rode as hard as he could, eventually losing out to Melandri in a race-long battle...With the championship getting closer and closer with each passing race, the pressure was certainly on as the riders took to the track for free practice and qualifying sessions. During practice it was impossible to call as Hayden, Rossi and Stoner all put in scorching times to take their turns at the top of the leaderboard. But come qualifying, when the chips were down, it was the experienced and confident Yamaha team, riding a wave of success, which made the running, putting Rossi on pole with his team-mate Colin Edwards running a close second, relegating championship leader Hayden to the last place on the front row and bumping his Honda team-mate Dani Pedrosa back into fourth. Pedrosa was joined on the second row by Casey Stoner and Suzuki mounted John Hopkins, while Nakano, Gibernau and Checa made up row three and Loris Capirossi rounded out the top ten. Of particular note, at the back of the grid, was Garry McCoy, the likeable Aussie piloting next year's Ilmor - just 800cc against the mighty 990 bikes fielded by the other teams. Outgunned for sure, but Ilmor will have two races worth of data when nobody else has even turned a wheel in anger. Smart move, I'd say.

Shinya Nakano has already decided not to ride for Kawasaki next year. This weekend must have confirmed it for both sides...Estoril has had the occasional spot of rain in the past on GP weekends, and indeed this weekend it looked as though we may get a repeat of last year's monsoon. But the moisture laden clouds remained moisture laden, so although it was very humid the track remained dry.

Lights out and away, then, and Valentino Rossi made the break as expected, but Dani Pedrosa made a magnificent start to slot into second place, ahead of Colin Edwards with Nicky Hayden just where he didn't want to be - with two fast and hard to pass riders between himself and Rossi. Casey Stoner made a great start too, and was pushing hard. Perhaps a little too hard, as he collided with Sete Gibernau and both exited before even completing two laps, Gibernau injuring his shoulder again. That was one lap better than Shinya Nakano though, who clipped the back of John Hopkins' Suzuki and was flipped high into the air and into the dirt, crashing hard and being taken to the medical centre. Some time passed before word came back that. thankfully, the popular Kawasaki rider was not badly hurt. The American was able to continue despite the addition of some tyre rubber to the back of his leathers... Up at the front, Rossi was already opening a gap over Pedrosa which became even more decisive when Colin Edwards pushed through to ride shotgun behind his team-mate.

Tucked in behind Nicky Hayden, Toni Elias had come up from eleventh on the grid to an astounding fifth, ahead of Loris Capirossi, while Chris Vermeulen was in seventh from his twelfth place on the grid, ahead of Kenny Roberts Jnr and John Hopkins. Carlos Checa rounded out the top ten on his thirty fourth birthday. Lap four and Nicky Hayden made a move on Pedrosa, barging past and setting off in pursuit of Colin Edwards and the rapidly disappearing Rossi. Firm but fair, Hayden must have been able to see his The moment that Dani Pedrosa got crossed off Nicky Hayden's Christmas card list (from TV feed so no larger/better quality image available)championship lead being further eroded as finishing fourth would just see him going to Valencia neck and neck with Rossi if the Italian won. That plainly would not do. The trouble was, mathematically Dani Pedrosa was also in with a shout. But not if he finished behind Rossi. Or Hayden. The young Spaniard's entire body language changed and he started to push extremely hard in a bid to not only pass Hayden but challenge for the lead. And that's when it all went wrong for Pedrosa and the Repsol Honda team. Because Pedrosa stuffed his bike down the inside of Hayden, took a little too much kerb, lost the front...and wiped both of them out. Yes, Dani Pedrosa, in his rookie season for Honda, took his own team-mate out of the race which could just have made him World Champion. Neither rider was seriously hurt, Pedrosa cracking a finger and being sensible enough to stay away from Hayden until the American, positively incandescent with rage and frustration, calmed down.

Things settled down a bit then. Makoto Tamada was riding well, recording a new lap record before first Valentino Rossi and then Kenny Roberts Jnr lifted that honour. Chris Vermeulen faded a little, running wide in a dice with Melandri and Capirossi and taking to the gravel but happily saving it and rejoining. But the real surprise was Toni Elias, who found himself in third place and the lead Honda. And so it stayed, Colin Edwards doing a grand job of protecting Rossi from the marauding Elias and the on form Kenny Roberts Jnr. Lap fifteen saw Elias manage to get Toni Elias absolutely rode the wheels off the Fortuna Honda to take a richly deserved first ever win...past, though Edwards fought back hard and retook his position briefly before losing out to Honda power. It took Roberts nine more laps to get past, Edwards' tyres finally crying enough after being abused for all that time. But the lap before Roberts reached a podium slot, Elias - not exactly a star name - dived through to take the lead from Rossi. The Spaniard was absolutely riding the wheels off the Honda and was hugely spectacular to watch as he adopted crazy lean angles and rear wheel steered everywhere, taking very different lines to everyone else ad getting away with taking huge liberties that should have seen him in the gravel. Rossi retook the lead a lap later and the stage was set for an epic three way battle as Roberts came to join in. All three of them held the lead at times over the next four laps, but as the final lap started Rossi put his head down, pushed back into the lead past Roberts and then found himself back in second as Elias came from nowhere at all to outbrake them all into turn one. Rossi took the lead back in an extremely forceful pass at the chicane, but the drag to the line went the way of Elias by just two thousandths of a second, with Roberts just over a tenth of a second behind and Edwards about half a second behind him.

Eighteen seconds passed before Makoto Tamada brought his Honda home in fifth place, ahead of John Hopkins, Carlos Checa, Marco Melandri and Chris Vermeulen. Randy de Puniet salvaged something for Kawasaki by rounding out the top ten, while McCoy scored a single point for Ilmor on their first outing - a remarkable achievement by the whole team.

Talking of remarkable achievements, Toni Elias won his first ever MotoGP in amazing style, riding like a man possessed. Whether it was a one off or whether it's the sign of things to come, only time will tell. But it took five points from Valentino Rossi, which could be crucial. And those five points mean that the champion goes to the last round with just an eight point lead over Nicky Hayden. It's going to be a fantastic climax to one of the best seasons ever...

Kenny Roberts Jnr may well feel he was robbed at the last...because he was. Rode a great race, though, on an extremely impressively developed machine.Results

1 T Elias, Honda
2 V Rossi, Yamaha
3 K Roberts Jnr, KR211V
4 C Edwards, Yamaha
5 M Tamada, Honda
6 J Hopkins, Suzuki
7 C Checa, Yamaha
8 M Melandri, Honda
9 C Vermeulen, Suzuki
10 R de Puniet, Kawasaki

Championship Standing after 16 rounds

244 V Rossi
236 N Hayden
M Melandri
209 L Capirossi
202 D Pedrosa
126 K Roberts Jnr
119 C Stoner
117 C Edwards
111 J Hopkins
106 T Elias



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