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seventeen, not out.

Japanese MotoGP, 24th September 2006, Motegi
Words by Simon Bradley, Pics as credited

Motegi is an interesting circuit. You'll be familiar with it, I'm sure, as it features on pretty well every Playstation, X-Box and PC driving/riding game there has ever been. Not without reason, either. It's the perfect circuit for testing and development, containing something of everything - blindingly fast straights, hairpins, fast sweepers, flick-flacks and even up and downhill gradients. No doubt one of the reasons it's so comprehensively challenging is that it was designed and built just nine years ago by Honda who still own and operate it today. Of course, the strong corporate interest means that while the pressure is on the Big H to perform well there, the kudos for giving Honda a bloody nose on their own doorstep is a major driver to all the other teams. Especially the Japanese ones, and even more especially Yamaha and Valentino Rossi.

This season has seen the Italian struggling more than usual, and indeed with just three rounds to go he needs a run of good luck to supplement his prodigious skill and help him regain the lead from Honda's American hopeful Nicky Hayden. Hayden has had a poor showing for the last few races, having failed to get onto the podium since winning in the USA, while Rossi hasn't been off it. But still, with a twenty one point lead, all Hayden needs is another Rossi DNF (and there have been an unprecedented number of them this year - Rossi failing to pick up any points three times) and the fat lady can do her warmups.

Loris Capirossi is the best proof yet that it isn't the size of the dog in the fight that matters - it's the size of the fight in the dog. Loris is a smashing guy, but he's tiny. And has the mother of all fights going on inside...Free practice and qualifying should have been the time that Honda initially stamped their authority on the place. It's their track, after all. Unfortunately for their title aspirations, while there is a Honda on the front row it isn't Nicky Hayden. No, so far the weekend has been utterly owned by two people. Loris Capirossi and Valentino Rossi have been in a class of their own and now occupy the first two places on the grid, around a third of a second ahead of third placed Marco Melandri. Capirossi won in no uncertain style here last year, taking the clean sweep of fastest lap, pole position and race win - no mean achievement. Shinya Nakano keeps qualifying the Kawasaki well, while Sete Gibernau looks to have completed his recovery with another good second row placing. Melandri's team-mate Toni Elias rounds off the second row, while Nicky Hayden heads row three, just ahead of Kawasaki's Randy de Puniet and Hayden's team-mate Dani Pedrosa. And Colin Edwards had a disappointing qualifying ride after spending all the practice sessions near the top of the tree to finish tenth. It seems his race setup is far better than his qualifying one, so as long as he gets a good start he should be in at the end. Oh, of course he needs to stay on the bike, too. John Hopkins, too, was one of the fastest runners on race rubber but outdid himself in qualifying and crashed out hard, happily avoiding real injury and getting on his spare bike. But that takes time as well as denting the confidence, and Hopper is down in thirteenth, a couple of places ahead of first time visitor and team-mate Chris Vermeulen. Top honours for Suzuki, in fact, go to local rider Kousuke Akiyoshi on the satellite Team Suzuki machine.

There were dire warnings of a typhoon approaching, and the teams were braced for another wet race. But race day turned out to be clear, dry and warm, which will have been a considerable relief to everyone. Warmup saw the Ducati pairing of Capirossi and Gibernau make the running while Rossi stooged around in ninth place. But warmup, as we all know, doesn't mean a whole lot. So when the lights went out, though it was a entirely red field at the very front, the next bike was a yellow Yamaha. And indeed by the end of the first lap that yellow Yamaha had split the reds, Rossi diving past Sete Gibernau to take third place behind Melandri and Capirossi. The Italian Ducati rider immediately set a punishing pace, initially dogged by Melandri but gradually opening a bit of a cushion. Behind the leading group, Casey Stoner made an excellent start to slide into fifth place with Shinya Nakano snapping at his heels. Tony Elias made a fine fist of things, getting away well and staying comfortably in front of Nicky Hayden while the top ten was rounded off by Randy de Puniet and Kenny Roberts Jnr. Dani Pedrosa continued his run of disappointing rides, or starts anyway, completing the first lap in a dismal fifteenth behind Vermeulen and Hopkins on the outgunned Suzukis.

John Hopkins demonstrates the correct techique for gravel surfing - keeping the bike moving and upright when the gravel wants to stop it and make it fall over. It's far, far harder than it looks...To be brutally honest, the next twenty four laps weren't exactly riveting. Sure, we saw the early departure of Randy de Puniet in a cloud of gravel and the slightly later departure of Casey Stoner in the same way, but it was hardly edge of the seat stuff. Stoner was caught out by the very thing that makes the circuit perhaps a little dull from an audience perspective. Sure, it's beautifully laid out and incredibly technical, an it may well be the best purpose built test facility in the world, but it's very hard to overtake. The only way to make up ground, really, is on the brakes. And that means pushing hard and deep into corners, and that's a high risk strategy. Because you're loading the front a lot, and there are all sorts of weird camber changes to deal with as the circuit climbs and drops on top of that. Stoner just pushed a fraction too hard, the front locked and unloaded and down he went. The other favourite for catching people out is the hard right hander at the bottom of the very fast back straight. You need to lose maybe 150mph, you're going downhill and you're trying to brake later than the next guy. John Hopkins demonstrated the problem beautifully, running onto the gravel but remaining upright and rejoining without a problem, albeit at the back of the field from his previous thirteenth place.

At the front, Loris Capirossi continued to set a crazy pace, though this time around there was someone faster. Valentino Rossi gradually reeled in Marco melandri, sat behind him for a few laps then made a very clean move to slip past and immediately open a gap. And he was flying, shattering the lap record and taking a vast chunk out of Capirossi's lead. But the Ducati rider wasn't about to be intimidated and after seeing what was happening on his pit board he simply put his head down and got on with it. Rossi must have quickly seen that he wasn't going to be easily able to catch the Ducati, and with half a dozen laps to go it was clear that, though the pace at the front was uncatchably fast, Rossi was by no means going flat out. At this stage in the championship the points are more important than the win, after all.

Dani Pedrosa remains firmly behind both Hopper and Vermeulen, proving surprisingly unable to overtake effectively on a circuit he's won at in different classes. Has he lost the plot already? Or was it just another duff weekend for the humourless one?Marco Melandri rode a good, solid, fast race untroubled by the chasing Gibernau and not really threatening Rossi. Gibernau rode a brilliant race, showing that his recovery is really complete now and resisting the attentions of Shinya Nakano for almost the entire race as well as coming out victorious in a first half duel with Stoner. Nakano, meantime, went for what I can only describe as a kamikaze overtake on the penultimate lap at the same corner as had earlier seen Hopper's temporary departure. Nakano ran out of brakes, tyre, luck and track at around the same time, and it was frankly miraculous that the sliding Kawasaki didn't bowl Gibernau off into the gravel as well. Nakano's departure elevated Nicky Hayden a further place to fifth. The American had struggled to pass Toni Elias and had actually gained more places from people crashing out than through his overtaking skills. Not a good day at the office for the Kentucky Kid. Pedrosa was unable to get past Elias at all, though he at least managed to remain ahead of the battle raging between Roberts and Edwards after taking an age to climb through the field. Edwards finally prevailed over his countryman to take eighth while Makoto Tamada unexpectedly found himself in the top ten and the first local rider home.

Melandri's consistent performance and dogged efforts tied up the Constructor's title for Honda today for a record seventeenth time, overhauling MV Agusta (hence the vague article title). But, and I don't mean to belittle that astonishing achievement, Loris Capirossi's performance today, and indeed through most of the season, really highlights how unfortunate that Catalunya crash actually was. Had he not have been sidelined for a few races as he recovered from some really rather nasty injuries he would have been easily challenging for the championship. And that really would have been a turn-up. It's been a very long time indeed since anyone riding a non Japanese bike has won, and it would be great to see. But this year it's not going to happen. Indeed, the chances of the title being finally wrested from the grasp of one V Rossi Esq are looking increasingly slim as Hayden's lead has been cut from a seemingly unassailable fifty one points after Laguna Seca (his last podium, by the way) to just twelve points as we head back to Europe. And though Hayden has done OK at Valencia, Estoril isn't exactly one of his best venues. While Rossi just gets stronger and stronger, and is on semi-home turf as well...

Whatever happens, these next two races are going to be outstanding. They're great circuits and there is, literally, everything to race for as the championship comes right down to, quite possibly, the last corner. And we all know about Rossi and last corners, don't we?

Marco Melandri didn't win this time, but on his supposedly inferior satellite bike he tied up the manufacturer's title for Honda for the record 17th time...Results

1 L Capirossi, Ducati
2 V Rossi, Yamaha
3 M Melandri, Honda
4 S Gibernau, Ducati
5 N Hayden, Honda
6 T Elias, Honda
7 D Pedrosa, Honda
8 C Edwards, Yamaha
9 K Roberts Jnr, KR211V
10 M Tamada, Honda

Championship Standing after 15 rounds

236 N Hayden
224 V Rossi
209 M Melandri
205 L Capirossi
202 D Pedrosa
119 C Stoner
110 K Roberts Jnr
104 C Edwards
101 J Hopkins
95 S Gibernau



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