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It's gettin' tight at the top. . .

Malaysian MotoGP, 10th September 2006, Sepang
Words by Simon Bradley, Pics as credited

Sete Gibernau returns after an injury enforced layoff. And he seemed to be raring to go, too...Sepang in Malaysia is a fantastic circuit. As wide as a commercial airport runway in places, it offers a fascinating combination of slow corners and flat out straights, climbs and dips; and usually offers some interesting action, especially on the brakes. Take the first turn, for example. It's a first or second gear hairpin, it starts to drop downhill on the exit and it's at the end of the main straight where the riders are hitting the best part of a hundred and ninety miles an hour. A major test of bottle as well as brakes. Those long straights and hard braking areas favour the Ducati, which performs well under braking and is incredibly fast, while the tight infield works best for the sweeter handling bikes and should make the playing field pretty even.

Free practice saw last year's winner. Loris Capirossi, build on his success in Brno and utterly dominate proceedings. Dani Pedrosa, whose public personality continues to match his physical stature, also ran well until a big, fast crash which rendered him unlikely to be fit for the race. Rossi eventually managed to turn in some quick laps after a slow start while champion in waiting Nicky Hayden had a variable experience as well. Suzuki's Chris Vermeulen was unwell, suffering from a head cold which was aggravated by the heat and humidity in Sepang, while John Hopkins continued to make his usual dogged progress. Both Suzuki and Kawasaki are currently highly dependent on qualifying to get a good race from the start, as Bridgestone make a particularly good qualifying tyre which gets them further up the grid than they might otherwise manage. Then it's down to the considerable ability of their riders and the setup of the bikes to keep them there on race day. Indeed, as we have long argued, practice times don't really mean a whole lot - the sessions are there to allow riders to get used to the circuit and for teams to try different setups before the really important qualifying sessions.

Except this time. Because qualifying was rained off. The heavens opened and there was so much standing water on the track that even the pace car was struggling Under the circumstances there was no way that the session could go ahead, and nobody was complaining about that. The Doctor was in the house and on fine form as well. Those with a technical interest will notice the clear pipe coming from his helmet. It's to drink through - he has a water bottle in the hump on his leathers. Yes, really...What was a little strange was the way that grid positions were decided. Instead of, for example, aggregating qualifying times across the season so far or even basing the grid on championship standing, the organisers decided to simply use practice times. Hardly fair as some teams had tried qualifying tyres, some had got a good setup, some would have been trying alternative strategies - in other words, it wasn't a particularly valid decision. But the riders had to stick with it, and at the front at least it panned out OK with Rossi on pole next to Hayden and Capirossi with Pedrosa in fifth behind Kenny Roberts Jnr. That was potentially dangerous as Pedrosa in particular had been very slow after his accident and was still under a major question mark. He was seen using a box to get onto the bike, apparently with an injured knee and possibly shoulder. Not ideal for a circuit like this. Gibernau rounded off the second row, riding well in his return to the fray. Row three was headed by Randy de Puniet from John Hopkins and Marco Melandri while Casey Stoner finished off the top ten.

Fortunately (or perhaps not) race day dawned dry and warm. Humid, yes, but dry. Warmup saw Capirossi and his Ducati topping the leaderboard while Pedrosa was conspicuously slow. Present but slow. Kenny Roberts Jnr, Rossi and Nakano were the other fastest riders.

So race time and everyone lined up. Pedrosa had obviously had some help from Dr Costa and the Clinica Mobile as we was there and ready to go, though obviously in some considerable discomfort and even less animated than usual. It was apparent from the warmup lap that the young Spaniard was just there to salvage what he could from the weekend rather than to push for a result. So when he made a cracking start to lead into the first corner, frankly we were all pretty astounded. Rossi soon muscled past but at the end of the first lap it was Rossi from Pedrosa with Capirossi and Hayden following. Even before that lap was over there had been multitudinous overtakes throughout the field as well as the ignominious departure of Shinya Nakano in a collision with team-mate Randy de Puniet. No doubt much finger pointing ensued when they got back to the pits, though Nakano had to wait until the end of the race for satisfaction as de Puniet was able to continue.

Everyone thought that this was all they'd see of Capirossi. Most of them were right...To be honest, things settled down rather after half a dozen laps or so. Capirossi briefly got to the front before Rossi repassed him. Pedrobot drew deep on reserves one of us would have guessed he had and maintained a watching brief in third while Hayden rode a lonely race in fourth, unchallenged for the most part and never close enough to threaten anyone else. Toni Elias came from a lowly fourteenth on the grid and stormed through the pack, climbing all the way to fifth by the end of the first lap and riding an extremely spirited first half before fading and eventually retiring, well crashing actually, from ninth place on lap eleven. Further down the field, Melandri, Stoner, Gibernau, Hopkins and Roberts were enjoying a race long battle that saw them all swapping places regularly. But the real action didn't take place until the last half a dozen laps or so.

Capirossi took the lead with a firm but fair overtake on lap seventeen. Taking the lead is one thing, of course, but making a gap is something else. Especially if the rider you are trying to break away from is Valentino Rossi. And just a couple of laps later, Rossi stuffed the Yamaha down the inside at one of the nadgery little complexes, staying ahead as they crossed the line but losing out on grunt to the Ducati and being relegated to second place by the end of the straight. But the stage was set for a game of cat and mouse that went all the way to the wire. The finish line is about a third of the way down the straight. Too close to the last corner for the Ducati's power to prove decisive. So on the final lap, after some pretty dogged peursuit and several abortive overtakes, Rossi made his move again. Side by side through the corner and as wide as it was possible to go on the exit. Maybe a little wider, as neither rider gave any quarter. And down the straight to the final corner it was Rossi who had the lead but the big red Ducati was closing fast. Rossi was desperately late on the brakes and ran in deep and wide, gifting the place to Capirossi. Who unfortunately ran even deeper having overcooked the approach more than Valentino and did well to get the Ducati turned at all. Rossi crossed the line three quarters of a second ahead of a still very happy Capirossi, with Pedrosa an astounding third and Hayden in fourth.

Gibernau won the midfield battle to take fifth from Hopkins while Roberts had another fair day at the office, beating Stoner (who managed to stay on and maintain a good pace - usually mutually exclusive achievements for Yet another tough ride from John Hopkins, here duffing up Casey Stoner and Kenny Roberts Jnr on his way to yet another not-quite-podium finish.the young and very talented Australian) and Melandri. Colin Edwards rounded out the top ten.

Apart from the remarkable performance by a really quite badly hurt Dani Pedrosa and some outstanding duelling between Rossi and Capirossi in the final laps, this wouldn't qualify as a classic race. But it has had the effect of closing the championship right up, and with a hundred points still on offer there are at five riders with a mathematical chance of winning the title. Though the smart money will be on one of the top four - Hayden, Pedrosa, Rossi or Capirossi. Me, I'd be reluctant to put my stake on anyone riding a motorcycle that isn't yellow lifting the crown at the end of the season.

Philip Island next week. Home turf for the burgeoning Aussie contingent and somewhere that Capirossi always goes well at. As do several other people. Could it be the place that Hayden sews it up? Could we see that elusive first Suzuki podium? Will The Doctor work his magic and shrink the points deficit even further? We'll have to see...


Would you bet against this man? Me neither...Results

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

Championship Standing after 12 rounds

214 N Hayden
192 D Pedrosa
188 V Rossi
171 L Capirossi
168 M Melandri
109 C Stoner
101 K Roberts Jnr
96 C Edwards
93 J Hopkins
75 S Nakano



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