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and it's all change at the top

Valencia MotoGP, 29th October 2006,Valencia
Words by Simon Bradley, Pics as credited

Valentino Rossi came here with an eight point lead and qualifying gave him a HUGE psychological advantage too...Valencia is an incredibly tight circuit, with just one straight of barely half a kilometre, entered from a long, tight left hander that really makes things interesting. The circuit is set in a natural amphitheatre which makes it great to spectate at and adds to the atmosphere that always accompanies a Spanish race.

This year the home team were a little light on numbers. Local hero Sete Gibernau is out, having managed to tear the plate holding his collarbone together out when he got skittled by Casey Stoner, so local honour was in the safe hands of Carlos Checa and the slightly less safe hands, on recent performance anyway, of Dani Pedrosa.

Valencia is not one of Valentino Rossi's favourite tracks, though he has won here. As well as everywhere else, it seems. Lat year Nicky Hayden beat him across the line, though Marco Melandri took the chequered flag. And with the points as they stood coming back to Spain for the last round, Hayden needed to get nine points more than Rossi to take the title. That meant winning, with Rossi coming no better than third. Not impossible, but it was going to be a challenge. Hayden has never won here.

And practice didn't make life look any rosier for the Kentucky Kid either, as Rossi showed the rest of the field the way home in two of the three sessions, with Hayden getting bested by Stoner and Capirossi as well as Rossi. Qualifying got worse, as Rossi took pole by a comfortable two tenths of a second. Troy Bayliss, newly crowned World Superbike Champion, took a shock second place while deputising for Gibernau. A shock because Bayliss hasn't been on a MotoGP bike for a while, and hardly covered himself in glory when he was here last time. And a shock because he beat Loris Capirossi into third on the same bike. In fairness, Bayliss did get his best ever result here at Valencia on a Ducati, some years back. Shinya Nakano took the opportunity to shine in his last ever ride on a Kawasaki to take fourth, ahead of Nicky Hayden who had a mountain to climb and would certainly be way behind in the psychological battle in fifth. Just seven thousandths of a second behind Hayden, his nemesis and team mate, Dani Pedrosa sat in sixth with Casey Stoner and a very impressive Chris Vermeulen just behind him. Colin Edwards qualified a disappointing tenth behind John Hopkins.

Bayliss leads in front of a packed crowd. 130,000 people came and boiled their brains in the Spanish sun. Oh, and check out the sparky toe-sliders... Naughty lad.Warmup was slightly different, as is so often the case, with Rossi just eleventh fastest and Casey Stoner putting in the quickest time. But warmup means nothing, really, it's just what happens when the flag drops that truly matters. Or when the lights go out, of course, races no longer being started by a man with a flag. More's the pity. Anyway.

Lights out, then, and Valentino Rossi made a truly diabolical start, getting swamped by the ravening pack behind and coming out seventh, ahead of Nakano but behind Stoner. Indeed, Hayden actually appeared to clip Rossi in the scramble off the line, something which could have decided the championship then and there. Ahead of the young Australian it was Melandri then Hayden, Capirossi and Pedrosa chasing an astonishingly quick Bayliss. Bayliss got the holeshot and put his head down in a spirited "nothing to lose" ride. He'd obviously forgotten just how hard these bikes bite back. Or how often he'd been on the receiving end in his previous forays to the wild and wacky world of MotoGP. A couple of laps in and Bayliss had Hayden behind him, the American passing Capirossi cleanly before being let through with lots and lots of spare room by Pedrosa. Further back, Vermeulen wa son the move, climbing all over the back of Rossi's Yamaha while the Italian was seemingly unable to get past the fast but fractious Casey Stoner. Then on the fifth lap, just as we were all thinking we could see Rossi settling down and starting to move, it all went wrong. Valentino Rossi, seven times World Champion and absolutely solid under pressure, made an unforced error and fell off. Though unhurt and back on the bike in a matter of seconds, the champion rejoined the race in a distant last place. Surely now it was all over?

Up at the front, Troy Bayliss was riding a wheel perfect race, putting in constantly fast, smooth laps. Behind him, aware from his pit boards that Rossi was now 20th but equally aware that Rossi had performed miracles before, Hayden was passed by Capirossi who had managed to push back past the Honda roadblock protecting their championship hopes. So with a Ducati one-two, Rossi needed to finish eighth or better to retain the title. It took him until lap nine to get off the bottom, catching and passing Garry McCoy on the development Ilmor 800cc bike and dispatching James Ellison a lap later to raise him to fourteenth, still six points short of retaining the title. Up at the front, though team orders were strenuously denied all round, none of the Honda guys appeared to be really trying to catch Hayden in third. They squabbled with each other but nobody was Vermeulen and Hopkins rode the wheels off their Suzukis for a honourable end to the season in eleventh and tenth places respectively. Next year's 800 is rumoured to be a very impressive bike...about to risk taking much needed points away from their champion elect. Pedrosa rode alternately well and rashly, passing Melandri for fourth but running so wide he ended up sixth behind both Melandri and Stoner. Stoner rode fast and cleanly until crashing out seven laps from the end. No change there, sadly. Chris Vermeulen was riding the Suzuki brilliantly when he had a gear selector failure that put him into neutral on the approach to a fast corner. The lack of engine braking and the resulting instability put him into the gravel and he then, unfortunately, dropped the bike at low speed and couldn't carry on. Both Alex Hoffman and Jose Luis Cardoso dropped out on their d'Antin Ducatis while Randy de Puniet celebrated his retention by the Kawasaki squad with a crash on lap seven.

At the blunt end of the field, Valentino Rossi was riding the wheels off the Yamaha in an attempt to close the gap between him and his rapidly fading title hopes. Overtakes and departures had elevated him to thirteenth but the gap was just too much and he ran out of laps while still a few seconds behind twelfth placed Makoto Tamada. And up at the front, Troy Bayliss continued a faultless ride to take a magnificent chequered flag ahead of Loris Capirossi and Nicky Hayden, giving the American the 2006 title. Pedrosa came in fourth, ahead of Melandri which gave Capirossi third in the championship by one point. Last week's winner Toni Elias continued his good form, coming home sixth ahead of Nakano, Roberts and Edwards. Carlos Checa rounded off the top ten after passing John Hopkins with five laps to go.

So for the first time in MotoGP we've seen someone other than Valentino Rossi lift the title. Today Hayden was the better rider, though luck has to be acknowledged as playing a huge part in Rossi's defeat. It was so close that, right up until the chequered flag was waved, we really couldn't say for sure who was going to do it. Certainly this morning pretty well all the smart monty was on Rossi. Which just goes to show something. I'm not sure exactly what, though.

So what happens now? Well as far as teams are concerned, Hayden and Pedrosa will stay where they are, as will Rossi and Edwards, Vermeulen and Hopkins and Melandri and Elias. Stoner will be joining Capirossi at Ducati while Carlos Checa is going to LCR Honda. Tamada is swapping with Checa to ride the Tech3 Yamaha and Randy de Puniet is being joined by Olivier Jacques at Kawasaki. Alex Barros is back from World Superbikes to ride the d'Antin Ducati - a brave move.

Next season is going to be very interesting. The 800cc bikes are already nearly as fast as the 990s and are probably going to be easier to ride. I'd expect to see good results from former 250 riders as they'll be more about corner speed and less about managing prodigious amounts of torque, but I'll wager, here and now, that Rossi will be out of the blocks fighting come the first race of the season.

Roll on Spring...

Results

Hayden looks just a little happier than last time we got a close up of him, post race... Congratulations to a well deserved title from another reigning World Champion. That's not something you see evry day.1 T Bayliss, Ducati
2 L Capirossi, Ducati
3 N Hayden, Honda
4 D Pedrosa, Honda
5 M Melandri, Honda
6 T Elias, Honda
7 S Nakano, Kawasaki
8 K Roberts Jnr, KR211V
9 C Edwards, Yamaha
10 C Checa, Yamaha

Championship Standing after 17 rounds

252 N Hayden (2007 World Champion)
247 V Rossi
229 L Capirossi
228 M Melandri
215 D Pedrosa
134 K Roberts Jnr
124 C Edwards
119 C Stoner
116 T Elias
116 J Hopkins

SB

 




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