Over the long haul of a MotoGP season, stretching over seven months from the first race to the last, racer fortunes ebb and flow, riding a crest of success at one race, only to be left high and dry a couple of races later. And this year, as so often, there hasn't been a single rider with consistently good luck from March to October. For some, such as Loris Capirossi, whose Himalayan highs of three wins have been matched by the Hadean depths of the crash at Catalunya, the difference has been dramatic; For others, the peaks have not been so high, nor have the troughs been so deep.
Nicky Hayden was one of the latter category: His string of podium finishes early in the year swelled gently to a crescendo of two wins in the summer, then ebbed to a run of places just behind the front runners, slowly leeching points to his rivals. But his early run of luck looked like being just good enough to take the title for the Honda Racing Corporation, after their long years of drought since Valentino Rossi left to go to Yamaha. All Hayden needed was to stay close to Rossi, and HRC would have a World Champion again.
Ready To Race
Hayden proved he was ready to do just that, and maybe more, during practice. The Kentucky Kid led FP3 on Saturday morning, then, during the afternoon's qualifying session, came close to taking pole, ending up in 3rd spot, behind Valentino Rossi and Rossi's Camel Yamaha team mate Colin Edwards. With Hayden's team mate Dani Pedrosa in 4th, the race was shaping up to be a classic confrontation between the might of the Honda Racing Corporation, the wealthiest and most successful racing organization in motorcycling, and their bitterest rivals, Yamaha.
The talk was all of team orders, but HRC stated consistently and categorically that there would be no team orders between the Repsol Honda riders, as Pedrosa was still mathematically in with a chance of taking the title from Hayden, though realistically, it would require a minor catastrophe. This left MotoGP followers of all colors rather bewildered, and confused as to just how eager HRC were to take the world's most prestigious motorcycle racing title. Indeed, there was much skepticism about just how seriously to take this announcement.
No such confusion over in the Yamaha garage, however. As the riders sat on the grid before the race started, Colin Edwards openly stated that his job was to "stick to the plan", presumably to try and get behind Rossi, and ahead of Hayden, staying there as long as possible to give Rossi a chance to get away. Yamaha had clearly decided that Valentino Rossi could use all the help he could get to prolong his 5-year reign as MotoGP World Champion. Edwards comments that he had also "agreed terms" with Yamaha only confirmed this impression.
The Man With The Plan
As the red lights dimmed, and the bikes fired off the line, "the plan" seemed to be coming off perfectly: Colin Edwards fired off the line fastest, and reached the turn in to Turn 1 first, pausing just long enough to let Valentino Rossi pass round the outside and lead through the first turn. Behind the Camel Yamaha pair, the Repsol Hondas showed that there really were no team orders, as Dani Pedrosa led Nicky Hayden into the first turn, Hayden's poor starts improving, losing only a single place, rather than a whole plethora.
Edwards' role in "the plan" started to falter, however, as Dani Pedrosa tore past him at Turn 2, and chased off after Rossi. HRC's strategy started looking more and more cunning, with Pedrosa off and after Rossi, giving Hayden a chance to take Edwards in his own time, and join in the fight. This cautious approach had worked well for Hayden so far this year, but at the start of lap 2, the Kentucky Kid demonstrated a change of course. At the end of the long straight, as Edwards and Hayden braked hard for Turn 1, chasing Rossi and Pedrosa, Hayden pulled level with Edwards, and took the tough outside line to cut across the Texas Tornado's Yamaha, powering into 3rd place. Hayden had clearly decided that there was only one way to defend his title lead: By riding like a champion.
Behind Hayden, the fight was close: The two Ducatis had made up for their poor start, with Casey Stoner sandwiched between them. Behind Gibernau, in 8th place, sat the surprising figure of Toni Elias, on a very mediocre season so far, with Kenny Roberts Jr in 9th, leading the two Suzukis and Carlos Checa. But on lap 2, Elias' reasonable 8th place became a strong 6th place, as Casey Stoner lost the front and crashed, leaving Sete Gibernau with nowhere to go, except over Stoner's LCR Honda, into the gravel, and out of the race. The bitter irony of this crash was only revealed the next day, as Stoner announced he had signed a deal with Ducati for next year, taking Gibernau's ride.
While the shenanigans were afoot behind them, Edwards had reapplied himself to "the plan", getting back past Hayden, and heading off to chase Pedrosa. A lap later, Edwards got "the plan" right back on track, pulling out a textbook block pass on Pedrosa through the chicane, out-braking on the inside into the left-hander, and cutting across in front of Pedrosa going into the right-hander, leaving Pedrosa with nowhere to go, and almost at a standstill. After Brno, Pedrosa had complained of aggressive passing by Rossi, Hayden and Capirossi, and this was a classic demonstration of how to race at the very highest level: with ruthless precision, and an absolute desire to get in front of the man ahead.
Half a lap later, Nicky Hayden repeated the lesson: going into Turn 6, Hayden stuffed his Honda up the inside of Pedrosa's, forcing his team mate to run wide, and cede the place. With this brutal pass, Hayden stated that he was serious about taking the title back to Kentucky.
So, the race was back where it had started: with the two Camel Yamahas leading two Repsol Hondas. The scrap behind Rossi had given him a little bit of breathing space, but with just a second over Colin Edwards, who had Nicky Hayden and Dani Pedrosa breathing down his neck, The Doctor was far from safe. On lap 4, the tussle between the teams was undecided, but the Yamahas seemed to have the edge. On lap 5, the battle would be settled for good.
With Rossi edging slowly away at the front, Dani Pedrosa seemed to decide he would have to go get Valentino himself. But to do this, he would first have to get past his team mate, Nicky Hayden, in 3rd. So, going into Turn 6, he braked up the inside of Hayden, trying to grab the inside line, to get after Edwards on the straight. But passing Hayden in his current form is extraordinarily hard, and Pedrosa came up short, with the door firmly shut in his face. Too far ahead of himself, and no escape route, he braked harder still, losing the front in the process, and slipping off the low side of the bike. His bike, freed from the discipline of Pedrosa's Michelins, stopped turning, and took the tangent towards the gravel. But that tangent traced a straight line through the heart Nicky Hayden's Honda, and Pedrosa's bike swiped Hayden's from underneath him, leaving the Kentucky Kid beached in the gravel pit, his bike, like his title hopes, broken. In one fell swoop, HRC's policy of "no team orders" proved fatal to Hayden's, and HRC's, championship chances.
Under most circumstances, Nicky Hayden is a sponsor's dream: He is polite, well-spoken, and cheerful. He has taken adversity in his stride, and tried to be positive about events and decisions, even when they have worked out against him. But even for him, there are limits. Hayden was incandescent with rage. With his bike lying useless beside him, Hayden knelt in the gravel and pounded the earth in fury. Slowly, reluctantly, he stood up, cast a look as black as a Kentucky coal mine at his team mate, and walked towards the crash barriers, cursing long and loud to the heavens, his face a picture of wrath. But no one could blame him for such behavior: He was the victim of a stupid, and uncharacteristic, mistake by Dani Pedrosa, who had ridden like an excited teenager, rather than the seasoned multiple world champion that he is. Pedrosa, looking extremely contrite after the race, hardly seemed to understand what had happened himself, and pledged, somewhat belatedly, to do whatever he could to help Hayden win the title at Valencia. Chris Herring, HRC's Sporting Manager, described the incident as "a complete disaster" and "the worst possible thing that could happen". That description could not be more accurate.
The Show Must Go On
As Valentino Rossi raced down the finish straight to start lap 6, his pit board tersely told the story of the race: "Hayden OUT, Edwards 1.1". With a lead of over a second, and his team mate behind him to run interference, The Doctor seemed set to take an unassailable 13 point lead to Valencia. The trouble was, there was the small matter of another 23 laps to race, and bikes coming up fast from behind.
Hayden's fall had benefited more than just Rossi: Toni Elias, having jumped from 8th to 6th after Stoner's mishap with Gibernau, had succeeded in passing Loris Capirossi, before being gifted 3rd place by Pedrosa's fit of temporary madness. With the two Repsol Hondas gone, he started closing on Edwards. Behind Elias, Capirossi had been joined by Kenny Roberts Jr, and the two set about trying to catch the Fortuna Honda. Within 2 laps, Elias was with Edwards, with Capirossi and Kenny Jr also on the way. Then, on lap 9, Capirossi's forward charge went into reverse gear, suddenly losing a second a lap. Next lap, he lost another second a lap, and started on a long slide to the rear of the field.
With Capirossi no longer holding him up, Kenny Roberts took off in pursuit of Edwards and Elias. Setting a new lap record in the process, by lap 13, he had fastened on to Elias' exhaust, biding his time for a pass. But Elias had plans of his own. At the end of the back straight, as Edwards braked for the turn, Toni Elias hurtled past the outside, seemingly on his way into the gravel pit, or possibly even off into space, with the speed he was carrying. But Elias had been watching and learning from a couple of other riders: the lessons learned from team mate Marco Melandri, the hardest braker in the paddock, allowed Elias to lose just enough speed to copy something resembling a motocross move by Ricky Carmichael, riding the berm line round the outside of the turn, before cutting back in front of Colin Edwards, to take 2nd.
If Edwards was surprised, he knew exactly how to respond: Three turns later, Edwards put exactly the same tough block pass on Elias that had worked so well with Pedrosa. As they rounded the Parabolica to hare down the back straight, the tough old veteran seemed to have put the eager young gun firmly in his place.
Not for long though. Next lap, at the same place, going into turn 6, Elias pulled off the same berm shot move and got past Edwards once again. The difference this time, though, was that he put enough space between Edwards and himself that the Tornado couldn't blow back by in the chicane. Once past Colin, Toni Elias set his sights on Rossi, and opened the chase. 5 laps later, Elias was on Rossi, and looking for a way past.
This put both the Camel Yamaha team mates in a quandary. Valentino Rossi wanted to take as many points as he could from the race, to cement his lead over Hayden, and make his job at Valencia, a track he is not fond of, as easy as possible. But Toni Elias was not just faster than Rossi, but his wild and spectacular style, sliding both front and rear into the turns in an attempt to get by, was in danger of taking both himself and Rossi out, making all that work, and Valentino's luck, mean nothing. Where Rossi was riding for a championship, Toni Elias was putting on a display in order to secure a ride for next year: Even if he crashed out right now, he had made his point, so he had nothing to lose.
Behind Elias, Colin Edwards, who had been doing his best to slow up Elias and Roberts Jr, now had to pick up the pace to help Rossi again. But in rushing to catch Elias, he would carry KRJR in his wake, meaning two possible candidates could steal points from The Doctor. Still putting on one of the strongest showings of the season, he set off in pursuit of Elias, hoping to get "the plan" back on track.
As Rossi tried to hold off Elias, Edwards and Roberts caught the leading pair, making it four up front. Then, as they thundered down the main straight, Toni Elias made his move: braking wildly late, he slithered his bike up the inside of Rossi to take the lead. He led for a lap, then, unable to shake Rossi, seemed to decide it would be better to follow Rossi round, and pounce later. As the foursome rounded Turn 4 onto the back straight, Elias sat up, looked back, and signaled Rossi to take the lead. Not one to look a gift horse in the mouth, Rossi obliged, and started trying to build a gap again. But try as he might, he could not break the group.
Behind Rossi, things were far from settled: On the next lap, Kenny Roberts Jr out-braked Edwards going into Turn 1 to take 3rd, then closed on Elias to copy the block pass at the chicane, which had worked so well for Edwards. Now past Elias, Kenny Jr was after Rossi. Within a lap, he had caught him, but getting past was a different matter altogether.
Hard, but not impossible, as it turned out, for with 2 laps to go, Roberts out-braked Rossi at the end of the straight, going into Turn 1. Though he passed Rossi, Roberts was unable to shake him. Behind Rossi, Elias had dropped Edwards, no longer able to execute "the plan", after putting up a staunch defense all afternoon. The young Spaniard was right on the leading pair, and coming onto the main straight for the penultimate time, just a few feet separated the trio.
As they all braked for Turn 1, it was once again the wild antics of Elias which got him past Roberts and Rossi, sweeping from 3rd to 1st at a single stroke. For The Doctor, this was too much: 2nd place would give him an 8 point lead over Hayden, but 3rd would leave him only 4 points ahead. Going into Turn 2, Rossi pounced, sliding up the inside of Kenny Jr to take 2nd. This left him in a perfect position: following Elias, he could pick his point to pounce, and then just hold off little Toni to take the win. The chicane once again proved to be the decider, Valentino Rossi putting the same block pass on Elias which Edwards and Roberts had done before.
Blink Of An Eye
But after being mugged by this move twice previously, Elias had wised up to it: With the inside line blocked, Elias swept his Fortuna Honda to the outside, as the chicane flicked round to the right. This positioned him perfectly for the final run through the Esses and round the Parabolica. Exiting from Rossi's slipstream as they came onto the main straight, the young Spaniard, whose future in MotoGP had until that point looked bleak, sneaked over the line to take his first premier class win by just 2/1000ths of a second. Rossi was content to settle for 2nd, and take an 8 point into the final round at Valencia, while Kenny Roberts Jr took 3rd, and his 2nd podium of the year, continuing the improvements of the latter part of the season.
Colin Edwards, who ran with "the plan" from start to finish, crossed the line in 4th, significantly improving his chances of staying with Yamaha for next season. A podium would have been better for Colin, and well-deserved, but he'd used the best of his tires blocking for Rossi.
Behind Edwards, more contract chasing was going on. Makoto Tamada, who'd been doing his best impression of the invisible man all season, and has already been dropped by Konica Minolta for 2007, finally put in an impressive performance to take 5th position, his best result of the season. The most surprising part of Tamada's ride is that he managed it at Estoril, a track which is very hard on the front end. Ever since Tamada moved from Bridgestone tires to Michelins, he has complained of a lack of confidence in the front end. Maybe he's finally figured the Michelins out, in time for the end of the season.
John Hopkins rode a decent race in the points, at a track where Bridgestone riders struggled, and Carlos Checa put on another outstanding display on the second-rate Dunlop tires, coming home in 7th. Checa's performance over the past few races has been so good that he won't have to do it next year, having secured Casey Stoner's Honda at LCR for 2007. Behind Checa, Marco Melandri struggled home to cap a tough weekend, 8th place and a win for his team mate some small consolation for his troubles.
Chris Vermeulen took 9th, a creditable result for his first visit to the track, while Randy de Puniet was the only Kawasaki to make it to the finish, Shinya Nakano having crashed out on the first lap. Alex Hofmann will have been delighted to have beaten Loris Capirossi on the Pramac d'Antin Ducati, after Capirex, so dominant over the past few races, battled a set of gripless Bridgestones to the line in 12th. James Ellison rode the other Tech 3 Yamaha to take 3 points ahead of Jose Luis Cardoso, Hofmann's team mate.
Last, but still in the points, was Garry McCoy on the Ilmor X3. Ilmor were pleased to take points on the bike's first outing, despite having to come into the pits with electrical problems on lap 19. Overall, the Ilmor did pretty well on its debut, considering it was the team's first ever race, the bike's first ever race, and the bike was 20% down on capacity of the other bikes out there. McCoy managed to run 1:41 and 1:42 laps consistently, where the front runners were posting 1:38.5s, running ahead of Cardoso until the electrical gremlins reared their heads. The good news is that Ducati may be bringing their 800 to Valencia in two weeks time, giving us something to measure the X3 against, and pointing the way to the future.
The HRC Saga
Nicky Hayden came to Estoril hoping to keep a firm hold of his championship lead. He had watched his lead shrink over the long weeks since Laguna Seca, endured the constant criticism that he was being too careful, and that if he wanted to be a champion, he should ride like a champion. On Sunday, he did just that, coming out fighting, making the tough passes it takes to take a title. He will feel robbed by his team mate's inexcusable mistake, not just of his championship lead, but of his chance to demonstrate that he is a true champion, and not afraid to take the fight to any one. One stupid move ruined all that.
So how did this stupid move happen? It has its roots in two stupid decisions: Dani Pedrosa's decision that he should try and pull off an all-or-nothing pass at a point in the race when everything was still to play for; and HRC's decision to let the two Repsol Honda riders fight the championship out among themselves. The latter decision is the most worrying decision of all, and highlights many of the problems at HRC. These problems predate Sunday's race by a very long way: Valentino Rossi's decision to leave Honda to go ride for Yamaha being perhaps emblematic of the long troubled history. For Honda, it's the product, not the rider, which is paramount. It's more important for a Honda to win the title than anything else. For Valentino Rossi, almost certainly the greatest motorcycle racer of all time, it was unsupportable that Honda kept insisting it was the bike, not the rider, that won championships. So he left, and proved them wrong, winning on a bike that was obviously inferior to the RC211V.
But Honda refused to learn from this mistake: Dani Pedrosa was welcomed into HRC's fold as the young hope, who would reclaim the title for Honda, which they regard as rightfully theirs. They brought him into the Repsol Honda team to learn the ropes for a year, before going on to win in 2007. So they let Pedrosa ride on the stable version of the RC211V, and gave Nicky Hayden the task of developing the basis of the bike which Pedrosa would use to bring them the title in 2007. But halfway through the season, they found themselves in an unexpected situation: The "wrong" rider had a big lead in the championship, after Rossi's awful luck in the early races.
At that point, they should have thrown everything into securing the title for Hayden, including giving some of the development work to Pedrosa. But they did not. That would mean deviating from the plan, and as the plan had been drawn up by senior figures within HRC, the plan was beyond reproach. So they set Pedrosa loose to pursue his own goals, without regard for Hayden's lead, and then set Hayden back to development work. They even went through a round of negotiations with the Honda rider most likely to wear the #1 plate since Valentino Rossi left, allowing, rather humiliatingly, that for 2007, Nicky Hayden would get "equal" treatment with Dani Pedrosa. A potential world champion was forced to ask that he be treated only as well as his team mate, who at that point, was 32 points behind. If the incident at Estoril had happened before Hayden had signed his new contract, he would not be riding for Honda in 2007.
The consequences of this must surely have rubbed off on Dani Pedrosa. At no time was he made to feel that he had any responsibilities towards his team mate at all. If he felt he could win, he felt free to chase the win, rather than work to help his team mate. In this atmosphere, it's not surprising that Pedrosa chose to attempt the pass that wasn't there, and wreck his team mates title hopes.
So, Nicky Hayden will leave Estoril having lost out to Valentino Rossi. But his is not the biggest loss. The biggest loser by far is HRC, whose arrogance and lack of understanding of what it takes to win a championship have made them look incredibly stupid in the eyes of the world. There is only one way that HRC and Dani Pedrosa can redeem themselves: by doing everything in their power to ensure that Nicky Hayden wins, and Dani Pedrosa comes 2nd at Valencia. The 9 points that would give Hayden would be enough to guarantee him the title. But taking 1st and 2nd against a Valentino Rossi determined to be the only man ever to have won the 990 cc MotoGP crown is a very, very tall order.
We came to Estoril, expecting it to be important for the title race. We came expecting spectacle, and excitement. What we saw was much, much more than we bargained for. The spectacle so often served up as sporting drama is usually more soap opera than anything else, but what we saw in Portugal was some of the greatest drama, and the darkest tragedy, seen in professional sports for a long time. With one more race to go, this season is already one of the most tumultuous in living memory, and the title is still up in the air. We find out who catches it at Valencia.
~~~ UPDATE ~~~
I have more about the root causes behind the crash here.