To visitors from the lush north of Europe, their first impression of the Circuit Ricardo Tormo is an overwhelming sense of desolation. As you leave the bustling Spanish coast and the metropolis of Valencia behind you, and head along the highway towards the parched Spanish meseta, the earth turns redder, the low hills turn drier and the palms which line the coast turn to scrub and squat silver-green olive trees. In late October, after the long, searing Spanish summer, and before the winter rains come, this dry, desolate landscape is a fitting backdrop for a good old-fashioned showdown.
And on Sunday, that's what we'll get: two young men face off for the biggest prize in motorcycle racing: The title of MotoGP World Champion. On one side, The Kentucky Kid, whose consistency and hard work throughout the season have paid dividends, putting him at the forefront of the title chase. On the other, The Doctor, the current champion and acknowledged master, on a strong charge after a disastrous start to the year.
Of course, those two men won't be alone: beside them stand another 18 racers, and around them will be a thronged mass of hysterical race fans in any shape, size or color you can imagine, and plenty you can't. All 225,000 tickets for the three days of the race weekend are sold out, and the authorities are imploring people not to turn up if they don't have a ticket. Fat chance. This is Spain, and the Spanish passion for motorcycle racing is only matched by the casual attitude they have towards rules, regulations, and tickets-only policies.
Despite the fans' unlimited capacity for improvisation, the track has limits to the numbers it can hold. The Ricardo Tormo track is built in a natural bowl near Cheste, a small town 20 miles west of Valencia. The low hills surround a shallow depression holding the tight, twisting track, giving spectators a view of almost the entire circuit wherever they stand. That depression is what forces the track into its tortuous shape: with only a limited amount of space, there's only so much track that the designers could fit in. They did their best though, and once off the half-mile long finish straight, the track writhes its way through a series of very short straights and tight turns, before heading round a long, long left turn, which tightens up into a sharp left-hander leading back on to the straight. Coming after the long fast sweeper, that tight little left-hander has caught many riders out, especially during turbulent last lap dashes to the flag.
A Twist In The Tail
Its sinuous course, and the fact that it runs anti-clockwise, unlike most of the other race tracks around the world, means it has few fans among MotoGP riders. With one notable exception: Nicky Hayden, the man who, until last week, looked likely to be the first person to smash Valentino Rossi's seemingly permanent reign in MotoGP, likes the fact that most of the turns go left: it's something he got used to on the dirt tracks he grew up on. And the twisting circuit suits the Honda RC211V just fine, giving the Kentucky Kid a useful psychological advantage before the race even starts.
And Hayden needs every advantage he can get. Starting lap 5 of the race in Estoril, he lead the championship by 12 points. At the end of lap 5, he trailed Rossi by 8 points, his title hopes sprawling in the gravel after being knocked off by an incomprehensible move by his Repsol Honda team mate, Dani Pedrosa. Since that moment, the motorcycle racing world has been full of speculation, analysis and wild-eyed guesswork as to how his team mate could take the world championship leader out of the race, and more to the point, how the world's most successful racing organization could allow the very opportunity to arise. Being dunked in the dirt by your own team mate must make focusing on the race that much more difficult, so liking the Valencia track will help The Kentucky Kid concentrate his mind on the one thing he can do to take the title: Win the race.
But Hayden's title hopes aren't fully in his own hands. It is not enough for him to succeed: Valentino Rossi must also fail. Even if Hayden wins, if Rossi comes 2nd, Rossi takes the championship. Even though Hayden's only strategy can be to go all out for the win at Valencia, he's still going to need a little help. Under normal circumstances, the most obvious source of assistance would be his team mate, Dani Pedrosa. Though Estoril demonstrated that these are not normal circumstances, Pedrosa has been extremely contrite in recent interviews in the press, and has pledged to do everything possible to help Hayden regain the title lead, and lift the MotoGP crown. A repeat performance, targeting Rossi rather than Hayden, would help, but Nicky Hayden has way too much pride to want to take the title that way.
Help Is At Honda
But Pedrosa isn't Hayden's only source of help: There are 5 other Honda-powered riders on the grid. 3 of them will be back on a Honda next year, and you can be certain that any efforts made in assisting HRC to take back the title they believe is rightfully theirs will be duly rewarded in 2007. Toni Elias has already helped Hayden, by pipping Rossi to the post in Portugal, taking the win, and a valuable 5 points, from Rossi by just 2/1000ths of a second. Elias' team mate Marco Melandri may take over that role on Sunday. Melandri won at Valencia last year, and he has the binary nature of his season working for in his favor: So far this year, he has had a podium one race, and been nowhere the next. At the last race, he was nowhere. He's due for another podium.
Then, of course, there's the other Honda. Though it isn't really fair to call Kenny Roberts Jr's Team KR bike a Honda, it derives its motive power from a Honda RC211V V5 engine, hung in a custom-built frame. Kenny Roberts Sr, who owns Team KR, originally planned to run two riders next season, but was only promised enough of the new 800cc V4 Honda engines to be able to run a single bike next year. If Kenny Jr, who's having his best season since the demise of the two-strokes, can finish ahead of Rossi on Sunday, then maybe, just maybe, Honda could find a couple of extra engines for the team for 2007. And of course, if Kenny Jr can stay ahead of Rossi, he'll help Nicky Hayden become the first American champion since Kenny Roberts Jr. National pride is bound to be a factor there.
National pride will play no part whatsoever in Colin Edwards' deliberations. The Texas Tornado put on an outstanding show of teamwork at Estoril, holding off first the Repsol Honda pair, and then Elias and Kenny Roberts Jr, for much of the race, to give Valentino Rossi as much advantage as possible. And on Sunday, that's what he'll be doing again. His only aim will be to finish behind Rossi, but ahead, and very much in the way of, everyone else.
All this, of course, assumes that The Doctor will need any help at all. Valencia is not one of Rossi's favorite tracks by a long way, but with wins here in 2003 and 2004, he has proven he can perform here when he needs to. And there can be no doubt about his motivation: Valentino Rossi is a keen student of motorcycle racing history, and he has a unique chance on Sunday. If he wins at Valencia, The Doctor will become the only 990 cc MotoGP World Champion ever. For a man aware of his own role in the history of MotoGP, that is incentive enough. But when you add in the fact that his 6th title would see him pass Mick Doohan in the standings for the number of senior class titles won, and be on track to at least equal Giacomo Agostini's record of 7 successive championships, and 8 titles in all, then you realize just how determined Rossi will be on Sunday afternoon.
Just to make the picture even more complicated, there's a gaggle of Bridgestone-shod bikes all out for a result. The Ducatis have historically gone well at Valencia, and both Loris Capirossi and Troy Bayliss have been on the podium at Ricardo Tormo before. Troy Bayliss, fresh from being crowned World Superbike champion, is substituting for Sete Gibernau, who is injured once again in a terrible year for the Spaniard. Bayliss is no stranger to the Desmosedici, having been one of the first people to ride it in public during its introduction at Valencia in 2002, and contesting the 2003 and 2004 championships aboard it. The Australian veteran should be up to speed very quickly on the Ducati.
If circumstances had been otherwise, the two-way battle for the title could have been a threesome. Loris Capirossi's elimination at Catalunya, followed by a string of mediocre results posted while he struggled with serious injury, eventually put paid to the Italian's title hopes. But the two wins he had at Brno and Motegi demonstrated just what a threat Capirex is: Whenever he races, he is always a factor. And yet, rumors abound that Capirossi may throw the motorcycling world a curve ball on Sunday: The Ducati press release specifically mentions that Bayliss will be riding the 990, but they go to great lengths not to mention what Loris will be riding. Rumors started circulating shortly after Motegi that Capirossi could choose to ride the 800 at Valencia, especially if he were to be out of the running for the championship. After Estoril, he is 27 points behind Valentino Rossi, and out of contention. Racing the 800 at Valencia would give Ducati a one-race head start over the rest of the 800s, bar the Ilmor, giving them effectively a whole weekend extra testing, under race conditions. What's more, Valencia's twisty infield would suit the 800's higher corner speeds and quicker turn-in far better than the slower-steering 990, making it less of a gamble than it might at first appear. If Ducati do run the 800 GP7 machine, we will have a yardstick to measure the Ilmor X3 against, due to make its second public outing at Valencia. It will give MotoGP followers a much clearer picture of the 800cc future coming in 2007. If Ducati elect to run the 990, then those poor followers will just have to wait until the Monday following the race, when testing for the 2007 season starts in earnest.
Green And Blue
The Suzukis and Kawasakis will not want to be left behind. Although both John Hopkins and Chris Vermeulen will be staying put next season, they both want to finish on a high. The Suzuki's handling suits Valencia's tight turns down to a tee, but in the past, what they made up on the turns, they lost coming on to the main straight. With slightly more mid-range this year, if they can get a little extra drive out of that last corner, they could run at the front.
As for the Kawasakis, Shinya Nakano will want to turn in a top-notch performance on his final outing on the green machine before joining the JIR Konica Minolta team, something which has been kept a closely guarded secret, known only to the massed ranks of motorcycle racing journalism and a few million racing fans. His current team mate Randy de Puniet will also want to impress. The lowest ranked of the three 250 converts to MotoGP has yet to sign a contract for 2007, though he is rumored to be renewing with Kawasaki, possibly alongside the absent Sete Gibernau. A strong ride at Valencia will secure his place for next year.
After 14 years, the MotoGP world title will once again be settled the way that all racing fans wish for: in the last race of the season. If Nicky Hayden manages to pull off a win, it will be a remarkable feat, managed in spite of, rather than thanks to, his team, after struggling for the latter part of the year with an experimental clutch, and given unproven parts to test while trying to defend his championship lead. He will immediately take his place in the history books, becoming the first man to beat Valentino Rossi on a MotoGP bike. If Valentino Rossi takes the title, it will cement his claim to be the greatest motorcycle racer of all time, taking him past Mick Doohan in MotoGP titles, and onwards toward equaling Giacomo Agostini. It will be the greatest comeback in MotoGP history, perhaps even in the history of racing, and further increase the legend that Valentino Rossi has become. Much hangs in the balance of this one race.
There has been a lot of speculation and calculation of who has to score how many points if one or the other of the pair finishes in this place or that place. But the truth of the matter is, the title will only be settled by winning the race. And the winner of the race has the best chance of taking the championship into the bargain. No matter who stands on the top step in Valencia on Sunday, and whether Valentino Rossi or Nicky Hayden takes the title of MotoGP World Champion 2006, there is one clear winner this year: the body of millions of race fans around the world. We will have memories to cherish for many many years to come.