By Dan Moakes
July 17 2006
The MotoGP World Championship battle heated up when points leader Nicky Hayden finished only seventh in the British race. Strong rides from Dani Pedrosa and Valentino Rossi brought the two challengers closer, and they would look for further inroads at the German round.
The action started early at the Sachsenring, venue for this tenth race of the 2006 season. Friday practice saw the first of a number of crashes, not least from the 20-year-old 250cc graduates, Dani Pedrosa and Casey Stoner. Dani’s accident happened at the Sachsenkurve, the main corner for overtaking. This is a 90-degree left at the bottom of a fast downhill stretch, following a rapid right kink brow. The Spaniard was not adversely affected, as he proved with his fourth pole position in the 990cc MotoGP class.
Stoner was not so lucky when he went down during the warm-up session. Although he had qualified eighth with the LCR Honda, he was ruled out of the race day action thanks to his injuries. Even so, Honda were well represented at the front end of the grid. Pedrosa was joined on the front row by third placed Repsol team-mate Hayden, with the pair split by the Honda-powered Team Roberts bike of Kenny Jr himself. This was the American’s best starting position for two years, achieved with the team’s older KR211V chassis.
Fortuna’s Marco Melandri lined up his RCV sixth, still affected at least somewhat with the collarbone injury sustained in Barcelona. He followed on behind the two leading Bridgestone tyre runners, Shin’ya Nakano for Kawasaki and Loris Capirossi for Ducati. The Italian’s returning team-mate, Sete Gibernau, had secured P7 - and in the absence of Stoner he shared row three with John Hopkins (Suzuki) and Makoto Tamada (Konica Minolta Honda).
Set-up problems meant that the Camel Yamahas of reigning champion Rossi and partner Colin Edwards were well down the order. Valentino’s eleventh became tenth without Stoner, and the Texan was four places to the rear. Indeed, he was behind the Dunlop-shod customer Yamaha M1 of Carlos Checa (eleventh), with the Spaniard using the non-chattering newer 2006 chassis for the first time. James Ellison made do with the old machine in P17. 12th to 18th fell as follows: Randy de Puniet, Chris Vermeulen, Edwards, Toní Elías, Alex Hofmann, Ellison and José Luís Cardoso.
The Sachsenring poses the problem of a twisting infield beyond turn one, the right-handed Coca Cola Curve, then a flowing series of left-handers that lead round and down to the Sachsenkurve section. The final Quickenburgkurve is a tighter left going steeply uphill. The start saw Pedrosa lead Roberts away, but with third man Hayden quickly sweeping into the lead. Behind came Tamada, Melandri, Capirossi, Hopkins, Rossi and Nakano. Roberts quickly dropped to fifth, while the impressively resurgent Tamada now ran third. Tenth man Gibernau led Vermeulen, Checa, Elías and Edwards.
With Hopkins soon passed by Rossi and Nakano in the early shuffles, it wasn’t too long before a seven man lead group broke away. Hayden and Pedrosa led, with Melandri making it into third from Tamada, Roberts and Rossi, and with Capirossi tagging on at the rear. Having already gained a lot of ground from the start, Rossi was surely keen to move up to a more familiar position - and he passed Roberts for fourth at Sachsenkurve. Meanwhile, Pedrosa was the quickest man, and was looking to get by Hayden at Coca Cola.
The tightest racing at this stage was between Honda men Tamada and Melandri. The Japanese rider resumed in P3 when he just managed to brake in time to get into turn one before his 23-year-old adversary. Marco tried to get back at Sachsenkurve, and managed it on the second attempt. Makoto attempted to respond at turn one, but this time did send himself too wide after going by on the inside. The action was only getting going though, for we soon saw both Melandri and Rossi make a place each on the brakes for Sachsenkurve on the same lap. Marco passed Pedrosa, and behind Valentino got Tamada - only for the 29-year-old to get back ahead by braking later on the outside at turn one!
Rossi passed Tamada again through a left-hander, but still we had a close seven man contest. Melandri took the lead from Hayden at Coca Cola, whilst Pedrosa invented a new move to follow him through, going tighter around the right-handed infield loop of Castrol Omega. Hayden’s sharp relegation was completed when Rossi pushed him to fourth at Sachsenkurve. But by one-third distance a bigger change in the group had come when Roberts had gone to overtake Tamada at Quickenburgkurve. The number ten machine tipped down on the gradient of the tight line, crashing into the Honda and sending both machines into the gravel. Tamada looked to have taken the impact on his left leg.
Now Melandri led Pedrosa, Rossi, Hayden and Capirossi, and with Nakano some way back but having established a clear sixth. But Valentino had better in mind, passing Dani at Sachsenkurve, and then Marco again at the same place. Pedrosa used his Castrol move to regain second from Melandri. And this was the order at half-distance, but with the pace now too hot for fifth man Capirossi. Rossi’s Yamaha led the three top Honda men, with Pedrosa looking closer through the slower sections than in the fast ones.
The last third of the race involved plenty of additional drama between the leading quartet, with attacks and counter attacks. Melandri took Pedrosa at Sachsenkurve, Hayden got him briefly on the outside at Coca Cola, but the order reversed again when the Spaniard went by Marco on the power along the main straight into turn one. The opposite move came at Sachsenkurve, only for another at Castrol. Rossi now had a slight margin over Pedrosa, Melandri and Hayden.
In the last laps Melandri forced Pedrosa wide as he overtook at Sachsenkurve, with Hayden also going through, and Dani trying to attack back at Coca Cola. With three laps to go, Melandri took the lead from Rossi at the same corner, going in deep but holding his line out again. Valentino tried to recover it at Sachsenkurve, making the move successfully there on the penultimate lap. Meanwhile, Pedrosa had tried to get in front of his team-mate again at both Coca Cola and Castrol, but with Nicky braking later at the first, and cutting across him at the second.
It was very close again as all four jockeyed for position going into the final lap. The order was maintained, with Rossi from Melandri, Hayden and Pedrosa, and in fact it all came down to the last two corners. With Rossi defending his line at Sachsenkurve, Melandri tried going to the outside, and Hayden at the same time was inside the Italian Honda rider. Melandri also tried on the outside of Rossi at Quickenburgkurve, but in a very close finish it was Rossi, Melandri, Hayden and Pedrosa. The winner marked his success by adopting the number 23 shirt of Marco Materazzi, Italy’s World Cup hero (or villain) of a week earlier.
Replicating his good run in the 2005 event, Nakano took sixth in the race, finishing just behind Capirossi’s Ducati. The race for seventh had been between Spaniards Gibernau and Checa, and the two Suzuki riders. Hopkins and Vermeulen had led the way, but John dropped back so that Chris, Sete and Carlos finished in that order ahead of him. Elías, Edwards, Ellison and Cardoso were the other finishers, with de Puniet and Hofmann joining Roberts and Tamada as non-finishers.
The practice days had not showed much promise in the Yamaha camp, but yet again Valentino Rossi made himself into the main prospect on race day. He had a stern test from four Honda men, and the Roberts-Honda, but ‘the Doctor’ won out where it mattered, at the chequered flag. Nicky Hayden’s eighth podium kept him ahead in the points, but with Marco Melandri creeping closer, Dani Pedrosa still in the hunt, and Rossi now only 26 points adrift. The unlucky Honda man was Makoto Tamada, for whom a top five finish would have been his best for fifteen races. And Kenny Roberts’ recent run ended abruptly, to the Japanese rider’s detriment.
Nicky Hayden now heads back home for the United States GP, no doubt looking for a repeat win to stretch out his lead again. But this time nearest rival Rossi, and his team, will know the demanding Laguna Seca circuit. Who is your money on?
Standings after ten races: Hayden 169; Rossi 143; Pedrosa 140; Melandri 134; Capirossi 118; Stoner 91; Edwards 77; Nakano 67; Roberts 66; Hopkins 64; Tamada 59; Elías 58; Gibernau 52; Vermeulen 46; Checa 44.
Honda 221; Yamaha 172; Ducati 121; Suzuki 81; Kawasaki 71; Roberts-Proton 66.