Monday, October 30, 2006

MotoGP Valencia: Nicky Hayden is Champion

Nobody expected a result like this. The tortoise defeated the hare.
It wasn't a great race, but Aussie Troy "Baylistic" Bayliss crushed his opposition, leading from lights to flag after a great getaway from the front row. Pedrosa, Hayden and Capirossi all challenged Bayliss, but he always put in a couple of fast laps to stretch away. It was a hugely impressive victory for the 2006 WSBK Champion, proving he's good enough for MotoGP after all.
But it's the championship that everybody's talking about, and that went to The Kentucky Kid, Nicky Hayden. With an 8 point deficit, he arrived at Valencia thinking that his only chance was to win the race with his teammate 2nd. Rossi had taken pole position with a fantastic lap, and Hayden had ended up on the 2nd row after being baulked by Hofmann on his quick lap. It looked like a mountain to climb. However, Rossi's lap times in the morning warm-up were very poor, only 11th fastest. Most people, myself included, simply shrugged and thought that Rossi would surely find something to make him quick in the race. We were wrong.
Rossi might be the best motorcycle racer of all time, but he isn't superhuman. He made a terrible start from pole position, falling immediately back into the pack. He then lost more places around the first lap. The Italian's bike was clearly a dog, whether it be due to the machine or the tyres. The speed just wasn't there, and Valentino struggled to stay ahead of Vermeulen. Then the unexpected: Rossi hopped off the low side of the bike and slid into the gravel. He picked the bike up and set off, but his lap times were unimpressive, and there was no way he could gain enough points to retain his world title.
Hayden, on the other hand, might not have looked like championship material through the season but he certainly did on race day at Valencia. He made a great start, and advanced through the field, running as high as 2nd. When his pit board said "Rossi P20", the Kentuckian settled down, eventually finishing a safe 3rd behind the two Ducatis. It was the display of a worthy champion, whereas Rossi looked like a nervous rookie.
Many people are complaining about Hayden's victory, saying he isn't in Rossi's class, but who is? If the championship was decided on raw talent, we would hand the title to Rossi on day 1 of the season, then send everybody home for a couple of years until Pedrosa is old enough to challenge him. The champion is the one with the most points at the end of the season, and that was Hayden. He struggled with a semi-experimental bike while HRC seemingly used him to test Pedrosa's 2007 machine. He had clutch problems until the closing stages of the season. He was punted off by his teammate. Through all of this he showed the determination that made him champion. On the last day of the season, he stayed calm and rode like a champion, while Rossi made a basic error at the start, then fell off a few laps later.
It was a surprise winner of the 2006 title. (It certainly surprised the organizers of the post-race firework display, which send clouds of yellow smoke across the track.) It was a worthy winner, though. A champion who won through grit and determination, never resorting to cheating or bad-mouthing his opponents.
MotoGP has a friendly and likeable champion, which has to be a good thing. Hayden's victory will bring the interest of viewers in the USA, which is important with the era of tobacco sponsorship coming towards its end. Next year's championship will be wide open. Rossi trying to regain the title, Hayden trying to defend it. Capirossi and Melandri both won more races than Hayden this year (3 races each, to Hayden's 2), and surely both could challenge for the title if they stay injury-free.

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