Sunday, June 04, 2006
Anyone who thought the championship was over–at least as far as the defending champ is concerned – had better think again. The run of four GPs in five weekends starting here in Mugello then going to Barcelona, Assen and Donington Park covers the classic European tracks and forms the core of the season. The man who dominates these races usually becomes champion; this is Rossi territory. Sure enough he won today but only after the mother of all battles with an inspired Loris Capirossi, with Nicky Hayden riding as hard as we’ve ever seen him, and a cast of supporting characters in the battle for the win which included Sete Gibernau, Casey Stoner, Dani Pedrosa and 82,000 sun drenched fans.
No racetrack produces an atmosphere like Mugello. The track swerves up both sides of a steep valley with the main straight running along the valley bottom and bands of color coded fans occupying the hillsides. They got exactly what they wanted: Two Ducatis and a national hero on the front row, and a race that will be talked about for years to come.
Ducati ran a special paint job, a tri- colour echo of past glories, to celebrate not one but three anniversaries: the company’s 80th birthday, the 60th anniversary of the start of motorcycle production and the 50th of the first use of desmodromics. The Doctor did deliver the first of the wins he needs if he is to retain his title but it was about the hardest race anyone can remember him running. At the flag, 0.75 sec covered the rostrum but that doesn’t tell half the story of some of the closest racing we’ve seen since the inception of MotoGP. Capirossi, motivated beyond reason to win his home GP, said he really enjoyed the race and that the fight with Rossi and Hayden was ‘totally correct. It was also ultra close and scary, everything you want a motorcycle race to be.
Early on, Rossi had to contend with Gibernau then with an attack from Melandri. Capirossi and, to a slightly lesser extent, Hayden both had to fight through from bad starts. Stoner was also a part of the leading group, battling Melandri for third until he crashed in spectacular fashion at the highest part of the track. Gibernau dropped back when he lost a toe slider and started wearing his toes away on the tarmac, Melandri ran off track while fighting with Hayden, and Pedrosa was always there but never posed a threat to the top three. That left the two Italians and Hayden to sort out the rostrum positions but Rossi would not be denied.
Hayden had no excuses but must have taken some some satisfaction from maintaining his championship lead although he has to share it with Capirossi. The Ducati man soon got over the worst of his disappointment and had an ear-to-ear grin when Rossi hoisted him skywards on the rostrum to the delight of the fans who as usual had invaded the track on a fine collection of transport ranging from a pink moped with no tires on its rims to a full-on 1200 GS BMW. Not to be outdone, Nicky donned one of the red wigs worn by the sponsor’s publicity girls. It made for an unusual rostrum photo.
One wonders what F1 driver Michael Schumacher–who was at Mugello–made of it. Not just the innumerable changes of lead on the track as opposed to in the pits but the way that the whole event was played for the benefit of the fans. On his slow down lap Rossi stopped just to look at the section of the crowd where his fan club were assembled: ‘I felt the warmth of the crowd during the whole race.’
As for the race, he thought that he and Loris, their bikes and their tires were on exactly the same level. ‘I was not in a position where I could use strategy, either of us could have won. It was an epic battle.’
You couldn’t argue with any of those sentiments, nor with his splendid one-liner delivered to the post-race press conference: ‘I do not think too many people went to sleep in front of their TVs this afternoon.’