Five years to the week since he won the MotoGP World Championship for the first time, Valentino Rossi heads into the penultimate round of the 2006 season at Estoril in Portugal next Sunday aiming to finally overthrow Nicky Hayden from the top of the standings and set-up his sixth premier-class title in a row. After an amazing run of form for the Italian, who has made up 39 points over the last four races, he is now just 12 behind and on course to catch the American by the final round at Valencia.
A slip-up for Rossi, of course, could see Hayden take the number 1 plate this Sunday, but the formbook suggests that this should not be the case, with Rossi having finished on the podium in each of his previous six visits to Estoril. The 27 year old has won the race four times, including his first appearance there for Yamaha in 2004, whilst conversely for Hayden it is one of his least successful circuits - his best result coming last year when he finished seventh.
Estoril's location on the western tip of Europe, just seven kilometres from the Atlantic coast, makes it vulnerable to dramatic changes in weather and high gusts of wind, meaning the riders can take nothing for granted. An autumn visit promises to deliver similarly wild conditions to those encountered when the event was held last year in the spring, culminating in the first ever flag-to-flag race in MotoGP - although unlike at Phillip Island three weeks ago none of the riders opted to come in and change bikes.
Rossi's team-mate Colin Edwards was a victim of the conditions on that occasion, the Texan sliding off his bike on lap twenty-four and then remounting to finish in sixth place. This year the 31-year-old is hoping for much better fortune as he looks to build on excellent recent progress with the set-up of his YZR-M1 machine, including sensational lap times in the recent one-day test at Motegi, and end his season on a high.
Valentino Rossi: Two difficult tracks;
Valentino Rossi remains confident that he has the speed to beat Nicky Hayden in any situation although he admits that the upcoming circuits are not amongst his favourites. An intense summer of hard work by Yamaha's engineers on the YZR-M1 has given Rossi a competitive and adaptable package that he believes can adjust to the demands of both Estoril and Valencia and give him every chance of retaining the title, which he has made his own in recent seasons.
"Now we have two difficult tracks but I think our M1 can be fast at both of them," says Rossi. "Since Brno, when we finally understood everything about what we needed to do to make our bike work at 100% again, we've been very strong everywhere and on the podium each time. I think that we're as strong as our rivals now and when we're at the maximum we're always going to be fighting at the front. Of course we know we could have won more if we'd been like this earlier in the season but we can't do anything about that. Anyway we know our potential and when we've started from the front lately we've been on the podium each time, so we have to carry on like this.
"Everyone involved has helped bring us back to this level. I think the team's level of motivation and concentration is the best in the paddock, it's incredible, more than anyone else, so I have to say thank you again. I actually like Portugal - the '04 bike especially was very good there. It's twisty but we can go well there. In '05 we had some problems with the tyre, plus it was only the second race and early in the year so the weather was bad. I hope that it will be a bit warmer and won't rain, and that we can find a good tyre with Michelin."
Colin Edwards: Our turn for sunshine;
Colin Edwards is also hoping that recent hard work on the YZR-M1 can bear fruit in a final two-race swansong for the 990cc machine. With development of the 800cc bikes now well underway ahead of the rule changes in 2007, the American is hoping he can end the era on a high and finally fulfil the promise he has shown on the current bike in brilliant flashes over the past two seasons.
"We made a big step forward at the test after the last race in Motegi and I was pretty much flying round the track that day," says Edwards. "We've only got two more races with this bike but it is always important to improve in testing so that you can translate that to race conditions, which is what we hope will happen in Portugal. Even though we haven't had the exact results we've hoped for at the last two races, the overall feeling with the bike has been much better and so with any luck the recent adjustments we made in Motegi will give us a competitive package in Estoril.
"I was unlucky to be one of the ones that went down in the rain last year but I did get back on and finish sixth, although I had better improve on that this time around! I don't have any particularly strong feelings one way or another for the track, it's got a bit of everything but I think it suits our bike quite well. As a place it's not bad either - the coastline is beautiful and the food is great. The only problem is the weather, but we've been fairly unlucky with that this season so hopefully it's our turn for some sunshine!"
Davide Brivio: Keeping the focus;
After such a good run of recent form, Camel Yamaha Team Director Davide Brivio says that the most important requisite from his staff over the final two rounds is that they maintain their focus. From being 51 points behind just four races ago Valentino Rossi is now within striking distance of the championship summit and Brivio is determined not to let this opportunity slip.
"The championship is now in its final, vital stage and it's important that we don't lose focus," says Brivio. "Our target for Estoril is to continue in the same way as at the last few races and arrive at the last round in a position to fight for the championship there. Estoril is going to be very important because we need to try to close the gap as much as possible to put us in the best position to win in Valencia.
"Colin did a great test on Monday in Motegi and made some really important steps forward. If we're able to confirm this improvement in Estoril and Valencia then I think we can definitely see him back fighting at the front at these two races. Unfortunately he's struggled quite a bit this season with finding the perfect setting on the bike, but we're not giving up! We have confidence in him and we know that we can see him in a better position for the final two races."
Technically speaking: Estoril according to Mike Norton;
The Autodromo Fernanda Pires de Silva is a circuit of extreme contrasts. One of the lengthiest main straights in MotoGP allows speeds of over 340km/h to be reached and yet the chicane is one of the slowest corners on the calendar. The track itself has the slowest average speed and the throttle is seldom overworked on the extensively twisty and tortuous infield sections, riddled as they are by a host of second and third gear bends. However, the 200km/h kink at turn five and the final Parabolica corner are two of the toughest tests of any rider and machine's cornering prowess. With such contrasting challenges to overcome, the team mechanics and Michelin tyre technicians have no choice but to opt for compromise settings.
"Suspension front and rear has to be generally set to work best towards the end of the race, to aid the tyres after such an extensive workout on the circuit's nine right and four left hand corners," explains Mike Norton, Íhlins' Suspension Technician to Valentino Rossi. "It's not particularly technical but it is quite hard on the tyres so the setting needs to help them out as much as possible.
"Estoril needs a good compromise in order to be able to deal with the difference between the very twisty and quite slow infield sections and some much faster corners, such as turn five and the final Parabolica corner. The biggest problem last year was the temperature of the tyres because it was so early in the year and it rained, but hopefully this time the weather will be a little better and it will stay dry!"