One of the most exciting seasons in the history of the MotoGP World Championship reaches an intense climax next weekend as Valentino Rossi and Nicky Hayden (Honda) go head-to-head for the title in a final-round shootout at Valencia. The amphitheatre-style surroundings of the Ricardo Tormo circuit on the outskirts of the Spanish city provide the perfect stage for the ultimate instalment of a 17-round epic that began on the Iberian peninsular in less than perfect fashion for Camel Yamaha rider Rossi nine months ago.
Since being knocked from his bike in the first corner of the first race at Jerez, the Italian has been through virtually every emotion known to a motorcycle racer. A dramatically unpredictable season of twists and turns has seen Rossi visit the gravel traps, the hospital and the top step of the podium in almost equal measures, with technical problems also robbing him of vital points in the first half of the season. However, since finding himself a massive 51 points behind Hayden after round eleven at Laguna Seca, the five-time World Champion has shown his true colours with a string of five consecutive podium finishes.
His latest, second place in the Grand Prix of Portugal at Estoril, coupled with a crash for Hayden, finally lifted him above the American to the top of the standings for the first time this season and opened up an eight-point gap between the pair with one round to go. It means that for the first time in fourteen seasons the destiny of the MotoGP World Championship will be decided in the final round, with the drama set to unfold in front of a sell-out crowd in excess of 120,000 people in the firecracker atmosphere of Cheste.
Colin Edwards will once again be looking to play the role of good team-mate after his star performance at Estoril just over a week ago. The Texan was back to his best form in Portugal, qualifying second on the grid and providing a crucial helping hand to Rossi in the early stages of the race - only to narrowly miss out on his second rostrum of the season as he took fourth place at the line. This weekend Edwards' clear objective is to go at least one position better and make sure he is celebrating alongside Rossi on Sunday evening.
Valentino Rossi: My one chance;
Valentino Rossi travels to Spain this week knowing that he cannot afford to let this incredible opportunity slip after admitting that a fifth title defence was effectively out of his hands just five rounds ago. Hayden's well-publicised misfortune in Portugal has perhaps overshadowed the fact that it is Rossi's own form - a run of nine top-three finishes from the last eleven races - that has propelled him to the top of the standings and fulfilled his target of arriving at the final round with a sixth consecutive premier-class title in sight.
"Things went very well for us in Estoril - we've achieved our goal of coming here still fighting for the championship and for this I have to thank everyone in the team so much," says Rossi. "Each person has worked at 100% to bring us back to this position and now we're all very excited about this final race. Of course it's not going to be like other times, when I have won the championship with some races to spare and less pressure. Now I only have one chance. It's a big pressure for everyone but it's great for the show.
"Valencia isn't one of my best tracks and we also know that Hayden is really strong there, so it's definitely not going to be easy. On the other hand we know that the M1 works quite well there and in the race last year it was very good in the second half of the race especially. If we can start from the front then I think we can try for the win, but whatever happens it's going to be a really exciting race. Hopefully Colin and I can be at the front together like in Estoril and we'll just see what we can do!"
Colin Edwards: A team player;
Colin Edwards says his number one aim this weekend is to help out his great friend and team-mate Valentino Rossi in his quest to win the title. The best way to do that, of course, is for the Texan to keep his excellent form going and continue with the recent progress the pair have made with the set-up of their YZR-M1 machines. Edwards' attitude is a reflection of a tight team ethic at Camel Yamaha and it is something he hopes will pay dividends when the chequered flag greets the 2006 MotoGP World Champion on Sunday.
"I'm pretty excited about the last race of the season, it's going to be pretty close I reckon," says Edwards. "Estoril worked out well for the team and I was able to help Valentino out, which was the number one aim. Obviously I was disappointed not to be on the podium but my bike worked great and I think that we're in good shape to do it all again at Valencia."
"I've raced at Valencia for years so I know it really well and I know I am quite fast there. Like in Estoril, the aim is going to be to get on the front row alongside Valentino and then just to help him out in the race as much as possible. Of course this time out I want to be on the podium too, a Yamaha one-two would be the perfect end to the season!"
Davide Brivio: The final push;
For Camel Yamaha Team Director Davide Brivio the Grand Prix of Portugal epitomised the togetherness and spirit shown by his riders and staff since bouncing back from the brink of failure midway through the season. With just one round remaining the Italian is asking for one final, definitive push before a well-earned break and the start of the new 800cc era in 2007.
"Since the summer break we have just taken the races one-by-one, working our hardest and keeping our focus, and the results have been excellent," reflects Brivio. "Our objective from Brno onwards was to keep fighting until the end of the season and try to get to the last round with a mathematical chance of winning the title. After Portugal that mathematical chance is a lot stronger than we expected but it is not over yet and, as we all know from our experience this season, anything can still happen.
"It looks like being another dramatic weekend but from our point of view the objective is just the same as it has been for the last five or six races - to keep our heads down, work hard and stay focused on the job of giving our riders the best possible package for Sunday. If we can do that then I'm sure Valentino and Colin will do their part too, and hopefully we can celebrate together on Sunday."
Technically speaking: Valencia according to Jeremy Burgess;
With its unique stadium-style surroundings the Ricardo Tormo circuit in Valencia is a spectacular, if somewhat cramped facility characterised by a never-ending burst of tight corners, connected by short straights. The long penultimate looping left-hander and the fast entry to turn one contrast violently with the otherwise geometric flip-flop chicanes and slow-speed corners of the infield.
"Valencia isn't one of Valentino's favourite tracks because it is so tight and twisty, but we won there in 2004 and finished third last year after starting well down the grid, so we know the M1 works well," says Jeremy Burgess, Chief Engineer to Valentino Rossi. "One of the big lessons we have learnt this season is that if you want to win in this class nowadays then you really have to start from the front so we will again be using the free practice sessions to make sure we have the right bike settings for both qualifying and the race.
"Technically there is not much to say about Valencia other than the obvious fact that it has a lot of low gear usage and very little throttle - with the back straight and the start-finish straight being the only two high speed sections. The last long left is different to any other corner in the world and it can be crucial to the outcome of the race so for that reason it requires special attention when setting the bike up to make sure you have the speed coming towards the line. The rest is slow and anti-clockwise - there's not much else to say about it really!"