With two races of the 2006 MotoGP World Championship remaining, five riders were still in with a mathematical chance of taking the title. In reality, it was a straight fight between defending champion Valentino Rossi and Nicky Hayden who was carrying Repsol Honda's hopes of dethroning their former rider.
Nicky brought a 12 point with him to the penultimate race in Portugal and the race that followed would go down as one of the most dramatic in history, with emotions fluctuating just as much as Hayden's title hopes.
The fight went Rossi's way in qualifying with the Camel Yamaha rider edging out teammate Colin Edwards. The American's task would be to provide a buffer between his team leader and the Repsol Hondas of Hayden and Dani Pedrosa who lined up third and fourth. The pair may have needed a rethink after Pedrosa made his customary quick start, diving between the Yamahas to grab second while Hayden scythed around the outside of Edwards to take third at the start of lap two.
Colin responded immediately to retake P3 and put a superb move on Pedrosa at the chicane on lap three, giving Yamaha their dream scenario. For Hayden, the top four was in precisely the wrong order and the “Kentucky Kid” burst into action on lap four, putting a bold move on his teammate at turn six but his charge up the order was brought to an abrupt halt at the very same bend.
Pedrosa, despite trailing by 34 points, felt he was still within his rights to challenge Hayden but his effort to overtake resulted in disaster. At the end of the back straight on lap five, the Spaniard careered up the inside of turn six but left his braking far too late and clattered into the side of his teammate, taking them both out of the race. Hayden was livid, slamming his fists into the gravel that he'd just fallen into, realising that his lifelong dream of becoming world champion may have been snatched away from him.
The Camel Yamahas had seen their greatest competition wipe each other out but an unlikely challenge was emerging from behind. Toni Elias, who'd started down in eleventh place, was leading the chasing pack and by virtue of the Repsol Honda implosion, was up to third. The Gresini Honda rider had never won in the premier class but was making a relentless charge up to the leading duo, bringing the Honda-powered KR211V of Kenny Roberts Jr with him.
Toni's unique way of slowing his motorcycle at the end of the straights was making him a serious threat and at half-distance, the Spaniard stormed past Edwards for second. Rossi was still looking comfortable out front but his two second lead was obliterated in the space of two laps and suddenly, the world champion was back in a dogfight.
The 2006 Portuguese Grand Prix had already seen the unthinkable happen but very few expected to see Elias dive past Rossi into turn one but on lap 22, that came to pass. Valentino was forced back into attack mode and forced his way back into lead a lap later but by this time, Roberts and Edwards were also right on his tail.
Roberts, like Elias, had never won a MotoGP race (although Kenny did have a 500cc title to his name) but at the start of the penultimate lap, he leaped to the front of the order, drafting past Rossi's Yamaha on the start/finish straight. Roberts thought it was the last lap though, and failed to prevent Rossi from retaking him into turn one next time around. Valentino wasn't back in the lead though, that had gone to Elias. He'd produced an extraordinary move on the brakes into turn one which made his rivals look as though they were standing still, and was now less than a lap away from his maiden win.
Rossi had other ideas and was showing no signs of caution with the world championship on the line. As they approached the chicane for the final time, the Yamaha surged up the inside of the Honda and despite going slightly deep, emerged ahead. Rossi wasn't out of the woods OHodna
yet though with Elias latching on to the back of him and he would need every ounce of grunt his YZR-M1 had to give if he was to win the drag race to the line.
As soon as the Parabolica had been negotiated, Elias ducked out of the slipstream and put his faith in Honda power. The privateer Gresini squad urged him on as he neared the finish line and the chequered flag triggered delirious scenes, Toni had won it by two thousandths of a second. The biggest cheer of all probably came in the garage next door at Repsol Honda with Rossi denied a crucial five points. Roberts' error of judgement left him a frustrated third while Edwards missed out on the podium, despite finishing 0.864s off the lead.
Rossi was magnanimous in defeat, mindful that he would take an eight point lead to the season finale in Valencia but those inches which he'd lost the race by would come back to haunt him. Needing a top two finish to clinch the championship, the seemingly unbreakable Italian wilted under the pressure and crashed early in the race. Hayden capitalised with third place, ten places ahead of Rossi, to take the title by five points.
When the 2006 season is analysed, many moments contributed to one of the most dramatic championships ever but Estoril made as big a contribution as anywhere else. For Nicky Hayden, the title seemed to have disappeared, then it was back in view. For Honda, despair turned to ecstasy. For Toni Elias, a win that would turn out to be his first, and last, in the premier class.
For MotoGP, one for the ages. A race that will go down as one the greatest in history.
2006 bwin.com Grande Premio de Portugal: Race Classification (28 Laps)
|1||Toni Elias||Honda||Fortuna Honda||46:08.739|
|2||Valentino Rossi||Yamaha||Camel Yamaha Team||+0.002|
|3||Kenny Roberts Jr||KR211V||Team Roberts||+0.176|
|4||Colin Edwards||Yamaha||Camel Yamaha Team||+0.864|
|5||Makoto Tamada||Honda||Konica Minolta Honda||+18.419|
|6||John Hopkins||Suzuki||Rizla Suzuki MotoGP||+25.181|
|7||Carlos Checa||Yamaha||Tech 3 Yamaha||+29.348|
|8||Marco Melandri||Honda||Fortuna Honda||+31.813|
|9||Chris Vermeulen||Suzuki||Rizla Suzuki MotoGP||+40.117|
|10||Randy de Puniet||Kawasaki||Kawasaki Racing Team||+41.496|
|11||Alex Hoffman||Ducati||Pramac d'Antin MotoGP||+41.533|
|12||Loris Capirossi||Ducati||Ducati Marlboro Team||+44.776|
|13||James Ellison||Yamaha||Tech 3 Yamaha||+1:19.113|
|14||Jose Luis Cardoso||Ducati||Pramac d'Antin MotoGP||+1:40.716|
|15||Garry McCoy||Ilmor X3||Ilmor SRT||+4 Laps|
|Nicky Hayden||Honda||Repsol Honda Team||+24 Laps|
|Dani Pedrosa||Honda||Repsol Honda Team||+24 Laps|
|Casey Stoner||Honda||Honda LCR||+27 Laps|
|Sete Gibernau||Ducati||Ducati Marlboro Team||+27 Laps|
|Shinya Nakano||Kawasaki||Kawasaki Racing Team||+28 Laps|