By SKIP BANDELE
“It is a lot, but not impossible.” Those were the words of Valentino Rossi, world champion for the past five years, referring to his 21-point deficit on current championship leader Nicky Hayden ahead of last weekend’s Motegi race in Japan.
As if to underline his belief, the 27-year-old Italian proceeded to set a blistering pace during the early practice session, leaving his main rival toiling in fifth. Following qualifying proper, Rossi was beaten to pole position by 2005 winner Loris Capirossi, with another Italian, Marco Melandri starting in third. In dry conditions the race finished in the same order for a rare Italian 1-2-3, the winner’s Ducati relegating the home-produced Yamaha and Honda’s to the minor placings in their own backyard.
Kawasaki’s Shimono Nakano was challenging Sete Gibernau for fourth when crashing out on the last lap, promoting Hayden, who had begun in seventh, to fifth. With the American’s lead further reduced to 12 points, the circuit now heads for the penultimate showdown in Portugal. Potentially, the October 15 race in Estoril can go a long way towards deciding this season’s championship, with only Valencia remaining thereafter a fortnight later.