Victory in Valencia

SOME PEOPLE may regard the top division of motorcycle racing as a minority sport, but it is difficult to argue with the almost 130,000 spectators who attended the final showdown of the season in Spain, not to mention the millions following the title decider on television.

Five-time world champion Valentino Rossi had, to all intents and purposes, secured his sixth successive crown when finishing a close second during the penultimate contest in Estoril – his closest rival and erstwhile championship leader, Nicky Hayden, had crashed out handing the Italian an eight-point advantage. To further reduce the odds of an unlikely reversal of fortunes, Rossi secured pole position in Valencia, his American challenger only starting in fifth. Yet this was the first time in over 10 years that the contest had gone to the wire, and anything can happen in sport.

It must also be said in the preamble that on a different occasion someone other than the two principal contenders may have dominated the pre-race headlines. For this concluding race of the year, the last to be run with 990cc engines before the machines will be powered by 800cc motors, Troy Bayliss made an almost magical reappearance.

The 37-year-old Australian veteran, who spent a couple of seasons in MotoGP some years ago, had been drafted in by Ducati to deputise for the injured Sete Gibernau on a one-off basis. Bayliss, the reigning World Superbike Champion, showed that the generally less highly regarded circuit has a lot to offer by taking second on the grid in qualifying, and more was to follow. But back to the race.

The normally ice-cool Rossi fluffed his lines at the start, dropping back to seventh as Bayliss and Hayden powered away in front. A mere five laps later, the almost certain championship, even considering the altered circumstances, completely slipped out of the Italian’s grasp.

Overshooting a sharp bend, he crashed into the gravel, and although he did manage to remount, found himself hopelessly out of touch at the back of the field. twenty-five laps later Bayliss led an unlikely Ducati one-two home from short-term team-mate Loris Capirossi, leaving Hayden content to cruise over the finishing line in third to claim his first world championship. As the “Kentucky Kid” celebrated, the “Doctor” was left to contemplate what might have been. Between the two stood Troy Bayliss, his smile perhaps the widest under the unseasonably warm Spanish sunshine.