Almost 15 years ago, Cabo da Roca set the scene for one of the most thrilling races in MotoGP™ history, one which contained heartbreak and delirium in equal measures at the Portuguese Grand Prix. The sun-scorched cape sits just over 16km away from Circuito Estoril, the host of the penultimate race of the 2006 World Championship.
The late, great Nicky Hayden, then of Repsol Honda Team, led the title race by 12 points, with none other than then Champion, and current Petronas SRT rider, Valentino Rossi keeping pace with the Kentucky Kid.
“It’s been a few years since a title has gone the distance but this one is definitely going to go the distance,” said Hayden.
That was the easy prediction, but nobody could have foretold the drama that was set to unfold in Portugal that weekend.
Hayden had held a 51-point lead at one stage of the season, but Rossi managed to reel him in to see that just 12 points separated the pair coming into Estoril, with the Italian being the form rider of the two.
Hopes that both men would duke it out came to fruition on the Saturday, as they both set track records. “The Doctor” came out on pole, setting a lap record for the circuit at 1:36 flat, but Hayden wasn’t to be outshone as he hit a record 329.9km/h during Qualifying to show he had the speed needed to take home the title as both riders took spots on the front row, where they sandwiched Rossi’s Yamaha teammate Colin Edwards.
Before we knew it, the riders were on track getting set for their sighting laps, the sense of anticipation was palpable. Standing in the grid, Hayden had his opportunity to be crowned the MotoGP™ World Champion, but first, he would have to defeat the man who had made the title his own over the previous five years.
There were swathes of yellow among the 41,016 people in attendance as they came to cheer on their World Champion, a massive roar was let out across the Grandstand as Rossi popped up on the big screen from the grid.
Tension mounted as riders completed their Warm Up laps and took their positions on the starting grid. The front row dominated viewers’ attention as a Rossi and Edwards one-two in their luminescent yellow lit up the front row. Lining up alongside them was Hayden, who had his rookie teammate and two-time Moto2™ World Champion Dani Pedrosa just behind them as the first light flashed up in front of them….
…lights out and there was no to be no problems getting off the line from Hayden, but neither for the Yamahas as Rossi took the holeshot around the first corner, accompanied by teammate Edwards, with Honda’s Pedrosa and Hayden in hot pursuit.
At the top of the field, Edwards and Pedrosa exchanged positions but completing Lap 4, the leading quartet was as you were following the first corner.
Almost foreshadowing what was to come, Pedrosa and Hayden had a coming together around a left-hander on the fourth lap. Both stayed upright this time however as they sought to reel in the Yamahas.
Behind them saw Fortuna Honda’s sophomore Toni Elias in fifth, as the Spaniard looked to build on some good recent form to challenge for a first podium, while 2000 MotoGP™ World Champion Kenny Roberts Jr began working his way up the field from a P13 start. Neither were expected to make much of an impact in this race as they started from the fourth and fifth row respectively, but both would have their part to play in what would turn out to be one of the sport’s greatest races.
Back on the track, the leading four had just moved on to Lap 5 and Rossi extended his advantage thanks to Edwards doing a fine job of holding up the RC211Vs. A Rossi win wouldn’t have been a catastrophic turn of events for Hayden thanks to his 12 point lead atop the standings, as long as he himself placed well among the points. So, sitting in P3 entering the fifth lap meant things were trotting along nicely for the American.
Then in the most dramatic of events, Pedrosa’s attempt to take an inside line on a left-hander saw him tuck the front and slide into his title-chasing teammate, knocking both of them into the gravel. Hayden’s beckoned the stewards in his direction to get his bike back on track, but his efforts were in vain. In the blink of an eye, he was out of the race. Foiled by his own teammate in the cruellest of fashions.
It was a rather unbelievable sequence of events that left Hayden on his knees, punching the ground in fury before he apoplectically stormed off the track through the gravel.
It stunned the ground into silence as it seemed that Hayden’s Championship hopes had gone up in smoke. Pedrosa’s error handed Rossi the opportunity to open up a 13-point lead in the standings.
In the American’s absence, the race continued with Rossi having a commanding lead at the front, with his teammate Edwards in P2 and Fortuna Honda’s Toni Elias promoted into the top three following the crash, with Rossi holding a 1.5 second gap to the third placed Spaniard.
All of a sudden, the Championship was Rossi’s to lose.
The on-track drama was far from over though. Elias began chiselling away at Rossi’s lead while Kenny Roberts Jr had made his way through the field to fourth from his P13 start.
The front four began to break away from the rest of the field, but by lap 13 the Honda powered machines were turning up the pressure on Edwards, with Elias passing him on Lap 14 before the two battled it out for P2. Elias eventually made it stick on the following lap and as he closed down the gap to Rossi, it began to breathe new life not just into the race, but also the Championship.
Showing incredible pace, he had cut over a second off the gap with 11 to go. Three laps later he is on the Italian’s tail, and all of a sudden, Rossi’s potential 13-point lead in the standings was at serious risk.
Elias soon made his move, taking an unsuspecting Rossi on the inside line, with a look over the shoulder from the then incumbent World Champion showing his surprise. The Spaniard was having the ride of his life but even a small mistake would be pounced on by The Doctor, and he duly obliged when presented with one, Elias failing to close off the inside line, handing P1 back to Rossi.
With just five laps remaining, what had looked a foregone conclusion suddenly exploded into an enthralling contest, one that would go down in history. Kenny Roberts Jr had ousted his compatriot Edwards from the podium places and only a hair's breadth separated the front three, and before the lap was over Roberts Jr moved into second.
Everyone had anticipated a showdown between Rossi and an American, but not in the form of the veteran rider on the KR211V.
Two remaining and Roberts Jr moved into the lead as they crossed the start/ finish line. It had been six years since the former Champion tasted victory, in Motegi 2000 but he was on the cusp of it here as he took the Italian’s slipstream. However, that was as good as it was to get for the KRJR, as his miscalculation of remaining laps saw him adopt a different blocking strategy, perhaps costing him his chance of victory.
Coming into the last lap, Rossi tried returning the favour with an attempted overtake of Roberts Jr on the same part of the track, but it only opened up the gap Elias had been searching for to jump into the lead, meaning it was three riders wide as they crossed the line for the penultimate time in Portugal. Elias took the lead, with Rossi relegated to third, but only momentarily as the Champion battled back for P2, leaving Roberts Jr in third, where he would finish the race, in what would ultimately be his final ever podium in a storied MotoGP™ career.
The lead exchanged hands three times in the final chicane of the race for Rossi to get back in front with two corners to go. Coming off the final bend, a long right-hander, Elias is on his tail and gets into the Doctor’s slipstream to go side by side with Rossi as they took the chequered flag.
A stunning finish to a breathless race had the stadium on its feet. Just 0.002 seconds were between them as Elias took the win in the most incredible of fashions. It was a first race win for the Spaniard, and proved his only ever premier class victory and a moment to savour for the 23-year old.
It remains the second-closest finish ever, just behind the 1999 Australian Grand Prix, but that day showed MotoGP™ at its finest, one that will live long in the memory of all fans and pundits. A race worth remembering as the grid heads to the Algarve this weekend, where we would gladly take a fraction of the drama from that Estoril epic at the 888 Grand Prix of Portugal.