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Holding Our Breath for Valencia

We are now less than two days away from what is almost certainly the most eagerly anticipated MotoGP finale in quite a few years. For the first time in many years, the dominance of Yamaha’s Valentino Rossi has been challenged in such a way that capturing another title depends entirely on his performance in the final race. This challenge came not just from Honda’s Nicky Hayden, but also from Rossi’s own bad luck during the season – a drama heightened both by Rossi’s late-season charge and by the Hayden-Pedrosa incident at the last race two weeks ago.

Rossi heads to Valencia with an eight-point lead in the championship, meaning that if Hayden wins the race on Sunday, Valentino need only finish second to take the title. Despite this, Rossi has made it clear in pre-race press statements that his intent for the weekend is to win, even though Valencia is far from his favorite track.

Hayden is right at home at Valencia, a track with a preponderance of left-hand corners that bring back memories of his dirt-track roots. Since so much time is spent turning left here, the left side of the tire tends to go away quickly at race pace – and we doubt that anyone in the paddock is more comfortable with sliding and spinning through a left-hand turn than Nicky.

Although you may have read elsewhere that Hayden was fourth fastest in today’s practice session, and Rossi seventh, those times are mostly irrelevant. Friday practice is mainly concerned with setup and tire testing, and practice times are even less effective than qualifying times at predicting the results of a race.

Regardless of their relative comfort levels at Valencia, it’s hard to bet against Rossi at this point. As he has demonstrated numerous times over the years, when the chips are down, Rossi is a man who can “git ‘er done”, as they say in certain regions of the United States. Then again, we’ve rarely seen a rider with as much drive and mental strength as Nicky Hayden, and I doubt that anyone WANTS this championship as badly as he does at this moment.

Rather than trying to predict the winner (even though I have a 50/50 chance of being right!), I am looking forward to watching a race where anything can (and most likely will) happen. For those of us not lucky enough to be attending the race in person, TV coverage in the United States will be available on SpeedTV, which will air the Valencia Grand Prix at 12:30pm PST (3:30pm EST) this Sunday. 44 hours sure is a long time to hold your breath…