Senna’s death in 1994 threw a blanket over Formula 1 racing for the next decade and, despite Michael Schumacher dwarfing his achievements statistically (7 F1 titles vs. 3, 36% of races won vs. 25%), the German never dispelled the perception that the Brazilian was the better racing driver.
Indeed, Schumacher was one of Senna’s victims in the rain-sodden 1993 European GP at Donnington, when Senna entered the first corner of the race in 5th place but ended the first lap in the lead. Alain Prost and Damon Hill also saw him indicate and pull out. Technical excellence beaten comprehensively by natural talent and a racing mentality.
So, that’s it then. Surely it’s pointless watching motor racing now?
Not this year. This is the year that Nicky Hayden starts the MotoGP season wearing the number 1, the same number which belongs to Valentino Rossi, who has held the title since before very small men starting racing really big bikes.
Rossi has ruled MotoGP since the top division went up from 500cc to the full litre in 2002; first, with Honda and then, when that no longer required any effort, on Yamaha’s commuter bike. He has won 48% of the races he’s started, seeing off comedy nemesis Max Biaggi and Sete Gibernau along the way. With no real challenges left, all that remained for him at the ripe old age of 27 was another five seasons, maybe winning on a 250cc Hungarian quad bike with a puncture. Small wonder that he was dreaming of the World Rally Championship, or of playing pit stop in F1 cars.
But that all changed last year when Hayden survived the divine wind of his own team mate, Dani Pedrosa - http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=T0DSG63BBuE – to snatch the title away from Rossi in the last race. Although Hayden enjoyed as much good fortune in 2006 as Rossi enjoyed bad, this is not a one-off, a last hurrah at the end of a mediocre career; the American is 25, a full 3 years younger than Rossi. This looks like a real rivalry in the making.
If that wasn’t bad enough for the poor old Doctor, Honda Gresini have re-signed Marco Melandri and the outrageously talented-slash-suicidal Toni Elias, who gave Rossi the race of his life at Estoril to pip him by 1/500th of a second after the most exciting lap of racing you will ever see - http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=MIDsSmv2Jus. Repsol Honda have wisely stuck with Dani Pedrosa as Hayden’s stable mate, although they might consider issuing team orders this year on occasion. These three riders are 24, 23 and 21 years old, respectively. They are on what is likely to be the best ride, the Honda RC212V.
Speaking of bikes, this is also the year that the FIM has addressed MotoGP’s fundamental technical problem: how an 8 stone rider like Pedrosa gets more than 240 bhp of power onto the tarmac through one wheel. Teams were actually de-tuning the 990cc bikes last year. This year, they’re down to a lighter 800cc. This means later, harder braking, quicker handling, higher corner speeds… plus Rossi v. the Next Generation?