Published on October 2nd, 2013 | by Bedlam
COLIN EDWARDS’ ALMOST WIN
It’s been a quiet day at work (we call those ‘weekdays’) So I thought I’d use the time to contribute something positive, for fear of being typecast as a Pedrosa hater (Heaven forfend! – Ed). There was a suggestion that my Pedrosa hate-speech would be front-of-site material. Hopefully this is better reading. It’s a race report of my trip to Assen in 2006. Sorry it’s long-winded. It’s been a boring fucking day…
These days, Colin Edwards is a middle-aged bloke who rides an underpowered production motorbike around a racetrack while a MotoGP races takes place on a different section of the track somewhere ahead. It’s a poor way for a world-class Grand Prix rider to finish his career, and hopefully not the way his career will be remembered. Not that long ago he was a constant front runner with the factory Yamaha team, and a competitive team mate to the all conquering Valentino Rossi. Unfortunately though, he never made it to the top of the podium, but one day in June 2006 he came bloody close, at the Dutch TT.
2006 was the first time I’d traveled overseas. With my then-girlfriend, I’d planned to do what so many young Aussies do: Go to England, buy a shitbox campervan, then travel as far around Europe as I could before the cash ran out or the campervan shat itself. Before either of those thing happened, I flogged a 25-year-old campervan along the European highways to get to the Dutch TT at Assen. Riding to the Phillip Island Grand Prix with my mates every year was a tradition at home. I intended to substitute that with at least one European race while I was in that hemisphere. Having grown up watching some of the great 500cc races at the Dutch TT, as well as Carl Fogarty owning the place on a Superbike through the 90s, I decided Assen would be worth a visit.
Though significantly altered before the 2006 round, Assen remains one of Grand Prix racing’s great venues, as well as being one of the traditional homes of world championship motorcycle racing. However, as I entered the spectator areas, the first thing that struck me was how fortunate we are to have a venue like Phillip Island for the Australian MotoGP. Compared to the Aussie track, Assen was overcrowded, with very little in the way of amenities. Unless you’re in the grandstand, spectator seating is limited to finding a vacant patch of dirt on the banks of soil that line the tracks, then watching the race through an eight-foot-high chain-link security fence. If they raced at Guantanamo Bay I imagine it’d be similar. The venue bore no resemblance whatsoever to the gloriously casual trackside atmosphere at the Island.
We scouted the arena for a patch of dirt, watching the 125s and 250s from the top end of the circuit, where the banked track loops back on itself a couple of times, creating the perfect amphitheatre for the wasp-like swarms of two-stroke machines. Before the main game started, I settled on a great spot at the end of the back straight, at the entry to the Turns Eight and Nine chicane. Despite the sardine can conditions, the crowd was generous in making room for us, and we squatted on a small patch of dirt surrounded by bright yellow Rossi caps and the previous year’s Gauloises Yamaha shirts. Conditions could only be described as shitful. The atmosphere could only be described as fucking awesome. What we didn’t have in that part of the track was a TV screen. Surely it wouldn’t be needed though, sitting at the track’s main overtaking point, with a view that extended almost to the finish line.
When the race started, it was all about Colin Edwards. He’d shared the front row of the grid with the Suzuki of Hopkins and the Kawasaki of Nakano (yeah, seriously), and he obviously got the holeshot, because as the pack came into view and made its way towards us, Edwards was comfortably in the lead. Over the first few laps he eased that lead out, leaving clear track behind as the pack squabbled for lower positions.
A lot of people will tell you that you can’t judge racing speed from the side of a track. That you ‘can’t see tenths of a second’ watching motorsport, because everything is so fast. That is utter horse shit. The way a bike responds under braking, how it behaves through the corner, the way it puts down power and accelerates on exit are all demonstrations of a bike’s performance and set-up that are available to the trackside spectator if you know what you’re looking for. And the end of Assen’s back straight is the ideal place to judge a bike’s performance; a long straight into a tight chicane, a change of direction, then another straight. It’s where all of the bike’s componentry is employed, and any shortcomings exposed. It also demonstrates the relationship between man and machine. Are they fighting each other through the corner? Are they in synch, or does the bike have more to give that the rider’s not capable of extracting? Does the bike hit the apex every time like William Tell, or does it look more like sprayed 12-gauge shot? A good rider/bike combination changes direction in a chicane like an Olympic synchronised swimmer. A poor combination changing direction looks more like hippos fucking in the mud. Either way, there’s nowhere to hide on a bike. This is a level of involvement for the spectator that car racing cannot offer.
On that Saturday afternoon in June, Colin Edwards and the Camel Yamaha YZR-M1 were in synch. Edwards’ natural style made it look casual, but in effect he obviously had a good set-up that made the bike go where he pointed it, and was capable of doing the same lap times all day. It sat steady under braking and turned in neatly. It changed direction smoothly, and Edwards opened the throttle and put the power down earlier than most. Hopkins and Nakano had no such simpatico with their bikes. The single-lap speed that had put them on the front row ahead of Edwards didn’t translate to race speed and their pace was diminishing. In addition to fighting each other, both were battling their own bikes, and began to look ragged early as Edwards eased away from them. Approaching from behind was Nicky Hayden, who’d recently announced himself as a title contender through consistency of results, despite not having registered a win so far that season.
By contrast with his team mate, Valentino Rossi looked terrible on the other yellow M1. He started from the back of the grid, having broken a bone in his hand when he crashed during early practice, and missed out on qualifying on Friday. In the race his injury was obvious, as he struggled under braking, the lack of strength in his hand forcing him to apply the brake early and gradually, and he rolled into the chicane with less speed and commitment than the leaders. His first attempt to effect a pass in the braking zone resulted in him overshooting the chicane and taking a tour through the run-off area before rejoining the track. Despite running about 15th at that stage, the crowd were overwhelmingly supportive of him, the majority having come to see him win, and there was quiet hope that he’d steadily work his way forward.
Of the other runners, both rookies Pedrosa and Stoner looked impressive and spent a decent portion of the race battling each other. I’d seen them both race 125s and 250s, and it was apparent both had transferred their natural ability across to the considerably bigger four-stroke bikes. Stoner in particular seemed agile, and climbed all over his Honda like a spider monkey as he flicked it through the change of direction. Ahead of them, Hayden seemed to have found a rhythm and made his way past Nakano and Hopkins into second place, then shortened the gap to Edwards. Where Edwards was smooth and tidy, Hayden seemed to rely on the greater speed and acceleration of the Honda as he worked mainly on arresting enough speed to get through the chicane, before cranking the throttle as early as he could to accelerate out. While it still didn’t look as though he was getting the best out of the bike, it was nonetheless effective, and he closed in on Edwards at the front.
On the second-last lap they entered the back straight line astern and Hayden used the power of the Honda to pull alongside the Yamaha and give himself the inside line to the fast-approaching chicane. At that point, Hayden, whose signature move is the callous ‘block-pass’, proceeded to block-pass Edwards, using the inside line to run the Honda across the entry to the corner, shutting Edwards out and forcing him up the escape road. The crowd groaned in unison. The manoeuvre wasn’t exactly considered sporting and there was genuine dismay at the anti-climax to what had threatened to be a great battle.
Edwards, braced for the corner, visibly relaxed momentarily as he pointed the bike into the escape road. There was an almost imperceptible shake of his head before he opened the throttle and re-entered the track with a gap ahead to Hayden and a layer of shit all over his tyres.
The crowd, including myself, were disappointed, but not altogether pissed off. There had been a real expectation that Edwards, who’d been a superstar of WSB was about to take his maiden Motogp victory. There was also clearly some transfer of support from the innumerable Rossi fans who weren’t going to see their hero at the front that day, but would’ve settled for his team mate winning as consolation. But as Hayden headed around out of our view to start the final lap it was obvious that couldn’t happen.
Or could it? As the pair headed down the straight towards us for the final time, Edwards had closed the gap and was sucking exhaust fumes from the Honda. The crowd was stunned. Suddenly there was hope that Edwards would get the job done. It didn’t happen on the straight, where the Honda had too much speed, but as they negotiated the chicane for the final time, Edwards was all over Hayden, menacing him, and we were all confident he’d push his way past. Rising onto tiptoes as one and craning necks to see around each other, we peered across and saw him get the job done at the next corner, and the cheering rang out again. But then Hayden came back at him as they approached the final corner and disappeared from our sight, blocked by the pit buildings.
As they approached the finish line, there was a roar of excitement from the front straight grandstand, all of which was on its feet. But somehow it wasn’t the reaction of a close finish. There was a sense of astonishment to it that suggested something dramatic happened.
With the exception of those in that grandstand, and a couple of pockets of the crowd who had a view of the big screen at the top end of the track, there was a general sense of bewilderment, as no-one actually knew who’d won. A cloud of dust rose slowly from the other side of the pit lane, which gave rise to the theory that there’d been a collision. Speculation erupted around me in a few different languages, none of them English, accompanied by much wild hand waving. The only coherent hand gestures suggested a collision, and the non-verbal consensus appeared to be that the two had taken each out at the final corner.
Nakano was the first to make his way around on the victory lap. He seemed happy, but didn’t look as though he’d been the benefactor of the leading pair taking each other out. Stoner and Pedrosa made their way around, and it seemed an age before Hayden appeared. He looked sheepish as he waved to the mob standing along the dirt bank, or maybe I imagined that. Regardless, he wore the look of the victor as he trundled along the back straight. There was a smattering of applause, but confusion still prevailed and speculation was rife that he’d taken Edwards out, so most of the crowd were reluctant to congratulate him until the jury returned with a verdict on that. The remaining bikes trickled through, giving the usual acknowledgment to a boisterous crowd, until eventually Edwards’ yellow Yamaha appeared at the top of the straight. Warmth returned to the crowd, and we found our voice again as he came into better view. The Yamaha wore scars of battle, obviously from an off-track excursion, both bike and rider covered in so much dust they gave the impression of having completed the last leg into Dakar rather than a grand prix. Edwards himself was layered with the finer powder from the gravel trap. With the visor torn from his helmet and dust coating his face and every inch of his leathers, he had the look of a man who’d parted company with his bike at decent speed.
The crowd roared for him. Verdict was passed. Hayden had taken him out at the final corner and deprived him of his rightful maiden victory. Yet he was the moral victor. If Hayden had’ve followed him around it would’ve been through a hail of Heineken and Amstel cans. Edwards exuded nothing but grace and good sportsmanship as he returned the affection of the crowd. If he was disappointed, it wasn’t visible there.
The crowd packed up and filed toward the various carparks, covered in Assen soil. Most of the audience had gone before I finally got far enough around the track to see a big screen, but I didn’t have to wait long to see a replay of the incident. There had been no collision at all, and I felt a pang of guilt for subscribing to the mob mentality that Hayden had taken Edwards out and benefited with a victory. In desperation to be the first into, and therefore out of, the final corner, the pair had out-braked each other. Ironically it was Hayden on the outside who seemed to have lost out as he headed straight on into the gravel trap. Edwards, holding the inside line, initially looked to have prevailed, until passing across the Astroturf that lined the edge of the chicane, he was thrown from the bike.
Whether he opened the throttle too early, or whether the bike carried to much speed to maintain traction on the astroturf is of little importance. Either way, the Yamaha bucked and ejected him into the gravel trap, before traveling on across the track and careening into the tyre barrier on the other side, still carrying plenty of momentum. As Edwards ate dust through his wrecked helmet, Hayden succeeded in keeping his bike upright and made his way through the sand trap at Massey-Ferguson speed. Nakano was so far back in third that Hayden was able to comfortably make his way across the line to pick up the win.
There was a surreal feeling to watching a television screen half an hour after a race to find out the result of a race I’d been trackside at. But it was an incredible event to be at, and not like any grand prix I’d been to before. For that matter, it was the first GP I’d been to that Rossi hadn’t won.
For Nicky Hayden, the 25 points he took away from Assen instead of settling for second place would prove vital in November, when Valentino Rossi threw his bike down the road at Valencia and handed him the 2006 world championship crown.
Will Colin Edwards ever take that final step to the top of the Motogp podium? Fuck no. Don’t be ridiculous.
Did he spend too long racing World Superbikes? Maybe. But his battles with Bayliss in 2001-2002 provided some of the best racing of the modern era. I remember hearing a rumour in 1999 that Honda had offered him Doohan’s ride when it was apparent Mick’s career was over. If that was true, who knows what might’ve been? The introduction of the RC211V in 2002 would’ve been even more significant with a Rossi-Edwards team, rather than Rossi racing himself as he did for most of that season.
Regardless, Colin Edwards remains one of the greatest riders to go winless in the top class of motorcycle racing. Yet his contribution to the sport has been huge, and should not be unrecognised. Colin Edwards was among the fastest men in the world on a motorcycle in his day, and he has given of himself in ways that others who’ve been more successful have been incapable or unwilling. The likes of Melandri, Pedrosa and Spies have enjoyed success in the sport, but not given back to the sport the way the grace, good humour, and personality of Colin Edwards has since 2003. MotoGP will be much poorer for his absence, when that inevitably happens. He doesn’t have the trophy on his mantelpiece, but on that June day at Assen in 2006 he was the fastest man in the world on two wheels.