Valentino Rossi will take an eight-point lead over Nicky Hayden into the final round of the 2006 season after one of the most dramatic races in history ended with a debut victory for Toni Elias.

Hayden began the penultimate race of the season with a 12 point lead over Rossi and, whilst he must have been braced for the on-form Italian to reduce that advantage, only the Kentuckian's worst nightmare could have warned him of what was to come on lap five of the Portuguese Grand Prix.

Rossi had converted his pole into a turn one lead, with Camel Yamaha team-mate Colin Edwards riding shotgun in second ahead of Hayden's Repsol Honda team-mate Dani Pedrosa, with Nicky himself in fourth.

Rookie of the year Pedrosa soon began hassling Edwards for second, and exchanged the position several times, while Hayden remained in touch and then squeezed past Pedrosa for third at the end of the back straight on lap four. At this point it's worth noting that Edwards was opening riding for his team today, in other words protecting Rossi, but Pedrosa appeared exceptionally keen to re-pass his own team-mate - perhaps believing that he could help Hayden and Honda best by beating Rossi and winning the race...

But exactly one lap after Hayden has passed Pedrosa, the young Spaniard launched his RCV back up the inside of the #69 - aiming for a non-existent space - in a desperate attempt to retake third into the long left hander. Considering what was at stake, and the distance he was behind his team-mate approaching the turn, the move was nothing less than sheer lunacy. As Hayden turned in to the corner, the out of control Pedrosa lost the front of RCV, fell to the floor, then slammed straight into the side of the American - sending them both cartwheeling into the gravel.

A moment of stunned silence descended on the paddock as it tried to absorb what had just happened - Hayden, who has finished every other race this season, immediately rushed back to his broken bike to try and rejoin, but the damage was too great and all the apoplectic American could do was remove his helmet and scream in frustration while punching the ground with his fist. It must have taken every inch of Nicky's restraint to avoid inflicting similar blows on the young Spaniard, who appears to have broken a finger in the fall. It is no exaggeration to state that Pedrosa's moment of madness was one of the greatest mistakes ever seen in modern motorcycle grand prix racing.

The Hayden/Pedrosa clash marked the last of several early race incidents - which began with a heavy first lap highside for Kawasaki's Shinya Nakano, that left the Japanese on a stretcher, and was followed by a fall from fifth placed Casey Stoner, whose bike was then hit by Sete Gibernau, taking out the unlucky Ducati rider and possibly re-injuring his collarbone.

After the dust had literally settled, Rossi was left up front with Edwards still second - but the Italian was unable to pull away and attention soon turned to Elias and Kenny Roberts, who had qualified just 11th and 13th but were now charging towards the factory M1s.

Fortuna Honda rider Elias, who looked to be out of a job at the end of the season, made a strong start to take eighth at the first lap, was up to fifth by lap two - then handed third and a potential first ever MotoGP podium after the double Repsol destruction ahead of him. Roberts meanwhile had mirrored Toni's progress, taking fourth after passing Loris Capirossi on lap nine.

By the halfway stage, Rossi held a shaky 1.4secs lead over Edwards - while the Texan now had his hands more than full holding off Elias and Roberts, with Konica Minolta Honda's Makoto Tamada leading the second group some 4.4secs back.

Elias, riding - in the words of Rossi - 'like a devil', threw his RCV into all sort of shapes as he confidently attacked the double World Superbike champion. The Spaniard was unafraid to run wide as he sought a way past the yellow machine and, after exchanging second place several times, duly claimed the position on lap 15 - and was soon closing in on Rossi's rear wheel, briefly taking the lead from the surprised Italian on lap 22.

Rossi retook the advantage a lap later, but his problems grew significantly when Roberts also passed Edwards, then nudged his way inside Elias for second at the ultra-tight chicane. The 2000 world champion, the last rider to beat Rossi to a world title, was soon putting the seven-times champion under pressure - and took the lead for Team Roberts along the start-finish straight as the penultimate lap began.

Kenny later explained that he thought it was the final lap, but kept the gas on when he saw no chequered flag. KR, Rossi and Elias then fanned out across the asphalt as they hit the brakes for turn one - at which point a sideways Elias promptly shot from third to first!

Rossi's last real hope of retaliation was the awkward chicane and he duly pointed his M1 at the inside apex and the pair accelerated side-by-side through the uphill exit before Rossi took the lead, and racing line, with just two corners to go. The Doctor looked to have his sixth victory of the season in the bag but Elias wrung everything from his satellite spec RCV out of the final turn and slipstreamed past Rossi by just 0.002secs at the chequered flag!

It was an amazing finish to an amazingly dramatic race, most of which few could have even imagined just an hour earlier. Elias became Hayden and Honda's best friend by taking five points from Rossi, but the reality is that even if Nicky wins at Valencia, Rossi can afford to finish second and still take his sixth consecutive MotoGP crown. Nevertheless, as Sunday at Estoril illustrated perfectly, anything can still happen.

Roberts' podium marked his second of the season for the Honda powered KR211V, while Edwards was disappointed to be fourth after being no lower than third for the first 23 laps.

18 seconds behind them, the 'second race' was won by Tamada in fifth, with John Hopkins the top Bridgestone rider in sixth for Rizla Suzuki. The Dunlop shod Tech 3 Yamaha of Carlos Checa was a creditable seventh in front of an off-form Marco Melandri, while Suzuki's Chris Vermeulen and Kawasaki's Randy de Puniet completed the top ten.

Meanwhile, the five high-profile fallers helped Garry McCoy and the new Ilmor SRT team to finish its first ever MotoGP race in 15th position, despite dropping four laps after being forced to pit with electrical problems. Prior to those problems, ten laps from the end, McCoy had overtaken Jose Luis Cardoso's d'Antin Ducati and was catching the Tech 3 Yamaha of James Ellison. Nevertheless, the Australian was credited as the final finisher and so gave the team its first ever world championship point and the first point for an 800cc machine.

Portuguese Grand Prix:

1. Elias
2. Rossi
3. Roberts
4. Edwards
5. Hopkins
6. Tamada
7. Checa
8. Melandri
9. Vermeulen
10. de Puniet
11. Hofmann
12. Capirossi
13. Ellison
14. Cardoso
15. McCoy



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