A legend emerges
As we look back now, it is hard to believe that at the beginning of 2000, MotoGP was not actually MotoGP. Instead, it was 500cc two-strokes. Valentino Rossi had not yet ridden a race, and the rules for MotoGP's 990cc had not even been announced.
We went through the fantastic five years of 990s, motorcycling's answer to the Group B rally cars of the eighties; then into 800s; and now we have the rules announced for the new 1000cc era in 2012. What other decades can boast that? None.
Wind back ten years and there was an inkling of the success that Rossi was to have. He had, after all, won world titles in 125s and 250s, but we had no idea just how great the level of achievement was to be.
The new decade was the end of the factory Honda squad's domination after six straight 500cc titles. After a shock win for Australian Garry McCoy on the WCM Yamaha in the South African opener, some sense of normality was resumed in Malaysia as Suzuki rider Kenny Roberts Jr - the championship runner-up in 1999 - took a comfortable victory.
Roberts looked more and more a champion in waiting as the season reached its halfway stage. By July though, a new threat was emerging in the shape of a 21-year-old Italian, who was a race-winner by the British Grand Prix.
The second half of the season belonged to two Italians; Rossi, being run on a factory Honda but independently of the official 'works' squad, and Yamaha rider Max Biaggi. One or both of them made it onto the podium in each of the final eight races and hauled themselves up to second and third in the points. Neither could make up the gap to Roberts though, who played the percentages and wrapped up the title at Motegi.
The first big rivalry
The rivalry between Rossi and Biaggi intensified the following year via various wind-ups in the Italian press. Then it really hit boiling point.
Biaggi tried to elbow barge Rossi onto the grass during a wet opening race at Suzuka. 'The Doctor', unflustered, passed him at the same place on the following lap. The fact that he looked behind to flick his rival the middle finger - while tipping the bike in for the daunting first corner - said as much about his contempt for Biaggi as it did about his extraordinary bike control.
A punch-up between the podium and the press conference room at Barcelona was the final straw. This was full-blown hate and divided fans of the two as much as it did the Honda and Yamaha camps. Biaggi could at least console himself knowing that Rossi lost an easy home victory by crashing on the penultimate lap at Mugello - handing the spoils to Alex Barros.
Biaggi dug deep into his resolve to beat his nemesis at Assen and the Sachsenring, but a crash under pressure at Brno - the single incident that proved beyond doubt that Rossi had broken his resolve for good - swung the momentum back in favour of the younger Italian. Passing Biaggi on the last lap at Phillip Island - when he didn't even need to - was enough for the title as he ended the year with 11 wins to his name.
With the top-line 500cc machines reaching the end of their development cycle a decade ago, the stage was finally set for a replacement class for monstrous 990cc, four-stroke machines, simply to be known as MotoGP.
Honda had more of a handle on its new machine than anyone else and the result was a string of nine consecutive wins; eight for Rossi, now riding in Repsol colours, and the other for his new team-mate Tohru Ukawa in South Africa.
The year was a cakewalk for Rossi, who collected 11 wins and wrapped up the crown long before the season's end. Biaggi was never a threat and by mid-season was moaning that his Yamaha was not good enough to allow him to mount the challenge to Rossi that he - although barely anyone else - believed he was capable of.
The dominance of the Honda was really shown when Barros, who had spent most of the year on a Pons-run NSR500, was given an RCV for the final four races. He promptly won first time out in Japan.
There was still life in the old machines, though. Proton KR riders Jeremy McWilliams and Nobuatsu Aoki plus Jurgen van der Goorbergh and McCoy made it an all-500cc front row at Phillip Island (despite being 50bhp down on the 990s), while Olivier Jacque would have won in Germany had Barros not pole-axed him at the first corner.
Biaggi vanquished, on to Gibernau
Emotions went crazy a few days later in South Africa when Kato's team-mate Sete Gibernau did the unthinkable and won, summoning all his inner strength to prise out a performance that few believed he was capable of.
Gibernau won four of the first nine races - including the German GP, where he passed Rossi at the final corner. Biaggi, having replaced Loris Capirossi at Pons Honda, won twice. But Rossi won six out of seven during the second half of the season, including possibly his best in GP racing at Phillip Island. Informed of a 10s penalty that would be added to his race time for passing under yellow flags, Rossi promptly knuckled down and beat everyone by 15.2s.
Afterwards, he uttered: "That's the first time I've ever had to ride at 100 per cent in a race."
Honda should have been celebrating with him as he claimed world title number three, but it knew its prized asset was leaving for Yamaha the following year.
The most significant aspect of the year was the return of Ducati. Capirossi caused a mini sensation by getting on the podium first time out at Suzuka, while just five races later at Barcelona, he mounted the top step.
Another notable debutant, although few predicted it at the time, was Rossi's Honda team-mate Nicky Hayden, the AMA Superbike champion. His maiden podium finish at Motegi was a sure sign of things to come for 'The Kentucky Kid.'
The 2004 season-opener at Welkom in South Africa was storybook stuff. For a whole year, Biaggi had moaned about Yamaha's 990 being far inferior to Honda's. Now he had the RCV while Rossi was aboard the M1. This was surely his chance to put Rossi in his place...
Fat chance. Rossi won first time out after a scintillating fight with Biaggi and Gibernau, who now had a HRC bike at his and the Gresini team's disposal.
By the inaugural Qatar GP, Rossi and Gibernau were engulfed in a title battle of their own. This was the weekend though, when Gibernau revealed inadvertently that Rossi had really got to him, just as Biaggi had shown at Brno in 2001.
Rossi was angry at being sent to the back of the grid after Gibernau's mechanics had photographed his crew cleaning his grid spot before the race. So angry that after making it up to fifth place by the second lap, he crashed. His rival won and cut the championship gap to 14 points with three races left.
Sete Gibernau is stalked by Valentino Rossi during the 2005 Spanish Grand Prix at Jerez
Biaggi kept the pressure on the pair when he could, but was restricted to just a solitary win at the Sachsenring.
The bad blood between Rossi and Gibernau continued into 2005. After exchanging places a couple of time during the final lap of the Jerez opener, Gibernau looked to have the race won. But he left a Yamaha-sized gap at the last corner.
Rossi needed no more invitation and barged his way through to victory, sending his rival into the gravel, from which he was at least able to recover second. Gibernau would not even look at Rossi in parc ferme or on the podium.
As Rossi had predicted in Qatar the previous year, this was the beginning of the end for the Gresini rider's career as a title contender. Instead, with Yamaha having ironed out the M1's deficiencies, the year was a benefit for the brilliant Italian.
The stats say it all. From 17 races Rossi finished 16 - all on the podium. He won 11 of them, took five poles and six fastest laps. With Colin Edwards having replaced Carlos Checa as his team-mate, Yamaha took its first manufacturers' crown for five years.
Gibernau's qualifying form was still excellent, as his five poles proved, but seven non-scores dropped him to an uncharacteristic seventh in the standings.
To the surprise of many, Gibernau's new team-mate Marco Melandri, who had moved over from the Tech 3 Yamaha squad, proved to be the closest thing to a threat to Rossi. He followed up his first win in Turkey with another at Valencia to wind up second in the championship, and best Honda rider (on a non-HRC bike too), giving the rest something to think about over the winter.
The beginning of a new era
From the moment Capirossi claimed victory for Ducati in the Jerez season-opener, the signs were there that 2006 was going to rip up the formbook of the previous years.
So it proved as Rossi, hamstrung by a Yamaha that just was too heavy on its tyres, failed to put any distance between himself and his countrymen Capirossi and Melandri, plus Honda men Hayden and Dani Pedrosa - a rookie who excelled with second on his debut in Spain and delivered far more over the course of the year.
Melandri becoming the first two-time winner of the year was a shock. So too were Pedrosa's easy wins in China and Britain (coming on only his fourth and ninth MotoGP starts). Rossi's lone win and two non-scores from the first five races were equally surprising.
Nicky Hayden celebrates the 2006 championship at Valencia
Pedrosa's challenge was effectively ended by a practice crash in Malaysia and the resultant knee and toe injuries. By that time Capirossi had also dropped points and was riding in pain as a result of neck injuries sustained in a horrifying first-corner shunt at Barcelona - that put his team-mate Gibernau out of action for a few months and also hurt Melandri.
Rossi was Hayden's main threat, with five wins giving him an excellent chance to take a decisive championship lead when Pedrosa knocked his team-mate out of the penultimate race of the season, the Portuguse GP.
The damage was limited by a sensational piece of riding from Gresini's Toni Elias, who took the fight to Rossi, Edwards and a similarly-inspired Roberts, now on a Honda-engined KR bike built and run by his father Kenny Sr's team.
Lap after lap the quartet swapped places, with Rossi looking to have snatched the win in what was easily the race of the decade, by grabbing the lead with five corners to go. Elias, sensing his first top-class GP win, was having none of it though, pulled out of the Yamaha's slipstream out of the final turn and beating the Italian to the line by just 0.002s - the closest finish of all time.
Third at Valencia was enough for Hayden to take the championship by five points - ironically the same number Elias cost Rossi in Portugal.
Ahead of him on the track that day were the two Ducatis, with Bayliss, fresh from landing a second World Superbike crown, brilliantly leading from start to finish winning on a one-off return for the Italian squad.
Also showing flashes of brilliance during the season were two youngsters. Casey Stoner, Pedrosa's main rival for the 250cc title the previous year, took his and the LCR Honda team's first pole on only his second race at Qatar, while American John Hopkins put his Suzuki at the front of the grid at Assen.
Enter the youngsters
In 2007, for the second time in five years, the championship was hit by sweeping technical rule changes. 990s were out and lighter, more compact 800cc machines, all carefully managed by the most advanced electronics you could imagine, were in.
Making the best of the new rules was Ducati. It was not Capirossi leading its charge, but Stoner, the man who had been only the fourth choice for the seat behind Gibernau, Melandri and Hayden. And what a job he did!
Casey Stoner aboard the 800cc Ducati at the 2007 Grand Prix of Qatar at Losail
Race by race he won from the front and even looked to have Rossi rattled when he held off his advances at Barcelona. He won 10 in all and won the championship by an astonishing 125 points - the equivalent of five race wins. Not even Rossi has managed that.
Rossi's Yamaha had masses of untapped potential, which the team would eventually find, but not in '07. Instead he had to make do with four wins.
Hayden's title defence was limp, mainly due to Honda's new machine being a bespoke design for Pedrosa, and therefore being too small for the American to fit on comfortably. Three podiums in four races during the middle of the season was all he could muster.
Pedrosa faired somewhat better and ended the year strongest of all. His win at the Valencia finale allowed him to pip Rossi to second in the championship at the death.
Yamaha was back to its best in 2008, and gave Rossi, his competitive instinct undimmed by two years away from the grand prize, a return to title-winning ways.
It was his new team-mate Jorge Lorenzo who made the headlines at the opening round in Qatar. Taking pole position and finishing second in the night race was an astonishing achievement for the debutant.
He made the transition from 250cc to 800cc machinery look seamless as he made it three poles in a row at Estoril, and then took his maiden win in the class while setting fastest lap on the way.
After that though, his challenge faded. A massive practice crash at Shanghai - and a similar one at Laguna Seca - left him carrying injuries that impeded his performances subsequently and prevented him from winning again.
With the threat from Lorenzo lessened, it looked like being Rossi v Stoner all over again. But instead Pedrosa reached the halfway point of the season in the championship lead.
The Spaniard, who had missed all of the pre-season running due to injuries sustained in a crash on the first day of winter testing, was off the podium only once in the first nine races. His Jerez win was truly staggering given what had gone before. But two mid-season non-scores, coming as Rossi and Stoner filled the top two steps of the podium each time, ended his challenge.
Stoner was next to falter, falling at Laguna Seca and then in the next two races as well. This was the moment that Biaggi had tried, and failed, to deal with before - the moment of ceding the psychological advantage to Rossi. While Stoner was unable to prevent Rossi from wrapping up the title in Japan, his six wins did leave him second in the championship, ahead of Pedrosa and Lorenzo.
Jorge Lorenzo leads Valentino Rossi at the 2009 Indianapolis Grand Prix © LAT
As he did in his debut year, Lorenzo started strongly and led the points after two wins from the first four races. Rossi was still keen to show him who was the top dog, as a phenomenal last-corner pass to win at Barcelona proved.
Come the end of that race, the pair found themselves level on points with Stoner at the top of the standings. But it was around this point that Stoner's challenge lost momentum. Ducati received a lot of flak for giving him three races off to allow him to overcome his health problems. But boy did it work!
Second on his return in Portugal, then a quite incredible win in front of his home crowd at Phillip Island (he and Rossi were 22s clear of the rest), and another in the wet in Malaysia confirmed that he is well and truly back.
It was not enough to keep him in the title hunt, though. That was the domain of the Yamaha riders, especially after Rossi had collected a landmark 100th grand prix win at the cathedral of speed, Assen.
But Rossi couldn't pull a significant gap to his team-mate. Lorenzo crashed out of the lead at Donington and Brno, but Rossi fell at Indianapolis, to leave the gap at just 18 points with three races to go.
The key incident was a first-corner collision between Hayden's Ducati and Lorenzo at Phillip Island, which knocked the Spaniard to the ground. It meant that a top five finish next time out in Malaysia was good enough for Rossi's seventh premier class title and his ninth in grands prix.
|MotoGP's Top 10 riders of the decade|
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