Melandri wins 250 title – by 0.007secs!
20 October 2002
Marco Melandri finally wrapped up the 250cc World Championship today at Phillip Island to become the youngest ever quarter litre champion, but it was far from easy for the Italian who clinched the crown by just 0.007secs after 23 hard laps.
Yesterday, Fonsi Nieto had taken his ninth 250cc pole position of the year, but his title charge looks like coming too late with Marco Melandri lining up second on the grid and in line to take the world crown denied to him one week ago due to engine problems.
Melandri is the only rider currently competing in the 250cc class who has won previously at Phillip Island, having taken victory in the 125cc class in 1999.
Joining the two championship contenders on the front row was the hard racing Sebastian Porto and Friday pace setter Toni Elias, who was in a position to play a team role for Nieto, as he had one week ago, if needed.
Should Nieto, Elias or any other Aprilia rider takes victory it would be the 13th victory of the year for the manufacturer which equals the all-time record for most wins in a season by a manufacturer in the 250cc class, a record currently held jointly by Aprilia (1998) and Honda (1991).
Meanwhile, Leon Haslam's tenth place on the grid is his best ever qualifying result in Grand Prix racing, in what would be his 45th GP start.
When the red lights went out it was Elias who grabbed the initial advantage, from Melandri and Nieto, but the MS Aprilia rider wasn't waiting around and immediately jumped inside the Spaniard at the Honda hairpin to avoid any potential entanglement with team orders from the Telefonica duo.
Melandri then immediately set off to break the pack, putting a 0.3secs gap between him and Elias by the end of the first lap, while home hero Casey Stoner was working his way up to ninth ahead of Haslam.
Third placed Nieto, realizing what was happening, cut ahead of his team-mate and put the hammer down to try and tag on to the first moving #3 machine. But while one Telefonica was on the attack, Elias was well and truly on the defensive and now being bombarded by Rolfo - who slipped ahead at the MG hairpin – while the battle turned three-way as Porto caught the pair of them.
By lap 4 Nieto had closed any advantage Melandri had built up, and the two dominating forces I 250cc racing were soon nose-to-tail, where they would remain to the flag. Nieto soon capitalized on a useful slipstream down the Gardner straight and to take the lead for the first time – only for Melandri to retaliate at the Honda hairpin a few turns later – where Roberto Locatelli would crash out seconds later when his bike appeared to seize and throw him un ceremoniously down the road.
Back up front the top two seemed to be playing games with each other as they took turns to let the other by in an increasingly brutal battle. Behind them, by lap 13 of 23, Elias was loosing touch with Rolfo and Porto, leaving the Motegi winner to cruise to a safe fifth.
By contrast Melandri appeared to be trying to break Nieto, and set a series of ultra fast laps that saw him quickly build an advantage of 0.3, 0.5, 0.57secs – only for Nieto to pin his throttle, set a new fastest lap, a close to within a tenth by lap 18.
Meanwhile, 14th placed Jay Vincent had a lucky escape when he crashed from a points finish on his BQR Honda, landing in the middle of the track and sending the following riders scattering to avoid him – fortunately all did so.
5 to go and Nieto was now leading once again, and it was his turn to try and break away as he punched out fastest laps once again – but Melandri, perhaps predictably, responded and while the third placed fight was now a distant 6secs back, the top could be separated only by a micrometer.
Onto the penultimate lap and Melandri plunged inside Nieto at the first turn, but Nieto seemed to have let him by and followed Marco's every move for the reminder of the 4.448km lap, before regaining the lead.
As they started their final circulation their was still nothing between them, and Melandri didn't wait long to make the move he needed to give him the title as he chopped across Nieto into turn two. But the Spaniard wasn't having any of it and forced his way back in front at the Honda hairpin – then Melandri dived inside – only for Nieto to retaliate! It was all to play for with less than half a lap to go…
The crucial move came when as the pair swept up and over Lukey heights and towards the MG hairpin: Nieto took a defensive line but Melandri pulled out a do–or-die move around the outside, which became the inside at the hairpin, to lead into the long, double apex, final turn.
Nieto looked to have got a better drive out – and looked like he may have got the run on Melandri to the flag – but the Italian ducked down behind his MS machines fairing and held on to take the win and world title – by just 0.007secs.
Having been forced to delay his celebrations after his Sepang electrical failure, Melandri couldn't contain himself at finally wrapping the crown up, and was soon punching the air with delight before a burn-out and 'mugging' by his ecstatic friends who soon had him fitted with a celebratory T-shirt and 'MM' flag.
By contrast a subdued Nieto cruised back to the pits clearly disappointed to have lost both race and title despite a valiant effort. Meanwhile, the fight for the final podium position was won by Porto after Rolfo dropped 7secs on his last lap in an unseen incident.
“It was a very nice race because me and Fonsi overtook each other many times but always correctly,” beamed Melandri afterwards. “I wasn't so close (on the last lap at the hairpin) but I had to try and win the title – I brake really late and it worked, but (more important than winning) is that I'm now World Champion.”
Nieto then gave his views of the epic battle: “I tried to push in the beginning, but I had problems with a full fuel tank. Melandri followed me and on the last lap we passed so many times. I tried to get an advantage as I knew he would beat me on the run to the flag, but he passed me (before then) anyway.”
Third placed Porto added: “I'm really happy to be on the podium. I pushed very hard and I tried to pass Rolfo at the hairpin and got through.”
Full results to follow…
6. de Puniet