Elias takes back-to-back 250cc wins
25 May 2003
Toni Elias followed up his Spanish GP victory with a repeat performance in today's French Grand Prix at Le Mans, holding off home hero Randy de Puniet while the battle for the final podium position went right to the flag.
Qualifying saw series leader Manuel Poggiali claim his first pole position of the season courtesy of his Friday time, while Franco Battaini, who starts the race from second on the grid, was the fastest man in the wet.
Fellow front row starters Randy De Puniet and Fonsi Nieto were also impressive in both the wet and dry sessions, with local hero De Puniet second fastest yesterday, whilst Poggiali lapped in the top five.
Into today's dry race and Jerez victor Elias shot from the second row to lead the field through the first chicane, with de Puniet, Nieto, Porto, Poggiali and Guintoli in close pursuit.
Immediately making his intentions known was de Puniet, who – spurred on by the partisan crowd – offered the front wheel of his LCR Aprilia inside Elias on several occasions over the next few laps, before finally outbraking the Spaniard on lap 4 top lead his home GP.
By contrast, runaway points leader Poggiali's race would come to a brutal end on lap six when he rammed the back of third placed Porto's machine, taking them both out, after the Honda rider appeared to back off slightly between two tight right handers. The San Marinese simply gassed out of the first turn and into the rear wheel of Porto's machine, with each blaming the other for their exit.
That accident split the leading group in two, allowing de Puniet and Elias to break away up front, while 3secs further behind Battaini and Campetella Racing team-mate Guintoli battled for the final podium place.
By the halfway point, de Puniet continued to carry his – and the French fans – hopes of victory, but Elias was shadowing his every move and the hard racing Toni would make Randy earn every inch of a potential first GP victory.
The Repsol rider made that task even harder for de Puniet on lap 15 (of 26) when he physically muscled his way inside at the final sequence of corners. But while one Frenchman was under pressure, another found himself given a welcome break as Battaini ran wide into the gravel trap and so gifted Guintoli third.
However, if the Le Mans fans had felt assured of two of their men on the podium, they would have grown increasingly concerned at the pace of Rolfo, who was fast closing on Guintoil's Aprilia, with Nieto and Matsudo in tow.
Into the closing stages and Elias had broke de Puniet's hopes with a solid 5secs advantage over the fading Frenchman, leaving all eyes on third placed Guintoli (9secs back), riding the race of his life as he held off Nieto, Rolfo and Matsudo to keep his hopes of a first podium finish alive.
Onto the penultimate lap and the first two places were decided, but the fight for third was going right to the flag with Guintoli, Nieto, Rolfo and Yamaha mounted Matsudo covered by next to nothing.
With the crowd screaming their support for Guintoli, Nieto stuck a surprise move on him into the final corner – pushing the unfortunate Guintoli to the tail of the group in the process as the last lap began.
Nieto's advantage wasn't to last long however as Rolfo wrung every ounce of speed from his Fortuna Honda to ultimately take the final podium position, behind Elias and de Puniet, with Nieto instead forced to defend against Matsudo for fourth.
Despite missing out on his first victory once again, de Puniet looked pleased enough on the slow down lap as he thanked he many fans with a series of burn-outs, while Elias found a Spanish flag to wave - but only after the fan who brought it to him had been wrestled to the ground by some over eager marshals who reacted as if he was armed.
Full results to follow...
2. de Puniet