Sete Gibernau won a Spanish dominated French Grand Prix at Le Mans this afternoon, the Telefonica Honda rider overtaking countryman Carlos Checa at the halfway stage and leaving the Yamaha rider to face a fearsome attack from Max Biaggi and Valentino Rossi.
After a first day dominated by Americans Colin Edwards
and Nicky Hayden, world championship leader Gibernau and Checa would secure Spanish superiority at the front of the MotoGP
grid in Saturday final qualifying.
Gibernau shook off the effects of a fever to storm to a new pole record, while Checa's second meant that for the first time ever two Spaniards qualified in the top two positions for a premier-class grand prix.
Max Biaggi took third to clinch the final front row position, while Valentino Rossi
struggled to fourth and thus missed the front row for the first time since the third round of 2003 season, at Jerez. Edwards' provisional pole time was enough for a second row start alongside Rossi in fifth place, whilst Hayden was relegated to the third row by Marco Melandri.
Factory Ducati riders Loris Capirossi
and Troy Bayliss showed signs of progression with the 2004 Desmosedici, but both were bumped down to ninth and tenth respectively after a late effort from Makoto Tamada, who clinched eighth. Alex Barros, who finished on the French GP podium last year, qualified in a disappointing eleventh despite being less than a second off Gibernau as the top seventeen riders lapped inside Rossi's 2003 pole time.
MotoGP rookie Shane Byrne didn't take part in the session and would not start today's race after struggling all weekend with a hand injury. Byrne's compatriots Neil Hodgson and Chris Burns also crashed yesterday, but both escaped unhurt and would take their places on a sunny Le Mans grid, in 14th and 24th respectively.
A close morning warm-up had seen Gibernau and Edwards lead the field, but the times were once again close with Gibernau, Edwards, Checa, Biaggi, Melandri, Rossi, Hayden, Tamada and Barros all within 0.6secs of each other. Meanwhile, Rossi's day got off to a bad start as he fell from his M1 for the first time this season.
Further drama was to follow for the five-times world champion when he stalled his Yamaha while pulling away from the grid for the warm-up. Rossi immediately jumped from his machine and tried to bump start it himself, but was unable to re-ignite the M1's engine. Yamaha mechanics then dragged a starter motor onto the race track and after several attempts manage to restart his machine.
Valentino then raced around to take his position on the second row and when the red lights went out would slot into fourth behind Checa, Gibernau and Biaggi as the field picked its way through the turn one chicane.