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Sete back-to-back as Spain rules Le Mans

16 May 2004

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.

Perhaps fired up by his earlier drama, Rossi put a firm move on Biaggi at the end of the first lap to give a leading order of Checa, from Gibernau, Rossi, Biaggi, Edwards, Hayden, Melandri, Capirossi and Bayliss as they crossed the line for the first time.

Not present were Neil Hodgson, John Hopkins and Norick Abe who were all eliminated after the latter apparently hit Hodgson and his D'Antin Ducati after the British Superbike champion fell in front of them. Both Abe and Hopkins were clearly furious, with Hopper throwing gravel in disgust at his ill fortune.

Meanwhile, Checa and Gibernau were soon breaking away up front and would circulate nose-to-tail until lap 12, when Carlos ran slightly wide on a long right hander. Gibernau then pounced for the space available and forced his way ahead.

At almost exactly the same time Rossi and Biaggi (two-seconds behind and having pulled a six-second lead over fifth placed fighters Melandri and Edwards) were in a near identical battle for third, Biaggi slipstreaming past Rossi for the first time on lap 12.

Max, with Rossi hanging on, then immediately set about closing the gap to Checa and by lap 16 was within 1.1secs of the Spaniard – and the Roman gained vital breathing room from Rossi when the five-times world champion ran wide, costing him a second.

Biaggi finally made firm contact with the top two with 10 laps to go, at which point Gibernau was beginning to put some real space between himself and Checa for the first time, the Catalan 'enjoying' a 0.8secs lead over the Yamaha rider who had now become something of a barrier protecting Gibernau from Biaggi...

...and Rossi; after his earlier mistake The Doctor had now clawed his way back to the Camel Honda's rear wheel – only adding to the pressure on Max to pass his former Marlboro Yamaha team-mate. Perhaps as a result, the Roman ran wide into turn one on lap 21 and had to shortcut the chicane, but maintained position. Nevertheless, Gibernau was now one-second clear.

Into the final five laps and Gibernau edged slightly further ahead of the nose-to-tail fight for second, with Checa more than holding firm in the face of the combined nine-times world championship winning pair behind him.

Checa was allowed vital breathing room two laps later when Rossi dived inside Biaggi, who held firm and forced the Gauloises rider to back off, but then made a mistake in the final turn and allowed Valentino a second chance - however, despite riding the kerb, he couldn't squeeze past the #3.

Onto the last lap and Gibernau was safe providing he made no major mistakes with the backmarkers, while Biaggi was waiting for his moment to attack Checa. Sete duly carved his way past the battling Xaus, Kurtis Roberts and Fabrizio, but Checa and Biaggi caught them at the final turn and a clever pass saw Carlos put the WCM rider between himself and Biaggi to make sure of his first podium in over a year.

Biaggi then crossed the line for third, while Rossi wheelied his way to fourth – the world champion keeping a happy exterior despite being off the podium for the second race in succession, and being beaten by team-mate Checa.

Edwards finally overcame the challenge of Melandri to claim fifth, but didn't look particularly pleased with his best finish of the year so far, while Barros, Bayliss, Tamada and Capirossi completed the top ten.

Hayden never looked on form and after his top five start slipped down the order to an eventual eleventh, having run off track on lap 13, while countryman Kenny Roberts brought the one remaining Suzuki home in twelfth.

McWilliams was given a jump start penalty but still took thirteenth for Aprilia, while Xaus and Kurtis Roberts would take their first MotoGP points.

Joining Hodgson, Abe and Hopkins on the DNF list were both Kawasakis and WCM's Chris Burns.


Race results:

1. Gibernau
2. Checa
3. Biaggi
4. Rossi
5. Edwards
6. Melandri
7. Barros
8. Bayliss
9. Tamada
10. Capirossi
11. Hayden
12. Kenny Roberts
13. McWilliams
14. Xaus
15. Kurtis Roberts
16. Fabrizio
17. Aoki


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