Melandri wins Valencia season finale
6 November 2005
Marco Melandri has backed up his debut MotoGP win two weeks ago in Turkey by taking a narrow victory over fellow Honda star Nicky Hayden in today's Valencia season finale - an event enjoyed by a sell out 124,520 crowd, who also witnessed an impressive Valentino Rossi fight back, but saw pole sitter Sete Gibernau's 2005 jinx strike yet again.
Qualifying had seen Gibernau's hopes of finally winning a 2005 race, at his last chance, increase substantially as he grabbed his fifth pole position of a frustrating year to also seal the BMW Best Qualifier Award.
But while Gibernau and Movistar Honda team-mate Melandri celebrated first and second on the grid, their great rival Rossi was far more subdued - having suffered a high speed fall on his way to qualifying a season's worst 15th, his lowest grid position since being sent to the back of the field at Qatar last year.
Joining Gibernau and Melandri on an all-Honda front row would be Hayden, who began the race 9-points behind Melandri in the fight for second in the championship, while Carlos Checa, Max Biaggi, Colin Edwards, Loris Capirossi, Alex Barros, Shinya Nakano and Makoto Tamada completed the top ten.
Morning warm-up had seen the Movistar riders confirm their form by again featuring at the head of the field - although this time they were split by Checa, who was 0.3secs ahead of Melandri and within 0.052secs of fastest man Gibernau - while Hayden was fourth (+0.43secs) and Rossi fifth (+0.45secs).
Before the race, Rossi had said that a top five was his target - but few believed he would really settle for that and were instead asking if the Italian could make MotoGP history by claiming the first victory by a rider starting so far back on the grid... a result that would also allow him to equal Mick Doohan's all time season win record of 12.
Much of Rossi's hopes seemed to depend on his position after the first two corners around the twisty, hard to pass circuit and - when the red lights went out for the final time in 2005 - the Italian promptly claimed five places through some smart manoeuvring into turn one.
Meanwhile, Gibernau had made a poor getaway from pole and dropped back a row to fourth - behind Melandri, Hayden and Checa - into turn one, before retaking Checa's Ducati at the following left hand hairpin.
Not reaching that corner was D'Antin Ducati's Roby Rolfo, who was thrown from his Desmosedici GP4 in a shower of sparks after clipping the back of a Kawasaki on the exit of turn one. The Italian was lucky to be missed by following riders and emerged frustrated but unharmed.
Back up front and, by the end of lap 1 of 30, Rossi had clawed back a further two positions - placing him eighth, behind Melandri, Hayden, Gibernau, Biaggi, Checa, Capirossi and Barros - then wasted no time in outbraking the Brazilian into turn one of lap 2.
The move was good, but a later mistake allowed the Camel Honda veteran back past and it would take a further lap for The Doctor to replicate the turn one move, this time for keeps.
However, the race pattern was already starting to form with Melandri, Hayden and Gibernau starting to edge away from fourth placed Biaggi - who now had the likes of Checa, Capirossi and Rossi queuing up behind him.
But all would be promoted a position on lap four when Gibernau, as in so many recent races, suddenly sat up and ran wide through a corner. This time there was no rider error involved - his factory spec RCV instead spewing white smoke as it suffered a terminal engine failure.
The 'curse' had struck yet again and all Gibernau could do was park the bike, stare at it with his arms crossed and then crouch with his head in his hands as he wondered, once again, what might have been.
For their part, the local marshals consoling Sete encouraged the packed grandstands to make their support for the home hero clear, something the crowd seemed only to happy to do.
Back on track and Gibernau's demise meant that Melandri and Hayden were now several vital seconds clear of the convoy fighting for what was now third - but Rossi would make the position his own by lap 6, having quickly cut past Capirossi, Biaggi and then Checa within two laps.
That gave a top three compromising of exactly the same riders as in Turkey two weeks ago - a trio Rossi himself had called the future of MotoGP - but at present Rossi was playing only a supporting role and now needed to reel in the leaders.
The #46's early pace and progress suggested he would have no problems doing so, and there were certainly more than enough laps remaining, but when - after two further laps - Rossi had failed to make an impact on the top two, the first warning signs started to flash... especially as he had also been re-caught by Checa.
By the halfway point Rossi's chances had deteriorated further, with Melandri and Hayden still just 0.2secs apart up front - but an enlarged six-second gap now separated Hayden from Rossi, who in turn still had Checa hanging onto his silencer. A 3.5secs gap then separated Checa from his injured Ducati Marlboro team-mate Capirossi, now leading the fight for fifth.
With Checa's Bridgestone tyres expected to offer a more consistent race pace than the rival Michelins, it looked as though Rossi could find his podium position in jeopardy - but soon after the halfway stage the Italian seemed to find a second wind and was able to creep away from Checa, while reducing the gap to Hayden to below five-seconds.
Between laps 20 and 23 Rossi then turned up the heat even further, gaining further chunks of time on the top two to reduce the deficit to just 3.6secs - as his lead over Checa drew to almost six-seconds - if he continued at that rate Rossi would easily catch Hayden and Melandri.
But the pair responded, matching Rossi's lap times for the next four circulations - and when the seven-times world champion was still 3.4secs from Hayden with three laps to go, even his most hardened supporters must have realised that he would need a miracle.
With Rossi, as hard as it is to believe, realistically out of contention - attention switched to which of the top two was going to win the race: Melandri had led right from turn one, without putting a wheel wrong, but Hayden had been with him every step of the way and must have gained a good idea of where a pass could be made.
As the penultimate lap began, Melandri played his cards first by attempting to shake the American with a flat out attack. The tactic looked like it might work as he took a 0.35secs lead over Hayden into the start of the final lap of 2005, putting the #69 just out of range.
But through the middle sector of Nicky gained that ground back and was on Melandri's rear Michelin as the Italian headed for the fast, off camber, left hander that leads into the tight final turn.
Then, as the pair slid their rear wheels over the crest, Melandri bobbled slightly - a mistake that looked like it could hand Nicky the race - certainly Melandri seemed to think so and responded with a tight defensive line into the last turn.
Realising this, Hayden stayed wide and cut back in on the exit - with the aim of out-dragging his rival on the run to the chequered flag - but Melandri kept his composure and a tidy exit allowed the young Italian to propel his Movistar machine clear of the Kentuckian for victory by just 0.097secs.
Melandri appeared rightfully delighted with his second win in as many starts - his only mistake coming shortly after when he dropped his RCV while celebrating with the fans - while Hayden, who had been left punching the fuel tank with frustration as he crossed the line, took a few corners before regaining his usual friendly personality.
Melandri's win also confirmed his second position in the 2005 riders' world champion, albeit some 147-points behind Rossi, marking an amazing jump in performance for a rider who was just 15th in the 2003 championship and 12th in the 2004 standings.
Hayden also had reason to be happy however, with third overall marking a new high for a man who finished 5th and 8th in previous seasons.
Meanwhile, Rossi crossed the line 2.8secs from Hayden - depriving him of matching the all-time win record, but at least he had put the retro 50th anniversary Yamaha livery on the podium after another brilliant season for himself and the Japanese manufacturer.
Checa crossed the line 16secs later for fourth - although Barros, whose fifth place today made him just the seventh rider in grand prix history to score a career total of 2000 points, was close to depriving the Spaniard of the position - Alex having passed Biaggi with three laps to go.
All three riders - Checa, Barros and Biaggi - have yet to announce their 2006 racing plans, which are all interdependent, but one man with a clear destination for next year, Capirossi, crossed the line in a sore seventh after a brave ride on his injury comeback.
Meanwhile, eighth for Edwards secured fourth in the world championship - ahead of Biaggi, Capirossi and Gibernau - while Makoto Tamada and Toni Elias completed the Valencia top ten.
An injured Shinya Nakano rounded out the season with eleventh for Kawasaki, while BSB runner-up Ryuichi Kiyonari came within one position of matching the achievements of his Camel Honda predecessor, Chris Vermeulen, by claiming twelfth - less than a second ahead of Suzuki's John Hopkins.
Alex Hofmann completed his Kawasaki career with 14th on his injury comeback, while Ruben Xaus took the final point on what was surely his own final ride for Tech 3 Yamaha.
Joining Rolfo and Gibernau on the DNF list today were Suzuki wild-card Nobuatsu Aoki, WCM's James Ellison and Team Roberts rider Kurtis Roberts. All suffered mechanical failures
Full results to follow...