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Melandri beats Stoner in Turkish thriller

30 April 2006

Marco Melandri has taken his first victory of the 2006 MotoGP season, from 14th on the grid, after overtaking class rookie Casey Stoner at the final turn of the Turkish Grand Prix - capping a breathtaking race that saw nine riders battling for victory.

Saturday's heavy rain, which had helped Rizla Suzuki rookie Chris Vermeulen take a shock - but well deserved - debut pole, had cleared by Sunday, with the few damp patches present during morning warm-up having fully evaporated by the time Vermeulen (16th in warm-up), Nicky Hayden (13th in warm-up) and Gibernau (fastest in warm-up) led the 19-rider field onto the grid for the much-anticipated climax of a unpredictable weekend...

When the red lights went out for the third time in 2006, Vermeulen rocketed off the line to lead a MotoGP race for the first time - while Gibernau, Hayden, John Hopkins and Stoner slotted in behind the Australian through turn one. Melandri had made an impressive start, rising to sixth on the exit of turn one - with Capirossi, Colin Edwards and Randy de Puniet following - while world champion Valentino Rossi was still back where he had started in eleventh.

Vermeulen's lead initially lasted just a few corners before Gibernau jumped ahead but - in a sign of the gutsy resistance he would offer right to the chequered flag - the former WSBK star promptly retook the position, before being permanently forced to yield into turn one on lap 2 of 22 - with hard charging team-mate Hopkins slipping past at the same time

With Vermeulen offering a firm defence, the Gibernau-Hopkins one-two was untroubled until lap 7, when Stoner finally accelerated past Hopkins along the home straight - and within a lap Hopkins had plummeted to seventh, in what had now become a nine-rider fight for victory.

And one particular rider was starting to command ever more attention: Repsol Honda's superstar rookie Dani Pedrosa - another high-profile casualty of the wet qualifying session - had advanced from 16th to 13th and then 9th within the opening two laps, before quickly reeling in the top eight ahead of him.

Once in their slipstream, Pedrosa had passed Edwards, Capirossi and Vermeulen in the space of just two laps - then added the scalps of Hopkins, Stoner, Hayden, Gibernau and Melandri to sensationally take the lead, for the first time in a MotoGP race, on lap 12.

But a notable absence from the lead group was Rossi, who had made slow progress in the opening lap - then ran wide and dropped all the way back to 14th on the second circulation. That mistake would ultimately prevent a podium charge, but by the midway point Rossi was back on the attack and, with the pace up front starting to tell, was beginning to pick off stragglers from the lead group.

The first of Rossi's lead-group victims had been Hopkins whom - having battled so hard in the early stages - struck some form of tyre trouble that sent the Anglo-American from third on lap 8, to ninth on lap 9, eleventh on lap 10 and fourteenth on lap 11 - at which point he was forced to pit for a new rear. Hopper returned to the track in 18th and went on to finish one place higher.

And he was far from the only Bridgestone rider in trouble; Gibernau was also sinking steadily down the order after leading so confidently - losing seventh to Rossi on lap 13 - while team-mate Loris Capirossi was demoted from sixth by his fellow Italian a lap later. Vermeulen then lost fifth to The Doctor on lap 16, forming an all-Michelin top five, as the Japanese rubber - which had been so strong in the wet - appeared to strike endurance problems.

But the four Honda young-guns up front - Pedrosa, Hayden, Melandri and Stoner - were showing no form of weakness, and their near 7-second lead over Rossi was insurmountable in the seven laps that remained. Instead, Rossi came under increasing pressure from Toni Elias, who had dropped to 12th in the early laps, but had then locked onto Rossi's rear wheel and been dragged up the order with the Italian.

Up front and Pedrosa was credited with leading laps 12 to 16 but - like Vermeulen, Gibernau and Melandri before him - was unable to break clear and his reign was eventually ended by Melandri, who dived inside at the final chicane on lap 17. That location, coming directly after the awesome fifth-gear right hander, was the most popular passing place on the track - and saw plenty more action in the remaining five laps.

Indeed, on the very next circulation, Stoner demoted Marco from the lead at that location - with the frantic victory battle now a three-way affair as an increasingly ragged Hayden slipped to the tail of the lead group and lost touch with the trio ahead of him.

Last October, Pedrosa and Stoner were again battling bar-to-bar for victory at Istanbul - although on that occasion it was in the 250cc class - but each looked every ounce a MotoGP winner as the 2006 race reached its climax. The pair of premier-class rookies sandwiching comparative veteran Melandri, a double race winner, as the last lap began.

But not for long: As the trio charged into the off-camber turn one for the final time, Pedrosa - who had lost a little ground through the final chicane - pushed his front Michelin a little too hard and his RCV suddenly folded under him, sending the 20-year-old spinning off-track. A distraught Dani jumped to his feet and was left to wonder what might have been as he resurrected 14th place at the chequered flag.

Meanwhile, Stoner - riding the 'standard' spec RCV - was still doing a brilliant job of containing factory supported Melandri, leaving no room for a pass and making no mistakes in his quest to become the joint youngest MotoGP race winner. But the grand prix was always going to be decided at the final chicane - and Melandri duly dived inside for the lead, with Stoner trying to brave-it-out around the outside of the Italian.

Melandri stayed wheel-perfect through the fiddly left-right-left complex that leads onto the start-finish straight - and Stoner frustratingly lost out on victory by just 0.2secs at the flag, but could still celebrate his first MotoGP podium in just his third race.

The win was exactly what Melandri needed after a poor, podium free, start to the season and the likeable Fortuna rider was justifiably ecstatic with his third MotoGP victory - which also moves him up to third in the championship.

Pedrosa's mistake left team-mate Nicky Hayden to inherit the final podium position and the Kentuckian has now taken the world championship lead, by just one-point from previous occupant Loris Capirossi, after the Ducati rider finished as the top Bridgestone rider in sixth.

Finishing between Hayden and Capirossi on Sunday were Rossi and Elias - the famous #46, who has now been demoted to fifth in the points chase, having little to celebrate on his 100th premier-class appearance as his M1's problems continue - while Toni was just 0.3secs behind Valentino at the flag.

Vermeulen crossed the line a fraction behind Capirossi for a superb seventh, while Nakano made it three Bridgestone riders in-a-row with eighth. Colin Edwards brought the second factory Yamaha home in ninth, while Makoto Tamada edged Gibernau out of the top ten.

Twelfth place went to Kawasaki rookie Randy de Puniet - who thus claimed his first MotoGP finish and world championship points - while Kenny Roberts Jr, Pedrosa, Carlos Checa, Alex Hofmann, Hopkins and James Ellison completed the finishers. The only rider not classified was Hofmann's d'Antin Ducati team-mate Jose Luis Cardoso.


Turkish Grand Prix:

1. Melandri
2. Stoner
3. Hayden
4. Rossi
5. Elias
6. Capirossi
7. Vermeulen
8. Nakano
9. Edwards
10. Tamada
11. Gibernau
12. de Puniet
13. Roberts
14. Pedrosa
15. Checa
16. Hofmann
17. Hopkins
18. Ellison


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