Vermeulen, who only made his MotoGP debut at Phillip Island one year ago for Camel Honda, had - like Rizla Suzuki team-mate John Hopkins
- struggled badly in qualifying, but the former WSBK star had proven his wet weather worth with pole position in Turkey and the rain played right into his hands: By lap thirteen, the halfway point, Vermeulen was Gibernau's nearest rival, with lead Michelin rider Melandri a close third as the top three began to pull away from the rest of the pack, consisting of Stoner, Nakano, Hayden, Rossi, Capirossi, Checa and de Puniet.
Gibernau initially resisted his young challengers, but a brief lull in the rain caused a clear dry line to develop - prompting Checa to make the ill-fated decision to pit for intermediates and accelerating Sete's tyre wear. Gibernau was soon seen riding off line to try and cool his increasingly sliding tyres, a symptom Vermeulen and particularly Melandri appeared far less troubled by.
Marco stole second position from Vermeulen under braking for the Honda hairpin on lap 15, and then destroyed Gibernau's 1.2 second advantage to simply ride around the Spaniard and into the lead a lap later. Thereafter, Melandri disappeared into the distance and held a near ten-second lead by the time he intentionally torched his rear tyre, with one hand waving to the crowd, as he arrived onto the start/finish straight for final time.
Meanwhile, Vermeulen had passed Gibernau soon after Melandri, but was unable to escape and a thrilling finale saw both Bridgestone riders caught by the charging Michelin trio of Rossi, Hayden and Stoner. Vermeulen clung to his debut MotoGP podium, and Suzuki's first since the 2005 British Grand Prix, by less than one-second at the chequered flag, but Gibernau - his wet weather tyres by now barely recognisable - lost third to Rossi on the run to the line when the reigning world champion blasted past the #15 out of the final turn.
Third position meant much more than a podium for Rossi since, against expectation, he had been unable to shake Hayden for much of the race. Nicky dropped back to a potentially disastrous 16th on lap one, but fought his way up to ninth - directly behind Rossi - after the pit stops.
Thereafter, the two title rivals remained locked together - despite swapping positions several times - as they worked their way towards the front. The last lap began with Hayden still in Rossi's wheeltracks, reducing Hayden's championship damage to a minimum... until Rossi dropped Gibernau between them to take five points, rather than two, from the American's ever shrinking championship lead. But, given Hayden's pre-race grip problems, it could have been far worse.
The #69 now holds a 21 point advantage over Rossi, with three rounds and 75 points to go, with Rossi having demoted Hayden's Repsol Honda team-mate Dani Pedrosa
back from second position to joint third with Melandri, 32 points from the top.
Rookie Pedrosa had struggled with his Sepang injuries throughout practice and the wet weather then reduced him to a mere backmarker as the 20-year-old finished 15th and one lap down. Another potential title contender to suffer was Capirossi, who crossed the line seventh and has slipped to 45 points behind Hayden as a result, effectively ending his 2006 title challenge.
However, few will doubt that Capirossi, Ducati and Bridgestone will be a major force to contend with in next weekend's Japanese Grand Prix at Motegi, a race they took victory at one year ago.
Surprisingly, given the weather conditions and bike changes, Checa and Edwards were the only non-finishers, although the American was in visible discomfort after falling heavily from sixth position on lap eight.
Australian Grand Prix:
11. de Puniet