Vermeulen victorious in Le Mans rain
20 May 2007
Chris Vermeulen has taken his debut MotoGP victory from 12th on the grid after an action-packed French Grand Prix, in which rain fell just before the start - prompting pit stops, accidents and continuous overtaking.
The first wet 800cc race began under heavily overcast skies, but only the odd drop of rain, and with world championship leader Casey Stoner taking an early lead ahead of Vermeulen's Rizla Suzuki team-mate John Hopkins. Pole sitter Colin Edwards plummeted backwards at turn one - and the Texan's day didn't improve thereafter; he eventually finished 12th and last after multiple pit stops and bike changes.
Meanwhile, Fiat Yamaha team-mate Valentino Rossi shoved his way swiftly past title rival Stoner through the opening turns to make an early break, but as the rain increased Rossi was reeled back-in by an unexpected chasing pack that included home heroes Randy de Puniet and Sylvain Guintoli.
The trackside fans must have been rubbing their eyes on lap six when the two Frenchmen took first and second in their home grand prix. Guintoli's heroics reached a peak later in the lap when he sensationally led a MotoGP race for the first time, but Sylvain could only briefly savour the moment before being flung from his Tech 3 Yamaha, just in front of Rossi, shortly after de Puniet had returned to the top.
de Puniet then suffered the same fate just two laps later, while Honda riders Carlos Checa and Toni Elias also crashed out in unrelated incidents caused by the increasing rain - prompting the leaders to stop and change to their wet weather bikes.
After those changes, Hopkins and Vermeulen held first and second - with rain master Chris soon shuffling to the front and pulling a lead, while Hopkins ran off track. By the halfway point, 2006 event winner Marco Melandri had also found his wet weather feet and was closing fast on Vermeulen, with Rossi and Stoner locked in a fight for third ahead of Nicky Hayden, Alex Hofmann, Dani Pedrosa and Hopkins.
Although Melandri went on to close to within a few tenths of Vermeulen, the Italian couldn't make a pass and - after a few scares - throttled off in the closing stages to secure his first podium of an otherwise troubled season. Vermeulen, who had also struggled prior to Le Mans, remained faultless and walked on water to his first MotoGP victory in only his second season in the class. It was also the first ever victory for Suzuki's GSV-R four-stroke and the first for the team since Sete Gibernau at Valencia 2001.
Another Australian celebrating at Le Mans was Stoner, who claimed the final place on an all-Bridgestone podium to extend his world championship lead over Rossi to 21 points. Le Mans was tipped as a possible worst event for the 21-year-old and Ducati, yet he qualified second on the grid and beat Rossi fair and square in a wet weather duel to take his fourth podium from five rounds.
Rossi was clearly struggling with his factory M1 in the closing stages and, as Stoner pulled away, fell victim to world champion Hayden, the American's Repsol Honda team-mate Pedrosa and satellite Ducati rider Alex Hofmann. That left the former five-times MotoGP champion staring at a lowly seventh position, but he was elevated one spot when Hayden suffered a heavy fall from fourth with just three laps to go.
Hopkins, third last time in China, collected a lonely seventh after his trip through the gravel, while Stoner's team-mate Loris Capirossi, plus Tech 3 team-mates Makoto Tamada and Guintoli, completed the top ten.
World Superbike rider Fonsi Nieto finished his first MotoGP race in eleventh. The Spaniard was riding as a replacement for the injured Olivier Jacque and OJ, a wet weather specialist, must have wondered what might have been when he saw de Puniet leading.
Edwards finished three laps down and was the final rider to reach the chequered flag after a chaotic afternoon in which seven failed to finish.
French Grand Prix: