17 September 2006
Melandri wins first ever 'bike swap' MotoGP.
Marco Melandri has won the first ever motorcycle grand prix to feature rain-induced bike swaps, under full racing conditions, after a dramatic Australian Grand Prix at Phillip Island.
The victory was Melandri's third of the season, but first since he suffered serious injuries at the start of June's Catalan Grand Prix and propelled the Italian to joint third in the championship on a day when title favourites Nicky Hayden and Valentino Rossi failed to lead a single lap.
After perfectly dry 125 and 250cc races, the start of the planned 27 lap MotoGP main event was delayed by ten minutes when drops of rain began falling on the grid. It was hoped that the delay would either result in the rain clearing, or becoming heavier, but in reality the uncertain weather situation was more or less the same when the red lights went out to start what was now a 26 lap challenge - with all riders remaining on slicks.
Hayden and Rossi, first and third on the grid, failed to get a good getaway, leaving second placed Shinya Nakano to rocket his Kawasaki into an early lead - which the Japanese had built to 2.5secs over the equally fast starting Colin Edwards by the end of lap one.
Nakano continued to confidently build his lead as the rain drops became heavier - then turned into a full rain shower with five laps gone. Prior to the 2005 season, such weather would have resulted in the race being stopped and restarted, but since the beginning of last season the rules state that the race will continue and riders can instead pull into the pits and switch to a machine fitted with wet or intermediate tyres, as and when they see fit. That new rule had never been fully tested, until today.
The first riders to pit were tail enders James Ellison and Jose Luis Cardoso, who switched to bikes fitted with a full wet weather set-up on lap six, but the front runners were naturally more cautious and it took until lap eight - by which time the rain was pouring down - for the majority of riders, with the notable exception of Nakano, to pit.
At the time of those pit stops Nakano held a five-second lead over Gibernau, with Rossi - who had dropped back to tenth on the first lap - in third ahead of Melandri, Suzuki's John Hopkins, local stars Casey Stoner and Chris Vermeulen, while Nakano's team-mate Randy de Puniet, Tech 3's Carlos Checa and Ducati's Loris Capirossi completed the top ten.
Nakano was ultimately punished for his extra lap and lost the lead to Gibernau when the Japanese rejoined the circuit at the start of lap ten. Gibernau, like Ducati Marlboro team-mate Capirossi, were considered to have the strongest dry race pace during practice - but had been hampered by qualifying tyre problems that left them just 12th and 13th on the grid.
Nevertheless, Sete had charged up to fourth by the end of lap one, then reached second position a lap later, but he wasn't able to threaten fellow Bridgestone rider Nakano until the pit stop. Shinya slipped further down the order as he familiarised himself with the wet weather ZX-RR, ending his podium challenge, while Melandri and Vermeulen were heading very much in the other direction.
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