Marco Melandri's 2009 rebirth reached a new high at Le Mans on Sunday, when the Italian took his 'privateer' Kawasaki to second place in a dramatic wet/dry French Grand Prix.

Kawasaki achieved a best race finish of fifth as a full two-rider factory entry last season, and didn't want to be in MotoGP at all this year - having announced its withdraw in early January due to the financial crises.

However, the Japanese manufacturer reluctantly allowed the creation of an unofficial one-rider effort for Melandri, under the name of the 'Hayate Racing Team', when reminded of its contractual obligations to take part.

Nevertheless, the absence of any Kawasaki branding, colours or development programme was proof that the Japanese factory wanted to distance itself from the project as much as possible - presumably predicting, like most in the paddock, that Melandri and the new ZX-RR were in for an unrewarding season at the back of the pack.

So far, they couldn't have been more wrong.

Melandri finished sixth in only his second race on the bike, at Motegi, before matching his best finish for Ducati - and the 2008 best by Kawasaki - with fifth last time out at Jerez.

The Italian, determined to rebuild his reputation after a horrific season at Ducati, admitted on the eve of the French Grand Prix that it would be difficult to repeat his top six results - but ended up leaving Le Mans with his first podium since 2007 and equalling Kawasaki's best ever MotoGP finish.

The tricky wet/dry race conditions helped mask the dry speed of his rivals, but Melandri more than earned his podium by being one of the first to pit - on lap six of 28 - and doing better than anyone else with slick tyres on a slippery track.

Reigning six-time MotoGP world champion Valentino Rossi, who stopped one lap before Melandri, crashed out, while race winner Jorge Lorenzo waited until lap 12 before finally making the change.

Melandri closed to within four seconds of Lorenzo as the Fiat Yamaha star got up to speed with his new bike, before concentrating Lorenzo, but over two-seconds in front of factory Honda rider Dani Pedrosa.

"It's amazing to be here for me," smiled Melandri. "A few months ago I thought I'd be watching this race on TV! I have to say thanks to Carmelo Ezpeleta [Dorna CEO] because he's been working hard to bring me back and thanks also to all my team for working hard in the private team. I appreciate it.

"It was an awesome race. I was confident in the wet and quite fast. When I saw Valentino change the bike I thought it was too early. I changed the next lap but that was still too early because the first lap with slick tyres was very tricky. I almost fell three times. I didn't think about the lap time just tried to keep the tyre clean and stay calm.

"When I saw P2 on my pitboard I couldn't believe it! I just tried to control the gap to the guy behind me. It's so much nicer to be on the podium this time, more than any time in the past," added Melandri after his 20th MotoGP rostrum.

Melandri is one of only four riders to finish on the podium with a ZX-RR.

Kawasaki's last podium was a second place by Randy de Puniet, in similar conditions, at the 2007 Japanese Grand Prix. Shinya Nakano also finished second in 2006, while Olivier Jacque claimed Team Green's first runner-up result in the wet 2005 Chinese Grand Prix. The only other rostrum was a third place by Nakano in 2004.

Melandri is now joint fifth in the world championship standings with Andrea Dovizioso, with Kawasaki ahead of Suzuki in the constructors' championship. Despite having only one rider, Hayate is sixth out of eleven in the teams' standings.

It now remains to be seen if Melandri's breakthrough podium will result in more technical support from Kawasaki.

Kawasaki ran its factory MotoGP race team from 2002-2008, but - unlike Honda, Yamaha, Ducati and Suzuki - was unable to take a race win.



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