Sunday's Australian Grand Prix proved to be one of the closest and hard fought of the season, and Fortuna Yamaha rookie Marco Melandri claimed his share of the limelight by briefly leading the 27-lap race and holding his own with the best MotoGP has to offer.

Melandri made impressive progress in the opening stages, slotting into fourth by turn one, third by the end of the first lap, then clinching the lead on lap two. The Italian - a lone Yamaha amongst Hondas and Ducatis - would hold the lead until lap four when Ducati rider Troy Bayliss clipped the back of Melandri's M1, forcing the 250cc World Champion back to third.

Melandri recovered to cross the line in second place on the following lap, and was set to pursue race leader Valentino Rossi when he highsided exiting the penultimate turn.

Marco, who technically led the race at the beginning of that 13th lap after Rossi received a 10 seconds penalty for passing under the yellow flag, limped away from the incident with a dislocated right shoulder and haematoma to his left heel.

"I was so happy with that race until I fell," said the gutsy rookie, who scared some of the established stars with his confident moves. "I didn't start as well as I would have liked, but up until the first corner the other riders seemed slower than me and then braked earlier than me at the first corner. I guess they were more cautious because of the track conditions, and I managed to overtake a few very quickly.

"When Bayliss fell he touched me and I very nearly lost it, but I managed to recover," he added. "Once Valentino was in front it was impossible to catch him but I really enjoyed racing with Hayden, Capirossi and Gibernau. My bike felt a bit more nervous during the race than it has during qualifying here, and I kept losing grip in the long corners. Finally it resulted in a highside.

"I knew straight away that I had dislocated my shoulder, and when I arrived at the circuit clinic they pushed it back in," he said as if talking about an engine part. "Anyway it's not hurting too badly now, and it was a fantastic chance to race up front, my best of the season."

"Marco rode such a fantastic race, and it was entertaining for everyone," praised team director Davide Brivio. "Unfortunately he didn't make it to the end but I think he really showed his great potential today. We'll evaluate his health in the coming week and see whether he'll be fit for Valencia."

After a difficult start, team-mate Checa found himself at the rear of this pack before gradually working his way through to feature in the battle for the final podium place.

It was a charge between Honda riders Hayden, Gibernau and Ukawa. The trio eventually finished third, fourth and fifth respectively, after Checa ran off the circuit at MG corner and rejoined to finish eighth.

"I was able to follow the second group of riders for most of the race and tried to pass them but couldn't," said Checa. "I kept analysing where would be the best place to pass, and trying to improve in the areas where I wasn't as quick as them, especially exiting the corners.

"At one point I lost the front completely going uphill and slid all the way down downhill, finally releasing the brake and going onto the grass. It was hard to turn it around and even harder to get it back onto the track, but I managed to," he revealed. "To finish eighth was better than not finishing at all."



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