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.

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:

1. Melandri
2. Vermeulen
3. Rossi
4. Gibernau
5. Hayden
6. Stoner
7. Capirossi
8. Nakano
9. Elias
10. Tamada
11. de Puniet
12. Hopkins
13. Hofmann
14. Roberts
15. Pedrosa
16. Ellison
17. Cardoso



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