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Honda dominate in the Spanish rains; Gibernau wins


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By Dan Moakes
May 4 2004

Having won in South Africa, on his Yamaha début, Valentino Rossi carried the momentum into the Spanish Grand Prix weekend. A record lap saw the champion put his bike on pole position for the fifth race running. But qualifying was run in the dry, and conditions for the race would be very different.

photo by www.SportsPics.co.za

The usual challengers were close to Rossi on the grid at Jeréz, with all six Honda RCV riders in the top nine. Unlike at Welkom, however, Valentino shared the front row with another M1 rider. This was good news for the home fans, as Spanish riders Sete Gibernau (Telefónica Honda) and Carlos Checa (Fortuna Yamaha) lined up next to ‘the Doctor’.

Rows two and three had the remaining Hondas, with Max Biaggi fourth from Makoto Tamada (fifth), Nicky Hayden (seventh), Colin Edwards (eighth) and Alex Barros (ninth). The sole interloper was Shin’ya Nakano, who equalled his impressive sixth for Kawasaki in round one. A mix of bikes followed on, as Kenny Roberts was tenth for Suzuki, ahead of Marco Melandri (Yamaha) and Rubén Xaus (Ducati).

The works Ducatis of Loris Capirossi and Troy Bayliss were fifteenth and seventeenth, split by Shane Byrne’s leading Aprilia, and the Proton pair of Nobuatsu Aoki and Kurtis Roberts were towards the rear, with just Michel Fabrizio and the Harris WCM behind. Chris Burns was a non-qualifier on the second WCM entry.

Riders went to the grid on full wet weather tyres - most opting for 16½" fronts and rears - as rain was falling onto an already wet track. The start saw Gibernau get ahead of Rossi to lead, with Checa next from Biaggi, Barros, Hayden, Roberts, Melandri, Capirossi, Nakano and Tamada. Biaggi was quickly past Checa for third, but the Spaniard fought back and re-passed his ex-team-mate. Hayden also managed to drop several places on lap one, in the slippery conditions, whilst Byrne was an early casualty.

The crowd soon got to cheer a Spanish one-two. Going into the second lap, Checa passed current team-mate Rossi at turn one but, on the back straight, Biaggi went past the pair of them. Checa tried to fight back, but the Roman was intent on chasing down Gibernau, who was already threatening to pull clear of the pack. With Melandri and Capirossi having already gone by Roberts, the Ducati man then dropped out of the lead group with a gravel excursion. The Desmosedicis of Xaus and Bayliss also went down in the early running, the first of these having been placed ninth.

At the front, Biaggi was catching Gibernau, and getting clear of Checa in the process. A fastest lap from the Camel Honda rider made it into a two-way race, with Max going on the attack on the back straight as they built a 2.5s lead. Gibernau was able to maintain his position, despite another fastest lap from Biaggi, and it became clear that no-one else was on their pace.

As the two leaders disappeared into the distance, the man on the move in the next group was Melandri. Sixth at the end of lap one, he had followed Rossi past Barros, then got by the champion and sped after Checa. At this stage he was faster than Biaggi. Marco’s efforts took him past Carlos and made him the lead Yamaha man. He then proceeded to motor away from his pursuers and run his own race in third.

Now Rossi closed back in on Checa, and he went ahead on the inside of the right-hander following the back straight. Having run in a lonely sixth place, Barros was next to loom up behind Checa, going past at turn one. He followed Rossi and they dropped the Spaniard behind them. When Valentino had to hold onto his bike through a huge ‘moment’ - the rear lost grip and slid, then tried to flick him off as it re-gripped - Barros moved up to fourth. Rossi kept going with no further loss of places.

Still the lead battle raged, despite the fact that the rain was starting to get a lot heavier, and visibility get even worse. Biaggi twice more attacked Gibernau at the end of the back straight, but each time Sete held him off on the brakes. However, when the blue machine slid on the way into the straight, Biaggi was finally able to power ahead and take the lead on the inside for the next corner.

As the track got wetter, Gibernau used his renowned skill in difficult conditions and put pressure on Biaggi. When Max ran wide in one bend, Sete was through again, and this time he managed to build a gap of 0.6s. As this began to go out to 0.8s and beyond, it was clear that Biaggi was being dropped and could not respond.

With four laps remaining, the margin was 1.4s and, as they began to lap the likes of Capirossi and Abe (Hopkins and Aoki had already been despatched), it quickly rose to 2.2s. With two to go, it looked like Biaggi had settled for second. In the conditions it was surely a sensible attitude. Gibernau was delighted to win his home GP, and on the final circuit lapped ninth man Nakano. The gap from first to third was in the region of thirty seconds by the finish.

But third did not go to Melandri. Maintaining a gap of over six seconds to Barros, the Italian had been on target for his best MotoGP result - until he crashed out. The Brazilian thus inherited a relatively safe podium placing, as the sliding Rossi was unable to claw back the eight second gap. Towards the end, Rossi was caught rapidly by Hayden. The Repsol rider had put in a good recovery ride, going past Edwards, Roberts, Checa and Neil Hodgson, and reducing Rossi’s lead from over three seconds to under 0.5s.

Sixth should have gone to Hodgson, but the d’Antín Ducati rider had been forced to park up with engine troubles. His run through the field had seen him out-race fellow World Champion riders Kenny Roberts and Colin Edwards, and would have made him first Ducati finisher on a year-old bike. Checa retook sixth from Edwards, and they were ahead of Roberts, Nakano, Fabrizio, Norick Abe, Capirossi, Alex Hofmann, Aoki and John Hopkins.

The weather may have been dismal, but the resulting on track action more than made up for it. Although he had won in Valência, this was Sete Gibernau’s first win in the Spanish Grand Prix. Not only that, it also took him to the head of the points table, with a point over Max Biaggi and three over Valentino Rossi. For the champion, it was his first race off the podium since the Czech race in 2002, when a tyre gave out on him. That broke a run of twenty-three races in the top three.

Standings after two races: Gibernau 41; Biaggi 40; Rossi 38; Barros 29; Hayden 22; Edwards 18; Checa 16; Capirossi 14; Abe 12; Nakano 11


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