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Melandri wins as Rossi’s Yamaha fails in French GP

pic © Elliot Doering

By Dan Moakes
May 21 2006

The French Grand Prix marked the start of the European summer season in MotoGP 2006, with reigning champion Valentino Rossi looking to make amends for his disappointment in China’s fourth round. Would a new Yamaha chassis prove the answer to his recent problems?

pictured above: Marco Melandri on the 2004 Fortuna Yamaha © Elliot L Doering

The Shanghai race had seen Rossi’s challenge blunted by a front tyre failure and, together with problems in the races of Spain and Turkey, this left ‘the Doctor’ sixth in the championship. Continuous chatter concerns with the latest Yamaha YZF-M1 had led to a hastily developed new chassis for the race at Le Mans, chasing similar characteristics to the 2005 machine. The new motorcycle was available only to Rossi at this stage, with Camel team-mate Colin Edwards having to stick with the original 06 version.

The Le Mans circuit posed a slightly different challenge in 2006, due to modifications at the first corner, where the Dunlop chicane follows the rapid Dunlop curve after the start-finish straight. This had been resurfaced and both the left and right turns tightened to around 90º. The following section now curved slightly in the run to the downhill Chapelle hairpin. The stop-start nature of the track in general was perhaps enhanced by these differences.

Qualifying went better for Rossi than in the two preceding rounds, where the weather had intervened, but this still meant he was off the first two rows. Championship leader Nicky Hayden, with the Repsol Honda, was worse off due to illness, and would be on the fourth row. For the second time, pole position went to Nicky’s RC211V team-mate, Dani Pedrosa. The newest race winner was isolated from his Honda rivals, as only one other RCV pilot appeared in the top nine.

Because this was another day for promising performances from the Kawasaki, Suzuki and Ducati team leaders, and their Bridgestone tyres. Shin’ya Nakano equalled his best ever top class starting position of second, with ZX-RR team-mate Randy de Puniet an impressive fourth for his home race. And John Hopkins made it another front row start, with third on the Rizla Suzuki GSV-R. Marco Melandri’s Fortuna Honda headed Loris Capirossi’s Ducati, from seventh man Rossi.

Sete Gibernau (Ducati) and Edwards shared row three, then came Hayden, from Casey Stoner (LCR Honda), Chris Vermeulen (Suzuki), Makoto Tamada (JiR Honda), Carlos Checa (Tech 3 Yamaha), Kenny Roberts (KR Honda), Toní Elías (Fortuna Honda), James Ellison (Tech 3 Yamaha), Alex Hofmann and José Luís Cardoso (both Pramac d’Antín Ducati).

Rain was threatening as the grid formed up on race day, and a wet race was declared. This was in order that the flag-to-flag rules could come into effect, should the rain arrive as the action unfolded. With this in mind, Roberts elected to pit after the warm-up lap, to gamble on changing to his second bike with wet settings. Unfortunately for him, conditions soon brightened, and he would have to pit again for a change back to the ‘dry’ bike. A little rain would come only after the race had ended.

The start saw Melandri lead, from Hopkins, Pedrosa and Capirossi. There was chaos as they funnelled into the chicane for the first time, as Rossi seemed to come across and clip de Puniet’s Kawasaki. The Frenchman crashed out on the spot, while Rossi ran outside the kerb to rejoin sixth behind Nakano, and both Edwards and Gibernau had to go over the gravel to avoid the green machine. Elías was therefore seventh, from Hayden, Stoner and Vermeulen.

Hopkins made a quick pass on Melandri, to lead for Suzuki, and was able to pull out a gap over the early five man group racing for second. Rossi soon relegated Nakano to sixth, and was on a serious mission to progress in the opening laps. He took Capirossi for fourth, then did the same to Pedrosa into Chemin Aux Boeufs, the left-right chicane at the end of the back straight. He followed that by getting past Melandri at the next banked ‘S Bleus’, and set fastest lap as he chased after leader Hopkins.

This soon left Melandri, Pedrosa and Capirossi to battle for third, and Nakano to face a ride through penalty for an adjudged jump start. Dani attacked Marco at the looping left-hand Musée curve, but was helped when his rival went wide at the following right-hand Garage Vert hairpin, letting the next two through.

Rossi completed his journey when he got ahead of Hopkins in a move from the mid-part and onto the exit of Musée, then set another fastest lap that meant the Suzuki man could do no more than stay in touch. By now Pedrosa was in a clear third, and he started to close in. His softer tyres were working for him at this stage, but always at the risk of being past it for the crucial latter stages. Sure enough, it became a three-way lead group, and Dani moved into second when Hopkins went wide at Garage Vert.

Nakano had dropped away before taking his penalty, leaving Capirossi and Melandri to race for fourth. Marco got the verdict in a move at the Dunlop chicane, but Loris would stay with him as they tried to match the leaders’ pace. By half-distance they were around three seconds from the men ahead, but at that stage it was only Rossi and Pedrosa. Hopkins had looked to be working hard to stay up there, and paid the price when the front end went under and he slid into the gravel at Garage Vert. He would get going again and pit after another lap, and ultimately complete the race two laps behind the rest.

Rossi began to stretch away as Pedrosa seemed to start suffering for his tyre choice. The gap grew first to 1.1s, then on past 2.1s to 3.9s. At three-quarters distance, Melandri and Capirossi were closing on the Spaniard for second - and then it became for the lead. Sudden drama saw Rossi pulling off with his Yamaha down to crawling speed. An apparent electrical problem, or possibly a fuel issue, had cost the champion a certain victory. His dejected body language told the tale.

Melandri was the man on the move in the late stages, closing down Pedrosa’s 1.7s advantage until he could go on the attack. The Repsol rider’s problem seemed to be coming from the a lack of grip on the left hand side of his rear tyre, and Marco made it by with a good move into the first left of the Dunlop chicane. He immediately began to pull away, while Dani’s 1.9s gap to Capirossi dwindled away as the Ducati man closed in.

Melandri took his second win of the season, but on the last lap the race was on for second. Capirossi attacked Pedrosa out of Musée, braking late on the inside for Garage Vert. Both ran on over the kerb before they could get their bikes turned, but Loris had made the pass work and was ahead onto the back straight. Dani tried to fight back on the inside at the final right of the double apex Raccordement corner, onto the main straight, but Capirossi closed the door to keep the place to the flag.

Meanwhile, fourth place at the finish had been between Stoner and Hayden. Early rival Elías had dropped back, and these two had then got clear of Vermeulen and the rest. Nicky took over seventh from Casey, then proceeded to pull away to run his own race. After the problems for Nakano, Hopkins and Rossi, this became fourth, but then Stoner sped up again and joined on behind the works rider. They were together again to the chequered flag, but with Casey ahead after a pass on the inside at Chappelle.

Edwards had put in some good laps to recover from his first lap delay, going by Elías, Gibernau, Vermeulen and finally Tamada on his journey to a clear sixth. Makoto, Sete, Toní and Chris were next home, in that order, with Checa, Nakano, Hofmann and Ellison also going the distance. Non-finishes for Roberts and Cardoso, as well as de Puniet and Rossi, meant that Hopkins secured a single point on his battered Suzuki.

Tyre problems for Dani Pedrosa had played a part in it, as well as machine problems for the once again dominant Valentino Rossi, but Marco Melandri’s success made him the first rider to win twice in the 2006 MotoGP series. The respective results of Nicky Hayden, Loris Capirossi, Pedrosa, Melandri and Casey Stoner saw the leaders close up on the points table, while Rossi dropped behind both Colin Edwards and Toní Elías. On race day, the revised Yamaha had gone well with Rossi in the saddle, but he now faces his biggest test if he is going to take the title yet again. Meanwhile, John Hopkins had looked good while his luck lasted, which was longer than it did for the Kawasaki team, disappointed in double measure after such a promising grid line up.

Standings after five races: Hayden 83; Capirossi and Melandri 79; Pedrosa 73; Stoner 65; Edwards 45; Elías 44; Rossi 40; Gibernau and Tamada 33; Nakano 32; Hopkins 21; Roberts 20.
Honda 115; Ducati 79; Yamaha 69; Suzuki 35; Kawasaki 32; Roberts-Proton 20.

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