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Well that's a first!

Australian MotoGP, 17th September 2006, Phillip Island
Words by Simon Bradley, Pics as credited

Dropping down into MG from Lukey Heights. Totally blind, damp, fast and off camber. Still, she'll be right, as they say locally...Australians are a contrary lot, it seems, and this is reflected in their premier race circuit. I mean, it's got an easy going, flowing nature though it takes a while to really get to grips with it and it's inclined to punish those who take the proverbial. And despite several difficult to live with quirks, everyone seems to love it. Yep, it's Australian alright...

Phillip Island is a couple of hours South of Melbourne and is quite possibly the most scenic circuit on the calendar. It truly is lovely. It has exactly the right combination of corners and straights, it has elevation changes and it's as grippy as anything. Maybe a little too grippy, as the surface is incredibly hard on tyres. And the weather tends to be a little, um, unpredictable as well. Being an island, things can change rather quickly. Oh, and the seagulls and rabbits have a lemming like attraction for fast moving motorcycles as well. But still the riders love it.

Practice saw little to raise eyebrows. It stayed dry and relatively incident free, Yamaha didn't have a great setting out of the box, Suzuki went OK but were down on power and Honda and Ducati controlled the top of the timesheets. Things started to get interesting in qualifying as Shinya Nakano and Valentino Rossi propelled themselves up the grid with some truly masterful riding while Dani Pedrosa, both Ducatis and Melandri all dropped back. When the dust settled, Hayden had ridden the fastest ever motorcycle lap of the circuit to take pole from Nakano, who pipped Rossi by thirteen thousandths of a second. The second row was headed by Kenny Roberts Jnr, who continues to make progress with the KR211V, with Colin Edwards and Carlos Checa next to him. Marco Melandri beat Casey Stoner to head row three, with the second Kawasaki of Randy de Puniet on the other side of the young Australian, while the top ten was rounded off by the distinctly off form Pedrosa. The diminutive Spaniard is apparently paranoid about getting his injured knee infected and it's getting to him...

Shinya Nakano, a man on a  mission. What more does he need to do to get that elusive first win? Well, pitting in when he needs to might be a start...Now Phillip Island weather is, you'll remember, a little changeable. So it should come as no surprise to read that, after three dry days and dry warmup, it started to rain before the race. But not really enough to justify a change onto wets, just enough to make it unpredictable. Under new rules the race was declared wet, meaning that it would be run flag to flag regardless of what the weather did. If things got bad riders were free to come in and change to their wet bikes, which would be warmed up and ready to go, and white flags would be shown around the course to advise them that these conditions had been reached and that they could change.

So as the riders lined up for the off, on slicks, the clouds hung ominously over the circuit and the occasional drop of water splashed against the massed cameras of the press. Lights out and Nicky Hayden made a truly appalling start, dropping back to sixteenth, while Shinya Nakano simply shone as a truly class act, extending a ridiculous lead over the pursuing Colin Edwards and Marco Melandri, both of whom got off the line extremely well. Gibernau and Pedrosa had started well, too, while Roberts had gone backwards, ending up just ahead of Hopkins, who was in turn followed by Capirossi, Stoner and Rossi who had also had a woeful start. One lap in and Gibernau was starting to show some of his old form as both he and Melandri pushed past Edwards and dragged Pedrosa with them. But by the end of the second lap there was a yawning two second gap from Gibernau to Nakano, and the Japanese rider was extending it all the time.

Sete Gibernau found some of his old form and, happily, only some of his old luck as well. So he may not have got a podium but at least he stayed on...By the fourth lap things appeared to have settled down. Nakano was three and a half seconds ahead of Gibernau, who was riding smoothly and quickly, under no real pressure from Melandri while Pedrosa tagged along behind. Roberts and Hopkins were swapping places for sixth and seventh, behind Colin Edwards who had got into his rhythm and was going well. And behind them, Rossi had slipped past the tussling Stoner and Capirossi. Then Rossi got the bit between his teeth and simply moved up a level, climbing from eighth to third in a single lap and making everyone else look frankly silly in the process. It was what I can only describe as effortless, despite knowing just how hard he must have been working, and was truly a sight to see.

Then it started to rain a little more. First of all just a few spots, here and there, but before long it was raining properly and the white flags came out. First beneficiaries were James Ellison and Carlos Checa, who came in straight away on their Dunlop shod Yamahas, getting back out and higher up the field than either of them had ever run before the underdeveloped Dunlop wets gave up the ghost and simply disintegrated after a dozen laps or so. The rest of the field splashed around for another few laps with laptimes getting ever longer before finally everyone streamed into the pits in one huge gaggle. Everyone apart from the ever luckless Colin Edwards, who got spat rather unceremoniously off his bike and dumped on his backside, hopefully without serious injury. So we were treated to the spectacle of an almost complete MotoGP field coming in to change bikes. One word - chaos. But nobody collided, got run over or anything else calamitous so it seemed to work. Shinya Nakano, though, obviously had other ideas. Whether he simply missed the pitlane and decided it was too risky to go for or whether he figured on getting one last lap in and avoiding the scrum we'll probably never know. But he stayed out for an extra la anyway, and it rained a whole lot more. He stayed on and made it in to change over but it was very very slow. And it certainly cost him the lead.

Chris Vermeulen clearly ate his Shredded Wheat this morning. And maybe he ate Hopper's, too?So when things calmed down a bit it became apparent that there were some distinct winners from the whole melee. Sete Gibernau was clearly in the lead, though being hotly pursued (and caught) by Chris Vermeulen. Carlos Checa was third from Casey Stoner, with Marco Melandri in fifth and Shinya Nakano in sixth. Certainly Nicky Hayden came out a whole lot better, as not only was he in a points scoring position but Dani Pedrosa was going rapidly backwards through the field as he detests riding in the wet. But still, after a brief hiccup, Rossi was ahead of him, albeit close and not riding very fast.

Up at the front, Melandri saw how quickly Vermeulen was going and decided to have a go as well. What did he have to lose, after all? A couple of laps saw him up with the young Australian, a couple more saw him past and in pursuit of the booming Ducati ahead. A short pursuit, as just one lap saw him ease past Gibernau and into the lead, Vermeulen following a lap later to take second. From there on, as the rain eased and the track started to dry out, it was simply a case of Melandri making the most of his team's excellent judgment in using a harder rear tyre and just pulling away. The Italian didn't put a wheel wrong, and though his rear tyre was suffering badly as it overheated and melted on the drying track, by the time he came onto the finish straight for the last time, broadsiding gloriously through the preceding corner in a cloud of burnt rubber, Melandri was over nine seconds clear to take a worthy win. Vermeulen certainly couldn't do anything about it though the young Australian rode a perfect race to take a comfortable second place - the first time an Australian has been on the podium at Phillip Island since Mick Doohan in 1998.

Marco Melandri went in with a "What have I got to lose" attitude...and ended up third in the championship. There's a lesson here if you're prepared to learn it...Mr Pedrosa.Sete Gibernau was riding a great race and looking as though he was going to take a podium for the first time this year. But it wasn't to be. Because further back a massive scuffle was taking place, and it was about to catch him up. The furball that was Stoner, Rossi, Hayden, Nakano and Capirossi was decided in favour of the world champion, but Rossi's pace had dragged the whole group up towards Gibernau. Stoner looked as though he would be a threat for a while but Hayden finally despatched him and had a clear run after Rossi. Not clear enough, though, as Rossi managed to duck past Gibernau on the very last corner to take the last spot on the podium and, more importantly, take a bigger chunk out of Hayden's lead to keep the championship very much alive.

So at the end of another extremely exciting race, Melandri took a well deserved win from Chris Vermeulen, who remains probably the nicest guy in MotoGP and one we're proud to know. Valentino Rossi took a sorely needed podium from Sete Gibernau with Hayden in a frustrated fifth place after a frankly lacklustre race. Casey Stoner came in sixth while Loris Capirossi beat Shinya Nakano who must really be regretting that decision to stay out. Toni Elias and Makoto Tamada rounded off the top ten. But the championship is really looking as though it will go right the way to the last race. Rossi is now back into second and in relatively easy striking distance of Nick Hayden, while Pedrosa has been demoted to fourth behind Melandri, with Capirossi snapping at his heels.

Next week we go to Japan, with just Estoril in Portugal and Valencia to come afterwards. Both very strong Rossi circuits. It's going to be ever so close...He didn't win the race today but Chris Vermeulen gets man of the race from us and absolutely deserves a celebratory wheelie.




1 M Melandri, Honda
2 C Vermeulen, Suzuki
3 V Rossi, Yamaha
4 S Gibernau, Ducati
5 N Hayden, Honda
6 C Stoner, Honda
7 L Capirossi, Ducati
8 S Nakano, Kawasaki
9 T Elias, Honda
10 M Tamada, Honda

Championship Standing after 14 rounds

225 N Hayden
204 V Rossi
193 M Melandri
193 D Pedrosa
180 L Capirossi
119 C Stoner
103 K Roberts Jnr
97 J Hopkins
96 C Edwards
86 C Vermeulen



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