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business as usual ? Errr. . . No.

French MotoGP, 21st May 2006, Le Mans
Words by Simon Bradley, pics as credited

Rossi always gets the glory and the pictures, so here, for once, is Colin Edwards doing his thing on the newly resurgent Yamaha...There are those who say that Valentino Rossi is superhuman. That he can bend the laws of physics to suit his will. That he has some sort of mind control over those who would usurp his place as the Best Rider Ever. There are some who say that he's simply incredibly talented. And others who attribute his extraordinary success to luck as much as anything else. The truth is probably a blend of all these things, perhaps without the superhuman changing the laws of physics bit. Certainly he seems to be able to out-psyche his rivals (Sete Gibernau, for example) when it comes to it, he's very lucky (how many times did he get away with it at Donington last year?) and he is incredibly talented - just about anywhere he's needed to really put the hammer down demonstrates that. But so far the 2006 season hasn't been a classic in the Rossi annals. In fact, frankly, it's been dire. The normally sweet handling but slightly underpowered Yamaha has been transformed in the closed season to a chattering, unstable bike that spectacularly fails to maximise the young Italian's real strengths. The result has been a string of low grid positions and equally low finishes, culminating in a DNF in China last week as the chatter got so bad that the front Michelin disintegrated under the strain. So it was a pleasant surprise to see the practice timesheets headed up by Rossi and his team-mate Colin Edwards as things got underway properly at Le Mans.

In fact, Rossi and Edwards utterly dominated practice. The only chink in the armour appeared as the race tyres came off and the qualifying rubber went on. Increased grip = increased chatter and the net result was a placing Shinya Nakano, one of the nicest guys ever to get off a motorbike at 208mph and live, did brilliantly in qualifying to put the still improving Kawasaki in 2nd spotway further down the grid than the weekend so far would have suggested. Up at the front, Dani Pedrosa - fresh from his maiden victory in China - took his second pole of the season ahead of, and here's a name you don't often see on the front row, Shinya Nakano. Nakano's Kawasaki just pipped fellow Bridgestone runner John Hopkins into third, himself just a fraction ahead of local hero Randy de Puniet on the second Kawasaki. Then we reach the usual suspects, with Marco Melandri ahead of Loris Capirossi to round out row two, and Valentino Rossi and Colin Edwards bookmarking Sete Gibernau on row three. Nicky Hayden, suffering from a raging temperature and nausea all weekend, made an herculean effort to take tenth on the grid. But qualifying isn't the race, and Sunday's warmup showed that if the circuit stayed wet then the Bridgestone riders would be making hay while the sun, um, stayed away.

As the riders lined up for the actual event, a few drops fell from the sky. Enough to declare a wet race, despite the fact that everyone was on slicks. What does a wet race mean? It means that the teams are allowed to prepare a spare bike for each rider with different tyres on it. So if the heavens open during the race then the riders can pit in and swap bikes. The clock, you should note, stays running so a canny decision at the right time can be a race winner. Or loser, of course, should the wrong decision get made.

After the warmup lap Kenny Roberts Jnr made a bold - some would say controversial - decision, popped into the pitlane and came back out on wets. Hmm. It's, um, not raining Ken. But hey - the team has their own weather forecaster, so maybe they knew something we didn't...

Hopper was dead keen to make sure this was the only view the others got...Lights out and one of the interesting new developments which Le Mans has undergone in the closed season came into play. This might be a good time to remind you that the Le Mans MotoGP circuit is not the legendary 24 car racing circuit. No, this is a purpose built and very nice race track - lots of run off areas and far more rider friendly than the tree and armco lined Sarthe circuit used in the 24 hour racing. Anyway, last season the start/finish straight led up into a very fast couple of bends just over a blind crest. It all had the potential to get a little more exciting than might be considered healthy, so over the winter a chicane was installed to slow things down a bit. When the lights went out, Nakano went rapidly backwards having started appallingly and got swallowed by the pack. Hopkins, Pedrosa and Melandri broke clear at the front and Rossi made a staggering start to be near the front of the pack as everyone shut it down for the chicane. Which is where it all wet wrong. Exactly what happened is hard to tell, but Rossi, De Puniet, Gibernau and Edwards were all involved in a bit of a melee. The result, sadly, was that De Puniet ended up face down in the gravel, Edwards and Gibernau ended up at the back of the field, though mercifully still upright and Rossi somehow came out in sixth place. Nakano, ironically, picked up a stop and go penalty for jumping the start, and really ruined Kawasaki's weekend. Of course, that explains his poor performance off the line - he must have realised that he was rolling and had to stop, unfortunately just as the lights went out.

Anyway, up at the front it was John Hopkins who was making the break, riding the wheels off the Suzuki and really showing what both it and he can do. Melandri managed to pass Pedrosa while further back Rossi was coming through the field like a man who had suddenly stumbled across his old magic. Passing on the brakes, riding Marco Melandri - man on a missionaround the outside, stuffing it down the inside, Rossi was doing whatever it took to get where he wanted to be, and by the fifth lap he was there. In the lead. Now in fairness, Hopper was hanging in there, taking advantage of the Suzuki's slightly more forgiving power delivery and really making it fly. But Pedrosa had regrouped, and on lap eight he squeezed past the American to take station behind Rossi. Still Hoper stayed up with the leaders, riding right on the very edge of what was possible, before taking that step slightly too far, locking the front on the brakes and sliding out of contention. A brave race and well ridden, Hopper remounted and kept going, albeit well off the pace on a rather bent bike, to pick up the last point on offer.

Further down the field. Edwards was clawing his way back up from the back and giving some demonstration of why he has the ride he does. The Texas Tornado was in full flight and making a fine fist of it, too. A brief scuffle with Gibernau was resolved in the American's favour he climbed back up to his ultimate finishing place of sixth. And a long way further back, Kenny Roberts Jnr was illustrating my point about the wrong decision wrecking your chances. He lasted just one lap of a bone dry and warming nicely circuit on wets before retiring, the decision to swap bikes not being reversible.

Back up at the front, Rossi was pulling the stops out. Pedrosa had slid past Melandri and the battle wa son. The young Spaniard had said very publicly that he wanted to race with Rossi. Unfortunately, when the opportunity arose it seemed that he was lacking the necessary speed. By lap twenty, Rossi was the best part of four seconds ahead. Pedrosa's challenge was well and truly broken. Not only that but the Spaniard was slowing up and falling into the clutches of Melandri as his tyres shredded under the effort of staying with Rossi. So that wa sit, all over bar the shouting.

Gifted a race lead, Pedrosa must be one of the jammiest kids on the block. As well as one of the most talented, that is...Until, on lap twenty one, Rossi's Yamaha simply stopped running. The Italian maestro could do nothing but coast to the side of the track and just sit there while his championship challenge, which had looked as though it was right back on track, faltered yet again. Gifted with the lead, Pedrosa put his head down and pushed harder but to no avail. The left side of his rear Michelin was badly chewed up and Melandri was soon able to catch, pass and gap him. It got worse, though, as Capirossi scented blood in the water and urged the big Ducati on to close the gap. Halfway through the last lap, in what might be called a rather robust move, Capirossi slammed the Ducati into second place and held it to the line.

A way back, a nigh on race long battle between the not very well Nicky Hayden and the not very experienced Casey Stoner went the way of youth and enthusiasm, the young Aussie managing to keep in front by dint of, I suspect, simply being fitter on the day and better able to muscle the bike around. Colin Edwards came in a lonely sixth and Makoto Tamada followed him home ahead of Sete Gibernau. Tony Elias came next before a long gap back to tenth placed Chris Vermeulen who is getting there but is still adapting to MotoGP from Superbikes.

So the championship could have become really very interesting indeed. As it is, the gap at the top has closed and it could be anyone's. There are some people who are suggesting that it's all a plot to keep the season interesting, and that Rossi wants to show just how good he really is by allowing someone to become almost uncatchable before lighting the wick and still winning. Maybe today was just a slight erosion in his margin for error. I'd like to believe that Rossi isn't that calculating, but that we'll see the genius back in action properly before we lose him forever to the sterile, computer controlled world of Formula One. Either way, Nicky Hayden is still at the top though the gap is very very small. Italy next, so expect lots of passion, lots of drama and lots of explanations as to what went wrong today...


A top ten finish and a really ice picture combine to give Chris Vermeulen this spot...Results

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

Championship Standing after 4 rounds

83 N Hayden
79 M Melandri
79 L Capirossi
73 D Pedrosa
65 C Stoner
45 C Edwards
44 T Elias
40 V Rossi
33 S Gibernau
33 M Tamada



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