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Marco Melandri's Honda looks more like a Ducati every time I look at it... Mugello is a fabulous place. Nestled deep in the Tuscany mountains, it's got all the ingredients needed for great racing - complex corners, elevation changes, outbraking opportunities, the fastest straight in Europe and an atmosphere to die for, thanks mainly to the incredibly passionate local crowd. The last few years have seen some fantastic scraps here, with Valentino Rossi victorious in all the last few years' visits. But this year, so far at least, things haven't been going at all according to plan for The Doctor, with an unprecedented pair of DNFs in the last two races dropping him right down to eighth in the table. Ducati, celebrating their eightieth birthday at their local circuit, had a new paint scheme on the Desmosedici and a pair of riders with lots to prove. Valentino Rossi had a mountain to climb which, before his bike failed in France, he looked able to do. But that mountain has grown by another eleven points now so he was going to have to work hard. Marco Melandri has tasted victory and was surely keen to try it again. And Nicky Hayden, sitting at the top of the table with just one off-rostrum finish this season, would be happy to go away with another win in the bag. So the stage was set for what we all expected to be a truly magnificent race.

Practice and qualifying were made interesting by some unseasonal weather, offering cooler than usual track temperatures and rain to spice things up. Gibernau and Capirossi made the running for Ducati with Rossi up there as well, showing that the return to last year's frame may well have been the cure to the chatter problems that have beset the team this year. A dry qualifying session saw Sete Gibernau blitz the opposition to take pole from his team-mate and demolish the lap record at the same time. Valentino Rossi got his first front row start of the season in an excellent morning's work while Nicky Hayden had to content himself with heading up the second row, ahead of Shinya Nakano and Marco Melandri. Nakano still holds the rather dubious honour of having the fastest ever motorcycle crash right here at Mugello a couple of years ago, and he still races just as hard as he did before. That's serious courage. Row three, anyway, comprised John Hopkins, Dani Pedrosa and Casey Stoner, Hopper continuing his run of strong qualifying performances on the Suzuki. All the top nine riders were within a second of pole, while Makoto Tamada fell just outside to round out the top ten.

New helmet + old frame = new confidence + old RossiRace day dawned dry, clear and warm, promising to remain so all day and leaving us to anticipate a gripping race.
Warm-up showed that the overnight changes the team had made to Colin Edwards' Yamaha had worked (put the old frame in his, too) as he was way faster than his lowly qualifying while Nicky Hayden sought to stamp his authority on proceedings by running at the head of the pack.

But warm-up isn't the race, and when the lights changed it was Sete Gibernau who made the break from Rossi, while Capirossi made an appalling start and dropped back through the field to eighth at the end of the first lap. At the front, Rossi wasted no time at all in muscling past Gibernau and attempting to make the break. But he failed to do so as the Spaniard showed that he hasn't completely lost his touch and stuck firmly to Rossi's coat tails. Behind them (and I mean just behind them) Melandri, Nakano, Stoner, Pedrosa and Hayden formed a freight train with barely any air between any of the bikes and regular position changes. In fact, the action at the front of the field was so frantic that it was more like a club race than a GP, and it played right into Capirossi's hands as the constant overtakes, blocking passes and defensive lines slowed the leading pack down and allowed him to close back up again.

Up at the front, Gibernau managed to retake the lead after just one lap, with Melandri mugging Rossi two laps later to relegate the champion to third in a firm but fair overtake - one of rather a lot of rather robust passes that the young Italian executed during the race. Next lap saw Rossi back at the front with Melandri down in fourth and young Casey Stoner pushing hard in third. Too hard, it seemed, as on the eighth lap the young Australian got on the power a little too hard while the front was still airborne over the bumps that characterise some of the track and launched himself and the bike off into the gravel in a huge and spectacular cartwheel of destruction that happily left the rider unhurt. And all the time Capirossi was closing in.

Nakano, suffering from a lack of outright speed on the Kawasaki, was gradually falling back after a brilliant start, and was passed by Capirossi for seventh on lap five. Lap eight saw the Ducati rider slip past Pedrosa while Stoner's departure elevated him to fifth. Two more laps saw him pass Melandri, another two to despatch Hayden and two more saw him in the lead when a great game of late braking chicken of riders at the end of the main straight saw a rare mistake by Rossi which dropped him back to fifth with a whole lot of work to do.

Hayden leads Melandri leads Capirossi leads Pedrosa, all chasing Gibernau and Rossi.What happened next was possibly the most exciting motorcycle racing I have ever seen. Marco Melandri rode like a man possessed, dicing with Nicky Hayden and making some of the most audacious overtaking moves ever while staying clean. He even waved an apology to Hayden while diving underneath on a corner as the move was a little firm. But it all went pear shaped as the Italian went in to a corner too hot, ran wide, touched the grass and had to back right off to avoid a crash. Sete Gibernau, who had been going so well, dropped off the pace for a while as one of his toe sliders had come detached and his boot was now wearing through. Followed by his little toe... A rally towards the end of the race was too late to salvage a podium after a strong and spirited ride spoiled by yet more bad luck. Rossi in the meantime was simply on another level. Not once but twice he made a brilliant overtake on Casanova Curve - a downhill complex that just isn't a viable overtaking spot - and was soon back up with Capirossi. Then it really got exciting as the two friendly rivals duked it out as hard as possible while remaining utterly fair. Hayden stayed in close behind to pick up the pieces if it all went wrong, though he was so close sometimes that it looked as though if it went wrong he'd be ramming the pieces, rather than picking them up. Three times Rossi tried to outbrake the Ducati at the end of the straight and each time Capirossi was able to get turned in and pointing in the right direction, despite being notionally disadvantaged, quicker than the Yamaha. Then, on the last lap, Rossi's patience finally ran out and he stuffed the Yamaha down the inside on the same bend and just tapped the power on enough to get in the way and stop the Ducati rider from pulling the same stunt. Then it was all over as The Doctor extended a half second lead within a few corners. Capirossi had no reply as Rossi excelled at doing what he does so well - getting the best from completely shot tyres.

Gibernau goes off like a rat up a drainpipe while Capirossi snoozesFurther back, Dani Pedrosa cruised in ahead of Sete Gibernau who deserved so much better, with Marco Melandri a victim of his own exuberance in a distant sixth. Tony Elias finished a neat seventh, holding off Kenny Roberts Jnr who got the best ever result for the KR211V in a solid eighth. Makoto Tamada and John Hopkins rounded out the top ten with Shinya Nakano just edged out. Colin Edwards started so well but went grasstracking early in the race and ended up last, working his way back to twelfth, a massive thirty seconds from the front.

So Valentino Rossi got back to the top of the podium for a desperately needed twenty five points. Capirossi, whose post race congratulations with Rossi showed just how high a regard the two riders have for each other, takes the lead in the championship from Hayden who has the same number of points from fewer wins. Rossi jumps from eighth to joint fifth and has reduced the gap to thirty four points. Big but not unbeatable. Next stop, in two weeks, sees us in Catalunya. Rossi has a brilliant track record there, Gibernau may be threatening but maybe team orders will come into play and he'll have to yield to Capirossi. Personally I doubt it, partly because I don't think Gibernau would listen, partly because I don't think Capirossi would accept it but mainly because I don't think it will be an issue.

Whatever happens, though, it's going to be a cracker...

Casey Stoner exited stage left shortly after this shot...Results

1 V Rossi, Yamaha
2 L Capirossi, Ducati
3 N Hayden, Honda
4 D Pedrosa, Honda
5 S Gibernau, Ducati
6 M Melandri, Honda
7 T Elias, Honda
8 K Roberts Jnr, KR211V
9 M Tamada, Honda
10 J Hopkins, Suzuki

Championship Standing after 5 rounds

99 L Capirossi
99 N Hayden
89 M Melandri
86 D Pedrosa
65 V Rossi
65 C Stoner
53 T Elias
49 C Edwards
44 S Gibernau
40 M Tamada

SB

 




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