MotoGP - round 5

This was a rain-sodden MotoGP showdown at Le Mans in France that put nerve and skill at a premium and it was Chris Vermeulen (Suzuki) who showed the required credentials to win from Marco Melandri (Gresini Honda RC212V) with Casey Stoner (Ducati) third.

With rain threatening, the lights on the grid went out and a crowd of 74,000 watched with some trepidation as the field barreled into turn one with specks of moisture dotting the competitors’ visors and screens. Stoner got the jump into the turn followed by American John Hopkins (Suzuki), but it took only four more corners before Valentino Rossi (Yamaha) took the lead.

This would be a difficult race over 28-laps of this 4.180km track in conditions that worsened as the laps clicked down. The first half of this race was frenzied affair with riders pitting to change machines (and with them tyres) and pole-man Colin Edwards (Yamaha) was the earliest visitor to pit lane on lap four.

As Rossi led across the start/finish straight (a scant 450m of it) conditions were plainly difficult. And it was the riders with the least to lose and the most to gain who put the power down early and gambled their way to the front. Alex Barros (Ducati) lay third with Sylvain Guintoli (Yamaha) and Randy de Puniet (Kawasaki) both, as dutiful Frenchmen, giving it everything in the treacherous conditions.

With Edwards swapping bikes Rossi held a 1.8 second advantage over Barros, who was giving it everything in second. The Brazilian was followed by Stoner, de Puniet and Guintoli. But the native riders were restless and by lap six Guintoli led from de Puniet with Rossi losing momentum and Dani Pedrosa (Repsol Honda RC212V) moving up the order to fifth.

On lap seven Carlos Checa (LCR Honda RC212V), who was holding seventh from a front row start, crashed and this unleashed a torrent of activity at the front with Guintoli going down on the next lap, Toni Elias (Gresini Honda RC212V) on the eighth, and de Puniet shortly after the Spaniard.

By this time the red and yellow striped flags were out to signal a significant deterioration in adhesion as John Hopkins led the pack. Those who had not pitted earlier now did so, including Hopkins and Pedrosa and this second tier of tyre swappers tended to do better (in the final analysis) than the first wave.

By lap 12 it was Chris Vermeulen (Suzuki) who held second place before overhauling Hopkins for the lead. Melandri then blasted past the American to take second with Rossi now third. Guintoli had nursed his machine back to pitlane to exchange his battered bike for a straighter version and he rejoined the fray in 13th spot, while Vermeulen led Marco by 1.6 seconds.

Things were very wet now. Melandri was giving his all to reduce Vermeulen’s advantage and by lap 14 he had shaved the Aussie’s lead to 1.1 seconds. It was Vermeulen and the Italian first and second with Rossi and Stoner some ways behind in third and fourth, with Nicky Hayden (Repsol Honda RC212V) fifth, Alex Hofmann (Ducati) sixth and Dani seventh.

If the early laps were a maelstrom of activity, the second half of this contest was enlivened only by Melandri’s enthusiasm to catch Vermeulen. By lap 18 the tenacious Italian had carved the gap down to 0.5 seconds. Stoner in third was a considerable 15 seconds adrift of the protagonists, having taken advantage of Rossi’s difficulties in maintaining an economical line out of the turns in the deluge.

Shinya Nakano (Konica Minolta Honda RC212V) crashed and splashed down at the Flip-Flop on lap 21 as his predecessor in the Konica Minolta seat, Makoto Tamada, now riding for Yamaha, was lapped. There was standing water on track now and Hayden was a man who made the most of the slippery tarmac taking Rossi, who ran wide again, for fourth on lap 22.

Vermeulen though was clearly in charge. It took him a mere five laps to re-establish his authority on the event by giving Marco a 2.3 second hole to fill. Barring disasters he was going to take the flag. The disaster fell to Nicky. On lap 26 he crashed heavily while holding fourth.

The Aussie Suzuki man took his first MotoGP win in style, wheelying over the line with Marco having settled for second. Championship points leader Stoner rode to a neat third place here at Le Mans, only the fifth round of an eighteen race series. Dani (who many believe finds racing in the rain a bother) took an eager fourth.

Chris Vermeulen : “I’m absolutely over the moon! I am really happy for myself, my crew and everyone involved in the team. We’d had a difficult weekend coming into the race as not everything quite went to plan - but we were getting quicker and quicker and I’m sure if it had been dry today we would have improved more. The conditions were slippery to start with and it was difficult to know how hard to push. Some guys came past me and then a lap or so later they crashed! It started to rain quite heavy and I decided to come in and change my bike. I came back out and just stuck my head down and tried to get the tyres up to heat up as quick as possible. The bike felt really good in the rain, but as it got heavier it made it hard to hold the bike in top gear down the straight - there was so much water it was just spinning the rear! Tom O’Kane – my Crew Chief - and the rest of the guys gave me a really good wet bike today as we hadn’t done much wet testing with the new 800. The tyre choice was spot-on and the bike was certainly good enough to win on!”

Marco Melandri : “It was an amazing race. From the start it was very difficult on slick tyres and many riders who are not normally in the top were really pushing. I didn’t push then. When it started raining hard I didn’t know when best tocome into the pit and change to wet tyres because half the track was wet and half not so bad. When I caught Chris (Vermeulen) I didn’t want to pass him and decided to wait. But I have short legs and could not get my knee down onto the track to control the front and had a couple of big slides, one in sixth gear. So I decided to let Chris go.”

Dani Pedrosa : "Well I’m really happy with the result because this was a very hard race and we came through strongly. We learned a lot from the previous wet race in Australia last year and this time the change of bikes was very quick which meant I could keep ahead of the riders who were behind me as I came into the pits. My team did a great job so thank you to them. Although it’s only fourth place I’m very happy today because I needed a good result like this in the wet and it gives me a lot of confidence."

Valentino Rossi : "Of course I'm very upset about this result because I had a very good feeling in the dry at the start. We made some good modifications to the bike, it was working very well and I thought I was going to be able to fight for the victory. Unfortunately the weather ruined it for us today! We made the pit stop and started the second part of race with hard rain tyres, because we thought it was only going to be light rain. Sadly we were wrong and when the rain got heavier my tyre was too hard for the conditions and I couldn't push. I was very slow from then on and didn't have any grip from the rear. In the last five laps it was quite dangerous as it was very hard to stay upright and I think I lost five or six seconds per lap at the end. We had hoped that this would be a track at which we could gain some ground on Stoner and it's going to be a very hard battle from here because he is very fast, not just on the straights but everywhere! I want to congratulate Chris Vermeulen today because he rode a great race, I think he's a bit of a magician in the rain!"

Nicky Hayden : "That’s a shame for sure. We had a pretty solid fourth place there with just a couple of laps to go and the bike was feeling pretty good in the wet. But then as soon as I touched the brake at the end of the back straight it folded on me. I hadn’t even started back-shifting yet and before I knew it I was just picking up speed as I hit the ground – it was a rough ride. It sucks, but it seems like no bones are broken and that’s a good thing, though I’ve damaged some cartilage in my ribcage."

2007 MotoGP France - Le Mans 20/05/2007
Race 1 - 28 Laps
1. Chris Vermeulen Suzuki AUS 50'58.752
2. Marco Melandri Honda ITA 0'12.599
3. Casey Stoner Ducati AUS 0'27.347
4. Daniel Pedrosa Honda ESP 0'37.328
5. Alex Hofmann Ducati GER 0'49.166
6. Valentino Rossi Yamaha ITA 0'53.563
7. John Hopkins Suzuki USA 1'1.073
8. Loris Capirossi Ducati ITA 1'21.241
9. Makoto Tamada Yamaha JPN -1 Laps
10. Sylvain Guintoli Yamaha FRA -1 Laps
11. Fonsi Nieto Kawasaki ESP -1 Laps
12. Colin Edwards Yamaha USA -3 Laps

Rider Standings 20/05/2007
1. Casey Stoner Ducati AUS 102
2. Valentino Rossi Yamaha ITA 81
3. Daniel Pedrosa Honda ESP 62
4. Marco Melandri Honda ITA 61
5. Chris Vermeulen Suzuki AUS 55
6. John Hopkins Suzuki USA 48
7. Loris Capirossi Ducati ITA 38
8. Colin Edwards Yamaha USA 35
9. Toni Elias Honda ESP 35
10. Nicky Hayden Honda USA 30
11. Alex Hofmann Ducati GER 30
12. Alex Barros Ducati BRA 27
13. Carlos Checa Honda ESP 20
14. Randy De Puniet Kawasaki FRA 19
15. Shinya Nakano Honda JPN 15
16. Sylvain Guintoli Yamaha FRA 12
17. Makoto Tamada Yamaha JPN 11

Team Standings 20/05/2007
1. Ducati Marlboro Team 140
2. FIAT Yamaha Team 116
3. Rizla Suzuki 103
4. Honda Gresini 96
5. Repsol Honda Team 92
6. Pramac D'Antin 57
7. Kawasaki Racing Team 28
8. Tech3 Yamaha 23
9. Honda LCR 20
10. Konica Minolta Honda 15
11. Team Roberts 4

Manufacturer Standings 20/05/2007
1. Ducati 102
2. Honda 89
3. Yamaha 81
4. Suzuki 71
5. Kawasaki 28
6. KR212V 4