Brave effort from Melandri; persistent ride from Checa.
Today's Australian Grand Prix proved to be one of the closest and most hard fought races of the season, and Fortuna Yamaha rider Marco Melandri stole the limelight by leading much of the 27-lap race. Unfortunately Melandri's daring efforts to remain in the top three riders were shattered when he highsided and fell off his YZR-M1 on an unlucky 13th lap. His team-mate Checa rode to a steady eighth, having been stuck behind a group for most of the contest.
Melandri made impressive and immediate progress in the opening stages, slipping into fourth by turn one, third by the end of the first lap, then clinching the lead on lap two. The Italian held on to the lead until lap four, after some sensational passing moves, when Ducati rider Troy Bayliss ran into the back of Melandri's M1, forcing the 250cc World Champion back to third. Melandri recovered to cross the line in second place on the following lap, and was set to pursue race leader Valentino Rossi, when he highsided exiting the penultimate turn. Melandri, who technically led the race at the beginning of that 13th lap after Rossi received a 10 seconds penalty for passing under the yellow flag, limped away from the incident with a dislocated right shoulder and haematoma to his left heel.
"I was so happy with that race until I fell," said the gutsy Melandri, who last year won his 250cc title at the Australian circuit. "I wanted to use a softer rear tyre but unfortunately it wasn't possible. I didn't start as well as I would have liked, but up until the first corner the other riders seemed slower than me and then braked earlier than me at the first corner. I guess they were more cautious because of the track conditions, and I managed to overtake a few very quickly.
"When Bayliss fell he touched me and I very nearly lost it, but I managed to recover. Once Valentino was in front it was impossible to catch him but I really enjoyed racing with Hayden, Capirossi and Gibernau. My bike felt a bit more nervous during the race than it has during qualifying here, and I kept losing grip in the long corners. Finally it resulted in a highside. I knew straight away that I had dislocated my shoulder, and when I arrived at the circuit clinic they pushed it back in. Anyway it's not hurting too badly now, and it was a fantastic chance to race up front, my best of the season."
With the top ten covered by less than two seconds during the first five laps it looked as though any one of the lead group could have taken the race win. After a difficult start Checa found himself at the rear of this pack before gradually working his way through to feature in the battle for the final podium place. It was a charge between Honda riders Nicky Hayden, Sete Gibernau and Tohru Ukawa. The trio eventually finished third, fourth and fifth respectively, after Checa ran off the circuit at MG corner and rejoined to finish eighth.
"I was able to follow the second group of riders for most of the race and tried to pass them but couldn't," said Checa. "I kept analysing where would be the best place to pass, and trying to improve in the areas where I wasn't as quick as them, especially exiting the corners. At one point I lost the front completely going uphill and slid all the way down downhill, finally releasing the brake and going onto the grass. It was hard to turn it around and even harder to get it back onto the track, but I managed to. To finish eighth was better than not finishing at all, and I felt my pace was quite good. I couldn't catch the others but I had a good rhythm, and was relieved to finish and get some points in such difficult track conditions."
Team Director Davide Brivio said, "Marco rode such a fantastic race, and it was entertaining for everyone. Unfortunately he didn't make it to the end but I think he really showed his great potential today. We'll evaluate his health in the coming week and see whether he'll be fit for Valencia. Carlos was stuck behind a group but made a reasonable race. Valencia will be his last race in front of the home crowd so we wish him all the best for there."
Despite Rossi's 10 second penalty the recently crowned 2003 MotoGP World Champion put in a dominating performance to cross the line 15.212 seconds ahead of second-placed Ducati rider Loris Capirossi. The on track advantage allowed Rossi to take the win by 5.212 seconds.
1. Valentino Rossi ITA Repsol HONDA 41'53.543
2. Loris Capirossi ITA DUCATI Marlboro Team +5.212
3. Nicky Hayden USA Repsol HONDA + 12.039
4. Sete Gibernau SPA Telefonica Movistar HONDA +12.070
5. Tohru Ukawa JPN Camel Pramac Pons HONDA +12.294
6. Olivier Jacque FRA Gauloises YAMAHA Team +28.017
7. Shinya Nakano JPN d'Antin YAMAHA Team +28.044
8. CARLOS CHECA SPA Fortuna YAMAHA Team +40.112
9. Kenny Roberts USA SUZUKI Grand Prix Team +41.410
10. Makoto Tamada JPN Pramac HONDA +49.902
DNF - MARCO MELANDRI ITA Fortuna YAMAHA Team
WORLD CHAMPIONSHIP STANDINGS
1. Valentino Rossi 332
2. Sete Gibernau 257
3. Max Biaggi 215
4. Loris Capirossi 161
5. Nicky Hayden 130
6. Tohru Ukawa 123
7. Troy Bayliss 119
8. CARLOS CHECA 112
9. Shinya Nakano 101
10. Alex Barros 91
15. MARCO MELANDRI 45