The day belonged to Sete Gibernau (Team Telefonica Movistar Honda MotoGP RC211V) who, despite a raging fever, rampaged to a dominant win over a resurgent Carlos Checa (Yamaha) with Max Biaggi (Camel Honda RC211V) third in front of a packed Le Mans crowd of 75,000 sun-drenched race fans.
Checa made the holeshot and slung his machine into the Dunlop chicane at the end of the main straight inches in front of Sete Gibernau, with Max in close pursuit. Valentino Rossi was right up with them and as the pack gradually stretched itself out there was still incident to come on the opening lap.
Ducati rider Neil Hodgson lost the back end of his machine with Norick Abe (Yamaha) and John Hopkins (Suzuki) close by - too close to take any avoiding action and prevent the three of them sliding into the gravel trap. Hopkins broke a thumb, Hodgson two ribs, while Abe was unhurt.
While the unlucky trio left the track for treatment, Checa set about installing himself as race leader and Gibernau was happy to keep him in sight as the 28-lap contest settled into a rhythm. As Max Biaggi had predicted, that rhythm was nowhere near as quick as the qualifying laps might have suggested. Indeed it was Biaggi who eventually recorded the fastest lap at 1m 33.425s on his penultimate lap.
Rossi dived inside Max to take third at the final turn on lap one and within another two laps it was clear that Checa, Gibernau, Rossi and Biaggi would be the riders involved in the scrap for podium places. But Gibernau was not prepared to wait until the end to make his move and the Spaniard edged past his countryman Checa at the right hand Garage Vert turn on lap 11 when the Yamaha man ran wide.
Meantime Max was unprepared to let the leading duo run clear and he made his way past Rossi two laps later to mount a challenge to the top two. Rossi knew if he could hang onto Max he could get a tow towards the front with him. But a mistake on lap 16 looked to have made his task too hard. He would eventually finish three and half seconds adrift of Max in fourth - but not without a final effort to get on terms.
The last three laps were frantic as backmarkers entered the equation but Gibernau's comfortable 2.2 second cushion over Checa was never threatened. Rossi however would bite back at Max on lap 26, but it was just the spur Max needed to set that fastest lap and take the sting out of Rossi's frantic final attack.
"I have to thank Honda for their efforts," said Gibernau. "They helped us understand some of the problems we'd been having at the first two Grands Prix which has got us going in the right direction. I had a fever and it was a very hard race. Carlos rode well but I passed him at half-distance and was able to open up a gap."
Max was philosophical about his third place. "That was tough," he said. "I had many duels with Rossi and I ran a soft tyre which turned out to be the best way to handle the whole race. I had a good duel with Checa too - but the win was beyond me today."
Colin Edwards (Team Telefonica Movistar Honda MotoGP RC211V) endured front-end problems but still managed a fifth-placed finish. "The problem is temperature," he said. "When it gets hotter the front end is not so good. We're going to Michelin's test facility to try and work out a solution. Apart from that everything feels good."
Alex Barros (Repsol Honda Team RC211V) finished seventh. "The lights seemed to be on for a long time and when they eventually turned off, my clutch was going and I lost a few places. Then I nearly got caught in the crash on the first lap and had to concentrate and work my way up the field. I'm obviously not pleased with the result but I'm happy to have climbed from 13th to seventh."
Makoto Tamada (Camel Honda RC211V) riding on Bridgestone tyres was eighth. "I've got to improve my starts and get right on the pace in the first few laps. Today the temperature was higher and we lost a bit of grip compared to yesterday. I just couldn't run at the pace required to catch the others."
An 11th place finish was not what Nicky Hayden (Repsol Honda Team RC211V) wanted. "I'm real disappointed. The weekend started out so good then we found it really difficult to go forward. Everything we tried with the bike and myself didn't seem to work. We stayed pretty much the same all weekend and everyone else got faster. I guess we've got to look forward and learn from here."
Gibernau heads the points table as the next race at Mugello looms in three weeks time. He has 66 points to Biaggi's 56 with Rossi on 51.
Team Telefonica Movistar Honda MotoGP, 1st:
"This is incredible. We have done some fantastic work and I must thank my entire team - if I win it is because I have the best team in the world. The help of Honda and Michelin has been unbelieveable in what is such a difficult and demanding season. I raced with a temperature of 38 degrees and at the end it was very hard for me, although I don't want to say this really held me back. In the first few laps I realised we had not chosen the ideal tyre; I followed Carlos (Checa), studied what he was doing and was able to get past him after using all the information I had gathered. I maintained a good rhythm and, with a lot of concentration, was able to win. The best thing about this start to the season is that even though we have not been at our best we have won two races and we got on the podium in the other one. I feel strong, but I know that I can still give more. The best from me and the bike is still to come, but from this race I know what our strong points are and what we must improve on."
"It was a fantastic and very difficult race. Sete showed that he also has enormous potential in the dry conditions. He is a great professional with incredible concentration and he rode extremely quickly despite the fever. Colin also had a good weekend, setting pole on Friday, fifth on Saturday and second in the warm-up - although he didn't have the right set-up for the race. Considering everything he has taken an important step forward."
Camel Honda (Michelin tyres) - 3rd:
"It was a good race, hard fought and difficult. In the first few laps I lost a few seconds on my rivals because I made a different tyre choice to them. Taking a medium rear rather than a softer one. It wasn't an error though because it was adapted to the compromises we made in the set-up to reduce the chatter problem. I had to open the throttle carefully trying to get the most power without getting a wheelie out of the front. I got into a good rhythm and closed up on Checa, even trying to pass him a few times, right until the end, when a group of lapped riders got between me and Carlos and I couldn't do anything to take second place. I'm satisfied nonetheless with my race, and we'll try for the win again in Mugello."
Camel Honda (Team Principal)
"In the first few laps of the race Max took a bit of time to get into the perfect race rhythm, and then in the middle part he had to work hard to make up the gap. Max made an exciting burst up the field, and has shown strength, talent and determination. The great battle with Rossi meant he lost time on the two front riders, so he helped them a bit. Max kept trying to the end, making some exceptional times in the process, but this is good, an important podium. Our best races are still to come, and it's only the start of the championship."
Team Telefonica Movistar Honda MotoGP, 5th:
"I am having a few problems when the temperature goes up and I didn't have the right set-up for the race despite some fairly positive qualifying sessions. I am using the same fork I had in Superbikes in 2002 because I felt comfortable with it in preseason but we're going to have to change. At Clermont Ferrand we'll test the new fork and hopefully at Mugello, a circuit I know well, that translates into results."
Repsol Honda Team: 7th:
"At the start of the race the light seemed to be on for a long time and when it eventually turns I have no clutch so I lost many places. I then nearly get caught in the crash on the first lap and have to concentrate to work up the field. The most difficult task was to overtake was Capirossi; I lost time trying to get past then I ride on my own for a long time with a large gap ahead. I'm obviously not pleased with the result although I'm happy to have climbed from 13th to seventh - but not for the final result. We just couldn't get the machine to work the way we wanted all weekend and the result of the race shows; the top guys were all lapping in the e34's and my best lap was 1'35.1. At this level we have to be more competitive."
Camel Honda (Bridgestone tyres) - 9th
"I still have to improve my starts because I lose ground straight away. Even so I am happy with the set-up of the bike that we found after Jerez and again here today. The track temperature was higher today than the rest of the weekend and I wasn't able to get as good a grip as the other riders all the way to the end. I know we are making improvements and I can't wait to get to Mugello."
Camel Honda - (Makoto Tamada Team Manager)
"After the team had put in some good work during tests we certainly hoped to get a better result here, because we were conscious of having got a good balance on our RC211V. Ninth place in the end, we can't be satisfied with this. This is just the second dry race and the results in terms of times aren't that different from when we went at Welkom, as regards the distance by the end of the race. It's clear that there is still a way to go before reaching a competitive level. We also need to work hard together with Bridgestone to get tyres which perform more consistently around the various circuits, and which will then get Makoto in the best position to show what he is capable of, as he did towards the end of last year."
Repsol Honda Team, 11th:
"I'm real disappointed. The weekend started out so good but we then found it so difficult to go forward. Everything we tried with the bike and myself didn't seem to work. We pretty much stayed the same speed all weekend while everyone else went faster. In the race I made an okay start but lost a few places on the first lap when it all got pretty tight. I guess I got a little frustrated and ran off into the dirt and spent the rest of the race trying to catch up. We've got a test here tomorrow when we have to re-group and try a few things. I feel really bad for my team - they all work so hard and I made a mistake. I guess we've gotta' look forward and learn from here."