Marco Melandri took his second career MotoGP victory -- and second in a row -- with a victory at the final MotoGP race of the year, the Valencian GP. The Italian held off Nicky Hayden at the finish line to take the victory for the Telefonica Movistar Honda team by just 0.097 seconds.
Melandri's victory also clinched for the 23-year-old the second position in the MotoGP championship in his third season racing in the top category. Hayden had been vying for the position but Melandri's victory gave him a decisive 220-206 edge in the standings. Series champion Valentino Rossi, though, was far ahead with 367 points.
Melandri didn't start from the pole position, as he had been nipped by that honor by his teammate, Sete Gibernau, but he took the lead immediately at the first corner, taking advantage of a mediocre start by the Spaniard. Hayden (Honda) and Carlos Checa (Ducati) followed him through, although Gibernau was able to reclaim third from Checa still on the first lap.
On the fourth lap, though, it was all over for Gibernau once again, capping a season of misery. His Honda's engine seized, and he ran wide and into a grael trap, with white smoke spewing from his engine. From runner-up in the 2003 and 2004 championships, the 2005 season ended up with the Spaniard in seventh place and once again watching the finish of the race from the side of the track.
Meanwhile, Rossi, who had taken a spill in qualifying and ended up a lowly 15th on the grid, had his work cut out for him, but he took advantage of the first-lap opportunities, and as the second lap started, he had already moved up to eighth, a gain of seven positions. With Gibernau's demise, the champion moved up to sixth place, behind Max Biaggi and the Marlboro Ducati teammates, Checa and Loris Capirossi.
And only two laps later, Rossi moved into a podium position, passing Capirossi, Biaggi and Checa in rapid succession. But while Rossi made it past the trio quickly enough, surprisingly getting away turned out to be much more challenging. The Honda and the two Ducatis hung behind the leaders, and the foursome did not make any real impression on the two front runners, six seconds up the road.
Gradually, though, in the second half of the race, Rossi was able to inch away from Checa, while Capirossi, still suffering from his chest injuries, was some four seconds further back.
"I didn't quite have the pace that I had yesterday and during morning warm-up, I struggled to run in the 1:33s," Checa explained. "I was with Valentino (Rossi) for a while, I was faster in some areas but it was too risky to overtake and finally he was stronger. The chatter got worse in the final laps and I slowed down, so we need to analyse that."
At the front, Melandri and Hayden were not ready to bow down in front of the champion, and picked up their pace a notch, keeping the gap to Rossi in the 3.5-second range in the closing laps. Hayden attacked repeatedly in the final laps, but Melandri was able to hang on to take the win, although with much less than a comfortable margin.
"The truth is that we were struggling all weekend with the settings and we didn't understand until this morning what the problem was," Rossi recounted. "We worked it out and in the race I was able to ride how I wanted to, but it was too late. It was good fun, I pushed hard but it wasn't enough."
Behind the three podium positions -- who were, incidentally, the same three riders as in Turkey a fortnight ago -- it was Checa still in fourth, but followed by Alex Barros and Biaggi, who had made it past Capirossi, by now in much pain from his not-quite-healed injuries.
"Riding 30 laps was as difficult as I'd expected, especially the last five or six laps when I was very tired," Capirossi explained. "My heart rate was really high, so during the last two laps I decided just to finish the race. Seventh position isn't so bad, I fought with Biaggi and Barros and being here to race has been very satisfying, it would've been much worse staying home!"
So, in the end, Rossi was not able to make it 12 victories in a year, but he scored another impressive podium in the specially-liveried Yamaha celebrating the company's 50th anniversary. And the trio on the podium -- Melandri, Hayden and Rossi -- promise to deliver much excitement and entertainment in the 2006 season.