Valentino Rossi proved once again why he's a four-time MotoGP World Champion, and is leading the championship standings by 37 points with only four races in the books, by taking victory in an action-packed race from Spaniard, Sete Gibernau, at Le...
Valentino Rossi proved once again why he's a four-time MotoGP World Champion, and is leading the championship standings by 37 points with only four races in the books, by taking victory in an action-packed race from Spaniard, Sete Gibernau, at Le Mans, France.
Le Mans, France: historic, fast, and unpredictable. That is about the right description to what MotoGP fans were witnesses today. Historic? Well, unless you are new to the world of motor sports, you would know Le Mans is one of the oldest tracks in the world and famous for its 24-hours endurance races. Fast? Turn one is the fastest turn in the MotoGP calendar. How fast? 290kph or 180mph is the speed at which the bikes enter turn one. Unpredictable? Le Mans returned to the calendar in 2000 and since, it has become famous for its unpredictable weather.
MotoGP is easily the most competitive form of motor sports in the world, at the moment. They are competitive during practice, qualifying and race, rain or shine. For example, the top-12 riders all qualified within seven tenths of a second of each other for the French GP. And positions two to 11 all qualified within four tenths. This is how good this championship is, the very best in the world.
American fans were treated to some heart-stopping last minutes as both Yamaha teammates, Rossi and Colin Edwards, battled for pole position. Rossi ended winning this battle, but it was still a Yamaha 1-2, the first since Assen 2004.
The race did not disappoint either. After an excellent 250cc battle, Le Mans weather made its ugly appearance as rain drops began to fall. Although the race had not gotten underway, per regulations, the white flags were show to indicate the French GP had been declared a wet race. This meant that riders were free, without further notice, to pit for a wet-weather bike should they feel it necessary now, or during the race. Thankfully, the GP gods stepped in and made sure no more rain fell.
With the red lights off, the MotoGP boys dragged themselves out of their grid positions, open-throttle, and into turn one. From pole position, Rossi got a terrible start and faded into the mad pack of bikes. Nicky Hayden suffered from no such start and led into turn one, with Edwards chasing. As the two entered the "esses", to which turn leads, it was Edwards with the advantage, the number-five leading a MotoGP race for the first time this year. But behind Edwards and Hayden, 19 more bikes still needed to squeeze through and when everyone is occupying the same real estate, something is bound to happen; and it did. Loris Capirossi, Marco Melandri and Rossi got through the "esses", but Max Biaggi got a bit over-excited and almost ran into the back of Rossi's M1. Biaggi's braking maneuver was too sudden, which caused Carlos Checa to run into the tail of the V5. The Spaniard tried to save it but it was too late, the front was gone from underneath him, and into to the gravel he went. Amazingly, the only other rider that crashed along with Checa was Roberto Rolfo, who slowed his D'Antin Ducati down to a crawl and ended up tipping it onto the gravel. Up front, for the first time ever, in MotoGP (see four-strokes), two American led. Capirossi remained in third, followed by Melandri, Rossi, Shinya Nakano, Sete Gibernau, Alex Barros and Biaggi in ninth.
The news was not all good for the other American, John Hopkins. While the pack continued to lap the French circuit for the first time, the cameras set their sights on Hopkins entering pit lane. How he enter pit lane without completing a lap is beyond me, but from the looks of it, his bike looked like it was missing a plug as it stuttered its way to the Suzuki garage. Hopkins quickly mounted his second bike and returned to the race. Sadly, this would not be his last visit. The fun and games continued on the race track, this time Olivier Jacque making moves on Jurgen van den Goorbergh and Troy Bayliss for 10th place. The KTM-KR team missed the Chinese GP due to a shortage of parts/engines and their luck changed very little this weekend, Shane Byrne crashing out of the French GP on the first lap of the race. Byrne needed to be removed from the track on a gurney, thankfully, further investigation revealed the British rider was shaken but OK.
With one lap in the books, the running remained the same, except for positions five and six, Rossi losing out to Nakano for fifth. Hopkins made his second appearance in pit lane, again jumping off one bike and onto another.
Rossi knew he could not let his teammate get away at the front, and fell the men in front of him were holding him up. His first obstacle was Nakano. After the roaring four-strokes made their way past the start-finish line and began their third lap of 28, the Italian got a tremendous run into turn one and around the Japanese rider he went. The outside move set Rossi perfectly to block any counter-maneuvers from the Kawasaki rider into the "esses". The next obstacle on Rossi path was Melandri and the first thing Rossi did as soon as he was past the Kawasaki was to put pressure on his compatriot. Within a few corners the pressure had paid off as Rossi took over fourth place on the brakes into Le Garage Vert, the double apex corner of the historic circuit.
Edwards's and Rossi's Yamahas were not the only ones on the move, Toni Elias, a 250cc GP veteran but MotoGP-class rookie, was making moves of is own at the back of the leading group. After studying Biaggi for a couple of laps, he went to school on the four-time 250cc World Champion and passed him for ninth.
Capirossi must have been told about Rossi's charge because he quickly responded with the quickest lap of the race, 1:34.6. Rossi's response came on the fifth lap, a 1:34.2.
Gibernau also knew he could not let the men at the front get away if he was to have a chance at fighting for victory at Le Mans. Following his archrival's queue, of passing Nakano on the outside of turn one into the "esses", Gibernau tried it but this time he was going too fast to make the chicane and over-shot the turn. With Barros only a few feet behind him and ready to pounce, Gibernau's mistake relegated him to eighth.
By the sixth lap, Rossi's gap to Capirossi was down to zero, and Biaggi was past Elias for ninth. Gibernau continued to apply pressure on Barros for seventh and within a few corners he was past the Brazilian. Sadly for Barros, Biaggi did the same thing for eighth.
Rossi's move on Capirossi came on the exit of the last left-hander and he was now up to third. Capirossi tried to exploit the enormous power of the Ducati, but it was not enough to counter the agility of the M1. Further back, the battle for sixth continued, and it was déjà vu for Gibernau, as he again needed to get past Nakano to give chase to Edwards and Hayden. This time, the Spaniard completed the pass nice and easy as he charged towards his teammate.
Gibernau had some trouble passing Melandri, but by the ninth lap he was past him. Up front, the pressure from Rossi was too much for the young American and the experience of leading the World Champion only lasted for a lap and a half, as Hayden ran wide and opened the door to Rossi for second.
Gibernau's pace was electrifying, breaking lap record after lap record as he gave chase to the leading duo of Edwards and Rossi. By the 13th lap Capirossi was under the clutches of Gibernau and by the fourth corner he was past him. His next target was Hayden, who had a 2-second lead. Within the same lap, Barros was on the gravel and out of the French GP.
While Gibernau focused on closing the gap to Hayden, a mirror scene was being played for sixth place, with Melandri applying pressure on Biaggi for sixth place after the Telefonica-MoviStar rider lost it to the Repsol-HRC man.
On the 15th lap, the advantage Hayden enjoyed to Gibernau was down to half a second. Gibernau's progress was communicated to Rossi immediately and one could see he was hurrying up Edwards at the front.
Capirossi tried to stay with Gibernau, and in doing so he made a mistake on the 16th lap, going into the "esses". Capirossi went into them too hot and had to jump over the chicane, Biaggi and Melandri didn't need a formal invitation to take advantage of his mistake. Although Capirossi recovered quickly, it was too late; he had lost two spots to the Hondas.
Gibernau's pass on Hayden was a copy of Rossi's move on the American, the Spaniard passed him on the same corner, in the same manner (Hayden running wide), as Rossi had done earlier in the race. Gibernau's target was now the back of Rossi's M1 and the Italian could feel it.
In one lap, Rossi's 2-second lead was down to 1.6, and by the next, it was down to 0.9 as Gibernau broke the lap-record once again, a 1:33.907.
Rossi's move on Edwards came with 11 laps to go as the two riders, side-by-side, dove on the brakes into the chicane. Rossi gained the inside line, but Edwards is no slouch, and also left the brakes as late as it was possible for this turn. Rossi left them on for a millisecond longer, which proved to be one-millisecond too long as he to jump the chicane. The mistake allowed Gibernau to close on the Yamaha duo, and the gap of half a second Rossi had enjoyed just moments ago was down to zero. By the very next bend, a right-hander, Gibernau was on the inside of Rossi and into second place.
Within two corners and with only 10 laps to go, Rossi had gone from first to third. For the next two laps, it was a freight train with Edwards at the lead, Gibernau and Rossi giving chase. In certain angles, the trio was so close to each other, they looked like one bike.
Rossi was the first one to make a move and repaid Gibernau by passing him on the very same corner where the Spaniard has passed him after Rossi had made the mistake out of the chicane. Rossi's job was now to get past Edwards and use him to hold up Gibernau. The move came at Le Garage Vert corner. As the two Yamahas got on the brakes, Rossi held them longer and didn't make a mistake on the exit. The move must have scared Edwards a little, because he ran it a little wide and allowed Gibernau to follow Rossi, losing two spots in Le Garage Vert. He knew he had made a mistake, as he exited the turn shaking his head in disgust.
Although Edwards tried to stay with the top-two men in motorcycle racing, they were simply too fast for the American as they began to disappear into the distance and out of his reach.
Gibernau knew the only lap that counts is the last lap, a lesson he learned at Jerez earlier in the season, and as a good student he sat patiently behind Rossi, studying his every move and waiting for any mistakes. Further back, in the battle for fourth place between Biaggi and Melandri, the number 33 had studied enough and with four laps to go he made his move on Biaggi to take over fourth-place honors.
One of the good things, or bad things depending on your view, about Le Mans is the penultimate corner, "Le Raccordement", a double apex right-hander that leads them into the front straight. A perfect corner for Gibernau to return the favor Rossi had given him at Jerez.
Rossi knew that if he allowed Gibernau to get too close, he'd risk too much going into "Le Raccordement" and when push came to shove the "Doctor" broke the lap record, a 1:33.6 on the very last lap on worn out tires. This was enough to hold off Gibernau and take his third victory of the season.
Edwards kept third place, and Melandri and Biaggi, fourth and fifth respectively. Hayden faded to sixth, followed by Capirossi, Nakano, Elias and Bayliss rounding up the top-ten.
The next round of the season will take place at Mugello. You can rest assured the sparks will fly. Stay tuned.