Originally published by Julian Ryder on Monday, September 18, 2006
MotoGP got its first wet flag-to-flag race yesterday. Eight laps in, and after a start that was delayed to give the weather time to make up its mind whether or not it wanted to rain, with proper rain coming down most of the field came into pit lane. Under the new rules, they hopped off their slick-shod bikes and onto their spare bikes, which were on rain tires. Despite Phillip Island having the shortest and narrowest pit lane of anywhere MotoGP races there were no incidents–although Nicky nearly collected Loris Capirossi as he pulled out on his rain bike.
Nicky was one of the few who got lucky. Shinya Nakano, who was going so good he looked like he’d win the previous race as well, didn’t feel comfortable on his second bike, and neither did Dani Pedrosa or Valentino Rossi. The difference there was that Rossi still managed to race at the front while Pedrosa’s aquaphobia returned and he slid back through the field. Hayden, as usual, had to baby the clutch of the line but unlike in Malaysia he got to the first corner almost last while his team-mate went the other way from tenth on the grid to fifth at Turn One.
Come the rain, the man who risked and gained most was Chris Vermeulen. He rode hard on his in-lap and again on the out lap–‘At Turn 2 I put my knee on the ground and hoped the tires’d grip.’ They did. In fact while it was raining hard the Bridgestone boys had fun. Sete Gibernau pulled out an impressive lead only to be overhauled by Melandri, who’d been totally anonymous on Friday and Saturday.
Once it dried out significantly on some parts of the track the Michelins came into their own and the Bridgestones started sliding. The French rubber is built for a patchy track, the Japanese for a completely wet one. By the flag poor Gibernau was riding on tires with bald strips four inches wide on either side and as a result he was reeled in by the dice everyone was watching–Hayden and Rossi. Going into the last lap they were fourth and fifth. They caught Gibernau out of the last corner with Pedrosa (about to be lapped!) in the mix, and The Doctor craftily got Gibernau between himself and Hayden to take five points out of Nicky and go second in the Championship. Vermeulen was only a second up the road, another lap and he’d have been as teed-off as as Sete. Marco duly took his win by coming out of the last, fourth gear, corner with the bike sideways, his rear Michelin smoking and his left hand off the bars and waving to the crowd. The snapper who got a pic of that one will be buying a new car next week.
So Rossi, the fastest man on track in the dry, yet again managed to turn an unpromising situation to his advantage.
Of the men who started the race with genuine hopes of the title, Rossi scored most points. Capirossi and especially Pedrosa suffered, while Melandri now believes ‘the window is open a little bit.’
After the race it emerged that Race Direction were looking at an incident said to involve Rossi overtaking Stoner under a yellow flag. It happened towards the end of the race when Hayden was shadowing Rossi. Nicky says he saw the flag, Stoner doesn’t remember seeing anything and Rossi obviously didn’t see it. Most people wearing a Honda or HRC shirt regarded it as an open-and-shut case; Race Direction didn’t see it that way. Honda are still seething, but Nicky refuses to complain. He must have thought that Rossi would be demoted in the order and it did take him a lap or two to get past Stoner. Actually, Nicky got right up behind Stoner, hoping Rossi would realize his mistake and make room for Casey to go back through and intending to take advantage himself. Nicky’s view is simple: ‘Rossi beat me on the track, he didn’t overtake me under a yellow flag.’ He still leads the Championship, but it’s Rossi behind him now. Nicky is far more concerned about why he still hasn’t got a clutch that will let him do a race start than he is about any yellow flag.
Julian Ryder is part of Eurosport’s MotoGP broadcast team. He files a daily column for Superbikeplanet at each Grand Prix.