MotoGP Round 1: Ducati leads the world

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March 26, 2006 Ducati’s Loris Capirossi won today's season-opening Spanish GP to put the Ducati Marlboro Team at the top of the MotoGP points table for the first time in history. The race could prove to be a pivotal moment in MotoGP history, as it saw reigning champ Valentino Rossi knocked off on the second corner, and the coming of age of two of Rossi’s much younger rivals in Danni Pedrosa and Casey Stoner. Pedrosa incredibly challenged for the lead in his first MotoGP race and headed a Honda RC211V freight train that stretched from second (Pedrosa) through sixth place (Hayden, Elias, Melandri, Stoner). Stoner was almost as impressive, as his sixth came after missing the pre-season meaning he started his first race on a bike that was well behind in development. With Kawasaki now competitive with race leading machinery and more promise from Suzuki, it’s clear that 2006 will be a far more evenly balanced year of competition. In true never-say-die fashion, Rossi remounted after his first lap crash and finished the race to grab 14th place and two championship points – perhaps a pointer to just how valuable points will be over coming months.

For Ducati, the day was ample reward for a very focused pre-season, though it obviously had much higher expectations for its new rider Sete Gibernau who withdrew due to a gear sensor problem which affected his bike's electronics.

"Winning today's race is the perfect end to a hard winter's work,” said Ducati CEO and President Federico Minoli. “Everyone who believes in this project has worked so hard and today all that work paid off. Loris rode like a lion, he gave us an amazing race. It's a pity for Sete, he's shown that he's strong and that he's fast and I'm sure we could have had both bikes on the podium today, but he still has 16 races ahead of him."

Capirossi and Gibernau had qualified first and second fastest, with Gibernau quickest in race-day's warm-up session, so the team had high hopes of a double podium result. Capirossi led the race from start to finish to beat runner-up Dani Pedrosa by 4.375 seconds and completed a perfect weekend: pole position, race win and fastest lap. Today's victory was the Italian's fourth MotoGP success for the Ducati Marlboro Team, his sixth premier class triumph and his 26th career win.

"This is my fourth year with the Ducati Marlboro Team and this is the best start we've had to a season, today's win was just the best,” said Capirossi. “The team has done a great job all winter, especially at the tests we did here two weeks ago. After that we knew we had a good opportunity to win and after practice and qualifying we were quite confident. "My target today was to not try too hard in the early laps, but I got away in first place, so I tried to make a gap on the others. First it was (Nicky) Hayden behind me, then Pedrosa came at me. I decided to make a good rhythm that wouldn't stress the tyres too much, then during the last six or seven laps I pushed again and was able to take the advantage once more.”

"I have to say thanks to everyone at Ducati who worked so hard for this and also to Bridgestone who have made big improvements over the winter. This is our second season with Bridgestone and our collaboration is working so well. I will try to repeat today's result as often as possible but it won't be easy!"

Ducati MotoGP project manager Livio Suppo was more balanced in his approach. "It's a day of mixed emotions for us - Ducati deserved a double podium today. I'm so happy for Loris, he did a great job and rode a wonderful race, he had the situation under control. On the other hand, I'm really sorry for what happened to Sete. My thanks to our technical partners Bridgestone and Shell Advance who have done so much in contributing to this victory."

Dani Defies Doubters

The remarkable rise of ‘rookie’ Dani Pedrosa (Repsol Honda RC211V) continued today in Andalucia when the 20-year-old finished second to Capirossi in his first competitive ride on a 990cc machine. His more experienced Repsol team-mate Nicky Hayden was third and Honda’s most-fancied rider, Marco Melandri was fifth, indicating that Pedrosa could challenge for the title in his first year.

Suddenly, it also brings into clear focus what the young Spaniard has achieved in his short racing career. Starting out in Grand Prix racing on a 125 at 15 years oif age in 2001, he scored podiums in his first year, won his first race in 2002 (finishing third in the title), then won the 125 championship in 2003. Despite breaking both legs in an accident at the end of 2003, Pedrosa won both the 2004 and 2005 250cc titles and is clearly immediately competitive in the premier class – Honda may have found the person to challenge the rampant Rossi and his Yamaha M1.

“To start like this is amazing for me!,” said Pedrosa. “I want to thank my team because they have worked really hard all this weekend and during the winter. And also a big thank you to Michelin because they gave us really good tyres. The race was difficult for me because at the end I was really tired and the tyre was spinning and sliding, so I think this result is very good.”

Rookie Stoner, in sixth, said of his debut race, “I honestly didn’t expect that after missing nine days of testing, but thanks to the LCR team for giving me a good bike to be able to do it. I got a good start and when the Rossi crash held people up I got away with the leaders and held on.”

Honda’s policy of backing youth paid off handsomely beyond Pedrosa and Stoner in this the first of 17 track showdowns for 2006 as Toni Elias (Fortuna Honda RC211V) rode through the field for fourth place and although circuit familiarity was clearly a factor, he has announced himself as a frontrunner after a relatively poor 2005 season.

“It was a really tough race, but one of the best of my life,” said Fortuna Honda rider Elias.

“I feel sorry for Valentino, but it was a really close start and we all reached the end of the straight bunched together. I was right next to Shinya Nakano and when I tried to avoid him I clipped Valentino. I went to apologise to him after the race although these things do happen in racing. After that I managed to find a good rhythm and was able to fight back. It was a real shame that after all that effort I could not get on to the podium, but I'm still really happy. I think the spectators really enjoyed it, but I want to thank them for being the best fans in the world."

The Race

Poleman Capirossi powered up the short hill into turn one from the lights and led the field into turn two – all but Valentino Rossi (Yamaha) who tumbled from his machine while caught in mid-pack.

As the dust settled at turn one, the early race order was Capirossi, Melandri, Sete Gibernau (Ducati), Hayden, Shinya Nakano (Kawasaki), Stoner and then Pedrosa. Gibernau failed to complete lap two and dropped out of the race.

Capirossi looked comfortable and began to stretch out a lead over his pursuers. Melandri found it increasingly hard to match the Italian’s pace and by lap three Hayden had overhauled Melandri for second and had began working on Capirossi.

But he could make no impression on the race leader. It was his team-mate Pedrosa who would take up the fight. Pedrosa had now passed Stoner for third and Hayden would soon be his next victim as he remorselessly hunted down the leader.

By lap seven of this 27-lap encounter around the undulating 4.423km of Jerez, Pedrosa was ahead of Hayden and now faced a 2.25 second gap to Capirossi. By lap nine this was down to just 1.4 seconds. By mid-race distance it was just 0.8 seconds.

But Pedrosa couldn’t quite get on terms with the rapid Capirossi and even though the gap was down to 0.55 seconds as the closing stages of the race loomed, Capirossi had enough in hand to open it out again 1.23 seconds by lap 25. At the flag he won by 4.375 seconds.

At one stage it looked as if Pedrosa might be shadowing the leader to pounce on the final lap as he has done so successfully in the smaller classes. But this time he was left to collect a second place on his debut. His rivals will take keen notice of this early success.

Fourth-placed Elias rode a determined race. He was mixed up in the Rossi melée on lap one, but managed to claw his way back through the field and only just missed out on third place as he hounded Hayden across the line.

His team-mate Hayden said, “It wasn’t pretty with a few guys dropping out, but nonetheless we’ll take the 16 points and the podium. Last year I crashed out so it’s nice to get off and running with some momentum. We were testing here two weeks ago and at that point we didn’t have a chance. But we’ve made a big step, so thanks to the team and Honda and all my guys who worked really hard this winter.”

Melandri said, “It was a very difficult race, but at least we have taken some very important points. The changes we made to the bike during the warm-up did not work as well as we hoped and we took a bit of a backwards step. I made a good start but did not want to push too hard and risk the points. I am still not very comfortable with the front end of the bike so we'll have to work on that.”

“I knew a top ten was possible,” said Kenny Roberts (Roberts KR211V), who finished eighth. “When I saw Rossi go down I knew this would be a tough race. The front was moving every time I pushed but we know what we’ve got to do to improve the bike and we’ll get better than this.”

“We brought a lot of stuff here to try and improve but didn’t really get the chance. I just want to thank my Dad’s team, Honda, Michelin and everybody who has helped us get where we are so far. I wouldn’t be where I am today without those guys.”

Makoto Tamada (Konica Minolta Honda RC211V) finished tenth and said, “I hope the situation improves. Tomorrow we will remain here testing and the team has many solutions to try. The main problem occurs in the first phase of the corner and this slows me down considerably. I don’t want to be struggling for the 10th and the race results of the other Honda bikes shows we must be able to exploit the potential we have.”

The Kawasaki Challenge

Shinya Nakano finished today's Spanish Grand Prix at Jerez in a solid seventh place, but the Kawasaki rider declared himself disappointed that he hadn't been able to better capitalise on his front row starting position.: 7th "After such a good qualifying session I'm disappointed that I didn't finish higher today,” said Nakano. “I got a reasonable start, but then Toni Elias collided with Valentino Rossi right in front of me, forcing me to back off. I tried to come back straight away, but conditions on track were very different compared to yesterday. There seemed to be less grip available and that caused me a few problems, as did the strong wind through some of the turns. I didn't feel so comfortable when hard on the brakes today either, which meant I had to brake earlier than normal for some of the faster corners. So, while I could quite easily follow Marco Melandri and Casey Stoner, it wasn't possible to pass them on the brakes. Passing on the straights wasn't an option either, as we are still a little bit down on outright top speed compared to some of the others. As I said, I'm disappointed with the result, but glad to have at least scored world championship points in the first race of the season."

Nakano was quick away from the line, but was forced to back off as Toni Elias missed his braking marker for the first turn and collided with Valentino Rossi right in front of the Kawasaki ace. Nakano tried to fight back immediately, but was thwarted by the difficult track conditions.

While track and weather conditions were perfect for qualifying yesterday, the situation was different today for the race. Strong, gusting winds slowed Nakano through some of the faster turns, while problems when hard on the brakes forced the 28-year-old Japanese rider to follow first Marco Melandri and then Casey Stoner, unable to overtake on the brakes into the turns.

After closing onto the back wheel of Stoner's Honda out of the final turn, Nakano lost out on the drag race to the line by the narrowest of margins, as he was forced to settle for seventh place.

For Nakano's Kawasaki teammate, Randy de Puniet, his MotoGP race debut was a short one. The 25-year-old Frenchman was forced to pull out after just eight laps as a result of an injury he sustained earlier in the day.

De Puniet was highsided from his Ninja ZX-RR during morning warm-up, leaving him with a severely bruised and swollen right hand. Despite pain killing injections prior to the start of the race, de Puniet was in considerable pain from the start.

The injury to his hand also stopped the Kawasaki rider from applying full pressure to the front brake and, after running straight off the track at more than 240 km/h as a result, de Puniet made the decision that to continue would be dangerous.

De Puniet will return to France for treatment on the injury tomorrow, and is confident of being back to full fitness for the Qatar Grand Prix in two weeks time.

"I was struggling out there with my injured hand,” said de Puniet. “I just didn't have the power to brake as hard as I needed to. And then, eight laps in, I lost the front at the fast right-hander at the end of the lap and ran straight off at 240 km/h. I knew then that it wasn't safe to continue and so I pulled into the pits. I'm bitterly disappointed not to finish in my first MotoGP race through injury, but I hope to be fully fit again by the time we get to Qatar for round two."

Kawasaki Team Principal Harald Eckl said : "Shinya did a good job, in what was a tough race for him. Conditions have definitely changed from yesterday, which meant he started the race with a less than perfect set-up, but he overcame the problems to score a solid finish in the first race of the season. You could see he was unable to overtake on the brakes, but it was also obvious that we need to find some more power from the engine, so that he at least has the option to overtake out of the slipstream on the straights. I'm sure Randy was hoping for a better MotoGP debut, but the two crashes he had in qualifying yesterday put him on the back foot, and then he crashed and injured himself again this morning. I have every confidence in Randy as a rider; he has shown he has the speed, but now he needs to match this with consistency. He's a strong character, so I'm sure he'll bounce back ready for the next race in Qatar."

Rizla Suzuki

Rizla Suzuki MotoGP rider John Hopkins raced to a ninth place finish in Spain. The aggressive Anglo-American racer would almost certainly have finished in a much higher position but two unlucky incidents hampered his quest for a top five finish. Hopkins had a fantastic start to the race and as the field roared into the first corner World champion Valentino Rossi was clipped by another rider, the resulting crash causing Hopkins to run off-line and lose valuable time as he narrowly avoided hitting Rossi.

Hopkins fought his way back through the field and up to eighth place but was then hit by an attack of arm-pump and lost out on a higher position as he fought against the energy sapping pain.

“I wouldn’t say I’m exactly satisfied with my race,” said Hopkins. “I got off to an unbelievable start and then got caught up in the mess on the first corner – I came within inches of running Rossi over but fortunately I missed him. I lost a lot of positions and had to ride a bit like a maniac to cut through the field. I made my way through and I was up with the top six when I started to get arm pump in my right arm. I’ve never had it before on a MotoGP bike and I don’t know where it came from. It ruined my race really because I am confident I could have got past the two riders in front of me - but that’s racing! We have just got to move on to the next race at Qatar and take the best bits from this weekend forward with us.”

Chris Vermeulen was also held up by the first corner collision and only just avoided the incident. This relegated him down to 15th, but the rookie Australian showed that he is a true racer as he battled his way towards a top 10 place before finally finishing in 12th position and scoring good points on his Rizla Suzuki MotoGP debut.

“I got a bad start and then got baulked by the crash,” said Vermeulen. “So I had to try and get through the field to get a better place. I think some of today may be a bit of inexperience and we really need to spend more time with the race tyres and set up. I have now got some points from the first round with a 12th place – which is not too bad really – and as long as we can keep improving I’ll be happy.”

Suzuki Team Manager Paul Denning: “I felt before the race that if we could get one bike in the top 10 and the other in the points that it would be a good result at this circuit. The result itself is not good enough but we have to take some positive pointers from this weekend in terms of comparison to where we were 12 months ago at the same track. There are still some issues to resolve and Suzuki is focussed really hard on using this start point as a positive and refining the new Rizla Suzuki GSV-R to a point whereby we can take the next step.

“John is bitterly disappointed because he felt that a top six finish was well within his grasp and Chris is also frustrated, but neither of them should be as I believe that both riders and their crews got the full potential out of the package available to them this weekend. I feel that we can certainly look forward to more positive things in the future.”

The defending champ

An eventful weekend at Jerez ended in disappointing fashion today as both Valentino Rossi and Colin Edwards got caught in a first corner melee that ended their hopes of glory in the opening round of the 2006 MotoGP World Championship. The Camel Yamaha Team pair made good starts from ninth and tenth on the grid respectively but a collision between Rossi and Toni Elías (Honda) on the inside of turn one saw the Italian knocked from his YZR-M1 and sent Edwards wide into the gravel trap. Despite some damage to his bike, Rossi showed the character of a true World Champion as he returned to the track, battling his way back into the field and picking off several riders to secure two championship points in fourteenth place. Edwards, meanwhile, fought from second last to eleventh by the end of the 27-lap encounter.

“We knew this was going to be a difficult race but maybe not so difficult!,” laughed Rossi. “I saw Toni come up on the inside and he hit me; this is racing and these things happen. I have known Toni for many years and he is a good rider. He apologised to me after the race so I told him not to worry – only to remember to brake next time and if it is too late then to hit another bike instead of me! Anyway I came back on the track and had a nice battle with Alex Hofmann. I am disappointed because I wanted to win the first race of the season but there is nothing we can do now. Only work hard to make sure we don’t have these problems again and look forward to the next race in Qatar.”

Rossi’s team-mate Colin Edwards had another bad weekend. "I probably made the best race start of my whole life, Valentino got away well too and we went together into the first bend. Elias came up on the inside and I actually saw everything happen but to be honest I thought Vale would be able to stay on the bike so I kept my corner speed and tried to just run it around the outside. Unfortunately he went down and I had nowhere to go but the gravel. It really capped the weekend off for us but the truth is that we weren’t fast enough to challenge today. This track has been a real pain for us and I can’t wait to get away. We’ve got a test tomorrow but I’ll be happy when we get to Qatar, where the bike worked really well in testing.” Camel Yamaha Team Director Davide Brivio summed it up in one sentence: “It seems that everything that could go wrong did go wrong for us this weekend. On Friday morning when we needed the time to test it rained and things have gone continually against us since then. We obviously still have a lot of work to do and for some reason our bike clearly doesn’t work at this circuit so we are keen to find out why, if we can, in tomorrow’s test. The engineers have a lot of data and everyone is working at 100% to find a solution. We were fast at Sepang, Qatar and Catalunya so there is no need to panic and we can look forward to the next race. On a positive note I thought both riders showed character to fight back after the first corner incident and hopefully they will have better luck next time.”

Capirossi thus heads the points table from Pedrosa as the MotoGP paddock prepares to head to Qatar for the next race on April 8.

RESULTS : (27 laps = 119.421 km)

Pos/ Rider / Nat / Team / Motorcycle / Time/ KM/H / Gap 1 / Loris CAPIROSSI / ITA / Ducati Marlboro Team / DUCATI / 45'57.733 / 155.894 / 2 / Dani PEDROSA / SPA / Repsol Honda Team / HONDA / 46'02.108 / 155.647 / 4.375 3 / Nicky HAYDEN / USA / Repsol Honda Team / HONDA / 46'07.729 / 155.331 / 9.996 4 / Toni ELIAS / SPA / Fortuna Honda / HONDA / 46'07.868 / 155.323 / 10.135 5 / Marco MELANDRI / ITA / Fortuna Honda / HONDA / 46'17.280 / 154.797 / 19.547 6 / Casey STONER / AUS / Honda LCR / HONDA / 46'18.970 / 154.703 / 21.237 7 / Shinya NAKANO / JPN / Kawasaki Racing Team / KAWASAKI / 46'19.105 / 154.695 / 21.372 8 / Kenny ROBERTS JR / USA / Team Roberts / KR211V / 46'30.147 / 154.083 / 32.414 9 / John HOPKINS / USA / Rizla Suzuki MotoGP / SUZUKI / 46'30.392 / 154.069 / 32.659 10 / Makoto TAMADA / JPN / Konica Minolta Honda / HONDA / 46'33.716 / 153.886 / 35.983 11 / Colin EDWARDS / USA / Camel Yamaha Team / YAMAHA / 46'35.663 / 153.779 / 37.93 12 / Chris VERMEULEN / AUS / Rizla Suzuki MotoGP / SUZUKI / 46'37.247 / 153.692 / 39.514 13 / Carlos CHECA / SPA / Tech 3 Yamaha / YAMAHA / 46'40.562 / 153.51 / 42.829 14 / Valentino ROSSI / ITA / Camel Yamaha Team / YAMAHA / 47'03.499 / 152.263 / 1'05.766 15 / Alex HOFMANN / GER / Pramac d'Antín MotoGP / DUCATI / 47'21.033 / 151.323 / 1'23.300

Pole Position:Loris CAPIROSSI - 1'39.064 - 160.732 Km/h Fastest Lap:Lap 2 - Loris CAPIROSSI - 1'41.248 - 157.265 Km/h Circuit Record Lap:2005 - Valentino ROSSI - 1'40.596 - 158.284 Km/h Circuit Best Lap:2006 - Loris CAPIROSSI - 1'39.064 - 160.732 Km/h

World Championship Positions:

1 CAPIROSSI 25, 2 PEDROSA 20, 3 HAYDEN 16, 4 ELIAS 13, 5 MELANDRI 11, 6 STONER 10, 7 NAKANO 9, 8 ROBERTS JR 8, 9 HOPKINS 7, 10 TAMADA 6, 11 EDWARDS 5, 12 VERMEULEN 4, 13 CHECA 3, 14 ROSSI 2, 15 HOFMANN 1.

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