This weekend's French Grand Prix sees the return of Chris Vermeulen and with that in mind, it's only appropriate that the latest Classic MotoGP takes us back to 2007, where the former World Superbike runner-up became a Grand Prix winner.
Le Mans played host to the fifth race of the campaign and Casey Stoner arrived as championship leader after winning three of his first four races for Ducati. The 21 year old had made the switch from LCR Honda after an impressive, albeit erratic, debut season in the premier class, and held a 15 point advantage over Valentino Rossi. Reigning champion Nicky Hayden was enduring a tough title defence on the 800cc Honda and languished 56 points off the pace in ninth, level on points with Vermeulen.
Colin Edwards was the surprise polesitter after edging out Stoner in qualifying. Equally impressive was the performance of Carlos Checa to claim third ahead of Rossi, John Hopkins on the leading Suzuki and Gresini Honda's Toni Elias. Vermeulen was starting from the outside of the fourth row and nobody could forecast the drama that lied ahead.
The predictions for rain were accurate though, leading to the declaration of a wet race under flag-to-flag rules, and Stoner made the best start to lead into the Dunlop chicane. Rossi stormed past into La Chapelle though and set about building up a lead on the damp track.
Urged on by the home crowd, a pair of feisty Frenchmen took up the challenge of catching Rossi. Randy de Puniet sent the spectators wild by passing Rossi into turn one on the sixth lap while Sylvain Guintoli, riding in just his sixth GP on the Dunlop Tech 3 Yamaha, moved into a stunning second by taking the factory YZR-M1, ironically at the Dunlop chicane.
Guintoli wasn't done there and dived past his compatriot a few corners later but de Puniet fought back at the end of the back straight to regain the lead on lap seven. His and Kawasaki's joy lasted a little over two laps as the 26 year old fell victim to the heavy rain at turn 11. The slick tyres had coped well on the damp circuit but they now offered zero grip, and the flag-to-flag regulations came into play.
Should weather conditions change, riders were allowed to change motorcycles in the pitlane, so long as they rejoined the track on a different type of tyre. There was no danger of anybody breaking that rule though with wets the only option.
John Hopkins inherited the lead from de Puniet with Marco Melandri close behind in second. Alex Barros, Casey Stoner and Valentino Rossi were also in the mix and on lap ten, the entire leading group ducked into the pits. Hopkins rejoined with his lead intact but his Rizla Suzuki teammate had pitted a lap earlier and with his wet Bridgestones fully up to temperature, Vermeulen breezed past Melandri and Hopkins in quick succession to take the lead on lap 11.
A mistake at Garage Vert dropped Hopkins out of contention, leaving Vermeulen to fend off Melandri on his own but the Australian made the task look easy, pulling away from the Honda in closing stages to win by 12 seconds, handing Suzuki an emotional victory, their first in seven years. Melandri took second while Stoner completed the podium after getting the better of Rossi shortly after half distance.
'The Doctor' didn't adapt as well as others to the sodden race track and slipped to seventh behind Dani Pedrosa, Nicky Hayden and Alex Hoffman but was promoted back into the top six when the world champion crashed three laps from the finish.
The day belonged to Vermeulen whose wet weather expertise had brought him a maiden Grand Prix victory. He will be welcomed warmly back into the paddock this weekend and with similar conditions to his stunning victory far from impossible, maybe we haven't seen the best of him just yet. Don't expect a win on the CRT Suter by any means, but if there was ever a man for a specific scenario, Vermeulen may be that man on Sunday.
2007 Alice Grand Prix de France – Race Classification (28 Laps)
|1||Chris Vermeulen||Suzuki||Rizla Suzuki MotoGP||50:58.713|
|2||Marco Melandri||Honda||Honda Gresini||+12.599|
|3||Casey Stoner||Ducati||Ducati Marlboro Team||+27.347|
|4||Dani Pedrosa||Honda||Repsol Honda Team||+37.328|
|5||Alex Hoffman||Ducati||Pramac d'Antin||+49.166|
|6||Valentino Rossi||Yamaha||Fiat Yamaha Team||+53.563|
|7||John Hopkins||Suzuki||Rizla Suzuki MotoGP||+1:01.073|
|8||Loris Capirossi||Ducati||Ducati Marlboro Team||+1:21.241|
|9||Makoto Tamada||Yamaha||Dunlop Yamaha Tech 3||+1 Lap|
|10||Sylvain Guintoli||Yamaha||Dunlop Yamaha Tech 3||+1 Lap|
|11||Fonsi Nieto||Kawasaki||Kawasaki Racing Team||+1 Lap|
|12||Colin Edwards||Yamaha||Fiat Yamaha Team||+3 Laps|
|Alex Barros||Ducati||Pramac d'Antin||+1 Lap|
|Kenny Roberts Jr||KR212V||Team Roberts||+2 Laps|
|Nicky Hayden||Honda||Repsol Honda Team||+3 Laps|
|Shinya Nakano||Honda||Konica Minolta Honda||+8 Laps|
|Randy de Puniet||Kawasaki||Kawasaki Racing Team||+20 Laps|
|Toni Elias||Honda||Honda Gresini||+21 Laps|
|Carlos Checa||Honda||Honda LCR||+22 Laps|