The Italian started ninth but took the chequered flag first after a stunning comeback ride through the field that left long time leader Jakub Smrz with the disappointment of missing out on his maiden success. Championship leader Carlos Checa recovered from making numerous uncharacteristic mistakes to claim the finish spot on the rostrum.
At the start Checa made a textbook getaway but Leon Haslam managed to use the extra power of his BMW to lead into turn one ahead of Nori Haga and Checa, who lost further positions after having to sit his bike up at the Old Hairpin. Amazingly the normally super-consistent Checa made yet another error on the opening lap when he dragged his knee against the kerb at Goddard. He again needed to get out of the throttle leaving him to cross the line 11th at the end of the lap.
Haslam led from Leon Camier, who managed to find a way past Haga with a daring move into McLeans, with Haga, Smrz, Tom Sykes Jonathon Rea, Troy Corser, Max Biaggi, Melandri and Guintoli in the top ten ahead of Checa.
In these opening stages of the race Melandri battled with Biaggi to be the top Italian but after their Superpole incident yesterday, Biaggi holding Melandri up on a fast lap, the pair seemed more concerned with getting ahead of each other rather than the actual racing. Trading positions on a regular basis for five laps the Italians were lucky not to fall out of contention.
Eugene Laverty was not so lucky. After his spectacular crash in Superpole the Irishman had high hopes for a more competitive showing in the races but another crash on the third lap put paid to his chances.
With Haslam still out in front it was clear that he was holding up the riders behind him. Camier looked especially confident the former British Superbikes champion was holding tighter lines than Haslam but was unable to make a move in the early laps. With Haslam holding up the Aprilias’ of Camier and Haga fifth place man Sykes was able to join the battle for the lead after losing ground in the early stages. Sykes was particularly impressive and looked very racy in the early stages and on lap five he made his way into fourth ahead of Haga.
Jakub Smrz had quietly moved into second by lap six and the ex-250GP rider quickly moved ahead of Haslam with a brave move under braking into McLeans. The Czech rider was able to quickly open a lead over the Englishman who was clearly, once again, struggling for race pace to match his superb qualifying performance.
Within a lap of taking the lead Smrz had opened a gap of one second to his pursuers and it was clear that the sliding Haslam could do little to match the times of the Ducati rider. Even so Haslam was still proving to be quite difficult to overtake but Melandri was now clear of Biaggi and looking to move through the second group of riders. On lap eight he forced his way past Haga at Starkeys. At the same time Checa was beginning to find his form and moved into ninth, just behind Rea and almost 10s adrift of the race leader.
Nori Haga struggled in the opening round of the season but the Japanese star looked much more like his usual self in the opening race as he battled for the podium places but there was little he could do to stop Biaggi overtaking him on lap nine following a missed gear. At this point it looked like Biaggi might mount a challenge for the podium but the reigning champion made a series of mistakes in the race-running wide at Redgate, Coppice and the Melbourne Look before running through the gravel at the Esses-and the Italian had to settle for a disappointing seventh place finish at the flag.
With the race nearing its halfway point it was clear that Melandri was very competitive. The Yamaha rider had a very composed bike under braking and could place his R1 wherever he wanted. He was so settled under braking that he managed to find a way past the impressive Camier who by this stage was suffering from a poor rear tyre. The Englishman had a very strong race but ultimately would finish eighth.
While all around him riders were struggling for grip Melandri had tyre life to spare and he showed this with a daring move down the hill from the Craner Curves into the Old Hairpin on onetime race leader Haslam. With seven laps to go Melandri was 2.5s adrift of Smrz but looking menacing. On his first lap in clear air Melandri was 0.4s faster than Smrz but the Czech rider responded on lap 18 to stabilise the gap at 1.87s. It seemed that he might have done enough.
Five laps from the end Sykes crashed out of fifth with a low side crash at the Esses that left his bike bouncing onto the race track. It was a disappointing end to a very promising race for the Huddersfield native.
This was overshadowed though by the battle developing for the lead. Smrz was clearly struggling with badly worn tyres and Melandri closed in unmercifully to close in by 0.4s per lap until he was right with his rival on the penultimate lap.
With Smrz sliding out of Coppice it was an easy move by Melandri to take the lead and go on to take the win.
Behind him Checa closed in dramatically on Haslam for third. It seemed that the Englishman had done enough to take a second podium of the season but under braking into the Melbourne Hairpin the BMW rider slid the rear end and Checa pounced on the tiny error to take third at the flag.
For full results from the opening race click here