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the (roman) empire strikes back?
5th october 2003
Words by simon bradley, pictures courtesy of dorna/motogp/honda

Revenge may be a dish best served cold, but giving notice in the form of a blistering qualifying lap to get on pole position has a certain style as well. Especially when the entree consists of a textbook race with, for once, an answer to everything that your biggest rival can deliver.

Oh yes, it may not always go his way, but tonight Max Biaggi must have a certain feeling of contentment having just stuck one over on his arch rival Valentino Rossi in impeccable style at Motegi this weekend.

Qualifying was a pretty spectacular affair. Sete Gibernau made the early running, an emotional occasion for the Spaniard as he took the honour of being fastest man around the circuit from his late team-mate Daijiro Kato. And for a while it looked as though it would stay that way before local hero Tamada came along and delivered a stunning performance to put him seemingly out of reach. Indeed, Rossi, who had been languishing way down the leaderboard, was only capable of getting within half a second of the Japanese rider while Capirossi had thrown his Ducati into the gravel and was nowhere to be seen. Then, in the dying stages of qualifying, Biaggi got everything flowing perfectly and put his Honda onto pole position by a clear tenth of a second. Nicky Hayden did brilliantly as well, only being knocked off the front row by a resurgent Gibernau, while Capirossi recovered to take sixth place.

Race day was clear, warm and dry. No surprises there. In fact, surprises were on the way, but they were reserved for the start of the race. And they were particularly aimed at Troy Bayliss, Colin Edwards and Carlos Checa. John Hopkins managed to get a cracking start on his Suzuki - probably the best the team have seen this year - but unfortunately suffered brain fade around the the braking point for turn one. Hopkins was joined in the gravel by the aforementioned Checa, Bayliss and Edwards, none of whom had a chance of avoiding the errant American. Edwards, fortunately, managed to rejoin the race but for the other three it was an early bath, happily without injury. Race control were less than entirely understanding and disqualified Hopkins on the spot as well as excluding him from the next round at Sepang.

But up at the front, a race was being won. Gibernau, having also got a brilliant start, led off the line before being overwhelmed by Biaggi during the third lap. Capirossi, who had started quite well, fell back steadily leaving the front positions occupied solely with Hondas for the first time this season. Rossi, starting from third, was soon pressing on and got past Gibernau in fairly short order and started to reel Biaggi in. Then, no doubt to Biaggi's great delight, Rossi made a huge mistake and took to the gravel, possibly the first time we have seen the maestro falter under pressure with Biaggi staying firm. Usually, of course, we are used to seeing the opposite.

Rossi may have made a mistake but it would be a foolish man to write him off. Some masterful machine control saw him skate over the gravel and get back on the track, albeit in 9th, some 8 seconds behind the leaders and almost out of the points.

Up at the front, Biaggi used the sudden easing of pressure to concentrate on doing some very fast, smooth laps, and he steadily extended his lead over the pursuing pack of Gibernau, Hayden and Tamada. Although the racing was hard and close, it never really looked as though the positions at the front were going to change significantly. Or at least it would have looked that way but, of course, for the attentions of one Dr Rossi.

Two laps after his departure from the asphalt, Rossi was back up into sixth and within another couple of laps he was in a position to challenge Hayden at the back of the pack. Surprisingly, though, it was Tamada who fell to both Hayden and Rossi after an error on lap 18, with the American lasting another lap before yielding to Rossi. Rossi must have been going quite well because he got past Gibernau on the same lap and, once again, set about catching Biaggi.

This time, though, it just wasn't going to happen. Rossi may have been quicker but he wasn't that much quicker and Biaggi's lead was never really in much danger. Tamada, though, anxious to put on a good show for his home crowd, managed to get past Hayden with a lap to go, and so it looked as though it would finish.

Except Tamada wanted a place on the podium and Gibernau was in the way. So the local rider simply made a gap and rode though it, punting the Spaniard into the gravel and taking the last podium position, hotly pursued by Hayden while Gibernau managed to get to the line in fifth, 14 seconds down and only just ahead of Marco Melandri.

Race control took rather a dim view of Tamada's tactics and invited him for a chat during which the Japanese rider was disqualified for "riding in an irresponsible manner and causing a danger to other riders."

Honourable mentions are due to Nicky Hayden for his first ever podium finish, richly deserved although not won in the best possible way and to wildcard entry Akira Ryo who achieved Suzuki's best finish in MotoGP for much, much too long, and their second best finish this year, on his first entry for the team. Expect to see a lot more of him.

So Max Biaggi took his second win of the season in great style from Rossi with Nicky Hayden third by default, Gibernau fourth and Melandri a career best fifth. Ironically, although the win must have done great things for Biaggi's confidence, it has also virtually guaranteed Rossi's retention of the world championship with Gibernau collecting just 13 points and Rossi extending his title lead to 58 points with just 3 races to go.


1 Max Biaggi (Honda)
2 Valentino Rossi (Honda)
3 Nicky Hayden (Honda)
4 Sete Gibernau (Honda)
5 Marco Melandri (Yamaha)
6 Alex Barros (Yamaha)
7 Tohru Ukawa (Honda)
8 Loris Capirossi (Ducati)
9 Shinya Nakano (Yamaha)
10 Akira Ryo(Suzuki)




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