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Fantastic fiftieth for Island winner Rossi

20 October 2002

Valentino Rossi took his 50th GP victory at the spectacular seaside circuit of Phillip Island today, after the World Champion withstood an epic race-long duel with hard racer Alex Barros – that only ended when the Brazilian ran off track on the last lap while trying to outbrake Vale at the aptly named Honda hairpin.

Yesterday's final qualifying session had produced a heart stopping battle between some unlikely names, which resulted in an all two-stroke front row - and the first ever for the Proton KR team and Bridgestone tyres courtesy of Phillip Island ace Jeremy McWilliams – who claimed his third pole at the circuit.

The previous best qualifying result for Team KR since they started manufacturing the 3-cylinder machine was when Kenny Roberts Jr qualified in second place for the German GP in 1998.

Phillip Island also marked the first time ever that there has been two KR3 machines on the front row and the first time a 3-cylinder machine has been on pole in the premier class since Raymond Roche on a Honda at the San Marino GP in 1984, a race won by Randy Mamola.

As well as the two stroke domination, today was the first time that a front row has not featured an Italian rider since the Australian GP in 2000, coincidentally McWilliams' only other pole position in the top class, and the first time in more than 20 years (in the premier-class) that all the riders on the front row of the grid have passed their 30th birthday.

Lining up alongside the Ulsterman were local hero Garry McCoy, McWilliams' team-mate Nobu Aoki and top Honda Jurgen van den Goorbergh - starting from the front row for the first time since the Czech GP last year.

Salvaging RCV and Michelin pride was Alex Barros in fifth. Barros has finished fourth on three occasions at Phillip Island in 1998, 2000 and 2001, but has not managed to make it onto the podium. Tohru Ukawa was lead Repsol rider in sixth, ahead of three time Island winner Rossi and MYT's Max Biaggi, to complete an explosive second row.

Not starting today's race was the unfortunate Norick Abe, who destroyed his new M1 yesterday morning in a crash that left him feeling the worse for wear, although first predictions of broken bones were fortunately false. Nevertheless, Abe's huge off (at turn one) would rule him out of today's Grand Prix.

Ten minutes before the start all the MotoGP riders, teams, fans and media held a minutes silence for the Bali bomb victims on what was a national day of mourning in Australia.

Having paid their respects, the MotoGP riders continued their pre-race preparations and were soon back in racing mode as they sat on the grid awaiting the off. When it came, McWilliams made (another) dreadful getaway from pole, while the front row in general had their worst nightmare come true as the four strokes swamped them by turn one, with Barros leading from Rossi. Ukawa, vd Goobergh, McCoy and Kato – with McWilliams down in fourteenth and trapped behind Lori Capirossi.

The leading West Honda Pons rider immediately put a 0.8secs gap between himself and Rossi, while a fuming McWilliams was up two places by the end of lap two. Having become one of the Ulsterman's early victims, things then went from bad to worse for Capirossi, who was forced to retire with front fork problems as early as lap 4 of the 27.

Meanwhile, Rossi had now woken up to Barros' lightening pace and the top two were now pulling away from the third placed fight to hold a 4secs lead by lap 8, as Kato, Ukawa and the determined vd Goorbergh slugged it out. Van den Goobergh raised eyebrows in the HRC camp by not only staying with the V5's – but even having the nerve to overtake Kato on lap 11, but he couldn't break away and the trio would fight all the way to the flag.

Rossi upped his pace once again, recording a series of fastest laps that left him just 0.7secs behind Barros as the half way stage of the Grand Prix approached. However, Barros is one of the hardest riders in the world to pass and after clashing trying to do just that one-week ago at Sepang – allowing Biaggi to escape – the world champ would need to pick his place carefully.

Also entertaining the Phillip Island faithful was the no holds barred fight for sixth between Biaggi, Aoki, Roberts and Jacque – the foursome almost equal in several paces on the track, before swapping positions almost in formation as they weaved their way around the ups and downs that comprise 'The Island'.

A notable absentee from that battle was home hero Garry McCoy, who was forced to pit for a new rear tyre – before rejoining at the very tail of the field, while also in the pits – albeit permanently – was Regis Laconi, whose Aprilia suffered terminal engine problems.

Back up front and Rossi was now all over Barros and clearly experimenting with his lines and chalking up possible passing manoeuvres, with the pair away in a class of their own, 10secs ahead of Ukawa.

Rossi was paying particular attention to the run from the final corner to the line, and was opening 'rolling off' the throttle into Doohan's – the trouble for him was that he didn't look like he'd be able to steal victory on a last gasp charge to the flag, his move would have to come before then.

Meanwhile, as the final quarter of the race approached, McWilliams was now lapping at a pace not far off the leaders, and had charged his way up from last to twelfth by lap 17. Team-mate Aoki was no les impressive and even overtook Biaggi for sixth – before the Garner straight and M1 horsepower took effect…

One lap later and the top two were playing games: Their lap times had dropped off substantially and they had even been caught by lapped man McCoy. Barros looked to be inviting Rossi to pass, but Vale had no intention of playing by those rules and he continued to shadow the Brazilian with less than 0.1secs between them.

The race looked like mirroring the unforgettable Jacque/Nakano fight for the 250cc crown that went right to the flag, at the same circuit, several years ago – but Rossi's move came earlier than Jacque's had and the Doctor hit the front on lap 23 and immediately tried to runaway.

Desperate to respond, Barros had a near escape at turn two when he locked the rear under braking (he would later complain of clutch problems when downshifting) – but it didn't prevent him reeling Rossi right to within 0.2secs as they lapped 0.8secs inside their previous circulation. Now they were really racing…

Onto the penultimate lap and Rossi was also looking ragged – allowing Barros to take the lead back under braking at the Honda hairpin, but the normally supreme late braker ran wide, allowing Rossi to square the turn off and cut back inside.

Final lap and Rossi held firm until Barros caught right up in the run down to Honda hairpin. The Italian read precisely what he was going to do and took a wide line to defend his inside (at the hairpin) as they hit the brakes. Barros, however, didn't back down and forced his way around Rossi, but the angle was so tight to make the turn that he was forced to sit up and hit the brakes hard, rather than try and coax his RCV around the right hander.

The Brazilian went straight on down an escape road and was forced to do a rapid three point turn, before rejoining 10secs behind Rossi, but still in front of the third placed battle. Rossi was therefore handed an easy half a lap in which to cruise to the flag for a well deserved fiftieth GP victory, but behind him the fight was still on…

Ukawa, van den Goorbergh and Kato were still nose-to-tail entering the final lap, but despite his valiant efforts the Dutchman lost out to Kato's four stroke power mid way around, with Ukawa taking third ahead of the Gresini rider for a Repsol one-three. Vd Goorbergh at least had the honour of top two stroke after a difficult season.

Behind him Biaggi took sixth, just ahead of Aoki, after the MYT Sepang victor was never able to threaten the front runners, while Jacque took his first M1 finish in a credible 8th (Nakano was 13th) ahead of Roberts and McWilliams (10th) – if only the Proton pole sitter had got the start he needed and stayed on track…

Home hero Andrew Pitt finished 17th, just 0.027secs behind John Hopkins after the American dropped and remounted his Red Bull Yamaha. His team-mate McCoy finished last of the runners in 18th and a lap down.

“50 victories is a dream,” began Rossi with his trademark smile, in the post race press conference. “Today was very difficult with Alex. I'm lucky because I had a great start but at the beginning Barros' rhythm was incredible.

“I waited then went inside and tried to push but he came with me. On the last lap I expected his attack at the hairpin, but there was no way he could turn in time. I'm very happy with this victory because Barros is very hard to race,” added Rossi.

Barros then explained the race from his perspective: “I had a little problem with the clutch for the last 5 laps that made the bike very hard to ride, but Vale deserved to win and it was a very nice fight,” he said sportingly.

Full results to follow…

1. Rossi
2. Barros
3. Ukawa
4. Kato
5. vd Goobergh
6. Biaggi
7. Aoki
8. Jacque


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