Just one lap later McCoy's miserable day came to an end and the man who had a black armband on to signify the 500cc's demise ended his season in the Valencia gravel. The significance of this was that - together with retirements by Laconi (crashed), Checa, Aoki, Cardoso and Gibernau's excursion – MotoGP new boys Andrew Pitt
and David Garcia (on the Proton) were now in the points in 14 and 15th respectively.
Tetsuya Harada, who's announced his retirement late last night (see separate story) saw his last GP turn more eventful than anticipated as he was forced to pull into the pits for a tyre change on lap 9. The Japanese ex-250cc World Champ would rejoin and complete his last 20laps on a GP machine.
Back up front and the race had turned into yet another Barros and Rossi show as the pair dropped third placed Biaggi by 4.5secs, with Kato a further 1sec behind but 5secs ahead of countrymen Ukawa and Nakano. Top two-stroke man was now Loris Capirossi, in his final ride for the West Honda Pons team, in eighth, and chasing down Kenny Roberts.
Approaching the mid stages of the race and Rossi was shadowing Barros – but occasionally running slightly off-line to illustrate that it wasn't easy keeping pace with the black and white machine.
The two remained inseparable from laps 12-17, but it was notable that their pace dropped and Barros looked to be almost crawling at one point as he tried to force Rossi to pass. The Italian, who'd been carefully watching Barros' every move, was reluctant to do so and the #4 star had to literally wave Rossi past – before vale returned the favour on the start-finish straight.
It was clear that both had learnt lessons from their previous battles, starting at Motegi where Barros had studied Rossi's lines for a while before spotting a weakness – exploiting it – and going on to take victory. Max Biaggi ruled out a repeat in Malaysia by outpacing the pair of them, but in Australia two weeks ago Rossi had followed Barros until the closing stages, whereupon he stole a late victory.
While Barros was commanding all the attention up front, his two-stroke team-mate's race came to an unscheduled end when he fell from his final ride before moving to Ducati. Capirossi's departure promoted McWilliams to top two-stroke in eighth.
Lap 22 of 30 and Barros had pinned the throttle back and was throwing down a clear challenge to Rossi: follow me if you can. The 32 year old Brazilian dropped his lap times down to low 1min 34secs and with the leading pair of RCV's squirming visibly under braking and acceleration the fight was well and truly on – with Rossi now facing the unenviable task of trying to pass Barros 'for real'.
Rossi's response was to dig deep and raise his game further, from laps 22 to 26 the gap between the two changed from 0.9secs, to 0.958secs – 0.718secs – 0.583secs – 0.374secs as the Repsol rider reeled in the machine ahead.
With three to go Rossi was near enough to make a move – but again chose not to and instead started the penultimate lap 0.4secs to the rear of Barros' Michelin – where would he try and make his move..? The last, tight, left hander looked likely if it came down to the final lap – but would Rossi instead try and surprise Barros was a move at turn one, using the slipstream, early on..?