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Sete storms two-part thriller

25 May 2003

Sete Gibernau entered the last 4kms of a rain interrupted French Grand Prix right behind reigning World Champion Valentino Rossi, to signal the beginning of a knife-edge last lap battle which would go to the final turn...

Incessant rain yesterday meant there were no changes to the provisional grid, with Rossi's provisional pole lap - established in Friday's dry conditions - never coming into question.

With a steady afternoon drizzle maintaining a constant film of water on the track surface throughout the final qualifying session, riders were limited to finalising wet settings in case of similar conditions today.

Saturday would see Jeremy McWilliams emerge on top, fastest in both free practice and final qualifying, having opted for the light and nimble Proton KR3 two-stroke after completing some laps on the team's brand new V5 four-stroke. Rossi was second fastest behind the British rider, and was satisfied at his machine's performance in both wet and dry conditions.

McWilliams' team-mate Nobuatsu Aoki also rode well in third place on the rain-friendly Bridgestone tyres. The Proton pair were hoping they can challenge the World Champion should there be similar conditions today, as they start from the third and fifth rows of the grid respectively.

Other than Rossi, the only front row starter to lap in the top ten yesterday was Alex Barros, while Italians Loris Capirossi (3rd on grid) and Marco Melandri (4th) both struggled to find a wet set-up.

One man to watch could be Carlos Checa, who was fifth fastest in the wet today and starts from the second row of the grid in sixth.

Former Australian dirt track riders Troy Bayliss and Garry McCoy also looked comfortable on the slippery tarmac, as they slithered their way to the fourth and sixth fastest times of the day respectively. Bayliss would line his Ducati up in 14th place today, with McCoy starting from the back row of the grid on his Kawasaki.

Today dawned dry, but overcast, and although the 125 and 250cc races passed without intervention from the weather, the drama grew as the MotoGP grid formed when intermittent spots of rain began to fall on the start-finish straight.

All riders were on slicks and the up-the-air conditions meant that the race might have to be stopped, then re-started, at any moment should the off-on rain return in force. It really was anyone's guess if it would become a factor, with areas of dark cloud and bright sunshine in equal distribution on the Le Mans skyline.

Nevertheless, the rain had indeed passed by the time the red lights went out, and it was Loris Capirossi who once again made a perfect getaway, to lead Rossi, Barros, Abe and Biaggi into the first chicane.

Barros immediately put his braking skills to good use by taking Capirossi, who soon fell victim to Rossi. Loris, unusually, looked to be holding up the field behind him (led by Abe, Melandri and Ukawa), but it soon became apparent that all was not well with the Italian's Desmosedici V4, and he would pull into the pits on lap 5.

Meanwhile, Barros and Rossi were now beginning to pull away from the field, while behind them Melandri was putting on an extraordinary show – the young Italian had slipped back slightly from his front row start, but his charge saw him into third by lap four and even holding his own against a determined Max Biaggi.

But by that time Melandri's team-mate Checa was nursing a skinned hand, having managed to find a small damp patch seeping through the otherwise dry asphalt, while under hard acceleration - throwing him straight over the bars and into retirement, from sixth.

Joining Checa on the DNF register was Bayliss, who having made the now expected strong start fell from eighth on lap 6 when he suddenly lost the front of his machine on an off0camber right hander, thus recording his first non-finish in GP racing.

Having no such troubles were Biaggi and Gibernau, who had retaken a fading Melandri by lap 10 and soon caught the leading pair ahead of them to make the French GP a firm four-way fight, while man on the move was Haga, setting the fastest lap as he sought to improve on eighth.

Fellow Japanese Ukawa began to come into his own on a few laps later when, having moved steadily through the field, he wasted no time in overtaking Gibernau, then his team-mate Biaggi, for third behind Barros and Rossi.

At that point Tohru faced his biggest challenge – the braking skills of Alex Barros, for whom physics seem not always to apply, and the Camel Pramac Pons rider just couldn't find a way past the Gauloises Yamaha. Significantly, the M1 seemed to give away nothing to the 2003 spec RCV along the Le Mans straights.

The order at the front remained unchanged as the contenders seemed to dig in for a long race - until suddenly, on lap 15, rain began to fall heavily on the start/finish straight. Rossi and the leaders ignored the moisture for a lap, but with the rain intensifying the #46 raised his hand on lap 16, just as the red and white flags were waved to signal the new restart procedure.

It was announced that the race would be re-started in 20 minutes time, for a 13 lap distance, with the new grid decided by the order in which they had finished (Rossi, Barros, Ukawa, Biaggi, Gibernau, Haga and Melandri). New for 2003 was also that the race would (thankfully) be a straight fight – no more confusing aggregate results.

All eyes thus turned to the likes of wet pace setter Jeremy McWilliams, Proton Team KR's only rider after Aoki crashed out early on. While the Kawasaki team must also have felt grateful for the interruption, given McCoy's speed yesterday.

However, it wasn't quite that simple – the rain soon stopped. This caused frantic activity in the pits and on the newly forming grid as tyre and even brakes (Carbon swapped for Steel) were flung in all directions as team and rider changed their minds almost every minute.

Most frontrunners choose a full wet set-up front and rear, with the notable exception being Biaggi, who - like some further back - opted for a cut rear slick in the hope of a dry line developing.

However, after the first of the two warm-up laps the Roman realised his error (there was more water around the other side of the track) and was joined by Jacque in pulling in to change his rear tyre, forcing them to start from the pitlane.

Ukawa joined his team-mate at the end of the pits soon after, the Pons team having had suspension problems to solve before sending him out.

When the restart came, Barros grabbed the lead into the first chicane, from Rossi, Gibernau, Haga, Edwards, McCoy, Roberts, McWilliams and Biaggi – who made a stunning recovery from his off grid getaway.

As early as lap two the contenders could be seen as Gibernau passed Rossi, then the top three began to pull away at a staggering rate from Haga at around 4secs a lap. Also on the move was McWilliams, passing Roberts and soon hounding McCoy on his two-stroke.

Although the semi-wet (soaking in one area, dry the next) conditions were not what McWilliams ideally wanted, the Ulsterman was stable able to exploit his corner speed enough to split the Aprilias of Haga and Edwards by lap 3.

Further back John Hopkins' punishing weekend came to harsh end when the rear of his Suzuki kicked out under braking and pitched the recent 20 year old hard over the bars, and onto his already sore shoulder. A dazed Hopper would have to be helped from the circuit by marshals after also taking a substantial knock to the head.

Having no such trouble was Jacque, the homer hero isn't renowned for his wet weather prowess, but had overtaken WSBK rain specialist Edwards by lap four, and was soon despatching Haga, then fourth placed McWilliams as the crowd support grew.

Back up front the top three remained 'poker faced' as they shadowed each others every move, Rossi and Gibernau trading second occasionally with five laps to go, while tested the waters with an attempted move inside Barros – only to find the Brazilian ride the outside line around him.

Rossi was visibly the most spectacular of the trio, prepared to let the rear of his Honda wander spectacularly – particularly under braking for the first chicane – as he experimented with grip levels and different lines.

The deadlock was finally broken on lap 9 when Gibernau produced a surprise move, cleverly making sure he was ahead of Barros even before the braking area to give him the necessary advantage over the Brazilian.

That move ignited Rossi and he made use of his earlier track research to slide inside Barros on the tight, double apex, final turn. With Barros, although unable to find that little bit extra to threaten the Hondas, easily close enough to exploit even the smallest of errors ahead of him.

Rossi made his move on Gibernau on the penultimate lap – replicating his outbraking move on Barros into the final turn to start the final 4kms of the French Grand Prix a fraction ahead of Gibernau – trouble was had he shown his cards too soon…?

Sete had ridden a near perfect race, pushing when necessary, but just as significantly for the sometimes emotionally driven Spaniard, he'd shown he was prepared to tuck in behind his opponents and be patient. Perhaps a lesson learnt from his early race fall at Jerez.

With Gibernau all over Rossi's rear wheel in the early as the last lap began, the French fans knew a battle to line was in stall – and with both bikes bucking and sliding under the pressure, neither rider would disappoint.

Gibernau made his inevitable move midway through the final lap, Rossi immediately responded with a outbraking move, but ran wide – allowing Sete to square the turn and retake the position. The Repsol rider then slotted back into Gibernau's slipstream, for an all-or-nothing gamble at the final turn, where he'd overtaken Barros and Gibernau before.

Rossi swept out wide on the run up to that tight right hander, backing his orange and black RCV in as hard as he could, but Gibernau was ready for the move and braking incredibly late in a desperate attempt to defend his position.

Gibernau's resistance forced Rossi to release the pressure on his front brake slightly, allowing him to duly get inside Sete, but having done so Vale just couldn't stick to the racing line, resulting in him running wide onto the outside curve, while Sete slipped back inside, and the two would leave the finale turn almost level.

While both Honda rear wheels traling rubber and smoke, the pair pinned their throttles all the way to the flag, where it was Gibernau who hung on thanks to his smoother exit, by just 0.165secs.

Gibernau was nothing less than ecstatic at his second MotoGP win of the year, punching the air wildly as he'd barely calmed down when he returned to parc ferme some five minutes later.

''It was a really tough race, but I think myself, Valentino and Alex put on a good show,'' beamed Gibernau. ''There was no dirty riding, and I would like to thank them for a great race. Today I won, but for sure on another day it could have been either of them. I would also like to thank my team, they are doing an incredible job this season.''

Rossi meanwhile was truly gracious in defeat, shaking hands with Sete and Barros, before the trio performed huge burnouts for the crowd. Valentino would later admit it was the MotoGP fans that were the real winners today.

Barros was equally pleased with his - and Yamahas - first podium of the year, having been in contention in both the wet and dry while home hero Olivier Jacque rode a superb “second race” to take fourth ahead of Biaggi.

McWilliams sent his KR3 into retirement with a machine equalling best sixth, ahead of Ukawa, who struggled to replicate his dry pace in the second outing. Haga pulled out a promising result for both himself and Aprilia with eighth, just ahead of Kawasaki mounted McCoy, who must be relieved to finally open his Team Green account with the marques best MotoGP result to date.

MotoGP rookie Ryuichi Kiyonari took a very creditable thirteenth place in difficult conditions on his debut ride aboard the Honda RC211V– despite riding on cut slicks.

Not finishing the restart were Andrew Pitt and Makoto Tamada, who both fell in the slippery conditions.

Full report and results to follow...

1. Gibernau
2. Rossi
3. Barros
4. Jacque
5. Biaggi
6. McWilliams
7. Ukawa
8. Haga
9. McCoy
10. Edwards
11. Abe
12. Hayden
13. Kiyonari
14. Nakano
15. Melandri
16. Roberts


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