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De Puniet defeats Nieto for first GP victory
15 June 2003
Randy de Puniet finally took his first ever GP victory, after nearly 40 starts, in today's 250cc Catalan Grand Prix, the flying Frenchman emerging on top after a race long battle with Fonsi Nieto – while Catalan Toni Elias made up an amazing 21 places after being left second to last into turn one.
Qualifying had seen De Puniet hold on to pole position despite failing to improve on his provisional Friday time.
The LCR star would start from the front of the grid for the second race in succession, although he was no doubt be hoping to improve on his race performance from last weekend, when he crashed out of second place when challenging Manuel Poggiali for the race lead.
Poggiali again starts from a menacing second on the grid after improving his provisional time to move ahead of Elias. The Spaniard was unable to make any progress with his lap times yesterday, but survived pressure from Franco Battaini to hang on to third.
Honda riders Sebastian Porto and Roberto Rolfo qualified in fifth and eighth respectively to sandwich Fonsi Nieto and Naoki Matsudo on the second row.
Into today's race and local superstar Elias had a nightmare start – he may as well have stalled – after remaining virtually stationery while the rest of the field threaded their way past him, leaving the Repsol Aprilia second to last into turn one.
But up front it was Poggiali who led the field through the right left chicane, from Porto, de Puniet, Nieto, Battaini, West, Debon, Matsudo and Guintoli.
The San Marinese wouldn't lead for long as first Porto, then de Puniet took over by the end of the first lap – with Elias overtaking nine riders to sit 15th with 22 laps to go.
Soon filling the home favourite void left by Elias was team-mate Fonsi Nieto, one of the major disappointments of the year so far – a fact made frequently clear to him by his home media.
Fonsi was looking back to his old self as he passed de Puniet with an aggressive out-braking move to lead de Puniet and Poggiali, as the top three began to break away.
Meanwhile, by the midway point, Elias was making the comeback of all comebacks to sit in fifth – just 2.8secs behind race leader de Puniet – with impressive Aussie West (4th), Nieto (3rd) and Poggiali (2nd) also between Elias and victory... but not for long as points leader Poggiali's MS Aprilia ground to a halt with total power loss soon after.
That left de Puniet and Nieto separated by 0.7secs up front, with West now just 0.5secs behind Angel Nieto's nephew - and less than a second clear of the charging Elias - with Matsudo doggedly hanging on behind Elias on his aging Yamaha.
But thereafter Elias' efforts seemed to make increasingly little impact on the three ahead of him and instead it was West who actually looked the most threatening, crawling all over Nieto with six laps to go, while de Puniet was just a second further up the road.
Into the last three laps and the top two had stepped it up to all-or-nothing pace, dropping West slightly to give two distinct battles: One for victory, and the other for the final podium place.
Nieto slipstreamed into the lead at the end of the main straight, possibly showing his cards too early to the debut victory chasing de Puniet. Certainly Nieto was unable to drop the French pole sitter and the LCR rider grabbed the lead on the back straight to lead over the line to start the final lap.
De Puniet rocketed out of the final turn to hold firm along the home straight and into turn one, but Nieto was soon back on his rear wheel. However the Frenchman was faultless through the final half lap, despite the pressure, and swept to his well-deserved, and overdue, first ever GP victory by 0.244secs over a clearly, and deliberately, downbeat Nieto. It would later emerge that he thought there was still one more lap to go...
Regardless, West took a much-deserved third to complete the podium after his best ever GP finish date on his privateer Aprilia, keeping charging Catalan Elias 2secs behind at the flag, while Matsudo brought his Yamaha home in fifth.
Today's result means Elias is now just 7 points behind Poggaili.
Full results to follow...
1. de Puniet