250 title blown open as Rolfo wins down under
19 October 2003
A wet, but drying, Phillip Island circuit not only helped Roberto Rolfo take his second ever GP victory, but could also have changed the destination of the 250cc world championship with point's leader Manual Poggiali limping home ninth - reducing his lead to just seven over the Italian with just one round to go.
Yesterday, Toni Elias picked up his fifth straight pole position after an entertaining four-way battle on the last lap of the final qualifying session. Provisional pole holder Sebastian Porto, who hung on to top spot in the final moments, Fonsi Nieto and Franco Battaini all mounted a strong charge for top spot but as Nieto and Battaini faltered in the final section, Elias came through with a clean lap to deny the Argentinean.
Battaini's effort was enough for third, whilst Nieto could not break onto the front row and starts from fifth behind Randy De Puniet. Series leader Manuel Poggiali starts from the second row in seventh spot, knowing that he must finish ahead of Elias and Roberto Rolfo if he wants to clinch the title today.
Rolfo, looking to finish ahead of Poggiali to keep his title hopes alive, was eighth fastest whilst Sylvain Guintoli completes the second row after qualifying sixth fastest.
Into today and wet weather arrived at Phillip Island with a vengeance, throwing further drama into the title chase. The rain would stop by the time the red lights went out, but it was still a fully wet circuit as the field charged into turn one, with Rolfo leading the way – but all eyes were on Porto who was forced to go straight on, who hung on to his YPF Honda and cut right across the midfield - service roads, mud, grass and all - to rejoin at the back of the field later around the lap.
Also in trouble was Guintoli - the Frenchman had made a superb start to slot into second behind Rolfo, but fell at high speed later around the lap. The Campetella rider was unhurt, but clearly angry. His team-mate Battaini would fall shortly after, but rejoin, to complete a disastrous first lap for the semi-privateer Aprilia team.
Such early drama meant that by the end of second lap Rolfo had built a 6.8secs lead over home hero West – a winner in the wet at Assen – with de Puniet, Nieto, Matsudo, Bataille, Pesek and Gemmel completing the top eight. But main news was that Poggiali was dropping through the field like a stone, down to tenth by lap four, while Elias was also slipping back.
The importance for the championship was considerable, with second in the points Rolfo now standing a real chance of effectively destroying Poggiali's huge points lead and taking the title down to the wire at Valencia. But there was still a long way to go.
Meanwhile, by lap 5 of 25, Porto had stormed his way through the pack all the way up to sixth, but his eventful day would come to an early end just after when he went off track for the second and final time.
Having no such worries was the super-smooth Rolfo, who held his 7secs lead over West - who in turn was 5secs clear of the battling de Puniet and Nieto - as the midway point came and went, while Poggiali was back up to seventh (behind Matsudo and Debon) but being put under firm pressure from Battaini, Nigon, Battaini and Pesek.
Heading into the final half and a dry line was starting to develop, but that was the least of Rolfo's worries as West was putting in a hard charge for home GP glory, 'Ant' cutting the Fortuna rider's lead to 3secs, with 7 laps to go.
Rolfo would respond in the closing stages to take his second ever GP victory by a comfortable 14secs at the flag, with a delighted West having backed off to ensure both he and the suffering Aussie fans received a podium finish.
Behind the top two, Nieto and de Puniet battled for most of the race, the Frenchman hitting a seagull at high-speed through turn one, then hitting the ground several laps later when he high-sided out of the race – handing Nieto the final step on the podium.
But main news was that Poggiali crossed the line in ninth place after being passed by Hules out of the final turn, cutting his points lead to just seven over Rolfo heading into the Valencia season finale in two weeks time. Elias meanwhile, never featured today and would finish just 11th.
Full results to follow...