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Rossi wins Island thriller - despite penalty!

19 October 2003

Valentino Rossi has won today's Australian Grand Prix despite being given a 10secs penalty early in the race, the Italian being made aware of his punishment and charging hard to beat Loris Capirossi by 15secs at the finish - in a race full of passing, accidents, incidents, weather fears and tyre-smoking bike control.

Qualifying had seen Rossi clock a record lap of 1min 30.068secs to secure the front slot on today's grid by 0.428 seconds from Capirossi. Home hero Troy Bayliss had suffered a high-speed fall midway through the session, but recovered to set the fourth fastest time and secure a front row start behind Sete Gibernau.

Bayliss' last gasp effort denied Nicky Hayden a first ever front row start in a double blow to the American, who had been held up by Gibernau on a potentially pole-setting lap. Hayden's effort was still enough for fifth spot on the grid, however, and he would be joined on the second row by Honda colleagues Max Biaggi and Tohru Ukawa, who sandwich Yamaha rookie Marco Melandri in sixth and eighth places respectively.

One year on from his astonishing pole lap on the 500cc Proton KR3, Jeremy McWilliams once again declared his love for Phillip Island with an encouraging tenth place on the team's new V5. McWilliams was one of seventeen riders to improve on his record from last season, forming an incredibly tight grid which sees the front five rows separated by just over two seconds.

But that was in the dry. Race day would dawn - as predicted - cold and wet, leaving the field with only the morning warm-up to find a suitable set-up. The half-hour session would end with Rossi and fan favourite Bayliss (who fell) almost a second clear of the rest of the field.

Nicky Hayden (+0.9secs), Max Biaggi (+1.5secs), Sete Gibernau (+1.9secs) and Tohru Ukawa (+3secs) completed the top six, but rain masters Jeremy McWilliams, Nobuatsu Aoki and Garry McCoy took seventh, eighth and ninth respectively to put them in with an outside bet of glory this afternoon.

By contrast, those who struggled in the tricky conditions were Fortuna Yamaha riders' Marco Melandri and Carlos Checa (19th and 20th), Aprilia Colin Edwards (21st) and Gauloises Yamaha riders' Alex Barros and Olivier Jacque (23rd and 24th).

Into this afternoon's main event and - miraculously - the circuit was drying rapidly, helped by a strong breeze and some welcome sunshine (although it was still very cold), but it only caused even more headaches for teams and riders with tyre choice now critical. Should they go for an intermediate/cut slick compound to cope with the occasional puddles and in case the rain returns, or gamble on a slick in the hope that the track would continue drying?

All would pick the latter – having done every session but the warm-up on such tyres, the teams had much more data on wear rates and endurance behaviour. Also, no-one would lose out significantly if the weather should change, since they would all be in the same 'boat' and the race would simply be stopped if it became dangerous.

When the red lights went out to signal the start of 27 unpredictable laps, it was Biaggi who dived inside the Ducatis into turn one, but the Roman ran wide allowing Bayliss to lead his home GP from Gibernau, Capirossi, Melandri, Biaggi, Hayden, Rossi, Ukawa and Checa. Biaggi would make a mistake later in the lap and drop to the back of the pack.

Meanwhile, Gibernau would blast past Bayliss out of the final turn to lead into lap two, while Melandri was also charging – dropping Bayliss a further place soon after, then leading his first ever MotoGP race when he nipped inside Gibernau just half a lap later at Haysheds.

At that stage, Rossi was battling his team-mate Hayden for fifth, the pair passing and re-passing each other as Nicky refused to let his team leader escape.

Lap 3 and Aussie hopes ended when Bayliss crashed out after touching a white line under braking for the Honda hairpin - while running side-by-side on the outside of Melandri; the Aussie hit the ground hard and was thrown like a rag doll through the grass and mud before lying motionless and requiring medical attention. He would later be stretchered away after regaining consciousness and was declared more or less fit after being checked at the medical centre.

While Bayliss was attended to, his accident had far reaching consequences when Rossi passed Melandri under waved yellow flags at the same turn one lap later - in a repeat of the incident that cost him victory at Donington - what would happen this time...?

Meanwhile, by lap 6 Rossi was now leading the field, with battling rookies Melandri and Hayden fighting over second, while Gibernau, Ukawa and Capirossi watched the thrilling action ahead. Hayden would be caught out on lap 8 when he ran wide while trying to retake second from Melandri, dropping him to sixth behind Capirossi, Ukawa, Gibernau, Melandri and race leader Rossi.

Rossi would receive a 10secs penalty on lap 11 of 27 for his earlier yellow flag infringement, at which time he held a 3.5secs lead – meaning he now needed to ride much harder than he'd ever imagined to take victory. Meanwhile, Melandri, Gibernau, Capirossi, Hayden, Ukawa and Checa (separated by just 1.5secs and passing each other continuously) were now potentially locked in a battle for race victory.

But Melandri's hard fighting day would come to an end when he was kicked from his Fortuna Yamaha while chasing new second placed man (or race leader if you subtract Rossi's penalty) Capirossi on lap 14. The incident allowed the Ducati rider to pull a lead on Gibernau, Hayden, Ukawa and Checa as his team tried to inform him of Rossi's penalty - and that he could win his and Ducati's second victory of the season.

However, Rossi was lapping around 0.6secs a lap quicker than countryman Loris to extend his advantage to 6secs with 9laps to go – if he kept that pace up he'd win the race. Over the following laps the #46 would keep punching out mid 1min 31secs laps to extend his lead to 7secs, then 7.5secs, then 8.8secs, then 9.9secs, before finally taking the 'lead' back on lap 23, then continuing to pull away right to the chequered flag!

Checa ran wide later on lap 23 - leaving Gibernau, Ukawa and Hayden to fight for the final podium spot. The Spaniard rejoined in eighth, behind the fellow Yamahas of Jacque and Nakano, and ahead of Suzuki's Kenny Roberts.

The fight for third would capture the attention for the remaining four laps, with Gibernau going all out to break Hayden, unsuccessfully, and the last lap would begin with the Catalan just 0.15secs ahead of the Repsol rider, and Ukawa just 0.5secs back.

Hayden dived inside with a brave move at Siberia, then defended against a fightback over Lukey Heights and the following MG right hand corner, before hanging on through the long left handers that lead onto the home straight– to take a much deserved first 'real' podium by just 0.041secs.

But some 12-seconds ahead of them Rossi was already beginning his celebrations – grabbing a #7 Barry Sheene flag to carry around his slow down lap, while a confused Capirossi (he never realised Rossi had a penalty) smoked his Ducati's rear wheel in style out of the final turn to take second, 15secs behind the Honda rider on track, but 5secs back in the official results.

Ukawa enjoyed his best race of the season to take fifth, just 0.2secs behind Gibernau, while Jacque pipped Nakano to be top Yamaha with sixth. Checa duly took eighth ahead of Roberts while Bridgestone riders Tamada and McWilliams finished tenth and eleventh respectively.

Hopkins rode a strong final part of the race to beat his good friend Garry McCoy for thirteenth, while Noriyuki Haga and Andrew Pitt completed the point's finishers.

Further back, WCM's Chris Burns finally finished his first ever MotoGP, in 20th position.

Full results to follow...

1. Rossi
2. Hayden
3. Capirossi
4. Gibernau
5. Ukawa
6. Jacque
7. Nakano
8. Checa
9. Roberts
10. Tamada
11. McWilliams
12. Hopkins
13. McCoy
14. Haga
15. Pitt
16. Edwards
17. Biaggi
18. Kiyonari
19. Aoki
20. Burns


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