de Puniet wins, Poggiali world champion
2 November 2003
Randy de Puniet held off a charging Toni Elias to take a hard earned victory in today's 250cc Valencia Grand Prix, but main news was that Manuel Poggiali has become the third youngest 250cc world champion ever (behind Melandri and Rossi) by finishing the season ending GP a safe third, four places clear of title rival Rolfo, to become the first quarter-litre class rookie to take the crown since Tetsuya Harada in 1993.
Yesterday, Randy de Puniet took pole after a battle with French compatriot Sylvain Guintoli and home favourite Toni Elias. However, the focus of attention was undoubtedly on the only remaining title contenders, Manuel Poggiali and Roberto Rolfo.
Whilst series leader Poggiali, who took a seven point advantage into today's showdown, shook off flu symptoms to qualify fourth fastest, Rolfo struggled to find a set-up for his Honda and could only manage tenth.
Poggiali would start from the outside of the front row behind fellow Aprilia riders De Puniet, Elias and Guintoli, whilst Rolfo needed to make his charge from the third row behind factory colleague Sebastian Porto.
Local favourites Alex Debon and Fonsi Nieto qualified in fifth and seventh respectively to seal second row starts alongside Franco Battaini and Naoki Matsudo.
However, there was drama in the morning warm-up when Poggiali rammed the back of Christian Gemmel, sending them both tumbling into the gravel – denting the San Marinese rider's confidence and possibly forcing him onto his spare machine and perhaps levelling the playing field slightly…
But when the red lights went out momentum swung the other way when Rolfo made a shocking start, slipping to 11th, while Poggiali slotted into fifth behind flying Frenchman de Puniet (leading), Nieto, Elias and Debon.
De Puniet would storm away in the early laps, helped more than a little by Repsol Aprilia team-mates Nieto and Elias attempting to assassinate each other at almost every turn as they fought for the home fans affection, while Debon was also looking combative – refusing to let Poggiali pass, and soon crawling all over third placed man Nieto ahead.
But by lap 4, Poggiali seemed to have got over his initial apprehension and was soon looking back to his best as the San Marinese carved his way past his immediate rivals to take third – with second placed Elias now 4.4secs further up the road and trying to keep on terms with de Puniet (1sec further ahead).
At the halfway stage of the 27 laps, all local attention was firmly on the lead battle as de Puniet saw his advantage over Elias start to shrink, while Poggiali was now in cruise control - being 8.8secs behind the race leader, but 5.1secs clear of new fourth placed man Guintoli. Rolfo meanwhile, was facing even bigger problems - running wide out of the final turn and losing three hard earned places, dropping him back to tenth and effectively ending his slim title hopes – unless Poggiali fell.
De Puniet and Elias would circulate nose-to-tail from lap 14 to 21, at which point de Puniet suddenly slowed - to allow Elias ahead - only for Elias to deliberately let the Frenchman back past a few turns later!
Onto the final lap and de Puniet was still leading, but by just 0.116secs, and Elias clearly had a plan for victory which he would soon unleash – as he dived inside into turn two, pushing de Puniet off line, but Randy would flick inside and back ahead at the next corner.
The LCR star held firm right to the final turn, cleanly thwarting Elias' every move – then weaving his way to the flag to take victory by just 0.072secs, after Toni banked on a last gasp slipstream.
Over 12secs further back Poggiali crossed the line to take his second ever world championship, having won the 125cc title in 2001, while Rolfo recovered to finish the race a fighting seventh – to have the consolation of finishing in the points at all sixteen races in one season, equalling Daijiro Kato's record.
Meanwhile, de Puniet's victory gave Aprilia its 14th win of the year, equalling their own record for most wins in a season, set last year.
Another Aprilia rider, Franco Battaini, collected the top privateer award today after Ant West DNF'd, while it was no surprise that Poggaili collected the top rookie award to add to his championship victory.
Full results to follow...
1. de Puniet