Valentino Rossi claimed victory in today's incident packed Rio Grand Prix - and with it the 2002 MotoGP World Championship, after nearest rival Tohru Ukawa crashed out on a day when Carlos Checa looked to have completed a fantastic last to first recovery - only for disaster to strike as soon as he hit the front.

Yesterday's thrilling final qualifying had seen Biaggi hold onto pole ahead of champion in waiting Rossi - who needed eleven points over team-mate Ukawa today to wrap up the first ever MotoGP crown.

But the battle all hoped to see was between Rossi and his countryman Biaggi - whose pole position was the fastest ever lap of the Rio circuit by a motorcycle, and with less than 2.2 sec covering all 20 riders, Rio would be the second closest grid ever in the top class of GP racing, the closest ever being in Germany earlier in the year.

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Adding spice to the all-Italian mix up front was Ulsterman Jeremy McWilliams, who will start from the front row for the first time in 2002, and from the best ever grid
position achieved by the Proton KR machine, in what is the first ever front row start in MotoGP for a machine using Bridgestone tyres.

Also of interest was that the Proton KR was the top-two stroke machine on the grid for the first time ever in the MotoGP class, thanks to the poor showing by regular West Honda Pons pace setters Loris Capirossi and home hero Alex Barros on their NSR500's.

Behind McWilliams, and completing the front row, was Aussie slide ace Garry McCoy who would start from the front for the second time in 2002, having finished third at Rio in 2000 - and looking for a repeat today on the bumpy Nelson Piquet circuit.

But the formbook established over the preceding days was well and truly upset when windy wet weather descended on the Nelson piquet circuit this morning - and showed no sign of shifting for this afternoons races.

The 125's and 250's had battled the inconsistent conditions, which at times looked as though the track would dry out entirely - only for the humidity and/or another rain shower to hit the circuit - and it looked like more of the same for MotoGP.

With Bridgestone shod Masao Azuma taking victory from eighteenth on the grid the likes of Proton Team KR and Kanemoto Racing (eighth on the grid with vd Goorbergh) were perhaps in good form providing the Japanese company could replicate the grip levels they gave to the eighth liter rider in order to topple the Michelin shod four-strokes.

Another variable would be those willing to gamble for a more wet or dry set-up and hope that the track - and weather - would come to them, while the wet warm-up had shown that the Suzuki is indeed a machine to watch in low traction conditions. But not so happy would have been pole sitter Biaggi and Daijiro Kato, both of whom have yet to show the same speed in the wet as they undoubtedly do in the dry.

But all the guesswork would count for nothing when the red lights disappeared and the 20 riders were sent hurtling into the 180 degree right hander that is turn one. Leading the way through the mist and 92% humidity for the first of 24 laps was Rossi, but those not making it around were Kato, Gibernau, Aoki and Cardoso (although all but Kato rejoined) as the domino effect caused them to all straight line the curve, while Checa almost stalled (or wasn't in gear) on the line and was left to start from the very tail of the field.

By mid way around the frantic first lap Rossi was now holding off Roberts, Biaggi, McWilliams and Ukawa - with King Kenny all over the Italian. Roberts finally found a way around the Repsol rider by barging past on lap 2 as the American smelt GP victory.

Later around the lap Ukawa dropped his RCV when the front washed out at an embarrassingly low speed corner, leaving the Japanese and Rio marshal's to try and figure out how to restart the Repsol rocket - unsuccessfully.

Ukawa's departure meant that Rossi (who had been informed that his team-mate was out) was now odds on to take his fourth world championship, but in those conditions anything could happen. Meanwhile, man on the move was Barros - now up to fourth ahead of McWilliams and trying to close the gap to third placed Biaggi, who in turn was staying in touch with the leading duo.

Lap 5 and Nakano became the latest faller from the incident packed GP, and worryingly soon had medics attending to him trackside after an unseen off. Just seconds later McWilliams was thrown from his Proton and into the scenery after the 3 cylinder seized and the Ulsterman was left to make the long lonely walk back to the pits with his previously plated shoulder hanging low in worrying fashion.

Up front and the Roberts/Rossi duel continued, with the Suzuki gaining an initial advantage out of the turns - but Rossi was reeling in any gap made on the long back straight - with Carlos Checa now up to a sensational fourth (having overtaken Barros) by lap 7 as he continued an amazing recovery to be just 13secs behind the leaders.

Checa continued his charge by consistently setting fastest race laps - by almost 1.2secs as he sought to catch his Marlboro Yamaha team-mate in third. Up front Rossi was clearly stalking the American as he rolled off the throttle along the long back straight whenever he was alongside the blue and yellow Suzuki.

Lap 10 and The Hopper slid off his Red Bull Yamaha from thirteenth, but quickly jumped to his feet and leapt back on the machine to rejoin the battle from sixteenth and last of the runners.

But catching the eye was Checa once again as he now had the leaders within sight as he entered the 1km straight with the M1 rider grabbing huge chunks out of the leading trio, who were now covered by 1.2secs.

Rossi responded by overtaking Roberts on lap 14 - and the 200 World Champion soon lost out to M1 horsepower along the back straight as the Marlboro Yamaha pair set off in pursuit of the Honda - while also no doubt eager to prove a point by beating each other - especially with Biaggi on his way out of the team, but having claimed the only M1 victory of the year, in Brno.

Checa made his move for second with a confident out braking attempt, and soon showed his exceptional pace by swiftly dropping Biaggi and rocketing up to Rossi's rear.

The #7 rider completed an unbelievable recovery by taking the lead from Rossi at the end of the back straight - and looked to be well on his way to avenging Rossi's last corner victory over him one year ago - but just the Spanish fans' screams of delight at their heroes efforts soon turned to cries of disappointment as Checa heartbreakingly dropped his four cylinder machine, after losing the rear under braking, and slid into the gravel, and retirement. So much effort for nothing.

Rossi therefore inherited the lead - and Roberts a podium - but the real question was whether Biaggi could pick up where his team-mate had left off and stop Rossi claiming what looked like being both the 2002 MotoGP World crown and Rio race victory.

But with just four laps left, Rossi had broken any hopes Biaggi had as he stretched his advantage to 1.5secs, with Roberts a further 6.5secs behind and in line for a safe podium, ahead of Barros, Abe, Capirossi, Jacque, Gibernau, vd Goorbergh and Laconi.

Onto the final lap and Rossi held a comfortable lead over his rivals and took the chequered flag with his right hand pointing knowingly to his Repsol team, while the Suzuki team were almost as happy as clinching a first podium finish for 'King Kenny' this season.

Top two stroke was again Alex Barros, who led home his Honda Pons teammate to take fourth, with Abe again top Yamaha two stroke in sixth followed by Olivier Jacque and the still injured Sete Gibernau.

Many wondered what "The Showman" would do on his slow down to celebrate his latest conquest - and he didn't disappoint. He stopped mid way around the circuit and was mobbed by his closest friends - all fitted out in Brazilian football shirts who lifted Vale to their shoulders and posed for a football team type photo shoot - complete with mock world cup trophy and the customary World Championship T-shirt, which he forced over his leathers before competing his slow down lap in usual celebratory style.

Full results to follow...

1. Rossi
2. Biaggi
3. Roberts
4. Barros
5. Capirossi
6. Abe
7. Jacque
8. Gibernau