25 May 2003
Sete storms two-part thriller.
All riders were on slicks and the up-the-air conditions meant that the race might have to be stopped, then re-started, at any moment should the off-on rain return in force. It really was anyone's guess if it would become a factor, with areas of dark cloud and bright sunshine in equal distribution on the Le Mans skyline.
Nevertheless, the rain had indeed passed by the time the red lights went out, and it was Loris Capirossi who once again made a perfect getaway, to lead Rossi, Barros, Abe and Biaggi into the first chicane.
Barros immediately put his braking skills to good use by taking Capirossi, who soon fell victim to Rossi. Loris, unusually, looked to be holding up the field behind him (led by Abe, Melandri and Ukawa), but it soon became apparent that all was not well with the Italian's Desmosedici V4, and he would pull into the pits on lap 5.
Meanwhile, Barros and Rossi were now beginning to pull away from the field, while behind them Melandri was putting on an extraordinary show – the young Italian had slipped back slightly from his front row start, but his charge saw him into third by lap four and even holding his own against a determined Max Biaggi.
But by that time Melandri's team-mate Checa was nursing a skinned hand, having managed to find a small damp patch seeping through the otherwise dry asphalt, while under hard acceleration - throwing him straight over the bars and into retirement, from sixth.
Joining Checa on the DNF register was Bayliss, who having made the now expected strong start fell from eighth on lap 6 when he suddenly lost the front of his machine on an off0camber right hander, thus recording his first non-finish in GP racing.
Having no such troubles were Biaggi and Gibernau, who had retaken a fading Melandri by lap 10 and soon caught the leading pair ahead of them to make the French GP a firm four-way fight, while man on the move was Haga, setting the fastest lap as he sought to improve on eighth.
Fellow Japanese Ukawa began to come into his own on a few laps later when, having moved steadily through the field, he wasted no time in overtaking Gibernau, then his team-mate Biaggi, for third behind Barros and Rossi.
At that point Tohru faced his biggest challenge – the braking skills of Alex Barros, for whom physics seem not always to apply, and the Camel Pramac Pons rider just couldn't find a way past the Gauloises Yamaha. Significantly, the M1 seemed to give away nothing to the 2003 spec RCV along the Le Mans straights.
The order at the front remained unchanged as the contenders seemed to dig in for a long race - until suddenly, on lap 15, rain began to fall heavily on the start/finish straight. Rossi and the leaders ignored the moisture for a lap, but with the rain intensifying the #46 raised his hand on lap 16, just as the red and white flags were waved to signal the new restart procedure.
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