Max Biaggi won a breath-taking Pacific Grand Prix today at Motegi, the Roman Emperor holding off Valentino Rossi in the early stages, then benefiting from a mistake by the world champ that left the Repsol rider to fight back from ninth – while a controversial high-speed collision would decide the final podium place in what was arguably the most exciting race of the year so far.
Final qualifying had seen the Biaggi snatch a fairytale home pole position from class rookie Tamada, the Italian denying the Japanese with a scorching record lap for his third pole of the season.
Other than a brief flirtation with second place by Yamaha rider Carlos Checa midway through the session, the top positions remained largely in the hands of Honda riders, and the home factory swept the top five positions on the grid in the late push for times.
Whilst Tamada lost out on pole, second place represents his best ever gird position and his first front row start. Valentino Rossi made a late challenge but could only manage third, whilst Sete Gibernau was fourth fastest despite improving on his provisional pole time.
It was only a late effort from Gibernau that denied Nicky Hayden his first front row start. The American rookie led the session with just ten minutes remaining before conforming with a best ever grid position of fifth. After crashing his Ducati on the first lap, Loris Capirossi recovered his rhythm at the end of the session and broke onto the second row in sixth, ahead of Yamaha pair Checa and Alex Barros.
Marco Melandri was the victim of Barros' late effort, watching from the garage as he dropped back to ninth place after the chequered flag had been waved. The Italian youngster is joined on the third row by Troy Bayliss, Tohru Ukawa and Shinya Nakano.
Morning warm-up saw a Repsol Honda one-two as Rossi led Hayden – but Tamada was again a factor, taking third in the session ahead of Gibernau and pole sitter Biaggi. With Rossi, Hayden and Tamada being covered by just 0.088secs in race trim - and the all-Honda top five by 0.3secs – this afternoon's grid gathered with even more anticipation than usual.
When the lights disappeared it was Gibernau who grabbed the holeshot, while Bayliss, Checa and Hopkins were all lost in a turn one collision, which also involved Colin Edwards. Meanwhile, Biaggi had slotted into second ahead of Hayden, Rossi, Capirossi, Tamada, Barros, Ukawa and Jacque.
Rossi dispatched Hayden by the end of lap one, and the reigning world champion was soon all over the back of Biaggi, with race leader Gibernau not getting away either. Biaggi grabbed the lead briefly into turn one on lap two, before Sete retook the position... only for Biaggi to take a second bite one turn later.