Valentino Rossi finished the 2003 season exactly as it began it - with victory. The Italian, riding in what is expected to have been his Honda farewell, claimed his ninth win of the year today at Valencia after absorbing pressure from Sete Gibernau for 25 of the 30 laps, whereupon he raised himself to a record breaking pace which the Catalan couldn't follow.
Yesterday's final qualifying session of the season had ended with a familiar result as Rossi pulverised the lap record and took pole by 0.670secss from Gibernau.
The Spaniard, riding at the scene of his debut victory two years ago, tried valiantly to provide the thousands of fans already packed into the circuit with a home pole, but Rossi was not to be denied and the Italian's pole time was also enough to clinch the BMW Award for the MotoGP Best Qualifier 2003.
Meanwhile, Loris Capirossi broke the Honda hegemony at the top of the time sheets, qualifying third fastest on the Ducati ahead of Nicky Hayden, who had been quickest in the morning free practice.
However, fourth place represents a first front row start of the season for Hayden, who stood on the podium for the first time two weeks ago at Phillip Island and came into today eager to hold fifth place in the championship today, as he faces pressure from Tohru Ukawa and Troy Bayliss.
Carlos Checa had his sights set on beating Gibernau to claim the affections of today's 120,000 sell-out home crowd after qualifying fifth fastest on the Yamaha. The Spaniard beating former team-mate Max Biaggi and a surprise effort from Aprilia rider Colin Edwards, back on the second row for the first time since qualifying seventh at Assen. Alex Barros completed the second row, whilst Ukawa and Bayliss round off a top ten separated by less than two seconds.
But after being embarrassed in final qualifying, Rossi's rivals were left a lot happier after this morning's warm-up session - which saw the top four covered by just 0.156secs in full race trim: The session was once again led by the 'Austin Powers' liveried Italian, but Hayden was just 0.038secs behind – while the fellow Hondas of Biaggi (looking to have finally found a set-up at the eleventh hour) and Gibernau were well within touch of the #46.
When the red lights went out for the final time in 2003, it was Capirossi who led the 23 rider field into the slightly off-camber 90-degree left hander that is turn one, with Rossi, Hayden, Biaggi, Gibernau, Checa, Ukawa Edwards, Barros and Bayliss in close pursuit.
Capirossi led the Honda foursome until lap two, when the tiny Italian ran wide and was forced to yield into the following turn, while the top six (Rossi, Capirossi, Hayden, Gibernau, Biaggi and Checa) were visibly beginning to drop Barros, Edwards et al.