Loris Capirossi and Ducati have conquered the Japanese Grand Prix for the second year in succession, but second place for Valentino Rossi has put the reigning world champion well within striking distance of Nicky Hayden with just two rounds to go.
Capirossi converted his pole into an early lead, but third on the grid Marco Melandri made good of his pre-race threat to take risks and promptly forced his way into the lead and - although re-passed by Capirossi before the end of the lap - Melandri continued to hustle his fellow Italian right until lap 10 of 24, when the Fortuna Honda rider ran wide after almost hitting the back of Capirossi under braking.
That gave Loris vital breathing room, and his lead was up to one second by the halfway point, but Melandri's error had also left him vulnerable to Rossi and, with Capirossi escaping, The Doctor swung neatly inside Melandri to take second position with ten laps to go - causing the assembled Yamaha management to clench their fists with delight on the pit wall.
The seven-times world champion then raised expectations further by setting the fastest lap of the race to close to just 1.1secs from Capirossi's rear Bridgestone. With plenty of laps remaining, the race could have turned into a repeat of Malaysia - where Rossi pipped Capirossi for victory in the closing stages - but this time the #65 responded early; initially defending his lead, then raising it to over two seconds by lap 20.
Capirossi continued flat out and eventually wheelied across the finish line five seconds in front of Rossi for his third victory of the season, while Rossi performed a similar celebration as he took the chequered flag 3.2secs before Melandri - but there was drama unfolding behind...
With the top three, who had all started on the front row, breaking away early from the rest of the 21 rider field - Ducati's Sete Gibernau, Kawasaki's Shinya Nakano and championship leader Hayden (who suffered another poor start from seventh on the grid) had disputed fourth position for much of the event.
The last lap began with Michelin shod Hayden over one-second from fifth placed Nakano, but the Kawasaki star was on the attack and made a very un-Nakano like move to try and pass Gibernau at the downhill right hand turn, at the end of the back straight: Shinya didn't quite get alongside the Ducati by the apex and Sete, unaware he was there, turned across the Japanese star's front wheel - causing a collision.
Gibernau escaped lightly but Nakano was sent cart-wheeling when his front wheel folded and, despite rushing back to his feet to try and remount, was forced to abandon his ZX-RR and may have sustained light injuries in the accident.
Nakano's loss was Hayden's gain and the American inherited fifth, and one further championship point, but it was of little consolation. The Repsol Honda rider, newly re-signed for a further two seasons, arrived in Japan 21 points ahead of Rossi, but leaves just 12 points clear with two races and 50 points up for grabs. The showdown begins now.