Updated: Reigning World Champion Valentino Rossi won the Japanese Grand Prix, which lived up to all pre-season expectation and more as an all-Italian top three battled race long - spectacularly sliding their GP prototypes sideways all around the figure-of-eight circuit.

It was also a good day for the rookies, with Bayliss, Edwards, Hayden and Tamada all shining, while the Ducati team had a stunning debut - with Loris Capirossi leading in the early stages. However the day was marred by a huge accident for Daijiro Kato, who was flown to Hospital with head and chest injuries.

After two damp and drizzle struck qualifying sessions, where the order was ultimately decided in the first 15mins on Friday, the first premier class grid of 2003 - and perhaps the most talent filled of all time - took shape with pole sitter Rossi ahead of Biaggi, Ukawa, Checa, Tamada, Gibernau, Roberts and Barros in the top two rows - while double WSBK champ Colin Edwards looked ready to pounce in ninth.

Those losing out in the qualifying lottery included Ducati riders Troy Bayliss and Loris Capirossi on the famous Italian team's MotoGP debut. Loris was fastest in Friday's dry free practice, while Bayliss was second in yesterday's wet morning session, but were just 13th and 15th respectively on today's grid.

Also lower than expected was Kato (in 11th), fellow local hero Nori Haga (in 17th), new Repsol rider Nicky Hayden (in 23rd) and Jeremy McWilliams, who was the fastest man in yesterday's wet second qualifier, but it only gave him 25th and last place.

Just to add to the drama, following two wet and cold days the land of the rising sun finally lived up to its name and rays of sunshine finally hit the Suzuka circuit - signalling a dry race, after two days of damp running.

As such, few expected the qualifying order to last long in the most eagerly awaited - and most unpredictable - Motorcycle Grand Prix race in recent memory, which featured no less than nine World Champions (the injured Melandri would have made it ten).

When the red lights went out it was Checa who stormed into the lead, but behind him Capirossi was making the stat of his life - barrelling into turn one almost sideways and forcing his way into second... from 15th on the grid! Behind Loris was fellow Biaggi, followed by Rossi, Bayliss, Roberts, Nakano, Abe and Tamada.

The two top Italians, Biaggi and Capirossi, were soon on the move, Biaggi slicing inside Capirossi and the Spoon curve before - but that just seemed to ignite Capirossi, who promptly retook the position into the 130R sweeper, then outbraked Checa into the following chicane for the lead, with his rear tyre skipping across the asphalt!

That meant that a Ducati led the MotoGP field at the end of the Desmosedici's very first lap of competition!

But trouble was brewing for the Italian team. Rossi had worked his way up to third, then on lap two he passed Biaggi through the Esses for second as both RCV's closed to the tail of Capirossi, leaving Checa to contend with equally impressive sister machine of Bayliss, now holding off Kato, Ukawa and Roberts.

The three Italians then began to break away from the field in a repeat of the 2001 season, but this time the racing was even more ferocious with all leaving thick black lines as they spun their rear wheels up around the third, fourth and even fifth gear corners. Capirossi was the most animated - his wheels were rarely pointing in the same direction.

While the top three caught all the attention, Daijiro Kato suffered a huge (unseen) accident on lap 4, which totally destroyed his factory Honda. Kato was left lying unconscious on the circuit near the turn-in point for the chicane - but the damage to his bike suggested he been going much, much faster than would be expected at that point. It now seems he hit the wall on the preceeding straight and ended up at the chicane.

The marshals quickly carried Kato off the racing line, and were arguably too hasty given the obvious seriousness of the incident, which many predicted would cause an immediate red flag but was ultimately covered by a waved yellow.

Some 30 minutes later a helicopter was seen taking Kato to Hospital with his injuries described as being 'to his head and chest' and 'serious', but little else was known. Few onlookers appeared to see the cause of the incident, and it wasn't caught by the circuit cameras. Those riders near the tiny Japanese may be able to shed more light on what happened.

Meanwhile, the racing continued and by now front row starter Ukawa had recovered from his poor getaway and - spurred on by his home crowd - tried to outbrake Bayliss into the hairpin, but it would be his downfall.

The Camel ride ran wide on the right hander sweeper before the (left hand) hairpin, putting him onto the grass on the inside of the 180-degree turn, preventing him braking and causing him to shoot straight across Bayliss' nose, through the gravel and head on into the (foam protected) tyre wall.

Although unharmed and eager to rejoin, his race was effectively over and he would finish last.

Shortly after, Capirossi was finally forced to yield and both Rossi and Biaggi moved ahead of the #65 along the start-finish straight. At this point, Americans Edwards and Hayden were starting to make their mark, the Texan Tornado storming up to 10th after a bad start, while Hayden proved that he really did race better than he qualified as the AMA SBK champ rose to 13th, hot on the heels of Abe and Barros.

Also deserving credit was Sete Gibernau, who had quickly moved up through the field in the early running and by lap 5 was into a safe fourth, on his RCV debut, behind Capirossi and pulling away from rookie Makoto Tamada, who impressed by running at a quick pace and keeping clear of the battling Bayliss in sixth.

With the half way mark approaching, Rossi began to finally break Biaggi and the #46 was able to pull out a small, but significant, lead over the Roman, who was still receiving attention from Capirossi.

Also under pressure was Edwards, now up to eighth, but with Hayden all over his Aprilia! The pair would fight for the reminder of the race, but for now both moved up a place on lap 13 when Tamada fell out of fifth at the Esses, ending his MotoGP debut prematurely.

Entering the final quarter of the race and the top three Italian were unable to either catch, or pull away, significantly from each other, with Gibernau 5secs behind the top Ducati in fourth, and 6secs ahead of the second Desmosedici of Bayliss.

But Hayden was now ahead of Edwards - something that few would have predicted after pre-season testing - but from his body language it was clear there was no-way the double WSBK champ was going to shown-up by the 21 year old...

With the final laps fast approaching, Hayden was unable to shake his countryman off and Edwards left his move until the very last lap - when he sliced past the #69 to take a strong sixth, although Hayden could hardly be disappointed given his impressive showing.

Finishing ahead of the pair was top new-boy Bayliss, the 34 year old delivering a fine ride when it mattered, while all three proved beyond doubt that they belong in GPs.

Barros was top Yamaha in eighth, the brave Brazilian had to be helped from his bike after riding with a painful knee injury sustained in the morning warm-up.

The two Suzukis finished 13th and 14th with John Hopkins surprisingly beating team-mate Roberts. Both Protons retired, while Kawasaki trio McCoy, Pitt and Yanagawa finished 17th, 18th and 19th respectively. Tamaki Serizawa brought his Moriwaki Honda home in 20th, ahead of final finisher Ukawa.

Gibernau kept his well deserved fourth, while Capirossi was unable to catch Biaggi despite his best efforts.The Ducati still appeared to have a top speed advantage over the Hondas, the V4 even wheeling over the crest at the approach to the 130R.

Rossi meanwhile, kept a 4secs cushion to the line where he, Biaggi and Capirossi triumphantly wheelied in turn as the took the flag, Valentino having proved once again just why he's considered the best rider in the world.

The only thing that went wrong for Rossi today was his RCV stopping on the slow down lap at the Spoon curve, apparently after running out of petrol. A slightly surprised Italian was then left to flag down a lift... and with the RCVs having passed, it was Haga - who recovered to finish 12th after crashing at the chicane - who stopped to pick him up.

Pictures of Rossi celebrating on the back of an Aprilia - not quite what Honda's PR had in mind...

"At the beginning I had a good fight with Biaggi and Loris," said Rossi in the post race press conference. "A win at Suzuka for Honda is always very special."

"This is my debut with the Pons team and my first race on a Honda for five years," began second placed Biaggi. "I'm really satisfied - 20 points isn't bad and we have plenty more races to go."

"I didn't expect to be this competitive," grinned Capirossi. "We need to do more work, but I'm so happy for everyone at Ducati."

The top three were speaking before they heard about Kato's injuries.

Full results to follow...

1. Rossi
2. Biaggi
3. Capirossi
4. Gibernau
5. Bayliss
6. Edwards
7. Hayden
8. Barros

 

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