Despite his pre-season caution, Valentino Rossi probably never imagined the 2003 season would provide him with such opposition - to the point where there was talk of the four-times champion facing a crisis, despite never losing the points lead.

However, recent events have seen his only real rivals, Max Biaggi and Sete Gibernau, each drop out of contention and he now stands almost certain to retain his crown.

The Sachsenring saw Biaggi's hopes end when he crashed out, but Gibernau's brilliant victory put him firmly back into the championship battle. But the Catalan saw his hopes fade when Rossi retaliated at Brno - and they've now all but evaporated after yesterday's result in Estoril.

With Rossi returning to his early season dominance, and Gibernau finishing just fourth, the Italian now - appropriately - commands a 46 point lead with just five rounds to go. The Repsol rider would need to DNF at least two of those events to give Sete any real chance of his first world crown.

"A great race for sure," said a clearly delighted Rossi yesterday. "Brno was more of a fight - more fun, and today was a very high level race with a fast rhythm. I saw Biaggi trying to get away and knew I had to overtake Loris and Sete as soon as possible to catch him.

"We were doing 1m 39s laps and I didn't think we could keep that pace up. I follow Max for nearly half the race - Then I got past and I found I could get away. This win is very important for the Championship, especially as Sete only got fourth," he admitted.

Rossi's Estoril win was his fifth of the season (one more than Gibernau) and his first pair of back-to-back wins since Portugal and Brazil last year.