Six months on from Daijiro Kato's tragic accident at Suzuka, MotoGP returns to Japan for this weekend's Pacific Grand Prix at Motegi, where the former 250cc world champion will be remembered both on and off track.

At 12:30pm on Saturday, Kato will be honoured as a MotoGP Legend and inducted into the Hall of Fame at a special ceremony to be attended by his relatives, who will also be presented with his #74 plate, which can now never be used in MotoGP without the permission of his family.

Then, when the red lights go out at 2pm on race day, Kato will be venerated by his former rivals in the most fitting way possible, as they once again give their all in the thirteenth round of the 2003 world championship.

That race could see the world championship decided in Valentino Rossi's favour. The Italian has exerted his supremacy with some masterful performances in the last three rounds, with consecutive victories at Brno, Estoril and Rio taking his points advantage over Honda colleague Sete Gibernau to 51, meaning that should he win and Gibernau score less than two points, the 2003 title will be his.

However, Rossi is yet to formally be announced as a Honda rider for 2004 and, while most expect that news to be broken this weekend, the Repsol rider is still likely to be distracted to some degree by last-minute negotiations. Should MotoGP leave Honda's homeland without Rossi having put pen to paper, then the rumours of a possible Ducati - or even Yamaha move - will be looking ever more credible.

Meanwhile, one man who has already signed to remain with his team for the next two years, Gibernau, will be aiming to improve on his current Motegi record, having never previously finished higher than fifth at the Japanese track. The Catalan knows he must beat Rossi to have any real chance of winning the title, but must also keep his Telefonica-liveried machine on two-wheels to aid his now stated aim of tying-up a career best second in the series.

The man who wants to take the runner-up position from him is Max Biaggi, the top 'customer' Honda rider this year, but who has scored just one podium finish from the last four races and now lags some 37 points behind Sete. Unfortunately for the Camel Pramac Pons rider, he has a poor record at Motegi, having crashed out in 2001 before retiring with tyre problems last year.

Just behind that battle, Ducati team-mates Loris Capirossi and Troy Bayliss are currently scrapping it out for fourth place, being separated by just eleven points. Their first appearance on the Marlboro-liveried Desmosedicis at the home of Honda is bound to spark enormous interest - as will the performance of the Japanese riders at their home track.

For Makoto Tamada and Tohru Ukawa, Motegi's a vital race - but for very different reasons. Tamada, riding the Bridgestone-shod Pramac Honda, was a brilliant third in Rio behind Rossi and Gibernau and will be looking to repeat that performance in front of the Honda bosses on Sunday to confirm future backing from them.

Meanwhile, Biaggi's team-mate Ukawa is fighting for his grand prix career. Despite riding a full factory spec RCV, he's not finished on the podium this year and is just sixth in the championship - all the while being harried by the Yamahas of Carlos Checa, Alex Barros and Shinya Nakano, as well as Rossi's rookie team-mate Nicky Hayden.

On paper, Barros presents the most likely challenger to Honda and Ducati dominance this weekend, having finished on the podium at Motegi for the last two seasons, including victory on his debut ride aboard the RC211V one year ago. However, the Brazilian is still struggling with a shoulder injury and, other than a podium in the wet race at Le Mans in round four, has yet to demonstrate that he can reproduce such form aboard the 2003 spec YZR-M1.

Kenny Roberts is the only other man to have won at Motegi, having taken victories at the first two events held there in 1999 and 200, the latter of which is his last grand prix victory to date as Suzuki struggle with the new four-stroke regulations.

Roberts is currently 23rd in the championship, six places behind his young team-mate John Hopkins, who will return to action after missing the Rio race due to a heavy qualifying fall. The pair are to be joined by wild-card entry Akira Ryo, who gave Suzuki false hope for 2003 when he finished second in the first four-stroke MotoGP race at Suzuka last year.

The second wild-card spot has been taken by Moriwaki Racing, which will enter its ambitious MD211VF machine in the hands of Tamaki Serizawa. It is the second appearance of the season for Serizawa and the Moriwaki Dream Fighter, which he rode at Suzuka in April.

Last year, Kawasaki made its MotoGP debut at Motegi but, one year on, 'Team Green', and Australian riders Garry McCoy and Andrew Pitt, are still struggling to make an impact. However, knowing that at least one of the current riders will be dropped at the end of the year to make way for Alex Hofmann, there's still plenty for the pair to ride for.

With six races in the 250cc championship having been won by six different riders, this weekend's quarter-litre event will expect another close call, although the destiny of the title does seem to becoming clearer.

Class rookie Manuel Poggiali tightened his grip on the series leadership with victory at the last round at Rio, opening up 22-point cushion which represents his largest advantage since the third race of the season at Jerez.

Toni Elias could have cut that gap back to just nine points if he had beaten the former 125cc world champion in Brazil, but his last lap crash when challenging for the lead means he is now 39-points adrift and fourth in the championship behind Roby Rolfo and Randy de Puniet.

After effectively losing the 125cc title to Poggiali when he crashed out at this circuit in 2001, Elias needs no extra motivation to repeat his debut win in the class here one year ago and salvage his title bid.

Ironically, a major part in the destiny of the quarter-litre title could be played by riders who stand no chance of winning it, as a host of promising wildcard riders chase glory at their home race.

Honda youngsters Yuki Takahashi, who finished third at Motegi with a stunning ride last season, and Hiroshi Aoyama, who took second at Suzuka earlier this season ahead of Takahashi, head the list which also includes Choujun Kameya, the cousin of Japan's most famous ever 250cc wild-card, Daijiro Kato.

Whilst Jorge Lorenzo's win at Rio two weeks ago made him the second youngest rider ever to win a grand prix, Spanish compatriot Dani Pedrosa this weekend continues his quest to become the second youngest ever 125cc world champion.

The Honda rider, who took victory at Motegi last season to follow on from a podium in his rookie year in 2001, leads the championship by 42 points from Stefano Perugini with just four rounds remaining - and has only finished outside the top four on three occasions this season.

Meanwhile, Lorenzo's victory at Brazil - a race which saw the top six riders separated by less than a second - also extended a record streak of nineteen races in the class without a back-to-back winner.

 

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