Sete Gibernau snatched a dramatic provisional pole at Motegi today, the Catalan setting a new all-time pole record in a session that eventually saw a Honda dominated top four. Meanwhile, Japanese fortunes were mixed, with one home rider third - but two others suffered heavy falls and had to helped from the circuit.

Morning free practice saw Rossi once again set the pace - by a massive 0.8secs - as he sent out a clear message to HRC (and Ducati... and Yamaha) of his value, but Honda certainly weren't left red faced as a certain Makoto Tamada finished the session second. As reported by, the Pramac Honda rookie has repeatedly said he can win the Pacific Grand Prix, and this morning proved he meant it.

Another Japanese Honda rider on form was the under fire Tohru Ukawa, who took third ahead of Carlos Checa, Gibernau, Loris Capirossi, Max Biaggi Nicky Hayden and Marco Melandri. Meanwhile, wild-card Akira Ryo raised a smile at Suzuki with tenth on his 'development' GSV-R, three places ahead of Kenny Roberts and five clear of John Hopkins.

Into this afternoon and first to put in a serious lap was none other than Rossi, with 20mins gone, when the Repsol rider became the first to threaten the 1min 50secs barrier (Daijiro Kato's 2002 pole time was with 1min 49.052secs).

Behind Rossi, Honda were having a near perfect early part of the session, taking the top five places - courtesy of Rossi, Biaggi, Hayden, Tamada, Gibernau. Missing from that list was Ukawa, who undid his impressive morning work by crashing hard a few minutes before the half-way mark, and had to be assisted from the gravel trap by marshals.

Hayden nearly joined Ukawa ten minutes later when he backed his #69 Repsol racer into a hard braking turn far too heavily, the American wisely electing to sit and take to the gravel rather than fall trying to save the lap.

But having no such troubles was factory Yamaha rider Checa, who was having his best day of 2003 - on paper at least - as he put the Fortuna liveried M1 into provisional pole and became the first man to break into the 49s, with 20mins to go.
Meanwhile, Japanese woe would continue when Noriyuki Haga fell hard from his Aprilia RS Cube at the fast left hander after the tunnel, indeed he fell so hard that the normally invincible Nori had to be stretchered away - conscious, but clearly in more than a little pain.

Back on track and Checa kept his Yamaha paymasters smiling until qualifying tyres came into play with ten minutes to go, at which point Biaggi leapt into second, shortly before Gibernau took pole by two tenths.

Unfortunately for Sete, that time was still 0.3secs slower than Rossi had managed this morning on 'normal' Michelins, but he would more than shake off any potential challenge from the reigning world champion when he put in a stunning 1mnin 48.7secs new record with a minute to go. Appropriately, Sete became the first man to beat his late team-mate Kato's previous pole record.

More drama was to follow in a thrilling final minute shuffle that saw Biaggi, Capirossi, Nakano and Hopkins all feature in the top five - then the on form Tamada shot to second - all combining to push Rossi back to tenth with just seconds left.

With the pressure on, Rossi responded in style, splitting Gibernau and Tamada with the chequered flag waving. Not the position he'd hoped for in front of the Honda bosses, but by no means a disaster.

Behind the Honda top four, Capirossi put his Ducati within 0.5secs of pole on its first day at the circuit - he'll surely be a factor tomorrow - while Nakano overcame Checa to claim top Yamaha honours on day one. Edwards raised smiles at Aprilia with a determined final charge to eighth, while the still sore Hopkins beat both Ryo and Roberts for a provisional top ten start.

Further back, Aoki used his local knowledge to put his KR V5 just ahead of team-mate Jeremy McWilliams in nineteenth, while Garry McCoy - who has stated he's likely to leave Kawasaki at the end of the year - was top green machine in 21st on the ZXRR's MotoGP anniversary.

Wild-card Serizawa put his Moriwaki MD211VF 22nd - ahead of the absent Haga, Kawasaki's Andrew Pitt and the WCMs of David de Gea and Chris Burns.

Full times to follow...

1. Gibernau
2. Rossi
3. Tamada
4. Biaggi
5. Capirossi
6. Nakano
7. Checa
8. Edwards
9. Melandri
10. Hopkins
11. Hayden
12. Ryo
13. Roberts
14. Ukawa
15. Bayliss
16. Barros
17. Jacque
18. Kiyonari
19. Aoki
20. McWilliams
21. McCoy
22. Serizawa
23. Haga
24. Pitt
25. de Gea
26. Burns



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