After the dramatic Pacific Grand Prix at Motegi last weekend, the MotoGP circus flies south to Malaysia, where Valentino Rossi looks favourite to seal the 2003 world title aboard his Repsol Honda.

The Italian can secure his third successive MotoGP crown - and his fifth world championship in all - even if chief rival Sete Gibernau wins, as Rossi can afford to drop as many as eight points to the Spaniard and still have a big enough advantage to see out the final two rounds.

Rossi rode an inspired race at Motegi, having to fight his way up from ninth place after a lap six gravel trap excursion before finishing second and pocketing 20 valuable points to open out a lead of 58 over Gibernau.

The 24-year old London-based Italian will be a hard man to hold down at Sepang, where he and the Repsol Honda team have tested twice in the pre-season. Rossi openly admits to liking the 5.548km circuit and will be keen to add to the win he experienced there in 2001.

"I was very happy in the end with the result at Motegi," he reported, "At one point, it was looking very bad, with me in ninth place and Sete in second position. Anyway, we changed the situation around and go to Malaysia in a good position.

"I like the track at Sepang very much, and I want to have a good race there. If it is possible, I will try for the championship too. We tested quite a bit at Sepang and we know the bike is good there - but we are still fighting with Sete for the championship, and he is on the same bike so we have no real advantage."

Team-mate Nicky Hayden is on fire at the moment, and looking forward to returning to the Malaysian circuit where he tested the five-cylinder, 990cc Honda on two occasions prior to the start of his rookie MotoGP year.

After a strong start to the season with two seventh place finishes, he had slipped to eleventh in the riders' standings after six races but, with a couple of fifths and now the third from Motegi under his belt, the American now lies in seventh overall, with seasoned GP campaigner, Tohru Ukawa, only two points ahead in sixth place.

The 22-year old has proven to the world that he can run with the fastest riders in MotoGP, and is determined to get a real podium before the season is out. The record books will show that he finished third in Motegi, even though the 16 points he scored were inherited as a result of Makoto Tamada being disqualified for 'riding in an irresponsible manner causing danger to other riders'.

"The next race can't come quick enough for me - everything's going real well," Hayden admitted, "The bike's good and the team is working real hard. The last few races have been great and I know now that I can run with the fast guys.

"I've ridden Sepang before in testing, and I know I can get on pace fast. I just want to get on the box now and feel some champagne. Last year in AMA, I won a load of races and had many front row starts - and most of those were from pole on the way to winnin' the championship. I've been a long time off the top spot although I feel real close to the front now. There are three races left this season and I've been to all the tracks. I can't wait."



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