Valencia saw Sete Gibernau once again prove to be Valentino Rossi's only challenger, as the Spaniard - riding in front of his adoring home crowd - was the only rider capable of really pushing the reigning world champion.

In fact, the respect Rossi now holds Sete in - having been beaten fair and square by him several times this season - is such that at one third race distance, having been unable to escape in the early laps, he let Gibernau past to study his speed.

Rossi then re-passed the Spaniard and immediately turned up the heat, pulling out a gap of 0.250 seconds, a significant margin after they had been locked in close combat for ten laps. However, Gibernau responded with the fastest lap of the race so far and it looked as if Valencia would be a battle to match the epic tussles at Welkom, Le Mans and the Sachsenring.

Rossi though had more to give, and on lap 21 he scorched round the track in a time of 1min 33.518secs, setting a new lap record aimed at breaking Gibernau's spirit. But the Spaniard, as he showed many times this year, was never going to lie down and came back again with a 1min 33.404secs on lap 23 to keep the fight alive.

The Repsol rider retaliated on the next tour to finally put 1.7 seconds between himself and his pursuer - an ultimately insurmountable advantage, and Gibernau was typically generous to his victorious rival afterwards.

"This race resembles the picture of the whole year," said Sete, who at one point waved at Rossi as he looked back at him. "Battling away until the end of each race and this championship. It was a fun race at a high pace but in the final laps I started losing a few tenths of seconds as the bike started moving around a bit more. I've been competitive in races this year and to end the Championship in second is not bad.

"Of course to win today would have been wonderful, but I have to be satisfied with the fact that I could push (Rossi) all the way," he added. "This has been a great season, that started in a very sad way, and I think we have to congratulate everybody and ourselves for picking up and doing so well, especially thanks to Daijiro (Kato's) family and the best team in the world: Team Telef?nica MoviStar Honda. I want to share this number two plate with everyone, with the dream to return, work and fight together during the next two seasons."

Team manager Fausto Gresini surely never imagined that his team and Gibernau would achieve so much this season - and the emotional Italian was full of praise for his star rider.

"It was a beautiful race! Sete has demonstrated again the strong form he has been in and is fully deserving of the vice-Champion position. I am grateful that we have been able to have such a pleasing and emotional season. I also want to send congratulations to Valentino and, of course, to my team," said Fausto.

With Rossi having now left Honda, Gibernau becomes one of the favourites for the 2004 world championship.

 

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