Valentino Rossi has beaten arch-rival Max Biaggi for the honour of home victory in today's Italian Grand Prix at Mugello, in a race that saw Italian riders dominate the top four positions after Sete Gibernau crashed out early in the thrilling 23-lap battle.

Qualifying had seen Rossi grab a last gasp pole from Gibernau to lead today's grid line-up with Biaggi - who suffered a slow low side in morning warm-up - making it two Italians on a front row separated by just 0.235secs.

An exciting row two was even closer with Biaggi's Repsol Honda team-mate Nicky Hayden, Suzuki's John Hopkins and the Ducati of Loris Capirossi all within 0.175secs - but that was on qualifying tyres, who could run at the front for the full race distance?

Rossi, Gibernau and Biaggi had been fast all weekend and looked likely to play a major part in the fight for victory - but the Ducatis of Capirossi and Carlos Checa (eighth on grid) were also on stunning form in front of their home fans.

Indeed, Capirossi had led the morning warm-up by a substantial 0.452secs from Rossi with Camel Honda's Alex Barros, who qualified in a dreadful 13th after failing to get any extra speed from his qualifying tyres, third in the 20-minute session.

When the red lights went out it was Capirossi who, as he had declared yesterday, led the field into turn one, followed closely by Gibernau, Checa, Hayden, Rossi, Melandri and Hopkins - Biaggi having lost out during the braking mayhem.

But that order would stand for only a matter of seconds before Rossi blasted past Hayden into turn two, then dropped Checa, Gibernau and Capirossi to lead the field by the end of an amazing first lap from the reigning world champion.

Biaggi was also on the move, albeit in a more measured fashion; the Roman climbing to sixth by the end of lap one and up to fourth - behind Rossi, Melandri and Gibernau - by lap three. It was at that point that the top two began to break away from Gibernau, who just didn't look like the confident rider he had been around Mugello for the previous two days.

Whatever the reason for his comparative lack of pace, Biaggi was eager to get past the Catalan road block ahead, which he would achieve within a lap. Gibernau then came under pressure from Capirossi, who would hurl his Desmosedici ahead under braking for turn one - and just a few corners later Gibernau would low side his RCV through a downhill right hander, turning what looked like being a difficult race into a complete nightmare.

Rossi would be told of Gibernau's exit via his pit board soon after, but The Doctor had issues of his own with Biaggi now the fastest man on track - he would set the fastest lap of the race on lap 5 - and having caught the top two. Valentino upped his pace as a result, dropping Melandri, but by the start of lap 9 Biaggi had both passed Marco for second position and reeled in Rossi.

However, he'd also towed young Marco with him and the #33 proved he had no respect for his elders as he shot from third to first with a daring out-braking move into turn one a lap later. Rossi would cut back inside Melandri, only for the Honda rider to retake the lead at the next turn.

It would ultimately take two laps for Rossi and Biaggi to repass the combative Italian out front - helping Capirossi close in on the lead group - and by the halfway stage of the race the #46 held a slim 0.2secs advantage over Biaggi with Melandri just 0.01secs behind the Repsol Honda. Capirossi meanwhile was now within one-second of Melandri with Hayden and Checa in a private battle for fifth and Barros in a lonely seventh.

The race then looked likely to develop into a two-by-two-by-one battle at the front, but to the surprise and delight of the 88,000 trackside fans the lead confrontation would actually turn four-way - the reason being that, while Rossi and Biaggi were respectfully sizing each other up, Melandri and Capirossi were on the limit, allowing them to re-catch the top two.

Biaggi would claim the lead with a neat inside move on lap 16, but Rossi appeared content to shadow his rival anyway - until the warring Melandri and Capirossi suddenly began crawling all over his rear wheel. The last thing Rossi needed was to get trapped within their fight and, realising this, he began pushing Biaggi hard over the next four laps - almost hitting his rear wheel at turn one as he sought a way past.

With three laps to go Rossi finally found the gap he was searching for and made what would be the decisive movement; the six-times world champion surprising Biaggi as he shot alongside, then setting off with throttle pinned to try and break the Roman. But Max went with him, splitting the top four back into a two-by-two fight.

Ultimately, while Biaggi was able to stick with Rossi right to the flag, he wasn't close enough to make the move for victory and - after such a disastrous start to the season - must surely have been aware that he couldn't afford to crash out. Nevertheless, losing by such a narrow margin to Rossi in their home race clearly hurt - the Roman bowing his head in anger as he crossed the finish line just 0.3secs behind the jubilant #46.

The hectic on track celebrations that followed would eventually end with Biaggi - the willing 'villain' in today's Mugello theatre - riding back to the pits with, appropriately, a huge pirate flag in his hand, while 'hero' Rossi would mount the podium in front of his adoring, chanting, fans with a 'mortar board' on his head - a reference to his recent honorary doctorate from an Italian university.

The final place on the podium would be decided by a last gasp overtaking attempt as Melandri tried a desperate move to reclaim third from Capirossi - after innumerable position changes - into the long final turn.

Melandri made the pass, but ran wide and Loris would win a tyre smoking race to the flag by just 0.1secs to give Ducati that vital home podium, while fourth placed Melandri crossed the line within 3.9secs of race winner Rossi.

Three-seconds further back, Checa won his personal duel with Hayden for fifth while Barros collected his lonely seventh by finishing 3.5secs behind Nicky and some 14-seconds ahead of Makoto Tamada - the Japanese just edging out Colin Edwards at the flag.

Shinya Nakano finished tenth for Kawasaki - well clear of the Texan ahead and Hopkins behind - while the second ZX-RR of Alex Hofmann took twelfth in front of Troy Bayliss, Ruben Xaus, Kenny Roberts, Shane Byrne, Roberto Rolfo, Franco Battaini and David Checa - the latter having suffered mechanical problems on his MotoGP debut.

Rossi's fourth victory from the first five races of 2005 means he now has a huge 49-point lead over Melandri heading into next weekend's Catalan Grand Prix - Gibernau's home race.

Italian Grand Prix:

1. Rossi
2. Biaggi
3. Capirossi
4. Melandri
5. Checa
6. Hayden
7. Barros
8. Tamada
9. Edwards
10. Nakano
11. Hopkins
12. Hofmann
13. Bayliss
14. Xaus
15. Roberts
16. Byrne
17. Rolfo
18. Battaini



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